“What do you mean you cannot see Mount Everest from the Everest Base Camp?” I asked Rigzin, my trek leader, who flashed one of his disarming smiles in response. Day two of the Everest Base Camp (EBC) trek—and it was only just sinking in that I had voluntarily embarked on a 10-day trip that takes me up to a height of 17,389 feet across 130 kilometres of mountain terrain with a 10-kilo backpack. All this, only to reach a destination from where I cannot even see the mountain the trek was named after! I looked around at my fellow trekkers, determinedly huffing their way uphill. Are they aware of this… treachery? I had assumed that the world’s highest mountain would be a dominant figure in the Himalayan skyline, towards which we’d be marching—a fleece-clad army high on yak milk. Standing at 29,029 feet, she is Chomolungma (‘Holy Mother’) in Tibet, Sagarmatha in Nepal, and the reason why around 800 people risk their lives each year in their attempt to reach the top of the world. Obviously, I had underestimated the lofty eight-thousanders that surround Mount Everest, obscuring her from one’s direct line of vision. The Solukhumbu district in northeast Nepal, home to the summit, has four of the highest mountains on Earth. Locals here wake up to sights that people from the plains spend lifetimes chasing.
My journey to this difficult but hypnotic terrain began with a flight from Kathmandu to Lukla, touted as one of the most dangerous airports in the world, also notorious for delays. What else can you expect of a route where the flight’s fate is majorly dependent on how sunny the mountain gods are feeling? As the 18-seater plane seared through clouds and bumpy air-pockets, I glanced around at my trekking group. Keni ‘hiking goddess’ Soliezo from Nagaland was on her 250th trek; Chandigarh boy Gaurav Gautam, on the second flight of his life. Delhiite ShipraYadav had recently summited Kilimanjaro. Gireesh Hullur, banker and paragliding instructor from Bangalore, is coolness personified. Then there was Sujit Mallick from Odisha, who climbs peaks and discusses mountains like kids review their Pokemon collection. Gourav Vibhandik from Indore is the youngest, and the most excited. He would be turning 23 on the trek, and we were already looking forward to the cake at the World’s Highest Bakery & Cafe. Winners of a Columbia Sportswear’s contest, they’re from different walks of life, now united by their Columbia patented ‘Tested Tough’ gear—and the dream to reach the Everest Base Camp. The day we first met, the group exchanged trekking stories. I didn’t have much to add, this was my first multi-day trek. What if my gear is tougher than I am, I’d wondered, looking out of the window to spot a sliver of a runway rolled out at an elevation of 9,383 feet.
Once we landed, the trail ahead was for feet and hooves only. Rigzin is joined by Tshering Sherpa, an ever-smiling local, and his shy, lanky assistant Buddhi, who led the group with all the patience that comes from living in the mountains. They assured us that “no man (would be) left behind.” But knowing how that turns out in most war epics, I refused to take any chances. Yet, by the end of our five-hour walk on Day One, I was the last one to trudge into the teahouse at Phakding (8,599 feet), with Rigzin and Tshering walking patiently behind me. The next day would be a day of a steep uphill climb to a village called Namche Bazaar (11,302 feet). “Your last chance to stock up on anything you might need on the rest of the trek,” Tshering reminded us. I went to bed that night, humbled, surprisingly warm and wondering whether they’d sell me an extra pair of legs in that tiny bazaar in the mountains.
The route to Namche Baazar was long and winding, but I did not complain because the Khumbu Himalayas had stunned me into silence. I’d escaped the urban traffic only to find myself in a rural one, with rows of heavily burdened yaks and mules weaving in and out of a two-way flow of trekkers, kicking up a cloud of dust. I pulled the buff over my nose, cutting into my already limited supply of oxygen. We moved one step at a time. The athletic ones seemed impatient, trying to overtake those who were soaking in the Himalayan sun, view and dust, but the rules were clear. Give way to the cattle or they will push you off the trail. Below, the Dudh Kosi river gushed forward with a force of wild white water befitting the world’s highest river, playing hide-and-seek with us as we zigzagged up the trail. Through the day, the river turned into a marker for the height we gained, its gushing a constant companion until suddenly, at some bend, we couldn’t hear it at all.
A few hours into the climb, close to the ‘are-we-there-yet’ moment, the trees parted to give us our first view of Mount Everest. There she was, majestic yet subtle, the snow-drift on her peak forming a halo on the highest point on earth.
Like the altitude, the stakes are also high on this trek. Following your guide’s advice is usually your best bet of returning from the EBC as the fully-functional human being you were when you started out. Every step here weighs on the lungs, which is functioning on 30 per cent less oxygen than it is used in the plains. People speak of the monster that is Acute Mountain Sickness in hushed tones, as though the very mention of it is an invitation to the affliction.
My eyes were busy taking in the glorious mountainscape, so my ears took over the job of keeping me alive. It soon became second nature to move aside when I heard yaks’ bell ringing behind me. Despite being in one of the most picturesque places in the world, we kept photo stops to a minimum. Our hands, except Keni’s—who completed the entire trek with her hands in her pocket without breaking a sweat—had more important things to do, like holding on to trekking poles. Besides, no one wanted to piss off the guide who had strictly instructed us to look out for ourselves. “You get all sorts of people here,” Tshering lamented, his eyes watching every step a selfie-maker was taking. Tshering wasn’t joking—1,16,000 people trekked to EBC in 2016. It’s gotten busier (and more bizarre) each year since then. In 2017, a DJ hosted a party at EBC. My mind conjures the image of yaks carrying a turntable up these rough slopes, followed by a group of humans in fleece, beanie-caps and mountain boots, grooving to EDM.
Soon I was gasping for air. The dust kicked up by yak hooves and human heels had clogged my nose. Thankfully, Sujit shared his secret weapon—the humble Himalayan chilli. A drop of the dangerous looking red chilli paste in my afternoon Thukpa did the job. I raced uphill to the Tengboche monastery (12,697 feet), pacing with mountain dogs, as my team caught up. That night I could not taste the dal-bhaat. Next morning, breakfast tasted like wet cardboard. It’s a deal with the Devil. I’d burnt my taste buds in exchange for the magical ability to breathe on the dusty trail. At lunchtime, I asked Sujit for a double-dose.
By Day Four, I was cheating on Mount Everest with my new-found infatuation—the gorgeous AmaDablam, which at a relatively ‘short’ height of 22,349 feet still hulks like a Titan under whose watch we continue our journey till Pheriche (13,911 feet). I first woke up to this beautiful mountain shrouded amongst the clouds earlier that day at Debuche. Full of rhododendron forests and enveloped in mist, it felt like we’d walked into Tolkien’s Rivendell. Locals here told us that half a century ago, Namgyal Wangdi, a local yak farmer’s son, decided to leave behind a life of monkhood in the local monastery to be a porter. In 1953, Wangdi, now known as Tenzing Norgay, went on to make history when along with Edmund Hillary, he became one of the first two individuals to summit Mount Everest.
Like most Himalayan legends, the local’s story too turned out to be disputed, but the awareness that this was the very path the Hillary-Norgay expedition took added a spring to my step. At Dughla awaited our toughest challenge yet—a literally breath-taking climb which ends at a memorial for those who lost their lives on the Everest. As others looked for Scott Fischer’s memorial, I walked around and spotted the epitaph of a three-year-old boy who died while making his way to the EBC with his parents. I could sense we were all overwhelmed, yet never before had I felt so alive, my heart beating frantically as my lungs screamed for air and some rest. As we moved on, the landscape drastically changed, flattening out to a wide field of rocks. So had our mood, and we walked in silence to the tiny hamlet of Lobuche (16,142 feet).
With the altitude rose the prices. A bottle of water now cost as much as imported beer in Kathmandu’s touristy Thamel neighbourhood. We chose local water to save on money and minimise our plastic waste trail. I prayed I had mastered the art of packing light, for the sake of the porter carrying my bag. I was humbled by the realisation of how much I’d be struggling, if not for him.
We were up the next day before the sun, rewarded for our madness with frozen floors and an icicle where there should be flowing tap-water. As we were stepping out, a guide brought in a man who had slipped on the frozen floor and was breathing heavily. This man had woken up today, ready to end his day at the EBC, but instead was being airlifted. It seemed the toughest was saved for last, as an endless path of ups and downs on a wild, rocky terrain began. The strain must have been showing on my face, because every trekker returning from the EBC asked me to not give up. And then, Rigzin pointed towards a patch of rocks into the distance and said, “Look, you can see the EBC and Mount Everest from here.” That was enough to keep me plodding.
On the way, Tshering told me that the camp changes location every few years. The 2015 earthquake had triggered an avalanche that swept through the EBC, killing 19 people. Immediately, my mind jumped to the people who had stepped foot here, never to return. Of course, for some, there couldn’t be a better final resting place. When I finally stepped on to the EBC, I was in a daze. This was it, I was there. All around me, trekkers hugged each other, some crying, others laughing, some quiet, others cheering. Selfie-sticks were out and there was a queue to pose with a rock that had ‘Everest Base Camp’ inscribed on it. We huddled around for a photograph, and for the first time I didn’t care how I looked. EBC, baby! I felt invincible.
The 10-day Everest Base Camp trek is a moderately-difficult route that begins at Lukla. It is advisable to train beforehand. Group size may vary depending on the outfit you travel with. The trek costs approximately Rs1-1.25 lakh including airfare and without gear.
Tunali Mukherjee is a freelance writer-filmmaker whose world revolves around travel and dogs. She often takes many detours on her way to the destination, not just because she can't read maps, but because she's found the best places only when she's lost her way.