I recently returned from Everest Base Camp. I led a group of 10 people from Lhasa to Kathmandu traveling along the Friendship Highway. We spent 4 nights in Lhasa, elevation 3550m, before going to Gyantse (3980m), Shigatse (3900m), Shegar (4150m) and Basum (4300m). From Basum, we set out for the tent hotels located near Everest Base Camp. These tent hotels sit at about 5000m in elevation. All together, we had 8 nights of acclimatization before arriving at base camp. Though there is no way to completely prevent altitude sickness, taking time to acclimatize can drastically reduce the risks of serious illness or death.
When I arrived at base camp, all of the tent managers were talking about "the foreigner who died yesterday". After asking around, I found out that the morning before we arrived, a foreigner had died at the government-run guesthouse that is directly across from Rongbhu Monastery, roughly 5 kms before the tent hotels and 8 kms before Everest Base Camp. This foreigner had arrived at Everest with a group of people from the Nepal border. The tour was arranged by a travel agency in Kathmandu. Coming from Nepal, most groups do not take enough time to properly acclimatize. Many of the budget travel agencies in Kathmandu offer the following itinerary, which according to the tent hotel managers at base camp, is the same route that this man traveled before dying:
Day 1: Kathmandu (1340m) to Nyalam (3700m) Day 2: Nyalam-Old Tingri (4250m) Day 3: Old Tingri-Everest Tent Hotels (5000m)
With this itinerary, you go from the Kathmandu valley at 1340m to the tent hotels at Everest Base Camp at 5000m (and 5200m at actual Everest Base Camp) in less than 55 hours and with only 2 nights of acclimatization. This is not nearly enough time for most people to acclimatize to the high elevation of the Everest region.
The purpose of this post is not to discourage people from going to Tibet from Nepal or to prevent people from using Nepal based travel agencies when traveling to Tibet. I want to raise awareness that going to Everest Base Camp too quickly, whether it is from Kathmandu or Lhasa, can be deadly. Proper acclimatization is absolutely required and even then there is a risk. Why travel agencies offer itineraries going so quickly to Everest Base Camp is beyond me. What is even more surprising is that the Tibet Tourism Bureau, who gives approval to each itinerary and person who enters Tibet, also does not prevent travelers from ascending too quickly.
Everest is not the only place where people can die from ascending too rapidly. Each year, Indian pilgrims going to western Tibet's Mt. Kailash also die from altitude related illnesses. In June 2009, at least 10 pilgrims were killed from India due to high altitude sickness. Again, proper acclimatization is not going to eliminate the risk of serious altitude related illness, but it will drastically reduce it.
I owned and managed my own travel agency for nearly 5 years and arranged the overland journey from Lhasa to the Nepal border via Everest Base Camp far too many times to count. I have traveled the route over a dozen times and know it very well and still lead high end trips through the region. I would occasionally get an email from a customer who wanted to go to Everest Base Camp immediately after arriving in Lhasa. I would explain the need for proper acclimatization and usually this would lead to the customer taking my advice and ascending slowly to base camp taking 5 to 7 days of acclimatization. But other times customers would insist on going to Everest as quickly as possible. I would kindly tell these people that I cared more about the safety of my customers rather than making money and would tell them to use a different agency.
Under no circumstance do I recommend going from the Kathmandu Valley to Everest Base Camp. This route ascends far too quickly. If you have to enter Tibet from Nepal, start by going to Lhasa by plane. Then, spend a few days acclimatizing there before setting out along the Friendship Highway towards Everest Base Camp. An even better option is to start by taking the train from Xining to Lhasa. Xining sits at 2300m and is a good place to spend a night or two before traveling to Lhasa. After spending 3 or 4 nights in Lhasa, then continue to Mt. Everest stopping for the night in Gyantse, Shigatse, Shegar and maybe even a night in either Tashi Dzom or Basum before arriving at Everest Base Camp. If you think you will not do well spending the night at Everest Base Camp, just spend the day there instead. Again, proper acclimatization will not eliminate the risk of altitude sickness, but it will greatly reduce it.
Budget travel agencies with the lowest prices are not usually the best agencies to use. Use a reputable travel agency that cares more about their customers safety than making money. For more information about traveling in Tibet and for recommendations on which travel agencies to use, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.