Learning everything about Everest base camp (EBC) trekking and thoroughly preparing for it, I thought, would compensate for my utter lack of trekking experience. Whether that was a reasonable strategy I will find out during the two weeks that will start next week.
Fortunately, you can learn much about the trek from the internet and books, especially the Lonely Planet guide-book. I carefully read them. I reread sections to reinforce my optimism. “Did Lonely Planet guide-book call the trek from Phakding to Namche Bazaar torturous or merely tortuous?”, I wondered after one reading of the guide-book. I reread that section of the guide-book. Much to my relief, it says “tortuous.” That I can handle, I thought.
Eventually I came believe that my survival will depend upon what I read and learned. Here’s what I learned:
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 dropped to about half its value at sea level. So the air you breathe contains only about half the amount of oxygen at sea level, requiring you to breathe faster and deeper. Human body can cope with this low a level of oxygen; it responds by adjusting the physiology, such as by changing the composition of the blood. But it needs time for making the adjustments or for acclimatizing. You allow that time usually by spending an extra night at two locations along the way, instead of continuing the trek to a higher altitude those two days. You may trek to a higher altitude those days, but you must return to the same altitude for sleeping a second night. If you do not follow this acclimatization practice you could be stricken by AMS or worse problems.
As the air thins you become more prone to dehydration. First, the effort required for the uphill trek is causing water loss through sweating. Also, the faster breathing is causing more water loss through the breath. Furthermore, the lower air pressure makes it easier for water to become vapor and escape from the body. For instance, water boils at a lower temperature at EBC, 82 oC compared to 100 oC at sea level. So you must pay attention to remaining hydrated. Drinking 2-3 L of water every day is recommended. 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 the 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 consumed during the trek. Drinking bottled water, which is available for purchase throughout the trail, is recommended. But even bottled water need not be safe. One Trekker sarcastically commented: “bottled-water only means that the water is in a bottle”! If in doubt, you may use iodine or chlorine dioxide tablets to treat the water yourself. Iodine acts faster than chlorine dioxide, but leaves a distaste. You may remove the distaste by neutralizing the iodine with a chemical. But neutralize iodine only after a half hour of treatment, which is required for killing the microbes. You may also use a life straw to filter out the microbes or treat the water with UV rays. Even then one careless act could lead to a grumbling stomach, making it necessary to be also prepared with Cipra and Imodium tablets.
Not surprisingly, an essential gear is a pair of trekking boots. Get a pair of boots that fits well, has strong soles, and is waterproof. Be sure to break in the boots well, by occasionally wearing them at least for six weeks before the trek. Breaking in is so important that it is recommended that on the international flight to Nepal you wear the boots or bring them in the carry on baggage, rather than putting them in the checked baggage. The reason is that in the event your baggage does not arrive before the trek begins, you could buy every other trekking gear in Kathmandu or Namche Bazaar, except a broken in pair of trekking boots.
You could 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 during the trek, and most importantly a porter and a guide. You may join a group trek or go by yourself. Usually, one guide and one porter are assigned to every pair of trekkers. You start the day by packing your duffel bag, which must not exceed 15 kg in weight so that the porters are not overburdened. You carry only a light-weight day pack, which holds your water bottle, snacks, down jacket and electronics. The porter brings your duffel bag to your destination, not walking along with you and not necessarily reaching the destination before you. The guide walks with you, guiding your way on the trail and helping you to overcome any difficulties encountered on the trail. The guide is likely to be a Sherpa, people from the Everest region,who are accustomed to the high altitudes. (Like Trekkers climbers also rely on Sherpas. When Mount Everest (at 29,028 ft the tallest mountain peak in the world) was first sumitted, Sherpa Tensing Norgay was Sir Edmund Hillary’s companion.)
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 of the airport is actually very good per Lonley Planet guide-book.
You can expect to share the trekking trail with donkeys, dzokyos and yaks. The animals are busy and burdened; don’t expect them to give you way. Respectfully move out of their way, moving up toward the mountain-side of the trail so that the yaks don’t accidentally knock you down the edge of the trail.
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, which is in contact with your skin, must wick moisture away from the body. Cotton does not work well as a base layer 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. High up on the trail you will reach above the tree-line, where there are no trees to block the sunlight. 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. Most trekkers stay in a so called Tea lodge. The lodge provides you basic amenities for the overnight stay. The restrooms are shared; toilets are squatting style. At lower altitudes hot showers are available 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. The lodges might provide the facility for accessing the internet and for charging your electronic devices for a fee.
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 also rare, unexpected dangers that lurk at high altitudes. About a year ago, in the afternoon of 25 April 2015, a MW 7.8 earthquake struck near EBC, triggering a snow avalanche on mount Pumori that hit the basecamp, killing at least twenty-two people.