This is a narrative that explains how to do the Nepal Everest Base Camp trek independently. I provide details that include maps, costs, logistical requirements and videos. This is a self-guided adventure on a shoestring. Follow the links to dig deeper into the adventure.
What can I say about a person who is foolish enough to say, “I’ll never return to Everest again,” and then less than a year later finds himself walking the same painful trails, sucking up the same thin air, eating the same bland rice, and humping his own gear in the shadow of that great mountain? Clearly I am not one to follow my own advice. At least this time I have an excuse!
It all began when my son, Seth, emailed me to say that he was planning to take a year off from university and travel in Southeast Asia. Since I was already in that part of the world I offered to help with the expenses if he agreed to accompany me on a few treks. He agreed and soon joined me in India. We slowly made our way to Sikkim and did the Goechala Pass trek and then he pointed towards Nepal and said he would like to trek to Everest before heading off to Thailand (on his own). I agreed and within a week found myself at Nepal’s Lukla airport with an oversized duffle bag full of cold weather gear and in need of a porter.
Seth had found the Sikkim trek to be very cold and felt that we needed additional clothing for Everest so I had effectively doubled our load on the condition that we hire a porter (especially after remembering how tiring it was the previous year when I was only carrying minimal gear).
Upon exiting the airport I went in search of the owner of the Base Camp Lodge, whom I’d met the previous year, in order to procure a responsible porter. By midday we had found the lodge and owner, eaten a filling breakfast, and acquired a shabby looking porter at 500 rs a day ($8). We then set off to clear skies and high hopes.
Total Cost Range of this Activity is: $$
|2 Nights at in Kathmandu (before & after trek)
Flight to/from Lukla
13 GH nights & meals
Park entrance/conservation fee (& $3 TIMs card)
By 2pm it had started to drizzle and shortly thereafter we reached the day’s objective of Monju (at the Sagarmatha National Park boundary). We were in high spirits but the condition of the porter was starting to bother me. He was struggling with our load and did not look all that acclimatized, but ultimately felt that he probably knew what he was capable of accomplishing.
The following day we set off a little late (I was finding out that Seth required at least an hour for morning duties) for Namche. As planned we reached Namche by mid afternoon, but our porter looked quite spent. We settled into the comfortable Camp de Base lodge and our porter demanded to be paid so that he could buy some cold weather clothing and provisions. I paid him and we set the following day’s departure time for 10am in order for me to exchange some money before setting off. He left the lodge very happy and promised to return the following morning before 10 am. Naturally the following day Seth and I found ourselves sitting impatiently at the lodge at 11 am without a porter.
Clearly our porter did know his capabilities (or lack there of) and had decided to take his money and run. I spent the next hour trying to find a porter in Namche without success. It was the end of the season and all available porters were already at the Everest Base Camp to help with the annual exodus of climbers and support personnel. Reluctantly we set out carrying our own gear late in the morning.
That evening we reached the tiny village of Phortse Tenga on the sidetrack leading towards the lake area of Gokyo (one valley to the west of Everest). The day had been hot, dry, and tiring. I could tell that the duffle bag was going to wear me out within a few days if I didn’t find a porter to help share the load. The duffle bag had very thin, un-cushioned straps that I had attached to it in Kathmandu. These straps were intended for short haul light situations, and not for all day support of an over-filled bag. By the end of the day my shoulders were sore yet I felt strong.
The following morning we again tried to find a porter without success. We finally set out knowing that the day would have been easier if it were not for the load we were carrying, but we had no choice but to continue on and see if our luck improved. We stopped for lunch in Dole (with only one open Guest House) and were informed that even fewer Guest Houses would be available ahead because the trekking season had effectively ended. This meant few sleeping and eating options and even fewer porter options. Rather than quit for the day we agreed to push on to Machhermo because it would have at least three open Guest Houses and better chances of finding a porter.
That evening we settled into a fog shrouded empty Guest House in Machhermo. We were the only guests in the entire village and treated very hospitably as a result. We became friendly with the woman proprietor and finally she reluctantly agreed to lend us one of her workers the following day to act as a day porter. The next day would require only a net increase in altitude of 350 m and four hours of hiking, yet we knew that we would have a great deal of altitude trekking over the next two weeks and any break we got from carrying our own gear now would pay out in time.
We left early the next morning with a young and healthy porter. Even so, I found stretches of the trail exhausting and literally breath taking. The trail climbed steadily as we followed the Dodh Koshi River on the west bank until reaching a tributary creek above the village of Phang. At this point we were on an upper plateau with a tiny high mountain lake called Long Ponba (First Lake). Here the terrain was rocky and essentially vegetation free and quite surreal due to the thousands of rock cairns (pyramids). We continued on to an even larger lake called Tajung Tsho (Second Lake) and then finally Dudh Pokhari (Third Lake) and the village of Gokyo.
Gokyo is a village of about ten prosperous Guest Houses and the last habitation in the Dodh Koshi valley and the second most popular destination of the Everest Trek due to the lookout called Gokyo Ri (Peak) situated at the north tip of the lake. We dumped our gear, paid off our porter, and settled into a spartan (but comfortable) double room. We agreed to spend the rest of the day relaxing in anticipation of an ambitious plan for the next day.
We were up at 6 am on the morning of day six. It was sunny, the skies were clear, and yet it was cold. With a little bit of prodding I managed to get Seth fed, packed, and out on the trail by 7 am. I’d noticed, over the past few days, that the monsoon clouds began to hide the mountain summits within an hour or two of dawn so I was anxious to reach the Gokyo Ri peak quickly. Naturally our early start and my anxiety tempted the mountain gods to toy with us. From the village I followed the clear path north rather than the stepping-stones west across the shallow stream. We continued north hoping to spot a trail split to the west since our map showed that the peak was to the northwest of the village. We continued on until cresting a rise and spotting Thonak Tsho (Fourth Lake).
In frustration I realized that the stepping-stones that we had passed when we set out were in fact the trail split. I had completely missed the trail head from the very beginning. We stopped to rest and Seth didn’t say a word as I fumed at my stupidity. It was 8 am and we had wasted an hour and consumed precious energy moving north. I got up, turned tail, and .set off at a brisk pace south until we returned to our starting point and the stepping-stones at 8:30 am. We rested briefly, crossed the stream and then followed the steep winding trail up to the lookout for the next hour and a half. I found the going extremely tiring and kept looking over my shoulder at the Everest range in the valley to the east. The mountains were shrouded in white fluffy fast-moving clouds that would open and close our view at intervals. I was afraid that the short and dramatic openings were getting shorter and would soon stop altogether. Fortunately the constant change in cloud cover continued well beyond the time we reached the Gokyo Ri summit.
We settled down and spent the next hour and a half causally taking photos, filming, snacking, and enjoying the inspiring views. We could see the entire range of mountains from the north (Pumori) to the South (Thamserku) with constant dramatic changes due to the clouds. By noon the clouds had grown even thicker and the views diminished so much that we decided that it was time to return to Gokyo, gather our gear, head back south to the first lake, cut east to cross the Ngozumpa Glacier, and head for the two Guest House village of Thangnak.
Our further plan was to attempt a crossing of the 5368 m Cho La Pass the following day and it was imperative that we spend this night as close to the pass as possible. The descent of Gokyo Ri was not as tiring as the ascent, yet it was painful on the knees. We returned to the village, gathered our gear and setoff without incident. The crossing of the glacier proved to be much easier than I had anticipated, even though we were carrying our gear again and parts of the trail had fallen away due to melting ice.
We kept the pace comfortable and stopped to rest at regular intervals. We reached Thnagnak by 4:30 pm, settled into the Guest House as the only customers again, and immediately started asking about porter services. We were informed that no porters were available so late in the season so I asked about renting one of the many yaks that I had seen grazing in the area. The young proprietor (son of the elderly owners) said it was impossible for a yak to even reach the pass, let alone climb over it, so I asked about the owner of the yaks. He agreed to ask the owner if he might agree to a half day of porter duties at twice the daily going rate.
After dinner that evening he returned to say that the yak herder had agreed to lead us to the pass, then up to its summit early the next morning. He would then collect his fee and return home. We agreed since we had been warned that the trail to the pass was difficult to find from this valley and that the climb was ice covered, treacherous, and steep. I was afraid that it would be difficult enough for us to cross the pass, even if not burdened like pack animals with all our gear.
Day seven started at 5:30 am with clear cold skies. The yak herder turned out to be an old man (who was actually around my age, but extremely weathered). He had a number of grown children. He had personally been a porter and guide in his youth and two of his sons were now guides and had reached the summit of Everest a few times each. It soon became apparent that the old guy was as fit as a mountain goat and seemed completely at ease with the altitude and trail. Seth and I had a very difficult time keeping up with him and lost him a few times along the way. In the end he reached the top of the pass so long before us that we had no idea how to even begin the steep climb until half way up we spotted him high above gesturing for us to cross to the other side of the steep icy bowl.
Reluctantly we doubled back a ways, crossed over slick ice covered boulders, and then reached a frozen creek hidden by a layer of frozen snow. Slowly we made our way up by kicking new snow steps or walking in the steps of prior trekkers. However the footing grew more steep and difficult as we ascended. The ice got thinner and fast running water could be seen beneath parts of exposed sections. I marveled that the porter had somehow done this same ascent with the ill-fitting duffle bag and at such a break neck speed. One misplaced step and we would tumble down the seventy-five degree icy slope to a fateful conclusion and yet retreating would be no safer at that point. We slowed down to focus on each step and in time reached a reasonable slope where the porter was waiting patiently. We followed him another 100 meters to a crest upon which sat the customary piles of rocks, prayer flags, and small token offerings to the gods.
We marveled at the differences in landscapes and that it was only noon and that we had spent six hours to cover such a short distance. To our west was a sheer drop, a jumble of boulders, and rolling hills the descended to the glacier. To our east were steep rock walls and suspended blue ice glaciers that ended in an open snow bowl at our feet. We paid off the porter and he set off as quickly as a mountain mouse. He literally disappeared over the crest and was gone before I could get a clear photo of him.
Seth and I sat at the pass to rest and eat some lunch before setting off across the ankle deep wet slippery snow bowl. The going for the next hour was generally downhill, very slippery and wet (Seth had broken thru some thin ice and soaked one of his feet up to the knee), yet quite fast. We rested again at the end of the snow and ice sheet and the start of the steep sheer rock descent. We had an unobstructed view of the distant village of Phulung Karpo, two days to the southeast and numerous dramatic mountains in all directions. Once again the scenery had changed dramatically in a short amount of time.
We reached the two Guest House village of Dzonglha by 1:30 and immediately took to our over priced bunks to sleep the rest of the afternoon away. Dinner was uneventful and we looked forward to an early start the following day and possibly reaching the ambitious objective of Gorak Shep. We knew that the objective was not possible if we were to carry our gear, yet we hopeful that we could find a porter when we reached the main trekking route to Everest along the Khumbu Glacier valley.
We set off late the next (eighth) day and hoped to make up time by taking a rarely used side trail that would bypass the 4840m high pass and memorial grounds above the three Guest House village of Duglha. Unfortunately we couldn’t find the trail head, doubled back, climbed up yak trails, and generally wasted a lot of time and energy before giving up and returning to the main trail and heading for Duglha. We reached it by 10:30 am, sat down to an early lunch of tomato soup and conversed with the proprietor and her many guests. The trail was literally a highway of yaks and porters heading in both directions. The woman explained that the climbing season would be officially closed within a week and that all climbers had to be off the mountain by June 6th. As such every porter and yak from Lukla north was currently engaged in the bi-annual massive movement of materials. Many of the yaks going north were burdened with foodstuffs for Guest House storage until the next season and every creature with legs heading south was hauling remarkable quantities of gear of every type and description.
We inquired about hiring one of the northbound porters simply to carry our duffle bag to the northern village of Gorak Shep. She pointed out a young man that was on his way to Base Camp without any load and said she knew him personally. We approached him and negotiated the day rate (500 rs) for his services just to Gorak Shep. He agreed and estimated that we could reach it within three hours. We felt that his estimate was optimistic, but were not inclined to argue. We finished lunch and setoff together. Very quickly it became apparent that he was in a hurry and impatient of our pace. Seth dropped back at the steep 200 m climb to the memorial pass. I recalled that the prior year I had stopped to rest on this stretch at least three times. Yet in this instance I was being forced to walk at an extremely fast pace without stopping at all.
I looked forward to reaching the pass so that we could rest. However, when we did reach the pass the porter continued on without pausing. I couldn’t let the porter out of my sight so had no choice other than to follow. The porter had previously commented on our gear and was very much impressed with our cold weather jackets and sleeping bags that he was carrying. He even suggested that I pay him in advance so that he could move faster and then deposit our gear at the first Guest House in Gorak Shep. I had no idea what his name was, the village he lived in, or if he could be trusted, so I said I’d pay him when we reached the village together and that I would keep up with him. He seemed to think that his was a personal challenge and increased his pace.
We reached the village of Lobuche an hour later as I sat down to rest while he went in search of a friend he was supposed to meet. Five minutes later he was back and ready to continue. I looked back and didn’t see any sign of Seth, sighed, got up and followed the speedy porter. The next hour was hell and yet it still wasn’t over. I kept my head down and each step was a struggle as we quickly gained altitude in short steep rocky rises. We finally stalled at a steep narrow sandy trail due to a constant steam of fully loaded yaks heading south. A large number of porters had settled down at this blockage patiently waiting for the yak trains to open up. I took advantage of the ten- minute break to pass out. Much to soon my porter was up and snaking his way up the trail.
I followed and knew that I was very close to the end of my reserves. Upon reaching the crest I saw a set of prayer flags on a distant rise and sighed. It would be hell to reach them but at least Gorak Shep should be on the other side. Most of the mountain villages hang prayer flags at the rises around them so that trekkers can see their objectives and to help push them on for the final segments. I let the distance between the porter and myself open as he snaked his way to the distant flags. However when I reached the flags and looked over the crest I saw that the trail continued on to another crest with prayer flags. I felt cheated and spent.
Once again I put my head down, stared at the few meters ahead of me rather than the distant objective and panted my way higher as the porter grew smaller. In time it became clear that the trail to Gorak Shep was a series of steep ascents with flags at the crest of each segment. I lost track of the number of false crests and finally completely lost sight of the porter and then gave up hopes of seeing our gear again.
At that point I didn’t really care about the gear and spent my time estimating its value to keep my mind occupied and prevent myself from simply stopping and sitting down. I was at that point so exhausted that I felt that I might not be able to continue on for a very long time, so it was imperative that I continue walking, even at an old man’s pace.
An hour later (that felt infinite at that altitude) I cleared a crest that opened up on a sandy plateau that sheltered the tiny village of Gorak Shep, the last habitation in the Khumbu Glacier valley and four hours shy of the Everest Base Camp. Surprisingly I spotted the porter (they all look the same so I had memorized the style of his clothes and his bandana). He had not disappeared with out gear, yet was in a hurry to be paid and head off for Base Camp to collect his primary load. I paid him gladly and wondered if it would have been easier simply to have carried my own duffle bag and walked at a slower pace that day.
I didn’t dwell on the matter as I entered the Guest House, got a double room, dumped the gear, and returned to the trail to await Seth’s arrival. It was 2:15 pm when he arrived looking worse for wear. We had dropped two hundred meters in the first three hours of that day and then gained over three hundred meters over the next three hours to reach this village at 5147 meters. It had been a brutal five hours of mindless high altitude trekking so we turned in for long afternoon naps.
We were out at 5:45 am the next morning (day nine) and ascending the steep slopes to reach the Kala Patthar lookout (5550 m) by 8 am. The skies were clear, the views spectacular, and the clouds that swallowed Gorak Shep stayed trapped in the lower valley. We spent the next few hours mostly alone at the black precarious rock outcrop taking photos, filming, eating a pack breakfast, and marveling at the majestic splendor of the snow-capped peaks that surfaced above the clouds in all directions and especially Everest and Nuptse to the east.
The 360-degree panorama was worth the sacrifice over the past eight days (no pain, no gain) yet I knew that we were not done with this trek yet and that we still had at least four more exhausting days before we could comfortably sit back and enjoy mixed drinks in Kathmandu. I closed out these thoughts of warmth, humidity and comfort as the cold started to become unbearable, even with the sun shining. We reluctantly left our vantage point of the mountain gods and return to Gorak Shep for the afternoon and an early evening with plans to set out for the Everest Base Camp the next morning at 3:30 am.
Seth debated leaving with me the next morning in the dark and cold but in the end (after delaying me for almost an hour) left the Guest House with me at 4:20am. We tried to keep our pace fast but it was obvious that the altitude and constant man hauling of our gear had consumed our reserves. We slowed down and lost the trail a number of times, as I grew more and more frustrated. I had set out early because the annual Tensing-Hillary Everest Marathon was scheduled to begin at Base Camp at 7 am. I was determined to be there for the beginning of such a non-seneschal event. The camp is pitched in a maze of treacherous ice and rock piles on the very surface of the Khumbu Glacier. A trekker spends a least an hour zigzagging thru this maze to reach the camp and it would certainly be even more hazardous for over one hundred cold and sleepy runners that morning.
I reached the quiet camp exhausted as the sun slowly began to clear Everest’s West Shoulder. It was extremely cold and was shivering as I stumbled about trying to figure out if I had somehow missed the race. There was a single large marathon banner on the wall of a stone hut, but no sign of racers, just porters dismantling tents, and loading yaks. Eventually a lone western figure exited a small tent so I stayed in the area waiting to see where he went. In time more figures exited the scattered tents and began to congregate at the banner while jumping up and down to keep warm in the biting cold. When enough had accumulated they started to move across the ice field to another stone hut that had a starting line banner on one side.
I settled down on the top of an ice melt pile and waited for the race to begin as Nepalese runners started to join the group. It was interesting to observe the westerners in their high-tech clothing, running shoes, and camel packs, in comparison to the Nepalese in cheap gym shorts, white t-shirts, and sneakers. In time the locals, who didn’t seem unsettled by the altitude and cold, out numbered the westerners two-to-one.
Finally after a great deal of confusion and administrative activities the race started with the sound of a whistle, cheers and commotion. The runners quickly established a single file of sorts and snaked their way thru the ice field to disappear over a crest within a few minutes. The camp settled back to the quiet of the wind and the commotion of porters disassembling structures and pilling up loads for humans and yaks bearers. I then began to wander aimlessly thru the empty campgrounds and take photos.
Near the south end of the camp I found Seth sitting on a boulder eating a chocolate bar. He had reached the camp before the race had started and pointed out that when he used to run cross-country in high school, no race had ever started on time so he had taken a more leisurely pace that morning as a result. I asked him why he had neglected to share that morsel of wisdom with me and he laughed and told me that I had not hung around to ask questions that morning. I fumed for a minute, agreed in the end, and laughed. We spent some quiet time at Base Camp to take each other’s photos and contemplate our accomplishment before stripping off some cold weather layers and then leaving the camp in sunshine and warmer spirits.
The next three days were no less exhausting as we hauled our tired bodies, burdened with gear, down to Dingbouche, Namche Bazaar, and then Lukla. On the morning of the fourteenth day (June 2nd) we boarded a 7 am flight and within an hour were back in the steamy town of Kathmandu enjoying hot showers, rich food, and cold drinks. I was drained and yet I was happy to have completed the Everest Base Camp trek again vowing never to say ‘never’ again!