One Everest Base Camp Trek is not Enough
Although the flight from Kathmandu to Lukla is often called the most dangerous in the world, on a good day, when the weather is clear, this the nerve-wracking fact is easily forgotten. Coasting above verdant hills, winding dusty tracks, small scattered villages and through wisps of cloud vapour, the flight is ethereal. That is, until the landing approaches and you’re faced with the reality that you are flying at—rather than above or around—a mountain at a breakneck speed. What would be my words of comfort to a nervous flier who was considering trekking in the Solukhumbu region? That flights land safely far more often than they crash, and that the views and the destination are worth the risk.
The Everest Base Camp trek is one of the most popular multi-day treks in Nepal and for good reason. The full trek (which takes around 20 days) passes through Sherpa towns and past Tibetan monasteries, mani stones whose shapes echo the mountains, prayer wheels so large that they take our full body-weight to turn, ice-cold rivers and the world’s highest suspension bridge, mossy forests and bare, high-altitude rock-scapes. And of course, views of the highest mountains in the world, Everest and Ama Dablam the most spectacular among them.
I am often asked, now that I am considered somewhat of a ‘veteran’, whether the EBC trek is difficult. Once, I was one of those people who asked that question of others. ‘Difficulty’ is a relative term, but for someone who is reasonably fit—of whatever age—the trek is certainly a challenge, but a manageable one. As on any high-altitude trek (considered to be anything above 2500-3000 metres), it is not a good idea to do too much, too quickly. So most days’ walk on the trail is no more than four or five hours.
The exception is the longer first day, from Lukla. At the end of this ‘easy’ 7-8 hour day of walking, it was a treat to arrive at the Everest Summit Lodge in Monjo. Not your average tea-houses, these high-end accommodations include comforts that seasoned trekkers are not exactly used to seeing: a steaming hot welcome towel, tea and cake; comfy beds with crisp white linen and electric blankets; art on the walls; attentive wait-staff…and even hot showers! For the hardy traveller who might dismiss these luxuries as unnecessary in the world’s highest mountains, I reply that recovery from a hard day’s walk and rejuvenation for the next day’s is a whole lot easier when you’ve slept warmly and comfortably, and had a chance to wash off the sweat and dust.
This accommodation was some of the fanciest along the trail, but there is no shortage of lodges. In fact, almost every building we passed—especially as we neared the ‘major’ town of Namche Bazaar—was geared up for tourism in some way. Members of my group who had first trekked in Nepal ten, twenty years ago were amazed by how much it had changed. Few buildings are what could be considered ‘local’ or ‘traditional’, and almost every single one was roofed in a primary-coloured tin, with prominent advertisements in English and other European languages.
A standout exception is Khangba Ngingba, “the oldest Sherpa house in the heart of Namche”, which lies on the further edge of town if leaving Namche and heading towards EBC. The two-story stone house is over 150 years old and has been painted white, with dark wooden window frames and the obligatory prayer flags strung around the exterior. Although it is set up like a museum, the house is still lived in by Meena Sherpa, wife of the ancestral owners of the house. Trekkers pass through Namche for the mountain views and don’t expect to encounter such ‘cultural’ attractions. But Khangba Ngingba is a real gem, and worth a short visit while in Namche.
My group trekked just the first five days of the full route—from Lukla to Pangboche—and then circuited the Gokyo Lakes and Base Camp itself in a helicopter, which then took us all the way back to Kathmandu. We did it the ‘easy’ way, not trekking higher than 4000 metres, and not needing to retrace our steps back down the mountains and valleys. The high altitude helicopter rides were a thrill seeking traveller’s dream-come-true, but with this shortcut came a lesser sense of achievement, a nagging feeling that there will need to be a ‘next time’ to complete the trek.
Evidence of earthquake damage along the EBC trekking route was minimal. It wasn’t necessarily that there had been no damage, though. My trekking guide, the formidable Everest summiteer Maya Sherpa, explained that the Sherpa people of this region are relatively wealthy because of the region’s long association with tourism, meaning they could afford to rebuild quite quickly. But even so, in the autumn 2015 peak season, visitor numbers were down by around 60 percent.
If this is one of the wealthier regions of Nepal, I asked Maya, wouldn’t that mean that visitors should be encouraged to trek elsewhere in the near future? To share the tourism dollars around to the regions that were worse hit, or unable to rebuild so quickly. I knew that the Langtang Valley, which I had trekked through almost exactly one year before the April 2015 earthquake, had been all but destroyed, and the people there were more desperately in need of help. But Maya explained that Nepal relies heavily on repeat visitors. First-time visitors may be drawn to the country by big-name attractions like the EBC or Annapurna Circuit treks. But then they fall in love with the country, the easygoing people, rich cultures, stunning landscapes and accessible adventure. They vow to return to visit different regions, complete lesser-known treks. In this way, tourism in any region in Nepal has a long-term economic knock-on effects throughout the whole country. My group, on our truncated EBC trek, were not the first or last visitors to long to return to see more, next time.
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