I thought I might leave ‘The Best Day’ as my final post — you know, to end on a high note.
But the reality is that a trek like this is hard in ways you don’t anticipate. It is physically draining, of course, but also, emotions tend to sideswipe you. You can look at a rhododendron blossom dangling over a glacial river and start to cry. You will be cheering and jeering at nightly card games, even if you’re not playing.
Most people can do a trek like this, but there seem to be many who are not enjoying it. I don’t want to romanticize a trek like this. If you’re contemplating a walk through the Himalayas, there are some things you should know.
I am huddled in my sleeping bag as I write this, because, outside of the common room, tea houses are not heated. Some are built of plywood and have no running water. To flush the toilet (usually shared), you dump a bucket of water into the bowl. Insulation in walls? Hahaha…cute idea. The lodges with stone walls are like sleeping in a castle. Rock IS the insulation. Even writing this post, my fingers are freezing.
At lower elevations, the wood burning stoves are filled with actual wood. At higher elevations, yak dung is dried and used as fuel. The smell is slightly reminiscent of marijuana. And the stoves can fill the room with smoke, if not properly tended. Sadly, there are no benefits to inhaling burning yak shit.
Mouth & Nose
Several of us have developed blisters on our lips from the sun & wind & cold. It hurts like hell. I try to drink my coffee without touching the side of my mouth to the cup. When I eat, I curl my lip so no food will touch the blister. I cried today when I got ketchup on my lip — it’s that painful.
A constantly runny nose from the cold and dust make tissues feel like sandpaper. I usually just touch my nose with my sleeve because it hurts the least. Besides, my shirt hasn’t been washed since I left Germany, so what’s a little mucus added to the cuff?
I had a random nosebleed at Gorak Shep. Just one, and it wasn’t gushing or anything. I was assured I did not have a brain hemorrhage. It could just be that we were sitting at over 16,000 feet and my head wanted to explode. The good thing is that the nosebleed made my headache go away.
The top of my nose, due to sun and wind and cold, has the texture of a cantaloupe. It also looks kind of purple. I can’t wait to get back to my Clinique exfoliating facial cleanser I left in Kathmandu.
My feet have no blisters, thank god. However, my toenails were a little too long 2 days ago, and the constant downhill pressure made the tips of my big toes go numb. I’ve regained feeling, but they still tingle.
The calluses on my right foot (from marathon running) need to be scraped off, because they pull the healthy skin around the big toe, which, after several hours of hiking, tends to feel like I’ve got a rock embedded in my skin. If I had my lava stone with me, I would’ve scrubbed the suckers off.
I went four days without a shower. My hair was so oily, I put baby powder in it and brushed it out — just to get rid of the smell. Baby wipes are helpful. First you put them in the inside pocket of your down jacket to warm them. Then, you expose one sliver of your body at a time to clean. It doesn’t really help you stay warm— but it makes you feel clever.
I go to bed after supper. It’s dark. (Did I mention it’s cold too?) And even if I could keep my eyes open to read, the activity leaves one hand exposed to the cold. Even with gloves on, I take turns holding the book with one hand, while the other gets tucked into the sleeping bag. I quickly found it’s too much work. I haven’t been awake past 8pm since we began the trek.
Most nights, I sleep in my merino wool base layer, socks, merino beanie, gloves and 800 fill down jacket — inside my sleeping bag with liner. And this is May. I’ve been assured it’s warm now.
To be fair, at the lower elevations, I only need my sleeping bag, otherwise I sweat like I’ve descended into hell.
At higher elevations, you might wake at night as if somebody has been holding you underwater. I didn’t have this problem at Gorak Shep (the highest altitude village in which we stayed) but in Khumjung, a mere 12,400 feet. I sat straight up, gasping for air and clawing at the thick buff I thought was around my neck (it wasn’t).
Altitude can really mess with your mind. My dreams were vivid and weird and usually involved climbing across boulders in high heels.
Fitness and Physiology
Fitness and physiology is a fascinating part of this journey. You can take long walks at home, but you would need to train hard for a trek like this.
As a runner and regular Crossfitter, my body has withstood the trek well. You can build leg muscles for all the hiking (and squatting over toilets), but the way your body uses oxygen & burns fuel is paramount.
Huge biceps are not going to help your blood oxygen levels. You could think you’re strong, and be weak as a baby if altitude sickness hits you.
Age has nothing to do with it. Sitting at over 16,000 feet at Gorak Shep, a slim 20-something guy had to be hooked up to an oxygen tank. Our porters carried an oxygen tent up to Gorak Shep, just in case one of us needed it.
My blood oxygen & heartrate have been outstanding (this is true for the other runner in the group too). And things like that only come about with regular training — you can’t pop a pill and go wander the Himalayas.
When you train for a trek like this, you are not simply building muscle — you are training your body to be more efficient. Oxygen delivery and the way your body uses energy can make the difference between surviving the trek and enjoying the trek.
Many people we saw in the early part of our journey didn’t make it to base camp.
No they didn’t die — they just had to turn back.
I saw people who were miserable. And I saw people who probably should’ve been turned back by someone sensible. One woman was weaving about the trail, dragging her poles behind her. I genuinely worried about her & wondered why the hell the guy with her would continue without her & wait for her at the top. *asshole
I was going to offer to carry her pack for her, but by then (on the stairway to hell known as Thokla Pass), I was starting to see stars.
Yeah, like little points of light that had no business being in broad daylight.
I had to remind myself of the breathing pattern I use for running, which coincides well with the Tara Mantra. I did make it up all the way without passing out or falling off the cliff — so that’s a win. And for the record, it was the only time I saw stars during daylight hours.
I am dirty. Even if I get a hot shower, my clothes are filthy. I stepped in yak shit, and it got on the cuff of my pants — and I don’t even care. I’ll wash them in the sink later and hope they dry.
My hands are almost constantly filthy; dirt has tattooed the calluses on my palms. Even when I clip my nails, they still have dirt under them.
When I have access to running water, I wash my face and hope the sweat doesn’t get into the blister on my lip. Running water is usually cold.
God bless the tea houses that have showers where the water is hooked up to a propane heater. Sure, it goes from icy to scalding to icy…but you can get your hair washed if you’re quick.
If the water is solar heated, you can shower in the early afternoon — if you had a sunny morning. If it was cloudy, you either wash the dirtiest bits of yourself with cold water or break out the baby wipes.
My socks smell like they belong to a teenage soccer player with foot fungus. Baby powder & deodorizer don’t help much. I wish I’d brought more than 4 pairs. Normally, Smartwool socks don’t stink — but the Himalayas do funny things to feet. Mine are usually cold but sweaty — it doesn’t seem fair, somehow.
I won’t even discuss the state of my boots, other than they need a chemical bath before I can pack them home.
It’s All Downhill from Here, Except when you go up
The thing about this trek is that sometimes to get from one place to another, you have to climb up in order to get back down again. It is not a steady uphill battle to Everest Base Camp followed by an easy descent to Luckla.
Sometimes going up, while a little more strenuous, is easier than going downhill. I don’t like how gravity wants me to slip and slide down the trail. It is a constant fight against gravity.
Rocks slip in the dirt, and sometimes there’s nothing to dig your boot into. It’s like a chess match: you have to think three steps ahead if you want to survive. Often I literally tell myself “left, right, left” while looking at the rocks that will become my staircase.
The Truth about Trekking
I’m sure I could fill a book with what I’ve learned. And maybe I will someday. Our guide told us: “Most people don’t begin hiking with the EBC,” then she looked at me and added, “Unless they’ve done ten Marathons or something.
I had to laugh. This was actually my first experience with hiking. I’ve never used hiking poles in my life — and sometimes I trip over them. Other times I bang them against rocks or stick them into holes.
So, you want to go?
Despite the truths I’ve shared, some of you crazy people might want to undertake something like this. I will tell you — go for it!
But also, be prepared for the hardships. Expect Asian toilets and be happily surprised by running water. Lower your standards about lodging. Fall in love with a good sleeping bag. And train as if you’re climbing Everest, rather than ‘just’ going to base camp.
Work hard before you go, so you can enjoy the ups and downs of the ride.
It is totally worth the effort.