As promised, here is the next (out of several) blog posts on our hike to Everest Base Camp (EBC). I tried to break it down a bit…so, this post covers days one to three. More days and photos coming soon!
Day 1: Kathmandu (4,600 feet) — Lukla (9,383 feet) — Phakding (8,560 feet)
3.5 Hours of Trekking — 3.85 miles
“First day on the trail!”
Day 1 started out rather eventfully. We had an early morning wake up that included me with a sore throat and feeling a cold coming on and Craig with food poisoning (due to some mystery meat eaten the night before at Yak Restaurant). Not the best way to start a 16-day adventure into the Himalayas… Despite some early AM vomiting, we checked out of our hotel, walked down to the Trek Nepal office to meet our guide (Samir), and headed off to the airport.
After arriving to the airport’s domestic terminal, Samir took care of everything, which was great as both Craig and I were struggling. A bit under the weather, we, along with dozens of other trekkers, were all trying to check in with Tara Airlines, the only carrier that currently runs flights from Kathmandu to Lukla. Each day, small planes (which fit about 12-15 passengers) fly back and forth between the two airports, transporting as many trekkers as they can before weather conditions deteriorate. We had heard horror stories of tourists unable to get between the two airports for more than two weeks as a result of poor weather and other travelers who had decided to charter their own helicopter to make the trip rather than waiting for a flight. As booking a helicopter wouldn’t exactly fit in our budget, we were hoping for clear skies for our flight out!
After getting checked in and heading to the waiting area, we found out that our flight was delayed…not a good sign. (We would later meet a couple that flew all the way to Lukla on the flight they booked, and then their plane had to return to Kathmandu due to poor visibility once it arrived. They ended up splitting the cost of a helicopter with a few other travelers to make the trip between the two cities.) As we waited, I fell asleep while Samir went to figure out what was happening with our flight. Despite looking as if it might be cancelled, about an hour later, we boarded our plane and were headed to Lukla!
The flight from Kathmandu to Lukla is supposed to be one of the scariest flights in the world. I had read about it on several blogs to prepare myself, but, fortunately, it wasn’t as terrifying as I expected it would be! Flying into Lukla (officially the Tenzing-Hillary Airport), tourists jostle over the seats on the left side of the plane, which offer views of the Himalayas if there aren’t too many clouds. While we got the last two seats on the left side of the plane, clouds obscured our mountain views during the flight.
The flight is a short, 30-minute jump between the two towns. And, even more exciting than the mountain views, is the landing in Lukla. The runway is extremely short and at an angle. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any great pictures of us landing as we were sitting toward the back of the small plane, but just look on YouTube for numerous videos of planes coming in and out of this airport. Crazy!
On the plane, the pilots signal to the flight attendant that we are about to land. The “fasten seat belt sign” bell rang and before we knew it, the plane was quickly descending between mountains into Lukla. Just as we rounded a bend amidst the huge hills, we saw it in front of us — the runway. How were we ever going to possibly land there? How was that enough room for the plane to stop? Just over 22 yards wide, about 500 yards long, and sloping approximately 12 degrees, there was no room for error in the landing. Just a several thousand foot drop before the runway or a solid brick wall at the end of the runway to greet you if anything went wrong. We peered into the cockpit to watch our pilots flipping switches, pulling levers, and deftly maneuvering the plane toward the airport. And, before we could question our decision whether to get on the plane at all, our plane hit the runway, slammed on the breaks, and whipped around a turn in the pavement into a pre-assigned “parking spot.”
The plane door dropped down, trekkers with their guides quickly disembarked, and airport workers hurried us off the runway. What we didn’t realize at the time was that the plane wouldn’t even be turned off before it was reloaded with passengers and luggage for the return flight. As soon as we were off, a group heading back to Kathmandu ran to board the plane, and our fearless pilots made the quick flight back to the capital before loading up with more trekkers and again returning to Lukla.
Such an interesting and exciting start to the trip!
After surviving the flight to Lukla, we met our porter, grabbed a quick breakfast, and hit the trail for our first few hours of trekking. Its a bit strange to start hiking pretty much right from the airport. But, you have to leave Kathmandu early and before the clouds roll in so no need to waste time sitting in Lukla.
When we first met our porter, known as Bibi, I was a little worried… Just over five feet tall and not that large, he was in charge of carrying our pack, which weighed about 19 kg, with all of our stuff for the 2.5 weeks of trekking up and down the mountains. However, my worries were quickly dismissed as he carried our bag plus his with ease the first few days of the trek. We later found out that he has a lot of experience carrying everything from packs to other supplies for stores and restaurants up and down the mountain. We were also comforted by the fact that our bag looked substantially smaller than almost all of the other trekkers that we saw. And, it also came in well under the weight limit for what porters should carry on treks.
Hiking from Lukla to Phakding, we actually descended rather than hiking up, descending more than 800 feet in altitude. Day 1 was one of the “easy” days, and the path was a mix of straight, up, and down between the airport and Phakding. However, more than anything, the worst part of the trek was the suspension bridge that we had to cross. Let’s just say, I’m not that much of a fan of bridges in general. Too much swinging/bouncing around, you can often see through them, people don’t follow appropriate bridge etiquette, etc. While I knew that the trek included these bridges, I wasn’t expecting one our first day! With a lot of squealing and certainty that I was going to fall to my death into the raging rapids of the river below us, I made it across the bridge, and a little while later, we were in Phakding.
Just on Day 1 of our trek, the scenery was already beautiful. The Dudh Koshi, which means “milk river” flows along much of the trail to Everest Base Camp. Sometimes a bright greenish blue and other times a striking white, the river was full of white water and rapids as it ran down from the mountains filled with monsoon rain and snowmelt. Over the next two weeks, we would have the opportunity to criss-cross back and forth across the river many, many times. And, each time, the bridges remained terrifying and the views stunning.
After about 3.5 hours of hiking, we made it to our lodge for the afternoon and evening. We had a quick lunch and headed up to our room. At first, we were excited, we got a corner room! Then, we looked at the lodge and its building quality. There was no insulation. And, it seemed that nothing was built without cracks and gaps between the pieces of plywood that made up the walls and doors. We weren’t even that high in altitude yet, but it was already chilly! I found out where the blankets were stored and grabbed a few extra for our room. Little did we know, this was only the beginning of many chilly nights to come!
Day 2: Phakding (8,560 feet) — Namche Bazar (11,283 feet)
6 Hours of Trekking — 4.6 miles
“The day of many suspension bridges”
Day 2 started off better than Day 1; however, I did wake up with a fever, sore throat, runny nose, and not feeling great. However, after a hot chocolate, my allergy medicine, some Sudafed, and some Motrin, I was ready to go! And, thanks to some antibiotics that we brought along, Craig was feeling much better too.
That morning we hiked about three hours and then took a break for lunch. The trail wasn’t too bad. While we were ascending, most of the walking was gradually uphill. In addition to walking uphill, we had to cross five suspension bridges before reaching our destination of Namche Bazar. “I’m sorry!” our guide said as he described what the day was like. However, the more bridges we crossed, the easier they were to walk on without feeling like I was going to tumble into the river. However, the last bridge, put all of the others to shame. The last one of the day is what I refer to as “the double decker.” The original bridge was in need of repair so a new one was built in its place. Instead of placing the new bridge where the old one is located, the new bridge was just built higher up the mountains…gulp! Craig even referred to crossing this bridge as “unsettling.” However, just as I had thought I had gotten used to and okay with crossing multiple suspension bridges, “the double decker” was a new challenge, and it was terrifying! Despite my fears, I safely made it across all of the bridges we came across on Day 2.
Just before stopping for lunch, we officially entrusted Sagarmatha National Park, which is where most of the EBC trek is located. In addition to going through check points, we had the chance to walk through a small museum on the park and on trekking to Mount Everest. One interesting fact from the museum: in 2008, there were 30,500 visitors to the park — 30% were Australian, 9.8% were German, 9.5% were American, and 9.3% were British. (I think I’m remembering those figures correctly…) In addition, the museum included information on wildlife in the park, how to be a responsible trekker, and how to recognize altitude sickness, which is a serious concern.
On Day 2, we also encountered a group of trekkers who we would continue to cross paths with until we reached EBC. We referred to them as the “British-Australian group.” A group of about seven people, we first overheard them at our lunch stop discussing Americans. And, boy, did they have lots of thoughts on how not-so-great Americans are. I was so taken aback by their nonchalant American bashing that I couldn’t stop listening. One of the highlights of their conversation included (mostly from two Australian girls): “[Americans] think that the US is the most awesome country in the world, and they even have a song that says so.” Their guide definitely saw me listening in on them…but, I couldn’t help myself! On the way out, I refrained from starting the “USA” chant as I was sure that we would cross paths with this group again. Hopefully, some of our “awesome” American-ness rubbed off on them over the next week, and they learned to be careful about bashing another country, particularly if you aren’t sure if people from that country are just a few tables over…
But, I digress… The hike after our lunch break was definitely the most difficult part of the trek thus far. In about three hours, we hiked “up, up, up,” ascending 900 meters to Namche Bazar. There was hardly a break from the constant up, with only three or so short areas that were flat.
As I wrote in my journal:
“Hours and hours of climbing rocky stairs and then a hill that we thought would never end… It was hard, but your body, more or less, gets accustomed to the shortness of breath, fatigue, and heavy legs — these are your ‘new normal.’ After almost two hours of rocky stairs straight up, where every bend in the trail seems like it will lead to your destination only for more stairs to appear, we arrived to a wooded path. ‘The hard part is over,’ Samir said.”
While, the hard part may have been over for our guide (who we only saw once or twice even break a sweat), final hour was still difficult. Nearing exhaustion, we continued ascending and came to a check point. Gasping for breath, we took a water break as Samir sorted out things with our passes. And then, I saw it, a sign for Namche Bazar. “We must almost be there!” I thought. And, through the trees, just a bit higher than where we were sitting, I saw a town. “Not too much further, and we’ll be there!”
While we weren’t far from Namche, the ascending was not yet over… As we came into town, we had to start climbing stairs again to get up to our lodge. As each lodge approached, I silently begged for it to be ours. “That one looks great,” I thought. “This has to be it. Nope, not yet. How much further?!?” And, then, finally we followed Samir through the door of a a lodge — we made it!
We tumbled into the dining room and were welcomed with hot tea and cookies provided by the lodge staff. Once we felt like we could move again, we headed up the stairs to our room, confiscated additional blankets from other rooms on our hall that were empty for the night, and napped until dinnertime. Phew…long day!
Day 3: Acclimatization Day at Namche Bazar (11,283 feet)
“Barely Made it to the Sherpa Museum”
After an exhausting Day 2, it was time for an acclimatization day in Namche. We had ascended more than 2,700 feet the day before so we had to spend some time getting used to the higher altitude before moving on. (As they say, “hike high and sleep low!”) Also, around 11,500 feet, people start to really feel the impact of higher altitude and altitude sickness can emerge.
However, do not be mistaken, acclimatization days are not rest days. While you don’t necessarily trek to the next town, you aren’t lounging around your lodge to get used to the altitude. Acclimatization days include hiking to even higher altitudes to continue getting used to the heights. But, acclimatization days do allow you to sleep in as you aren’t on a certain timetable pushing to get to the next town by a certain time.
So, Craig and I slept in until about 8:30 am before meeting Samir for breakfast and then taking a walk higher up in Namche. Unfortunately, though, I forgot to use my inhaler until we were already out the door that day. “No big deal,” I thought as I used my inhaler as we walked, “we are just walking up a ways to the Sherpa museum. Nothing to strenuous.” Well, I quickly found, that there is a lot less oxygen at 11,283 feet than in Baltimore, and I struggled to make it up stairs for just about 20 minutes to the Sherpa museum. As I begged the medication to reach my lungs and make me feel better, I huffed and puffed up the stairs in Namche. Our guide Samir must have been worried how far I would make it into the trek if I was already struggling so much. “This museum better be amazing,” I told Craig as I dragged myself up the steep stairs through town.
While the museum wasn’t that amazing (just a number of items from Sherpa households and more information about the ethnic group), the photo galleries that were included in the Sherpa museum ticket were pretty fascinating. The first gallery included photos from those who have climbed or attempted to climb Mount Everest. There was even a photo of former President Jimmy Carter on his way to Base Camp in the museum! Additionally, the museum featured past magazine and newspaper articles discussing and debating why people decide to try to summit Everest. As I had just begun reading Into Thin Air, the exhibit really added to my experience of reading the book along the trail. The second gallery gave a more in-depth look at the life of Sherpas and those who live in the region around Mount Everest.
Following our museum visit, we returned to the area of Namche around our lodge to stock up on some final items for our EBC adventure. Namche is one of the last places where you can buy or rent supplies, snacks, etc. along the way. While there are some stores further along the trail, prices skyrocket as you get higher than Namche (where they are already high!) as almost everything is flown into Lukla from Kathmandu and then transported to towns along the EBC trail by porters.
The Trek Nepal sales representative in Kathmandu had told us that we did not need down jackets for our trek and that we could rent a sleeping back in Namche. But, after further discussions with Samir, we were rethinking what we needed and headed out to the stores to figure out what we should buy or rent for the coming cold we were going to face.
Despite what the sales office told us, Samir recommended that I have a down jacket for the trip. Craig had purchased a heavier fleece in Kathmandu and planned to wear it with many layers and his rain coat. However, the small, lightweight fleece that I had brought from the U.S. wasn’t going to cut it once it got really cold and we began walking in snow. So, after some searching, we came across a red, hooded down coat in a store that was closing just down from our hotel. The first store we visited told me that it would cost about $75 for a Mammut down coat (that was a fake), and we were not interested in spending that much on a coat. No thank you! We ended finding the last down jacket available in the store that was closing and purchased it for about $28. Definitely more than I would have liked to have spent, but, it would do for the trip.
In addition to a coat, we had planned to rent sleeping bags in Namche. Samir took us to a store owned by a friend so that we could get a better price. However, she only had a nasty, smelly sleeping bag that would cost us more than $15 to rent. No thanks! We decided to “think about it” and went on a search for another solution. First, we didn’t really have room in our bag for two huge sleeping bags like the ones available for rent. Second, we did not want to spend $15 to rent just one sleeping bag…we could have purchased a new one in Kathmandu for that price! So, we ended up finding a fleece sheet that was available for about $9 to act as a sleeping bag for me. Samir told us that with the sheet we bought, he would also ask for extra blankets at each of the lodges we stayed in to ensure that we were warm.
While shopping didn’t go exactly as planned in Namche, we got what we needed to stay warm as we continued to ascend toward Everest. In addition, we picked up some cough drops for my throat and did a speed email check as it would be really our last chance to get online until we were back in Namche at the end of the trek. Successful acclimatization day!
Stay tuned for more on days four through sixteen soon!