Everest Base Camp: A Crowded Path Less Taken

And worth every step.

 Traffic jam on the descent into Namche Bazaar.
Traffic jam on the descent into Namche Bazaar

I looked around me and laughed. A path less taken? The trek to Everest Base Camp? Hardly. It’s the Disney World of the Himalayas – it’s strange to think of such a long, sometimes grueling and often physically challenging trek being a tourist destination. But – it’s novelty (say “Everest” and watch eyes widen and jaws drop) and relative accessibility for many has put the trek on the map and a whole lot of bucket lists. So much so that the villages along the trail now almost exclusively serve the trekking industry and tourists, and are expanding. New buildings are going up all along the route. And though I can’t say for certain, I’d be willing to wager most Nepalese shops off the trail have items other than chocolate bars and Tang for sale. Just a guess.

But – this is where it gets personal – this trek was most definitely a path less taken for me. The closest I’d come to anything like this was the three-day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu trek. And though that meant a couple of nights in tents, a haul up to Dead Woman’s Pass (and then down – it’s always the down!), and had its own challenges, it wasn’t this. It wasn’t 12 days of movement, the first eight of which were at ever increasing altitudes. Dead Woman’s Pass sits at 4,215 m/13,828 ft; Base Camp (which you drop down into off of an elevated ridge) is at 5,380 m/17,650 ft – and an overnight stay in Gorak Shep at 5,164 m/ 16,942 ft. This trek was a physical and mental challenge that I’d never come close to even attempting. I knew there was a decent chance at completion – I’d go with my favorite tour company, we’d have porters, logistics would be taken care of, we would be looked after. Nonetheless, I’d never attempted anything like this.

 Descent into Gorak Shep - next stop: Everest Base Camp.
Descent into Gorak Shep. Next stop: Everest Base Camp.

What got it into my head in the first place? Apparently, I’m a sucker for the words “stunning scenery” because really, that’s all it took for me to say “I want to do that some day.” An offhand comment by a fellow traveler on a previous trip sparked the idea, and the recommendation to go earlier in life rather than later moved Everest Base Camp from “not on the list” to “on the list” to “the top of the list” in record time. Within two years of that conversation, I was on my way.  Not that it was planned for exactly that time, either – but a friend commented he’d like to do it, and hey, he had a big birthday coming up… so why not? The pieces fell into place, and suddenly we were both staring wide-eyed at each other – are we really doing this??

 Yep, we're really here! A quick breather on the way out of Gorak Shep.
Yes, we are really here! A quick breather on the way out of Gorak Shep.

Maybe I was awestruck by the word “Everest” as well. People make comments and recommendations on places all the time. Places that sound mesmerizing and are definitely a lot easier to get to. I don’t know what synaptic misfire in my brain made this trip jump to the top of the list after never having considered it before. But it did, and I found myself becoming an expert in thermal weight clothing, lightweight durable hiking boots, and water purification options. (Yes, you can whole conversations around the versatility of Buffs and the thickness of wool socks.)

But then, didn’t it make sense? EBC is such an out-of-the-ordinary step for me – something I’d never considered, something beyond my own comfort zone. I was pushing myself – expand, explore, try new things. Physically, mentally… hell, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually as well. I love the mountains, and I’d always used a mountain visualization to help me process – and cope – with challenges in life. So why not head to the Himalayas, and make that visualization a literal reality?

 Indulgent rewards after the climb up to Namche Bazaar. Indulgent rewards after the climb up to Namche Bazaar.

Then there’s the tangentially-related idea of the journey and the destination. Yes, EBC is the destination – but the journey takes far longer and is a reward in and of itself. Spending eight days to get there, then just a brief time at the actual site for photos – the journey is what stands out. The challenges and the rewards, the emotions, the intensity. Of course I remember EBC and it will always stand out as one of the most memorable moments of my life. But – that honey latte in Namche, the amazing chocolate cake in Dingboche, waking up to the clouds clearing over Ama Dablam, getting hip-checked by a yak, the total exhaustion of watching one foot step in front of the next, the sudden and unexpected love affair with ramen noodle soup, hard boiled eggs, and Tang… so much of the journey evokes strong emotions, nostalgia even at the “painful” memories. When someone asks, “where did you go?”, it’s easy enough to answer, nonchalantly of course, “Base Camp” (which they usually mistake for “space camp,” leading to a much longer explanation). But in answering that question with “EBC,” a whole slew of memories take over – and those are of the journey itself, and the challenge that lay at the end of those 8 days (of course, you have to get back down too – my knees remember that part all too well).

 There may be a lot of people on the trek, but the mountains have a way of making any bottleneck seem small and insignificant. There may be a lot of people on the trek, but the mountains have a way of making any bottleneck seem small and insignificant.

In the next few weeks, I’ll be posting a lot on this trek. My personal highlights and favorite photos, and tips on this trek (which could also apply to most other treks) to encourage and assist those who also get a glimmer of light in their eyes when thinking about such an endeavor, but aren’t sure where to start or how feasible it is. For my part, this trek will remain on the travel highlights short-list. It was an experience of a lifetime. I foresee other treks in my future – perhaps even a return to take the Gokyo Lakes route, check out Ama Dablam’s base camp, or head west to the Annapurna Circuit. But this one… this first trek… that holds a special place. And given that it was to places higher than I’ve ever been, to the foot of Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse, Ama Dablam. That it was the first time my eyes had to adjust to the Technicolor panoramas, my lungs had to adapt to the thinnest air they’ve ever had to cope with, my body was told to simply keep going, and I experienced such intense joy (and exhaustion) that I was left speechless and near tears… the intensity of the “first” etches those experiences in my memory so deeply that not even the wear of time can erase them. The journey, the challenge, the unexpected rewards; the exhaustion, the emotions, the intensity, the perseverance… the trek to Everest Base Camp may not be the most remote path to take, but I am deeply grateful that my own path led me to it.

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