Beginning the Journey to Basecamp
Picking up where I left off—our journey began as soon as we finished our tea and breakfast at Lukla. The trek took us up steep rocky hills, past Buddhist stone carvings, over towering suspension bridges, and through charming Nepali farms. After a number of hours, we arrived at Phakding, a rather small village that sits alongside the Dudh Koshi—one of the major rivers that flows through the Khumbu Region (it’s name means “Milk River” for its white color). We had not yet caught an up-close glimpse of the impressive mountains one pictures when they envision the Himalayas. Instead, the landscape was filled with rolling green hills. However, the foreign atmosphere of our accommodations served as a reminder that these hills were far from Tennessean.
We stayed at a quaint tea house on the hillside called ‘The Mountain Resort.’ It’s bright amber wood walls, oriental tapestries, and dining hall lined with photos of successful mountaineers served as a reminder that I was in a completely different world. It was hard to believe that I was finally in the very region I had dreamt of visiting for many years—surrounded by the tallest mountains in the world and one of the most vibrant cultures in the far east. Exciting as it was, the realization that I was in this strange new place was equally intimidating. I had much to learn. Exhausted from the 4-hour bus ride to Ramechhap Airport, nerve-wracking flight to Lukla, and long trek to Phakding, I quickly fell asleep. The mystery of all that lied ahead burned in my mind.
The Trek to Namche
The next morning we set out for Namche Bazar. An ascent of over 1,000 feet and distance of 7.5 miles, this was my first realization that the trek to Base Camp would be more grueling than I first imagined. The rocky, dry, and dusty trail resembled steep uneven stairs. On one side, the hills continued up into the sky. On the other, a terrifying drop off threatened 200-feet of steep cliffside down into the Dudh Koshi. With the heavy traffic of yaks, mules, and porters on the trail, it was not unheard of for bottlenecks on the trail to end in an incidental fall. Just last year, a man lost his balance when pushed by a yak. He fell over the edge, tumbling down the cliffside and into the river to his death. In the Himalayas, there are no safety nets, guard rails, or ambulances. It is real terrain with real, life-threatening consequences. In an effort to remind us of the dangers of such sharp drop-offs along the trail, Ram (our guide) continually called out, “Inside is safe side. Outside is suicide!”
Only a few minutes into the trek, the rolling hills suddenly opened up to reveal massive mountains looming in the distance. The drastic change from the day prior reminded me that we were truly venturing into the wild. The diversity of the landscape—and challenges of living within it—grew with every step, as we continued deeper into the mountains. Signaling our official transition into the backcountry was a large gate that read “Sagarmatha National Park”—the home of the tallest mountains in the world. The park, located in northeast Nepal on the Tibetan border, is among the most well-known, all thanks to one thing—Everest. In fact, Sagarmatha is the Nepali name for Everest, which comes from Sagar meaning “sky” and Matha meaning “head.” By crossing the gate, we were one step closer to the top of the world. While we had far to go, simply the knowledge that I was entering this land felt like a huge accomplishment.
After nearly 8 hours of trekking, we arrived at Namche Bazar, the largest of the Sherpa villages. Tucked into the mountainside, Namche is home to approximately 1,600 residents. Like Lukla, it serves as a gateway to the high Himilayas, making it a popular destination for mountaineers and climbers alike. In addition, because the village stands at just over 11,000 feet of elevation, it is often used for acclimatization—so most trekkers stay for multiple nights to get used to the altitude. For these reasons, Namche Bazar’s economy rests almost exclusively on tourism. Everything is catered to Western travelers. It has stores filled with counterfeit brands, coffee shops with WiFi, an official North Face store, and even a tea house that bore the branding of ‘Comfort Inn.’ It was obvious… the locals knew their audience.
Acclimatizing in Namche
Like most trekkers, our team spent an additional night in Namche Bazar for acclimatization. Normally, acclimatization days consist of climbing to a higher elevation then returning back to a lower altitude to rest again that night, conditioning your body to grow used to the thinning oxygen levels. In order to accomplish this, we ascended approximately 1,300 feet to a lookout point in Sagarmatha National Park. At this point stood a beautiful memorial to Tenzing Norgay—the Sherpa climber that summited Everest alongside Edmund Hillary during the first ascent in 1953. From this spot, we caught our first glimpse of Everest, looming far behind the summer haze and hidden by Nuptse’s jagged ridgeline. Looking at its massif against bright blue sky was a wakeup call to just how far our team had to travel—all on foot—before reaching the base of the mountain.
Next to the Tenzing memorial was a small plaque with two rocks resting upon it. These rocks were from the Dead Sea in Israel—the lowest point on earth. In a similar fashion, two rocks from the peak of Everest rest upon another monument 3,000 miles away at the Dead Sea. These humble memorials stand as a reminder of Earth’s the vast size and the unity of its people—that stones from the highest and lowest points in the world might be exchanged in an act of symbolism. Having visited the Dead Sea just last summer, this was a particularly special moment. I knew that in a matter of days, I would have stood at the lowest point on earth, as well as the gateway to the highest point on earth.
Learning about the Region
In Namche Bazar, my understanding of the people, culture, and economy of the region began to take shape. Prior to my trip, I had been excited about understanding one thing—the Sherpa. My goal was to learn about this near mythical people group and their relationship with the mountaineering industry. But I quickly learned that while the Sherpa are well known and celebrated for their impressive ability to navigate the mountains, they are not alone. In fact, Nepal is home to over 123 different ethnic groups, and many of them serve as part of the climbing and trekking industry in the Khumbu region. Not just the Sherpa.
In addition, because of the well-known stories and popularity of the Sherpa in their impact on the Everest climbing tradition, the word “Sherpa” is often overused. Tea houses, restaurants, clothing brands, and even food dishes are called Sherpa—all because the local Nepali people are aware of the Western fascination with the people group. Unfortunately, none of these things authentically belonged to the Sherpa ethnic people. In fact, it seemed almost rare that I encountered any Sherpa. None of my guides were Sherpa, none of the store owners were Sherpa, and few of the people I encountered while trekking were Sherpa. This was quite disappointing, but I later learned that there was a reason for their rarity.
The Mountain Conditions
One day I took a walk around Namche Bazar alone to take in the environment and make a few observations. I encountered numerous children and locals, all of which were extremely kind, although often reserved (with the exception of the kids). As I strolled through the community, I started to notice a theme. The accommodations for tourists, while basic and nothing special, were quite nice. They normally included a clean room with two beds, a blanket for each bed, one bath on hall, and a community dining area. Of course, the quality of the accommodations in the Khumbu Region declined as we gained altitude, but generally they were suitable.
The locals, however, lived in awful conditions. Their homes were small shacks, often dirty and falling apart, and they lacked sufficient electricity or water. Only the shop or tea house owners enjoyed the same quality commodities as tourists, while their employees and the local agricultural workers lacked such spoils. Namche Bazaar is also the only village in all of the Khumbu with a major hospital—but even this hospital is still quite primitive. Any major medical needs require transport to Lukla or Kathmandu. In fact, it is not unheard of for pregnant women to take the two-day, 11 mile journey from Namche Bazar to Lukla before childbirth. When it comes to heart attacks, cancer, or other critical conditions, most mountain locals suffer or pass away. There is a reason that few live to be old in the mountains.
Based on my observations, Namche Bazar suffers from major inequality—and tourists are part of the problem. While I have no hard data to verify this (and it is doubtful that I could ever retrieve such data), it seems as if the majority of utilities (water and electric) are consumed by tourists, leaving the locals with whatever remains. Given the lack of infrastructure and isolated location, Namche Bazar certainly does not enjoy copious amounts of water or energy. Electricity is supplied by a nearby hydro-plant, but relies on the flow of glacier-fed rivers. With the economic necessity of tourism, the locals seemed content taking a back seat.