Note: This is an entry in a multi-part account of my June 2014 trek to Everest Base Camp. Navigate the full set here.
Day 4: Namche to Tengboche (3880m)
Again, we had clear skies in the morning, giving us our first good view of Kongde above Namche. Unfortunately the clouds came in almost before breakfast was even over.
Today’s hike looks easier than it is. While there are only 400m to gain overall, the day starts with a descent back to the Dudh Kosi losing a few hundred hard-earned meters down to the village of Phungi Thanga. Along the way, the trail is cut into the side of the hill, a scenic hike even in the clouds.
An old man has been building and improving this stretch of trail for many years: he funds the work through donations by trekkers. I have to say, it really is a nice bit of trail!
We descended and crossed the river at Phungi Thanga village before climbing up a very steep 600m to our destination, Tengboche. We could definitely feel the effect of the altitude on this section: elevated heart rate and breathing given the level of effort we were putting out.
Tengboche is small but gorgeous! The famous Tengboche Monastery is the notable attraction of the town. It is a center of Tibetan Buddhist learning and prayer. At around 4pm we heard monks blowing conch shell horns in the window, inviting the tourists inside.
The focal point of the complex is the ornately painted prayer room. Monks gather here to chant religious mantras together. The walls, reconstructed after a devastating fire a couple of decades ago, have been restored in bright color.
The room is centered on a huge gilded Buddha statue:
Not many monks were around today but two came in and chanted for a while in the unique semi-musical Tibetan style.
Right as we left the monastery, a gap appeared in the overcast grey sky. At first, Lhotse appeared. Then, we glimpsed beautiful Ama Dablam. Finally, the clouds opened a bit more and we could see the summit of Everest over Lhotse for a minute or two. It was a substandard view but an exciting moment nonetheless. Seeing the highest mountain in the world is memorable no matter how it happens.
Sidebar: A Day in the Life on the Trek
It is a good idea to get up early in this pre-monsoon season because the views seem to be clearest in the mornings. Breakfast usually consists of eggs, potatoes, and toast or an Indian flatbread called chapatti with jam or butter. Milk tea was our drink of choice.
We then hike to our destination, almost always arriving before lunch. All our meals are taken in the tea house dining room I always ordered some kind of egg/veg fried rice or noodle dish for lunch or some kind of potatoes. However, we were consistency impressed with the variety of western dishes on the menu even if they cost more and had limited availability in the low season.
Then we pass the afternoon with a combination of a walk in the new village (only takes a few minutes), cards, reading, and talking.
Dinner happens at 6 or 7 and often consists of a traditional Nepali meal called dal baht. It is just a meal with the following components, give or take:
– Dal (lentil) soup
– Vegetable curry
– White rice
– Papad, a fried snack almost like a hard shell totillla but made with different flour and with spices
-Cooked greens, sort of like bok choi.
We always order dal baht for dinner because it offers the most food for the rupee and usually tastes pretty good after a day on the trail. Since the guides all eat it, they make a huge batch so there were always seconds available. I probably had double portions of everything which kept me from dropping too much weight. I always went to bed full. As the guides are fond of saying:
Dal baht power, 24 hour!
It gets dark around 7:30 here so we always go to bed and get up quite early.
Snacks are available in every teahouse but they will cost you: uncooked rice is lightweight, but Pringles cans have to be carried all the way from Lukla. The usual foods available were Pringles, Euro-style “digestive” biscuits, and Twix/Snickers/Mars bars. Beer and other alcohol is for sale but costs even more because of the weight. The main beers abailble are Everest brand and, randomly, San Miguel beer from Spain.
Day 5: Tengboche to Dingboche (4400m)
We woke up around 5:20 without an alarm for no particular reason, and looked outside. We were glad we did. The cloud blocked views yesterday were crystal clear today!
Unfortunately, we only got about 20 minutes of the morning magic before the clouds rolled in again, but it was a highlight of the trip.
After breakfast, we got rolling downhill toward Pangboche. The rocky trail trends downward through beautiful rhododendron forest, before crossing the river again and switchbacking in rugged terrain up to Pangboche on the other side.
There were several beautiful walls of stone carved with Buddhist mantras along the way. We also picked up a pack of dogs who followed us most of the day.
At one point we came upon a collapsed bridge structure. Clearly Mother Nature can be cruel at times in the Khumbu. The temporary bridge was much lower and required a longer climb out.
Pangboche wasn’t too memorable; just another village catering to tourists. We passed on to Shomare, the next town, without stopping. By now it was quite gloomy and cloudy. One section of trail, marked by a flat with glacial erratic boulders, was pretty spooky in that light.
We crossed the river again, this time following the Imja Khola valley east toward Dingboche, instead of following the main river west toward Pheriche.
Here, we had a minor incident with the dogs. They had followed us and as we walked we happened upon a herd of yaks including some calves. The genius dogs starting biting the young ones and then retreated behind us when the moms charged. We ended up narrowly avoiding the horns of one as it charged. Thanks guys.
After around 3 hours we made it to Dingboche and settled in for a two-night stay. Just as we dropped our bags, the clouds fell away revealing gorgeous Ama Dablam above us.
We sat on the deck of “Hotel Family” in plastic chairs and our parkas enjoying the warm high-altitude sun. We were lounging higher than any peak in the continental US and feeling good despite the altitude.
We also had great views of Lhotse as well as Island Peak, a popular “trekking peak” over 6000m.
Along with Mera Peak, it is a good choice for less experienced mountaineers. More advanced climbers use Ama Dablam as a practice climb before attempting one of the 8000m peaks like Everest.
The clear skies lasted all afternoon, and we had to come inside to avoid the potential for sunburn at this high elevation.
Day 6: Acclimation day in Dingboche
Overnight it rained pretty hard and we were treated to loud claps of thunder. At first I thought the first rumbles were an avalanche on Ama Dablam but they were too loud and frequent.
As is our habit, we got up early and enjoyed Ama Dablam in a clear morning light before breakfast.
We spent the afternoon lounging on the deck, playing cards, and killing time before our tough climb to very high elevation the next day.
Before dinner, we walked around town and found ourselves admiring the huge stone walls and lodges in the village.
Passing a construction site for a new lodge, we noted workers chiseling stone into blocks. This is what serves as brick up here: it’s more economical to have a team laboriously chisel local stone than to haul brick from down low!
We had hoped to get WiFi here but clearly the off season impacts the economics for those entrepreneurs offering the service: the next possible spot might be three more days at Gorak Shep!
I got tired of rice and ordered a pizza for lunch. It was a bit dodgy (pretty sure the sauce is ketchup based) but given the circumstances it was worth it for the taste of cheese.
Day 7: Dingboche to Lobuche (4900m)
We woke up ready to move on from Dingboche and feeling more accustomed to the altitude. The first segment of trail repeated the ridge climb we did yesterday, but with packs. The views were great again today! We are so lucky with the weather.
The next segment crossed a high desert “moonscape,” traversing to the Lobuche side of the divide without losing much altitude. It is one of the more unique landscapes on the trek.
From there, the clouds rolled in again changing the light and bringing a chill to the air.
Here, above 15,000 feet, the views have opened up for good into infinite backdrops of ice, stone, and sky. Looking up, the sky of rarefied air is the dark blue that pilots enjoy. This is the Himalaya I’ve been dreaming of.
Soon we crossed the Dudh Kosi for the final time on the ascent at Thukla. The dodgy rock pile serving as a bridge claimed a casualty as my companion tripped on a wire.
Nothing except a bruise though fortunately, so we continued up trough Thukla Pass after a quick tea break.
Thukla Pass is only just over 100m, but it is steep and this is where the thin air really starts to show. Breathing hard, we crossed over the top in clouds and were greeted by memorials to fallen Everest climbers: definitely one of the more somber parts of the trek.
The last stretch to Lobuche is a slight uphill straight shot through the toe of the Khumbu Glacier.
When we arrived at our 16,000′ guest house, the altitude felt very evident. I felt like I had a heart rate band strapped too tightly across my chest. My fingernails were a sickly blue color. But neither of us had any of the classic symptoms of altitude sickness.
It gets cold at night up here, even in the summer. We gathered around the stove at night with the same half dozen other trekkers we have gotten to know along the way. At 23, we are the youngest by far!
The EBC/Kala Pattar trek reaches 5600m, just short of Kilimanjaro’s summit. This is the border between “very high” and “extreme” altitude and is quite likely higher than most people have ever been.
All trekkers experience decreased aerobic capacity to some degree at altitude which presents itself as breathing hard, faster heartbeat on uphill sections, and some low level fatigue. Fitness helps a lot with this. Both of us had run at least a marathon within the last year and had good baseline endurance.
Many people also develop acute mountain sickness (AMS) or “altitude sickness”. This almost always consists of a headache with one or more other symptoms such as fatigue, nausea, or confusion. Usually, AMS patients can wait or descend slightly until symptoms improve, but it can be a trek-ending problem. Severe AMS warrants a helicopter evacuation.
In the worst cases, AMS can develop with or without warning into pulmonary edema (HAPE) or cerebral edema (HACE). Both can and do kill trekkers; one of our friends developed a case of HAPE and had to be airlifted to a hospital. Fortunately, he was OK after a short recovery.
We managed the risk in three ways. First, we planned a slow ascent with two “traditional” rest stops to allow the body to adjust to the altitude. We ascended much more slowly than our level of fitness allowed, but this discipline was critical to our health up high. Second, we drank lots of water, between 4-5 liters per day. This helps the body eliminate chemicals from the blood and facilitates the acclimatization process. Last, as a backup, we carried prescriptiondiamox tablets which act as an aid to accelerate acclimatization. Luckily, we did not need to take them, although other travelers reported feeling a big improvement when they tried them.
Ultimately it is up to chance. Our buddy with HAPE didn’t do anything against the “rules” – he is a fit, experienced hiker who got really unlucky. That is why we felt really good about having travel insurance with helicopter evacuation covered… even in the fine print which sometimes excludes high altitude activities or even Nepal entirely! This is also a case where having a guide could save your life. They know how to call for helicopter evacuations and have some training in managing AMS.
The trip continues here