I always keep a journal when I travel, but something’s different about the one open in front of me now — the notebook in which I was writing just a few weeks ago. My normally smooth script has deteriorated into a scrawl, the black biro scoring angrily into the cream-colored pages.
“I am fed up of being cold. Why am I even trying to write this? My fingers can’t hold the pen.”
“It’s 8 o’clock and I’m going to bed. I’m so tired I can hardly think, let alone talk or write.”
But then I read a few more paragraphs:
“Just when I think this place couldn’t get any more magical — it does.”
“I can hardly believe I’m here. I feel completely privileged.”
And so it goes on, for page after page. I sound by turns infuriated, exasperated, intoxicated. It’s more like the diary of a teenage love affair than a travel journal.
But then this is a love affair, of sorts. I’m writing about a place I’ve dreamed of for as long as I can remember: Mount Everest.
Everest’s summit is the highest point on Earth, towering 8,848 meters above sea level at the head of the Khumbu Valley. The gateway to the Khumbu region, Lukla, is another record-holder — albeit of the less enviable title of World’s Most Dangerous Airport. Lukla sits at 2,800 meters like a dinner plate balanced on a table edge: a terrifyingly shallow plateau in a ridge of mountains. The small mercy of any arrival here is that by the time you’ve spotted your destination the wheels are already bumping along the runway, the brakes are screaming — and you’re not dead.
Twelve of us make our wobbly way down the plane’s folding steps and onto the tarmac of Tenzing-Hillary Airport, named for Everest’s first confirmed summiteers, New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, who topped the mountain 59 years ago on May 29, 1953. (On June 8, 1924, however, British climbers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine were sighted just a few hundred meters from the summit. Cloud then descended, but they never did. To this day, many Everest experts believe they reached the summit and perished on the descent.)
The dozen of us — a group of Brits traveling with a trekking company — have less lofty ambitions here in Nepal. We’re hoping to make it to Everest Base Camp, at 5,364 meters — still considerably higher than 3,776-meter Mount Fuji.
Right now, though, we’re thrilled just to be in one piece, admiring the drab wares on offer in Lukla’s main street: trekking gear, biscuits, chocolate bars, and toilet paper. The shopkeepers know their market well. In just a few days’ time, this narrow range of items will encompass all my worldly needs.
Pausing only for breakfast and to watch our bags being loaded onto the dzopkio, the hardy crossbreed whose range exceeds that of its parent species (tolerating cold better than cattle and warmth better than yaks), we lace up our boots and hurry ahead through an archway that bids us “Have a Nice Trek.”
It’s not quite the wardrobe door to Narnia, but it’s as though something shifts as we step through. Landing at Lukla, the view is of mountains as far as the eye can see. You feel up in the clouds already, within touching distance of summits. But once through the arch, and for the first few days of the trek, it’s as though that 2,800-meter ascent by air never happened. You’re walking along the bottom of a vast green valley, like the Austrian Tyrol on steroids — it even rings with the clanking of cowbells as the dzopkio file past.
I remember a diagram from my school geography exercise book, drawn with my usual top-of-the-class neatness and labeled “Hanging valley.” I also think of “Jurassic Park” and “The Land That Time Forgot” and all those Victorian-era yarns of hidden kingdoms sheltering lost civilizations.
It is surprisingly hot. “Forgot my bikini,” I tell my journal regretfully as the mercury climbs to well over 30 degrees Celsius and we sun ourselves one afternoon. The verdant beauty of the lower Khumbu Valley is wholly unexpected.
I get what I expected on the third day, though: chilling rain and a steep, three-hour trudge. It’s the push up to Namche Bazaar, the so-called Sherpa capital.
“Very close!” our irrepressibly cheerful sirdar (head Sherpa), Chewang, urges us. “Maybe 30 minutes now. Not far.”
We have already learned that a Sherpa’s “30 minutes” approximates to a knee-grinding hour-and-a-half. It strikes me that, when time is so subjective, it is unlikely that at the end of the schedule — in five days, or four days, or three — Everest will be there, as promised.
I try to banish the thought as I put one foot in front of the other, feeling every jutting rock through the sole of my boot. My breathing is unnaturally fast and loud, like a pervert down a phone. And that’s somehow right, too: I am fixated, a fantasist — an Everest stalker.
And then we’re there: Namche, nested between forking mountains. Given the walk we’ve had — the same route that everything which comes here must travel, carried on two legs or four: food and drink, gas and oil, even building materials — it seems impossible that a community of this size can be supplied and sustained. And yet the town thrives. Above the horseshoe-shape streets are tier upon tier of earthen terraces, currently cultivated, but providing space into which it can expand.
Expansion is happening all along the trail; the popularity of trekking as a holiday activity in its own right, not simply the tedious prelude to a climb, has for some brought affluence in its wake.
Most of Nepal’s visitors still come from its two huge neighbors, India and China: pilgrims to numerous Hindu and Buddhist holy sites. But higher-spending travelers from the United States (36,000 in 2010), the United Kingdom (35,000), France (24,000) and Japan (23,000) are here for the mountains, and they have made tourism the country’s biggest earner.
That industry is reshaping the landscape of this region: not just how people live, but where. Formerly, trekkers camped, with the occasional stay in a village teahouse in the populated, lower-altitude areas. Now, there are lodges in high-pasture settlements once inhabited only in the summer months.
Owners of popular teahouses have grown rich. Our next stop after Namche is at a place called Kyangjuma, home to a guesthouse that rapidly becomes everyone’s favorite (we overnight here on the way back, too). We breakfast outdoors at long tables with a view of Ama Dablam, reputedly the most beautiful mountain in the Himalayas. “I spend the winter in Colorado,” our hostess explains, as she tops up our mugs with steaming tea. She has also put all her children through university. After we’ve eaten, she invites us into her family prayer room. It is full of brightly painted carvings, shells, seeds and flower-strewn photographs of lamas — superb local craftsmanship, all paid for with tourist cash.
Luxury lodges are springing up, too, but the undisputed peak of Himalayan comfort is the Japanese-built and Japanese-owned Everest View Hotel. In this remote valley where most homes are still heated by yak dung, the Everest View boasts Toto washlets.
Some visitors fly in to its private helicopter pad, risking altitude sickness by doing so, as it sits at 3,880 meters and claims — another record holder — to be the highest hotel in the world. It offers trekkers their first good glimpse of Everest, for the mountain is surprisingly coy and hides for most of the route (indeed, it is invisible from Base Camp). We sit on the terrace and drink in both fine hot chocolate and the spectacle.
There’s precious little luxury to be found from hereon in. After a couple more river crossings we make a winding ascent to Tengboche, home of the storied monastery where climbing parties — including Hillary and Tenzing’s in 1953 — have sought the blessing of the High Lama. The route out of Tengboche runs through a rhododendron forest, but then those trees give way to knee-high junipers. Finally, any significant vegetation withers away altogether and we are hiking through a barren landscape of gravel and rock. The nights are cold, and we wake to find our lodge windows newly double-glazed with ice.
Nature gives up the unequal struggle all around us — apart from the raucous goraks (crows) and plump snowcocks that frequent misty, atmospheric Gorak Shep, the last outpost, at 5,164 meters. We’re suffering, too: Headaches and tiredness are common, and a third of the group has begun taking Diamox to combat altitude sickness (another third has been on it since the beginning). And yet we’re all feeling an excitement no feebleness can quench.
Everest Base Camp is just a few hours’ walk away. I hunker deep into my sleeping bag: “Tomorrow,” I tell myself — and like a child at Christmas, I can’t quite believe it.
From a distance, Everest Base Camp appears no more than a handful of yellow tents, scattered like breadcrumbs on the rocks near the deadly Icefall, from which flows the Khumbu Glacier. Up close, it is a sprawling settlement that takes an hour to cross from end to end. Each expedition stakes out its camp around large dining and kitchen tents. Some erect small shrines strung with multicolored prayer flags, where Sherpas ask the blessing of the mountain goddess Miyolangsangma before attempting their first ascent of the supreme summit, known to them as Sagarmatha. The air is one-part ice, one-part incense and one-part garlic, and it hits both nostrils and taste buds simultaneously.
Our camp occupies a prized spot near the Icefall, a zone of great danger into which, by necessity, only would-be summiteers venture. Our tents — and all the others here — sit directly on top of the glacier. Beneath us, the ice is discreetly covered by a thin layer of rubble, but just a few meters away it gleams nakedly blue-white. Sometimes, we learn, bodies pop out of the glacier — those who died on the mountain or in the Icefall, given back by Miyolangsangma years later. I see that our camp is next to the hospital tent, the renowned Everest ER, and I text this info to my mother to reassure her.
“A world not meant for human habitation” was how veteran U.S. climber Tom Hornbein, a member of his country’s 1963 Everest Expedition, described Base Camp. We inhabit it for just two days and nights, and by day it can be a place of surprising ease: We breakfast handsomely on fried Spam and omelet, visit a photographic display (inevitably billed as “the world’s highest art exhibition”) and stroll among the meringue-pie seracs, those pinnacles of ice teetering arround the glacier’s edges.
By night, Base Camp sloughs us off. The glacier creaks and groans as it attempts to carry us away, and small avalanches cannonade down Everest’s lower slopes. Crampons noisily claw the ground as Sherpas make their way to the Icefall, to negotiate its unstable crevasses in the safer predawn chill; their head-torches forming a glowworm procession through the darkness.
The thin air lets the starlight through. Orion, perhaps poleaxed by the altitude, lies propped up along the horizon. It is dreamlike. It is — I feel no shame writing this, either in my journal or now — My dream come true.
Some pursue their dream higher, to the summit itself. What has unfolded in the weeks since my group left Base Camp has proved a controversial season — one that’s just drawing to a close.
In mid-May, Everest’s most seasoned commercial operator, Russell Brice, Kiwi owner of Himalayan Experience Ltd., made the largest team withdrawal in expedition history (another unwelcome record), saying conditions were too dangerous. The season’s death toll presently stands at 11, including seven who perished near the summit. One who got there and back safely, though, was Japanese climber Tamae Watanabe. The 73-year-old reached the top on May 18, bettering her own 2002 record as the oldest woman to stand on top of the world.
It’s hard to explain our collective cultural fixation on a place that, as Hornbein said, wants nothing to do with us. Documented in my journal, my infatuation with Everest will, like so many teenage and university crushes, remain forever unrequited. Perhaps it’s safer that way, given how, for some, the attraction turns fatal. But one thing’s for sure: It’s not just tough trails and altitude that set the heart racing on a trek to Everest Base Camp.