The trip to Everest Base Camp was not the trip I initially wanted to take. In fact, I wanted to go to the warm beaches of South East Asia but I ended up in the cold mountains of the Himalayas. It just happened. Once I came across it online, I was drawn to the trek and felt like I needed to go walk in the mountains. So I did. It was the trip of a lifetime. It was hard. It was fun. It was a healing journey. Here are the highlights!
The flight from Kathmandu to Lukla is scenic, albeit a little. As you fly next to some of the highest peaks in the world, you realize how blessed you are to see the Himalayas in all their glory, towering over the rest of the world. The approach to Lukla airport is nerve-wracking. The Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla sits at 9,383 ft / 2,860 m and is known as the world’s most dangerous airport. And for good reason. The runway is an abbreviated 460m long, with a wall at the other end. Here is a shot of the runway from the cockpit. Hmmm, scary? An adrenaline rush? Oh yes, it was that and much more. I would do it a million times over. It was the best roller coaster ride I have ever been on.
Here is a video of the landing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oce-PjzqdUU&feature=youtu.be
[Note: it’s best to click on the images and view them as a slideshow so that you can read the captions]
The mountains in Nepal take your breath away. They are beautiful. Soaring above the clouds. Highest in the world. The scenery in the Himalayas is simply stunning. As you start to ascend you feel like you are in heaven. As the altitudes get above 4000 meters, you feel like you are on a different planet. Breathing becomes labored as well. It is not unusual to wake up in the middle of the night gasping for air. Those mountains really do take your breath away.
We walked a total of 118.50 km over 12 days (technically I did a bit more than that as I also went about halfway up to Kala Pattar which sits at 5,644.5 m / 18,519 ft). That may not seem like a lot, but it is when you consider the number of times you walk down a mountain, only to cross a river and climb up another mountain. The largest net elevation gain in one day was ~850 m. Again, that did not take into account the ups and downs. We walked between 7-18 km on any given day, approximately 5-7 hours, and stopped for a quick snack or lunch at a tea house. The Everest Base Camp trek is peppered with small Sherpa villages and tea houses that provide freshly cooked meals for the weary travelers.
The first few days were hard, but then my body got used to all the walking, and my resolve to finish the trek got stronger with each day. I pulled a muscle in my right leg on day 2. I was in excruciating pain. My goal of reaching Everest Base Camp was in serious jeopardy. Finishing the trek became a test of will. Putting one foot in front of the other and believing that I could get through the next hour, get through that day. It was also a very meditative process. Walking for so many hours a day, you are alone with your thoughts. It gives you a lot of time to contemplate life. Music saved me on the extreme uphill sections. I would put in my earphones and let my little iPod distract and motivate me while I climbed up steep sections of the trail. It’s much better than hearing yourself breathe heavily and gasping for air!
Here are some pictures that show the various parts of the trail, and the group that I was traveling with that included two gentlemen from Pakistan, a guide, and two porters. I also met a lot of wonderful people along the way that I spent more time with back in Kathmandu. One surprising fact: there were a LOT of single, female travelers on the EBC trek. A lot! The ratio of women to men was almost 3:1. So for the single guys out there, if you are looking for an adventurous mate, then be sure to check out the EBC trek!
The trek was hard. But the evenings were harder. The daytime temperature is usually between 20-25 C on most days (t-shirt weather). The coldest trek day was to Base Camp where we started at 6 am with our headlamps on, and the temperature was close to 5 C. However, the evening temperatures were chilly, usually between 7 C to -20 C. Compared to Canada, this was nothing. However, considering that there was no heating, anywhere, and no hot water available after day 4, the evenings were unbearably cold. The spent the first night, wearing several layers, tucked into my sleeping bag, and yet I shivered the entire night, hardly getting a wink of sleep. Then I realized that I would have to sleep with my down jacket on and that did the trick most nights. Although I was never really fully warm in the evenings, ever. The cold temperatures combined with the thin air (especially after day 4 at Namche Bazaar), made it hard to sleep many nights. I still did better than most. One of the folks in our group hardly slept and also lost his appetite due to altitude sickness. I got lucky in that regard. As soon as I started to get symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) (I had a wicked headache, was dizzy, confused, and lost all appetite), I started taking Diamox and I was in the clear within 12 hours of my first dose. AMS is no joke. As we got to higher altitudes, most folks were sick, many got air-lifted back to Kathmandu before they could summit Base Camp.
The tea houses where we stayed were basic at best, dirty most times. Sometimes we had an attached bathroom (no shower in most cases), and sometimes the bathrooms were shared. I won’t share pictures of the dirty bathrooms (they were out of horror movies) because I don’t think the bad facilities should stop anyone from experiencing this once-in-a-lifetime trek. The tea house dining halls provided much-needed reprise from the cold as they were equipped with a hot coal stove that all the guides and porters would huddle around. Since we finished walking around 1-3 pm most days (started at 7 or 8 am most days), we had a lot of time on our hands. I would usually grab my e-book readers and sit in the dining hall for hours to kill time. It also gave me a chance to meet folks from other groups.
We made it to EBC on day 8. It was definitely the hardest and longest day of the trek. I joined a different group in hopes of summiting both EBC and Kala Patthar AND returning to Lobuche (instead of staying closer to Base Camp at Gorekshep). People were dropping like flies at Gorekshep due to altitude sickness. Four folks from a group of 16 Australians got air-lifted out because of AMS. So we decided that we would trek back to Lobuche the very same day instead of spending the night in high-altitude hell. It was a very ambitious (and likely stupid) plan in hindsight. We started at 6 am (in the dark) and got back at 6:15 pm (in pitch darkness!).
The trek to and from Base Camp is tricky, bordering on downright dangerous. There isn’t really a trail, just very large and steep boulders that you need to jump to and from. I am just glad I made it there and back, all in one piece, no major injuries, no accidents.
The People and Their Animals
The Nepalese are all smiles. Nodding away in agreement, even when they don’t really agree or don’t have an answer to your queries (see my post about common Nepali terms). Smiling when they are climbing up steep pathways. Smiling when the flight to Lukla is delayed 7 hours. They seem to be happy people. They are helpful and cheery. Always chatting up with other Nepalis on the trials.
The folks that live in the higher altitudes are hearty people. Strong and hard-working. Their animals are an important part of their livelihood. The yaks and donkeys are essential for the local population and tourists alike. They carry loads of the locals from village to village and also carry up anything and everything that is needed for tourists and locals. Everything from toilet paper and noodles to roofing materials and fuel. Everything is carried either by yaks or porters. The porters are sometimes well into their 70’s or 80’s (unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of them). Their strength is mind-boggling.
The Nepalese are a deeply religious people. Over 85% of the population considers themselves a combination of Buddhist and Hindu. The EBC is trek is in the Khumbu region of Nepal, which is primarily Buddhist. So we came across a LOT of stupas and monasteries along the way. Whenever there is a stupa one must cross it on the left for good luck and fortune on the trails. I loved the stupas against the dramatic backdrop of the Himalayas. They gave the trek a spiritual quality.
The food on the trek was surprisingly good. Most days I ate Dhaal Bhat, which is the Nepali national meal. It usually comes with lentils, a veggie curry, cooked spinach, and rice. It is the perfectly balanced meal that gives you the energy you need for the trek but is not too heavy either. All guides and porters eat this for lunch and dinner. Breakfast was usually eggs or porridge with milk and fruit. All tea houses have extensive menus that include western dishes such as pasta, pizzas, pies, and even Chinese and Tibetan dishes. I also had a lot of soups to keep warm; like the Sherpa Stew which is essentially tons of veggies and some noodles in a thick broth. I stuck to an all-vegetarian fare after Lukla as I was told that no animals are killed in the Khumbu region due to religious beliefs. So any meat on the trek is being brought in, on foot or yak, from Lukla. That was a risk not worth taking for me and I had plenty of good veggie options on the trek. There were others that ate meat every day and they were mostly fine too.
So that’s it. My little adventure to Everest Base Camp. I can’t believe I actually did the trek. It is a distant memory now. It was the hardest and the best thing I ever did for myself! It was more a test of mental resolve than physical ability. It made me realize that at the end of the day we are capable of achieving essentially anything that we believe we can do. I was able to finish the trek only because I believed I could, and with that, I put one foot in front of the other when my muscles had fatigued and my feet hurt. The trek made me realize that adversity or challenge combined with believing in yourself, is the strongest catalyst for change and growth.