This Way To Everest Base Camp: Trekking In the Khumbu

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.

©istockphoto/Keith MolloyLuk­la: 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.

©istockphoto/sihasakprachumNam­che: 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.

©istockphoto/DanielPrudekTeng­boche: 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.

©istockphoto/fotoVoyagerDing­boche: 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.

©istockphoto/sihasakprachumChuk­pa 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.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/7/70/Gorak_Shep_from_Kala_Patar.jpgGorak­shep: 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.

©istockphoto/PumoriBase Camp
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.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/7/70/Gorak_Shep_from_Kala_Patar.jpgKala 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.