What is it about Mt Everest Base Camp (EBC) at 5380m above sea level that is such a drawcard for Kiwis? Thousands of New Zealanders pay good money and trek over one hundred kilometers (in wintertime, in sub-freezing temperatures) seemingly to visit a collection of rocks and prayer flags at ‘base camp’. Granted, in the climbing-season EBC is the staging point for summit attempts of the tallest mountain on earth, however interesting fact, trekkers to EBC never actually step foot ‘on’ Mt Everest. Why bother then?
Adventure Magazine talks with Robert Bruce, founder of Got to Get Out who just completed his fourth group trek to the region, this time leading thirty (mostly) Kiwis to EBC return while also navigating some drama at 5,000m above sea level. He explains the drawcard and why he believes EBC is an educational and cultural rite of passage for Kiwis if you are prepared.
Where did your interest in Nepal first come about? Got To Get Out (GTGO) is a social enterprise adventure group I founded in 2015. The group is designed to get Kiwis (or people living in New Zealand) active, outdoors, getting healthy and making friends. The whole premise of the group was to get people outdoors on safe and well-organised events, that ‘got people off the couch’. I never set out to become a particularly extreme outdoors operator, I just wanted to make it easy for people to get moving.
As I recall, back in 2015 no-one was really arranging free organized trips, so I guess GTGO was unique when I started writing on Facebook “who’s #gottogetout with me this weekend?”
It was while trekking through Nepal to Mt Everest Base Camp, my first trip to the region, that the idea of arranging group trips came about; I had recently left the corporate/marketing world, not exactly by choice, but looking back it was exactly the change I needed.
With some time on my hands, and a wee bit of redundancy money in my pocket, I opted to fly to Nepal and trek to Mt Everest Base Camp in winter, not due to any particular planning or interest, but because I was available right then and had the money. Looking back I could have travelled anywhere, but I suppose the words “Mt Everest” had brand allure or triggered some Kiwi sentimentality, even before I knew much about the region.
Before I left on that first trip, my mum thrust a paperback into my suitcase titled “Nothing Venture, Nothing Win” written by none other than Sir Edmund Hillary. At age 30, this book was my first real research into arguably New Zealand’s most famous man – and thanks to this book and this first trip my eyes were really opened to what he had achieved, not only by putting New Zealand on the map by climbing the world’s tallest peak with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953, but also by subsequently doing such good work for the people and communities and environment of Nepal. Something was certainly sparked within me back then, and on my return to NZ in January of 2015 I started Got To Get Out as a Facebook page running NZ based events, but quietly vowed to bring people back to the Himalayas in future, to also follow in ‘Sir Ed’s footsteps’.
Tell us about your first trip, what was that like? Back in 2015 I was pretty inexperienced; I certainly didn’t have free sponsored boots or gear like I do now! I had to buy or borrow it all myself. I really did not know what I was walking in to, literally, and had just paid some global travel brand that churn out EBC visits once a month.
I trekked with a nice multinational group of people, Brits Ozzy’s and a couple of Kiwis, and we did EBC together and became friends along the way. To call it a learning experience is probably a bit much, my recollection of that first trek (and my observation of other group leaders, since) is they take more of a personal-trainer approach; the guides are there to feed and water you, and get you safely to and from EBC. Perhaps due to the limited English of guides, there’s not much ‘teaching’ of the history per se, certainly not specifically to any Kiwi / Nepalese connection, anyway.
I have found you can learn far more about the region by reading books during the trip. I’ve become a bit of an Everest geek since that first trip, and read dozens of mountaineering and history books, to give myself more context to the history of the region, and in particular the Kiwi connection to the mountains. Today, I try to pass on this information to my guests, such as the amazing exploits of Edmund Hillary but also of other mountaineers like Rob Hall, who also fills several chapters of Kiwi mountaineering history.
In my first trip I remember being awe-struck by the huge swing bridges crossing back and forth across the Khumbu valley (some of which I would later learn, were installed by Sir Edmund Hillarys’ Himalayan Trust to help locals and mountaineers safely cross the rivers). I was also amazed by the many mules’ donkeys yaks and porters carrying huge loads up and down the route, and gobsmacked the first time I saw Mt Everest with its plume of ice blowing off it’s summit. The whole trek is a visual feast, and I for one am so glad the region (Sagarmatha National Park) has resisted commercialization, at least in the form of roads. Granted, it appears to be absolutely back-breaking work for the porters carrying supplies between towns piled high on their backs, but having now walked the Annapurna Circuit where human or animal porters have been replaced with lorries, I know which I prefer and I hope this never changes. Some things are better-leftoriginal.
What is it like getting to Mt Everest Base Camp itself? Getting to Mt Everest Base Camp the first time is certainly an achievement, one you remember forever. In general, you have climbed 500 or so vertical meters per day for about two weeks and covered around 10km of distance per day. Each day of walking takes the average person between 5-8 hours, depending on the regularity or length of stops and fitness and speed of the group.
In wintertime, which happens to be the only time I have visited Nepal, it’s certainly cold! The first few days from Lukla airport (called the Tenzing Hillary airport, another building arranged by Sir Edmund Hillary) are relatively warm. By relatively warm, I mean zero degrees thereabouts, in the daytime. It’s after arriving to the ‘Sherpa capital’ of Namche Bazar that temperatures start to really plummet. Each time I have visited EBC it has been colder than the last, which may be the result of changing global climates. To give readers an idea, when we visited EBC this January it was snowing and very windy. The wind was so strong that our lighter-weight guests had to lean their bodies against the wind to stand up, and some were worried about being knocked over. My guides estimated windchill of -30 degree Celsius on this day (in the middle of the day), and it certainly felt like it: take your glove off to snap a photo, and your fingers soon freeze! The interesting thing with the region in winter, is the weather is changeable: the Got To Get Out group split into two this year, and the first group to EBC reported fine clear conditions. One day later and it was a storm.
Basecamp itself is nothing like the movies. If you’ve watched films like “Everest” or any documentary on Himalayan mountain climbing you’re forgiven for expecting to see dozens of yellow alpine tents, and mountaineers in crampons walking among piles of expired oxygen bottles. You could even be forgiven for expecting to see bodies, at Basecamp(!). This is one of the most common questions I am asked “are there bodies at basecamp?”
I’m afraid this impression is all completely wrong, at least in December and January when I run trips to EBC. After days of trekking, hopefully dodging altitude sickness, while surviving with no showers or flushing toilets, you arrive to a very cold barren glacier, without much sign of life. There is no ‘tea tent’ welcome at EBC, you will only be greeted by a collection of ice, rocks, prayer flags, and perhaps mementos from past trekkers. There is also a bone-chilling cold like nothing I can explain in words. If you’re anything like the members of my groups, you get to base camp and spend only a few moments grabbing a selfie, then get the heck out of there back to Gorek Shep (the nearest town where you spend the night after EBC) to warm yourself in front of their yak-dung fireplace and hot masala tea.
EBC isn’t a place you ‘hang out’.
Winter doesn’t sound fun, why do you trek then? Winter in Nepal is actually a wonderful time to trek through the Himalaya due to there being far less crowds, clearer sky’s than summer, and lovely fresh cold air. The downside (some might say) is the at-times extreme cold (especially at night), and therefore often frozen facilities like toilets and water pipes. In winter there also can be slippery ice covering the usually grippy dirt tracks. I’ve seen many trekkers (and porters, alike) slip over, and narrowly miss breaking a wrist. Rubber stretchy crampons are a cheap purchase in Nepal, and all GTGO guests wear these at least across the worst ice. I strongly recommend this purchase in winter (approx. $10USD or 1100rupees).
Whilst it is true there is often no running water, and therefore no flushing loos, to me this is all part of the experience and you get used to it. Most important is to come with the expectation that ‘nothing will work like it does at home’ and you won’t be disappointed or surprised!
Lastly, don’t expect a shower in winter for the full fifteen days you are in the mountains. I suggest bringing wet wipes!
So why trek in winter? The real reason is that December and January are when most Kiwis have enough annual leave to complete the whole trip, so that’s when we go.
How much gear do you carry? Most people, certainly on my trips, opt to have a porter carry their main bag (usually their gear is in a duffel bag, often supplied by the trekking company) so the weight on your back (usually a 20 to 40liter pack) may only be 5kg depending on what you keep in your day-bag. Things like your camera, wallet, water, and some snacks for the day. Using a porter to carry your stuff certainly makes it more comfortable for guests and reduces the chances of overexerting, which is thought to be one trigger for altitude sickness. Paying for a porter (on our last trip, about $13US per day per person) also helps give a job to a Nepalese local and helps spread some tourist-dollars into the poorer regions of the Himalaya.
Trekkers are limited by how much they bring into the Himalaya in a few different ways. The first of course is the flight from home to Nepal, which is usually about a 30kg limit depending on the airline. One shouldn’t get carried away bringing too much to Nepal though, because you just must leave this stuff in your Kathmandu hotel for your return from the mountains. Once in Nepal it gets tighter; on the flight from Kathmandu to Lukla airport you are only meant to have around 10kg in your main-bag, and a further maximum 5kg in your carry-on (day bag). Finally, your porter is only meant to carry two or three bags totalling 30kg, so each guest is meant to keep their duffel at 10kg or less. To me, this is an honesty system: I for one wouldn’t want some poor tiny porter carrying all my unnecessary junk (or indeed, junk food): it’s best to pack light at each step of the way.
I personally self-carry my gear and have done for three of my four trips to Nepal mostly for the exercise benefit of weighted walking. On this most recent trip my pack weighed in at about 18kg. My pack is heavier than most due to a group first-aid kit (probably not needed as our guides have a kit, but I always go prepared), down jacket and pants for the extreme cold up high, sleeping bag (-40 comfort), spare merino underlayers (I only made two changes the whole trip, you don’t get naked much in these temperatures!), scroggin and snacks (again, probably not really needed due to the ease of buying food in Nepal but good for emergency). Other gear included a personal locator beacon, hut-shoes, battery pack, some paperwork relating to everyone’s insurances and flights, paper map, drink bottle (for when the Camelbak froze, from about 4500m), money, and of course a big camera. I was shooting with a brand-new Nikon mirrorless with two spare batteries. Got to get great shots! Call me old fashioned, but I had a book too, I have never gotten into Kindles.
It’s certainly easy to let the weight creep up if you don’t pack smart; asking around my group afterwards, I think hard-cover books, too many snacks from home (some had 2kg of snacks!), too much water in the hydration pack and too many changes of clothes were the main regrets in peoples packing. Keep in mind that a 70liter pack (I had an Osprey 70+10) weighs 2-3kg empty so you must pack sparingly to stay under 10kg.
In terms of water, you are certainly meant to drink 4-5 liters per day at altitude, but that doesn’t mean you need to carry it all day. As long as you have a sterilization system or boil the water before drinking (in my case I had AquaTab’s, one pill per liter) you can fill up throughout the day without needing to carry too much water, which is quite heavy. Just note that your hydration pack (at least the drinking tube) will freeze in winter so you need a backup, which for most people is a drink bottle. Be warned, a bottle left outside your sleeping bag at nighttime will freeze overnight even in your room, so you’re better to start the night with hot water supplied from the tea-house, use this as a hot-water-bottle, and then you have warm water to sip on the next morning. Hot water is usually 400rupees, circa $5NZD.
I believe following in the footsteps of Sir Edmund Hillary through the Himalaya to Mt Everest Base Camp is something every Kiwi should do, at some point in their life. It is amazing physical exercise, a cultural eye-opener, and gives trekkers a real sense of achievement – no matter how far into the trek you get.
By Rob Bruce
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