Everest Base Camp Trek
So the day came. The adventure that we had been talking about (to anyone that would listen) was finally about to start; we were on our way to Everest Base Camp!! Of course no adventure would be complete without a terrifying flight through the Himalayan mountain range to an airport that boasts a tiny 527m runway with an 11.7% gradient. As you can see in the photo below, the end of the runway is the edge of the mountain (and the other end that’s not in the photo is a rock-wall)! I had made the mistake of doing a Google image search of the airport prior to the flight; after a few similar pictures of the runway itself the search results start to show what happens when the flight doesn’t go quite to plan, so I aborted the google search!
At the airport, in what we were starting to understand is typical Nepalese custom, there was utter mayhem. Thankfully our lovely guide Raj instructed us to put our check-in luggage onto a pile of rucksacks and duffel bags branded with various tour operators logos, and to sit back and relax. Of course what he didn’t know was that in no way was I able to relax and instead I made a beeline for the loo (my body doesn’t deal with fear in the most helpful of ways; TMI, I know, sorry!)
A great distraction came when we started chatting to an American couple who were traveling with their two children. They had already been traveling for a year; cycled through Europe, been to India and driven through Africa. Dean (the dad) was telling us about some of the things they have done as a family, the adventures they have had, some of which would have had me running to the loo again! Why isn’t anyone else afraid?!?! I sought comfort in the thought that Dean and Meg wouldn’t put their children in danger so the flight must be ok.
So we boarded a small tin can with one seat either side; cockpit in full view for all 15 passengers and we took off into what seemed like another world. You can see a picture of a view from the plane below on the right.
The trek to Base Camp begins
Once we arrived safely in Lukla the fear had gone and we were both full of excitement for the adventure ahead of us. We set off at an over ambitious ‘this is our first day’ speedy pace to our first stop, Phakding. The downside to using a guide for the trek is that they decide where you stay; however on the flip side this is also a good thing when accommodation is scarce as they will call ahead or use their knowledge of the village to ensure we can rest our sleepy little heads for the night. If you are planning to do the trek yourself we will be adding some more information on the use of guides and accommodation to the website soon.
Our first experience of teahouse lodgings was a pleasant one; they are all basic but that’s what we expected, we even had a private bathroom from time to time.
Being prepared for the cold weather we quickly got changed out of the day’s trekking clothes and put on our thermals and as many layers as we could. My mum got me some amazing leggings that had faux fur on the inside, they prove to be a lifesaver especially the higher we went. Being good little campers we got tucked up into our sleeping bags (on top of a travel sheet I insisted we put over the pillows; I’d read about someone getting pink eye from an unwashed hostel pillow case and didn’t want to take the risk). After about half an hour of shivering thinking we would never feel the warmth of the sun again I fell fast asleep. Andy, on the other hand spent a good few hours enjoying the repetitive sound of a local dog barking right outside our window. I don’t have many talents but the ability to fall asleep pretty much anywhere at any time is something that has served me well over the years – much to Andy’s annoyance.
Anyway after all of that wrapping up warm and energy spent shivering we both woke up in the night boiling hot, and proceeded to remove most of those layers. This was an ongoing battle during the trek, how to stay at a cosy temperature. During the day, exercising in the sunshine, not a cloud in the sky, I really felt at times that heat exhaustion may be a more severe threat than altitude sickness. At night there was just nowhere you could go to get warm other than in bed with as many layers as possible, this meant that we slept… a lot! The further we went up, the harder this got – there were nights where we were just cold – all night.
On day 2 we made the climb up to Namche (at 3400m, or 11,000ft), which is the ‘big smoke’ of Sagarmatha National Park. We were excited that the next day would be our rest day, which was scheduled in to ensure that we acclimatised to the increased altitude. Note: this was NOT a rest day – walking uphill (~2000ft) for 4hrs to a viewpoint, and back, is not ‘rest’. Namche offers a range of shops selling souvenirs, toiletries, trekking gear; actually anything you could need or want, but be warned you will pay over the odds, we’re talking £4.50 for one toilet roll and it won’t even be quilted! There are also a number of bakeries, restaurants, cafes and bars.
Knowing that your body doesn’t take too kindly to alcohol while at a high altitude we had planned to avoid it on our way up; to be honest we didn’t fancy it anyway which is really saying something for us! We thought it would be nice to celebrate with a drink on our way back down when we’d be feeling very smug about our achievements and enjoying the extra oxygen available at lower altitudes; so possibly back in Namche again at 3400m.
Onwards & Upwards
And so on day 4, our trek continued. If you were imagining that we spent two weeks walking through the wilderness with nothing but our own thoughts as company you would be mistaken. Don’t get me wrong it was amazing to be deep within nature, at first so giving, filling the valleys with luscious greenery; that then made way for the harsher realities as you continue the climb. But we were not alone! We went during the peak season, when the weather conditions are better (colder, but clearer). This meant high traffic with every guide or guide-book instructing trekkers to get on the ‘road’ early in the morning. Along with the trekkers you were also often faced with processions of yaks or donkeys carrying supplies to the next village. After a short time however the crowds would dissipate; some racing ahead and others needing to take a few extra breaks or maybe like us stopping every 3o minutes as another photo opportunity presented itself.
One of the nice things about the trek is that you often see the same faces in the tea houses. Mainly due to there being relatively few to choose from; we met a few people this way. It was great to be able to share the experience with others and talk through the struggles we were all facing. Andy, for instance found someone (an Aussie named Nathan) who was having a similar toilet issue to him; only Nathan was a little further along the journey, which I think reassured Andy that he wasn’t going to explode (or at least he had a few more days left until that was a possibility!) However, there were a couple of trainee doctors from New Zealand who re-instated the worry over possible consequences.
So, as you can imagine the perfectly nice (sober) conversations we were having with these lovely people quickly went down hill and became all about our bowel movements! No surprises there! There are a few pictures of some of these guys on the EBC photos page; we are at base camp with Nathan (aforementioned), and his mate Adrian. There’s a couple of pictures of Ian (a retired Biochemist academic from Melbourne – who we plan to meet when we visit there), and Leonie (German teacher of English, who will be visiting the UK soon and we hope to see then). All really lovely people!
After Namche the altitude started to have an impact. I was experiencing splitting headaches whilst we were trekking, but they would eventually subside once we had settled into a new village for the night. We also had to take more frequent breaks as the air started to get thinner. It was still just as exciting as the first day. Seeing the landscape change as we headed up was an absolute joy. The only thing we had to do was to keep going onwards and upwards one step at a time.
Andy had been coping with the altitude well and did a great job of cheering me along keeping my spirits high. The one thing Andy did struggle with however was his feet, and not due to blisters or something normal; they are just too big for his height!! He was constantly tripping and sliding around on the paths, misjudging his footing (he denies this).
When we signed up to this trek we knew that it would be hard but didn’t know quite how hard and in what form the challenges would come. By the time we got to 4,200 m all sign of life had started to disappear; the trees resembled discarded Christmas trees – wilted and grey; and where the trees couldn’t survive all that was left were small shrubs nestled between rocks and then when even they gave in there was just rock on rock.
Grinding you down
Physically speaking, the trek isn’t that demanding but make no mistake: the relentless harsh conditions; the freezing cold temperatures; the dry air, the dust; and the lack of oxygen mean that after 8 days you are starting to be stripped of all your power, your energy, your mind, your spirit. By the time we got to Gorak Shep (5200m), the last village before base camp, we were walking at yak speed (really slow). Words would just escape you when trying to speak and the headaches were unbearable. It was clear that the altitude was winning this battle.
We made a rather wobbly and slow climb to base camp determined to achieve our goal. At this point the landscape really changed, base camp is actually on a glacier so rock on rock had changed to rock on ice. We’d seen some of this earlier on, but it was now more severe. Raj, our guide said that every time he gets to base camp the path has changed. I’m not sure I would have known where to go if we didn’t have Raj with us; there was ice and large rocks everywhere and no clear path like the rest of the trek.
We made it. Everest Base Camp, 5365m, 17,600ft.
It was amazing.
Ok you don’t get the best view from base camp. It kind of looks just like a pile of rocks; but the glacier is glorious and you feel so close to the mountains surrounding you; it’s like there is nothing beyond them. The difficulties with altitude were all forgotten for the 30 minutes we spent sat on a rock (on ice) looking up at the ice fall along the South Col that so many climbers have tackled, determined to reach the summit of the highest mountain in the world. I can’t imagine being so dedicated to a challenge that I would risk my life trying to achieve it. Many climbers do not make it, and their bodies are often left on the mountain like offerings on a shrine. There’s a picture of some of their memorials on the left, and a whole heap of other photos on the EBC photos page.
Yes, we made it to base camp, it was amazing. Did we feel like celebrating? No. You see, we’d planned an extended trip that would take us slightly higher than base camp. This would take 2 more days of difficult climbs, but we were defeated. Not wanting to be another trekker air lifted to a local hospital unable to move or speak their name due to altitude sickness; we had to acknowledge the signs. Our headaches were no longer improving like before, holding a conversation required every last drop of energy we had. We knew that we needed to head down the mountain as soon as we could.
The Return from Base Camp
The next day we started our descent. Already feeling unwell it was harder now to gather the energy and spirit to keep moving; particularly without the pull of the mountain and the promise of great, new views and unexplored territory ahead of us. Unfortunately, the downhills that we’d appreciated so much on the way to base camp, were now a hefty uphill battle! The return was by no means easy.
Four days later we’d made it back to Lukla airport. The temperatures were much warmer and we decided to head to a bar finally feeling like we could celebrate. Naturally as tourists we found an Irish bar to visit. Andy had an Everest beer (very appropriate, but then Guinness was £8!), I had an Irish coffee, classic! Having previously been so keen to get back to a clean hotel room and hot shower in Kathmandu; we were now feeling sad that we would be leaving this beautiful part of the world. The peace, the people, the way of life; it had been our home for the past two weeks and we were not ready to give it up. The only thing we could do, as is always the case at the end of an amazing holiday; was promise ourselves that we would return one day. That, we plan to do.