Everest Base Camp History
Everest Base Camp is where you will end your ascent and where climbers begin their assault on the world’s tallest peak, Mount Everest, 29,017 feet.
Over the last 70 years, Everest Base Camp (EBC) has been temporary home to the world’s greatest mountaineers as well as thousands of star struck wealthy climbers who want to be part of this glamorous, but deadly climb. There are also those Walter Mittys who camp out at Everest Base Camp just to bask in the mountain god’s shadow.
Tusker’s 11 day trek stops briefly at Everest Base Camp before descending to Gorak Shep for the night. It’s a time to absorb Everest’s majesty, try to capture it in a photo, but also to reflect on the mountain’s history and those who have come before you.
Solemn holy ground
When Edmund Hillary was a member of the fabled 1953 British climbing team that did the impossible, EBC was just a glacial moraine on top of dry ice at the bottom of the foreboding Khumbu Icefall. It had been quiet for centuries except for the wind whipping down on it from the Lhotse Face. In the 1950s it was considered solemn holy ground by Sherpas who worshipped the Himalaya range and called it Sagarmatha.
Today when you enter EBC you will find an international village with scattered multi-colored tents and equally colorful prayer flags. At the height of the climbing season in mid-May there is a high tech media center. You can buy almost anything there and you will likely see detritus from the last half century’s summit attempts as well as clean-up crews tackling it.
A lot has changed at EBC since Hillary’s days and it may be changing now for the better.
Politics and pride
There are actually two Everest Base Camps one in Nepal and one in Chinese Tibet. The first summit attempts in the 1920s were from the Tibet side as Nepal didn’t allow foreigners to enter the country then. When China invaded Tibet in October 1950 it temporarily closed that camp and Hillary’s Brit overseers had to climb the south face in Nepal for their historic climb.
The Brit’s motivation to be first atop Everest was driven by their waning sense of manifest destiny. They wanted to show the world they were still a global power despite their eroding empire. Conquering Everest was a nation’s way to salve its bruised ego.
Hillary stood 6-6, was from New Zealand and he climbed to salve his own ego after getting hammered by his bee keeping father who wanted his son to be an academic. Hillary’s summit success would lead to his being named among the 100 most influential men of the 20thcentury by Time Magazine but his influence was greatest in Nepal where he helped build schools, hospitals, an airport and pipelines.
Long haul just to EBC
He and his British teammates were willing to trek tirelessly to get to EBC and then risk everything to capture the summit. Summit expeditions then started low down in the Khumbu Valley with hundreds of porters. It took Hillary’s group over two months to walk 185 miles just to get to Tengboche where the 350 low altitude porters dropped the provisions and headed downhill. They were relieved by the high altitude Sherpas who joined the climb from there up to EBC and on to the summit. On your EBC trek you will fly from Kathmandu to Lukla and save over 140 miles of trekking. With lighter gear and airplane service the era of the long, month’s long, march to base camp is long over.
Bonding with Sherpas
Back then Sherpas were assisted by their client climbers who helped them establish ropes and ladders across gaping crevasses. Staging the climb was as dangerous as doing it and Hillary and Tenzing Norgay his Sherpa partner formed a lifelong bond before, during and after the climb. Hillary’s ashes would be scattered in the Himalaya in 2010 by Sherpa climbers.
Hillary didn’t care for Everest Base Camp saying it was not a place to relax and didn’t consider it special. That attitude didn’t last long once Everest became the mountaineering world’s go-to place. It became a place for Western excess.
Kings of Base Camp
When Jim Whitaker became the first American to summit Everest in 1963 things began to change. The publicity his climb generated started a steady stream of climbers and by 1978 trekkers were coming to base camp too to see what all the fuss was about. On Reinhold Meissner’s first climb (’78), 32 trekkers stopped by to wish him well, they stayed for an hour and left. Just one team per climbing season was allowed by Nepalese officials, but by 1983 they opened the floodgates and allowed five teams. By 1985 there were piles of smoldering trash at base camp.
There was a mind-set shift as well. Many of the new climbers were not professional mountaineers but could pay high prices for a guided climb with commercial companies. They expected Sherpas to do all the pre-climb heavy lifting. Western climbers sat at base camp waited for good weather and many to relieve boredom, drank and partied.
By the 1990s, rock music, computers, good food and wild parties were common. Crime was on the increase too and tents had to be locked. Violence was not uncommon. High altitude changes mental states not always for the better and EBC was a good place to study the effects of thin air and extreme behavior. The climbers regarded trekkers as being beneath them and avoided them fearing they could get sick.
When you arrive at EBC in 2018 expect the unexpected. Last April, British DJ Paul Oakenfold brought his turn table and held a party for 100 climbers. It was billed as the highest party on earth and he said he did it because he “wanted to shed light on the environment.”
You may also see cleaning crews as tons of garbage is being removed from the various camps on the mountain’s Chinese and Nepalese sides. Everest is getting cleaner, but it’s also getting more crowded.
Moment of Silence
What hasn’t changed over 70 years of climbing and trekking is the amazing views you will get from base camp. The summit still towers above you as well as Everest’s smaller sisters. The southeast ridge up to the Hillary Step and the Khumbu icefall surround and engulf you. Be thankful you’re not risking everything to obtain that windblown, arctic summit.
Take a moment of silence for those that have tried, failed and died on that perilous route. Take photos and pay homage to yesterday’s mountain gods who succeeded. Take inspiration from the early climbers— Norgay, Hillary, and Whitaker—who did the impossible getting to the top of the world in a low tech era.
And celebrate your own achievement of getting there.