This is the Part 2 Continuation of and article about Mount Everest from our wonderful and extremely well traveled contributing author Linda LeBlanc. She has personally trekked Mount Everest and you can read her experiences and the first part of this article here- “Exercise Your Mind and Body on a Trek to Everest Base Camp“.
DAYS 1-3: A journey to Nepal and the Himalayas is a mind-boggling experience of sights, sounds, and smells. Plan to spend about three days in Kathmandu on your arrival to deal with jet lag, make any flight or porter arrangements, and acclimatize to 4,600 feet if you’re coming from sea level. About the size of Iowa, Nepal has a population of 26,500,000 and is primarily a Hindu kingdom. Kathmandu has been called the City of Gods because of the hundreds s of Hindu and Buddhist shrines. Pashupatinath is the oldest Hindu temple in the world. Boudhanath is the largest stupa in the world and one of the most significant Buddhist centers in Nepal. The Monkey Temple has monkeys scampering everywhere, but the view overlooking the entire Kathmandu Valley is amazing.
DAY 4: The trek to Everest Base Camp begins with a thirty-minute flight from Kathmandu to the Tenzing-Hillary airport at Lukla. A land too steep to cultivate unfolds beneath you in deep green terraces with rock retaining walls that look like dark wrinkles contouring the hillsides. As you fly toward the Himalayan giants, snow-capped peak after peak rise with glacial-fed rivers carving deep meandering gorges between them.
One of the most dangerous airports in the world makes for an exciting landing. A crazy, quite short runway appears perched at a steep angle on the side of a mountain with a sheer drop off at the front end and a granite wall at the other end. Only STOLS (short-take-off-and-landing) planes can maneuver here. The airstrip was built in 1964 by Edmund Hillary, the first to summit Everest. With no machinery to harden the ground, he hired hundreds of Sherpas to dance on it for three days. The pounding of their feet tamped it down. There are no roads in this part of the world. Everything’s transported on foot or hoof. And those somewhat hairy bovine creatures you see carrying loads are zopkios—a male crossbreed between a cow and yak.
You’re at 9,300 feet now in the land of Sherpas, an ethnic group that migrated from Tibet over 500 years ago. They have an incredible capacity for living and working at high altitudes. The porters will blow your mind as they load more than their body weight into bamboo baskets called dokos supported by straps on their foreheads. You don’t phone Home Depot for a delivery. Porters carry eight to ten eight-foot 4 X 4’s and gear piled two feet taller than they are. They’re the semis on an Everest interstate.
Lukla to Everest Base Camp at 17,500 feet is only 38 miles but will take 8-9 days because your body needs to acclimatize to existing on less oxygen. The percentage of oxygen molecules in the air remains the same as you go higher, but as pressure decreases the molecules spread out in thinner air. You get fewer per breath, and your muscles will be screaming for more. Going faster, you risk the oxygen saturation falling to dangerously low levels. You may suffer from cerebral edema (swelling of the brain) or pulmonary edema (fluid build-up in the lungs). Both can result in death. Equally important as acclimatization is that you stay hydrated. Drink water and more water all the way up. It must be boiled or filtered, not direct from streams.
The trek begins as soon as you leave the small village of Lukla, which caters to tourists with an Irish pub and a mock Starbucks that replaces the mermaid logo with a mountain. You pass small barley and millet farms tilled by hand or a plow and water buffalo. Women thresh grain with long sticks while barefoot children rush out to greet you yelling, “Namaste.” They’re totally irresistible with their beautiful faces and contagious smiles.
The trail follows the Dudh Kosi meaning milk river for two or three hours, depending on hiking speed, to Phakding at 8,563 feet for the first overnight stay. Comfortable guesthouses offer meals and private rooms, some including en suite baths.
DAY 5: The next morning, you hike through of blue pine, fir, and juniper forests contrasting sharply against the soaring white mountains. Sherpas are Buddhists and you’re in their land now. Strings of prayer flags in five colors representing the elements hang across passes, streams, and bridges. Each one has an image of the wind horse, lung ta, in the center. Wind blows the numerous prayers and blessings printed around him to bring happiness and good luck to all who meet the air, even a bird flying by. When things are going bad, your Lung Ta is down. When life is good, your Lung Ta is up.
Chortens are large white-washed domed structures on a square base and with a steeple crown. They’re created in the memory of Buddha. You’ll often encounter them near long mani walls of stones carved with the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum which loosely translates to Hail to the jewel in the lotus, but the meaning is much more complex. Boulder-sized mani stones are often painted in bright colors. The Sherpas create these works of art to show devotion to their gods and Buddha’s teachings. When local people come upon them, they circumambulate clockwise as a prayer for health, peace, and protection.
Cylindrical, wooden prayer wheels come in sizes from personal sized, hand-spun ones wheels to long lines of wheels about a foot tall to huge house-sized wheels with their own private chapels. All contain papers with prayers inscribed. Spinning a prayer wheel clockwise, building a chorten, carving a mani stone, circumambulations, reciting prayers, displaying prayer flags—all of these gain greater merit toward a more fortunate rebirth.
You’ll quickly learn the Nepali concept of flat. It means you drop 1,500 feet to a river, cross it, and then climb 1,500 feet straight back up. So you’ve gained zero elevation—a.k.a. flat. By the time you reach Everest Base Camp, at almost 10,000 feet higher elevation than Phakding, you’ll probably have climbed closer to 30,000 feet worth of ups.
Between Phakding and Jorsale, you cross the Dudh Kosi at least three times on suspension bridges spanning 500-600 feet from bank to bank and several hundred feet above white rapids hurtling downstream. You can see straight through to the river. So if you have a serious fear of heights, this may not be for you. Strings of prayer flags fluttering the entire length of the cables offer some comfort. Zopkios and donkeys don’t like the swaying, bouncing bridges and cross quickly. You don’t want to be in the way if you meet one head on. You’ll be traveling in the same direction as animals carrying goods for the weekly market if you arrange to be in Namche for the weekly Saturday market. Here, Nepalis can sell at higher prices to tourists and the Sherpas who earn money by accommodating them.
Before reaching Namche, you must enter the Sagarmatha National Park which extends from Jorsale at 9,334 to the Everest summit at 29,035. Personnel will record the details of your trekking permit and check you off on the return. Sagarmatha is the Nepali word for Everest. It means Goddess of the Sky. In Tibet, they call Everest Chomolungma, Mother Goddess of the Universe.”
From the park entrance, descend a long series of stone steps and walk along a sandy path to the suspension bridge leading to the infamous Namche hill—a steep 2,400-foot elevation gain with no downs. This may not sound like much but altitude is robbing your body of the oxygen it’s used to. And it will complain. About halfway, stop at a small level area to catch your breath and try to spot Everest through a gap in the trees on a clear day. Two to three hours from the bridge, you finally arrive at 11,300 feet in the bustling village of Namche, gateway to the high Himalayas and home of the Sherpas. All climbing expeditions from the Nepal side pass through here. Even Hillary and Tenzing did exactly 60 years ago.
About one hundred almost identical-looking, white-stone buildings sit on five terraces cut into the hills of a horseshoe-shaped amphitheater framed on three sides by 20,000-foot, snow-capped mountains. Most are hotels. The remainder are trekking shops, restaurants, a bakery, pizza parlor, Internet services, and Jamaican reggae bar. You know you’re not in Kansas when a yak lumbers down the middle of the cobblestone path. These long-haired beasts get too hot lower than 10,000 feet and are notoriously ill tempered. Beware of horns.
DAY 6: Spend a second night here to acclimatize. The general rule is to ascend no more than 1,000 feet in a single day and then to sleep at that altitude. Once you’ve climbed about 3,200 feet, you should spend one whole day to acclimatize and stay overnight at the same altitude. Watch for signs of altitude sickness that include headaches, dizziness, sleeplessness, loss of appetite and breathlessness. Many say it feels like a hangover. It can also affect your lungs and brain. When this happens, symptoms include being confused, not being able to walk straight, feeling faint, and having blue or gray lips or fingernails. These symptoms mean the condition is severe. Diamox pills twice a day will help you breathe faster and metabolize more oxygen.
Trekkers follow a schedule called climb high, sleep low. Climbing forces the heart to pump faster and you breath harder. To compensate, your body creates more oxygen-carrying red blood cells. Then you rest lower in the thicker, richer air. The day after you arrive in Namche, you can climb high on a roundtrip to the village of Thame at 12,532 feet. It’s the birthplace of Tenzing Norgay, who first summited Everest with Hillary, and the home of Apa Sherpa who holds the world record of 21 Everest ascents. Another option is hiking north to Khumjung at 13,024 which has the first of dozens of schools Hillary built for Sherpas and a monastery containing a Yeti scalp. Hillary believed in the creature’s existence enough to take the scalp to the Smithsonian for verification. The existence of the Yeti has yet to be proven. Less than a kilometer away is Khunde with the only hospital in the area, also built by Hillary.
On the way back to Nmache, stop for tea at the Everest View Hotel, the highest in the world at 12,779 feet. Built by the Japanese to fly customers in from Kathmandu for fantastic views of Everest, Ama Dablam, and Cho Oyu. The floundered because guests experienced altitude sickness and had to be evacuated. You just can’t go that high that fast. Acclimatize is the magic word.
DAY 7: After two nights in Namche, head north to the Tengboche Monastery at 12,687 feet, the largest in the Everest region. The trail drops for three hours to the small village of Phunki Tenga that has a series of totally efficient water-driven prayer wheels. Now for that Nepali flat as you climb three hours straight back up until you reach a covered gateway with brightly painted scenes of deities and the many forms of Buddha on the walls and arched ceiling. Monks built the portal to cleanse people of evil spirits before they enter the sacred grounds. The monastery is a collection of stone buildings perched on a hill. A broad stone stairway leads to the main temple. Its whitewashed walls and red shutters contrast with a stark blue sky. Hauntingly beautiful sounds coming from twelve-foot, telescoping horns beckon to you. Visitors are welcome in the monastery as long as you remove your shoes and do not disturb monks chanting from sacred texts with the occasional sound of a bell or small drum. It’s an amazing experience that will remain with you always.
The grounds are surrounded by a lush forest of the national tree—scarlet rhododendron that paint the hillside on a canvas of white mountains. From here, you can see Ama Dablam (the beautiful mountain used in the mock Starbucks logo), Everest, Nuptse, and Lhotse. It’s a great photo opp with the mountains behind you. Everest is the furthest away and appears as only a small, black pyramid behind the Nuptse wall. Lhotse is off to the right.
DAY 8 & 9: The next morning, either head to Dingboche at 14,170 (a little off the main trail) or to Pheriche at 13,950, the last permanent settlement in the region. Either place, you need to spend two nights to acclimatize. Hundreds of yak dung patties the size of hockey pucks lie on rock fences and are plastered against house walls to dry. You’re definitely above tree line with no firewood. And it’s bitter cold.
In Pheriche, visit the Himalayan Rescue Clinic. Its purpose is the prevention and treatment of acute mountain sickness that must be taken seriously. Altitude lectures are given daily at 3:00 p.m. The only way to alleviate the symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness, cerebral edema, or pulmonary edema is to descend immediately. In cases where that’s not possible, a Gamow bag can simulate a descent of up to 5,000 feet depending on the starting altitude. It’s a cylindrical, inflatable, portable hyperbaric chamber big enough to fit a person inside with an attached foot pump to pressurize it. A six-foot, stainless steel cone stands in front of the clinic. Split vertically down the center, it has the names of those who died on Everest inscribed on the inner-facing surfaces. Too many end in the name Sherpa, those who gave their lives to make reaching the summit possible. Before expeditions arrived, Sherpas didn’t set foot on the abodes of the gods. They didn’t even have a word for summit in their vocabulary.
DAY 10: Hopefully, you’re acclimatized after two nights and are ready to head on up. Just before Lobuche, you reach an informal cemetery with hundreds of cairn memorials to those who’d died on the mountain. The stones for prominent Sherpas and climbers are piled seven feet high and draped heavily in prayer flags. A plaque bears the name of Babu Sherpa, a freak of science, who sat on the summit without oxygen for twenty-one hours. Another is for Scott Fischer, a famous expedition leader who died of altitude sickness in 1996 during the worst tragedy in Everest history. Over 200 bodies remain on Everest, frozen in place where they took their last breaths. One named Green Boots on the north side serves as a landmark for climbers to tell them how far they have yet to go. Bringing bodies down is too dangerous due to the altitude, weather, or the difficulty of reaching them. Sherpas have died trying. Lobuche at 16,210 has been known for its poor accommodations, but that’s slowly improving.
DAY 11: Trek three hours to Gorak Shep, the last settlement before base camp and only a couple of miles from the Tibetan border. This was the original base camp used by Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Gorak Shep means dead raven. Ravens are considered bad omens. Many Nepalis turn back if they spot one at the beginning of a trip. An hour later, you encounter a wrecked helicopter, split in half and lying on its side. It’s one of several copters that have crashed while trying to land at base camp.
Continue climbing along the Khumbu Glacier that has been receding at the rate of about 230 feet a year due to global warming. The ice under your feet is also wasting away so it feels as though you’re walking over frozen waves on a stormy sea. Base camp is no longer covered with ice and snow. It’s a wasteland of razor-sharp rocks. And you can’t see the summit from there. If you arrive in late April or early May, you’ll find clusters of colored tents pitched among the boulders as teams acclimatize before their ascent. Walk to the far end and the edge of the most dangerous section of the climb where the greatest number of deaths has occurred. Before you Khumbu Icefall rises 2,000 vertical feet. The frozen river moving downhill three or four feet every day is like a horror chamber at an amusement park, filled with enormous crevasses that are constant expanding and contracting and blue-green blocks of ice called seracs threatening to tumble down. Climbers appear like a line of black ants crawling over sugar cubes a hundred times their size. Return to Gorak Shep for the night. Every two years, a marathon is run from Base camp back to Namche with many ups and downs.
DAY 12: Early in the morning, hike less than two hours to the summit of a mound at 18,192 feet called Kala Pattar which means black rock. They’re strewn everywhere, draped with hundreds of prayer flags. From here you have a spectacular 360° view of some of the highest peaks in the world. You can see Everest from base camp to summit, Nuptse, and the northern flank of Lhotse where the world’s highest webcam is located. Return to Lobuche.
DAYS 13-16: One alternative is to retrace your path to Lukla. The descent is much faster since you don’t have to acclimatize.
DAYS 13-20: For those who want more adventure, you can add an extension over the 17,700-foot Cho La pass to Gokyo Lakes at 15, 600 feet. The six main lakes are the world’s highest freshwater lake system. The few stone houses used by yak herders during summer pasture are among the highest settlements in the world. Climb Gokyo Ri at 17, 578 feet to see five of the 8,000 meter peaks: the West face of Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Kanchenjunga, and Cho Oyu that straddles the border of Nepal and Tibet. Below you is the Ngozumpa Glacier, the largest in Nepal and reputed to be the largest in the Himalayas. Your return to Lukla takes you down a different valley to Namche and then to Lukla. Your itinerary should include a few extra days because departure from Lukla is often delayed due to weather. You don’t want to miss your plane home.