30 September 2013

Tips on How to Prepare for the Everest Base Camp Trek

To read all posts on my Everest Base Camp trek, click here for the complete series.

Seeing this map makes me realize how far I've trekked--from Lukla all the way to Everest Base Camp.
Oh my God. Image Credit: Himalayan Planet Adventures P. Ltd.

A lot of people have been asking me how I prepared for Everest Base Camp, what stuff did I bring, what life was like on the trail, etc.  Someone even asked me if I had to ration my food for 12 days and cook my meals over a campfire every night. Lol.

This blog post is written for those who are doing this trek for the very first time and wish to know what to expect. I've also made a previous post on a breakdown of all expenses during an Everest Base Camp trek as well as another blog entry on a complete packing list for trekkers to EBC.

I wrote all these because I wanted to share my experiences, and hopefully help somebody in preparing for this once-in-a-lifetime trek. And if this blog post does convince someone to go and do it, that would make me very happy!

1. Go solo or go with a group or buddy?  Trek costs can be shared between friends and/or couples, especially when it comes to food, lodgings or a nice pot of piping hot chocolate. Plus, you're bound to take each other's photos the whole way going up, so there won't be any shortage of captured memories. Just be sure your trekking buddy is someone you really get along with--because you'll be stuck with one another 24/7. Joining a group can also be arranged prior to the trek. If you are hiring a local trekking agency, they normally group you with others who are scheduled to trek on the same day as you are. You can also arrange with the agency for you and your buddy to trek as a private group. Or, you can always go on those Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor forums where people are looking for fellow trekkers to trek with them on specific two- or three-week periods.

I traveled solo, and I loved every minute of it. There is absolutely no reason for anyone--especially for solo female travelers out there--to be concerned about doing Everest Base Camp alone. First of all, you aren't really alone. There's a guide and porter with you, and at the end of each day, you get to meet fellow trekkers in the teahouse you're staying in for the night.  The trail is full of people, especially during peak season. However, independent trekkers are normally discouraged to travel completely alone; in the event that one needs medical assistance, someone may not be readily on hand to answer the call for help.

The advantage of traveling solo is that I got to do everything at my own pace.  I didn't have to deal with the pressure of keeping pace with total strangers, who may be impatient and way faster than me, or may be super slow. Or they may be the type to complain a lot, talk too much, exhibit annoying characteristics, etc. If I had happened to get stuck with people I didn't really like, then I would have had no choice but to spend 12 full days in their company.

When I craved solitude, I got to have my 'alone' time. When I felt like chatting with people, I'd talk to other trekkers in the teahouse or I'd strike up a conversation with a stranger on the trail. Most of the time, I talked and played cards with my guide and porter, and those were great bonding times. But whenever I felt the need to be alone, I had enough space and time to enjoy my solitude. Solo traveling is pretty fun as it puts you in control of all your travel arrangements.

in Tengboche on the Everest Base Camp trek by gina sales, on Flickr
I traveled solo--and my best friends on the trek were Dhan Kumar (left) and Madan (right), my porter and guide, respectively. This is my favorite picture of us in Tengboche. Everest is right behind us three.

2. Getting a local trekking agency vs. Do-It-Yourself. I didn't even include foreign trekking agencies (located outside Nepal) as an option. They are just too expensive. I mean, sorry, but what's the point of going through them? You can arrange the trek logistics yourself or search the Internet for credible trekking agencies in Nepal. There are plenty of them, and the Nepalis are honest people to deal with.

That said, once you decide to go DIY or through a local agency, this will pretty much spell out how your trip will look like. Decide between these 2 options, and everything else will follow.  It all depends on your comfort level, budget, and how you want to control things. For more information on what to budget for, visit my blog post on costs to expect during an Everest Base Camp trek.

Going DIY means hiring your own guide and/or porter and making your room and food arrangements as you go. Guides and/or porters can be hired the moment you land in Lukla. You will of course need to talk to them (and rely on your wits and gut instinct to see if you're comfortable enough to be with them for 12 days) prior to striking a deal. Most, if not all, of the Nepalis I've met along the trail are polite and friendly. Tourism is what drives the economy of the Khumbu region where Everest is, and trekkers are treated with great hospitality.

I opted to get a local trekking agency, Himalayan Planet Adventures (HPA), and I chose their 16-day Everest Base Camp trek package. While getting an agency may be rather pricier than trekking independently, I felt it suited my budget and my idea of how I wanted my trip to be. I didn't want to deal with the hassle of looking for a guide and porter, securing my own domestic flights, choosing a teahouse at the end of each day, and reaching for my wallet after every meal I ate.

When I arrived in Kathmandu, everything was conveniently arranged for me; I just paid for the full package cost--which included my hotel in Kathmandu, teahouse lodgings, food, guide and porter fees, permits, domestic flights, and airport transfers. With this package, I could pick any food item on the menu in any teahouse I was in, and I could also have my choice of hot drink with each meal plus a bowl of soup a day. I didn't have to worry about carrying loads of cash (or losing all that cash!), because my guide Madan took care of the lodging and food arrangements in my behalf. All I had to shell out personally as miscellaneous expenses were mineral water, hot showers, treats (like chocolate), battery charging and Wi-Fi.

When I was stuck in Lukla for a day before heading out to Kathmandu, the HPA team was the one arranging for my revised domestic flight bookings and a possible chopper ride. For me, it was all about leaving the nitty-gritty logistics to the agency so that I could fully focus on the physical demands of the trek.

Again, it all depends on your budget and the level of comfort and control you're expecting on the trail.  It's your Everest Base Camp trek, so feel free to choose whichever option makes you happy.

3. Physical Conditioning. Obviously, you have to be decently fit for this trek. You don't need to be ultra athletic (I'm most definitely not!); just make sure you have had some form of physical preparation a few months before EBC. Some trekkers do conditioning for an entire year prior to the trek. If you do regular exercise, you'll be fine. I do running, boxing and bikram yoga (hot yoga) during my spare time. When I was preparing 3 months before Base Camp, I just merely had to increase the rounds I'd do for boxing, or run a few more extra kilometers as endurance training. I've been doing bikram yoga for two years now, and I've realized that all those breathing exercises at the start of each bikram session really helped me during the hardest days of the trek.   

vegetarian food on the Everest Base Camp trek
I'm not the best in taking food photos, but this
tomato garlic pasta with yak cheese tastes so good!
Fresh or  dried chili is always available if you like
your food spicy like I do.
4. Going Vegetarian for 12 Days. It's not like you have much of a choice, actually. Be gastronomically prepared to go vegetarian all throughout the trek. There is no frozen storage system in the Khumbu region, and all uncooked meat are carried up and down by Sherpas. The freshness of the meat can't be guaranteed. So if you have a sensitive stomach or if you don't want to risk acquiring some gastrointestinal illness, avoid meat altogether while you're on the trek. My guide Madan said I could have meat at Namche Bazaar or at lower elevations, so if you are really craving a burger or meat pizza, you can have those at lower altitude levels.

I played it safe and avoided meat completely. I thought I would be weak for the whole 12 days but I felt surprisingly healthy and strong. The Sherpas at the teahouses can really cook up a storm, and they serve really delicious veggie dishes like garlic cheese pasta and vegetable rice. And then there is the ubiquitous staple meal of the Nepalis which they can eat day in, day out and never get tired of--dal bhat. It is a dish that is composed of rice (bhat) and cooked lentil soup (dal) that is most often supplemented by vegetables, potato curry, pickled chili, and sometimes with roti or papadum.

I would sometimes find myself looking forward to a steaming hot plate of dal bhat at the end of a cold, wet day of trekking. The best part is, the Nepalis always serve you more than one round of dal bhat if you're in the mood for seconds or thirds.

dal bhat on the Everest Base Camp trek
I think dal bhat is the reason why Nepalis are so strong and can carry truckloads of stuff on their backs. As my
porter Dhan Kumar would say, "Dal bhat power, 24 hours!"

5. Bring cash. I kind of learned this the hard way.  Before the trek, I made sure to withdraw enough money from an ATM in Thamel, Kathmandu, because I read somewhere that there would not be any ATMs to be found up on the trail (for very obvious reasons). No credit card machines either past Namche, of course.  So make sure you have Nepalese Rupees with you before you fly to Lukla. This is so important. When I got back from the trek, I was kind of running low on cash and I wanted to withdraw money, especially when I was stuck for an extra day in Lukla.  No ATM machines there, but you could ask your guide to bring you to a few banks in Lukla that can swipe your credit card for you, and then they will provide you with the cash equivalent.  Thankfully, I didn't have to do that, as I was able to fly to Kathmandu the next day.

Dhan Kumar and the yak stove
Dhan Kumar places dried yak dung into the stove. Yak dung
is used as fuel everywhere in the Khumbu region to keep
people warm by the stove at night. 
6. Expect basic accommodations. This is a trek to Everest Base Camp, after all, so best to lower your expectations.  Frankly speaking, roughing it during the trek is really part of the charm, and I was glad to go through such an experience. Teahouses (which are like small, more basic-looking Swiss chalets) along the trail normally offer rooms that contain two single beds each, common toilets (some have common shower facilities), a big common dining area where everyone gathers--and zero central heating system. Well, there's the stove in the middle of the dining hall that's basically the warmest place in the entire teahouse--but it's only lit for a few hours every evening.

Toilets are usually the squat kind, but many teahouses have at least one Western toilet. As for showers, you can encounter either a 'bucket shower' or a 'gas shower' in some teahouses. Read about my bucket shower experience if you're the type who needs to have at least one or two showers during the entire trek.

Rooms get smaller the higher you go up, but are decent enough, if you're not the fussy type. All rooms have pillows and blankets, and you could always request for extra, when it's low season. Come peak season, you will need to depend on your sleeping bag and just one blanket to keep you warm--as teahouses can really fill up fast with trekkers.  Trekkers who aren't able to get a room end up sleeping in the dining hall.

Most teahouses at higher elevations are powered by solar electricity; there are times when you are unable to charge your phone or camera at all because there is no electricity.  So when you are in a teahouse that does have electricity, do grab the opportunity to charge your gadgets. You wouldn't want to run out of batt when you get to Base Camp.

a typical teahouse dining hall found on the Everest Base Camp trek
A typical teahouse dining hall (with a stove in the middle) found throughout the Everest trail.

A Sherpa man and his heavy load on the Everest Base Camp trail
A Sherpa carries his heavy load up the trail. It's just a
typical day's work for them, but it's so mind-boggling
to see so many of them do this all the time. Super humans!
7. Give way to Sherpas and yaks. Try and compete for space on the narrow trail path with a yak--and chances are, you'll be injured by its sharp horns, or worse, you may get nudged off the cliff. When a train of yaks is arriving, you need to stop trekking, step aside, and practically press yourself against the mountain wall to avoid being a yak victim.

As for Sherpas, you can't help but respect them and give them the right of way-especially when they're carrying thick stacks of plywood on their backs or heavy drums filled with goods.  The people of the Khumbu region are impressively strong, but they're human, too. When you encounter them on the trail carrying heavy loads, give them a break by not blocking their path. The reason you have a roof over your head and a decent bed to sleep in on the remote trails of the Himalayas is because Sherpas carried all those construction materials on their backs up to the top.

8. Respect the local culture. Be mindful of local customs, and when your guide tells you to always walk on the left side of a prayer wheel or a Buddhist Mani stone wall, or turn the prayer wheel in a certain direction, just do so.  And it doesn't hurt to learn the local language either. Basic phrases like 'namaste' (hello/goodbye-which is also said a lot in my yoga classes) and 'dhanyabad' (thank you) are commonly exchanged between the locals and trekkers alike. I have an affinity for learning new languages so I asked Madan and Dhan Kumar to teach me as much Nepali as they could. I had them laughing in stitches every time I'd say something funny (or naughty) in Nepali, which is a nice language to learn.
Buddhist mani stone and prayer wheel along the Everest Base Camp trail
Always turn the prayer wheel in a clockwise direction.
And always walk on the left side of a Buddhist Mani

When you see Sherpas carrying their heavy load or are at rest on the trail, just say, 'Namaste. Ke cha?' Then watch them break into smiles. 

To be honest though, I think the one local thing I had difficulty accepting was that guests are served their food first, and guides/porters have to wait at least 30 minutes or an hour after for them to receive their food. It is understandable that Nepalese would want to consider their guests as first priority, but as a trekker traveling with both her guide and porter, I felt uncomfortable being served food while my two companions, who were equally tired and hungry as I was, had to wait some more. In my country, regardless of social or economic status, food is served to everyone at the same time and people normally eat together. 

But the Nepalese teahouse owners were pretty nice about my requests to have Madan's, Dhan Kumar's and my food served together. They were a little surprised about such requests, but very obliging. 

9. Buy all you need in Thamel, Lukla or in Namche. If you've forgotten to get some trekking gear in your own country, you can do last-minute shopping in the bustling backpacker district of Thamel, Kathmandu, the best place to be in for all your trekking needs. Lukla has a lot of shops too, but with lesser choices compared to Kathmandu. 

As for Namche Bazaar, think of it as the Rivendell of your trek.  It is the last point of civilization as you know it. Goods become scarcer and way too pricier as you ascend past Namche.  So if you need to buy trekking gear, hand sanitizer, energy bars, multivitamins or even a deck of playing cards, Namche Bazaar is your last chance to do so.   

10. Counter Altitude Sickness. Last, but certainly not the least! Acute mountain sickness (AMS), or commonly referred to as altitude sickness, is, I think, the great equalizer when it comes to trekking. Regardless of fitness level, age and even mountaineering experience, everyone is bound to feel AMS at some point past the 3,000 meter mark.  It just depends on the degree of altitude sickness that you've contracted. Altitude sickness is no joke, and can even lead to death. On the day I was to reach Base Camp, I learned about the deaths of two trekkers who never made it due to altitude sickness.

Mild AMS is normal and is experienced by many.  But severe AMS is debilitating, and any person with moderate to severe AMS should already be given the medical attention needed.  Under such cases, the trekker experiencing bad altitude sickness is already made to descend as rapidly as possible before it becomes fatal.

Mild symptoms include headache, fatigue, breathlessness, and loss of appetite--all of which I experienced at some stages and which were addressed immediately.  You know you already have severe AMS if you're experiencing severe headache, disorientation, vomiting, breathlessness (even at a standstill) or if you're exhibiting irrational behavior. If these symptoms are happening at the same time or one after the other, you need to descend immediately or have your guide arrange for a helicopter evacuation, weather permitting.

Here's how to avoid severe altitude sickness:

a. Proper Acclimatization - I talked about acclimatization in this post, as explained to me by Naba and Madan of Himalayan Planet Adventures. The general rule is to 'climb high, sleep low.'  And for about every 1,000 meters of ascent, you will be asked to stay an extra day at that current level in order for your body to adjust and acclimatize.  Your guide should be able to advise you on this. And please do not trek completely alone. Who's going to guide you down the path when you have a massive headache, and you're retching and feeling dizzy and disoriented? When I was experiencing minor AMS on the way to Pangboche on Day 4, Madan and Dhan Kumar were there to help me and monitor my condition.

garlic soup on the Everest Base Camp trail
A bowl of garlic soup a day keeps the altitude sickness away.
I had one every night while on the trail. 
b. Drink 3-4 liters of liquids a day - Because of the demands of the trek, you will easily consume at least 2-3 liters of water a day. Never allow yourself to be dehydrated, as this helps contribute to AMS. Liquids such as hot chocolate and garlic soup also helped me a lot; garlic soup is a natural preventive method against AMS and is pretty delicious.  Coffee and too much tea are actually not recommended during the trek, as these cause heart palpitations. As much as I am fond of coffee, I had to stop around Day 3.

c. Take Diamox - Diamox (generic name: Acetazolamide) is the medicine one takes to counter the effects of altitude sickness. On the Internet, there are differing opinions as to when to take it--whether to start taking it 24 hours before the trek or to take it when you start feeling symptoms, or to simply avoid it at all. My advice: consult a doctor prior to the trek. Diamox can affect people in different ways. In my case, I only took Diamox when I started contracting minor altitude sickness, which was in Day 4 of the trek. My daily dosage was 250mg--split into two, so I could take 125mg in the morning and 125mg in the evening. You can buy Acetazolamide in Kathmandu or in your own country. In the Philippines, it is known as Cetamid. Some typical side effects of Diamox include frequent peeing and a tingling sensation on your toes and fingertips.

d. Pace yourself - I honestly don't get why some trekkers feel pressured into going up to Everest Base Camp as fast as they can. This isn't a race. Nobody back home would really care about your pace per day or if you outpaced your trekmates; they just want you safe and alive. I hear and read sad stories about how there are ultra-fit, super competitive people who trekked to EBC only to descend because their bodies couldn't handle it, that they didn't acclimatize properly, that they overexerted themselves, etc.  In some cases, trekking with a group even presents dangers, as people have different stride lengths, endurance levels, and pacing--and all this makes some feel 'pressured' into keeping up with the overall pace of the group.

e. Avoid alcoholic beverages and cigarettes during the trek - You do not want a hangover to enhance your experience of altitude sickness. You really do not. And breathing the thin air through the nose or mouth is already a hard task; you won't be able to smoke properly anyway. Reserve the liquor and tobacco for your last day, when you're back in Lukla.      

Sorry for the long post, but that's pretty much it! All the important stuff to know before heading off for the Everest Base Camp trek. This is my last post on Everest Base Camp (whew!) and I hope you found something useful or at least mildly entertaining in all the 10 or so posts I've written.  The grandeur of the Himalayas has inspired me so much that I'm actually planning my next trekking trip to Nepal. I won't say yet where in Nepal exactly I'm going but I hope to update you on that one of these days. :)

acclimatizing in Dingboche on the Everest Base Camp trail
Hello, goodbye, and see you again soon, Nepal!

09 September 2013

Packing List for Everest Base Camp Trek

To read all posts on my Everest Base Camp trek, click here for the complete series.

packing for Everest Base Camp
Some of my trekking stuff on my hotel bed in Kathmandu.
So--what to pack for the standard 12-day Everest Base Camp trek?

It's a pretty long list, but when you assemble everything into one bag, you'd realize eventually that everything on that list is quite essential. Be ready to carry everything on your back for 12 days--or if you're like me, hire a porter to carry 15 kilos of your stuff while you bring a day pack for all your essentials.

The key to staying comfortable all throughout the trek is to wear your clothes in layers.  For bitingly cold weather, expect to have 4-5 layers on you.  But in lower levels where it's hot and you get to work up a bit of a sweat, you must be able to easily strip off your fleece or outer layers.

My trek agency Himalayan Planet Adventures helped me a lot by sending a list of suggested clothing and equipment to bring, but I've also added some items which I think are useful. Unless indicated otherwise, all the stuff listed here are items I really brought with me on the trail.

Note: Some of the stuff here can be bought last-minute in Thamel, Kathmandu before your trek--such as the headlamp, trekking poles and even fleece jackets and such. You can even restock on toiletries and other sundries in Kathmandu, Lukla or Namche Bazaar. Will discuss this more in my very last post on this Everest Base Camp trek series.

Trekking Clothes

  • cap / sun hat - Ideal for the first few days and the last days of the trek when you're at lower altitude levels and it isn't so cold. I forgot to bring one, which was quite silly of me. 
  • wool/fleece hat - to keep your head and your ears warm as you ascend to higher, colder terrain
  • face scarf - I wish I had brought one! You will need it to keep out dust and the cold wind. Plus, it will help keep your nose (and any other unprotected part of your face) from being sunburned. 
  • neck scarf
  • sunglasses

Upper Body
  • 2-3 quick-dry long-sleeved tops - Use 2 for the entire trek and keep an extra one for indoor use
  • 1 sweater - I used this for indoors
  • 2 fleece jackets - I used one for outdoors and one for indoors. Again, always have a complete, clean set of clothes to change into when you reach the teahouse. 
  • 1 waterproof shell jacket - I used a North Face tri-climate waterproof shell jacket which can be detached or separated from its inner fleece jacket layer. For trekking in humid monsoon weather, just remove the fleece jacket and wear the outershell waterproof one.
  • 1 down jacket - My trek agency provided me with one, although I ended up not using it, since it was too warm to wear it in May/June. But bring one for the colder trekking months.
  • thermal underwear or base layer - You can buy those pricey base layers from Columbia or North Face, but my Uniqlo and Debenhams thermal wear kept me wonderfully warm

Lower Body
  • 1 pair of lightweight thermal leggings - These may be too hot to wear under your hiking pants on the first few days but will be useful as you head nearer to Everest Base Camp.
  • 2 pairs of trekking pants - Have a lightweight one for most days and another one that's waterproof (outer shell pants)
  • 1 pair of fleece pants - For indoor use and for sleeping.  I cannot stress enough the importance of having 1 clean pair of pants to change into when you reach the teahouse after a hard day's trek. 
  • disposable underwear - This one is really more for the females.  I know this isn't the most eco-friendly suggestion, but admit it--women feel a greater need to stay hygienic, especially when it comes to the sensitive nether regions. And because of the cold weather, you won't be able to launder your regular undies with soap and water since these won't dry in time. I wasn't really keen on wearing the same undies for two to three nights in a row (sorry, that's just roughing it way too much, at least for me), so I brought 10 pieces of disposable underwear with me, plus some regular undies. Every day, it felt great to change into clean underwear. I didn't see any other website that recommended bringing disposable underwear; I only saw several packs in my local Watson's store, and thought it would be a great idea to bring these on the trek. They're cheap, hygienic, lightweight, biodegradable, and disposable. Hurray! 

  • 1 pair of fleece gloves
  • 1 pair of waterproof gloves (although I never got to use them)

  • hiking boots - Your hiking boots are the most important thing in this trek, so do not forget to bring them. Invest on a good pair, or bring your reliable old ones. Do not assume you can buy boots in Kathmandu before the trek, as you may have a hard time looking for a pair that will suit you. I used mid-cut waterproof Columbia hiking boots which had great traction.
  • slippers / sandals / sneakers - For indoor use. Although I would recommend bringing slippers/sandals instead of sneakers to let your feet breathe a bit.
  • 3 pairs of warm trekking socks - For the colder months, bring more than 3 pairs. Use a clean pair when you sleep, so that your feet remain warm.

Trekking Gear
  • headlamp - very useful especially when you need to make your way to the toilet in the middle of the night when all lights are out
  • trekking poles - your lifesaver in the most difficult parts of the terrain, whether going up or down
  • day pack and/or back pack w/ pack cover - If you are hiring a porter to carry majority of your things, just carry a day pack with you that contains the essentials.  Your porter will not necessarily be with you all the time on the trail (as he may be going way ahead of you sometimes), so place in your day pack the things you need, like a water bottle, sun screen, money, camera, waterproof jacket, etc. Himalayan Planet Adventures provided me a duffel bag where I stuffed all the things I only needed at the end of the day.  And then my porter Dhan Kumar just carried the duffel bag.
  • 1-liter water bottle
  • extra batteries
  • sleeping bag with liner - Himalayan Planet Adventures lent me one but I didn't really need it apparently for the monsoon season. The thick blankets inside my teahouse room sufficed. But bring a sleeping bag for the colder months, and ensure that it can keep you warm in subzero weather.

Documents (keep all your documents protected in a ziploc bag; otherwise they will get wet!)
Clockwise, from L-R: My copy of Lonely Planet Nepal, a handy
journal and pen, a map of the Everest region, and my Kindle Touch
(I NEVER go anywhere without my Kindle). Naba of Himalayan
Planet Adventures gave me the map before I left for the trek.
I really love this map!
  • passport w/ Nepal visa
  • Trekkers' Information Management System (TIMS) card - I've discussed in this blog post more about the TIMS card, how much it costs and how to get one. If you've hired an agency, they will arrange to get this for you.
  • Sagarmatha Park entrance permit - Same as the TIMS card above. Check my blog post on how much it costs and how to get one.
  • map of Everest region (optional but pretty good to have)
  • extra copies of your passport photo (for your Nepal visa and TIMS card)
  • copy of your travel insurance policy
  • international flight e-ticket and domestic flight tickets (in case you need them as reference)
  • money - keep 'em safe and dry

Toiletries & Personal Hygiene Items

  • personal medical kit - should contain the following: Diamox to counter altitude sickness (even if you don't plan on taking it, just have some on standby in case you do need it!); pain relief medicine for headache/migraine; medicine for diarrhea; oral rehydration salts (optional but good to have); medicine for cold, cough, fever and flu; multivitamins; bandaids, bandages, other medicine you may need
  • water purification tablets / Steripen - I brought water purification tablets with me as an extra precaution but I opted to buy mineral water on the trail, even though this would cost me more. It all depends on each trekker's comfort level.  My personal reasoning is this: I spent so much money for this trek. And if I happen not to make it to Base Camp because my drinking water was not 100% sterilized and I've managed to contract diarrhea, I have only myself to blame.
  • standard bath toiletries, toothbrush & toothpaste
  • 1 to 2 large packs of baby wipes / anti-bacterial wipes - your ultimate best friend on the trek especially on those days when you can't take a bath
  • toilet paper & tissue paper
  • quick-dry bath towel and face towel - Don't bring the regular heavy bath towel, unless you want to deal with a soggy towel all throughout the trek. Those lightweight, quick-drying ones are the best.
  • sunblock - The higher you ascend, the more exposed you are to the sun, even if it's abysmally cold and the sun doesn't seem to be anywhere in sight. Avoid being sunburned. 
  • hand sanitizer / isopropyl alcohol - Sometimes there is no running water and soap in the teahouses for proper handwashing. You need to sanitize your hands to avoid diarrhea and other gastrointestinal problems.
  • lip balm and face moisturizer - Really important. The cold will really dry up your face and lips.
  • small comb and mirror 
  • deodorant

Other Travel Items
  • camera w/ charger and spare battery - It would be very tragic if you forgot this. 
  • books to read - Rather than carry a bunch of books, bring an e-book reader! I always travel with my Kindle and I get a lot of reading done in the airports, on the plane, and in the teahouses. 
  • guide book - Optional but still nice to have. I brought my printed copy of Lonely Planet Nepal as well as a Kindle version. That's how I roll.
  • small journal and pen - Even if you're not the type to write, a notebook will be handy to jot down your day-to-day notes or even your expenses on the trail.
  • energy bars / trail mix / chocolate - The stuff you need to keep yourself happy and energized on the trek
  • playing cards 
  • ziploc bags
  • medium or large clear plastic bags - Preferably the ones that are sold in rolls (10-20 plastic bags per roll). Compartmentalize all your stuff and place them into medium or large plastic bags. Have one plastic bag contain all your clean indoor teahouse clothes. Have one bag with your towel and bath toiletries, another for your dirty clothes, and another for your toiletries, etc.  At the end of each trekking day, you're quite exhausted and one of the last things you want to do is to keep rooting around in your bag, looking for all the stuff you need. Whenever I reach the teahouse, I'd easily be able to pull up whichever plastic bag I needed. This method saves me time, and I avoid having all my dirty and clean clothes mixed up. Biodegradable plastic bags are sold widely in groceries and supermarkets.
my room inside Namche Bazaar teahouse
Inside my nice, spacious room at the Namche Bazaar teahouse. I get a big bed--hooray. I'm usually a neat person, but
the trek left me so tired every day, that I'd end up placing my stuff everywhere! Sorry for the mess. 

* * *

If you want the same Everest Base Camp trek experience I had, visit Himalayan Planet Adventures and go for the 16-day Everest Base Camp trek package.

03 September 2013

How Much Does an Everest Base Camp Trek Cost?

To read all posts on my Everest Base Camp trek, click here for the complete series.

my porter Dhan Kumar and guide Madan
Taking a 5 to 10-minute break in the middle of nowhere. With my porter Dhan Kumar (left) and guide Madan (right). That thing seen at a distance is a suspension bridge.  

People think an Everest Base Camp trek is costly. I always say it depends on where you're coming from. It's definitely not dirt cheap, but it's something you can realistically save up for. The biggest expense is airfare--so if you live in Asia like I do and you want to go on an EBC trek, consider yourself luckier than those living in North America and Europe.

But if you remove airfare costs from the equation, here's how much you should budget for an Everest Base Camp trek:

Guides and Porters. Guides are normally paid anywhere in between US $20-40/day and porters for US $10-15/day, excluding tips. The fee already includes their food and teahouse lodgings. You can also hire a porter-guide (a combination of both) if all you need is just one person to accompany you. However, I wouldn't know how much a porter-guide would charge; I had a separate guide and a porter during my own EBC trek. (I was glad to have both. I didn't feel like carrying my own stuff which is about 10 kilos, since I had a fractured collarbone years back, and it has never really felt the same before the injury. Carried my own day pack though, which was about 3-5 kilos.)
Everest Base Camp Trek - playing cards with my guide and porter
Downtime with Dhan Kumar and Madan. We normally play cards after a day's trek.

Standard tip is usually 20%, but if you are very happy with your guide and/or porter, 40% of the total fee would be great.

I've been very lucky to have a really excellent guide and porter with me. We ate together, played cards until we couldn't see in the dark anymore, and we laughed on the trail a lot.

Sometimes, while waiting for a herd of yaks to pass, we would dance to an invisible beat--or worse, they would teach me a Nepalese trekking song, and I'd fail horribly at memorizing the lyrics. The Nepalis are generally friendly people, so do take some time to know your guide and/or porter. They are going to be, after all, your companions for the entire 12-day trek, so it's good to establish a rapport with them.

Side note: Porters usually carry a maximum load of 20 kilos, so in group treks, it is normal for two people to share a porter as long as the combined load doesn't exceed the maximum.  I asked Dhan Kumar what's the heaviest non-trek-related load he's ever carried in his life, and he replied, "105 kilos."  Super Sherpa indeed. But even if they've been doing this most of their lives, I really couldn't bear seeing so many porters carry heavy packs on the trail, and I felt relieved that Dhan Kumar only had to deal with my 10 kilos for the entire 12 days.

Food, Lodging, and Miscellaneous Items. Budgeting for food and lodging can be a little tricky simply because things get more expensive as you go up. A 1-liter bottle of mineral water, for example, can cost 100 NPR (Nepalese Rupees) in Lukla, or US $1, but can go as high as 300 NPR (US $3) in Gorak Shep, past the 5,000-meter altitude level. Everything is carried up the mountains by yak or by Sherpas, so naturally, as goods get scarcer at certain heights, the price goes up as well.

Here's a rough breakdown of how much things cost on the trail:

price list at Tengboche teahouse
Cute price list at my teahouse in Tengboche. This is how
much things cost at an elevation of 3,800 meters. Yes, I
would love some eXpresso coffee!
  • teahouse lodging: 350-500 NPR per room per night (w/ shared common toilet & shower) and 1,000-1,500 NPR per room per night (w/ private toilet & shower). But do not expect all teahouses to have rooms with private showers and toilets. Usually, the higher one goes up, the more basic the accommodations are. One to two persons can fit in 1 room, which is normally composed of 2 single beds, a side table and clothing hooks on the wall.
  • food: 200-500 NPR per meal (when you reach Lobuche and Gorak Shep, meals start to be 400-500 NPR each)
  • water: 100-300 NPR per 1-liter bottle
  • hot tea/chocolate/coffee: 100-200 NPR per cup, 200-400 NPR per pot, 300-600 NPR per thermos
  • bucket shower / gas shower: 200-500 NPR
  • battery charging: 100-300 NPR per hour
  • Wi-Fi: 100-300 NPR per hour
  • a bar of chocolate: I remember paying 100 NPR per bar at lower levels, and around 300 NPR for a bar of Bounty chocolate past Tengboche! 

Expect to spend US $15 per day on food, lodgings and other optional niceties (as mentioned above) during the first 3 days, and then around US $18-25 per day as you go higher. Again, these are estimates, as the prices are not all the same as you go up and down the Everest trail.

It's okay to have a tight budget, but try and 'treat' yourself to something nice once in a while (like a hot shower or a pot of tea). When you're tired from a day's trek or just feeling really crummy at some point, it's the little treats that help you feel better.

Other Expenses. A roundtrip domestic Kathmandu-Lukla flight costs around US $324 (new rate as of September 1, 2013), while costs for trekking cards and entrance fee to the Sagarmatha (Everest) region vary, depending if you're trekking independently or through an agency. The required Trekkers' Information Management System (TIMS) card can be acquired at Kathmandu or at a sort of registration/check point in Monjo before reaching Namche Bazaar. This card allows the government to keep track of all trekkers within the Sagarmatha Region for safety reasons. A blue TIMS card like mine (around US $10)  is issued to trekkers using the services of a trek agency, while a green card (around US $20) is given to independent trekkers. The yellow slip is the entrance permit which costs about US $28 (3,000 NPR).

Sorry, had to remove my passport-sized photo here. I mean, let's face it. Nobody looks good in their passport photo,
and nobody wants to broadcast that kind of photo to the rest of the world.

And don't forget to buy travel insurance before setting out on a trek. I paid US $95 for World Nomads travel insurance, which is recommended by Lonely Planet, as this covers adventure sports and activities such as hiking up to 6,000 meters. Good for you if you can find travel insurance in your own country that supports such 'risky' activities. I couldn't find any in the Philippines! Fortunately, you can buy a World Nomads insurance policy online, even on the day before you travel.

So what's the total? If you do end up trekking independently (meaning you hire your own guide and/or porter, and do all food and lodging arrangements by yourself) and not go through an agency, you'll spend a total of around US $1,000-$1,250 on the Everest Base Camp trek, excluding international flights and hotel/hostel lodgings in Kathmandu. The said trek costs can go lower if you share a room with someone.

P.S. If you live in Asia and you're looking for budget airfare to Nepal, AirAsia offers the cheapest flight I've seen so far via the Kuala Lumpur-Kathmandu-Kuala Lumpur leg.  Now, all you have to figure out (if you're not based in Malaysia) is to find a cheap plane ride from your own country to KL. FYI, I traveled via Thai Airways, but in hindsight, I should have done the whole AirAsia thing to save more on costs.

What I spent. To be honest, I learned about some of the above-mentioned prices by asking fellow trekkers while I was on the trail; I also took down notes on costs of food and miscellaneous items I saw on teahouses along the way. However, I did not trek independently because I opted to have all logistics done through a local Nepalese trekking agency, Himalayan Planet Adventures. Arranging things through an agency is admittedly pricier, but it was the right decision for me. I did not want the hassle of looking for my own guide and porter, nor did I want to find a teahouse at the end of each trekking day and settle the bills for food and lodging every single morning.

When I arranged for this EBC trek, my 33rd birthday was coming up, and I wanted to treat myself and allow for a no-hassle type of trek. (Just to let you know what kind of traveler I am, I went DIY and backpacked independently in Western Europe and in other parts of Asia.  As for Egypt, being a Muslim country with safety requirements, I arranged for a local Egyptian agency to take me around Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, Abu Simbel and the White Desert.)

And when I computed the difference between the Everest Base Camp trekking package I got and the expected costs of trekking independently, the price difference wasn't much in my own opinion.  The full package cost included my 4-star hotel in Kathmandu (splurged a bit in celebration of my birthday!), teahouse lodgings for the whole 12-day trek, guide and porter fees, all permits and fees, domestic flights, airport transfers, and other nice inclusions. The package allowed me to pick ANY food item on the menu in any teahouse I was in, and I could also have my choice of hot drink with each meal plus a bowl of soup a day. This may not seem much of an advantage when you're in lower altitude levels, but food costs tend to add up as you ascend. (I think three square meals at Gorak Shep already cost 1,700 NPR, including the hot drinks.)

You can also arrange with your local trek agency to offer 3-star Kathmandu hotel or hostel lodgings in the package instead of 4-star/5-star accommodations. They are pretty flexible and can handle reasonable travel requests easily.

Miscellaneous expenses I shelled out personally were mineral water, hot showers, energy treats (like chocolate), toilet paper, battery charging and Wi-Fi. Depending on how much of a shutter bug you are and how long your camera battery lasts, expect to charge 2-3 times on the way up to base camp. Better yet, bring a fully-charged spare batt to save on charging costs.

To each his own, really. To me (and I'm sure other trekkers would share my opinion), there is great value in going through a local agency.

But not all trekkers are the same, nor do we all have the same kind of budget or the same idea on how an adventure like Everest Base Camp should be.  Some even choose to really rough it and go camping all the way up! (Which is surprisingly MORE expensive than the regular teahouse trek, by the way.)  So choose whichever trekking option suits you best.

Everest Base Camp trek - a typical teahouse dining hall
A typical teahouse common dining hall. Food is cooked and served here.  

* * *

If you want the same Everest Base Camp trek experience I had, visit Himalayan Planet Adventures and go for the 16-day Everest Base Camp trek package.

28 August 2013

Everest Base Camp Trek - Days 9 to 12: The Journey Back to Lukla

To read all posts on my Everest Base Camp trek, click here for the complete series.

Everest Base Camp Trek - at Pheriche heading down to Tengboche
At Pheriche (4,200 meters / 13,776 feet), heading back down to Tengboche. Dhan Kumar ahead of the pack, as usual.

Days 9 to 12: June 6-9, 2013

After the exhilaration of reaching Everest Base Camp (and writing about it), I know it seems a bit anti-climactic to cover the 4-day trek back to Lukla. But for the sake of people who happen to drop by this little blog and are wondering what to expect after reaching the foot of Mount Everest --well, here it is.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, it takes eight days to reach EBC and four days back down, covering almost the same path. Why four days only? Naturally, descent is faster, and as you go further down, more oxygen starts to fill up your lungs. This then results in your body recovering from oxygen deprivation and you begin to feel a whole lot better. Just doing a descent of 600-900 meters already does wonders.

As I trekked for four days from Gorak Shep to Pheriche to Tengboche to Monjo and back to Lukla, I was feeling stronger, faster. The triumph of reaching Everest Base Camp erased all remaining worries from my head about altitude sickness because I was heading "down" already. "Down" meant lower altitude but it did not take away the fact that I still had to deal with alternating uphills and downhills on the way back.

But the body does recover significantly better after descending from a height of 5,000+ meters, so even the uphills at lower levels did not bother me anymore. I was practically cruising along the path, despite the pressure on the knees during some places where we were doing continuous descents.

By this time, I was more comfortable about the path ahead; I could afford to tune out a bit from the rest of the world, put on my earphones, and listen to music on my iPhone.  I let Madan and Dhan Kumar walk ahead and I just followed them, enjoying some music at last. I had been music-deprived for the past eight days because I was conserving phone battery most of the time and I did not want any distractions on the path heading up to Base Camp.

On Day 9, as we headed down to Pheriche, I slipped on a part of the path that was muddy and I fell on my butt.  We weren't even in completely muddy terrain. And then 30 minutes later, I tripped on a root because I was too busy singing along to The Strokes.

Madan and Dhan Kumar had worried looks on their faces, but I was laughing as I hauled myself up on those two occasions.  I had gone up to Everest Base Camp without falling and without any serious injuries.  But here I was, the day after, falling on the ground twice. So lesson learned here is: remain safe and cautious on the trek even after you've achieved Base Camp!

They were my last--and only--minor accidents throughout the whole 12-day trek. I think I've done extremely well in this trip, just getting away with two minor incidents and a blister on my right foot.  I didn't even feel any sprain on the ankle nor did my butt hurt afterwards.  Overall, I've been one hell of a lucky girl.

Fellow trekkers

I kept running into trekkers who were on their way to Base Camp and I made sure to say hello to all of them. I was basically paying it forward. Many times along the path up to EBC, trekkers who were heading back to Lukla would greet me and wish me luck. When you're struggling with the altitude and the uphills, a cheery greeting from a stranger is sometimes all you need to feel better. The community spirit is incredible up in the Himalayas, and any well-meaning traveler would simply want their fellow trekkers to stay safe on the path.

Two guys asked me how far it would take to reach Gorak Shep, and it felt nice to help and give them advice. An American also asked me about the weather conditions in Everest Base Camp; he was to reach it in the next one or two days, and was also planning on summitting nearby Mount Kala Pattar (5,555 meters / 18,204 feet).

A Chinese national also approached me back down at Thukla; he thought I was Chinese too. I wished him luck and watched him take on that difficult hill up to Dugla Pass on an extremely foggy day. I knew all too well how that hill was such a challenge.


Tengboche is one of the most picturesque places in the entire Everest Base Camp trail, so if you're doing the trek, make sure to stop here for a day to really see the area. I passed through Tengboche back in Day 4 on the way to Pangboche, but it was only for lunch. Now that we were journeying back to Lukla, it was great to arrive here in the early afternoon of Day 10, check in at our Tengboche teahouse for an overnight stay and stroll around this small village settlement.

Everest Base Camp Trek - picturesque Tengboche Village
Beautiful Tengboche, which boasts of stunning views of  Mounts Thamserku, Everest, Ama Dablam and Lhotse. In this photo, Everest is that small peak in the middle before it gets hidden by the clouds. 
Madan took me to the Tengboche Monastery, where, at 3:00 pm, guests are allowed to hear the monks chanting from their prayer books.  It is a beautiful and solemn ceremony. I sat there with fellow trekkers, entranced by what seemed like a graceful, never ending ebb and flow of words being chanted by the head monk, with the other monks seamlessly joining in on the chanting at certain moments. The chanting was rapid--so rapid that it had a hypnotic humming-like quality to it.

We were not allowed to take photos or record anything during the ceremony. Only after it was done could we take photos of the prayer room.

Tengboche Monastery along the Everest Base Camp trail
Tengboche Monastery's prayer room with its intricate interior art
Tengboche Monastery along the Everest Base Camp trail
A shrine on one end of the prayer room
The owner of the teahouse we stayed in (with the very original name of Tengboche Guest House) was a bustling, motherly woman who prepared for me the most delicious hot chocolate and dal bhat ever. I was indeed a happy camper in Tengboche.

Reaching Lukla -- and the Delayed Flight Back to Kathmandu

The air became significantly warmer in the last two days of the trek. Stuffed my gloves, wool hat, and fleece jacket into my day pack as we went past Monjo and were nearing Lukla. We covered around 7 to 8 hours of trekking that last day.

When I did my final uphill and crossed the archway leading into Lukla, I was close to tears because I had really, truly completed what I had obsessively set out to do.  I suppose Everest Base Camp puts every trekker in a highly emotional state. I know I was feeling all sorts of things as I crossed that archway --triumph, exhilaration, exhaustion mixed with an unusual feeling of superhuman strength, and even a growing anxiety over bidding the Himalayan landscape goodbye very soon.

This 12-day experience remains to be one of my life's proudest moments, because not everyone can say they've been there and done it. It is naturally not the same as the sweet victory of summiting Everest, but hey, Everest Base Camp is still not an easy trek and it never will be.

We stayed again at The Nest in Lukla, and had a celebratory pizza and pasta dinner that evening. Madan was to fly back with me to Kathmandu the next day but I knew it was Dhan Kumar's last night with us, so I was feeling some sort of separation anxiety already about my porter, who was like a younger brother to me all throughout the trek.

But then, I was meant to stay another day in Lukla because as luck would really have it, there have been no flights out of Lukla for the past 7 or 8 days. I woke up the next day and knew immediately, upon seeing the thick fog that enveloped the entire town, that flying out on a plane was a no-go. This was a scenario I was indeed expecting months back when I was planning the trip, but I still had trouble believing I was in that unfortunate situation.

Spent that day fretting and making calls to my travel agent, who was on standby to rebook my international flight should I really be stuck in Lukla for a while.  Madan was on the phone with Naba, coordinating for a possible helicopter ride out the next day for me.  He also made sure that I was on the first flight out the next day, should the weather indeed allow planes to fly.

Once more, I really appreciated the value of having a guide and a trekking agency to handle such logistics in my behalf.  I think many trekkers can do such arrangements themselves, but that does create some additional stress.  And when you've just completed a 12-day trek and you're physically and mentally exhausted, one of the last things you'd feel like doing is arranging transport logistics for a way out of Lukla.

Unbelievably enough, the skies were clear the next day. Madan and I found ourselves rushing up the steps heading to the Tenzing-Hillary airport of Lukla along with other stranded trekkers and locals -- all of us so eager to fly out to Kathmandu. I was only stuck in Lukla for a day, but I can just imagine how others (who may have been stranded for days and could not afford a chopper ride) were desperate to leave. When the siren sounded--indicating that the first flight will proceed as scheduled--everyone in the airport actually cheered.

Never expect things to be completely dull up in the Himalayas.

The first plane came and landed, bearing passengers from Kathmandu.  We were to ride on that plane heading back to the capital. The time it took to land, taxi, for the ground crew to handle baggage and for the outbound passengers to finally board took all of 20 minutes. TWENTY MINUTES! Gadzooks. I had never seen such incredible turnaround time ever.  And by the time we were boarding, the second plane had arrived and was taxiing up the short runway.

leaving Lukla
Boarding the plane for the flight back to Kathmandu. Bye bye Lukla! Bye bye Himalayas!
As the plane effortlessly took to the skies, I sat and craned my neck for glimpses of Everest and its neighboring mountains--these beautiful giants which I spent the past 12 or so days with. Reaching Base Camp was insanely hard, and it's honestly no picnic all throughout -- but I understand now the incredible lure of the Himalayas and why people keep coming back to this country. I thought doing Everest Base Camp this year would be my first and last time to see Nepal (as there are so many other countries I want to visit in my life), but I found myself already planning on when to see the Himalayas again while sitting on the plane.

The Nepalese language does not have any exact word for the term 'goodbye.' This seems wonderfully appropriate somehow because one can never really say goodbye to Nepal anyway. Namaste means hello in Nepali, and it is also what the locals say as a form of goodbye. And pheri bhetaula means 'see you again.'

So yes, there are no goodbyes for you, Nepal -- just 'namaste, pheri bhetaula' because I know that I'll be seeing you again someday.

* * *

If you want the same Everest Base Camp trek experience I had, visit Himalayan Planet Adventures and go for the 16-day Everest Base Camp trek package.

09 August 2013

Everest Base Camp Trek - Day 8: I finally reach Base Camp!

To read all posts on my Everest Base Camp trek, click here for the complete series.

Everest Base Camp trek: the road out of Lobuche
Cloudy day. The trek from Lobuche to Everest Base Camp started okay, but would progressively get harder as the day wore on.

Day 8: June 5, 2013

Normally on my birthday, I would wake up to the sound of my phone incessantly beeping, with people greeting me on SMS or on Facebook. Or my younger sisters would be waking me up by leaping onto the bed and yelling out, "Happy Birthday!"

On my 33rd birthday, in Lobuche, I woke up to an eerily quiet morning with the sun's rays entering through the windows of my cold, tiny room. It was a strange feeling. I stayed in bed for a little while longer, absorbing the fact that I was now 33 and that I would be climbing up to Everest Base Camp that same day.  I wanted to reach EBC very, very badly, and it felt like it was the birthday gift that would make me work the hardest to deserve.

Sadly enough, I couldn't get a bath on my birthday (of all days!), so once more I had to resort to my best friend--a huge pack of antibacterial wet wipes. As I dressed, I moved my phone to a spot in the room that had some mobile signal.  And then all the SMS notifications started coming in. They were a mix of birthday greetings and of concerned messages from people asking me if I was still alive.

At breakfast, Madan and Dhan Kumar were there to greet me a happy birthday with amiable smiles and in their typically gentle Nepalese tone of voice--so different from my sisters' grand attempts to wake up the neighbors with their loud birthday greetings.

The plan that day was to trek for two hours from Lobuche to Gorak Shep (elevation: 5,160 meters / 16,929 feet), have lunch, and then trek for 2-3 hours more to Everest Base Camp.  After EBC, we would head back to Gorak Shep and stay there for the night.

For obvious reasons, this was going to be a day I would never forget. The moment we left the basic comforts of our Lobuche teahouse, I was instantly swallowed up by the wilderness. Extremely thin air, cold wind, fog, some rain, rocky trails--you name it, I got it all on my birthday.

the uphill path to Gorak Shep
This hill looks small but it took more than 1 hour to climb to the top due to the altitude.
The air was getting thinner and thinner and every gasp of breath was precious. Worse, I learned that day from trail guides we encountered on the path that two trekkers had died very recently and never made it to base camp.  One was a 22-year-old female (I never got to know what her nationality was) who reached only as far as Lobuche and had to be rushed down to Pheriche due to severe altitude sickness. But by then, it was way too late for her. The other trekker was a 25-year-old Malaysian man, who also fell ill at Lobuche and died shortly thereafter--a full day before I had arrived there.

I was distraught. Two casualties--and very young people at that--already within this short span of time. I remembered the group of strong Malaysians I was with on the plane to Lukla, and I wondered if the 25-year-old was part of that group and if they had gone up the trail too fast without much acclimatization--leaving one dead and apparently another person in their group critically ill.

Now that I was on my eight trekking day, I was bone-tired and just ready to complete what I had set out to do. I hadn't expected such terrible news on my birthday, but instead of freaking out in a major way, I just turned to my guide and porter and said almost wearily, "I don't want to die on my birthday. Let's just make it to Base Camp safely and without any rush, please."

Of course, I was lucky to have such supportive companions who watched over me constantly. As we negotiated the uphill, windy path to Gorak Shep, I made sure to take it easy. On the slopes of a difficult hill, I ran into the Chinese trekker I met back in Dingboche.  He was beaming as he shook hands with me; he had reached Everest Base Camp yesterday, and said it was beautiful. I was relieved to see a familiar, friendly face in the cold wilderness and was almost reluctant to see him leave as he bade me farewell and wished me luck.

By the time we reached Gorak Shep, I was ready to collapse. In my breathless, exhausted state, I couldn't believe that I needed to trek three more hours to Everest Base Camp and another three on the way back. Lunch at Gorak Shep was vegetable fried rice, and I could only eat one-thirds of my meal. My appetite was completely f*cked up at this point, and I had to practically force-feed myself. I wouldn't have even been surprised anymore if Madan or Dhan Kumar had started shoving the rice into my mouth, because we all knew we had to massively carbo-load for the 3-hour ordeal ahead.

The Himalayas
The great Himalayas right before me
The path from Gorak Shep to Everest Base Camp was difficult--and rightfully so. Just like in the books and in the movies, it only made sense that the most challenging part of any journey would be the very last stretch. Those three lonely hours in that barren wasteland were unforgettable. I kept my head slightly down to block off the wind, and I just concentrated on putting one foot ahead of the other. One, two, one, two, one two, I counted numbly in my head. By then, conversation amongst the three of us had whittled down to utter silence, and I was lost in my own thoughts as I shuffled up the path.

I normally walk fast in my country, but here, at more than 5,000 meters above sea level in a climate so foreign to me, I was walking uphill at the pace of a 60-year-old--yet my heart was pounding like I was running 5 minutes per kilometer. I was alarmed at the beating of my heart, and forced myself to breathe regularly even though I felt I couldn't fill up my lungs anymore because of the thin air.  We passed stunningly beautiful glaciers, and every 10 minutes or so, we would hear a booming sound. Rocks were falling from nearby hills and mountains. It was terrifying. On that barren path with the jagged, icy peaks of the Himalayas surrounding us, I had never felt so small and insignificant in my life.

Finally, we came across these massive rock boulders that we had to scramble over, and Madan said we were very near. Well, this trek sure never made anything easy, even in the last eight minutes before reaching base camp.

As I crossed and entered Everest Base Camp territory, Madan and Dhan Kumar were standing there with smiles on their faces. They had been to EBC countless of times--so this particular day meant hardly anything to them--but I knew they were happy for me. I wasn't the type to throw my trekking poles into the air and scream in pure joy that I've made it. I just stood still and enjoyed that moment of triumph quietly. I even patted the general area where my scar is--a small tradition I always carry out every time I accomplish something major physically. Profound relief coursed through my body as I drew yet another ragged breath and said to myself, "Well, that's that. I've finally done it."

I finally reach Everest Base Camp
I finally reach Everest Base Camp! Elevation: 5,364 meters (17,598 feet) above sea level
Everest Base Camp was desolate and treacherous-looking with no other signs of life. No camping tents, no prayer flags, since the yearly expedition to the summit of Mt. Everest only takes place around May. For the rest of the year, the camp is usually bare. It is a place that is terribly beautiful to behold during the monsoon season: a barren, rocky land with swirling mists, the clouds lying so low, and with no sound save for the wind and our voices. It is quite deadly, with only around 50 percent available oxygen in its atmosphere compared with that of sea level; at the summit of Mt. Everest, oxygen supply level is only at one-thirds.

I had not expected the Khumbu Icefall to be so near, yet there it was--a mass of treacherous, jagged ice right in front of me leading all the way up and disappearing into the clouds where my eyes could not follow. The Khumbu Icefall is the first stretch that any Everest summitter normally encounters, and it is one of the deadliest, most technical aspects of a summit expedition on this south side of Everest (the northern one being on the Tibet side). The path is hardly ever the same, as glaciers move over time--more so when the sun is out and the ice melts inch by inch--thus making the Khumbu Icefall a dangerous, unpredictable path to cross.

After taking in my surroundings, I broke into a huge smile and called out, "Hey, Dhan Kumar, remember your promise?"

Early in the trek (on day 3 in Kyanjuma I think), Dhan Kumar and I had struck a deal. If I made it to Everest Base Camp safe and sound, we would have our picture taken together--that of him carrying me on his back. And so Madan stood there, ready to take the long-awaited photo. I laughed delightedly as Dhan Kumar bent slightly backwards and hauled me effortlessly up onto his back.  We were in a fit of hysterics by then, and it was a miracle my porter had not dropped me. It actually hurt to laugh, given the limited oxygen in the air.

And then it was time for my photo with Madan, whose presence I'm always grateful for. He literally and mentally kept me alive on the trail, with his great guiding skills, his jokes, and his mischievous card-dealing tricks.

with my porter Dhan Kumar at Everest Base Camp
It was very windy and abysmally cold, but we still had a great time at Everest Base Camp. With my Sherpa porter Dhan Kumar.

with my guide Madan at Everest Base Camp
With Madan, my guide and constant companion on the trail to Everest Base Camp 
I had finally achieved what I wanted to do after months of preparation, which was to reach Everest on my birthday. I may not have been the fastest, the strongest or the fittest trekker, but I had done it. And I had the most wonderful companions to thank for, for making the journey less difficult with their friendship and the endless laughs we shared.

If Everest Base Camp were easy, everyone else would have made it there. But it isn't easy at all--as most hard-earned goals are meant to be--and the ones who do make it are not necessarily the ultra athletic type. I've heard real stories of these super trekkers--young and incredibly fit--who had been forced to turn back before reaching Base Camp because their bodies couldn't handle it. High altitude affects everyone in different ways, and I felt proud that I had gone this far physically and mentally, armed with my usual determination (or stubbornness?) and a natural disposition to endure anything thrown my way.

Horribly cliched as it sounds, it is true nevertheless: the whole experience really was not just about the destination but also in the journey getting there. And as I made my way back to Gorak Shep for another 3-hour trek, I knew Everest had given me a lifetime of getting-there memories to keep.

* * *

If you want the same Everest Base Camp trek experience I had, visit Himalayan Planet Adventures and go for the 16-day Everest Base Camp trek package.

30 July 2013

Everest Base Camp Trek - Day 7: Dugla Pass and the Trek to Lobuche

To read all posts on my Everest Base Camp trek, click here for the complete series.

on the trail to Everest Base Camp
The beautiful paths situated between Dingboche and Lobuche. My guide Madan is the blue figure on the right.

Day 7: June 4, 2013

I decided to start the day right with a bucket shower.

I don't know about other trekkers, but I would not have been able to survive the whole 12 days without a single bath.  I am simply not programmed to give up any precious opportunity to have a shower. During this trek, I've been lucky so far to be staying in teahouses where the common toilets are situated inside, and not in outhouses that would require you to run out into the brutally cold night with headlamps on to answer the call of nature. (This also has a lot to do with how good your trek agency is in reserving teahouse rooms for you, and I feel lucky that Himalayan Planet Adventures always made sure I had a good bed and decent toilet waiting for me at the end of each trekking day.) And I was also able to shower 8 out of the 12 days on the trail, which ain't pretty bad!

A bucket shower, I was to learn, is different from a gas shower--the latter being quite a luxury and practically non-existent this high up on the trail. The bucket shower, while very basic, has its charms.

Nepalese bucket shower at Dingboche
The amazing bucket shower -- Nepali-style
My bucket shower at the Dingboche teahouse consists of this contraption: a huge water drum on top of the teahouse roof with a hose connecting it to a shower head inside the common bathroom. Someone from the teahouse heats up water from the yak stove, carries the hot water buckets up to the roof, and fills up the water drum. All I need to do is switch on a valve inside the shower room and there you have it--hot water flowing from the water drum and right out of the shower head. It's really and truly a bucket shower! Quite ingenious and worth the price of 500 Nepalese rupees (USD 5-6). The rest of the world--especially in areas with no running water--stand to learn a lot from the Nepalis.  I simply had to tell my UNICEF colleagues in the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Section back in Manila about the bucket shower.

I breakfasted on milk porridge (otherwise known as oatmeal!) and hot chocolate that day.  For the next few days until I returned to Kathmandu, I could not stomach anything else in the morning except oatmeal and hot chocolate. And I could never, ever finish my breakfast. Madan, ever the watchful guide, had this sort of disapproving look on his face every time I pushed away my bowl of barely eaten milk porridge; he would remind me that I needed energy to keep me going through the trek. What could I do, my appetite has failed me, I'd always say. I could only manage, at best, a few spoonfuls of oatmeal and a small cup of hot chocolate.

I had also gone without coffee for days, which was difficult and mind-blowing for a coffee addict like me.  I had to actually stop drinking coffee around Day 3 because it was contributing to the palpitations I was already feeling high up on the trail. High altitude + coffee is a disaster waiting to happen.

We left Dingboche at 9:00 am, and even with the cold and mist, it was still a pleasant walking experience. The road to Thukla, our lunch stop, involved a green hilly landscape that eased my trek-weary state a little. But even with the easy rolling path, I had to stop walking every 10 minutes or so to catch my breath. The air was getting too thin for comfort.

Five minutes away from Thukla, we had to cross this horribly makeshift bridge of uneven rocks right above the river. Some parts were rocks, a short stretch involved thin rickety planks, and then there was some wire wrapped around the rocks to keep these steady and from eroding. Trip on those wires and you might end up falling into the river.

I wasn't able to take a photo of this bridge because I was, uh, busy keeping my balance and trying not to scream in terror. I've borrowed a photo of this Thukla bridge from another blog just to give you folks an idea of what the bridge looked like. (It really looks scarier in real life, to be honest.). Special thanks to Kwok Yeen Cheah of Outdoors Malaysia, who also writes about his Everest Base Camp experience.

Bridge at Thukla. Photo Credit: Kwok Yeen Cheah, Outdoors Malaysia (2012)

I thought the bridge was going to be the highlight of Day 7, but the Himalayas had more in store for me apparently. After lunch, I went through what I felt was one of the toughest uphills I've ever encountered. It was the same brand of misery I felt on Day 2, and the climb to the top of the hill is something I can't forget.

I was stopping every two minutes during that climb to gasp and breathe in lungfuls of air. It didn't help that my nose was terribly clogged and it hurt to blow my nose all the time. The difficulty of that afternoon's walk had nothing to do with the terrain, which looked like your typical rocky hill with some steep inclines. But the altitude level had gotten so bad that no matter how I tried to fill up my lungs, I realized to my dismay that not much air was flowing in. And I had actually thought that the air back in Dingboche was already thin to begin with.

The cold and the thin air left me numb. I was on auto pilot, dragging my feet up the hill and regulating my breathing as best as I could. It reached the point where I was solely, desperately focusing on breathing in, breathing out while my arms and legs went through the automated motions of working the trekking poles and climbing up the path. Nothing else mattered to me except the sound of my attempts to breathe evenly. I thought about all those hours I spent in the 40-degree heated bikram yoga studio back in Manila, doing all those breathing sessions--and I fervently thanked all my yoga instructors then and there for teaching me how to breathe properly.

Dhan Kumar had gone way ahead and I was to see him later after a few hours. I asked Madan to stay in front of me, as always, because I relied on him to show me the path amidst the fog that was enveloping us on all sides on that hill. Because there was no energy left for talking during that excruciating climb that took more than an hour, I just concentrated on breathing.  When I stopped along the path to take a break and blow my nose, I would allow myself the most banal of thoughts, like if something bad happened to me, I'd probably never find out how Holmes cheated death in his fall in Sherlock's Season 2. I also wondered, fleetingly, how the rest of the world was reacting, now that HBO's Game of Thrones had just aired the Red Wedding episode a few days ago--and if it was as graphic as the scene in the novel.

When I finally made it to the top, Madan was waiting for me by this long rock ledge that was momentarily blocking out most of the wind. I gladly sat down beside him to take in more breaths of air (which was barely there) and take stock of my surroundings.  What I saw sent a little chill to my heart.

memorials for Everest summiteers
At Dugla Pass, a place full of memorials for those who died on Everest
There, on top of that hill, in the swirling mist, was a graveyard of sorts. The place is called Dugla Pass, and it was where many of the memorials are placed in honor of those who summitted Everest and died shortly thereafter. It was depressing to wander about and read the epitaphs--sobering reminders of how deadly and treacherous Mount Everest can be.

memorials for Everest summiteers
One of the many memorials at Dugla Pass
It was only 3:00 pm, yet the fog and dark sky that day made us feel that we needed to hurry along and reach Lobuche as soon as possible. Mercifully enough, the next one and a half hours was spent on a rocky, yet relatively flat expanse of land. Dhan Kumar, always with a boyish smile on his face regardless of the weather and surroundings, came back for us and took my day pack even though I was not having a hard time with it. In fact, anything after that climb up to Dugla Pass felt like a breeze.

As we neared the little town of Lobuche, I was treated to wonderful views of Mounts Nuptse, Kangtega and Thamserku--beautiful and majestic mountains in their own right yet sadly dwarfed by the ever popular Everest.  I said a little prayer of thanks for getting through yet another challenging day.  And no matter how hard a day's trek would be, the sight of the Himalayan mountains always thrilled me to the core.

We arrived in Lobuche (elevation: 4,928 meters / 16,164 feet) at 4:30 pm, with enough time to rest, eat dinner, and prepare for the big day tomorrow--Everest Base Camp on my 33rd birthday.

Everest Base Camp Trek: arriving at Lobuche
Yes, this small settlement is the entire area of Lobuche already. Elevation: 4,928 m / 16,164 ft.

Everest Base Camp Trek: Lobuche
My view from my room at the Lobuche teahouse
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If you want the same Everest Base Camp trek experience I had, visit Himalayan Planet Adventures and go for the 16-day Everest Base Camp trek package.