The 6am wake-up call marked the start of our eighth day of trekking, where the swift knock on the door and resounding tones of “mooooorning” signalled the start of another long and arduous day. By this point each day began to feel like a relentless and monotonous struggle. Except this was the day where, despite extreme exhaustion, weakness from loss of appetite and braving bitterly cold conditions, we all hoped to find enough energy to pull ourselves through the last leg of our ascent to get to Everest Base Camp.
I didn’t feel giddy with excitement that morning. Instead, swathed in five layers of clothing and still suffering from a severe cough and altitude headaches, I felt relieved that what I had set out to achieve was just a few hours away. I just wanted the pain to go away. Even the strongest of people were flagging. Over the course of six hours, broken up half way by a short break at our accommodation tea house, we pulled ourselves slowly and sluggishly through the thin and icy air. I remember one of the Sherpas (porters) grabbing my arm to hold me up, pulling me over rocks as my legs were about to give way and pushing me to the end because I refused to be defeated. Not now I had got this far. When we reached the top of the final climb, stumbling over loose rocks and onto a canvas of white, all I could do was sit and cry at what had become one of my greatest achievements – the top of the world was standing right before me.
Just because you are not stepping foot on Mount Everest, do not think that the trek to Everest Base Camp (EBC) is an easy undertaking. It’s so tough that at times you question your sanity and why you ever decided to do it. At other times you look at the scenery that’s so breathtakingly stunning and unlike any mountainous terrain that you have ever seen before – changing from lush green farmland, dense forest and glistening blue fast flowing rivers to barren land and glacial pools the higher you climb – that you realise it was a good decision. It’s one of the hardest physical and mental challenges I have ever faced in my life but one that, upon reaching Base Camp, became one of my proudest moments.
Facing My Demons
I remember seeing the Everest Base Camp trek a few years ago – a random find that immediately made it on my travel ‘to do’ list. Not only was Nepal high on my list of places to visit but completing this would be a pretty fantastic achievement. I’d been that typical asthma kid at school – that one who was told I didn’t have to partake in the really difficult athletic endeavours because it was obvious I was never going to make it and any attempt would just result in some hideous outcome or extreme embarrassment. So I went through life not taking much interest in sport, or thinking I couldn’t do much in the way of extreme physical exertion. It’s taken many years to realise that this is not the case, and Everest Base Camp was one of those things I had to do to prove that to myself.
Group Or Solo?
In all honesty, I didn’t know what to expect from this epic trek. I knew it was going to be hard, but I never realised how hard. The most I had managed before this was a three day jungle hike in Northern Thailand which now feels like a walk in the park in comparison. In fact previous daydreams about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro are currently on the backburner until I fully recover.
I booked the 12 day trek over six months before I was due to start it, ensuring that I would be with a group. I toyed with the idea of hiring a guide when I was there but figured being on my own might be lonely when you need the camaraderie of others to spur you on. I also was close to using websites such as Trek Info to meet others to form a group and hire guides and porters but worried that I would be thrown into the midst of diehard trekkers, where I would be a burden or unable to keep up.
And so I began my trek with a group of 14 people, alongside two guides and four porters. Looking back, I needed a lot of those people. I relied on them when times got tough, because this isn’t just a test of physical strength but one that pushes you to the limit mentally too. And so a simple hug made everything better, when you cried they understood and the laugher and nights in huddled round the fire gossiping overshadowed any negative thoughts that were always lurking. I doubt I would have completed it without the collective morale that existed between us.
Typically, most treks to EBC will take around 12 days to complete – eight days to get to Base Camp and four days to get back down, tough in parts, especially on the knees! Leaving from Kathmandu, you’ll brave an early morning flight to Lukla – a small aircraft where the engine roars for the full 40 minutes (muffled in vain by the complimentary cotton wool from the flight attendant that you’re urged to stuff into your ears) while the wind lightly wobbles you in the air, until you touch down on the famous short, steep and precarious mountain-side runway.
Cheering at the successful landing and that we were still alive after this nail-biting experience we went to breakfast full of excitement about the trek ahead – a three hour, mainly uphill climb which wasn’t too taxing. Little did we know how much harder it would be and how much colder it would get.
Savour that first night. It’s one of the most comfortable.
On day two, we made our way to the well-known Namche Bazaar - one of the biggest rest areas and full of markets, restaurants and Wi-Fi cafes – but reaching this haven at 3,440 metres requires extreme effort. I found this day one of the hardest, alongside the day of getting to Everest Base Camp itself. It involved six hours of high climbing and steep steps through stunning forest, crossing rivers via vertiginous, swaying suspension bridges and relentless physical exertion in dusty, dry heat which sent my adrenalin levels pumping so high that all I could do when I reached the lodge was sit and cry.
You might feel the need to cry. More than once.
‘Rest’ Days Are Not Rest Days
What follows is five more trek days, two of which are ‘rest days’ – the second day in Namche Bazaar and day six in Dingboche at 4,260 metres. Yet, this is not an opportunity for a lie-in or to put your feet up and rest since a ‘rest day’ is just a term for an acclimatisation day but rolled in trekking terminology glitter.
Acclimatisation means climbing. Steep climbing.
It’s around days four and five that you start to feel the changes in the air. Just when you thought you had got your breath back you are off again to reach a higher altitude, a dry-run, ready to make the ascent properly the next day. You climb high and sleep lower, so while you are not trekking for three to six hours, you will spend approximately two hours hauling yourself up a steep hill in order for your body to get used to the next stage of high altitude – a painful but necessary evil which makes the proceeding trekking days a little easier.
Reaching Base Camp & The Lukla Party
Reaching Base Camp and standing at an altitude of 5,364 meters is euphoric, even with depleted energy levels. It’s like standing in a snow globe, where the magnificent snow-peaked mountains, the Khumbu icefall and the imposing presence of Everest loom before you. It’s something I will never forget, from the first glimpse of the magnificent view to the congratulatory atmosphere all around me.
Since we were outside of the April/May climbing season we didn’t encounter a ‘camp’. It’s not a land filled with people ready to go further, or where a huge sign signals your end goal. Instead you are greeted by a huge rock covered in prayer flags to pose with. Just look up, because that’s the most special thing.
The thought of four days trekking back down is not the greatest, but remember one thing: a party awaits you in Lukla – a land full of happy people, happy hour, decent food, strong cocktails and a rave with your new-found friends.
The Everest Base Camp trek is like rehab – no sex, alcohol or meat allowed for 12 days. Lukla is the release and you deserve it.
Top Five Tips
1. Stay Positive
Despite feeling exhausted most of the time, look around you. Trekking with the magnificent High Himalaya around you including Ama Dablam, Mount Pumori, Lhotse and Nuptse and the snow-capped misty peak of Mount Everest, you will feel as though you have been thrown into the most beautiful mountainous valley, with a 360 view of the best scenery on the planet.
Approach each climb knowing that there’s a viewpoint so spectacular at the end that every excruciating last step is worth it. It really is.
Try and accept the uncomfortable nights in the tea houses, where your room will be a made from walls of ply wood, and the water will be ice-cold. It’s hard and there isn’t one night where it feels like luxury. I hired a -20 sleeping bag from Kathmandu, used a silk sleeping liner and wore as many layers as necessary, and when I came across the opportunity for a hot shower, I took it, despite the cost of £2-£5. Do whatever it takes to make yourself feel better and try not to project too much negativity as this can also be detrimental to the moral of the group. I found it easier to walk away from people who felt a constant need to moan. Your own mental stability is an extremely important factor in getting you to the end goal!
2. Avoid Altitude Sickness
Altitude kills, but in the majority of cases it just makes you feel extremely shitty. I chose not to take Diamox tablets as I am a migraine sufferer and I wanted to know if my body was on shut down during the trek. I listened to all the advice our guide gave each day regarding how much water to drink – and I drank more to ensure I stayed on top of the altitude symptoms. But just two days before reaching base camp I succumbed to altitude sickness. I woke up in the morning with throbbing headaches, which I carried with me while trekking. I felt nauseous and weak, and mentally I struggled and so took the tablets for a couple of days.
3. Go Slow
Taking slow, measured steps is as important as staying hydrated to prevent altitude sickness. This is not a race or an opportunity to show off your sporting prowess – even the most athletic can be beaten by altitude. Go at your own pace and don’t be intimidated by the strength of others or feel the need to ‘keep up’. It’s better to be an hour behind and reach your goal than falter at your own ruthless determination.
4. Take Plenty of Snacks and Money
In short, the food is pretty dire, especially the higher you climb. You tire of the same foods and the bland tastes and your loss of appetite only aids the pain. Take plenty of snacks with you such as protein bars and chocolate – a little bit of sugar helps pull you through, as does your favourite comfort foods.
In all I took 35,000 rupees (approx. £275) with me for the entire trek and spent it all. Showers, Wi-Fi and battery recharging will set you back anywhere between 350-500 rupees. Food and drink becomes more expensive the higher you go (due to the effort require to transport it up there) with bottled water in particular gaining a hefty price tag. Consider using the water purification tablets to save money.
5. Pack Well
Braving minus temperatures can be gruelling, especially at night. You can hire a four seasons sleeping bag (or simply ask for a -20) and a down jacket from a whole host of trekking shops in Kathmandu – these two items were my lifeline to a good night’s sleep. The rest is down to the art of layering – thermal longs and a top, comfortable trekking trousers, t-shirts, fleece, Gore-Tex jacket and/or windproof jacket, hat, scarf, and gloves. Really good gloves. Remember it’s better to be too warm than suffer the cold through lack of proper clothing. I bought my trekking shoes at home in order to wear them in before the adventure started and purchased walking poles in Kathmandu, which came in extra handy on the steeper parts of the climb.
Reaching Everest Base Camp isn’t just a light-hearted trek. It’s a mini expedition that will test you in more ways than one. But for the short time you are there all the pain completely disappears, leaving you to revel in what will become one of the greatest achievements of your life. Between the pats on the back, the hugs and the handshakes of congratulations, you’ll lose yourself in complete silence as you marvel at the spectre before you – the top of the world. Not many people can say they stood over half way towards that. And if you don’t make it that far, you will still have traversed one of the most beautiful trekking routes on the planet.
Way up: Kathmandu – Lukla – Phakding – Namche Bazaar – Tengboche – Dingboche – Lobuche – Gorak Shep
Way down: Pheriche – Kengjuma – Monjo – Lukla – Kathmandu