17 July 2013

Everest Base Camp Trek - Day 4: Pangboche and the Start of Altitude Sickness

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

Kyanjuma on the Everest Base Camp trail
The wonderful view from my room at the Kyanjuma teahouse

Day 4: June 1, 2013

Woke up early the next day, sleepily making my way in the semi-darkness to the toilet.  There was no opportunity to take a bath, so I had to make do with wet wipes. For someone who loves taking a shower twice a day, being forced to go without a bath for several times on this trek was a reality I had to struggle with. I think I shed a tear or two that morning as I cleaned myself from head to toe with baby wipes.

Even brushing my teeth was a challenge, because it hurt to rinse using ice cold water. Oh, the perils of this trek.

We were on the trail by 8:30 am, right after breakfast. Fog, fog everywhere. No views of the mountains to be had that day, and it rained at times.  The path that morning was mostly descent, which was frustrating. The way from Everest Base Camp back to Lukla is the same way that one has just taken; you just do the trail in reverse. There are no shortcuts, no lovely cable cars to bring you back to civilization in a jiffy. Everything is done on foot. So any continuous downhills that I would encounter on the trek didn't feel like progress or a 'treat' for me, because I knew I would have to encounter these as uphills on the way back.

There we were, going down, down, down--all the way to the river bed. And then we had to go all the way back up at some point. We were doing some serious ups and downs on the hills. It was sheer madness. Who designed this blasted trail, I wanted to scream out.

Twenty-one-year-old Dhan Kumar was just pure Sherpa strength, hardly breaking his pace as he went way up ahead with my duffel bag. What a Legolas. I wanted to beg him to carry me on his back all the way up to Base Camp. But all I could do was sigh and trudge up the never-ending path to nowhere. Madan stayed with me, of course, and we kept each other company by telling stories and jokes. At least at this altitude, even with the crazy ups and downs, we could still afford to talk and laugh. On Days 7 and 8, the mere act of talking while dealing with the thin air and the rocky terrain became too exhausting to do.

Lunch stop was Tengboche, which was at an elevation of 3,867 meters (12,684 feet). It was cold and foggy; the temperature was about 5 degrees Celsius. Five degrees in a city like New York would be okay for me; five degrees up in the mountains felt like a different story altogether. Stood inside the teahouse's dining hall, shivering in spite of my three layers of clothing, a wool hat and fleece gloves. Even hot chocolate wasn't enough to keep me warm, and it was too early in the day to fuel the yak stove.

When we left Tengboche after lunch, we were laughing nervously because it was getting foggier by the minute, and it had started to rain again. As usual, the mud was a huge deterrent to our progress, and what should have been a 2-hour trek from Tengboche to Pangboche became a 4-hour one.

A dull, throbbing pain in my head was making its presence more and more felt as the minutes, hours ticked by. I suddenly felt so fatigued; it was the strangest feeling. I knew then that I was already in the minor stages of altitude sickness. Madan was watching me closely the whole time, probably looking out for other symptoms. He even drew a line in the mud and asked me if I could walk straight on it. God, I felt I was taking a sobriety test for drunk driving.

Fortunately, I managed to walk straight (and even crack a joke in the process), which was a relief to my guide.  When the two of us were around an hour's walk away from Pangboche, I was so happy to see Dhan Kumar come back for us on the trail.  He insisted on relieving me of my day pack and carrying it the rest of the way to Pangboche. (Yes, he is so fast on the trail, he can zip back and forth like The Flash. Who are these Sherpas and why are they so superhuman.)

At last we reached Pangboche (elevation: 3,930 meters / 12,890 feet), as dusk was setting in. I practically cried for joy when I saw there was electricity at the teahouse. (This homey teahouse would end up to be one of my favorites in the entire trek.) Sat down in one corner of the dining hall, trying to withstand the headache that was slowly draining my ability to think and speak. It even hurt to turn my head from side to side.

Dinner was vegetable momos (dumplings) and a small bowl of garlic soup. I could only down half of the soup and two pieces of momos. My appetite was shot--yet another sign that the altitude was affecting me. By this time, Madan had ordered me to take Diamox for the altitude sickness, and I was happy to oblige. He was talking to me quietly, but his words were stern. He was saying things like, "How are you now? How bad is the headache? Do not lie to me. If you're still feeling bad tomorrow morning, we will descend.  I will update Naba on your condition." He even gave his and Dhan Kumar's room number so that I could wake them up in case I was feeling really sick in the middle of the night.

I didn't even have the energy to laugh when he asked me to rate my headache: was it a 'small', 'medium' or a big headache? I wanted to say pain is relative, but I could only nod in agreement to his instructions and mumble, "Medium headache." Rain, mud, steep switchbacks, and yes, even jokepes had now paled in comparison to the all-too-real threat of high altitude--the effects of which are greater and more dangerous than most people realize.

It was a quiet evening as I sat there, listlessly looking at the books on my Kindle, too tired to even read. I wasn't ready to sleep yet, because I wanted to get a feel of how my body would react to Diamox while I was awake. There were two other female trekkers in the dining hall, reading on their own Kindles.

Suddenly, there was a ruckus in the kitchen where the family members who owned the teahouse were gathered. A fight had broken out between two brothers, and we could hear punching, shouting and some banging of kitchen pots. The boys' parents and a few other people started intervening, and we heard more shouting going on. The three of us trekkers could only sit, gawk and try to decipher what they were all saying to one another. The youngest girl in the family strode out of the kitchen, looking upset.

Some fifteen minutes later, the two brothers who had fought actually sat near us by the yak stove and conversed with me and Madan like nothing had happened.

There is never a dull day on this trek. Never.

I had realized that day that even the hassle of dealing with altitude sickness did not stop me from falling in love with Nepal and all it had to offer: the unpredictability of the trail, the genuine warmth of the people around me, and the beauty and sheer power of Mother Nature that I was to behold each day on the trek.

Bedtime was 10:00 pm and I slept like the dead--only to wake up at 3:00 am with an incredible urge to pee. Diamox is a diuretic, and I was shivering in the cold as I hurriedly bundled up and rushed to the common toilet to pee like crazy. Blessedly enough, the headache was gone by that time, and I was able to sleep right away when I went back to bed.

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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.


  1. hi gina, how long did you experience lack of appetite while on the trail?

    1. Hi Rovi, if I remember correctly, I started really feeling this from Pangboche (Day 4) up to Gorak Shep (Day 8), the last teahouse point before reaching Everest Base Camp on Day 8. When I was in Gorak Shep, I had to force myself to eat some food, even just a few spoonfuls. When you head back after reaching Base Camp, your appetite will improve.