Intro: I'm going to be breaking the trek into a few different posts, seeing as some of them (these early ones in particular!) are rather text heavy and they take quite a bit of time to put together. Stay tuned for more. You can also click on the pictures above to see the full images. For anyone considering a Nepal trek, I'd be happy to email you the contact information for our guide, Lal, who was wonderful.
Day 1 - Lukla (9,383 ft) to Phakding (8,563 ft)
Up at 5a, we check out of our room at the Kathmandu Peace Guest House outside Thamel and meet our guide, Lal, at 5:30. Early in the morning, Kathmandu is already bustling. Men sitting on street corners downing milk teas, cows swarming the streets and endless cars honking, slowly snaking their way through the people clogged streets.
We all jump in a taxi, arriving at Kathmandu's domestic airport only fifteen minutes later. With only one large backpack (to be carried by the porter we will be meeting in Lukla) and a day pack, we feel substantially less laden with luggage than usual. Most of the bag consists of warm weather clothing for the Himalaya cold and an enormous bag of medicines for every potential mountain illness. Still, the bag is undoubtedly heavy and we're already feeling relieved that we've decided to hire a porter (at $10/day) who will be carting it up through the hills. With Jesse carrying the day bag, I'll be limited to only my Camelbak. Hard to complain about that!
The airport is a seriously chaotic scene, and with Lal as our guide we're quickly pushed through the various security lines to our Sita Air check-in desk and then out a nondescript door to our waiting plane. Organized chaos is probably the best way to describe the departure area. Lots of yelling in Nepalese by various officials, swarms of people exiting onto various airlines and epic piles of bags being tagged. No signs and definitely no departure boards. Already we're glad we've got a guide. Without one, there's a pretty decent chance we would be staying put in Kathmandu.
The flight itself is as wild as anticipated. Only thirty minutes long, we are handed cotton balls for our ears and mango sweets, and then are quickly up in the air gliding first over the city and then the beckoning peaks of the Himalayas. Often we jump only (seemingly) 100 feet or so over various mountain passes, the plane sliding and edging around various peaks before sharply descending into Lukla. The landing feels almost like being deposited onto a shelf -- the runway itself almost postage stamp sized and angled up and straight into a mountain. Upon hitting the ground, the pilot immediately slams the plane into reverse and everyone audibly breathes a sigh of release as we feel ourselves come to a slow halt. No impact with the mountain. We are alive. And we're ready to go.
The air in Lukla at 9,383 feet is crisp and we quickly grab our bags as they're pushed off the plane, and are ushered by Lal into a nearby stone mountain lodge for a fast breakfast of milky tea, toast and fried eggs. While we eat, Lal heads out to find us a porter from the twenty or so men waiting anxiously outside the airport gates, and comes back about thirty minutes later to introduce us to Vupal, who will be accompanying us up the mountain. We shake hands, say quite a few "Namastes" and by 8:30a have departed the lodge and are on our way to our first night's stop in Phakding.
The walk is a gorgeous, slow rambling ascent through sherpa villages and gardens, and along the sloping hillside and Dudh Khose River that will slowly lead us into the heart of the Everest region. It's already some of the most incredible scenery I've ever seen. Endless hills, countless stone homes and imposing white cap peaks in the distance. It's hard to believe that in only a few days we'll be up among them, rather than wandering along the rushing river far, far below.
A couple hours in, we stop into a lodge for another hot thermos of steaming milk tea before continuing the final hour to Phakding and our first teahouse. A short walk, which will be typical for the coming days. With the massive gains in altitude on the Everest Trek, early days are limited to only several hours in order to hopefully limit altitude sickness later on. Due to our flexible schedule, we're going to be taking it even slower than recommended.
While the trail is fairly busy, as expected, it's not annoyingly so. More than people, it's filled with constant trains of cows, yaks and porters carrying unimaginably enormous loads, slowly snaking their way up the mountainside. There is no road through the Everest region, so everything must be carried in on someone (or somethings) back.
We arrive in Phakding at around 12p very ready for lunch and are shown a nice little room at the back of the Khumbu Travellers Guest House. We enjoy two heaping helpings of dal bhat for lunch and another thermos of tea -- this time mint. There's no shortage of tea on the trail and we take full advantage. After a not so strenuous walk, we feel a little silly already being done for the day but enjoy relaxing all afternoon, reading and taking a long blissful nap in our sleeping bags, which we rented from our trekking agency and quickly realize are actually pretty inadequate. Will need to switch them out for sure when we get to a higher altitude.
By the evening, it's definitely gotten pretty cold and we're wearing a lot of clothing. Virtually everything except for our down jackets -- I'm already feeling very, very glad we bought all the knock-off North Face gear that we did! It's also raining a bit, which makes us glad we're not any higher up on the mountain. Not sure how keen I am on trekking in a snowstorm. We enjoy spaghetti and apple pie for dinner in the lodge dining room, entertained by Lal and all his hilarious English sayings. A favorite: "A book is not a book without a cover, a life is not a life without a lover." Profound. I laugh for maybe a full three minutes.
We head to bed at around 8:30, read and play Boggle on Jesse's iPhone, and are eventually lulled to sleep by the constant sound of yak bells parading along the path beneath our bedroom. It feels so amazing to be up here and I know I've never felt so far away from civilization, the world, my normal life. I sleep soundly for 9-10 hours, not waking up until I start to hear the sounds of other trekkers getting ready for the day through the plywood walls of our room at 6a. Onwards.
Day 2 - Phakding (8,563 ft) to Jorsalle (9,350 ft)
Another pretty easy day of walking, although several more steep ascents than yesterday. We cross over a number of long, shaky suspension bridges and also encounter many more groups of yaks slowly winding their way along the path. Jesse is showing a particular paparazzi-like affection for the yaks -- I'm beginning to think there are going to end up being more pictures of them than us by the end of all this!
The trail is definitely a bit busier, as trekkers push their way onto Namche Bazaar, the first major stop of the trek. Seeing as we aren't in much of a rush and our feet aren't exactly trained and prepped for such extensive walking, we decide to stop for the night in Jorsalle, the last town (and by town I mean, group of three lodges) before the epic climb to Namche.
Jorsalle is a typical lunch or tea stopping point on the trail for trekkers looking to fuel up before they begin the climb to Namche Bazaar -- an intimidating three to four hours of vertical switch-backs that gradually brings you up into the rarefied air of 11,286 feet. We arrive in Jorsalle before noon, just in time to tuck into another tasty meal of dal bhat.
The sun is out, and we enjoy much of the afternoon reading outside our guesthouse's dining room, watching trekkers and yaks hustle past on their way up the trail. We end up being the only people staying in our lodge, and look forward to having a quiet night. With plywood for walls, no rooms have much in the way of sound insulation so a rare night without neighbors will be much appreciated.
We feel a little guilty for our guide and porter, who look rather bored without any other Nepalese to hang out and play cards with all afternoon and evening. While Vupal doesn't really speak much English, we again spend much of the evening chatting with Lal and learning more about his back story. He started as a porter at age 15, becoming a guide about 8 years later. He's now 28 and has trekked through the Everest region he estimates between 60-70 times! Hard to imagine. He always has tons of questions for us about the US and all the other places we've traveled to, and is also very curious about the fact that we're in our mid to late twenties and still not married, which is fairly unheard of in Nepal. He compares us to a rebellious 50-year-old Nepali movie star, who much to the chagrin of his countrymen, has also inexplicably chosen to remain single. Oh, the exciting company we keep.
Day 3 - Jorsalle (9,350 ft) to Namche Bazaar (11,286 feet)
As predicted, a long, slow, uphill slog today. Leaving Jorsalle around 8:30a, it took us only three hours to reach Namche, but that three hours was all spent slowly clawing our way nearly straight up. While this was definitely the hardest section so far, it was nothing impossible, and just at the moment when I felt I couldn't handle yet another switch-back, Namche came into view and we knew we only had a few minutes to go.
We got our first (tiny) view of Everest today from a viewpoint halfway up the path. While it was fairly overcast, we could see its tip spiking up through the wispy clouds. Definitely another one of those very surreal moments -- are we seriously here? In Nepal? Trekking through the Himalayas? It seems so!
By the time we arrive at our lodge in southern Namche we are feeling pretty exhausted. The town, a beautiful mass of colorful lodges and prayer flags that almost resembles a Swiss ski village, is situated on a steep hill and the final steps out of the forest and into civilization feel fairly tortuous. While our legs are tired, it's clearly the altitude that's really slowing us down. Exploring the town during the afternoon, I suddenly feel as if I need to rest every 10 steps, and we're trying to drink tons and tons of water to keep any AMS headaches at bay.
We make some new friends at our lodge and enjoy a celebratory (we made it to day 3!) apple pie and hot chocolate at the very delicious Everest Bakery before returning to our lodge in the late afternoon. For some reason, I find myself feeling a little demoralized and spend much of the evening cowering in my sleeping bag, sipping water and feeling a bit teary. Not sure if it's my growing exhaustion, the altitude, the cold, a little bit of culture shock or what, but I try not to dwell on it too much. Everything always seems better in the morning.
Day 4 - Rest Day in Namche Bazaar (11,286 feet)
Indeed, I wake up feeling much better. It's virtually required for everyone heading to Everest Base Camp to take an acclimatization rest day in Namche Bazaar in order to prepare for the high elevations to come and limit the risk of altitude sickness. However, "rest day" always ends up being something of a misnomer, as most guides suggest at least a several hour walk to a higher elevation in order to follow the classic climbing law of "trek high, sleep low". So on we go!
After sleeping in a bit, we decide to climb up to the famous Everest View Hotel (the highest hotel in the world), which again is a bit of a slog, but completely worth it for the gorgeous views of Namche and over to Everest, Lhotse and the Himalayan range. Upon arriving at the hotel, I'm slightly tempted to book us a room, although upon hearing that it costs $150/night I'm dissuaded and convinced to continue back down.
My knees are a bit sore on the long descent back to Namche and we're both starting to get a few blister hot spots on our feet, but nothing too bad. In the afternoon, we decide to go to a viewing of the "Into Thin Air" made-for-TV movie at a local bar. It's pretty undeniably awful (especially compared to the book, which is a fantastic read) but a fun experience to be watching the film knowing we are so close to Everest itself.
Early to bed, as we've got a very big day tomorrow. Heading up into the high country of Tengboche, a beautiful village at 12,687 feet built around the Tengboche monastary, which is the largest in the Everest region. It's going to be another pretty serious ascent, but we're feeling good and ready. To the high country we go!
More to come!