A trek across the Khumbu is more than following in the footsteps of adventurers and mountaineers. It’s a full immersion into Himalayan culture. In the midst of the world’s highest peaks, yak trains traverse precarious suspension bridges adorned with colorful fluttering prayer flags. In simple wooden Sherpa villages where farmers work their terraced farms pulling potato crops, a spicy combination of incense and dried chili pepper fills the air while citadels of glacial ice and rock dwarf the little homes.
For those who visit the Khumbu, the northeastern Nepalese mountain region, only a tiny percentage will ever have the ability to climb in the Himalayas. But to feel humbled and inspired between the mountains is what gives many the motivation to make the nearly 2-week trek to Everest Base Camp, the launching point for Everest expeditions. Nepal and Khumbu have been through a devastating last two years between avalanches and earthquakes. Through knowing the people and the setting where they build their life is to understand just how remarkable this place is.
Lukla: The Cliff Airport: The trail to Everest Base Camp starts in the town of Lukla, following a 30-minute flight from Kathmandu to the airport with its famed runway that ends at the end of a cliff. This small village hosts several lodges and amenities for trekkers with everything from gear shops to Internet cafes. The official trailhead is on the far side of town, and immediately it delves into deep-forested groves and spiraling hills toward the town of Namche Bazaar, the de-facto capital city of the Khumbu.
Namche: The Cultural and Tourist Stop
Namche is the main trading and tourism center of the Everest region. With its streets built into semi-circles, which cascade down the hillside, and dwarfed by the face of Kongde Ri, the town is representative of the Sherpa people, who descend from horse-traders of Tibet. A short hike above the town reveals the famed terraced farms, where residents manage to grow crops despite the dry environment and thin soil. Farther outside of Namche are two towns of note: Thame, which was the childhood home of Tenzing Norgay and Apa Sherpa, who hold the Everest climbing record with 21 successful summits, and the town of Khumjung, which had a school and hospital built as part of Sir Edmund Hillary’s Himalayan Trust Foundation. Being welcomed into these communities, especially the smaller townships, reveals the unique particularities of the Sherpa people.
The hallmark of Sherpa culture is warmth and hospitality. Being invited into a home or a lodge is equivalent to entering ones life and being a part of their being. Along near-endless laughter and song, entering a Sherpa home spurs an automatic offering of food, tea, and conversation. Their jovial nature means they constantly sing or make jokes, most of the time gently at the expense of others. Some base camp residents have remarked that while the mess tent for the climbers is often tense, nervous, and high-strung, the Sherpa tent is more like a party, with long dinners going late into the evening.
Tengboche: The Prayer Flag Village
From Namche, the trail winds uphill towards the monastery of Tengboche, silhouetted spectacularly by the rising face of Ama Dablam. Tengboche is one of the most sacred sites in the Khumbu, as young monks and nuns travel from across Nepal to study in the midst of the mountains. The temple was originally built in 1916, then partially destroyed in the earthquake of 1934 and rebuilt with many of its original books and documents saved. For mountaineers and Sherpa, Tengboche is where climbers ask for spiritual permission to climb the mountain. As some Sherpa put it: You don’t just climb that mountain. The gods who live atop grant you the good fortune to stand on the summit for a few moments. This is a ceremony known as a puja, a reverence and offering to the divine for a good blessing on their journey.
One of the most ubiquitous symbols of the Himalaya are the prayer flags, colorful strips of rectangular cloth that hang from every home, temple, and chorten, a stone tower representing a place of meditation or remembrance. The flags are hung in five colors: blue for sky, red for fire, white for air, green for water, and yellow for earth. The Tibetans believe that the prayers inscribed on the flags spread peace and wisdom across the hills as they are carried by the wind.
Dingboche: Homes Dotting the Mountainside
After leaving Tengboche and trekking under groves of crimson rhododendron flowers, the tree line gradually gives way to glacial moraines, arid desert-like plateaus, and soaring buttresses of rock and ice past the town of Dingboche. Here, tiny communities of stone and wooden homes dot the hills and valleys carved by ancient glaciers, making fertile grazing land for herds of yaks, whose bells echo throughout the gorges.
Above Dingboche, the land is flat and red, marked by spindly trees which stand against the gray granite of the peaks and the hanging glaciers, creating an odd juxtaposition of desert and mountain.
Chukpa Lare: The Memorial Grounds
High on a glacial ridge is one of the most stirring and contemplative places on the trek—the memorial chortens to lost Sherpa and climbers. In the area known as Chukpa Lare, the stones are justifiably placed against the mountains, and prayer flags fly between them, as the wind up here blows almost mournfully between the stones. Sherpa and western climbers are grouped together, with plaques recalling notable names such as Scott Fischer, the Seattle guide lost in the 1996 expedition, and Babu Chiri Sherpa, who summited 10 times and held two speed records before perishing near Camp II in 2001.
The simple stones are a humble reminder of the effect the mountain has on the Sherpa. Typically, as guides and porters, the Sherpa men are the sole providers for the family, and upon death, the insurance only covers the family for a limited amount of time. In the wake of subsequent disasters in 2014 and 2015, gains were made in how the Sherpa are treated and how much money could be allocated to the family upon the death of the patriarch, but it still leaves much to be desired.
Gorakshep: Former Base Camp
The trek continues to Lobuche, a tiny settlement made up of several lodges for trekkers with the peak Nuptse rising dramatically above the village. The trail towards Gorakshep, the lodging area before arriving at base camp, follows parallel to the Khumbu Glacier, which is in a carved valley between the Everest-Lhotse massif. Set in a dry lakebed, Gorakshep was the original base camp up until 1953, when it relocated under the Khumbu Icefall. While there is little to see in the town itself, which is mostly trekker lodges, Gorakshep provides access both to Everest Base Camp and Kala Patthar, the ridge above 18,000-feet which overlooks Everest, Lhotse, and the Khumbu Glacier.
The trail leading to Everest Base Camp descends through a valley flanked by several large peaks, many which consistently release rock-fall and small amounts of snow upon the path. Looking at the landscape, one can see how much effect the avalanche on April 25, 2015, had on base camp and Everest’s lower slopes.
Everest Base Camp is set in a valley between the Everest-Lhoste massif, and the peak known as Pumori. During the climbing season, the base camp is home to expedition teams from around the world, with a population and a tent camp that rivals a small city.
The Sherpa are most prevalent in camp; tending to clients, fixing ropes through the Khumbu Icefall, and ferrying supplies between camps. In the icefall, they are constantly exposed to avalanches, falling seracs, and opening crevasses, since, as an active glacier, the icefall is constantly moving and changing. In 2014, an avalanche broke away from the upper glacier and buried 13 Sherpa who were fixing lines for clients. Less than a year later, when a 7.8 earthquake rocked the country, an avalanche came tumbling down Pumori, hitting Everest Base Camp up to the icefall, taking the lives of 20 Sherpa and western climbers. The two incidents, which forever changed the Sherpa and mountaineer communities, have instituted more regulations on who should be at base camp or on the peak, including requirements of experience, and an increased payout for Sherpa families. In Everest expeditions, the climbers are highly celebrated, but the work of the Sherpa is largely untold and unappreciated.
Kala Patthar: Overlooking the Valley
To truly understand the scale of the valley, the last pilgrimage of the trek is to the top of Kala Patthar, which appears like a black sand dune above Gorakshep. From here, among the fluttering prayer flags, Everest is first hit by sunlight, bathing the entire mountain in a soft glow, and slowly creeping across the icefall and Everest Base Camp. Between the world’s highest mountains, the desolate environment appears alien, with only the colorful tents at base camp showing any sign of inhabitance. But those who inhabit the Khumbu, this is both their office and their home.
Trekking through the Khumbu is more than a life experience. It’s a glimpse into a culture not understood by many. The Khumbu is as much about the people, their homes, and their lives, as it is a place of some of the most adventurous feats in human history. Between the flutter of the flags in the mountains are reminders of living simply and humbly in an extraordinary landscape.