Honestly speaking I can’t say that we have much experience with long distance trekking, particularly at altitude. Yet we found ourselves booked onto a three week trekking holiday in Nepal, taking in Everest Base Camp (EBC) and the Gokyo Lakes.
It’s a bucket list trip for any adventurer, but had we really considered the extremity of the hike? In hindsight I wonder if we should have done a little more research as to what lay ahead. So here’s my advice to anyone considering this trip; tips and suggestions that I wish people had told us!
The flight to Lukla
Picture a frighteningly short landing strip perched high upon a mountain ledge, with a gradient designed to not only slow incoming planes but also to assist in the take off of others.
Lukla is notoriously known as one of the most dangerous airports in the world. This unfortunately, for those with a fear of flying, is the gateway to Everest.
The area is accessible by foot, however it’s a long seven day trek from Kathmandu and so flying is the preferred option.
Our chosen airline was Tara Air, which I’m told is one of the safest in the region. Crammed into a 14-seater propeller plane with little leg nor head room, the stewardess squeezed her way up the non-existent aisle to offer us boiled sweets and cotton wool to drown the noise. As the plane gained speed, our attention turned to the emergency exit, which was being held shut with a thick layer of silicone, letting in an unnerving amount of air.
The journey took around 25 minutes from Kathmandu. Be warned that if the weather turns then flights can be delayed for a number of days.
Flights in Nepal have a strict luggage limit of 10kg for your main bag, and 5kg for hand luggage.
Trekking to Everest Base Camp and the Goyko Lakes
Lukla is one of the main settlements in the area and a great place to pick up water and snacks before you ascend into the more remote villages where prices dramatically increase.
The initial section of the path, from Lukla to Namche Bazaar is littered with tuck shops and teahouses. This part of the route is well trodden. It is estimated that over 30,000 trekkers take in the EBC route each year. This is partly why we opted for the less visited Gokyo Lakes region. At times you’ll likely be tripping over other trekkers, porters carrying abnormally large loads and the scores of yaks carrying goods up and down the mountain. When yaks pass, stay mountain-side to avoid being pushed over the edge of the narrow trails.
Due to the risk of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), trekkers must ascend the mountains slowly. Most organised tours will include a few days in Namche Bazaar (3,445m), allowing your body time to adjust to the sudden change in altitude. This is also a great place to pick-up any gear that you may need – such as thermals, buffs, waterproofs etc. for reasonable prices.
On day seven of the trek, we captured our first glimpse of the pristine turquoise lakes at Gokyo (4,750m). Aside from the snowy mountain peaks which lined our journey up the valley, Gokyo was by far my favourite vista of the trek. An oddly serene calmness filled the air as a warming glow came from the glacial lakes.
The following day we climbed Gokyo Ri. Ri meaning hill – although the lack of oxygen paired with a steep gradient mean this was more of a mountain climb. At 5,360m this trek was not for the fait heartened. At the top we were rewarded with panoramic views of four of the seven highest peaks in the Nepalese Himalaya: Cho Oyu, Everest, Lhoste and Makalu.
From Gokyo we descended over the Ngozumpo Glacier to Tangnak (4,700m) at the foot of the Cho La Pass.
Day nine was by far the most challenging of the trek as we started a long climb over the Cho La. Scrambling up an imposing near vertical boulder field, we zig zagged our way to the top. This part of the trek is extremely dangerous due to falling boulders and icey conditions. Luckily for us the weather held out and we were rewarded with incredible views of Ama Dablam. We descended onto a snow covered glacier, this time wearing yak tracks and continued onto Dzongla (4,830m) where we spent the night.
We were now surrounded by majestic giant Himalayan peaks as we continued onto Gorak Shep, located at the foot of Kala Pattar (meaning black rock). This is the last settlement before Everest and the teahouses can get overcrowded. There are no luxuries here. No western toilets, no showers.
From here we set off on a slow four hour walk to reach Base Camp located at the foot of the Kumbu Icefall. At peak climbing season in Spring, this rocky glacial camp is filled with over 10,000 tents. However we were visiting in the winter when the weather is unpredictable and no climbing takes place.
Base Camp for me, was somewhat underwhelming. A boulder field littered with prayer flags and little else. The stench of human waste was hard to ignore and we had seen better views of Everest along our journey. For this reason I am thankful that we opted for the alternative Gokyo route and although the Cho La Pass was by far the hardest physical challenge I have ever tackled, the sense of achievement was far greater than merely the badge of making it to Base Camp.
The sense of relief by this point had filled the group. Over the next three days we walked with a spring in our step downhill to reach Lukla. Enjoying a few refreshing Everest beers along the way.
What do you eat in the mountains of Nepal?
Walking through the valleys around Lukla, I was surprised to see fields flooded with fresh cabbages, Chinese lettuce, carrots, herbs and potatoes. These tasty local ingredients form the basis of food on the trek. Teahouses across the mountain serve dishes with western, Nepalese and Chinese influences. The menu rarely differs.
You may start the day with fresh eggs on deliciously sweet homemade bread, porridge or muesli.
For lunch and dinner popular dishes included:
- Thukpa – Sherpa stew filled with boiled potatos, homemade pasta and veg.
- Fried potatoes with veggies.
- Chicken, yak or water buffalo curry with rice. If you have a sensitive stomach then consider going veggie as most of the meat on the mountain is carried from lower villages in the midday heat.
- Momos – veggie or meat filled dumplings that come either fried or steamed.
- Fried rice / noodles with egg.
- Dahl Baht – a favourite with local sherpas, this meal offers a bit of everything – veggies, potatoes, dahl soup and rice. Plus best part is they always offer you seconds.
- Rara noodle soup – a slightly spicy Thai broth with vegetables and instant noodles.
- Apple Pie – a staple pudding on the mountain.
Note your diet on the mountain will be filled with plenty of white starchy foods and fibre is limited. I‘d recommend bringing Nakd bars or fibre gel to ensure things work smoothly 😉
What to expect from a teahouse?
Teahouses are the main form of lodging in the Himalaya. At the heart of the building is a large communal space, which features a yak dung burner to keep the room warm. Expect to see hordes of people crowding around the burner come the evening as temperatures plummet outside. This is where you will eat, drink and socialise.
Bedrooms are usually private, with two single slightly hard mattresses and a few hooks to hang clothing. There is no heating in the bedrooms and so a good quality sleeping bag and thermals are needed. Another tip is to pay for boiled water in the evening for a makeshift hot water bottle. Don’t be surprised to wake up to frozen ceilings and windows. Some nights temperatures dropped to -15C in our room.
Teahouses are usually run by one family who also live on site. They take pride in offering local home cooked food. The further you gain in altitude the more basic the lodgings become.
Electricity, showers and hot water are all chargeable. Expect to pay 600NPR (£4.50) for a shower or to charge a device higher up in the mountains.
When to go?
October and November are peak trekking months in Nepal. It’s cold in the mountains, yet warmer in the valleys. The monsoon and rainy seasons will have passed and you can almost guarantee blue skies with little cloud – perfect for photos. Layering your clothes is important as the weather in the mountains can be unpredictable. Good thermals and a quality down jacket will be needed higher up.
Spring – February to April – is considered the best time to trek or climb in Nepal. As a result this tends to be the most expensive time of year to visit.
December is very cold in Nepal and personally I would avoid.
Do you know about Acute Mountain Sickness?
The risk of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is incredibly serious. On numerous occasions we saw horses carrying trekkers down the mountain. The blank nausea-induced look on their faces was haunting. Alongside that there are countless helicopters flying the sick out of the valley on a daily basis.
Don’t be fooled into thinking your fitness levels may be your savour, AMS is not selective over size nor fitness and even the locals feel the effects.
Symptoms include a headache, dizziness, shortness of breath, nausea and a chesty cough. Likelihood is you’ll feel some effects along the way. Most important thing is to be honest with yourself, if you start to notice your body changing then rest, and tell your guide. If your symptoms do not subside you should descend immediately. Ask your doctor about Diamox before you go – I was surprised to see over half our group rely on this treatment at some stage.
Thank the Sherpas
Trekking in the Himalaya would not be possible without the incredible passion and perseverance of the local Sherpas. Many are employed as porters, carrying abnormally large and heavy loads up and down the mountain paths. There are no cars in this region and without them that chocolate bar you purchase at 5,000m wouldn’t have even been available. Every piece of plywood used to build the teahouses, every yak burner keeping you warm at night and every piece of luggage is there because the Sherpas make it happen. So for that I would like to say thank you and Namaste to the local people of this uniquely beautiful part of the world.
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