The journey to Everest Base Camp in the Himalayas is one of the world's classic treks, taking in some of its greatest natural wonders, including Mount Everest and Ama Dablam. Still served by sherpas aided by working yaks, this historic climbers' stop-off is the destination of a lifetime, and is certainly high enough into the clouds for all but the most experienced climbers. How can you experience the world of pioneers like George Mallory, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay?
The term 'base camp' actually refers to two individual camps: one stationed on the North side of Mount Everest on the Tibetan side; the other on the South side which is part of Nepal. The altitudes of both camps are at 16,900 ft and 17,598 ft respectively; altitudes that allow climbers to acclimatise themselves to the lofty heights of the mountain itself, which towers over the camps at a dizzying 29,029 ft. Most mountaineers take a pit stop here of several days, to allow enough time to avoid the dreaded altitude sickness.
While the camps are there to service the needs of those on their way up, for many visitors North and South base camp represent a destination in themselves, with the breathtaking and vertiginous scenery taking centre stage along the way. This is Sherpa country, and the customs of the ancient people is a big draw for many of those who take the trek. Buddhist culture predominates in this region, and you'll see plenty of colourful flags, prayer wheels, temples and monasteries along the way. The food here is plentiful, delicious and cheap, and the hospitality generally first rate.
March to May and September to December are considered to be the best times of year to make the trek to the Everest base camps. From May onwards the weather becomes very hot, and it's also Monsoon season, which brings frequent spells of heavy rain. The weather turns very cold towards the end of December, which can make the high grounds inaccessible - even if the snowy peaks are said to be at their most beautiful.
The vast majority of those who trek the Himalayan trail choose to do so as part of a group, or at least with an experienced guide or Sherpa, which has several advantages: not only will you have the company of someone who knows the trail back to front, you'll also have your own cook and porter. Better still, the companies that specialise in guides will also arrange your lodgings and airport transfers. While it's not compulsory to hire a guide, we strongly recommend you do so as lone trekkers have on occasion disappeared into the mountains and never returned.
You've planned your route, hired your Sherpa and are getting enormously excited about your journey to Everest. What can you do to make it even more memorable? One way to prepare productively for the experience is to ensure you're in great physical shape by the time you set out with plenty of cardio work, as this will help you adjust to the extremes of height and strenuous exercise that are integral parts of a Himalayan trek. You don't have to expose yourself to high-up places if you don't have any nearby, but plenty of long walks will improve your lung capacity and endurance.
Finally, a small but crucial tip for those planning a Himalayan excursion comes from many of the Sherpa guides whose Western visitors tend to rush through the experience. The tip is to walk "bistari" or slowly, as this is an important step in avoiding altitude sickness. As this blogger recalls, walking too quickly or even at a pace you'd consider perfectly normal back home is likely to make you feel very out of breath when trekking at altitude. Slowing down will also help you to fully take in and appreciate the experience; something we are all unused to doing in our busy, day-to-day lives.
Few have ascended to the summit of Everest and lived to tell the tale, but the trek to Base Camp will allow you to experience the splendour and majesty of the Himalayas. Witness the beauty and mystery of Buddhist culture, architecture and friendly hospitality as you follow in the footsteps of history's most intrepid mountaineers.