We did it! We survived our 9 day trek in the Himalayas and returned to Kathmandu smelly and achy but feeling incredibly lucky to have had such an amazing experience in the mountains. We had great weather the entire time and our guide and porters were so helpful and knowledgable. While we may have been the only people on the trail not going all the way to Everest Base Camp, we really loved veering off the beaten path to lesser visited villages and learning about Sherpa life and culture.
Here are a few highlights from each day of our trek!
Trek Day 1 – Flight to Lukla and Trek to Phakding
Ready to escape the madness of Kathmandu, Kayla and I were up early to meet with our guide at 6am and head to the airport to fly into the world’s most dangerous airport – Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla, where we’d be beginning our trek. The night before, our trip leader warned us that there was a chance that all the flights to Lukla would be cancelled because the weather and/or the winds were iffy. Even though the flight only takes about half an hour, apparently they are very often delayed or cancelled because of the weather, which can make an already dangerous landing even more iffy. Search on YouTube for landings at Lukla Airport and you’ll see what I mean (except you Mom – just pretend you didn’t read that part).
Already anxious about the flight, we got to airport and ended up waiting for 6 hours as flights were delayed and cancelled. The Kathmandu airport is as chaotic as the city itself and at one point a monkey even came into the terminal and started eating food out of people’s bags before a security guard ran it off!
A couple hours in to waiting, we were suddenly rushed onto a bus to go to the plane to take off because there was a break in the bad weather, and then we were rushed off the bus shortly after because the winds had picked up again. By the time we did finally get to board the plane, our palms were sweaty and I frantically read the plane’s safety card, wondering if I should just stay in crash position for the entire flight.
But despite our fears, the flight was actually really smooth. Just when I thought it was safe to pry my fingers off the arm rest and relax, I saw the Lukla runway out of the front window and got terrified again – it looked so short and impossible! But obviously, we landed safely and it was actually one of the smoothest plane landings I’d ever experienced. That flight and the accompanying adrenaline rush ended up being one of the highlights of the whole experience.
After a nice lunch in Lukla next to the runway, we started our 2 hour trek to Phakding, winding through villages, passing by prayer rocks, crossing paths with lots of trekkers from all over the world, as well as Sherpas who all carry crazy huge loads on their backs and heads. Our guide told us they can carry up to 200 pounds on their backs and I internally decided I would never complain about my day pack being a little heavy again.
We got to Phakding shortly before sunset and settled into our lodge. At dinner we got to know more about our Sherpa sirdar and guide, Kale. He has two daughters, lives in Kathmandu but used to live in Namche, where we were going the following day. We listened to his stories about Sherpa culture and met the rest of the crew that we’d be traveling with in the mountains.
Because this was supposed to be a bigger group trip, there were a total of EIGHT Sherpas on the crew – Kale, our assistant guide Bidur, a cook, three kitchen boys (they cooked all of our food for the whole trek) and two porters. As we would come to find out after speaking to other trekkers, this is a hilarious and embarrassingly large number of people helping us up the mountain. Most people hire a guide for two people and maybe a porter or two to carry their stuff, but we were really grateful to have all of our food prepared for us on the trail. We never got sick and all the food was pretty good, plus the guys were all super nice.
Trek Day 2 – Phakding to Namche
We woke up the next morning to gorgeous views of the mountains around us that were hidden by clouds the previous day. That seemed to be the general rule for the mountains – the skies were clearest and the views were the most spectacular in the morning, and then in the afternoon clouds would set in.
This was the hardest day of hiking with the second half after lunch being basically straight uphill to Namche. The views were gorgeous, but with the rocky terrain and the endless amounts of yak poo on the trail, it was hard to take our eyes off the ground in front of us. Every time we stopped take a breather, which was often because even though we are pretty fit, we were ascending to well over 11,000 feet, we took in the views of the Dudh Kosi River (Milk River), the gorgeous snow-covered mountains and I felt like I couldn’t believe we were actually here.
At one point before our straight uphill ascent to Namche, we were walking along the river and I spotted two suspension bridges spanning the river very, very high up in the distance. They looked like something out of the Pirates of the Caribbean or Indiana Jones. I pointed them out to our guide and said, “We aren’t crossing either of those are we?” He said, “Yes, we cross high bridge now.” You should have seen the look of disbelief on our faces!
That was another trend on the trek. Kale would point to something way in the distance – a small village or a stupa that looked infinitely far away – and tell us that we would be hiking to it. Despite this trek being pretty physically exhausting, it was really empowering to reach these places that had seemed utterly impossible to walk to in a one day. Living in a place where you drive nearly everywhere, you sometimes forget how far your legs can take you in only a matter of hours. It’s pretty awesome….except for the blisters.
When we finally got to Namche, we were greeted by a larger village on steep ridges in semi-circle with a Buddhist stupa at the base. We were so exhausted that we hit the hay following dinner.
Trek Day 3 – “Rest” Day in Namche
We woke up to yet another gorgeous mountain view from our window that hadn’t been there the cloudy evening before. Thomserku gorgeously loomed over one side of Namche, Kongde Ri over the other. This was supposed to be a rest and acclimatization day, but we did have a hike to the Everest View Hotel and back, which I wouldn’t describe as restful, in ANY way! Maybe it was the elevation or our sore feet but we were surprised by how much trouble we had going up and over the hill behind Namche to the hotel.
The day was mostly clear but we were disappointed when we got to the hotel to find that, while most of the other mountains were visible, there were clouds covering the tip top of Everest. We were a little bummed because we’d hoped that we’d be getting our first view of it today, but we were still in awe of the other massive mountains that surround it. My favorite was Ama Dablam, which has a jaggedy double peak and looked the most formidable I thought, even though it tops out at 22,493 feet (Everest is 29,029).
We sipped tea and took in the views before heading back to Namche, where we decided to go for an Everest beer at a place called Liquid Bar, where we met Raju, the awesomely friendly owner. We stopped ourselves after two because we knew we had another formidable hike the next day but we decided that on the way down we’d come back here for more.
Trek Day 4 – Namche to Tengboche
We set out in the morning towards Tengboche Monastery and after rounding a corner shortly after leaving Namche, we suddenly got our first view of epic Everest! We stopped at the stupa there and took a million pictures, so excited to finally see the top of the giant mountain peeking over the smaller peaks around it.
What is crazy about Everest is that it is so high that it disrupts the jet stream and there is always what looks like a blast of snow coming off of one side as a result. It really does seem massive and formidable, and because we both read Into Thin Air while on the trek, I knew that it was incredibly difficult to climb and you can’t help but have so much respect for it, as well as the massive ones alongside it. I started to understand why the Sherpas treated the mountains they lived in with so much respect and had many spiritual practices to honor them. If I lived with these beasts surrounding me every day, I’d regard them with such spiritual awe too. I feel like I already do!
Speaking of Sherpas, another thing we saw on this day for the first time was an actual yak. Up til this point, the trains of animals that passed us up and down the mountain were actually jokyos which are cow/yak crossbreeds. At the higher altitudes, such as Tengboche at 13,000 feet where we were headed, are where the Sherpas use yaks to transport supplies and goods to and from the many villages. Our guide called the lines of yaks that passed us “Himalayan Trains” and we always had to closely hug the mountains when they passed to avoid being gored by their horns or accidentally pushed off the mountains. It was a bit hairy at times, especially on the narrower parts of the trail!
We got to Tengboche in the afternoon and visited the gorgeous monastery there, which was a beautiful place. We were lucky to have a room at one of the handful of lodges actually in Tengboche, and our room even had a view of Mount Everest! I watched the sunset beside some prayer rocks and stood there shivering as a cloud came up and engulfed me as the sun disappeared behind the mountains. It was one of my favorite moments of the trip and probably the time that I felt the most grateful for this incredible experience.
Trek Day 5 – Tengboche to Kumjung
Today we veered off the main trail towards Everest Base Camp (leaving all the trekkers we’d met on the trial behind as everyone was headed to EBC) and headed to the small village of Kumjung. There were far less foreigners on this trail and in this village, and we visited the Hillary School that Edmund Hillary had set up for the villagers there. We watched local kids play cricket next to a stupa and women dig for potatoes in the areas around our lodge.
Though the monastery was closed and we never saw the supposed yeti skull that was there, Kale told us a great local story about the mysterious Yeti. Supposedly at one point there were many Yetis living high in the mountains, and they would watch the villagers all the time, copying everything they did and stealing things from them, including crops and food. After one very upsetting episode involving the yetis coming down in the night and stealing all the potato crops from the village and then replanting them in their village in the exact same way, leaving the Sherpa village with very little food for the coming winter, the Sherpas came up with a plan. The next day, they made fake weapons and pretended to kill each other with them. Then they left out lots of real weapons overnight and the yeti came down and did what they always did – stole the weapons and copied the exact actions of the Sherpas, and ended up actually killing each other, leaving none alive save for one yeti woman who was pregnant and had stayed behind. After that, the yeti woman left for higher in the mountains and never bothered the Sherpa villagers again. A strange story but for some reason I really liked it!
Trek Day 6 – Kumjung to Thame
This was our favorite day of the whole trek! We hiked a somewhat easier, more level trail through forests to Thame, even further from the beaten path. This was the childhood home of Tenzing Norgay as well as Apa Sherpa, who has summited Everest a world record 18 times. Thame is nestled in a beautiful valley and above the town is a monastery that is built into the mountain that is over 500 years old.
The monastery was the most beautiful place we visited. With clouds swirling around it and the way it seemed to grow out of the side of a cliff, it was breathtaking and it seemed like the perfect place to build a spiritual enclave.
Trek Days 7-9 – Thame to Namche, Namche to Phakding, Phakding to Lukla
The last three days of the trek were really taxing but luckily were mostly downhill. I’ve never hiked for 9 straight days and I was definitely feeling it in my thighs and with the blisters on my feet. But I also knew I’d miss the mountains so much once we were done with the trek, so I tried to appreciate every painful moment!
In Namche, we went back to Liquid Bar and watched the Everest IMAX movie, ate popcorn, drank Everest beer and met some amazing fellow trekkers on their way back from base camp. We also visited the Bazaar there, the biggest local market day where people sold everything from food, spices, and meats to sneakers and trekking/climbing gear.
We spent the last night in Lukla at a beautiful lodge at the edge of the cliff next to the runway, had a farewell dinner with our amazing Sherpas, and we went to meet some friends we’d met on the trail at a Scottish Pub. We celebrated and I felt really proud of how much ground we covered the last 9 days. The views never ceased to be spectacular the entire time, and even though I was tired I was sad to think we would be flying back to Kathmandu the next day.
That being said, I was honestly glad to know we were done walking up and down hills. I don’t think my legs could have made it another day!