WHAT TO EXPECT
I’ve never wanted to climb Mount Everest. And as I stood there, 6,119m above sea level, on top of Mount Lobuche, looking at the great hunk of rock that is Everest, my resolve hardened. I definitely didn’t want to climb it. But I could look at it, in awe, every day.
The mountains of the Himalaya are beyond grand. They are just beyond… The scale, vastness, domination, impressiveness and magnitude are almost too much to take. But the landscape of Nepal is not devoid of softness. It’s not all rock, ice and snow. It’s in the contrasts that the Khumbu Valley really shines. White, ice cream summits framed with ruby red rhododendron trees. Blue roofed tea houses cling to hillsides as yaks and donkeys sashay to and fro. Lazy days spent playing cards and eating dahl bat balance out arduous climbs. And all this is bound in an aura of mystery. I can see why the first white explorers called it the Shangri La.
I felt the complete spectrum of emotions in Nepal and I felt them all deeply and to my core. Pure joy that overwhelmed me with tears. The beauty of the landscape. The kindness of the people. The achievement of the summit. But I felt sadness and anger at the poverty and pollution in Kathmandu. The amount of plastic filling up the Khumbu. The attitude of many white, western travellers – expecting everything to be done for them, as they remained engrossed in the world inside their phones. But it was wonder that conquered all other emotions. Wonder at this planet, at nature, at human beings – what they can achieve.
I travelled to Nepal to summit Mount Lobuche, a 6,119m trekking peak in the Khumbu Valley – the same valley as Everest. To get there it required two weeks of trekking and acclimatisation.
The Khumbu Valley is one of the most famous on the planet, because it is home to the world’s highest mountain. The Everest Base Camp trek which runs through the heart of the Khumbu is, unsurprisingly, very well trekked. I was surprised at the foot traffic – there are no roads here, thankfully – on this trek. Luckily for me, I was on the Three Passes route for the journey to Lobuche. This route was much quieter and most days were spent largely in the company of just Pemba Sherpa – our guide – and the only other trekker on my trip, a middle-aged man from Sweden.
The path generally rises steadily, and were it not for the altitude, I’d class it as not too challenging. However, the higher you go, the harder your heart and lungs have to work. There is a saying in Nepalese “bistari bistari” – “slowly slowly”. The trick is to walk slower than you think from the beginning to give your body time to adjust. And, of course, there are some steep – really steep – bits to contend with along the way, too, and you don’t want to expend all your energy before the altitude really has a chance to go its worst.
The passes are steep. I would argue you’re verging on rock climbing – easy rock climbing, but still – on both the Renjo La and Cho La passes.
The tea houses are basic and bitterly cold until they light the fire that burns on yak dung in the central eating area. However, I quickly got used to this. Donning my massive down jacket as soon as we arrived at each house.
Food wise, I can’t recommend the local stuff enough. I loved dal bhat – lentils and rice with vegetables that I saw pulled from the ground a short while before they graced my plate. Then there’s momos, Nepalese dumplings. And you can never have too much Snickers (two a day was my average) and ginger, lemon and honey tea.
Summiting Lobuche was mostly as I expected. A pre-dawn start in the cold, not able to see the sheer drops peeling off some the traverses. A slow trudge to the top along fixed ropes over a steep snow field. Cold hands, cold toes and every step like moving through treacle. But that view from the top, a Snickers in my hand as second breakfast and I was complete. I’ve never felt so proud of myself, so satisfied, so full of worth. Standing on that summit was the definition of happiness.
On this page I share my experience and recommendations for trekking in the Khumbu and summiting Lobuche. I hope they come in handy, but at the same time, I hope you don’t follow any guides – mine or otherwise – too steadfastly. The Himalaya is a spiritual place. It will mean something different to everyone. Find your why. Find yourself.
You never know what you’re capable of until you do it. And standing on top of Lobuche, I finally realised I was stronger, braver and tougher than I had believed. I don’t believe in summiting at all costs. The summit might be the high point in your journey, both literally and figuratively, but it’s the whole package: the preparation and anticipation, the trekking, the moments shared, the quiet moments alone, the journey to and from the summit, the reflections, the journey home full of hope for change, and the memories.
Although the trek and the summit were all part of the same trip, the actual mountain climbing needs a post of its own. This isn’t meant as a guide, because every mountain climb is our own, where the apex of the mountains of the mind and the mountains of the physical world meet. But I do hope it will inspire you to reach out, explore and even push your own boundaries and discover what you’re capable of.
HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE?
I was in Nepal for around 25 days. I had a few days in Kathmandu before and after the trek. You have to see to believe Kathmandu but because the air quality is awful and the city is dirty, I don’t advise spending long there, especially before your trek. You don’t want to get ill and run your body down before attempting hiking at altitude.
The trek took 19 days, although we weren’t moving every day. There were a couple of days of complete rest and a few for acclimatisation hikes.
The climb up Lobuche was done in two stages. The first day was to get from base camp to advanced base camp. Then a 2am start the next day to the summit and back to base camp.
HOW MUCH WILL IT COST?
All in all, I think I spent around €6,000. This included flights, food & snacks, accommodation tips and the guiding. I was lucky with kit; I work in the outdoor industry so I was able to get most stuff for free. Anything else I borrowed or bought at a heavily discounted rate. I would scrimp on kit though. Through the guiding agency, I was able to rent some of the ‘hardware’ like crampons and ice axe, quite cheaply. And I loaned a huge down jacket. However, since then I’ve bought this gear for myself, as I feel it’s an investment in future mountaineering trips – it’s already been christened, in fact.
And don’t opt for the cheapest guiding company either. Look at what’s included and do your research. Are they employing – and paying a fair wage – to local people? Are they internationally recognised? Do they have insurance? Will they sort out your trekking permit?
Plus, don’t forget to tip. There was a whole team of people that made my trip possible, from cooks and porters to the trekking Sherpa and climbing Sherpas. Yes, they were all paid for their work. But they made my trip. And I felt they deserved something extra from me.
WHEN TO GO
There are two weather windows for trekking in Nepal, October-November and March-April. Outside of these times the weather is either too cold, too hot or too rainy. Mountaineers attempting bigger summits usually ascend in May because it’s stable weather wise, but it can be too warm for trekking at lower altitudes.
Spring is cooler, but the landscape is blossoming into colour with flowers and trees awaking from a long winter slumber. Autumn is less colourful – though still beautiful – but the air is cleaner after the summer rainy season, so pictures are often sharper.
"When we're in the mountains they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell."
This is something I feel strongly about. I believe you should not attempt a high-altitude summit if you don’t know basic climbing and rope skills, rescue and first aid. Yes, there are guides; but what happens if they get injured? Could you get yourself down alone? Could you help them? Could you call for assistance? You cannot put your life in the hands of your climbing Sherpa, even though they offer to do everything for you. This is wrong! And it’s not fair. Take responsibility for your own life and don’t be a burden on them.
Having said that, Lobuche was not technical. There was quite a bit of exposure, i.e. steep or sheer drop offs, with a high risk of injury if anything was to go wrong, though the actual climbing was not challenging.
I learnt how to use an ascender – which as a rock climber, I’d never used before – and I climbed an easy ice route on the glacier before tackling the full climb.
However… I am a climber. I have used crampons before. I have crossed glaciers. I have experienced from other lower-altitude summits. I have learned how to deal with fear, exposure and exhaustion. Don’t go to the Himalaya to climb a mountain without a good level of experience and fitness. It’s not fair on you or you summit team.
WHAT TO PACK
TO TREK WITH OR WITHOUT A LOCAL GUIDE?
Trekking, so long as you walk slowly, listen to your body and acquaint yourself with the symptoms of altitude sickness and how to deal with it, is possible to do independently. However, the mountain summiting part is definitely not ok to do alone. You need a guide for that.
Aside from what you need, there’s a much bigger question about what you want? If you want to learn more about Nepal, the landscape, people and culture, if you want to provide employment for local people, if you want preferential treatment at tea houses and insider info on where to sleep and eat then I’d recommend getting a local guide or an international guide that has spent many years working in the region.
Pemba Sherpa became my friend during my trip. I had someone to joke and play cards with; someone who could help me pick food; someone I could ask all manner of questions; someone I didn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed to ask for help. Without Pemba and the porters, our camp cook and climbing Sherpas I would’ve had a drastically different experience. Would it have been inferior? For me, yes. Even though I’m a pretty experienced trekker now, I still wouldn’t trek in Nepal alone. For me, part of the experience is going with a local Sherpa guide. Pemba and I are still friends!
A NOTE ON ALTITUDE
I’m no expert on altitude sickness, so I won’t go in to too much detail here, suffice to say it’s your responsibility to be aware of the symptoms and know what to do if you feel them coming on. If you are climbing with others, you should check each other every day. Ask how they’re feeling? Have they had a persistent headache? Is breathing laborious rather than just a little strained? Are you struggling for air even when sitting still? You must be honest enough to ask these questions of yourself each day.
There are medicines available, but if symptoms have developed, these are worthless. Above 4,000m or so is where the oxygen level in the air starts to dip and the higher you go, the lower it gets.
The best way to avoid it or minimise the side effects, is to go slowly. And I mean really slowly. You shouldn’t ascend more than 300 metres per day. Or you can climb a little higher than this, but you can’t sleep higher than this. You should aim to sleep lower than the maximum altitude you reached on that day. So if you plan to sleep at 4,500m, you should aim to go a little higher during the day, around 4,800m.
Altitude sickness starts with what’s called acute mountain sickness (AMS). Symptoms include headaches, vomiting, tiredness, trouble sleeping, loss of appetite and dizziness. Note, however, that you will be tired, have trouble sleeping, be a little dizzy and perhaps even have trouble eating (this never happened to me however, I ate like a horse!) even without AMS. This is all part of a tough trek at altitude. But you need to be alert to when a line is crossed. A constant headache and severe exhaustion are good – or bad, in fact – indicators.
The next stage is high altitude pulmonary oedema (HAPE) or high altitude cerebral oedema (HACE), which usually happens are higher altitudes. These are is a lot more serious and can, if left untreated, result in death.
Altitude is not to be messed with. Ascending too fast can kill you. Take it slow and enjoy every step. And come down alive! No mountain is worth dying for.
Seeing Mount Everest was the fulfilment of a long-standing dream. Though not completely immutable to the elements, it stands tall and strong, enduring. It, along with its equally impressive neighbours, brought a new perspective to my life. Here I was, small, finite, breakable treading through the realm of natural giants. I was in awe.
Summiting Lobuche at 6,119m was a massive achievement and one I’ll always be proud of. It took a whole load of Snickers, dal bhat, Nepali Flat, slowly-slowly walking and full-on mental toughness to get there, but wow was it worth it. And I’m not just talking about the view. I, me, stood on that mountain through sheer will and determination.
The tea houses are such an iconic part of trekking in Nepal. I can’t pick out just one and it’s not like there was one that was significantly better than the others. They were all very basic, a little damp and pretty cold. But the welcome when you reach them: tea, dal, chocolate, smiles will forever warm my soul.
Yes you can trek alone; but why lose out on a card player, picture taker, joking partner, mood booster and cultural educator? Thank you Pemba Sherpa for making my trip to your homeland so memorable. I will be back.
MY FIVE TOP TIPS
Go with a guide. They’ll ensure you’re not walking too fast or too far. They make great company too. And they can teach you a lot about the culture and landscape.
Pack as light as possible. You need plenty of gear to get you up the mountain, but don’t take stuff you won’t need. Either you or your porter will have to carry it.
Eat as much as you can. You burn thousands more calories than a typical day at home so fuel up. And if you appetite wavers, try your hardest to snack your way to lots of calories.
Leave your phone in your bag and take a proper camera. I had three weeks without any connection to the outside world and it was pure bliss. My DSLR pics were fantastic, too.
Get in shape well in advance. Know the basics of climbing, rope management and first aid. Then walk, walk, walk and do lots of long, slow, steady-state runs.