When the sun disappears on the trail to Everest Base Camp in December, it becomes very, very cold. It’s the kind of cold that gnaws at the bones, sapping strength and will.
Residual heat dissipates within seconds of the sun setting — or it dipping behind a cloud — and the temperature plummets. Hikers beeline to the dining rooms of their lodgings and huddle around the 4:30 p.m. fire, fueled by yak dung and the odd scrap of wood. Once dinner is served, the fire dwindles too quickly to nothing, and heavy down jackets and four-season sleeping bags become the means to survive.
But there is good reason to be out here in December. It is off-season, and instead of being one of the 30,000 that attempt the trek to Everest Base Camp (EBC) in peak season from April to May and September to November, you are one of a handful enjoying unspoiled access to one of the most majestic vistas on Earth.
On Dec. 15, I arrived in dusty Kathmandu to find my 61-year-old father in heated debate with one of my best friends about one of the more obscure items on our packing list: a poo shovel. Would it really be necessary when the ground might be so frozen that digging a pit would prove impossible anyway? Unresolved, it joined a long list of items that would be packed, unpacked and repacked in the final moments before departure.
Leading the trip would be Surya, a 26-year-old guide and Everest local. Together that evening, we pored over our itinerary, a modified version of the standard EBC trek that would include an excursion through the Gokyo Valley and over Cho La Pass, before descending down to base camp and turning for home.
Our discussion then turned to that most pressing issue: How cold would it be, really? Would a sleeping bag safe to minus 20 C be enough? Minus 30? Would we need crampons to cross the glacier at the top of the pass?
Everything would be arranged, we were assured. And so we waited for morning.
Before the trek could start proper, we had to contend with getting to Lukla, where the trail to base camp begins. For the dedicated, there is the option of taking a bus out of Kathmandu and then hiking for anywhere between three and seven days to the hillside town. But we took the more conventional approach, bundling all our gear into a 16-man plane that would fly us to Lukla’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport, dubbed the most dangerous airport in the world.
Due to the mysteries of Nepali timekeeping, our 7 a.m. flight did not leave until 11 a.m. — ample time for our initial nerves to fade. But aboard the plane it was all white-knuckles and adrenaline. The tiny aircraft skimmed through valley after valley on turbulent air that tossed it around like a paper bag floating in the breeze, ridges so close you could almost touch them. In the cockpit, the altimeter constantly flashed for the nonplussed pilots to pull up: “Terrain, terrain, terrain.”
After 30 minutes of this, the thrum of the engines took on a different tone: lower and slower, and the plane lost speed. I leaned forward in my chair, peering through the cockpit to see an unavoidable wall of mountains. And there, built precariously on the edge of the valley, was the runway, just over 500 meters long. Even at a distance, we could see the slope on it, designed to slow planes as they land and give speed to those taking off.
All aboard realized this was the moment of peril; there was no turning back. We barreled toward the lip of the runway and hit the tarmac. The plane’s flaps rose with a great roar and gravity did the rest, slowing us to a standstill in barely three seconds.
We stepped shaky-legged off the plane into a cool December morning to the greetings of our two porters, Tcherring and Gunga. We were now a group of six.
The trail to base camp is far more varied than you might imagine. It ends with Everest (known locally as Sagarmartha), the tallest mountain on Earth, awesome and brutal, hardened by the elements. But the start is much softer and greener and, for the first few days, follows the banks of the musical Dudh Kosi River, named for its milky blue waters.
From Lukla, the trail heads for Namche Bazaar, the last large settlement in the region. Tracing the well-trodden path, we snacked on sweet winter carrots freshly picked from the farms at the side of the trail. Trains of yaks and horses joined us, lugging supplies higher up the mountain, as we passed (always clockwise) elegantly carved Mani rocks and through small settlements, normally bustling but now empty for winter.
It was not until the afternoon of our fourth day — acclimatizing in Namche — that we got our first view of Everest. Glimpsing what he thought was the peak, Dad called out to a passerby: “Excuse me, is that Everest?”
The man introduced himself as a Sherpa and, smiling, pointed to the left of the peak in question. “That is Lobuche, and that ridge is home to the nine peaks of Nuptse.” Swiveling to the right he continued, “Thamserku and Ama Dablam, and that over there is Lhotse.”
The tension built, the question unanswered. His smile widened. “And that, behind the Nuptse ridge: That is Everest.”
A more perfect reveal couldn’t have been scripted; our goal was in sight.
After Namche, we turned off the main trail, taking an alternative route to base camp via the town of Gokyo — a worthy detour for anyone wanting a longer and more challenging hike than the standard trek.
Abandoning the A-road, the trail became more rugged, the fragile ecosystem less disturbed by regular footfall. We climbed sharply (“Nepali flat”) through forests of beech and rhododendron, draped in tendrils of hanging lichen. As we approached the 4,000 meter mark, the landscape began to change: the rivers froze into flutes of ice, and the forests thinned from deciduous to coniferous to bushy scrub. Early-season snow clung to the ground, and the poo shovel, inevitably packed, made barely a dent in the hardened ground.
On day six we reached the town of Gokyo (4,750 meters) and the transformation to winter was complete. Its lake lay frozen beneath a thick layer of ice and snow. Even the yaks looked cold beneath their shaggy coats. It was here that our sleeping bags came into their own, crucial barriers against the Arctic night.
High above the town is Gokyo Ri. At 5,357 meters it is one of the region’s minor peaks — a (relatively) easy ascent that merits a place on the leaderboard in Gokyo Namaste Lodge for anyone who completes the climb in under an hour. The mountain affords some of the best views of Mount Everest in the Himalayas and we timed our ascent to coincide with sunset. As darkness fell across every other peak, the top of Everest remained a vivid orange hue, illuminated by the last fragile rays of sun before it too succumbed to the evening.
Leaving Gokyo, our last obstacle before base camp was Cho La (5,420 meters), the pass separating the Gokyo Valley from the Khumbu Valley in which Everest sits. From the outset, we knew that bad weather or recent heavy snowfall on the pass would halt our progress. Happily, on our eighth morning, conditions were near perfect as we set out as one of two groups attempting the crossing.
Staggered by half an hour, we might have been the only people on the mountain. It was only at the top of the pass, winded by the treacherous climb, that we met a third group crossing from the other side. We chatted, comparing notes on each side of the pass, and then parted ways. Crampons on, we descended the blue ice of the glacier below, not to see another soul until the tea house that evening.
The morning we set out for base camp started inauspiciously with a loud bang around 5 a.m., waking us from our altitude-encumbered sleep.
It was not until later that morning we discovered one of our insulated thermos flasks — full of hot water at the beginning of the night — had shattered as the water had expanded to ice. The thin plywood walls of the teahouse, carried to the foot of Everest by a porter, provided scant resistance to the pervasive nighttime cold and no protection for that poor thermos.
Those hours between sunset and sunrise consistently proved the most challenging of the hike, but the cold was more than worth it for the absence of other trekkers. Nowhere did this become more apparent than at base camp itself. In high season the queue to the camp is notorious. To enjoy a moment at the sign marking base camp is a fleeting experience: take a photo, repeat and then move on to let others take their turn.
On Christmas Day, as we arrived at base camp, we couldn’t have been further removed from those crowds. In the absence of other people, we could hear the great Khumbu Glacier cracking and shifting beneath our feet. Our small group spent an hour there undisturbed, taking photos in Christmas hats and trading presents — precious bottles of whiskey and bars of Lindt chocolate.
Standing there at the base of that great mountain, a gentle breeze fluttering through the prayer flags, we relished in the great solitude of winter in the Himalayas.
The Nepali Himalayas are best accessed from Kathmandu, reached by plane from Japan via Seoul, Hong Kong or Guangzhou. The Everest Base Camp trek takes 12 to 21 days depending on the speed of acclimatization, route chosen and fitness level. Guides are recommended. While these can be booked in advance, it is cheaper and more reliable to hire them upon arrival in Kathmandu (the writer chose Six Friends Trekking, who arranged logistics, including flights and permits to the Sagarmartha National Park).