Everest first revealed itself on the second day, after a bout of uphill switchbacks on the hike to Namche Bazaar. Called Sagarmatha in Nepalese and Chomolungma to Tibetans, the highest mountain on our planet sits at 8,848m above sea level – and the first glimpse of it made my spine tingle.
Namche Bazaar is a Sherpa village that acts as the main trade and administrative centre of the Solukhumbu region. When we arrived are looked for a teahouse. Teahouses are the only accommodation along the Everest Base Camp trail and are typically small, family-run lodges comprising basic two-bed dormitories, shared lavatories and a central gathering room that functions as both a reception area and a kitchen. All rooms have thin mattresses accompanied with meagre pillows and are barely illuminated with a single low-wattage light bulb. There are no power outlets and the crude window frames do a lacklustre job of blocking the sub-freezing nighttime gales. I was thankful I had rented a down jacket and a -20°C sleeping bag in Kathmandu.
At an altitude of 3,440m, the air at Namche Bazaar contains only 67% of the oxygen at sea level, and I quickly felt fatigued walking the vast network of stairs within the hilly settlement of 1,600 people. Most hikers spend two nights here to allow their bodies to acclimatise, ourselves included. It’s recommended to limit ascents to 300m a day to ward off altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS), which can occur at altitudes as low as 2,400m. I also took the prescription medication Diamox, which increases the rate at which the body acclimatises. Other advice includes drinking plenty of water (five-plus litres a day), avoiding alcohol, getting plenty of rest and climbing high during the day but descending to a lower altitude to sleep. But for extreme AMS, and the potentially fatal HAPE and HACE, the only cure is to descend immediately. Helicopters in the Khumbu Valley make hourly emergency evacuations, speckling the clear blue skies as they caravan the ill to nearby hyperbaric chambers for treatment, until midday when they’re grounded for poor visibility.
As I trekked higher and deeper into the Himalayas, the environment transformed. The vegetation disappeared as snow-capped massifs consumed me. Trees no longer concealed the mountains’ weathered exteriors, parallel striations hinting at their ferocious geological history. The majestic vistas were ornamented with mani stones carved with Tibetan Buddhist mantras and with strings of colourful Buddhist prayer flags, which fluttered as the gales delivered the believer’s prayers to the mountain gods. The clanking of cowbells cut through the wind giving last minute notice of passing yaks, the region’s well-adapted work animal.
In Dingboche, on our sixth day of the trek, I attempted an acclimatisation hike up Nagaijun Hill (5,050m). A recent drought had left much of the Himalayan soil scorched dry, and the loose ground made traversing the peak hazardous. I was glad to return to the safety of our teahouse where I savoured a pot of Coca tea – a keepsake from previous travels in Peru said to aid the prevention of AMS. I slept well after gorging on a large portion of dal bhat, Nepal’s national dish of rice and cooked lentils, and woke the next morning eager to continue.
After stopping in the scant settlement of Dughla (4,620m) for a small bowl of garlic soup, a local remedy to ward off AMS, we scrambled up a rocky slope for 45 minutes before reaching the Dughla Pass. Here there were dozens of tombstones commemorating people who had perished on Mount Everest over the years. Among the names was Scott Fischer, one of 12 who died during the 1996 disaster. I had just finished reading Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, a chilling account of the events that led to the largest catastrophe on Mount Everest prior to the 2015 earthquake, which killed 24 people at base camp and over 8,000 people in the rest of the country.
We didn’t see any signs of the earthquake along the path, although we did see a large void on the side of a mountain from an avalanche. Tourists have started returning for the 2016 trekking season although the volume has not returned to pre-earthquake levels – it didn’t feel busy along the trails, apart from at the last two lodges where there were only a few to choose from.