EVEREST is more a pilgrimage than a trek: a tough personal challenge with a clear goal at the end, it passes deep into Buddhist Sherpa country, among some of the world’s most sublime peaks. In terms of popularity, the region runs second to Annapurna. That said, the majority of trekkers in Solu-Khumbu, the Everest region, are all heading up the same trail. From the alarming airstrip at Lukla, the trail leads north into mountainous Khumbu, the dizzyingly high Sherpa homeland. The trail forks above the Sherpa capital of Namche Bazaar (or Namche for short): one route leads to Everest Base Camp and the viewpoint of Kala Pattar; the other for the beautiful Gokyo Lakes. Both high points are about eight days from Lukla, and can be combined by crossing the high pass of the Cho La.
Relatively few trekkers now take the switchback hike from the roadhead at Jiri through Solu, the lower, greener, more populous and more ethnically diverse country to the south. It’s a stunning route, and offers a great way to acclimatize, but the extra five to seven days’ walking is too much for many people. You should leave slack in your schedule even if you’re flying, though, as getting a place on a plane out of Lukla can be problematic if bad weather causes cancellations to stack up.
To get a good look at Everest, you’ll have to spend at least four nights above 4000m and at least one at around 5000m. At these altitudes, there is a serious risk of developing acute mountain sickness (AMS) and you must know the signs (see Altitude). Everest is also the coldest of the major treks, so you’ll need a good sleeping bag, several layers of warm clothes, and sturdy boots that will keep out snow. The rental shops of Namche, in Khumbu, allow you to stock up on high-altitude gear and return it on the way back down. Because of weather, the trekking “window” is especially short in Khumbu – early October to mid-November, and late March to late April – and this, in turn, creates a seasonal stampede on the trails and at the Lukla airstrip. Winter isn’t out of the question, but it’s just that much colder.
While Everest isn’t as heavily trekked as Annapurna, its high-altitude environment is even more fragile. Khumbu, with less than four thousand inhabitants, receives anything from ten to twenty thousand trekkers a year, and probably twice as many porters. Lodge-building almost destroyed the Blue Pine and Silver Fir forests around Lukla, and the demand for firewood is many times the regeneration capacity of the area. Near trekking villages, up to half the juniper shrubs have vanished in smoke. The Sagarmatha National Park, which covers most of Khumbu, has done some fine work in reforestation (funded by the Rs1000 entry fee), but it can’t be said often enough: have as little to do with wood-burning as possible.