This is a transcription of the diary I kept while hiking to Everest Base Camp in October 2018. For an overall reflection and some tips for doing the trek yourself, skip to the end.
10.18 am - Not usually a journal person, but I figured the trek to Everest Base Camp would be a good time to unplug and do some actual pen-to-paper writing. We’re currently settled in the airport waiting for our flight to Lukla, we got here around five thirty in the morning and it’s been total chaos since then. The flight keeps getting delayed over and over, and for such vague periods of time, but I’ve heard this is very typical - the weather has to be just right for us to go, bad visibility is historically the largest cause of accidents that occur at the airport - the “most dangerous airport in the world” - so sometimes you just have to wait out the clouds.
6.41 pm - The flight went smoothly, much less eventful than all those news articles would have had me believe. It was pretty cool actually, we were flying above jagged and green mountain peaks, I thought to myself we were flying a little low, then, all of a sudden, we landed. We hung around Lukla for an hour or two, had lunch and met our guide Tashi. He seems like a cool guy, though there’s a bit of a language barrier between us. We hiked for about three hours, mostly downhill today which was nice, but just means the last day will be a tough one uphill. We just finished dinner at the guesthouse, more dal bhat - Tashi told us that all the meat that comes through here is shipped in from Kathmandu then dragged up the mountain by porters and can take up to a week to get out here, so it looks like we’re going vegetarian again for the next week or so. They actually have a saying around here - “dal bhat power, twenty-four hour”, I think it’s sort of a running joke that it’s all you eat during the trek. Anyway, Peter is jumping up and down next to the light switch, I think he wants to go to bed, so I’ll write more later.
Overview: Fly to Lukla, trek to Phakding - 8,700 feet - 8km - 3.5 hours.
5.53 am - It’s hard to believe we slept so well, and for almost eleven hours, too. We’re not at a very high elevation yet, but already it’s so cold we have to sleep with our down sleeping bags under the blankets, zipping them up with mittened hands, heavy woolen hats on our heads. As cold as it is here though, this lodge feels pretty luxurious - private room, double bed, attached bathroom with a western toilet. I was expecting much simpler accommodations, and I hope we haven’t been spoiled for the rest of the trip. My fingers are getting too cold to keep writing, though, so once I can rouse Peter we’ll head up to the kitchen where there’s a wood-burning stove and hot drinks to warm us up. It’s awesome how the simple things in life like a warm fireplace and a cup of coffee are infinitely better after you’ve spent a night in the cold.
6.54 pm - We had a lot of elevation gain today, which meant a long, six hours uphill. The hike was beautiful though - deep, expansive ravines, rock faces covered in pine trees, flowing rivers and waterfalls. I have (what I’d consider to be) a perfectly healthy fear of heights, but little could have prepared me for the rickety metal bridges we had to cross today, stretching over huge drops and valleys of rock and running water. They looked old and rusty, and there were several areas where the fencing on the sides had started to detach or was missing completely. It was actually really beautiful once you got used to it though, passing directly between tree-covered mountain and under running waterfalls. The great thing about gaining so much elevation today means that tomorrow is an acclimatization day! No trekking necessary, just a day to let our bodies adjust to the new altitude we’ve reached. I’m excited to explore more of Namche, it was so beautiful walking in.
Overview: Trek from Phakding to Namche Bazaar - 11,280 feet - 11km - 6 hours.
6.43 pm - Today was a good day, but that’s to be expected as we didn’t have any trekking to do. We were hoping to spend the entire day resting, but the morning was so clear and the mountains looked so beautiful, so after breakfast we hiked to an observatory not too far away. It’s amazing, almost alarming to me how greatly the altitude has already started to impact me - climbing a flight of stairs at this elevation practically leaves me breathless. It was definitely worth it to do the hike, though, and we got our first glimpse of Mt. Everest. Afterwards we really did spend the day relaxing, exploring the little town of Namche and just hanging out. We went to a teahouse and got Tibetan butter teas, a surprisingly delicious Himalayan drink made from yak butter, tea leaves, and salt, and is said to help combat some symptoms of altitude sickness and other pains of hiking. Now we’ve just finished dinner and are about ready for bed, we’ve got a long day ahead of us tomorrow.
Overview: Acclimatization Day - Namche Bazaar - 11,280 feet.
3.20 pm - The last couple days have been mostly trees and waterfalls, but today was all mountain. We trekked along packed dirt trails built into the steep cliff, each turn showing us a new and absolutely breathtaking expanse of peaks and views of Mt. Everest. It’s getting colder, too, we’ve started to see frost outside when we start, but it really just adds to the beauty of those quiet mornings. It was a tough day, though, we always seem to spend the first one or two hours of each morning hiking downhill, which we then have to make up for with steep uphill treks after lunch. After about six hours we finally reached Tengboche and
6.31 pm - We were interrupted by our guide, I’d been writing in the common area of the lodge (the only area where it’s warm) and he spotted the deck of cards next to us. He sat down and then called over a couple of his buds and we spent the next few hours playing a Nepalese game they taught us called kitti (sp?). Basically, you get nine cards and make the best set of three 3-card hands as you can, which you then play in rounds for the pot of money. After we got the hang of it we played at a ten rupee buy-in (less than ten cents), the pot never got up to be more than three dollars, so it was low stakes to say the least, but enough to keep it interesting. Between here and Pramila’s, this deck of cards has seen so many hours of use over the past few weeks, it’s really the best way to pass the time when electricity and WiFi is found so scarcely. Today’s trek was about six hours, pretty standard, but the days are getting harder and harder the higher up the mountain we get. I expect we’ll make this another early night, there’s not much else to do here and I need to sleep off this altitude headache I’ve had all day. Our guide just grabbed the cards again though, and he’s started to shuffle, so we’ll have to see.
Overview: Trek from Namche Bazaar to Tengboche - 12,694 feet - 10km - 6 hours.
2.46 pm - Today was a good hiking day, five hours, but a decent amount was level or downhill. We’re now settled at the next lodge, reading and hanging out before dinner. We really did get spoiled with the first couple rooms along the trek though, the amenities are disappearing one by one - electrical outlets were the first to go, then western style toilets, last night we didn’t even get blankets with our beds. On the upside, though, we finally got our Snickers! We’ve been seeing them sold everywhere along the trek - Snickers, Mars Bars, and Johnnie Walker Red Label, I swear those are the official sponsors of the Everest Base Camp trek, but hey I’m not complaining. Though I think we’ll save the Johnnie for the way down.
Overview: Trek from Tengboche to Dingboche - 14,300 feet - 9km - 5 hours.
7.08 pm - Another acclimatization day today, in Dingboche this time. There was another optional, three hour hike, but honestly this time neither Peter nor I were up for it. We’re both really feeling the altitude, and needed this day to rest.
Overview: Acclimatization Day - Dingboche - 14,300 feet.
5.34 am - The water tank above our room broke in the middle of the night last night, freezing cold water rained down from the ceiling. We got up and moved all our stuff to our waterproof duffel bags, but of course the electricity was out, so we were fumbling around in the dark. This is the first time in the trek so far where I feel exhausted, and not just because of the trekking, though of course that’s part of it. It’s that it’s so cold out that the water that dripped on us last night has now frozen into a thick layer of ice on the bottom of our room. Or all the urine-soaked squat toilets with no running water, I don’t think I’ve washed my hands properly in days. The rat in the walls of our room a few nights ago, keeping me up at night nibbling at the plywood next to my ears. This weird rash I’ve gotten on my leg from the knock-off “North Face” trekking pants I got in Thamel. These are definitely the less glamorous parts of my life I don’t put on Instagram, and I’m really beginning to feel the length of this journey.
4.48 pm - Despite its inauspicious beginning, this day has really turned around. Today’s hike was so beautiful - the first two hours were relatively flat, and absolutely lovely, we crossed through flat, arid, empty plains, surrounded by huge mountains on each side. There was a steep hour or so in the middle, which was brutal, but we reached such breathtaking views at the top and finished with another few hours of relative flatness. A good mix of fun, challenging, and rewarding. During the middle part today, the hard part, I was amping myself up in my brain like I usually do, and I remembered something my friend said to me in middle school when we were running cross country together - she said, “with every breath, new life”. It’s sort of a corny quote, and we both knew it, but honestly today it helped me as I was gasping for air at the altitude, climbing those steep stone steps that I thought would never end. “Every breath, new life”, and there are few things more life-giving than the views of those mountains today.
Overview: Trek from Dingboche to Lobuche - 16,207 feet - 7km - 6 hours.
8.24 pm - Today was really difficult, the longest day we’ve had so far. We had a few hours of hiking, lots of up and down, to get to Gorakshep, the last town we’re staying in before heading down. We put our stuff away and had lunch, then started on the additional three hours or so to get to Base Camp. It was cold today and I’m dizzy with the altitude, but the hike was really cool - trekking across a giant glacier and over small caves in the ice. It was the first time I really felt the reality of being near Mt. Everest, and not just on another hike.
Base Camp itself was different from what we thought, it honestly seemed sort of anti-climactic. We felt happy, of course, getting here was the goal of our hike, and we celebrated that. But there really wasn’t a whole lot to see there, no tents, no buildings, just a ton of prayer flags and a few scattered rocks. The experience was rushed, too, our guide said we shouldn’t hang out too long at the altitude (especially as I’m not feeling too well), so he was just hurrying us to take our pictures and get the fuck out. I’d say it’s definitely more about the journey than about the destination. I don’t know, I feel like looking back I have a weird relationship with this hike. On one hand, I’ve loved it. I love being outside and in nature and feeling disconnected with real life and technology, and so connected with nature and mountains and trees. But it has been exhausting. I haven’t felt anything but freezing cold in days. The altitude completely robs you of your appetite, yesterday all I ate was half a pancake, and hiking for hours on top of it. I have this cough that with every step I take, it feels like my heart is going to burst out of my chest like that little guy in Alien. I wake up in coughing fits in the middle of the night, and when I reach for my water I find it’s frozen solid. Just the thought of spending the next three days, hiking ten or more miles each day down the way we came, is exhausting. It’s been a tough journey so far, no denying that, but for today I’m just glad we made it.
Overview: Trek from Lobuche to Gorak Shep, visit Everest Base Camp - 17,594 feet - 13km - 7 hours.
8.41 pm - We took a helicopter down, thank goodness for travel insurance. It got to the point where I couldn’t even take a few steps without feeling like I was about to cough up one of my lungs, much less the twelve miles we had scheduled to hike today. While I can’t recommend getting that sick to anyone, it really was a beautiful helicopter ride down - we got a different view of the mountains from above, something we certainly wouldn’t have gotten if we’d had to spend the next three days hiking down the exact same way we came. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel like a tiny bit of a failure, though, of course I wish we could have kept going. But the goal was always trek to Everest Base Camp, nobody brags about hiking down. We went straight from the helipad to the hospital where I was hooked up to several tubes and X-rayed - I have a 103.2 degree fever and a pretty severe case of pneumonia. I hadn’t eaten enough in a long time, my blood flow was so weak they had to draw blood from the veins in my hands, and they say I’ll have to spend at least the next two nights here. Happy birthday to me! Haha, just kidding. I don’t want to sound too negative. While this isn’t exactly where I’d imagined spending my twenty-fifth birthday, I know that even here, in this hospital bed in Kathmandu, I’m happier than I would be if I’d spent my birthday in a desk chair. We fucking hiked to Mt. Everest Base Camp, and I think that’s one hell of a way to ring in twenty-five.
Overview: Overnight in Swacon International Hospital, Kathmandu.
Obviously, taking a helicopter down and getting pneumonia and being hospitalized in Kathmandu was not the ideal ending to our Everest Base Camp trek. But you should do it anyway! Before I got sick I honestly enjoyed each day we spent in the mountains, there were such beautiful trees and waterfalls, peaks and valleys, plus the great feeling of accomplishment when you finally do reach Base Camp. While it was incredibly difficult and taxing, at the same time it was just so invigorating and an experience I wouldn’t trade for the world. That being said, here are some tips that might make the journey a little bit easier.
• Get travel insurance, and make sure the package includes a helicopter evacuation. In case you have to take one down, like me! The helicopter would have cost roughly 4,000 USD, plus there was the hospital visit on top of that, so the insurance has already paid for itself several times over. Even if you don’t have to take a helicopter down, it goes without saying there are plenty of things that could go wrong during a twelve-day trek up a mountain in Nepal, so if only for some peace of mind, travel insurance is a good idea.
• Bring tea packets and snacks/powerbars. Drinks are stupid expensive up the mountain, but they sell boiled water at a fraction of the price, so if you have your own tea you can save tons of money by making it yourself. Also, your appetite starts to go with the altitude (each guesthouse serves the exact same menu) so it’s really hard to force yourself to eat. But it’s so important to keep your energy/calories up even if you don’t feel like it, so having some snacks on hand that you know you like might help combat low energy levels.
• Go vegetarian. A lot of the food - including all of the meat - is brought in from Kathmandu, then taken up the mountain by sherpas. It can take a week or more for it to reach the teahouses along the way, so we opted not to eat any of the meat to avoid food poisoning during our trek.
• Bring a deck of cards, there’s WiFi and charging stations for your electronics all throughout the trek, but they’re expensive and honestly, it’s such a good excuse to unplug for a while anyway. You’ll have a lot of downtime at the teahouses in between trekking, and all the guides loved to play cards, which was a great way to pass the time and connect with those locals.
• Get water purification tablets. It’s easy to get dehydrated, so forcing yourself to drink lots of water is a must. You can buy bottled water at all the teahouses along the way, but they get more expensive the further you get up, almost 4 USD for a liter of water. It was much cheaper for us to buy water purification tablets (we got Aquatabs) in Kathmandu/Lukla, then just get water from the outdoor spigots along the way and treat the water ourselves.
• If you can, give yourself time. If you’re flying into Lukla, add a couple buffer days in Kathmandu surrounding the trek - the Lukla airport is notorious for delaying flights for days at a time, and you wouldn’t want to miss your return journey. Also, we did (or, attempted) the standard twelve-day circuit, but if you're unsure of how altitude impacts you/you don’t have time to train at all, there are plenty of 14-16 or even more day treks that would make the journey more manageable.