I want to explain a bit about the Everest Base Camp trek. Starting from Kathmandu, people generally fly into the village of Lukla or take a bus and start from village of Jiri, which is a week's hike away from Lukla. I didn't want to spend an additional week hiking and I'd heard that Maoist rebels are active in the Jiri area (which I later confirmed with other trekkers that the Maoist demanded "donations" from), so started in Lukla
. From Lukla, the roundtrip trek to Everest Base Camp and Kala Pattar, a peak which offers the best views of Everest, is about 12 days depending on acclimation stops. Small villages line the trail that leads to EBC. Basic lodges are numerous in most of the villages. The rooms are basically plywood cubicles with only a bed and single light bulb, although the quality can vary a bit from place to place....most of them are the same. The rooms cost $1.50 to $3.00 USD per night. All have communal bathrooms and a few offer marginally warm showers for an additional fee, but I never thought it was worth it. The dining room is warmed by a stove, but the sleeping rooms are quite cold at night. I slept in a sleeping bag to keep warm in my room. The lodges all expect you to eat your meals with them, and if you do not, they double your room charge! This really doesn't matter since they all essentially serve the same menu anyways. The lodges all had small stores that offered Snickers, Coke, toilet paper, batteries, cookies, etc. The prices climb with the altitude. I brought a small duffel bag of food and snacks from Kathmandu and didn't regret it.
There are a wide variety of options for organizing a trek to Everest Base Camp. Some people arrange highly expensive (but very well done) tours through US companies like Mountain Travel Sobek or Mountain Madness...those guys will arrange guides, porters, and cooks and then you stay in their luxury tents and don't carry a thing
. Others arrange their treks with one of the many budget tour operators in Kathmandu, which is much cheaper than doing it via a non-Nepal tour operator. Some people don't have a guide or porter and simply trek on their own and stay in lodges or carry their own tents. I'd heard that it was possible (and economical) to simply hire an independent porter/guide in Lukla, so I decided to do that and then stay in the lodges along the trail to EBC. I was able to quickly find a guy who spoke decent English and was willing to carry my bag through one of the lodges surrounding the Lukla airport. The whole process of finding him and negotiating the rate took about 30 minutes. I would be paying him $10 a day to carry my bag and keep us going in the right direction. It may not sound like much for his hard work, but I was paying him above market wages! His name was Nema and he was a 23 year old from a village about 4 hours from Lukla.
I roughly planned my itinerary based on the plan Mountain Travel Sobek outlines on its website. I figured that they know what they are doing.
Day 1: Lukla to Phakding
Day 2: Phakding to Namche Bazaar
Day 3: Namche Bazaar to Tengboche
Day 4: Tenchboche to Dingboche
Day 5: Acclimation day in Dingboche
Day 6: Dingboche to Labuche
Day 7: Labuche to Gorek Shep (visit EBC)
Day 8: Gorek Shep to Kala Pattar then down to Labuche
Day 9: Labuche to Pangboche
Day 10: Pangboche to Namche Bazaar
Day 11: Namche Bazaar to Lukla
Day 12: Flight to Kathmandu
I hiked for about 5-6 hours day on most days
. The exceptions being the first day, which was only about 3 hours hiking and Day 11 back to Lukla which was a tough 9 hours. The trail was much rockier than I expected. I really had to pay attention to avoid stumbling over the large rocks that filled the trail in most parts. Narrow suspension bridges to cross the rivers are fairly common throughout the trek, some of them are fairly long. I would classify the trekking as moderate in most sections. The hardest days were going up to Namche Bazaar and very rocky path to EBC. Most days I finished tired, but not exhausted, although there is certainly a cumulative effect after hiking for several days in a row. The scenery along the trek was magnificent. In general the mountain views got more spectacular the higher I went. I wasn't expecting the level of shops and lodges along the trail and some of the villages were completely commercialized. As my guide Nema told me the names of the mountain peaks, I realized I had heard all the names since North Face had used them as product names....Nuptse, Pumori, Lhotse, Ama Dablam, Cho Oyu, Island, Everest, etc. Along the trail there were many gompas, water driven prayer wheels, and mani stones, which added a Buddhist air to the trek. I think the most beautiful mountain was Ama Dablam, with its stunning double peak. The walk to Everest Base Camp from the village of Gorek Shep was a hard one. The path is mostly a boulder field created by the Khumba Glacier making its way down the mountain. While I was walking to EBC I saw a big avalanche about a half mile away on another mountain
. On the way to base camp Nema, my guide, got altitude sickness and had to turn back...the trail to EBC is easy to follow so it wasn't a problem for me. He ended up being fine, but he spent the night at a lower village and I didn't see him again until after I reached the peak of Kala Pattar. Base camp backs up to sheer mountain walls on one side, and the Khumba Icefall and glacier field on the other. It sits on a very rocky patch of land that doesn't look like a good spot to setup camp. When I was there, about 5 summit teams had set up. It is basically a tent city with a constant stream of yak coming in and out brining fresh gear and supplies. It was pretty cool visiting such a famous spot and standing at the base of the deadly Khumba Icefall. To continue up past EBC, climbers have to pass through the Khumba Icefall which is filled with huge chunks of ice that are notorious for collapsing on climbers. The views from Kala Pattar, which offers the best sightline to Everest short of being on it, were spectacular. Kala Pattar is over 18,000 feet up and was the highest altitude I reached on the hike. Even up 18,000 feet the other mountains towered over me and it was hard to tell how high I was.
One of the reasons I took a rather circuitous route to reach Nepal (rather than just going straight from India back in January), was to get the warmer spring weather and also because April is when summit expeditions begin to make their way to Everest Base Camp
. During the day, I never needed more than a medium weight fleece, long underwear, and a fleece hat. For many of the days I didn't need my fleece at all. The nights were freezing cold, and I usually didn't spend any time outside after sunset. The weather was excellent for all but one day of the trekking, when it rained most of the day. Typically the clouds and wind arrived in the early afternoon, so the best views were in the morning. The trail was filled with ox and yak carrying big loads of gear up the mountain for the summit teams. The summit teams spend 2 or 3 months on the mountain, so they bring a lot with them. I ran into one particular Canadian summit team several times during my trek. They were cool bunch of guys and had lots of stories to tell. I think one of them was a well-to-do mining magnate, and in one year he was going to climb the 7 Summits and also ski the last degree of the South Pole! This is pretty impressive for a guy who looked about 50 years old. All he had left was Everest and Denali in Alaska....he had done both before, but not in his one year window. The lead guide had once spent an hour on the Everest summit with no oxygen...that's over 29,0000 feet up! The communications guy on the team recommended I read "The Climb" to get a different perspective on the story told by the book "Into Thin Air". This year they told me there was going to be close to 40 summit teams on the mountain. That's a high number and the Canadian team was worried about a traffic jam above base camp since they all follow the same path to the top
. For me the highlight of the trek was hanging out with the summit team and listening to their climbing stories.
During the trek I would usually go to bed early (by 9:30 PM) and get up around 6:30 AM. There isn't much to do at night and due to the paper thin walls at the lodges it was hard to sleep in. There was usually good conversation in the warmth of the dining rooms each night at the lodges. Not surprisingly most of the trekkers were Europeans, with some Americans and a few Japanese and S. Koreans mixed in too. At least half of the trekkers were 40 or older I'd guess. After dinner I would usually talk or read one of the books I brought along. I decided to not eat meat for the duration of the hike after the lodge owner in the first village I stopped at warned me the meat wasn't very fresh! It was not as hard I thought it would be to avoid meat and it gave me something to look forward to back in Kathmandu. Although the lodges offered a fair number of Western dishes, none of them were looked very good. The safest bet was the simple Nepali food. The national dish in Nepal is Dhal Baat, which is a simple combination of rice, beans, and a vegetable curry. I found it tasty and filling and I ate it for lunch and dinner about 80% of the time. The porters and guides ate it for every meal, so I figured it could fuel me as well. Dhal Baat is also very cheap and Nepalese traditionally give free second helpings if you want it
. From Kathmandu I had brought about a dozen Snickers, a few packages of cookies, trail mix, peanut butter, crackers and bottle of Tabasco (the Dhal Baat needed it). The bottled water on the trail is expensive and the plastic bottles aren't environmentally friendly, so I filled my "Nalgene" water bottles with boiled water at the lodges. The water never gave me any problems and I flavored it with lemon Tang so it tasted fine too. Needless to say, by the end of the trek I never wanted to see a plate of Dahl Baat again!
By the last day of the trek I was ready to get back to modern conveniences like a hot shower and a real bed. I spent one last night in Lukla and took an early morning flight back to Kathmandu. In Kathmandu I celebrated with a long shower and a delicious $4 steak at the K-Too Steakhouse. The trek was an amazing experience in an absolutely beautiful setting. I will say that 12 days tested the limits of my willingness to rough it, but in the end it was worth it.
Now it's time for some R&R in Thailand....I'm headed to Bangkok!
My flight from Kathmandu to Lukla was brief and very scenic. The flight path took us through a couple of mountain passes and the plane was never close to being higher than the Himalayan peaks. The small prop-driven aircraft held about 20 people and the cockpit was open to the rest of the plane. The best views are from the left side of the plane on the way in, and I grabbed the last remaining seat on the left. Landing in Lukla was an adventure...the runway is very short and set on the edge of a cliff. The runway has a noticeable slope in order to help planes landing slowdown and planes taking off gain speed.