Everest Base Camp in Tibet

It doesn’t matter how many of the stories you’ve heard about attempts on its summit, or how many times you’ve seen it in pictures, the first time you see Mount Everest ‘in the flesh’ still makes your spine tingle. It’s not so much the beauty of the mountain, though it is beautiful, or the sheer scale of it, but because of what the mountain represents – the challenge and the danger involved, the sense of triumph for those who make it, the mental and physical strength it requires to go the distance.
The vast majority of ascents on Everest’s summit begin from the Nepalese side, at Base Camp South, this route being regarded as technically easier and involving less time at high altitude. Non-climbers will often make the multi-day trek there from Lukla. But for those wanting to admire Everest from the Tibetan side, visiting Base Camp North (at 5,150m) holds two clear advantages: firstly it is far more accessible than the Nepali side, and can be reached by vehicle if preferred, and secondly you can get an amazing face-on view of Everest from Base Camp North – in Nepal you don’t actually see Everest until you’ve been trekking for a day as other mountains are in the way.
Everest Base Camp will usually form either the culmination of a Tibet trekking holiday, or the crowning glory of a cultural tour. In the latter you’ll usually make your way there over a few days from the capital, Lhasa, by private vehicle. You will follow the Friendship Highway, which connects Lhasa with the Chinese-Nepalese border and passes Tingri, gateway to Everest. It is one of the most dramatic road journeys in the world: taking you deep into the snow-tipped Himalayas; taking you past Shigatse, once home to the Panchen Lamas, and past Gyantse with its magnificent multi-tiered Kumbum (chapel); taking you close to the revered Mount Kailash.

Rongbuk Monastery

Whether you’re going by road or on foot, you’ll almost certainly poke your head around the door of Rongbuk Monastery, a 5km-long hike from Base Camp North, where a small group of nuns and monks live side by side. The monastery was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but has since been rebuilt with a guest house and tea room.
Some Tibet holidays that feature Everest Base Camp will include one night at Rongbuk, or will offer dinner at the monastery during which you can meet and talk with some of the nuns and monks. On a clear day, the viewing platform at Rongbuk Monastery offers an epic panorama of Everest, and during the season climbers will often stop to pay their respects before continuing on to Base Camp. If staying overnight, set the alarm for a stirring sunrise view of the mountain, with colourful prayer flags fluttering in the wind all around you.

How to get to Everest Base Camp in Tibet

Most visitors to Everest Base Camp North get there by car. It’s usually a two-day journey from Lhasa, however tours will often extend this by stopping along the way in locations such as Gyantse, Shigatse or Shekar (new Tingri) – from Shekar to Rongbuk it’s only 100km, but a five-hour drive over winding roads.

Trekking to Everest Base Camp is not as common in Tibet as it is on the Nepali side, but one popular route is along the Gama Valley, through the Mount Everest Nature Reserve. Sherpas reside in the valley, and beautiful orchids bloom on the hillsides during the spring. Besides Everest you’ll see four other peaks over 8,000m high, and another 14 that stand over 7,000m.

Like many remote parts of the world, Tibet faces issues with waste management and recycling. The amount of trash, including empty oxygen canisters abandoned on Everest, has become notorious. Responsible tour operators will seek to reduce their environmental footprint at every stage, refilling bottles along the way with boiled water, and taking all trash back to the city where it can hopefully be recycled.

Practicalities

Spring and autumn are generally considered the best time to visit Everest Base Camp in Tibet: either side of the summer monsoon period, when you’re most likely to get a clear view of the mountain. The mountains and valleys are beautiful in April, May and September, awash with rhododendrons and other wildflowers. Some trekking holidays do operate in August, when you should expect warm but wet weather.
Fitness levels depend on how much trekking you’ll be doing. If you’re getting there by car it should just be a matter of acclimatisation before you depart Lhasa. If you are taking part in a longer trekking holiday then you’ll want to have some experience and be reasonably fit – a few long walks at as high an altitude you can find will be helpful. You will be accompanied by experienced guides throughout, of course, able to identify and deal with altitude sickness.
Tours are a mix of either small group trips, on fixed dates, or tailor made holidays where you have more flexibility over your itinerary and other aspects such as your accommodation. On that subject, responsible tour operators will aim to use hotels, guest houses and restaurants owned by Tibetan people as far as possible. This ensures that tourism income reaches local communities, some of which see relatively few visitors compared to better-known parts of Tibet.

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Responsible Everest trekking

The problems of overcrowding on Mount Everest itself, especially close to the summit, have been well-documented in recent years. But the trek to Base Camp is also a victim of its own popularity, and if embarking on the trek, you need to be aware of what conditions to expect, and how to not make it any worse.

Three aspects are key. Firstly, being adaptable, recognising that you will be dealing with pretty basic conditions such as squat toilets all the way along (and please do use them, rather than nipping off the trail to take care of business, which pollutes the environment). Respect that Nepali ways of doing things might be different to what you are used to, and that your way of trekking might not automatically be the right one.
Secondly, go in prepared. The Everest Base Camp trek is not a walk in the park, it’s more of a marathon. You will need endurance not only to cope with the altitude and distances involved, but also hold-ups at narrow sections where bottlenecks naturally occur, particularly during peak season. You’ll need to take such delays in your stride to avoid becoming frustrated.
And lastly – do whatever you can to minimise your own impact. You’ll see litter everywhere. Obviously you can’t collect it all as you go but you can avoid dropping your own. Stick to the existing trails so as not to damage vegetation. Have respect for local people and their customs, especially porters who will frequently be carrying heavy loads and may not have time for social niceties.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Ggia] [Rongbuk Monastery: Oldmanisold] [Practicalities: Steve Hicks] [Responsible Everest trekking: Mario Simoes]