We were in the air. Ahead of us a 30 minutes flight through the mountains of Nepal. Our destination: The most dangerous airport in the world. The houses of Kathmandu started to vanish and a scenery of grey and white mountains came into view. Looking outside the window I just couldn´t believe that we were actually doing this. We were going to walk to THE Everest Base Camp. By ourselves. With only a map. Were we absolutely insane? Or was this going to be one of the best thing I had ever done?
The pilot interrupted my thoughts as he announced that we were going to land soon. Now I assume that all of you understand the scenario of “landing an airplane” as something like this: You slowly descend, the plane touches the ground and you roll along the runway until you lose speed. Landing in Lukla looks a little bit different. Instead of having a long runway ahead of you there is a big, fat mountain. Therefore your landing scenario looks like this: The plane touches ground, the pilot has to break immediately and as hard as he possibly can to slow down enough to be able to turn before smashing into the mountain. Sounds scary? Oh yes. To be honest though, with all the thoughts I had about how the walk would be and if there would be any dangerous cliffs I had completely forgotten to be scared of the landing. So when it actually happened it was really not that crazy. We touched down, the breaks were shrieking and we turned the corner to stop – in front of about 20 people standing on the runway waiting to board this exact plane. “People on the runway?” you might wonder now? Yep. Lukla is not just the most dangerous airport in the world, it is possibly the smallest one as well. We got off the plane, waited for our bags to be unloaded (which we could have really taken off ourselves as they were just put below our seats) and went to have breakfast in the little town. And then we were ready to start the big trek. Our estimations: It would take us around 9 days to get up to Base Camp and around 3 to 4 days to get back down (you have to walk the same way up and down).
Day 1: Lukla (2849 m) to Phakding (2610m)
We walked through the town (which means down one single street with shops and guesthouses) until we came to a police check. We had to show our trekking permits, our names were taken down (presumably so that there is an official record of all the trekkers walking in the Everest region) and off we were, through the gate and down the steps. Down the steps you might ask now? That´s right. Ironically the first day you walk down in altitude. So before I go on, let me tell you about this thing called altitude and its bad brother altitude sickness.
What is “altitude sickness”?
Altitude sickness is a common condition that happens when you go hiking in the mountains and you climb up too high too fast. It occurs mostly in high altitude. The higher you go the thinner the air gets which means there is less and less oxygen. When you walk up too fast your body can´t get as much oxygen as it needs. The lack of oxygen means that you have to slow down: You are only supposed to walk no higher than 300 to 500 metres a day in altitude. And once you are up on 2500 metres you should have rest days where you go up but come down the same day so that your body has been higher than where it is sleeping which makes it get used to the altitude. You will notice that the higher you get the slower you walk. Every step is a little bit harder, steep bits you would have walked way faster on 2000 metres will take you double the times and energy on 4000 metres. And if you ignore your body´s signals to slow down or walk too much height in one day you might get altitude sickness which can get really dangerous. Because of the lack of oxygen you need to breathe faster. Which causes symptoms like headache, fatigue, dizziness, trouble sleeping, you might feel a little drunk – once you suffer strongly from a few of these symptoms you have to lose altitude immediately. Meaning you have to turn around and walk down a few hundred metres. If you ignore the symptoms and carry on gaining altitude the chances are pretty big that you might die. Having said all this – the whole thing is way less dramatic than it sounds. Every traveller you meet in Kathmandu talks about it, it is literally all you hear – altitude sickness, altitude sickness, altitude sickness. In the end Mike and I couldn´t hear it anymore. Because even though it all sounds quite scary (doesn´t it?) it is really way less dramatic. All you have to do is walk in the altitude limits, don´t rush up too fast, have the rest days you are supposed to have and when you have a headache – drink more water. You are most likely just dehydrated. And if you want to be on the sure side – have some garlic soup. Garlic thins your blood and therefore prevents it from getting too thick with the lack of oxygen. So nothing to stress out about really.
Back to Day 1: Lukla (2849 m) to Phakding (2610m)
So. Anyways. Where was I? Ah yeah, so we were walking down the steps because ironically the first day you walk down in altitude. Which is bad in two ways. 1. The first day you are fresh, you are hungry for the hike, you are full of energy, you want to walk up that mountain and conquer it. So no need for easy steps down. 2. (and this is the really bad one) On the last day, when you walked up all the way to Base Camp and made your way down again and this is now the last bit that you have to do before the trek is finished and you have almost made it – you have to walk up. You have to walk up. Unbelievable. (You will find out soon enough how that went for Mike and me…) So we had an easy first day, just looking at the amazing landscape around us: Green mountains wherever you looked, little villages everywhere, horses that passed our ways as well as so called porters or sherpas. Sherpas are locals who carry everything up the mountain. As there are no roads and no cars everything has to be carried up by horses, mules, yaks and people: From fruits and rice to beer, water and wood to gas and even doors. After two and a half hours we arrived at our place for the night. We weren´t really ready to already stop but the next place would have been too far to make it that day. So we checked into a teahouse (that’s what the guesthouses up there are called), chilled out for the rest of the day and got an introduction of how cold it was going to be in the mountains higher up. As it was already pretty freaking cold.
Day 2: Phakding (2610m) to Namche Bazar (3440m)
The next morning we got up early and walked one and a half hours over rivers and through forests until we reached the next village. There we stopped for breakfast and realised – it was already getting pricier. You have to know that the food menus in the teahouses are the same everywhere (it was the same on the Poon Hill Trek). So every place that serves food has exactly the same menu. Sometimes some place might not have one thing that the other ones has but in general it´s always the same food everywhere. Which to be honest I didn´t mind: You knew what was available so while you were hiking you could already think about what you would want to eat later. 😉 At the same time the price of the meals would be the same in any restaurant in the same village. Which is supposed to make it fair for the guesthouses. So the only thing that changed from village to village was the price – the higher you got the more expensive it was. (Which is understandable and fair when you think about the fact that someone had to carry this food up all the way from Lukla.) So even in that small village on our second day we could already tell that prices would get really high at one point.
The day went on and we got to the point of the trek we had read about – and dreaded. We stood in front of a massive suspension bridge that led us to the feet of one big mountain. And the village we needed to get to was on top of it. Which meant two hours of our favourite activity – step climbing. So we got our heads down and climbed. Step after step while the heat of the day made the sweat run down our backs. After one hour we got to a little platform where quite a few people seemed to hang around. Taking the chance for a break I sat down and while I was getting some water down my throat I noticed lots of people taking pictures of that one mountain in the distance. So I thought I should find out what mountain this was as it must be quite popular if everyone was taking pictures. I asked a woman standing nearby which mountain this was and she just looked at me with a face of shock and contempt. Her answer: “Everest!” Oops.
Well, in my defence: First of all I had no idea that you could actually see Everest from this point of the trek already. Second of all it was a big, big mountain range. How would I know which of them is actually Everest. So I got up and stood where the woman was standing before trying to figure out which one it actually was without having to have the shame of asking someone to help me out. But you know me: I can´t let things go. I needed to know. So I asked one of the tour guides standing around which one it was and he pointed it out to me. There it was, the highest mountain in the world. (Looking pretty damn small from where I was.) We had seen it for the first time!!! We continued to walk up the sheer endless amount of stairs and after an hour or so a guy coming from the other direction and probably seeing the exhaustion on our faces yelled at us “You almost made it. Only five more minutes.” Now you need to know one thing about Mike. The one thing he can´t deal with is when people tell him it´s only ten more minutes to the destination when it´s really another 30 minutes. He would rather people telling him it´s ten hours. At least then he wouldn´t expect it to be over soon and would just get on with it. So when this guy told us it was only five more minutes our hope obviously went up. But in me there was this tiny little quite voice telling me: Don´t get your hopes up, it is probably longer than that. But for Mike it was already too late. In his mind now it was only another five minutes and he was almost running towards the end. Too bad it turned out to be another 45 minutes. You can imagine Mike`s mood. To be fair I understand him. I know that people only want to encourage you sometimes but really: People out there, please don´t do this. It only makes things harder. Eventually though we made it to Namche Bazar, a cute little village set right in the mountains overlooking another mountain range. (Of all the villages we stayed in it was definitely my favourite one.) There were a few cafés, guesthouses and shops and lots of really cute Nepalese children running around laughing with their apple cheeks and high fiving us. So cute!
Day 3: Acclimatisation in Namche Bazar
As I told you earlier when you go up in altitude at certain points you need to have a rest day for your body to get used to the height. On our third day in the mountains we were supposed to do just that. Rest day doesn´t actually mean resting though. For your body to acclimatise you need to walk up and then come back down again the same day. So we decided to walk up to the “Everest View Hotel”, a hotel that provides exactly what its name says: A view over Everest. We hiked up through the fields and mountain paths and two hours later and 440 metres higher we arrived at the hotel. Drinking one of the most expensive teas on this trip so far we sat outside overlooking the highest mountain of the world – a lot closer than we saw it last time but still quite far away. We spent the rest of the hike walking around nearby villages that tourism hasn´t touched yet. Later in the afternoon we watched a movie in one of the cafés in town about the Sherpas that risk their life climbing to the summit of Everest to bring up the equipment, food and shelter of the mountaineering groups. What a mad life those guys live. So full of risk. But in a poor country like Nepal the money you can earn doing this just means more than the risk you are taking.
Day 4: Namche Bazar (3440m) to Tengboche (3860m)
The next morning we started walking knowing we had a steep day ahead of us. While hiking you could already notice how the landscape around us started to change. So far it had been very green, we had been surrounded by fields, rivers and cute villages. Now at a height of 3500 metres the surrounding changed. The greenery became less and less, less plants in general and instead the mountains seemed to have turned greyer. You could also tell how high we were by how much colder the temperature had gotten. While the first days we had walked in shorts and T-Shirts, the zip-of pants now stayed zipped on and we also wore our fleece jackets. We were definitely getting higher. And then we came to that part of the trek we had been dreading all day. Two hours straight up. Whoop Whoop. Not. It is hard to explain how exhausted you actually get from walking up for hours. The worst are steps. After five minutes you are starting to breathe harder, after ten minutes the sweat is running down your back. After fifteen minutes you are absolutely sure that you absolutely won´t be able to do this for another one and a half hours. There is just no way. You are hating every bit of it, you are wondering why the hell you agreed to do this trek and all you want to do in the world is to just stop walking. But if you stop it is just going to take longer until you are finally there. So you have to move on. And then after twenty minutes the mad thing happens: You just get your head down and you walk. You get on with it. One foot in front of the other. And just walk. Until you are really out of breath and there is no other way than having a break. And oh that moment, when you walk those last steps and you look up and you realise you are on top of this particular mountain. It´s done, you have made it. (Well, at least for that day.) This is how I felt when I took the last steps up and I saw – we are in Tengboche. The place for the night was straight ahead of me. And it was only 1.15 pm.
This was probably the hardest thing about doing the EBC. (Next to the actual trekking obviously.) As you can only do a certain amount of metres in one day you are not actually walking for that many hours. But because the teahouses get full very fast you need to make sure you get a place for the night. Especially because the higher you get there is less and less accommodation as there aren´t actually that many people living there anymore. So you have to start your hike early in the morning which means that you are already done by noon time. And then the boredom starts. Because there is absolutely zero to do. It is also really, really cold. All you can do is sit around the fire and drink hot tea. Everyday. For hours. We hadn´t brought any books as that would have been an extra weight to carry. What we had brought though was our multi travel game which we had bought before this trip but never really used so far. Well, we definitely used it on the EBC. I don´t think I have ever played as much draughts and peg solitaire. And of course, snakes and ladders. And then you look at the clock and it´s 7.30 pm. Which makes you happy because it means you can go to bed in half an hour. Don´t get me wrong we could have obviously gone to bed at whatever time we wanted but come on – 7.30 pm? We had some dignity left. 8 pm – now that was acceptable. Oh, the moment when you step away from the fire, open the door to the hallway and you immediately feel your whole body freezing. It was so cold! We put more clothes, hats and scarves on (I sometimes even wore my down jacket in bed) and tried to get as warm as possible under the three blankets on top of us. Which wasn´t very warm at all. And then we tried to fall asleep as fast as we could so we wouldn´t feel that damn cold anymore.
Day 5: Tengboche (3860m) to Dingboche (4410m)
Walk, walk, walk. Up and down. Over suspension bridges with Yaks surrounding us – in front, behind and next to us. (Yaks are long-haired animals that look like bison and possibly diverged from cattle at any point between one and five million years ago. They are pretty freaking cool.) Next to the temperature getting colder and colder I also started to feel the altitude we had gotten in. I noticed how my pace got a little bit slower every day and I also had a headache. Nothing too painful but one of those headaches that just constantly accompany you. We arrived in Dingboche around 2 pm in the afternoon – a small village that was surrounded by mountains which meant that we were shielded from the strong winds. Always a plus point. We spent the afternoon in the bakery – together with the hundred other trekkers as this seemed to be the only heated room in town. For dinner that night I opted for the safe option – two paracetamol and a massive bowl of garlic soup. (Luckily Mike doesn´t mind the smell of garlic because I think after that soup no vampires would have come within ten metres of our room.)
Day 6: Acclimatisation in Dingboche
As we had reached a height of around 4500 metres it was time for another rest day. So we decided to walk to Chukhung, a “village” on 4730 metres. Though you can´t really call it a village as its only two teahouses in the middle of nowhere. It was one of the less adventurous walks of this trek – walking over and between grey rocks the whole way. Even though there wasn´t much excitement involved it was still incredible to see how dramatically the landscape around us was changing. Except for a few cactuses there were no more plants or trees. When we walked over the mountain it was also – for the first time on our trip – time to get our rain jackets out. Not because it was raining, there were no clouds in the sky. The reason was the wind. All of you who have ever been to the north sea in Germany on a windy autumn day – that wind times three and that’s what it was like that day. After three hours we finally got to Chukhung and were looking forward to a big, warm lunch. Until we realised that for some reason when we had packed our day bag that morning we forgot to take enough money. So all the things we really wanted (like five pizzas) were out of the equation. Somehow we managed to scramble enough together for some fried potatoes and a hot ginger lemon honey tea. (My favourite tea since the EBC. Though in the end I couldn´t see it anymore.) After a cosy break with our feet next to the heater and our faces stretched towards the sun we got our shoes and jackets back on and trekked back down. And I have to say, even though the rest days annoyed us in the beginning because all we really wanted was to get up to Base Camp – I could now see why they were necessary. My headache that had been getting worse the night before and on the way up to Chukhung had eased down a lot once we started our descend back to Dingboche. Another bowl of garlic soup at night and I was sure I would be okay the next day.
Day 7: Dingboche (4410m) to Lobuche (4910m)
I was right. The next morning my headache was pretty much gone. But even though we didn´t have any symptoms for altitude sickness we could still really feel the height. Walking up the paths became harder and harder. I literally felt like I was walking at snail pace. We made our way over to another mountain group that we had to conquer that day. Imagine a hill of about 200 metres high and you know you have to walk it up. And it doesn´t seem that steep. If we would have been on 2000 metres we would have walked up in about 20 minutes and would have been hardly out of breath. But you just know because you are on more than double that height that it´s going to take you one to two hours and all of your energy. It´s a mad feeling. We got our heads down and hiked. With breathing stops every ten minutes. At that point of the trip Mike and I had established something like a trekking routine. On even paths we walked next to each other chatting away. But once there were steep parts it was “One man – One war”. While in the beginning of the EBC it was me who walked faster than Mike the tables had turned. His stubbornness to get to where he needed to go quickened his pace the altitude really got to me and slowed me down heavily. So when we were at the bottom of a steep hill we said “See you up there” and everyone started to trek up in his pace. Which meant sometimes we wouldn´t see each other for two hours. Same with this hill. When I got up an hour or so Mike was already waiting for me.
We came past a memorial site for all the men and women who have lost their life trying to climb the summit of Mount Everest. A very sad but at the same time inspiring place with so much respect for the power and strength of all these mountaineers! We walked over the top of the mountain and a little bit further down we could already make out Lobuche, our town for the night. When we got there we got to experience first-hand that finding a place to sleep started to become a problem. There were about five guesthouses in town and four of them were reserved for all the big groups that were walking the EBC with an organised tour. Only in the fifth and last teahouse we found a room. Not everyone was that lucky. Around 7 pm at night – and at that point of the day it´s pitch black and about minus 10 degrees outside – a group of young Israelis came into the guesthouse. They had done one of the three passes around the EBC Trek and were on their feet since 8 am that morning. And they were freezing. But no rooms were left. Not what you want after a day like that. So they had to do what all the tour guides do – sleep in the dining room when everyone has gone to bed. Which is nice while the fire is still on. But once that burns out the dining room gets even colder than the bedrooms. So you can get a picture of how cold we are talking: When I went to the toilet around 6 pm that evening water that had been on the floor in the afternoon had turned into pure ice! But that night the cold didn´t bother us. Nothing could bother us. Because the next day we would get to see what we had been waiting for all these days. The reason why we were walking this trek in the first place. Everest Base Camp – the next day we would get there. It was only another five hours walk and 450 metres height away…
… A few more impressions of the trek so far…