Thursday, October 20, 2011

Guide to the Everest Base Camp Trek: Part Two

For the previous installment of this Everest Base Camp trekking guide, see: Part One.

Day 2

Itinerary: Monjo to Namche Bazaar

In Monjo we woke up with the sun, but we had to wait until 6:30 for our guesthouse owners to open the kitchen for breakfast. After eating our standard trail breakfast -- muesli, boiled eggs, and Nescafe -- we hit the trail by 7:15.

Just above Monjo is the entrance checkpoint for the Sagarmatha National Park; here we presented our TIMS card and park permit before beginning a short, steep descent to Jorsale, the last main town before Namche Bazaar. We scrambled up and down the trail from Jorsale until we reached this suspension bridge.

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After crossing the bridge, we began the long climb to Namche. Lonely Planet describes the ascent as "torturous," and we don't think that adjective is too far off, especially given that it was only Day 2 of the trek and we were carrying all of our own gear at this point. The first portion of the climb took us up a steep, switchbacking trail with little tree cover. Eventually the climb transitioned to a shaded trail amid pine forests, but it remained a steady slog until we reached another checkpoint just below Namche, about an hour and ten minutes after starting our climb.

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After presenting our TIMS cards and permits and permits again, we climbed the final stretch into town. Namche Bazaar is nestled against a hill in a natural amphitheater, and it is stunning.

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It is also busy. There are loads of lodges in Namche, so even in the high season you should have no problems finding a bed somewhere, but be warned that the bigger, more popular lodges mentioned in Lonely Planet may already be booked. Room rates are fixed in Namche, so bargain hunting will not do you any good. Rooms cost 200 NPR for a shared bathroom and 500 NPR for an attached bathroom; note that if you go the shared bathroom route, you will be charged for a hot shower, so attached bathrooms can be more economical.

In addition to these standard room options, some lodges offer a few "up-market" options for nicer rooms. We settled on Hotel Namche in the center of town and decided to splurge on a room with an attached bath for $15 per night. Compared to average rooms on the trail, the room felt luxurious, with carpeting, a bright white bathroom, and southern sun exposure that made our room especially warm.

We arrived in Namche by 10:15 in the morning, so we had a lot of time to kill. Fortunately, Namche offers a lot to keep people busy, including internet cafes, shops, bakeries, and generally charming walks around Namche's streets.

If you want to do some shopping, we suggest you wait until you come back down through Namche so that you don't have to haul unnecessary items up the trail. That said, if you discover that you forgot some necessary item for the trek, you will have no problem finding it in Namche. Most stores sell the same knock-off North Face, Mountain Hardware, and Mammut goods that you can find in Thamel, but for real, high-quality goods head to the Sherpa Adventure Gear store across from the Khumbu Lodge. The Sherpa Adventure Gear brand was founded by Tashi Sherpa, and the company supports the Sherpa community.

If you're hungry for a snack, we recommend Herman Helmers Bakery, which has a cozy dining room, a terrace with terrific views, a computer with internet, and a friendly staff. We tried the sesame brown bread, which was excellent with homemade orange marmelade. Baked good ranged from 100 to 300 NPR. Compared to Kathmandu, food on the trail starts to get expensive in Namche. Considering that most items you see were carried up the trail on someone's back, the price differential makes some sense.

But the cheapest espresso in town -- at least to our knowledge -- is at Khumbu Lodge, where you can get an Americano for 160 NPR and a double espresso for 220 NPR. Yes, we indulged. Jet lag and ten more days of Nescafe justified the splurge.

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The espresso helped us manage to stay awake until about 7:30, when we departed our lodge's crowded dining hall after dinner and headed to bed.

Day 3

Itinerary: Acclimatization day hike around Namche Bazaar

Day 3 of the trek is a mandatory acclimatization day to ward off symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) as you climb higher up the trail. A rest day, though, does not mean you should spend the day lounging in your sleeping bag and eating apple strudel. Instead, head out on a day hike that will take you higher than your sleeping point in Namche, helping you adjust to the altitude and improve your fitness.

Lonely Planet lists three major options for acclimatization hikes: trips to Thame, Khumbu area villages, and Chhorkung. We opted for the last because my left knee was bugging me after the many descents of the first two days, and Lonely Planet quoted Chhorkung as the shortest side trip at three hours round-trip. Readers, take note: Chhorkung is actually about a ten minute walk just above Namche, and we have no idea why Lonely Planet so grossly overestimated the time it takes to get there.

To reach Chhorkung, we followed a steep stone staircase leading north from the center of town. The skies were much clearer than they had been the day before, and Namche looked magnificent.

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For such a short walk, the reward was very nice. From the viewpoint at Chhorkung, we got our first glimpse of Everest. Drum roll, please:
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From the left: Everest, Lhotse, and Ama Dablam

Charged up by the mountain views, we decided to climb higher. We picked up the zigzagging trail that leads north of Namche (labeled "Steep Route" on Lonely Planet's map) and climbed for about 45 minutes, passing the airstrip, until we reached a teahouse with a great viewpoint.

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Here we sat under the massive mountains and soaked up the scenery.

Shirtless trekker and all.

Just so there is no confusion here, it was definitively not hot outside.

We eventually headed back down to Namche, taking the longer but less steep route that loops around to the west. We spent the afternoon reading, doing laundry, and resting up for the next day's trek.

Continue reading: 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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