A First Timer’s Guide to Trekking in the Everest Region

Trekking to Pengboche

Hiking the Himalayas is like almost nothing else you have done before. Before my trip, my only frame of reference was hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu four years earlier. Considering that was just a four day trip and only reached at altitude of 4400 meters, it really was no comparison. I did buy a Lonely Planet guide to hiking in the Nepal Himalayas beforehand and read a few blog posts, but nothing really prepared me for the whole experience. Here are a few things that I would tell any first-time trekker – specifically in the Everest region, although some of these could probably be applied to the Annapurna region as well.

You don’t have to go to Everest Base Camp. Before, during and after my trek, nearly everyone I met assumed I was in Nepal to hike to Everest Base Camp (EBC). I wasn’t. We instead took the path less traveled up to Gokyo Ri – a peak at about the same elevation as EBC and with a view straight across to Mount Everest. But really, we could have hiked to a number of different places. While going from Lukla to Namche Bazaar is almost a given, from Namche there are plenty of different options depending on how much time you have and how strenuous (or not) you want your trek to be. You could even just stay in Namche a few days and do some day hikes before heading back to Lukla.

Build in a cushion. Flights between Kathmandu and Lukla can often be delayed due to poor visibility – sometimes for days. Allow yourself extra time before and after your trek so you can adjust your trek as needed if you get delayed – and so you don’t risk missing your flight home out of Kathmandu at the end of your trip.

You don’t need a guide, but there are many benefits to having one. Talk to anyone who has hiked in the Everest Region and they will likely tell you that you do not need a guide. And it’s true, you can definitely hike in the region without one. But, I would argue that having a guide will enhance your overall experience. First, they can help you arrange accommodations. During the high season, the teahouses can fill up quickly with trekking groups. If you show up late in the day on your own, you may be out of luck. A guide may be able to call ahead to reserve you a room or, if you are using porters or dzokyos, the porters or dzokyo drivers can go ahead and get you a room. Moreover, many teahouses will only take hikers traveling with guides. Why? Because the guides help in the dining room – they take their hikers’ orders and deliver the food, making less work for the staff of the teahouse. Not to mention, they can serve as a translator between you and the owners, who don’t always speak much English. Our guide was also able to take us into monasteries that were otherwise closed, explained local traditions and beliefs to us and was a huge help when members of our group were struggling.

Dzokyos

Don’t assume your backpack cover is waterproof. I learned this the hard way – my Eagle Creek backpack came with a built in “rain cover” which proved to be barely water resistant, much less waterproof. On the first major day of rain we experienced, my pack was soaked through – despite being covered with a tarp while on the back of a dzokyo! Luckily, I had anticipated that I might have some problems and had packed my electronics and clothing in plastic bags. Those stayed dry; everything else was dripping wet. Moral of the story: bring plastic bags. Lots of them.

You may not need to bring a sleeping bag. This may seem surprising, but in my experience (I only brought a silk sleeping bag liner), every teahouse had ridiculously warm, thick blankets for no extra charge. Some even gave me two. I went in early October when the nighttime temperatures in my room were between 35 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit; later in the winter, you probably can’t get away with just a liner. But while it’s warm enough, you might as well save some room and weight in your pack by leaving the sleeping bag at home.

Sleep with your clothes for the next day. While you may stay warm at night snuggled up under blankets or in a sleeping bag, at some point you have to get out in the morning and it will be cold! Make things a little easier on yourself by either sleeping in the clothes you plan to wear the next day or sleeping with them so they are warm when you change into them.

Don’t expect to wash your own clothes along the way. I had brought laundry detergent, thinking I would wash my clothes in the sinks along the way. Not so much. Many teahouses explicitly banned washing clothes in the sinks and others only had a single communal sink or no sink at all – not really conducive to washing your undies! Even if I had been able to wash anything, it was too cold and damp for anything to dry quickly anyway. Instead, at the two places where we stayed two nights, I paid to have the teahouse staff do my laundry. In Namche, they actually had a dryer and in Gokyo, the sun shined warmly enough for everything to dry in the sun.

Bring a SteriPen. This may have been the most useful item I brought. While other trekkers were wasting plastic bottles of water or waiting around for purification tablets to kick in, everyone in our group was able to purify their water in a couple minutes. The SteriPen uses UV rays to kill bacteria – you just submerge the “pen” in your bottle of water, move it around a bit for 90 seconds and you are ready to go!

Everything is more expensive as you get higher. The Snickers bar that was 70 cents in Kathmandu and $1 in Namche suddenly becomes $2.50 when you get up to Gokyo. Same goes for the Coca-Cola, the toilet paper and the showers.

Cooking

Expect the same meals everywhere. The food did not vary much at all from one teahouse to the next. For breakfast, omelets, porridge and pancakes were typical whereas for lunch and dinner, choices included slight variations of rice, potatoes, pasta and dumplings. Meat was a rarity outside of Namche so most of your protein will come from eggs.  For someone who is gluten free as I am, your options will be plain rice, fried rice without soy sauce, fried potatoes, boiled potatoes, French fries, omelets and fried eggs. It gets old, believe me!

Bucket showers aren’t so bad. I was expecting the worst when I heard that most showers in the mountains would be “bucket showers.” I was picturing sitting or standing in a small room with a bucket of hot water and trying to give myself a sponge bath of sorts while wondering how to wash my hair with so little water. Wrong! I took two so-called bucket showers along the way and neither was anything like that. In both cases, they heated up about five gallons of water and put it in a giant plastic container. The container was set on top of the shower “room” and connected to a shower head. So as I turned the shower head on, the water flowed out, feeling much like a “normal” shower.  And the teahouse in Pengboche had a regular gas-heated shower which I quickly dubbed “the best shower ever.”

Altitude sickness is serious business. Altitude sickness is not a joke and it can kill you.  If you get delayed flying into Lukla, don’t try to skip a day of acclimatization to make up for lost time. We encountered a group who left Namche the same day as we did but made it to the top of Gokyo Ri a full two days earlier. One of the girls was so sick by the time she got to the top that she had to come straight back down. In Tengboche, we saw a woman being evacuated by helicopter and at the porter rescue center in Machermo, we heard stories of porters succumbing to altitude sickness and almost dying. Go slow and don’t be afraid to hold yourself back if you aren’t feeling well.

Have you hiked in the Himalayas? What would you tell a first-time trekker?

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14 thoughts on “A First Timer’s Guide to Trekking in the Everest Region”

  1. Some great tips here, Katie. Last month (late October/early November) I spent two weeks in the Everest region, too (Chukhung, Island Peak Base Camp, Everest Base Camp, Kala Patthar, Gokyo, Gokyo Ri, etc.). I was on my own with no guide or porter, and I thought I’d add my experiences to yours.

    You said, “During the high season, the teahouses can fill up quickly with trekking groups. If you show up late in the day on your own, you may be out of luck.”

    I read this a lot before I went (and I was there in the high season), and I was a bit worried about it, but I never experienced it. I never had a problem finding a place to spend the night, and I never made reservations. I talked to a few other solo trekkers and asked them if they ever had difficulty finding a place to stay and none of them did, either. Apparently this is a much bigger problem on the Annapurna Circuit than it is in the Everest region. I talked to several people who did the Annapurna Circuit and they said that the rooms in most guesthouses and lodges would be taken by mid-day, and so they’d end up just throwing their sleeping bag on the floor of the guesthouse dining room. I also never experienced what you said about guesthouses only taking trekkers with a guide, and I never had a problem with just speaking English. All of the lodge owners spoke more than enough, and the thought never occurred to me that I wished I’d had a translator.

    You also mentioned possibly not needing a sleeping bag. Two of the guesthouses I stayed at actually had nothing more than sheets on the bed, so you’d freeze solid if you didn’t have a sleeping bag. I’m sure that if I didn’t have one, I could have asked if the guesthouse had any blankets, but the porters and guides often rely on the blankets that the guesthouses provide, and I don’t like the idea of possibly depriving a porter of a blanket.

    I used iodine and chlorine tablets to purify my water. It may not be as instant as a Steri-Pen, but it’s lighter, cheaper, less bulky, and malfunction-proof.

    I smiled when I read what you mentioned about the same meals everywhere. That is very true and is something I didn’t expect. I’ve now eaten enough fried noodles to last a lifetime.

    And finally, I’ll say that you can get absolutely everything you need in Kathmandu. I’ve been traveling for about 15 months now, and when I left home (the US), I didn’t plan on going to Nepal, so I didn’t have any trekking gear with me. I got everything I needed in Kathmandu. I rented a sleeping bag from Shona’s (for something like 80 rupees a day), but bought everything else I needed. The cost of everything was about $200, plus I bought some North Face boots (real ones, not fake ones) from the North Face Store in Thamel for around $109, which is cheaper than what they’d be in the States. I just left everything with the hotel staff when I left Nepal.

    I loved Nepal, and I’m already planning a return trip. It’s probably my favorite country.

    1. Thanks Tristan. Sounds like you may have gotten a bit lucky with accommodations – we stayed at a couple teahouses that were completely full once we arrived (and we weren’t even in the high season yet!) and I saw another turn a couple away because they were on their own without a guide. So it does happen. As for the blankets, they were already in our rooms at nearly every place we stayed – the only place where we had to request them, they clearly had a ton (I could see them all in the cupboards around the dining room) so we weren’t taking anything away from the guides and porters. I would just add that probably an added benefit of having a guide is that he knew the good places to stay – we stayed at places that definitely had blankets and decent showers because he was familiar with what was available and picked the best places for us.

      Not sure if you’ve ever seen a Steripen, but they are quite small and lightweight – this trek was my first time using one and I will never go with anything else. Out of 7 in our group, each of us had one and no one had any issues with malfunctioning. They work so quickly compared to tablets and the best part – no funky aftertaste!

      1. Hi Katie
        Congratulations – you really have a fantastic site and have done some amazing trips !! Your Gokyo tips are great. I will be travelling to Nepal with my daughter , son in law and a friend in October 2015 andwe will basically be doing exactly the same trip as you to Gokyo Ri and back to Lukla via Renjo La pass. We are all really very excited and looking forward to our trip. Will let you know how it went.
        Kind Regards
        Robin

  2. Very interesting article and some good tips. I’ve never been in this region but I know someone who has been to base camp a few times and loves it.

    Good tips about the waterproof (or not) backpacks. Carrier bags are a good idea.

    I dare say things become more expensive the higher you go due to the cost of supplying the shops higher up.

  3. Katie, thanks for writing this very helpful post: great tips, especially the bit about the plastic waterproof bags, expecting similar food throughout the entire trek, and the altitude sickness. Although I’d become accustomed to 7500- and 9000-feet for work (2300, 2700 metres), I *was* surprised by differences I felt at 14000 feet (4300 metres).

  4. This is so helpful! Thanks for sharing this one. Although I have trekked Northern Hill Stations, I am yet to take a hardcore Himalayan trek. I’m sure it must have been a great experience for you (even though a tough one).

  5. Thanks for an informative post… Seems that you learned a few lessons the hard way as well!
    In regards to backpacks – yep, they are notoriously un-waterproof. I would recommend a waterproof backpack liner, or drybags as made by companys like Ortlieb.

  6. Haven’t been to that side of the world yet, but we recently climbed Pico Duarte, the highest peak in the Caribbean, and while its elevation is only 3,000 meters and does not compare at all to the himalayas, we were also completely unprepared.

    We had NO IDEA how cold it could possibly get in the tropics, and just as happened with you, we had some waterproofness issues!!

    Despite the hardships, we had a great time on our first hike and can’t wait to climb some more peaks!!! (or just walk around in a forrest)

  7. Hi just wanted to say, I took a steripen and it malfunctioned in KTM, wouldn’t rely on one; luckily I had water purification tabs too.

    Had no trouble with accommodation; as we went in the shoulder season April – May.

    I washed my laundry everywhere I went, and dried it on the roof or the rock walls in the lanes.

    I agree regarding the food, not being a lover of carbs, I struggled to eat.

    Altitude also no joke, I would definitely recommend going slow – build lots of slack into your plan, drop back then advance again; sleep lower than you have walked – especially before the push to Gorek Shep. The latest lonely planet is finally showing a responsible recommended approach to EBC.

    I found the Tea Houses actually saved my life, they were willing to help me, without a guide. That said I would hire one next time, and some advice from the Sherpas themselves – never carry your own pack, cover your mouth, and keep chest warm at all times above 4,000m.

  8. Thanks for writing this useful post. In this post yo have discussed a great info about waterproof backpacks and really carrier bags are good idea. Keep up blogging.

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