What’s it like to trek to Everest Base Camp? I’d had pretty much no idea before I started. People who’d been before would give me these random bits of advice, like ‘go to Tengboche’, ‘get some down booties’ and ‘take some tiger balm with you’ – most of which I followed but with no real idea of why I should do any of those things.
So, having now done it myself, I thought I’d write something a little bit more detailed for future EBC-trekkers to give them a somewhat clearer idea of what they’ll be experiencing.
A typical day involved setting off at around 8am, trekking till around 1, stopping for lunch, then trekking a few more hours until we’d reach our teahouse for the night. This confused me at first – why wake up so early when some days we’d get to our teahouses at 4pm or 5pm – couldn’t we just sleep in and get there later? Turns out you can’t – you want to take advantage of the early morning, when the sun is still bright and conditions more stable – and you especially don’t want to get stuck out in the cold or dark. As safe and straightforward as the Everest Base Camp trek seems (especially compared to the exponentially more complex and difficult act of summiting Everest), there have still been numerous instances of injury and death along the way.
Part of the trek is really simple. I mean, you start off walking through Lukla, then through this arch, and down a path. It almost feels like you’re going through someone’s yard at first. It’s a little bit anticlimactic, especially because on the first day you go past so many little restaurants and teahouses that it doesn’t even feel that wild.
But it doesn’t stay that way. The trekking gets exponentially harder as you go along. I’d been warned about the altitude but it still took me by surprise. On the first day I rushed up the hills and stairs and I remember feeling surprised that they recommended training for the hike, since it seemed so easy. I soon got punished for my hubris. By the third day in, even a short flight of stairs (I’m talking like, 5 steps,) would leave me struggling for breath and feeling like I’d just run a marathon. I really had to focus on my breathing, and trying to get enough air in and out.
The other misconception I’d had was that we’d be walking through untouched snow the whole time, like explorers in the wild. I was wrong on two counts – the way to Base Camp is well travelled, and highly varied. Sometimes you’d go for stretches of time without running into a single other soul, but other times there was so much traffic on the path that you’d be stalled for minutes at a time – like during peak hour in Sydney – waiting for the oncoming flow to pause long enough for you to resume moving in the other direction.
There were days when it was snowing, and everything would be covered in a soft while blanket for miles around, looking eerily like a painting. That was amazing, and photos just can’t quite capture how beautiful and serene it felt when it was like that. It’s so quiet and subdued, and you feel like you’re out in the middle of nowhere – properly in the middle of nowhere, in the wilderness. You lose sight of the trails, and of other people, and it’s just you and this dazzling panorama.
But then other times the trek goes through Rhododendron forests, or past stretches of grey earth dotted with huge piles of rocks and little pools of water that look like construction sites but just naturally occur due to the rock falls and melting ice. There are craters that look like the surface of the moon, and in other areas the low lying brush is reminiscent of the Scottish highlands.
A lot of these would crop up unexpectedly – you’d go past a curve, or up a ridge, and then it’s something completely different. It was stunning. And then there’s the dudh kosi – Nepalese for ‘milk river’- meandering through, the snow and glacier melt running into this glorious white frothing churn that turns into lovely hues of blue whenever it slows down.
Every now and then you’d pass little temples and shrines, and lots and lots of prayer wheels. I don’t know how they erected them – Some of them were huge, and out seemingly in the middle of nowhere! Every time we’d go past a prayer wheel we’d turn it and make sure we walked clockwise around it, as per our guides’ instructions. The prayer wheels are filled with copies of mantras, and they believe that when you turn them, you accumulate wisdom and compassion. I didn’t get how the simple act of turning a wheel was meant to make you a better person, but I did really enjoy turning them, and it was definitely soothing.
Just as impressive were the mani stones, these intricately carved stone tablets piled in mounds. It boggled my mind a little bit that these could exist here – they must have taken ages to carve to such perfection, and then they were just piled up outdoors, left to the elements, with new ones completely burying the old ones – In the middle of the Himalayas, where everything is really scarce! It made more sense when I learned that carving mani stones was considered a form of mediation – and I guess when you don’t have television or the internet you do end up with a lot of time on your hands.
Then there were the prayer flags, which you’d see absolutely EVERYWHERE. Seeing those colours fluttering in the wind was beautiful in itself, but I found it particularly wondrous to think that someone had to go out into the wilderness, out to these really remote and dangerous points, climb a tree, and erect these. And that maybe some of them had been there for decades – some certainly looked faded enough. I wondered why there were so many, so I looked it up when I finished the trek and found this:
Buddhists believe that the prayer flags generate spiritual vibrations that are released when blown by the wind and the prayers are carried in the air like silent prayers. Any person and place touched by the wind will be happier and uplifted.
That explained a lot – if you’re trying to spread your prayers through the wind, the Himalayas would be a perfect place to start.
The other thing I found especially entrancing about the trek was all the animals we’d see! You’d get the occasional dog at the villages, all of whom were very good at fixing visiting trekkers with their huge puppy dog eyes and convincing them to part with their food. There’d also be the infrequent horse, with elaborate headdress, being ridden around.
Most common though, were the herds of donkeys and yaks that frequented the trails, laden up with packs and supplies. The donkeys were cool, but the yaks were far more novel. They were gorgeous and placid, with soft, thick fur and calm eyes. They’d come by in these huge processions, 10 or 15 or 20 yaks (and various crossbreeds), all with bells around their necks so that you could hear them approaching.
You’d always have to jump off to the side to let them pass – they moved a lot faster than we did. Sometimes we’d reach out to touch their soft coats, although we were warned that they can get annoyed and head butt you. They were beautifully adorned, with earrings and tassles and various other decorations.
After the initial excitement of seeing them wore off though, I started to notice that a lot of the yaks we’d see on the trail were piled really high with bags – sometimes it looked like there was a greater mass of baggage than of yak – and you’d see the rope burn on their sides, and that the ropes were looped under their tails, which looked incredibly painful. I don’t think tails are meant to stabilise loads.
This made me feel really guilty. I mean, all of this was because of tourism and poverty, right? I know the Sherpa people have a long history with the yaks, and that being a yak herder itself is a difficult life, so I’m not trying to criticise them in any way, and I realise it must be painful for them to treat their animals that way too, but I don’t think they can’t afford to treat animals better when there are all these tourists who want to do this trek cheap.
As bad as the animals made me feel, the porters seemed even worse off. Our own porters would carry three bags, each limited to 10k – so 30k altogether. Which might not seem so bad, but they were tiny, some of them as young as 16 and 14. And Intrepid’s one of the good companies. We saw other porters carrying fridges on their backs – can you imagine doing a really treacherous trek carrying a fridge?? – and still others carrying doors, and food. Some were dressed fairly inadequately, or had sandals on their feet.
Robeen Tamang, one of the six porters on our team, weighed 75kg seven years ago. Now he weighs far less than 60. ‘Portering is tough,’ he told me, ‘but I need the money to help us make our farm better.’ I interviewed more than 20 porters during my short employment alongside them and found that at the end of each 13-day trek to base camp and back they take home about 6,000 rupees (£40). In a country where the average monthly income is about 8,000 rupees (reliable figures are hard to come by), this return for half a month’s work may not seem too bad. But it is not a year-round income, just a supplement from four or five treks a year. Their other earnings rely on what they can produce in excess of their own food needs on small farms.
They get paid a pittance, they have lots of back and neck problems, they often all have to sleep on the floor together in one big mass of bodies and blankets, and there’s an incredibly high incidence of death or permanent injury. I wished there was a different way for things to be transported so that nobody had to suffer through that.
Mandy pointed out tersely that then they’d lost their jobs, and I’ve heard that from a few other people since, but I think that’s a pathetically stupid argument. If a job has a high injury and death rate, don’t the negative side effects of those balance out the rather neglibible money they make from it? And if you automate part of the process, you still need humans to look after the machinery and logistics.
The guides, incidentally, were fantastic. At the start of the trek, where the paths are marked out clearly, I wondered why we even needed them, but every time we got sick they’d take care of us and know exactly what to do to treat it and ensure we were comfortable. Not to mention that they’re wonderful liasons between you and the locals, some of whom don’t speak any English, they know how to avoid altitude sickness, they organise your meals and sleeping arrangements, and they have heaps of stories about the area, the culture, and Everest’s history. Besides which, they become invaluable when the weather starts to turn.
I felt awful about hiring a porter myself (well, I didn’t, but Intrepid hires them for you whether or not you actually want one) – it made me feel like I was doing the trek half arsed, especially given that I knew so many people who’d carried all their own gear the whole way through. I feel like if you’re too much of a princess to be able to carry your own things, you don’t really deserve to get to travel to these places and experience these things.
So one morning I decided to try carrying first Pemba’s, then Ashok’s rucksack. I was doing fine until I got really hungry, then wolfed down a large Snickers bar all at one go and felt like throwing up. James took over bag duty the rest of the way, but at least I’d managed most of the trek until lunchtime doing it on my own (their bags were way heavier than mine was, since they had heaps of emergency equipment with them).
Part of the allure of the trek is all the other trekkers you see and meet along the way. We continuously ran into the Gecko’s group, who’d started off with us, been at the airport next to us, eaten at the same teahouse when we got to Lukla, and stayed at most of the same villages as we did. I ended up chatting a fair bit to one of the guys in the group named Zhen, who was this kickarse male cheerleader from Melbourne with long, bleached hair and who frequently wore pink zinc on his lips.
There were definitely a lot of interesting people on the trail, young old, fit, fat, and from various corners of the world – although there was a much higher number of Americans, English people and Australians than other nationalities. Some people would be completely unprepared, in running shorts and shoes, and they’d often last only a few days and then give up and go back down. I guess there’s this common misconception that it’s easy, and people assume they can get away with doing it unprepared. It’s really not. Fitness is only part of it – the main bit is being prepared. Altitude sickness and pneumonia are real concerns here, as are more extreme issues like frostbite.
Seeing all the other trekkers also made me really glad that I was with our group. The Gecko’s crew were all super well dressed, in colour coordinated, well fitting, expensive sports gear. Most of our group had ugly bits and pieces borrowed from friends or bought second hand. We’d talk about our bowel movements during our breaks, and make lots of dad jokes, and it was super chilled and light hearted.
Then there were the locals. At one point on the path we passed this guy named Pashang, who sat there collecting donations. This was on the side of a mountain, with the cold, biting wind whipping frantically around. I would have frozen half to death sitting there, and I’m only 24 – while he looked rather old and frail and very windbeaten. Ashok told us that he collects money to build schools and paths, and that when he was younger, he used to go around fixing the paths and making them safe.
It’s pretty humbling to think of this man, devoting his life to carving out these paths and helping the communities in the Nepalese Himalayas. It wouldn’t have been easy work – the Himalayas are properly wild, with lots of rock falls, landslides and avalanches. In some bits the paths are still very narrow, icy, sludgy, and just incredibly unsafe – and a lot of the trail is just made up of rocks that have been piled together into makeshift staircases. But then you compare that to having to do this all without a trail, and think of the fact that people had to come out here and shape all of this by hand – it amazes me how industrious, brave and hard working the people here have been.
My main problem while I was on the trek was that I needed to pee ALL THE TIME. Nobody else had to go as often as I did and I didn’t think I was drinking as much as everyone else either, but every time we took a break, I’d have to run off to empty my bladder. The problem was that your butt cheeks would freeze when you pulled your pants down – and that often there just wasn’t anywhere to hide. There were numerous occasions on which I’d walk away from our group, squat, and then someone else would walk past. I ultimately got to the point where I’d just wave and make a joke. When you have to go, you have to go.
The hardest parts of the trek were the ‘acclimatisation days’, or what everyone mistakenly refers to as ‘rest days’. Calling it a ‘rest day’ is a complete misnomer – because they’re meant to be used to acclimatise, you end up walking much further, getting much higher, and the way is a lot steeper. I hated the ‘rest days’.
Conversation was great though. You end up talking to everyone because you’re all together and there’s just not much else to do. Exhaustion is a great ice breaker, and once you’ve all gotten stinky and dirty, any remaining barriers fall pretty fast. We had so many deep conversations and discussions about ethics and social issues, which was fantastic, especially given that we were of such different ages and had led such different lives.
During the really hard stretches (think long, rocky uphills) it was wonderful to have my ipod to listen to. I mean, imagine this – everyone gets really spread out over the difficult parts of the trek, so you feel like you’re on your own, but you’re surrounded by these glorious vistas made up of fresh snow, huge, ancient rock formations and shiny glaciers, while Everest looms above; the air is thin and clean, the light magnificent and reflected off the snow, and in your ears you’ve got Sigur Ros playing. It’s breathtaking.
Base camp was the toughest section of the whole trek. The actual landscape is much harsher here, and the weather we had was also at it’s worst, snowing and windy and absolutely freezing. My head was throbbing violently, and I felt disgustingly nauseous the whole way along. Getting to Base Camp itself is a bit overrated. Everyone’s trying to take photos, and you aren’t meant to go into the actual camp itself because summiters complain about things going missing. It’s just a massive collection of orange and yellow tents anyway, and it’s not even the original Base Camp that Tenzing and Hillary summited from.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, it totally feels amazing to have reached that point because it’s such a struggle getting there, and it feels like you’ve really achieved something – and it is cool to look upon Base Camp and think about how, even though for us, this was our final goal, there are a huge bunch of people here for whom this is just the beginning. Getting there I realised that I don’t think I’d ever actually summit Everest. It’s 40 days from base camp to summit, which means ascending and coming back down takes at least two months.
I’m fairly good at roughing it generally, but because I’ve got Crohn’s I was seriously limited in what I could eat on the trek, and there was basically no fibre in my diet. I won’t spell out the repercussions of that here, because I’m sure you can imagine what that’s like without me needing to say it outright, but while I could handle two months without a shower, without clean clothes, without socks that were ever dry or not smelly – the prospect of going two months on just rice and potatoes and being ridiculously stopped that whole time just made me want to cry.
However, I did discover that eating Cadbury Dairy Milk at Everest Base Camp is about a million times more satisfying than eating Cadbury Dairy Milk anywhere else in the world. It’s like the high altitude, freezing temperatures and harsh winds all combine to fool your body into thinking it’s having one of the best experiences of it’s entire existence.
Em was an absolute darling and had brought a block with her and shared it around with all of us, taking only a single piece or two for herself. I would not have had that same self control in her place – as it was I had to stop myself from grabbing the rest of the bar out of her hand – and I now always think of Emily Pearson whenever I eat Cadbury Milk, although it never tastes quite as good as it did then.
Things took a bit of a downturn from there, healthwise, for most of us. Half the group had a cold, and most of us were either running to the toilet constantly, or not going at all. I of course, went from one extreme to the other, and got acute diarrhea one of the last days of the trek, as we were heading back.
I dealt with this by taking a copious amount of pills, putting on a dress that I’d kind of foolishly carried around this entire time in the hopes that we’d get to dance when we got back to Lukla, and did the last part of the hike back looking like some kind of orphan girl who’d had very limited options at a charity shop – floral dress, fleece around my waist, black beanie, bright orange raincoat and hiking boots with bright pink socks. Al was nonplussed. “You’re going to hike in that?” He didn’t seem to think I could. It’s strange that men seem to believe that wearing a dress suddenly gives you some sort of disability, when in fact I’d argue that the airflow makes it much more comfortable.
Finally getting back to Lukla was such a surreal experience. The morning was really long and arduous, and for a while it felt like it would just keep going and we’d never get there. We stopped for lunch, and our guides told us that we’d be another hour before we got there – and then we walked on a few hundred metres and there it was, in all it’s glory. They enjoyed the surprise and relief on our faces when we realised that we’d been lied to.
We’d gone almost two weeks without internet, clean clothes or a shower, and we were smelly, sick, tired, sore and desperate for some real food. That’s only a small part of what trekking to base camp is about though – and the best bits I’ve yet to write about – the chicken sizzler at Tengboche, skanking at Lukla, trying raksi at Monjo and slowly becoming addicted to Shithead and Presidents and Assholes. More to come next time!