This article is part of a collaboration between Berkeley Square Barbarian and the tour operator Spiritual Excursion. A couple of months ago, Ellie & I were preparing for our Nepal trip in April. There were seven things that freaked us out about EBC Trek:
(1) IS IT GOING TO BE TOUGH COPING WITH THE HIGH ALTITUDE?
Everest Base Camp lies at 5,364m above sea level. Kala Patthar, a nearby peak with great views of Everest, is 5,644m. Climbing it is usually included as ‘optional’ in every Trek package. But only one in ten trekkers completes the climb. Most don’t try or make a U-turn half way up. Either way, the trek goes pretty high up. The altitude can affect people.
Were we going to see fellow mountain lovers being helicoptered out in emergency evacuations? Trekkers falling seriously ill? Was it going to be hard to sleep because of all the moaning and groaning going on in the adjacent rooms? Or worse: were we going to moan and groan ourselves? The latter was very much one of the things that freaked us out about EBC Trek.
It all turned out to be much less dramatic. None of the above happened. After a night in Gorakshep, 200m below and 3.5km walking distance away from EBC, we decided to take a helicopter back to Lukla. This was because my shortness of breath had increased and was now paired with slight dizziness. My level of discomfort was rather minor, though.
Had it not been for a combination of factors out of my (and Spiritual Excursion’s) hands on the particular day in question, I could have descended a few hundred metres to a lower altitude for the night. The following day I could have ploughed onwards and upwards again towards Base Camp, like other hikers do all the time.
Stock photography all (c) Pexels, rest, incl. feature pic & desert pic (c) BSqB.
We will definitely venture north of 5,000 again soon. The next time in three months, when we’ll aim to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro. K2 Base Camp Trek had initially been planned for this July, but is now likely to be delayed by one year. In the long run, I would love to crack the 6,000 mark, perhaps 6,500, but we’ll see…
NO MEDICAL ADVICE – HIGH ALTITUDE SICKNESS
High altitude sickness is a strange thing. The consensus appears to be, that it can hit anyone at any time. Most experts seem to think that there is no preparing for it BEFORE you reach high altitude. Not unless you’ve literally stayed around or above 2,500m continuously or with gaps no bigger than a few days, that is. It hits physically fit people as often and as hard as physically unfit people. (Even though physically fit people might possibly sometimes find it slightly easier to cope with some of the symptoms.) From what I’ve read, there is no genetic or medical predisposition amongst trekkers. Neither one way nor the other. Unless you are part of an indigenous mountain people like the Sherpas.
There are professional mountaineers, who summited several eight-thousanders without any issues. Then they take the family up to 3,000m on a gondola trip. Suddenly they fall ill. Acute mountain sickness (another name for it) is very serious. However, there are many ways in which to minimize the likelihood and impact of it ONCE YOU’VE REACHED higher elevations.
I am no expert on this topic. But it sounds like everyone says that you should take your time. Don’t sprint up the hills. Take breaks. Don’t do a 12-day trek in 10 days. Do acclimatization hikes on your rest days. Drink lots of water. Don’t drink any alcohol. No smoking. Don’t stop eating food when you lose your appetite at these elevations.
Perhaps a bit awkward, coming from someone who didn’t walk the last 3.5km, but nonetheless true, in my opinion: If you get serious symptoms, don’t push on. Stay at your altitude. Or get to a lower altitude quickly, if symptoms continue. Listen to the professionals, such as your qualified mountain guide or a medically trained person.
(2) ARE WE GOING TO FREEZE STIFF INSIDE THE TEAHOUSE BEDROOMS?
Among the things that freaked us out about EBC Trek almost as much as the high altitude were the sometimes rather low temperatures. Several of our friends, who had done EBC, told us that they had witnessed temperatures as low as minus 15C or even 20C inside the teahouse bedrooms. Only the main room is heated in those teahouses. And even the main room often only from 5pm to 9pm or so. And just by a small wood-fired oven in the centre of the room.
On the plus side, our sheer terror about the cold meant that we came extremely well-prepared. Spiritual Excursion provided us with high-quality, thick down jackets and sleeping bags. We brought additional liner sleeping bags, two mid-layer down jackets each, Goretex jackets, plenty of fleece layers, thermal base-layers, etc.
Going in April meant that the temperatures were much warmer than in February or November (which is when our friends had visited). Even for April the weather was warmer than usual. Up to 12C above 5,000m. That’s like an English summer. At lower altitudes the temperatures were often higher than that. Sometimes we were wearing T-shirts during the day. At night the temperatures fell to around 5C to -5C or so.
Spiritual Excursion always booked us into rooms that were part of the main building complex and that were relatively well-built (no plywood walls or corrugated iron roofs). Our friends had not always been so lucky.
The temperature in our room was almost always above zero. Our guess is that it went down to around zero for a couple of hours on two occasions. The big down jacket on top of a base-layer and a fleece mid-layer were usually enough to keep us toasty. Twice we each used one of our two mid-layer down jackets. Usually we wore thin fleece gloves to bed. On the coldest nights we wore our mittens.
We never came close to getting cold. I often didn’t even zip up my sleeping bag. A few times Ellie complained that she was getting too hot, but she couldn’t be bothered to take layers off and just dozed off again. That’s my girl.
(3) WILL WE GET ILL FROM THE FOOD? ANOTHER ONE OF THE THINGS THAT FREAKED US OUT ABOUT EBC TREK
From our very short trip to Nepal two years ago we knew that the cuisine is magnificent. Locals employed in the hospitality industry take pride in their job and generally deliver to a good standard. So why was food hygiene one of the things that freaked us out about EBC Trek? Along the hiking route, there are enormous challenges with transportation and refrigeration. Most goods reach the teahouses by yak, where there is no cooling for several days. Due to frequent and extensive power shortages, even perishable goods that reach the teahouses in prime shape, might go off there and then.
Nearly everyone we had spoken with, had warned us to be careful with the food. About two thirds of our EBC veteran friends had experienced vomiting and diarrhoea. Some had done so for several days and more than once, despite corrective medication. The most positive outlook offered to us was: “Stick to vegetarian Dal Bhat, maybe noodle soup, focus on the nutrients, not the taste, keep your fingers crossed, and you’ll be fine.”
We played it safe. We filled our plastic trekking water bottles with boiling hot water at each teahouse. Whenever the water didn’t come boiling hot or we had other doubts like about hygiene, we added chlorine tablets to the water. We avoided meat as soon as we had left Lukla (where I had enjoyed a yak burger, it was lovely!).
With every meal, we had at least one cup of ginger lemon honey tea. On most days we shared at least one garlic soup.
We also felt lucky, that Spiritual Excursion had booked us into nice teahouses. At times the food was phenomenal. At the ‘Green Tara Resort’ in Namche Bazaar, the dishes we had ordered for our first dinner (dumplings that were different from momos, and savoury pancakes) were so delicious that we ordered them again for lunch and dinner the next day.
Each time we faced the agony of double-guessing our decision as soon as we looked at the marvellous meals our fellow hikers were gobbling down. These included pizza margherita, tomato cheese lasagne, baked potatoes, and French onion soup.
While most people lose some weight during the trek, Ellie and I didn’t. We are good eaters. And even though the food was quite basic, it was nearly always tasty. On average, there were four to ten vegetarian dishes to choose from. Not once did we get ill from the food. Not even a funny feeling in the stomach or something.
We regularly had the distinct impression, that it was useful that our guide knew the owners and the staff at the teahouses. He always made an effort to be friendly with them.
(4) WILL AN UNBALANCED DIET LEAD TO PROBLEMS?
From all the horror stories we had heard about the food, we had expected to be living off thin noodle soup and bits of vegetables and rice for the very most part on the good days. On the rest of the days we were expecting not to be able to hold our food in.
We knew we were going to avoid raw vegetables and salads. Similarly, the breakfast wasn’t going to come with a selection of freshly squeezed fruit juices to choose from. While we have successfully reduced our meat intake over the past couple of years, we still eat a fair bit of meat. On the Trek we were going to go full-veggie, as mentioned.
There are some restrictions on taking food supplements into Nepal, so we didn’t bring any. Once we had landed, we went straight to a pharmacy. There we splashed out some £40 on a 12-day supply of one of the well-known upmarket brands of supplement pills. The pills contained military-grade amounts of everything from all types of vitamins to things like magnesium, calcium, potassium, zinc, ginseng, and turmeric. Ellie popped the recommended dosage, I took a double dosage each day. For emergencies we had plenty of sachets with electrolyte rehydration solution powder, but never used any.
Finally, we made the effort of reading up on which plants are high in protein and had plenty of those, like lentils, beans, and peanuts. Neither of us felt like our bodies were missing anything. We certainly didn’t have any symptoms of malnutrition like muscle cramps.
(5) ARE WE GOING TO RUN OUT OF JUICE?
Even in much more moderate climates, our rechargeable batteries had occasionally given up on us and gone flat way before their time. We had heard stories of batteries dying for good on EBC on one of the first few nights because of the cold. Trekkers being stranded without juice. No taking photos without electricity.
For me that would be on one level with going to the toilet in the middle of the night and seeing the Candyman in the mirror, smirking at me from behind. Terrifying stuff and 100% one of the main things that freaked us out about EBC Trek.
EBC Trek without any pictures? I’d probably start passing by yaks on the downhill side of the path, just to see what happens. It would be difficult to find electronic equipment once you’re past Namche.
Our extensive research before the trip made us more anxious, if anything. There is so much information out there, tips on what to do, guidance on what to avoid, often contradictory and nearly always incoherent. You read about solar cells people put up on their hats or backpacks. About special containers for the gear. About ultra-pricey expedition-style equipment. And so on. And on.
The one advice we found very useful was to always keep our electronic gadgets near our bodies. Thus, the body heat prevents them from getting too cold. For example, we never left them in our room when we went to the main room for dinner or breakfast. At night, we always put our gear inside our sleeping bags. They do say that our generation is too cosy with their gadgets, but hey.
We did not buy any new equipment for our trip. Instead we used our regular gear. This includes one very big rechargeable battery that is intended for laptops, and two smaller ones, two plugs with four USB ports each, and spare cords. We brought our camera, our GoPro and our usual mobile phones and headlamps.
Some teahouses might not have a working battery charging station. In other cases it might be very unreliable, intermittent service, or fully booked by other guests. This is why, whenever we had a chance, and even if the batteries were still more than half-full, we re-charged at least one regular battery and the big battery. For us, this approach worked just fine.
(6) NOT THE LEAST ONE OF THE THINGS THAT FREAKED US OUT ABOUT EBC TREK: IS THERE GOING TO BE INTERNET?
The situation changes constantly. However, at the time we went on our trip and for our specific needs, we found that getting a local Ncell SIM card for the equivalent of £12 for each phone worked well. That means worked well for Kathmandu and the stretch from Lukla to Namche Bazaar, as well as for the area near EBC.
For the bit from Namche Bazaar to Gorakshep we both purchased wireless broadband internet connectivity from Everest Link for £12 each. In Kathmandu, Ncell reception is perfect. Outside Kathmandu it is not great but mostly decent (where applicable). Everest Link is mostly quite reliable (again, where applicable).
(7) WILL EVEN YAKS JUMP TO THEIR DEATHS WHEN THEY SMELL US FROM MILES AWAY?
I perspire more than most men, sometimes during physical exercise it can get extreme. Ellie on the contrary hardly ever breaks sweat, not even when exercising. On the other hand, most men are unlikely to get a panic attack simply because they’ve got a little bit of body odour. Women, though, on average tend to feel more anxious about smells.
Long-distance multi-day treks are notoriously challenging when it comes to personal hygiene and BO. It is impossible to fit 12 changes of clothes into a duffel bag for a 12-day trek. On a trek like EBC you will not have a lot of opportunities to wash your clothes, possibly none at all.
So while Ellie and I came from completely different angles, this was one of the major things that freaked us out about EBC Trek. Were we going to be so smelly that even yaks would jump to their deaths when they would smell us from miles away? Were we going to feel too dirty to sleep? Maybe we, ourselves, would end up choosing to jump, simply to escape the olfactory misery?
You usually walk very slowly along the trek and take plenty of breaks (either because you cannot go faster in those high altitudes, or because you don’t want to push your body too hard). The temperatures are typically either cold or moderate, never hot.
Left shows me on cliff edge with no intention to jump. Right pic is stock photo, not from EBC Trek.
This means you are likely to transpire relatively little. We also aired our clothes a lot. Even when we had to queue for the water tap in the cold, we got ourselves a good wash or two a day. We had a shower in Namche Bazaar and one in Dingboche.
In the end, the situation turned out to be much more pleasant than expected. We were hardly ever noticing strong BO from anyone and no one seemed to avoid us either. The things that freaked us out about EBC Trek had all turned out to be very different.
Ellie & I went on EBC Trek with Spiritual Excursion and had a great time. I paid full price, but Ellie was invited. All of the above is from Ellie’s and my very own, personal experience. Your experience is bound to be different. Possibly extremely different. Do your own research and be aware of the significant risks involved in doing this beautiful Trek. Any questions? Leave a comment and we’ll get back to you.