Kathmandu to Everest Base Camp: Step 1 – Arrive at Kathmandu Airport
As the light peered through my airplane window, I awoke to a Nepali voice announcing that in minutes we would be landing at Kathmandu Airport. Years in the making, I knew the second I stepped off this plane my bucket list item of completing the Everest Base Camp Trek would feel inescapably real. The dusty brown clay colored city below, so common in south Asia, made the thought of the coming adventure feel so close I could touch it. Spending the night on the floor of the New Delhi Airport during an overnight layover and the chaotic boarding experience to follow, so common with lining up for anything in India, left me foggy and groggy, but I still felt oddly energized considering it was only 6:30 AM.
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The sunlight angled down between the buildings hundreds of feet below ominously as it held a dim eeriness but foreshadowed great things to come. The weather was beautiful and the air oddly clear for such a dusty place. I had clearly chosen the 77 mile round trip trek to Everest Base Camp: October 1. Winter had just ended, leaving crisp yet wonderful weather and crystal-clear skies as the dust remained settled. Though I would miss the teams attempting to summit Everest, which come during the May trekking season, the sacrifice was worth it for the warmer weather and clearer views the October Himalayas gave in trade.
That clear Himalayan sky welcomed me as the numerous strings of ice capped crags and spires called in the distance, peering just above the clouds. As our plane lowered closer to the dirt streets that zigzagged across the city. I turned my attention inward toward the cabin to see so many other westerners, all clad in every bit of outdoor and trekking gear REI had in stock, all with the same itinerary: Kathmandu to Everest.
The jostling bump of our tiny plane touching down was a familiar feeling at this point in my travels – a sign that the beginning of the next adventure was a few steps and a visa stamp away. Once I was off the plane my plan was simple, dump my things at my hostel, head straight for Thamel, the Kathmandu clothing district that caters to EBC trekkers, grab the extra gear and maps I would need, and briefly chat with a local about tips on getting to Everest Base Camp in once piece and (if possible) with a smile. Even though I had just arrived in Kathmandu on a couple hours of mediocre sleep, I would still leave for Lukla Airport the following day to begin my self-guided Everest trek, just over 24 hours after arriving.
As I stepped off the plane, a sea of Northface clad, coffee deprived zombies speed walked across the open tarmac toward the tiny Kathmandu Airport building, trying to beat the rest of the hoard of other passengers that were clearly in Nepal for their own glimpse of Everest. As I followed, I had the feeling that the look of Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport hinted things to come. The building was tinier than expected for the amount of traffic it sees, a little older than expected, but on par with the rest of the buildings I saw in the distance in Kathmandu and filled with relatively polite employees shuffling us through like adventurous cattle.
After paying the $40 one-month Nepal visa fee (the 15-day fee is only $25) I crossed into a chaotic receiving area where taxi drivers sprang on arriving passengers with the hope of an overpriced cab fare without question. I pointed to another passenger as if he was my guide and the one who should be answering questions. They took the bait and immediately began harassing him as I escaped to the right and purchased a SIM card at an in airport cell phone kiosk.
My plan was to do the entire trek to Everest Base Camp independently, without a porter carrying any of my things, and without a guide, so having a local SIM card was one of the smarter things I could do to mitigate the risks of my adventurous nature. Wifi is available in many of the small villages along the trek up to the town of Gorak Shep, but at a very high cost, but cell service and is a great emergency alternative and is available all of the way Tingboche, nearly the halfway point for the EBC trek. Besides, $13 for 3 GB of data isn’t bad at all. In hindsight, I should have grabbed a plan with text capability and calling instead of relying on Google Voice. Above Tingboche, the cell network only supports voice and text, no data. No worries…true adventures are defined by the bad decisions we make early on. Here’s to adventure.
With my feet on Nepali soil and my cell phone in hand and connected to the inter-webs I waved down a cab for the NayaBazar neighborhood, just north of Thamel, the Kathmandu Outdoor Clothing district. Most backpackers opt for a place to stay in Thamel, which aids the exploration of Kathmandu, but I was just looking forward to a good, quiet night’s sleep in prep for my flight to Lukla Airport the next day
A Tour of Kathmandu (By Taxi)
When on the road, the taxi rides from the airport to wherever I’m resting my head for the evening are always a treat. The ride is always an opportunity to sit back and enjoy a visual buffet of a city’s culture. I get to see a variety of locals, neighborhoods, and random oddities, all from the safety of my little tourist bubble. And if luck strikes, I may end up with a charming cabbie that can give a no strings attached commentary along the way. Today though, no verbal additions to the taxi tour…just absorbing the exotic sights of Kathmandu was more than enough.
The densely urban city’s streets appeared to have been somewhat paved, once upon a time, but were now packed dirt roads that would become miserably dusty during summer and remained crowded with honking cars every minute of the day. The buildings were stories high and connected by an infinite number of electrical and telephone wires zigzagging across streets and overhead. In the base levels of the buildings and all over the dilapidated sidewalks adjacent to them, true Kathmandu life took place. Tiny, informal convenience stores selling everything from knockoff shoes to your favorite Nestle snacks, to goats’ heads, lined the streets. Owners sat minding their stores as friends and neighbors sat in front chatting. The vibe of Kathmandu felt stressed and hurried, as many big cities do, but at a much slower pace. I guess the way to put it would be “stressed and hurried…by South Asia standards”. After a 40-minute cab ride to NayaBazar sector that cost all of $10, I hopped out at the opening of an alley with the “Hostel Himalaya” sign hung just in view.
The alleyway felt quintessentially like urban Kathmandu…a narrow, packed dirt road flanked on both sides by 3 story reddish-clay colored brick buildings connected by a sea of black wires. At the end of the alley was a tall, very regal looking black iron gate with a sign bearing the name of my home for the night: Hostel Himalaya.
I immediately felt surprisingly at home as I walked up, compared to the rest of Kathmandu. As I walked into the clean bricked courtyard the owner, a former Everest guide, sat playing chess with a friend. “You must be Carlos”, he said “let’s get you to your room.”
The manager was a great introduction to the mountain people of Nepal. By mountain people I mean the Sherpa people and the non-Sherpa Nepalese that work as guides and porters for the Everest Trek and summiting Everest. These “mountain people” are pleasantly unique in that when you meet them, you can feel a calm demeanor filled with politeness. Nothing seems to bother or startle them but all the same they are tough and very capable. Damn near superhuman. They’re impressive.
After dropping off my things in my hostel room, aptly named “Everest” (all of the rooms were named for the treks and mountains in the Himalayas – Annapurna, Everest, Gokyo, etc.), the manager politely offered me a cup of tea and the chance to review my plan for getting to Everest Base Camp and my packing list with him. I let him know I planned to leave early the following morning to make the point that I didn’t have much time left to get things together. He took the hint and handed me a map guiding me to Thamel to buy gear, the grocery store to buy junk food, a street to find pharmacies for the meds I would take in my first aid kit, and a couple cafés to relax at after my gear hunt ended.
Everest Base Camp Trek Pack List Philosophy: Keep it simple and don’t forget the drugs
Thamel: The Kathmandu Clothing and Gear District
My Everest Base Camp Trek Packing List was simple and straightforward. I planned to hike carrying my own gear, no porter, which meant I had to keep my pack under the recommended 10kg/22lbs to stay on the safe side. So, I had to keep it simple. A pair of pants for hiking, shorts for sleeping, a couple of shirts, a light insulation layer, a heavy insulation layer, a rain jacket, boots, my beloved Xero Trail sandals, LOTS of underwear, hiking socks, hat, sunglasses, LOTS of chocolate, medication for the altitude, infections, aches and pains, and a few odds and ends. (Checkout my full Everest Base Camp Trek Packing List and some recommended essentials and precautions here). Now that I had my list of gear and where to find it, it was time to head for Thamel
The Kathmandu clothing district, commonly referred to as Thamel for the main street that runs down it’s center, is interesting because you can find one use knockoffs of everything outdoorsy: jackets, pants, sleeping bags, anything, and they will all work just fine for the trek. I say “one use” because the gear almost seems to have been designed to survive one trip to Everest Base Camp and after completion to fall apart faster than an alcoholic’s hopes and dreams for a normal life.
Because of this “one use design” I absolutely recommend bringing your own trusted boots and your own trusted and tested backpack for the trek. Anything else can be purchased or rented in Thamel for one third US prices for those on a long backpacking tour across southeast Asia and unwilling to sacrifice the packing space to bring a puffy layer and a sleeping bag. After the adventure, trekkers feeling generous can donate any gear to the local porters who are always in need of new gear…you’ll absolutely notice their working conditions (and gear) on the trek.
Shopping in Asia: A full Contact Sport
At this point, I had been in Asia a few months and shopping had become a full contact sport that I was getting good at. The home team (the shop owners) had to guard their gear and their profits as much as possible. The visiting team (this guy) had to leave the arena (whatever shop I was in) with as much of the good gear as possible and as much money in his wallet as possible, while not getting arrested. The best tactic for this you might ask?
First, pin down exactly what I needed to buy – today, I was only after a rain jacket and a sleeping bag to rent.
Second, walk up the length of “Thamel Marg” the street (according to Google Maps) that goes right down the middle of the Thamel, Kathmandu trekking gear district, and check out the goods. There are hundreds of shops here selling knockoff Columbia and Northface gear, most of which hanging in front of their shops. I check it all out and find two or three options that I like.
Third, play the shop owners against each other. “So and so is selling the same thing for such and such price…and its completely waterproof! Gore-tex! And theirs comes with a pony!” Now, normally I’m an honest man, but full contact sports are different, so I say what I can to get a deal (just like the shop owners do).
Game set match. Did I win? I’m not quite sure…but I had the stuff I needed to get to Everest Base Camp and stay warm and dry along the way, so I’ll call that a win.
I finished my day by renting a heavy down sleeping bag for $2 per day and buying a “Northface Gore-Tex” rain jacket for $25, with a savings of $20 due to my dishonest price comparisons. Damn…it feels good to be a gangsta! Anyways…
After the “shopping match” I headed for the Summit Book House, in Thamel, to pick up a map for the Trek. Any book house in Thamel provides great maps. Though it is entirely possible to walk the extremely trodden paths of the trek without a map, the Marine in me still loves to have one handy. For those that would choose not to bring one, using a mobile mapping app on a smartphone, like Maps.Me or Google Maps, is entirely possible. Or, one could simply follow the heard, figuratively and literally. 1) There will be so many people on the trail at any given point during both trekking seasons that it would take a good amount of effort to get lost and 2) the locals are constantly shuffling herds of yaks up the mountains, so if you get lost…just follow the large piles of poop! But back to the adventure…now that I had my clothing it was off to the pharmacy and the grocery store.
At the pharmacy I loaded up on everything you would need for a zombie level (or White Walker level) apocalypse. Antibiotics, altitude sickness medication, stomach goodies, diarrhea medication, plenty of water purification tablets (4L worth per day for 2 days longer than I would be on the mountain), a nice pain cocktail (ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and something…that I’m uncertain of…but it felt great!), and a handful of other magic health candies (all listed in my Everest Base Camp Packing List).
At the grocery store, I only got the essentials. 17 Snickers bars and 4 Cadbury chocolate bars…and some random snack and waters. Listen! If I only give you three pieces of advice, here they are:
- Bring a portable charger – power to charge your cell phone or camera is in short supply and pricey when you come by it. To make sure you get those Insta-enviable pics on the peak without breaking the bank, be like Chuck Norris…bring the power with you!
- Walk slowly – Anyone can finish the trek if they walk slowly enough. And anyone can get altitude sickness if they walk quickly enough.
- (Most important) Bring Chocolate! Lots of chocolate! – It is convenient fuel, tastes amazing, and along the trek any chocolate you find will be more expensive than gold and probably has been sitting there getting stale since Sir Edmund Hillary passed through. Bottom line, bring chocolate. If you get sick of it, you can always share and make friends. Two extra Snickers bars made me a rock star with the porters.
- Last piece of advice…don’t shop while you’re hungry or you’ll end up buying 17 Snickers bars…which weigh 2 pounds total, for the record. Not that I weighed them or anything.
Coffee in Kathmandu, a brief taste of home, and final plans
With my bag full of goodies and my map in hand I followed my nose, and the other backpackers, to find a mellow coffee shop to have a nice fat meal and plan the rest of my adventure. The Electric Pagoda Outdoor Café, still in Thamel, hit the spot perfectly. The courtyard was surrounded by plants and hidden, shaded areas and comfy enough that it legitimately felt like I was in a friend’s backyard. Slightly hipster and trendy and clearly leaning towards western tastes, I guiltily settled in to the restaurant, opened my map and my Microsoft Surface (the best laptop for backpacking, in case you were wondering) and ordered a burger and fries and enjoyed the last “homey” atmosphere I would be in for a while. Yeah, eating a burger abroad is a flashpacker faux pas BUT I’d be eating nothing but lentils and rice for a couple weeks to come.
Flying from Kathmandu to Lukla
I purchased my ticket in advance through Yeti Airlines directly through their site at YetiAirlines.com a week prior as I heard during the best trekking seasons (May and October) flights fill up too quickly to book in Kathmandu…so the flight was taken care of. I was leaving in just over 12 hours on the 9AM flight to Lukla…the last flight out to Lukla of the day. I did mess up on that one thing…always book the earlier flight. There are usually at least three that fly out, and delays are common in Nepal (and the rest of South Asia). The earlier your flight, the less likely you are to get bumped to the following day due to weather (or complacency) delays. So, I had a risk. As tightly and efficiently as I scheduled everything, it could all be delayed a day leaving me time more time to explore Kathmandu
The Path to Everest
The most common Everest Base Camp Trek Itinerary takes 12 days and goes from Lukla -> Phakding .-> Namche Bazaar -> Rest Day ->Tengboche -> Dingboche -> Rest day -> Dughla -> Lobuche -> Gorak Shep -> visit Everest Base Camp -> Gorak Shep -> Kala Patthar -> Pheriche -> Namche Bazaar -> Lukla ->Outro! I decided to follow this plan, I would just do it without a porter, and without a guide. Seemed reasonable enough. Drugs make anything possible right? I’m talking about altitude sickness drugs…get your mind out of the gutter. What could go wrong? (For more on the EBC Itinerary check out this Everest Base Camp Overview)
Satisfied that I had a semblance of a plan and a flight into my adventure, I packed away everything and enjoyed my last piece of beef for a couple weeks. It was deeeelicous.
Calling it quits
That night I dropped off my dirty laundry at the front desk and left a bag of things that I wasn’t man enough to drag up to Gorak Shep. With the few things I needed in the world packed away by my bedside, I called it a night. Anxious and eager for what came next. Tomorrow, I would fly into the Tenzig-Hillary Airport, aka Lukla airport, the most dangerous airport in the world, and start walking towards the highest point on the planet. An adventure starting with so many superlatives would have to be nothing but awesome. Let’s do this…
In the next part of “Experiencing the Everest Base Camp Trek”, I fly into “the most dangerous airport in the world” to start the trek, and succumb to stupid risking altitude sickness. How does it end?
Continue to Part 2 “Lukla to Namche: The most dangerous airport in the world and an intro to altitude sickness”
Tips for Kathmandu portion of the Kathmandu to Everest journey
- Purchase your flight to Lukla online before you arrive
- Avoid being adventurous with food in Kathmandu – handling and refrigeration of meat is sketchy here and you have a high likelihood of getting sick if you don’t go to places that cater to westerners
- Go to the Thamel Kathmandu Clothing district to buy your gear, and don’t buy the first thing you see
- Checkout A Brother Abroad’s Everest Base Camp Trek Packing List for all of the essential and recommended gear, to know what you should get in Kathmandu and what to bring from home
- Avoid purchasing anything from the “Name Brand” stores in Kathmandu (e.g., Northface, Columbia, etc.), they’re either fake or overpriced. Stick to the cheap “one use” items
- Ensure to purchase water purification tablets, chocolate, and a recharging brick in Kathmandu as these will be extremely pricey and add the most cost to your trip if purchased on the trek
- At the pharmacy, ensure to ask the pharmacist about altitude sickness medication, a pain reliever (e.g., ibuprofen, acetaminophen), diarrhea/stomach medication and a broad-spectrum antibiotic
- The Best time to trek Everest Base Camp is either during May, to see the teams that will eventually summit Everest, or during early October, when trekking begins again just after winter but no teams are summiting Everest. I personally recommend the first week in October as the winter rains will have just cleared the air of all the dust, the weather won’t be too cold, and you will beat the incoming trekker hoards.
Key Places in Kathmandu to Prep for the Everest Base Camp Trek
- Thamel: Kathmandu clothing and gear district
- Electric Pagoda Outdoor Café
- Shop Right Supermarket: Grocery Store in Thamel, Kathmandu
- Hostel Himalaya: Quiet, comfy, safe, and walking distance to Thamel
Other Great Links about the Everest Base Camp Trek