What more enjoyable and satisfying way to keep those muscles and lungs healthy and energized than hiking through spectacular mountain scenery surrounded by the world’s highest peaks. Follow in the footsteps of the legendary Edmund Hillary and a Sherpa named Tenzing Norgay who were the first men to stand on the roof of the world—exactly sixty years ago.
Your journey begins with a thrilling, forty-minute flight from the exotic sights and sounds of Kathmandu to the 9,000-foot airstrip at Lukla built on a 12% incline with a steeply angled sheer drop off on the approach and a rock wall at the end. Don’t worry. Only the most experienced pilots fly there. For the faint of heart, there’s another landing strip at Phakding, three to four days further south.
At Lukla, you’ll meet the Sherpas living in the shadow of Everest. They’re famous for their ability to carry extremely heavy loads and work at high altitude. Without them few expeditions would ever make the summit. You can trek independently hiring them as a guide and porters or travel with a larger group booked from home. From Lukla, the trek to base camp at 17,500 feet is only 38.58 miles but takes eight or nine days with two rest days built in to acclimatize safely in the ever-thinning air. Coming down into increasingly richer air requires only three to four days, but it’s best to plan on almost three weeks in Nepal due to the uncertainty of Lukla flights that are controlled by weather. You don’t want to miss your plane home.
Trekking to base camp isn’t dangerous in itself. There’s no vertical climbing that requires ropes or ice axes and no crevasses to cross, but yak encounters can pose a problem. One of the unruly beasts may try to knock you off the trail. So always defer to them and stay on the uphill side.
You’ll walk five or six hours per day through mind-blowing scenery. At lower elevations, the trail winds past small villages scattered among deep green terraces with rock retaining walls. Smiling children rush out to greet you yelling, “Namaste!” Follow the rim of deep river gorges as you climb upward through pine and rhododendron forests. No matter which way you turn, one towering snow-capped peak after another rises above you. In two days, you reach Namche Bazar at 11,300 feet, the largest village in the Everest region and gateway to the high Himalayas. Your journey takes you to many of these Sherpa villages where you experience the culture of this amazing ethnic group that migrated from Tibet almost 600 years ago.
You’re in Buddhist country. Colorful prayer flags flutter in the wind carrying prayers to the gods. Stone walls with the mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum carved in them appear along the trail. Always pass them on the left so that upon your return you complete the circle of life. The largest monastery in the region at Tengboche sits beneath a backdrop of Everest and Ama Dablam, the most beautiful mountain in Nepal. You’re welcome to enter and observe monks reciting from Tibetan texts and listen to the droning of eight-foot telescoping horns and the occasional ringing of bells.
In four or five days, you arrive at the Everest Base Camp beneath the infamous Khumbu Icefall, a frozen river filled with yawning crevasses and towering ice pinnacles—the most dangerous section of the mountain with the greatest number of fatalities. The only problem is you can’t see the summit from here. You then descend back an hour to Hillary’s base camp at Gorak Shep. You may want to spend the night before climbing one and a half to two hours 1250 feet up a rocky mound called Kala Patar. From there you have an unobstructed view of Everest’s windblown summit with its perpetual white plume. Turning 360°, you’ll also see Lhotse and Nuptse, glaciers, and lakes.
There are two trekking seasons. Spring starts out chilly in March and warms in April and May—the most popular spring months. The national flower of Nepal, the rhododendrom, is in full bloom as well as almost 500 species of orchids at lower elevations. A large number of summit bids begin in May, so it’s a fascinating time to visit the base camp. Travel companies almost never book trips during the monsoon from early June through September. October through November is the busiest season because the weather is usually dry, warm during the day, and not too cold at night. The skies are clearer than in the spring offering spectacular views. To avoid the heavy October crowds, you can begin travel in mid-late November when the weather is still warm and clear during the day but colder at night, especially at higher altitudes. Mid December through January, the temperature drops considerably. Rain or snow can occur suddenly in any season, so be prepared with warm clothing.
Trekking five to six hours a day at increasingly higher altitudes requires strength and endurance. The better your physical conditioning, the more you will enjoy the experience. In preparation, include aerobic activity such as cycling, swimming, walking, and stair climbing.
The key to a successful trip is slow and steady. Your Sherpa guide may remind you to go bistarai, bistarai, meaning slowly, slowly because altitude sickness can affect anybody—regardless of age, sex, or fitness level. At base camp, the oxygen content will be 50% of that at sea level. Ascending too fast can cause serious problems … even death.
Coming soon in Part 2. How to acclimatize correctly during a day-to day description of your trek including details of Sherpa culture and their mixture of animistic and Buddhist beliefs.