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Steve and Emma's Travel Tales

Everest Base Camp Trek

NEPAL | Friday, 22 March 2013 | Views [1243]

Kathmandu 1400m > flight to Lukla 2840m > Phakding 2610m > Monjo 2835m

We weren’t entirely convinced this trek would ever happen as the agency we used in Kathmandu didn’t fill us with confidence.  The lady in Metro Everest kept changing her story and we were booked on a flight that didn’t really exist.  We’d asked the receptionist at International Guesthouse to book us a taxi for 5am but he said there was little point as the airport didn’t open until 6am.  That was interesting information considering we had an airline ticket with Sita Air for 6.15am!  In the end we weren’t the only people to arrive at the airport too early.

Someone eventually turned up at our check-in counter and it has to be the most badly organised, dishevelled airport in the world considering how many people use it each year.  We soon found out why the check-in process is so quick – the planes are tiny.  In fact our tarmac shuttle bus could hold more passengers than the flight!  The good thing is, everyone is guaranteed a window seat as there are just two rows of seats.  Plus you can see out of the cockpit’s front window.  It was by far and away the oldest and smallest plane we’ve ever been on.  There were only 12 seats and the air stewardess (necessary? no!) had to duck to walk down the central aisle.  A screaming baby with shouting mother sat directly behind us didn’t help Steve’s nerves.  He didn’t look very comfortable but I loved the flight, especially when we entered the main valley and skimmed over the upper ridges of the high foothills.

Obviously there’s not a great deal of flat land in the Himalayas so only small planes can land and take off.  To ensure even these tiny transporters can manage the runway is built on a slope.   The uphill gradient helps the plane to stop and for take-off it looks like we’ll literally just fly off the face of the mountain.  We won’t learn about that fun aspect for another couple of weeks – lots of trekking to do first.

Anyway, we’d got here and we had our TIMS card (trekking permit) so that was 50% of the agency’s services successfully completed.  There was a mini scrimmage of people at the airport and somehow our porter tracked us down.  So now all we needed was the national park permit – by the end of the day we were still waiting for that last piece of paperwork.  We were initially taken to Himalayan Lodge in Lukla where the boss must be linked to the Kathmandu agency.  He gathered together pen, paper and calculator before sitting down with us.  His props were superfluous as we’d already paid up front for everything.  We think he was going to try to persuade us we needed a guide but we soon nipped that train of thought in the bud.

Our porter seemed to be older than all the others we’d seen and the guides a younger bunch again.  We can only hope it doesn’t get too embarrassing when we’re huffing and puffing along while he skips up the trails.  Or maybe it’ll be better that way and not end up with us wearing him out!  With this trek being longer and at higher altitude than the Annapurna Base Camp trek we’ve had to bring more gear; hence, the employment of a porter’s services.  It cost us $15 a day but we fear that he received an absolute maximum of $10 per day.  We didn’t want to run the risk of flying into Lukla and being unable to organise a porter and the necessary paperwork.  On hindsight we would have been able to arrange it all and if we’d known we’d have been much happier cutting out the agent.

Anyway we were finally trekking and felt much happier.  Our porter was a lovely fellow with only limited trekking vocab in English so thankfully he wasn’t wittering on all the time.  With landing in Lukla at 2840m you’re instantly in the mountains but it was cloudy that first day so we didn’t get to see any of the really high peaks.  The trail is very easy to follow so if you’re happy to carry your pack you can easily do it independently.  The first section followed the Dudh Koshi Nadi (river) which we crossed several times using long metal suspension bridges.  We were still within the pine tree area and the spring blossoms were beginning to burst forth.

The landscapes and villages have a very different feel to them than our last trek.  We were now in Sherpa territory where there building style is significantly different.  It has a more distinctive Tibetan feel to it with the pray wheels and mani stones emphasising that impression.  Along with mules, yaks are used to transport goods; in fact the latter beasts are more correctly called dzo and dzum and are domesticated yak/cow crossbreeds.  They’re very placid animals that seem content to be led and to plod up and down the mountain slopes.

Our guide book suggested spending the first night it Phakding but considering we reached there at 10am we ignored the advice.  Besides which we’d have ended up stopping lower than where we’d started and we weren’t mentally prepared for that.  In the end we had a short, gentle Nepali flat walk further along the valley where we chose to spend the night in Monjo.  We had contemplated pushing on but decided an easy first day would be better and we had arisen ridiculously early that morning.  Just as with the last trek this proved to be a good decision as it started raining while we were having lunch.  Our porter, Mila, suggested staying in Monjo Guesthouse and a good choice it was too.  The owners were friendly, the food tasty and the rooms were only Rs500 for an en-suite with piping hot shower.  We indulged now as we know it won’t all be this luxurious!

DAY 2

Monjo 2835m > Namche Bazar 3440m > Phungi Thanga 3250m >       Tengbache 3860m

We emerged from our room, where we’d been good and warm throughout the night, to find ice and frost.  However, the skies were perfectly clear and we were blessed with gorgeously blue skies and the sun winking off the high peaks.

Today saw us put in an uphill day of trekking with fabulous views along the way.  We started by following the river which we crossed one final time via a bridge suspended high above the valley floor.  From there we walked over the ridge into the next valley and steadily climbed up to Namche Bazar.  This is a sizable town with as much on offer as the Thamel district of Kathmandu.  I kid you not; internet cafes, wifi zones and shops selling all the same trekking gear and souvenirs are all to be found. 

We’d reached the checkpoint at the lower end of Namche Bazar only 2hrs after leaving Monjo.  Most itineraries suggest stopping here for a couple of nights and taking in an acclimatisation day but it was only 9.30am.  Having just done the ABC trek we didn’t feel the need to rest so we carried on.  From there the trail followed a ridge hugging the side of the mountain and we had outstanding views.  The weather was so clear that we got our first glimpse of Everest way off in the distance.  It didn’t stand out as the highest mountain in the world as some of the nearer peaks were stealing the limelight.  But hey, who cares?  It was Mount Everest 8848m.

This easy and incredibly enjoyable part of the trek took longer than necessary as we just had to keep stopping to take plenty of photos.  Following lunch sitting on a sunny terrace with a wall of mountains in front of us we plunged down to the river again.  We had planned to stop in the village straddling the water but it was still early and the weather was excellent so on we went.  The only trouble was it meant going straight up 600m and we knew it would be much colder up there.  We were up for it and Mila seemed keen so it was better to do it then than to tackle it after breakfast the next morning.

The best guestimate was it would take 2hrs of slow walking but we managed to plod our way up there in 1hr 30mins.  We were very pleased with our efforts and we were now 1000m higher than our starting point for that day.  At one point the trail was very steep but luckily we were forced into a slow pace as we were stuck behind a herd of yak.  Alright I know they’re mainly cow crossbreeds but some of these hefty beasts looked like the real deal.  As we neared the top of the hill it seemed odd to have the sun warming our backs whilst the odd snowflake came drifting down.  The clouds descended soon after our arrival and although it didn’t result in snow it was might chilly.

Even though there were only a few visitors in our lodge (Tashi Delak) they lit the stove and we all gathered round.  Crawling into sleeping bags feeling warm helps you to get comfy and usually means a good night’s sleep.

 

DAY 3

Tengboche 3860m > Pheriche 4240m > Thokla 4620m

Our reward for pushing ourselves to the top of the hill yesterday?  Straight back down a couple of hundred meters to cross the Imja Khola.  The good news was that on crossing onto the other side of the valley we were bathed in bright, warm rays.  The trail hugged a ridge and followed the river with subliminal scenery all around.  The path split at Chuto where we took the left hand fork and plodded up to Pheriche Pass at 4270m.  Now that we were over 4000m our pace had noticeable slowed.

We were feeling peckish so stopped in Pheriche itself which is established near a tributary of the river we’d been following.  Unfortunately the staff were not very friendly and in fact bordered on rude and the prices were double the places we’d just left behind.  We weren’t worried about the cost of things per say, but did not want to run out of hard currency.  There aren’t too many cash points around!!  Obviously we expected everything to be more expensive the higher we got as obtaining provisions is more problematic and costly.  Unfortunately we didn’t find people to be particularly friendly lower down the slopes and they seemed to have tired of displaying their famous Sherpa smiles. 

We’d read that trekking in the Everest region had become much commercialised and we have to agree.  Yes I know, we were there adding to the tourist statistics.  It seems that people feel they can do this level of trekking without sufficient experience.  Or, people with money to burn join a luxury trekking tour and stay in lodges that are more like 3* hotels where they expect tip top service. Plus they bring along heaps of gear that porters and pack yaks have to carry.  They tend to spend weeks doing what genuine trekkers do in a fraction of the time.    No the wonder the genuine Everest expedition groups resent their presence. 

Anyway back to our exploits.  Following lunch where the inflated prices and surly service were almost forgiven in lieu of the fabulous views we continued along the stream.  It was pretty flat initially but we still found that we had to walk slowly.  Well, I maintained a slow, steady pace but Steve kept pausing to take photos and then catching us up.  We were in yet another stunning valley (I don’t think they have any grim ones!), all the peaks were still clear and still back dropped by beautiful blue skies.  We could see Everest again but it looked insignificant compared with Nuptse 7864m and Lhotse 8516m who dominated the foreground.

The path then deviated and rose steadily towards Tholka 4620m.  By this point we were feeling pretty exhausted so decided to stay put for the night.  Tholka is a tiny place and we stayed in Yak Lodge – I’ll bet you’re not surprised we found a lodge by that name!  Believe me there are many lodges but not much imagination when it comes to names.  You can guess; Everest View, Sherpa Lodge, Hill Top, Green View and so on and so forth.  Since arriving at this particular lodge the clouds blew and the temperature rapidly plummeted.

DAY 4

Thokla 4620m > Lobuche 4910m > Lobuche Pass 5140m > Gorak Shep 5140m

As you can see we were now above the 5000m line and the going was decidedly tough.  I found the first pull up to Thokla Pass 4830m particularly energy zapping.  It always takes a little while first thing of a morning to get my muscles and lungs going and I’d rather not start by going straight up!  However, it only took us 45mins to reach the pass and a further 45mins steady walking up the valley to reach Lobuche.  By this point I wasn’t feeling very fit or strong so we took a nice long break.

There was no way I was going back down as the glorious weather was showing me why it was worth the effort.  Yep, those mountains were all around and I was determined to carry on.  So I popped my bare feet in the sun to thaw out – literally as my toes were displaying an odd shade of purple.  With feeling in my feet again I began to feel much better and I’d got over the first challenging hours walk of the day.  I soon got my second wind and on we continued to Gorak Shep.  Mila was happy for us to proceed slowly and even though I was slower than the yaks he said we’d only need 3hrs to reach our destination.  We had time on our side so it was a case of head down and keep going up.

The route took us along the side of what on our map is described as the Khumbu Glacier but initially it looked like it had disappeared.  On closer inspection we realised that the glacier was indeed underneath a layer of rocks that had been strewn upon it over the years.  We were totally surrounded by jagged, rocky and ice clad peaks and could see ice falls, glaciers and snow all around.  It really is a stunning part of the world and here the mountains seemed even bigger than those at ABC.  Granted we were closer to them on the ABC trek and they were generally 1000m lower but it was great that treks had thrown up different experiences.

We decided that we would have to buy a coffee table book or at the very least some postcards so we can try to identify and name the mountains on our photos.  It would be sinful to not learn to recognise and name at least a handful of the peaks that form part of the world’s most famous range.  It’s such a shame that this trek doesn’t have the paintings and information boards displayed in each village like they had on the ABC trek.  In fact we found the ABC trek to be much better organised, friendlier and lacking and industrial ambiance.  Maybe Mount Everest / Sagarmatha / Chomolungma (whichever name you choose to use) should never have been conquered and left as the ultimate spiritual and natural monument to mankind.  That aside, it has been summited and people’s desire to visit the Solokhumbu region and walk through Sagarmatha National Park to have a peek at Everest will forever remain.

We eventually crept our way into Gorak Shep 5140m 2hrs 30mins after our break so the pace wasn’t too slow after all.  The rocky ridge route had looked straight forward on the map but of course it undulated.  I reckon when walking below 2000m you would hardly have noticed the inclines but believe me it’s a different story at this level.  We spent the afternoon resting our weary legs in Buddha Lodge and this was our base for a couple of nights.  We found ourselves in a wide, flat valley and went to find the start of the trail for the following morning’s stroll.  Weary we admit to being but thankfully we weren’t so exhausted that we couldn’t potter about in the afternoon’s sun.  Sunny it may have been but all the layers were needed as the breeze had a bite to it.

Buddha Lodge steadily filled up around us and it’s not surprising it was this popular as they have an excellent set up.  The central stove was lit in the afternoon and it proved to be so efficient you could actually sit in the room with you outer layer removed!

DAY 5

Gorak Shep 5140m > Kala Patthar 5550m > back to lodge

The morning didn’t start well with me feeling exhausted from yet another sleepless night.  It had led to swollen eyes that I could barely open – great for mountain viewing then!  Compounded to which I had two separate headaches playing a merry tune in my bonce.  The first across my forehead I knew was from dehydration but the pounding at the back of my head armed with shooting pains was an altitude headache.  Steve didn’t get off scot-free as he had an altitude headache too.  Still a couple of nurofen washed down with lashings of hot water soon had us sorted out.  The weather was looking pretty good so even though time had pressed on a little we decided to go for it.

Looking back down the valley puffy white clouds were forming but up the Khumbu Valley all was clear.  I warned Steve that I would be setting an excruciatingly slow pace and would need regular rest stops as my breathing wasn’t too good.  He was more than happy to wait for me as it gave him plenty of time to get the camera out.  The first section of the track was quite steep and we were soon looking down on Gorak Shep.  Everest’s uppermost face was clear but once again it looked like a lesser beast than its neighbours Lhotse and Lhotse Shar 8382m. 

As we slowly, slowly made progress up the path peaks started appearing over the opposite side of the ridge.  The little fellas Changri 6027m and Chumbu 6859m are almost forgotten in the clamour of the 8000m giants.  Each and every one of them is stunning and we have to agree with the rumours that Everest is the least spectacular.  Well, from this angle at any rate.  However, it is the highest in the world and you can’t beat putting in 5 days of effort to have a look at it.  Go on, admit it – you’d like to see it too!

Unfortunately by the time we got to the top of Kala Patthar 5550m the mountains were all wearing a shawl of cloud.  The wind had picked up and it was bitterly cold but we revelled in being on top of our 4th highest peak for as long as we could.  Numb fingers didn’t prevent taking photos to record the achievement and we were actually the only two people up there.  Kala Patthar means black rock and is aptly named as the summit involves a bit of a scramble over a jumble of black rocks.  The prayer flag strewn cairns, and even better, Steve waving, were a most welcome sight that spurred me on the final few meters.  Luckily the mountain with the thinnest cloud cover was our boy Mr E so we stared at it until we were forced to beat a retreat.  To be honest the perfectly clear views we’d had all the way up (and that kept us going!) were just as good so we didn’t feel we’d been robbed.  Besides which we’d reached the highest point of the trek on just Day 5 out of 15 and our 4th highest summit ever so an achievement to be proud of.

We descended as quickly as our cold, weary legs would allow as by now it was grey clouds that were rolling up the valley and over the ridges.  It was trying to snow during our 45min descent and not long after we got back to the lodge flakes were falling.  In fact there were a couple of inches of snow in a matter of hours and we were very glad we were not in a tent at Base Camp.  From the top of Kala Patthar we looked down on orange and yellow splodges that we presume were tents.  Other coloured dots were moving around too so it’s safe to assume we were peering down on EBC.  We could only hope the weather would be good enough for us to visit it in the morning.

From EBC you can’t actually see the mountain you’re planning on climbing so it won’t matter to us too much if it’s a bit cloudy.  Obviously it’s always better to walk in good weather and we hoped the snow clouds would have moved on so we can see the glaciers.  In fact the snow made us abandon all plans of walking to EBC that afternoon.  Instead it was a time of tea and biscuits by the already lit stove.  The only activity that tempted anyone, and in fact everyone, outside was the arrival of a helicopter.  It somehow managed to land on the fresh snow to airlift out a couple of trekkers from our lodge who were suffering from altitude sickness.  Bearing in mind we could hardly see the mountains, how the pilot navigated in the conditions is baffling yet heroic. 

DAY 6

Lodge 5140m > Everest Base Camp 5364m > back to lodge > Lobuche 4910m

Unfortunately I woke up feeling none too chipper but once again a hot drink and a couple of painkillers got me going.  We’d reached this far, had seen EBC in the distance so there was no way I wasn’t going!

The weather was looking good but not surprisingly at over 5000m it was mighty chilly.  In fact our entire walk along the Khumbu Valley saw us keeping on all our layers.  This was a 2 hour walk like yesterday’s to Kala Patthar but this time we would only gain a couple of hundred meters in elevation.  Considering this is one of the most popular treks around the track was fairly quiet.  From talking to those working in the lodges it seems we were slightly ahead of the peak season.  Yes there were plenty of trekkers around but the big expedition groups were only just starting to show up.

We approached EBC along a rocky crest between two glacial valleys and we actually had to drop down slightly to reach the infamous area.  In fact trekkers are encouraged to stop and admire the area quite a distance away from where the expeditions set up camp.  There’s the obligatory prayer flag strewn cairn marking the spot and we feel this is a reasonable compromise.  The last thing you need is pure amateurs stumbling around while you’re in the process of gearing yourself up for a 2 month long foray to the top of the world.

Now as much as I admire anyone with the sheer skill, determination, brawn and bloody-mindedness to get up there we’ve seen heroism further down the slopes.  We all know about the infinite care and concentration, not to mention dedication, the Sherpa show when helping summiteers.  However, I’d also like to point out the sheer volume of cargo the yaks move up the valley aided by their herders.  Now granted our favourite pack beast plods but those lads seem to skip up and down the slopes.  We’ve also seen porters carrying heavy, bulky and burdensome loads – they’re literally double over but pressing ever onwards and upwards.  There are guidelines as to how much their maximum loads should be and part of our permit fees should go to clothing and shoeing them correctly – but……..

What we’d really like to know is: how imperative are 2 1970’s style plastic moulded bar stools to a summit bid?  Our other question is: why not build a permanent lockup for the tables, chairs and the like to be used annually?  Believe me there’s plenty of building material to hand and in fact EBC looks like it sitting in a giant quarry.  There may be plenty of flat land in which to pitch your tents but you need to make a flat rock base first.  From our vantage point we could see about half a dozen expeditions had begun to erect camp.  We certainly didn’t see any of the plastic mountains or rubbish heaps that have been reported over the years.  I think everyone who’s involved in the Everest region these days is much more acutely aware of litter disposal and recycling. 

We could see the section of the Khumbu Glacier that spills down the valley and is clear of rocks and other natural debris.  It’s an intricate formation of jagged peaks, caves and crevasses with some faces reflecting a blue sheen.  We could also see the bottom of the famous Kumbu Icefall; the first real section of the climb.  In fact we’ve read that this is technically one of the more difficult sections and at the top you reach Advanced Base Camp.  Seeing it for real has made us want to read more about people’s exploits on the mountain and no doubt there will be a glut of publications soon in this 60th anniversary year.  I have to say that it has NOT given us a desire to get any more intimate with Mount Everest.  Just at base camp there was a wicked wind blowing off the glaciers and directly at us.  Even with all our layers on we soon felt very cold – endure that and much, much more for 2 months?  No thanks!

Everest Base Camp marks the end of the road in that part of the world and virtually the boundary of Nepal.  The tents sit at the base of a sheer rock wall.  Should you wish to enter Tibet that way the lowest point is over the Lho La (North West Col) at 6026m.  I must point out that this is via a climbing route and most definitely not a trekking trail.  Other than that you’re literally straight up a granite and ice wall.  I feel getting the train to Lhasa may be preferable!  One last point to make is that it’s true; you can’t see Mount Everest from Everest Base Camp.  I wonder if people find that annoying or a blessing in disguise?

As we headed back down to Buddha Lodge the clouds began rolling up and over that mountainous wall that forms the border with Tibet.  Once again we got the best of the weather and fortunately the lower reaches of the valley were still enjoying sunshine.  That’s the beauty of this part of the world; even though you’ve just turned your back on the world’s most famous campsite there are a plethora of fabulous views to enjoy in front.

Back at the lodge we paused long enough to have lunch and a rest before heading down to Lobuche.  Even though this teahouse settlement was only a couple of hundred meters lower we hoped it might be a little sheltered.  The first lodge Mila tried was booked out by a big group so we ended up in Lobuche National Park View Lodge.  By this point I was feeling chilled to the bone and pretty rotten so it was a shame we ended up staying in the worst place so far.  It turned out to be far and away the flimsiest build and therefore coldest place we stayed in.  Plus the staff weren’t particularly friendly and the food wasn’t up to much.  It seemed such a shame to end up there after the excitement of being at EBC.

This marks the end of the first half of our trek in Sagarmartha National Park so I’ll let you get your breath back.  Part 2 soon!

 

 

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