Published: October 26th 2008October 13th 2008
Somewhere along the way, we realized that ideal trekking season was just beginning in Nepal, so we decided to stretch our legs and wander up to Everest.
From the Nepal side, Everest is quite far away from the nearest road. We opted to fly-in to Lukla from Kathmandu which cuts out a 10-hour+ bus ride and several day hike up and down valleys through the forests.
The Kathmandu airport experience is quite something in itself. Unfortunately, all flights had been cancelled the day before due to weather (it is often quite cloudy in Lukla), so two days worth of trekkers turned up at the airport on the 4th. What a zoo!
We eventually managed to figure out that Nepali tour guides were queue-jumping their groups onto planes right in front of the independent trekkers regardless of schedule. Given that many of these groups were anything from 2 to 20 people and the planes only held about 18 passengers, we were going to wait a long time!
Along with a few other independent travellers, we managed to make enough of a headache of ourselves that we eventually got through, only to find out that more flights had been
cancelled because of weather. And still we waited.
The end result was that we got on a 7:30 am flight at about 12:30. Not bad really.
The landing in Lukla is quick and short and comes out of nowhere. If you had enough time to think about it, it would be terrifying.
We lunched in Lukla (2840 m), noted the sudden hike in prices, did a quick re-calculation of our budget and hit the trail.
As previously mentioned, Lukla is already a few days' walk from the nearest road. Veggies, some fruit and livestock are grown in the area, water is treated and bottled, but most other food, drinks and supplies are walked in on the backs of carriers from Jiri. This results in a huge jump in food and drink prices that only gets worse as you get further up the trail.
The hike to Gorak Shep, which is the nearest settlement to the Everest Base Camp, is not technically difficult. There are some rocky sections, a few creeks to rock-hop across and a couple of steep ascents, but nothing really alarming. The reason it takes more than 2 or 3 days to complete
the trip is altitude.
It's the first time I'd done a hike like this, where everyone is constantly monitoring themselves and their companions for acute mountain sickness (AMS) or high altitude sickness. There is little way of knowing who might get struck with AMS and when. We were cautioned time and again that it is often the relatively young and fit folks that take on too much elevation too quickly and end up with something horrible and life-threatening such as pulmonary edema and cerebral edema (brain swelling).
We generally only hiked a few hours each day, checked into a guesthouse, dropped our bags, did another short hike a few hundred metres higher and then returned to eat and sleep. We also spent one full acclimatization day at a place called Dingbouche (4400 m) as this was a recommended stop by all the guides we talked to.
We trekked independently and carried our own bags (storing extra stuff in Kathmandu) and did not hire a guide, however, we became practiced at what we called "borrow-a-guide" which was essentially asking other tourists' guides questions. Lucky for us Nepalis in general and the Sherpa people (the tribe that primarily populates
and services the Everest area) especially are very friendly, outgoing and happy to help. Many of the guides are worldly, experienced climbers in their own right.
The first two days of trekking were along a river in a pretty, forested valley. We passed through numerous little villages. Views were limited as the skies were only clear for a short time in the morning.
We got up early on our third day and were rewarded with the first epic mountain views of the trip. It is a steep hike up and out of the town of Namche that took us above the treeline and into the views.
The trail continues northeast and eventually descends back into the treeline (blue pine forest) to cross a river and then steeply ascends the other side to a settlement called Tengbouche. We devoured some carbohydrates and hiked a little down and a bit up to stop for the night in Pangbouche.
One thing that the good folks in this area appear to have learned little about is insulation. Pangbouche was the first place were we realized that being "indoors" meant that you were out of the wind and rain, but effectively
it was nearly the same temperature inside and out. Pangbouche was also the last we saw of indoor plumbing.
We had our last showers of the trip (for about $3.50 each) in Pangbouche and were up and at it early to catch the clearest weather of the day.
It was a steady, gradual uphill walk to Dingbouche. This is where we spent two nights. So we did a couple day hikes in the area, washed a few items of clothing and Matt got our hostess (a climber that was part of the Nepali Womens' Everest 2000 team) and a Japanese accupuncturist's porter addicted to cards.
We were amused to discover that even at only 4400 m, it was slow going uphill. Even slower with our 10 kg packs on. And we had to pause now and again just to breathe.
Fortunately, we weren't alone. Fellow trekkers, porters and guides alike were commonly slow on the trail. Porters are the generally small-framed Nepali men and women that carry supplies up to the restaurants and guesthouses or trekkers' gear. The only limit to the amount that a porter will carry seems to be that they can remain on
Dudh Koshi River Valley
their feet and still manage to walk. A typical porter would be carrying at least 3 large backpacks or suitcases.
As a result, the porters are typically quite slow going up hill. And they often carry what we originally thought were walking sticks that also serve as resting posts for their loads. Understandably, they take a lot of breaks, but get out of their way when they are coming downhill! Their agility on often rocky and rough terrain (even when loaded) is impressive.
Our fellow foreigners were a dominantly Europeans, along with the usual blend of suspects: Americans, Israelis, Australians, Canadians, etc. They were also typically in their 30's to 50's crowd. With the exception being the Israelis, who were commonly younger. The other young people, in a few cases kids, were often with what appeared to be multi-generation family pairings (i.e. mother/daughter, etc.) and groups.
The landscape became increasingly bleak and barren as we hiked higher. Finally, we hit what amount to piles and piles of rocks that we wandered up and down, the remnants of a melted glacier, until we did a final decent to the settlement of Gorak Shep (5140 m).
is a handful of guesthouses, each with a dining hall. A pretty rough little place with a very seasonal feel to it. The businesses were mostly run and staffed by young Nepalis, unlike the other settlements that had families or more matronly-types looking after things. We got the sense that you've got to be pretty adaptable to be able to function at that altitude for any length of time.
We checked into our filthy room and hiked up Kala Patthar in time to catch an Everest sunset. The clouds were drifting around, but we managed to catch some good views. At 5550 m, Kala Patthar was the highest point we reached.
As you can see in the photos, even though Everest is the highest peak, it is Nuptse that dominates the skyline as it is a couple of kilometers closer than Everest to Kala Patthar.
I spent a near-sleepless night at Gorak Shep with Matt not doing much better. We rose early to catch the sunrise view of Everest from Kala Patthar. I wore everything I had brought and still had numb hands, face and feet. Rumour had it that it was -20 or so.
returned to the guesthouse hungry and looking forward to an overpriced breakfast only to discover that once the food came, we were pretty uninterested in eating. Knowing we had a big day ahead, however, we choked it down and got the heck out of there.
And so we began our big decent. We walked from Gorak Shep (5140 m) to Pangbouche (3930 m). A fairly easy walk and mostly downhill, but a little hard on the feet!
We had one more night on the trail before arriving back in Lukla (2840 m). The most remarkable part of the trip down was the steady stream of trekkers we passed heading the other way! We're talking about hundreds in a matter of an hour or two. The October-November trekking season was definitely in full swing! We realized how fortunate our timing had been. With the limited accommodation available in the last couple of settlements combined with our lack of planning and camping gear, we were quite lucky.
There are more photos below