Hiking to Everest Base Camp, Nepal
Featured destinations: Nepal
Published 27 February 2017
Peru had been my idea, so the next time my husband David and I decided to travel long haul for our holidays, it was only fair that he should choose the destination. “Nepal,” he said, without hesitation, “Let’s hike up a mountain.”
That’s when we decided upon a 13-day hike to Everest Base Camp.
We paid the deposit and reality set in. Were we fit enough? Would we suffer from altitude sickness? Why on earth were we travelling in the Nepalese winter?
The next few months were filled with trips to outdoors shops, endless Amazon purchases of waterproof jackets and thermal underwear, long weekends climbing Snowdon in the snow, and late-night treadmill sessions.
The day we left for Nepal I felt the fittest I’ve felt in a long time. But that didn’t stop the nerves. Altitude sickness can strike anyone, regardless of fitness. And what if our group was made up of hard-core Austrian mountain climbers who were all over 6 foot tall?
I needn’t have worried. When we met our group over a tasty Nepalese dinner, I was delighted to discover that they were a mixed bunch, ranging in age from 26 to 60-something. Some were experienced trekkers, some less so.
Tenzing-Hillary Airport, Lukla image: Chris Bonfield
Day 1: Flying to the mountains
Our trip began with a bumpy 40-minute flight from Kathmandu in a small plane, landing in Lukla’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport – supposedly the World’s Most Dangerous. It was certainly hair-raising, with a steep descent onto a very short, sloped runway, which dropped off the edge of the mountain at one end. I found it all rather exciting, and especially enjoyed the dramatic Himalayan views along the way.
In Lukla we met our ‘yak man’, whose name we never did learn. He strapped our overnight bags to his yaks, while we walked with our friendly Sherpa guides, Jangbu, Lhakpa and Kaji, all of whom had summited Everest more than once.Angela on the lower slopes of the Everest Base Camp trek image: Angela Griffin
The first day’s walk was not too strenuous, being mostly downhill along the churning Dudh Kosi River to Phakding (2,652m). We passed through various villages, where locals were tending to crops, washing their clothes or carrying back-breaking loads of rice and Coca-Cola up and down the pathways. This was one of my favourite aspects of the walk – the insight it gave us into life in the mountains.
Before long we arrived at our friendly teahouse and stocked up on some much-needed calories with yak steak and chips, washed down with tea. The teahouses soon became a second home for us; with simple twin rooms, a communal stove-heated lounge and hearty, home-cooked food, they were always a welcome sight after a long day’s trekking.
The group on the lower slopes of Everest image: Chris Bonfield
Day 2: First view of Everest
The first thing I noticed was the cold. I had gone to bed the night before fully clothed in my five-season sleeping bag with a bottle of boiling water, but by morning its warming effects were long gone. It took all my bravery to get out of bed, change my clothes and clean my teeth in icy water.
A breakfast of sugary porridge and fried egg hit the spot nicely, and soon we were off, climbing high through rhododendron forests and magnolia trees. It was after lunch that we got our first tantalising glimpse of Everest, obscured by a tree and far in the distance, but there it was, the world’s highest mountain (8,848m) in all its glory.
We pushed on to Namche Bazaar (3,445m), the last ‘large’ town on the trail. The climb was steep, and the group began to stretch apart while our Sherpas waited patiently for the stragglers. It was on the outskirts of town that I first began to feel cold. Not just a little cold, cold to the bone. And I went very pale. I should have known what was coming; let’s just say this was the worst possible time for the toilet pipes to freeze.
Angela with the summit of Everest behind her, Everest View Hotel image: Angela Griffin
Day 3: Hotel Everest View
I was completely drained of energy by morning, and couldn’t touch my breakfast, despite knowing I needed it. Powered purely by tea and rehydration salts, I climbed the ridiculously steep (or so it seemed in my groggy state) path out of Namche Bazaar to the Hotel Everest View, surely the most spectacularly situated hotel in the world. After gazing at Everest for a while and watching the dancing ribbon of cloud billowing from its summit, I began to feel a little better.
At lunch we visited Sir Edmund Hillary’s Kunde Hospital, which was surprisingly high-tech for the middle of nowhere, before spending the night at Kyanjuma (3,600m).
Thyangboche Monastery image: Angela Griffin
Day 4: Thyangboche Monastery
By now my energy levels had recovered and I powered up to Thyangboche (3,967m), home to a delightful monastery and also memorable as the place where we ate the indulgent ‘Snickers pie’, a chocolate bar wrapped in chapati and deep fried. As we walked we made friends with the stray dogs that followed us, no doubt hoping for a scrap or two of our very tasty yak cheese sandwiches.
Angela at Nangkartshang peak image: Angela Griffin
Days 5-6: Nangkartshang peak
Leaving the trees behind, we spent two nights at Dingboche (4,350m), giving us a full day of acclimatisation, which David and I spent hiking up Nangkartshang (5,100m). Nearing the top, the air was so thin we were panting like dogs, stopping every few steps to suck in as much oxygen as we could. But the view from the top, with frozen lakes and glaciers spreading out below us, made it all worthwhile. I was delighted to reach the top in one piece but, what goes up must come down, and the descent was just as tough. It was so steep I fell twice.
Angela at Everest Base Camp image: Angela Griffin
Days 7-9: Everest Base Camp and Kala Pattar
By now the scenery was jagged and wild, and the harsher realities of an Everest summit climb became more apparent. At Chukpo Lari, a peaceful yet poignant place, we saw the line of memorials to those who have lost their lives on the mountain, many of them not much older than me.
At this point one of our group turned back, but the rest of us pressed on, following the Khumbu Glacier to Gorak Shep (5,184m), the first time I have slept above 5,000m. At last it was time for the main event: the three-hour trek to Everest Base Camp. As we neared the spot, dodging icy crevasses and scrambling over loose rocks, the views became more and more dramatic. And finally, there it was: Everest Base Camp (5,364m). The point was marked with little more than a pile of prayer flags and a cluster of orange expedition tents, but we had done it.
We stayed for around 20 minutes, taking photos, congratulating each other and admiring the glacier, and then returned to Gorak Shep, tired but satisfied.
Far removed from light pollution, a blanket of stars swathed the sky that night, and they were still shining at 4am the next day when we got up to climb Kala Pattar (5,545m), the highest point on the trek. And what a climb it was: so cold my fingers and toes went numb, so high I struggled to breathe, and so steep I was sweating profusely, the trek took us to the most stupendous view of all. Up there, far removed from any sign of human activity, we looked down on Base Camp and the Khumbu Glacier, across to frozen lakes, and up to the mighty peak of Everest.
And this was all before breakfast.
David in the Himalayas image: Angela Griffin
Days 10-11: Back down again
The climb back down to Namche Bazaar was tough on the knees, although this was eased greatly by a cosy teahouse stay where the owners served us popcorn and showed us a Nepalese film. After days feeling very detached from the world, it seemed Namche had everything: outdoor shops, souvenir shops, a pharmacy and a plethora of bakeries. David and I lapped up the apple pie, carrot cake, club sandwich (with actual meat!) and cappuccino (with real milk!) that we were served in a café there.
Houses outside Lukla image: Chris Bonfield
Day 12: Return to Lukla
After a breakfast of yak-buttered toast we returned to Lukla. By now my legs were tired from 12 straight days’ walking and my pace slowed. But the scenery and the warm sun distracted me, and soon we were tucking into a well-earned egg curry and dal dinner, sharing hiking stories with the Sherpas and drinking Everest beers around the stove.
Square in Kathmandu image: Angela Griffin
Day 13: Return to Kathmandu
Suddenly, after nearly two weeks with no cars, no showers and very few people we were back in the city. The noise was loud and the air was smoggy. I immediately wished I was back in the mountains.
It was back to reality with a bump. But what an achievement: we had climbed to Everest Base Camp; we had been within touching distance of the world’s highest mountain, and we had walked there on our own two feet. We had survived a lack of oxygen (although thankfully no altitude sickness), frozen water bottles and stomach upsets and had come out the other side, filled with admiration for those who do make it to the top, and filled with plans to come back for more.
And travelling in the winter? I’d highly recommend it. Yes it’s cold, but with clear skies, empty teahouses and deserted paths, what could be better?
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