From the April 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler
A trek to Everest base camp has the benefits—without the dangers—of going to the top.
We're making our way along a narrow mountain trail high in the Himalaya—four yaks, three Sherpas, climber Pete Athans (who has summited Mount Everest six times), and me—when I ask myself, "Which of us doesn't belong in this group?" Looking up, I see peaks scraping the clouds some three miles overhead; glancing down, over the edge, I see an abyss, where one misstep would send me plummeting several thousand feet. And I have only myself to blame for being here.
I wanted a trip that would let me, with my limited technical climbing skills, rub elbows with world-class mountaineers embarked on serious expeditions. I wanted a taste of the adrenaline and danger without the extreme risks. Trekking to Everest base camp—and no higher—sharing tents, tea, and tall tales with those headed up, seemed the perfect solution.
Mount Everest is not the most difficult mountain to climb, but at 29,035 feet, it's the tallest, and that's what makes it for many the holy grail of adventure. For me, the adventure begins in Kathmandu, when Athans takes me to the Rum Doodle Bar, not for a stiff shot of courage but for inspiration. There, on wooden panels behind the bar, are the signatures of most of the people who've climbed Everest, including the first two: Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, who summited in 1953. It's a reminder of whose footsteps we will be following (as far as base camp, that is).
The next morning we fly from Kathmandu to the mountain village of Namche Bazaar at 11,286 feet. Now all that lies between us and the world's most famous high-altitude campground are some 20 miles of trail, six thousand feet of elevation, and seven days of exertion and acclimatizing—oh, and several thrill rides posing as swinging bridges. The most spectacular one spans a deep, wide gorge with a startling view of Mount Ama Dablam, assuming you can take your eyes off this precariously hung, Boy Scout-engineering-project-style bridge with about a third of the footboards missing. On the plus side, the gaps provide frequent unobstructed views through your feet to the horrible death that awaits, should you fall. Clearly the colorful prayer flags strung along the bridges are not just decorations.
In the middle of this white-knuckle crossing, I think back to the some 200 people whose names are not on the wall at the Rum Doodle: the people who've died on Everest. Until 1973 those killed trying to scale the peak outnumbered those who made it up and back alive. Such morbid thoughts come with my uncertainty over how many more rivers I must cross and exactly what other challenges await. My wife's parting words as I left home linger as well: "If you call from Everest to say you're trapped on the mountain, about to die, and you just want to say goodbye, I'll come over there and kill you myself." I suggest her threat is viciously redundant but reiterate my promise to climb only as high as base camp.
Our first day of trekking takes us to 12,680 feet and the famous Tengboche Monastery, where a Buddhist lama blesses us for a safe journey. No Sherpa, or climber from any country, no matter what their own religious beliefs, would approach Everest without this special blessing. Getting into the spirit of the culture, I also find myself frequently repeating the Buddhist mantra Om mani padme hum to settle my nerves. Occasionally, to break the tension with humor, I chant to the group, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...."
Okay, that overstates the risks of trekking to base camp. The valley's actual name is Khumbu, and nobody's died yet, not this year, anyway. But reminders of danger are everywhere, even on the tip of my left index finger, where an oximeter is flashing numbers that would get me admitted to any emergency room back in the United States. My pulse is at 145 beats per minute; my blood oxygen is at 80 to 85 percent (ideal is 95 to 100). Consequently, I'm gasping like an emphysema patient as we walk.
"Walk" is a generous characterization of my pace on this steep section of trail. The problem is elevation. We're above 16,000 feet, with the air getting thinner with every step we take. When we reach base camp, at 17,585 feet, the air will have only half the oxygen we get at sea level. Low air pressure and less oxygen can cause altitude sickness and pulmonary or cerebral edema, a potentially deadly buildup of fluid in the lungs or brain, respectively.
I arrive at base camp with a lesser affliction: The inside of my lower lip is severely sunburned. My body was so oxygen starved that I climbed with my mouth wide open. As I tried to gulp bigger chunks of air, my lower lip was exposed to ultraviolet rays for hours. So, for my first afternoon in base camp, my lips look like Mick Jagger's and my body feels like Keith Richards'.
The used and abused feeling quickly gives way to euphoria, when I look around and realize, "We're here!" My tent is pitched at the foot of the Khumbu icefall, along the most traveled route to the summit of Everest. And I've arrived on my birthday. Erik Weihenmayer, who in a few weeks will become the first blind climber to summit Everest, invites our group to join his team for dinner that night. At the end of the meal I'm surprised to learn it's possible to bake a birthday cake this high up. I thank Weihenmayer and the group for putting only one candle on the cake, since I'm not even close to being acclimated enough to blow out my age.
The next day we tour base camp, meeting the climbing teams who will make their home here for the next several weeks, preparing for the ascent they hope will take them to the top of the world. It's almost like a family reunion for Athans and other Everest veterans. One of his friends who's here, Sherpa Appa, holds the record for successful Everest summit attempts—19.
I ask every climber we meet what going through the icefall is like. The icefall is a notorious, 2,000-vertical-foot stretch of glacier that looks like it was sculpted by dynamite. The glacier buckles, shifts, and moves several feet a day, creating a fragile labyrinth of giant ice blocks, crevasses, and ice towers that climbers surmount using a series of ladders and ropes. It's considered one of the most dangerous parts of the ascent of one of the world's deadliest mountains. And this is what's best about trekking to Everest base camp: You don't have to enter the danger zone yourself, but you've done enough heavy breathing to share some tea at the table with those willing to put their lives on the line.
And, as I had hoped, you can share some tea and listen to climbing war stories in the shadow of the mountain where the battles took place.
Contributing editor Boyd Matson hosts National Geographic Weekend on radio.