Yaks, altitude and Everest trekking

I just finished a 12 day trek from Lukla to Everest Base Camp in Nepal. It was fun, intense, difficult and rewarding. I’m so glad I did the trek and I’m so happy to have shared the experience with some amazing new friends. I did find the trek very challenging so here are the top five lessons I learned:

1. I’m nowhere near as hardy as a Sherpa

I have gained so much respect for the Sherpas who live and work amongst the Himalayan mountains. Their strong sense of pride is well deserved and the work they do all year keeps the Himalayan tourist trade running. They are your guide, your porter, your teahouse owner and so much more. Everyday spent hiking on the trails, I passed many porters overloaded with heavy goods to deliver up into the mountain towns and if they aren’t carrying the goods themselves, they are herding yaks loaded with goods up the mountain. Sherpas are not always adequately dressed for the weather and many wear sandals on the cold trails. All the same, they move with speed and confidence along uneven and hilly pathways. Due to a recent injury involving a bulged disc, I wasn’t even able to consider the option of carrying my own pack up the mountain and the Sherpas’ strength and hardiness left me in awe.


2. Yaks are dangerous – trekkers beware!

Going into this trek I had heard the common advice of letting yaks pass on the cliff side of the mountain because they have been known to knock trekkers off the edge of the trail. Unfortunately, I had not been warned of other existing yak dangers. On our first day in the mountains, one of my trekking mates had an unfortunate “yak attack” experience. He walked a little too close to a yak that was facing away from him and the yak responded by sending a headbutt toward his behind. Until this time I hadn’t realized how sharp yak horns are, but with that quick headbutt my mate now had a hole in his pants, a hole in his boxers and a bruise on his butt. Due to this trauma on our first day, my trekking mates and I maintained what I would call a “healthy fear” of yaks for the rest of our trek. (I would usually hide behind someone else when yaks were passing by.) We’ve since learned that some yaks have to have their horns removed if they are too aggressive toward tourists. Consider yourself warned!


3. Cold in Canada does not compare to cold in the Himalayas

Being Canadian, I thought I knew what cold was and I wasn’t expecting to find the Himalayan November weather anything unusual. It is, after all, considered one of the best months of the year for trekking. I was proven wrong, but was luckily prepared enough to survive. Trekking in the Himalayas via teahouses is like winter camping where you don’t have control of the heat so anything beyond the basics will cost extra. Teahouses are not insulated, pipes regularly freeze overnight and the bedrooms are not heated. The dining area will have a stove going which between certain hours of the evening will keep you warm. (Side note: they are likely burning yak dung which is not the most pleasant of smells.) Appropriate layers are needed for trekking as the daily high can range significantly and you will need warm clothes as well for evening and bedtime. Despite finding my rented sleeping bag to be toasty warm combined with my silk sleeping sac and a blanket cocoon, I did find that the cold temperatures pushed me to my limits. By the end of the trek, I felt chilled to the bone and I was ready for a week on a hot beach, a few hours in a hot tub or at least a hot shower in a heated room. Note that hot showers can be purchased in teahouses but when your time runs out, you are basically standing outdoors sopping wet in the freezing cold.


4. I’m not cut out to be a mountain climber

This was only my second foray into the world of mountain climbing and it was a big jump from my previous two-day climb of Mt Kinabalu in Malaysia which is only 4,095m high. I definitely had some altitude issues on this trek despite taking Diamox preventatively. By the time I reached Gorak Shep which is the last stop before base camp, I had headaches, some funky vision issues (probably blood pressure related), and a bad cold. I made it to base camp at 5,364m at my own pace – a slow pace and frequent “oxygen breaks” was better for my headache – and after a restless night’s sleep, I was ready to go back down. I skipped out on the early morning optional that goes up to 5,550m high (Kala Patthar) for a great sunrise view of Everest because I didn’t think I was up for any more challenges. I think any treks I undertake in the future will need to be at lower altitudes so don’t expect to see me vying for the summit of Everest next.
(Side note: pictured is when I did make it to a height of 5,616m at the summit of Nangkar Tshang on an earlier acclimatization day)


5. “Flat” in Nepal is not the same as flat in Canada

Every time our guide told us that the next leg was a 2h flat walk, we would be relieved . . until we started out and realized it was actually a 3.5h walk with significant ups and downs (think rolling hills) which was by no means flat in my definition. There were countless times that the next leg of our trek was twice as long as our guide indicated and the hike was never flat. We also learned that “a little bit steep” meant going straight up a hill for at least 1/2h. There were times where the trail would go all the way down a mountain to cross a river by bridge and then go all the way up the mountain on the other side putting you right back at the altitude where you started. It was times like these that my thoughts got very existential. As frustrating as the ups and downs may have been, the views were amazing and that’s just the price to see them.


Stay tuned for the five things I did right in preparation for this trek!

2 thoughts on “Yaks, altitude and Everest trekking

  1. Pingback: Confessions of a nomad: memories worth keeping (part I) | nomadic becs

  2. Pingback: Physiotherapy: finding a path to recovery on the road | nomadic becs

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