This was my sixth visit in ten years, and during that time there had been profound cultural, economic and ecological changes, prompting adverse reports about deforrestation, poorly planned development and problems over the disposal of human waste and litter. I was naturally concerned by these reports, well aware that many of the problems were the result of a trekking and climbing revolution in which I had been a willing participant. But I was angered and saddened by criticism eminating from what I regarded as ill-informed and insensitive visitors who seemed prepared to blame anyone but themselves for the region's apparent demise.
So I decided to use this visit to study the impact of trekking on the lives of the Sherpas, the enjoyment of the visitors, and on the environment itself. As our journey unfolded I observed, analysed and reflected, comparing my impressions with the now fading memories of those earlier visits.
The rattle of stones on the aircraft's fuselage announced our arrival at Lukla, an airstrip built in 1964 to provide local people with a speedy link to Kathmandu, but long since taken over by the needs of trekkers. The village has become a transit camp, a kind of Khumbu Klondyke, packed with lodges and shops catering for anxious and often bewildered tourists. Fortunately, Lukla's sacrifice has relieved pressure on the traditional approach from Jiri which now offers peaceful walking through some of Nepal's finest scenery.
It is a broad and easy trail which leaves Lukla for Everest Base Camp and several new bridges cross the Dudh Kosi river on route. Visitors critical of such improvements forget that these trails are difficult and dangerous when snow falls and the rivers swell; they are not just trekking routes, but vital arteries between communities. Never was I more aware of the fact than in 1986 when I witnessed the rescue of a young Sherpani and her baby following a near fatal fall from a dangerous makeshift trail above the river.
We entered the Sagarmatha National Park at the checkpost near Jorsalee. The formation of the park in 1976 was welcomed as the best way of protecting region whilst allowing steady economic growth and development. In 1979 it was further declared a World Heritage Site in recognition of the cultural importance of the Sherpa people, the significance of the world's highest mountain and its associated flora and fauna.
Amidst scenes of great excitement, our party saw Everest for the first time through a break in the forest on the trail to Namche Bazaar. On my first visit this was a remote and peaceful spot, but on this occasion I could not deny that the thriving new tea shop was a source of much needed refreshment. For those who have flown in to Lukla, this long and tiring climb presents them with their first confrontation with the problems of altitude.
Namche Bazaar is a bustling centre of commerce and administration; in common with several other villages a small local hydro scheme now provides enough power to reduce the problems of deforestation. There are many new shops and brightly painted lodges catering primarily for tourists, and well educated entrepreneurial Sherpas have learnt the economics of market forces. German beer, chocolate bars and western paraphernalia all attract high prices. The hustle and bustle of traditional trading continues at the regular open Saturday market, and for just a few hours of frenzied activity traders from as far afield as the Terai and Tibet deal in a range of more basic commodities.
Just above Namche, served by another tiny airstrip at Syangboche, is the re-opened Japanese built Everest View Hotel. Here, in full view of some of the world's greatest mountains, accommodation is supplied in sumptuous western-styled splendour to tourists who need climb no further than the hotel steps. I am sorry, but I do not believe that such a sterilised visit is as fulfilling as one which requires effort, some degree of personal sacrifice and a large helping of cultural interchange. In its favour it must be said that the hotel is a remarkable construction, unobtrusively situated and an important contribution to the local economy.
In total contrast to Namche, the neighbouring villages of Khunde and Khumjung are unchanged by the passage of time. Traditionally built houses sit lazily amidst walled fields, and the spectacular backdrop of the peaks of Ama Dablam, Kangtaiga and Tramserku provides an atmosphere of tranquility and permanence.
This is without doubt my favourite part of the Khumbu and I can happily spend days here, exploring the villages and talking with the people. Sherpa hospitality is as warm as ever and my expedition Sirdar, Nawang Kama, invited us into his home in Khunde to share a few laughs over several glasses of chang. He also introduced me to his father, a sprightly 65-year old named Phurita who had been a porter on British Expeditions to Everest and Kangchenjunga in the 1950's. In the endearing and traditional Sherpa manner Phurita bode us farewell by presenting us with silk scarves.
It is a charming trail which descends through fields all the way to the river before climbing back up to the ridgetop at Thyangboche. I was apprehensive about seeing Thyangboche again; an electrical fire had destroyed the famous monastery there in 1989, and I wondered what scenes of devastation we would encounter. It was sad to see the charred remains of several prayer wheels but, to my surprise, a new three storey building was under construction. I hope that, given time, the new monastery will be as revered as its predecessor.
Apart from the addition of one or two lodges and the inevitable litter, Thyangboche had changed little and had survived the pressures of tourism. The location evokes an atmosphere of mystique and of anticipation, caused perhaps by the lofty summit of Everest seen beckoning just twelve miles up the valley.
The view from Thyangboche must rank as one of the world's finest, rivalling those of Concordia in the Karakoram, or the Vallee Blache on Mont Blanc. The character of the trail to Everest changes beyond Thyangboche; the protective forest canopy is finally left behind, and the peaks which once filled the horizon now rise up ominously on every side.
From the fields of Pangboche, the shapely peak of Ama Dablam appears much more attractive than its loftier neighbours. But such flirtations with lesser peaks are short- lived and the trekker's attention soon returns to Everest; the sheer scale of the massif never ceases to amaze, no matter how often you see it.
Pheriche and Dingboche are the last permanent settlements of any size in these higher valleys. Although the two villages are little more than a mile apart, they are very different in character. Dingboche is just off the main trail and retains its traditional and delightful patchwork of fields and houses; on the other hand, Pheriche catches all the visitors heading for Everest and a sprawling and unattractive line of lodges has been built beside the wide and dusty trail.
On this occasion I camped near Dingboche and followed a diversion across the hillside above the main trail. This route reveals superb views up the length of the Imja Khola valley towards Makalu and across the Khumbu valley to Taweche and Cholatse. The paths converge beneath the terminal moraine of the Khumbu glacier, and a short climb leads to a col which reveals, for the first time, an unobstructed and literally breathtaking view of the great peaks of the upper Khumbu.
On a nearby moraine stands a line of memorials to Sherpas who have died on Everest. It is a fitting location; within the shadows of the mountains they came to climb, but overlooking the villages and valleys they knew and loved. Nawang walked with me along the line and we talked about the ethics of employing Sherpas as porters on large prestigious foreign expeditions.
Thankfully, Sherpas are now much more aware of the role they play and the risks they take. The have developed their own interest in climbing mountains and in becoming guides; indeed well educated and ambitious Sherpas regard a good performance on a big mountain as an important step in a career in tourism. As a consequence, when compared with people in other parts of Nepal, the Sherpas are well paid and have a good standard of living.
For many people the last camp on route to Everest is at the small grazing area of Lobuche, perched beside the lateral moraine of the Khumbu Glacier. It is a long hard day's walk from here to base camp and back, but many prefer that to camping at the higher and colder spot of Gorak Shep.
There is little grass or room for grazing at Lobuche outside the rainy season, and the number of lodges which have sprung up here reflects the location's logistical importance. It is at these remote sites such as Lobuche, Gokyo and Chukkung where the unacceptable impact of tourism is most obvious - piles of aluminium ladders, rusty cans, plastic food packaging and the inevitable excretia and toilet tissue.
Of the many problems which afflict the Khumbu, this is the most serious and threatening to its stark, beautiful but fragile environment. It is easy to level criticism at others, but it is the visitors and not the local people who are the real culprits. Most are well educated and must acknowledge that their conduct is unacceptable. They should also be more aware of the damage likely to be caused on their behalf and take responsibility for their hired staff who do not always understand the concept of litter and environmental protection.
On my trips, bio-degradeable waste is either burnt or buried, and all other material removed from the area. Expedition members and Sherpas are encouraged to clean up campsites upon arrival, and are asked to ensure that they remain clean upon departure.
I decided to camp at Gorak Shep, a cold and dusty location but blessed with magnificent views of the surrounding mountains. On the afternoon of our arrival high cirrus cloud obscured the sun, but the following morning dawned bitterly cold and brilliantly clear.
Whilst the others headed off to base camp, I made my way to a now familiar spot at the foot of Pumori's south ridge to get an unobstructed view of the ultimate trinity - Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse. For two hours I sat, admired and photographed the world's highest mountain as cloud and light painted ever changing patterns on its icy ramparts.
The sheer scale of the panorama around me made it difficult to believe that man could ever make any impression on such an environment, but the facts prove otherwise. Yes, the trail to Everest has changed over the last twenty years. It is busy, there has been serious deforrestation and there still is a problem with litter. The sherpas, although as friendly as ever, are no longer the people they were. There are an alarming number of new lodges and tea shops appearing along the main trail, but I always have to ask myself why should local people be denied their right to progress and development?
What has changed most of all, and has had the greatest impact upon the region, is the attitude of the visitors themselves. It is symptomatic of a problem with which we are very familiar here in the UK. Everyone wants to travel, to experience new adventures and enjoy the earth's natural wonders. But, in achieving these goals, many trekkers seem to have little consideration for others and their impact on the environment they come to experience and enjoy.
When I first visited Khumbu I stood in awe of the beauty of the landscape and the magnificence of its mountains, and felt privileged to be there. I was fascinated by its people and their culture. I could identify each and every mountain and relished the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of those who had created mountaineering history.
Sadly, many of today's visitors are simply tourists who regard a trek to Everest as little more than a holiday with a difference, a challenge or a line on their CV. Their interest in, their compassion for, the mountains, the people and the culture of the region is negligible.
Fortunately none of the problems we saw nor encountered detracted from either my own nor my companions' enjoyment of the trek, and the area certainly does not deserve the criticism which has been inflicted upon it. Yes, the trail to Everest has changed over the last twenty years, but such is the magnificence of the Khumbu that a visit is still a maervellous experience. An exerience which is all the better for a little knowledge, consideration and understanding.
This article was originally published in the magazine 'Climber' in 1993