At the Mercy of the Mountains, Challenges of Hiking to Everest Base Camp

So far, six people have died this season on Mount Everest. I knew that climbing the highest peak in the world was a dangerous business, but just hiking to Everest Base Camp gave me a small insight into how terrifying the prospect would be.

Simply experiencing the effects of the altitude at 5,365 metres had me literally gasping for breath, not to mention the sub-zero temperatures, unpredictable weather and possible mountaineering accidents you’d have to contend with. When you’re up that high in the stark, barren beauty of the Himalayas, you’re literally at the mercy of the mountains.

Scott Fischer Memorial in Nepal

Memorial for Scott Fischer, who died in the 1996 Everest disaster

Challenges of Hiking to Everest Base Camp

As many as 30,000 people from all walks of life trek to Everest Base Camp each year. We shared the trail with everyone from ultra-fit experienced trekkers to casual travellers, group expeditions and independent walkers, retirees and even kids. The trek is statistically very safe and if you have a strong will and a positive attitude, it’s an incredible adventure to take on. However, don’t go expecting a pleasant stroll in the mountains, the trek is much tougher than you’d imagine. Practically everyday I looked ahead at the path and thought: ‘I can’t do this’. Yet, somehow I did and not because I’m strong or fast, but because I’m relentlessly stubborn and had Andrew to feed me Snickers bars along the way! Here are some of the main challenges we faced while hiking to Everest Base Camp.

Me hiking along the road to Everest Base Camp in Nepal

A typical day of trekking in the Himalayas

Altitude Sickness

The biggest danger on the trek is being at high altitude where your body gets less oxygen, which can cause Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). This can be fatal if it develops into High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) or High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). We went to a great lecture at the Himalayan Rescue Association in Pheriche about dealing with AMS, and if you’re thinking of trekking at high altitude, their guide is a must-read. In short, there’s no cure for AMS but to descend and you should do so while you still can. Everyday on our trek we saw people being evacuated by helicopter or carried down by horse because they got so sick.

Yaks crossing a suspension bridge on the Everest Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Yaks crossing a suspension bridge on the trail

Nothing can prepare you for what it feels like to be at high altitude and everyone has a different experience. Andrew coped relatively well aside from mild headaches, while I felt terrible once we ascended over 5,000 metres to Gorak Shep and Base Camp, the toughest physical day of the trek through snow. With a cold, pounding headache and no appetite, I went to bed before 8pm and woke a few hours later in a panic, the whoosh of my racing heartbeat in my ears. I sat up with my head thumping, gasping for breath. My pulse was over 100 and nothing I did could slow it down.

The tents at Everest Base Camp in Nepal

The tents at Base Camp, at 5,365 metres

At first light, we packed up immediately and began to descend, my vision was slightly hazy and every step felt like a monumental effort. We had a steep, rocky incline to tackle first and it was the only time during the trek that Andrew had to carry my pack for me. Fortunately, after that the path curved steadily downwards and by the time we reached Pheriche, almost 1,000 metres below, my symptoms had cleared up completely. Never underestimate the altitude, listen to your body and look out for your trekking buddies – it could save your life.

The scarily short runway at Lukla Airport in Nepal

The scarily short runway at Lukla Airport

Extreme weather and flight cancellations

I couldn’t have imagined a much worse start to our trek. Rather than take an 11-hour jeep ride to Jiri, we booked a 30-minute flight from Kathmandu to Lukla, not realising that unpredictable mountain weather and Lukla’s short, dangerous runway mean that flights are frequently cancelled. We were delayed as rain lashed down in Kathmandu and we waited in the one-room departure lounge, amazed to see a huge macaque strolling around. Eventually, we got on the tiny, 16-seater plane and ascended into rain-darkened skies where we were battered so badly by turbulence that I threw up. Unable to land at Lukla, we were diverted for hours to an airport in the middle of nowhere before finally having to return to Kathmandu.

Tara Air Plane grounded by weather on the way to Lukla, Nepal

Our grounded plane to Lukla

If your flight is cancelled, you have to turn up at the airport the next day, wait for all scheduled flights and then hope the weather holds out long enough for you to squeeze on an extra flight. We were lucky and able to fly the next morning, but you could theoretically be delayed by days. When we flew back from Lukla flights had been grounded the day before so the airport was full of people desperately trying to get on a plane and it was a stressful experience. If you do fly to Lukla, leave yourself a buffer of a few days so that you don’t miss an onward international flight.

Showing off sunburnt hands while hiking to Everest Base Camp, Nepal

Sunburnt skin on the trail

Although April, May, October and November are the best times for hiking to Everest Base Camp, the weather up in the mountains can be unpredictable all year-round, so pack accordingly. We experienced scorching sun, rain, hail, snow and high winds; sometimes we had four seasons in a single day. Our rain gear was essential, as was a warm sleeping bag and down jacket, decent sunglasses and factor 50 sunscreen. The sun is incredibly strong and burnt our hands and faces horribly on the first day.

Snow on the Everest Base Camp trek 2017

Snow on the way to Gorak Shep

Food, stomach troubles and tea house conditions

According to a doctor at the HRA, Nepal is one of the worst countries in the world for stomach bugs. The bacteria is so virulent that it’s resistant to many antibiotics and food hygiene is questionable, especially in the higher up villages where there might not even be running water. So, it’s no surprise that Andrew and I both had stomach troubles for most of our Nepal trip. What made this even worse was the poor conditions in the tea houses, which deteriorate quickly the higher up you go. In Lobuche and Gorak Shep we had to contend with filthy squat toilets, limited or no running water and expensive, yet pretty dire food.

Us drinking hot chocolate in a tea house while hiking to Everest Base Camp

Warming up with a hot chocolate during a blizzard at a freezing tea house

There are no roads on the trek so everything has to be carried up by porters and not much grows up there apart from potatoes, so we had no fruit and very little vegetables for two weeks. Our diet was all carbs, eggs and chocolate and I wished we’d taken some multi-vitamins with us. The teahouses offer little protection from the bitter cold and I usually slept with my clothes and a hat on in a minus 15 degree sleeping bag. The only heat usually came from a yak-crap fired stove in the dining room, which we spent most of our evenings in. I quickly got a streaming cold and later a cough, which I’m still recovering from.

Zipped into a sleeping bag in Dingboche on the Everest Base Camp Trek

It was so cold, I had to sleep like this

Be prepared to pay a relatively hefty price for hot water, toilet paper, battery charging and even water in the tea houses. It can be hard to get a good night’s sleep with other trekkers snoring and stomping around in the creaky, thin buildings. By the end of the trek, we were desperate to get back to a nice hotel in Kathmandu with hot water and flushing toilets.

Porters carrying timber up the Everest Base Camp trail in Nepal

Porters carry everything from timber to whisky and chocolate up the trail

Trekking challenges and ailments

Aside from all this, you have the physical challenge of the trek to deal with. Although the trail from Lukla to Base Camp is just 62 km long, it’s rarely flat and there are some killer hills to contend with as well as sheer drops and boulder-strewn paths. You have to concentrate on your footing and deal with the breathlessness of hiking at altitude; it’s definitely the toughest physical challenge I’ve ever faced. Oh, don’t forget to watch out for yaks too, keep on the upper side of the track as they can barge you off the trail while passing. We suffered from the usual trekking aches and pains and I got a few blisters, but the hardest thing by far was carrying my backpack.

Us with our backpacks starting the Everest Base Camp Trek in Nepal

Us and the backpacks we carried every day

Many people hire porters to carry their things for them, and while we considered this, we ultimately decided to tackle the trek completely independently. At times, this felt like a crazy decision when I was struggling uphill with my bag pulling me back and other hikers with porters were breezing past with tiny day packs. However, carrying our own stuff saved us between $15-20 a day and although I cursed my pack at the time, I’m proud to have carried everything myself. We were very careful and took only the bare essentials with us, so I carried six kilograms while Andrew had between nine and eleven kilograms depending on how many litres of water we had.

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After facing all of these challenges, I count making it to Base Camp as one of the biggest achievements of my life. Now, whenever I have to take on a physical challenge I’ll remind myself that it couldn’t possibly be tougher than hiking to Everest Base Camp!

Have you trekked in Nepal? What were the biggest challenges you faced?

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28 thoughts on “At the Mercy of the Mountains, Challenges of Hiking to Everest Base Camp

  1. Yeah but come on, it’s freaking awesome!! Yes, Nepal was the sickest the kids had ever been, and if you know us you’ll know they’ve been to over 50 countries, including India. I escaped it, Chef had a dose, giardia probably by the eggy burps, but he recovered without drugs. I’ve never had serious altitude problems, Chef had it pretty bad in Peru, headaches that saw him begging for a bullet. On the Annnapurna circuit I had this weird blue flashing light thing and had to lie down with my head down the trail, it went away, but I know how totally weird and disorientated it makes you. D and I are still going to Base Camp hopefully, he really wants to get up there ( bragging rights, he says). For me it’s spiritual,and I’ll have a good cry over those graves. Turning back at Tengboche last time was crushing, I just love it up there. He’s 12, I’ll be 50. Age is no barrier. Good on yas! Hope to catch you in London over summer, if you didn’t know we’re leaving Romania for good next month, mixed feelings, but it’s time.
    Alyson recently posted..The Hardest Parts of Being a Digital Nomad FamilyMy Profile

    • Yeah, absolutely! As I mentioned before, trekking to Base Camp is one of the best things we’ve ever done and I don’t think we’ve ever seen anywhere more beautiful than the Himalayas. However, the trek did totally knock us out, it was so tough and I wanted to try and capture those challenges in writing before time passes and I forget about the hardships 🙂 The altitude in particular was really hard above Gorak Shep and I found it quite scary. Trekking back down we couldn’t believe that we’d managed to walk up such difficult passes on the way! Good luck with your trek to Base Camp, I know you guys can make it and it’ll be amazing. Yes, we’ll be in London house sitting in July and again in September so we’ll hopefully catch you then? I need to catch up on all my blog reading, will check out your news asap!

  2. I was looking forward to this post, since both Brian and I really want to do this trekking. I have no doubt it must have been incredibly hard, well done you for not giving up. Altitude sickness sounds awful, I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to gather the strength to carry on? Did you stay overnight at the basecamp? How amazing to be there next to the highest Mountain on earth. Was it easy to find a tea house every night? Brian and I have a very sedentary lifestyle with mostly desk jobs, we would need to get a lot fitter first before we attempt something like this. I hope that you are having a lovely long rest now?
    Gilda Baxter recently posted..Fifty Shades of Downsizing – It’s NOT A One Size Fits All ApproachMy Profile

    • Hi Gilda, I’m sure you guys would be fine tackling this trek, we had just come from eight months of working on our laptops in Thailand and managed it 🙂 The key problem is the altitude and you can manage that with acclimatization days, drinking plenty of water and taking Diamox if you like (we only took it several times when we were feeling really bad, but many people we met took it preventatively). Yes, it was really easy to find tea houses every night and we stayed near Base Camp at Gorak Shep, about an hour’s walk away where there are several tea houses. I’ll be posting soon about our route, where we stayed and how much it costs, so I hope that’ll be helpful 🙂

    • Thanks Rhonda, any type of trekking in Nepal would be incredible I think, there are so many options if you don’t want to tackle Base Camp 🙂

  3. That flight sounds terrifying. And the trek sounds incredible, eventful, challenging and rewarding. Congrats guys, I’m really not sure it’s a challenge that I’d take on.

    • Thanks James, it was probably a good idea we didn’t fully realise how tough it would be before we began, otherwise we might not have ever started! It was an amazing experience though and I’m sure you and Sarah could tackle it if you came to Nepal 🙂

  4. Congratulations Amy!

    Mount Everest is tough. I haven’t yet been there myself but I’ve read enough from other people to know that it’s not something to take lightly. It’s awe-inspiring, beautiful, and yet, extremely dangerous.

    I would love to do a hike up there one day, However, I have to be realistic. I’m not as young as I once was (Eek), and I have asthma bronchitis! It doesn’t affect me on the day-to-day as I’ve had it from birth. I hiked up a live volcano a few years ago, and while my teen skipped along, it almost killed me! I ended up in tears, the guide had to carry my day-bag, and my knees went out! And I thought that was tough! Everest is another kettle of fish entirely. I would be walking extremely slowly, and using the porters! Although the flight is the logical way to get “further up”, I’ve heard about the flight challenges, and I don’t like tiny planes.

    I fear I’ll be going up by donkey!

    Well done for making it you guys. You’re my heroes!
    Victoria @The British Berliner recently posted..The top 10 best interesting things to do in Stockholm. Because the winner takes it all!My Profile

    • Thanks so much Victoria! It sounds like the trek would be a challenge for you, there are plenty of more gentle treks you could do to enjoy Nepal’s scenery though. Also, if you went slowly and hired a porter, with enough determination I bet you could make it to Base Camp too 🙂

  5. Well done Amy and Andrew!! Your descriptive writing takes a reader right there with you. Thanks for sharing this special adventure, that many of us can only dream about. Kathmandu has been on my bucket list for a long time, and then I read about the filthy conditions, pollution and tourist vendors and scrapped that idea. I would like to know if you prepared physically for this trek? Did you build up stamina and muscle beforehand by climbing smaller mountains? If not, would that have made the trek easier?

    I have been following your adventures for the past year…and it was because of you two that I ventured to go teaching Engish in Vietnam, at age 68. I love travelling but at times the constant stress and challenges of adapting, relocating and finding suitable semi-permanent accommodation can be overwhelming. I’m now in Dalat Vietnam where the weather is sublime….considering it’s mid summer!

    • Hi Pat, thanks so much for your kind words. Yes, we didn’t really enjoy Kathmandu to be honest but it was worth going there so that we could get on to the Himalayas. We didn’t prepare physically at all really! If we had, I’m sure it would have helped but the main issue was trekking at altitude, which isn’t something you can really prepare for. Thanks so much for following our journey and I totally get what you mean about the challenges of travel! It’s great to hear that you’re in Vietnam now, I hope you’re enjoying Dalat – we loved it there!

  6. Such a honest review of the trek. It sounds so hard yet it must be so worth it. Very impressed you carried your bags! I do think you are slightly crazy ? That must have made it so much harder.

    This is such an adventure that you will never forget (and never have to do again ?)

    Sounds like you owe a lot to Snickers. Sometimes chocolate is the only thing that can keep you going.

    • Thanks Guys, we were definitely crazy looking back on it! Snickers really, really made all the difference and a lot of cakes, hot chocolate and tea along the way 🙂

  7. I remember when the 4 of us met in Washington, DC and you asked questions about our Camino walk and I remember you said you didn’t think you could do it. 🙂 Well, let me tell you, what I just read about your Everest trek made my 350 mile Camino journey seem like a cake walk.

    Incredibly happy for both of you, what an amazing gift you gave yourselves!
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    • Yes, I remember chatting with you about the Camino, it seemed so daunting! My little brother is actually going to walk the Camino in September by the way; we still hope to do the same one day 🙂

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  9. I think all the snickers cakes etc certainly gave you some energy and i am glad you didn’t contract the really bad stomach bugs.Eighteen months ago ,I went to my doctor because i had indigestion and gerd and IBS.The doctor said it was from menopause.To this day I was still experiencing,really bad symptoms I went to another doctor and was diagnosed with H Pylori bacteria which manifest itself into your stomach lining causing ulcers and even in some cases stomach cancer .It is passsed through contaminated food or water .I went to a Korean barbecue restaurant with friends eighteen months ago and we ended up with nausea and indigetion etc.i was so disappointed with the doctor and a chinese herbalist that I also went to got the diagnosis wrong.Well i am glad you are fine and your experience is one you will never forget.love louisa

    • Oh no, that sounds terrible Louisa, I hope that now you’ve been diagnosed you’re starting to get better. It really sucks having stomach problems 🙁

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  13. This sounds amazing! I wanted to do the Annapurna Circuit, but it sounds like some renovations have made it far less scenic. EBC has scared me so much, it sounds HARD and altitude sickness really worries me. How long did the trek take you?

    • Hi Kristen, it took us 14 days, including some rest and acclimatisation days. It was hard and we did experience altitude sickness but it was so worth it. Really, the trek is quite safe so long as you are well prepared with gear and make sure you acclimatise as you go. I would definitely recommend it, the scenery is unreal and I already look back on it as one of my most incredible life experiences. Go for it!

    • Hi Nuraini, yes, that will make things a lot simpler. Good luck with your trek and try to enjoy every moment, it goes by so quickly 🙂

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