It’s hard to imagine any other trek that offers as much classic Himalayan scenery step after step, day after day, than the trek to the foot of Mt. Everest.
I began the journey with the intent of self-discovery and to experience the thrill of making one of the most famous journeys to the bottom of the top of the world. For some, this was just the beginning of their real journey to the top of the world and for others a memorable lifetime experience.
Two months before the trip we got to know all Kolkata-Kathmandu tickets were sold out and Kathmandu-Lukla tickets were very unpredictable. Lukla was to be the the starting point of my trek. Somehow, we managed both flight tickets through an Air India contact and reached Kathmandu safely.
The journey begins
I tried negotiating an early flight next day to Lukla at the Yeti Airlines office in Thamel but as fate would have it we were told Lukla airport was closed due to bad weather. Three hours later, the weather Gods took pity on our group and we boarded the aircraft. Yeti is the most sought after domestic airline in Nepal. They operate Twin Otters and cover most of the country. There are no seat numbers on the boarding pass. Everyone gets a window seat but the front row is out of the world, you almost get to fly the aircraft yourself with an open door policy with the cockpit. Perhaps this way it’s safer, at least the passengers get a chance to help if the pilots have problems or maybe the huddled crowd behind their back gets to see with which mountain we are headed for collision. Either way, my blood pressure was about to hit the red.
The approach to Lukla airport is exciting and somewhat unnerving, down a steep-sided valley for about ten minutes as the pilot manually positions the machine. It is followed by a sharp left turn and dive at a steep angle straight at a cliff, or so it seems at first as the screaming engines roar their protest, a sound reminiscent of diving planes in all those old war movies. Landing is quite wobbly with the aircraft constantly tilting both ways as the plane levels out and touches down with a thud against the incline with a spontaneous applause from all on board and you hear your own sigh of relief. Built under instructions of Edmund Hillary, the first mountaineer to reach the summit of the Everest, along with Tenzing Norgay, Lukla is a unique airstrip, at 3500 m altitude, whose runway, measuring barely 375 m, is at an incline of about 10 degrees with the take off side more than 100 ft lower than the other, ending in an endless abyss beyond that.
Right beyond the tarmac once you have rounded up your equipment & baggage, you get to choose from a crowd of porters at prefixed per day rates. Once done with the basics our trek started finally. Over the next few days we trekked from Lukla to Monjo – Phakding – Namche Bazaar – Tangboche – Dingboche – Dugla – Lobuche – Gorakshep and then to the base camp. You get a chance to recoup your energy every evening in a cosy woodden lodge and steaming hot food at a bit steep price, but at least you don’t have to carry your own provisions & tents. But the Everest peak is viewed best if you climb on top of Kala Pathhar, a small hill, near Gorakshep. We reached the top of Kalapathhar on the ninth day.
What is Everest About ?
And there it was in all it’s glory the highest mountain of our planet. I realised my moment of truth standing in front of this huge piece of earth that rose from the sea.
In the beginning there was no Mt Everest and no Himalayas, only a vast stretch of shallow sea . Fossils of marine life , although deformed & difficult to recognise, have been found at heights above 26,000 ft in the Himalayan chain. Mt Everest, like the rest of the Himalayas, rose from the floor of the ancient Tethys Sea. Eventually the marine limestone was forced upward to become the characteristic yellow band on the top of Mount Everest. Beneath the shallow marine rock lies the highly metamorphosed black gneiss (foliated, or layered, rock) of the Precambrian era, a remnant of the original continental plates that collided and forced up the Himalayas. It’s covered with huge glaciers that descend from the main peak and its nearby satellite peaks.
The mountain itself is a pyramidshaped horn, sculpted by the erosive power of the glacial ice into three massive faces and three major ridges, which soar to the summit from the north, south, and west and separate the glaciers. But how tall is the highest? First perhaps to gauge the summit’s enormity was the ‘chief computer’ at the office of the great Trigonometrical Survey of India’ – Radhanath Sikhdar had reckoned in 1852 that peak XV at 29,002 ft was higher than hithero measured. In 1865, at the suggestion of the surveyor general Sir Andrew Waugh, peak XV was renamed Mount Everest in honour of his predecessor Sir George during whose tenure (1829 – 43) the peak was surveyed.
Stories of Conquests
The hike is made more exciting as the sherpas recount numerous stories about all the attempts, successful or otherwise. The first seven attempts on Everest, starting with a reconnaissance in 1921, approached the mountain from Tibet, where a route to the summit via the North Col and North Ridge seemed possible. On 6th June 1924 two British climbers 38 year old George Mallory and 22 year old Andrew Irvine were on the North Col at 23,100 ft poised to make a push for the summit. They were kitted out in the typical climbing outfits of the time, heavy wool, flannel and wind proof gabardine. Their footwear was leather boots and woollen socks. In addition to their personal gear they carried cumbersome oxygen equipment weighing close to 12 kg. After a breakfast of tinned sardines, biscuits , tea & hot chocolate, Mallory & Irvine had set off, looking to reach the summit in three days. Following well behind in support was expedition geologist Noel Odell. After spending the night of June 7 at Camp 5, Mallory & Irvine pushed on to Camp 6 at 27,00 ft, barely 2000 ft below the summit. They left their camp early the next morning heading for the top. Odell last sighted them on June 8 at 12.50 pm. He estimated they were at the daunting second step, a steep wall of rock at around 28,000 ft. The two were about 4 hours behind schedule but Odell said “I could see that they were moving expeditiously as if endeavouring to make up for lost time”. Then the clouds closed in, the weather began to deteriorate and Mallory & Irvine were lost to legend, leaving behind a perennial debate if they had made it to the top. Had the most prized peak in mountaineering already been touched by the time Hillary and Tenzing got there in May 1953 ? No one has the definite answer.
The Debate Rages on
In 1933, an ice axe was found along the route at 27,760 ft, later identified as Irvine’s. Forty years on , in 1975 a Chinese climber stumbled on a body about 750 ft below where the axe had lain. Could that have been the body of Andrew Irvine? The only evidence to support the idea that the two had indeed made the summit would be on film in the Kodak pocket camera that Mallory carried. Find the camera & one could hope to see a summit photo. On the 75th anniversary of their disappearance, an expedition set out to find the bodies of the two & hopefully the missing camera.
The quest of this 1999 Mallory & Irvine research expedition was the El Dorado of climbing mysteries. The expedition was led by Eric Simonson. The story began on 1st May 1999 as they crossed a vertiginous snow terrace on the north face towards fellow expedition member Conrad Anker. They had been searching for less than two hours when at Anker’s feet was a body, its torso alabaster white & almost perfectly preserved. The area they were combing was above 26,000 ft. A white snow terrace the size of 12 football fields, its 30 degree slope ending in a 7,000 ft drop to the central Rongbuk glacier below. Yet here was the corpse, lying fully extended, face down & pointing uphill. As they stood there, this mute but strangely peaceful body was giving them answers to the question that everyone had been asking for three quarters of a century. The hobnailed boots were the give away. No climber had died at this altitude between 1924 and 1938. But as the camera still has not been found, the debate rages on.
The First Proven Conquest
The New Zealander Edmund Hillary and the Nepali Sherpa Tenzing Norgay are credited for being the first humans to reach the summit on May 29, 1953. Since then, many other individuals have sought to be the first at various other accomplishments on Everest, including many alternative routes on both the north and south sides. Italy’s Reinhold Messner has climbed Everest twice without oxygen, once in four days. He is also the first to solo climb Everest, which he did in 1980. Ten years earlier, Yuichiro Miura of Japan had been the first person to descend the mountain on skis. In 1975, Junko Tabei, also Japanese, became the first woman to climb Everest. The first disabled person to attempt the Everest was American Tom Whittaker, who climbed with a prosthetic leg to 24,000 feet in 1989, 28,000 feet in 1995, and finally reached the summit in 1998. The first blind man to reach the summit was Erik Weihenmayer in 2001. The record for most ascents belongs to Sherpa Ang Rita, who has reached the summit 10 times.
In all, more than 600 climbers from 20 countries have reached the summit by various routes from both north and south. Climbers’ ages have ranged from 19 to 60 years. At least 150 people have perished, most commonly by avalanches, falls in crevices, exposure to extreme cold, or the effects of thin air. Climbing on the Everest is strictly regulated by both the Nepalese and Chinese governments. Permits cost thousands of U.S. dollars, and are difficult to obtain, and waiting lists extend for years.
Treks to Everest base camp, minus the summit attempt, are becoming increasingly popular on both the north and south sides of the mountain. Not forgetting this was the same mountain I was staring at was also witness to tragic dramas . The 1996 Everest disaster refers to a single day, May 11 1996, when eight people died on Everest during summit attempts. In the entire season, fifteen people died trying to reach the summit, making it the deadliest year in history. The disaster gained wide publicity and raised questions about the commercialisation of Everest.
The hike back to Lukla from Gorakshep was quite pleasant. The body, though a bit tired, was very well acclimatised. Amidst all the thrilling history I got exposed to from fellow travellers and local sherpas, it felt really good to know that every human who had succeeded in climbing atophad gone up and came back down the same path, had stayed in these small hamlets, breathed the same crisp mountain air and dreamt the same, experiencing Everest closely. Not being a mountaineer the base camp and Kalapathhar was as close as I could get as a trekker and was taking back a lifelong experience to cherish.
How to reach
Fly to Kathmandu from India, which is well connected with all the major cities. From Kathmandu, it is a 25 minutes flight to Lukla airport at 9,000 ft. Domestic Nepal airlines like Yeti and Agni air flies to Lukla. The trek starts from Lukla.
Where To Stay
This is a unique trail with lodges called tea houses are available with comfortable stay and steaming food at all night halts from Lukla to Gorak Shep. One need not stay in tents unless one wants to.