Rebecca Coles of guiding company Jagged Globe leads a trekking group to Everest Base Camp, following a high route via three peaks and three passes that takes them far from the Khumbu crowds.
'This is like Oxford Street in the January sales' Ann said, as we squeezed past yet more people. I'd completely lost most of my group in the throngs, simply trusting that my team of Sherpas would round everyone up. This was the reality of trekking one of the world's most popular routes in peak season. Luckily our variation would soon be taking us far from the madding crowd, and high into the rarefied Himalayan air. The route would be longer and tougher than the standard trip to Everest Base Camp (EBC), taking us over three high passes and three walking peaks - all above 5000m.
It was our second day in the Khumbu, and by the end of the day we would reach Namache Bazaar and be rewarded with our first views of Everest. But not before the first initiation of the trip, the long slog of many switchbacks which must be climbed to reach the town. A picnic lunch beside the river refreshed us before we made the ascent.
It is places like Namache Bazaar which keep me fascinated with Nepal; two days walk from Lukla, the main access point to the Khumbu and with the most ridiculous airstrip in the world, and a week's walk from Jiri and the roadhead, and yet this bustling town has every amenity anyone could want. I mean, really, how did they get a full sized snooker table here?! Yes, you can sit in a café drinking a latte, eating chocolate brownie, using the free wifi, but on the narrow streets you will be rubbing shoulders with trains of laden yaks and smiley, gap-toothed Tibetan tradesmen. The throngs of climbers and trekkers dissipate in the jumble of cobbled streets and sharing with other people seems less intrusive in a more urban setting than on the trail.
'And there it was, in the crystal clear sky; Everest, with Nuptse and Lhotse forming a formidable trio, and Makalu beyond to the east. Goyko nestled by the milky, emerald waters of a glacial lake completed the scene'
Ideally, a recent study has shown, a third night at Namache Bazaar is optimum for acclimatisation before continuing on the main trail to Everest. However we weren't taking the direct route, but something a little more original. The following morning we walked out of Namache in a different direction to everyone else. Skirting west above the colourful roofs we gained access to an adjacent valley. and silence; we were now on our own.
A steady day's walk took us through the juniper forest to Thame, a neat little village and the birth place of Tenzing Norgay. Just a few hundred metres higher than Namache, this was where we would have another two nights to acclimatise. It is foolish to skimp on acclimatisation, apart from the fact that you could get seriously ill; it is such a false economy. There are so many interesting places to explore and side-trips to do, it is a shame not to make time for them. In Thame the monastery above the village afforded both a good opportunity for an acclimatisation walk and an interesting insight into Buddhism. Starting early we had clear blue skies and the monastery to ourselves. We were able to walk around the small prayer hall and watch the monks going about their daily tasks; the young boys in their classroom overseen by an older monk peeling potatoes.
After a pleasant couple of days in Thame we moved towards our first objective; the Renjo La, a 5388m pass which accesses the adjacent valley and gives passage to the village of Gokyo. Although high, and steep towards the end, it is straightforward enough and suitable for even yak trains to be taken across. We were all puffing towards the top, unable to keep our pace slow with the excitement of the view we anticipated. And there it was, in the crystal clear sky; Everest, with Nuptse and Lhotse forming a formidable trio, and Makalu beyond to the east. Goyko nestled by the milky, emerald waters of a glacial lake completed the scene.
Despite many trips to Nepal I'd not been to the Khumbu before, thinking that it would be busy and was over-hyped. Everest had never fascinated me. But my team, who seemed to have read every Everest book ever published, educated me throughout the trip on every flag planting success and tragedy on its frigid slopes. And after the Renjo La my perception of the region changed, even warming towards Everest itself. The area, even on the main Everest Base Camp (EBC) route, still has its unique Nepalese charm. And off the main route the experience is even better. It is crammed full of views of 8000m peaks and beauties such as Pumori and Ama Dablam that cannot be rivalled.
After descending to Goyko our next objective was the peak Gokyo Ri, 5483m. We tackled this in the icy dark to reach the top for sunrise. The sun burst over the slopes of Everest to finally reward us with warmth and bathe Cho Oyu, to the north, in morning light. This ascent was all practice, however, for the infamous Cho La (5380m), a notorious pass which connects Goyko with the main Khumbu valley. Too difficult for the yaks to cross, our pack animals would walk around and meet us in a couple of days.
From the other side of the valley the route looks improbable, only the dots of other trekkers and the ubiquitous prayer flags marking the way. The perspective of the slope, however, lessened in angle as we trekked closer and the scree looked less daunting. Climbing over the brow gave the feeling of being amongst the high mountains as spires of rock rose around us. A narrow valley curved ahead occupied by a benign glacier, with the valley walls obscuring any view. Walking across the glacier to gain the scree descent, the valley finally opened out to allow us to see Ama Dablam perfectly framed by the valley sides, and a cloud inversion below.
The following morning we were treated to a late breakfast served al fresco to allow us to enjoy the views of Ama Dablam. Our descent that day took us past Lobuje East base camp and we stopped to watch climbers, just tiny specks on the snowy slopes, inching towards the summit.
Now we were back on the main EBC route and the collection of teahouses in Lobuje were teeming with people. The route was now very busy, and with the advantage of having been above 5000m three times already we tripped over the slow moving, unacclimatised groups. At Gorak Shep, the base camp location for the successful 1953 Everest expedition, we had lunch before tackling Kala Pattar. At a mere 5545m it is dwarfed by the mountains around it but gives the classic views of Everest, which is surprisingly elusive at EBC itself. The skies had stayed clear that afternoon sunning the Nuptse wall, which sent avalanches booming down the entire face. As the light weakened the moon rose over Everest and then, as if the sun was making a last gasp, it lit up the mountain in a red glow before diving it into icy shadow.
It appeared that during the couple of days we spent at Gorak Shep our itinerary was out of sync with the rest of the hoards (or they had felt too ill do anything when they got there!) We had Kala Pattar almost entirely to ourselves and when we set off the following morning to EBC we were again alone. There were just three Everest summit teams camped in the moraine next to the Khumbu Glacier that tumbled down from the icefall. Most summit teams opt for the pre-monsoon season, preferring the conditions. This season the teams weren't having much success, as particularly cold temperatures and high winds were thwarting summit attempts. Obligatory photos taken, we headed back to Gorak Shep for lunch.
'It was another cloudless morning and on the summit we felt so close to Nuptse that we could almost reach out and touch its vertical face'
Our trip, as with most trips in the Himalayas, was entirely reliant on a team of porters, Sherpas, kitchen boys and yaks (or Doz – half yak, half cow – as I was continually corrected on) all organised by Dawa our Sirdar. Most important of all was our cook, Nima, who rustled up three course meals, cakes or freshly steamed vegetables in the most desolate of places, as if he was a magician. Every night we had a different meal, but there was something faintly familiar about each dish. It took a while for me to work out what this was but then it clicked. Nima cooked every main course as if it was a Dal Bhat. This needs some explanation. The traditional meal in Nepal, Dal Bhat, consists of rice, dal (lentils), curry and then, the more complex the meal or the more the host wants to impress, the more additional bits are included - chutney, curried meat, poppadoms, curd, several vegetable curries, all served in little dishes. We enjoyed several very good Dal Bhats on the trek, but for other meals Nima had adapted western dishes to be in a similar theme to a Dal Bhat. Out of honour to us he could never just serve pasta and sauce or spag bol, instead he spent hours in his makeshift kitchen, conjuring up pasta with a spicy vegetable sauce, and side dishes of lightly battered vegetables, pan-fried potatoes with herbs, even prawn crackers. We were constantly amazed with his creations.
After Gorak Shep we return to Lobuje to tackle the final pass, the not to be underestimated Kongma La (5535m). That night it snowed. Hard. So we had no option the following day but to walk around to Dingboche. Disappointed to miss out on this part of the trip everyone we determined to summit our final peak, Chukkung Ri (5550m), nestled into the side of the Lhotse-Nuptse wall with spectacular views of Makalu and Ama Dablam. It was a tough final climb and a stomach bug (which we had stayed remarkably free from up until now) had struck down some of the group overnight, keeping them tent-bound. It had been another cloudless morning and on the summit we'd felt so close to Nuptse that we could almost reach out and touch its vertical face. On our return we felt as if we couldn't talk to those who had missed out but the feeling of exhilaration of having reached the summit was undeniable.
Chukkung Ri was the final peak of the trip, so all downhill to Lukla now, right? It was at this point that we learnt about Nepalese downhill. This sort of down actually involves a surprising amount of up. Just when you think you have made your last ascent of the trip you round a bend to see another set of steps continuing out of view. A particularly notable killer 'down' were the steps that ascend to the Thyangboche monastery. Luckily we were rewarded with the perfect picnic spot once we had made it. There we had views of the monastery with the Mani Rimdu festival in full swing on one side and Everest on the other.
We returned via Namache Bazaar for a quick latte and brownie; just to aid acclimatisation back to the real world, of course. And then the last couple of days were spent trekking back to Lukla where our carriage to Kathmandu awaited. But not before Nima, in a final flurry of culinary creativity, cooked up his best and we danced with our porter team, the lodge staff and a load of people we'd never seen before until 2am (an outrageously late night considering what time we had been going to bed previously). After just a few hours sleep we were whisked back to the noise and chaos of Kathmandu.
About the author
Rebecca Coles is an expedition leader based in Sheffield, where she is just about to finish a PhD in Glacial Geomorphology at the University of Sheffield. She has been mountaineering and climbing on all seven continents, often off-the-beaten track, and has been to all the Greater Ranges apart from the Karakoram (but would very much like to). A previous personal trip to Kathmandu was the start of nine months of travelling and mountaineering back to the UK, overland. She also enjoys rock climbing in North Wales and the Peak, and Scottish winter routes when in the UK. She has led expeditions in South America, Africa and Asia. The EBC trek described in this article was the first time she had been to the Khumbu. Having spent the previous year exploring the far flung corners of the the Pamirs in Tajikistan and the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan she wondered whether the Khumbu would be a bit 'mainstream' for her liking. Instead she was pleasantly surprised.
About the Trip
Rebecca led the Everest 3 Peaks 3 Passes trek for Jagged Globe in October 2012. They'll be running another Everest 3 Peaks 3 Passes trek in May 2013 to coincide with their own Everest, via the South Col, expedition. The unique experience for those trekking to EBC this time is that team members get a personal tour of the base camp and get to meet any of the summit team in camp. The same trek will also run in October 2013.