Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Guide to the Everest Base Camp Trek: Part One

The allure of Mt. Everest is undeniable and undoubtedly contributes to the wild popularity of the Everest Base Camp trek. While this trip will not take you to the actual peak of the world's highest summit, the journey and views along the way are sure to leave you feeling on top of the world.

Arrival in Kathmandu

For travelers "flying solo" without the assistance of a tour group, arrival in Kathmandu can be as overwhelming as it is exciting. Check here for our suggestions on where to stay and what to eat in Nepal's capital before you depart for the trek. If you have some time to fill in the city, see what we suggest in our brief Sightseeing Guide for the Kathmandu Valley.

Like with Nepal's Annapurna Circuit trek, any trek into the Everest Region's Sagarmatha National Park requires an entry permit and TIMS card, which registers you as a trekker. There are a handful of places in Kathmandu where you can get these documents, but we went to Bhrikuti Mandap (Tourist Service Center), which is about a 20-minute walk or a short cab ride from Thamel. This location allows for a "one stop shop" trip where you can get both your TIMS and national park permit, and as an official tourist center it feels pleasant and legit. If you're getting your documents in Thamel, beware scams and rip-offs. For this to properly function as a one-stop trip, though, be sure to avoid our mistake and visit when the separate booths for the TIMS and entry permit are both open. As of this writing, the TIMS booth is open Sunday to Friday from 10 AM to 4 PM. The Sagarmatha National Park permit booth is open Sunday to Friday 9 AM to 2 PM. Why these are not better coordinated, I have no idea. This is but one of Nepal's many mystical mysteries (ed. note: some more charming than others). For those who miss the fickle national park booth, permits can be purchased while on the trail at the entry gate in Monjo.

It will take at least one passport photo and photocopy of your passport to obtain these documents, so bring duplicates. The TIMS costs 1450 NPR and the Sagarmatha National Park permit costs 1000 NPR. Be sure to bring sufficient Nepali rupees in cash. You can get both photos and copies at booths and shops around Kathmandu (especially in Thamel), but it might be wise to come to Nepal with a stash of both to save yourself the time and hassle. For any traveler, it is a good idea to have a stockpile of passport-size photos since they seem to be frequently necessary in other countries, whether applying for visas, permits, or a cell phone number.

It is necessary to book a flight from Kathmandu to the city of Lukla, the gateway to the Everest region, before you arrive to Nepal, especially for the high seasons of October/November and March/April. You can also take a bus to the town of Jiri and hike a grueling trail for days to get to Lukla. Assuming you are short on time and somewhat sane, opt for the plane. When we booked our tickets in early September for an October 3rd flight, we found that seats were already in short supply, especially for coveted flights early in the morning. Book early. We used an agent in Thamel, the Borderlands Group. We also suggest President Travel and Tours on Durbar Marg. A round trip ticket between Kathmandu and Lukla will cost about $250. Be sure to allow some flexibility in your schedule. Flights on this route are frequently delayed and cancelled due to poor weather conditions, and flights rarely run much later than 2 PM due to winds and clouds. It is not unheard of to have all flights between these cities cancelled on any given day, even during the ideal weather of the fall and spring high seasons. We booked a flight to Lukla for October 3rd and purchased an "open" return because we were unsure just how long we would be on the trail. If you book a specific return, you should do so no fewer than a few days before your international departure flight out of Kathmandu. Missing that flight because you are stuck in Lukla with bad weather is a boondoggle to be avoided. Also, always book the very earliest flight possible. In patchy weather, early flights may get out (if delayed) while later flights may get scrapped.

[Map source:]

Day One

Itinerary: Kathmandu to Monjo

Thanks to some nasty jet lag hanging around our necks due to our recent return to KTM from a trip to the US, we woke on the morning of our flight at an ungodly 4:45 in the morning. We arrived at the domestic terminal of Kathmandu's airport around 6:40 for our 8:30 flight. Order and calm are not abundant here, so brace yourself, especially if you are an organizational control freak. Take a deep breath and consider this part of your Nepali cultural education.

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But behind the surface chaos, there is a system at work. Too many tourism dollars are riding on this crucial port for the case to be otherwise. We went to our airline counter to check in and were informed we were too early and should return in 15 minutes. A few minutes later, however, an airline employee rushed over to whisk us onto an earlier flight. No complaints here. We quickly paid the airport departure tax (200 NPR each), handed him our bags, and rushed through the separate male and female security lines to our gate (a process quickened by the fact that our IDs were not checked once by anyone). By 7:15 we were boarded on our tiny 19-passenger Twin Otter airplane.

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While the terminal seemed disordered, the flight itself was efficient. No safety speeches, no assigned seats. Mere minutes after passing a tray of toffee candies and cotton balls and settling into our seats, we were above Kathmandu and on our way to Lukla. Our luck getting on an earlier flight had us feeling good, especially because things never seem to work in our favor in Nepal. Even more auspicious were the rarely-seen mountain peaks looming over the city that morning.

Yes, this trip was off to a good start (a fact confirmed by tales of other trekkers who waited over eight hours to depart on their delayed flights). The view of Nepal from the air only added to the beauty of the moment.

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Less than 25 minutes later, we touched down at the Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla. This was more exciting than it may sound. I will let the 1500-foot, 12%-gradient runway speak for itself:

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Less than an hour into the trip and we are already discussing not-for-the-faint-of-heart moments. Can we at least get to the trail first? Why certainly.

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We hit this gateway at the end of Lukla around 8 in the morning. This initial stretch of trail is by far the most populated. Trekkers heading both directions accompany you on the trail along with porters carrying backbreaking loads and yaks doing the same. Monasteries, tea houses, and Buddhist mani stones and other religious relics dot the scene amid the lush green hills.

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"Please turn this mane to purify your soul." Yes, please.

This was the only day of drizzle or precipitation of any kind we received while on the trail. The wet weather did not help things, however, when we discovered that a recent earthquake had knocked out a major bridge and we would have to spend an hour scrambling up and down slick, muddy trails to bypass the gorge. So much for that auspicious beginning.

But we were not deterred and continued on to the town of Monjo. Lonely Planet suggests staying in the closer Phakding on the first night, and we disagree. Phakding is comparatively large and full of amenities, but waking up there makes for a long and challenging second day to Namche Bazaar (more on that later).

A friend suggested trekking from Lukla to the more distant Namche on the first day. This might be possible if you get an early start and are a fast trekker, but -- again -- the final stretch into Namche is a seriously challenging, steep climb, especially for a trekker's first day on the trail when altitude is starting to have an impact at that height. For many, we think this aggressive plan is a bit unrealistic.

We found Monjo a good compromise between Phakding and Namche and suggest it and the towns nearby as stopping points. After stopping for lunch in Phakding around 11, we arrived in Monjo a little after 2 and settled at the Monju Guest Home. At 500 NPR for a room with attached bathroom and hot shower, it was a better deal than many of its competitors. We were not disappointed, but more than anything we were happy to have any place to rest our jet-lagged heads and travel-weary bodies for a good night's sleep. Mountains, yetis, and who knows what else awaited us on the trial ahead.

Continue reading: Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, and Tips of the Trail.

See also: Everest Base Camp Trek vs. Annapurna Circuit Trek.

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