This is Part 1 of a series documenting our 15-day trek to Everest Base Camp.
Well, we did it! We are now members of a not-so-exclusive group of people who have survived the trek to Everest Base Camp and back down again. It was by far the hardest thing either of us have ever done, but it was also easily the best - it pushed us to our physical and mental limits and we emerged out as tougher, fitter, smellier, generally all-around better human beings. Since 15 days is a lot of time, and brevity has never been my strong suit, I’ve decided to split up our recap into 3 posts. Sorry about it.
Before departing for the trek we spent a few nights in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital and largest city. It’s dirty and chaotic - traffic is terrifying, there is trash everywhere, packs of stray dogs roam the streets, power outages are common, and giant clouds of dust obscure both vision and breathing 24 hours a day. In spite of (or perhaps because of) this, both Alex and I fell in love with this absolutely bonkers city. While here we met up with our guide, Nikhil. We’d pre-booked our trek before arriving in Nepal, and went with Nikhil on the recommendation of a friend. We needed to pick up some last-minute trekking gear, and he helped us navigate the crazy streets of Thamel, the city’s main tourist area, to grab everything we needed.
Day 1 - The Airport
We arrived at the Kathmandu airport’s domestic ‘terminal’ (really just a large sitting room with a semi-functional metal detector) to await our flight to Lukla, the traditional starting point of all Everest region treks. Fun fact: Lukla is famous for being the most dangerous airport in the world! In spite of that, Alex and I were both super excited for the 45-minute flight, which allegedly has stunning views of the Himalayas the whole way in. I say ‘allegedly’ because, unfortunately for us, we did not get on a plane that day.
The thing about flying into the most dangerous airport in the world is that they are a lot stricter about weather than most airports,- with the shortest runway in the world (which ends with a sheer drop off a steep cliff), cloudy weather can mean a deadly situation. What we didn’t realize, at least until we were sitting in the airport with hundreds of other anxious tourists, is that t’s extremely common for Lukla flights to be cancelled for several days in a row, especially in early October. Why peak trekking season aligns with the worst flying weather is something I’ll never fully understand, but like so many things in Nepal, logic just doesn’t seem to apply.
Once our flight was cancelled, we sat in the airport for six hours while Nikhil tried to work thing out. Finally he presented us with a few options. First, we could spring for a helicopter flight to Lukla at the low low cost of $500 per person (and we’d have to pay his fare as well). We were stunned to see how many other trekkers chose this option, but we definitely couldn’t afford it. Our second option was to wait until the next day and try to fly again, but even if planes were able to take off we’d be stuck behind people who had actual tickets for that day. By this point, flights had been cancelled for 3 days in a row and the standby list was ridiculously long, so our chances of getting on a flight were basically nonexistent.
The final option was to hire a private jeep and ride 10 hours to the village of Phaplu and start trekking from there. This would add three days to our trek, but would only cost us around $130 total - far better than $1500 for the helicopter! After looking at all the dejected-looking people playing the waiting game in the airport, we realized this was our best option. Nikhil told us to be ready to go at 3:30 the following morning. Yikes.
Day 2 - Kathmandu to Phaplu
Our alarms went off bright and early at 3, and by 3:30 we were out the door. Our jeep was parked about a hundred meters down the road and to get there we had to dodge a pack of territorial dogs who were curiously sniffing the vehicle. We groggily shooed them off, threw our stuff into the trunk, and were on our not-so-merry way.
The jeep ride was absolutely bonkers. Neither of us had slept the night before due to a combo of nerves and loud street noises, and I was banking on being able to pass out in the backseat, but that just wasn’t in the cards. My seat seemed to have come unstuck from the locking mechanism keeping it upright, so it kept bouncing up and down unless I leaned back with all my weight. Still, I tried to make myself comfortable and had just closed my eyes when our driver switched on his music. At 3:40 am. For ten hours, we were graced with a combination of Nepali music and weirdly schizophrenic Top 40 mashups. Eventually we gave up on sleep and resigned ourselves to dancing in the backseat.
All morning we weaved in and out of traffic along some of the bumpiest roads I’ve ever seen in my life. Every once in a while, the road would just sort of end (this is Nepal, so it’s perfectly normal) and we’d find ourselves off-roading over dirt paths, huge rocks, or the occasional river. Yeah, I said river. Our driver would just casually zip over these obstacles like they were nothing, while we were in the back getting tossed around like ragdolls, smashing our heads on the ceiling with every bump.
At one point we stopped in our guide Nikhil’s hometown and met his family, which was easily the highlight of the day. It was the third or fourth day of Dashain, a major Hindu holiday, and Nikhil’s dad welcomed us to Nepal with beers and put the tika on our foreheads which was an awesome honor. Luckily, the beers put us in a good mood so the rest of the ride passed pretty quickly.
Sometime in early afternoon we made it to Phaplu and the jeep came to a jerky halt in front of a shabby but cozy-looking guesthouse. We wolfed down some dal bhat and strong tea and pretty soon we settled in to get a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, our relaxation was interrupted when I noticed a shadow lurking in the corner of the window.
“Wow!” I said. “That spider is casting a huge shadow! I wonder where the real…oh…”
Yeah, it wasn’t a shadow. It was a spider, and it was roughly the size of my hand.
I screamed. Alex screamed. Chaos ensued.
Eventually, after sprinting out of the room and hyperventilating in the hallway, we managed to rope Nikhil into smiting Shelob for us, and he wrangled the guesthouse owner’s 10-year-old son into helping. Somehow they managed to trap and smash the evil beast, and eventually we were convinced to reenter our room, but neither of us slept very soundly that night.
Day 3 - Phaplu to Nunthala
Well, we weren’t carried off by Aragog’s children in the night, but I had other issues on my mind. Around 1 or 2 am I woke up with painful stomach cramps and sprinted to the bathroom. This continued all night. By the time my alarm went off at 6, I knew something was terribly wrong.
Yep, it was that age-old problem. Delhi Belly. Montezuma’s Revenge. I never found out if there was a Nepali nickname for it, because I couldn’t leave the bathroom for long enough to ask. Was it food poisoning? Dysentery? Some weird amoeba living in my body? I had no idea. All I knew was that I was dehydrated, sick, in extreme pain, and about to hike for 10 hours! I will never as long as I live understand how I made it through the day, I think I blacked out, as I only have vague, blurry memories of village toilets (euphemism for ‘hole in the floor’) in varying states of neglect. My pulse was super-fast, I felt weak and shaky, and I had to constantly stop to catch my breath.
The hike itself was not that bad, or rather it would have been fine if I was in good health. The worst aspect was that we were literally hiking through the jungle, and since monsoon season was just ending, the ground was extremely wet and muddy. Plus, there was donkey shit everywhere (they’re heavily used as pack animals in the lower foothills) and the poop would combine with all the mud to form this weird gloopy tar-like substance that got all up in our shoes, ruining their traction. I fell on my ass more times than I would like to admit, and there is nothing more humbling than landing in a big pile of muddy poop cement and having to get up and keep on going, knowing it will be days before your next shower. Not my finest day.
Ten or so hellish hours later we reached Nunthala, and I immediately crawled into my sleeping bag, hoping to nap. I lay there shivering uncontrollably and sweating profusely for a full hour before realizing something was seriously wrong. Turns out I had forgotten to put on sunscreen and a long day of jungle trekking had left me horrendously sunburned, compounding my already severe dehydration. Alex force-fed me some ibuprofen and made me chug a couple liters of water, and once I had that in my system I was able to stop shivering long enough to eat some dinner. In the dining hall, I saw another spider roughly the size of a human child, but I was too sick to say anything so I just sat next to it and hoped it wouldn’t attack anyone (it didn’t). After some food I felt a little less shaky, and although I hadn’t yet stopped going to the bathroom, at least I was able to get to sleep without wondering if I should seek medical attention.
Day 4 - Nunthala to Poyan
This was by far the longest day of the whole trek. By the time we reached Poyan we’d hiked for upwards of 12 hours, and I felt the way I did after I did a 30-hour dance marathon in college. By the end, I physically couldn’t walk anymore - in our room that night, anytime I’d try to stand up my legs would seize up and I’d just kinda tumble over onto the floor.
We knew what we were getting into because our guide had warned us about how long the day was going to be, but it seriously felt like we weren’t making any progress at all. I couldn’t stomach my breakfast of eggs and chapati, so I spent the first half of the day trekking on an empty stomach. Because of that, I was moving at a snail’s pace and was in a horrible mood, which was compounded by the fact that we had some freaky experiences - we got sidetracked in a village for about 15 minutes due to a huge snake blocking our path, which was terrifying, and later Nikhil regaled us with some cautionary tales about leeches that made my skin crawl.
Luckily by lunchtime my appetite had returned, so after wolfing down some fried rice we made it through the final stretch with relative ease, and no more creepy crawlies. I think pride also factored into it - we’d gone so far that we were fully committed to making it to Poyan. Nikhil tried to tell us we could make up our time the following day, but we did not want to give up when we were so close to the finish line.
By the time we got to the lodge in Poyan it was dark outside and we were beyond exhausted. At dinner we met a Canadian family who told us they had taken two days to trek the distance we had just completed that day, so we patted ourselves on the back for achieving the day’s goal. Only 12 days left to go!
Day 5 - Poyan to Phakding
By now, Alex and I were beyond ready to GTFO of the jungle - between the creepy crawlies, the poop-mud and the overwhelming heat, we’d seen enough for a lifetime. Fortunately, today’s 8-hour hike (easy!) had us leaving the jungle and joining the main EBC trail in Phakding (on a standard EBC trek, this is the first night’s stop after flying to Lukla in the morning). We arrived at our guesthouse quite early and discovered that our room had an attached bathroom with a hot shower! Unfortunately, the shower was so hot we physically couldn’t stand under the tap without boiling alive, so getting clean was not in the cards. But it’s the thought that counts, I guess.
The downside of being on the regular trail was that we finally encountered crowds of trekkers - since comparatively few people start from Phaplu, we had the trails pretty much to ourselves. The EBC trail, on the other hand, is pretty busy and we found ourselves getting stuck in traffic jams frequently. And October is peak season, so this definitely factored into the congestion. Alex and I are not patient people, and we were used to chugging along at our own (rather quick) pace, so we definitely struggled with those slow stretches. Still, the upside of being on the well-trodden main trail was that the poo-mud we’d been dealing with all week was mostly gone, and the trails were generally far better kept with far less trash and debris. And the route was much more scenic, too, with lots of prayer wheels, stupas, and monuments lining the way. Way better than donkey poo.
This was also the first time we encountered a Western toilet since leaving Kathmandu, and even though my stomach issues were almost gone by this point, I still literally wept when I saw it, because squat toilets are awful (sidenote: don’t trust anyone who owns a Squatty Potty). So, feeling slightly more civilized and tremendously relieved to be out of the literal and figurative woods, we slept a bit more soundly that night.
The first few days of the trek were by far the longest - we hiked for an average of 10 hours per day, and the trails were in terrible condition before Phakding. Although in the week ahead we’d be challenged in different ways, these first five days were the toughest physically. And for me, being sick added a whole other level of difficulty. On the bright side, we felt like we had a leg up on all the trekkers who had flown in from Lukla, because by the time we reached Phakding we had an established routine and our bodies were used to the physical activity. Of course, we were also more tired, but mostly we were just pretty damn proud of ourselves for going the extra mile. Or, rather, miles.