In 2014 I went on a helicopter trip to Everest Base Camp. It was not a planned excursion or an anticipated one, it was not even something that was commercially available. I booked the sightseeing airplane flight over the Himalayas that many a tourist join in Kathmandu and returned with a mixed feeling, wanting more than just seeing the mountains from afar through a scratched and dirty window. Noticing there were helicopters stationed at the airport, me and my travel companion started to inquire about prices and then followed up with the hotel’s staff to help us mediate. Finally, we booked the helicopter for a morning at a significantly discounted price than the $10,000 we were first quoted.
After a short stop in Lukla Airport, the world’s most dangerous, to drop weight and fuel, the helicopter continued to Base Camp where we stopped only very briefly. I remember it was very cold, freezing, and empty, as the 2014 avalanche the month before had forced all personnel to abandon the area. And it was also magical to step foot just above the base of the world’s tallest mountain standing high in all its majesty.
Almost exactly three years later, I arrived at Everest Base Camp on the Tibetan side, this time, after a seven day journey through Tibet and not a half hour helicopter trip, but it was equally mesmerising, if even colder and tougher as a result of the altitude.
The magic of the mountain
Everest is the tallest mountain on the planet and at the top it measures 8,848m, making it the highest of only 14 mountains above the 8,000m mark all of which are in the Karakoram or Himalayan mountain ranges and were formed millions of years ago as a result of the collision between the Indian and Eurasian Tectonic Plates. Of the 14, only one is entirely in Tibet (Shisha Pangma), four are all in Nepal (Annapurna, Manaslu, Makalu and Dhaulagiri) , one is in Pakistan (Nanga Parbat) and the remaining eight sit in international borders (two peaks on the Gasherbrum, Everest, Broad Peak, K2, Kangchenjunga, Lhotse, Kangchenjunga), primarily between Pakistan and China, Nepal and India and Nepal and Tibet. The first person to reach the top of all 14, Reinhold Messner, talks about the magic of the view. There are only 31 people who have successfully climbed them all. To put it into perspective, the record for the highest number of Everest climbs falls on two Sherpa who have reached the summit 21 times each.
While we, in the West, know it for such a name, Tibetans call it Qomolangma and Nepalese call it Sagarmatha. About half of the mountain lies on each side of the border between Tibet and Nepal but two thirds of the climbers attempt to reach the top from the Nepali side as it is easier to get to and more developed for tourism, so much so that queues to reach the summit made the news in 2012 when a photo of the climbers bee-line waiting for their turn to reach the top posed questions about the sanctity of the mountain. But it is not only those who attempt the summit who fill the area, many people just want to reach to Base Camp. In 2012, over 35,000 people trekked in the area.
The mountain was first topped by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953, although failed expedition attempts started in 1921, and a stream of adventurers have followed in their footsteps. The 80s and 90s saw an explosion of expeditions, both funded by large corporations as well as individuals. Sadly, despite the 7,500 people who have made it to the top to date, almost 300 people have also perished in the area and their bodies are still buried under the snow and ice. Of those, about 4,500 summits and 176 deaths were from the Nepalese South Side, and over 2,600 summits and 106 deaths on the North Tibetan Side. Most of the deaths are caused by the altitude, especially at the so-called Death Zone above 8,000m, or by natural disasters like avalanches. Before 1996 almost one in four climbers attempting ascent died and 1996 was a particularly fatal year with several books written about the deadly season and a National geographic documentary full of testimonies of the people involved in the incidents. Since then, the number of trekkers has steadily increased.
Both 2014 and 2015 were particularly black years in Everest history with first an avalanche on the Khumbu Icefall on April 14th 2014, three weeks before my helicopter trip, which killed 16 Sherpas who were fixing ladders for the climbing season, and then an earthquake that was followed by an avalanche in 2015 causing 19 deaths. Nobody summited in 2015, the first year this happened since 1961.
The 2014 avalanche, caused by a falling piece of ice, may be an indication that the trek to the top is becoming more and more unpredictable as a result of global warming which is making the large pieces of ice on the mountain more unstable as the ice melts down and separates from the icefall wall. The Khumbu Icefall remains the most dangerous part of the climb up. It was also the most shocking image I snapped from my blurry helicopter window as we flew over the camp in a very swift flight. It was like a true ice waterfall, frozen as a glacier in time.
But Everest’s allure has also made it more popular and, as a result, probably safer. The most dangerous mountain to climb is not Everest but Annapurna, also in Nepal which claims one in four mountaineers attempting summit. It is however a more doable and common trek at the base.
Everest Base Camp
The Base Camps on either side of Mount Everest were historically rest steps towards reaching the world’s highest mountain. Although most people think of Base Camp 1, there are several Base Camps on the climb up located at various altitudes. Camp 1 is the lowest and the one most people going as far as Base Camp will trek to. After that, only professional climbers with advanced experience can go. Although reaching the summit is treacherous, dangerous and requires professional training, Base Camp is a close and relatively easier trek that is almost achievable for anyone who has the patience to allow for enough time. The youngest person to reach Base Camp was only four years old and the oldest eighty. Thousands of people have trekked to base camp and many agencies claim to have a 100% success rate for their customers.
Reaching South Everest Base Camp in Nepal
The infamous Lukla airport in Nepal
This is the most frequented and considered safest way to Everest Base Camp, save for the ice falls just above Base Camp. Most people will fly from Kathmandu to the infamous Lukla Airport at around 2,600m above sea level, considered the scariest airport in the world (I can testify to that!), and then trek for 8-10 days to reach Base Camp at 5,350m.
Trekkers will cover short distances (3-6 miles) every day and allow for acclimatisation days in between, for example at Namche Bazaar, to ensure they reach the top safely. The trekking route is well marked and, as I flew over the path on a helicopter, I couldn’t help but realise that the hardship is not in the physical effort but in the altitude and the thinner air at such heights. As the trek is covered by a few thousand people every year infrastructure to cater to tourists is well developed with several guest houses and even proper hotels along the way, such as the Everest View Hotel, to make the journey a treat. Most trekkers will hire yaks, dzo plyos (yak-cow hybrids) and Sherpas, the name given to the local Nepalese people who live in the area, to carry their equipment and supplies. An English-speaking guide is not a requirement but it is useful for understanding the local culture and finding your way, although locals are known to point trekkers in the right direction if they get lost – where else would a Westerner go in such remote lands!
Trekking to the Nepali Base Camp is an easy to organise trip with a multitude of travel agencies offering the service and permits with set departures in groups to share the costs and logistics and, unless a natural disaster like an earthquake or avalanche hits, the treks are almost guaranteed. Even in case of a disaster, most of the trip to Base Camp is safe from avalanches so should still go ahead. And if money’s no object, you can always rent a helicopter and make it a sightseeing morning.
Reaching North Everest Base Camp in Tibet
The walk up to Everest Base Camp
Reaching Everest Base Camp on the Tibetan side is even easier than on the Nepali side as you can drive all the way to the top from Lhasa on the well paved 900km new road. However, this also carries its risks, as you could potentially reach Base Camp from sea level in three days without proper acclimatisation and suffer severe altitude sickness or even die. The fact that it is possible does not mean it should be done.
The Tibetan Base Camp is reached by a well paved road almost all the way until the tourist camp, about 10km from the climbers’ camp. From there, all tourists must take the buses managed by the government to limit the traffic in the last stretch of gravel road to a marked hill at 5,200m above sea level just before the climbers’ camp. You could also trek up from the tourist camp, but unless you managed to properly acclimatise, you will not have the energy to do so. We didn’t, despite having spent seven days at altitudes above 3,600m.
As there is not much from the moment you enter the Qomolangma National Park where the mountain is located, until the Rongbuk Monastery, a couple of kilometers away from the tourist camp, most visitors will arrive in the evening and spend a night at camp or at the monastery’s guest house before taking the bus to Base Camp in the early morning and then leaving the park.
The park’s snaking and head spinning road climbs all the way up to over 5,000m then descends in a mirror series of 360 degree bends that will test the most experienced road tripper. Those 60km were the scariest and most stomach churning of the entire trip and I cannot imagine what they would have been like before the road was paved.
Tying a flag at Everest Base Camp
For the last 100km from the park entry until Base Camp, there is barely any life at either side of the pavement, as not much lives at such altitudes. There is not a lot to see or do inside the park to the non-climber and the altitudes are harsh on anyone, so a quick entry and exit is most recommended. This may however change, as the Chinese government has announced the construction of a museum, resort and helipad a few kilometers away from Base Camp which will fetch customers in an out and make it even easier to get to.
Although the South Base Camp is dangerous because of the icefall, the North Base Camp suffers from an unstoppable wind that never seems to appease. Our guide confirmed that it blows all year round, further dropping the temperatures, especially at night, due to the wind chill factor. We certainly felt it. Also, as the climbers camp is on the shadow of the mountain, the sun does not begin to shine until well into the day whereas the Nepali side has sun from sunrise to sunset.
Reaching North Base Camp on the Tibetan side is so easy and accessible that some of the other tourists snapping selfies were wearing skirts and heels, as if they were taking pictures of the Tour Eiffel. The tourist tented camp even advertised free WiFi although we don’t think it actually worked, but our 3G mobile SIM card certainly did and I had perfect coverage up there to broadcast Instagram stories, when my phone did not shut down because of the cold. The permanent structure also provides an additional income source to the locals who sell souvenirs and fossils from when the mountain was a sea. Hard to tell how much of it was actually real versus what was mass produced in a Chinese factory.
We did enjoy pancakes for breakfast and a home-made noodle soup for dinner as we slept in one of the local tents. The full Tibetan experience was complemented by the tent’s stove heated with yak dung, and the local liquor we got to try to keep warm. It was however incredibly cold inside as we were basically sleeping at the same temperature as it was outside with five layers of thick blankets that made it impossible to move, the high elevation worsening sleep and the cold freezing my nose and toes. It was probably one of the toughest nights I have ever spent, but the starry night against the mountain was a sight to behold.
So, should you visit Base Camp from Tibet or from Nepal?
If you are only a tourist not a climber, don’t have the stamina, preparation or time to trek to Base Camp and cannot afford the helicopter trip, then Tibet side is a more accessible way to see Everest from up close. However, it does come with its risks of altitude sickness and without the safety of helicopter rescue teams that are available on the Nepalese side.
What makes the Tibetan side more appealing to a visitor is the possibility to spend the night at camp, something which is not possible if you take the helicopter to Base Camp in Nepal. And the stars above our heads against the mountain top were simply stunning. If you can battle the ice-cold temperatures.
If you are after the trek, Nepal is best as it is made for the experience and journey of slowly getting there. Trekking to the Tibetan Base Camp would seem strange, since the area is well developed and the traffic would deter from the feeling of nature. There are however treks from Tingri to Base Camp in Tibet but I can’t imagine the views and the landscapes are half as beautiful as on the Nepali side.
View from Everest Base Camp
Which side offers the best views? I thought Nepal had a more scenic view with Everest’s peak topping a high mountain range. But the Tibetan side offered a clearer image of the mountain, standing tall and alone in the middle of a horseshoe valley for extra drama.
If you want to climb all the way to the summit, Nepal still offers a more reliable option as permits are guaranteed and easier to obtain, whereas Tibet suffers from political instability and a cumbersome series of checkpoints and permit requirements, including a visa to China, a permit to Tibet, an additional Alien’s permit to Everest park and, lastly, a mountaineering permit. This makes it an administrative nightmare subject to the comings and goings of Chinese diplomacy who may decide to close the mountain from time to time or simply cancel the permits for some nationalities, as it happened with the US passport in 2015, this is after you may have spent the whopping amount of USD60,000 to prepare for the climb. The North route is however thought to be easier to succeed in as there are no natural risks like the Khumbu Icefall.
Regardless of the logistics, the landscapes on the Nepalese side are more varied, more colourful and more beautiful, as the Tibetan side is primarily devoid of any life save for some sturdy yaks and grub.
You can’t trek, drive or take a helicopter to Base Camp? The next best option is to fly from Lhasa to Kathmandu and be at the left side of the plane for that stunning above-the-clouds view of the world’s highest mountain. And for those who couldn’t join you, you can mail the park’s entry ticket from the Base Camp Post Office in Tibet as a postcard.