Getting a selfie at the top of the world is undeniably a bucket list moment, but as is often the way with tourism’s greatest hits, we’ve got to ask ourselves — at what price?
If you’re a responsible trekker who is keen on conquering the camp, there are a few questions to be asked, issues to be considered and choices to be made before you hit the trail of your dreams.
Mount Everest, also known by local peoples as Chomolunga and Sagamartha, has long held mythical status for the mountaineering world. Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary first proved the impossible possible when they summited the 8,848m mammoth back in 1953. Ever since then, the peak has fascinated, intimidated and inspired generations of climbers.
The chase for high altitude euphoria is not just limited to professional alpinists though, as each year thousands of plucky trekkers tie their laces and grab their walking poles in hope of reaching Everest Base Camp (EBC). This in itself is no small feat – EBC sits at 5,330m and can only be reached by foot after crossing rocky terrain, vast steppe and several killer inclines.
As I recently found out firsthand, hiking in EBC’s Sagamartha National Park means taking part in a well-oiled outdoor machine. This machine is driven by thousands of guides, carried by an army of porters and dependent on the generosity of the local Sherpa people.
While on one hand your trekking (and money) is helping to boost a local economy and raise the standard of living, it’s also putting pressure on what is a fragile environment and infrastructure.
Lessen Your Environmental Impact
It’s no surprise Everest has been dubbed ‘the world’s largest rubbish dump’. Sadly there are tonnes of food packaging, used climbing equipment, spent oxygen bottles that litter the mountain.
Whether it’s a matter of where human waste is being dumped, how rubbish is being collected or if the wood burning in your tea house is contributing to deforestation, the effects of thousands of trekkers is largely apparent everywhere.
There are ways to make a personal difference though. For one thing, you can carry a reusable water bottle and have a stash of purification tablets on hand (they’re easy to buy in Kathmandu city). This way you can drink any tea house tap water and you’ll save a heap of plastic.
Showers aren't common on the trail, but at the end of each trekking day, you’ll want to dust off. Your best bet is a pack of baby wipes — just make sure they’re biodegradable. Plastic and other materials are a big problem on the mountain, so carry all your rubbish out of the park, avoid snacks that are individually wrapped and avoid plastic bags at shops. If you leave your trash on the trail, the locals are likely to either bury it or burn it, neither being very good for the environment.
Choose a Responsible Trekking Crew
Trekking in Nepal is big business,and while it provides thousands of jobs, exploitation of labour can be an issue. Most guided treks to EBC employ a guide and crew of porters to carry trekkers’ duffel bags. They will set off before breakfast and have your gear ready and waiting for you at the next tea house come end of day.
The strength and stamina of these porters is incredible to witness, but it’s important to remember that they’re not superheroes. By law, a porter’s maximum load should be no more than 25kg, but on the trails you may see porters carrying far more. When choosing your trekking crew, find a company that uses local experts, respects porters rights, and is environmentally conscious. A good company will be transparent when it comes to their employment benefits.
Also, make friends with your crew and tip them at the end of the trip. While they do receive a salary (which should be up to scratch if you’ve found a good company), tipping has become customary on guided treks and a little extra love goes a long way.
Lastly, if you’re travelling onwards after Nepal and have no need for your trekking gear, consider lightening your pack by donating your boots, day pack or second down jacket to the crew. If anyone is going to appreciate it, these guys (and girls) will!
Care for the Culture
Hiking to EBC is not only through some of the world’s most epic landscapes (Thokla Pass will blow your mind) but also through a collection of traditional villages. Every day sees you wake up in a new town where you’re invited to explore local customs, eat local foods and meet local people (try a yak steak if you’re adventurous).
You will mostly be encountering Sherpa culture. Many people confuse the term ‘Sherpa’ with ‘porter’ believing it’s a direct translation. This is not the case, Sherpa actually means ‘easterner’ and refers to a group of over 150,000 people living mountain-side across Nepal, Tibet, and India.
The ethnic Sherpa people of Nepal live in the Solu-Khumbu region, along the Kosi River, and have proven themselves incredible mountaineers, becoming an essential part of Himalayan ascents. That said, these mountains are the home of their gods and so as foreign guests we’ve got to make sure we’re climbing and hiking with the utmost respect.
The Australian documentary, Sherpa, is a great way to become more familiar with the lives of these communities. This five-minute video also introduces you to Chhiring Sherpa, a local guide who shares a little bit of his life and experiences as a guide.
And even if you’re not attempting to summit Everest, you can support these regions by spending time and money in Namche Bazaar, one of the cultural hotspots. Take the time to chat with locals, visit the Sherpa museum and generally find out more about Sherpa life. It will give you a whole new respect for the work they do on the mountain.