Q. What’s the tallest mountain on Earth?
A. See below. The answer(s) may be surprising.
I’d been wanting to get to base camp at Mt. Everest for several years. In 2016, I missed out on a helicopter flight from Kathmandu, Nepal. That effort was doomed when it turned out I would have been the only passenger. My cost ballooned from about $1,000 to over $5,000. No thanks. In 2018, reaching Everest Base Camp, Tibet (EBC) with an eight-day, small-group tour proved to be a better experience and a better value.
Options For Reaching Everest Base Camp
The south side of Everest is in Nepal. The north side is in Tibet. A base camp in each country supports climbers on each side of the mountain. There are several ways to reach each base camp.
In Nepal, base camp can be reached by a quick helicopter flight from Kathmandu or a 10 -16 day trek typically from Lukla. In Tibet, trekking tours to base camp are available but the vast majority of tourists take a van or motor coach tour from Lhasa. It is also possible to drive yourself if you are fluent in Chinese. I booked a small-group, eight-day tour from Lhasa with Tibet Vista.
A driving tour from Lhasa, is the most economical option in terms of cost, time, and effort to reach base camp. A tour company will take care of many of the logistics involved in travelling to Lhasa such as helping to arrange train or air transportation from other cities in China. On short notice during a festival holiday, Tibet Vista was able to book a soft-sleeper berth for me on a train from Beijing to Lhasa. That 40 -hour trip is an adventure by itself. An organized tour also takes care of airport/train transfers, purchasing admission tickets, booking hotels, and handling permits and passports at roadside checkpoints.
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The most important service organized tours provide is obtaining the Tibet Travel Permit China requires of all foreigners who enter the Tibet Autonomous Region. Guests are responsible for obtaining their Chinese visas. Getting a 10-year Chinese visa can be one of the best deals in travel. Having one in your pocket makes it easy to take advantage of the many low air fares to China. (Even when not wanting to stay in China, I find that flying there and then taking another flight to another destination in Asia can be a great deal. Often it is economical to purchase a business-class ticket to the final destination.) If your passport expires in less than 10 years, the time remaining on the Chinese visa is applied to the new passport.
Tibet has been under the control of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since 1950 and the Chinese consider Tibet to be part of China. You’d think a Chinese Visa would be all that is required for travel anywhere in China. But no. Because any display of sympathy for an independent Tibet is viewed as very threatening, the Chinese government keeps a tight lid on any unsanctioned political activity and requires that all foreigners have a special permit to be there. It seems that “autonomous” has a different meaning in Chinese.
We went through several checkpoints between Lhasa and the entrance to the Chomolungma (Mt. Everest) Nature Reserve. Each time our guide and sometimes all passengers had to dismount and show passports and travel permits to police/military personnel. Chinese citizens also must produce their national IDs at all checkpoints. (Apparently, the police can require Chinese citizens to produce their IDs anytime anywhere. When my son and I were in Beijing this Spring during the Party Congress that elected Xi president for life, we noticed many what seemed to be random checks of Chinese people around the Forbidden City and Tienanmen Square. The surveillance and censorship in China can be a little creepy. People seem used to it. I didn’t ask.)
Driving To Everest Base Camp
The tour vehicle was an eight-person van. With five passengers plus guide and driver, the van was full but not overcrowded. The small group of tourists was diverse – one Chinese national who was living and working in Canada, her partner, a Canadian citizen and co-worker, a man from Ecuador who was working in Beijing, a U.S. citizen who is a musician and conductor and who had been born and raised in Beijing, and me. The tour took two days to drive to EBC. The road is two lanes, paved, and traffic moves well. There are plenty of good views and tourist attractions along the way.
We stayed one night at a hotel in Shigatse going to and returning from EBC. People who have not spent time acclimatizing in Lhasa should take an extra day or two on the drive.
Everest First View
The first view of Everest and the Himalayas was from Gawu la Pass, a lookout point at 5198 meters elevation on the final zig-zag road to EBC. From this pass, one can see four of the six highest mountains in the world, Cho Oyu, Makalu, Lhotse and Everest.
Everest Base Camp – Tibet
It is an hour’s drive from Gawu la Pass to EBC. EBC is a group of about 20 or so large tents, a bathroom trailer, and a large parking area. Locals rent tents and supplies to tour operators who then allocate sleeping quarters, blankets and food to their guests. The camp is located on the rocky floor of a narrow valley left by the receding Rongbuk Glacier.
EBC sits at an elevation of 5,200 meters or about 17,000′. Although by this time I had been acclimatizing in Tibet for seven days, at this altitude I experienced some shortness of breath walking on level ground. The summit of Everest is 8,848 meters or 29,035′ above seal level. That is more than two vertical miles higher than EBC. Amazingly, a handful of mountaineers have reached the summit without supplemental oxygen.
EBC is actually two camps. The tourist camp next to the Rongbuk Monastery and a climber’s camp a couple of kilometers closer to Everest near the point where the Rongbuk Glacier now ends. Terrain blocked any view of the climber’s camp.
The first thing tourists do when arriving at EBC is take selfies in front of Everest. It is hard to do properly with a cell phone, a dark face, and a bright background.
To take a photo of Everest with only the desired subject(s) in the frame, people pushed 50 to 100 meters past the flimsy barrier that warned against proceeding towards the climber’s camp. No one was around to enforce the “do not cross” line. It was tempting to explore further.
The Chinese Army maintains a post at the climber’s camp. Without proper authorization papers to go farther, the prospect of running into armed guards I couldn’t communicate with deterred me from trying to get a look at the climber’s camp.
It turns out that there was probably nothing to see at the climber’s camp. I later learned that the Spring climbing season had been so successful that the Chinese authorities eliminated the fall Everest climbing season in Tibet. The climber’s camp and army post were probably deserted. Still, there may be some kind of surveillance even if no one is present.
The Rongbuk Monastery sits on a hillside next to EBC. It is the highest monastery in the world where monks and nuns cohabitated. The Rongbuk Monastery is famous also because it served as base camp for the first Everest reconnaissance and summit attempts by George Mallory et al. in the 1920s and 30s.
The Chinese Cultural Revolution left the monastery in ruins. Some restoration is taking place. A simple guest house and small restaurant are now open. The monastery is definitely worth a visit even if only briefly.
For anyone with an interest in the way to the summit, climbing routes are illustrated below. K is the most popular and most successful route on the North Face.
After the initial euphoria of the Everest selfies, we stowed our gear in the tent, changed into warmer clothes, and prepared for sunset on Everest, the headline event of the tour. As is evident from the photos, the weather was perfect. Around Everest, late spring and early fall are the best times of the year for clear skies. Of course with weather nothing is guaranteed.
We were fortunate. Everyone got great pictures of our friendly neighborhood star’s last light of the day washing over Everest’s upper slopes.
Overnight Accommodations at EBC
After reveling in making it all the way to EBC and taking some awesome photos of the mountain and Rongbuk Valley, we retired to our quarters. The tour had reserved space in a tent. The tent was large and could accommodate up to 20 people. Our group of five slept in a sectioned off area at the back.
Our area had a hot plate and a station to charge devices.
The main section of the tent had cots for 15 guests. The best feature was a dung-fired stove used for cooking and heating.
Dinner was plain but satisfying and delicious. I was surprised that my appetite survived the altitude.
Sherpa tea is sweet and thick. It is made with lots of yak butter to provide calories needed for living and working at high altitude. Beer, Lhasa or Budweiser, was also available. Bud is a premium beer in many parts of Asia.
Sleeping was much harder than eating for me. The temperature was well below freezing. We slept under two heavy blankets. Except for shoes, we kept all of our clothes on including coats. The dung-fired stove was in the other section of the tent. Our area probably wasn’t much warmer than outside. Even though I wasn’t too cold and the cots were comfortable, I didn’t sleep much. Fortunately, difficulty sleeping and slight shortness of breath were the only problems I had adjusting to the altitude.
The tour supplied canisters of oxygen that we could use if necessary.
The oxygen canisters seemed worthless primarily because the plastic mask could not form a good seal around the nose and mouth. The canisters looked like bug spray, and that is essentially how they worked. Put the mask over the nose and mouth. Press the button on top, and a blast of pure oxygen would gush into the mask (and mostly out of the unsealed sides). We experimented with the oxygen but didn’t use it. I’m sure that if anyone experienced any of the more serious symptoms of hypoxia or pulmonary edema, an oxygen supply from a large metal cylinder with a rubber mask would have been produced.
The Best Pictures You’ll Never See
After dinner we went out to stargaze. I was unprepared for the spectacular sight. The 17,000′ altitude and great distance from light and pollution sources produced the darkest, clearest, most spectacular night sky I’d ever seen. A bright star cloud, the disc of our Milky Way Galaxy, arced from horizon to horizon. Views like that have been stirring imaginations since the first imaginations.
Then around 03:00 I took a leak outside camp. It happened to be just after moon rise. EBC was in shadow, but Everest was aglow. It appeared to be luminescing, practically pulsating, from some internal power source. Only after finishing my business and staring at the mountain for a few minutes did I became aware of ghostly black forms of a small herd of yaks slowly and silently moving around and through camp. They had been all around me the whole time, and I just hadn’t realized it! No cellphone photos of that stuff sorry to say.
Departure From EBC
One nice thing about sleeping in your clothes is it makes leaving easy and quick. We just put on our boots, threw backpacks and luggage in the van and took off. Before departing, a couple of people in the group who had good cameras and tripods were able to get some pre-dawn photos of Everest. Santiago Villarreal from Quito, Ecuador, sent one of the photos he took.
We drove back to Gawu la Pass to view sunrise.
Sunset is more impressive than sunrise. I think time could have been better spent remaining at EBC until after sunrise and having more time to explore Rongbuk Monastery.
Last Thoughts And Trivia Answer
Reaching EBC and viewing Everest and the sights along the way is a lifetime highlight. Taking a small group tour from Lhasa is the recommended way to go as far as making the most of your time while minimizing effort and expense. Anyone in reasonably good health will enjoy it.
If just getting a look at Everest is the goal, taking a sightseeing flight in a fixed-wing aircraft is the least expensive, fastest and least strenuous option. When my helicopter trip to EBC Nepal fell through in 2016, I took a 40-minute sightseeing flight from Kathmandu.
Yeti Airlines operates the flight using pressurized Jetstream 41 turboprop aircraft. The flight cost only $200. Aircraft must stay out of the Sagarmatha (Everest) national park so views are brief and not as good as base camp in Tibet or Nepal.
Trivia answer: The three potentially correct answers to the question posed at the start of this post are:
- Relative to sea level, Mount Everest at 8,848 meters has the highest summit.
- Measured from base to summit, Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain. The Mauna Kea volcano rises more than 10,000 meters from its base on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. But at 13,803 feet above seal level, it is nowhere near as high as Everest.
- If the question is viewed as which summit is farthest from the center of the earth, Santiago reminded me that the third correct answer is Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador. Its summit is just under 21,000 feet above sea level. However Earth is an oblate spheroid that bulges at the equator. Chimborazo’s summit is more than 2,000 meters farther from the center of the earth than the summit of Everest.