FACED with those endless grey, wet, cold days that begin each year in Scotland, I decided I needed some cheap winter sunshine and went on line to book a holiday somewhere warm. And the next thing I know I have signed up for a two-week long trek through the Himalayas to Mount Everest. I mean it is quite high, so it must be closer to the Sun, yes?

“First conquered by Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953, Everest has traditionally been the ultimate goal for mountaineers. Today hard-core trekkers seek the challenge of reaching the mountaineer's base camp,” say the trip notes. ”You will be walking at altitudes of up to approximately 5545 metres above sea level and it will be demanding trekking. You will be walking with your day pack, with the possibility of extreme variations in temperature.”

Then there is the clincher – my trek begins at the beginning of March, before the weather eases up and the main season begins, and there is £500 off. And flights to Kathmandu from Scotland are surprisingly cheap. And so a few days after first looking for a wee holiday in the sun and just six weeks before the expedition sets off from Kathmandu I have signed up.

I have my core fitness from long-distance running, but chronic injury has stripped out my race pace, so this seems like a good compromise. I am confident my leg will hold, well, hopeful. I am still on drugs for nerve damage. And I went up Mauna Kea on Hawaii, 4,207 metres, two years earlier, and while others gobbled oxygen from tanks like Irishmen with Guinness on St Pat’s Day I remained unaffected. But this trek goes more than 1,000 metres higher and they say one time you might be fine and the next time you are crippled by headaches and breathlessness and the feeling that you are about to die, which you may well be.

My other big worry is the cold, with daytime temperatures forecast at zero and nighttime temperatures dropping into minus some sort of double digits. Like so many other runners I know, I have Raynaud syndrome. I buy a new pair of Rab gloves and heat pads and take my regular fleece running mitts, though I will subsequently buy “good fake” North Face down-filled mitts in Nepal and the combo works for me. It is surprising how quickly the £500 saving is eaten up by extra gear, even though I borrow a lot.

There can be as many as 16 on treks organised by Intrepid, the Australian company with which I travelled, but it turns out that there are only seven of us – four Kiwis, two Aussies and me; five men and two women; four in the second half of their twenties, a guy in his mid-thirties; Robbie, for whom this has been a lifelong dream and who will turn 50 on the trip, and me. I am 60. They look like a pretty fit group – Army officer, multi-day ultramarathon power-walker etc. And, here is the rub - the chances are we are not all going to make it.

The adventure begins with a short flight from Kathmandu to Lukla, rated by The History Channel as the most dangerous airport in the world. There is a cliff-drop at one end of the short runway and a mountain at the other. There is a higher airport, but it was for single-prop planes and they have all crashed. But there has not been a fatal crash at Lukla for almost decade, apart from one where a plane hit a tree last year, but there were no passengers on board. I mention this to a friend in a pub before going to Nepal, explaining that the chances of dying there are miniscule. He reveals that a friend of his died there.

It is funny how often stories of Himalayan adventure begin with a plane crash – Lost Horizon, Tintin in Tibet, The Champions TV show. We get the first flight of the day. The plane is tiny. We land safely. Subsequent flights are cancelled because of cloud. The same pattern is repeated next day.

We pretty much have the trails to ourselves, apart from the porters with straps across their foreheads to carry huge bundles of, well, everything, and the donkeys and mules and cattle, and then higher up the hairy yaks, with the cute wee bells round their necks. There are no roads anywhere near Lukla. Virtually everything that goes to the higher villages is carried on the backs of men or beasts.

Snow-capped mountains plunge into deep green valleys. We cross swaying suspension bridges and trek up mountain paths, and if you were to fall you would plunge into the deep green valley. It is not all up – much of it is “Nepali flat”, up and down, which is harder. And some of it is just up, up, up – you get into a rhythm with your breathing and just keep going.

The paths are uneven and stony, but they are often as wide as a pavement. You do not fall into the gutter when you walk along a pavement, except occasionally after a heavy night, and no one is drinking millet wine anymore. But at least one of our group has serious acrophobia and literally needs to hold the hand of one of our guides.

One thing that surprised me was just how dusty the tracks were. And not just ordinary dust – there is a lot of yak dung in there, which means there is a lot of yak dung in your lungs. Soon sit-down toilets are a thing of the past. There are no flushing toilets and in the morning the water is frozen. The trekking is tiring and the nights are cold. We would arrive at teahouses – lodges with hardboard walls with gaps – and I would spread out the sleeping bag I had hired in Kathmandu and climb in.

We pass memorials to those for whom Everest would be their final resting place. We pass trekkers forced to turn back by acute mountain sickness. We meet three men who made it to EBC, but they have all been ill and tell us EBC was unbearably cold. And then we fall ill, one after another – headache, stomach upset, loss of appetite, but no one is for turning back, not yet.

Me and one of the women suffer from MS - not mountain sickness but mushroom soup. I can no longer keep solid food down. For four days I march on on Fanta orange juice and a fabulous mix of drugs for nausea, for my leg injury and Diamox to help prevent or reduce mountain sickness. We are above the tree line. The land is bare but for occasional shrubs. And the snowy mountains tower silently above us always. Helicopters fly below us, vultures swoop overhead.

At our second last lodge we hear that a Japanese trekker died in his sleep two nights earlier. Next morning I discover he was 62. One of the younger guys in our group is suffering blurred vision and has to be taken down the mountain. He was one of only two who were not taking Diamox. We ask our guide if people have ever died on his trips. He shrugs. “Sometimes,” he says, adding that helicopter rescue is much more common.

Six of us and two guides push on to Everest - base camp where 19 people died in an avalanche in 2015; and the sight of the summit and the deadly Khumbu icefall, the first and for some the last stage in an ascent of the mountain. Six out of seven of us make it and Robbie fulfils a dream. I heard of a group of 36 where only half made it. There is no wind and it is warmer than Edinburgh on the day we reach base camp. I collapse on a heap of rocks and prayer flags. My sister will later tell me that it looks like I am lying on a rubbish tip.

And so we trek back to Lukla in half the time. The trails are busier now with new trekkers and we pass in the other direction. We are dirty, bearded, blooded, like vets who have completed their tour of duty and are going home. The last short leg is meant to take an hour and a quarter. We do it in 45 minutes.

We are due to fly back to Kathmandu early next morning when news comes through of a crash and 50 dead. And yet the airport is open next day. We are standing on the tarmac when a flight comes in, waiting for passengers to get off. The propellers keep spinning. It is less than a minute between us getting on the plane and it running down the runway that ends in oblivion. It is like a brilliant, adrenaline-pumping, white-knuckle ride. We are in the air with runway to spare. We are flying low over the mountains. And we are alive.


Intrepid arrange treks to Everest Base Camp throughout the year, with the exception of the rainy season from mid-June to mid-August, with prices dependent on numbers, £850-£1,350.

I arranged flights on line through Netflights – UK to Kathmandu, via Doha with Qatar Airways, and UK legs with FlyBe. It did take about 27 hours each way, with six hours in Doha in the middle of the night on the way back, but only £516 in total.

Good three-star hotels in Kathmandu cost as little as £25 a night.