Mount Everest as you know is the tallest mountain on earth, and while base camp isn’t quite at the top, it’s still pretty high. Everest is 8848m high and located in the Himalayan mountain range between Nepal & China.
To think about being ‘on top of the world’ is just crazy. In fact, I did think about it, I thought about it a lot. I realized that if I want to get to the summit, I’d need to be some kind of superhuman with a lot of money… which I’m not.
Trekking to Mount Everest Base Camp was the best thing I’ve ever done. Also, it was the hardest! I believed that I could make it to base camp. Further, I persuaded my girlfriend Lian, that she could do it too! She was already interested in trekking in Nepal, but not necessarily to Mount Everest, Base Camp or not. Our Birthdays are a day apart. We planned to be up there to celebrate. Base camp has an altitude of 5356m which is more than double any height we’d reached before.
The decision to attempt this trek was made only a few weeks prior while in India. I was excited and did my research/. However, it didn’t become a reality until landing in Kathmandu. Another thing that became a reality just before arriving in Nepal, was that I had some kind of food poisoning. It was horrible! Indeed, two months in India without any problems and with one day to go before leaving, Delhi belly strikes!
So, my preparation for the most challenging trek I’m ever going to do was spent mainly between the bed and the bathroom. Fun times! It also delayed our start time by a good few days. Unfortunately, the goal of reaching base camp at Mount Everest on our birthdays was now looking pretty unlikely.
Anyway, it’s not all bad, I promise. I managed to peel myself out of bed for long enough to explore the trekking shops in Kathmandu and buy myself some 100% genuine North Fake gear. I didn’t have any appropriate clothing at the time so invested in some decent hiking boots, walking sticks, a new bag, and a few other bits and pieces to keep me warm along the way. All in all, I had about 13kg on my back.
Fast forward a few more days, and we’re catching a taxi at 4 am, to the airport, before we can start the trek. Why an airport? Well because to start trekking on Mount Everest, you have to first fly into Lukla, a tiny village populated with only 500 people situated at 2800m altitude, and home to the ‘worlds most dangerous airport,’ ahh great.
After going through airport security, of which there were none, and boarding a shuttle bus to our ridiculously small plane, we nervously sat waiting for the pilot to do his pre-flight checks. It consisted of him walking around the plane, kicking the tires and praying. Needless to say, that put us all at ease.
We boarded the tiny 16 seat plane, and I got the seat right behind the pilot. I was pretty much in his back pocket with only a curtain between us. Anyway, this was all so odd that it was enjoyable, too enjoyable to even think about the safety or lack thereof. Something along the lines of having to laugh or we’d cry!
Lukla airport is known as the most dangerous in the world, and here are a few reasons why.
Firstly, as mentioned, it’s 2800m above sea level! Meaning the weather is often unpredictable, and the winds can be dangerous to the light planes. Another is that there’s very little descent before arriving onto the runway, and this isn’t like any other runway, it’s only about 500m long, with a cliff face at one end, and a solid stone wall at the other.
I almost forgot that there’s a 200ft height difference from one end to the other. So yes, the pilots fly these tiny little planes through the rugged mountain range, in the wind and fog, at altitude, onto a very short uphill runway. That’s why it’s both terrifying and amazing!
This airport was constructed in 1964, under the supervision of Sir Edmund Hillary. He originally intended to use flatter nearby farmlands, but the farmers wouldn’t sell. Hence the airport was built where it is today.
However, it hasn’t always been like this. In the early days, there wasn’t a runway at all! Rumour has it, Hillary used to pay locals with alcohol to walk up and down and flatten the area that served as the runway! The runway we know today wasn’t paved until 2001!
Trek to Mount Everest Base Campe Day 1 – Lukla to Phakbing
So here we are, day 1 of the trek and we set off walking through the little village of Lukla (Alt.2800m). We had a map that we had been studying and planned a route to the town of Phakbing (alt.2680), about 8km away. After checking in with the tourist police and purchasing a 2000 rupee entrance fee, we were on our way. After about 10 minutes, we were already taking off some of the many layers we were wearing. The temperatures were still pretty high, and the sun was intense, so we both ended up wearing less, and carrying more, this would change!
The day trek was a relatively easy one, and we reached our destination around lunchtime, we could have probably gone further, but with the inevitable afternoon storm on its way, we decided to call it a day.
Let me tell you about accommodation. If you pay for your evening meal and breakfast at one of the many tea houses along the way, they’ll generally give you a room for the night at no extra cost. This idea was brilliant as we were able to stay with the locals, hear their stories, get some advice as well as meeting other trekkers doing the same.
Everest Base Camp Day 2 – Phakbing (alt.2680m) to Namche Bazaar (alt.3440m)
The second day started early as we knew we had a little further to walk, as well as an 800m increase in altitude. Once again we began the trek with 3 or 4 layers on and almost instantly were back down to shorts and a vest. This day for me was the hardest, mainly because it was still scorching and although the majority of the day was pretty flat, the last couple of kilometers were just a rough uphill climb through the untouched forest. There was also the small matter of crossing the terrifyingly high suspension bridges. I hate heights, and while Lian was strolling along taking photos, I pretty much ran across with my head up ignoring the fact we were a few hundred meters up!
The bag on my back felt a lot heavier climbing up through the forests, and I was already starting to doubt myself and wondering if I’d manage to carry it to Base Camp. However, a solid half an hour behind Lian, I reached Namche. Exhausted, sweaty and in desperate need of some food, we settled in for the night at another tea house.
Now I want to mention the Porters that are carrying luggage for other tourists. These men and women are nothing short of machines. If you’re not able to or don’t want to take your gear, you can hire a porter. They will walk with you and carry your things. Now, this sounds fine, but when a group of 2 or 3 hire one guy to take all the bags, it’s just ridiculous. I understand it’s a job and offers a reasonably decent income for them, it’s even honorable for some to be working on Everest. But strapping three bags to someone and walking alongside them didn’t sit well with us. Full credit to these guys. They have incredible strength and stamina, trekking in flip flops with 30+kg hanging around their heads.
Day 3 – Acclimatization in Namche Bazaar
We had been advised by many to take a day to acclimatize at Namche before continuing higher. So that’s exactly what we did. Namche Bazaar is the most significant and busiest town along the way and a stopping point for almost everybody. Situated 3440 meters above sea level, it’s quite a bit cooler with average temperatures of about 6 degrees. I know what you Brits are thinking, that’s a summers day!
There’s pretty much everything you need here. There were equipment shops, cafes and tea houses, to schools, banks, and even a beauty salon. We met some fellow trekkers here and spent the day exploring the town. We played cards and watched the movie, Everest. The movie is based on the 1996 disaster, which claimed the lives of 8 people. I’m not sure who’s idea it was to watch this, but it certainly wasn’t mine!
Day 4 – Namche Bazaar (alt.3440m) to Deboche (alt.3820m)
The 4th day marked my 26th birthday. We were nowhere near the base camp as we’d hoped. However, it wasn’t a problem, and we began our trek with a couple of friends we met the day before.
Now I wish I remembered more of this day and I’m sure the trek itself was amazing, but the whole day for me was overshadowed by what happened next. About 1 hour into the walk, I spun one of the many prayer wheels the wrong way. Consequently, I was told it was bad luck. No worries, it’s just a wheel, right? Nope, within 5 minutes I’d stood in yak sh*t, broke a walking stick, and lost my phone! Happy Birthday to me!
Everest Base Camp Day 5 – Deboche (alt.3820m) to Dingboche
As mentioned, Lian’s birthday is the day after mine, and we woke up to find it was snowing. It wasn’t a surprise or that noteworthy, but this was the first time Lian had ever seen snowfall in real life. I suppose that’s a better start to her birthday than I had! It was also colder than she had ever experienced but only going to get worse. We set off from our tea house as the snow made way for the sun and began the 6-hour hike to Dingboche (alt. 4410m).
Day 5 was probably the best day so far as we ascended out of the forests and began to see more mountains, snow, and just amazing panoramic views all round. We made it to Dingboche, and while we had the energy to have gone further, the experts advised against it. We settled in for the night with a beer and a little cake knowing that tomorrow would be another rest day. I even treated us to our first hot shower, which consisted of a bucket of boiling water and a cup. Luxury! All in all, a beautiful day with a relatively easy route to navigate, this was probably one of the more leisurely days.
Day 6 – Acclimatisation in Dingboche
We heard that it’s good practice to climb to a higher altitude and stay there for a few hours to help adjust to the height and to help prepare for tomorrow, so we did just that. We started the day by hiking up a nearby mountain which had the most amazing views of Ama Dablam. The altitude didn’t seem to be bothering either of us, and we felt pretty confident that we’d get through the trek sickness free.
It’s worth noting that we were taking half an altitude sickness tablet twice a day from the moment we landed at Lukla. Better to be safe than sorry! We spent the rest of the day enjoying the cakes and biscuits from a little french bakery that just so happens to be there.
Day 7 – Dingboche (alt.4410m) to Pyramid (alt.4970m)
Originally, we intended to stop at Lobuche. We heard that this is a town where most organized tours stop, meaning it would be pretty busy. The first part of the day saw us tackle a very steep climb back up to the viewpoint from the day before. Then, we had a fairly flat, but very windy few kilometers along the top. We knew before we started that we had about 500m to incline during the day, but we didn’t expect it to all be at once! About 2 hours into the hike, we stopped for a coffee and to prepare for what was next. We weren’t the only ones there, we were joined by nearly 50 others all taking a time out.
So the next hour was spent literally climbing 500m of fallen rocks, this was the first time we’d come across something as treacherous as this, and we definitely deserved another rest at the top.
There is a memorial site here dedicated to the trekkers who didn’t make it back, it’s a pretty emotional place to stand as everywhere you look there’s brightly colored prayer flags, messages, and shrines. Most notably, the victims from the 1996 Mount Everest disaster that we just watched a few days earlier.
We made it to Lobuche as planned, and one of the locals confirmed it does get hectic and we could continue a few more kilometers to the ‘pyramid.’ Honestly, at this point I had no idea what to expect, but we figured it would reduce tomorrow’s walking distance as we planned to reach base camp.
So what is the Pyramid? It’s exactly that. Strangely enough, 4970m above sea level amongst the rock and snow of the mountains, there’s an enormous solar-paneled pyramid! It’s actually a joint Nepali – Italian project for the GAW – Global Atmospheric Watch. Teams of researchers spend months up here living in the dorm-style accommodation, and when we arrived, we were given a tiny little room underneath all the ‘proper’ rooms. We basically had our own ‘Harry Potter’ cupboard.
We spent a bit more than we wanted to, but in return, we got all the luxuries we hadn’t seen all week, such as electricity, hot water, unlimited food, and wifi. If anyone is interested in doing this trek I strongly recommend taking the little detour to see this place, it’s just so unusual and unique it shouldn’t be missed.
Everest Base Camp Day 8 – Pyramid to Gorak Shep to Base Camp
4 days behind schedule, the day we would be reaching Base Camp (alt. 5356m) had finally arrived. We set off towards Gorak Shep (alt. 5164m), the place where most people stay for the night either before or after they make the return journey to Base Camp. It is, in fact, possible to spend the night in a tent at Base Camp, and we met a family along the way that was planning to do that, but we intended to leave all our gear in the guesthouse and trek without the weight of our bags for the first time.
Each day, after around 1pm, the clouds were too thick to see anything, so the goal was always to reach the planned destination as early as possible. We left Pyramid full of excitement but also aware that we had 3 hours of rocky uphill terrain to navigate to Gorak Shep, followed by another 2-3 hours to Base Camp, all before the inevitable afternoon storms.
Getting to Gorak Shep was a real race against the clock, and after a grueling few hours, we made it to our bag drop off point. ‘Snowland’ boasts the highest tea house on earth, at 5180m, it was precisely the same as the others we’d stayed at, except here they charged almost double for everything… even tap water that’s undrinkable. We had a coffee and left our bags, ready for the final leg of this incredible journey.
We weren’t the only ones in this ‘race,’ and for the first time on the trek, we got stuck in traffic. Annually, over 35,000 people trek to base camp or at least attempt to, but our journey so far had been reasonably quiet. We met a lot of people along the way, but it never felt overcrowded, until today.
As we made our way over the rocks and through the narrow winding paths, we could already see the clouds approaching. However, at over 5000m altitude, and after 8 long days, running was not an option. After an hour or so, we could see Base Camp for the first time, or at least we could see the orange blur of distant tents beyond the glacier. It always seemed as if it was just around the next corner, just over the next rock, just beyond the next group of people… but this went on forever. The incoming clouds brought wind, rain, and snow with them, which made the last push even harder, but we were so close!
And finally, after 8 long days and 65 kilometers of uphill trekking, we had made it! There were probably another 50 people from all over the world there at the time of our arrival as well as the guys who were camping there for a few months to acclimatize before attempting to summit. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to go near their camp, I would have loved to speak to some of them about their upcoming climb.
Remember the storm? Yeah, that arrived just as we did, making the visibility poor. We couldn’t even see the mountains right in front of us, but it was amazing to reach our goal finally. All over the larger rocks, are flags from different countries and endless Nepalese prayer flags, it’s very colorful and a very emotional moment for all.
Two American friends we made along the way, Jeremy & Sally arrived with us, and we all shared the special moment together. We stayed for probably an hour before conceding to the weather and beginning the trek back to Snowland. Fast forward 2 frigid, wet and tiring hours, and you find us huddled around a giant flask of tea, chatting away about our experiences and feelings. This continued throughout the rest of the day before taking an early night.
Why didn’t we stay up and celebrate? Well because we had the bright idea to attempt summiting a nearby mountain in the morning to catch a glimpse of the sun rising on Everest. We also had planned to get back down to Lukla as quickly as possible as we’d heard that the weather had been causing a backlog of flight departures. So we wanted to get there ASAP!
That all sounds fun until the alarms going off at 4am and it’s -8°c!
Day 9 – Gorak Shep (alt.5164) to Kala Patthar (alt.5643m)*
For the first time during the trek, I thought I better swap the shorts and my trusty £3 windproof jacket for trousers, leggings, thermal shirt, jumper, jacket and finally tried out the big coat I bought in Kathmandu… it wasn’t enough!
It’s 4.30am on Mount Everest and off we go up Kala Patthar, a further 300m above Base Camp, and another race against the weather, sunrise to be specific.
I’m not sure I can put into words what it felt like to be climbing a ridiculously steep mountain in the dark, at sub-zero temperatures knowing we still had another 20k to trek later that day, but all I can say is it was bloody hard!
This was probably the coldest I’ve ever been, and after we got about halfway up, the sun was already beginning to rise. We spoke to a Sherpa who pointed out Everest and told us the view is no better at the top than what we can see now. Well, that settled it, we’ll stay right here then!
Throughout this journey, I had incorrectly pointed out Everest pretty much every day, but finally, we were seeing the real thing. The sun rose up behind the summit brightly, and we quietly perched on a rock to take it all in. Truly amazing!
The Return Leg
After a hot drink and a bite to eat, we left Gorak Shep (alt. 5164m) with the intention of getting as far as possible within the day. There was about 60km between Lukla and us and so an initial target of 20km a day seemed achievable. There are a few different routes, so we decided to head back along paths, and through villages, we hadn’t passed on the way up. It was great to bump into people going the other way and share advice and tips, just as people had done for us a few days earlier.
As the day continued, we were doing pretty well in terms of distance covered but fatigue was definitely kicking in for us. We spent the night in Tangboche eating, playing cards, and chatting away over a cold beer or three. The idea for the next day was to get back to Namche, and I still had the smallest bit of hope that my phone may have been handed in somewhere there… I know, very optimistic of me.
On the way down, it became even more apparent how much ‘stuff’ gets carried up there every day. It’s common to be behind a line of 20 donkeys or yaks. They were carrying anything from food and drinks, to luggage or gas canisters.
You can generally hear the stampede of animals before you can see them as they are usually wearing bells around their necks, and are being the lead/guided by a loud, impatient Nepalese guy.
We had a few close calls with the animal traffic here and continuously had to respect that on these steep, narrow trails, the biggest animal has the right of way… surprisingly enough, that was never me!
It’s not just the animals carry backbreaking weights up here, humans too. We passed one guy hunched over with a large dining table on his back, supported by a strap around his forehead.
Another guy using the same technique had 2 gigantic water storage tanks tied to him, empty of course. It still looked like an awkward load to carry. Really puts it into perspective just how hard these guys work to get by.
Everest Base Camp Day 10: Namche
We got back to Namche. Although the majority of the day was downhill, 10 solid days of trekking with no preparation took its toll on my body. A shower and an early night seemed like the only option if I was to be able to complete the final push to Lukla in the morning.
I knew the first hour or so of the day would be spent going back down through the steep, dusty forest I struggled with on day 2. This was great until my body quickly reminded me I have the knees of an 80-year-old. A lot slower than expected, I made it down, and we pushed on towards Lukla. Every now and again one of us would be sure it’s just around this next corner, just over that hill, just a few more kilometers… but it seemed to go on forever.
We hadn’t actually booked a flight from Lukla yet. So, we had no idea how long this trek would take us. We’d paid for one but were told to confirm with the airport when we get there, and they’ll put us on the next available plane. Eventually, we made it to the airport just before it closed and booked onto a morning flight, leaving the following day, or so we thought.
After 11 long hard days and with Mount Everest and Base Camp behind us, we were once again walking through the village of Lukla. Only, this time we weren’t alone. The friends we’d made along the way were already sitting in a beer garden waiting for us. What better way to end this trip than a few celebratory beers with new friends?
I wish I could say the flight back went as smoothly as it did on the way here, but that would be a lie. There had already been flights delayed and canceled for a couple of days before we arrived. Further, the airport was chaos. Forget everything you think you know about airports, this one is more like a bus station.
Hundreds of people were pushing and shoving. They were hoping to get checked onto one of the few planes that might depart before the afternoon winds cause any more delays. It really did seem like a lottery. Everybody had a ticket with a number. It was merely a case of waiting for your plane to arrive, and hoping the weather plays along to get back to Kathmandu safely!
After a few nervous hours, we watched everybody else leave. The clouds and wind were making our chances of takeoff less and less likely. Finally, on one of the last flights of the day, way later than expected, we departed.
Now, remember me saying how much I enjoyed the experience of flying into Lukla? Well, this was a little different. We were told the wind was stronger and the flight might not be so smooth. I can confidently say it was the scariest flight any of us had been on. At least 10 of the 16 passengers were crying, and I presume we were all holding our breath at times. I know I was! The tiny little plane seemed as if it was being blown around like a paper bag. Throughout the 40 minute flight, the only noises I heard from passengers were screams, it was genuinely terrifying.
Landing safely back in Kathmandu was a relief. Now it was time to sit and reflect on our experiences, without any pressure at all.
Here are a few extra photos of our trip:
Although it was a very tough 11 days, this trek is achievable for anyone who wants to push themselves. I was overtaken on one occasion by a dude with 2 prosthetic legs! Another group of guys I met were all in their 60s and all had knee replacements. Very inspiring!
So if you’re reading this thinking you’re too old for Mount Everest, too busy, set in your ways to hike up to Base Camp… you’re not. Why not try something new, or push yourself or even experience something unusual? How about taking a little stroll up Everest, huh?
Billy Phethean / Instagram @billytravels92