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Published on Friday, October 28, 2016

Trekking to Everest Base Camp

Heather Richardson, marketing and editorial manager at luxury travel and safari specialist Jacada Travel, won a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the the famous base camp at the foot of Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain. The trip was put together by the Family Holiday Association and adventure travel company Exodus. Here's how she got on...


"Looking up, I could see the colourful prayer flags fluttering just a few metres above me at the top of the pyramid of black rocks. A handful of climbers sat quietly admiring the early morning view. I was so close, but every step upwards was a huge effort. My head felt like I'd just woken up from a heavy night of tequila drinking, my stomach was flipping around dangerously and all I could think about was finding a rock large enough to crouch behind. I paused, collecting myself for the final exertion.

I was moments from the summit of Kala Patthar (5,454m), the highest point we reached on our Exodus trek through the Himalaya to Everest Base Camp. The day before, on our eighth day of hiking, we'd arrived at the iconic Base Camp (5,335m) in the valley at the foot of the terrifying and notoriously dangerous Khumbu icefall. We had a celebratory group photo at the prayer flags that marked Base Camp (there were no tents, as Everest climbing season is in the spring), but I couldn't really relax for knowing that the next morning I had to be up at 4.30am to climb even higher.

The trek had started with us flying into Lukla, a tiny airstrip unnerving located on the edge of a cliff. At first, our tiny DHC-6 Twin Otter had to turn back to Kathmandu due to there being too much cloud cover. When our second attempt a few hours later proved successful, I could see why the weather was so important: get the landing wrong and you'll end up crashing into the cliff face or missing the short runway entirely.

From Lukla (2,800m), we hiked through the lush Himalayan valley following the white Dudh Kosi (Milk River), part of the highest river system in the world and one that eventually leads to the glaciers at the foot of Everest. Mist hung over the valley and we could hear the dull clanging of yak bells in the fields as we walked. We criss-crossed the ice-white, rushing river on bridges suspended high above the water, draped in prayer flags, making our ways through the Himalaya, gradually hiking upwards.

At night, we stayed in teahouses: simple lodges dotted along the trail. We'd been warned that the conditions and food would be basic, but most of us were surprised that the teahouses were far more comfortable than we expected. The food in particular was much more substantial than I'd anticipated, especially given that everything has to be carried up by yaks, dzopkes (a cross between a yak and a cow), donkeys or porters.

Many of the teahouses we stayed in had giant metal solar cookers outside, funded by Exodus' Himalayan Community Support Fund. One of the positives of travelling with Exodus was the responsible way in which they operate in Nepal, something even more important in the wake of 2015's catastrophic earthquake, which literally shook many communities to the ground. It was a relief to see tourism in the country flourishing, with plenty of trekkers on the trail to Everest Base Camp and many tourists visible in the capital Kathmandu.

As we hiked above the tree line, the terrain became more otherworldly. At one point, we trekked through a valley littered with giant granite rocks. The river slowed from frothy rapids to a fast-flowing stream of clear glacial water. Even as the greenery faded, there were still spots of colour: delicate lilac and magenta flowers bloomed from the rocky ground even above 5,000m; lakes glittered turquoise; and pink, rotund rosefinches fluttered through the valley around Everest Base Camp.

The altitude - the biggest struggle trekkers usually face on the journey - had not affected me until the morning we climbed Kala Patthar, culminating in that moment just beneath the summit. After a few more minutes of scrambling over the large rocks, picking out the easiest route I could find upwards, I finally made it to the top.

Kala Patthar is known for affording superb views of Everest and its neighbouring peaks, most of which dwarf Kala Patthar, making it seem more like a hill in this land of skyscrapers. My exhaustion seemed rather pathetic as I looked up to the frosted mountaintops, snow blanketing perilous, deep crevasses in the rock. I really recognised what a feat it is to climb these giants.

Earlier in the morning, the mist had been so thick we'd barely been able to see beyond the person in front, but as we climbed higher and the sun rose, the fog lifted. Everest revealed herself for a brief moment, before the clouds hurried to conceal the iconic peak. Down below, I could see jade green glacial lakes and the meringue-like ice of the Khumbu glacier that we'd followed the day before as we walked to Base Camp. Nupse's pointed peak (7,861m) glimmered in the morning sunshine against a blue sky.

On the way down, we got a good view of the sandy plain, which had been site of the world's highest cricket match (until it was topped by a match played on the slopes of Kilimanjaro in 2014). Navigating the steep decline, my altitude-related complaints gave way to a pain that I'd been determinedly ignoring for the past couple of days. Once we finally reached the teahouse for breakfast, I let a fellow trekker who happened to be a doctor unwrap my left little toe to reveal an abscess that had swollen to revolting proportions. Our head guide Tenzing swiftly left the room as she set about squeezing it out and telling me off for not looking at it sooner, before putting me on some out-of-date antibiotics we found in the medical kit with a dose of codeine.

On our way back to Lukla, we found there were still plenty of uphill stretches; 'undulating' was Tenzing's favourite word. But everyone was in high spirits, the hard work of the trek having been achieved and every 100m we dropped making everything a little bit easier. Instead of spending our nights sensibly going to bed early, we danced to terrible Nepalese music with our guides and enjoyed a few well-deserved Everest beers. Much of the conversation was about the meals we'd have back in Kathmandu, most of us settling on steak after nearly two weeks of going meat-free in the mountains.

Trekking to Everest Base Camp is tough, but rewardingly so. Around every corner is another sublime vista. Hiking in a small group means you can buoy each other up on difficult days and enjoy the team comradery. For many desk-bound workers, it's an antidote to office life and a chance to distance yourself from the everyday, even if just for a short time. Finally, the trekking industry in Nepal is of enormous importance to the local communities who heavily rely on tourism, which makes every penny you spend out there thoroughly worth it."


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