The Road to Everest

Trekking to the Top of the World
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Day 1 (Jiri)
After a 12-hour bus ride with boxes of chickens, goat heads, religious men in dreadlocks, and urinating babies, we're at last beginning our hike into the Solu Khumbu region of Nepal's Himalayas. If all goes according to plan, we'll reach a promontory near the Everest Base Camp in just under three weeks. Though our ultimate goal is still almost 12,000 feet from the summit, the trek should introduce us to the local cultures, offer spectacular views of the towering Himalayas, and ultimately give us a first-hand glimpse of the world's tallest peak.

Tonight, Jill and I sleep in Jiri, a trade conduit for the entire Solu Khumbu. The road from Kathmandu ends here, and beyond this outpost there are only footpaths, tiny villages and high-alpine routes used by expeditions for the past seventy-five years. Though it is possible to fly to Lukla, shaving about a week from the Everest trek, we look forward to the leisurely pace that our schedule will allow.

I write from a kerosene-lamp kitchen, where we've just been discussing the likelihood of success for our trip. To expert mountaineers, Everest is an obstacle to be surmounted, to the Nepalese or Tibetans, it is revered as Sagamartha, but to novice trekkers the objective is to get a clear view of the mountain up close—a goal dictated by weather and timing. What we share is a common attraction for this slab of broken rock jutting over five miles in the sky—a quest for answers from this undeniably impressive region.

Since the beginning of the century, Westerners have been trying to find their place on the top of the world. In the early going, it was George Mallory and Eric Shipton who led grand expeditions, but not until 1953 could Edmund Hillary declare, "We finally knocked the bastard off!" Despite the accomplishment, people still come. More and more every year, like pilgrims seeking enlightenment.

What is there to be learned, up there in the sky? That was a question I hoped the next few weeks would answer.

Day 4 (Goyem)
From Kenja, we hike up a steep switch-backing trail towards Lamjura La, our highest pass yet. Eventually, after several exhausting hours, we walk along ridges, with stunning views of the river valley below. In the mist and silence, the trail is ours, with only a few stray porters carrying 50-pound loads with bare feet. We continue up into the clouds. Near small stone houses, frayed prayer flags snap in the wind. In the far distance, to the north, I see snow-capped peaks. Kenja is somewhere in the valley several thousand feet below, where sunlight and shadow mix in the trickle of a river.

Nepal was a kingdom closed to foreigners until 1948, when it first allowed groups visiting for "scientific interests." Before then, approaching Everest from Tibet was more feasible, though the Tibetans were also wary of colonial powers. In 1921, the Dalai Lama granted permission to the Royal Geographic Society, allowing George Mallory a month to explore the Everest region, then known by its local name Sagamartha. Sherpas and three climbers made it as high as the North Col, at 22,700 feet, whetting their appetite for the higher reaches of the mountain.

We climb higher still, and the latticed farmlands are replaced by thick forests of blue pine, fir, and juniper—flowers the Sherpas burn in ceremonies, much like Native American tribes used sage. The rhododendrons are in bloom: big, full trees blossoming red and pink and white. They sweeten the air and mingle with trail dung. As light fades, we reach the dirty little village of Goyen, where we sleep in a barn. Early tomorrow we will cross the pass and head for Junbesi, at the bottom of the next valley.

Day 6 (Sherpa Country)
Today we cross into Sherpa country."Shar-pa" is Tibetan for "Eastern People," as they migrated great distances to escape the Mongol invasions. For a thousand years, monks have carved and colored the land with religious art—water wheels, bells, and flags fill the air with celestial prayer. We pass mani-stone piles, rocks and stone tablets piled high and etched with prayer and ancient scripture. Word here, is often written in stone.

The rain comes fast, from nowhere, and I duck my head low stepping into a stone farm house. We drip wet in the small kitchen and sit down for hot tea and chili soup. The house is half-finished—with exposed stonework and half-cut planks. Puree Sherpa, the owner, tells me of his dream to build a guest house. His daughter, Pora, is a guide—now out in the Everest region with a group from France. His two youngest daughters, Tapai and Nee, are here in the warm kitchen, helping their mother fix our dal bhat.

Am Nam Du, Puree's wife, looks to be about 30. In a controlled fury, she stokes the hearth's fire, crushes peppers with her mortar and pestle, peels and fries the knotty potatoes with leafy greens, and tastes her lentil broth with slurps from the ladle. The meal is served with rice, and we devour three heaping plates, famished from eight hours of tramping over river and mountain with 35 pounds strapped to our backs.

From their hospitality, it's clear to me why Sherpas fame as loyal guides and trusted porters is well established. Puree tells us that Sherpas were the first to lose lives in the race to conquer Everest. In 1922, an avalanche on the South Col caught nine Sherpas off guard, and seven died.

Now that we've finished eating, the family starts their own meal. We're still a long way off, but the big mountains seem closer today. Puree tells me the easy part is behind us. He and Am Nam Du insist we sleep in their bed.

Day 7 (Phuktyang)
Today we have our first view of Everest, and it makes the week of pain, blisters, and backaches all seem worthwhile. It was 5:30 in the morning, and from our guest house I could see a saw-toothed horizon of snow-capped mountains to the north-east. On the far left is Everest, and from this vantage it is dwarfed by some of the other peaks. But a necklace cloud around the summit indicates its height, and distance.

I wonder if George knew this excitement before he lost his life to the mountain in 1935. In the early afternoon, he was spotted briefly through a hole in the clouds, within striking distance of the summit. Then a storm blew in, and he was never seen again.

We start out early, walking among the edelweiss, primrose, and mountain poppy. I spot my first Yak, and am startled by its long horns and thick fur. It seems perfectly suited to live in these high mountains and to walk the steep trails.

I salute the beast and walk on.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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