It took me a couple of months to get these photos up, but from Dec 22-Jan 6th, Justin and I did the Everest Base Camp Trek. It was incredible. The days were strenuous, the nights were freezing, but we saw some of the most breathtaking mountains in the world, made new friends, and experienced a fascinating culture that thrives despite the inhospitable landscape.
We started the trip via a flight into Kathmandu by way of Hong Kong. My luggage stayed behind in San Francisco. Pro tip: always wear a complete set of layers and hiking boots on the plane…I would have been so screwed if I hadn’t. The streets in Kathmandu are lined with shops selling knockoff North Face, so I was able to fill in the gaps by renting cheapies.
The first day was mostly sightseeing around the Buddhist and Hindu sites in Kathmandu. Early on the second, we woke up and boarded the first flight to Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla. The airport is one of the most dangerous in the world because of its very short, sloped runway, infamous winds, and the ring of mountains surrounding it. The landing was exhilarating – immediately upon touching down, our pilot slammed on the brakes and we screeched to a halt. The 70-mile trek begins right on the runway, so we set off on a three-hour hike to the town of Phakding.
We were traveling in the winter (off season), and it was very cold at night (5 degrees F). I thought that since we were staying in tea houses, we’d still be warm. Turns out, they aren’t insulated and only the common areas have (intermittent) heat and electricity. Most have single-pane windows and a squat toilet, because Western plumbing is more prone to freezing. The beds were single-size cots; you’d throw your sleeping bag on, and then borrow a quilt. On most days, we would hike from 10am-3pm while the sun was out, then spend the afternoon reading and playing cards in the main room, which was heated by a wood or yak-dung-burning stove.
Tea houses all have the same menu. Locals eat a dish called dal baat several times a day – it’s a bowl of lentil soup, and a plate of rice with potato, cabbage, and carrot curry on top. Everything on the menu is white carbs (noodles, potatoes, rice). Stick with the native food; the attempts at pizza and pasta are a nice gesture, but they taste pretty bad. There are almost no animal products, because livestock are more valuable as beasts of burden…you’re better off not eating meat past Namche anyway, since there’s no refrigeration. All provisions are flown in from Kathmandu and then carried on
backs of donkeys, yaks, or yak-cow hybrids called dzoom. Provisions get progressively more expensive as you approach Everest, because it’s increasingly more difficult to carry them. Snickers bars and bottles of spring water are luxuries.
Trekkers learn pretty quickly that the donkey and dzoom trains have the right of way. You stay to the ‘mountain side’ of the trail as they pass, or run the risk of being shoved off a cliff or into the river. On Day 3 we crossed our first high suspension bridges. The bridges are safe, but they’re still scarily high and pretty long. There is a particularly windy bridge that marks the entrance to Namche Bazaar. On the far side is a very rocky, steep set of stairs. We happened to be behind a donkey train on that bridge, and they didn’t like the steps so they kept backing up onto the bridge and making it sway. The locals tie prayer flags to the bridge ropes…they were swirling in the wind all around us, and waaay down below were the bright blue rapids of the glacial runoff. It was simultaneously beautiful and scary. I always let the livestock get completely off the bridge after that.
Part of hiking to high altitude is acclimatizing properly, so we spent two nights at Namche (11,482 ft). On our rest day, we went shopping for candy bars, paid for hot showers (the only ones we would get until we were back in Namche again), and watched “Into Thin Air” over popcorn at a local bar. Since it was off-season, a lot of the businesses were shuttered. This made it easier to make friends, since we saw the same familiar faces at the few lodges that were open. One friendly American had packed a Santa suit, and he passed out little gifts. Christmas dinner was Ramen soup.
After Namche the weather got markedly colder. We walked to Tengboche, site of the beautiful ancient monastery. Most of the monks had gone to Kathmandu to escape the cold, but two remained and we watched them chant. We walked through rhododendron forests, had our first clear views of Everest, and saw some giant eagles and our first yaks.
After a miserably cold night, it was on to Dengboche, which is in the shadow of Ama Dablam and is absolutely gorgeous. Dengboche is at 14,862 feet, so we spent two nights there as well, with an acclimatization hike on the second day. We both felt fine and still had great appetites and were sleeping well, and hit the road to Lobuche with a lot of energy. Along the way is a series of stupas and rock piles with prayer flags commemorating those who have died on Everest. It’s a sobering place; the piles we saw were as recent as May 2012. Famous climbers, such as Scott Fisher and Anatoli Boukreev, are memorialized there.
This is often the point where people start to get sick. My appetite vanished. The last half of the six-hour hike was on a vast open plain and the wind was brutal. We’d been lucky enough to have perfectly clear skies over the first seven days, but the eighth brought clouds and snow. It gets very difficult to sleep above 16,000 feet because the air is so thin. Fatigue + reduced caloric intake + the beginnings of mild altitude sickness made me pretty grouchy. I was also taking Diamox at this point, which is a great drug for reducing altitude symptoms but makes your ears ring, gives you pins and needles, and it’s a diuretic (so you pee a lot). Still, I was lucky. Some of our traveling companions had severe altitude sickness. One woman we’d spent several nights playing cards with was medevac’d out because she developed cerebral edema.
Base Camp day is a very long day. We left Lobuche early, hiked three hours (3 miles) to Gorak Shep at 17,000 feet, and had a quick lunch. Gorak Shep is the “old” base camp. The name means “Dead Ravens,” and there’s really nothing more than a few trailers there. It sits on a dry lake bed. We changed into our warmest gear and set out for EBC, which sits at 17,600ft and a four hour hike over the Khombu Glacier. I actually hadn’t realized that Base Camp is on the glacier itself. It’s a bit of a slog to get there, because the glacier is covered with pebbles and it’s tough to get a foothold. But we made it, and I was thrilled to be standing there. It’s gorgeous and imposing and awe-inspiring. Nothing is alive, but the rocks themselves are constantly moving – the glacier is shifting and avalanches are happening, and the environment is in a constant state of flux. The mountains are so unbelievably vast and tall. There’s nothing in the United States on that scale.
Anyway: mission accomplished! After some celebratory pictures with friends, we turned around and hiked the four hours back to Gorak Shep. It was New Years’ Eve, and we celebrated in style with a fried Snickers pie and were all passed out by 9pm. The next morning Justin hiked up to Kala Pattar and took the gorgeous panoramic photos below. I made it ¾ of the way to the summit before a total lack of energy made me turn around. We still had a seven hour descent ahead of us, and it’s good to respect your limits. I wish I could find some way to keep my appetite strong when I’m that high up, it really makes a difference.
I know this is a very long post, so if you made it this far, thanks for reading. The rest of the trip involved several more days of hiking back the way we came, a bumpy flight out of Lukla, and a celebratory steak in Kathmandu. I’ve got some more photos up here. It was a bucket-list trip for me, and it was just incredible. If you’re considering doing a trek or visiting Nepal, I can’t recommend it enough.