Himalayan High: Going Down!

With every journey to Everest, whether it’s going to the summit or simply trekking to Base Camp, the focus is always on the journey up. The news stories trumpet the fact that the climbers have reached the summit, rarely mentioning anything about the descent at all. When they do, it is usually because of some tragic accident that occurs on the way down, resulting in severe injuries or even death. But Ed Viesturs, America’s premiere mountaineer, is fond of saying that “the summit is only half way there”, and you can apply that same logic to a trek to BC as well.

On the way up the Khumbu Valley, trekkers struggle with the altitude gain, thin air, and challenging climbs up the steep slopes. As the days wear on, the hikers generally console themselves with the thought that going down will be so much easier. They tell themselves that on the descent, the air will start to get thicker, they’ll be fully acclimatized, and the trail will actually be going down the mountain. Going down is always easier, right? Turns out that isn’t completely true, and the trek back down the valley can still be quite the struggle.

Before you begin that descent, most of the trekkers who go to Everest Base Camp make one more big climb. One of the little known facts about this trip is that when you are actually in Base Camp itself, you don’t really get great views of Everest. Sure, the mountain is just a stones throw away, but you can’t see the summit, and it is hard to take in the true beauty of the mountain. Instead, you have to climb up Kala Patthar, an 18,192 foot (5545 meters) peak not far from Gorakshep, to get your true photo opportunities. Trekkers will set out as early as 4 AM to get to the top of Kala Patthar before sunrise so they can catch the first golden rays of the sun as they shine across the summit of Everest. The views are spectacular but the climb is killer. After that, it is indeed time to go back down the valley, toward the promise of thicker air. But as I noted already, the way down isn’t quite as easy as you would suspect. After reaching Base Camp there is a bit of a psychological let down, as there is a tremendous sense of accomplishment and a feeling that you’ve reached your goal. But “the summit is only half way there”, and there is still plenty of trekking to be done to get back to Lukla, and eventually Kathmandu. With the visit to Everest over though, it is more difficult to stay focused and motivated.

Following more than a week of hiking in the Himalaya, your legs are tired and the rigors of the trail really begin to take their toll. Those tired legs make going down the larger slopes very challenging, and you’ll find yourself as exhausted at the end of the day as you did when you were going up. Fortunately, you are able to make much better time heading down the Khumbu, and what took eight days to cover while going up, takes just four on the way back down.

As you descend, the air does indeed become thicker and you begin to feel like you can breathe a bit easier. Unfortunately, that can cause an irritation with the delicate bronchi in the lungs, which have already been damaged by the dust and the cold, dry air on the way up. This means that that case of the Khumbu Cough that you picked up on the way up the valley is likely to get worse on the way down. In my trekking group that was certainly the case, as we all hacked and wheezed our way along the trail. In my case, I returned home with a fairly minor cough, only to find that it got dramatically worse. Khumbu cough and severe jet lag are a potent combination.

For the most part, on the return trip down the Khumbu Valley you’ll stop at a number of the same places you did on the way up, although we took a different route, which passed through Pheriche instead of Dingboche, offerng some new and unique views along the way. Of course, all trails lead back to Namche Bazaar and eventually Lukla, where you’ll be ready to bask in the relative comfort there, while sipping a coffee at the fake Starbucks. From there, it is a short flight back to Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, which marks an end to your Himalayan adventure.

It isn’t until after you’ve had some time to reflect on your journey that you can truly appreciate it. Trekking in Nepal is an amazing combination of a physical challenge, cultural immersion, and spiritual discovery. The views are enchanting, the people are warm and friendly, and the Buddhist mountain culture is peaceful and unique. It is unlikely that you’ll go home unchanged from your journey, and before long, you’ll be dreaming of seeing the Himalaya once again.

Next: EBC Trek – Guided vs. Independent