Every journey starts with a dream. My dream was climbing to the foot of the highest mountain in the world. I was inspired by the determination of the youngest Australian to climb Mount Everest at 19, the age when most think about boys and booze. Alyssa Azar attempted Everest two times before summiting in 2016 but was turned back both times due to events beyond her control. I thought if she can dedicate every moment of her three-year lead up to the summit of Everest, hiking to the Base Camp should be a ‘piece of cake’.
Before I knew it, I was reading everything there was ever published about Everest and found inspiration from countless people that have taken the two-week trek. I woke up thinking about it, dreamed about it while working and went to bed knowing that one day it would be me doing it.
Around the same time, I participated in an Instagram competition for a $1500 Student Flights voucher and WON! For a person that has never won anything, it was a dream come true. I booked my flights to Nepal and took advantage of Student Flights Cover-More travel insurance for any unseen emergencies in the mighty Himalayas. It didn’t matter how much I read about the trek beforehand, there were still five things no one tells you about hiking to Everest Base Camp.
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1. You don’t need to be the fittest person
Many will be scared into not going as they are made to believe you need to be a marathon runner. The truth is, you simply don’t. If you can manage walking 3-6 hours a day, up and down the hill, while carrying a light pack, you will be OK! If you are going with a tour group, porters will carry the loads for you and all there is left to worry about is your water, snacks, and camera.
Your biggest concern is acclimatizing to the higher altitude and this has not been proven to have any links to how to fit you are. In fact, the slower you go, the better your chances of getting up there. You don’t even have to be an athlete when you are like me and want to carry your gear yourself. I was certainly not in top shape, but have always tried to go to the gym at least two times a week and perhaps do an occasional hike on my days off. A month before departure, when most think to crank up their training intensity, I stopped training all together and still managed to get to 5364 meters above sea level with 16 kg in my backpack.
It is certainly more attainable than you think, but don’t disregard your fitness altogether for an enjoyable journey.
2. Practice and refine your packing well before you go
Take my advice and do not pack more than 10 kg in your backpack. Practice packing your bag before you head off and weigh it with at least two liters of water in it. One of the hardest things about the hike will be packing for it and making smart decisions on what to bring and what to leave behind. Trust me, I made the mistake of packing at the absolute last minute and ended up having to carry unnecessary stuff that I didn’t use once.
3. It is more expensive than you think
I am sure most of you planning to go on this hike have already heard that it gets more expensive the higher you go in altitude. With no proper infrastructure everything needs to be carried up from lower elevations by human power (I swear porters are super humans) or if the business owner can afford it, helicoptered in from Kathmandu. You can expect to pay as much as $10 AUD for a can of Pringles in Gorak Shep (5164 m above sea level, I bought some to celebrate in Base Camp) or $10 for a slice of cake from the highest bakery in the world at 4950 meters in Lobuche.
You will find plenty of articles of people telling you to buy cheap gear from Thamel, but even that I didn’t find to be the cheapest if you have to budget for two following months in Asia ahead of time. My partner and I spent over $1800 for both of our “cheap” replica gear (I only needed a couple of things as I had bought most from Australia), flights to Lukla (close to $500 per person return!) and permits for trekking and for the national park.
It is undoubtedly better to rent your down jackets and sleeping bags if you are only going to the mountains for two weeks. If you are planning on going for a month (which we did plan on), I would consider buying a sleeping bag as it may end up costing more to rent it.
Please do not bring 10 rolls of toilet paper with you on the trek, like any advice. There is plenty of it available to buy for cheap (even if you are on a budget) in case you run out. Save some space in your bag for other, more important things like wet wipes that can be very expensive. (How does $15 for a pack sound in Namche Bazaar at an altitude of 3440 meters?)
No one ever warns you about the enormous ATM fees in Kathmandu. Most of them don’t work, to begin with, which is especially annoying when you have to cut your trek short as you are running out of cash and the ATM’s in Namche Bazaar and Lukla don’t work and just take money out of your account without dispensing it. (True story!) When they do work, you are only allowed to withdraw around $125 AUD at a time, while being charged $7 AUD in ATM fees on top of the charges from your card issuer. I lost at least $100 to ATM fees, don’t make the same mistake as I did and bring enough USD with you for your time in Nepal and exchange it when you get in the country.
4. There is Wifi for sale everywhere
Most people nowadays expect to have wifi everywhere they go and that includes the highest mountain range in the world. Telecom companies in Nepal have spotted an expanding market and are cashing in big time on the luxury of internet connections high in the mountains. You will find passwords to connect to a wifi network being sold on a “scratchy” in every teahouse along the way. The 250 MB of data gets more and more expensive the higher you go. This will mostly be enough for a couple of emails and to update your Facebook status, but nothing more. When paying around $5-10 for data, make sure your phone doesn’t start downloading updates in the background, thus using it all. I saw this happen way too many times.
I would recommend buying a local SIM card with a data plan from Kathmandu before your trek instead, as there is reception up to around 4000 meters and in some cases even in Base Camp. You can also expect to be charged for charging your phone and cameras, usually $3-6 per hour depending on how high you are in the mountains. All of this does add up.
5. It’s OK to use Diamox
Before my trek, I found so many different opinions about using Acetazolamide for preventing and reducing the symptoms of altitude sickness. There are several side-effects to consider before taking Diamox to aid with acclimatization, the main being numbness, having a tingling sensation in fingers, toes, and lips, ringing in the ears, loss of appetite, vomiting, and sleepiness. As these can also be signs of your body reacting to high altitude, knowing the difference can be difficult.
The medication, however, can decrease headaches (most common side effect of not drinking enough water), nausea, dizziness, and shortness of breath. This together with the need to drink at least three liters of water per day will make you go to the toilet a lot. I guess it’s all part of the experience.
Diamox works by decreasing the number of hydrogen ions and bicarbonate in the body, thus allowing you to breathe deeper and faster while also taking in more oxygen. The increased oxygen will then aid with acclimatization.
I went the preventative way, taking half a tablet in the morning and a half at night when I landed in Lukla and an extra one when I felt as I was about to faint with a splitting headache on my way to Lobuche. Going without Diamox is something a lot of “purists” will tell you to do and if you have sufficient time to acclimatize, it really shouldn’t be necessary. However, if you are going in a group, thus having to keep up to a certain schedule regardless of how you feel or just want to make sure you have done everything you possibly can to get to the top, taking Diamox as a preventative measure is a way to go.
The medication is not to be used when you already have symptoms of acute mountain sickness and immediate descent is the only cure. Also, I’m obviously not a doctor and you should consult your own personal doctor to see if using Diamox is right for you.