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The Punishing, Breathtaking, and Fulfilling 14 Days in Nepal to Reach Everest Base Camp

Our trek to Everest Base Camp from Lukla begins on the first days of summer. Just two weeks into May, throngs of mountain climbers have already congregated here, despite the bitter cold, striving to conquer Earth’s highest base camp.

Through the snowy peaks of the Himalayas, Everest Base Camp is a trek that would test the endurance of any experienced athlete. There are a few ways to reach the destination, but the most treacherous path in my opinion is probably the scenic route past Gokyo Lake and the Cho La Pass.

We picked this itinerary not only because of its difficulty, but also its picturesque landscapes — including time-honored Sherpa villages, Buddhist gompas that float among the clouds, herds of yak grazing sheepishly in the wilderness, and groups of horses ferrying goods at dizzying heights. To eventually arrive at the base camp, our expedition will have to trek past blizzards, traverse the Khumbu Glacier, and tread on rocky routes.

Sherpa villages — the starting line

Sherpa is an ethnic group native to Nepal. For decades, they have guided the way for climbers from all over the world. Sherpa people migrated from eastern Tibet to Khumbu in eastern Nepal over 500 years ago. Before Everest treks became a commercial industry, Sherpas mostly cultivated plants, reared herd animals, spun wool, and wove. In the early 20th century, the first English explorers hired local Sherpas to lead mountaineering trips. Today, mountain navigation and trek specialist work have become part of the local trade and culture.

There are hundreds of Sherpa villages scattered across the east of Nepal. Namche Bazaar is at the heart of the country’s Sherpa community. This lively township was established almost exclusively by hand from materials that had to be carried in by humans and animals. It’s the center of commerce and the starting point for many Everest-bound trips. While strolling around town, you’ll be easily charmed by its vibrant blue houses, crimson monasteries, and strings of fluttering lungta flags.

Gokyo, the world’s highest lake cluster

Instead of trudging the route up Dingboche Village to Everest Base Camp, we make a detour for Gokyo Lake and the Cho La Pass before heading for base camp. Our voyage, as a result, is also longer and more arduous. From Lukla, where the airport is, to Gokyo will take six days of trekking. On average, every day we do 8 kilometers, taking ample rest so our body can gradually acclimatize to the altitude. There are five lakes at different altitudes and sizes. The third one lies at 4,770 meters above sea level next to a small village, also one of the world’s highest.

In May, the sky is a breathtaking blue while the turquoise water surface glistens in the sun. On a warm summer day, herds of yaks make their way to the lakeside to slurp up water and graze on grass. Everything contributes to a pastoral scene of peace and rustic charm.

Every evening we stop at a teahouse, which is an accommodation providing comfort and meals for climbers. From the 3,000-meter mark upwards, dinners have almost no meat. We wolf down potato soup, fried rice, and dal bhat — a lentil stew.

On the seventh day, we rise early to climb Gokyo Peak — 5,357 meters above sea level — to watch sunrise at the fourth lake. The blistering frigidity and thick fog have obscured much of the day’s earliest sunrays. We huddle to snap a few shots, freezing in our boots. Altitude sickness and hunger sometimes rear their ugly heads. Besides, the hike is as long as the day itself.

Ngozumpa, Nepal’s largest glacier

From Gokyo Peak, one can feast their eyes on the majestic Ngozumpa, which at the time looked like a rugged basin after the ice melted. In the winter, the glacier turns into a gargantuan frost wall, blocking all life on the path. When spring comes and the ice liquefies, the glacier surface is just a stone-strewn plain. To reach the Cho La Pass, we have to walk across Ngozumpa, a task that might not appear tough, but is actually extremely tough.

Every year, climbers use different walking paths because the glacier wipes out all traces of the previous road. Sherpas have to slowly identify a way to cross to the pass. After three tense hours, our expedition finally reached the end. Everybody heaves a sigh of relief because there were stretches filled with rockslides and falling geodes when everyone holds their breath and tries to head straight ahead without stopping.

Cho La Pass, where snow fills the land

It's 3am now. We pack our things to move from Thangnak, crossing the Cho La Pass to reach Dzongla. The sun hasn't actually set, but we are in the dark, sluggishly following the lead of our team leader Gopal.

We reach the foot of the pass at 9am, floored by the towering mountain of permafrost in front of our eyes. We have to forge ahead because no roundabout way exists. It’s bone-chilling to feel the freezing gale smack your face. The higher we ascend, the heavier the snow falls. Beneath our feet is thick permafrost that we have to tread by measuring every step. Thảo, a member of our team, is exhausted to the point of bursting into tears and has to lie down on the snow. Pashan, another expedition leader, has to piggyback her for a while, then two porters carry her for a long stretch until we get to the top of the pass.

We finally get to the peak at 12pm after three grueling hours with countless setbacks. We explode with emotions, embracing one another and soothing Thảo, who is in tears for most of the descent.

From Dzongla to Lobuche to touch the sky

While this journey is not without hardships, we don’t always face danger every step of the way. We bid adieu to Dzongla to trek to Lobuche. From 4,600 meters to 4,900 meters, the landscapes shift noticeably, and so does the weather. From here, it can’t rain, but it's still piercingly frosty. We no longer have to conquer glaciers, climb steep passes, or test any of our personal limits. The path to Lobuche is pleasant enough to marvel at the scenery on the way, like tiny villages from afar, Ama Dablam Mountain (6,170 meters), and the towering peaks surrounding it.

From here, turning left into the Khumbu Valley, you can’t help but be mesmerized by layers upon layers of snow-capped summits stretching endlessly into the distant horizon. Just a casual five-hour walk along the Khumbu Glacier and we’ll reach Earth’s highest base camp.

Everest Base Camp, overcoming the challenge

Our 11-day trek finally brings us to Everest Base Camp at 5,364 meters above sea level. From Gorak Shep to Khumbu takes three hours, and after that, the camp awaits. This is the base for professional climbers who spend months or even years here to get used to the altitude and conduct physical training to hopefully get to the top of Everest.

From Dzongla to Lobuche, the road is wedged between towering snow-covered mountains.

We can’t hold it in and huddle in euphoria. Hugs, handshakes, and back pats are exchanged with abandon. Facing the insurmountable level of difficulty, one member couldn’t reach the destination with us due to exhaustion. Standing on the edge of the glacier to gaze up to the dizzying height of Mount Everest, I take in the gravitas of the giant in front of me, one that millions of people might aspire to summit.

To get to Everest Base Camp is not only to push every limit of your existence in terms of health and altitude, but also in terms of bracing for the dangers of glaciers, and even for hiking in a blizzard. This land encapsulates all that is fascinating about the local culture, from the Sherpa community and Tibetan Buddhism to the rows of lungta flags swaying in the wind.

On the way to the base camp from Lobuche.