The next few posts are going to be dedicated to our experience hiking through Nepal’s Sagarmatha National Park, including Everest Base Camp, Chukhung Ri, and Ama Dablam Base Camp. I thought I’d start out by addressing some of the recent coverage of Everest in the news lately. Specifically, there have been a number of deaths of trekkers attempting to summit Everest attributed to overcrowding and lack of preparation (just google “Everest Human Traffic Jam” to see what I mean). Summiting Everest is a whole other beast than simply trekking up to Everest Base Camp. Everest is the highest mountain in the world and because it is not an extremely technical mountain to summit (comparatively speaking), it attracts a lot of trekkers and climbers. The Nepal Everest Base Camp (there is another one on the Tibet side) is 5380m and the summit is 8848m. Amateur trekkers like Steve and I are not even allowed to enter Everest Base Camp. We could only look at it and take photos from behind the rope because the entrance is tightly controlled and limited only to people who have a permit.
Permits start at $30,000 US and that does not include any of the guides, equipment, or preparations you would need to attempt to summit. We did cross paths with a number of people involved in Everest summit treks, mostly in a town called Namche Bazaar, which is the biggest village on the mountain and has the most amenities. Attempting to summit can take months due to the time needed to acclimatize and people do come down the mountain to Namche Bazaar as part of the acclimatization process. Just trekking to Everest Base Camp (or EBC) kicked my butt and I have complete respect for people trying to summit from a physical standpoint.
That being said, overcrowding is a problem even just on the trek to EBC. Clearly this is something we contributed to by being there ourselves and gave us a lot to think about. I am going to write a detailed post about this in the future but I think it makes the most sense to describe the trek first to give context to those other aspects.
The path to EBC is linear from Lukla although, once you get a bit further up, there are side trails and paths to other mountains off this main trail. We had a loose idea of what we wanted to see and do but were waiting to see how we felt once we got there. The fastest route to EBC that can be done safely (to avoid altitude sickness) is about 11 days up and down. The towns that are situated on this direct route have become well-established with many lodges and restaurants that cater to EBC group tours. Many of these trekkers come to Nepal as a vacation with only two weeks to complete the trail so the tours are designed to get people up and down the mountain as fast as safely possible. However, there are lots of smaller villages along the trail with lodges and restaurants that we found to be cheaper, less crowded and just as comfortable. Going independently without a tour also let us set our own pace. We met lots of trekkers who were trying to keep up with an aggressive itinerary despite feeling signs of altitude sickness, which was a bit scary. We also decided not to hire a private guide or a porter, which some independent trekkers organize themselves in Kathmandu.
The first major milestone in the trek is a town called Namche Bazaar. While other towns and villages along the way have only basic facilities, Namche Bazaar is known for a higher standard of amenities, more restaurants and bakeries, and shops to buy any last minute items you might need before heading further up the mountain. Usually people can make it to the town of Namche Bazaar in two days but we were very nervous about altitude sickness so we split it into three days.
There are a few government checkpoints along the trail, one being right outside Lukla, and as we stopped to check ourselves in we were able to eavesdrop on some trekkers finishing their hike. “Look at the people starting their trek! They look so fresh and excited!” Possibly an ominous sign of what was to come…? There were lots of tour groups, mostly of German, French, Polish, American, and Australian. We came across very few other Canadians during the entire trek.
The excitement of starting caused me to take a million photos during the first few days, which I’m glad I did because the weather was not as great coming down. Some of my favourite sites were mani stones – etched and painted rocks with Tibetan Buddhist mantras on them. We saw a monk creating a small mani stone a few days into the trek but you wonder how long it took to create some of these massive ones we saw.
There are also a number of suspension bridges in the early stages of the trek. Pretty freaky to walk across with the gushing water below, but the colour of the water is so amazingly blue. The bridges can only handle one-way traffic so we often had to wait for animal trains or large trekking groups coming the other way.
We only walked about 3 hours on the first day until we reached the village of Ghat. We stayed at the Lama Lodge in a basic twin room with shared bathroom for 300 rupees ($3 US). It was run by an entertaining pair (we couldn’t quite figure out the relationship between them…) including a female monk who took a liking to us and liked to gesture wildly and then laugh as we tried to figure out what she was saying.
We almost lost some points though when Steve had trouble finishing his enormous plate of fried rice. He basically got the death stare and realized she was going to wait beside our table until he finished. Normally, Steve has no problem finishing up his food but the altitude definitely impacted his appetite throughout the whole trek and I was finishing his plate sometimes. That was a role reversal for us.
We went to bed pretty early (7pm) and slept a good 12 hours. This would become our normal routine for the next three weeks.