A Guide to Trekking in Nepal to Everest Base Camp in February
This is an extension to The Laziest Person to Ever Trek to Everest Base Camp. This is more of a how-to guide on the whole process.
Let me begin with planning. When you're in the planning stages of googling for a Nepal trek, you’ll find countless organizations and individuals offering you a trek of a lifetime. These treks that you book in advanced will undoubtedly be overpriced and all-inclusive and although it won’t be explicitly written, probably it will be rushed. Trekking companies are so competitive that it’s annoying - especially more so since the 2015 Earthquake which caused an inevitable fall to the Nepalese tourist industry. After I messaged a few companies for price quotes (the prices are often hidden so one is inclined to contact), I was rather shocked at the prices to do such a trek. The bigger trekking companies go for around 1000 USD and up for 12 days (8 days up, 4 days down) and promise to include a guide, your permit, accommodation, food without drinks, it may or may not include flights, a porter to carry your bags, and some sort of insurance.
I'll give you an actual estimate that I received by e-mail - but note, this quote is for 18 days of the Annapurna Circuit:
Initial trekking cost ------------------------USD 1263
Jomsom – Pokhara air ticket cost ------USD 112
Total net cost per person is ----------------- USD 1375
Arrival / departure transport service, 5 nights hotel in Kathmandu with breakfast basic, trekking permit and trekking management system card fee, Jomsom to Pokhara flight ticket, 1 porter, guide myself, Kathmandu to Besi shahar by private car, 2 nights in Pokhara hotel with meal, one day full day sightseeing in Pokhara,one day half day sightseeing in kathmandu in Swayambhunath monkey temple, Bouddhanath and all Buddhist heritage site, all meal and accommodation during the trekking, insurance for guide and porter, Pokhara to Kathmandu by tourist bus and wages for guide and porters and guide’s air ticket for Jomsom to Pokhara and all land transport cost for guide and porters as per itinerary.
Cost doesn't include
Any kind of drinking water, hot shower, bar bill, cold drinks, personal expenses, dinner and lunch in Kathmandu, your travel insurance, rescue evacuation charge in case used during the trekking extra porter and tips for staffs.
These over-priced deals can definitely put someone off doing the hike (especially for backpackers) but let me assure you, it’s possible to do for much less.
You may wonder why I discredit the 1000 USD all-inclusive packages. Firstly, accommodation is already free on the trek. Most tea-houses (trekking lodges) are supposed to be free in exchange for you paying for at least two meals. These lodges are not available on booking.com or similar agencies. They’re family owned houses with the most basic rooms available - expect a shared bathroom that probably shouldn’t be considered a bathroom, no heating, and a mediocre to uncomfortable bed. Food is cheaper the closer you are to the airport but it never really exceeded 15 USD a day unless you order alcohol or a lot of tea. A guide in my group of five cost us 20 USD a day in off-season (so four bucks a day divided). The most expensive part of the trek is the flight(s) - 30 minutes with Tara Air or Yeti Air for around 350 USD return. Note, you can book your flight directly rather than pay an agency. Anyways, according to my math: food, accommodation, housing, a guide, a permit, and flights are around 620 USD for two weeks. A porter is an optional luxury, but in off-season, it cost 15 USD a day for us and can be split between two if your pack isn't too heavy. (Note: We also left 6,000 rupees as a tip for our guide at the end). Additionally, if you're fantastic at hiking, you have a lot of time, and want to do it even cheaper, you can take a bus from Kathmandu to Jiri and add extra days to/from Lukla. I heard it's a lot of up and down and up and down but that does save you 350 dollars. Apparently the villages between Jiri and Lukla have amazingly accommodating people so that's something to keep in mind.
OK, where to start your planning for base camp? If you’re a solo traveler and want to avoid being alone with your guide, I suggest looking into websites such as Couchsurfing, Trekking Partners, or Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum to find a travel partner or two (it's under the travel companion section). Another option is just to show up to a Kathmandu hostel and find some people looking to trek and gather a group - this option requires flexibility so if you are limited on time, try the former option. Prior to arriving in Nepal, I had been communicating with three others I met online on Lonely Planet's forum and they were interested in the trek but due to some unfortunate circumstances, only one ended up doing the trek with me. We planned to stay in the Happily Ever Hostel, and whilst sitting on the rooftop chatting with other backpackers, we managed to gather a group of 5 others interested in joining up for a trek. With our group, we bargained with the hostel owner (who, like everyone else in Nepal, seems to own a trekking company) and booked a trek. Note, you don’t need to have a guide but I do recommend it if you’re not used to trekking or just to help employ a local since the tourist industry is currently struggling. Also, if you do like I did, the hostel can hold your bags for you while you hike and lock up any valuables in a safe.
Next, let's talk gear. Now, as mentioned in the title, I went trekking in February which meant it was still winter. Expedition season, the supposed best season to hike, is in May. I was backpacking before Nepal and I didn't want to carry around a bunch of winter clothes so I decided to give myself a buffer day before the trek in order to get supplies. Thamel, Kathmandu's tourist district, is nothing but a long street of trekking stores. You have a few shops that are name brand (such as The North Face) and the others carry a wide variety of knock-off and locally-sewed supplies. Before starting your trek and prior to arriving in Nepal, you should have hiking shoes that you've already broken in. Everything else can be bought in Kathmandu.
Here's a list of supplies that I bought before my trek whilst in Kathmandu:
1 knock-off Nalgene water bottle. 1 x thermal pants. 1 x thermal shirt. 4 x pair of trekking socks. 1 x yak wool scarf which doubled as a blanket. (should be no more than 2-3 USD) 1 jar of peanut butter. 1 bottle of water purifers Diamox supply. 1 pair of yak wool socks which were absolutely amazing at night in front of the fire. 1 yak wool hat for the higher altitude. 1 pair of down knockoff gloves for the higher altitude. (I only used it on the last two days near base camp but it was necessary). 12 trail mix bars. 1 50 liter backpack. 2 cheap trekking poles. (paid less than 10 usd for both). 12 Reeces cups. (they're so worth it when you're burning so many calories).
Note: I already had some leggings, a sports bra, a long sleeve shirt that was fleece lined, my trekking shoes, and some socks in my pack.
Because it was winter, I needed to get a down jacket and a -25 C sleeping bag. Both items are expensive to buy for a 2 week endeavor, however; quite a few shops in Thamel will let you rent them. After some hardcore bargaining, we ended up paying 80 cents each per item per day. Note that you must leave a deposit if you're going to rent - our deposit was the equivalent of 80 USD which we all successfully had returned to us post-trek without a problem.If you're going without a guide, you can apply for a permit at the TIMS office in Thamel, Kathmandu. As of 2016, the price for a permit for the month is 10 USD. There are three offices between Lukla and Namche Bazaar that you will need to check in to during the trek. This permit that you pre-arrange in Kathmandu is for entering the region but you'll have to buy another permit somewhere around Phakding to enter the Sagarmatha National Park for around the equivalent of 34 USD. You can pre-buy a trail map at most corner stores in Kathmandu.
Also, we all picked up NCell sim cards in Thamel before heading on the trek. We got signal in very random places but even near base camp, we had some signal. When we slept in towns inside a valley, the signal tended to die out, but unsuspecting higher places did have signal. When you get a sim, you need passport photos and your passport - don't forget to bring them to the office.
Okay, let's talk about the actual hike.
We did an uncommon route based on advice from an experienced climber we met in Kathmandu. This route had little traffic, almost 0 tour groups, and was very scenic. Here's the route, each city I list is where we slept. Lukla (2800 meters)-> Phakding (2500 meters) -> Namche Bazaar (+1 acclimation day) (3440 meters)-> Khumjung (3790 meters)-> Phortse (3840 meters)-> Dingboche (+1 acclimation day) (4350 meters) -> Loboche (4930 meters) -> Gorak Shep (next day to Base Camp 2 hrs up and then back down) (5160 meters) -> Pheriche (4240 meters) -> via Tengboche to see the monastery then slept in Namche Bazaar (3440 meters)- > Lukla (2800 meters). Khumjung and Phortse were less visited towns for sure. Here is a decent map of the area to get an idea of what we did.
Now for the hike itself, because I flew, I started in Lukla. Pollution is bad in Kathmandu and weather is iffy in winter so prepare for a flight delay. We were delayed at least three hours. By the time we arrived in Lukla, we were ready for lunch and lost half our day. This meant that we could only go as far as Phakding (around 4 hours at our pace from Lukla). The second day we went to Namche and it was hands down my hardest day of the trek. The second proved to me how unfit and out of shape I was and it was mostly uphill for 4 or 5 hours. Don't be discouraged at this point - it isn't all straight up...
Anyways, Namche Baazar is your absolute last chance to get supplies. There are two atms (which worked for me), shops that sell slightly overpriced chocolate bars and snacks, trekking poles, backpacks, tea, and random souvenirs. After Namche, you won't see any shops other than teahouses selling expired CocaCola or an overpriced Snickers here and there. Also, if you find that you have too much with you between Lukla and Namche, you'll probably be able to leave some supplies behind in one of the teahouses. If you find that you regret not getting a porter by day three, you'll be able to ask a guide or someone in a teahouse to find you a porter. It's possible to hire the porter to/from Lukla and just take your own bag back down to Lukla.
Now, in theory, Namche is supposed to be an acclimation day. You should do a day hike above Namche and then come back down to town to sleep. It's a steep climb and you'll have to do the same climb when you move on, but it does help you with adjusting to the altitude. There are also quite a few restaurants and bars in town to enjoy your break day. Also, this is probably the cheapest place to charge your electronics. Remember to always keep your camera batteries, phone battery, whatever close to you at all times or the battery will completely drain. At night, put your batteries in your sleeping bag always. At lot of places past Namche charge you by the hour to charge your electronics and if you use a power bank, surely you know that they take a decent number of hours to fully charge.
Our day post-Namche acclimation day, we continued up the trail (it's at least 30 minutes of straight vertical fun) and visited Hotel Everest View which holds the record for the highest altitude hotel in the world (note that the others along the trail are teahouses and not actual hotels).
Here we enjoyed tea overlooking Everest - our first view of Everest! From then up, it was relatively long days but we were always rewarded with a warm yak poop fire at 5 PM in every teahouse. We slept early every night because the fire was done around 8 PM and it got too cold to stay outside our sleeping bags. Make sure you bring some sort of book and load it on a kindle or a phone so that you're not completely bored during down time. You're not trekking all day every day because of the altitude. Some days are long but some days are short. You will have a decent amount of down time. I suggest Into Thin Air - written by the man who wrote Into the Wild - Jon Krakauer. The 2015 Everest film was based on the book and you'll realize that they write about a ton of the towns you'll be going through.
By the way, apparently Phortse has a yeti skull and you need to ask the villagers to open up the monastery so you can see it. We waited over an hour for the monk with the key to come before giving up on our dream.
Our next down/acclimation day was Dingboche and it was definitely welcome. I also caved in and paid 5 USD for a 15 minute shower in my teahouse and it was amazing. Post-Dingboche, you're presented with the second hardest day, in my opinion. There is a giant hill that presents only uphill for at least an hour and it is brutal. Luckily, once up top, it's relatively flat all the way to Loboche. Loboche is where the helipads are too so if you need an evacuation, Loboche is your town.
Now, Gorak Shep is your last town before Everest Base Camp. After leaving Loboche quite early, we headed onto Gorak Shep because my group had another idea in mind. You can either go to sleep and stay warm in your sleeping bag (remember high altitude = cold as hell) and anxiously await your next day/last two hours of uphill climbing or you can do Kala Patthar - a whopping 5,644 meters of hell. Gorak Shep is 5160 meters so that's an extra 500 meters on top of what you've climbed from Lobuche which is 4930 meters so 714 meter climb if you fancy Kala Patthar. The appeal of Kala Patthar is that you can see a sunrise or sunset of Everest from the peak of it. My group went up to watch the sunset and showed me photos of an orange glaze over Everest and all raved about it (I stayed behind in my sleeping bag). You can look at google images of it but I did manage to get a photo of the same thing from Gorak Shep. If you look at the little orange blob below, it's Everest. :P
Post Gorak Shep, we did 2 hours to base camp. We walked on a terrifying glacier, froze from the wind, took some photos, and then headed back down. We went all the way back to Pheriche which we didn't arrive at until dusk. It was a loooong day on our feet. The next day we descended all the way down to Namche via Tengboche to see the monastery and then one more day down to Lukla.
My last useful advice is make sure you have good shoes because my shoes destroyed my feet. They were fine on the way up but on the way down I had a blister on every single part of my foot imaginable.
Any questions that I didn't answer? Ask in the comments and I'll answer to the best of my ability.