India & Nepal

November 2005

Part 3:

Everest Base Camp Trek (1/2)


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About the Everest Base Camp (EBC) Trek

Everest Base Camp (EBC) is a spot at the northern end of the Khumbu Glacier, at about 5400m high, where Everest expeditions build their first camp; after EBC the real climb begins. The trek towards EBC is one of the two most popular long treks in Nepal (the other being the Annapurna Circuit), though the real highlight of this trip is not EBC itself but the ascent of the nearby Kala Pattar (5545m), which offers a fantastic view on the Everest.

This was the first trek ever for both of us, so we had to do quite quite some reading to know what to expect. The main thing we learned about is Accute Mountain Sickness, and since it completely determines the schedule of this and every other high-altitude trek, I'll tell you something about it first.

About Accute Mountain Sickness (AMS)

A human body needs time to adjust to altitude, or the consequences can be fatal. To take the most extreme case as an example: if someone would be dropped on top of the Everest by helicopter, he would go in a coma almost immediately and die within the hour.

If you climb too fast on a trek, you'll get symptoms which range from nausea, head aches, vomiting and exhaustion to loss of balance, bleeding ears, coma and ultimately death. This is AMS, and the chance of getting it is not related to your age or physical condition. Anyone can get it, and the only way to prevent it is to climb slowly and the only way to cure it is to descend. Despite the plethora of warnings, some trekkers and climbers die of AMS every year in Nepal, mostly people who ignored the early symptoms.

To prevent AMS the rule is that once you are above 3500m, you should not climb more than 300m per day on average. Actually you can climb much higher as long as your next sleeping place is no more than 300m higher than the previous one on average. If it is, you should not climb further but instead have a so-called acclimatisation day and sleep at the same altitude again so your body can catch up. Even when adhering to this rule, you can get AMS - in every large group some people do. It's a bit like Russian roulette really.

Planning

The Lonely Planet guide "Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya" (which is excellent btw) has a schedule of 15 days for the EBC trek, but that includes extra acclimatisation days just to play safe. Now we had to book the plane ticket out of the Everest region in advance, so we were faced with a major dilemma. On the one hand we wanted to reserve as few days as possible for the trek so as to have more days left for our journey through India, on the other hand we wanted to have the time to deal with AMS if we would get it because not making it to Kala Pattar would ruin the whole trek.

We figured that with the minimum of two acclimatisation days and with a speedy descent (no risk with that) we'd need 12 days to do the whole trek, and we added one extra day to have some margin to deal with possible AMS. So we arranged to fly back to Kathmandu 13 days after flying in.

Naturally we were both very worried about getting AMS and not making it to Kala Pattar. We agreed in advance that if one of us would have to give up or turn back, the other would go on. As it turned out we did have to backpedal a little at 4300m, but it didn't affect our schedule and in the end everything worked out perfectly.

In this part of the report I'll count the days of the trek, not of the whole journey. So let's begin with day 1...


October 31st (day 1): Lukla (2840m) to Bengkar (2905m)

We went to Kathmandu airport early in the morning. There's a special terminal for local flights, most of them to the mountains and all with tiny planes, and it was total chaos. In theory you have a ticket for a certain plane at a certain time, but in practice you just try to get on any plane of the right company and with the right destination until you're lucky. Our destination was Lukla, the airport at 2840m that is the starting point for anyone who goes trekking in the Everest region. It is at the bottom of the map above.

The flight took about an hour and offered great views on the Himalaya for everyone on the left side. Sometimes it seemed the little plane had problems getting above the mountains, and near Lukla we were really flying between them. The approach to the small landing strip, which is on a slope between some mountains, was quite spectacular as we could see through the front window of the cockpit as the pilot was struggling to line up with the strip which was straight in front of us rather than below us. Everyone applauded after a safe touch down.
We got our backpacks from the plane, used map and compass to determine which direction to go, and off we went on the first day of our first ever trek. It felt quite special, but the scenery felt more like the Pyrennees than the Himalaya to be honest. But that would change soon enough; two days later we'd be gazing at the Everest already.
We'd spend the first two days trekking north to Namche Bazaar through the valley of the Dudh Kosi, a mountain river which we had to cross several times. There is only one path through the valley; it goes up and down all the time and passes a village every hour or so.

The only traffic here consists of porters, yaks (hairy cows) and other trekkers. We never saw anything with wheels during this whole trek - no bike, no cart, nothing; they would all be completely useless here. All goods have to be carried up and down by porters and yaks (mostly porters), which means that everything gets more expensive as you go higher as it had to be carried further.
We spent the first night at Bengkar, a very small village at 2905m. To our dismay it was already freezing inside that night - we hadn't expected that until much higher. We had no light in our room, and going outside to the toilet (a cabin with a hole in the ground and no light) was a torture in that freezing cold. The dining room had a bit of light so we sat there all evening, but it was just as cold there and there was nothing to do. We'd get used to this soon enough because most nights would be like this.


November 1st (day 2): Bengkar (2905m) to Namche Bazaar (3440m)

We started early and soon reached the entrance of the Sagarmatha National Park at Jorsale. This nature reserve covers the entire Everest region (Sagarmatha is the Nepalese name for Mount Everest) and is a world heritage site. There was an encouraging sign here saying "ALTITUDE KILLS - GO SLOWLY".
After this we had to cross the Dudh Kosi three more times over increasingly spectacular suspension bridges, one of them 120m long and the last one about that high...
At the end of the valley, right after the last bridge, the long climb of 500m to Namche Bazaar began. It was very exhausting with all our luggage on our backs (each some 18 kilo), but we had all the time and rested a lot.

In Namche we got a room in a nice lodge which had a shower with a trickle of hot water. It was freezing in the bathroom (they didn't even bother to close the window) but I paid to take a shower anyway. That was quite an experience - imagine standing naked in the freezing cold, and then imagine standing naked in the freezing cold and being wet. Still, it felt good to be clean afterwards and it was the last shower I'd have for 7 days. Yes, 7 :)


November 2nd (day 3): Day Trip from Namche Bazaar (3440-3850m)

Namche Bazaar is the capital of the Everest region. Though it's just a big village, it has a police checkpost, a post office and things like that. Historically it's where Tibetan traders, who have to cross a 5740m high pass to get here, sell their goods.

Since it was a big climb to Namche Bazaar from the Dudh Kosi valley, and this is the altitude at which AMS becomes a concern, everyone who goes further from here first has to spend a mandatory acclimatisation day in or around Namche Bazaar. Fortunately, you can make very nice hikes to nearby Sherpa villages, which is what we used this day for.
We chose to do a circular hike to the villages to the north above Namche, for which we first had to do a steep 350m climb up the mountain against which Namche is built. This gave us increasingly spectacular views on the village, which, as the next picture shows, is built in a semi-circle. The mountain opposite Namche is called the Kwangde and is 6187m high.
The plateau above Namche is more or less flat. We walked north and suddenly, sooner than expected, we got our first sight of the Mount Everest in the distance. This was a big moment - you know there are prettier mountains and mountains that are much harder to climb, but this is still THE mountain.So we stood there gazing for some time and had our picture taken before it - can you find it?
Aight let me point it out for you. In the picture above, it's above Danny's head (Danny being on the left); you can only see the top which is peaking out above the ridge of another mountain, the Nuptse, itself a neat 7879m high. Our trek was going to take us to the other side of this ridge.

The Everest itself is 8848m high. The mountain above my head is the Lhotse, the Everest's twin brother (or sister) which at 8501m is the 4th highest mountain in the world. The mountain on the right is the famous Ama Dablam (6856m), the prettiest mountain in the region and a bitch to climb, as we later heard from a sherpa who had climbed it. He'd also climbed the Everest so I'll take his word for it. The black rock on the left of the Everest is just 5202m high, but much closer.
The plateau above Namche was all yellow and green, which coloured really beautifully with the black and white mountains and the blue sky.
A bit further north is the notorious Hotel Everest View, a relatively luxurious hotel built especially for rich tourists who want to see the Everest without making an effort - an airstrip was built here as well to fly them straight in. Unfortunately, AMS proved to be a killer for the guests and the hotel soon had to close its doors. A few years ago it reopened though, with pressurised rooms, though I think it mostly functions as a restaurant for trekkers now. In any case, we had a great meal on the terrace, in full view of the Everest. Amazing.
On now to the Sherpa villages further north. FYI, the Sherpas are an indigenous people, of Tibetan origin, that inhabit the Everest region. As I probably don't need to tell you the name of this people has become synonymous with the profession that some of them practice, that of porter for mountain expeditions.
We visited the two villages here, Khumjung and Khunde. In Khumjung is the Hillary School, where all the children of these two villages and of Namche go to school. It was founded in 1960 by Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander who together with the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay was the first to climb the Everest in 1953. He returned here many times (e.g. in 2003 for the 50th anniversary celebration) and has devoted much energy to helping the Sherpa people. While few people in the world know the name of Tenzing, Hillary himself has always shared the credit for his Everest ascent, and for that alone I already like him a lot.

In Khunde a Sherpa woman from one of the villages came to Danny, studied his eyebrow piercing from nearby, and then started laughing heartily with it without making the slightest effort to be tactful :)

The Real Start

Back in Namche we prepared for the next day, which we felt to be the real start of the trek. We went out to rent thick down jackets, which were hard to find in our size but cost almost nothing.

Then we went through all our luggage and took out everything we thought we could do without for a week (half our clothes, the extra pair of shoes, the thick guide to India, etc...) to leave behind in the hotel. We both managed to lose about 1/3 of the 18 kilo we were each carrying on our back, and it sure made a big difference.

Finally, I copied all my pictures to the hard disk of my little video player and removed the battery from the player. After this day it would be too risky to use it because hard disks break when turned on at above 4000m (the low air pressure makes the head touch the disk). I'd have to get by on memory cards alone until we got back to Namche, but I had 1.5 Gb worth of them and that was just enough :)


November 3rd (day 4): Namche (3440m) to Tengboche (3860m)

So with a much lighter backpack we set out north along the path that you saw far below us on one of the pictures above. For the first few hours we enjoyed a view on the same mountains as the day before, but then the Everest disappeared from sight and we wouldn't see it again until we climbed Kala Pattar. We'd continuously enjoy glorious views on the Ama Dablam for several days though as we slowly turned around it.
Just like we did before Namche, we met a lot of trekkers, porters and yaks along the way - we would all the way until the last lodge before Everest BC actually.
The day's walk ended with first a steep descent to a tiny settlement called Phunki Thanga (!) at 3250m, followed by a tough 600m climb up the other side of the valley towards Tengboche. This climb took two hours and was perhaps the toughest part of the trip (not counting my little excursion to Chukung Ri later on).

Tengboche (3860m) is not a village, it is a Buddhist monastery. In fact, it is the biggest and most famous monastery of all Nepal, and according to legend was built here because centuries ago the famous lama Sange Dorje landed here while leaping from mountain to mountain across the Himalaya. In the monastery we saw the foot print he left behind, definite proof that this really happened!
Tengboche has a fabulous setting: it's on top of a flat hill that is surrounded by high mountains all around. The fact that it was rather cloudy by the time we got there just made it more amazing, but it was impossible to catch the feeling on picture. We checked into a lodge with a really tiny room (just enough for two beds and about 50cm between them; no light) and visited the monastery.
At 4pm the monks that live in the monastery have a daily ceremony which we eagerly attended, but it was rather disappointing. All they did was mutter mantras and prayers, all at the same time but not in unison. One monk went around to pour a hot drink for the others, but there wasn't any real ceremony to speak of.

Of birds and buddhists

Like most atheists I tend to regard Buddhism higher than other religions; for one because it is intrinsically non-violent, but also because in its purest form it has no gods and no fairytale mythology but is just a belief in a specific metaphysical theory; a philosophy of life if you will. While I disapprove of any belief that turns away from the real world, Buddhism has some characteristics I can respect, like the serenity and stoicism of its followers.

I'm sorry to say that witnessing a Buddhist ceremony for the first time has decreased that respect significantly. All I saw were a bunch of old men wasting their lives muttering prayers and mantras that are supposed to bring their spirits closer to enlightenment, but really seemed to bore them just as much as they bored me. If you believe certain words are going to lift your soul if you repeat them a lot, at least pronounce them like they actually mean something to you. I read train schedules with more passion than this.

But, I must also mention something that illustrates why I do sympathise with Buddhism a lot. Throughout this trip I always tried to take close-up pictures of birds I saw, usually without success, but near Tengboche I could on two occasions get really close to a bird and take its picture. Later I read the reason - the monks of Tengboche forbid any form of hunting or harming of animals in the area around their monastery, and as a result all animals there are totally unafraid of humans. That lifts my soul - hooray for Buddhism, and may all other religions become more like it.


November 4rd (day 5): Tengboche (3860m) to Dingboche (4360m)

We left Tengboche on the wrong path; instead of going down a bit as the guide said we should we found ourselves going up against the side of the valley through thick bushes. We pushed on though and when after an hour we figured we were almost above a bridge we had to cross, we just descended straight down through the bushes, and it worked out fine. Finding your way is very easy in the mountains, you have all these huge landmarks to indicate your position after all :)
We were now trekking up the valley of the Imja Khola, a mountain stream fed by the glaciers that descend from the Everest and its neighbours. We were getting above the tree line, and the landscape was just gorgeous, with the Ama Dablam always stealing the spotlight.
Along the way we passed Pangboche, which has another Buddhist monastery. We took the harder path over the mountain to go see it, but it was closed. Still, we got to enjoy superb views from the higher path, so I recommend it.
After Pangboche we got sight again of the Nuptse (7879m) and the Lhotse (8501m), who now blocked the view on the Everest, and we spent the rest of the day heading towards them.
We arrived in Dingboche in the early afternoon. We were now at 4360m, the highest I'd ever been, but though I didn't know it yet I would be adding another kilometer and then some to that record within a day.
We'd climbed over 900m since the previous morning now, and we were both feeling somewhat dizzy from the thin air. That was not an unpleasant feeling by itself, but Danny had started to get ill this day, having a stomach ache and feeling exhausted and unable to recuperate. Of course he worried like hell that he was getting AMS and might have to turn back. I thought and hoped it might just be something he ate. Fortunately, I would turn out to be right. Unfortunately, I'd get the same thing as him later on. This day I was feeling superb though and very eager to push on.

That evening Danny took a tablet of diamox, a medicin that can be of some help against AMS (but never much). As we knew, it is also a diuretic, so instead of getting a good night's sleep he had to get out in the terrible cold several times that night which I can tell you is pure torture, and unsurprisingly he just felt even more miserable the next morning.


November 5rd (day 6): Ascent of Chukung Ri (4360m - 5546m)

We had climbed over 900m in two days, so it was time for another acclimatisation day to bring the average down to 300m and avoid AMS. Everyone on this trek spends two nights in Dengboche (or the nearby village Pheriche); this and Namche Bazaar are the two places where acclimatisation days are considered mandatory.

During breakfast I got talking with a cheerful Sherpa guide who was waiting for his group to wake up. This guy was the real deal, he had climbed the Everest in 2003 (as a picture on the wall of the lodge proved) and also the Ama Dablam which he seemed to consider the tougher one. I asked him all about his climbs, very interesting.

We were planning to make a day trip to Chukung, a small summer settlement at 4730m, way up the valley towards the Nuptse. Above that village is a 5546m high peak called Chukung Ri, but neither the Lonely Planet nor the other guides I'd read suggested climbing it or even showed a path to it on the map. I asked the Sherpa guide about it though, and he told me you can climb it, so I kept that in the back of my mind.

Danny bravely geared up and we set out at 8am, wearing our down jackets for the first time. We'd go to Chukung together, and if there was enough time left I'd try to climb Chukung Ri from there. After fifteen minutes Danny had to turn back though, he was just too sick for a long hike and if it was AMS then going even higher would be just stupid. So I went on alone, promising I'd try to return by 4pm so we could go down to a lower village if he still felt sick by then.

I decided to try my hardest to get to the top of Chukung Ri, 1200m up, and back again by 4pm. I relish these kinds of challenges; the last one had been when I climbed Jebel Haroun from Petra (Jordan) in 2004 and I'd felt soooo satisfied after that.

So first I paced up the Imja Khola valley which runs between the Nuptse and the Ama Dablam. It's a gently sloping valley that is full of rocks and little streams. After an hour I realised I had the key to our room, but I assumed the lodge owner would have a spare for Danny.
It took me two hours to reach Chukung, which is at 4730m. I quickly ate some soup in a lodge (one way to decrease the chance of AMS is to drink a lot, so I had a lot of soup throughout this trek) and then set out, at 10:20am. I first had to cross the stream but from then on I had to climb all the way, over 800 meters.
After some time I knew I had crossed 5000m by looking at the height lines on the LP map. A cause for celebration, but I was getting really tired and the thin air was getting to me and making it hard to breathe. I just got more and more exhausted, and in the end I was stumbling along like an old lady, gasping for air with every breath and sitting down more than walking without my breathing ever calming down. I felt silly because my body was acting like I was carrying the damn mountain on my back, while I was really just dragging myself along very slowly.

So this is what altitude feels like when you're not acclimatised. I had started at 3440m two days earlier and this was supposed to be an acclimatisation day to let my body adjust to the 4360m of Dengboche, but here I was climbing at over 5000m. Though I was pushing some limit I can't say I felt bad, as in having pain or feeling sick, I just couldn't breathe normally and felt close to fainting all the time. I can best compare it to struggling against falling asleep, though it was a different kind of fatigue. It was a very strange feeling and experience. Just two days later I'd climb the equally high Kala Pattar without any problem - what a difference some acclimatisation makes!

I seemed to be all alone on the mountain - earlier I had met people coming down but the last half hour or so I hadn't seen anyone anymore - so I was seriously worried about actually fainting up here. But I also remembered that I had felt bad for weeks after the one time I didn't complete a climb (in Maalula in Syria) and decided I wasn't going to turn back for any reason.
A bit later the situation changed. I saw a col (the lowest point between two peaks, dunno the English word) ahead, and to my surprise there was a whole group of people there. This mostly took away my fear about fainting, I wasn't alone up here! I still felt the same of course, but was in much higher spirits now because I knew I was going to make it.

At the col you could turn left to climb up Chukung Ri, which I could identify for the first time only now, but to the right you could climb up the peak called Chukung (like the village) which is almost 300m higher (5833m). I'd seen it on maps but had no idea you could climb it until I saw it. It didn't look any harder than Chukung Ri, just a lot higher still, but I did not have the time and probably not the energy either to do that instead of Chukung Ri. So I turned left and stumbled up the last 100m or so of Chukung Ri. Having the top in sight made it a lot easier now!
The climb from Chukung village to Chukung Ri took me 2h40, not so bad in retrospect coz it had felt like much longer. I was now at 5546m, having climbed almost 1200m. It was damn cold up there, but the down jacket proved its worth and I could take my time to enjoy it. I spent half an hour on the top, all alone, taking in the spectacular sight all around and making lots of pictures.
So what was to see up here? Well, firstly, all the glaciers of the area. Before the winter snowfall the glaciers look like seas of grey rock here, but below the layer of rocks is a thick pack of ice as we'll see near the Everest.
I also got a good view of the Makalu, the world's 5th highest mountain at 8463m. So I'd now seen three of the world's five highest mountains: the Everest, the Lhotse and the Makalu. The K2 in Pakistan and the Kanchenjunga in India are the other mountains in the top 5.
Here's a movie showing the full 360 degree panorama from Chukung Ri. Like all movies made with my camera it's just a sequence of pictures, so pause it to get a better look.



At precisely 13:30 I started the long descent back to Chukung and on to Dengboche. I was very tired but also very elated about the experience of the day, and I made it back by 16:00 as I'd promised.

I'd expected to find Danny irritated after spending a whole day waiting for me in the lodge, but even though the lodge owner had not had a spare key and he had spent the whole day in the dining room without access to his luggage and books, he just asked about my trip and let me enthuse about it, which just illustrates why he is my best friend.

Danny had spent part of the day talking to a German trekker who was suffering from AMS despite four acclimatisation days and had had to let his group go ahead without him. Danny himself was feeling better though, but just in case he was suffering from AMS we decided to head down to Pheriche, a nearby village that is a bit lower than Dengboche at 4240m and therefore a better place to spend the night.

We first had to climb a hill to get there, and then descended to Pheriche while it was getting dark already. Walking in the dark turned out to be quite nice, and we'd have to do it two more times the next few days.
In Pheriche we checked into the lodge the White Yak, which was easily the best lodge of the whole trek. We talked to a young American doctor there, one of several foreign doctors who voluntarily roam the region to help people with AMS and to learn more about this sickness; he came around to ask if anyone was having symptoms. A few days later on our way down we'd meet him again as he was moving between two villages; very nice guy and a fantastic thing he and his colleagues are doing there.


     << Part 2: Kathmandu Valley    -    Back to Index    -    Part 4: Everest BC Trek (2/2) >>






Godsmurf Sun 04 Nov 2007 @ 14:52
Assuming you're talking about Everest BC trek: I didn't see any snakes and can't imagine there being any that high.

Carole Davt Fri 02 Nov 2007 @ 13:59
Wonderful pictures and story-----a real girly question--are there any snakes up there??? and how tough is it to complete??


Della Sat 25 Mar 2006 @ 23:55
Nice pictures and writing! Your photos really bring back to my mind the days i spent in Nepal!
Go ahead and share with us more your travel notes and experience in the future!

Godsmurf Tue 21 Mar 2006 @ 13:41
Hehe. Should be up within a few days!

eleni Tue 21 Mar 2006 @ 01:56
Great! i was anxious and still am for no. 7 :)
It's like you are reading a book and when it starts to get really interesting you realise that some pages are missing...


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