Mount Everest, the highest mountain on earth, a magnet for mountaineers for decades and a regular pilgrimage for adventurous backpackers seeking a view of highest point on our earth. Snow-capped, savage, but beautiful in its aura, hikers push themselves to their limits to stand in its awe, and to soak in the amazement and wonder of this iconic peak.
Hiking to Everest base-camp (EBC Trek) is for most people, as close as they will ever get to the mountain. For just about every person that hikes the EBC camp trail, it will be a dream come true and form memories that will last a lifetime.
Having already hiked all over the world with kids the Everest Base camp Trail had been a dream of mine, and my stepson for years. Just 14 years old, I wondered if it was a step too far. I was unfit, we had very little time, and it would mean a harsh regime of training, planning and ultimately, taking ‘that’ flight into Lukla.
We completed the West Highland Way in April, and on the journey back to our home in Yorkshire I knew we could do it. I looked at Charlie, nodded and said “lets do the EBC”. He smiled. It was on.
Getting from Kathmandu to Lukla
It used to be a flight, or a long walk from Jiri was your only realistic option into Lukla. As Nepalese infrastructure within the region has ploughed ahead, the road now reaches Phaplu or Salleri which shaves a few days off the Jiri hike. It is worth pointing out that if you walk in to the EBC trail, you can avoid Lukla altogether as the trail leads directly to the EBC. This road is very much a work in progress, albeit a slow one, but the distance is increasing year on year.
Flying from Kathmandu to Lukla
The way it works with local airlines in Nepal, is that you buy a return ticket. Flights are so regularly cancelled that the date on your ticket often doesn’t mean much. During summer flights only really happen in the mornings as once cloud comes in, flights can no longer take off. The biggest issue with flights is that you can never guarantee your dates. Until of course you actually get to the airport and are hurtling down the run way.
Typically, you are told to be at the airport at a certain time, we rolled up and the airport wasn’t even open. Thankfully we found a door that in true Nepali style was unlocked and allowed us unrestricted access to the airport. A guard dog did take interest in us and particularly my leg, but thankfully alerted a security guard who came over, brick in hand and convinced the dog the to take his business elsewhere.
Renowned as being the most dangerous flight in the world, on an airline with a long history of flying into mountains, headed to the most difficult landing strip on the planet, a flight to Lukla is obviously a major concern. And for some people, the defining factor of whether to hike the EBC or not.
What generally happens with Nepali airlines is that one of them crashes, then changes its name or merges with another airline. Nonetheless, we booked through Yeti airlines and ended up on a Tara plane. At Kathmandu airport you board a bus and head to your plane. I remember seeing the dodgiest looking planes ever and thinking ‘I hope that’s not ours, I hope that’s not ours’, invariably the shadiest looking one, held together with little more than sweat and hope, was ours.
The tiny plane we boarded had just seven of us on there and was some cold war era looking thing that anywhere else in the world would probably now be in a museum somewhere. Thankfully we were told what side of the aircraft to sit on to ensure we got great views. Cockpit door clearly an affordable extra, the two pilots were waiting for a break in the cloud before they went for it. A slither of blue sky appeared, the engines roared to life and within minutes we were shaking into the sky and down the Kathmandu valley. Though only a 25 minute flight, I felt every single second. Convinced that any minute a screw would pop loose or a wing fall off. Conscious, that the most spectacular view I had ever witnessed, could well be the last thing I ever saw.
Eventually a tiny landing strip pops into view and the mountains start to close in, moments later we landed on a ridiculously small runway and held on, praying the plane would stop before hitting the mountain at the end. Conscious that the flight has no option to ‘go around’. I have never felt more grateful to any pilot. Well. Until the return trip.
Flying from Lukla to Kathmandu
By the time we had got back to Lukla, I would’ve boarded a paper plane out of there. That said, the flight back to Kathmandu is an experience in itself. Leaving Lukla is not something to be taken lightly, this is where delays are common place so arriving at Lukla airstrip we really didn’t know whether we would be leaving or not. We were told that the flight would be heavily delayed but that we had to wait on the airstrip for it to arrive. Eventually we saw a plane rocking as it came in to land, and here’s the best bit. As the plane was still moving people were bailing, jumping out and having their bags thrown at them. Suddenly someone jumps up and starts ushering us onto the plane, it was moving slowly but an urgency to get on, and get on quickly was made very clear to us. Literally we jumped on, with three other people and the plane did a quick U-turn and revved up down the runway. Looking out of the window I felt a sadness to be leaving Lukla then suddenly the plane dropped what felt like a long way, my heart was in my mouth. Turns out that because Lukla runway is on a slope, you literally go off the end of it and then become airborne. This is because when landing, the upward slope allows the plane to slow down quickly, but when leaving, get a much greater speed as it is going downhill. For everyone inside, and unaware, this results in fear of imminent expiration. For the aircraft, it is the only way for it to become airborne.
The flight back to Kathmandu was every bit as shaky and bumpy as it was outbound and I just felt that every minute could be our last. However, when we landed at Kathmandu and disembarked I looked at the pilots, two men who are fair game for the buts of many jokes. Yet two men who fly notoriously difficult routes, in one of the worlds least safe countries aviation wise. Two amazing masters of their craft and clearly, outstanding pilots.
On the trail, accommodation is very basic. Most lodges are shared bathrooms and some of the toilets are squat toilets. Nowhere has toilet roll so bring your own. Rooms are small with two single beds, but in some villages, there is very little choice and you can end up in a cramped wooden box with little between you and the elements. Showers are chargeable and freezing cold.
It is expected that you eat your evening meal where you stay.
Supplies on the EBC
We decided to take water purification tablets, and also to take a ‘water to go’, which is a bottle that filters the water and claims to be perfect for drinking water whilst out trekking. Given we would be drinking up to 5 litres of water each per day, that is why we chose to take purification tablets. Purely a money saving mechanism.
Cost of water on the trail 80NPR for 1L in Lukla, leaving Lukla in Pahkding it costs 100NPR per litre and then increases in proce the further on the trail you get, coming in at 250NPR per litre at Gorak Shep.
Accommodation on the trail is crazy cheap, usually $1 – $2 per night, sometimes free, this is because it is expected that you eat your evening meal there. Meals range from veg fried rice or noodles, mo-mos, stews etc. Again, food prices increase depending on where you are on the trail from around 200NPR in Lukla, upwards of 600NPR in Gorak Shep.
If you are doing EBC independently you have to get your permit from the Nepal Tourism Board in Kathmandu, not in Thamel. It’s not an issue it’s an easy walk from Thamel or a short ride in a taxi.
Equipment list to take on the EBC Trek
|Trousers x 3||Base layers x 3|
|Walking socks x 4||Softy/down/insulated jacket|
|Soft shell jacket (Windproof)||Waterproof layer (we used Gore-tex)|
|Buff||Cap and woolly hat|
|Gore-tex boots||Flip flops (believe me you NEED these!)|
|Map||Face wipes & Antibacterial gel|
|Sun cream||Toilet roll (no where on the trail has this!)|
|First aid kit (see here)||Water purification tablets/filtration bottle|
|Hydration tablets||Cheap phone|
|Camera||Note pad and pen|
|Deodorant||Tooth brush and toothpaste|
Note: Battery charging on the trek is often unavailable or you must pay for it. We didn’t take one, as my cheap phone had 30hrs of battery life, but worth the investment.
Lukla (2880m) – Namche Bazaar (3440m)
Time taken: 9hrs
We landed into Lukla at 8.30am. For some reason every guide book recommends hiking to Pahkding, but to me this didn’t make sense. The elevation of Pahkding is 2610m compared with Lukla which is 2880m and it’s also not really that far. I decided it would make more sense to have a big first day and head straight to Namche Bazaar, feeling like we’d made some progress. It is so common that people hike just to Pahkding, that when we strolled up to the lodge in Namche Bazaar the guy couldn’t believe we had come straight from Lukla.
I would love to sit and talk about the village of Lukla, and how this is great and that is great, but conscious of the hike ahead we literally walked out of the airport, through the narrow streets of Lukla, past lodges, trekking shops and straight to where we needed to register at a tourism police check point. Effortless and slick, we registered and then left the village through Pasang Lhamo Memorial Gate. Instantly, you are on a trail headed into the valley meandering around the lush green mountain sides beneath clouds clinging to the sides.
It is beautiful, you don’t need me to tell you that.
It feels as though you have been transported a world frequented by few, seen by even less, loved by everyone.
It is as close to paradise on earth. But it is subjective. We were there during monsoon season and I loved how the clouds teased us constantly, gifting a rare sight of a rugged peak just occasionally. I loved the green of the grass, the yellow of the flowers, the earth felt alive. Yet others prefer clear blue skies, tired grass giving a solid underfoot. That is why I won’t wax lyrical about the scenery, to me it was mind-blowing, to everyone something different.
We stopped for lunch in Bengcar, but this was really the only time we stopped the whole day. Well except for when Charlie was doing a river crossing and I realised we should have put gators on.
Between Lukla and Namche there are a total of six suspension bridges. All six of them dodgy. Following the sixth bridge and easily the scariest of them all, the incline increases and a tormenting climb of switchbacks begin. They only end once you finally reach Namche and the end of a gruelling day. Just before reaching the village you pass a check point, it is also from this check point that you can buy certificates to prove to any naysayer that you actually did the EBC. If proving people wrong just happens to be your thing.
Charlie won the ‘you fell over first award’ about 2hrs into the trek and he also won the ‘idiot of the trek award’ when a local child asked him “what language do you speak”, Charlie responded, “thank you” and continued walking.
From around 2.30pm we were rained on constantly, and this is where having Gore-Tex was a life saver as we continued onwards in spite of the weather. Once at Namche we were exhausted and found the first place we could, ditched our gear and then sat in the amazing dining hall of the lodge reading the stories and memorabilia of trekkers who had passed through here over the years. Had it not been so cold I could’ve sat in there all night. As it happened, we retreated to the room to read and within minutes Charlie had fallen asleep and I was close thereafter. Both knowing that this had been one of the most amazing, but hardest days of our lives.
Where we stayed: Hotel Everest View
Calories burned: 5433
Time taken: 2hrs 30 mins
At about 3000m the human body can no longer sustain itself without proper acclimatisation and so people check out or get seriously ill. It was also a great excuse to do nothing since we were still absolutely blown out from the day previous.
In order to acclimitise effectively you are supposed to hike somewhere higher in altitude than where you are sleeping, then retreat back. So this is exactly what we did.
We headed up towards Khumjung hoping to catch our first glimpse of Everest en route. This wasn’t to be, and we were a little disappointed. We hiked to the highest point of the trail to Khumjung and could see the village beneath us. Visibility was reducing quickly so we descended back into Namche and played cards and read for the remainder of the day, and our second night of little sleep due to dogs howling throughout the night.
Where we stayed: Hotel Everest View
Namche Bazaar (3440m) – Pangboche (3985m)
Time taken: 7hrs
Leaving Namche is an immediate steep ascent, but this doesn’t last long. The path levels out and becomes a gentle hike, not quite flat, but termed to be ‘Nepali flat’ which means some ups and downs, but nothing major.
Once you reach Sanasa there is a long descent which we were already dreading for the return journey and when you reach Phunki Thenga this changes into a long, grinding sequence of switchbacks up to Tengboche. The paths are mostly stoney and pebbled paths and it felt never-ending.
We originally planned to hike to Tengboche (3860m) but by the time we reached there, it was midday and the place felt deserted. We decided to have a bag of nuts for lunch and press on to Pangboche.
The stretch out of Tengboche is a steep descent through a wooded area, the path is rocky and tough on tired feet. After a while you meet up with the riverside and the path levels out, once over the bridge the climb starts again and doesn’t finish until you reach the village of Pangboche.
It was another tough night, but thankfully dog free allowing us to have a good nights sleep.
Where we stayed: Gunbala Lodge
Pangboche (2985m) – Thukla (4940m)
Time taken: 4hrs
The plan was to head to Periche (4371m) and then see how we felt and whether to stay over, or continue onwards. Again, we covered the distance way quicker than we had expected and was in Periche after just two hours, mainly due to the absolute ease of the hike. Since it was only 9.30am, we decided to push on and head to Thukla.
Periche is a beautiful place in a stunning valley but felt like it would’ve been a waste of a day to stay there. Upon leaving we were joined by a menacing looking number of dogs whose intentions we weren’t sure about. It quickly became apparent they meant us no harm, and for a while it was nice to be joined by them. Soon though they became irritating as they kept pushing past us, squeezing between us and just randomly stopping in front of us to the point they were significantly slowing us down.
The hike from Periche is sharp at times, but mainly a steady incline. Both Charlie and I agreed that this was the hardest stretch so far, not due to the terrain, but the altitude really started to get to us. Eventually we saw a tiny collection of just two lodges and realised we were in Thukla (also pronounced Thokla) and this would be where we would spend the night. In order to access the lodges you must cross a super dodgy bridge Lara Croft style.
Where we stayed: Yak Lodge
Costs: Free (assuming you ate at the restaurant)
Thukla (4940m) – Everest Basecamp (5380m) – Gorak Shep (5164m)
Time taken: 8hrs 30 mins
We knew this was going to be a huge day.
The ground now rocky and arid, devoid of life, greenery scarce, mountain peaks jutting into the sky, it was otherworldly.
For the first time we felt like we really were on top of the world. We were sandwiched between a glacier and a mountain, the cold air blasting us as it rolled from the peaks of some of the highest mountains in the world. The groaning noise of the glacier as it creaks added an eerie feel to what was already a lifechanging day.
The ascent was brutal. Breathing became harder, our bags felt heavier, and we just pushed on knowing this was going to be the pinnacle, this was why we were here.
After what felt like an eternity we arrived at Gorak Shep, which really is the final frontier of the Everest region. Deciding we would spend the night here we ditched all our non essentials, refueled and continued on towards Everest Basecamp. Every step felt like the hardest step we had ever taken and when we got just past Kala Pattar speaking between us both was minimal. It had snowed the previous night meaning we couldn’t climb up Kala Pattar and so we continued following the glacier and sandy, rocky trail.
For the previous 2 days we had seen glimpses of mountain peaks, we had witnessed and been privilege to a scenery I could never have imagined. Yet we had still not seen Everest.
Our hike had now become a slow, desperate motion forward taken with small steps as the altitude really gripped me. Charlie was better than I was, but we both had headaches and were struggling to continue. And then it happened. The clouds opened up like the curtains at a theatre. And we stood there, waiting to see what the show had on offer and it was mesmerising. A tear clung to my eye as my breathing shallowed, the hairs on my neck stood up. I could hear the glacier grumbling away, prayer flags flapping in the wind. I managed a weak motion of my hand over to Charlie and realised he too had found himself in the same paradise that I had. For a moment nothing in the world mattered. We had made it.
At basecamp I collapsed over a rock and knew we had to head back. The journey back to Gorak Shep was silent. Both immersed in our thoughts, grateful for seeing earth at its rawest, and most rugged. For me it was the end of a journey that I had trained for, worked hard for, and that if I am honest, didn’t think I would achieve. Charlie at just 14 years old knew that he had instantly become one of the elite, one of the few children to have ever stepped foot at basecamp.
Though we saw Mount Everest, the summit remained hidden from view behind a linger of cloud. Perhaps coaxing us back to see if we might one day see the roof of the world in its raw glory. Who knows. But back at Gorek Shep I was now feeling really ill so we retreated to bed and slept off the most difficult, but amazing day of our lives.
Where we stayed: Snowland Inn
Costs: Free (assuming you ate at the restaurant)
Gorak Shep (5164m) – Debuche (3734m)
Time taken: 6hrs
We had planned to hike all the way to Tengboche, we had to descend. We had hung around all morning at Gorak Shep hoping the clouds would clear fully and I was now really struggling with altitude.
Hiking out of Gorak Shep we immediately started to lose altitude and it really is amazing how quickly I started to improve. The talking between us both started back up, and a new energy was there. Due to the late start, and knowing you aren’t allowed to trek after sunset in the region, when we arrived into Debuche we decided to spend the night. A guide told us that the next village, Tengboche was closed. I have no idea of this was true, but it no longer mattered.
Speaking to Charlie that night it became apparent how well he had masked his struggles at basecamp. To me he looked ok, but he explained how physically demanding the day had been but how he knew I had been struggling and didn’t want to give me anything else to think about. And really that sums him up, tenacious, caring, determined and someone who is a fantastic hiking partner. I realised just how proud of him I really was at that point.
Where we stayed: Paradise Lodge
Debuche (3734m) – Lukla (2880m)
Time taken: 10Hrs
Leaving Debuche and headed to Namche Bazaar I realised how physically and mentally tired we both were. We hadn’t showered in a week, opting rather for cold washes and roll on deodorant. We hadn’t had a good nights sleep, hadn’t relaxed, and I wanted nothing more than an ice cold soft drink by a pool to relax what was now my aching bones. I had an idea.
I said to Charlie, that if we hiked the unthinkable, all the way back to Lukla, then we could fly out of there hopefully in the morning.
I would get us a 5-star hotel in Kathmandu, eat at the best restaurant and spend a couple of days doing absolutely nothing. He was sold, and we pushed ourselves beyond our limits, hiking the entire way back to Lukla.
There comes a time when you are hiking that you are no longer tired, where your legs feel so heavy that their movement becomes autonomous. Where if you blink longer than a split second you would fall asleep. Hiking into Lukla, in darkness. That is how we felt.
Where we stayed: Lama Hotel
At the airport the following morning, looking out over where we had started. Where an adventure that had pushed us both beyond our limits was now over, we hugged. And we shared a silent moment of perfection, of understanding, of pride and of the realisation that we had shared something so beautiful, something so amazing that we could never share just how spectacular the last seven days had been, and just how life changing it was.