By far the most anticipated of our adventures thus far, we’d been looking forward to the Everest Base Camp trek for quite some time. Here are just a few of the ways we attempted to get ourselves hyped, primed, and prepped for the two week adventure:
- Running a half marathon back in November (our cardio training peaked waayy too early).
- Reading every Everest and Himalayan climbing book we could get our hands on, including Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, The Climb, No Shortcuts to the Top, and Dark Summit.
- Increasing caloric intake by inhaling awesome food in Hong Kong and Vietnam (knowing the food on the trek would be bland and the potential loss of appetite from altitude sickness).
- Jumping jacks on the reg.
- Intense prep hikes in Hong Kong.
- Listening to the Rocky theme song on repeat on the flight to Kathmandu.
However, no amount of jumping jacks or Rocky song repeats could have prepared us for such a life-changing experience.
Our crew on the trek…
Mahesh (our guide) – We took our time choosing a guide in Kathmandu and couldn’t have been happier with Mahesh. At 23, he looks every bit of 18, but has a ton of experience up there. We were so lucky to have him. If anyone needs a guide in Nepal, look no further.
Jonuk (our porter) – Some people don’t actually use porters on the trek. More power to them, but I think it’s crazy. The trek is hard enough as it is so we opted to get a porter to carry most of our gear up the valley. We’d like to think we gave Jonuk a relatively light load at ~30 pounds after seeing how much weight some porters were shouldering. You start to feel sorry for the porters after hearing about their lives, which are spent carrying loads of up to 250 pounds for days on end up mountains for a few dollars a day and then trying to forget about it at night by spending all their money drinking themselves into oblivion. They’re also treated like 2nd class citizens, often having to eat, drink, and rest away from guides and their clients. It can make for a short, miserable life. Unlike many of his peers, Jonuk was ambitious, didn’t drink any alcohol (we more or less had to force a Coke down his throat to celebrate after the trek), and constantly worked on his English with us in the hopes of eventually becoming guide.
Alison – The strongest climber/ trekker of the bunch. She may be making a run at the Everest summit in a few years.
Me – Hampered by altitude sickness for most of the trek. Will likely be glued to sea level altitudes for quite some time.
We have received several questions from people asking where we stayed – in tents? Open air bivouac? Four seasons? The EBC trek provides a livelihood for many of the Sherpa people, who run “teahouses” all the way up the valley. So there are generally new villages with teahouse options every 1,000-1,500 feet of elevation change, where trekkers and climbers live, sleep, and eat until the next day. The rooms are very basic with wooden boxes and mattress pads, no heat, and minimal power (all solar). But we had our own room everywhere and they were totally fine with us. And cheap – only $2-$3/ night.
Nepal is not known for its food in general. And on the trek there are limited (and mostly bland) options. Local food includes dal bat (rice with lentils and veggies), momo (dumplings), and a few other mediocre alternatives. Also, we ate vegetarian the entire time because any meat they serve has been carried up the valley over several days (or weeks) and is likely to be contaminated. Even a minor case of food poisoning can ruin the chances of reaching the Base Camp. We even went vegetarian for a few days before the trek in Kathmandu for the same reasons for a grand total of 17 vegetarian days (I promise we were only counting part of the time).
On top of the mediocre cuisine, one of the effects of altitude sickness is a lack of appetite, which is not a good combination when your body requires more calories for the strenuous physical activity. High caloric snacks are recommended for energy and we bought a ton of nuts and Snickers bars to take with us on the trek, which were life savers. Despite all of this, I lost a good 10 pounds in 14 days.
The only defense against the lack of hygienic conditions is the cold temperature. The toilet facilities were basic but fine. It’s nearly impossible to take a shower above Namche (no hot water and much too cold) – we each took 2 showers in 14 days. We used water purification tablets, which worked well for us, and were much cheaper than buying bottled water (which increased 3-4x from Lukla to Base Camp). The higher we went, the worse the conditions. It’s all part of the experience.
The daily routine
7am – get up, pack our gear, brush teeth, put on deodorant. This process takes longer than expected because it’s very difficult to get out of warm sleeping bags and get moving in the freezing cold.
7:30/8am – Eat breakfast, drink tea, and take off on the hike for the day.
8am through Noon-4pm – Hike to the next village. Or, if acclimatizing, hike up and back down to original teahouse. Snap our lower jaws in place to keep from drooling all over ourselves from the incredible views all the way up. The daily hikes varied in length and difficulty but were generally 4-7 hours and fairly strenuous. If the trails were located near sea level they would just be moderately difficult. However, the lack of oxygen at altitude and getting after it day after day make them a bit more of a grind. But we wouldn’t be in the Himalayas if we didn’t have to work for it, right? Depending on the length of the hike, we’d either eat lunch along the way or, if a shorter hike, at our final destination for the day.
Late afternoon – Settle into the teahouse, maybe take a nap or read in our warm sleeping bags, and drink lots of coffee and tea. The daily hikes are actually comfortable from a temperature standpoint, mainly because of the physical activity. But as soon as our bodies stopped moving for 15-20 minutes we got very cold, especially when the sun went down. We spent a lot of time in our sleeping bags just reading and trying to stay warm.
5pm – 8pm – Eat dinner and warm up in the main room of the teahouse, which was heated for a few hours in this time period by burning yak dung collected on the trail. Yes, yak dung. Yaks are quasi-bulls used as an alternative to porters for transporting literally everything that needs to be supplied up the valley. And they crap all over the place, which doesn’t decompose because of the cold temperatures. So it’s actually a good thing they find a use for it.
We would also eat, play cards with fellow trekkers and our guides, and just pass the time in the evening until the yak dung ran out, at which point everyone would get cold and retire to their sleeping bags to repeat the process the next day.
The higher we climb, the less oxygen that’s available for our bodies, which can have serious effects, including headaches, dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath, fatigue, lack of appetite, and death in more serious cases if not monitored closely. Luckily, the human body has an ability to adapt to the lack of oxygen through a process known as acclimatization, whereby the body increases red blood cell counts to increase the flow of oxygen. This is how humans are able to summit Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen when any human would die within an hour if taken from sea level immediately to the summit of Everest. Some people (Alison) acclimatize much faster than others (me) but, in general, climbing slowly gives the body time to get accustomed to the altitude. The rate of acclimatization and ability to handle high altitudes is 100% genetic. One of the many challenges of the EBC trek is the mental hurdle associated with the altitude. The symptoms of the body’s natural acclimatization are very similar to those of early onset altitude sickness. Almost everywhere on the trail people are talking and thinking about altitude sickness (and there is lots of downtime to discuss it). They say the important thing is to listen to your body and not go too high, too fast, but also try not to let altitude sickness constantly consume your thoughts. This can be challenging when fellow trekkers are getting helicoptered out of the khumbu valley every few days from altitude sickness.
I started suffering from some of the effects of altitude sickness around 12,000 feet and more or less felt like I had the flu for 10 days. We went slower than originally planned and worked our way up to Base Camp in 10 days instead of 8. Alison, on the other hand, could probably climb Everest as she suffered no effects of the altitude. It was very impressive and I’m glad one of us is bringing some good climbing genes to the table.
The altitude is no joke and I’d encourage anyone trekking/ climbing to high altitudes to take Diamox and just take it slow. Also eating garlic or garlic soup helps with the altitude. I had garlic soup nearly every day – between that and showering twice over 14 days, Alison was thrilled every time I tried to snuggle up with her to get warm. She was a champ for putting up with me.
Here’s a daily overview of the highlights on the first week of the trek:
Day 1 – Kathmandu to Lukla (9,300 ft) to Phakding (8,500 ft)
The landing strip at Lukla airport is extremely short and slanted severely uphill to allow for easier landings/ takeoffs on the 15-20 seater props that attempt to come in and out of the Himalayas. Most people give themselves a few days on either side of the Lukla to Kathmandu flight (and vice versa) because often times there will be no flights due to weather. The views of the Himalayas from the flight were absolutely stunning, and we found ourselves in awe of the scenery and trying to identify the peaks from the pictures we’d seen and descriptions from all the Himalayan climbing books we’d immersed ourselves in over the prior weeks.
The euphoric feeling quickly turned to disappointment and then utter fear.
I soon realized we had already circled Lukla and just assumed we were heading back to Kathmandu. I was bummed but hopeful we’d get out the following day. Suddenly, the pilot made a tight turnaround in the middle of the valley. The G force was in full effect as I glanced out the window to see how frighteningly close we were to the western edge of the valley. It was the first time I’ve been legitimately scared on a plane in my life. The landing was rocky but successful and I breathed a huge sigh of relief as I turned around to ask Alison if she was ok after we’d landed. She just gave me a big smile – she was totally fine, a theme that would continue throughout the following two weeks.
The hike to Phakding from Lukla was a tease, short and easy – only 3-4 hours and mostly downhill.
Day 2 – Phakding (8,500 ft) to Namche Bazaar (11,300 ft)
This was when the trek really started, both in terms of the hiking intensity and the spectacular views. The trail more or less follows the Dudh Kosi River for a few hours, crossing several rickety bridges along the way until ascending to Namche on an intense several hour climb. The thin air was apparent even at this altitude. We were becoming winded more easily but it was still manageable. After ~7 hours, we turned a corner to find Namche Bazaar, the gateway to the Everest region, in all its glory. The village kind of forms a semi circle aimed towards Kongde Ri (20,300 ft) and is by far the largest of the villages encountered on the trek. You can buy gear, medicine, and even some western comforts here. It’s also one of the last places to find a hot shower.
Day 3 – Rest and Acclimatization day, Namche Bazaar (11,300 ft)
As planned, we took a day to rest in Namche Bazaar. We climbed up about 1,500 feet to Hotel Everest View, the highest hotel in the world, and then back down to Namche for the night (climb high, sleep low is a phrase and practice often used when acclimatizing). This is about the time when the altitude effects really started to hit me. Headaches and a lack of appetite were the first symptoms, which went away by the following morning and off we went to Tengboche.
Day 4 – Namche Bazaar (11,300 ft) to Tengboche (12,700 ft)
The hike to Tengboche initially took us on a breathtaking, relatively flat traverse on the side of several cliffs, where we caught our first views of Everest.
Then back down to the Dudh Kosi River followed by a grueling 2,200 ft climb where beautiful Tengboche and more Everest views awaited. Tengboche is also famous for the Tengboche Monastery, where Everest climbers seek blessings for health and safety before their climbs.
Along the trail we met a lot of fellow trekkers and generally saw the same people after each hike (since there are only a handful of teahouses in each village and lots of downtime). We played a lot of cards with trekkers, guides, and porters alike to pass the time. In Tengboche, one of the guys we’d met from Richmond who had been suffering from altitude sickness, had to take a helicopter back to Kathmandu, which made us all realize how serious the altitude can be.
Day 5 – Rest and Acclimatization day in Tengboche (12,700 ft)
Feeling the effects of the altitude, we decided to take a day to acclimatize in Tengboche instead of pushing onto Dingboche, which was our original itinerary. It was certainly not a bad place to do it, with jaw-dropping views, including a glimpse at the top of Everest in the distance.
Jonuk and I went eagle watching in the valley below Tengboche – at one point there were close to a dozen eagles circling the valley. A bird watcher’s paradise.
At night, we went over some case studies with Mahesh from his Human Resources in Nepal textbook. He basically studies independently working toward his bachelor’s during the trekking season when he’s constantly in the mountains. We were inspired by his drive and ambition to learn business on the side while earning money for school and his family by guiding full time.
Day 6 –Tengboche (12,700 ft) to Dingboche (14,500 ft)
Mahesh would often tell us part of a hike was “flat,” which basically meant up and down, up and down, up and down but no real altitude gain (also known as “Nepali flat”) and the first half of this hike would fall into that category. We again descended to the river and then back up toward Pangboche (13,100 ft). Yes, the village names all sound the same and very confusing.
This brought us into a new part of the valley and views of some different mountain ranges, including Island Peak (20,300 feet) and different angles of Ama Dablam and Lhotse. The beauty factor was really starting to ratchet up. At the same time, this was where living things were becoming less and less apparent. We were no longer in the “forest region” but found ourselves surrounded by nothing but mountains, ice, snow, and glacial rock deposits. For the first time, we were starting to feel like we were actually closing in on the top of the world, where no living things are supposed to venture. It was really cool.
Day 7 – Rest and Acclimatization day in Dingboche (14,500 ft)
Another effect of the altitude is dehydration, particularly when combined with the level of physical activity on the trek. So Alison and I would often have water drinking contests, or games of “I chug, you chug,” the sober version of a complicated drinking game from our college days. What this often meant is the need to get up the middle of the night to pee on several occasions, which can be quite difficult given the warmth of our sleeping bags relative to the cold air outside. The good thing was knowing we were fully hydrated.
The night after our hike to Dingboche, it was not just the cold that made it tough for me to get up and pee. I found myself completely out of breath from walking the 10 yards to the toilet. Combined with severe headaches and constantly feeling like I had a two-bourbon-buzz going, I was nervous that my trek may be over due to altitude sickness. Even more discouraging, on our acclimatization day we ambitiously set out to hike 1,500 feet up a nearby mountain (“climb high, sleep low” was imprinted in my mind from the book I was reading by famed mountaineer Ed Viesturs). While Alison sprinted up the trail like Viesturs, I found myself stopping every few steps to catch my breath and barely made it 300 feet before having to turn around and go back to the teahouse.
I spent the evening trying to convince Alison to continue ascending with Mahesh the following day, since she was feeling great. Meanwhile, she refused to go without me and spent the evening trying convince me we should go down to Pangboche (descending to lower altitudes is the only 100% solution to altitude sickness). After discussing in detail with Mahesh, we decided to wait it out that night and make the call the following day, hoping my body would adjust.
If you made it this far I commend you. Read EBC Trek Part II for a recap of the second half of our Everest trek.