Despite the ascent losing much of its cachet – with every Tom, Dick and Hari eager and ready to attempt the daunting climb, ‘Everesting’ has become a massive industry, often blighted by the excesses (and ecological vandalism) of modern tourism – Mount Everest continues to lure the high-altitude trekker and seasoned mountaineer. But even if Everest appears too stiff a task for you, a trek to the foot of the mountain, to Everest Base Camp, is an experience in itself, as close to the ‘Roof of the World’ as you’ll ever get. So if you want to follow in the footsteps of the celebrated climbers, head to Everest Base Camp – the starting point for attempts on the summit.
The Everest Base Camp, located on the Khumbu Glacier, is a classic Himalayan trek, and one that, while hugely challenging, is eminently doable even for those adventuresome men and women who might not be experienced enough in the skills and techniques of high-altitude trekking and mountaineering (though a basic standard of fitness and stamina is a prerequisite). If you want to catch a glimpse of the highest point on earth, this is the place to be. The stunning, and often dramatic, mountain scenery is more than a bonus. It’s a tonic for the eyes (and makes it easier to forget any hardship one may be facing).
There are two Everest Base Camps, one on the north side of the mountain and the other on the south. South Base Camp lies in Nepal at 5364m (17598ft), and North Base Camp is in Tibet, at an altitude of 5150m (16900ft). Both camps are used by climbers during ascents and descents of Everest, South Base Camp for approaching via the southeast ridge and North Base Camp for accessing via the northeast ridge. There are very few more popular trekking routes in the Himalayas than the South Base Camp, nestled snugly against the side of the mountain, beneath the iridescent, and legendary, icefall of Khumbu. Indeed, it is via the South Base Camp route that many of the most storied ascents of Everest have been attempted.
Besides being staging posts for attempts on Everest, the camps are important in helping mountaineers and climbers acclimatize before embarking on the more arduous phase of the ascent. South Base Camp is a level pasture situated below Kala Patthar (5545m, 18192ft) and Mount Pumori (ascend Kala Patthar for an up-close, and majestic, prospect of Everest and the Khumbu Glacier, across the South Col). For travelling to North Base Camp, which is in China, one requires a permit from the Chinese government (in addition to the permit required to visit Tibet). It is advised that you arrange your permit via a travel agent in Lhasa (Tibet).
“Because it is there.” So, laconically and very matter-of-factly, did Englishman George Mallory proffer the reason for him setting his sights on the tallest peak on Planet Earth. The story of South Base Camp, and the story of Everest, is full of tales of brave endeavour, heroic failure and against-the-odds success. As long as there’s Everest, the feat of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay will forever be associated with the legendary mountain. But they most likely would never have made it to the top had it not been for the determined efforts of Mallory (to mention just one climber who failed to reach the summit), and the exciting if formidable challenge might never have presented itself to the resourceful Kiwi and the plucky Sherpa, and the hundreds of others who have followed in their spirited footsteps, had it not been for the so-near-yet-so-far narratives, haunted by disappointments, that predated 1953. So when you’re trekking amid the out-of-the-world splendour of Mount Everest, you are paying tribute to the famous, and the not-so-famous, adventurers. This place has been the playground of the intrepid – what better inspiration than that for the adventurous folks of today?
Starting from the verdure of Lukla (2860m, 9383ft), the Everest Base Camp route follows the Dudh Kosi River up until the first ascent, towards Namche Bazaar. The fertile river valley traverses farms and is dotted by picturesque Sherpa hamlets. Beyond the valley is the temperate zone, where there are forests of birch, pine and fir (these also bloom with rhododendron during springtime – a sight to behold). As one approaches Everest’s treeline and above (sub-alpine and alpine zones), the landscape becomes more and more harsh – though the mountain panoramas, of precipitous and craggy ridges and plunging glaciers, become that more spectacular. The immense mountains, wind-blasted, permanently snow-covered and often hidden by cloud, are truly awe-inspiring. This is topography, and geology, lifted from the pages of Tolkien.
Everest’s South Base Camp is a rather cold place – not surprising, considering its altitude! The ideal trekking season lasts from March to May and from late September to late November.
Winter nights are bitingly cold (temperatures reaching well below freezing), and while the days are beautifully bright and clear, temperatures still hover between -18C and -15C – and that’s without the wind chill factor (winds can gust at speeds between 8mph and 12mph). Still, if you can brave all that, a winter day’s trekking can be a bracing (if numbing!) experience. But even at South Base Camp (let alone the icy wastes on the summit), not only will you experience sub-zero temperatures daily, there’s always the likelihood of snow flurries – so come well prepared!
Late May and June are ‘balmy’ but there’s always a chance of a shower or two, and the rain can leave the trails muddy and slippery – so best to avoid this time of year, and also the monsoon months of July and August (and early September). The cold is relatively less during the spring and early-summer months of March, April and May (-12C to -6C), and during the autumn and early-winter months of late September to late November (-12C to -10C) – these are the best times of the year to plan the Everest Base Camp trek (winds are comparably calmer, reaching anywhere between 5mph and 7mph).
For those who’re physically and mentally prepared to take a stab at the summit, there’s a small window in early summer (May 20 to June 6), and one during the autumn (October 1 to 20).
How to reach
To save time, trekkers and climbers commonly fly in from Kathmandu to Lukla, in northeastern Nepal. Lukla, the gateway to Everest, is the starting point of the trek.
To reach South Base Camp, you would require the help of Sherpas (local porters) and beasts of burden, usually yaks.