Everest Base Camp trek
“Let’s do something different for Xmas this year.” That’s how it started. That’s how we ended up in Kathmandu. Our mission: to walk to Everest Base Camp – and back!
The trek is designed to take 13 days of walking, on average about 8 or 9 hours per day. It would take us from Lukla to Base Camp and back with a minimum altitude of about 2600m and a maximum of 5400m.
This all seemed fine. The main problem was the weather. We’d be trekking in the off-season over Xmas and New Year. This is wintertime in the Himalayan mountains and temperatures regularly drop into the negative twenties. We were likely to encounter snow and wouldn’t be staying anywhere with any kind of central heating. The best we could hope for was a fire burner in the tea houses we’d be staying.
Over the two weeks we saw the rescue helicopter venture into the mountains to save stranded trekkers on several occasions. No one climbs at this time of year – too cold – and so the people being saved were those simply hiking in the mountains. We later learned that the group behind us travelling with the same organisation we booked through had to send for the rescue chopper on three occasions to airlift out people suffering from hypothermia.
“Is it harder to trek in winter,” I asked our lead guide Ganesh on one occasion? He chuckled and looked away briefly avoiding eye contact. “Yes,” he said, nodding his head in emphatic fashion. The reasons seemed to make sense: walking on snow and ice is more difficult than dry land, the body has to work harder to keep warm when inhaling cold air thereby expending more energy, and airways in the body contract and narrow in cold conditions limiting oxygen consumption in a given breath.
Still, we’d paid the money and we were going – ready or not.
Sunday 18th December.
Having spent the previous day shopping for warm clothes we packed our bags and finally set off for Kathmandu. However, firstly we enjoyed a stopover for a night in Bangkok with Terri. She took us to Steve’s on the river where we enjoyed some fantastic Thai food – seriously, is there a better cuisine anywhere?
Monday 19th to Wednesday 21st December.
We arrived into chaotic Kathmandu with a couple of days spare. The earthquake that shattered the city a year ago was very much in evidence. Dust filled the air and clung to the back of our throats inducing a dry cough that lasted the whole trek.
Durbur Square, the old centre of Kathmandu barely resembled the magnificent buildings and structures we’d observed on previous visits. Crumbling temples with missing statues away for repair or simply lying in the dust stared back at us bleakly. Walls with giant cracks surrounded by rubble were held upright by supporting blocks of wood. It was sad to see. But, the streets still bustled with tooting horns and were awash with colour and the smells of Nepalese food. The local population seemed to coping well in the adverse conditions.
The living Goddess put in an appearance for us, scowling through thick make-up from her balcony for a few seconds before disappearing back into her wooden palace to be godly again. This premenstrual girl (Goddess) is selected from a short-list for the vacant deity position once it becomes available. She then presides over her people offering her scholarly opinions until she reaches puberty. Then, she is effectively discarded, her spiritual guidance no longer considered worthwhile and a new prepubescent girl-child is chosen.
We stayed at the Kathmandu Guest House – a place that has welcomed various celebrities and famous climbers across its threshold over the years and now even boasts a ‘star walk of fame’ imitating Hollywood’s similar attraction. We ate at The New Orleans Café (again – we’d been there on previous visits and despite generating Lonely Planet notoriety it remains a welcoming cozy little place with excellent good value food). We also ate at the 3rd Eye restaurant, which also had great food, even if the ambience lacked a little.
We met up with our trekking lead guide (Ganesh) and the eight other hikers joining us on the walk to Base Camp on the Wednesday. Like us, many others seemed anxious about what lay ahead, which we found oddly reassuring. Together we poured into a couple of hiking shops later and rented sleeping bags and bought a few final gear items. Feeling as ready as we could possibly be, we packed our bags and joined everyone at the K-Too restaurant for a steak and chips – our final meal before we landed in the mountains.
This was really happening…
Thursday 22nd December.
A very cold start – and an early one. At 5am the ten trekkers and Ganesh headed for Kathmandu Airport. Fog in Lukla – our destination - delayed the flight by a couple of hours. But, by late morning we were on our way and 45 mins later with views of the white-tipped Himalayan mountains in the distance, we arrived at Lukla airport. The incredibly short runway has a considerable uphill gradient and boasts a safety record that makes you shudder. If Heathrow airport suffered a proportionally similar number of accidents/incidents per flight, then the London airport would be reporting about 4 problems/incidents/aborted landings/crashes/disasters every single day. Still, the pilot negotiated the terrifying stretch of tarmac without a hitch and jumping from the aircraft we snapped our first few photos of the surrounding peaks. We barely noticed the jaded trekkers waiting to board the flight in the opposite direction with their knowing smiles and raised eyebrows as they watched our innocent enthusiasm.
Lukla is 2800m above sea-level and the thinning air was at once noticeable. We were lead to a nearby lodge for brunch. Afterwards we met our porters. These incredibly strong young men carried our duffel bags (two to a man – about 20kg) as well as their own things throughout the trip. We carried our day bags, which with water, consisted of about 8-9 kgs. The first day walking was straightforward, but stunning. With the sun on our backs (I even wore shorts) we ambled for 3 hours, eventually ending up at 2610m at Phakding. Mountains soared overhead and prayer wheels, stupas and Buddhist mantras carved into rock resulted in multiple photo stops along the route.
As soon as the sun disappeared the temperature dropped with alarming speed and we ate hot noodle soup to keep warm before climbing into our sleeping bags.
Photos from the first day's walking...
Friday 23rd December.
A long day set in dramatic scenery, which would have been even more stunning had the low clouds lifted. Crossing swing bridges spanning deep gorges and trudging slowly upwards we pushed into the clouds. The first sets of gloves and down jackets were pulled from our packs as the cold set in. Along the way we encountered horses, donkeys and yak herded by their Nepalese owners up and down the narrow paths. We punctuated our climb with breaks at teahouses served by cheerful locals seemingly oblivious to the cold. Small children ran around playing with anything they could lay their hands on. It was refreshing to observe the lack of phones, computers, headphones etc…
As the track steepened we slowed and were sometimes overtaken by Nepalese men and women heaving incredibly heavy weights up the mountains. “How heavy,” we enquired? Apparently it was possible for some people to carry as much as 120kg on their backs up the hills – amazing!
We arrived into the gloom of Namch Bazar at about 4.30pm, having set out at 7am. A long and tiring day - we’d climbed from 2610m to 3400m. We stayed at the Kala Pathar Lodge, which lacked a wood burner and was freezing cold. A hot dinner briefly warmed us and we were firmly tucked away in our sleeping bags shortly after 7pm.
Photos of today:
Saturday 24th December.
Namche Bazar is a reasonably big place, especially as it is 3400m into the sky. Surrounded by mountains clouds hid it housed several trekking shops and a bunch of cozy cafes offering quality coffee and cake. It even had an Irish Bar! After a bowl of porridge we set off on an acclimatisation walk. We should only rise 400m in a day and since we’d climbed 800m the previous day we would be sleeping in Namche again that night. The aim today was to rise to 3800m and walk down again. So, that’s what we did! First we visited the Tenzing Norgay statue (1st man on the summit of Everest – with Sir Ed) and the museum. Then upwards into the clouds to the alleged highest airport in the world – which seemed far more perilous than Lukla until I learned that only helicopters used it. A little further up we settled into a teahouse for a lemon ginger honey tea and lamented the clouds preventing what would otherwise have been a fantastic view of the Himalayas.
Then, we returned to Namche Bazar and spent the rest of the afternoon trying to keep warm in the coffee shops. Paul (a fellow trekker from Newcastle, Uk) produced a string of tinsel, twinkling lights and two miniature Xmas trees for the dinner table, which was a masterstroke and helped generate some festive feeling.
We endured a shower in the sub zero temperatures – it turned out to be the last one for about 9 days.
Sunday 25th December. Xmas Day.
A returning hiker confidently informed us that the 2nd day of the trek was the hardest. This person was obviously an imbecile as today’s trek was far harder. We awoke and wished each other merry Xmas. I set off before breakfast to find a takeaway coffee from one of the many good cafes. Despite displaying opening times of 6am and it being an hour later, all were shut. However, not to worry – the clouds had vanished revealing the majestic Himalayan peaks towering above the town. Our celebratory Xmas breakfast consisted of porridge and Tibetan bread, but the exuberant atmosphere around the table had more to do with the clear blue skies than the birth of Christ I think. In jubilant mood we marched uphill to a crescendo of oohs and aahs as yet more mountains appeared on the horizon. At various points on the track we could see from whence we’d walked a day or two earlier. Swing bridges with prayer flags drifting in the breeze deep down in the valleys below us – stunning.
But, it was an innocuous looking turn in the small path cut into the side of the hill that was the best surprise of all. Suddenly, in all their magnificence, Nuptse, Lohtse and Everest were in front of us. The trip, the walk, everything – worth it for that one view. We stood, we stared, we clicked endless photos and slapped each other on the back in a rather indulgent self-congratulatory manner. Marsha declared it a Christmas miracle, which was possibly overdoing it slightly, but no one cared or disagreed.
After a while we walked in the direction of the mountains. Occasionally we’d remember to look sideways and behind at the incredible scenery there as well. At another large stupa we stopped and were joined by Santa himself. He obligingly posed for photos and told us he was actually from Yorkshire.
Onwards, upwards. A teahouse stop for more ginger, lemon, honey tea with some surprisingly good Yak (Nak) cheese. Then, lunch at 4000m and a downhill stretch to the glacial river, which took us to 3600m. Tengbuche Monastery sat on a hill across the valley in the distance – beautiful. Across a bridge over the river and then a steep climb to the small village of Phortse Gaon at 3810m. Exhausted, cold and in need of rest we tumbled into Thamserka Lodge. A fire fueled by frozen Yak poo gave the communal space a pungent kind of warmth. We all agreed it had been the hardest, yet the most beautiful day so far.
And, more exercise than most of us were used to on Xmas day!
Xmas Day Photos:
Monday 26th December.
Phortse to Dingboche today. The water in our bottles in the bedroom had frozen. Yep, it was cold. As we set out snowflakes drifting down and lightly settling on the ground greeted us. But, we spied blue sky in the distance and before long the snow had disappeared and the sun warmed our faces. Clouds evaporated and mountains appeared again. We walked uphill, then downhill following the gushing blue river below us formed from the melted snows of Everest and other mountains. Eventually our path and the river met at a bridge decorated with colourful prayer flags. One of the most attractive aspects of the Himalayan region are these flags strewn across hillsides, bridges, rocky outcrops, stupas and other prominent landmarks.
We stopped for lunch at Sunrise Guesthouse standing at 4000m as the weather closed in. Inside the guesthouse was almost as cold as the outside. We sat and shivered and anxiously watched as the snow fell horizontally whipped up in the increasingly hostile wind. The bowl of noodles revived us slightly and when we ventured outside the weather had improved a little.
Wrapping ourselves in multiple thermal layers we set off uphill again. The river nearby was frozen in parts. Snow settled on the ground. It was a relief to finally reach Dingbuche (4410m in the sky) just after 5pm. We checked into Peak 38 Lodge knowing we’d be there for two nights – the following day was another acclimatisation day. We stuck on our bed gear – thermals, gloves, socks tracky bottoms – ate some food and tucked ourselves away in bed before 8pm. Around us the 7 & 8 thousand metre peaks towered above in silent contemplation.
Photos from today;
Tuesday 27th December.
Frozen water bottles overnight again. One of the best ways to combat altitude sickness is to drink plenty of water. Another is to take Diamox – essentially a diuretic of which one of the side effects is peeing more. The overall impact is that at least twice nightly we have to leave the relative warmth of the sleeping bag and trudge down the corridor in sub-zero temperatures to the toilet. There, we find a very basic latrine system (often just a hole in the ground) with a bucket of water and a jug for flushing. Usually at this altitude the bucket of water is mostly ice and the whole loo area is just a treacherous skating rink. The joy of safely tumbling back into a sleeping bag post pee in the middle of the night is almost indescribable.
Porridge for breakfast. Then, we learned of the agenda for the day: a climb of 350m and back down again. And this was a rest day.
Climbing to 4750m was hard. The lack of oxygen in the rapidly thinning air burned our lungs and seemed to add dead weight to our legs. Sucking in freezing cold air and panting hard with every single step we slowly climbed the hill behind the lodge. We all finally made it and the view was exceptional: an uninterrupted 360 degree panorama of the surrounding mountains all higher than anything around the world except for some peaks in the Andes.
Slowly we descended again to the relative warmth of the lodge. It is amazing how sub-zero temperatures can appear warm when you’ve been far colder!
Amazingly, in the small town a coffee shop remained determinedly open despite the onset of winter and we ordered a French Press coffee.
Dinner was ok, although the altitude was beginning to take its toll on my appetite. Others were suffering with a variety of headaches, coughs, constipation, diahorrea, nausea and general fatigue. We concluded that the trek was probably not that great for our health!
Wednesday 28th December.
In the middle of the night I braved the extreme cold outside for a couple of minutes after one of my inevitable loo visits and admired the stars. Barely a spare bit of sky was without a star – amazingly clear.
In the morning we warmed our frozen water bottles by the yak poo fire and rubbed our hands trying to get warm. Apparently it was about -20 outside, and just a few degrees warmer inside.
Like Groundhog day, we packed our duffel bags and handed them gratefully to our porters. We slapped day packs on our backs and selected a path uphill. Quite simply, it was a shockingly hard day’s walking. We rose from 4410m to 4900m in Lobuche and parked ourselves at the Alpine Inn. Fortunately the weather was kind and although it was numbingly cold, the skies were clear and the views stunning.
Towards the end of the day as we were ascending a particularly steep part, the cold and the altitude finally took its toll. Marsha developed a massive headache as did another member of the group. At the lodge Ganesh tested our oxygen levels with a small device. Marsha’s was just about okay and steady. But, after seeing oxygen declining to dangerous levels the other member of the group agreed to descend to the teahouse a couple of hundred metres down the hill. She would end up being fine and we’d catch up again two days later. Marsha very nearly went with her, but decided to stay. “It’ll be a miracle if I make it to Base camp tomorrow,” she told me as we shivered in our room later – her headache still pounding away.
Photos from today:
Thursday 29th December.
The aim today, and the overall objective of the trip – to reach Base Camp.
Marsha was uncertain whether to even start or simply to descend to ease the headache. Many others in the group awoke with pounding heads as well. The water bottles were frozen. It was getting ridiculous; my toothpaste was frozen. Outside it was in the negative twenties – inside it was also in the negative twenties. Our breath formed clouds in the room as we silently ate porridge and gobbled painkillers for breakfast.
We all started out. From 4900m we walked alongside a glacier clambering over huge boulders; there was no path, only a direction. Every step took effort. Our lungs burned, our heads throbbed and all fingers and toes were chilled to the bone. I wore just about everything I had with me in an effort to keep the glacial winds at bay. Fortunately, the sun shone.
Eventually, we arrived at our final teahouse – and surely one of the highest permanent buildings in the world at over 5100m in the sky – The Snowland Inn. This would be where we’d sleep tonight. Before that though, was the little matter of the 3 hour walk to Base Camp. And back!
Lunch was eaten – hugely expensive, but not a penny was spent grudgingly. We knew how much effort it had taken simply to lug our own selves up the mountain, let alone carrying food for other people.
We set off. Marsha felt a little better and we formed the back of the group together. The thinning air challenged every step we took. We rose higher and vaguely appreciated the sight of Mount Everest towering above Nuptse to our right hand side – but at that point all our energy was focused upon reaching Base Camp. After more than two hours of trekking we spied Base Camp nestled on huge rocks and sitting on an ice flow surrounded by enormous mountains. This truly was the roof of the world.
Base Camp had little there except prayer flags strewn across a pile of rocks. It was only 200m away and yet it took us about 45 mins to negotiate the journey. At one point we circled around an opening in the ice that dropped down tens of metres. Down, then up, over boulders, avoiding sheet ice and finally we joined the rest of the group at Mount Everest Base Camp. Gasping for air and too exhausted to celebrate we snapped a few photos and received high-fives from the guides.
Although absolutely beautiful, Base Camp is a truly inhospitable place: freezing cold, high altitude (5365m), jagged rocks and ice. It’s unimaginable how people ascend another 3500m from here to the summit.
For me, the trek back to Snowland Inn at Gorakshep at 5140m was probably the hardest section of the whole trek. Wordlessly we trooped into the Inn and slumped in seats forming a large circle round the burner that provided the only warmth in the place.
Utterly spent and still wearing all our clothes from the day’s walk, we climbed into our sleeping bags and dragged various yak wool covers over us in an attempt to keep warm.
Mission only half accomplished. Now we had to get back.
Base Camp Photos - woohoo!
Friday 30th December.
5140m in the air is not conducive to a good night’s sleep, especially in temperatures well below freezing. Everyone was pretty excited about the fact we were descending.
With every step down the density of the air increased and it became easier to breathe. We found ourselves admiring the mountains again and appreciating the scenery as the altitude dropped. “Not far to go,” we cheerfully informed those walking in the opposite direction remembering as we did how annoying it was when we were on the receiving end of such pointless and self indulgent utterances.
Even as we neared the Sun Rise Guest House in Orsho at 4000m at the end of a long day’s walking, it was still cold, we were still high, the sun was still shining, the skies were blue and cloudless and the mountains were impressive as ever. Rivers remained iced over and on occasions and we walked through a thin layer of snow on the ground.
Finally arriving, we sat around the heater and drank hot chocolate. Breathing was much easier having descended about 1100m over the course of the day. Our knees ached, but at last we were beginning to appreciate our own accomplishment of reaching Base Camp.
Saturday 31st December.
This was the shortest hiking day so far, except perhaps the first day. It was all downhill for 3 hours until a half hour steep section up to Tengbuche Monastery and the Tashi Delek Guest House alongside where we’d be staying. There was a sprinkling of snow on the ground as we set off, but the sun was soon on our backs again.
The monastery was at 3800m and Marsha and I decided that trekking below 4000m was much more enjoyable for many reasons. It was easier on the lungs, the soaring mountains from lower down seem even higher and more impressive and along the route trees, stupas, prayer wheels, a nunnery, other porters, yak and more buildings lined our journey.
As we reached Tashi Delek Guest House everyone developed a hacking cough for five minutes – one of the side affects of altitude and constantly breathing in freezing cold air. But, the view was worth it. Everest soared in the distance, joined by Nuptse, Lohtse and Ama Dablam. Behind us, standing proud was the famous monastery (although historically it does have an unerring tendency to burn to the ground).
Before long clouds drifted over carrying snow. We tried to stay warm and visited the monastery as the flakes fell upon us. A monk showed us in asked us to remove our shoes, which he probably regretted once our days old trekking socks were freed from our boots. The monastery was colourful and no doubt atmospheric during prayer time. But, it was empty for our visit. We admired the paintings on the walls, which depicted a few lucky souls relaxing in gardens and being pandered to by various other beings. But, there were also other more grizzly images: a cauldron of people being boiled alive, a man being skinned to the bone, another being trampled to death and others on fire or being eaten by a variety of horrific looking animals. Still, a very benign and peaceful religion, I’m sure.
Sunday 1st December.
We didn’t see in the new year – not even close. We just about managed the Kiwi New Year at 6pm, but only a couple of people stayed up late enough to see the Australian New Year in at 8pm. We were in bed.
We descended 1000m today and stayed in Monjo at Chuma Guest House. We found ourselves back on a familiar path, passing through Namche Bazar again (unfortunately the whole town lacked power and the coffee and wifi we’d been looking forward to didn’t materialise).
Increasing oxygen levels, the thought of a shower in the not too distant future, warmer weather (still below freezing) and the end of the trek in sight created an excited atmosphere at the end of the long day’s walk when Marsha and I finally joined everyone at the lodge sometime after 5pm. It had been snowing quite heavily outside and the hot chocolate we ordered was wonderful.
Monday 2nd December.
Just 5-6 hours walking today and all below 3000m. We were virtually skipping along at times. Down, up, down, up as usual. Mountains overhead, prayer wheels and stupas – it was wonderful. The weather behaved as well. It wasn’t until we finally posed for the group photo at the end of the trek did the first few flakes of snow fall. By the time we’d checked into the Khumbu Resort in Lukla and settled into a coffee shop the snow was falling heavily and settling on the ground. Outside children began snowball fights. With concerned faces turned upward to the falling snow we wondered whether the flight to Kathmandu the following morning would be on time.
We enjoyed a final meal at the Resort with the assistant guides and porters followed by our first beers in 2 weeks and a bit of dancing at the Irish Bar.
We’d finished the trek. Over 100km of walking and nearly 100 hours of walking. It hadn’t sunk in yet. We wouldn’t have to trek tomorrow. We’d reached Base Camp and made it back – alive. It was only over the next few days that we really appreciated that it was over and what we’d all done.
Photos from today:
Tuesday 3rd December.
It stopped snowing at some point overnight. But, snow on the planes, ice on the runway and a general lack of urgency meant that we had about 4 hours in the cold airport terminal waiting for our plane. Over twenty people watched as one man with a feather duster swiped snow from the wings of the small plane on the tarmac. A pilot appeared and demanded hot water (or ginger lemon honey tea) be poured over the plane before he was satisfied it would fly. At one point it seemed as though there weren’t enough people standing on the runway watching and so the girl serving behind the small coffee counter was asked to join the bystanders by the plane.
Anyway, Marsha won the sweepstake organised to determine when the plane from Kathmandu would arrive and we finally departed Lukla late morning and were back at the Kathmandu Guest House before lunch.
Base Camp Trek – officially over.