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Trip: Trekking Nepal on our own

Nepal 2012 - Trekking On Our Own

November 17 - December 2, 2012
Kaitrin Davis & Grigory Petrov

In November, we trekked in the Khumbu region of Nepal, ultimately reaching the Everest Base Camp. Our first challenge was asking for additional time off from work. Never underestimate the time it takes to travel half way around the world. There are no direct flights to Nepal except from a handful of cities in Asia and getting to Everest trailhead also requires a local flight from Kathmandu to Lukla.

We trekked over a loop through two mountain valleys and four high points: Gokyo Ri (5,360 m - 17,586 ft), Chola Pass (5,420 m - 17,782 ft), Everest Base Camp (5,340 m - 17,520 ft), and Kala Patthar (5,545 m - 18,192 ft). There are three main treks in Khumbu region: Everest Base Camp (aka EBC) In /Out (quickest and preferred route by packaged tours), Gokyo Valley, and Three Passes. It is possible to combine sections of these treks into excellent custom itineraries. Our loop took 16 days starting from Lukla. We fell behind schedule initially due to GI illnesses, but recovered one day on the way down.

We relied on “Lonely Planet: Trekking in Nepal Himalaya” guidebook for the information necessary for trip planning and detail about villages and trail features along the trek.

We had many spectacular experiences including hanging bridges and wooded trails along streams between Lukla and Namche Bazaar, alpine yak pastures, steep gorges, views of several snowcapped mountain ranges and standalone high peaks, glaciers, Buddhist monasteries, shrines to mountaineers, and, of course, glimpses of the magnificent Mt. Everest.

The intensity of scenic experiences was only outmatched by challenges of trekking at high altitudes, below freezing nights, dusty trails, unhygienic water and food, and exhausting climbs into thin air. Our nights were spent at trekking lodges of varying quality that offer meals and basic accommodations in unheated rooms.

Prior to the trip we both had had experience hiking to elevations over 10,000 feet. Our plan to overcome the effects of high altitude was a slow and gradual ascent during acclimatization days, preventative medication, and minimizing our loads – these strategies worked well, allowing our journey to succeed without complications.

Even travelling independently we never felt alone on the trail. Each night in lodges we shared meals with other trekkers – a lot of them were in small groups or even alone (those hardy Russian or Canadian backpackers!). Many people take the same routes, so quite frequently we would see the same trekkers on the trail and in the evenings. About half of our journey we walked together with a couple of hiking instructors from Russia, who were scouting their first destination in Nepal.

Catering to trekkers and supplying Everest expeditions are the main activities for the local population in Khumbu region, so there is relatively little of cultural experiences in comparison to treks in other parts of Nepal. There is a finely restored Buddhist monastery in Tengboche that allows trekkers to visit, a Sherpa village with a “yeti skull” at a local shrine and a school founded by Edmund Hillary, and a mountain hospital in Machermo staffed by Kiwi doctors who entertain travelers with an informative daily lecture on high altitude illnesses and prevention.

We had several memorable encounters with wildlife. The main “beasts of burden” for locals are high altitude yaks (in fact, many are cross-bread to survive at lower elevations because true yaks live only above 3,000 meters). The yak trains share the same trail and the hanging bridges (watch out not to be on the bridge at the same time with yaks!). We also saw a whole family of mountain goats on an early section of the trail where mountain slopes are still covered with a brush. Kaitrin especially liked “snow birds” - medium-sized round birds running around barren landscapes.

Here are some of the visual highlights of the trek:
(all photos copyright © by Kaitrin Davis & Grigory Petrov)




Hanging bridge across a mountain stream
on the trail from Lukla
November, 2012



First view of Everest on the trail rising
from the village of Namche Bazaar
November, 2012



View of Ama Dablam and the village of Tengboche
(on top of the ridge in foreground)
November, 2012



Three in one:
a Buddhist stupa along the trail,
Everest, and Ama Dablam
November, 2012



High altitude yak
November, 2012



Peaks of Cho-Oyu provide a fine
backdrop for Gokyo valley
November, 2012



One of the emerald lakes in Gokyo valley
November, 2012



A trekking lodge in Gokyo
November, 2012



Mt Everest framed by prayer flags
on top of Gokyo Ri
November, 2012



Vertical and unrelenting climb
up to Cho La pass
November, 2012



Walking on the glacier over Cho La Pass
November, 2012



Russian and American travel companions
arrive at Everest Base Camp
November, 2012



Classic view of Everest and Nuptse peaks
from the summit of Kala Patthar
November, 2012



Golden sunset on Everest
seen from Kala Pathar
November, 2012



Full moon rising over Everest
and surrounding mountains
November, 2012



A shrine to perished mountaineers:
one of the hundreds along
the main trail to Everest
November, 2012



Buddhist monastery in Tengboche
November, 2012



Our last Everest sunset looking over Lhotse wall
from a ridge above Tengboche
November, 2012



A mountain goat
November, 2012



Buddhist mane on the return
approach to Namche Bazaar
November, 2012



If You Go: Advice and Lessons for Trekking Yourself

Here are some of our lessons learned for those contemplating their own trip to Everest or trekking Nepal:

A Group vs. On Your Own

The biggest risk is joining a group with pre-defined itinerary over which participants have no control. A much safer alternative is to go in a group of your own. Two people are “group” enough! The flexibility of changing plans may provide the necessary buffer for an illness or allow exploring new opportunities and side trips that come up along the way.

Time of Year

November-early December is a good season to trek to Everest. There is higher probability of clear skies, which provide consistent mountain views along the trek, and, most importantly, reliability of flights to Lukla. There is also less competition for lodges and transportation.

The disadvantages are that it is several degrees colder than in other popular trekking seasons ( and it is already cold enough at 5,000 m!) and you have to deal with dust on the trails (as an unintended consequence of clear and dry weather).

What to See

Sightseeing opportunities not to miss: Sunset on Kala Pathar and sunset on the ridge above Tengboche.

Hiring a Guide/Sherpa

Hiring guides from Kathmandu unnecessarily exposes you to additional costs and risks. You would have to pay a roundtrip flight for the guide (albeit at a lower local rate). The guides from outside of Khumbu region are also susceptible to altitude illness (we actually saw a trekking party having to turn back due to a sick guide).

A better alternative is to hire a Sherpa or a small Sherpa team in Lukla. Sherpas are better acclimatized by virtue of being local and are very familiar with the area and tourist services. All popular treks to Everest do not require any route-finding. Available Sherpas meet flights at Lukla airport or can be arranged through any lodge or store in Lukla. As of Dec 2012, a fair cost of a Sherpa hired in Lukla is about $11-12 per day plus 20% tip (or more at the end, if the Sherpa proves to be a good sport). The cost includes Sherpa’s lodging and food, which he arranges with lodge owners himself.

We paid our Sherpa half of the agreed amount upfront and the rest at the end.

Costs

Even though the charge for a bed in an unheated room remains low at about $3 at night, the costs of trekking are high and go up with the altitude because trekkers have to pay for everything from food to toilet paper to showers and for hot drinking water.

A good way to balance costs and travel convenience is to bring your own tea bags, snacks for lunch, and a jar or two of condiment spreads (nutella, peanut butter, or marmalade) to minimize lodge charges. Even being cost-conscious you are still looking at paying $20-$30 per person per day for lodging and meals.

If you drink your tea “by the cup”, eat lunches along the trek, have many batteries to charge, or consume any alcohol and soft drinks, then you can easily run up a tab of $60+/day.

Equipment to Bring

Although this is not an exhaustive list of gear you need, here are some thoughts about the items you should not leave home without:
  • Thermos (fill it with boiled water from the lodge)
  • Iodine or water purification tablets (purify anything and everything - remember, if you won’t consider drinking the water, don’t brush teeth with it either!)
  • A couple of dust masks (cloth style masks work the best and can be bought cheaply in Kathmandu)
  • Hygienic wipes (for two thirds of the trip taking showers is neither practical nor possible)
  • Antibiotic and altitude medications (they will be very expensive to acquire while on the trek, but are readily and cheaply available in Kathmandu)
  • Many changes of socks and underwear (like showers, laundry opportunities will be very limited)
  • Biodegradable camp soap (for when you can actually wash something)
  • Hand/body warmers (will make a big difference when you try to stay warm at night)
  • Unlocked GSM cell phone that works on Asian frequencies (calls to the US through NCELL are extremely cheap and there is reception on 75% of the trek.)
Double check that your travel insurance has coverage for emergency medical evacuation. During our trip we observed helicopter rescues every other day primarily for people succumbing to altitude sickness.


For more information about Treking in Nepal
If you are interested in Treking Nepal, take a look at Ellen Ruggle's Trekking to Everest Base Camp which also includes a FAQ.


All images Copyright © by the photographer

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