Nuptse

Trekking the Everest Region Independently on a Budget

Just over a year ago, Paul and I were finishing up our amazing three-week trek to Everest Base Camp and Gokyo in the Nepal Himalayas. We are seasoned trekkers and we are hard to impress. Combined, we have spent months hiking in Nepal, India, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Bolivia, the Sierras, Alaska, and Washington State. We hiked the Annapurna Circuit in 2007. One of the highlights of our recent trip was our 19-day trek to Everest Base Camp and Gokyo. We can absolutely say that Nepal tops the list for scenic beauty and overall fantastic trekking.

The Nepal Himalayas also offer incredible reward for effort. The Everest region has a well-developed network of lodges and outfitters supplying you with food, lodging and gear. With minimal planning, cost, and red tape, you can have the trek of a lifetime.

Still, there are some things to consider before you sling on a backpack and set off into the hills. We met a lot of travelers who were confused about how to go on their Everest trek of a lifetime. Some people thought that they couldn’t afford to trek to Everest Base Camp, or that they had to take an expensive guided tour. Others liked the idea of seeing the Himalayas up close but thought they had to be skilled in technical climbing. All of this is false! Independent travelers without any mountaineering skills can have a fabulous Everest trek on a budget. Read on to find out how we did it.

Why the Everest Region?

Tengboche from above
The village of Tengboche in the Everest region.

The Everest region boasts some of the world’s most beautiful scenery and is home to wonderful people. Not only can you walk among the giant mountains, you can learn about the Tibetan Buddhist culture of the Sherpa people who call this area home. Mt. Everest might be the big-name attraction, but there are enough wonderful vistas, peaks, and villages to fill months of trekking.

I’m deliberately referring to the area as the Everest region instead of the Everest Base Camp trek. That’s because there are so many worthwhile routes that don’t lead to the base camp. You might be surprised that Mt. Everest isn’t the scenic star of the show. While you will get great views of Everest, it’s a hulking, fairly unattractive block of stone. Instead, the shimmering white expanses of Everest’s neighbors like Nuptse (in the title photo of this post) and the tall pinnacle of Ama Dablam are the peaks that grab the eye.

Speaking of Mt. Everest, let’s clear up one common misconception. The Everest Base Camp trek does not include a climb of the eponymous peak. Trekking is not mountaineering. Amusingly, when we posted photos of our trek on social media, several people congratulated us for achieving the summit of Mt. Everest!

As much as we would love to claim that accomplishment, the reality is that we spent most of our time walking on easy-to-follow paths. The trails follow well-trodden routes that the local people have used to travel between villages and yak pastures for many generations. Because of this, the level of difficulty is generally low to medium apart from the high passes. Mountaineering skills and a high fitness level are unnecessary. If you can walk a few miles at a time, you can do this trek.

Everest or Annapurna?

Kagbeni

The mud village of Kagbeni on the Annapurna Circuit. Photo from our 2007 trip.

If you’re planning your first trek in Nepal, you’re probably weighing your options between the two most popular treks in Nepal: Everest Base Camp and the Annapurna Circuit. This article is about trekking in the Everest region, where we hiked more recently, although a lot of the general trekking advice applies to the Annapurnas. Which trek should you choose? You can’t go wrong. Both treks offer the opportunity to encounter Tibetan Buddhist culture and walk among Himalayan giants. Both areas are set up with similar types of lodges and are similarly popular. Both could be the trip of your lifetime.

The distinction I would make is that the Annapurna circuit has slightly more cultural interest while the Everest trek has slightly better scenery. The villages of Braga, Manang, Pisang, and Kagbeni on the Annapurna circuit have lovely traditional architecture and Muktinath is a Hindu pilgrimage site. There isn’t as much traditional architecture or cultural sites on the Everest trek. On the other hand, the scenery on the Everest trek is more consistently stupendous for a greater portion of the trek. That said, the Everest region is not devoid of cultural interest and the scenery of the Annapurnas rates a 10 out of 10.

We trekked the Annapurnas in 2007. Since then, road projects have encroached on both ends of the circuit, shaving several days off the trek. We haven’t been in the area since 2007 so we can’t speak to how the road affects the trekker’s experience.

By the way, if you’re planning your first trek in Nepal, it’s not likely to be your last. Once you visit Nepal, you’ll want to come back. We’re already deciding where to trek on our next Nepal trip: maybe one of the more remote regions such as Mustang or Dolpo.

Choosing a Route

Phortse Tenga
The village of Phortse Tenga.

There are an infinite number of ways of linking the web of trails in the Everest region. The main trail starts at Lukla and heads north to Namche Bazaar. From there, the trails fan out into roughly parallel valleys that can be linked by crossing high passes. Get a good guidebook to the area – the Everest and Gokyo chapters of the Lonely Planet and the Cicerone guide are both good. Your itinerary will depend on the amount of time available, your appetite for crossing high passes, and your preference of destinations. We did a Y-shaped itinerary that took us from Namche Bazaar to Everest Base Camp, then back downhill to Phortse and up the Dudh Khosi valley to Gokyo.

Think about whether you want to cross any of the three passes that link Chhukung, Gorak Shep, and Gokyo. These passes don’t have as well established trails and might require special gear and navigation skills. We had planned to cross Cho La from Gorak Shep to Gokyo, but we heard that the Cho La pass was snowy, icy, and tricky to navigate at the time we visited. Also, we didn’t have ice axes or traction devices. So, we backtracked from Gorak Shep instead of crossing Cho La to Gokyo.

Here are some of the top destinations in the Everest region.

Everest Base Camp and Kala Pattar

KalaPattar-1_stitch-01
Sunset from Kala Pattar

This is where you go to impress your friends. In the mountaineering season in April and May, Everest Base Camp is ground zero for attempts on the highest peak on the planet. For non-mountaineers, this is the end of the line.

Nearby is the 5600m black hill named Kala Pattar. As your oxygen-starved limbs haul you slowly upwards, the view of Mt. Everest, Nuptse, Lhotse, and a host of high Himalayan peaks unfolds before your eyes. This is the real reason to come to Everest Base Camp.

Trekkers don’t stay at Everest Base Camp itself. Instead, you stay in one of the cluster of cold, grubby lodges in the grim settlement of Gorak Shep. If it sounds like we didn’t like Gorak Shep much, that’s true. At 5200 meters above sea level, it’s almost impossible to sleep well and the altitude makes everyone tired and grumpy. We didn’t actually visit the base camp. Mt. Everest is not visible from base camp, and there were no mountaineers at the time we were there so we wouldn’t have seen the mountaineering operations. One night in Gorak Shep was enough time to climb Kala Pattar, and that was enough for us.

Gokyo Lakes

Gokyo lake.
Gokyo lake in its turquoise splendor.

Aside from Kala Pattar and Everest Base Camp, the Everest region has some spectacular spots with, dare we say, better views than Kala Pattar. First and foremost is the magnificent Gokyo area encompassing a village, a viewpoint, and a chain of turquoise lakes. What Gokyo lacks in name recognition it more than makes up for in stupendous beauty. Gokyo Ri, the hill near the village, has the best Himalayan views anywhere. The trail to Gokyo is quieter, the villages more rustic, and the scenery (in our view) more spectacular than the way to Everest Base Camp. If you must choose between Everest Base Camp and Gokyo, go to Gokyo!

Other Great Stops

Imja Khola river.
The Imja Khola river, seen from the hike to Chhukung.

You can’t go wrong in the Everest area, but some spots were a little more special than others. Here are a few of our favorites.

Thore, on the east side of the Gokyo valley, is a settlement built of stone walls and huts with a few rustic lodges. We had a memorable stay in the Sherpa Lodge. Himalayan tahr roam the area around the village and the view of the fog rising and falling at sunset was magical.

The excursion from Dingboche to Chhukung village and the nearby hill of the same name was our favorite acclimatization hike. This valley is so spectacular that we wished we had planned for a night in Chhukung. You will pass through here if you plan to cross Kongma La.

Pangboche is an outlier among villages in the Khumbu in that it has an atmospheric old Tibetan monastery and traditional architecture. It sits near the junction of the EBC and Gokyo trails. We passed through for part of an afternoon, but it would be worth spending a night here.

Where Do I Sleep and Eat?

Sherpa Lodge. Thore
The Sherpa Lodge in Thore on the Gokyo trail.

Before we met, Paul spent a lot of time trekking in Nepal. When he told me about his treks, he mentioned that you could order any kind of food you wanted, even pizza. This sounded so strange to me. I had visions of porters and cooks carrying pizza ovens in their packs and cooking food at the campsites. I didn’t understand that in Nepal, most treks are teahouse treks, meaning that you hike between villages and stay in lodges with kitchens.

If you love the mountains but hate sleeping in a tent, trekking in Nepal is for you. Don’t expect much in the way of comfort. There are a few luxury lodges in the lower reaches of the region, but the standard lodge is a clapboard affair with hard beds, tattered blankets, and gaps in the walls. To get warm, head to the communal dining area, where trekkers huddle around fires fueled by yak dung and sip from thermoses of hot tea.

Lodge food is hearty but basic. The classic trek meal is daal bhat, the classic Nepali dish of rice, lentil soup, and vegetable curry. This is the best choice because it usually comes with unlimited refills. You burn a lot more calories at high altitude, so take advantage of this! Other standard menu options are fried potatoes, eggs, fried noodles, and fried rice. Don’t miss the Tibetan fried bread and tsampa (roast buckwheat porridge) for breakfast. Get your fill of fresh fruits and vegetables before you leave Kathmandu because there aren’t many on the trail.

Although most lodges provide blankets, you still need to bring a sleeping bag to protect against the fierce nighttime cold. There was a memorable night in Gokyo where I took all the spare blankets and piled them on top of me, making a stack so tall that I was barely discernible underneath it… and I was still cold.

There is a huge choice of lodges in every village, and many of them are similar and don’t offer any real basis for choosing one over the other. We usually picked a lodge we liked the look of in a nice location. It turned out that the best ones are run by doughty Tibetan matrons. Go figure! We particularly liked the Hotel Khangri in Namche Bazaar, the Sherpa Lodge in Thore, and the Cho Oyu View Lodge in Gokyo.

Do I Need a Guide?

Dughla to Dingboche
The landscape between Dughla and Dingboche.

In a word, no. It is possible, and highly rewarding, to complete the Everest Base Camp trek without a guide or tour. We successfully completed the trek without a guide and never felt that we needed one. At $25 or more per day, a guide would have added significant costs to our trip without an obvious advantage. We brought a map from a Kathmandu bookstore and had no routefinding problems. The trails are clearly marked and lodge owners speak English.

Independent trekkers are required to buy a TIMS (Trekker Information Management System) card. The TIMS system ostensibly provides for the safety of independent trekkers. Pick up your TIMS card for $20 at the Nepal Tourist Board in Kathmandu.

Even if you come to the Everest region as a solo traveler, you don’t have to trek alone if you don’t want to. The communal dining halls are a great place to meet other trekkers. We joined up with two solo trekkers on and off for our trip and met other groups made up of solo trekkers who met up on the trail.

The Nepali government occasionally makes noises that it will institute a requirement for all trekkers to hire a guide. So far, this hasn’t happened. We think that would be a big mistake and cause a big drop in trekking tourism.

That said, there are valid reasons to hire a guide. Taking a guide can be a great way to get to know a Nepali person and get insight into the local culture. If you haven’t trekked much, a guide can provide peace of mind. A good guide will have done the trek multiple times and will know the best lodges.

How do you choose a guide? Our best advice is to get a personal recommendation from someone you trust. Ask around on travelers’ forums before your trip or other travelers in Kathmandu.

If you don’t feel that you need a guide for the entire trek, but are crossing a high pass, you can hire a guide for just the day. We met a group of trekkers who hired a guide to take them over Kongma La from Chhukung. If you want to do this, ask at your lodge.

You can also hire a porter to carry your gear. Porters are the lowest people on the totem pole in the trekking tourism industry, doing a difficult job for little pay. If you hire a porter, it is your ethical responsibility to make sure he has warm clothes and shoes. Learn about how to ethically hire a porter at the International Porters’ Protection Group and stop into the headquarters of KEEP in Kathmandu.

How much does it cost?

Mighty landscape. Gokyo
You could be here for a lot less money than you think.

The good news is that daily costs for an Everest trek can be very low if you don’t hire a guide or porter. We spent a combined average of US$47 per day for the two of us on daily expenses on our 19-day trek in November 2015. We were restrained in our spending but allowed ourselves the occasional luxury such as a hot shower or apple pie. Accommodation is $2-3 for a basic room in a lodge. Your lodge owner will require you to eat your meals in the lodge. Food is pretty standard across the board so there’s no reason to go elsewhere. A hearty meal for one person could cost anything from $5-10. You need to eat more calories when you are trekking at high altitude, so don’t skimp here. Prices tend to rise with elevation, although this is not constant.

Your costs will be higher if you indulge in luxuries like hot showers, espresso, apple pie, device charging, and wifi access. Gas-powered hot showers are available at a lot of lodges for around $4 a go. Most lodges charge for the use of common electrical outlets, around $2-3 to charge a device.

There is an additional fee for the Sagarmatha National Park. Park officials collect the $35 permit fee at a gatepost in the village of Monjo, which you will pass through shortly before reaching Namche Bazaar.

The biggest chunk of your budget will go to cover the cost of the flights in and out of Lukla. Most people get to Lukly by the 30-minute flight from Kathmandu that costs an exorbitant $150 per person, each way. We sucked it up and paid $600 to fly in and out of Lukla. This meant that a total of about an hour of flying cost almost as much as a 19-day hike.

Die-hard budget travelers can take the alternative route, which is to take the bus to Jiri and hike 5 days to Lukla. We met two young German girls who had done just this and recommended it for travelers with time to spare. Although the hike to Lukla is in the foothills, it includes a great deal of elevation gain and loss as it cuts up and down river valleys. There are no snowy mountain views, but there are far fewer trekkers than on the main trail.

A note about money: almost everything operates on a cash-only basis. There are ATMs in Lukla and Namche Bazaar, and that’s it. Bring all the rupees you need from Kathmandu.

Weather, Climate, and When to Go

Fiery sunset. Tengboche
The afternoon clouds reveal Everest at sunset in Tengboche.

There are two main trekking seasons: October-November and February-April.

We trekked from November 3-22, 2015, and had fantastic weather. The monsoon had finished so there was no rain, but the air was still crisp and clean. For the first half of our trek, fog would roll up the valley predictably at 3:30. As we got higher, we enjoyed clear sunsets above the fog. We didn’t have a drop of rain, and the rainpants we bought in Kathmandu stayed in our packs. We had crystal-clear views from Kala Pattar, Gokyo Ri, and innumerable other vantage points along the trail.

December and January are bitterly cold and many lodge owners in the higher villages close up shop and spend these months in Kathmandu. Having experienced the coldest nights of my life in Gokyo, it’s hard to imagine the utter chill that must descend later in the winter. That said, we have been told that the clearest, driest weather of the year comes in these months. If you can survive the cold, it could be a quiet, rewarding time to go.

The period from February to April, before the monsoon clouds hit in May, is the second most popular time of year to trek in Nepal. In 2007, we hiked in the Annapurna region at this time of year and found it to be a good time to go. The weather is generally good, although the long months of dry weather cause dust and haze to build up in the air. Clouds and showers are possible in the afternoons, with skies clearing overnight.

The summer monsoon months are the worst time to trek. It will be rainy and muddy, clouds will obscure your views, and we hear that leeches come out in force. The monsoon typically ends in September, but can overrun into October. All told, we think November is the safest bet for good weather. That said, climate change is causing unpredictable weather and Nepal is no exception.

What To Pack?

Frosty morning at Gokyo Lake
Pack for the cold! A frosty morning at Gokyo Lake.

Don’t underestimate how cold it is in the unheated lodge rooms when it’s time to go to bed. Pack a sleeping bag and lots of warm clothes. It is not possible to be overprepared for the cold.

Our packing list served us well and is reproduced here.

Sleeping bag
Silk sleeping bag liner
Hiking trousers
Hiking base layer
Warm wool pullover
Warm wool leggings
Spare top to wear at the lodge and to sleep in
Fleece top
Ultralightweight down jacket
Wool hat
Gloves
Liner socks x 3
Warm wool socks x 3
Trail running shoes
Book
Water bottle
Minimal toiletries
Sunscreen
Raincoat
Rainpants
Journal
Cash
Camelback water bottles
Absorbent towel
Map
Headlamp and batteries
Knife
Snacks
Hand sanitizer and wet wipes
Water purification method (don’t buy plastic bottles!)

It is easy to get hiking gear in Kathmandu. We rented sleeping bags from Shona’s shop in Thamel. They weren’t lightweight, but they kept us reasonably warm and were cheap at $1/day. We bought a ton of cheap hiking clothes in Kathmandu for a grand total of under $100 and donated them at the end of our trek.

We brought a Steripen Ultra to purify water. It did a great job and worked out to be economical even with the cost of recharging it.

Bring snacks from Kathmandu, or from home if you’re coming directly from home. A Snickers bar that costs $1 at sea level costs $5 at 5000 meters.

Health and Safety

Lobuche
The settlement of Lobuche (4940m).

The greatest risk to your health and safety is altitude sickness. No matter which route you choose, the trails gain altitude quickly. The rapid altitude gains limit the mileage you can cover in a day. Bring a book for those lazy afternoons! Don’t try to climb too high, too fast. You must take acclimatization days in Namche Bazaar, Tengboche, and Dingboche. This doesn’t mean you have to rest all day. Acclimatization days are a great opportunity to take radial hikes to the surrounding area. One of our favorite day hikes was out of Dingboche, when we walked up the Chhukung valley and part of the way up Chhukung Ri.

Familiarize yourself with the symptoms of altitude sickness. Mild symptoms, such as headaches and nausea, mean that you shouldn’t go any higher that day. If you have more severe symptoms, you must descend immediately. It is mandatory to build in an extra day in your itinerary in case altitude sickness forces you to take a rest day. When I woke up with a stabbing headache and nausea in Lobuche at 4900 meters, my body was telling me not to ascend any higher that day. We spent a quiet day reading and resting, and the next day I was fit to go.

If you are going on a guided group tour, make sure the itinerary builds in at least one extra day for this purpose. We met a dejected trekker who was on his way downhill, having experienced altitude sickness before reaching Everest Base Camp. His guided group tour had no time to spare to allow him to recover. He had to turn back while everyone else headed upwards. Don’t get into this situation!

The usual precautions for mountain travel apply. Bring adequate clothing, shoes, and water purification method (more on that later). Carry extra snacks with you between stops. If you’re crossing a pass, bring traction devices and be prepared for routefinding. Don’t attempt to cross any passes or make long walks if the weather looks iffy.

Yes, you can hike to Everest.

Stupa glow. Dingboche
A Tibetan Buddhist stupa near Dingboche.

The Everest region of Nepal is one of the best places in the world to appreciate the grandeur of our planet. Walking among peaks of this size makes you realize how petty most human concerns really are. If everyone had the chance to trek in the Himalayas, people would be less consumed by fear and hate and the world might not be in such a precarious situation. Even if a flight to Nepal isn’t in the cards for you right now, find a way to head into your closest mountain range. We are here to tell you that if you have ever dreamed of hiking through the earth’s most magnificent landscapes, you can and should do it.

You can read our Everest Base Camp/Gokyo trek report in these posts.

Part I – Lukla to Tengboche
Part II – Tengboche to Lobuche
Part III – Lobuche to Kala Pattar to Phortse
Part IV – Phortse to Gokyo to Lukla

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