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: On the trail (part 1)

If you’ve been following the series of stories on my recent trek to Everest Base Camp, you already know that any trip to the Himalaya begins with a visit to Kathmandu, but before you can actually start the hike, you’ll also have to hop a flight to Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla as well. Once in Lukla, the trek actually gets underway, quite literally, immediately after you get off the plane. You won’t be picked up by any cars, taxis, or even a bus, but instead you’ll collect your pack, walk up a flight of stone stairs, and onto the path. The very same path that will eventually lead into the High Himalaya, and on to Everest itself.

But before you can go any higher, you must first go lower, and for the first day of the trek, you’ll actually be moving down. Lukla is located at 9380 feet (2860 meters), but in order to begin the acclimatization process, you’ll drop all the way down 8700 feet (2652 meters) as you make the hike to Pakding, the first stop on the way to Everest.

The initial day on the trail is a relatively easy one, as you’ll only spend about three hours hiking, on a mostly smooth, and easy to follow, route. Along the way you’ll wander through small villages built right onto the side of the mountain, and past Buddhist monuments covered in scared sutras, while the beautiful peaks of the Himalaya tower high overhead.

Even at that early stage of the trek you’ll begin to get a sense of what you can expect on the road ahead. The trail winds up and down steep slopes and across a number of suspension bridges that hang above gaping chasms, while an ice blue river, fed from a distant glacier, roars by far below. The trees and flowers are lush and beautiful, and in April, one of the prime times to visit the Khumbu Region, the air is filled with the fragrant scents of springtime in the mountains. Cool winds stir through the local flora and send dust from the trail into the air, something that is barely noticeable at lower altitudes, but will come back to haunt hikers in the days ahead.The road is far from empty, and you’ll encounter plenty of other trekkers along the way. Some will be in large groups, numbering close to 20, with several guides and a gaggle of porters in tow. Other, smaller, groups will be traveling independently, carrying their own packs and navigating their way without the use of a guide at all. But no matter if they’re part of a large, organized trek or going it alone, there is a camaraderie amongst trekkers on the trail, with friendly greetings, plenty of banter, and a lot of good-natured ribbing.

Trekkers aren’t the only ones who frequent the trail however, as there are plenty of Nepalis traveling between villages as well. Most impressive of these are the porters that you frequently see along the way, most of whom are carrying large, very heavy loads, up the steep mountain roads. While most of us are trying desperately to catch our breath, carrying just a 20 pound pack, these guys are hauling 100 pounds or more up into the very thing air. Worse yet they make it look easy, which can be rather dejecting at times.

Traveling through the Khumbu Valley is a challenge, especially as you move to higher altitudes. Fortunately, at the end of the day, you’re not climbing into a tent and hoping to get a good nights sleep. Instead, you’ll be staying in traditional Nepali teahouses, which have been a mainstay in the region for centuries. These teahouses offer simple accommodations with rooms that lack electricity and heat, but are small and comfortable, with a bed to roll your sleeping bag out on. They also have large common rooms where trekkers gather at the end of the day for warm meals, hot tea, and an evening of conversation and playingcards. A stay in the teahouse offers rest and relaxation, and a dash of local culture, that is an indelible part of any Himalayan adventure.

As I mentioned, the first day of the trek is short and not especially challenging. Trekkers drop in altitude to begin the acclimatization process, and for the most part, the hike is a pleasant walk through a beautiful area. But the second day is a completely different story. On Day 2, you’ll spend six to eight hours on the trail, and you’ll gain more than 2600 feet (800 meters) in altitude. Most of that will come after lunch, when you’ll begin a major climb that helps to make this one of the toughest days of the entire trek.

The final destination for that day is a place called Namche Bazaar, one of the larger, and more famous, villages in the Khumbu Valley. But in order to get to that place, you’ll need to climb a major slope. One that will test even the best conditioned trekkers. It is a long, grueling climb, that leaves you exhausted, gasping for breath, and more than ready for a break. But you’ll also feel a sense of accomplishment as well. You’ve conquered the first major hurdle of the trek, and you’ve climbed up to 11,305 feet (3446 meters). Fortunately, Namche Bazaar is also the first of two rest stops along the way, and the day after that long, brutal climb, you’ll have an opportunity to recuperate, acclimatize, and prepare for the journey ahead.

Next: A Visit To Namche Bazaar

Himalayan High: Lukla’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport

While Kathmandu is a unique and interesting city, it certainly isn’t a destination that draws you to Nepal. For most travelers to the region, myself included, it was simply a stop over until we could get on with our real journey, namely the trek to Everest Base Camp. After spending a day in the noisy Nepali capital city, I was more than anxious to get out of town, and get started with our hike.

The first stop for anyone traveling to Everest is Lukla, a small village located at 9380 feet (2860 meters). The town has the distinction of the only true airport in the Khumbu Valley region, and there are daily flights from Kathmandu. Named after the first two men to stand atop Everest, the Tenzing-Hillary Airport is the third highest in the world, but is best known for its unique landing strip, which runs 1729 feet (527 meters) in length, and actually goes up the side of a mountain at a 12% grade. That incline helps to slow down incoming planes at a more rapid rate, and actually assists aircraft on take off by helping them speed up more rapidly.

I set out from Kathmandu aboard a Twin Otter airplane, a utility aircraft that has been in service around the world for decades and is often employed in remote regions of the world. The plane seats 20 and is designed for short take offs and landings, perfect for getting in and out of Lukla. As luck would have it, when my trekking group scrambled aboard the plane in Kathmandu, I ended up in the very back of the plane, which gave me an excellent view into the cockpit, something that would later prove to be a bit scary as we made the approach into Tenzing-Hillary Airport.On the 45-minute flight from Kathmandu to Lukla you could practically feel the anticipation inside the cabin of the plane. We were all excited as we left the city behind and began to catch our first glimpses of the Himalaya themselves. Peering out the side windows, I caught sight of several snow capped mountains in the distance, while forests of rhododendron’s passed by on the slopes below. It was springtime in the Himalaya, and the whole region was in bloom.

Before long, we were making our final approach to Lukla, and my vantage point at the back of the plane, gave me an unobstructed view right into the cockpit, where I could watch both the pilot and copilot go about their business. This is a bit of an unusual sight, considering that most of the time when we fly, you can’t see what is happening up there, but on that small, Twin Otter, I could see exactly what the pilots saw, and in this case, that was a pretty scary sight.

Most of the flight, the view out of the cockpit window was generally what you’d expect, consisting of open sky or the occasional distant mountain. But as we came in for a landing, that view suddenly changed, and for a short time all I could see was a mountain wall looming directly in front of the aircraft. For several very long moments, that granite face blocked out all other views, and if you didn’t know any better, you’d think that we were about to fly directly into that rock face.

But the plane kept banking to one side, and slowly, ever so slowly, that gray wall of granite slid out of view, and a runway materialized, almost out of nowhere, in its place. The aircraft was in perfect position to land, and before we knew it, we were on the ground, rolling up the runway, and coming to a complete stop on the tarmac. After that, it was only a few minutes and we were out of the Twin Otter and on the ground in the Himalaya at last.

Once off the plane, there was little to do. We retrieved our backpacks almost immediately, and soon after that, we were on our way. Quite literally on our way. The stairs that lead up, and out of the airport run directly onto the trail that runs directly into the village of Lukla, and eventually the Khumbu Valley itself. The very same trail that will eventually lead to Everest Base Camp as well.

Next: On The Trail (Part 1)

Tenzing-Hillary Airport, Lukla, Nepal from Kraig Becker on Vimeo.