When I announced to the world – my mum and a few mates – that I would be trekking to Everest Base Camp, I immediately began talking it down.
'It's only a bit of a walk, it'll be fine.’
Quite a few mates talked it down for me: 'It's not like you're climbing Everest, is it?'
I'd read a few blogs and had gotten the impression it was going to be fairly difficult; but honestly, I thought it was going to be a stroll in the park.
It wasn’t. It was gruelling. The altitude, the cold, the lack of meat, the actual walking. As far as underestimations goes, this will take some beating.
And yet it was an 11-day hike that I will never forget, breathtaking in every sense of the word and an experience that will also take some beating.
Here are a few things I learned:
If you're planning on proposing to your partner make sure you keep the ring on you at all times
This was always going to be the trip of a lifetime for me. I proposed to my girlfriend, Danielle, at base camp. I proposed knowing full well we still had days of trekking ahead and saying ‘no’ would only lead to unnecessary awkwardness. She said 'yes'; out of love, not because of diminishing oxygen levels.
Looking after a ring abroad is one hell of a stressful experience.
On the way out we missed our connecting flight in Oman. Because we were sharing one bag for hand luggage and I didn't want airport security unwittingly spoiling the surprise I packed the ring in my 36-litre rucksack, to be stored safely in the hold.
All good until we miss the connection. We're put up in a nice hotel as we wait 18 hours for the next available flight. Our bags, I am reliably assured by somebody who couldn't care less, will meet us there.
It's at this point that Danielle asks me if the bags are insured to which I honestly reply, 'No I don't think they are.'
I still sweat now when I think about it.
The ring, like us, eventually made it to base camp; and I was only four sizes out.
It's a slog
You start off in Lukla, a good 40 miles from destination base camp. Forty miles doesn’t sound too bad. You'd probably cover that comfortably in three days over here. It took us eight. Altitude!
Lukla is located at 2,860m above sea level; EBC 5,380m. I’d never hiked above 3,000m and wasn't prepared in the slightest for the effect altitude has on your body. The sleepless nights, hellish headaches, debilitating fatigue; they all conspired to make those days above 3,000m horribly taxing. Day one strides quickly became baby steps as we climbed higher and the air became thinner. We went from, 'Wow, we can't wait to come back here' to 'Right, two more days and we're on our way back down.’
This was our itinerary.
Day 1: Kathmandu to Lukla (flight). Lukla to Phakding (4 miles).
Day 2: Phakding to Namche Bazaar (4.5 miles)
Day 3: Namche Bazaar acclimatisation day.
Day 4: Namche Bazaar - Tengboche (3.7 miles)
Day 5: Tengboche - Dingboche (5.7 miles)
Day 6: Dingboche acclimatisation day.
Day 7: Dingboche - Lobuche (4 miles)
Day 8: Lobuche - Gorak Shep (2.5 miles); Gorak Shep - Everest Base Camp (2.1 miles); Everest Base Camp - Gorak Shep (2.1 miles).
Day 9: Gorak Shep - Pheriche (6 miles)
Day 10: Pheriche to Namche Bazaar (9 miles)
Day 11: Namche Bazaar to Lukla (8.5 miles)
Day 12: Lukla to Kathmandu (flight).
Take your time
There are no medals for completing EBC in the quickest time. There are no medals full stop, not even a certificate. So, there's no point in racing up there in as few a days as possible because the chances are you’ll be hitching a ride back down in a helicopter.
Acclimatisation days are hugely important. We spent two nights in Namche Bazaar and two in Dingboche so our bodies had time to adjust. While some will no doubt be tempted to spend these days resting weary limbs, we found it worthwhile tackling one of the many side trips to help with altitude. Hike a few hundred metres up, take in the views, hike back down to your lodge. Altitude sickness is no myth and this will help with it.
We wouldn’t have been able to complete the trek without these acclimatisation days. Take as many as you need.
Guides and porters
We opted to go without a guide or porter mainly because I don't like being told where to be at a certain time but also because we wanted to complete the hike ourselves.
This did mean we spent the majority of our time weighed down by 13kg bags. The sense of accomplishment, however, as we strode heroically (panted pathetically) onto base camp, knowing we had completed the trek unaided, was worth it. Just.
Talking to other groups, it seems hiring guides/porters can be a little bit hit or miss. There were certainly a couple of occasions where a guide would have come in handy - queuing/pushing in to sort out flights and queuing/pushing in when paying for permits. And if you were to be struck down by altitude sickness then their assistance would no doubt be invaluable.
When to go
We travelled in November/December. Did we know it would be cold at night? Yes. Did we know just how cold? No.
During the days; glorious sunshine, T-shirt weather. So hot in fact, I burnt my lips. I didn't even know you could burn your lips.
Come night-time though – as we passed the 4,500m mark – not even -30 degree sleeping bags could keep out of the bone-chilling cold. Not even when combined with trousers, under warmers, fleeces, jackets, hats and gloves. Our evenings were spent huddled around stoves, our nights wrapped up like 'Eskimo burritos' watching the water in our bottles slowly freeze.
October is considered the optimum time to hike EBC but that means it’s peak time and that means more hikers. We had no issues with accommodation but I can imagine they get pretty busy at this time of year and having a guide to book ahead would be a sensible move.
For anybody carrying their own gear, the economical and practical comes before the luxury. I managed to squeeze all I need into a 36-litre bag: down jacket, fleece, rain jacket (not needed once!), T-shirts, walking pants, walking socks, cap (for the sun), beanie (for the cold) and hiking boots (do not scrimp on these). I also had painkillers, a head torch (for those sub-zero midnight trips to the toilet), wet wipes (showers)...I did not, stupidly, pack lip sunblock.
We also didn’t take sleeping bags. It saved space and meant less weight on the early part of the trek. We hired them from Namche Bazaar for around £2.50 a day each and an overall deposit of £120ish.
The 'World's Most Dangerous Airport'
If you’re scared of flying, don't bother typing ‘Lukla airport’ into Google. I won’t even bother attempting to describe the runway because words will not do its marriage of the picturesque and sheer terror justice.
The 30-minute flight from Kathmandu to Lukla, in a plane the size of a car, is notorious for being delayed/cancelled because of the unpredictable weather. On the way out our flight was delayed for three hours; on the way back, seven hours. Not the comfiest of waits either in a cold and cramped departure ‘lounge’; but at least we got away within the day.
Once in the air, the Himalayas stretch out for as far as the eye can see. It's a magnificent view, one that even the most fertile of imaginations would struggle to conjure.
I took 5,712 photos while in Nepal. There is a yak on every single one of them. These hairy mammoth-like beasts are everywhere. Walk round the corner; yak. Look through your window in the morning; yak. When you hear those bells in the distance prepare to make way because they ain’t going to make way for you. And do not, under any circumstance, attempt to pass a yak on one of the many suspension bridges; there will only be one winner.
Keeping in touch with friends and family is important. Flaunting the fact you’ve made it to Everest Base Camp is more important. To capture and share that shot of monumental smugness, you need a working phone. I picked up a 16gb sim card at the airport for around £8. It worked perfectly, until we got about half way up. Then it was just like being on O2 anywhere in the UK. This meant the riveting day-by-day Instagram diary I'd been posting ended prematurely and without notice. While my loyal Insta followers probably couldn't have cared less, my mum, obviously, thought I had died.
Thankfully, you can get wifi at most lodges for a small charge and there are a number of different packages available. Quite a few people were using ‘Everest Link’ and that seemed to work at most locations.
Food and drink
'Do not eat the meat!’
The chilling words of a peaky-looking young English lad who passed us on his way back down with a face paler than the moon and a brow sweatier than the Sahara.
I went 13 days without eating meat. A record I am in no hurry to try and beat.
Dal baht (steamed rice and lentil soup) is the Nepalese national dish and tastes better than it sounds. Free second helpings everywhere, too. By day five I was dal bahted out and tea-time delicacies had narrowed to fried potatoes, pizza or Pringles. The chicken enchilada I had back in Kathmandu was as memorable as setting foot on base camp.
We'd pre-packed trail mix (M&Ms, nuts etc) to eat while out hiking and went for garlic soup (helps with altitude sickness apparently) for lunch more often than not.
To drink, we had ginger and lemon tea most mornings and evenings (again, to ward off altitude sickness as well as throat infections) and our two-litre water bladder was filled before we set off each day. I'd met a lad at our connecting airport who had done EBC the year before and who told me his biggest regret – after suffering monstrous headaches throughout – was not drinking enough water. We managed to take in around four litres each day, and I still suffered headaches most nights while above 3,000m.
Drinking four litres of Jager at the 'World's Highest Irish Bar' in Namche Bazaar does not help with headaches either.
Despite bringing water purification tablets we predominantly stuck to bottles; the steeper you climb though, the steeper the prices. At the beginning of the trek, a one-litre bottle of water set us back 75p. By the time we hit base camp it was £3.50. Doesn’t sound like much but when you're drinking five litres a day it adds up.
For many, trekking to Everest Base Camp will be a once in a lifetime experience.
I would tell anybody who is going, do not take the views or your time there for granted. From the dusty, yak-trodden paths underfoot to the majestic snow-tipped mountains in the distance, and all the grandeur in between, Sagarmartha National Park is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. No matter how hard it gets, savour the sights and the sounds and the smells because you will miss them. If you’re travelling solo or with a partner, make sure you stop and chat with other groups. The people we met out there, from all corners of the globe, made an already unforgettable trip even more memorable.
I may never conquer Mount Everest. Mainly down to a lack of money, lack of climbing experience and of course, a lack of ability.
But what I do know is that when I’m 80 years old and I’m sat at home with my wife reminiscing about a lifetime of adventures; reaching Everest Base Camp will be at the summit of my thoughts.