By: Stephen Bailey

Walking down in Everest Region from Kala Patthar to Gorak Shep, exhausted and elated, I marvelled at the number of helicopters in the sky. Five landed in 30 minutes, each rescuing a trekker undone by the altitude. I was feeling fit and fine, without even the forewarned dull headache. And it made me question: was I just a well-prepared and well-trained trekker, or should my guide take all the credit?

It sounds cheeky to write a blog for a tour operator concerning whether to take a guide. Tour operators create tours, and there can be no tour without a guide. Nor do I want to scare people into taking a guide based on helicopter rescues – those being lifted from Gorak Shep weren’t all independent trekkers. So in the search for objectivity there seems only one place I could start.

Some people have the skills and experience to guide themselves on an Everest Base Camp trek. I didn’t. Frankly, I was a little scared. But there is no question that certain people could do an Everest Base Camp trek on their own.

Consider these questions:

  • Are you an experienced mountaineer who has trekked independently in high altitude regions?
  • Do you have personal experience with altitudes above 4000 metres, beyond what you’ve read on the internet?
  • Are you comfortable finding the trail across moving glaciers and remote mountain passes?

When meeting independent trekkers I was struck by how they approached the question of a guide. The consistent starting point was “I always like to do things on my own when I’m traveling.” That’s me as well. I’ve hitchhiked from Cape Town to Victoria Falls, entered Iran illegally and spent nine months traveling overland from England to Malaysia. I love adventure. I avoid tour operators. Take me to a bustling bus station in Malawi or Calcutta and I’m confident of finding my way. But I knew that Nepal’s mountains were too far beyond what I’d experienced in more than seven years on the road.

I asked independent trekkers why they didn’t take a guide. The responses included:

  • Obviously not having a guide is cheaper, although the cost of a guide is shared between everyone in the group.
  • Some people thought they could trek quicker without a guide. I laughed at this. Did these trekkers believe they were fitter in the mountains than the people from the mountains? Or did they think they could shorten the trek by removing all the essential altitude acclimatisation?
  • Aversion to guides. I sympathised with this. Nobody wants to be stuck with a bad guide.
  • I didn’t think my guide ever interrupted my sense of solitude with the mountains. I also met a trekker crossing the Cho La Pass (5400 metres) without crampons, without even a map, asking directions to the village he had just come from (he forgot the name of where he was going).

Why Take a Guide on an Everest Base Camp Trek

Everest is not Barcelona. It’s not a popular tourist city, nor a Caribbean island. This is the wilderness and it is seriously high. I’ve trekked independently on the Camino de Santiago, rock climbed in the Alps, even spent ten days walking across Scotland. But the highest mountain range on the planet is a different landscape entirely, one that is completely foreign to anything most trekkers will have experienced before.

The main reason you should take a guide is their knowledge of the landscape. And landscape means more than just the lie of the land.

  • The trail. It’s mostly straightforward, until you have to cross a moving glacier or an ice fall has destroyed the only bridge.
  • High altitudes. Guides know how to set the route to the altitude, manage AMS risks, and adjust the itinerary to your fitness and energy.
  • Trekking pace. This is incredibly important, helping you conserve energy on the ascent and minimise the environment’s challenges.
  • Health and safety. Everest is a mountaineering landscape, far higher what most people ever travel to. Localised knowledge of your health and safety could be life and death, but for most people it ensures you are comfortable at all times.
  • Guides make sure you get a good room (very important at the height of trekking season) at the best available lodge.
  • Permits and checkpoints. You sit and rest, while the guide sorts out the paperwork.
  • Local culture and language. In the land of the Sherpas the easiest way to communicate and understand is to be guided by a local.
  • The world’s highest mountains. Not just what they are called but how to negotiate a path across and around their lower slopes.

Throughout the trek there were times when I considered: could I do this myself? Some days the sky was blue, my legs felt great and the trail was clear. On another day I walked into a blizzard, gritting my teeth at every step towards 5000 metres, marvelling at how harsh and wild Everest could be. For 90% of the time I felt I may have been able to do it myself. But that 10% was brutally hard and I was in way prepared or experienced to be on my own. I understood clearly that my life was in the hands of the guide – far better than in my own inexperienced hands.

Why I Recommend a Guide on an Everest Base Camp Trek

I travel independently and have backpacked for years. So I know that some people will trek to Everest Base Camp without a guide, regardless of all and any advice. I personally took a guide because the landscape and challenge of the world’s highest mountain range was beyond my comprehension and experience.

Yes, you could try trekking to Everest Base Camp without a guide. But you don’t take a guide for good weather and easy conditions: a guide is for keeping you strong and safe in an alien land, when the conditions have turned bad.

After returning from a 15-day trek I was glad of a guide for another important reason. Trekking up the world’s highest mountains is tough. It required all my energy and commitment. Trekking with a guide meant I didn’t have to do much more than step, step, step, one foot in front of each other with the necessary breaks to eat and sleep. It meant I didn’t need to think about anything else. It made me feel comfortable and confident at all times: at 5500 metres and a week’s trek to the nearest road, that feeling was invaluable.

About: Stephen Bailey

Stephan BaileyStephen Bailey is an award-winning travel writer and book author who swapped England for the world in 2011. His first book was published in 2008 and he spent many years editing travel supplements at Allied Newspapers. He now runs a travel marketing company, The Fat Dogs, which brings together some of the world’s most original travel writers and film makers, and he continues to search for stories that celebrate the world’s inimitability

Ask Stephen for his advice on Trekking in Everest Region 

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