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Approximately 30,000 people take on the challenge of the Everest base camp trek each year. With the opportunity to explore one of the world's most stunning environments and interact with the communities that call it home, we’ve got to ask ourselves — at what price do we get to see that view?
Mount Everest, also known by local peoples as Chomolunga and Sagamartha, has long held mythical status for the mountaineering world. Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary first proved the impossible possible when they summited the 8,848m mammoth back in 1953. Ever since then, the peak has fascinated, intimidated and inspired generations of climbers.
The chase for high altitude euphoria is not just limited to professional alpinists though, as each year thousands of plucky trekkers tie their laces and grab their walking poles in hope of reaching Everest Base Camp (EBC). This in itself is no small feat – the trek to Mt Everest base camp leads you up to 5,330m above sea level and can only be reached by foot after crossing rocky terrain, vast steppe and several killer inclines.
As I recently found out firsthand, hiking in EBC’s Sagamartha National Park means taking part in a well-oiled outdoor machine. This machine is driven by thousands of guides, carried by an army of porters and dependent on the generosity of the local Sherpa people.
While your trekking (and money) is helping to boost a local economy and raise the standard of living, it’s also putting pressure on what is a fragile environment and infrastructure.
Impacted the most by this fascination in Everest are the Nepalese people. The Nepal government has aimed to attract two million visitors each year by 2020. That's twice the number of people who live in Nepal drawing on its resources each year.
Nepal is well on the way to attracting that many people. In the first four months of 2019, the country saw 445,109 international visitors, with China ranking highest in visitor numbers.
Sadly, it’s no surprise that Everest has become associated with overtourism and the unsustainable dumping of waste on the mountain. In 2019, climber Nirmal Purja took a photo of the final push to the top of Everest. It became a viral representation of where things can go wrong in our endeavours to accomplish our dreams. Beyond the risks posed to people as represented by Nirmal's image, there are also tonnes of food packaging, used climbing equipment, and spent oxygen bottles that litter the mountain.
Whether it’s a matter of where human waste is being dumped, how rubbish is being collected or if the wood-burning in your tea house is contributing to deforestation, the effects of thousands of trekkers are visible everywhere.
There are ways to make a personal difference though. For one thing, you can carry a reusable water bottle and have a stash of purification tablets on hand (they’re easy to buy in Kathmandu city). This way you can drink any tea house tap water and you’ll save a heap of plastic.
Showers aren't common on the trail, but at the end of each trekking day, you’ll want to dust off. Avoid wet wipes. Most are not biodegradable. Instead, have a dedicated small microfibre towel that you can dampen with water to quickly wash with.
Plastic and other materials are a big problem on the mountain, so carry all your rubbish out of the park, avoid snacks that are individually wrapped and avoid plastic bags at shops. If you leave your trash on the trail, the locals are likely to either bury it or burn it, neither being good for the environment.
Around the most famous treks in Nepal, most notably the Everest base camp trek, are towns that both benefit and have to deal with growing tourism numbers.
Hikers will most commonly travel from Lukla to Everest base camp (Lukla is known as the gateway to the Khumbu, or Everest, region). The trail from Lukla to Everest base camp and the town itself are heavy footfall areas, with tourists placing significant pressure on services such as rubbish collection. Locals of Lukla and those who live by the Lukla to Everest base camp trail have to burn tonnes of rubbish every day, filling the air with toxic gases.
Single-use plastic water bottles make up a significant percentage of this rubbish, so remember to pack your water bottle and iodine tablets to collectively have a huge impact on how much rubbish these communities have to deal with. Toilet paper also litters the trail to Everest, so be sure to follow the Leave No Trace philosophy when it comes to your own waste.
Check out Episode 2 of Kathmandu's Helpful or Harmful campaign below to learn more about tourism in Nepal.
Trekking in Nepal is big business. While it provides thousands of jobs, exploitation of labour can be an issue. Most guided Everest base camp treks employ a guide and crew of porters to carry trekkers’ duffel bags. They will set off before breakfast and have your gear ready and waiting for you at the next tea house come end of the day.
The strength and stamina of these porters are incredible to witness, but it’s important to remember that they’re not superheroes. By law, a porter’s maximum load should be no more than 25kg, but on the trails, you may see porters carrying far more. When choosing your trekking crew, find a company that uses local experts, respects porters' rights, and is environmentally conscious. A good company will be transparent when it comes to their employee benefits.
Also, make friends with your crew and tip them at the end of the trip. While they do receive a salary (which should be up to scratch if you’ve found a good company), tipping has become customary on guided treks and a little extra love goes a long way.
Lastly, if you’re heading elsewhere after Nepal and have no need for your trekking gear, consider lightening your pack by donating your boots, day pack or second down jacket to the crew. If anyone is going to appreciate it, these guys and girls will!
The Everest base camp trek takes around 16 days for hikers and can be a challenging hike at times, due to both the terrain and the high altitude.
At an elevation of 5,545 metres above sea level, the trek to Everest base camp can affect even the fittest of people. Altitude sickness can affect anyone, which is why it is important to take things slowly and monitor how you feel along the way.
So, is the trek to Everest base camp safe? Aside from the hair-raising flight from Kathmandu to Lukla, the gateway to the Everest region, there is little to be worried about in terms of dangers when it comes to the trek. Locals are some of the friendliest in the world, but it pays to be as smart as you would if you were to travel anywhere else in the world.
It is best to do the trek with local guides, who are a great resource for avalanche-prone areas, such as the valleys that follow Landruk, while they can help prepare you for the shifts in altitude as you walk to Everest base camp.
An Everest base camp trek takes you not only through some of the world’s most epic landscapes (Thokla Pass will blow your mind) but also through a collection of traditional villages. Every day sees you wake up in a new town where you’re invited to explore local customs, eat local foods and meet local people (try a yak steak if you’re adventurous).
You will mostly be encountering Sherpa culture. Many people confuse the term ‘Sherpa’ with ‘porter’ believing it’s a direct translation. This is not the case, Sherpa actually means ‘easterner’ and refers to a group of over 150,000 people living mountain-side across Nepal, Tibet, and India.
The ethnic Sherpa people of Nepal live in the Solu-Khumbu region, along the Kosi River, and have proven themselves incredible mountaineers. As such, they have become an essential part of Himalayan ascents. That said, these mountains are the home of their gods and so as foreign guests we’ve got to make sure we’re climbing and hiking with the utmost respect.
The short Australian documentary, Sherpa, is a great way to become more familiar with the lives of these communities.
Even if you’re not attempting to summit Everest, you can support these regions by spending time and money in Namche Bazaar, one of the cultural hotspots. Take the time to chat with locals, visit the Sherpa museum and generally find out more about Sherpa life. It will renew your respect for the work they do on the mountain.