The Everest Base Camp Trail in Nepal runs from Lukla through Phakding, Monjo, Namche Bazaar, Tengboche and on up to the Base Camp below the peak of Everest. This trek is popular by both recreational trekkers as well as Everest expedition teams who use this trail to reach the Base Camp. This route, being the only path between many of the small villages up the valleys, is also used frequently by porters and trains of dzo and yak transporting a wide variety of goods up the trail.
In March 2013 we trekked this route from Lukla at 2,860m up as far as Tengboche at 3,867m; a 4 day trek up from Lukla and then a 3 day return trek back down to Lukla. This was the start of the season when expeditions start making their way up to prepare for attempts on Everest so we came across a number of serious climbers making their way up the trail as they acclimatized to the high altitudes.
The trail runs through the Sangarmatha National Park which is a protected area in the Eastern part of Nepal. The park was established in 1976 and in 1979 it became the country’s first national park that was inscribed as a Natural World Heritage Site. Most of the park is very rugged and steep and contains the upper watershed of the Dudh Kosi River basin and the Gokyo Lakes. The lower forested zones has birch, juniper, blue pines, firs, bamboo and rhododendron but as altitude rises plant life is restricted to lichens and mosses. Sagarmatha National Park is home to a number of a number of rare mammal species including musk deer, snow leopard, Himalayan black bear and red panda.
So this was a walk in the Sagarmatha National Park and not really the idiomatic expression of a “walk in the park”.
Lukla Airport, now known as Tenzing-Hillary Airport, is rated as one of the most dangerous airports in the world and a program titled “Most Extreme Airports” broadcast in the History Channel in 2010, rated the airport as the most dangerous airport in the world.
So this was to be our arrival point for this start of our 7 day Himalayan trek up the Everest Base Camp trail – as if the trek was not hard enough we had to survive the landing and then the take-off from this incredible runway.
The airport is popular because Lukla is the place where most people start the climb to Mount Everest Base Camp. There are daily flights between Lukla and Kathmandu during daylight hours, in good weather. Although the flying distance is short, rain commonly occurs in Lukla while the sun is shining brightly in Kathmandu. High winds, cloud cover and changing visibility often mean flights can be delayed or the airport closed completely. The airport is contained within a chain link fence and patrolled by the Nepali armed police or civil police around the clock.
The airport’s paved asphalt runway is only accessible to helicopters and small, fixed-wing, short-takeoff-and-landing aircraft, such as the De Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter or Dornier Do 228. Tara Air also operates two Pilatus PC-6 Turbo Porter aircraft that visit Lukla on a charter basis. The runway is 460 by 20 m (1,510 by 66 ft) with a 12% gradient. The elevation of the airport is 2,800 m (9,200 ft).
Aircraft can only use runway 06 for landings and runway 24 for takeoffs. Due to the terrain, there is no prospect of a successful go-around on short final. There is high terrain immediately after the northern end of the runway and a steeply angled drop, of about 2,000 m (6,600 ft) at the southern end of the runway, into the valley below. The apron has four stands and there is one helipad located 140 m (460 ft) from the control tower. No landing aids are available and the only air traffic service is an Aerodrome Flight Information Service.
LUKLA – THE STARTING POINT
Lukla is a town in the Khumbu area of the Solukhumbu District in the Sagarmatha Zone of north-eastern Nepal. Situated at 2,860 metres (9,383 ft), it is a popular place for visitors to the Himalayas near Mount Everest to arrive. Although Lukla means place with many goats and sheep, few are found in the area these days.
Lukla contains a small airport servicing the region, and a variety of shops and lodges catering to tourists and trekkers, providing western-style meals and trail supplies.
From Lukla, most trekkers will take two days to reach Namche Bazaar, both an interesting village and an altitude acclimatization stop for those continuing on.
DAY 1 : LUKLA TO PHAKDING
Having reached Lukla, and survived the most dangerous airport in the world, we were now ready to start our 4 day trek up to Tengboche at 3,900m and then 3 day trek back. Tengboche was half way up the Everest Base Camp Trail, the base camp being at 5,500m and another 3 days trek past Tengboche. After some local lunch we arranged the sherpa porters and with our trekking guide Bir Bador we headed out through the town and onto the gentle first half day trek to Phakding. At the end of the town there is an arch marking the start of the Everest Base Camp Trail and the stone trail initially descends steeply making it an easy start to the trek. From Lukla to Phakding there is a drop in elevation of around 200m. It was mentally noted however that this easy first section would soon to become the difficult final section on our return to Lukla!
This trail ran through numerous small rural villages surrounded by stepped, cultivated fields growing rice and vegetables such as cabbage, lettuce, and potatoes. There were also a number of tea houses and small shops to stop at for refreshments and snacks.
Dzo, a hybrid between yak and domestic cattle, were commonly seen on the trail carrying goods up towards Phakding and beyond. Donkeys were also commonly used and we came across large “donkey trains” heading up or down the trail, usually fully laden on the route up with large bags of goods, gas bottles, etc and coming back down the trail empty ready for the next load. Also, a common sight on the trek were numerous porters, both male and female, young and old, carrying large loads of goods up the trail. We soon got used to listening for the bells of the dzo or donkey trains and moved to one side of the trail to allow them to pass. Occasionally we would see small horses on the trail usually being used to transport people rather than goods.
Prayer wheels were a very common sight on the Everest Base Camp Trail These were brightly painted and inscribed and came in all sizes, some having their own building to house them. A prayer wheel is a cylindrical “wheel” on a spindle made from metal, wood, stone, leather or coarse cotton. Traditionally, the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is written in Newari language (Ranjana script) on the outside of the wheel. Also sometimes depicted are Dakinis, Protectors and very often the 8 auspicious symbols Ashtamangala. According to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition based on the lineage texts regarding prayer wheels, spinning such a wheel will have much the same meritorious effect as orally reciting the prayers. There were also occasional small monasteries and Buddhist stupas along the trail.
Along the paths of regions under the influence of Tibetan or Nepalese Buddhism the traveller is often confronted with Mani walls and these were commonly seen all along the Everest Base Camp Trail. These stone structures comprise intricately carved stone tablets, most with the inscription “Om Mani Padme Hum” which loosely translates to “Hail to the jewel in the lotus”. These walls should be passed or circumvented from the left side, the clockwise direction in which the earth and the universe revolve, according to Buddhist doctrine. They are sometimes close to a temple or chorten, sometimes completely isolated and range from a few metres to a kilometre long and one to two metres high. They are built of rubble and sand and faced with mani stones engraved in the elegant Nepalese/Tibetan script.
The trail eventually came down close to the Dudh Kosi River and followed this to Phakding where we would spend the first night. The scenery of river, valley and rugged mountains was beautiful and many of the trees in the fields were in blossom adding to this beauty. It reminded me somewhat of Scotland (without the good whisky I may add!) although on a much larger scale. The mountains were no doubt higher … the highest mountain in Scotland being Ben Nevis at 1,344m and of course Mount Everest here (but yet to see) at 8,848m – some six and a half times the size!!
DAY 2 : PHAKDING TO MONJO
We stayed at the Royal Sherpa Lodge in Phakding …. and I’m still trying to figure out what was “Royal” about it. By evening time as soon as the sun set it got very cold and with no heating in the lodge, other than a log fire in the middle of the main room, the bedrooms were very cold. Further to that we had no hot water so we had to forego a shower that evening. Food was simple and it took 2 hours to make dinner, after which it was a case of warming yourself at the log fire then off to bed, fully clothed and with hat on to stay warm under the two blankets.
In the morning we were up early, had a simple breakfast, then it was off on up the trail towards Monjo just short of Jorsalle. As we passed through Monjo there were small shops selling water and snacks including the popular momo which was a type of steamed dumpling. We also passed a small tailor shop with the tailor already at work.
Just after we left Phakding we had to make a large river crossing over a suspension bridge shared as usual with yaks, dzo and porters. There were a number of suspension bridge crossings to come on this section of the trail. The trail then followed the Dudh Kosi River up the valley offering up wonderful views of the mountains. The colour of the river was bright, aquamarine blue from all the minerals being washed down from the mountains. The boulders in this river were enormous, some the size of a large house.
We passed through some small villages where we saw children walking to school, some even being transported on horse to the school. More prayer wheels, prayer flags, yaks, dzo, goats and donkeys …. it was becoming a routine now.
The further up the Khumbu Valley we walked however the scenery just got better. We stopped for lunch at the Waterfall View Lodge having some local tea (yak milk tea and ginger tea) with a large bowl of steaming hot noodle soup which was most welcome.
Just before Monjo the trail made a steep decline to the river for a small fixed bridge crossing and here we encountered a large train of donkeys taking bottles of gas up the trail. There were a few small stone huts at the river next to the bridge which made for a good photograph. Once we climbed up the other side negotiating the steep stone steps we were in Monjo where we stayed for one night.
Monjo was a pleasant small, rural village with a few lodges, small shops, a school and a small monastery perched on a rocky outcrop. Neatly cultivated fields growing vegetables and rice were dotted around the side of the hill. The mountains at the back of the village were spectacular and topped with snow making for some great views.
I met a couple of the local kids while walking up to the monastery and was very surprised at their command of English – obviously a very good school in Monjo. I was further surprised to hear the the older boy’s name was Angus! I told him this was a name from my country.
DAY 3: MONJO TO NAMCHE BAZAAR
The overnight stay at the Mount Kailash Lodge in Monjo was certainly more comfortable than the previous night at the Royal Sherpa Lodge in Phakding … this time we had hot water and good food service. We were again up early and I took an early morning walk in the crisp clear air to grab some photos. There was even some ice on the ground indicating how cold it was.We passed through Monjo and very soon came to the Sagarmatha Park Head Quarters where we had to have our trekking passes checked. After the checkpoint it was a steep downhill section over a set of rocky steps and back down to the Dudh Kosi River and a couple of river crossings over suspension bridges, the first one bringing us to Jorsalle which is a common stopping point for an overnight stay on this trek.As we passed through Jorsalle and followed the river up the Khumbu Valley the scenery just started getting better and better. Again there were many porters on the trail as were there yaks, dzo, donkeys and goats. It was interesting to see the porters use their small stick as a prop for their heavy load when they needed a rest. We also passed a small army post with two soldiers busily mending the fence all dressed in full camouflage gear of course!The walk alongside the Dudh Kosi River was really wonderful and relatively flat so made it an easy start to the day. This was not to last long as we soon reached a branch in the river where the trail rose steeply on the right to reach a high crossing point. This suspension bridge was the highest and most spectacular of all the bridges yet and this one seems to be covered in prayer flags.After this suspension bridge crossing the trail then became very steep and it was to be this way for the next few hours as we struggled up the rough trail towards Namche Bazaar. However the scenery was absolutely stunning with high, snow capped mountains, a bright blue sky and a panoramic view back down the Khumbu Valley to the Dudh Kosi River.Approximately half way up the steep trail to Namche Bazaar there was a viewpoint which at last gave us a tantalising view of Mount Everest for the first time. A small gap through the trees looked straight up the valley with Everest right at the end. This made it all worthwhile and after an expensive orange sold to us by a local girl who had set up a small “orange shop” at the viewpoint it was time to slog up the last few kilometres to reach our overnight stop at Namche Bazaar.There were large trains of donkeys and dzo heading up the trail as we climbed so that gave us a great excuse to rest and let them pass.After the checkpoint at the outskirts of Namche Bazaar we stopped at a small tea house for a welcome refreshment. The inside of the tea house was simple with log fired cooking and heating.The last few steps up to Namche Bazaar were particularly steep and the going was tough to make it up this last section. The mountain range to the south was stunning though and had some large icy glaciers cascading down the steep side.We eventually arrived exhausted at the very comfortable Panorama Hotel where we enjoyed hot showers, a great meal and the luxury of an electric blanket. The owner of the hotel, Sherap J. Sherpa, and his wife were great hosts and made us very welcome – highly recommended for anyone visiting this area. We all sat round a large wooden table in the main dining room with a large log fire burning and ate our dinner to the sounds of traditional Nepalese music.
DAY 4: NAMCHE BAZAAR TO TENGBOCHE
We started early again from Namche Bazaar, leaving the comfort of the Panorama Hotel, and headed up the first section of the day’s trek which was a steep uphill section. But the trail soon levelled off and with the bright clear sunny day and blue skies we were soon experiencing some of the best Himalayan mountain vistas yet.Looking up the Khumbu Valley we had clear views of Mount Everest and the surrounding peaks such as Nuptse, Lhotse, Lhotse Shar and Ama Dablam. Along this section we passed two beautiful Buddhist stupas. We stopped for some tea at a small tea house which also had local jewellery for sale … and I thought I had managed to get my wife away from the shops!Soon however we were once again descending back down to the Dudh Kosi River to make a final river crossing before making the steep ascent up to Tengboche. It seemed somewhat unfair to lose all that altitude we had gained only to go up again to Tengboche. Snow lay in a few places on the north facing slopes.We stopped for lunch and a short rest at a small restaurant at the river and then started the long tough climb up the other side to reach Tengboche. As usual there were many yak and dzo trains carrying goods along this trail but the most amazing thing was to watch some of the porters haul huge beams timber, probably weighing more than 80kg, up the very steep hill.After a couple of hours of hard slog uphill panting for breath with the high altitude we eventually reached Tengboche. It was already cold when we arrived at our lodge for the evening and it was to get even colder during the night, dropping to -11 deg C.Tengboche consists only of a few lodges, a bakery and the monastery but offers a great close up view of Everest and the other peaks. We had enough daylight left on arrival to make a visit to the Tengboche Monastery, a World heritage site and were lucky enough to catch a ceremony with all the monks chanting along with bells, drums and horns.
DAY 5: TENGBOCHE TO NAMCHE BAZAAR
As dawn broke in Tengboche the chanting sounds from the monastery resumed so I was up and out to capture the early morning light. I was glad to be up and moving to keep warm as it had been an uncomfortable night in the unheated room (or freezer!). Outside the air was sub zero and there was ice and snow on the ground as I climbed a small ridge behind Tengboche to hopefully get a better view of Mount Everest and a panoramic view over Tengboche. In the early morning blue light the mountains looked spectacular with Everest, Nuptse, Lhotse, Lhotse Shar and Ama Dablam all standing our clearly.The climb up the small ridge had left me absolutely breathless – at this altitude the least bit of exercise was really difficult due to the reduced oxygen. The local sherpas have a significant advantage in that their haemoglobin can carry around 50% more oxygen than other people …. I spoke to a climber heading up towards Everest Base Camp and he called it cheating! As I headed back into Tengboche the early morning light was wonderful as I took in all the mountains surrounding this area, the peaks bathed in a bright golden light as if they were on fire.Later in the morning as the light grew stronger large trains of yaks could be seen heading through the village, past the monastery and on down the trail back to Namche Bazaar to collect more goods to bring up hill. The yaks could be differentiated from the dzo seen commonly on the trails by their heavier build and large, thick hair. Yak physiology is well adapted to high altitudes, having larger lungs and heart than cattle found at lower altitudes, as well as greater capacity for transporting oxygen through their blood. Conversely, yaks do not thrive at lower altitudes, and begin to suffer from heat exhaustion above 15 deg C. This is why we only really saw yaks from Namche Bazaar and higher. Further adaptations to the cold include a thick layer of subcutaneous fat and an almost total lack of sweat glands.Soon it was time to start the slow return trek back down the steep gradient to the Dudh Kosi River, over the suspension bridge then back up the other side and on to Namche Bazaar … it was going to be a long and arduous day. Heading down the hill was a lot faster than the upward struggle the day before and soon we were back down at the river for a brief tea stop before crossing the river and tackling the climb back up the trail at the other side.The climb up the trail at the other side of the river was very steep and unrelenting. Due to the lack of oxygen and the cold I had come down with the previous day I was really struggling for air and eventually had to relent and give my camera bag to the porter. He simple popped this on top of the rucksack he was already carrying and nonchalantly walked up the hill – amazing! We stopped for lunch of noodles and a rest at a small village at the very top of the steep slope and before the relatively flat section that ran on to Namche Bazaar. I actually ordered a coke to go with my noodles – having not drunk a coke in the last ten years I was somewhat surprised but my body was apparently craving the sugar rush. By the time we were getting close to Namche Bazaar the clouds had come down and visibility was reduced. It was a welcome relief to once again stay at the Panorama hotel where a hot shower was most appreciated, some good food and a night in a good bed with an electric blanket.
DAY 6: NAMCHE BAZAAR TO PHAKDING
After a good night’s rest at the Panorama Hotel in Namche Bazaar it was time to start the trek back down the steep trail towards the Dudh Kosi River again. The weather was cloudy as we left Namche so it was not ideal for photography. People were already out herding dzo or goats, sweeping the path outside their house or washing clothes – no rest here for these hardy locals. Soon we passed the check point at the outskirts of Namche Bazaar then it was on down to the river.The steep trail down from Namche Bazaar back down to the Dudh Kosi River was made in good time. As the weather was cloudy so we couldn’t see Mount Everest from the viewpoint as we had seen on on the way up. Again we had to cross the exciting high suspension bridge, again crowded with trekkers, dzo, goats and porters.It was then a good relatively flat walk back down the river and across a couple of more suspension bridges to Jorasalle and Monjo. Although overcast the river views were beautiful making it a pleasant walk. We made Monjo in good time and stopped at the Mount Kailash Lodge for lunch, just in time as the rain had now started.After lunch the rain persisted so we donned our wet weather gear and set out for the last 2 hours towards Phakding. It was a wet, cold and miserable trek back to Phakding where once again we stayed at the Royal (not-so-Royal) Sherpa Lodge. It was a struggle to get our wet gear dried out, with us all huddled round the single log fire in the middle of the main room. Once again it was a cold night with no hot water or shower.
DAY 7: PHAKDING TO LUKLA
It was freezing cold when we arose for the last day’s trek from Phakding to Lukla and we all huddled around the log fire with our hot tea to get some warmth in us before heading out after breakfast. As we headed off down the trail out of Phakding we passed once again through the agriculturally rich area beside the Dudh Kosi River and the many small villages along the way.We passed the many Mani stones, Buddhist stupas, small monasteries and brightly painted prayer wheels beside the trail, these colourful items providing some good photo opportunities.The small villages and surrounding field were all neatly tended with vegetables and rice being grown. We stopped at a small shop to buy some water and the lady owner insisted on me photographing her and her baby which of course I duly complied with. Next to the shop a lady was busy laying out some chilli seeds to dry in the sun. There were again many large trains of donkeys heading down the trail this morning obviously to load back up with goods from Lukla.After a dull start to the morning it became a pleasant day for the walk back down the valley. Beautiful white tree blossom and blue, alpine style flowers could be seen in the fields beside the trail and as we made our way through the small villages it was interesting to watch some of the locals working and the children playing. Everything is done by hand here and a group of men were busy mending a bridge supporting wall, chisseling large rocks by hand.Soon we were getting close to Lukla and the end of our long trek and once again the trail started to ascend from the valley floor up towards Lukla. I was interested to watch a couple of local boys play table tennis outside their house. A small group of Nepalese policemen marched down the trail past me all dressed up in their smart uniforms – obviously rushing off to an incident of major Himalayan importance. The last section was steep but as we were in sight of the finish line we made Lukla in good time. It was a great feeling to cross under the arch at the edge of Lukla after 7 days of constant trekking over rough, steep trails. We reached our lodge and sat down for a late lunch and celebratory Everest beer and Everest burger. Our trusty porter, Gunga Rai, had been invaluable in carrying our gear in the rucksack and also he stuck very close to Suit Yoo the whole route assisting her over some difficult sections. Suit Yoo had become quite attached to him and I was afraid I may have to buy him a ticket to Malaysia to continue to follow my wife everywhere!
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