This summer marks 60 years since the first successful ascent of Mount Everest. Andy Turner follows in the footsteps of Sir Edmund Hillary (well, at least as far as Base Camp).
The road to Everest starts with a 5am wake-up call in the Kathmandu Guesthouse. I heave myself off the thin mattress and try to shrug off the jetlag. The streets of Thamel pass by in the dawn half light and we are soon on the tarmac climbing the steps of a small Twin Otter propeller plane. Our destination: Lukla “the scariest airport in the world™”. I spend the flight with my ears stuffed with cotton wool against the whine of the engines, trying to forget about Nepal’s patchy aviation record. Eventually a miniscule mountain runway appears through the cockpit window. I close my eyes and don’t open them until we’ve come to a juddering halt.
Lukla, a chilly one-street town with a fake Starbucks and an airport the size of a Tesco Metro, is now the main gateway to the roof of the world. Back in the days of Hillary, Tenzing and co you’d need to trek your way up here from Kathmandu, a week-long marathon of logistics now covered in a 35min flight. The thin mountain air (we’ve already gained 1400m in altitude) is noticeable as I pull on a down jacket and start out on the twelve-day journey I’ve been anticipating for months.
The first myth to puncture is that the Everest trek is some kind of remote wilderness adventure. The path to Base Camp is the main artery for dozens of mountain villages. Apart from your fellow trekkers – a snake-like mass of Gore-Tex and walking poles – you share the trail with heavily laden porters and waddling convoys of dzopkio (half-yak, half-cow and usually half awake) heaving everything from bags of rice to solar panels. There’s no camping under the stars either. Each village provides at least one “teahouse”, a hostel-cum-restaurant providing basic rooms, carb-heavy sustenance and even the occasional hot shower.
Three days into the trail we’re rewarded with our first look at the Chomolungma or “Mother Goddess of the World”, as Everest is known here. Loitering behind the sister peaks of Lhotse and Nuptse, her unmistakable black summit sends a jolt of recognition down my spine. Crossing an Indiana Jones style suspension bridge we reach the Sherpa “capital” Namche Bazaar (3440m). A curious mixture of Western commercialism (Irish pub, Lavazza coffee and identikit hotels) and stark Himalayan beauty, it’s the last place to stock up on cash and essentials. Buddhist monks wearing saffron robes and North Face jackets join us in the queue for surely the most scenic ATM on earth.
After Namche, things get serious. “No more alcohol,” our guide Sonam cheerfully informs us. He’s right of course. Each of us is reacting differently to the altitude, from brain-throbbing headaches and tingling fingers to nights spent waking up at 3am gasping for air. Staying hydrated and ascending gradually are the best ways to avoid AMS (acute mountain sickness), though the locals also recommend weapons-grade garlic soup, something we’re soon all addicted to. By the halfway point at Dingboche (4410m) an English GP doles out Diamox, a little yellow pill that melts away most of the symptoms.
Heart rate ascending with the scenery we press on to Gorak Shep (5140m), last teahouse before Base Camp. The Himalayan cedar and pine trees melt away to be replaced by an arid mountain-scape of snow-flecked peaks. Prayer flags rattle around isolated stupas and we pass several poignant memorials to fallen climbers. At sunset the temperature drops to -10C. Wearing almost all my clothes, I resemble an unshaven Michelin Man with a serious case of garlic breath. After a dinner of dhal bhat we spend as long as we can by the warmth of the teahouse stove, playing cards until sleep beckons us to our frozen bedrooms.
“Jam Jam!” – Nepali for “Let’s go!”– comes a voice through the flimsy plywood. It’s time for the final push. The trail narrows and traces a vast glacial moraine. Distant avalanches announce themselves with a crack and a rush of ice and snow. After a few nervy steps across deep blue ice, we reach some battered tents, a few prayer flags and a sign announcing “Everest Base Camp, 2012” (5364m). It’s curiously quiet (there are no mountaineers this late in the year) and mercifully unspoilt, no longer “the highest rubbish dump in the world” thanks to a big clean-up operation. Any notions of climbing higher swiftly evaporate as we look up at the jagged Khumbu Icefall, described by the ill-fated Mallory as “one of the most awful and utterly forbidding scenes ever observed by man”.
Next morning we are up at a bone-chilling 4.30am to scale Kalar Patar (5545m), a trekking peak with a front-row view of the Mother Goddess. Head torches flickering in the dark, I can’t feel my feet while my lungs scream for oxygen as I follow our guide to the summit. As the sky turns from black to blue to turquoise the rising sun illuminates the scene – a perfect panorama of Everest, Lhotse and Nupse. All the aches, pains and garlic soup melt in the memory.
Andy Turner trekked to Everest with Intrepid Travel. Thanks to Nicola Frame, my fellow trekkers and our wonderful team of guides led by Sonam Singh Lama.