Climbing up the world’s highest peak is certainly a crowning achievement (forgive the pun, please) for most individuals. With sheer ice walls, deadly crevasses, unstable glaciers and a hard slog through harsh frigid conditions, only the most resilient make it to the top…
Well, thankfully the Everest Base Camp trek is nothing like it. Nevertheless, it still takes some effort to get there. At 5,346m above sea level, the Everest Base Camp is higher than many major peaks elsewhere in the world. In fact, it’s already over the halfway mark to the summit, which currently stands at 8,848m.
The trek to the base camp is relatively easy, with no technical mountaineering required. Over the course of 14 days, you’ll trudge on and upwards along an undulating trail from the starting point at Lukla. While all you need is a good pair of hiking boots, you’ll need to be physically fit in order to take on extremely steep slopes for hours on end, and acclimatise to the thinning air.
In this guide, you’ll learn more about joining a trek, and find out what to expect over the 2 weeks deep in the mighty Himalayas.
Preparing for the trek
Most treks start by engaging a trekking guide, and there are many in Kathmandu, Nepal. A good guide is essential to a safe and uneventful trek, so ask around travel forums on Tripadvisor for recommendations. Prices will also differ between tour agencies, and some might have a scheduled tour that you can join. A reliable agency is Mosaic Adventure, but ask around for multiple quotes for comparison.
For a 16-day package (including 2 days in Kathmandu), expect to pay around USD 1,360 per person inclusive of lodging, airfare to/from Lukla, all taxes and most meals. You’ll still need to factor in another 30 to 40% for porter and guide tips, snacks, tea and other creature comforts like a hot shower. Generally, the recommended tip, to be paid after the trek is concluded, is:
- USD 100 for your guide
- USD 60 to 180 for your porter
All tour agencies also have a suggested packing list, plus a few requirements before setting off for the trek. As most villages along the way to the base camp are equipped with basic infrastructure only, you’ll need to carry at least these items:
- Fleece jacket
- Long johns
- Winter gloves and socks
- Sunglasses (reflection from the snow is very glaring)
- Waterproof hiking boots
- Headlamp (generator-powered lights stop working late at night)
- Water bottles
- Zip-lock bags for waterproofing
- Altitude sickness pills (Diamox is a popular brand)
- Water-purification tablets
- A thick but readable book (you’ll thank me later on those boring acclimatisation days)
You also need to purchase comprehensive travel insurance before starting the trek. Many basic insurance plans do not cover trekking above 5,000m and helicopter evacuations, which most tour agencies insist on. After all, a single helicopter evacuation will cost thousands of dollars, a small fortune for the average Nepali.
The most important preparation you’ll need is your fitness. Start climbing stairs instead of taking the elevator, and going for long walks in the countryside. Walk from point to point whenever you can, and spend some time working out. On the Everest Base Camp trek, you’ll be trekking up to 8 hours a day in thin air, so you’ll need all the conditioning you can get beforehand.
What to expect during the Everest Base Camp trek
Over the course of 10 days, you’ll climb up the Himalayas from Lukla (2,860m) to the base camp (5,346m). Depending on your pace and fitness, you’ll need to overnight stops in several Sherpa settlements along the way.
Your guide will set the pace of the walk, depending on how well you take to the terrain and altitude. There’ll also be plenty of rests in between, to allow you to catch your breath and take photos.
As the altitude increases, you’ll walk three overlapping ecosystems:
- The temperate forest between Lukla to Tengboche
- The subalpine region from Tengboche to Lobuche
- The alpine tundra from Lobuche to the base camp
The temperate forest (Lukla to Tengboche)
Your first point of entry into the Himalayas is Lukla. This town is famed for the hair-raising takeoffs and landings at the short airport runway, which leads out towards a cliff… and then a steep drop-off.
Most guided treks start with an early morning flight out of Kathmandu. The 1-hour flight may not take long, but the notoriously finicky weather in Lukla is a constant threat to the best laid plans. It isn’t uncommon to encounter chaotic scenes in the airport, as flights routinely get cancelled over cloud cover or fog.
Coming into Lukla, you’ll be introduced to your porter, who will carry your bags for the entire duration of the trek. For their safety, porters are permitted to carry up to 30 kg of baggage, which is shared between 2 trekkers. This means carrying along only the essentials, and leaving bulky equipment like electronics and beauty products behind.
After a quick repack, some lunch and a spot of hot tea (you’ll get used to this soon), the trekking group will set off for Phakding. This small village is an easy (hah!) 4 hours away on foot. With a decent beginner’s pace, you’ll get there by late afternoon and in time for dinner.
The next day, carry on the trek to Namche Bazaar. Once a trading posts for locals to trade yak cheese and butter for agricultural goods, this place is now unabashedly a tourist town. Namche Bazaar is built around a natural amphitheatre, and is largely made up of guesthouses, cafes and shops.
More importantly, this is the first acclimatization stop for most hikers. By spending a day at this altitude, you’ll give your body some time to adjust to the thinning air. Your guide will also suggest a short trek up to an Everest lookout point, which also helps in preparing for the arduous trek ahead. After that, you can spend the rest of the day in one of the many cafes, the town post office, or just exploring this picturesque town.
On the 4th day, leave Namche Bazaar and climb the steep slopes up to Tengboche (3,860m). This village is famous for the Tengboche Monastery, an important place of worship for Tibetan Buddhists. Built in 1916, and then rebuilt in 1934 after an earthquake, this monastery has a history stretching over a century. If you’re trekking in November, consider spending a few days to witness the Mani Rimdu festival. A major festival for Sherpas, the entire festival lasts for 19 days.
If you’re keen on visiting more Tibetan monasteries and festivals, check out the 7-day itinerary to Ladakh, India!
The subalpine region (Tengboche to Lobuche)
While the climate in Tengboche varies wildly depending on the season and weather, this is where most trekkers start seeing a change in plant varieties. As you head up towards the village of Dingboche, you’ll leave forests of coniferous trees behind and emerge into a rocky landscape dotted by small, hardy shrubs.
This is where the treeline ends, and you enter into a semi-desert. From here, you’ll start feeling the scale of the Himalayas, as the vast distances of the mountains stretch out before you. It takes far more effort to make it to Dingboche, as you climb above 4,000m. Rest frequently and carry along some snacks to munch on – at times like this, you won’t quibble over buying a bar of chocolates for USD1.
As the shadows of the surrounding mountains start casting their long evening shadows, you’ll reach Dingboche. From afar, the sight of a collection of huts and single-storeyed guest-houses lined up along a well-trodden trail will draw renewed energy to complete the last few kilometers. This is also where you’ll spend another acclimatisation day resting, to prepare for the arduous climb past 5,000m in 2 days time.
While Dingboche is a lot less interesting compared to Namche, you’ll probably want to stay indoors anyway. Just like in Namche, your guide will take you for a short hike up the next morning. You can then spend the rest of the day curled up with a book, or play cards until your hands scream for mercy. While there’s no electricity running through the town, solar chargers provide a small trickle of power for illumination and to charge small electronic equipment.
On Day 7, set off early in the cold shadows of the surrounding mountains and climb a vertical distance of 500m to Lobuche (4,940m). This stage of the trek is particularly picturesque, as you walk alongside a cliff with 100m drop-off. As you peer down at the valley below, look for the tiny stream that will eventually grow into the raging river that you saw days ago.
At this altitude, you’ll notice even less vegetation, with most green-ish life represented as lichens growing on rocks. Also if you hear bells ringing, step lively and move away from the yak train. This high up the mountains, yaks replace donkeys as the pack animal. It’s just too tough for most animals to survive here.
Lobuche is the second last stop on the trek to the base camp. While spirits are high in the guesthouse, keep in mind that the final goal still lies a full day’s trek away. Sleep early, drink loads of water and keep your sleeping bag tightly zipped up.
The alpine tundra (Lobuche to the Everest Base Camp)
Finally, you’ll reach the snow-line and into the alpine tundra. Too cold for most animals and plants, this inhospitable ecosystem is marked by icy rivers and patches of snow on the ground. Wherever a shadow is cast by a rock, you can be sure that there are ice crystals forming behind it.
This is the day you’ll make your grand entrance into the base camp. But before that, you’ll first have to reach the village of Gorak Shep. The name means “dead ravens”, which pretty much sums up what to expect in a settlement that even the hardy Sherpa abandon during the bitter winter months.
To do almost everything on the same day, you’ll have to set off early and reach Gorak Shep by lunchtime. After warming your stomach with a hot meal and lots of tea, you’ll just need to carry the essentials for the 2-hour trek to the base camp.
The final leg of the trek up to the Everest Base Camp is fraught with even more difficulties. Clambering along a narrow ridge, holding on to dear life as you leapfrog over steep eroded steps, and then later navigating creaking crevasses and trying not to fall in… it’s all in a day’s work for your guide and his merry porters, but a challenge for almost everyone else.
Midway through, you’ll reach a signboard with the words “Everest B.C.” It’s nothing much, really, but every visitor needs to take a photo here. You’ll probably do it too, if only to take a break from the endless series of steps. But save some battery power for the base camp itself, which is still some distance away.
You’ll know you’re near, once the glacier appears. The Khumbu Icefall is made up of ice and snow, constantly shifting around and seemingly alive. Your guide will need to find a safe route across, as trails come and go with every creaky groan that resonates from deep within. While most of the trek so far has been on an easy path, this is one place where a single slip up can be costly, so stay close and hang in for the final hurrah.
Finally, you’ll climb up onto a small plateau, to the welcoming embrace of a thousand prayer flags. All around, tired happy people are hugging each other and taking selfies at every possible angle.
Your guide will likely give you a congratulatory handshake, and breathe a sigh of relief inside. Welcome to the Everest Base Camp, you’ve gone and done it!
Staying safe on the trek
Altitude sickness is a serious condition that afflicts even most experienced trekker. Without proper acclimatization, you may suffer from headaches, dizziness, fatigue, a lack of appetite and shortness of breath. Given that most people will suffer varying degrees of these symptoms anyway, you’ll need to constantly monitor your condition and avoid over-exerting your body.
At its worst, altitude sickness will result in High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). Essentially the leakage of fluids into your lungs (i.e. drowning) or brain (swelling), both of these are life-threatening conditions that require immediate evacuation to a lower altitude.
Frostbite is also a major concern, if you’re not well equipped to deal with the cold. Temperatures can fall well below freezing, so bring along thick down jackets, fleece inner jackets and plenty of long johns. For sensitive appendages like toes and fingers, wear heavy gloves and woolen socks. Protect your ears with a beanie, or one of those ear muffs that make you look less like an adventurer and more like a schoolgirl (sorry! I do look forward to your angry letters!). This may be a tad overkill, but a balaclava is awesome to cover your nose. Just be prepared to deal with ice crystals forming over the damp area over time.
This is a major trekking endeavour, so wear a good pair of waterproof hiking boots that you’ve worn into. The worst thing is to find out that your boots are too small, and are causing blisters just days into the trek. The second worst thing? A flimsy sole that falls apart right in the middle of nowhere, with the nearest settlement a 3 hour trek away.
Some people swear by it, while others think it’s a sleazy ploy. But personally, I sleep in my undies inside my sleeping bag, and it keeps me warmer than sleeping with my jacket on. The theory goes that the bag reflects body heat back, so consider for a moment what a jacket does… Yes, it keeps the heat in, so there’s nothing to reflect back into the bag. Try both techniques on different days, and tell me what you think!
Also, there is no such thing as carrying along too few chocolate bars, candies and other snacks. Even if you find yourself running low on supplies, it’s well worth whatever price the storekeeper demands at any of the settlements on the way to the base camp. The trek will wear you down, and you’ll need a morale booster to keep you going. A sugar rush is an elegant and effective solution, as it has proven time and time again.
For geeks and androids (woah you’re awesome!), remember that electricity is limited in the villages along the trek. Even if you have the chance to charge your devices at a guesthouse, it’s going to cost you a small fortune. Instead, take along a few power banks to keep your mobile phone juiced up, and keep all your batteries warm, either wrapped up with your clothes or on your body. If you have a solar cell charger, even better! Hook it up on your daypack and get some charge going while you walk.
Lastly, the temperature dips way below freezing during the nights at higher altitudes. Keep everything you want to wear inside your sleeping bag, so you don’t have the uncomfortable experience of throwing on ice-cold clothes.
Keep your water bottle inside too, since you’ll want to have a drink in the morning, and use some of it to brush your teeth as well (I learnt that the hard way).
If you can’t deal with the hardships of life in the alpine tundra, how about checking out a comfortable stay in a glass igloo in Finland instead?
What’s next after Everest Base Camp
From the looks of it, you have two options – stay on for a few more months and ascent to the top of the world, or take the same route down to Lukla. While the temptation to chicken out and cry for a helicopter is very tantalising, please don’t. It’s not the way an Everest Base Camp trek should end, and you can still take pretty photos on the way down.
From Lukla, you have boasting rights for one night as you mingle with newbies in the guesthouse. And maybe plan a beach vacation in Thailand for your next trip. You’ve probably had enough mountains for some time, I reckon.