Himalayan High: Everest Base Camp

Standing in Gorakshep, the tiny Nepali village that sits nestled in the Himalaya at 17,000 feet (5184 meters), it is difficult to not feel an air of excitement. The town is the last stop before climbing up to Everest Base Camp, and while it is spartan in its amenities, the view is one of the most spectacular that you’ll find anywhere.

Of course, a major part of that excitement stems from the fact that in order to reach Gorakshep, you have to spend at least six days hiking through the Khumbu Valley. It isn’t exactly an easy walk either, with thin air and major gains in altitude conspiring to sap the energy from your legs and challenge your lungs to take a full breath. But, you are bolstered by the thought that your ultimate goal is very close now, and it won’t be long before you stand in the very shadow of the tallest mountain on the planet.

The trek from Gorakshep to Everest Base Camp isn’t an especially long one in terms of distance. It is, however, a tough scramble through a rock field created from the loose scree being pushed down the valley by the Khumbu Glacier. For the entirety of the hike, you’ll actually be walking on the glacier itself, but for the most part you won’t even notice, as the trail is covered in multiple layers of rock and dirt. Those conditions, combined with the increasingly thinning air, make the last few hours up to BC a tough slog that will leave your already tired legs aching even more.The final leg of the trek puts you right in the heart of the Khumbu Valley, and it is quite a sight to see. Besides the spectacular mountain scenery, which I’ve described multiple times throughout this series, you’ll have plenty of other amazing views. For instance, while the glacier is indeed covered in boulders and dirt, there is still plenty of visible ice, with numerous glacial lakes filled with icy blue water dotting the surface. Ice caves, formed by water running under the ice, offer a glimpse of the world beneath the glacier as well, and it seems there is an extensive network of passages just waiting to be explored. The tent-city that makes up Base Camp is also visible from far down the valley, with the bright yellow and orange tents tantalizingly close, and yet so far away.

Over the course of those final hours on the hike up to Base Camp, I noticed that the winds had started to pick up considerably, and for the first time, I was in need of my warmer clothes. Many members of my trekking group had donned multiple layers a few days back while at lower altitudes, but for the most part, I was fine with my lighter gear even as we climbed. On that day however, I had donned my base layers and wore a heavy fleece for the final approach to BC, which was made all the more challenging thanks to the chilly, constant breezes that kicked up dust, making it even more difficult to breathe.

Not long after departing Gorakshep we caught a glimpse of what makes climbing Everest so potentially dangerous. As we walked, we could hear various rumbling noises, sometimes high on the slopes above us, sometimes coming from somewhere below us, out on the glacier. The noises were a bit unnerving at first and those feeling only got worse once we caught a glimpse of what was making them.

The first avalanche we saw was not far from Base Camp, on the far side of the Khumbu Icefall, and it swept down the mountain with a force and a fury that only nature can muster. We would see no less than three more avalanches over the course of the next few hours, and we heard plenty more on the mountains around us. Meanwhile, down below, out on the glacier, large chunks of ice were collapsing under their own weight, making it abundantly clear to everyone passing by exactly why the icefall is considered the most dangerous place on Everest.

Throughout the afternoon, Base Camp is visible up the valley, and you can see it from a long way off. But for quite awhile, it feels like it isn’t getting any closer, no matter how far you walk. Your lungs gasp for air, your legs burn, you’re exhausted from the climb, and it can be a bit disheartening at times to see how far off the camp remains. But eventually, you top a ridge and it appears at long last, and you find yourself scrambling up the last rocky portion of the trail to stand at your ultimate destination.

Finally reaching BC gives you a sense of relief, satisfaction, and exhilaration all at the same time. For many of us who made the trek, visiting Everest was a dream come true, and while we were “only” at 17,600 feet, it is probably as close to the summit as we’ll ever come. The actual “camp” can be a bit anti-climactic if you see ht location as just a destination to add to your list, but when you take in the whole experience, you’ll understand that an Everest Base Camp trek is more than the sum of its parts.

Sitting there looking up at the mountain, I couldn’t think of any place I’d rather be. Sure, the hike is a challenging one and for a lowlander like me, it was difficult to breathe at times, but the view is definitely worth the walk. If you should ever make the trip for yourself, make sure you take time to sit back and take it all in. There are few places on the planet that can match the view.

Next: The Journey Back Down

Himalayan High: On the trail (part 2)

Following a rest day in Namche Bazaar, the trek to Everest Base Camp resumes with a 9km (5.5 mile) hike to Tengboche, the next significant village along the route. While 9km doesn’t especially sound like a lot, it is the more than 400 meters (1312 ft) of altitude gain that ends up taking it’s toll on trekkers. Most of the days that follow are similar in nature; moderate distances that are made all the more challenging by the ever increasing altitude.

The trail changes noticeably after setting out from Namche. The thinning air becomes more of an issue for hikers to deal with, and a thick, heavy dust is everywhere. That dust is kicked up by trekkers, Nepali yaks carrying heavy loads, and the brisk winds that are common at altitude. While it seems innocuous at first, after a day or two, you’ll start to notice that the dust irritates your eyes, covers your clothing, and gets in your lungs, helping to bring on the dreaded Khumbu Cough, a persistent hack that can be painful and difficult to shake. Nearly everyone who treks in the Himalaya will experience the condition to some degree or another, and while my case of the Cough wasn’t so bad while I was in Nepal, it seemed to worsen, after I returned home.

The first few days of the trek are undeniably scenic, with mountain peaks surrounding the route, and glacier fed rivers rushing by the trail. But after leaving Namche Bazaar behind, that scenery changes dramatically with the snow capped peaks of the Himalaya towering high over head. Everest, and its twin, the 8516 meter (27,940 ft) Lhotse are common sights at that point, as is the 6812 meter (22,349 ft) Ama Dablam, which cuts a striking profile along much of the route. That mountain is far lesser known than its famous 8000 meter counterparts, but it is likely to be the one that sticks in your mind long after you’ve left Nepal, and the Himalaya, behind.Most of the mountain villages after Namche are sleepy little towns with few amenities. The teahouses become a bit more spartan the higher you go and the shops have fewer goods to sell, although their prices continue to rise with the altitude. Still, these villages each have a unique charm and character that offers visitors something new and different. For instance, in Tengboche, which is located at 3867 meters (12,867 ft) travelers can visit the oldest Buddhist monastery in the region, and the view of the sun climbing over the nearby mountains in the morning is a breathtaking sight.

From Tengboche it is on through the beautiful and fragrant rhododendron forests to Dengboche, which falls at 4410 meters (14,468 ft), and another day off. Much like the previous rest day in Namche however, the day is far from restful. Most trekkers wtill make a challenging acclimatization hike up a local summit to take in the tremendous views of Lhotse, Ama Dablam, and Island Peak, a mountain that is popular with climbers prepping for Everest. The nearby Amphu Lapcha pass is also on display, with its fluted ice walls making an impressive, and striking, impression.

After a stay in Dengboche, trekkers will next head upwards to Lobuche (4900 meters/16,076 ft), passing the somber sight of a number of monuments to fallen climbers and Sherpas, along the way.These monuments include a shrine to Scott Hall, an American mountain guide who perished on Everest back in 1996, and figured prominently in Jon Krakauer’s bestseller Into Thin Air.

Finally, the trail leads up to Gorakshep, the last stop before Base Camp itself. By that point, you’ve climbed up to 5183 meters (17,004 ft), and with the treeline far below, the dry conditions and higher winds mean that there is even more dust for hikers to deal with. Gorakshep is more a ramshackle collection of buildings than an actual village, as it mostly consists of a couple of teahouses and not much more, but trekkers appreciate a place to rest, catch their breath, and get some food before proceeding up to their ultimate destination.

Upon reaching Gorakshep, most members of my trekking group were really feeling the effects of altitude to some degree or another. Many were taking Diamox, a drug that helps alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness and some were suffering greatly from a combination of the colder weather, the thin air, and the Khumbu Cough. More than half were experiencing GI issues, but despite all of that, spirits were high and there was an air of excitement in the group. We were closing in on Base Camp, and the literal high point of the trip.

Next: Everest Base Camp

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)

Himalayan High: Kathmandu – Gateway to the Himalaya

Whether you’re headed to Everest Base Camp, hiking the Annapurna Circuit, or continuing your journey on to Bhutan or Tibet, you’ll invariably have to go through Kathmandu, the colorful, chaotic, and at times confounding, capital of Nepal. It is truly the gateway to the Himalaya, offering travelers, backpackers, and climbers access to a host of adventure opportunities, with the world’s most spectacular scenery as a jaw-dropping backdrop.

From the time you leave Tribhuvan International Airport, the city is an assault on the senses, with the constant noise of traffic, the smell of incense (often used to counter the smell of trash), and the sights of the busy market places, awash in a myriad of bright, garish colors. The narrow, twisty streets are clogged with cars, the sidewalks are teeming with people, and air is thick with smog. But despite all of that, there is a certain allure to the place. An undeniable energy that hints at the adventures that lie ahead.

For more than 2000 years, Kathmandu has been a crossroads of trade and culture, and that is still reflected in its make-up today. Hindu and Buddhist temples are a common sight throughout the city, and the population is a very cosmopolitan mix of Nepali, Tibetan, and Indian people, with a healthy dose of ex-pats from around the globe thrown in as well. Walking the streets of Kathmandu, I heard a dozen different languages being spoken, and saw people representing cultures from around the globe, which only further enhanced the city’s reputation as a destination for globetrotters and adventurers alike. A visit to Kathmandu is a bit of an adventure in and of itself actually, as even before you head to the mountains, you’ll have to learn to deal with discomfort. In the spring, when the climbing and trekking season begins, travelers descend on the city in droves, over taxing an already strained infrastructure. As a result, rolling blackouts are a daily occurrence, and worse yet, the hot, dry, and dusty conditions, prevalent in the months before the arrival of the monsoon, can have an adverse effect on the water supply. It was not uncommon to turn on the faucets or shower in my hotel room, only to find that the water was a lovely shade of brown.

But perhaps the biggest challenge to travel in Kathmandu are the Maoist rebels, who frequently call for general strikes in protest of the current government. These strikes are a disruption to both commuting and commerce throughout the city, bringing the place to a standstill, while Maoist supporters rally to their cause in large numbers. The strikes can last for days, and be crippling to business. Worse yet, they can strand travelers in their hotels and prevent them from departing the city as planned. While I was in Kathmandu we received word of an impending strike the morning we were scheduled to leave for the Himalaya, and as a result, we were up ahead of the sun in order to catch a bus to the airport, before the streets could become clogged with traffic and protesters. That bit of planning put us in the terminal hours before our flight to Lukla, but allowed us to get out of the city on schedule.

The city isn’t just a series of challenges for visitors however, and no trip o Kathmandu is complete without a visit to Thamel, a popular area for travelers looking for good places to eat, shop, and take in some of the local culture. This popular tourist district is a maze of narrow streets, but offers up all kinds of unique experiences, including local bakeries, street vendors, and shops selling hand crafted items of all kinds. You’ll want to be wary of the beggars and pickpockets that frequent this part of town however, and I was approached on more than one occasion with offers to sell me hash as well.

Thamel is a great place for climbers and trekkers to pick up that last piece of gear they need before they head out to the mountains, as gear shops line the streets, offering cheap prices on authentic and knockoff equipment from North Face, Mountain Hardwear, and Patagonia alike. You’ll also find plenty of prayer flags, statues of Buddha, and replica prayer wheels mixed in with the backpacks and trekking poles, and when you’re finished shopping, you can grab a bite to eat from a variety of restaurants with cuisines from around the globe. I’d recommend stopping by the Rum Doodle, which is famous for its steaks, and the fact that Everest summitteers eat for free.

A short walk from Thamel is Durbar Square, a perfect place to soak up some of the history of Kathmandu. There are over 50 temples and palaces in this district alone, each with its own unique architecture and character. And for a bit of tranquility in the middle of this noisy and chaotic city, stop by the beautiful, and blissfully quiet, Garden of Dreams, which is also not far from Thamel, but feels like it is a million miles away with its carefully groomed lawns and colorful flower gardens.

But really, all of these experiences in Kathmandu, both good and bad, are just a prelude to what really brings you to Nepal. A Himalayan adventure of a lifetime. In my case, that meant a trek to Everest Base Camp and a once in a lifetime hike through the most incredible scenery on the planet. Soon, I would trade the heat and smog of the city for clear blue skies, roaring glacial rivers, and incredibly thin mountain air. Something I was more than ready to experience after two days in the Nepali capital.

Next: Lukla’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport

Himalayan High: A trek to Everest Base Camp

More than any other mountain, Mount Everest has always held an undeniable allure amongst the general public. Ever since it was first surveyed back in 1856, we’ve been fascinated by the massive peak that rises 29,029 feet above the Earth’s surface. Later, the world would hold its collective breath while explorers such as George Mallory and Andrew Irvine challenged the mountain, just because it was there. And later we would cheer when a young man from New Zealand, named Edmund Hillary, and his climbing partner from Nepal, Tenzing Norgay, stood atop the summit for the first time. The fascination turned a bit morbid when Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air told the tale of the that tragic 1996 climbing season during which 15 people lost their lives on the mountain. But that best selling book reintroduced a new generation to Everest, keeping its mystique alive and as strong as ever.

Climbing the mountain is an expensive and challenging endeavor, costing upwards of $50,000 and requiring a two month commitment to complete. Not many of us have that kind of time on our hands, not to mention that much disposable income, which makes it highly unlikely that we’ll ever stand on the summit ourselves. But the desire to see the mountain runs strong amongst adventure travelers, and each year hundreds of them make the trek to Everest Base Camp, just to experience a part of the mountain for themselves.

In April I had the privilege to make that trek for myself, spending 12 days hiking in the Khumbu Valley of Nepal, and ultimately arriving at Base Camp, located at 17,600 feet. Along the way, I passed through mountain villages, stayed in traditional teahouses, and experienced the Himalayan culture first hand, and all the while the stunning snow capped mountains of the region served as a breathtaking backdrop. The trip turned out to be everything I had hoped for and more, and while it isn’t an easy journey, for those who have always wanted to make it, it is definitely worth the hike.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing my experiences from the trek with Gadling readers. Hopefully I’ll be able to convey to you, in some small way, the sense of adventure and wonder that a walk in the Himalaya can produce. And that adventure starts in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, and the gateway to those mountains.

Next: Kathmandu: Gateway to the Himalaya