Have you done high-altitude treks before?” That was the first question most people asked me when I announced I was going to the Everest Base Camp (EBC). And my reply, “No, this is my first trek of any kind,” would be greeted with pursed lips and an exaggerated nod of the head, universal signage for “Yep, she’s crazy”. The one significant deviation was a friend, a regular trekker, who indignantly blurted out, “But you can’t, the EBC is the holy grail of trekkers and novices can’t go.”
He was right: The EBC is the holy grail for the trekker. From the time he first hears the call of the mountains, through quick weekend walks, more adventurous weeklong trips and moderately challenging circuits, he is biding his time and building his strength for EBC. The sheer distance of the trek to the base camp (120km), augmented by the high altitude (5,545m at the highest point), make this a hard walk. The passionate trekker’s outrage at greenhorns traipsing to the Khumbu glacier—the final section of the EBC trail—is much like a professional photographer’s anguish at seeing a four-year-old with a point-and-shoot camera.
Mountain fever: Clouds lift to reveal Lhotse
When we landed in Kathmandu, I must admit, my laissez-faire attitude towards the trek suffered a mild dent. Thamel, the tourist and hash centre of the universe, was teeming with skinny bodies with super-spectacular calf muscles. Everyone was a mountaineer, a cross-continental trekker or a mountain guide. They all had lots of advice for us; even people hurrying down the road seemed to walk over to tell us what not to do on the trek.
Hope you have waterproof Gore-Tex pants, did you invest in a down jacket, how many pairs of liner socks do you have, hope you are carrying a camel bag so you can drink water as you walk. At a book store where I went to browse for sleeping bag-appropriate reading, David (last names are redundant on treks), an ageing mountain guide, enquired about our schedule. We gave him the details of our 14-day itinerary. “Bah,” he said, “you are doing the McDonald’s version of the trek. That’s not the real deal.”
Also See Trip Planner/EBC Trek (Map)
The Sagarmatha National Park, which houses the EBC trail, is now a serious source of foreign exchange for Nepal. As tourists and holidaymakers line up to take in the snowy vistas, trekkers—the original visitors to the mountains—are feeling a bit, well, crowded in. Hence the gear talk, I think, and the unfriendly references to the “real deal”. Nevertheless, the following morning, when we headed back to the airport to board a plane, death due to lack of appropriate gear seemed a definite possibility.
An oversized beer can with wings, passing off for an aircraft, dropped us at the Tenzing-Hillary airport at Lukla, located 2,886m above sea level, and the starting point of the EBC trek. Sherpa boys thronged the gate of the airport, hustling to be picked as porters. That’s reason number one, actually, why anyone can go on the EBC trek: You don’t have to carry your own backpack. So weighed down only by our daypack—containing our drinking water and a few energy bars—we set off for Phakding, our designated stop for the night. Phakding (a name that lent itself to a million jokes) is at a lower altitude than Lukla, making for an easy, downhill walk on the first day.
We ran into several groups, most of whom we would bump into every day. We had names for them, largely based on how strong they looked—the “mountain goats”, the “super-fit monsters” and such. At a stop for tea, we met a Spanish couple, strong walkers, who were going to get married atop Kalapathar.
At Phakding, we walked into our first tea room house. These little lodges to dine and sleep, often run by Sherpa families, are the reason why it’s possible to walk to the EBC and back without ever pitching a tent. Hard-core trekkers might scoff at the idea, but a warm bed at the end of a long walk is just what you need to hit the trail the next day.
The rooms in these lodges are tiny, just large enough for a cot, so you spend all your waking hours in the dining room. The fire drum in the centre keeps it warm, making it a great place to knock back some Everest beer and chat up the other residents. Across various tea houses, we met a young American surgeon of Indian origin, a Canadian postal worker who had climbed six of the world’s seven tallest peaks, a wildly handsome mountain guide from Montreal and a Russian weirdo who was an offensive drunk.
Overconfident from the easy walk on the first day, I didn’t realize that the walk from Phakding to Namche Bazaar—the centre of Sherpa life in the Himalayas—would be one of the hardest days on the trek. Overall, we ascended 800m, crossing and recrossing the Dudh Kosi, on scary-looking suspended bridges. The walk took us about 8 hours: On the last two, I wanted to kill, first, myself, for embarking on this crazy trip, and then the husband, for not stopping me. It was his fault, mostly.
But scrambling into Namche, we were greeted by our first views of the snow-capped summits, a breathtaking panorama that inflicts mountain fever on even the most unromantic. We had an extra day at Namche to help our bodies acclimatize to the altitude, which we used to hike up to the headquarters of the Sagarmatha National Park. Half an hour later, the clouds lifted, revealing Everest, Lhotse, Thamserku and Ama Dablam, stunning peaks that looked close enough to touch. Even without binoculars, we could see the ridge and the Hillary steps leading to Everest, topography we had only seen in photographs. A huge mountain eagle swooped above our heads and it felt like a whole new world had opened up for us.
The good weather didn’t hold though: We set off from Namche to Deboche with a biting cold wind whipping at us. The long trail wound around mountains like a gift-wrapping ribbon, mists and clouds swirling around us. It was breathtakingly beautiful, and just when we thought it couldn’t get any prettier, we hit the rhododendron forests. For long stretches we walked under a canopy of trees, with a riot of red, pink and white rhododendrons as far as the eye could see. We stopped at the Buddhist monastery at Dingboche en route, where stallions and horses galloped about without a care in the world.
So it went on for the next seven days. We walked in the blazing sun, pounding rain and swivelling snow. Our bodies got used to walking and climbing for long stretches, but the altitude made us hopelessly breathless. Because we were the novices, we walked slowly and felt the effects of the altitude the least.
At Labouche, a day before our final excursion to base camp and Kalapathar, we heard that the Spanish couple were hit by altitude sickness and had to settle for a quick ceremony on a nameless hill before descending. We hadn’t seen the super-fit monsters’ group since the previous day; it was possible that they had descended as well. We did see the other group of inexperienced trekkers, who called themselves “The Climbing Divas from Hyderabad”, singing their way to the base camp. The under-confident, certainly, have an advantage in the mountains.
Back in Delhi, the trekker friend listened to my stories with an expression of disgust and disbelief. “So do you feel the call of the mountains now? Will you go back?” he asked. I don’t hear the call of the mountains. But I will go back. The trek was the quickest way to lose some weight. But I didn’t have the heart to tell him that.
Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint