To access base camp, mountaineers often had to pierce an almost impenetrable lower range of mountains and passes inaccessible to heavy transport vehicles. Treks to base camp involved moving months’ worth of equipment and supplies along steep trails, over primitive bridges and treacherous passes.
Treks lasted for weeks, and their fate depended on the involvement of local carriers – men, women and children employed from among the inhabitants of poverty-stricken villages that dotted the valleys around the giant peaks. The carriers and later the Sherpas, who took over the work in the higher altitudes, became key partners for the survival and success of the expeditions.
While treks provided mountaineers with valuable periods for adapting to the high altitudes, they also consumed time, supplies and strength needed for the ultimate advance on the summit. To Makalu, for example, the trek lasted four weeks. At one critical point in the march, two-thirds of the porters – many barefooted and poorly dressed – refused to go on and left the expedition fearing the dangers of the formidable Shipton Pass. Left with few options, the expedition members along with the remaining one hundred porters were forced to ferry goods in stages, delaying arrival at base camp by more than a week.