Like lots of other travellers, trekking to Everest Base Camp was on my list of things to do although, when I arrived in Kathmandu, I wasn’t sure if I would do the trek for two reasons. Firstly, it was coming up to Monsoon season. Secondly, I had only ever hiked for a few hours at low altitudes so trekking for about 14 days up to an altitude of 5,550 metres above sea level with an oxygen level of about 50% was quite a daunting task. Nonetheless, once I found out that it was possible for me to go, I threw caution to the wind and booked it. At the time, I had no idea what I was letting myself in for and was feeling rather excited at the prospect. You know what they say, ‘ignorance is bliss’.
When I started my trek to Everest Base Camp, I had the option of beginning the trek from Kathmandu or flying to Lukla and starting it there. Having weighed up both options, I decided to go by plane. Should you decide to go by land, it is well worth reading a discussion on the Thorn Tree Travel Forum.
As travellers, we are fortunate enough to have the option of how and when we start our trek but, as I trekked to and from Everest Base Camp, I saw a lot of local men trekking the same route but carrying, what I felt was, a ridiculous amount of weight. I hadn’t expected to see this and asked my guide about these men.
He told me that they can carry up to 100kgs to varying heights, which could be as far as Gorakshep (the last town before Everest Base Camp), a staggering 5,140m above sea level with an oxygen level of about 52%. Doing that with just a small amount to carry is exhausting, believe me, but with such a load. Well, it was impossible for me to even comprehend how difficult that must be for them.
They don’t have the option of getting on a plane to begin their trek in Lukla as we do. They have to trek for days just to get to that point. So, what are they carrying and why? My guide told me they supply goods to the guesthouses and shops en route to Everest Base Camp so they have provisions for all the trekkers and climbers. That was a real ‘wake-up’ call. I hadn’t considered that before. Then I read The Ethical Travel Guide and found out that the porters are not used to such high altitudes and harsh conditions because they are actually lowland farmers and poorly paid for all the time, effort and risk involved. I really felt for them at the time but I didn’t know any of this. It also states they suffer four times more accidents and illnesses than western trekkers. That’s a scary statistic because I came across a number of trekkers who were suffering or had suffered from altitude sickness. I certainly had my fair share of feeling ill during my trek, although doing that trek with a head cold certainly didn’t help.
So, what is the alternative? Trekkers and climbers, with the help of Sherpas and appropriately trained and experienced porters, could carry all the provisions with them. This is currently an option if you camp en route. If everyone did that though, what about the livelihoods of the guesthouse and shop owners and their families? They would have to find another source of income, which wouldn’t be easy because of where they are located. In addition, the lowland farmers who work as porters need the money they earn from doing this. So, a better alternative would be to improve their conditions. Tourism Concern, an independent UK charity that fights exploitation in tourism and produces The Ethical Travel Guide, has been campaigning to get UK trekking tour operators to adopt a code of conduct for improved working conditions of mountain porters. It’s great to hear that things are starting to improve but, from what I understand, this campaign focuses on those who work for trekking companies and not the porters who deliver to the guesthouses and shops.
As mentioned at the start of this post, I hesitated about trekking to Everest Base Camp. I am glad I did do it though because of the experience, seeing what I was capable of and the amazing landscape. It did, however, raise questions about tourism that concerned me and I want to help raise awareness of these. For more information about Tourism Concern’s campaign to improve the working conditions of mountain porters, please take a look at Kathmandu Environmental Education Project – Protecting mountain porters from the elements.