Hike to capture your heart

JENNIFER ENNION
Last updated 05:00 21/05/2013
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SOARING HEIGHTS: In 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climbed the highest mountain in the world.

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In 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climbed the highest mountain in the world.

Now, six decades later, hundreds of thousands of people follow in their footsteps to the base of Mount Everest.

They seek a glimpse of the soaring 8848m peak and a tiny taste of what Hillary and Norgay went through.

The trail to Everest Base Camp begins for most hikers at Lukla - a town perched in Nepal's mountains.

Over the following seven to 10 days, travellers ascend more than 2500m in altitude across 60km of steep stone steps, narrow dirt tracks and suspension bridges.

They succumb to freezing temperatures, schizophrenic weather and altitude sickness.

But hikers to Base Camp know this and it's the challenge they come for.

DAY ONE - KATHMANDU VIA LUKLA TO GHAT (2530m): The challenge starts with a 3.30am wake-up call in Kathmandu, followed by a nervous wait at Kathmandu Airport.

We're waiting for our flight to Lukla - home to one of the most dangerous airports in the world.

Despite all the hype and anxiety of my fellow travellers, we touch down in Lukla without incident. And it's here, at 2800m altitude, that the real adventure begins.

I've joined 15 other hikers, mostly Aussies, on World Expeditions' Everest Base Camp and Kala Pattar tour.

It's an 18-day trip and 14 of those days are spent following in the footsteps of Hillary and Norgay to Base Camp.

The day is fairly easy - a two-hour descent to the lovely village of Ghat.

There, a single stone pathway runs past tea houses. Backyards are segregated by stone walls, behind which rows of cabbages grow.

Rainbow prayer flags strung between trees flutter in a light wind.

We spend our first night in tents but it's surprisingly warm, tucked inside down sleeping bags.

DAY TWO - GHAT TO MONJO (2850m): Today we get more of a challenge. The weather turns chilly and we eagerly pile into tea houses with names such as Apple Pie Restaurant and Trekers' Lodge.

Halfway through our five-hour hike, we ascend through light rain and then tiny pellets of hail.

The trail becomes slippery and we step with caution. Thunder cuts across the sky.

We are wet and very cold when we arrive at our World Expeditions permanent campsite at Monjo.

The afternoon is spent drying rain jackets in front of a dining room fireplace. But hearts are not sodden. Instead our appetite for adventure's simply whet.

DAY THREE - MONJO TO NAMCHE BAZAAR (3440m): Day three is one of the hardest of the entire trip. It's a five-hour intense slog up a forested mountainside to Namche Bazaar - the Sherpa 'capital' of Nepal.

We scramble out of the way of caravans of yaks and donkeys, the jingling bells around their necks alerting us to their approach.

They add to the trail's soundtrack of spitting porters and the Nepali music blasting from their phones.

Namche is where some hikers start getting symptoms of altitude sickness - primarily headaches.

But pain is forgotten when you get your first sighting of the triangle peak of Mount Everest from a viewpoint above the town.

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DAY SIX - DEBOCHE TO DINGBOCHE (4360m): The days are getting longer, with hikes lasting seven hours.

The constant change in weather is testing. In the sun you strip down to a T-shirt but one step back into the shade and you're scrambling for your fleece.

The repeated change in clothing is one of the struggles of the trip but you grow accustomed to the habit.

In Dingboche, ice lies on the ground outside our tents. The wind becomes stronger and mist masks the magnificent mountain Ama Dablam from view.

Evenings are chilly and occasionally snow flakes fall. We're eager to continue moving.

DAY EIGHT - DINGBOCHE TO LOBUCHE (4930m): All struggles are numbed as soon as you pass Dingboche. It is from this point on the trail to Base Camp that the landscape becomes truly inspiring.

Mountains soar to astonishing heights. The valleys are wide and terrain treeless.

You hike across sloping tundra, past squat stone houses and around windswept corners. You watch yak herders far below on the valley floor.

The air is getting thinner. Rest breaks are taken more often.

DAY NINE - LOBUCHE TO EVEREST BASE CAMP (5364m): We're exhausted. Temperatures are sub-zero.

We hike for more than eight hours but it is the most stunning section of the trip.

Khumbu Glacier leads us over rocky moraine and snow-covered slopes. We tread with extra care on our way to the tiny village of Gorek Shep.

We only stop for lunch, pushing ourselves back into the cold and onto the trail.

We hop over boulders and scale loose scree, struggling to breathe.

The climbing slopes around us are our saviour. We're so spellbound by their beauty that we don't even notice we're about to arrive at our destination.

Reaching Everest Base Camp is an incredible feeling.

You're flooded with emotion as you stand at the bottom of the most admired and feared mountain in the world.

You may not realise it but it is at this point that the Himalayas capture your heart and intrepid travellers will never be the same again.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: China Southern Airlines flies to Kathmandu (Tribhuvan International Airport) via Guangzhou from Australia's major cities and Auckland.

It flies to Guangzhou from Sydney twice daily, from Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane multiple times a week, and from Auckland daily.

The airline offers daily non-stops flights between Kathmandu and Guangzhou, with stopovers of less than three hours on connecting Australian flights.

For more, call China Southern on 1300 889 628 or visit flychinasouthern.com.

STAYING THERE: World Expeditions' Everest Base Camp and Kala Pattar tour is 18 days. Accommodation is primarily at permanent campsites.

PLAYING THERE: The tour is rated at a moderate fitness level. The tour costs A$2440 ($2939) and includes most meals, airport transfers, a return flight to Lukla, trekking permits and park fees (conditions apply).

For details and departure dates go to worldexpeditions.com or call 1300 720 000.

There are variations in records of the height of Mount Everest but 8848m is officially recognised by Nepal.

The writer travelled as a guest of World Expeditions and China Southern Airlines.

- AAP

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