It wasn’t until a month or two before I was leaving for Nepal that my dad officially decided to join me in my quest to hike around the tallest mountains in the world. And here we are, in the thick of the Himalayas, completing the most challenging trek in the Everest region. For the next 20 days we’ll be living off of one of the most popular trails in the world, the trek to Everest Base Camp – with a twist.
The “Three Passes Trek” takes the long way to and around base camp, adding on three intimidating obstacles that will take us over 18,000 ft. Our Lonely Planet guidebook rates this trek’s difficulty as “hard” and warns us it is “only for the truly adventurous.” Given our climbing resume and years of gear-testing, mistake-making, and navigational-learning, we consider ourselves a tough enough father-daughter team to be up for the challenge.
Day 0: Kathmandu (4,593 ft.)
I arrive at the Yak and Yeti the morning before I’ll meet Dad and am hit in the face with the stark contrast between the hotel’s lavish courtyard, outdoor swimming pool, tailored garden, and the polluted, crowded streets of Kathmandu right outside its doors. The Yak and Yeti is a haven for newcomers and veterans alike. It’s the home-base to some of the world’s most successful mountaineers as one of Kathmandu’s most popular hotels. For Westerners freshly arrived in the other-worldly culture of Nepal, the Yak and Yeti feels a bit like home. For climbers and trekkers, it’s an energetic hotel whose sprawling backyard caters to the dumping and sorting of expedition goods, as well as hosting large groups.
Dad and I saw and met various people from teams around the world hoping to summit Everest this spring. Some of these groups would become familiar faces on the trail who we’d run into time and time again. Before taking off, we meet our two young and fit compadres Pasang (our official guide) and Ang Dawa (our porter) who will turn out to give us valuable advice and support throughout our next three weeks of sweat, dirt, and discomfort.
Day 1: Lukla (9,315 ft.) to Phakding (8,560 ft.)
We wake up from the Yak & Yeti to begin our first official day with an early breakfast and 7am ride to the Kathmandu airport. 5 hours of delays later, we are en route on a 35 minute journey to Lukla, as popular as it is infamous. Lukla is known as the “world’s most dangerous airport” for its many unfortunate accidents. The runway itself is only 500 meters long, ending sharply at the edge of a cliff. Landing doesn’t seem to be a problem, but we’re already crossing our fingers for a safe departure.
The other reason Lukla is so well-known is for its unparalleled popularity during trekking and climbing months. Flights only operate in the morning when wind levels are down, so in times of bad weather, people can be stuck either in the mountains or in the city for days awaiting a safe passage. We were flying on the first clear morning after a four or five day long storm, so delayed passengers took precedent and we patiently awaited our turn. Our guide tells us that a few years ago all flights were delayed for an entire month; there were thousands of people at either airport every day waiting morning after morning.
We hike downhill through an overcast afternoon to arrive at Phakding, a small and quiet village where our guide finds us a quaint and comfortable lodge. We’re offered gas-heated showers and wifi at a few dollars each, but pass on both.
Dad is getting used to his new La Sportiva trekking boots purchased in Kathmandu. One look at his veteran leather Columbia shoes and our guide told him they would not do on the high passes. He was more than happy to replace his tried-and-true hiking boots from home, but still complains about forgetting his gaiters and their expensive replacements.
Day 2: Phakding (8,560 ft.) to Namche Bazaar (11,302 ft.)
Today’s trail takes us up and down, gaining and losing elevation all the way to Namche Bazaar. Our guide instructs us at the beginning of the day that the route will be “Nepali flat,” my dad nods agreeably but I warn him of what I learned on the Annapurna Circuit – nothing in Nepal is truly flat, especially in the Himalayas. Dad would call these sections “substantial and steep.”
A huge, long suspension bridge overlooking a thousand feet of thin mountain air marks the beginning of our steep ascent to Namche. We move slowly on a dirt trail through a forest that strangely feels like home in the Northwest. This comparison is quickly nullified when through the trees, at a distance, we see our first view of Mt. Everest.
Namche Bazaar is an impressively large village spread out over a corner of the Khumbu Valley. We hear that the entire village was created from the economy generated by Everest climbers, and I believe it. Endless shops dotting the main route sell mountaineering books, high-altitude medications, cold weather gear, and any type of toiletry, snack, or delicacy you could imagine. This is one of, if not the only, village where you’ll find a half a dozen bars with Asian beers, American cocktails, Italian wines, and everything in between.
This is the last stop we’ll order non-vegetarian dishes from. It is illegal to kill animals in the Khumbu Valley, so all meat must be slaughtered in the city, flown up to Lukla, and carried up to town. We’re comfortable with the amenities and level of hygiene in Namche, but watching porters carry up 40, 60, and 80 kilo loads of meat (that’s 176 lbs) all the way to Everest Base Camp in the heat of the day makes our stomach turn and extinguishes our appetite.
We share our lodge with a team of Chileans attempting Everest from the North side. They’ll hike all the way to the Nepali base camp before heading back to Kathmandu, flying to Lhasa, and driving to the Tibetan base camp. Their team consists of ten older gentlemen who don hats and shirts naming themselves “Seniors on the Summit.”
Day 3: Acclimatization day in Namche Bazaar
Of this day, Larry would like to say: “In retrospect, it would have been helpful to have obtained clarification as to what ‘rest day’ actually entails. I had envisioned a day of my feet in an elevated position, eating fattening pastries, absorbing the sun with a good book in my hand.”
To his disappointment (and my own delight), today is not a “rest day” – it is an acclimatization day! The goal of the day is to hike high and sleep low, getting our muscles used to the work we’ll look forward to for the next few weeks.
Dad sleeps in while I set an alarm for 4:30 to gain 1,500 ft. for a sunrise view of Mt. Everest at the highest hotel in the world, rightly named Hotel Everest View. Pasang and I are the only hikers on the trail, and we enjoy tea on the balcony in the quiet of dawn. We’ll continue walking towards Everest, just out of reach, for the next few days. The trail is easygoing and I wear my town sneakers all day long.
After joining up with Dad for breakfast and a few hours of leisurely reading, writing, and checking in at home, we set off for a mid-morning hike to Khumjung (3780 meters). It’s warmer and windier than the first few hours of the morning, and we’ve already worked up quite the appetite by the time we climb the 2,000 ft. to reach our lunch destination. I eat the most delicious piece of apple pie I’ve ever encountered in my life, and then we feast on dal bhatt.
The afternoon is an easy stroll back into town, a refreshingly hot shower (our first one since Kathmandu), and a few fun shopping trips. There are lots of herders taking their yaks through town, loaded up with expedition supplies on their way to base camp, or packed with mountain goods ready to fly out from Lukla. We don’t pay them much mind until Pasang tell us that they’re incredibly aggressive animals and we need to be sure to step out of their way, preferably closer to the wall, given the alternative option of a cliffside. We agree on both counts, especially after considering their impressively sharp, curved horns.
Day 4: Namche Bazaar (11,302 ft.) to Debuche (12,565 ft.)
We set off at 7 and follow a trail that hugs the cliffside for a few hours in the hot morning sun. We’re walking towards Everest, waving at us from just a week’s walk away.
Dad is in great spirits until we start to descend about a thousand feet to the riverbed, where we follow the gushing Himalayan runoff waters that remind us all too much of our first shower in Namche. After a carbohydrate and sugar-filled lunch, we ascend close to 2,500 ft. to reach our hilltop destination of Tengboche. This town is home to the oldest monastery in Nepal, perched atop a sloping field of green with 6,000+ meter peaks surrounding us.
Unfortunately the hotel we’d planned to stay at is totally booked with an 80-person large movie crew filming a French movie called “Everest.” We walk 15 more minutes downhill through the forest to our new destination, Debuche at the Rivendell Lodge. To our delight we find an attached hot shower and electric-heated mattresses waiting for us. I spend 11 hours enjoying that heated bed tonight.
Day 5: Debuche (12,565 ft.) to Dingboche (14,245 ft.)
We have a short hike to our destination today and arrive before noon. Everybody seems wiped, so I spend a few hours of the early afternoon taking a short walk to the neighboring village of Pheriche. We were considering both towns for our second acclimatization stop, but (1) Pheriche is smaller with fewer lodge options, (2) the town experienced more earthquake damage that’s still in repair, and (3) Dingboche wards off the wind a little longer and the sun remains in the valley later than its neighbor.
On one of the many hills between the two, I experience my first 360-degree panorama of Himalayan peaks. Everywhere I look, I’m surrounded by these mountains seeming to topple over me, each demanding my attention for their breathtaking heights and seriously intimidating rock pitches.
Tonight I convince Dad to order dal bhatt again. I can’t get enough of this mountain-power meal: rice, curried vegetables, lentil soup, and of course, endless servings. I have two full plates of everything. We’re both getting used to the menus here, which are all variations of: rice and vegetables, potatoes and vegetables, noodles and vegetables. Breakfast foods are similar, with the opportunity to douse everything in honey. The one affect of high altitude that I have yet to experience is a lack of appetite.
Day 6: Acclimatization day in Dingboche
Today feels like our first official full rest day. We sleep in and eat breakfast, then walk up the same hill that separates us from Periche to a monastery and lookout point. There are 75 or 100 people walking up the hill, some to the top for a demanding 4,000+ ft. day hike, and some veering west to continue onto Lobuche. Nobody else is cutting the hill in half like we do to enjoy the monastery, so we enjoy the trail to ourselves.
Back in town we divert from our standardized “lodge food” (re: rice and vegetables, potatoes and vegetables, noodles and vegetables), and stop by a few bakeries before settling on one with pizza. We each get our own, enjoying the unique flavor of yak cheese and “prosciutto”: canned chunks of ham.
Walking around town it’s easy to forget that we’re sleeping near the altitude of the tallest point in the contiguous states. Only half a minute of talking while moving slowly uphill and we feel our chests tighten, our breaths shorten, and our paces quicken. The most either of us have experienced from the thin air have been mild headaches and light-headedness. We’re sure to check in on each other (just as our guide is) to make sure we’re pacing ourselves slow enough for success.
Our days are shortening as we gain and adjust to altitude – in just a few short days we’ll be crossing our first formidable obstacle of the trek, the Kongma-La Pass. We are all smiles so far, let’s see how long we can keep this up for!