The idea of combining trekking up the foothills of Everest with a luxury holiday may sound a contradiction. Isn’t the notion of being pampered as you approach the highest mountain on earth a bit like having your muesli bar and eating it?
Reared on the gripping tales of Mallory’s and Hillary’s exploits, I’d always wanted to see Everest for myself. But research revealed that even the nursery slopes would be no picnic. There was altitude to deal with and, at night, sub-zero temperatures. Somehow, the prospect of camping or staying in a teahouse, with freezing nocturnal excursions to external long-drop toilets, basic food and no hot showers, didn’t sound much like a holiday. And odd as it may sound, that’s what I wanted.
So when I saw a 10-day trek calling itself Luxury Lodges of Everest I knew this was the one for me. And a few months later, there I was, flying at 3,000 metres in a Twin Otter owned by the unpromisingly named Yeti Airlines. My in-flight movie was the snowy peaks of the Himalayan range, seemingly suspended above the clouds.
Our destination was Lukla, a village packed on to a ledge between the mountains at 2,800 metres, whose dubious claim to fame is having one of the most hair-raising landing strips in the world. It’s built on a slant, and aircraft have less than 500 metres to halt before airstrip turns into mountain. You don’t make the trip in cloudy weather because, as one pilot famously said: “Here the clouds have rocks in them.” As I and my dozen companions clambered out, I mused that terra firma had never felt so good.
We started our Everest trail winding between gaudily painted teahouses and cabbage patches, with vast pine-clad mountains cradling the valley on either side. Serenaded by the constant roar of the Dudh Kosi, the milky boulder-choked river that’s fed by the glaciers higher up, we dodged the exquisitely carved Buddhist mani (prayer) stones and prayer-flag-draped chortens (monuments) that stud the way. Jigmie, our Tibetan guide, had warned us always to keep them to our right, however great the detour. You can’t avoid religion here: it’s there in your path.
We weren’t alone. Although I’d arrived during the low season, in December, (when 1,500 trekkers a month pass through, compared with more than 9,000 in the peak months, such as October) there were plenty of groups of all nationalities travelling both up and down the dusty track. We soon dubbed it the M1 to Everest.
Walking, I soon discovered, is not just what tourists do. Necessity means that it’s the Nepalese national industry. There’s no road here, so every drum of kerosene or can of beer used further up the trail has to be carried there by porter. The sight of diminutive Nepalese men and boys, bent double under crushing weights, is heart-breaking to witness. You soon learn that they have no alternative: walking and carrying is one of the few ways they can earn enough to feed their families.
The other beast of burden is the yak – or rather, the docile zopkyo, which is what you get when you cross a yak with a cow. We soon encountered our first zopkyo jam, a happy excuse to pause and drink in the view as the shaggy black beasts plodded on their way, bells tinkling and red neck ribbons glistening in the sun.
Later, after five hours of gentle walking, we reached our first “luxury” lodge, a solar-powered stone building with chalet-style wooden interiors. We’d arrived at the hamlet of Monjo, and not a moment too soon: evening was starting to fall, and with it the clouds and the temperature.
After being welcomed by two Tibetan girls in traditional dress and goatskin hats, we quickly gravitated to the woodburner in the restaurant and settled down to a three-course supper of soup, noodles with home-grown pak choi and “buff” (buffalo) stew, followed by cake.
Already I was grateful I’d chosen the luxury option: food in teahouses consists mostly of dal baht (lentil soup and rice) which, while nutritious, would no doubt pall after day two. But it was when I got to my room that I rejoiced: there was a gas stove, an en-suite bathroom and, to cap it all, a hot-water bottle in the bed. Such things, I now understood, constitute rare luxuries for locals and tourists alike.
After a day spent acclimatising, we continued our track up to Namche Bazaar, an incongruously busy Sherpa market town that hugs a mountain hollow at 3,420 metres. Already the air was thinning, and my lungs stung when I strained for breath. I began to feel like a geriatric; my pace slowed right down. And it would only get worse as we ascended.
Next morning, however, any worries were blown away by my first view of Everest, which we glimpsed about 20 minutes’ walk beyond Namche. Nothing can quite prepare you for first look at this extraordinary peak. The Nepalis call it Sagarmatha, Goddess of the Sky, or, simply, The Mountain. There she was in her ink-black glory, her snow-capped summit standing proud against a brilliant blue sky. Everest’s neighbours, Lhotse and Ama Dablam, may score higher on the beauty stakes, but what the planet’s tallest mountain lacks in grace she makes up for in mystique and history. I found myself straining to spot climbers scaling her flanks, even though this was plainly impossible given that we were still at least 30km away. I did manage to pick out the South Summit, a pimple below the main summit, and the scene of so many of the life-and-death dramas I’d read about.
From our next luxury lodge, at Tashinga, we set out at first light for our furthest destination: Tengboche Monastery. We’d crossed our fingers for a clear day, hoping that no one in our party had angered the Goddess by walking the wrong side of any mani stones. Luckily, the skies were pristine. It was a lung-stretching uphill climb through pine forest, but by lunchtime we emerged at the saddle at 3,870 metres where the monastery sits among rhododendrons and firs.
This was the climax of the trip: before us, splendidly illuminated by the sun, lay the savagely wild jumble of the Himalaya’s finest peaks, including Everest. Many travellers stop here, not just for the view, but to present ivory silk prayer scarves, katas, to the head monk at the monastery and to receive his blessing for the challenge ahead. Reluctantly, we returned to Tashinga, passing on our way scores of porters bowed under burdens of roof timbers for houses, like a trail of leaf-cutter ants.
We slowly wound our way homewards. Two days later we passed through the enchanting village of Khumjung, below the sacred peak Khumbila.
Edmund Hillary founded a school here in the Fifties. He did so shortly after he and Tenzing Norgay became the first men to reach the summit of Everest and return to tell the tale; his statue still keeps a watchful eye. Here women rummaged in the cold soil for potatoes, or gathered yak dung to dry on the stone walls as fuel for their stoves.
We, meanwhile, arrived at our third lodge at Mende in time for homemade cake and tea, followed by a cosy evening of singing, dancing and rum punch. Then, two days later, it was back down to a lovely lodge with lawns in sprawling Lukla, which after the peaceful wilds further up felt like a hectic metropolis. A plane was evidently due in as villagers were clustered around the airstrip fence – watching planes come into land is a local spectator sport.
This trek isn’t about “luxury” by global tourism standards, but for an area as remote and poor as this, where a hot shower is rare, we had been treated like royalty.
We hadn’t tamed Everest, of course, but the high-altitude treks had tested us nonetheless, making the comforts especially welcome. Hillary would doubtless have found our little luxuries frivolous, but as I snuggled into bed that night with my hot-water bottle, I realised that for me they’d made the expedition a holiday, too.
The writer flew from Heathrow to Kathmandu via Bahrain with Gulf Air, booked through Trailfinders (trailfinders.com). Return fares start at £823. Kathmandu is also served by Qatar Airways (0870 389 8090; qatarairways.com) from Heathrow and Manchester via Doha; and Jet Airways (0870 910 1000; jetairways.com) from Heathrow via Delhi.
The writer travelled with Mountain Kingdoms (01453 844400; mountainkingdoms.co.uk) on its 14-day Luxury Lodges of Everest holiday, which costs from £1,575 per person. The price includes accommodation with breakfast in Kathmandu, full-board on the 10-day trek, sightseeing, transfers and the services of a guide. International flights are not included. The next available departures are in March, April, October, November and December. To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an “offset” through Abta’s Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; reducemyfootprint.travel).
When to go
The most popular times to go are October and November, or March and April. In both seasons you will have good views and it will be warm, and in spring you have the bonus of the rhododendrons and azaleas being out. Christmas is cold, but views are clear and there are fewer people on the trails.
Dwarikas Hotel, Kathmandu, Nepal (00 977 1 447 9488; dwarikas.com).
British passport-holders require a visa to visit Nepal; these can be obtained from the Embassy of Nepal, 12a Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 4QU (020-7229 1594; nepembassy.org.uk) and cost £15 for a 15-day stay.
Nepal Tourism Board: 00 977 1 425 6909; welcomenepal.com
International Porter Protection Group: ippg.net
Community Action Nepal, a charity set up by mountaineer Doug Scott, who summitted Everest: canepal.org.uk