Objective: Trekking to Everest Base Camp, Himalayas, Nepal
Distance: 68.1 miles/110 km (round-trip)
Peak Elevation: 18,519’/5,645 m
Elevation Gain: 10,559’/3,219 m
Trip Length: 11 days, plus 4 days of bus and domestic air travel
Terrain: Mountains, forests, glacial moraines, and Sherpa villages
Best time to visit: March to May, September to November
Caution: Altitude sickness, cold
Exploring Everest (Sagarmatha in Nepali, Chomolungma in Tibetan) is the stuff of legends and the fabric of dreams. Experience the Himalayan culture of the Sherpas as you wander past mountain villages, Buddhist stupas, and the warm comfort of Nepali tea houses along your way to Everest Base Camp.
Lukla to Phakding (Day 1)
Distance: 4.4 miles/7.1 km from Lukla (9,318’/2,840 m) to Phakding (8,563’/2,610 m)
Elevation Gain: -755’/-230 m
We leave Ramechap at 3:30 a.m. on an hour-long bus ride to the airport, where we embark on a 25-minute jaw-dropping flight in a propeller plane above the misty mountaintops. During the flight, the group is nervous about landing on the cliff’s edge and is excited for the upcoming trek. The plane shoots straight for the mountainside and stops abruptly at the “most dangerous airport” at Lukla.
We start our adventure on well-paved stone trails shared with yaks and donkeys wearing walnut-shaped bells. Our guides, Amar, Jagat, and Milan, all say “Jam, Jam,” which means, “Let’s go.” The group walks through a pine and cedar forest next to the Dudh Kosi River that flows from the Himalayas. Stone houses and shops are right on the edge of the trail, providing a glimpse into local life.
As we weave through villages and small farm plots, we notice prayer wheels, stone tablets, and enormous boulders carved with Buddhist inscriptions. Different elements are associated with the colors of the prayer flags. Blue symbolizes sky, white symbolizes air, red symbolizes fire, green symbolizes water, and yellow symbolizes earth. We learn that you should always pass stupas, mani stones, and other Buddhist monuments on the left in a clockwise direction.
At Phakding, we take a rainy acclimatization hike to the Pema Choling monastery. At the monastery, you remove your boots, walk over a raised door threshold, and observe the Magic Buddha statue in the main hall. The red-robed monks listen to Nepali hip hop and electronic dance music while they paint intricate murals and restore damaged areas from the 2015 earthquake.
Phakding to Namche Bazaar (Day 2)
Distance: 6.3 miles/10.1 km from Phakding (8,563’/2,610 m) to Namche Bazaar (11,286’/3,440 m)
Elevation Gain: 2,723’/830 m
As you wind your way past little mountain hamlets and waterfalls, the gradual incline crosses five suspension bridges spanning the Dudh Kosi River. Namche Bazaar is laid out in a giant horseshoe configuration along a natural amphitheater.
When you enter the Sherpa capital, there is a large stupa with a stream on the right side rushing down and forcing a series of prayer wheels to spin automatically. Namche is filled with shops (including a North Face store), restaurants, bars, and cafes, and is one of the last spots to load up on creature comforts and gear.
Sherpas: The Sherpa people are an ethnic group who live in the extreme mountainous areas of Nepal and the Himalayas. Their high-altitude adapted physiology has resulted in their reputations as elite mountaineers. As guides and porters, they are indispensable to the success of current Himalayan expeditions, as well as early explorations of the region. Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary were the first two people to summit Everest.
Porters: While our porters are limited to carrying 10 kg of our gear, there are porters on the trail carrying much larger supply loads. In order to support village life so high in the mountains, yaks and donkeys bear the brunt of the burden, but porters also play a role. Porters carry supplies from Lukla to Namche in 1.5 days with loads up to 135 kg (297 lbs) on their backs. The bags have cloth straps that the porters attach to the tops of their heads for balance. When they rest, they lean the burden on a specially fashioned walking stick/kickstand.
Namche Bazaar: “Acclimatization Day” (Day 3)
Today’s acclimatization hike takes the team to the Everest View Point, where we can enjoy a lemon ginger tea while soaking in scintillating views of pyramid-shaped Ama Dablam with its pendant-like hanging glacier, Lhotse, Nuptse, and if the clouds are cooperating, Everest.
Tea houses in Nepal not only provide refreshments and nourishment during meals, but they also offer basic accommodations. The large communal dining area has a yak dung powered stove in the center and tables with bench seating covered with blankets or cushions. This is also where we spend most of our downtime in the afternoons and early evenings, playing cards and sharing stories. During the Everest Base Camp trek, we typically stop at a tea house for tea (ginger lemon, honey, milk, or masala) or coffee.
Due to the lack of refrigeration, it is recommended to avoid meat. There are many carb-rich options, including noodles, fried rice, roti, potatoes, and even pizza.
Momos are steamed dumplings filled with cabbage and carrots, served with a red chili sauce. Momos back in Kathmandu usually have yak meat.
Dal Bhat Power 24-Hour: Dal Bhat is a cup of dal (lentil soup) containing a curried seasonal vegetable and sautéed spinach. It also has pickles, a spicy tomato-based sauce, a mound of rice, and a piece of crispy papadam. The best part is that when you are famished, you can have unlimited refills!
Namche Bazaar to Tengboche (Day 4)
Distance: 6 miles/9.7 km from Namche Bazaar (11,286’/3,440 m) to Tengboche (12,664’/3,860 m)
Elevation Gain: 1,378’/420 m
At first, the trail slightly rises out of Namche’s bowl. We reach a tea house on the cliffside with million dollar views and seats that face directly to the peaks.
We spot a yak train loaded with hay and fuel tins heading down as donkeys are heading up at the same time. I remember Amar’s advice to stay on the safe slope side of the trail and keep the animals on the edge. I lean on the slope to avoid the yaks.
The path descends deep into a ravine carved out by the Dudh Kosi and then slowly climbs back up via switchbacks to the other side. Situated at the large clearing of Tengboche is the Tengboche Monastery. A pair of golden deer tops the gate to the monastery. After some stairs, there is a temple on top. Inside is a giant rock with the Magic Buddha’s footprint and a Magic Buddha statue. The wall murals depict detailed scenes from Buddhist scripture.
Tengboche to Dingboche (Day 5)
Distance: 6.3 miles/10.1 km from Tengboche (12,664’/3,860 m) to Dingboche (14,272’/4,350 m)
Elevation Gain: 1,608’/490 m
The start of the hike enters a tranquil and dew-filled garden of juniper trees and rhododendrons. The soil is damp, covered with moss and ponds. The trail begins a long descent through a series of stone steps and a gentle meandering slope. We climb up the other side of the valley. The powerful Imja Khola River, below and to the right, parallels the path as the trail climbs to Dingboche. The light blue-green river below has a bit of white water and froth as it collides with the rocks. The ups and downs of this path epitomize the ironic term “Nepali Flat.”
We climb a steep set of stone steps. Sometimes they go straight up. Other times, they curl around little shops and farms. The trail hugs the side of the river and a glacial path. My favorite peak, Ama Dablam, has a large chunk of snow that is held back by a fragile precipice. After one last climb, we see Dingboche. A quick downhill brings us to Peaceful Lodge. In the afternoon, we take a quick stroll up the single lane of shops, farms, snooker halls, creeks with hoses, and yak dung patties drying out on a big rock.
Dingboche: “Acclimatization Day” (Day 6)
Climb higher and sleep lower. We walk up a dusty path on the hillside of Nangkartshang above the town of Dingboche. Along the way are stupas and rock cairn piles. There are remarkable views of Lhotse, Island Peak, and Ama Dablam.
Dhumbal is a card game played in Nepal. The dealer deals seven cards to each player. The goal is to reduce the total count in the hand to 10 points or less. Joker is zero, Ace is one, two is two, etc., and face cards are counted as 10. The count can be reduced by discarding the following sequences: pairs, triples, and straight flushes of 3 or more cards. If no such sequences are in the hand, the player can discard any one card. After the sequence cards are discarded, the player draws one card from the deck, or from the last discarded card(s).
Each player, during their turn, must discard card(s), draw a card, or declare a jhyap. This continues until a player has a count of 5 points or less, when they can declare a jhyap. If no one counter-jhyaps, that player receives zero points for that hand. All other players receive the points in their hands. If the player who jhyapped is counter-jhyapped, a 20-point penalty is added to the count of the person who jhyapped first. That is the end of a round. The cards are gathered, shuffled, and re-dealt. Rounds continue, until one (or more) player’s point tally is over 100. They are ‘out’ and are not included in the next round. Play continues until there is only one player left (only player who does not reach 100).
Dingboche to Lobuche (Day 7)
Distance: 4.7 miles/7.6 km from Dingboche (14,272’/4,350 m) to Lobuche (16,109’/4,910 m)
Elevation Gain: 1,837’/560 m
The relatively level trail follows the sediment gullies of the moraine gouged out by the Khumbu Glacier through the Pheriche valley. After rising over Thokla Pass, we see memorials dedicated to the climbers who have fallen beneath the summit. As the last village before Everest Base Camp, many of the homes in cold Lobuche have shiny parabolic solar water heaters that look like satellite dishes with an attached pot.
In the afternoon, after reaching Lobuche, we go on an acclimatization hike to reach a ridge overlooking the Khumbu Glacier.
Above Lobuche, the guides tell us not to use single-use water bottles for environmental reasons. However, it would be a better idea to use a reliable water filtration system.
Lobuche to Gorak Shep to Everest Base Camp to Gorak Shep (Day 8)
Distance: 2.7 miles/4.4 km from Lobuche (16,109’/4,910 m) to Gorak Shep (16,995’/5,180 m)
Elevation Gain: 886’/270 m from Lobuche to Gorak Shep
Distance: 3.3 miles/5.3 km from Gorak Shep to EBC (17,598’/5,364 m)
Elevation Gain: 603’/184 m from Gorap Shep to EBC
Distance: 3.3 miles/5.3 km from EBC to Gorak Shep
Elevation Gain: -603’/184 m from EBC to Gorak Shep
While leaving the block houses of Lobuche, we cross a stream and some marshy bits. The team gradually ascends next to the Khumbu Glacier up to the remote outpost of Gorak Shep, which is situated on a frozen dirt-covered lakebed wedged between the Khumbu Glacier to the east and Changri Glacier to the west. Khumbu Glacier is covered with dirt, but there are still some pockets of seafoam green glacial ponds.
After Gorak Shep, the team traverses the level and soft lakebed. The path ascends to where the sharp seracs of the Khumbu Glacier are visible, and then it descends into the boulder-strewn moraine and turns toward Everest Base Camp.
Soak it all in, look for the world’s tallest mountain behind the clouds, and spot the yellow tents of the hundreds of climbers located on the Khumbu Icefall. The real base camp is further ahead because the summiters can’t risk getting sick through contact with us. Incredibly, they have been waiting two months for a narrow weather window. During our trek, tragedy strikes again with 11 dead due to challenging weather, a fatal traffic jam, and lack of experience in the “death zone” above 26,000′.
I pay my respects to Sagarmatha, the Sherpa guides, porters, and explorers through the ages. We turn back and return to Gorak Shep for the night.
Gorak Shep to Kala Patthar to Pheriche (Day 9)
Distance: 0.8 miles/1.2 km from Gorak Shep (16,995’/5,180 m) to Kala Patthar (18,519’/5,645 m)
Elevation Gain: 1,524’/465 m from Gorap Shep to Kala Patthar
Distance: 7.3 miles/11.8 km from Kala Patthar (18,519’/5,645 m) to Pheriche (14,340’/4,340 m)
Elevation Gain: -4,179’/1,305 m from Kala Patthar to Pheriche
The alpine start at 3 a.m. offers us an opportunity to bag a Himalayan peak. We cross the frozen lakebed until we reach the trailhead. Tiny snowflakes float and wobble in front of us. With headlamps on, the way up to Kala Patthar is extremely steep and relentless. The slick rocks are lightly dusted with snow and frost. There is a scramble up the black rock boulders. The summit is dark and full of rock flakes and colorful prayer flags, a stark contrast with white-capped Pumori behind it. From this perch, we have a direct sightline of Everest, which is darker than the surrounding peaks. Because of the temperature, we need to descend to lower altitudes despite the approaching sunrise.
It’s a long haul to Pheriche, but the terrain is smooth and mainly downhill. Pheriche is located in a super-wide and flat valley. We visit the Himalayan Rescue Association clinic and learn about the effects of high altitude.
We enter a dingy, shadowy, smoky bar and it feels like we have entered the Mos Eisley Cantina from Star Wars. The locals seated on each side are a bit shocked to see foreigners. The proprietor looks in my direction and says about twenty words in Nepali. The proprietor adds yak dung to the stove and we hum the Mos Eisley Cantina song the rest of the night.
Pheriche to Namche Bazaar (Day 10)
Distance: 11.7 miles/18.8 km from Pheriche (14,340’/4,340 m) to Namche Bazaar (11,286’/3,440 m)
Elevation Gain: -3,054’/900 m
Today is the day of the Everest Marathon. The first handful of runners overtakes us and is flying down the rocky trail at a breakneck clip. Throughout the day, we encounter runners of varying speeds.
There is a steep section before Tengboche. Surprisingly, there is a very long and steep segment after Tengboche until it levels off just before Namche Bazaar. Below tree line, the shade-bearing junipers and mountain flowers have returned.
Namche Bazaar to Lukla (Day 11)
Distance: 11.3 miles/18.2 km from Namche Bazaar (11,286’/3,440 m) to Lukla (9,318’/2,840 m)
Elevation Gain: -1,968’/600 m
The morning consists of negotiating the inclines and declines of the zig zagging stone steps through villages and farms.
At one narrow rising bend, we barely jump into a courtyard and shut the gate as hundreds of donkeys begin ascending and descending at the same time. It becomes a gruesome wrestling match of savage screaming donkey flesh, as the herders hit them with sticks. Yak attack! There are still so many yak trains and donkeys that we need to wiggle around them. Unfortunately, the contaminated dirt results in a dry hacking “Khumbu” cough that lasts for weeks. (Remember to wear your buff.)
Fortunately, with all this rich oxygen circulating through my bloodstream, I find another gear and cruise into Lukla.
The adventure concludes with a flight off the mountain’s edge.
Plan Your Visit
Transportation: Catch a flight to Kathmandu, Nepal. Take a bus to Ramechap. Fly to Lukla. Hike to Everest Base Camp.
Porters and Gear: Porters can carry up to 10 kg/22 lbs. The flight to Lukla only allows up to 10 kg/22 lbs for luggage and 5 kg/11 lbs for carry-on luggage.
Lodging: A tea house is a guest house, restaurant, and place to chill.
Food: Tea houses serve traditional Nepali dishes, such as dal bhat, momos, rice, vegetables, noodles, potatoes, and soup. Some offer western food such as pizza, pasta, and french fries. Soft drinks, snacks, and beer are available along the trail.