Trekking the Himalayas: advice

If you haven’t seen my posts about our trek to Everest Base Camp, you can see them here:  parts one, two, three, four and five.  Believe me, those posts are more interesting than this one.

This post is for anyone who is thinking about doing the trip themselves.  Or hey, maybe you just want the background on what was involved in planning and completing our trek, to aid with the whole living vicariously thing.

Me on the trail

Me on the trail

What type of trek?

There are a few choices you have to make for a trip to Base Camp and back, the first of which is how independently you intend to travel.  You have three options.

First, you can do it all yourselves, carrying all your own gear and finding your own way along the trails.  This is surprisingly doable, and we saw quite a number of people experiencing the mountains this way – especially groups of young Israelis, who, we’re told, like the Himalayas because it’s an interesting trip to do after their mandatory military service, in a country that’s easy for them to get to (no visa issues) and doesn’t hurt the bank account much.  Doing it all yourself is the cheapest option, obviously, since you’re not paying for anyone to help you.  But equally obviously, your lack of local knowledge may mean that occasionally you might not be able to get the cheapest rooms, flights, etc. – or, cost aside, you might not get the best experience you could.  (Worth bearing in mind:  some of the teahouses find people without local guides to be too much hassle – especially if they’re trying to haggle on price, like many of the young Israeli groups were – so will pretend to be full and turn them away.)  So who knows how much you’ll save in the end, and whether the sacrifice will be worth it.

The I-did-it-my-way approach is obviously also the most adventurous option, and the most flexible:  if you decide you want to take extra time or change all your plans completely, you can.  Or, you know, if you take a wrong turn and end up in the wrong valley, and so end up changing your plans accidentally, that’s OK too.  That’s unlikely, though:  the trails are generally easy to follow, and so as long as you prepare adequately with a bit of research on the route(s) you might want to take, and have some reasonable maps, then in most places you shouldn’t have too much trouble.  There are a few places where you benefit from local knowledge – especially for trails which change frequently over time like the paths over the glaciers – but once you’re in an area where that’s the case, you may well be able to hire a guide for the day to help you over the ice to get to the Chola Pass, for example.  And people are generally friendly – if you ask another group’s guide, or the owners of the tea house, about some detail of the path you intend to take tomorrow, chances are you’ll get a tonne of enthusiastic advice.  Or hell, just discreetly follow someone else at a distance:  it’s not that isolated up there, you’ll see plenty of other people (well, if you don’t, you’re probably not going the right way).

A stupa and Nepalese prayer flags on the trail on day two, on the way to Namche Bazaar

The pictures in this post have nothing to do with the text, by the way. But they’re still pretty, no?

The second option:  you can get your own version of Jay Ram and Lal, and go with a guide and porter (who might be one single person) for just you (and your friends, if you have any).  This is what we did.  Although this isn’t the cheapskate option, it’s still surprisingly inexpensive:  Chris and I paid about $US1650 each for a trip for the two of us for a total of twenty-one days in Nepal.  That included paying for the services of both Jay Ram and Lal, plus all accommodation and food in the mountains (although not drinks beyond a couple of cups of tea per day – you’ll need to buy or treat your own water, and if you can’t survive without a healthy accompaniment of alcoholic beverages, then the tea houses will certainly be happy to oblige you, but you’ll clearly need to take care of the cost yourself).  It also included four nights in a hotel in Kathmandu, plus a couple of meals there, plus a couple of guided tours around some of the sights of Kathmandu.  Also, flights to and from Lukla, for us and our guide and porter.  So, y’know, quite a lot of stuff, for not very many of your moneybags.  Nepal is an exotic destination, but that doesn’t mean it’s pricey.

If you’re interested in this option, the company we went with was Absolute Himalaya Treks & Expedition, on the recommendation of a friend who’d been with them before.  I’d highly recommend them too – if I go back to Nepal, I’ll be in touch with them without even bothering to look up any alternatives.  Email Kumar if you want to get in contact with them.  He was very helpful with advice and recommendations for us – I’m sure he’d be happy to help you organise your trip too.  (The company does other treks in Nepal, too – so even if you’re not heading for Base Camp, they’re still a good option.)  On top of the $US1650 or so, we also added tips for Jay Ram (around $US100, I think) and Lal ($US60 or 70).  I honestly can’t remember exactly how much we gave each of them, but the rule of thumb Chris saw mentioned elsewhere on the interwebs is that most people tip them roughly one day’s pay per week.  If I remember rightly, we tipped more than that, because they were great.

Our total spend in Nepal was a little more again than the $1650 plus tips, I guess, since we also bought and hired various gear for the trek, and there were some meals and more than a few celebratory beverages (for reference, after extensive research, we have determined that Gorkha is far and away the best of the Nepalese beer selection) to go with our meals in Kathmandu.  Still, all up the three week total would have been at most around $US2000, even including the annoying entry fee you pay at immigration on the way into Kathmandu.

I have found a rock to stand on.  Everest Base Camp is in the background, but you can’t really see it here.  Oh well.

I have found a rock to stand on. Everest Base Camp is in the background, but you can’t really see it here. Oh well.

And finally, the third option:  you can go with a full package trek.  This is what most well-off Western tourists do, and to be honest, it looked pretty shithouse to me.  Typically a group of ten to fifteen people – sometimes a group of friends, sometimes a random assortment of people who all happened to buy the same package deal – trudging single-file along the path, slightly faster than is comfortable for the slowest member of the group.  I’m sure plenty of people doing it this way have a fantastic time – and don’t let my obstinate pessimism stop you doing it this way if you think that’s your thing.  But it’s not for me.  If you’re trying to weigh up whether this might be the way for you, the things that turn me off about it, and that you should at least consider as possible negatives, include:  you can’t walk at your own pace;  if someone gets sick, either the whole group hangs back while they recover or the sick person drops off the trip;  you can’t change your plans if things are easier or harder than expected;  your chances of actually making the sunrise views on the peaks are much diminished if you are relying on all umpteen of your group being ready and able to make the climb up the peak before dawn;  and you won’t get nearly the same quiet serenity on the trail with twenty of your closest friends nearby.

Ok, so, you’ve picked from the above three…

Now you also have to choose the time of year.  The season really starts to get underway at the beginning of October.  (Well, the season we went in.  There are other times of year too, obviously, but if you want to know about that, well, you can do your own damned research!)  We went a little earlier than that, starting on September 22.  That worked out well for us, although we were lucky:  others suffered significant delays due to bad weather preventing flights into and out of Lukla.  (Of course, you could avoid this possibility by walking up from Jiri if you wanted – that way you don’t have to worry about flights into/out of the mountains at all.  You just need more time.)

And you have to choose how long your trek will last.  If humanly possible, I recommend giving yourself plenty of time:  we gave ourselves seventeen days planned in the mountains, and that still seems about right to me.  If I was doing it again, if anything, I’d allow even more time.  Hey, what’s another day or two added to the holiday, if it’s feasible, when lacking a day or two (if something goes wrong) could ruin everything?  And it makes the whole trip a lot less stressful if you know you don’t have to worry if there’s a delay or someone gets sick.  There were a lot of very fidgety people around when the bad weather came in, and a lot of people fretting that spending an extra day acclimatising, when they really would have benefitted from it, would have meant maybe not having time to make it to Base Camp.  (I have no doubt that some of those speedy people returned to Kathmandu the fastest way possible:  in a rescue helicopter.)  Save yourself the stress and give yourself the breathing space.

Whispy snow drifts being blown off the summit of Everest (right)

Whispy snow drifts being blown off the summit of Everest (right)

Gear

You’ll need some particular gear for the trip, but to be honest nothing espeically different from your average vacation, presuming your average vacation occasionally involves some cool-ish temperatures and a little bit of walking.

You’ll need clothes, and you’ll want layers of them.  It can get quite cold – especially overnight.  But walking in the sun on a clear day is really surprisingly hot, and you’ll want no more than a tshirt and light trousers or shorts a lot of the time.

Obviously you don’t want to take too many clothes, since you or your porter will have to carry them.  No, you won’t be able to wash clothes.  Yes, you’ll smell – especially your socks.  God damn will your socks smell.  So will those of everyone around you.  If you can’t deal with that, then maybe this isn’t the trip for you.  Take a couple of tshirts and a couple of long-sleeved shirts that you can wear over the top of them.  You’ll also need either a down jacket or a couple of lighter jackets (one windproof) that can be worn at the same time.  You’ll need thermals and at least one or two pairs of thick socks, and you’ll need a couple of pairs of trousers you can walk in (I had cargo pants and jeans – obviously jeans are not ideal trekking gear, but they’ll suffice if needed, and it’s nice to have some clean-ish dry trousers you can change into after wearing your trekking gear all day).  If you’re going over a pass, you’ll want some waterproof trousers too.

Obviously you’ll need decent hiking boots – although we did meet one guy who was doing just fine in his Vibram FiveFinger Trek Sports.  Good for him:  I left my FiveFingers back in Kathmandu, figuring that hiking over a glacier would be a great way to get very cold feet very quickly.

You’ll need a reasonable sleeping bag and may want a sleeping bag liner.  We had down bags rated to minus fifteen Celsius, and they were fine, but ask your guide.

You don’t need hiking poles.  If you’ve never used them before, chances are you don’t know how (I don’t either) and you’ll be plodding along carrying unnecessary sticks and generally looking like an idiot.  The trail is not treacherous enough that you require assistance supporting your fat arse – that’s what your legs are for.  (See below for fitness requirements.)

Hiking into the clouds, early in our trek, on the way to Namche Bazaar

Hiking into the clouds, early in our trek, on the way to Namche Bazaar

As far as all the above – you can get most of it in Kathmandu nice and cheap.  Sleeping bags and down jackets can be hired for very little (a dollar or so per day).  Your thermals and waterproof trousers can be cheap and crappy – they don’t have to last years, you’ll probably only use them a couple of days each, if that – and you can buy some very inexpensive ones in Kathmandu.  I also bought a water bladder, a keyring-sized torch, and a few other bits and bobs, and Chris got himself a good pair of socks as well.  If you need it for hiking, you can get it in Kathmandu.  And you can get a North Face logo sewn onto it to, if you want.

As mentioned before, I recommend Shona’s – they’ll help you out for anything you need to buy, and they gave us helpful advice too.  And their son can rent you sleeping bags and down jackets.

You’ll need reading material – you’ll have a surprising amount of free time.  Bring a Kindle or other e-reader.  It’s light, its battery lasts ages, and it can hold enough reading material for even the longest hike.  Probably bring a journal to take notes along the way, too – it’s a trip you’ll want to be able to remember in detail.  And hey, keeping a diary is a good way to fill your masses of down time.

Don’t bring much that requires power, and don’t expect to be able to recharge stuff all the time.  Even in teahouses where you can pay to recharge your gear, power may not be available at the time – they may be worried about conserving their reserves for lights, or their battery may have problems, or it may have been a cloudy day, or the power output from the battery might not be enough for your juice-guzzling SUV of a phone/laptop/whatever.  So bring a spare camera battery and spare torch batteries.

Speaking of which, bring a camera (duh) – preferably a decent point-and-shoot (I highly, highly recommend the Sony RX-100 – not that I had one while we were in Nepal;  Chris did, and I bought mine much later – but I’ll admit it’s a little on the expensive side) – and a torch.  Lots of people had headlamps, and if I were going again I’d get one too.  I’d also learn to walk up hills without shining it in people’s faces all the time, and without shining it intermittently in front of them so that even though there’s plenty of moonlight to find your way up the path before dawn without a torch, you’re completely ruining their night vision and making that impossible just because you can’t be bothered.  Dipshits.

Water is plentiful up in the mountains, but not safe to drink unless it’s treated.  There are no harmful chemicals, but who knows what a yak might have done to it upstream, and what bacteria it might contain.  Chris owns a SteriPEN – it’s basically a magic UV wand that you wave around in water for a minute so it can kill anything that needs killing – and we used that.  Most people used iodine tablets, and subsequently complained with what appeared to be genuine surprise that their water tasted like iodine.  Others bought boiled water from the teahouses the whole time.  The SteriPEN was definitely a good call.

Just for something different, here’s a shot without the snow-capped mountains.  Greenery instead.  But still just as a pretty, I think.

Just for something different, here’s a shot without the snow-capped mountains. Greenery instead. But still just as a pretty, I think.

You’ll probably want two water bottles, by the way, so that you’re not constantly running out and refilling.  Or you can use a water bladder in your backpack.  If you’re using chlorine/iodine tablets, you pretty much have to have two bottles:  one with water you can drink, and one with water that’s being treated (since it takes a while).

Health / medicine

Step one:  read about altitude sickness (Google is your friend).  I was amazed how many idiots were wandering around not really knowing anything about it.  Don’t be one of them.  You’ll need to decide in advance whether you want to take Diamox as a preventive measure.  We didn’t – I prefer not to load up on medicine to deal with stuff that realistically my body should be able to handle perfectly adequately by itself, thanks very much – but lots of people do.  Even if you don’t take it preventatively, you should have some with you in case you start to suffer altitude sickness and can’t immediately descend a couple of hundred metres.  (Say, in mid- or late afternoon or at night when it’s already too late to make it to the next lowest town, or when you’re in a town like Machermo where all the exits go up.)  You’ll need enough to take it for the whole hike, since once you start taking it, you’re supposed to keep on pill-popping until you descend.

There are not a lot of pharmacies in the mountains, so if you get some minor ailment, you’ll want to be prepared.  On the recommendation of a few people we asked, we took just-in-case supplies of paracetamol, cipro (ciproflaxin, for dealing with unwanted gastrointestinal bacteria – as an added bonus, the internet tells me it’s apparently handy in case of biological warfare), and azithromycin (an antibiotic for respiratory problems).  You should ask people more expert than me (you know, actual doctors) what might be appropriate, too.  You can get whatever you need over-the-counter in Kathmandu.

On a less sophisticated note, you’ll also want to take plenty of hand sanitiser and toilet paper, packs of tissues and/or wet wipes.  Toilets in the mountains tend to be BYO paper.  I bought a couple of six-packs of the ten-per-pack little packs of tissues, and ever since Nepal, I always walk around with a pack in my back pocket and one or two more in my bag.  I still have leftover hand sanitiser from Kathmandu with me months later.  On the very few occasions I’ve subsequently pulled it out to use it, it still reminds me of Everest.  You’ll want to use it a fair bit:  there’s often nowhere to wash your hands, and even when there is, as above, the water is unlikely to be parasite-free.  Again, normally I’m pretty blasé about that sort of risk of illness – after all, that’s what my immune system is for – but shitting yourself uncontrollably at altitude sounded like a pretty crappy outcome, so we hand-sanitised away.

You’ll want some chlorine/iodine tablets for treating water, too.  As above, we had Chris’s SteriPEN, so we didn’t need to treat water chemically.  But if the SteriPEN had died, we had chlorine tablets as a back-up.

A fairly typical section of walking trail

A fairly typical section of walking trail

Fitness

Some people suggest a program of exercise to build up to a trek in the Himalayas.  I’m not the fittest guy on the planet, but I’m in reasonable shape (better than when I spent my days staring at a computer screen all day, anyway), so that wasn’t an issue for me.  I will say it wasn’t a particularly physically challenging experience.  There were definitely some people we saw who were struggling – but then, those were people who looked like they’d struggle with more than one flight of stairs at sea level, so that’s hardly surprising.  I’m certainly not going to discourage you from getting more exercise, but you probably won’t need to:  it’s just not that strenuous.  I will say, though, that if you’re going to, contrary to most other suggestions I’ve seen, I’d focus on building leg and particularly ankle strength, not on spending hours on a treadmill, training your body to do little more than, well, I don’t know, run on a treadmill, I guess.  Leg strength will help your walking, and you’ll need it for the squat toilets regardless.

Random other stuff

And so that’s most of the advice I have, really, bar a sprinkling of random other bits and pieces..

  • You’re supposed to walk around stupas clockwise (ditto prayer stones).
  • A lot of the area you’ll be walking around has mobile reception, so if you want, you can get a local SIM card and be connected for quite a lot of your trek.  (People have made phone calls from the summit of Everest, for heaven’s sake.)
  • Take earplugs.  The mountains are quiet, but people in the adjacent room in your tea house aren’t necessarily.
  • Batteries do not like the cold.  Your electronics will die a lot more quickly up in the mountains than they normally would at altitudes where the night air is not so frigid.  When you go to sleep each night, it’s a good idea to throw your electrical goodies (or at least their batteries – including any spare batteries) into your sleeping bag.  Yes, it’s a little strange to roll over in the middle of the night and discover a camera wedged in your privates.  But it’s better than discovering that you’ve made it to Base Camp and can’t take any photos because your point-and-shoot is dead.
  • And finally, of course…  wear sunscreen.  No, really.  There’s a lot less atmosphere above you when you’re at five thousand metres.  Expect to have to grease up regularly.
Mountains in the clouds

Mountains in the clouds

[Note:  post edited to reflect that I originally got the price of our trip wrong.  It was $US1650, not $1500.  Still, cheap by any measure.]

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