I didn’t realise how petrified I was in the lead up to my trek to Mount Everest Base Camp until I returned home having completed it. I’d spent months prior to my trip collecting the necessary overpriced gear at various Kathmandu mountaineering stores and the sight of the twin peak logo as I drove past a shop a few months later sent a chill of panic through my very bones.
A year earlier I’d spent a few weeks in Nepal and was touched by the sight of the Himalayas when I glided over them on a scenic flight. So imposing and brilliant, the Himalayas were said to be created when India as a land mass crashed into South Asia 60 million years ago leaving the earth nowhere to go but up. None went higher than Sagarmatha. “Sagar” meaning “sky” and “Matha” meaning “head”, the great Mount Everest stands somewhere around 8848 metres above sea level.
The “head of the sky” however wasn’t even established as the tallest mountain on earth until the Great Trigonometric Survey of India in 1856, and until then was of little importance to the Nepalese or Tibetan people whose borders cut the mountain in half. Tucked away seemingly at the end of the earth, Everest was so difficult to get to; it invaded no-one’s consciousness and was home to only a minor deity.
Far from its humble beginnings, today Everest is the ultimate test for mankind. An assault of the body and mind, a successful summit is the highest accolade and achievement any could aspire to. The title of Everest Summiteer invokes proof of every desirable attribute a human could possess. But tales of inhumanity, sabotage, and deadly ambition now litter the mountain along with the tons of rubbish left by climbers every year.
The ambition to reach the highest accolade has been said to drive people mad with desire, and while I’m no mountaineer, I wanted to see what all of the fuss was about. So what’s one to do? I thought a good compromise would be to climb three fifths of the way up and turn right back around again.
Everest Base Camp sits at 5,364 metres above sea level and concentration of Oxygen in the atmosphere is less than half that at sea level. Before departure I didn’t really know what any of this meant for me, but I sure found out soon enough.
I arrived in Kathmandu with absolutely no idea as to what lay ahead for me. I was hoping that I wasn’t the only novice hiker in my trekking group, and was relieved when others told me they’d “never done anything like this before”. Even for novices, the pull of Everest was unmistakable.
Everyone had heard about the infamous Lukla airport; carved out of the side of a mountain, one end of the runway 60 metres higher than the other. Rated the most dangerous airport in the world, we all boarded the plane with a degree of nervousness; some more so than others.
As we careered down the runway at Kathmandu airport, the plane came to a sudden halt and the pilots in the cockpit of the tiny plane could be seen twiddling knobs, pulling levers and talking animatedly through headsets in Nepalese. The flight attendant came and politely told us that we wouldn’t be flying into the Himalayas today as Lukla airport was closed due to bad weather. Resigned to try again the next day, we would merely have one less day to descend which our guide told us was very doable.
We arrived again the next day with high hopes only to be told the same version of events, only this time waiting another day wouldn’t give us enough time to get up and down the mountain and still make our flights home. We were given a choice: charter a helicopter, or do a different hike. The half of us that could afford a helicopter rose above Kathmandu airport with soaring hearts and empty pockets and 30 minutes later landed on a patch of grass a few hours’ walk south of Lukla. Two shy young Sherpas met us to take our packs, and our journey upwards began.
The first day lulled me into a somewhat false sense of security that the hiking wouldn’t be too difficult. I worked up a sweat for sure, but the amazing scenery of mountains and waterfalls, and the unique experience of being railroaded off the track every fifty metres by load-bearing yaks and donkeys, detracted from the exertion.
Day two was a completely different story. We’d been warned that we would begin to feel the altitude after 3000 metres but I didn’t think it would be so literal. Every step became more difficult and every breath yielded less oxygen. After 7 hours we reached Namche Bazaar, the largest settlement in the Khumbu Valley, and I don’t think I’ve ever been more relieved to put my feet up. Namche is the first acclimatisation point for all trekkers to Everest and is subsequently a bustling little village. Carved into a valley, colourful tea houses and lodges, and small banks, supermarkets and internet cafes, Namche is the trekkers’ last sight of this kind of civilisation.
After a day acclimatising in Namche, which included an ascent and subsequent descent of a few hundred metres, we continued for another four days to reach Gorakshep, the last lodge before base camp. Altitude affected each of the hikers differently on different days. It seemed everyone had their turn of being the slowest in the group; days when you could barely breathe, your bones ached, and the sight of another staircase or steep hill was enough to make you want to cry. Other days you could sing as you walked and pitied those whose turn it was to suffer that day. Often the scenery was lost in the effort it took getting up the mountain. You had to remind yourself to look up from time to time, to appreciate where you were and the experience you were a part of, rather than just dreading the steeper ascent that was always around the corner. Altitude does weird and wonderful things to the human body, every functioning organ used to having twice the amount of oxygen it’s now getting. Sleep proved often near impossible for me without the aid of sleeping tablets, and once asleep vivid and whacky dreams disturb the restfulness. Even when awake your eyes play tricks on you, and I found myself hallucinating spiders on walls and colourful floaties in the sky. Even stuffing your sleeping bag of a morning becomes a massive effort, your breaths deep to retrieve as much oxygen as possible. The one great thing about altitude is that your metabolism goes in to overdrive. Partner that with the hours on end hiking, and we were consuming food at a rate I’ve never experienced in my life. Pizza, pasta, chocolate bars and porridge, and the dal bhat (a traditional Nepalese dish of rice and lentils) was refillable.
While in Tengboche we sat at our lodge (most of which were quite makeshift and appeared to be made of ply wood with the lack of insulation and soundproofing) exhausted and barely talking, when a troop of babbling hikers entered the lodge; spirits high. They were making their descent down the mountain and the jealousy and longing for us to be on the way down, having completed the climb, was palpable. But we still had a way to go, and we were all determined to overcome our lack of sleep, headaches, stomach cramps and colds to make it there. If not for ourselves, then for the shame of having to go home and tell our friends we hadn’t made it.
On day nine of the trip, we trekked the four hours from Gorakshep to basecamp, a trek that started with us blasting music and pumping fists in excitement. An expansive glacier stood before us, covered in rocks and not much else, when our guide stopped. I assumed we were taking a break and sat down for some water. “How long until basecamp?” I asked naively. “This is basecamp”. “Oh.”
This was the biggest anticlimax of my life, I thought at the time, is this what I had come all this way for? We had started our journey up the mountain on the first of June, and climbing season, it was now evident, had already ended. All of the basecamp trekkers and summit hopefuls had departed a few days before, leaving behind only a few remnants of prayer flags. Usually littered with tents and bustling with people preparing to ascend to the summit, basecamp can often be an exciting place, we were told, but during climbing season, only the elite summit hopefuls are allowed to enter the camps, not the lowly basecampers.
We took the obligatory photos and slowly the realisation that we had made it overtook any disappointment we had felt that we had missed out on the most exciting period of base camp life. After an hour or so we started the descent down to Gorakshep, some of us preparing for our summit of Kala Patthar (5545 metres) the next day.
We then had four days of descent to think about what we had experienced, and I thought to myself the cliché “it’s not the destination, but the journey” had never resonated more with me until that moment. Although on a minute scale compared to the summiteers, we basecampers had pushed our bodies and tested our minds to reach a goal our egos and our adventurous spirits had driven us to. We learned about ourselves, about human nature, and witnessed Mother Nature’s piéce de résistance, the top of the world. At a tiny Irish bar awaiting our flight back to Kathmandu, a fellow trekker raised her glass and said “well maybe we didn’t stand on top of the world, but the top of the world stood before us.”