The Everest Base Camp trek: The good, the bad…and the dirty

After three-and-a-half days of waiting for a flight from Kathmandu to Lukla, and nine days of trekking through rain and sunshine, clouds and cold, I made it to Everest Base Camp on Thursday, September 29 at approximately 9:18 a.m.

Standing among the prayer flags of Everest Base Camp with the sun shining down on me, a clear view of the Khumbu glacier and famed (dreaded) icefall, and the summit of Everest itself peeking out from behind the mountain’s western shoulder, I felt such a surge of pride and elation! I also felt deeply humbled; I felt humbled by the physical, mental and emotional struggle I’d endured to get to this place, humbled to stand where so many great people had passed before me, humbled to have such a clear and beautiful view of the site and the mountains surrounding me (most of the people I met on the trek told me they had only seen snow and clouds at EBC), and finally, I felt awed that I had actually made it there. It was a beautiful day and I was the only trekker at Everest Base Camp. This journey took a lot out of me, but it also gave me a lot — memories to last a lifetime.

Lonely Planet and other guidebooks offer informative descriptions of what to expect each day of the trek, so I don’t want to repeat information that’s already out there. Instead, this post is a recap of my favourite and least favourite parts of the journey, along with some tips to consider if EBC is on your bucket list.

THE GOOD

VIEW, VIEW, VIEWS! The Himalayas are beautiful. On the trek someone said to me “I can understand why people believe the gods came from the mountains” — the power and majesty of the mountains of the Khumbu region are spectacular. Thamserku, Ama Dablem, Pumori…they are incredible sights to behold and sometimes I had to mindfully put my iPhone away and keep my camera in my bag, knowing I wouldn’t get very far otherwise! And even when the weather wasn’t clear and the mountain peaks were obscured from view by  rain and cloud cover, the rivers, valleys and raw landscape itself were gorgeous. From yaks grazing and treading the steep paths, to mani walls, prayer flags, prayers wheels and chortens along the way, to beautiful trees, plants and flowers, and lovely towns, lonely lodges, farmland and smiling Sherpa people, this journey is rich for the eyes. And the trek is also a social adventure — you can meet people of all ages, backgrounds and cultures on the journey, and it’s easy to find things in common, discuss the day’s walk and bond over the shared experiences (“don’t those toilets smell delightful?” “Are you on Diamox? How many times did you get up to pee last night?”). The Sherpa people who call this region home, are quick to welcome you and say “Namaste” as you cross paths, and you can enjoy great hospitality and good food and drinks in the many lodges and teahouses along the way. This is an absolutely gorgeous journey, and making it to EBC…it feels INCREDIBLE! Below is a (very amateur) video I made, with a little footage from each day of the trek — some of my highlights from the journey! The soundtrack is Run Boy Run by Woodkid, which was my theme song for the trek. And for photos, check out my Instagram: @davnara

THE BAD

First things first — the starting day of your trek can be a bit of a moving target. While I was prepared for flight delays, I wasn’t prepared for three full days of waiting for a flight in the Kathmandu airport’s domestic terminal. On day four, I had already mentally accepted that I wouldn’t be doing the EBC trek, and was reading up on options in the Annapurna region instead.

A note that the domestic terminal doesn’t offer much variety by way of food and snacks, so if reports are that the weather in Lukla is looking questionable, stock up on some food/fruit in your daypack the night before your morning flight (there’s free water at the airport). Also, the toilets were pretty smelly the days I was there…start your mountain routine early and bring a scarf you can wrap around your nose, just in case you’re waiting a while.

The only other complaint I have about my trek is specific to my tour company and guide (which, is a pretty big “BAD” to have on such a trek). While I signed up for a group trek, I ended up being alone. To be honest I didn’t mind this — group tours can be a mystery bag, and I was hopeful that I could make friends along the way. What WAS important to me however, was having a guide who I would feel safe with, who would look out for my health and well-being, who would walk beside (or at least near) me, and who would be communicative and teach me about the region, people and mountains I’d see. The reason I chose this tour company was because it was a local operation (and I like to support the local economy when I’m travelling) and because a friend trekked to EBC with this company, absolutely loved his guide, and learned a lot. Unfortunately, I didn’t get so lucky. My guide, who actually summited Everest twice (SO COOL RIGHT?!), turned out to be quite aloof for most of the trek, despite my attempts to learn and make conversation. There was a language barrier to contend with, and in general he wasn’t very encouraging or supportive (and sometimes not even very friendly). Overall, my guide didn’t inspire my trust or confidence and didn’t make me feel safe (he often walked far ahead), which made a tough trek even tougher.

It wasn’t all a bad time with my guide, and there were a few moments where I think he genuinely tried to connect, but given the patterns I saw over eight days and knowing how exhausted I was on day 9, the thought of trekking down from Gorak Shep with a guide who was so distant just felt like a recipe for injury or disaster for me. It was scary to feel concerned for my safety, so I changed my itinerary and hired a helicopter to take me (with my guide and porter) down the mountain from Gorak Shep to Lukla. I had achieved my goal of making it to Base Camp, and the route back down the mountain would have been the same as what I climbed up; I didn’t feel like I was missing out on much, except the opportunity to process the whole experience on the way down. I actually think it’s worthwhile asking your tour company to get quotes on helicopter prices for the way down in advance of starting the trek (not emergency evacuation, but a chartered flight) to better understand your options. The ride will save your knees, and if you make it a scenic flight, it’s another way to see some gorgeous Himalayan views. A note that the prices are negotiable, so don’t let the first price you get deter you!

I have no regrets that I took a helicopter ride down. Yes, it would have been nice to have saved the money, trust that I would get back down safely, and party it up in Namche/Lukla — but in the end I got an epic ride down, a totally different view of the area, partied in Kathmandu — and most importantly, I got back down from EBC safely.

To close this section, I  want to say that the experience with my guide did impact my EBC journey, but it didn’t diminish the beauty of the trek — if anything it heightened my sense of accomplishment. So, if you start your trek and aren’t happy with your guide, it’s not the end of the world. There was actually a side benefit to my guide’s aloof behaviour– it encouraged me to open up to other travellers even more, and also to be more self-reliant and call upon my inner strength to make it to Base Camp.

Also — altitude sickness sucks and you will likely feel it. Sorry.

THE DIRTY

I am not ashamed to admit that my personal hygiene took a nosedive on the fifth day of the trek. It was my second night at Dingboche and it was COLD. I was the only person in my lodge that evening, so they didn’t light the kerosene stove in the dining room. I walked up to ~4,600m this day and had a slight headache from the altitude achieved on the acclimatization walk. I also realized how poor general hygiene was where I was staying. The lodge was under construction and there were toilets but no sinks for handwashing or brushing one’s teeth. Instead, you had to walk out to the courtyard where there was a large basin and tap…I didn’t see too many people doing this. I didn’t brush my teeth that night or wash my face. Prior to this night, each evening I’d wipe down my body when I changed my clothes, in lieu of a shower. I didn’t change this night, but instead added another layer to my outfit.

All-in-all, I didn’t shower for the nine days I was on the trek; I wasn’t the only one. I brought my fancy French facewash on the mountain and stopped using it on day 5. I did wash my hands and use sanitizer regularly, but I’m not sure if everyone was so meticulous. When I think about some of the mountain latrines and toilets, and the lack of soap and hand washing facilities at some of the places I stayed, I am just thankful I didn’t get more sick on the trek! This was part of the adventure though! I’d have a good laugh at night when I’d go to pee, and see steam rising as it hit the squat toilet bowl…it would get that cold inside the lodges. 🙂

TOP TIPS FOR THE EBC TREK

  1. Talk to everyone — guides, porters, trekkers! You’re all in it together (even if you’re not trekking together)! And you’ll see the same people all along the route anyways. Plus, you’ll have company to party with in Lukla or Kathmandu post-trek!
  2. Bring your own toilet paper. You can buy it on the mountain, but rolls are small, don’t last long and it’s not the soft, cushy stuff. Also, you can’t (shouldn’t) flush toilet paper in most places on the mountain. If you do, toilets get backed up, and trust me, no one wants to see that shit (literally). Bring baby wipes too.
  3. Bring hand sanitizer. You’ll need it.
  4. Keep your stuff in plastic bags/dry bags. This is just good backpacking practice, but even with a rain cover on your backpack, a day of rain will lead to a wet pack/wet stuff.
  5. Bring water purification tablets. Water gets expensive the higher up the mountain you go, and this is more environmentally-friendly than bottled water.
  6. Take a million pictures. Because when’s the next time you’ll be there? Also you can pay to charge your batteries at lodges along the way. (There’s also wi-fi at most lodges, though it can be a bit sketchy depending on the weather)
  7. Try Sherpa tea. It’s salty and may not be to your taste, but it’s worth trying! I enjoyed it and I think the salts are good for you, if you sweat a lot.
  8. Bring a couple of protein bars. These may come in handy if you need a snack between rest stops/lodges or if you start to lose your appetite and need a change from the lodge food.
  9. It can be the luck of the draw with guides. I spoke to a guy on the EBC trek who was less than impressed with his guide as well, and a family whose Annapurna circuit guide wasn’t great either. I also spoke to awesome guides (with other groups) on my trek, and heard rave reviews from other EBC trekkers. I agree that you get what you pay for, but as with my case, you can still pay a lot and be disappointed. When inquiring with tour or trekking companies, let them know what you’re looking for in a guide — e.g. someone friendly or talkative, very capable in your language, or who often leads trekking groups in your language or from your country. If you can, try to meet the guide a few days in advance of the trek (versus the day before, which is what happened to me), and discuss options to change your guide if you don’t feel like the two of you are a good fit in your interaction. No one wants to be difficult or come across as a picky client, but I think a good company who stands behind their guides and customer service won’t mind. I had fantastic guides on the Inca Trail and Kilimanjaro, but if I do another trek, I’ll follow the advice I’m giving here.
  10. Mentally prepare. The trek isn’t easy — there are tough uphill and downhill climbs, and then there’s the cold, altitude and possibly rain and snow to contend with too — a strong mental game is just as important as having all the right gear and training for the trip! Truthfully, I think  it’s this, and my sense of humour, that got me through the trek!
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4 thoughts on “The Everest Base Camp trek: The good, the bad…and the dirty

  1. Sorry to hear you had a bad experience with your guide. I think there has to be a process where in trekkers can get a chance to interview their guide before the start of the trek.

    As for the wait at the airport (which has absolutely disappointing terminal even after the recent refurbishment), the weather is beyond human control. I realised that back in 2005 when I had to waste a while day waiting to fly to Lukla. https://wagle.com.np/2005/10/26/no-lukla-for-the-day/

  2. Pingback: The Annapurna Base Camp Trek | LANGUAGE of the PEOPLE

  3. Pingback: That time I thought I would die of diarrhea in Kathmandu, and other tales from the toilet | LANGUAGE of the PEOPLE

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