Learning everything about Everest base camp (EBC) trekking and thoroughly preparing for it, I thought, will compensate for my lack of trekking experience. Next week will tell whether that strategy led to success.
Fortunately, you can learn much about the trek from the internet and books, especially the Lonely Planet guide-book. “Did Lonely Planet call the trek from Phakding to Namche Bazaar torturous or tortuous?”, I reread. It says “tortuous.” That I can handle. You will feel that your survival could depend upon what you learn and abide by.
The most important thing that you learn is that the uphill trek, while exhausting, is not by itself the main problem. It’s the high altitude to which the trek takes you, the main problem. At the altitude 5,380 m (17,600 ft), the air at EBC (the south base camp in Nepal) is thinner than at sea level, the air pressure having fallen to about half its value at sea level. So the air you breathe contains only about half the oxygen at sea level, requiring you to breathe faster and deeper. Human body can cope with this low a level of oxygen; it adjusts the composition of blood in response. But it needs time for making the adjustment, for acclimatizing. You allow that time by stopping along the way, typically at two locations, where you spend an extra night, rather than continuing the trek to a higher altitude. You might walk to a higher altitude on the second day, but return to sleep at the same altitude a second night. If you do not follow this practice you could be stricken by AMS or worse.
As the air thins you become more prone to dehydration. For one thing, the effort is causing you to lose water through sweating. Also the faster breathing is causing more loss of water through the breath. Furthermore, the lower air pressure makes it easier for water to turn from liquid to vapor, to escape from the body. At the lower pressure, water boils at a lower temperature, 82 oC at EBC compared to 100 oC at sea level. So you must pay attention to remaining hydrated, drinking 2-3 L of water every day. A hydration pack is a convenient way to carry and consume water on the trek. At night you keep a 1 L bottle of water inside your sleeping bag so that the water does not freeze and is ready for drinking when you wake up.
Equally important is the concern about the water quality. It is not uncommon for Trekkers to be stricken by stomach problems caused by the microbes from water, fruits, or salads. Drinking bottled water that is available along the way for purchase is the remedy. But even that need not be safe as one Trekker sarcastically commented “bottled-water only means that the water is in a bottle”! You may use iodine or chlorine dioxide to treat the water yourself. Iodine acts faster than chlorine dioxide, but leaves a distaste. So you may use a chemical to neutralize iodine and remove its taste. But neutralize only after half hour required for iodine to kill the microbes. You may also use a life straw to filter out microbes or treat the water with UV rays. Even then one careless act could lead to a grumbling stomach, making it necessary to be prepared with Cipra and Imodium.
Not surprisingly, an essential gear is a pair of trekking boots. Get a pair of boots that fit well, has a strong sole, and is waterproof. Be sure to break in the boots well, by occasionally wearing them at least for six weeks. Breaking in is so important that it has been recommended that you wear the boots on the international flight to Nepal, rather than put them in the checked baggage. The reasoning is that in the event your baggage does not arrive on time, you could buy every other trekking gear in Kathmandu or Namche Bazaar, except a broken in pair of boots.
You could possibly find your way to EBC by yourselves, if you are strong and daring. For the rest of us there are Trekking companies that make all the arrangements, pick up and drop off at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, hotel accommodation in Kathmandu, flight tickets between Kathmandu and Lukla, trekking permit for Sagar Matha National Park, reservations at the tea house lodges, meals on the trek, and most importantly a porter and a guide. You may join a group tour or go by yourself. Usually, one guide and a porter helps two trekkers. You start the day by packing your duffel bag, not exceeding 15 kg in weight so that the porters are not overburdened. You carry only a light-weight day pack, which contains your water, snacks, down jacket and electronics. The porter brings your duffel bag to your destination, not walking along with you, not necessarily reaching before you at the destination. The guide walks with you, helping you to find your way and in case of difficulties. The guide is likely to be a Sherpa, people from the Everest region and accustomed to the high altitudes. Trekkers and climbers rely on Sherpas, such as the legendary Tensing Norgay, first to summit Mount Everest, which at 29,028 ft is the tallest mountain peak in the world.
The trek begins from Lukla, apparently after a thrilling flight from Kathmandu. Lukla can only be reached by flying from Kathmandu or by walking from Jiri. Walking adds one more week to the trek, and most Trekkers take the flight. At 9,383 ft the Lukla air strip could be hampered by poor weather and low visibility. One trekker described it as the world’s most dangerous air strip. But the safety record is actually very good per Lonley Planet guide.
On the trekking trail you can expect to find Yaks, or more likely Dzos. The yaks are busy and burdened; don’t expect them to give you way. Respectfully move out of their way, toward the uphill-side of the trail as you don’t want the yaks to accidentally knock you downhill.
Expect increasingly cold weather as you trek to higher altitudes. But the weather could become warm during the day. The clothing must be worn in layers, allowing you to adjust it to changing weather conditions. Three layers are recommended for the upper body. The base layer is in contact with your skin. It should wick moisture away from the body. Cotton does not work well as it keeps the skin wet. Capilene and Marino wool work well. The next layer is a shirt or a light jacket that can be easily unbuttoned or unzipped. This layer should offer protection from wind and UV. The outer layer is a jacket for keeping you warm at below freezing temperatures. A down jacket is ideal, giving you the most insulation for a given weight, compared with any other materials, natural or man-made. The lower body is protected by a base layer and a water-, wind- and UV-proof pants. Some prefer pants that can be converted into shorts when the weather warms up. You also need a rain coat, wool socks, gloves and mittens, woolen caps and a wind proof cap.
The eyes need to be protected from uv rays and bright light. You will reach above the tree-line, where there are no trees to block the light. Sunglasses offering 80% light reduction and UV protection are required. It is good to carry a second pair, just in case the first pair is lost or damaged.
At the end of a day’s trek, usually around mid afternoon, you reach your next destination. Your accommodation is in a place called Tea lodge. The lodge provides you basic amenities for the overnight stay. The restrooms are shared; toilets are squatting style. Hot showers are available only at lower altitudes, for an extra fee. Only the common areas are heated. The rooms are cold. Be sure to bring a good sleeping bag, a bag with a -20 oC rating. You may buy or rent them at Kathmandu or Lukla. You might have internet access and ability to charge your electronics.
It is good to carry a first aid kit because medical assistance can be hard to find or non-existent at higher altitudes. The Himalayan Rescue Association runs a clinic at Pheriche at 13,779 ft. It is also advisable to obtain an insurance that will cover emergency helicopter rescue.
There are less frequent, unexpected dangers caused by the high mountain peaks close by. About a year ago, in the afternoon of 25 April 2015, a MW 7.8 earthquake struck near EBC triggering a snow avalanche from mount Pumori into the basecamp, killing at least twenty-two people.