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Going Up

Everest, Himalayas, Nepal

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If you get a little wheezy climbing the stairs, then the ascent of all 8,848 meters of Mount Everest, in the Himalayas, is probably not for you. In fact, it’s one journey that’s not for most people. Although it’s reckoned that the climb up the mountain is within the scope of most reasonably fit people who have a head for heights and the huge amount of spare cash needed to pay to join an expedition, only around 1500 people have climbed the mountain since it was first conquered by Sir Edmund Hillary and Sir Tenzing Norgay. It gives a sense of the extent to which the mountain is opening up to adventure tourism than more than a third of those ascents have taken place since 1998.

Still. Actually climbing Chomolongma/Sagarmartha or (if you prefer the English name) Everest remains the preserve of a lucky few. An adventure open to far more people, and which is growing in popularity, is the Everest Base Camp Trek.

Trekking has been big business in Nepal for some years now, and the long trek out to Everest Base Camp is one of the most popular. The route starts – as do all Nepalese expeditions – in the capital, Kathmandu. ‘Kat’, as it’s affectionately known among the climbing fraternity, is a town more to be experienced than enjoyed these days. It used to be a wonderful place – something of a hippy retreat. But the trekking industry has brought the tourist industry. And the prosperity that has followed has increased the number of motor cars, for which the city’s narrow streets are not really suited.

You’ll probably be pleased to be heading on your way, although it probably won’t be that long before you’re missing a warm bed and a hot shower. The long trek to Base Camp, at the bottom of the mighty Khumbu Ice Fall – an amazing frozen waterfall on the scale of Niagara – is, on paper at least - based on a long, gentle ascent.

What a paper calculation doesn’t tell you is just how much the darned thing goes up and down on the way. It may be a gentle ascent on average, but it sure doesn’t feel that way as you’re slogging along. Although you’ll have porters to carry most of your heavier gear, you’ll begin to feel the altitude as the route progresses.

The route you’re walking is the traditional route in for Everest mountaineers. Why don’t they just take a helicopter ride? Well, there are a couple of good reasons. First, the long walk is really good for building up the endurance fitness that you need to have the best possible chance of making an unsupported bid on Everest summit. Second, if you flew in you’d soon be flying right out again: the long walk allows acclimatization to take place, without which most westerners would quickly succumb to altitude sickness.

You’ll probably find yourself succumbing to it anyway, in fact. Once you get above four or five thousand meters, there aren’t many people who don’t feel at least a little queasy from time to time on the trek. The thinness of the air makes everything more difficult: because there’s less oxygen being delivered to your muscles they fatigue more quickly, and everything seems like more of an effort. Additionally, the changes in pressure can cause headaches and nausea. There’s no telling who altitude sickness will hit: sometimes a middle-aged person who’s really out of shape will be fine while a fit young twenty-year-old has to be helicoptered down to safety.

The views, of course, more than make up for it. You’ll get some good views of Everest summit, though at times it will be harder to see, either because of cloud or because closer at hand it is obscured by the peaks that surround it. But they’re pretty grand in their own right. The end of the trail is not far beyond the famous Thyangboche Monastery, which enjoys stunning views of the Khumbu, the Western Cwm and Everest itself.

It was via the Western Cwm (‘Cwm’ is the Welsh word for ‘valley’ – named by the Brits, of course) that the successful expedition of 1953 made its ascent. They climbed the Khumbu, picked their way along the Western Cwm and then up on to a saddle in the mountain’s South Ridge. From there, New Zealander Edmund Hillary, along with Tenzing Norgay, made their successful summit attempt by carefully picking their way up the narrow, frozen ridge to the tiny, windy summit.

You won’t be heading there yourself, probably. But if you’ve made it far enough to enjoy this view, you’ve achieved something special. You may not have stood on the roof of the world, but you’ve glimpsed it – and you’ll have made an enormous effort doing so.

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