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Pervez Saleem


Travel diary: Trekking to the roof of the world — the Mount Everest Base Camp in Nepal


The mountains called me — and in my answering journey, I had the adventure of a lifetime

For as long as I can remember, the allure of standing under the mountains has held a special soul calming influence on me. I’ve always wanted to stand in the shadows of the highest mountain on the planet, Everest, or Sagarmatha as the locals named it. With this longing pulling at the strings of my heart, I decided to embark on the adventure of a lifetime — a pilgrimage to the roof of the world otherwise known as the Everest basecamp trek.

I have this feeling that the mountains, with their unpredictable weather, decide when you are worthy of visiting them. For me, the journey from Pakistan to Nepal added another layer of uncertainty — there are no direct flights, so I had to fly via Muscat. And so, on Friday, October 13, I stood in front of the ticket counter in Muscat, two backpacks and one sleeping bag by my side.

Unlike other hikes that I had done before, such as the K2 base camp, or the Gondogoro La, the Everest basecamp trek is known for its host of teahouse lodges all the way to the last stop on the trail. This allows you to travel light and even solo — on a friend’s advice, I had a porter and guide waiting for me at the other end.

Coming back to that fateful afternoon at the ticket counter in Muscat. I reached three hours early, only to be told that they were overbooked and I must take a chance the next day. Dejected, I was about to lose all hope, when an hour into the dejection, I was waved at by the counter staff to rush for a chance at the boarding pass — miraculously 15 empty spaces had opened up on the flight. Maybe, the mountains did want me back!

Day 1: Muscat – Kathmandu – Lukla – Phakding

After landing in Kathmandu, I met Mr Anil — now my friend, and the owner of the trekking company that I was going to trust my dream to. Just a couple of hours rest at his hotel in the touristic centre of Thamel, and we were off on a five-hour journey to Ramechhap — a small hill station used as a staging airport for flights to Lukla, the starting point for the trek to this part of Himalayas.

 The runway in Lukla The runway in Lukla

Mine was the first flight scheduled for the day at 6am. My anxiety with air travel continued, as the early morning clouds reduced chances of an early take-off. There were around 80 to 90 tourists there with me, some from the flights cancelled over the past two days. After a two-hour wait, my flight was finally announced and we rushed to the twin otter plane to fly to one of the most fascinating airports in the world, the Tenzing–Hillary Airport, with its sloping runway at a staggering elevation of 2,860 metres. I came to know midway through the trek that mine was the last flight for the next three days as the weather came in. The mountains were really calling me!

After meeting my porter Padam, we started the process of walking through Lukla to the registration booth. At this point, I’d been up for over 36 hours, but the sights, sounds and smells of the lush green valleys with a distant glimpse of snowcapped mountains peaks was enough to put a sparkle in my eyes.

We embarked on a leisurely hike, mainly along the rivers that hugged the terrain. While in the mountains, the trek is measured more in time and elevation gain than in hours — we walked over two hours to cover 7.5 kilometres and a net elevation loss of about 200m. A perfect way to start the long journey. Another suspension bridge and the glaciers in view Another suspension bridge and the glaciers in view

We embarked on a leisurely hike, mainly along the rivers that hugged the terrain. While in the mountains, the trek is measured more in time and elevation gain than in hours — we walked over two hours to cover 7.5 kilometres and a net elevation loss of about 200m. A perfect way to start the long journey.

 Tea and then off to Namche Tea and then off to Namche

You pass by scenic villages every half an hour, adorned with prayer flags, sherpa prayer rocks and iconic teahouses. This is also where you get the first lessons on the right of way — yak or mule, you step over to the left and wait. We reached Phakding by 2pm, which gave me plenty of time to take a hot shower, organise my hiking clothes and turn in early to shed the fatigue of the last two days.

 Phakding Phakding

This is also where you’re introduced to your best friend for next 11 days — daal bhaat, the staple diet that energises you from here to the 8,364m elevation of the base camp one week on.

Day 2: Phakding – Namche Bazaar

 Tej, me and Padam Tej, me and Padam

On day two, things started getting serious. I woke up to meet my guide who joined us in Padam’s village mate, Tej Bahadur. Today, we were hiking up for most of the time, for five to six hours, to reach the most iconic stops on the trek — Namche Bazaar at 3,440m. As you start the trail, the views start opening up, and you start seeing a few iconic mountains that will be alongside you throughout your journey. The stand outs of these icons is Ama Dablam, with its two peaks beckoning you on.

 The Ama Dablam and its turquoise lakes The Ama Dablam and its turquoise lakes

The first half of the trek is easy, mostly downhill or flat as you climb down the valley or “ghaat” until we reached our lunch point. This is when you also start using the swinging suspension bridges that continue till midway through the trek.

The second half of the trek was strenuous, as we started gaining the 800m elevation, we had to climb stairs carved into the trail to aid yaks and villagers alike. There are stairs, and there are some more — and they just seem to continue forever. As you cross the 3,000m mark, you start feeling the air thinning around you. This is where I started taking my mountain sickness medication, Diamox.

 Ama Dablam, Lhotse and Everest peaking from behind Ama Dablam, Lhotse and Everest peaking from behind

It was also the most picturesque day of the trek. There is something magical about white water streams nestled amid pine trees and capped by snowy mountains that is unmatched in any part of the world. Add that to the view from a very high Hillary Suspension Bridge and the result is astounding.

My guide told me that they may allow bungee jumping from this location from next season — I’m sure that would makes its way onto many bucket lists. This is also when you start seeing other hikers following the same itinerary as you. Some of them end up sitting with you around the stoves at teahouses over the next 10 days and share their pictures and stories, while some you will remember distinctly — the girl with a fish net hat, the boy with the red bandana, the elderly couple playing 70s Bollywood music.

This is also where you start meeting the first trekkers returning from their excursions — you nod at them as you grunt your way up the next set of stairs. If you are a meat-eater, this is the last you should take a chance with it, from here on it’s at least three days old.

Day 3: Namche Bazaar – acclimatisation day

On day three, we stayed at Namche Bazaar to spend some time at this elevation. The town itself is built on the top of the hill, and just walking around tests your muscles and breathing. We had three items on the agenda — the first being a short 1.5-hour hike to the Everest Viewpoint at 4,100m. This is where we would get our first glimpse of peak of the mighty mountain sneaking behind Lhotse and sitting alongside the iconic Ama Dablam.

We spent some time at the viewpoint and enjoyed a cup of coffee with some other trekkers. Just looking at the scenery sends a rush of adrenaline coursing through me. It’s moments like these that you need to spur you on and there would be plenty more along the way.

Day 4: Namche Bazaar – Tengboche – Beauty surrounds you as you leave Namche

 Beauty surrounds you as you leave Namche Beauty surrounds you as you leave Namche

Tengboche is the largest monastery this side of the Himalayas. My guide charted a path for me as soon as we stepped out of Namche. From this vantage point, it looks like a gradual slope to walk on along the ridge. That is but a fleeting moment of hope — Tengboche is 200m higher than Namche and to reach it, you must climb down 300m and then climb 500m back up. This initial climb down stayed etched in my memory, as this is the climb you must overcome on the second last day of the trek while returning.

We reached Tengboche in around three hours, a short visit to the monastery, a quick black coffee, and then pressed on to Pangboche at 3,985m. It added another hour and half to the trek but allowed us to have a shorter trail the next day. The trek from Tengboche to Pangboche is straightforward and had some very nice views as we climbed towards the 4000m-mark. From here on, you start realising that amenities like a hot shower, charging your phone and hot drinking water start becoming more expensive.

The size of the villages also starts reducing, but amazingly, the teahouses still have Wi-Fi and local N-Cell sims work here. I am informed that the local sims will continue to stay connected until we reach our next stop in Dingboche and then will be off for three days. Another piece of information I was given was that it stays connected at the base camp — imagine sharing live updates from 5,364m!

Four days in and we moved on from identification using fashion sense to being on a first-name basis. I met the world out here — Germany, South Korea, China, India, Brazil, Romania, the UK, France, Spain, and I, the lone Pakistani amongst them. This is also the point where you thank yourself for bringing that “mummy” sleeping bag with you — as the night falls, it plunges below zero degrees. Cozy in my bed, I thought back on the day — six hours, 15km, down 1,000m and up 1,500m. Not bad for the fourth day on the tour.

Day 5: Pangboche – Dingboche

On day five, we reached the second iconic point in our journey, Dingboche at 4,360m. This is where we really started to feel the mountains up close. Ama Dablam, that had been a distant guide so far, would be right there, with her wonderful glacial lakes, and the lush valleys would give way to windswept high meadows and snow-covered peaks on either side of the trek.

As is true with other hikes I’ve experienced, the hikes from day five onward were shorter. Day five’s were around 7km, so around three hours. Dingboche is where we made our second acclimatisation stay but this also included a very serious hike for some incredible views of what was to come ahead.

We reached Dingboche in under three hours and settled in. Something to remember at such altitudes — you may not feel hungry or thirsty, but you must force yourself to drink at least three litres of water a day and have two good meals. You burn a lot of calories at these elevations and need every bit of that food to get you through. This is where I noticed a few groups start using their oximeters and met a lovely young Mauritian couple who had a bit of decision to make — the wife had started showing symptoms of altitude sickness and the next day was a decision day for them.

While purists like me like to walk the trek up and down to check it off their bucket lists, several trekkers may opt to fly back in a helicopter. Dingboche is popular spot for them to be collected on their downward journey, using the pad in the sister village of Pheriche.

 Island Peak, as seen from Dingboche Island Peak, as seen from Dingboche

You start meeting a few expeditions here, some doing the famous three pass trek, some aiming for the island peak that is distinctly visible and some taking a detour to the Ama Dablam base camp. At this point, I was still the lone Pakistani on the trek.

Day 6: Dingboche – acclimatisation day

Day six and the rest was not really rest — we had to climb up to Nangkartshang Peak, which is almost 4,900m. It was a short 3km hike, but this is where you are tested against the altitude for the first time. You hike up in slow steps, one at a time, taking your time and as you start reaching the stone monuments and prayer flags, the valley below opens.

Across the valleys you see Ama Dablam right in front of you — she is a pretty mountain. Several trekkers make it to the mid-point and return — it’s not a race, you should attempt this at your own pace and at your own comfort. However, it is always good to challenge yourself with a higher altitude here, so you can feel better for the remaining two days to the base camp where elevations will continue to stay higher.

From the peak, you are also able see several helicopters as they start their daily runs to bring down trekkers from the base camp, or rescuing trekkers who were feeling the heat of the altitude. Something to remember — altitude sickness is serious, if you feel you are getting short of breath constantly, fatigued and you have a headache that isn’t going away, relieve yourself by making the right decision. Often, that is to go down. Secondly, it is common to feel a slight headache and a dry cough — the sherpas call it the “khumbu cough”. I felt that keeping my window slightly open at night actually helped with the level of oxygen in the room and I slept better. This is also where you decide to add a bottle of hot water in your sleeping bag.

Day 7: Dingboche – Lobuche

We start early on day seven, as this can be a five to six-hour hike. Most of the trek stays above 4,300m until we reach Lobuche at 4,930m. With the alpine environment, the presence of the sun can make a difference of a few degrees on the trail. An early start also meant that it was cold, and we had to dress in layers. Thermals were truly in fashion on the trail, as were glove liners to protect hands.

 Start of the alpine region, above 4,500m Start of the alpine region, above 4,500m

As with the second day of the hike, I saw a repeating trend. The first part of the hike to Dukla was relatively easy. It is generally on flat ground and, if you can manage the early morning temperatures, the walk is refreshing. Tej, my guide, insisted that I drink water, have black coffee and eat something before we continued. “The next section is a bit steep, so rest a bit now,” he said. And this time, he was serious.

 A yak — the machine that runs Khumbu A yak — the machine that runs Khumbu

The next section of the trek was hard. As we exited the teashop, we saw a steep climb in front of us. We start at the bottom of the icefall to climb steeply to the Everest Memorial. It looked far, it was steep, it was on uneven ground, and it was all above 4,500m.

The combination made every step laborious and the next two hours were simply “mind over body”. But as with every part of this trail so far, hard work paid off, and you felt a sense of pride every day of having overcome another mental and physical barrier. When you reach the top, you are rewarded with a breathtaking view of Mount Pumori in all its glory. One of its outliers is Kala Pathar at 5,550m that offers one of the best views of the Everest Panorama — but more about that later.

 Mount Pumori Mount Pumori

Shortly after, you reach the Everest Memorial site, a somber place that holds memories of climbers who lost their lives in their attempts to summit the Everest. It reminded me of the Gilkey Memorial I visited during the trek to the K2 base camp. There was a line on a memorial stone that summed it up beautifully — “They loved the mountains, so the mountains kept them.”

 The Everest Memorial site The Everest Memorial site

The last hour of the trek to Lobuche was relatively easier, and was along the Khumbu glacier. We got into a few bottleneck situations with yaks, mules and trekkers all trying to descend and holding their ground while we are trying to push ahead.

Day 8: Lobuche – Gorakshep – Everest Base Camp – Gorakshep – Kala Pathar – Gorakshep

Day eight, the last day of the trek, dawned and I was giddy with excitement. This was what it all came down to. Three hours to Gorakshep at 5,160m, the last teahouse stop on the trek — a rest, tea and then another three hours to the base camp at 5,364m.

Surprisingly, while lengthy in terms of time, the hike was relatively easy and flat. It was a slight climb from Lobuche to Gorakshep and then a relatively flat trail along the glacier until you reached the starting point of the Everest expeditions — the base camp.

Another piece of good news — you don’t have to carry your day bags with you as you will be coming back to the teahouse, so you can travel light to the base camp and back. Once again, take it slow — most of this day was around 5,000m in elevation so each step consumed more breaths than the earlier days. It is natural to feel fatigued and wanting to stop. I developed this habit of taking 200 steps and then stopping for 10 deep breaths at these altitudes. It worked for me, so find your Zen and embrace the challenge — it’s totally worth it!

The adrenaline pushes you on. Halfway through the trek from Gorakshep to the base camp, you’ll start to see Everest poke its head out from behind Nuptse. It’s right there — right in front of you.

 Climbing down to Pheriche Climbing down to Pheriche

This is where I want to mention a key difference between the K2 and Everest base camp treks. On the K2 side, as soon as you turn north from Concordia, (the Gorakshep stop of that trek), K2 is right there in front of you with all its glory. The single mountain, standing tall. And when you reach the base camp, you are literally a stone’s throw from K2 itself. This would be true for Everest as well if you were coming from its northern slope, from Tibet. From Nepal, Everest is largely behind the Khumbu Icefall, and covered by Lhotse and Nuptse, Pherichewhich is right there at the base camp, so you may not see the summit in its full glory. This is another reason to keep Kala Pathar in your itinerary.

 The Khumbu Glacier The Khumbu Glacier

Arriving at the base camp itself was surreal. You see the iconic Khumbu Icefall, the most notorious sections leading up to the summit. There is a sense of relief when you reach the rock that has a sign marked in spray paint stating, “Everest Base Camp – 5,364m”.

The place was buzzing with life. I went there in October so there were no expeditions. If you visit in spring, this place would be full of tents. Still, there was a queue to take pictures in front of the marker and I too stood in line to have my moment of “been there, done that”. It was 2023 and India was hosting the Cricket World Cup so I took a team jersey. So, this one was for the team, win or lose — we love you!

 Been there, done that!
After spending around 30 minutes at the base camp marker and getting a bit closer to the Icefall, I took one last look at the majestic landscape in front of me before heading back to Gorakshep. We reached Gorakshep around 2:30pm and I was very inclined to do the trek to Kala Pathar. One, to get a chance to see the Everest Summit in its true sense and two, to achieve the milestone of having hiked above 5,500m during the trek.

 A nostalgic last look at Everest A nostalgic last look at Everest

Generally, the trip to Kala Pathar is a sunrise event and most of the trekkers I met were focusing on doing the same. However, I had three things in my mind that were pushing me to make the attempt the same day. First, it gets cold at the top as the peak is totally open and windswept and when I say cold, I mean -5 to 15 degrees Celsius without windchill. Second, as the sun rose behind the Everest, I doubted that the pictures would do justice to the beauty that we would be able to see and I would rather take my chance to see the glorious and mythical golden sunset with the last beams of sunlight kissing the Everest as she stood tall in the panorama. And lastly, the next day would be a long hike back down to Pangboche — five to seven hours — to start the day with a cold four-hour round trip before this hike sounded too tiring for me.

Based on this analytical discussion in my mind, and feeling comfortable that I was fit enough to make the run to the top of Kala Pathar the same day, we decided to return to Gorakshep, have a one-hour rest and restarted our trek to the peak at 3:30pm to coincide with the sunset. The climb up was tough — it was steep, it was cold and with every step you gain another meter or so. Once again, it is your mind and will that keep you going.

Several trekkers made it to the halfway mark and returned — we reached this point in good time. And then the clouds started coming in, literally from all around us, like fog creeping up the meadows. They covered our view of Pumori, which now looked like a hanging mountain behind us. At this point, I had to make a call — do we take a chance with the weather clearing up or call it a day. With my personal target of crossing 5,500m in mind, I decided to push on. The cold was creeping through my snow gloves and the liners — when I took them off to warm my fingers, I saw they had turned blue. I told Tej that I needed to walk without the poles, with my hands in my pockets. Padam volunteered to carry the poles in case we needed them, and we carried on. At 5:30pm we reached the summit, and I climbed up, Tej exclaimed — “Sagarmatha!” I looked in his direction and there in all her glory, nestled beside her sister, was Everest — glowing golden in the dying light of the sun. It was a moment that would stay with me for the rest of my life.

 The cone of the Ama Dablam, rising above the clouds The cone of the Ama Dablam, rising above the clouds

Words cannot describe the beauty of seeing the golden halo gradually moving up the façade of the surrounding mountains and finally kissing the peak of Everest — while far towards the east the conical peak of Ama Dablam rose above the sea of clouds. Take my word for it — if you have the strength, go to Kala Pathar for the sunset, it’s the sight of a lifetime.

 A picture worth a thousand words A picture worth a thousand words

Tej asked me to start the return journey down immediately afterward. It’s a steep climb down and you don’t want it to be in complete darkness. I turned on my head lamp and let Tej lead the way down. I took one last look at Everest and 40 minutes later, we were back in the coziness of our teahouse where we sat around the stove, sharing stories and pictures from the day. We also met a French trail runner who showed me his Strava run to the Kala Pathar summit — 46 minutes!

I also met a wonderful family from Mumbai — including an 8-year-old daughter — who were targeting the base camp the next day. I stayed connected enough to the outside world to be careful not to discuss the India-Pakistan fixture that had coincidently happened the day I landed in Namche. I was still the lone Pakistani on the trek. I decided that I would leave the team jersey as a memento on the walls of the teahouse — a part of Pakistan left behind, right next to a certificate showing the time for the Sherpa Marathon winner, Namche to the base camp and back in under eight hours — as if to tell myself, it is not a goodbye Everest, it is just “till we meet again”.

Day 9 to 11: Gorakshep – Pengboche – Namche – Lukla

If there is one constant on the return journey, it’s the six to eight hours of daily hike, return to running water in toilets and hot showers. We hiked down to Perriche from Gorakshep on day nine and then onward to Pengboche. The next day, it was back to Namche Bazar, including the steep climb back up the “ghaat”. This was the peak of the Do Sayain, or Dussehra Festival as well, so I treated Tej and Padam to a thank you lunch of mutton thali. They had made this journey memorable for me and were spending their most important festival away from the family — so indeed a big thank you was required.

Finally, we climbed back down to Lukla from Namche, with an easy walk to Phakding and then a bit of a steep climb to Lukla — a last reminder of the physical excursion of the past week.

 Tej and I at the end of our trip Tej and I at the end of our trip

This ends one of the most memorable journeys that I will ever undertake and my first introduction to a country full of beauty and beautiful people, Nepal. I walked the same trail that Tenzing and Hillary walked many decades ago when they put this mountain firmly on the map. At the end, the feeling was divine, spiritual and fulfilling.

They say the mountains call for you, and if you hear that calling — it calms you down like the cold glacier lake at their foothills. I came back content but longing for more.

All photos by the author

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