Everest Base Camp – by Dan Cockburn
Mt Everest is a whopping great lamp to trekking moths, drawing in all who share a passion for mountains. It’s not hard to see why: its history is as festooned with great names in mountaineering as its flanks are with frozen bodies; it is surrounded by the Himalayas at their most majestic – with four of the world’s tallest six mountains within its sub range and many more peaks more famous for their looks than height. Oh, and it is the highest point above sea-level that this volatile planet has presently achieved. Once you’ve fallen in love with mountains, you’re simply going to have to see the biggest one of all!
I joined our late April Everest Base Camp trek as one of the converted, making the pilgrimage to get as near to the summit as you can in Nepal before walking turns into climbing. It was an interesting time to go as China’s Olympic Torch summit stunt was scheduled for the first week of May and security and rumours were both equally heightened. White Chinese spy planes flew high overhead, Nepalese soldiers searched our bags for Tibetan banners and our whole group kept our fingers crossed the whole way up that we would be allowed into Everest’s hallowed embrace.
The weather was kind enough – cloudy and cool down low, and then clearing up into glorious warm, clear mornings as we climbed above the tree line. After five days of moderate trekking we arrived at Thyangboche Monastery and had our first decent view of the focus of our trek – a rocky pyramid jutting above the Lhotse-Nuptse wall with a snaking snow plume being dragged off the summit by the jet stream. The monastery provided a cultural distraction, but now my sights were firmly set on the mountains. Never having been to Nepal before, I somewhat wasted this opportunity to delve into the local history but was delighted at the legendary warmth and hospitality of the Sherpa people. Whilst the tourists are returning to Nepal (not yet back at the numbers prior to the recent political troubles), the locals are far from jaded.
Another couple of days on from the monastery and the trek took a decisive turn towards becoming challenging. We had a tough acclimatisation hike to 5,100m and despite retreating back to our base at 4,300m, the altitude caught quite a few of us out. Some bad headaches and nausea kicked in, but the guides took excellent care of us and most were feeling better after another night’s sleep at the lower altitude of Dingboche. We left the village and climbed onto the terminal moraine of the Khumbu Glacier – the end of the road for the massive, natural conveyor belt that churns its way down from the famous ice fall above Base Camp. We were now hovering around the 5,000m mark and only the locals were completely immune to altitude’s effects. Walking was a slow, measured process with frequent rests uphill, but much easier on the level. Every glance up from the rough path revealed an unearthly panorama of incredible glistening peaks, a panorama becoming increasingly familiar from hours gazing at the posters in the tea-houses on the way up.
Finally came the toughest day, an 8 hour “undulating” walk at high altitude to Base Camp and back. Spending so long clambering up and down a glacier is surreal at the best of times, add in a lack of oxygen and a pinch of sleep deprivation and this was one of the most extraordinary, dreamlike and rewarding days of my life. Stopping for a chat with Sir Ranulph Fiennes (well spotted Jono!) on his recent summit attempt did not even seem surprising. Through grit and determination, the whole group of 16 made it to Base Camp – the icing on this bizarre cake – where music was pumping, climbers planning, support-teams relaxing and, most oddly of all, bakers baking. It was like a small international music festival transported onto a colossal glacier, with crevasses acting as security fences and Everest headlining on the main stage.
Whilst Base camp was the toughest day, for me the best was the next one, where we followed the trail up to 5,600m for the classic view from the small peak of Kala Pataar. Suddenly the whole massif was revealed, with famous features (South Col, the Yellow Band, Hillary Step) all clear to see. Ama Dablam and all the other “lesser” mountains we’d passed marked the long trail from our start point. Glaciers tumbled in from all sides, sculpting the mountainsides into walls; peaks loomed closely above and a deep indigo sky formed the roof. As if the drama of the mountains wasn’t enough, the warm spring sun triggered several avalanches to rumble down Everest’s flanks (fortunately the mountain was now completely closed to climbers by the Chinese and even Base Camp was off limits for trekkers). After about an hour alone at the top, it was time to point our feet downhill for the long walk home.
Walking back along the Khumbu Glacier I had an unnerving realisation: when the base of the valley is at 5,000m, even 7,000m peaks suddenly feel within reach, a terrifying thought for my marriage to a non-trekker! Next stop – Mera Peak!
Are you a trekking moth to this magnificent light? Find out more about the Everest base camp trip.