Two climbers paraglide from the summit of Everest

There is a well known adage amongst mountaineers that says “getting to the summit is only halfway to the finish,” as obviously they have to safely come back down the mountain after they’ve completed their ascent. There are few places where this is more apparent than Mt. Everest, where climbers not only have to make a long, grueling trek to the top, they also have to negotiate a tricky descent as well. Over the weekend, two climbers found a way to avoid that descent however, by paragliding off the summit, bypassing all the challenges of a traditional return to Base Camp.

On Saturday, 29-year old Babu Sunuwar and his partner Lakpa Tshering Sherpa, 35, climbed to the summit of Everest. Once there, they assembled their tandem paraglider, and starting it up, both men stepped out into the nothingness that surrounds the highest point on the planet. Rather than plummeting a thousand feet to their deaths however, they took off on what must have been a spectacular flight through one of the most scenic places in the world.

Sailing through the air, Babu and Lakpa passed snow capped mountains on their 42-minute flight, which eventually deposited them at Namche Bazaar, a village in the Khumbu Valley region. Reaching that point would normally take climbers returning from the summit a minimum of three days, but these two avoided a long hike and were soon resting in a comfortable teahouse I’m sure.

Their adventure is far from over however. Having reached the highest point on Earth, they are now headed toward sea level by kayak and bike. Their eco-friendly journey will eventually end in Bangladesh in a few weeks time.

At the moment, there have been no photos released from this epic flight through the Himalaya. I’m hoping that at some point we might see some video footage though, as I’m sure the view was amazing. I’m also guessing that there were more than few other climbers who were jealous of their method of descent after seeing them take off from the summit as well.

[Photo Credit: Babu Sunuwar]

Himalayan High: guided vs independent trekking

For many adventure travelers, the Himalaya represent the ultimate destination. A visit to those mountains combines physical challenges, stunning landscapes, and spectacular cultural experiences. But whether you’re making a trek to Everest Base Camp, hiking the Annapurna Circuit, or simply strolling to Namche Bazaar, you’ll have to make an important choice before you go – whether to hire a guide or travel independently.

If you have never gone on a trek of this nature before, the choice is a simple one. You should definitely hire a guide for your first long distance hike. But if you have even a moderate level of experience backpacking, then you should consider the choices quite carefully, as both have their advantages and drawbacks, which can have a direct impact on a number of aspects of your trip.

The first element of your journey that will be impacted by this choice is the cost. Going independently will certainly be a cheaper option, as you won’t be paying for a guide and possibly porters as well. While on a day-to-day basis, a guide doesn’t seem all that expensive, his fees can add up quickly over the course of a trek that can last anywhere from 10-30 days. But even this isn’t necessarily so cut and dried either, as a guide might also work closely with some of the teaouses and restaurants that you’ll visit along the way, earning you discounted rates. Those discounts could end up saving you a substantial amount of money, although certainly not enough to make up the difference in price for hiring the guide.
Speaking of accommodations, that is another area that will be directly impacted by your choice of going guided or independently. On the one hand, if you travel on your own, you can bring a tent, and camp out in specified areas. This will, of course, save you more cash, but be sure that that the tent is a warm one, and that you also bring a very warm 4-season sleeping bag. Even during the warmer months, it can get quite cold at altitude. Teahouses are always available as an option of course, even when traveling independently, but during the busier seasons they fill up quite quickly and you could end up paying a premium. When traveling with a guide, you’ll likely have reservations for the lodges in advance, and you won’t have no wonder whether or not you’ll have a comfortable bed, with a roof over your head, on any given night.

Traveling independently also allows you to go at your own pace, which means that if you’re not feeling well or want to spend an extra rest day in one of the villages along the way, you can. You’ll also be able to pick your own route, and there are multiple paths for reaching Everest Base Camp for instance. On the other hand, the guides usually have a planned out itinerary designed to get you to and from your destination in the time that you have allotted. They also have built in rest days to make sure you’re acclimatizing properly, but they want to see you up and back down the mountain on an orderly schedule, which helps them to run more treks, and gets you back in Kathmandu in time for your flight home. There are times when a well regulated schedule does prove to be handy.

Having a guide along with you does provide a measure of safety however, as they generally know what to watch out for in terms of altitude sickness. They also know the best routes to take through the mountains, and can provide information on the surrounding peaks, the villages you pass through, and various other sites that you’ll come across along the way. Your guide will probably also come with a porter or two, who will carry your larger backpack, freeing you up to travel lightly with just a day pack. if you’re not use to carrying a heavy pack over uneven and demanding terrain, this alone can be worth the added expense of hiring a guide.

On my recent Himalayan trek I joined a guided trekking group in Kathmandu, and I personally feel it was the best decision for myself. I did indeed have a limited time in the country and I wanted to take advantage of that time to the best of my ability. Having a guide helped greatly in that department. It didn’t hurt that our guide was also very knowledgeable, had a great personality, and was fun to be around either. Going in a guided group also meant that I was meeting new people and sharing the experience with others. In this case, we had members of the group from all over the globe, making it a multicultural affair.

There were a variety of times when I was very happy to be a part of that group. For instance, just getting a flight from Kathmandu to Lukla could have been tricky on my own. The weather was less than stellar the day we were making that trip, and we were forced to wait in the airport until the skies cleared. But being part of an organized, guided trek, meant that we already had our tickets and reservations, before we even arrived at the airport. Had I gone independently, there is a good chance I’d have gotten bumped, throwing my schedule off completely.

Later in the trek, while we were descending, there was a sign in one of the teahoues that we were staying in that said that they were booked for the next four nights. We had reservations to stay for the night that we were there, but that “no vacancy” sign made me very happy that I wasn’t arriving in the village, at the end of a long day on the trail, hoping that I could find a place to stay.

After a few days in the Himalaya, I did notice how easy it would be to make the trek independently. The infrastructure is in place to make it as simple as possible. The trails are well marked and easy to follow on your own and there are villages every hour or two along the way. For experienced trekkers and backpackers, the option is there and it is an attractive one. By going independently, you’ll certainly save some cash and have some freedom to explore the mountains at your own pace. But should you elect to go with a guide, you’ll find that the benefits likely outweigh the costs, and you’ll find plenty of reasons that it is a good option as well.

Both options are viable and it is important to pick the one that bests fits your style of travel.

Next: Preparing for the Trek

Himalayan High: A visit to Namche Bazaar

One of the most famous and popular stops on the way to Everest is a village called Namche Bazaar, which is located at 11,286 feet (3440 meters). Most trekkers reach Namche on their second day of hiking, but to get there they must first conquer a very long, and challenging hill that is a test of stamina for just about anyone. In fact, that day on the trail is one of the most challenging of the entire trek, as you gain more than 2600 feet (800 meters) in altitude. Fortunately, nearly everyone who makes the trek ends up spending an extra day in Namche, giving them a chance to rest, acclimatize, and explore the place further.

Nestled along the crescent shaped slopes of the Khumbu Valley, Namche Bazaar is both charming and exhausting all at the same time. The narrow alleyways are lined with gear shops and teahouses, but you’ll have to climb more steps than you’d care to count just to visit any of them. It is especially disheartening when you arrive in the village after 3 or 4 hours of climbing, only to to discover that the lodge that you’re staying in happens to be on one of the upper tiers, and you’ll have to climb yet more stairs just to get to it. Luckily, Namche has some of the most comfortable and inviting teahouses in the entire region. You might even get a warm shower (for an extra charge!) and a TV in the common room.

With a population of roughly 1500 people, Namche is the largest town in the Khumbu Valley, and as such, has a number of amenities that you won’t find as you go higher. For instance, there is an actual bank in Namche, not to mention a police checkpoint, and a karaoke bar. Internet cafes are common as well, although I’m pretty sure they measure their connection speeds in terms of “baud” and not “megabits”.That population in Namche swells dramatically during the spring and fall trekking seasons of course, with backpackers and climbers flocking to the area in droves. It is not uncommon to hear a half dozen languages being spoken while you stroll the cobblestone streets past the numerous gear shops, and if there is anything that Namche has an abundance of, it is gear shops. If you’re a few days into the trek, and you find you’re in need of some piece of gear, then chances are you can find it in Namche Bazaar. Whether it’s boots, sleeping bags, or warmer clothes, you’ll find everything you could possibly need, often at excellent prices. Some of the gear is authentic, some are cheap knockoffs, but the village is an outdoor gear lovers dream come true, and while it is possible to resupply on some items later in the trek, everything gets more expensive the higher you go.

As I mentioned, you’ll actually spend a “rest day” in Namche to help you get use to the altitude and give you time for a bit of recovery. But that doesn’t mean that you’ll be taking it easy while you’re there. In fact, on my second day in Namche, my trekking group was up bright and early, as usual, and after breakfast we were on our way up a nearby mountain to continue working on our acclimatization. On that morning climb we actually went up an additional 1300 feet (400 meters), and got our first views of Everest, Lhotse, and one of the most beautiful mountains on the planet, Ama Dablam.

With our acclimatization climb out of the way, we were back in Namche by lunch time, and had the rest of the afternoon to spend at our leisure. Most of us took it easy, taking a nap, curling up with a good book, or playing cards in the lodge’s common room. Namche is the first part of the trek where altitude sickness begins to become a real concern, and it is important that you not only work on acclimatizing, but also get plenty of rest. You’re also burning a lot of calories on the trek and expending a lot of energy, therefore you’ll spend your rest days eating plenty of food and drinking lots of water as well.

Before long, your stay in Namche is over, and you’re back on the trail to ever higher, and ever smaller, villages. Each has their own unique character and each brings you one step closer to your ultimate goal – Everest. But when you depart Namche, you truly feel like you’re stepping into the High Himalaya and moving into more remote territory. The first few days are just a warm up for the adventure that is just ahead.

Next: On The Trail (Part 2)