Everest:  The Trip and Recreational Impressions

Day-by-day Breakdown

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Click to Enlarge for route, Jiri bottom left, Everest center top

Day 1: Kathmandu Prep

Day 2: Drive Kathmandu to Jiri, trek Jiri to near Deurali

Day 3: Near Deurali to Sete

Day 4: Sete to Junbesi

Day 5: Junbesi to Jubing

Day 6: Jubing to Lukla

Day 7: Lukla to Namche Bazaar

Day 8: Rest day Namche

Day 9: Namche Bazaar to Tengboche

Day 10: Tengboche to Pheriche

Day 11: Pheriche to Lobuche

Day 12: Lobuche to Gorak Shep

Day 13 and 14: Gorak Shep rest and exploration

Day 15: Gorak Shep to Dzongla

Day 16: Dzongla to Thagnak

Day 17: Thagnak to Gokyo

Day 18: Gokyo to Namche Bazaar

Day 19: Namche Bazaar rest day

Day 20: Namche Bazaar to Lukla

Day 21: Fly from Lukla to Kathmandu

Trip Logistics

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Thamel, Kathmandu

Any good Himalayan expedition will begin in Kathmandu, and our trip to Everest in April of 2016 was no different. I was with two friends, Sam and Kyle, and as soon as we stepped off the plane in Kathmandu, we headed directly to the Nepal Tourism Board. The Nepal Tourism Board is where all trekkers must obtain their Trekkers Information Management System (TIMS) Card. This can also be obtained at the NTB in Pokhara as well if you’re headed that way. A TIMS Card lets the Nepali Government know who you are, where you’re going, and how long you will be out in the mountains. It is important to carry one, because on most treks and particularly the Everest trek, there are checkpoints along the way. Stopping at these checkpoints allows them to know of your progress, and in the event of an accident or missing trekker situation this information could be incredibly valuable for a search and rescue.

After getting our TIMS card, we headed into Thamel, a section of Kathmandu, where we would stay the night. Thamel is very touristy, and filled the shops, restaurants, bars, and services catered towards aspiring trekkers. Thamel is an excellent place to prepare for a trek. In the event that you have any gear needs prior to a Himalayan trek, I suggest satisfying those needs in Thamel. Outdoor gear, as most of us know, is very expensive. With an extensive selection in Thamel, you will likely find exactly what you need at a much lower price than in your home country. You can find both official gear and knockoff versions of your favorite brand. Knockoff or not is up to you, and quality is a factor, but whatever you buy should work fine and will definitely be at a highly discounted price. As for me, all I needed was a map, and I found a good one for just three dollars.
In the event that you require a guide and/or porter for your trek, you can also take care of this in Thamel. There are many trekking agencies that can help you design and trek and find right guide and porters for your needs. It is best to arrange this in person on arrival to Nepal because it will most likely cost considerably less than a pre-booked trip online from a foreign country, and you will be able to talk to the very people that run and operate the business and find out if they are actually a good fit for you. Sam, Kyle, and myself opted out of a guide and porter in favor of navigating the trails ourselves and carrying our own gear. Allow me to emphasize, while hiring a guide and/or porter is a noble contribution to the local economy, for an Everest trek you do not NEED either. Anyone who has experience in the backcountry will have no problem navigating the trails leading up to and surrounding Everest. In the event of any confusion, there are usually plenty of people and teahouses along the way that would be happy to point you in the right direction or confirm your intended route. Usually all you need to know is the name of the town you’re trying to find and you can usually overcome the language barrier. As for a porter, that is up to you. Being an avid outdoors person, it is against my moral fabric to have someone carry my gear. But for anyone less fit, experienced, older, or worried about their physical performance at altitude, a porter is a completely viable option. I think one of the main advantages to having a guide/porter team is the opportunity for cross cultural exchanges and the potential to learn local history and natural history that you may not if hiking on your own.

There are also many good housing option in Thamel, most costing only a few dollars a night. I recommend Trekkers Home.

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The Lukla Airport

There are many places from which you can begin an Everest trek. Most commonly the trek is started after a flight to Lukla. Phaplu and Salieri are also options. We decided to begin our trek from Jiri, after about a 6 hour car ride from Kathmandu. A bus from Kathmandu to Jiri is estimated to take somewhere between 9 and 11 hours. By starting in Jiri, one follows the Great Himalaya Trail (GHT) low route east until they hit Lukla, and then turn north towards Everest. The GHT is actually two trails that run parallel to each other, the low route and the high route, from Pakistan to Bhutan, essentially spanning the entire Himalayan range. The high route stays at higher elevations and features difficult pitches and requires glacier travel and full on mountaineering gear. The low route goes up and down through he foothills and valleys, passing through villages showcasing rural agrarian and subsistence lifestyles in the Himalayas. The low route is also known as the “cultural route.” The cultural route from Jiri is also called the “historical route,” because it is the exact same route taken by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in the early part of their expedition in 1953 in which they became the first people to ever climb Mt. Everest successfully. It truly was an honor to walk the same path and experience the same struggle as the two greatest names in mountaineering history on our way to Everest.

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Teahouses in the mountains

Along the way, trekkers will most commonly stay in tea houses each night. Tea houses offer a bed, blankets, a toilet, and food. A room for a night usually costs 100 rupees (about 1 USD), and sometimes it’s free, as long as you eat at that particular tea house. Primarily, they want you to buy their food. Most will charge you extra for the room if you choose to eat at a different establishment. Some offer showers both cold and hot, wifi, and the ability to charge your phone, but not all. If you did not book a guide or porter prior to the trip, but are part of the way in and feel it would be good to get one, many teahouses can arrange this service for you as well. What this all means for a trekker is that you do not necessarily need to take a tent with you, a camping stove, or a trowel for cathole digging for pooping. Despite the teahouses providing each sleeper with a blanket, I still recommend taking a sleeping bag. While blankets will be fine at lower altitudes, one blanket will not be enough at high altitude. While my zero degree Fahrenheit sleeping bag was a bit hot early on in the trip, I appreciated having it once we began gaining elevation. However, you might be able to get away without a sleeping bag if you want to “steal” blankets from other trekkers and friends who brought sleeping bags and won’t be using the blankets. I touched on food, and want to expand so you have an idea of what to expect. I found the teahouses to have surprisingly extensive menus, although the menus are mostly consistent between tea houses. There are a range of options for breakfast, including oatmeal, Himalayan style breads, eggs and omelets, toasts with jam, peanut butter, or honey. Dinner and lunch options usually include Nepali favorites like dal bhat (which is primarily rice and lentils), momos (dumplings), chowmein, Sherpa stew, and spring rolls. Dal bhat is the unofficial national dish of Nepal and seems to be the favorite amongst the locals. There is a saying that goes around, “dal bhat power, 24 hours,” that basically speaks to what a good fuel source dal bhat is. It really is a pretty complete meal, offering high amounts of carbohydrates, protein, fiber, iron, and many other vitamins and minerals (especially since it’s usually served with a side of veggies). Most places offer a second serving of dal bhat free of charge, some unlimited. However, there is also a surprising amount of food with American and Italian slants. We also ran into tuna sandwiches, French fries, spaghetti, lasagna, and pizza. While most of us preferred to stick to Asian dishes, it was nice to indulge in the flavors of home from time to time. But to be completely honest, the Italian didn’t come close to my grandma’s…but it did the trick when I needed my comfort food. Most importantly though, the teahouses are known for their Sherpa hospitality. I’d say for the most part, we experienced that. The Sherpa people are very friendly and helpful, and in most instances went out of their way to make us comfortable, this was especially true for us at Cafe Danphe in Namchee Bazaar.

Gear

I touched on gear in the last paragraph, but I’d like to go over in more detail what I think is needed for a spring Everest trek before moving on to personal highlights and recreational impressions. First things first, I packed too much gear. I think the main reason people tend to pack too much gear is unfamiliarity with their environment. When someone heads into the backcountry without knowledge of what conditions to expect, they pack for almost everything Mother Nature can throw at them, which ends up being too much gear to carry comfortably. I definitely fell into the trap, since for me the Himalayas was a completely foreign environment. I knew the weather should be pretty stable until mid-June, but I was also dealing with elevations, terrain, and weather patterns that were completely unknown to me. The secondary reason why I, personally, was carrying too much stuff was that after my trek, I would continue my travels throughout Asia and needed to pack enough to at least be a presentable person in society, not just a stinky backpacker with only one set of clothes. The combination of lack of Himalayan experience and the intention to continue traveling into a variety of social and potentially professional interactions, led me to carry too much, such as a tent, extra clothes, backcountry alcohol stove and cookpot, gaiters and microspikes, and a probably oversized medical kit.

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That’s what I call “too much gear” – Lukla Airport

So let me tell you what you don’t need for the Everest trek (this does not apply to all treks in Nepal). You don’t need a tent or sleeping pad, unless you’re absolutely adamant about camping, but most people do not and once you settle into the teahouses routine it is unlikely that you will. You do not need a camping stove or cookpot, as there are plenty of places to get food along the way. It is in fact possible to carry no food at all, sourcing all meals at teahouses and trailside snack stands. And as I said earlier, you can get away without a sleeping bag, but I recommend taking one as it may be better than the provided blankets, and is certainly useful for warmth in an emergency situation such as hypothermia. You don’t need foot traction. It can be useful over high passes that may have glaciers, but it is not necessary for the average trekker. For the minimal amount of time you’d be using them, it’s really not worth the weight. And you do not need major hiking boots unless you absolutely prefer ankle support and big bulky soles. I wore Salomon trail runners the entire time and they were fine.

You should bring an adequate clothing system that can be adjusted through layering to accommodate conditions from really hot, dry, and dusty to freezing temperatures and snow. They should be synthetic, wool, or down. But don’t take too many clothes, unless you plan to have a porter. Keeping your pack light will make the trek into high altitude much better. Despite the ease of navigation on this trek, you should still take a proper map and compass. Also, while there are some limited medical services along the way, such as in Lukla and Namche Bazaar, you should bring a medical kit with you. No need to pack for the apocalypse however, as there are a few pharmacies along the way where you can restock on items that you need. You also need to provide your own toilet paper along the way, but there are plenty stands that sell rolls, so don’t feel the need to stock up pre-trip on enough to last the entire time.

Personal Highlights

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Ama Dablam as seen from Tengboche

There are three specific things that really stick out to me as my highlights to the trip. The first one took place in Tengboche, where I was invited to play soccer, along with my friend Tanur, with some local guys, porters, and monks. It was around dusk, and Ama Dablam was shining the most beautiful shades of purple and orange while towering over our soccer field. It was unquestionably the most beautiful setting in which to play soccer, and it was brilliant to interact flawlessly through the common language of sport where words would not suffice. It was an absolute blast, and I think Tanur and I played quite well, if I do say so myself.

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In the Khumbu Icefall

My second highlight came during a visit to Everest Base Camp. I walked all the way up to the Khumbu Icefall, where each and every Everest climb starts from the south side. The Khumbu Icefall is unquestionably the most dangerous technical section of the climb, forcing climbers to carefully cross crevasses, and walk under and pull themselves over ever shifting seracs. I gingerly walked a few hundred feet into the Icefall, just to get the smallest taste. I didn’t push the envelope though, unsure of conditions ahead, or the legality of entering the icefall without a climbing permit. Nonetheless, to stand in the Khumbu Icefall looking up the Western Cwm was like a like looking into a most beautiful nightmare.

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The summit of Gokyo Ri

My next highlight was quite simply the summit of Gokyo Ri. I woke up at 4 am to hike it for sunrise with my friend Rudy. While it seemed to take forever, being both sleep deprived and oxygen deprived, I was surprised to find out I had ascended to the peak in just 45 minutes. I was treated I another commanding view of Everest, along with views of Ngozumpa glacier and Gokyo Lakes. As Rudy and I soaked in he view, the sun began to rise over Everest, and a blanket of clouds began to cover the glacier below, creating one of the most beautiful undercast of my life. Seeing Himalayan peaks poking through the clouds was other worldly.

Lastly, my overall highlight was meeting so many great people, as I already mentioned in Everest:  The Emotions. Sharing in laughs, smiles, and struggles with similarly motivated people was absolutely spectacular, and I appreciated each moment being in the company of such wonderful people.

Recreational Impressions
As stated in Everest:  The Emotions, one of my main intentions in traveling to Everest was to see it through an academic lens. I wanted to informally assess the state of mountaineering industry and its socio-environmental impact on the area. Unfortunately, I didn’t spend enough time at the Everest base camp to fully dive into depths of the issues. But I did get an excellent look at the trekking industry and the two are unquestionably linked.

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Mule Train

The area between Jiri and Everest is a complicated network of tourism infrastructure and subsistence and agrarian living.  Because of this, I found variable conditions amongst the trails. Let me say that trails leading to and around Everest are highly utilitarian. This is especially true between Jiri and Lukla, where tourism is less. The trails are mostly unmaintained, kept active by locals who need to trek from town to town in order to exchange goods and services.  Life here exists in the foothills and mountains, many times away from roads.  Therefore, cars, trucks, trains, and planes cannot transport goods to such villages.  The burden of resupply falls upon the backs of local people, mule trains, or yak trains.  The mule and yak trains are particularly what cause the most damage to trails.  Between Jiri and Lukla, mules were more common;  between Lukla and Everest, yak.  Such animals have a very high weight but very small surface area that actually touches the ground.  This places a very high ground pressure on the feet of these animals, and in particular with mules whose hooves are shaped likes scoops, there can be a lot of turn up of soil and footing.  Coupled with poorly designed trails, such as fall line trails that go almost directly up and down the side of mountains, there appears to be a high erosional impact.  In most places where we passed mule trains on steep trail, the trail seemed to have very loose soil and unstable footing and were prime for extreme erosion.

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Sidehill Trail after Phureng

With that being said, I also think there were some excellent sections of trail.  Between Phurteng and Junbesi, we hiked along beautiful side hill trail with stable footing and grade reversals for shedding water. This was a very healthy trail that could absorb impact sustainably and indefinitely.  I also felt the trail after Namche Bazaar to almost Tengboche was excellent as well.  This section of trail was clearly maintained for the purposes of tourism.  It was wide, reinforced by stone walls, had well made steps and was resurfaced with gravel.  It was a beautiful, flat, sidehill trail with grade reversals, that once again appeared to be able to withstand a lot of traffic without much erosion.

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Rules of the Khumbu Valley

Let’s also be clear about something: Everest Base Camp is probably Nepal’s most popular trek.  The fact of the matter is, where people go, trash follows.  The holy slopes of Mt. Everest are no exception.  In fact, in 1963, only 10 years after the first ascent of Everest, Dr. Barry Bishop wrote in National Geographic that Everest was becoming “the highest junkyard on the face of the Earth.”  Nowadays, some expeditions ascend Everest for the sole purpose of trying to clean it up.  Of course, with no plan to climb Everest, I could not myself verify these claims of trash piles along the trail.  However, I was interested to see if similar levels of trash were found along the trekking route.  The first and easiest answer is, yes, I saw trash everywhere.  But it is a bit more complex than that.  Without taking formal measurements, I would actually say I saw more piles of trash between Jiri and Lukla than between Lukla and Everest.  On one hand, this surprised me, on the other hand, it makes sense.  I was surprised because between Jiri and Lukla there is considerably less trekking traffic, and therefore I thought there would be less visible trash.  However, what I realized is how little waste management infrastracture there is, compared to the areas between Lukla and Everest.  Although there are considerably few trekkers between Jiri and Lukla, it is still economically beneficial for teahouse and lodge owners to have supplies carried up to their establishments to sell to trekkers.  However, when the trash is generated and left behind, it is probably not economically desirable for them to have it carried out.  I’m assuming the financial burden of porting out trash would fall on the lodge owner.  If not, them I’m unsure who would bear the financial burden of a trash removal service.  Therefore, trash is usually kept in the mountains.  I saw countless piles of trash in the brush along the sides of the trails.  That seemed to be the extent of the waste management system.  In some instances, I saw people burning their trash piles; a practice which has an additional set of environmental consequences.  However, I did feel, while not perfect, the section of trail between Lukla and Everest was a bit cleaner.  I fundamentally believe this is a result of better infrastructure, more connections to major cities and transportation, and a higher regarded recreational reputation.  The area between Lukla and Everest sees much more helicopter and plane traffic, and those can carry out trash back to Kathmandu.  I actually saw porters carrying out big piles of trash on their backs in this region.  Additionally, foreigners care more about the Khumbu and Solukhumbu because of its high profile location close to Everest.  I found Sagarmatha National Park to be quite clean as well, and I’m sure its distinction as a national park plays into its protection from filth.  It is the tourists who would be up in arms if this area was absolutely trashed.  It is the less visited areas like between Jiri and Lukla that get often overlooked simply because it is not seen by tourists, recreational activists, and environmentalists.

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Solar Cookers

With that being said, there are a few ways the teahouses are effectively decreasing their environmental impact while still meeting the needs of trekkers.  I believe these resources are being used simply for their own efficiency, as it is difficult to connect teahouses high in the mountains to an electric grid, for example.  They are employing these techniques and equipment in order to preserve resources where they are scarce, but it certainly doesn’t hurt that they’re using renewable energies or passive techniques. Most teahouses are outfitted with solar panels for electricity generation.  In addition, most teahouses have larger solar cookers outside, used for boiling water, which also reduces dependency on solar water heaters or gas.  It is really impressive to see so many teahouses running at full capacity on all renewable energies, particularly solar.  Also, in an attempt to prevent deforestation and land destabilization, teahouses are encouraged to use yak dung as a fuel for heat, rather than wood.  It is readily available and constantly being created, so it is a very abundant and effective fuel source.

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Yak Dung

It is also clear that the Everest region is still an important place for research that can affect the entire outdoor recreation community.  Along the way, we met many medical students who were working in association with the Himalayan Rescue Association to engage trekkers in a study about the effects of altitude on the human body.  I was also fortunate enough to meet Dr. Damian Bailey, who was in fact climbing Mt. Everest to do research, with a specific climber as his subject, to better understand how the body reacts in hypoxic conditions.  It is amazing how little we actually understand about altitude sickness, despite how common a discussion it is and how long we have known about it.  To this day, there is no cure for High Altitude Pulmonary Edema or Cerebral Edema, and there is no medication that can completely take care of the condition (although Diamox is helpful for some symptoms).  The only proper treatment is to descend to a lower altitude.  Point being, the research being done on and around Everest is still critically important and Everest seems to be the epicenter of it all.   Each of these studies and their findings have the potential to fundamentally affect the entire recreation community around the world.  Particularly when there is a major breakthrough in the study of altitude sickness, major waves could be sent through the entire recreation and mountaineering community.  With there already being enough controversy about tempering the effects of altitude with supplemental oxygen, finding more ways to deal with altitude sickness could potentially stir the pot and cause even more conflict between mountaineering purists and the capitalistic minded commercial industry.  The results of some of this research may have applications outside of high altitude mountaineering and recreation as well.  We shall see, and it was exciting to dip into this field along my trek by talking to folks directly involved.

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Dr. Bailey’s Camp

Conclusion

This trip was really the tale of two trips.  The first part, between Jiri and Lukla was remote and sparsely visited by westerners.  The second part between Lukla and Everest was as crowded as advertised, with large guided trekking trips.  I was happy to experience some remoteness, and while I usually tend to shy away from crowds, was also happy to engage in the social atmosphere leading up to Everest.  While this is some of the highest country known to man, and the effects of thinning atmosphere and difficult rocky trail should not be underestimated, it is clear to me that this trek, especially for those who choose the option of flying in and out of Lukla, can be done by almost anyone.  There are a number of resources available to aid anyone in making their Everest dreams a reality.

Although the Everest region is undeniably beautiful, it is suffering in some ways and it is clearly noticeable to the human eye.  Those living in the area are unquestionably linked to the trekking and mountaineering industry, from teahouse owners to yak and mule herders.  Not that there is anything inherently bad about that, but the increasing demand of trekkers is placing the people, the area, and its resources under a lot of pressure.  Unfortunately, it is the trails and the plants that take a beating; pollution, erosion, deforestation, and land destabilization being legitimate concerns.  While steps could be taken to improve the environmental quality of the area, this massive landscape is once again incredible, and the scenery is unparalleled.

I went to Everest with a certain set of expectations about the recreational infrastructure and the effects on the environment.  In some ways, my views were confirmed.  Despite the problems I listed, however, I definitely think the reality was less extreme than I anticipated.  However, I do wish I could have stayed longer up at Everest Base Camp to explore the issues a bit further.

I hope this trip report was helpful to any aspiring Everest trekker who may have read.  Don’t let these mountains intimidate you!  If you can swing it, get to the Himalayas, you won’t regret it!

When it comes to altitude, this was unquestionably the hardest trip I’ve ever done.  I didn’t suffer any major effects, but I did notice a significant decrease in available oxygen when we reached 16,000 feet and above.  I was short of breath regularly, particularly on uphills.  I experienced some headaches, but they were totally manageable.  When it comes to camping, however, this was the easiest trip I’ve ever been on.  Staying in teahouses makes life quite easy, not having to set up a camp or cook my own food.  It was really nice to have a bed and a hot meal (that isn’t from dehydrated foods) each morning and night.  It is also very social, which can be fun to meet many other athletic, mountain-minded people from across the world.  I enjoyed it, but it certainly won’t be my preferred sleeping situation from this point forward, because nothing beats a night out alone under the stars in a tent.  As for my next visit to Nepal, and I do hope there is one, Kanchenjunga is at the top of my list!  I look forward to a more remote, self-sufficient type trip, where crowds and tea houses are non-existent.  It would be cool to see the other side of Himalayan trekking, off the beaten path.

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