Everest Base Camp: The Highlights, Part One

Eight days up, four days down, and 100 pages written… to try to fit that into any sort of sensible format is futile. But, there are certain highlights that become those stories – the ones that get pulled out in any conversation about a particular trip or experience. The favorites, and the ones that others can relate to. These are mine. 

The flight to Lukla

Lukla’s airport, Tenzing-Hillary Airport, is not for the faint of heart. It has been featured as one of the world’s most extreme airports, and is often cited as one of the deadliest. The tiny runway literally sits on a the side of a mountain, sloping uphill to help slow the planes down, and flying out means the ground dropping away suddenly as the runway leads the plane directly off the side of the cliff. (I wish I had video looking out the window and down as we departed Lukla, but my tired brain wasn’t quick enough.)

The flight from Kathmandu is a reward in and of itself – the green forests below, clouds often obscuring the lowlands, and the panorama of the Everest range of the Himalayas soaring in front. Literally. (And the small planes, where many have to scoot down the aisle side-ways, and flip the back of the seat up in order to sit down, are an experience in and of themselves.)

  Mountain view from the cockpit; The cozy interior; Coming in to land at Lukla (notice the runway!)

Mountain view from the cockpit; The cozy interior; Coming in to land at Lukla ~ notice the runway!

Teahouses

Let me introduce you to the teahouse: bedrooms are two single beds on raised platforms, sometimes with a small table in between, sometimes with hooks on the walls. You get really excited about a small table and hooks on the walls. The bathrooms are shared, and there is no such thing as hot water – unless you request a bowl from the proprietor, and it may be at a charge (especially at higher elevations). There is no electricity in the rooms.

But – a very pleasant and unexpected surprise – the beds had thick mattresses (or I was too tired for the condition of the mattress to matter), a good pillow, and a warm comforter. Sleeping bags were still a must, but that extra layer, especially at the higher and colder elevations, was really nice.

  A typical teahouse bedroom
A typical teahouse bedroom

The main room, or central gathering place, typically has electricity and a central stove. Trekkers, guides, and proprietors gather, playing cards, catching up on gossip, writing, or if wifi is available (at a cost), checking in with the outside world. (Warning – the higher up you go, the less oxygen there is. Especially in the main rooms, where carbon dioxide exhalation thins the air even further. It’s nice and warm, but even tougher to breathe!)

What I love about the teahouses? I got used to them so quickly and thoroughly – God bless those that made ginger honey lemon tea, even when it wasn’t on the menu! – that when I returned home and looked around my cozy studio, I was completely overwhelmed. Electricity, hot water, piles of books, furniture – hooks and small tables!!! – a pretty large closet… !! The twelve days on the trail, in more basic accommodation than I’d ever had, though perfectly adequate and comfortable, brought a whole new appreciation for all I have here. And led to a bit of purging once I got home – I was suddenly a bit claustrophobic!

New technology

The proprietors at the first teahouse – as with all of them, but the first always stands out – were so lovely and welcoming. We ordered treats – apple pie! – and lattes. (I became addicted to honey lattes and got one anytime we came across them.) But what was quickly evident was that the espresso machine was relatively new. The elderly gentleman pressed a few buttons, examined it, scratched his head a bit – then left the main room, returning a few minutes later with a grinning young man, who patiently explained the process, step-by-step, as he made our drinks.

On our return about ten days later, we ordered lattes again. This time, the elderly gentleman made them deftly and confidently. And I still say the lattes at Phakding were the best on the trail! 

The newness becomes common

  The first suspension bridge
The first suspension bridge

It makes me giggle whenever travelers, myself included, see something for the first time, and take a thousand photos of whatever sight they are in awe of. I’m also impressed by the guides’ endless supply patience with these situations, as they know the similar sights will become so commonplace that in a day or so, no one will even bother to take out their cameras. But they smile graciously as cameras are handed off to them for posed photos, and indulge that first excitement.

The phenomena is typical of any trip, but it’s always interesting to see when it strikes. The first and most obvious on the EBC trek: the suspension bridges. We must have stopped at that first one for ten minutes, everyone jostling for the right angle, some getting creative, taking turns posing at the start of the bridge, on the bridge, by the bridge – you get the idea. We were warned to try to not take photos on the bridges unless there wasn’t anyone waiting. Traffic is easily held up on the narrow one-ways – and it isn’t just trekkers, but porters, cows, mules, and the like. This is the supply line, and those on it are getting paid by how quickly they can deliver their loads. (I can only imagine the frustration at being held up at a bridge waiting for a gaggle of tourists in full Instagram or Glamor Shots mode!) For the first few bridges, and the tallest one, the photo stops were a bit longer. By the end of the trek, we were all sick of the bridges – the bouncing jarred my already tender knees, and the novelty of looking down was long past. I did pause at the last bridge though – to take it all in, to remember the time spent in this landscape, and couldn’t help but wonder when I’d pass over another bridge like this again.

The Eden of the Trail

The first tough day – hours of climbing up and up to Namche. Namche isn’t terribly far, but the trail spoils you until it starts final ascent up to the village – it’s relatively easy. Until you hit that first uphill, for a few hours. That stretch jolted me to the reality of the trail – and a bit of fear of what was to come. We were tired, and aching, and just wanted to get there. I hadn’t looked at photos of the trail much before departure, wanting to experience some of it firsthand. And Namche was a sight for sore eyes!

  Gateway to Namche
Gateway to Namche

Namche – Eden of the trail! Tang, Toblerone, bakeries, wifi, shop owners, bustling with trekkers, locals, animals. The cats! (You see dogs along the trail, friendly, often accompanying you for a bit – but in Namche, the cats run the show. A little kitten sat in the middle of the road, making a fuss, until a shopkeeper called it over, and it happily trotted off for a treat and some attention.)

  A treat in Namche
A treat in Namche

The colorful and bustling Namche is set in a bowl shape curvature, as if it was an audience to the panorama displayed beyond the mountainside.  It’s central to the route – a few banks and ATMs, resupply shops, and loads of teahouses and upscale lodges. Cows and mules plod up through the town, and trekkers debate the flavors of Tang and relax with chocolate cake and coffee in the many bakeries. The streets are lined with shops selling all manner of trinkets and souvenirs – I happily bought several cow bells on our way back down. I was so accustomed to hearing that sound, that I brought some back (and was relieved that I did buy them there, as I couldn’t find any in Kathmandu on our last day there).

  Above Namche ~ Credit: Tim Draisey
Above Namche ~ Credit: Tim Draisey

Namche stuck with us. We returned through the village on the descent, stopping for a few hours for lunch and time to explore and relax. The memory of it motivated us so much that we made it in far earlier than expected – the guides now letting us speed up, as altitude adjustment was no longer an issue. Eden didn’t disappoint on the second visit either; soaking up the sun, the oxygen, and maybe a latte and piece of chocolate cake felt like heaven!

***

Those first few days were full of magic, the energy that burns at the start of a quest. The next few days would bring change – both in energy and in scenery – as the trail took on a more serious, focused rhythm. But I’ll leave that to Part 2 – where we head above treeline, manage sickness and pain, and ultimately succeed in both reaching EBC and returning back to Lukla without resorting to helicopters or mules.

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