Above about 4000m an altitude headache seems to lurk perpetually at the edges of your brain, the pain almost-present even if it’s not quite making itself known at any particular momement. In the piercing cold of the lodges, this can drag you down. Yet out on the trail, the captivating vistas eclipse any discomfort. As we approached our goal, Everest Base Camp, the landscape changed from an almost Alpine scenery, albeit on a larger scale, to a barren, violent moonscape.Frilled ridges of ice soar up out of an uncompromising valley floor, on which tonnes of grey rubble have been dumped by an historic glacier, leaving a textbook landscape of moraines, U-shaped valleys and erratics. The environment is bleak, stripped down, yet also hauntingly beautiful, evoking an elemental response of awed joy. Looking at my surroundings made my spirit soar in response and I felt privileged to be there. Under a dazzling blue sky it’s difficult not to be buoyed up by a magnificent feeling which lifts the heart until it feels on a level with the summits stroking the sky.
By Day 11 of our trip we are at serious altitude, over 5000m. The sense of being present in this timeless landscape, however briefly, is even more dizzying than the rarified, patchy air. The pockmarked Khumbu Glacier is flung below us, scattered with ash grey stones and dust, as we plod up and down the seam of lateral moraine at its edge.The top fringe of the moraine looks artificial, the stonewashed, dove grey of the glacial deposits topped by the darker shadows of the mountain face. The mountains themselves look like drawings in a child’s picture book, so perfectly steep, sharp and triangular do they appear agains the shifting canvas of the sky, its shades changing every few minutes as the sun and clouds play their skittish games above. They are padded with sculpted ice, which has a serrated, combed effect as if it has been done with deliberate precision by an icy artist. The glacier is studded with occasional frozen lakes, revealing the impregnable thickness of the ice above, hinting at the depths which might lie below.
We scramble over boulders, sometimes following behind our yaks with our bags lashed to their strong furry backs, their bells tinkling sweetly as they sway stoutly uphill, sometimes struggling alone in silence against the incline. The views are capricious, but the one constant is the mountains. They are always there, even if they are skulking behind cloud. Impassive, foreboding, challenging, enthralling, powerful, soul-stirring. In all their guises, I can’t get enough of them.The environment is tough, the conditions in the lodges often rudimentary, nearly always bone-numbingly cold, but these views make it all worthwhile. It’s uplifting just to be here.
Eventually we are rewarded with our first glimpse of Everest Base Camp (EBC). Tiny grapefruit yellow domes perch on the rock-strewn ice of the glacier. Behind lies the mini-mountain landscape of the notorious Khumbu Icefall, with irregular peaks like whipped eggs. This will be our home for the next three days. The camp is dwarfed by the peaks stretching their arms above and by the serrated glacier spilling out in front. Above everything is stretched the impossibly blue basin of the sky, a rich cornflower blue glowing with vitality. When we finally arrive at the canvas sign flapping in the breeze to mark the entrance to EBC it is an emotional moment. Hot tears spill in the cold air. We embrace, marvel, snap photos and then wend our weary way down the icy path to find the Xtreme Everest headquarters, delighted to have arrived, yet in the moment, scarcely able to comprehend it.