To Everest Base Camp, Nepal, South China Morning Post
It’s not only global warming that has made a difference to Everest Base Camp. Lined with eco-lodges, gourmet coffee shops and a few luxury touches, a high altitude trek in the Himalayas has more surprises than one may at first imagine.
Intrigued by the prospect of room service at 5,500m, I find myself in a twin prop plane flying high above Nepal en route to the start of the trekking trail. Outside, the sky is a brilliant bald blue and the polished face of Mount Everest is preparing for the arrival of yet another plane-load of wide-eyed hikers, who after landing at Lukla’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport will tirelessly tread up and down – and up again – through its foothills to see the world’s tallest mountain at sunrise. I can see dozens of smudged white peaks and it strikes me as a region largely untouched by human ambition, but one of endless prospect. It’s only a fleeting glimpse, but the view from the window captures the Himalayas in all their serene, timeless beauty. It is 7am on day one of my trip to the roof of the world.
Taking around 14 days to complete – depending on walking pace – the high altitude trek from Lukla to Everest Base Camp at 5,364m, and the famed Kala Patthar viewpoint at 5,545m, is the world’s most famous hike. Unlike the days of the early pioneers Sir Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay and Heinrich Harrer, who were inspired by mountains simply “because they are there”, today’s walk is an increasingly luxurious and leisurely hike – and trekkers are spoiled with an array of amenities and services.
While passing through Lukla on the first section leading to Namche Bazar, I notice a German Bakery, an Internet café and an Irish pub. To complete the upmarket feel, there is a pool hall, a cocktail lounge, a massage parlour and a Starbucks coffee shop. Some parts of suburban New York or London don’t even have one of those. But this is the first of many tangible signs over the coming days that the Mount Everest region in Eastern Nepal is not what it once was – and the inner battle is easier to endure – with a freshly brewed café latte and hot croissant to hand.
“The trail has completely changed since before when I first started as a porter,” says my Sherpa guide Ram Thapa, who works for the exclusive Nepal Hiking Team – part of a breed of elite Kathmandu-based trekking agencies. He dons a black puff North Face jacket and a hand-knitted grey hat pulled down to his ears – perhaps a pre-warning for the bitter nights that lay ahead. “Today, there are much more options for those with money.”
He’s not wrong: companies now offer more than just porters to carry luggage, hot meals and pre-assembled tents. Beyond chartering a private plane in Kathmandu to circle around the mountain and the neighbouring peaks of Lhotse (8,516m), Makalu (8,463m), and Choyu (8,201m), with the right access you can telephone your family using Skype, order room service, pre-book piping hot showers, and have priority access to bottles of oxygen to help you on your way. Not content with that, you could reserve a private bathroom or a comfortable double bed with crisp white cotton linens. If any further proof were needed that the trail is firmly on the VIP ‘bucket list’, ex-US president Jimmy Carter beat the path to base camp, stopping off at the Khumbu Lodge teahouse for photos, while British-born TV daredevil Bear Grylls made it all the way to the very top.
Inspired by such heroics, I suck in the glacial air, lace up my boots and head north. As the days pass – and the grasses changes to rock and the snowline creeps closer – I sense a conscious environmental change in the valleys of the Khumbu region. Propped up outside one of the first teahouses I pass rests a solar-power heating system. Used to sterilise and UV-filter glacial water and heat the shower blocks, it’s as ecologically advanced as any luxury camp you could find in Alaska or on the Masai Mara. The difference being that this was all carried up by hand.
Whether down to a demanding clientele or not, locals have been quick to embrace this development and the rustic life lived out by their ancestors for thousands of years, now sits side-by-side with modern-day advances. By the time I reach Khumjung, I come to recognise the time-honoured Mani stones – carved with the Tibetan mantra Om Mani Padme Hum – that line village walls, but also posters for responsible trekking on teahouse walls, state-of-the-art water systems, and solar heaters.
On my sixth day, I reach the small shoebox village of Gokyo – home to the world’s highest bookshop at 4,970m. Stocked with everything from George Orwell, Salman Rushdie and J D Salinger to modern day thriller writers like Stieg Larsson, it’s almost as surprising as the world’s highest internet café in the neighbouring valley. I am higher than a sky-diver, but I’m still connected enough to catch up with friends in Hong Kong and Singapore.
The following morning, clanging bells awake the teahouse as mule and yak caravans rattle their way through the cluster of lodges – it is an unwelcome 6am alarm clock. Rising like a reluctant dawn – both bleary-eyed and bandy-legged, I am greeted by Ram’s indelible smile. “The mountains are within touching distance now,” he chides. “Just one more day to go.” Like a real pro, for the past week he has risen at 4.30am.
Finally, on day eight we reach Kala Patthar, a black mountain spur that is strung from all sides by rows of prayer flags in red, blue, green and yellow triangles and squares. Shortly after 6am, my fellow trekkers hush and the sun rises from behind Everest in the eastern sky. It is a majestic fanfare of light and snow that opens up to reveal a 180 degree panorama that makes every step and stagger worthwhile. And that is as far as I my adventure can take me: only the well-heeled can afford the $60,000 climbing permit to realise their ambition of reaching the summit.
On my return to Lukla several days later, I swap stories with fellow hikers at the Shangri-La Hotel of finding wood-fired pizzas and Italian Lavazza blends on menus more than 4,000m above sea level. Despite these monumental upgrades for a part of the world as remote as this, it is the enduring scope of the mountains that is the real reward. Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, surrounded by a symphonic wall of ice, rock and snow, would still be in their element. Regardless of which type of coffee they drank.