28 May 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Pin Me for Later!
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!
Find out more about our trek to Everest Base Camp in these posts:
Have you trekked in Nepal? What were the biggest challenges you faced?