At 29,029 feet, Mount Everest is the tallest peak on Earth, the pyramidal apex of the planet’s grandest mountain wall, the Himalaya-Karakoram. As one of the most alluring goals in mountaineering, Everest draws hundreds of climbers every year: While at this point thousands have successfully summited, the mountain and its sinister icefalls, avalanches, jet-stream winds, and other undeniable hazards have also claimed many lives.
If you’re not a technical climber—or you’re one unwilling to accept the inherent risks and often-chaotic conditions of this popular but treacherous peak—you can still experience the majesty and exoticism of Mount Everest (sometimes called Sagarmatha in Nepal) in the flesh with a trek to Everest Base Camp. You’ll trace the footsteps of Everest climbers much of the way, but avoid most of the danger; you’ll nab plenty of jaw-dropping views of Everest and its Himalayan neighbors, and you’ll have the opportunity to acquaint yourself a little with high-elevation Nepalese culture and ecology. For many, it’s the adventure of a lifetime.
Here we’ll run down some of the fundamentals of this bucket-list trek, undertaken by tens of thousands every year. Keep in mind we’re writing here about the southern, Nepalese Everest Base Camp (where climbers following the southeast ridge toward the summit set off from); there’s another, less-used one on the north, or Tibetan, side of the mountain.
The main route to Base Camp commences in the outpost of Lukla, reachable by airplane from Katmandu. A couple days’ walk tracing the Dudh Koshi brings trekkers into Sagarmatha National Park and to Namche Bazar, the real gateway to Everest; from there, you hoof it up-valley through hamlets such as Tenboche, Pangboche, Lobuje, and Gorekshep—the onetime Everest Base Camp and now the final waypost on the journey to the current one.
Depending on a guiding company’s given itinerary, acclimatization periods, and other factors, the round-trip to Everest Base Camp from Lukla typically takes on the order of 15 to 20 days. People often elect to hire porters to help haul supplies, although it’s not required; a guided package may or may not include this service.
It should probably go without saying that the Everest Base Camp trek is a gorgeous one: After all, you’re rambling amid the loftiest mountains the planet has to offer, gazing upon roof-of-the-world summits dazzling in their high-altitude clarity. The views shift of course based on the cloud ceiling and the intricacies of local relief, but you’ll often be rewarded with stunning prospects of Himalayan giants: the wild horns of 22,349-foot Ama Dablam and 21,130-foot Cholatse, the massive fin of 25,791-foot Nuptse, the craggy fist of 27,940-foot Lhotse—the fourth-loftiest peak on Earth and one of the pillars of the Everest massif.
And speaking of views, the best known on the Everest Base Camp trek is that available from the top of Kala Patthar, a low spur off one of Everest’s neighbors, Pumori. From this rocky promontory, you’ve got an absolutely world-class prospect of Mount Everest—a fuller one by far than you get from base camp itself—as well as surrounding peaks. You reach Kala Patthar’s unforgettable vantage on a day trip out of Gorekshep.
The base camp, meanwhile, gives you front-row seats for an up-close look at one of the mighty mountain’s defining landmarks: the Khumbu Glacier, the highest-elevation glacier in the world. Climbers aiming for Everest’s summit via the southeast ridge must negotiate the glacier’s dreaded Khumbu Icefall, riddled with crevasses and the terrifying towers of ice called seracs.
The pilgrimage also threads a fascinating ecological spectrum, from the lush pine-cedar forests of the mid-elevations—enlivened in spring by blooming rhododendrons—to the austere tundra, talus, and ice of the alpine zone. You’ll likely enjoy glimpses of Himalayan birdlife during your hike; commonly seen species include Tibetan snowcocks, ravens, and vultures.
As awe-inspiring as the landscape is, the trek’s cultural experience easily equals it. The temples and bazaars of full-tilt Katmandu, the marketplace of Namche, the yak caravans tracing the mountain path as they have since time immemorial, the famous Tengboche Monastery, the wind-beaten prayer flags, the dogged pace of the Sherpas heading for Sagarmatha, the climbing expeditions bivouacked at base camp—these scenes are the makings of lifelong memories.
The prime season for trekking to Everest Base Camp roughly corresponds with that of the climbers, although it can be attempted year-round. Avoiding the fierce cold of winter and the cloudy damp of the summer monsoon, most expeditions mount in the spring (March through May) or the autumn (September through November). Though the days are shortening and growing colder, fall often serves up the very best conditions in terms of air clarity.
Fitness & Acclimatization
Everest Base Camp lies around 17,600 feet—well above the elevation of the highest mountaintops in the Lower 48. In other words, acclimatization is a must. Guided itineraries allocate a day or two of rest and altitudinal adjustment at certain stopover villages en route, often Namche and Dingboche.
The hike to base camp is challenging, mostly because of the rigor of the elevation, but you don’t need to be a superhuman athlete to undertake it by any means. A person of reasonable fitness who completes the proper pre-trip conditioning should have no trouble—as long as he or she takes the dangers of altitude sickness seriously and doesn’t push too hard.
It’s certainly possible to make the trek to Everest Base Camp on your own, but hooking up with a guiding outfit has plenty of advantages, among them the fact that you’ve got food and accommodations taken care of (especially nice given lodges and teahouses can be packed full during the height of the trekking season) as well as group leaders familiar with local history, culture, and ecology, and adept at recognizing and treating altitude sickness and other medical problems that a Himalayan trekker must contend with.
Reputable guides offering Everest Base Camp trips include local companies such as Aasra Eco Treks as well as outfitters based outside Nepal, such as RMI Expeditions and Alpine Ascents International.
The Lure of Everest
Whether you come to pay your respects to the most skyscraping peak on Earth, to revel in Himalayan culture, or to rub shoulders with some of the world’s elite climbers as they stage for their fraught endeavor, the journey to Everest Base Camp ranks among the great adventure treks anywhere. You may turn back well short of the summit, but you’ll still have earned plenty of bragging rights—and, more importantly, you’ll have images of breathtaking beauty to treasure the rest of your life.