Monday, October 31, 2011

Guide to the Everest Base Camp Trek: Part Six

For previous installments of this Everest Base Camp trekking guide, see: Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart Four, and Part Five.

Day 9

Itinerary: Gorak Shep to Kala Pattar to Dingboche

At 5 AM, under cover of cold and dark, we left our lodge to conquer the summit of Kala Pattar. Looking up the steep path ahead, we saw a handful early-bird trekkers already in pursuit of the worm. Their twinkling headlamps mirrored the blanket of stars above while the glow of the moon illuminated the surrounding snow-capped peaks. The scene had an otherworldly beauty unlike any I had ever experienced.

But no time for entranced gawking -- there was a mountain to climb. And so we began the trudge up Kala Pattar. Our guide Lhakpa began at an ambitious pace, and I struggled to keep up. Rocketing up a steep trail is one thing, but doing so at an altitude over 5000 meters is another. I climbed to the rhythm of my heavy breathing. When we stopped for a rest, the staccato beating of my heart mimicked a rabbit's. I knew our pace was unsustainable, but pride pushed me forward, and we barreled toward the summit. Until I could barrel no more. About half way up my progress had slowed considerably. It was only with great effort that I could put one plodding foot in front of the other. At this point, Lhakpa mercifully relieved me of the three liters of water I was carrying in my pack. This was no big loss to me considering that the drinking hose had frozen solid.

With my load lightened and the summit in view, the last half of the climb should have been easier. It wasn't. The winding switchbacks up rocky terrain seemed unending. It became unbearable to look at destination as it taunted me from an impossible distance, so I kept my head down and concentrated on my feet. There was room in my altitude-fogged mind for only two things: 1) my focus on taking one step at a time and 2) "Every Little Step" from Bobby Brown's 1988 smash-hit album Don't Be Cruel.

When I did pick my head up, this is what I saw:

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The actual summit is hard to see in this photo. It is the sun-drenched grey bump on the horizon near the left of the frame. If you want to believe I went to the top of Pumori, the mountain in the center, I will not dissuade you.

We reached the summit at 5545 meters (18,192 feet) around 6:45 AM, about an hour and 45 minutes after we left our warm beds. A stunning panorama under sapphire sunrise skies awaited us.

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Nuptse, Everest, Lhotse

Also waiting for us at the top was camera difficulty. Despite having plenty of juice, our camera insisted the battery was low, slowing our capacity to point and shoot at will. No big loss, though -- this is one of those moments where it is best to put the camera down and let your eyes drink it in. Our lips certainly were not doing the drinking due to our frozen water hoses. Advice for climbers: keep your water sources close to your body to avoid freezing and perhaps do the same with your camera. We suspected it might have been the cold that made it malfunction. After it spent some time in our hands it was back to full functionality. Enough to capture this on our descent:

A bit less than an hour later we were back in Gorak Shep eating breakfast. Totally exhausted, we were not exactly enthused about packing up and hitting the road, but we wasted little time before tackling the two-hour stretch back to Lobuche. This trail was not kind to our weary bodies, and Lobuche is no finish line prize. We should have been feeling on top of the world, but after a needed break and early lunch all we wanted was to continue our descent and avoid another night in Lobuche.

Since we stayed in Dingboche on the way up to Base Camp, trying out Pheriche would have been a nice idea, especially because it is at a lower altitude and, as we understand it, the route there is a little easier. But pleasant memories of Peaceful Lodge danced in our heads and we could not resist their allure. After a long day of hiking, reaching Dingboche felt a little like coming home.

Day 10

Itinerary: Dingboche to Namche Bazaar

Refreshed after a night in Dingboche, we departed for Namche, excited to reach a larger town and the comforts it could provide. The treeline provided another welcome sign that we were homeward bound. Its hint of color reminded us that despite the lack of apple cider and jack-o-lanterns in Nepal, it was in fact October.

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It was another long and tiring day of hiking to get to Namche. We wish we could say our lodging rewarded us, but Hotel Sherpa Village failed to impress. Claudine's shower was uncomfortably scalding, but at least she got one -- the water ran out before I got a chance. All guesthouses are a bit noisy due to thin walls and floors, but this one was particularly bad. We are not sure whether to blame the acoustics or the rude, loud German guests, but we had our worst night of sleep on the trail.

No matter. We had but one day of hiking left ahead of us before our return to Kathmandu. The final stretch back to Lukla should be a piece of cake. Right...?

Continue reading: Part Seven and Tips of the Trail.

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

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Guide to the Everest Base Camp Trek: Part Five

For previous installments of this Everest Base Camp trekking guide, see: Part One Part TwoPart Three, and Part Four.

Day 8

Itinerary: Lobuche to Gorak Shep; Gorak Shep to Everest Base Camp and back to Gorak Shep

We woke up this morning in a very cold room. I know what you're thinking: I'm a wimp. People, I lived in Chicago through two and a half winters. I know cold, and I can deal with cold. But I prefer when the cold stays where it belongs -- outside. It is pretty unpleasant to wake up in a literally freezing room.

We put on more clothing than usual, layering long-sleeved tech shirts, fleece jackets, and windbreakers. This kept out torsos nice and warm, but our gloved hands remained uncomfortably cold. We could not even use our trekking poles for the first part of the morning because the cork handles were so cold. Lesson learned: lightweight fleece gloves just don't cut it for the coldest days on this trek.

After walking in the sun for about 45 minutes, though, we both started to warm up. The initial stretch of the route to Gorak Shep is very flat, and the scenery reminded me of a moonscape.

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View towards Gorak Shep

The end of the flat trail is marked by an ascent up a short hill. After this initial ascent, the trail goes up and down a gravelly path that winds around the terminal moraine of the Changri Shar Glacier.

View towards Lobuche

The trail is somewhat tiring and difficult to negotiate -- not just because of the relentless up and down at high altitude but also because of choke points on narrow portions of the route.

The scenery, though, was excellent.

After about two hours, we finally spied Gorak Shep, which is a tiny collection of spartan lodges.

When we reached Gorak Shep, we found Lhakpa, who had run ahead and secured us the very last room in town. In the photo above, see the little yellow dot to the right of the red roof? That is one of the tents where unluckier people stayed for the night. No sleeping pads. Wind whipping. (Chris and Brenda, we're still not sure how you did it).

We ate a light snack before heading out at 10:15 for the round-trip trek to Everest Base Camp.

Lonely Planet says that the round-trip to Base Camp takes six hours, but Lhakpa assured us that it was much shorter. It was shorter -- maybe four hours total -- but it felt long because the hike is a tiring, tough slog. Like the route to Gorak Shep, the trail to Base Camp goes up and down, up and down, and up and down a very rocky path. The loose rocks are brutal on the feet, and the up-and-down nature of the trail is brutal on the psyche because it means that the return to Gorak Shep is just as difficult as the trip out to Base Camp.

The views along this route were not as impressive in the take-my-breath-away panorama kind of way, but it was amazing to be so close to these massive glaciers.

Here is the bottom of the Khumbu Icefall, which is one of the most dangerous stages of the South Col route to the Everest summit. The icefall moves with frightening speed, creating crevasses and sending huge blocks of ice tumbling (don't worry -- the photos are deceiving, and we didn't actually go near it).

Finally, we made it to Everest Base Camp at 4340 meters. Base Camp is fairly unremarkable, especially because Everest, obscured by other mountains, is not even visible from this point.

We took a break, snapped the obligatory pictures, and spent some time marveling at the mountains that seemed just an arm's distance away -- or, at least, close enough to clearly witness an avalanche on nearby Pumori, a mountain that is a common training climb for mountaineers attempting Everest.

Then we steeled ourselves for the return trip to Gorak Shep, where we promptly fell into our sleeping bags for an afternoon nap. Overall, I found the trek out to Base Camp to be quite tiring, generally unpleasant, and mostly unrewarding. Some people argue that you should skip the trip to Base Camp entirely. I almost agree with these folks, but then there is the part of me that would have surely regretted not ticking that box. Yes, I wanted those bragging rights. If you don't care about such things, then you should not feel like Base Camp is a necessity. Save your energy instead for your Kala Pattar climb.

We ate an early dinner in a very crowded dining room and then headed to bed early to prepare for our 4:45 wake-up call the next morning -- Kala Pattar was calling.

Continue reading: Part Six, Part Seven, and Tips of the Trail.

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

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Festival of Tihar in Nepal

Americans and others are now revving up for the holiday season. It may sound a bit odd to hear that statement in October before Halloween has come and gone, but reports on Facebook tell me that some American stores are already pushing Christmas. Candy corn has not even gone into hibernation yet, people! I may invest in a Santa costume to cover Halloween and Christmas in one fell swoop. Thanks to the steady march of holiday creep, they may soon become indistinguishable anyway.


Nepal's holiday season has been in full swing for a while and is now nearing an end. It all began a few weeks ago with Dasain, Nepal's largest and longest celebration that went largely unnoticed by us as we trekked in the Himalayas. Quick on Dasain's heels comes Tihar, the Nepali festival of lights. Tihar is closely related to the worldwide Hindu holiday of Diwali (or, as my friend Sundeep prefers, Deepavali), though there are some differences.

Signs of Tihar are all around us. Literally. Our landlord has blanketed our home in electric lights (I would call them Christmas lights, but I suppose a Nepali might call them Tihar lights), and looking out our windows it feels as though we are living in a Christmas tree.

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As an aside: this is a good thing. It is like combining every child's Swiss-Family-Robinson tree house fantasy with a touch of jingle bell rock. Magic.

The lights are everywhere, and they are beautiful.

Like in the US, many here swathe their homes in lights, though the Nepali approach seems to emulate a blanket's smothering more than the border trimming common back home. No place demonstrates this Nepali method better than our local grocery store. You can see it clearly from the distance of our rooftop, though I suspect it may also be visible from space.

For me, this conjures images of the tastefully understated Disney's Main Street Electrical Parade. Hurrah!


Tihar spans five days, and each of these days is marked by a special worship or honoring called puja. Yesterday we saw many dogs in the street wearing collars of marigold garlands and red tika on their foreheads as part of kukur (dog) puja. Wikipedia tells me that some do a puja for cow dung. I am not sure I want to experience just what that would look/smell like, but I certainly understand the desire to honor the substance after spending some evenings huddling in heat of dung-fired stoves while high in the mountains.

This evening Claudine and I witnessed worshipers using colored rice and powders to create mandalas outside their homes and businesses. From these mandalas, artful paths mark the way inside, sometimes complete with footprints.

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After dark, candles will light the way along these paths for the goddess Laxmi to enter and bring wealth and prosperity.

Fireworks also play into Tihar celebrations. Judging from the symphony of shockingly loud firecrackers that graces our neighborhood after sundown, the fireworks are quite popular. Less popular among those of us who could do without the heart-stopping sound of artillery fire outside our windows. So, in addition to shades of Christmas, Tihar also brings a hint of July Fourth. Way to bring it, Nepal.

To all of our Nepali friends we say Happy Tihar. To others: Merry Christmas (it's just around the corner, you know).

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Guide to the Everest Base Camp Trek: Part Four

For previous installments of this Everest Base Camp trekking guide, see: Part OnePart Two, and Part Three.

Day 6

Itinerary: Acclimatization day hike around Dingboche/Pheriche

This is the second of the two mandatory acclimatization days for the Everest Base Camp trek, and there are a few options for day hikes. These include: an easy 30-minute hop over the hill that separates Pheriche and Dingboche; a longer and more strenuous climb to Dingboche's highest point, with views of Makalu to the east; and a 5-6 hour round-trip hike to the village of Chhukung.

We chose the last option because the trail ascends gradually, and we figured it would be the kindest route for my knee. The trail was indeed gentle, and it was a very pleasant walk. The sky was clear, the sun was strong, and the scenery was fantastic.

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At this altitude we were above the tree line, where the dry, shrubby vegetation is a dramatic contrast to the glacial mountains.


While easy to follow, the route is not incredibly well signposted, as there is not much for settlements in this area. We believe that we made it to the town of Bibre (marked by a single teahouse and located just 30 minutes shy of Chhukung, according to Lonely Planet), where we decided that we had seen what there was to see and fulfilled the "climb high" commandment. We found ourselves in good company with others who were ending at the teahouse.

After a short break, we made our way back to our Peaceful Lodge in Dingboche for lunch. Then we hurried to the one shower for our last dose of hot water for a couple days. It was just a bucket shower (Peaceful Lodge was all out of gas for the geyser), but I savored it.

That evening we finalized arrangements for our porter/guide. The owner of the lodge called up his brother-in-law, a seasoned guide who happened to have a couple unscheduled weeks and was available to accompany us. Enter Lhakpa!

Lhakpa is Sherpa and works for a trekking agency in Kathmandu, but he sometimes is available to be hired directly. He speaks very good English, and we felt instantly comfortable with him and knew that we would be in good hands. That evening Lhakpa arrived from his home in nearby Pangboche carrying his own large pack, and we discussed what he could carry (most of my stuff and a lot of Brian's too) and our itinerary for the remainder of the trek.

Hiring Lhakpa was an excellent decision. Although we had no trouble carrying our own gear and managing the trek on the Annapurna Circuit, the Everest Base Camp trek proved different for a couple reasons. One, the colder temperatures meant that we were carrying heavy down jackets and four-season sleeping bags; this additional weight made a big difference in our comfort levels, especially as we hiked at higher altitudes. Two, competition for rooms can be fiercer on this trek. Lhakpa would run ahead of us to ensure that we had a room in the small towns like Lobuche and Gorak Shep, where the few lodges frequently fill up because of large groups that have advance reservations. If there are no rooms available, you may get stuck sleeping on a dining room floor or even in a tent.

On a side note: during that climb to Tengboche, I quickly forgot my feelings of superiority and focused only on my jealousy as I watched most people, including the youngest and fittest men, carry little else but water in a day pack. The vast majority of trekkers on this trail used hired porters and guides. After doing so ourselves, we agree. Yes, hiring Lhakpa was a great decision.

We highly recommend Lhakpa, and if you are interested in hiring him for a trek in the Everest region, you can find him through the contact information below. We suggest you reach out to him early, though, as we suspect that he is quite busy during October/November and March/April. If you need additional porters for carrying your gear, he can easily arrange them too. Note that a porter should carry no more than 30 kg, which typically amounts to the gear for two trekkers; you should carry any additional weight yourself. Also note that you should not give your porter a roller-bag suitcase to carry strapped to his back (I wouldn't say this if I hadn't seen it).

Contact Information for Everest Region Trekking Guide
Name: Lhakpa Tshiring
Home number (try this first): +977-9803922519
Mobile number: +977-9808583856

Day 7

Itinerary: Dingboche to Lobuche

Maybe it was the stunning scenery, or maybe it was Lhakpa, but I found this segment of the trek to be my favorite day of hiking. How's this for a backyard view?

We departed Dingboche by hiking up the steep hill that leads to Pheriche. Once we reached the ridge, we caught a peek of Pheriche below.

After this steep but short scramble, the trail flattened out, and it was a pleasant walk to Dughla (also known as Tukkla), which we reached after a quick 90 minutes from leaving Dingboche.

We had to look at this the whole time.

At Dughla we had a scenic tea break.

Although Lonely Planet recommends spending a night in tiny Dughla for acclimatization, everyone we met continued directly to Lobuche. From Dughla the trail ascends the gravelly terminal moraine of the Khumbu Glacier, and the steep ascent took us about 45 minutes.

This view rewarded us at the top.

Here we also saw a collection of memorials to climbers, including this one to Scott Fischer, an expedition leader who died in the 1996 disaster on Everest chronicled in Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air.

After this ascent, the trail is mostly flat on the final stretch to Lobuche.

When we arrived in Lobuche, we were struck by its setting, which is stunning and inhospitable at the same time. Below is the view from a ridge above Lobuche. We climbed up the steep hill in the afternoon to get a better view and aid our acclimatization.

Lhakpa confirmed that Lobuche exists solely for trekkers, and lodge staff pack up and retreat to lower elevations during the off seasons in winter and summer.

Speaking of lodges. In Lobuche we stayed at Hotel National Park, which we firmly do not recommend. No accommodation is going to be a prize at 4930 meters, but this place was especially unpleasant. The walls were paper thin, so the temperature inside our room was 39 degrees F when we went to bed and 32 degrees F when we woke up the next morning. The lodge restaurant was also extraordinarily slow and disorganized. We waited for over an hour -- a very painful, hungry hour -- before our lunch arrived the first day, and the next morning Brian went back into the kitchen multiple times to check on our breakfast. Finally, he emerged carrying our boiled eggs, which he may or may not have cooked himself.

We readily admit, though, that at this point on the trek the conditions are generally uncomfortable, even aside from a bad teahouse. The high altitude is likely to cause mild headaches (or worse: within the course of about 45 minutes in Lobuche we saw two helicopters evacuate trekkers with severe altitude sickness); the freezing cold water makes you wonder whether hand washing and teeth brushing are really necessary; and middle-of-the-night bathroom trips inflict psychological and physical torture as you ponder whether it is really worth leaving your sleeping bag for the sake of your bladder.

Needless to say, we were feeling antsy for the next two days, which would represent the "peak" of the trek and, we hoped, make all of this discomfort well worth it.

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

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

Monday, October 24, 2011

Guide to the Everest Base Camp Trek: Part Three

For previous installments of this Everest Base Camp trekking guide, see: Part One and Part Two.

Day 4

Actual Itinerary: Namche Bazaar to Tengboche
Suggested Itinerary: Namche Bazaar to Debuche

Our day's destination, Tengboche, was firmly in our minds when we awoke on Day 4, but other details were fuzzier. Wanting to save space and weight in our packs, we photocopied and brought all of the relevant pages of our guidebook rather than lugging the tome through the mountains. All of the relevant pages, that is,  except for the two discussing Tengboche and the route thereto. Just how this oversight occurred is still a bit sensitive -- it's best you stop asking questions now.

No matter. The trail from Namche to Tengboche is quite clear. Thankfully, so were our views as we departed Namche just after 7 that morning.

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Friendly trekkers filled us in on all we needed to know about the day ahead. The route includes a steep descent before a heartbreaking ascent into Tengboche, where there are very few guesthouses to accommodate everyone hoping to stay. With that in mind, we attacked the trail with laser focus, determined to get beds in Tengboche that night.

The trail undulates mildly for a bit over an hour between Namche and Sanasa. From Sanasa there is a steep descent to the river crossing at Phunki Thenga (also known as "Funky Town" by me and probably no one else). Steep, rocky descents can be more challenging than you might think -- I have encountered downhill stretches that tested the limits of my knees and sanity. This descent was actually quite manageable, but it can be hell if you are nursing a sore knee. I know this because I watched Claudine grit her teeth through an admirable brave face as she struggled toward the river. What had begun on Day 2 as a minor inconvenience had blossomed into a threat: Claudine's knee was in serious pain when going downhill. The laws of physics hung like a black cloud over the remainder of our trek: what goes up must come down.

There is not much to the "town" of Phunki Thenga, but it is a popular and wise place to stop and prepare for the long, arduous climb ahead. As you reach Phunki Thenga from Namche, there is a lone tea house just before the river crossing; the larger venues with more idyllic seating are across the bridge. Have a cup of coffee, hydrate, and perhaps get a quick prayer in. What you are about to encounter will not be pretty.

I take that back. The scenery on the climb to Tengboche is quite lovely. It's just that you may have a hard time enjoying it with your burning quads and wheezing lungs. It took us about 90 minutes of steep, relentless  climbing in the blazing sun to reach Tengboche, but be warned that it may take longer. We passed some people on the trail who did not look good and have heard it takes many people over two hours to complete the climb. Some souls take more than three. Others presumably perish en route.

By 11:15 we were in Tengboche and had no trouble snagging a room at Himalayan Hotel (300 NPR), which looked like the nicest guesthouse in town (which -- trust me -- is not saying much). Over lunch it was time to take an honest account of Claudine's knee and the trek ahead. Because downhills were the only issue and we would not be encountering many in the coming days, we decided that Claudine would be fine to continue but should probably carry as little weight as possible to save her knee additional stress. For the record, she had no prior injuries, and there was no event that seemed to have caused the pain; we suspected overuse and hoped that lightening her load would help. The friendly trekkers were right -- Tengboche is a very small town, and due to its size we were unable to find a porter we could hire on the spot. Guesthouse owners informed us that we would have no trouble hiring someone in the much larger towns of Pangboche or Dingboche, places on our itinerary the next day.

One can cover the town of Tengboche in about five minutes, but fortunately the surrounding mountain views could captivate for hours.

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Tengboche has a rather large monastery and many trekkers enter to observe evening prayer, or puja.

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Being quite familiar with monasteries and puja in Kathmandu, we opted to avoid the flocks. After a long, hard day on the trail, we had more important things on our mind.

We were surprised to find that the only bakery in town was stocked with some of the better baked goods not only on the trail but in the entire country of Nepal (admittedly, a country not known for great breads and desserts). Paris it is not, but it is a pleasant place to while away some of your time in tiny Tengboche. The baked bounty and Lavazza coffee are a bit overpriced, but upon considering that they (and the oven) had to be carried up that treacherous hill en route to your stomach, their price takes on new meaning.

Day 5 

Itinerary: Tengboche to Dingboche

Lonely Planet suggests an acclimatization day in Tengboche, but we do not. Most trekkers agreed with us and moved on after just one night in Tengboche. If you are not feeling any ill effects of the altitude, you can probably skip the acclimatization day in Tengboche with a clear conscience.

Upon leaving town there is a steep but short descent to the town of Debuche. Despite its slightly lower elevation and less stunning views, nearby and "undiscovered" Debuche seems like a nice alternative to Tengboche. Given that Tengboche is so crowded, there may not be a choice.

After crossing the river, be watchful for this view of Ama Dablam, which is somewhat iconic:

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Further along the route, after Pangboche, the trail splits, and trekkers must choose between staying in either Pheriche or Dingboche. Not to worry: from these towns the trail rejoins and continues north toward Everest. Pheriche has a Himilayan Rescue Association outpost if you need medical attention. Dingboche is at a higher altitude but is evidently better sheltered from whipping winds and gets more sunlight in the evenings. From what we saw, Dingboche is a bigger town with more accommodations. Neither town is necessarily better than the other, so where you choose to stay does not matter too much. You can always decide to stay in the opposite town on your way back down. The point where the trail splits between these towns is not marked and not exactly clear. Confusion may lead to one town or another by accident, and if you find yourself in that position, you would be in good company.

We chose to stay in Dingboche. After shopping a handful of guesthouses, we settled on Peaceful Lodge at the entrance of town.

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This proved to be one of our best decisions on the trail. Peaceful Lodge treated us to excellent food, friendly staff, a clean western bathroom, and new(ish), bright rooms and dining hall. Again, this is not Versailles, but for the trail it was a gem. You will spend two nights in either Dingboche or Pheriche to acclimatize, so landing at a nice guesthouse is key.  Choose wisely.

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

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