Featured writer: Kevin Brown
It’s draw is undeniable. Seated on the border of Tibet and Nepal lies the worlds highest mountain, shrouded in incredible triumph, horrible disaster, and perplexing mystery. But with the increase in trekking tourism over the past two decades as well the rapidly advancing development in the Khumbu region (where Everest is found), is there still adventure to be had? Or has it fallen by the wayside to commercialization and overcrowding? Those weren’t the questions I set out to answer three years ago when I hatched out a plan to go to Mt. Everest, I just wanted to cross it off my bucket list, but they are exactly what I would end up finding out.
The plan was to take a two month trip to Nepal when I graduated college, and when the day finally came for me to take my last final exam, it would be only eight hours after finishing before I was boarding a Plane to Nepal. I wanted to see the mountains, breath the cold Himalayan air, experience firsthand Sherpa culture, but above all else, I just wanted an adventure. To avoid the crowds of the standard Everest Base Camp trek, I chose an unconventional path to the mountain; I would forgo the typical flight into Lukla, opting instead for a 12 hour bus ride to Shivalaya, where I would start the trek in the lower foothills. I decided against hiring any guides or porters for the trek, partially due to my own self-reliant pride, but also because I felt choosing to go with a guide would undermine the very nature of adventure before the trip even began. I have nothing but respect for the people of Nepal, and their proficiency in the mountains, but discovering something is always more fun than being guided to something. I was set to discover what the mountains had to offer on my own terms. Too often I think the word adventure is used synonymously with fun, but I wanted to have to suffer a bit to make it to base camp, I wanted to really earn it. Carry my own gear, make my own food, purify my water, and do my own route finding. Fortunately, I found a friend (Casey) with similar ambitions to accompany me.
12 days into the journey the suffering was in full force. There had been the 7,000ft continuous climb on day three, the persisting head cold that had plagued both Casey and I since day one, the bitter cold and snow storms experienced up in the high mountains, and the hunger that accompanies having to ration 10 small packets of RaRa (top ramen) over 10 lunches. For lodging we stayed in the traditional tea houses that provided basic accommodation for a cheap rate. We cooked our own breakfasts and lunches and ordered dinners at the tea houses, which consisted of basic plates of either rice, potatoes, or noodles. Our route had taken us through the traditional gateway village of Namche Baazar, where we then branched off the main trail and followed the Bhote Kosi river valley towards the village of Thame. To get to Everest we would first have to tackle two 17,400+ ft passes in Renjo La and Cho La. We had made it over the first (Renjo La) with no trouble, our lengthened approach from Shivalaya rather than Lukla had helped us acclimatize properly, and altitude hadn’t been a problem. So 12 days in, and we were seated in a small lodge huddled around a yak dung fire (there are no trees above 14,000ft for firewood) preparing to make the ascent of Cho La pass the following morning.
Surely adventure was found crossing Cho La pass, where temperatures hovering around 0 degree Fahrenheit and fresh snowfall made crossing the pass both challenging and rewarding. Descending the other side brought intense sun rays reflecting off the glacier and incredible views looking down the valley towards the massive Cholatse north face and beautiful Ama Dablam. But the tides were turning. At the bottom of the pass the trail joined up with the main Everest highway, Casey and I parted ways, he was headed back down to Lukla and I up to Gorak Shep, the last establishment before base camp. Within an hour of the merger I was backed up in a line of trekkers making their way to Gorak Shep. Frustrations quickly mounted. I found myself focusing more on the abundance of people around me than the mountains towering over me, and seemingly in an instant, the sense of adventure was gone. I made it to Everest Base Camp in the afternoon and to Kala Pattar for the quintessential Everest view the following morning, both were as awe-inspiring as advertised, yet something was still missing. Something that I had only days before.
Commercialization has had it’s impact on the Everest Base Camp trek, this is unquestionable. Indeed one can now successfully make it to base camp without leaving cell phone and internet service. While I was in Gorak Shep a fellow trekker eating dinner next to me was “checking in” at Everest Base Camp on Facebook. The beauty of the area has no doubt remained intact, and for some, that alone is all the reason needed to come, crowds be damned. But can the best of both worlds be had? Beauty with adventure and solidarity? I came to the conclusion that it can be. For in the Himalaya, beauty is far from confined to the main trail towards Everest. One has to look no further than the next valley over to escape the crowds and retain the beauty. This is not to say I regret going up to Kala Pattar and Everest Base Camp, quite the contrary, the fascinating history of the area combined with the as-good-as advertised mountains views were certainly worth the time. But given the proper planning, one can easily make the days fighting crowds on the trail the exception rather than the norm. My favorite day of the trip was spent exploring with Casey on a day hike from Gokyo. We didn’t have a particular destination per se, but rather if we felt a particular hillside might offer a favorable vantage point we would explore it. This led us to an incredible vista offering 270 degree views of the mountains, with Everest itself sitting front and center. We sat up there that day for a full three hours never encountering another person, and doing nothing more than letting ourselves be immersed in the mountains, immersed in solidarity, and best of all, immersed in an adventure.