The trail from Lukla airport to Everest Base Camp climbs from an altitude of 2840m to a head-spinning, lung-grasping 5364m. Yet this is no wilderness trek. The route is flecked with hikers kitted out in expensive outdoor gear; porters bent under impossible loads; fleets of furry yaks ferrying local supplies and trekkers’ kit up and down the hills; and local Nepalese going about their business. This might be the Himalayas, but the Khumbu region of eastern Nepal is home to over 150,000 Sherpas and the bustle of daily life is much in evidence. As well as the local colour there is plenty of camaraderie among the walkers, as we wish each other luck and enquire anxiously about conditions higher up. We meet other Xtreme Everest groups coming back down from Base Camp, a group of doctors and a group of Sherpas participating in the same medical research as us. They tell us that night-time temperatures are as low as -20 degrees Celsius. My bone marrow shivers at the thought.
Along the path are bright clusters of teahouses and squat white stupas topped with gold spires like helter-skelters. Prayer flags like five-coloured bunting flutter from stupas, prayer walls (manis), and the suspension bridges strung taut across the Dudh Kosi river. The colours are symbolic: blue is for the sky, white is for cloud, red for fire, green for the earth and yellow for the sun. The toasty tang of wood fires haunts the air in the villages and the gentle jangling of yak bells adds a melodious audio backdrop. The local people are warm and friendly in a shy way. Cute grubby kids with crusty noses greet us with a sweet ‘namaste’ as they press their palms together in a prayer-like salutation. Endless wooden teahouses with elaborately decorated doors and windows offer the weary walker a respite from the trail with hot drinks, homemade cakes, wifi and even the promise of ‘heli rescue’.
The main attraction is of course the natural scenery, which is awe-inspiring and almost defies description. We are surrounded by majestic peaks whose craggy, ice-encrusted faces claw the sky at a scale it’s difficult to fully absorb. We walk beneath them like a mini colony of ants in an amphitheatre of splendour. The mountain montage is ever-changing, presenting us with a kaleidoscope of glaring blue skies, innocent white clouds and pewter ones that scowl sulkily. At various times of the day, the snow on the summits and slopes glints coldly like polished steel; at other times the peaks disappear modestly behind clouds; sometimes they drape themselves in melancholy mists.
Our first glimpse of Everest was on the climb up from Monjo to Namche Bazaar, the Sherpa capital and a thronging centre of outdoor shops and coffee shops laid out on the mountainside in blue-roofed tiers. Our eyes goggled and our cameras clicked as we peered at the classic pyramid summit, topped with a plume of cloud like steam from a kettle. Below the peak the infamous Lhotse ridge was etched in snow like the icing on a cake. Over the following days we were rewarded with more views, each time the huge mass of rock appearing slightly closer. Eagles and buzzards whirl around us, coasting on thermals like surfers catching the perfect wave. When Everest was hiding coyly, we drank in the spectacle of other mountains like the bulky Ama Dablam, Mera Peak and Nuptse. Along with the thin air, the beautiful visual assault gives you a heady, almost drunk feeling. At every turn the vista seems to surpass itself and the views of these glorious peaks dipped in early morning sunlight which awaits us most mornings when we fling back our curtains makes up for the freezing rooms inside. Our path will take us onward and upward, with more views to marvel at yet to come. So long as we can keep the altitude sickness at bay, nothing can keep us from Everest Base Camp!