In the Shadow of Giants
Trekking the Foothills of Everest
For the adventurous trekker, there’s little to compare with the experience of traversing the glacially carved valleys of the Nepalese Himalayas. The views are literally breathtaking, but the extraordinary scenery is not easily accessed—these places exist at elevations that can slow us ‘lowlanders’ to a near-crawl. The challenges of extreme altitude are eased by the hospitality of people whose homes have stood at these locations for generations, who offer a hot meal and night’s sleep. In a way, it’s a step back in time.
Where, When, and How
If you wish to trek the Himalayas, the first questions you’ll need to answer first are where, when, and how you’ll embark on your adventure.
Where do you want to trek? There are a dizzying amount of options, from the massively popular Everest Base Camp trek, to the lesser-known Thame Valley, Island Peak, and Jiri areas. You can combine multiple treks, take pieces of several to make your own itinerary, and find that even when you’re finished with your trek, that there will certainly be more to see next time. Take your time to research the options to determine which would suit your needs the best.
Then there is the ‘when’:-what time of year do want to visit? Spring offers chilly temperatures, mostly stable weather conditions, and smaller crowds. Summer brings the monsoons, which deter all but the most determined trekkers. Fall is the most popular season, and as such can be quite busy, with pleasant weather and clear blue skies almost every day. If you’re willing to brave the winter’s snow in many areas above Namche Bazaar, along with route-finding and general cold weather challenges, you may well find you have the normally busy areas all to yourself. Obviously each has pluses and minuses—the only thing for sure is that you’ll quickly be surrounded by some of the most stunning Himalayan terrain at every turn.
Finally, the ‘how’: join a group tour, hire your own private guide and porter, or go it alone? There is no right option, and whichever you choose, you’ll be happy you came.
For me, I wanted to avoid the crowds, so we chose to go in the early spring. Dealing with colder temperatures or some amount of snow was worth the tradeoff of crowds, and we could dodge them even more by only spending limited time on the “EBC Superhighway” (my term of endearment for the direct hike from Namche Bazaar to Everest Base Camp).
As for guides and porters, they certainly can make for a pleasant experience if you want to be able to show up and just enjoy the hiking, as well as providing some great local insight to the area. (Guiding and portering is also a large part of the local economy, so it helps to do a little research and go with a reputable company.) While this may be the right choice for some, our intention was to be as independent as possible, thanks in part to my stubborn attitude of wanting to be self sufficient. I also knew that being able to take the time or detour out of the way to pursue my photographic goals was probably not compatible with having to follow a set schedule.
That’s not so say we didn’t seriously consider using a guide, and our ambitious schedule made the idea of having someone along to help carry some of the load appealing. But in the end, we carried our own gear—22- to 28-pound backpacks, including food and water—and navigated our own way along the valleys, rivers, and mountain passes, logging a total of 142 miles and almost 22,500 feet of cumulative elevation gain.
If you decide to go it alone, be sure to go to the TIMS (Trekkers Information Management System) Office in Kathmandu to register your party and pick up the required permits. If you go with a guide they should do this for you.
One distinct difference in Himalayan trekking is that, for the most part, you’ll be partaking in what is known as ‘teahouse trekking,’ in which simple guesthouses spread out along the way provide basic and inexpensive accommodation and meals each night. What were once small farming villages in the shadows of mountains have become more and more directed towards helping trekkers reach their goals. Sherpa families will often join you in the common room, sitting around the fire while hot ginger tea is poured from large thermoses, and the dhal baht leaves even the most hungry trekker full and satisfied. A fun saying to remember when choosing your meal for the night is “Dhal baht power, 24 hour!”
Officially, you’re allowed to set up camp in the National Park, whose boundary extends just below Namche Bazaar, but don’t expect to see tents all along the way. Since the teahouses are so established, and the ability to buy fresh or packaged foods and fuel along the way so limited, there’s really not much option for extended self-supported trips. It’s not impossible, of course, but it’s quite uncommon. If this is your first time to the area, my advice would be to give the teahouse culture a try. You’ll find the new relationships you can build with the locals worth the tradeoff of a night in your own tent.
For most, the trek starts with a hair-raising 30 minute flight from Kathmandu to Lukla. If you’re at all nervous about flying, don’t do too much research on the runway in Lukla! All you need to know is that the pilots do this route every day and if conditions aren’t ideal, they won’t fly.
Otherwise, if you’re so inclined, you can take a 12-hour bus to Jiri and a six-day walk to Lukla, experiencing a slower paced start and potentially better acclimatization (add another 2-3 days at the end of the trek for the return walk from Lukla to Jiri).
The first three days are generally pretty fixed no matter which trek you decide to take on. Lukla to Namche takes around 8-9 hours of trekking including a full 3000-foot elevation gain, so most take it slow when they land—walking 3-5 hours to the base of the climb, then a strenuous day up to Namche Bazaar. You’ll need to take at least one rest day there to acclimatize before pushing on to further reaches (and if you have time, plan for two; Namche is a fun town to wander, as well as hiking to Khumjung and Khunde). Rest days at altitude means sleeping at the same elevation two nights in a row, and the reason for these acclimatization days is to prevent the potentially serious Acute Mountain Sickness, or AMS.
Preventing Acute Mountain Sickness
You can find dozens of websites dedicated to AMS prevention and diagnosis, but the basic symptoms include: headache, gastrointestinal distress, fatigue or weakness, dizziness or lightheadedness, and difficulty sleeping. Many people experience some of the symptoms of AMS, and as you go higher you are at higher risk, not only of AMS but of the far more serious High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACA) or High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPA). If you are attempting to trek in these altitudes without a guide, make yourself and your party aware of symptoms, treatments, and procedures surrounding AMS.
That being said, the basics of prevention are as follows:
- Spend one night at an elevation near but below 10,000 feet.
- Above 10,000 feet, avoid gaining more than 1000-1600 feet of sleeping elevation per day.
- Above 10,000 feet, take a rest day for every 3300 feet of elevation gained. Rest days qualify as any two subsequent nights at the same altitude, not necessarily in the same place.
Unless you’re on a tight schedule, I recommend building in days to just explore, wake up early or go to bed late. This helps not only with AMS, but also personal enjoyment. It’s not a race, and the moments that you’ll gain by not hurrying to the finish line are worth the investment of time.
Once you’ve acclimatized in Namche, this is where your options really begin to play out. While I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of all that the Khumbu Valley has to offer, I feel confident that any trek you chose will be one for the scrapbooks. My personal highlights came on some of the most difficult days, crossing passes well above 16,000 feet and really beginning to feel a part of the mountains. If you’re not pressed for time, the Three Passes trek comes highly recommended, and was the basis for our route. You can also add some variety by making most out-and-back treks a loop by adding in one day of crossing a pass, then returning the opposite side of the mountains that you approached.
Day1: Fly to Lukla/2.5-hour hike to Phakding (elev. 6582ft). Stay at the Sherpa Eco Home
Day 2: Phakding to Namche Bazaar (elev. 11,286 ft)/5-6 hrs hike. Stay at Nirvana Home
Day 3: Acclimatization hike to Khumjung (evel. 12,430ft)/5 hours. Stay at Hotel Everest
Day 4: Namche to Dole (elev. 13,248ft)/5-6 hour hike . Stay at Alpine Lodge.
Day 5: Dole to Machermo (elev. 14,665ft)/2.5 hour hike. Stay in lodge at Machermo
Day 6: Acclimatization hike to Everest view above lodge, (1148 ft vertical gain)
Day 7: Machermo to Gokyo (elev. 15,584ft)/2.5 hours. Stay at Gokyo Guest House
Day 8: Hike to Gokyo Ri summit (17,552 ft)/1.5 hours
Day 9: Hike to Goyko Lakes (2000 ft vertical gain)/5 hours
Day 10: Glacier crossing, Gokyo to Dragnag (aka Thagnag)/1-2 hours. Stay at Mountain Paradise
Day 11: Cho La Pass crossing (17782 ft)/ 6 hours to Dzongla for lunch, continue 2 hours to Lobuche. Stay at Oxygen Lodge
Day 12: Rest Day: Lobuche to Italian Research Center / 30 minutes: Hot shower and free tea!
Day 13: Lobuche to Gorak Shep/ 3 hours. Drop gear at Gorak Shep, continue to Everest Base Camp/ 4-5 hours (including explore time). If the afternoon is clear (it was for us!) head up Kala Pattar (2000ft vertical gain)/ 2 hours one way and wait for sunset!
Day 14: Gorak Shep to Lobuche / 1.5 hours. Stay at High Altitude Lodge
Day 15: Lobuche across Kongma La Pass (+2000ft) to Chukkung / 6-8 hours. Stay at Chukkung Resort.
Day 16: Chukkung to Namche Bazaar/ 10 hours (2 hour lunch) descending 4,200 ft.
Day 17: Namche to Lukla / 6-7 hours. Fly in the afternoon or catch the next morning’s flight
What to Bring
Assuming you’re going in with the intention of taking the full teahouse route, you can eliminate some of the most heavy items from your backpack. A tent, sleeping bag, pad, and cooking set all add up, and if you take full advantage of all that the teahouses offer and go during the warmer seasons, you’ll be okay to leave them behind.
Even though it’s possible find all you need in the teahouses, we went with a “be prepared” attitude, partially because we were without a guide. Since it was early spring, still the cooler season, we carried sleeping bags, and we found them to be particularly useful on frosty nights at high elevation. Even with the difficulties of camping, I felt having a tent was valuable, and at only two pounds the opportunity was worth the weight. The only thing we didn’t bring was a stove, and I can’t recall seeing fuel to be purchased, so I am happy with that decision.
- Backpack: Gregory Zulu 55 & Deva 60
- Tent: Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL 2
- Sleeping Bag: Big Agnes Hitchens UL 20
Snacks quickly rise in price with the elevation, as does everything, so if you’re willing to carry the weight you can save some money by purchasing them ahead of time in Kathmandu. Clear water is available from streams and teahouses along the way, but it requires tablets or filtering before it’s potable. Most teahouses will have a fire each night in their stove, so if you have a metal bottle you can heat up or boil water for coffee and tea. A good first aid kit goes a long way to make your hike more enjoyable, keeping away blisters and minor aches and pains.
Other items that you’ll want in your bag:
- Never Without Kit:
- Cell Phone
- Maps.me is an offline map application that works great to keep track of distances and elevation
- Map (Can be purchased in Kathmandu)
- Portable charger: solar
- Headlamp (extra batteries)
- Leatherman Multi Tool
- 1 trekking pole (you could use two, but I’ve found I like the free hand more than the extra support)
- Lightweight day pack (for those rest/acclimatization days, for water and snacks, etc. )
- Wet Wipes (Aka the portable shower; don’t expect hot water in the showers, or be ready to pay for it. Also, most toilets above Namche are eastern style, meaning you’ll be squatting, and don’t be surprised when there isn’t a roll of TP in sight.)
For clothes you should focus on versatility. It can be shorts and T-shirt weather during the day, but long underwear and puffy weather at night. Also take care of sun protection, as the long days spent under the thin atmosphere provide a perfect recipe for sunburn. Here’s what I brought:
- Buff, merino wool
- 1 pair pants
- 1 pair shorts
- 2 short-sleeve wicking shirts
- 2 pairs thin hiking socks
- 1 pair heavy camp socks
- 3 pairs merino wool underwear
- Baselayers – top and bottom
- Puffy jacket
- Rain jacket
Enjoy yourself, both on the difficult days and the rest days. It’s easy to get caught up in worrying about the schedule and the next stop, but don’t forget to slow down and enjoy the views.