Your Questions; Answered.
Riding to Everest Base camp
Planning a trip like this requires knowledge, experience, the correct attitude and a realistic acceptance of the nature of the challenge. Clearly the challenge for Max will be substantial, in so far as riding a horse through the Himalayas to an altitude of 5500 metres when you have cerebral palsy can be. On this page however we want to show that this has been an informed decision. We acknowledge that there are no guarantees to success, but that the achievement will be in the trying.
The questions below have been answered by the trek leader Gavin Bate who runs Adventure Alternative Expeditions. A mountain leader for over twenty years, Gavin has trekked in the Himalayas for three decades and led countless groups to base camp, as well as climbed Mount Everest six times. He also runs the NGO Moving Mountains and has lived in the Sherpa homeland of solu Khumbu on and off for many years.
What’s it like trekking to Everest Base Camp?
The whole trail has been put on street view by Google, you can virtually follow the whole trek here, and one thing that is immediately obvious is that these trails are the highways and byways of the Sherpa people, full of activity and traffic. People and livestock have been walking these trails for 500 years. The greatest aspect of the trek is that you get to walk amongst the Himalayas but at the same time be a part of the Sherpa way of life.
Most of the trek takes part within the Sagamartha National Park and is very well facilitated. Lodges, teashops and cybercafes are in every village, helicopters are busy overhead and there are always people around ready to help. The final few days of the trek is obviously higher and more remote, but you’re rarely alone. Around 15,000 people trek to base camp every year.
It’s one of the great bucket list things to do in your life, and rightly so. Despite the modernisation and accessibility, it’s still a phenomenal trek amongst majestic mountains. Despite all the hubbub in the valleys, the peaks around you are still remote and awesome.
Is it flat or hilly?
You need to look at the geology and the lay of the land to properly answer this question. From the small airstrip at Lukla your starting altitude is around 2500 metres and over two weeks you will trek to 5500 metres which is the base camp of Mount Everest. So clearly you generally will be going uphill, but on a day to day basis the gradient and terrain changes a lot. At the start there are forests and gorges and rivers, and the path ascends steadily and crosses metal suspension bridges. These are very sturdy and safe, and no they don’t wobble all the time! The path winds up valley sides for the first two days and is steadily uphill and sometimes steep.
From the Sherpa ‘capital’ of Namche Bazaar however the trail heads up into the high Himalaya and you trek along the middle of huge U-shaped valleys formed by the glaciers. The gradient is not steep at all, in fact in many places it is pretty flat. The path is wide and very easy to negotiate, but of course it is at progressively higher altitude so the temperature is colder and it’s harder on the body to exercise with less oxygen to convert to energy.
Eventually you reach the Khumbu Glacier and the path winds alongside this huge snake of ice, all the way up to the end of the valley – and Everest. A vast wall of mountains blocks the way to Tibet. The path is on moraine and very easy to follow, but it is hard because of the altitude. From the last tiny hamlet of Gorak Shep it is a few miles to reach Everest Base Camp and the last few hundred metres is on the glacier itself.
Contrary to what you might think, there are no points on the trek where you are on a precipice or clinging on, rock climbing or mountaineering. It’s a trek, almost all of which is along valley floors and the altitude gain is gradual and manageable. There are in fact two major ‘hills’ that you have to climb on the whole trek – the first is on day two up to Namche Bazaar, the second is up to Thangboche Monastery about halfway through the trip.
What about altitude sickness?
Going to altitude has an air of mystery to it, with the fear that something sinister might or might not happen to you. Ultimately people worry that they might in fact die of it. It’s a big reason that people don’t want to trek in high places.
In reality the physiology behind altitude acclimatisation and sickness is really easy to understand, and the main point to know is that every body takes time to adjust to an atmosphere where there is less oxygen. But the human body is pretty miraculous, it can operate very well given the time to adapt.
Essentially going to a place where there is less oxygen is a bit like enforced hypoxia. The body needs to produce more oxygen-rich red blood cells and, put simply, acclimatisation is just that. However, every body will acclimatise at different rates, so as a mountain leader I need to provide the optimal time and pace to allow everybody the best chance to get there without succumbing to sickness. The sickness is very often caused by people trying to get there too fast, not eating and drinking enough, not resting the body enough and not actually knowing enough about how to help their body.
This trek will be slow. The emphasis will be on going slowly, eating and drinking lots, sleeping well and enjoying the whole experience!
Clearly nobody can predict whether or not anyone will get altitude sickness or not, but in my experience of thirty years I have only ever had altitude sickness once, and that was 100 metres from the summit of Mount Everest without bottled oxygen on the north face.
What happens if someone does get sick from altitude?
Nowadays it is very easy to descend, either by walking or by helicopter or by using a horse. Horses are in every village, and there is very good business to be made from helping people up and down the mountains. A helicopter can arrive within an hour and have someone back in Kathmandu very quickly.
There are varying stages of altitude sickness. Mild symptoms are known as AMS – altitude mountain sickness – and it’s easy to spot these. Tiredness, bad sleep, headaches, lack of appetite. It’s also easy to slow the pace, stay an extra night in one place and have a rest day.
Some people like to help their altitude acclimatisation, and deal with these minor symptoms by taking a drug called Diamox. Actually Diamox – or acetazolymide – is just one of three drugs that we mountain leaders are trained to use. Dexamethasone and nifedipine are also used for more advanced symptoms, but taking any drug has to be an informed decision and done carefully. There are side effects, not least that Diamox is a strong diuretic.
Actually the trek to base camp can easily be achieved without any pharmaceutical assistance, as long as basic mountaineering principles are followed. It all boils down to speed, go slowly and give yourself the best chance.
Are Horses Common in the Khumbu area of nepal?
Yes they are, but they are not used as beasts of burden. Ploughing the fields and all the heavy carrying is done by a mix of cow and yak, known as a nak or a dzo or a zopkiok.
Horses are ridden by people and traditionally would have been owned only by the rich and monks or lamas, and of course by royalty. They would only have ever had one rider their whole life and be treated like one of the family. It would live in the house up in the mountains and be looked after with great care and indulgence. Nepal has a long and honourable tradition with horses, with many horse festivals to enjoy.
Here is an excellent article describing how important and revered horses are in Nepal, in the past and today - http://ecs.com.np/features/high-in-the-saddle-horse-and-windhorse-in-nepal.
Nowadays, Sherpas on the Everest trail are quite wealthy. A lodge owner will have an annual income of around $30,000 per year. Many more people own horses and many make an income from using them for helping sick tourists.
Horse rental in the Khumbu is now worth about $150 per day which includes the costs of the horse owner who will always walk alongside his horse. It would be pretty inconceivable that someone would allow his or her horse to travel with strangers. Partly this is because horses are seen as such a big asset in any family, but also because they are cared for in a way that we only really see in countries where man and horse live in mountain environments together in such harmony.
Nowadays there are treks which accommodate families with children who want to ride to Everest Base Camp. Horse riding holidays in other parts of Nepal are extremely common, such as Mustang, Dolpo and the Annapurnas.
Actually up in the mountains the local horse breed is known as the Chyanta pony and is native to this region, they would come from originally from Tibet and have crossed the high passes into Nepal several hundred years ago. They are sturdy and strong and strong willed and average 12 -13 hands. It is well suited to mountainous terrain that most other breeds could never navigate. Generally willing & quiet with strong character, their physique is particular to Indian country bred ponies, having short thick neck, compact body and strong back. Strong legs with hooves open at the heels and long heavy manes and tails. The breed is very special to the local people who developed native stock to suit local needs.
Can horses go to high altitude?
Yes. Just like the Sherpas, the local horses (which are actually more like mountain ponies) have adapted over many generations. And just like humans, it’s important to go slowly and allow the horse to manoeuvre over rocky terrain, which they are of course well used to.
This article in Equus makes the point that horses need the same approach to slow acclimatisation. However the article is talking about horses not used to going high. In Nepal the horses are already very well used to the thin air and seem to manage without any difficulty at all. This article on the influence of altitude on horses is also very instructive. And this scientific study indeed showed improved performance in horses training at altitudes of 3800 metres, as did this study which was presented at the International Hypoxia Symposium in Banff in 2003. There is more research on the high altitude adaptation and phylogenetic analysis of the Tibetan horse for further interest, but it is clear that the ponies living in the high Himalayas do so quite happily and are able to work at high altitude with ease after many hundreds of years of genetic adaptation.
It’s fair to say however that the terrain there is easier and flatter than going to Everest Base Camp, and in reality there will be some sections of this trek where Max will have no option but to come off the horse and be carried by porters. For example, crossing a bridge or some sections with steps.
What is Horse welfare like in the Khumbu region of Nepal?
Given that horses have such an illustrious and legendary history with the Sherpa people, and that communities living in harsh environments do commonly treat their horses with utmost respect and love, it’s no surprise then that ‘horse welfare’ as we describe it here in the West is actually something akin to the very highest form of relationship that man has with an animal in a place like Nepal. For a Sherpa, the horse is one of the family. It’s an asset, a sign of status and wealth, but it’s also an indispensable member of the family and the community.
While they certainly don’t have access to the sort of veterinarian care you would find here, in actual fact there are quite a few veterinarians in the high regions of Nepal. The Nepal Veterinary Association is very active in the mountain regions and works alongside the Department of Livestock Services and the Directorate of Animal Health and the World Organisation for Animal Health to deliver a programme of animal health throughout the country.
Brooke and Animal Nepal, well known charities working for the welfare of horses and donkeys, do operate a programme in Nepal but it is based in the cities where donkeys are used in brick kilns. There are also programmes helping horses which suffered in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake. Up in the mountains the horses have the benefit of space, good food, a relatively unburdened life and the particular relationship with their owners that is something really quite enviable.
This picture below shows the horse that Max will be riding when he goes to Nepal next year. The level of care that the owner has for his horse is probably best illustrated by the fact that the bed next to the stable is his. This is a beautiful, well cared-for and much loved four year old female, gentle and completely used to carrying people on the high Himalayan trails.
Will the horse be specially trained to carry a disabled person?
No. This horse has experience of carrying elderly, infirm, incapacitated and sometimes comatose people suffering from altitude sickness, but it does not have the specific training that one would find in the USA with PATH certified equine centres. Neither is the owner of this horse a hippotherapist, he is a man who has lived and worked with horses all his life in the mountains and was a project co-ordinator for the Edmund Hillary Trust for thirty years.
However this trip will respect the Safeguarding policy of the RDA, in particular to ensure that all stakeholders in the venture are informed about their responsibilities and provided with guidance and/or training in good practice and safeguarding procedures. Also that everyone knows and accepts their responsibilities and works together for the safeguard of all involved, and that the welfare of the horse is paramount and all reasonable steps are taken to protect the animal against poor practise, abuse and harm.
The intention is to use a specially adapted saddle which is used by the respected NGO Saddle Aid to assist with pregnant women and sick people in remote mountain areas like Afghanistan. These saddles are successfully used as ‘ambulances’ and also for therapeutic purposes.
Will the horse be safe and well cared for?
Absolutely, yes. The horse owner has been visited by me one year in advance to discuss all the practicalities of the trek. The family and community are aware of it. It will be a challenge of particular pride to everyone in the team, and my porters have all worked for me for over fifteen years now. They are all from the same villages of Bupsa, Bumburi and Khari Khola, which is where the horse is now.
Will max be safe?
Absolutely, yes. Whether he is successful or not getting to Everest base camp is not a guarantee but on his journey he will be in the best possible hands and if something did go wrong it is a matter of a telephone call to bring a helicopter in.
What sort of days will max and the horse have? What is the plan?
As a general rule the day will start at about 8.00am after breakfast in the lodge, and Max will ride on the trail with the support team walking within a distance of about 500 metres. Porters will be carrying all the gear, but extra porters will be employed to be on hand just for Max in the event where he needs to be carried over some sections. The horse will be walking slowly with the owner at its head leading the way. The core support group of Livi and Giles will be also alongside to assist, although as the altitude increases their ability to support Max physically will be far less. But their moral support will be key, as will the support of everyone in the trekking group. The whole team will walk more or less at the same slow pace, with lots of stops for tea and meals and snacks. Villages are every half mile or so. The horse will be watered regularly and fed with hay and feed that we can buy along the way.
Each day will probably be about 5 or 6 hours in total, so most of the afternoon will be free for rest and relaxation. The trek has several rest days incorporated into it too.
As the team moves higher, the distance lessens but obviously the effort for the walkers increases. It will get colder, there may be snow on the ground. We will continue with a slow plod. It will be important to keep Max warm, since sitting in the saddle he won’t be generating the same heat as the walkers. In the evenings the lodges will have pot bellied stoves with yak dung burning to keep the rooms warm. We’ll be eating rice and dahl bat and local vegetables.
The final days over the moraine will be slower than before, by now altitude will be affecting everyone and causing the pace to slow a lot. At 5500 metres, everyone will be resting every 100 yards. The horse meanwhile will carry on plodding, so it’s likely that Max will reach the lodges before the walking team.
The final journey to the base camp of Everest will be determined by the weather and by how Max and the team are feeling. The last hamlet of Gorak Shep is where you have the classic views of Everest itself, and a ‘small’ hill nearby called Kala Patthar is the standard viewing point. A decision will be made at this point about what can realistically and safely be reached, but to all intents and purposes reaching Gorak Shep will be the aim of the trip. Beyond that would be a bonus.
The plan is then for Max to descend for a day down to the nearest village and take a helicopter all the way back to Lukla, where he can then fly back out to Kathmandu. Meanwhile the group will all walk to Lukla, in less days than it takes to walk up, and everybody will re-convene either in Lukla or in Kathmandu.
The whole trip will last about two weeks.
Can anyone join the support team on the trek?
Yes. Anyone with reasonable fitness, a good positive attitude and a love of walking in the mountains would find this almost the perfect holiday. Make no mistake, it is a challenge but the real test of the support team will be in the camaraderie and encouragement and positivity it can generate around Max. This is the sort of team work and collaboration people read about, it’s the sort of thing people dream about doing one day in their lives. Gavin's job as a guide is to make it happen and to ensure it’s safe, professional and enjoyable.