To mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Sir Edmund Hillary – the first person to reach the summit of Mount Everest – James Draven hikes to Everest Base Camp to see how achievable it is for the average client.
Oh, my God!” splutters my guide, Shanker, his face blanching as he examines the readings of a medical device clipped to my index finger.
The oximeter is designed to measure pulse rate and blood oxygen levels and – here at 5,000 metres – the air is so thin that even pulling on your hiking boots might render you breathless. In fact, there’s only 50% of the oxygen in the atmosphere here as there is at sea level, and just wriggling into my sleeping bag each night has left me feeling like I’ve out-sprinted Usain Bolt in the 100 metres. And, right now, I feel terrible.
I’m in a teahouse (one of many basic hotels which provide beds but not fresh bedding, hence the sleeping bag) in Lobuche, one of the last village stops on the trail to Everest Base Camp.
My head is pounding, and I’m feeling dizzy and nauseous. These are all symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS), a potentially fatal condition that can affect anyone at extreme altitude – from older, inactive clients right through to the young and super-fit. Over 5,000 metres above sea level, pretty much everyone experiences some mild symptoms of it, from sleeplessness to irritability.
Panicking, I crane my neck to look at the electronic display, anxious about what I might see, but Shanker whips the device from my outstretched digit and curses under his breath. I’ve really not trained for this adventure, and perhaps I’m about to pay the price.
“What’s the matter?” I ask Shanker, my heartbeat thumping fast in my ears.
The tight-lipped, 5ft-tall G Adventures guide looks at me and solemnly shakes his head.
“Battery’s flat,” he says, and indicates the blank display which, it turns out, has told him nothing at all about my immediate wellbeing.
While your average client might assume they’re not fit enough to hike this classic adventure trail, trekking to Everest Base Camp is a bucket-list experience for many.
My group ranges from an 18-year-old German fitness instructor who treats her body with the reverence afforded to the temples we pass along the way (and occasionally stops at them to take snaps of herself doing high-altitude yoga poses); to a 54-year-old Glaswegian football fanatic with a slight limp who fuels his entire trip with chips and Coca-Cola.
In total, my hiking group consists of 13 strangers brought together for the first time on this G Adventures trip. Just four of the group are women, and the average age is around 40.
Fitness levels vary greatly, and pre-existing injuries in the party include dodgy knees, gammy ankles and clicky hips. I’m relatively injury-free, but I seem to be the only member of the party
who is at all concerned about failing to make it to Base Camp.
“It’s about being strong in here,” Shanker tells me, tapping a finger against his forehead.
“You will get to Base Camp,” he assures me as I sit in the freezing dining room of the Lobuche teahouse, downing paracetamol, “as long as you believe you can…”
Everest spans two countries: Nepal to the south and Chinese Tibet to the north. The North Base Camp is much more accessible to non-hikers because it can be reached by car, along a paved road.
However, China infamously closed its Base Camp in early 2019 due to the amount of rubbish that had accumulated on their side of Everest, and visitors to the Chinese side are now prohibited from travelling beyond Rongbuk Monastery, a little below North Base Camp.
The Nepal side has always been more popular with travellers because of its mix of challenge, adventure, rich culture, stunning scenery, and those all-important bragging rights that you made it to Base Camp on foot.
Outside the window of my teahouse, the white incisors of the Himalayan range rise from the bleak, barren landscape and radiate their terrible beauty against a yawning indigo eternity. It’s impossible not to feel tiny and insignificant up here, far from civilisation, above the tree line, alone with that all-encompassing, dispassionate rock that looms above. I feel those jagged teeth will chew me up and spit me out.
And then, from the other end of our long dining table, I hear Andy – wrapped in his beloved Liverpool FC scarf – singing his football club’s anthem to himself. “Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart, and you’ll ne-e-e-ever wa-a-alk a-lone.”
I catch his eye while the oximeter – clipped back onto my finger, complete with fresh batteries – confirms that I’m fine and that my blood oxygen level is within the expected range at such altitude. He smiles and winks, waggling a chip at me by way of salute, and I laugh, at that moment very glad not to be undertaking this walk alone.
Shanker Bhattrai, chief experience officer, G Adventures
Do clients need to be fit to do this trek?
Yes, it’s important to be healthy, but the most important thing when attempting the hike to Everest Base Camp is to be confident, to believe you can do it. A lot of people feel like they have AMS when they do not. If you’re not confident you cannot make Base Camp.
How has the closure of the Chinese Base Camp affected Nepal?
The Nepal route has got a little bit busier because Tibet is closed, and we have a few more Chinese visitors, but it’s not made a big difference. We don’t have a problem with rubbish on our trails because we have bins along the route that are regularly emptied, and the waste is carried back down on the backs of sherpas.
What gear will clients need to pack?
Me! Seriously, the most important thing is to travel with experienced leaders and guides.
Even the most independent clients will find it best to hike Everest Base Camp with a tour group.
Completing the trek requires booking around two weeks’ accommodation, changing hotel nearly every night (except on days when you stay put to acclimatise to altitude). Going it alone would mean clients hiring their own guides and porters to carry luggage; organising local flights from Kathmandu to and from Lukla, the world’s most dangerous airport; and researching how best to ascend to avoid altitude sickness.
With all of these moving parts – and with quite a physical and mental challenge ahead of your clients – it makes sense to book with a tour operator like G Adventures. They handle all the logistics and planning and also provide travelling companions like Andy to keep spirits up when the exhaustion, cold and altitude inevitably get trekkers down.
Leaden-limbed, sucking at the thin air in quick, great gasps, I’m among the last of our group to arrive at Everest Base Camp. I trudge toward the outstretched hand of Pericles, a super-fit, vegan, Greek-born Londoner, aged 30.
He’s one of my hiking companions and he’s sat on a rock, puffing heavily at the oxygen-poor atmosphere, offering me an exhausted high five as a celebratory finishing point at the zenith of our two-week trekking trip. Beside him, perched on another boulder entirely supported by glacial ice, I find our 18-year-old fitness instructor with her head in her hands, breathless, a splitting headache temporarily keeping her from her planned routine of Instagram poses.
Of course, 54-year-old Andy was the first to arrive. While the rest of us spend our first moments here recovering after eight full days of hiking across Nepal’s swinging bridges, along vertiginous cliff edges and through trails of pine and rhododendrons, to these bleak-but-utterly-beautiful landscapes, Andy is casually strolling around at the base of the world’s highest mountain as if he were roaming the terraces of his beloved Anfield.
He grins at me and knocks back a long gulp of cola, apparently unfazed by altitude, his personal batteries still fully charged. I congratulate him on his epic achievement.
“I never doubted for a second I’d make it,” says Andy, beaming against a backdrop of fluttering prayer flags and snow-clad peaks.
And it’s his unwavering self-belief that really powered him – and us, his companions – up to this pinnacle of achievement.
Book it: G Adventures’ Everest Base Camp Trek starts from £1,019pp for a 15-day tour, including internal flights and accommodation but excluding external flights.
For more information visit: gadventures.co.uk
Smarter: The price of electricity for charging cameras and phones rockets as clients ascend in altitude, with some teahouses charging around $10 for a full charge. Suggest clients pack a solar charging panel that clips to their daypacks and recharges their devices as they hike.
Better: G Adventures also runs a Delhi to Kathmandu itinerary, which takes in the highlights of Northern India before visiting Nepal’s Chitwan national park. This is a great way to see more of this part of the world while ascending in altitude slowly for the whole trip.
Fairer: 100% of the services used to create G Adventures’ itinerary are locally owned, which has a positive impact on the local economy. The operator also supports Nepalese projects such as SASANE, which works to combat human trafficking by training survivors as paralegals.
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G Adventures is the world's largest small-group adventure travel company, offering more than 700 tours in 100 different countries, and service levels to meet all tastes, ages and budgets.