The two Mt Everest Base Camps and the journeys to each are vastly different, and for Peter Roche there’s clearly a winning route.
Base Camp on Mt Everest is one of the world’s most famous climbing spots, but many people don’t know that there are actually two Base Camps, several hundred kilometres apart.
Over the past couple of years, I have visited both – one on the Nepal side (South Base Camp) and the other on the Tibet side (North Base Camp). They could not be more different.
Until the 1950s, climbers had extraordinary difficulty accessing the Nepalese side of Mt
Everest, so mountaineers looking to climb the world’s highest mountain had to tackle it from Tibet.
Then the situation changed dramatically. Nepal opened up at almost the same time the Chinese virtually closed down Tibet to visitors. So, when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to reach the top of Mt Everest in 1953, they did so from the newly available Nepalese side.
Today climbers looking to summit Everest can approach it from either side. The two routes merge not too far below the peak of the mountain.
Base Camp from Tibet
I ventured to the Tibetan Base Camp in 2015. Given that entering Tibet requires a visa and that security is very tight, it’s much easier to use a tour operator.
My tour group travelled by bus to the capital, Lhasa (altitude 3650 metres). In fact, there are really two Lhasas. One is modern and Chinese built; the other is the old quarter, with ancient monasteries and temples, and two world heritage sites.
There’s no doubt when you are in Tibet that the Chinese are running the show and that Tibetans seem to be no more than tolerated.
Lhasa was the last major city on our journey to North Base Camp. We then travelled to Shigatse, a historic city that is the Tibetan gateway to Mt Everest.
From Shigatse, a day pass is required before travelling the final 250km to Base Camp.
On the day I did it, officials were particularly obdurate and no passes were forthcoming until late in the day. Then followed a torturous bus trip. The road has a 40km/h speed limit with checkpoints dotted all the way, so it’s impossible to make up time by going faster.
Bus drivers are simply not permitted to reach the next checkpoint quicker than 40km/h would get them there. Consequently, you see buses parked up just before a checkpoint waiting for time to pass.
When we eventually arrived at the Base Camp car park (a tent city of sorts) it was after midnight.
There were no sherpas – none are needed because the walk to Base Camp is not difficult and big backpacks aren’t required.
We set off early to the camp. The walk was not demanding, except of course that we were climbing to about 5300 metres. The gravel and dirt track terrain was rather tedious.
The most memorable moment of the hike came when the sun rose behind the peak of Mt Everest as we were walking towards it. It was an unforgettable view.
After walking about 7km we arrived at Base Camp. I did it in September, well after the seasonal highpoint of May, so there were relatively few people around and there was precious little to see there – a monument marking the site, one smallish stone building, perhaps for officials during peak season, and not much else.
We were under strict instructions not to go any further or go off the track and were told clearly we were in a military zone and to follow instructions closely. One of our group carried on a few hundred metres and received a real dressing down from the tour operator, fearful of how the Chinese would react to such ill-disciplined behaviour.
The Tibetan side of Mt Everest is not especially busy even in the high season – only a few hundred climbers a year are permitted to go on from Base Camp, compared to up to 40,000 on the more market-driven, Westernised Nepal side.
After a look around and a few photos, we headed back to the car park, arriving in mid-afternoon. The walk was hardly satisfying, but the massive mountains around us made for some spectacular scenery.
Then we were back on the bus and off to Shigatse, and eventually Lhasa.
Lhasa was extremely interesting as a tourist spot, but from the point of view of a keen trekker, the entire journey was disappointing. The week-long tour cost me about $US900.
I had heard stories about the challenge of getting to Base Camp on the Nepal side and decided
then and there to make that journey, which I knew would be much more of a test of my climbing ability.
Base Camp from Nepal
I finally got to Nepal in November 2016. It was a relatively quiet time of the year for tourists, certainly different to the frenetic activity the country experiences in May.
This turned out to be an entirely different adventure. I arrived in Kathmandu, and experienced all the chaos at the airport that I had been warned about. Kathmandu will never go down as one of the world’s great capitals, but I was excited to be there because it was the starting point for my adventure to and from Base Camp.
The first stage was the flight to Lukla, not a journey undertaken lightly. Lukla is at 2850 metres and is reputed to have the world’s most dangerous airport, recently named Tenzing-Hillary Airport. The runway is on quite a slope and includes a neat right-hand turn at one end. Having navigated this journey safely (tense faces then quiet sighs of relief!), we prepared to begin our trek. For the next 12 days we would be walking to South Base Camp and back.
It was often rough terrain, with lots of steps.
As we climbed higher, the altitude became an increasing factor and many of our group of 12 suffered. I had one bad day, when I completely ran out of energy. Four of our party were removed by helicopter.
At our altitude, this was no easy feat and you could see the helicopters struggling to lift off in the thin air.
There was much talk about how to combat the effects of altitude. Diamox anti-altitude tablets were popular, often supplemented by electrolyte loss liquids. Even then, besides the four who were evacuated, others in our group were placed on cathodes, having electrolytes supplied to them. It was a demanding climb.
The higher up Mt Everest we ventured, the more expensive were the goods – souvenirs, water etc – for sale at the tiny stalls we occasionally encountered on the track.
We stayed in tea-houses most of the way. Their quality varied, but there are levels of tour and the more you pay the better the tea houses (and the more weight of your belongings the sherpas will carry).
On the climb to Base Camp, the last stop with a shower was Namshe Bazaar (3440 metres). After that we had no shower for six days and slept in our clothes. While the days were pleasant, the nights were bitterly cold. One morning, when we set off at 4am, I was as cold as I have ever been – I wore every piece of clothing I had, and was still freezing.
Eventually we reached Gorak Shep (5200 metres), the last village – using the term broadly – before Base Camp. There was a small bakery and a post office, but not much else.
The awesome Khumbu Glacier ran alongside the track and made an incredible noise. The glacier, the world’s highest, is retreating and there was the constant cracking of shifting ice. It was awe-inspiring, and so were the sights we saw along the way. It seems strange to say, but we almost began to take for granted the spectacular mountain ridges, the effect of the sun on the slopes, the beauty of the snow and the peace we were encountering.
Finally we reached Base Camp at 5360 metres. The area is apparently a busy, noisy mass of humanity at peak climbing season, but when we were there it was far from crowded. We had a look around, climbed up to Kala Patthar at 5645 metres, and then turned around and began the journey back.
It was a lot easier and quicker on the homeward journey. As we descended, the altitude problems decreased and there wasn’t the extreme physical exertion required that the first week of the journey had demanded.
In no time we were back in Lukla, crossing our fingers for the aeroplane take-off on the journey to Kathmandu. The cost for the 16 days, Kathmandu return, varies according to the level of luxury a trekker wants, but as a ballpark figure, it’s about $US1200 for a basic trip to $US2000 for an adventure with a few frills.
Having travelled to both Mt Everest Base Camps, my vote goes to the Nepalese adventure. It’s true that Lhasa in Tibet is certainly a city well worth visiting, but for any self-respecting climber, the effort required to reach Base Camp in Nepal makes that journey far more satisfying and memorable.