First Time Trekking to EBC and Gokyo Lakes
Before I even begin this piece, I’d like you do one thing. Get a pencil and your bucket list out. Write on your bucket list with said pencil, “Do Everest Basecamp Trekking”. Now, at the end of these feature pieces, I want to know - have you rewritten it in pen?
When I found out I would be spending one year in Nepal, my eyes lit up. I’m going to see Everest. Yippee. As I’m here on a scholarship with the Australian Government, most of my time in the country was to be taken up by work and study. I figured I would be able to squeeze a trek in a couple of weeks holiday between work and study in August. Monsoon season, I soon found out. Great. Without being too melodramatic, I could see the trek fading into the distance quickly. So when I was given the opportunity to do the EBC trek in May, I did not so much jump at it as I did leap through space and time to get there. This has long been a bucket list item for me - as it should be for anyone!
After a night lacking in any serious quantity of sleep, on May 10, 2017, I made my way to the airport in Kathmandu. Yes, this will be the day I begin my epic journey, I so proclaimed. Through the wildnerness, high and low, I shall scour Everest and step foot upon its Base Camp. Well, pending weather, that is. Tenzing Hillary Airport, at Lukla, is the world’s most dangerous airport to fly into, and if there’s clouds about, it’s a big no-no. I made a mental note: there’s clouds bloody everywhere. With that said, I saw my trekking buddy, Anuj, saunter over to me. A veteran of the Annapurna circuit, Zoologist and animal lover, Anuj was coming to conquer EBC (Everest Base Camp) for the first time, and lay eyes upon the mountain he wishes to climb in five years time - Everest. Good luck to him, I reckon. That mountain is a death trap. I’ll be quite content with getting to Base Camp, thank you very much.
Kathmandu to Lukla Flight
Apparently, it’s all systems go up in Lukla, and we’re right to fly. The plane is loud, and it’s at this point that Anuj mentions he’s only been on a plane once before and he’s terrified of flying. So wait, I say. You mean you’re terrified of being in a plane yet you’ll happily walk up the side of an 8,900m mountain to stand on the summit, at the same height of a Boeing747’s cruising altitude? The guy is mad, I conclude.
Upon arriving in Lukla and throwing down some breakfast, the adventure begins. Biswa, our guide, has cool hair. And as I would later find out, knows the name of every single mountain in the Nepali Himalaya and their heights. That is seriously impressive. I’m not sure if you know or not, but there’s a lot of mountains out there. 360 degree snow-capped peaks. Kudos to Biswa.
Trek to Phakding
The first day was relatively short and uneventful. Perhaps that’s why we felt compelled to take GoPro footage of every single bridge we walked over. “Hey look Anuj, a BRIDGE. How exciting!”. Honestly, there is something exhilarating about walking over a bridge in nature. It’s all part of the adventure, I promise. We reached Phak Ding (say it fast five times) by midday, at which point I realised I had a slight dilemma: I was going to get very bored, very quickly when we weren’t walking. Thankfully, this was the modus operandi of every other trekker in the lands, and so there were card games and socialising abound. In fact, the nights became some of my favourite parts of the trek. Something I do very much hope you find to be true when you trek is that you won’t really meet any crappy people. Mountains tend to bring together people with a sense of adventure, a love of nature and an understanding that you are an infinitesimal speck in this world. If someone checks those three boxes, you can usually be rest assured they’re a pretty dope human being. I ended up writing a piece about the people I met along the way, such was the impact they had on me.
Trek to Namche Bazar
The next day was a much longer trek, as we made hay for the infamous Namche Bazaar. This would include walking across the (even more) infamous Hillary Bridge, and then up a crucifying two hour stretch of hill (because in Nepal, mountains aren’t mountains unless they are over 6,000m), involving multiple dreaded switch-backs.
Hillary Bridge. After taking photos of every bridge enroute, we realised this was the only one that really mattered.
Disclaimer: You will find I may use less-than desirable adjectives in this piece when describing walking up things, namely hills. This is not to deter you from making this trip. In fact, I personally believe almost anybody can successfully trek to Base Camp. The limiting factor is not generally fitness; it’s altitude. Therefore, please do not take words such as “dreaded” and “crucifying” as words to run away from. Although almost anyone can make it to Base Camp, it is also a challenging trek for most people due to the altitude. Even fit people struggle at 5,000m. Trust me. Getting to the top of a challenging ascent is all part of the fun.
So, back to those dreaded switch-back. If you’re not accustomed with switch-backs pre-trek, you will be after. They are basically paths which zig-zag up a hill to avoid using too much space on the hill (and preserve the environment), and to reduce the depth of the incline. This was our first experience with such an ascent, and it was pretty darn hard. This is one ascent you will feel if you haven’t trained, as your legs simply won’t be ready for it. I could barely move afterwards. We arguably did steeper climbs at higher altitudes after this, but none cooked my legs as much as the ascent to Namche.
Namche Bazaar itself is a surprisingly delightful place. Pitched onto a descending cliff face, the entire village resembles something of a horse-shoe, with the majority of lodges forming a U around the middle of town down below, where you’ll find a variety of pubs to drink at, and stores to buy all the trekking gear you could need. Most people will spend a day acclimatising here at 3,500m before heading further up into the mountains, and it’s highly recommended. Aside from it’s picturesque setting, Namche is also a buzzing, hiving little pot of fun. Cafe Danphe’s does a beef and bacon cheeseburger second to none in all of Nepal, has a pool table and shows a movie at 2pm every day. Cafe 8488 has your bakery goodies and a movie at 3. I’d strongly recommend checking these two out, and finishing your trek with a beer or three at Danphe’s on your way back through.
Back to Dudhkhosi
The next day’s walking is bound to frustrate most, but it’s worth it once you reach your destination. The day begins flat, and then drops off - you walk all the way back down to the Dudhkhosi river, which is where you started your ascent two days ago on your way up to Namche. It’s a long way down, and if you thought you might have to go back up after that.. You’re right. All the way back up. Then some.
At nearly 4,000 meters, your next stop, Tengboche, sits at the precipice of the bodies’ ability to handle altitude. As you near the top of countless switchbacks toward this gorgeous Buddhist town, you might find you need to slow down a little to help your body begin to acclimatise.
Brilliant views of Everest and Lhotse await you in the village, as does a beautiful, bright monastery where monks come from all over Nepal to study. Trekkers are treated to a puja each day at 3pm; a traditional Tibetan Buddhist ceremony performed within the walls of the monastery. No phones are allowed, meaning you’ll get a rare chance to see and experience something which can only be seen and experienced first-hand. I won’t spoil this one for you - it’s something you have to see yourself.
Leaving Tengboche has the feeling you might just be leaving the last lines of humane and environmental civilisation. The lush, large pine trees accompanying the trek thus far give way to smaller trees with scraping bark. Small head throbs begin to kick in. The air pressure is definitely beginning take hold on both me and the environment. As our breath shortens throughout this day and the next, we watch as the environment around us dissolves. First, the trees. Junipers are the only tree still surviving, though they are so starved of oxygen they resemble shrubbery. Grass lives on in patches.
Two days after vacating Tengboche, we reach Lobuche - our last night’s sleep before we reach Base Camp. By now, 5,000 meters high, only rocks remain. Any blade of grass is gnawed out of this infertile dirt by donkeys and yaks. I will say though, as a sweets lover, eating a delicious piece of Vanilla cake at the world’s highest bakery was special little moment in my life.
Now, everything has started to die. Compare these Junipers to those in your backyard.
Excitement and altitude tend to make sleep hard in Lobuche. We’re up early for a 10 hour day and I’ve had 2 hours of sleep. Today takes us four hours through to Gorak Shep, where we drop our bags, before carrying on for a six hour round trip to Base Camp. The terrain is lifeless of any vibrancy at all - only browns, whites and greys remain. Upon the base camp approach even the water in the Khumbu Glacier has a murky grey-white look to it. The monotone presents a starkly different beauty to that you would see elsewhere, yet beautiful it is. I realise at this point just how high we are, and how impressive the human body is. To acclimatise to this kind of environment is an impressive feat.
Gorak Shep to Everest Base Camp
It doesn’t acclimatise without a struggle though. By Gorak Shep, which I might add, looks to be just about the most remote outpost of civilisation on the planet, my head was pounding - a direct result of altitude: the body sends more blood to the brain to cope with the lack of oxygen in the air. So thus, after lunch at Gorak Shep, with significantly smaller loads on our backs, we set out for Everest Base Camp. The break reduced the headache, but any incline along the way to Base Camp meant a five minute sit down - I didn’t want to dance with fate this close to my goal.
This is Gorak Shep. There’s about five buildings and 300 more beds than there are people. Get there early.
With only minutes left to walk, and the tents of our glorious destination in sight, the skies closed in and snow began to fall. Snow. As others bemoaned their chance to spy the peaks from Base Camp, I secretly squeal. I’ve never seen snow before. I’ve been to the snow twice in my life, but it’s never actually snowed. What a perfect place for it. As anticipation rises throughout the group, we climb up over a small rocky crest and waltz under a line of prayer flags, arms outstretched. For so many up on the mountain right now, this is merely the beginning of an arduous and dangerous undertaking, though it is our adventure’s crescendo.
Everest Base Camp Experience First time
And so, as snow falls around our fairytale, hugs abound between all kinds. The Canadians we’ve spent the past seven days with. Anuj, my trekking buddy since day one. Two Kiwis and Canadians we would soon embark on another adventure with. It’s hard to describe the feeling of being here. Wonder, at the snow. Elation, at having made it here. Curiosity, at the task lying ahead for those higher up on Everest. Pain, at my thumping head and throbbing back. Then, the snow stops as we turn to leave. The cloud clears. Lhotse towers over us, so tall itself Everest is nowhere to be seen. The Khumbu Icefall and its pitfalls loom ahead of Base Camp. It is natural beauty defined by death, with the thoughts of those who have perished in its crevasses and under its seracs searing through my mind.
EBC 2017: Trying to hide my headache whilst marvelling at the snow.
EBC to Kala Patthar
Back at Gorak Shep, my head has moved past ache and into migraine territory. With Base Camp down, we’ve got one more stop before we continue our journey elsewhere: Kala Patthar (meaning “Black Rock”). It’s the highest point of the trek at 5,545m, a large hill at which Gorak Shep sits at the base of. We’re up at 4am in the morning to make it to the top as the sun rises, so I take an Advil and head to bed.
The alarm sounds at 4 and Anuj and I are both already strapping on our boots, headlamps engaged. We step into the teahouse lobby to a room of bleay-eyed yawners. Headache free, I’m ready to power: Turns out yesterday was my acclimatisation day, and I’m ready to roll. We step out onto a desert-like plain and across to the base of the hill. It looks like a bloody mountain. We turn and look to Base Camp and spy flashlights making their way through the Icefall - on their way to the top of a real mountain, the mountain to top them all. To be here climbing literally within the visual radius of Everest summiteers was a special feeling.
Everest takes centre stage, emitting a beautiful smoke of pink cloud. Lhotse to its right, Lhola to its left. On the way up Kala Patthar at 5am.
Buoyed by their determination to conquer Everest and relieved of the ill effects of altitude, Anuj and I push forwards, speeding past many a trekker suffering from yesterday’s headache. We learnt soon after that some people were attempting Kala Patthar prior to EBC - a recipe for disaster given the drastic rise in elevation in a short time on Kala Patthar.
Although the is far from over, Kala Patthar feels like the end of a chapter. As the sky went from black to purple to pink to blue, and the path below us turned from dirt to rocks, we neared our peak.
I’m so close now. I need but ten more steps to stand atop the roof of the world and the floor of the Himalaya. Although now, the rocks had slippery ice sheeting them, with a sheer cliff face a meter to the left, dropping to the miniature glaciers miles below. I’d have to drag myself up. Slowly. Carefully.
I clung to the prayer flags to my right, swung into them and dragged myself up, keeping myself away from the plunge centimeters to my left. I wondered how many lives these flags had saved. I grabbed a safe, dry part of the rock above me and hauled myself over it. Legs shaking, I stood up. My God, I thought. I can’t believe I just did that.
Standing tall at the very top of Kala Patthar. One of the Himalayas real beauties, Pumori, stands taller behind me.
Pumori stood behind me, majestic and white. I eyeballed Everest, the sun climbing to its left, wondering how the climbers we’d seen earlier were faring. After eight days, this view became all that mattered. The mountains stretched for miles around, a natural miracle almost too elegant, too graceful, to be real. Yet here it was. Adrenaline and joy surged through me, standing here atop the roof of the world; floor of the Himalaya, staring up at the highest point planet earth has provided.
Following Kala Patthar, it was not yet the end of our trek. Another big day lead us to Dzongla, our prepping station for tackling the Chola Pass on our way to Gokyo. Continue reading my feature for UpEverest with Passing Over, the next piece in the series.
Associate Member :
airlines Partner :