By: Amelia Osborne, Courtesy of Indagare.com
“Mr. Lama, I think we might need the helicopter.”
Not a typical request for a Thursday afternoon, but I wasn’t having a typical workday. I was 12,000 feet high in the Nepalese Himalayas, and I couldn’t see more than 20 feet in front of me.
The hard part was over. We’d completed six days of trekking on the Everest Base Camp Trail and were returning to manageable altitudes, but the weather—notoriously fickle in a region where mountains have their own jet stream—was starting to cause issues. We were concerned about the white-knuckle return flight to Kathmandu in a thirteen-seater Twin Otter, departing from the airport that has been voted the Most Dangerous and Terrifying in the World. Light breezes bring risks of crashing into a mountainside, a possibility so significant that planes are grounded if winds exceed eight miles an hour. But after the journey we’d just had, not much could frazzle us. My mom, our Nepalese guide and I had prayed with eleven-year-old Buddhist monks in their monastery, hung out with shaggy yaks (and sampled delicious yak cheese) and gazed, dumbstruck, at the regal Mount Everest. We were on top of the world, and no silly flight cancellation was going to cause upset.
We were in the hands of the region’s best guides (contact Indagare for an introduction), and everything else had—amazingly—gone according to plan. As is typical for those with type A personalities, I had done everything in my power to get ready for the trip. I’d trained with a scary muscular man who specializes in high altitudes; I’d read extensively about the region, its culture and history; I’d been to three different outdoor apparel stores in Manhattan because apparently the Lululemon store alone wasn’t going to cut it. But it was about Minute Three of Day One when it dawned on me that nothing could have truly prepared me for this.
The landscape, the people, the culture—not to mention sheer exhaustion from strenuous treks at ungodly altitudes—were enough to knock me breathless several times each hour. I knew the scenery was going to be beautiful, but I wasn’t equipped to handle its staggering magnificence. I was excited to immerse myself in Nepalese Buddhism, but I had no idea how joyful the welcome to foreigners would be. I had anticipated draining days of hiking but had no idea that as a result I would reach such a heady, meditative state. In short, the country and its experiences pushed and delivered on all fronts and far beyond expectations—and preparations.
EVEREST BASE CAMP TREK
The trail that leads to Mount Everest is the same one that was blazed by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953, when they were on their way to become the first to summit the world’s highest peak. The adventure begins when you check in at the Kathmandu domestic airport to fly to Lukla, the entrance point to the Himalayas (sit on the left side of the airplane for the best views). The beginning of the Everest Base Camp trail is not considered a particularly difficult trek by Himalayan standards, but its unstable terrain, altitude and steep pitches, combined with bright sun and long days, can prove challenging. Most visitors hike from lodge to lodge, sleeping in a different accommodation each night, and hire porters to carry their bags up along with them. Everyone carries his or her own daypack containing extra layers, sunscreen, camera and water.
Day One: Upon landing at Lukla’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport, you will be met by your guide and porter and begin your first day’s trek. The walk along the Dudh Koshi River is predominantly downhill or flat, and you will no doubt spend most of the journey gazing at the mountainscape that extends 360 degrees around you. You will arrive at the Phakding lodge in time for lunch and can choose to spend the afternoon exploring the town or trekking another one to two hours to Sano Gomila, a Buddhist monastery for young monks. Overnight at Yeti Mountain Lodge Phakding.
Day Two: Your walk to Monjo will include some time in seemingly enchanted forests, as well as through charming hamlets and small farms. Full of moderate inclines and declines, the trek takes approximately three to four hours. Overnight at Yeti Mountain Lodge Monjo.
Day Three: This will be the most physically difficult day, as the ascent to Namche is long and arduous—even by experienced trekkers’ standards. You will walk along the rocky shores of a beautiful river, cross a few long (and terrifying) steel suspension bridges adorned with colorful prayer flags and white silk scarves and get your first glimpse of Everest. Reaching Namche Bazaar in the afternoon, you will have the chance to explore the little town and its Sherpa Museum. Overnight at Yeti Mountain Lodge Namche.
Day Four: Today you will have the choice of exploring more of the area, including the towns of Syangboche and Khumjung, home to the Khumjung Hillary High School and Khunde Hospital. From here there are magnificent views of Everest as well as Thamserku, Ama Dablam, Kangtega and Lhotse Mountains. Overnight at Yeti Mountain Lodge Namche. (For those with an extra few days, an alternative route could include continuing north to Thame lodge, then west to Kongde before returning south to Lukla.)
Day Five: After breakfast you will begin the descent south, being careful not to put too much stress on your knees—many find going downhill more difficult on the joints than trekking uphill. If you’re up to it, trek all the way back to Lukla, stopping at Monjo and Phakding lodges for meals and breaks. (Alternatively, push back departure by one day and spend the night at the Phakding property.) After arriving at in Lukla, you may want to walk through the town and pick up some Everest Base Camp trek souvenirs before dinner.
Day Six: The flights that have the best chance of taking off leave early in the morning, so be sure to request a seat on the first plane. The flight back to Kathmandu provides incredible mountain views—sit on the right side of the airplane.
A note to those considering continuing to Everest Base Camp: After Thame, the trail gains altitude for another six to ten days of walking, and the landscape becomes more desolate as you pass the tree line. Lodges are significantly less comfortable the farther north you get, and oxygen levels in the air decrease. (Everest Base Camp sits at an altitude of 17,500 feet.)
A note to those considering an Everest summit: Climbing Everest can cost up to $75,000 (permits alone go for $25,000). Of the 6,000 people who have attempted the summit, only 1,200 have succeeded, and 235 have died en route.
WHERE TO STAY
In the 1950s, Dwarika Das Shrestha was jogging around his native city of Kathmandu when he came across carpenters tearing down historic buildings, stripping off ornate carvings for firewood. Appalled that such an intrinsic part of his culture’s craft heritage was literally being burned, Shrestha started buying the window frames, shutters and columns to use in building a hotel in the style of royal Nepalese palaces. Today this family-owned and -operated property is a unique and utopian enclave in a distinctly Nepalese setting.
Guest rooms are in separate buildings set around an expansive, serene courtyard, and each includes such thoughtful touches as traditional brass board games. Surprisingly, the hotel is located less than two miles from the Kathmandu international airport, making it convenient for those with quick turnarounds or long layovers.
There is a beautiful swimming pool and a lovely spa offering Ayurveda and Buddhist-influenced treatments, as well as a fitness center. Three restaurants serve varied cuisine throughout the day; one of them, Krishnarpan, prides itself on long (up to twenty-two-course) traditional meals. The Nepalese barbecues on Fridays are a more casual treat.
Yeti Mountain Lodges
En suite bathrooms and (even sporadic) hot water are luxuries in a region where everything is made locally or carried up mountains on the backs of porters or beasts of burden. In this context, Yeti Mountain Lodges, which are the most luxurious options along the Everest Base Camp Trail, are extremely comfortable. There is no central heating in the guest rooms (which can get quite cold at night), but the beds are outfitted with heating pads, and hot water bottles are available. Rooms can be configured with two twin beds or one double bed, and many have picture windows with cushioned window seats affording incredible mountain views. Visitors quickly come to adore the properties’ traditions and quirks: instead of alarm clocks or wake-up calls, staff members bring “bed tea” to your door at 6 A.M.; exhausted and dusty guests arrive to warm towels and swap their hiking boots for Nepalese “Crocs”; lunches and dinners begin with delicious homemade vegetable soup, often redolent with ginger and garlic, an ingredient known to help with altitude sickness.
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