Himalayan High: Everest Base Camp

Standing in Gorakshep, the tiny Nepali village that sits nestled in the Himalaya at 17,000 feet (5184 meters), it is difficult to not feel an air of excitement. The town is the last stop before climbing up to Everest Base Camp, and while it is spartan in its amenities, the view is one of the most spectacular that you’ll find anywhere.

Of course, a major part of that excitement stems from the fact that in order to reach Gorakshep, you have to spend at least six days hiking through the Khumbu Valley. It isn’t exactly an easy walk either, with thin air and major gains in altitude conspiring to sap the energy from your legs and challenge your lungs to take a full breath. But, you are bolstered by the thought that your ultimate goal is very close now, and it won’t be long before you stand in the very shadow of the tallest mountain on the planet.

The trek from Gorakshep to Everest Base Camp isn’t an especially long one in terms of distance. It is, however, a tough scramble through a rock field created from the loose scree being pushed down the valley by the Khumbu Glacier. For the entirety of the hike, you’ll actually be walking on the glacier itself, but for the most part you won’t even notice, as the trail is covered in multiple layers of rock and dirt. Those conditions, combined with the increasingly thinning air, make the last few hours up to BC a tough slog that will leave your already tired legs aching even more.The final leg of the trek puts you right in the heart of the Khumbu Valley, and it is quite a sight to see. Besides the spectacular mountain scenery, which I’ve described multiple times throughout this series, you’ll have plenty of other amazing views. For instance, while the glacier is indeed covered in boulders and dirt, there is still plenty of visible ice, with numerous glacial lakes filled with icy blue water dotting the surface. Ice caves, formed by water running under the ice, offer a glimpse of the world beneath the glacier as well, and it seems there is an extensive network of passages just waiting to be explored. The tent-city that makes up Base Camp is also visible from far down the valley, with the bright yellow and orange tents tantalizingly close, and yet so far away.

Over the course of those final hours on the hike up to Base Camp, I noticed that the winds had started to pick up considerably, and for the first time, I was in need of my warmer clothes. Many members of my trekking group had donned multiple layers a few days back while at lower altitudes, but for the most part, I was fine with my lighter gear even as we climbed. On that day however, I had donned my base layers and wore a heavy fleece for the final approach to BC, which was made all the more challenging thanks to the chilly, constant breezes that kicked up dust, making it even more difficult to breathe.

Not long after departing Gorakshep we caught a glimpse of what makes climbing Everest so potentially dangerous. As we walked, we could hear various rumbling noises, sometimes high on the slopes above us, sometimes coming from somewhere below us, out on the glacier. The noises were a bit unnerving at first and those feeling only got worse once we caught a glimpse of what was making them.

The first avalanche we saw was not far from Base Camp, on the far side of the Khumbu Icefall, and it swept down the mountain with a force and a fury that only nature can muster. We would see no less than three more avalanches over the course of the next few hours, and we heard plenty more on the mountains around us. Meanwhile, down below, out on the glacier, large chunks of ice were collapsing under their own weight, making it abundantly clear to everyone passing by exactly why the icefall is considered the most dangerous place on Everest.

Throughout the afternoon, Base Camp is visible up the valley, and you can see it from a long way off. But for quite awhile, it feels like it isn’t getting any closer, no matter how far you walk. Your lungs gasp for air, your legs burn, you’re exhausted from the climb, and it can be a bit disheartening at times to see how far off the camp remains. But eventually, you top a ridge and it appears at long last, and you find yourself scrambling up the last rocky portion of the trail to stand at your ultimate destination.

Finally reaching BC gives you a sense of relief, satisfaction, and exhilaration all at the same time. For many of us who made the trek, visiting Everest was a dream come true, and while we were “only” at 17,600 feet, it is probably as close to the summit as we’ll ever come. The actual “camp” can be a bit anti-climactic if you see ht location as just a destination to add to your list, but when you take in the whole experience, you’ll understand that an Everest Base Camp trek is more than the sum of its parts.

Sitting there looking up at the mountain, I couldn’t think of any place I’d rather be. Sure, the hike is a challenging one and for a lowlander like me, it was difficult to breathe at times, but the view is definitely worth the walk. If you should ever make the trip for yourself, make sure you take time to sit back and take it all in. There are few places on the planet that can match the view.

Next: The Journey Back Down