Is the trail to Mount Everest crowded? Sometimes it just depends on how you look at it.
Is the trek to Everest Base Camp overly crowded, commercialized and lacking in charm?
I some ways maybe, but it truly depends on how you look at it. From the moment your small plane touches down on the improbably steep and alarmingly short runway in the village of Lukla, you will encounter one wonder after another.
Yes, the main Everest Trail is busy with trekking groups all doing much the same thing (heading to Base Camp), and the shops and lodges - even the monasteries - dotted along the way are openly touting for the tourist dollar. Hot showers and even Wi-Fi are available at some overnight lodges. The same goes for the bottled water, a staple in the Khumbu, necessary to avoid stomach bugs.
But somehow none of this seems to detract from the experience of witnessing first-hand the culture and lifestyle of remote Sherpa communities against the backdrop of one of the most spectacular mountain landscapes on earth.
Starting from Lukla, the usual first-night stop on the way to the market town of Namche Bazaar is Phakding. You may encounter a dzo train along the way - a heftily laden line of pack animals that are the lowland cross-bred substitutes for the yaks used higher up in a valley. A valuable lesson you’ll learn right off is to avoid getting caught on the downhill side of these sharp-horned yak-cow crosses. Another, just as important to reminder is to follow the appropriate customs at the countless prayer wheels and carved Mani stone walls along the path. Always spin prayer wheels and always walk clockwise. Hearing the chant of “ Om mani padme hum”, the Buddhist mantra, will rapidly become familiar.
At Namche Bazaar, 11,200 feet, you’ll have your first compulsory acclimatization day and you’ll be glad for the opportunity to explore this spectacular village and surroundings. There is plenty of sightseeing to be had, including the Khumjung Gomba monastery and the Sir Edmund Hillary-founded Khunde hospital. You can also hike up to the luxurious Japanese-owned Everest View Hotel for a jaw-dropping view of the mountain panorama - the majestic broad peak of Ama Dablam and the distant peaks of Everest and Lhotse.
Tengboche is home to an imposing monastery visited by more than 30,000 trekkers a year. Filing into the cold, dimly lit interior, you’ll marvel at the colorful, ornate carvings and mesmerized by the chanting monks. From Pangboche you leave the rhododendrons, junipers and pines behind, as you arrive at Dingboche (14,400 feet) in the Imja Valley , and another welcome and necessary acclimatization day.
Continuing up the Khumbu valley, the climb is steady to Lobuche and Gorak Shep, our highest overnight points. The landscape is now harsh and inhospitable and the accommodation basic – concrete buildings, no running water and you may find ice on the inside of the windows in the morning. At almost 17,000 feet, a headache is always possible and sleep may come in fits interspersed with vivid dreams.
We’re up early the next morning for a pre-dawn start for the “small” 18,000 foot peak called Kala Pattar, for the spectacularly famous views of Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse. Realizing your dream is accompanied by an oxygen deprived sense of achievement! The descent to Lukla will be leisurely in comparison as the relatively “heavy” air fills your lungs, your brain starts to “wake up” and you suddenly realize that the journey not the destination is what’s important.