Trekking to Everest Base Camp: Expectation vs Reality

When our Australian Facebook community member, Audrey Lee, posted that she'd just returned from a 9 month trip including Everest Base Camp, we immediately wanted to know more. We all know, from social media, how stunning the landscape is...but what about everything else that surrounds the experience, such as training, packing, handling altitude, hygiene, food and accommodation? Is it really a "once in a lifetime experience"?

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Nepal is the gateway to a multitude of adventures. Of the endless trove of breathtaking landscapes this amazing country has to offer, the trek to Everest Base Camp is the ultimate bucket-list experience for any outdoor lover. But before you jump on the EBC bandwagon, I’m here to set the record straight. Behind the Instagram filters and over-staged captions, I’m pulling back the veil to reveal some of my expectations pre-trip versus the realities of it all. Hashtag No Filter.

TRAINING & PREP

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Expectation: In preparation for the trek in April 2018, “proper” training began 10 months prior. Knowing beforehand that the entire course of the EBC trek spanned over 13 days, my strategy was to improve my overall stamina to cope with 6-8 hours of trekking each day. I was no stranger to long-distance day-hike trails (7-8 hours), but was generally new to multi-day missions. My regime included basic cardio training like jogging and climbing stairs, back-to-back day hikes, and the occasional exposure to subzero climates to increase my tolerance to the cold.

Reality: Cardio training paid off as the trek did require a huge amount of stamina. However, nothing could have prepared me for the high altitude and insufferable temperatures. It is important to go slow and pace yourself as your body is working twice as hard at higher altitude where there is less oxygen and the air is thinner. Remember it is not a race! Additional training in climbing stairs would have been beneficial as my knees were weaker than I had expected.

TYPE OF BAG TO BRING

Expectation: I had read many blog posts and watched countless YouTube videos on what and how to pack before my trip. It was commonly advised to travel light – no more than 12kg. Along with my partner, our Everest Base Camp expedition was organised by Himalayan Social Journey, which includes porter service and a dzopa (yak-cattle cross) for every two people in a group of 10. With this in mind, I used an old 90L duffle bag to fit all of my stuff, while my partner purchased a 55L backpack.

Reality: Do your research! YouTube videos and reading about people’s past experiences do help in getting you prepared. If your trip was organised by an agency, best to get clarification on your tour package arrangement, baggage restrictions and if they are hiring a porter for you. In my case, I wasn’t aware that we had the option to leave our stuff in the hotel in Kathmandu and take only what was necessary for the trek with us. Our agency had also provided us with their duffle bag which was specially designed to be strapped onto a dzopa, making our own bags redundant.

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PACKING LIST

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Expectation: We had followed a pretty standard packing list of apparel and gear gathered from our research, but when it came down to the munchies, it was debatable. My partner and I are huge coffee addicts and are generally quite picky on certain products. We were under the impression that Nepal had limited variety, so we stocked up… heaps.

Reality: Nepal is far from short of supplies! As soon as you arrive in Kathmandu to Namche Bazaar at an elevation of 3,440m, you are spoilt for choice. Confectionaries, clothes, toiletries and even counterfeit hiking goods, you name it! We bought a pair of Black Diamond trekking poles for AU$20 (original price $100 - $150) which literally supported us through our EBC endeavour and beyond. On the other hand, we went a little overboard with our instant coffees, energy bars and chocolates that we brought all the way from Australia. From one caffeine addict to another, trust me when I say you won’t be feeling the urge to drink coffee in high altitudes. In fact, coffee is not encouraged as it has an effect on dehydration.

TERRAIN & ALTITUDE

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Expectation: I have trekked in extremely steep terrains and over big hills before, including New Zealand’s Tongariro Alpine Crossing in subzero conditions. I thought I was ready and equipped for Everest Base Camp. After all, it’s just a really long walk. Isn’t it?

Reality: The terrain is mostly “flat” – by Nepali standards. "A little bit up, a little bit down" was what our guide used to say during our evening briefings. While it was to be expected to encounter steep slopes and uneven ground, the biggest challenge was combating altitude sickness and freezing temperatures at the same time. Starting from 2,860m in Lukla, the higher you ascend, the tougher it gets. Eventually, we were hit with the cold, which made breathing that much harder.

Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) can have a different effect on people, regardless of age and fitness level. Fortunately for me, I dodged the bullet but my partner wasn’t so lucky. He suffered migraine for days, which kept him awake on most nights, loss of appetite, extreme fatigue and even vomiting.
Tip: See a doctor for a prescription of Diamox tablets to prevent and reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness.

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WEATHER

Expectation and Reality: My expectations of the Himalayan weather were spot on. We went in April, which was during the dry season and one of the pre-monsoon months. However, the weather conditions in the Himalayas often proved to be highly unpredictable and as extreme as its landscape. A storm could very well be hidden behind the next mountain, or it could be sunny one minute and snowing the next. Always be prepared for wet weather.
Below are photos of Dingboche in a span of one day; bluebird sky then covered in snow the next day.
Tip: Keep your waterproof gear (preferably Gore-Tex) in your day pack at all times.

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HYGIENE

Reality: I’m going to jump straight into reality here as I didn’t know what to expect in this respect. I had previously read in blogs that it is important to have ample toilet paper, wet wipes and hand sanitiser as they will ultimately be your saving grace in any… uhh… delicate situation.

Here were some valuable lessons I learnt:

Hot showers are a privilege. Of the 13 days, we only took two showers. Firstly, it was way too cold to take a shower. Secondly, water is scarce the higher you go, so hot showers are costly (past Namche Bazaar). Thirdly, water sometimes freezes at higher altitudes.

It is extremely important to maintain personal hygiene. Unfortunately, I had to learn it the hard way when I experienced an unfortunate case of food poisoning on the way up to Namche Bazaar. Let’s just say the rain, 5°C weather, 850m elevation climb, and the fact there was no toilet in sight for the next two hours of the trek, did not help my situation at all.

Do not underestimate the value of toilet paper. They were not provided in any of the teahouses we stayed in. Basic supplies are available in the mountains but they come at a ridiculous price. Again, the higher you ascend, the more ridiculous the prices are - a roll of toilet paper ranges between AU$2-6.

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FOOD & WATER

Expectation: Unless it’s bottled water, we knew that water is undrinkable from the tap. Instead of using water purification tablets, which are a one-time use and require waiting time to purify the water before drinking, we had instead opted for a Sawyer MINI Water Filter. For the same price we would pay for water purification tablets, the Sawyer can filter up to 100,000 gallons of water and we simply stuck it straight to our water bladder.

As for food, I honestly didn’t think too much of it. As an Asian, I thought I would be accustomed to Nepali food especially when their diet consists of momos (dumplings), rice and noodles.

Reality: No problem with our water solution there. If anything, the Sawyer filter was probably our best purchase yet. Water purification tablets were also available for sale at most teahouses and main towns should things go wrong with our filter.

Standard breakfasts were included in our EBC package (porridge, toast with jam and hot tea), but we had to shoulder the costs for lunches and dinners. The menus in all the teahouses and restaurants are almost identical. There’s a good variety however, such as chow mien (fried noodles), fried rice, Rara noodles (instant noodles), spring rolls and baked potatoes. They also have a good selection of meat dishes, but our guide (and I) strongly advised us to steer clear of meat throughout the trek. You should probably know that all meat and poultry are supplied from Kathmandu and flown into Lukla, which are then carried by a porter to its final destination. There’s no refrigeration in the process and it could sometimes take days.

For this reason, I became a vegan for the entire course of the trek. Being a vegetarian didn’t quite cut it for me – I once had baked potato and cheese and I swear the dairy attributed to my food poisoning. On the flip side, the Honey-Lemon-Ginger tea is an absolute must on the trek! I had at least 4-5 cups of it a day, and it seriously packs a punch of warmth and comfort after a hard day’s hike.

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ACCOMMODATION

Expectation: A friend of mine who had previously completed the trek advised me that the coldest nights could sometimes reach below -20°C. I made no absolute sense of that information and struggled to grasp that concept. The coldest I’ve ever experienced was probably -5°C in Iceland, and even so I was mostly indoors with incredible heating. To anticipate this unfamiliar atmosphere, I purchased a -2°C comfort-sleeping bag and a -15°C liner.

Reality: -20°C was damn right accurate! Now I truly understand the concept of the “bitter cold”. Be prepared to strip down all forms of basic comforts. Most accommodations are private rooms in teahouses, equipped with just a bed (double or two singles) and in lower altitudes, power points and a private bathroom. Similarly, the higher you are, the worse the conditions of the rooms. The constant flow of trekkers going through these teahouses meant that the bed sheets were not changed regularly. The rooms are also not heated, and you’ll need at least a -10°C sleeping bag to keep you sufficiently warm at night. Our tour agency provided sleeping bags, but we preferred to use our own for hygiene purposes, and they were good enough.

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A ONCE IN A LIFETIME EXPERIENCE?

Trekking to Everest Base Camp was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. But it was also the most rewarding. The views along the way were absolutely breathtaking, which made every step worthwhile. As with every epic journey, incredible friendships were forged and we became one in spirit.

13 days, 235,000 steps and 136 km later, our human-powered Everest Base Camp adventure was achieved. Together, we fell prey to the harsh conditions of the Himalayas. We suffered burning muscles and sore backs. We endured the bitter cold. We cried. We laughed. Up until the end, we cheered each other on as we hauled our body weight to that final pitch. More importantly, it is an enduring symbol of the human spirit, constantly testing our limits and pushing us to boundaries we never thought to venture out before.

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Follow Audrey on Instagram at @ourwildchapter