Convenient though it might be for visitors with limited time at their disposal, the short flight to Lukla, just thirty miles south of base camp, is a poor introduction for those who seek the ultimate Everest experience. They are denied the many diverse and interesting facets of the foothills approach - passage through terraced fields and lowland forest, the fascinating villages made of mud and thatch rather than of stone and wood, and the culture which is frequently Hindu rather than Buddhist.
I have always preferred and enjoyed starting my expeditions from Kathmandu by road rather than by air; this has something to do with the immediacy of contact with the country and its people. The journey from Kathmandu to Jiri is a bumpy ride by bus or jeep, but compensation comes on the rim of the Kathmandu valley and at other high points along the way where there are tantalising glimpses of the peaks of Jugal and Rolwaling - the first crystal bound portents of Himalayan giants to come. From the road head at Jiri the trail strikes out east into a region predominately of farmland. It is a relaxing environment and there is time to take stock and adjust to the pace of life in the Nepalese foothills.
It takes three days to cross the valleys of the Khimti and Likhu Khola rivers on route to the 3530 metre Lamjura Pass, the unofficial but obvious gateway to the Khumbu. The Lamjura is directly on the flight path of the heavily laden aircraft heading for Lukla, and on occasion it is almost possible to see the whites of the pilot's eyes.
The steep descent from the pass leads through rhododendron forest into the alpine valley of Junbesi and towards the isolated village of Solung. At this point a fine panorama slowly opens out to the north and east and offers the first distant views of the peaks of the upper Khumbu. Mera (6641m) and Kusum Kangguru (6369m) are very prominent, whilst the distant summit of Everest itself can also be identified above a cluster of lesser peaks. Nearer at hand is the striking cone of Numbur (6959m), one of the dominant peaks of the Rolwaling.
A final pass, the Tragsindo La (3071m), bars the way to the Dudh Kosi valley, and the trail climbs steadily through apple orchards before arriving at the chorten which marks its summit. A short way beyond, the first of many traditionally designed and decorated monasteries sets off a dramatic view of the peaks of Tramserku (6608m) and Kangtaiga (6779m) across the deep divide of the valley far below.
A feeling of anticipation invades most parties as they descend the fifteen hundred metres to the flimsy bridge which straddles the mighty Dudh Kosi river. For the next few days those tumbling milky white waters are the only reminder of what lies ahead. With the exception of Tramserku and brief glimpses of Cho Oyu at the head of the Gokyo Valley, all of the high mountains are hidden behind steep rocky ridges which support the upper retaining walls of the valley. All habitation clings tenuously to small terraces laboriously carved out of the mountainsides.
After a week of pleasant and peaceful walking, it comes as a shock to be confronted with the increased level of activity at the village of Chaunrikharka (2674m). It is here that the main trail, which until now has remained near to the bed of the valley, converges with the subsidiary but busier trail coming out of Lukla (2800m). From this point on the trail becomes highly developed and liberally serviced by lodges and teahouses.
North of Chaurikharka several side valleys penetrate the mountain mass to the east and provide fleeting glimpses of the summits of Kusum Kangguru and Tramserku far above. This section of the trail was rebuilt after being washed away by floodwater in 1985. It now crosses and recrosses the Dudh Kosi several times before negotiating a huge suspension bridge at the confluence of the Bhote Kosi and Imja Khola rivers.
Ahead is a steep climb of over six hundred metres to a natural amphitheatre which accommodates the main Sherpa settlement of Namche Bazaar (3441m). For those ashen-faced trekkers just a day out of Lukla this is a serious test of their fitness and resolve, but for those already acclimatised it is an opportunity to enjoy the developing views. Kongde Ri (6187m) fills the western horizon whilst Kusum Kangguru, Thamserku, Kangtaiga, Lhotse (8511m) and Everest (8848m) itself can be clearly seen to the south and east.
Namche Bazaar is a thriving and bustling community catering even for the most modern of trekkers' needs including hot showers, freshly baked bread and satellite communications. It also supports a visitor centre which, above all else, is one of the finest viewpoints in the area with a fine one hundred and eighty degree panorama of the surrounding peaks and valleys.
From Namche I always make a point of taking the high trail to visit two of the most charming and peaceful villages in the Khumbu, namely Khunde (3820m) and Khumjung (3790m). These very traditional sherpa villages have remained almost unchanged by the passage of time and offer the most incredible views of Kangtaiga and, next to Everest the most famous peak in the Khumbu, Ama Dablam (6856m).
Beyond, the trail plunges to the bed of the Imja Khola and the bridge at Phunki (3250m); thereafter it begins a long and tedious ascent to the ridge top at Thyangboche (3867m). Thyangboche is a very special place and the location evokes an atmosphere of mystique and anticipation. The view from the monastery must rank as one of the world's finest. Ama Dablam and Kangtega rise imposingly directly above, but one's eyes are drawn perpetually towards Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse whose towering ramparts fill the head of the valley just twelve miles away.
The character of the trail to Everest changes beyond Thyangboche; the protective forest canopy is finally left behind and the peaks which once filled the horizon now rise up steeply on every side. A diversion from the main trail above Pheriche (4,243m) offers superb views of Taweche (6,367m) and Cholatse (6,440m) and the entire length of the Imja Khola valley towards Makalu (8,475m). All trails converge beneath the terminal moraine of the Khumbu Glacier beyond which a short climb reveals a breathtaking view of the peaks at the head of the valley.
On an nearby moraine stands a line of memorials to Sherpas and climbers who have died on Everest. It is a fitting location within the shadows of the peaks they came to climb but overlooking the valleys and villages they knew and loved. The memorials are a poignant reminder of the frailty and insignificance of mankind relative to the immensity of the surrounding mountains and the tremendous forces of nature which have built them.
Many trekkers place their last camp en route to Everest beside the lodges at Lobuche (4,930m), perched beside the lateral moraine of the glacier. It is a long hard day's walk from there to Base Camp and back but many prefer Lobuche to the slightly higher and colder site of Gorak Shep (5,050m). Blessed with such outstanding scenery I see no sense in hurrying and prefer to establish an additional camp at Gorak Shep. Dominated by the spire of Nuptse and the snowy cone of Pumori (7,145m), it is a superb base for further exploration.
Content in the knowledge that a safe camp lies nearby it is now possible to follow the sometimes indistinct trail over moraine, between seracs and past expedition debris to reach the cluster of tents which is known as Base Camp. Apart from its strategic significance and proximity to the tumbling mass of the Khumbu lcefall there is little in its merit. A far better objective is to ascend to the summit of the rocky peak of Kala Pattar (5,545m) on the south east ridge of Pumori.
Looking out from Kala Pattar directly across the maze of the Khumbu glacier, one is presented with a totally unobstructed view of the assemblage of steep rock walls, ice fluted ridges and hanging glaciers which culminate in the ultimate trinity: Nuptse, Lhotse and, above all else, Everest. The view is best seen in the clear air of early morning or when the evening sun paints ever changing patterns and colours on these icy ramparts.
For those without summit aspirations, this is the climax of the trek and the place where lifetime dreams of Everest are finally realized. The moment should be savoured. Everest may be in the public domain, but the experience is very personal; be mindful of Everest's mountaineering history and role in local culture and the experience will also be emotionally charged and memorable.
This article was originally published in the magazine 'Climber' in 1994