As our tiny Dornier aircraft picks its way between the peaks, I press my face against the glass, straining for a first view of the world’s highest mountain.
Minutes later, as the tiny plane shudders to a halt on the tarmac, I’m met by Bishal, the 24-year-old porter and guide whose job it is to lead me to Everest Base Camp, the most famous trekking destination in Nepal. In fact, it’s hard to get lost on this well-trodden path, but employing a local guide or porter makes a direct contribution to the mountain economy, and it also makes the act of trekking just that bit more pleasurable – as you gain altitude, you’ll feel every leaden ounce of your luggage.
We ease into the trek gently. The first day’s hike to Phakding is mostly downhill, following a trail that meanders between huge boulders inscribed with Tibetan Buddhist mantras. The second day’s hike to Namche Bazaar – an amphitheatre of houses overlooking a forest of mighty peaks – is where the real trekking begins.
The approach to the only real town in the Solukhumbu region is a relentless climb up an almost vertical cliff above a high and wobbly suspension bridge. It comes as a huge relief that the gain in elevation makes it essential to spend the next day recuperating in Namche and adjusting to the altitude.
Despite early reports, Namche Bazaar escaped the worst in the 2015 earthquakes, though there were many fatalities further up the trail at Base Camp itself. Nevertheless, groups of men are still hard at work, rebuilding the damaged shelters for water-driven prayer wheels. The situation was much more severe in Thame, a half-day walk up the valley, where many houses were damaged or destroyed.
I decide to spend my acclimation day trekking to Thame to see the situation for myself, following a track through peaceful pine and rhododendron forest. Periodically, I have to step quickly off the trail to avoid being bumped into the frigid waters below by yak trains making their slow, plodding way to Namche’s Saturday market.
On arrival, I seek out the wife of 10-time Everest summiteer Ang Sherpa at Tibet House and she tells me that business is not bad. “Most of the lodges have been rebuilt and there are a lot of hikers passing through as part of the Three Passes trek. Not as many as before the earthquake, but we’re hopeful.”
Continuing uphill from Namche, the days settle into a regular rhythm: an early start and frequent stops at teahouses en route. Each day’s walk is accompanied by the melodious jingling of yak bells, the smell of pine and yak dung and spectacular views after each bend in the trail. Above Namche, Everest comes into view for the first time, peeking from behind the other mighty giants, Cholatse, Nuptse and Khumbutse.
The weather turns as we climb up towards Tengboche, with cold, swirling mist obscuring the pines. The monastery and lodges here were badly shaken in the quake and the settlement is grey and eerie, like a ghost town. We carry on to tiny Debuche, where the cosy Rivendell Lodge offers an enticing package of electric blankets and hot food.
Rebuilding is ongoing along the trail. In all the villages we pass through, lodges have been repaired, and there are even new lodges springing up. Porters carrying doors, planks, stone blocks, and enormous bales of hay become a common sight in the rugged foothills of Taboche and Ama Dablam.
As we gain altitude, living standards become more basic. From Dingboche onwards, there are no showers, not that you’d want to peel off your multiple layers as the mercury plummets. As night falls, I gather with my fellow hikers around the yak dung stove in the dining room to stay warm for as long as possible.
With another acclimatisation day at Dingboche, I hit the trail to Chukkung, wedged into a barren, rocky valley between Ama Dablam and Lhotse. The track passes a lonely memorial to Jerzy Kukuczka, a phenomenal Polish climber who perished on Lhotse’s South Face – a reminder that these mountains have claimed many lives in the 67 years since Nepal opened to tourism.
It turns out to be the first reminder of many. At the top of the pass between Dughla and Lobuche I pass a tangle of prayer flags and a veritable graveyard of cairns and memorials. One is dedicated to Scott Fischer, the veteran mountain guide lost in the 1996 Everest disaster, and nearby is a new cairn commemorating Eve Girawong, one of the 18 victims of the avalanche that hit Base Camp during the 2015 earthquake.
Finally, we reach Gorak Shep, the last permanent village on the trail, where a narrow path meanders across the moraine towards Everest Base Camp. It’s a breathless two-hour walk to the ramshackle ‘town’ of yellow and orange mountaineers’ tents perched atop the Khumbu Glacier. The summit of Everest remains hidden beyond the Khumbu icefall – you have to climb 5643m Kala Pattar for a proper view – but the sense of being close to the grail of mountaineering is tangible.
It’s a mind-blowing experience to tread the same ground as Reinhold Messner, Tenzing and Hillary, Alison Hargreaves, and other stellar summiteers. The climbers are back in force this year: 289 mountaineers have their sights on Everest’s summit in 2016, according to The Himalayan Times, roughly the same number as in 2014, the year before the earthquake.
But business is slow for many locals. “We were practically shut last season,” mourns Kami Diki Sherpa, owner of the Yak Resort in Gorak Shep. “Very few hikers. This spring season is better, but normally we’d have 50-60 guests every single day through to May; at the moment, it’s more like 30 guests.”
The inhabitants of Gorak Shep and other villages along the trail rely on tourism for their livelihoods. Many residents migrate there for the March-May and September-November trekking seasons, returning downhill once the trekkers depart to tend to their crops at lower elevations.
The trip back from Everest takes just four days, half the time of the journey up. As I hop and skip down the valley from Gorak Shep to Pheriche, I lose 900m in just five hours. On arrival, I stop in at the non-profit Himalayan Rescue Centre, staffed by three international volunteer doctors who treat trekkers and mountaineers who fall victim to AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness).
The receptionist, Thaneswar Bhandari, was in Pheriche when the earthquake hit. “We had 73 patients here at the same time,” he recalls. “Climbers from the Everest Base Camp, locals. We were working around the clock. In Pheriche 80% of the buildings were damaged, but luckily the clinic survived.”
The last three days of the trek – Pheriche to Deboche, Deboche to Namche Bazaar and Namche Bazaar to Lukla – go by in a blur. The steep, winding descent from Namche Bazaar grinds on the knees, and the last stretch to Lukla is a slow, wearing climb, but there’s a reward at the end. After almost two weeks of rice and lentils, Everest Burger awaits.
Amazingly, the 6am flight to Kathmandu the following morning is not delayed and we dip and wobble our way past snow-tipped peaks to the capital’s ramshackle domestic terminal. Before leaving Kathmandu, I chat to Rajan Simkhada, the owner of Earthbound Expeditions, who organised my trek, about the challenges facing trekking in Nepal.
“Many people still don’t know that we’ve bounced back since the earthquake,” he says wistfully. “They think: Nepal is a poor country, so there probably isn’t enough food and water for its own people, never mind for tourists. But we’re ready for people to come.”