Notes from the trail

Q & A: We try to answer some of our readers’ most popular questions

The lodge, not the mountain: Lodges like the Kala Patar in Phakding can be found all along the trail.

Since we returned, we’ve been deluged with questions about the trek. In the Chapter by Chapter narration, we’ve tried to answer some of those questions. We thought it might be interesting to take a break from our weekly Chronicles and collect all the most common questions and try to answer them in one long post.

So, this week, we’ve tried to do just that. We’re certain we’ve left some out though. Please feel free to ask us anything at all that we might have missed. We’re eager to hear what you’d like to know about!
Could you breathe? Did you need to bring oxygen?
Questions about how we were affected by the altitude have been by far, the most popular inquiry. And for good reason. Base Camp sits at about 17,900 feet. Kala Patthar tops out at about 18,250 feet. The highest Dan has ever climbed was 12,637 up Humphreys peak in Arizona. The highest Meenakshi ever climbed was 7,244 up Harney Peak in South Dakota.
We opted to not bring oxygen, though we saw many porters carrying oxygen tanks for their clients.
Here’s a quick primer: Air in the Earth’s atmosphere only contains about 20% oxygen. The rest is nitrogen and some other gases. As you get higher, the density of that air changes and becomes thin, meaning less air pressure, and less Oxygen.
Spring relief: At altitude, water evaporates faster. Here’s a natural spring near Ghat

At base camp and the summit of Kala Patthar, the air pressure is cut in half, meaning our bodies were getting 50% of the O2 they normally got at sea level.

Lower air pressure means your body attempts to adjust by making more red blood cells to carry oxygen more efficiently. Most of the cell-building happens while you sleep; however, the process can take days and in the meantime, you may feel ill. Also at lower air pressure, water evaporates faster. This can lead to dehydration, which can all bring about altitude sickness.
Altitude sickness can kill you. But mostly it can make you sick: headaches, nausea, sore muscles, shortness of breath.
So, what to do? Hike slowly. Hike no more than a 1,000 feet or so a day. Take rest days to allow for acclimatization.
Our trip took two weeks. There were commercial groups on the trail that were attempting the same thing we were in 8 or 9 days. That’s nuts. During our time there, we ran across many very unhappy and unhealthy looking trekkers pushing too hard. We also witnessed a half dozen sick trekkers on the backs of horses or being carried down by porters.
In all, we had two full rest days, one at about 12,000 feet and one at about 14,000 feet. We also had two half days of rest. During those days, we’d take day hikes up, then sleep back down. This allowed our bodies to… you guessed it, build up more red blood cells.
Were you ever sick?
Oh yes, by around 14,000 feet, our bodies became sluggish and normal activity became difficult. We learned to move slowly, to take our time. Any quick movements could bring dizziness, a coughing fit or a sharp pin-prick headache. We learned to breath away the effects of altitude. Resting with several deep breaths would often both settle our pulse and take away the headaches. After a time, we learned our pace and were able to hike and climb without ill effects.
Even with those precautions, the last 24 hours was very difficult with a permanent unsettled stomach and exhaustion.
What did you eat?

We carried small snacks with us like nuts, yak cheese, crackers and lots of water. But it’s rare to go for more than a few hours on the trail without coming across a lodge or village store. Now, despite the large number of lodges and stores, north of Namche Bazaar, the food selection was very similar: potatoes, rice and dahl (lentils), flat bread, momos (dumplings), grilled cheese and Sherpa stew were our main staples. Western style food like pizza and spaghetti were often available, but they were universally bad. We drank tea and water mostly, and north of Namche we gave up meat as freshness became an issue. Dan kept trying, but coffee was awful everywhere.

At the village stores, the list of snack items was exactly the same: Coke, Fanta, Mars bars, Pringles, biscuits and Everest Whiskey. Altitude made soda lose carbonation and chocolate tended to be stale so we kept away from snack stores as a general rule.
Though when we could find it, we would buy and stash a chunk of yak cheese. We would often have to ask for it though, as it normally wasn’t on sale to trekkers.
How cold was it?
In the course of our trek we experienced a full range of weather, from temps in the 70s in the valley, to raw, freezing rain, to bitter cold. As a general rule, when (if) the sun came out, temps could go up as high as 50 or 60 degrees. After sunset and before sunrise though, in the Khumbu, temps were bitterly cold. The morning of our attempt on Kala Patthar the temperature was easily -20.

As cold as it seems: Meenakshi tries to keep warm at 17,000 feet. Warm equals down jacket, -20 sleeping bag and quilt.

Did it snow, did you need technical gear like crampons or ice axes?

It did snow several times during our trek. Once overnight at Pheriche, which coated the mountains. Once on the way to Gorek Shep and once on the trail back from Base Camp. We were lucky to not have to face any major storm, and the snow we did encounter was just a dusting so we were never faced with having to use heavy gear.
Kala Patthar had some snow, but no technical ledges or ice.
Why did you carry your own gear? I thought Sherpas did that.
The western preconception of a Sherpa is of someone who carries your loads. Now-a-days, Sherpas are more likely guides or high alpine climbers, and porters (usually not local) are the load carriers.
We could have found a porter to help us, we were asked many times along the trip. We chose not to for two reasons. The first was expense and reliability. Trekkers who choose to take on a a porter must also pay for the porters room and board. Also, having no experience with this type of trek, we had no idea what to even look for to find a trust-worthy porter.
Mainly though, we chose to carry our own gear because we wanted to be able to say we did it ourselves!
How many miles did you actually hike?
In all, the round trip from Lukla to Kala and back was about 70 miles.

How awesome were the views from Mt. Everest?
Yeah, um, we didn’t actually climb Mt. Everest. We climbed Kala Patthar, a 18,250 foot peak about 6 miles from Mt. Everest where we got great views of Mt. Everest and the Khumbu Glacier.

Did you see the glacier move?
Technically yes, as we would often hear the sharp cracks of the glacier moving and ice chipping and sliding. Of course, in geological terms we’d never be able to actually see the glacier move. Several veteran trekkers who have been to the Khumbu years earlier told us, though, that the glacier is actually receding. Like in many parts of the world climate change is warming some areas of the Khumbu, and glacier lakes that were covered just 10 years ago, are now uncovered. Pumori Base Camp now sits at the foot of a glacier lake that did not exist just five years ago.
How much did the trek cost?
The average cost of a room in the lower valley was 200-400 rupees. 100 rupees equals about $1.30, American. If done with a commercial trekking group, a hike of this nature could cost anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 per person. We did it for $250 each, not including a “shopping spree” we went on in Namche on the way home where we each spent about $50 on cool looking fake gear.
Did you really not wash for two weeks?
It depends on what your definition of “washing” is. Cold water is available most everywhere, so we were able to brush our teeth and at least rinse our hands and face on a regular basis. Some lodges had crude showers that consisted of a bucket and a hole above your head, but neither of us were interested in standing in a freezing stall and getting boiling water poured on us. Plus, since we only carried two changes of clothes, even if we did manage a hot scrub down, we’d still have to put on our dirty smelly clothes. So we passed. Dan grew a scratchy beard and Meena’s hair became dread-locked. At night, our bags and shoes smelled so bad that we would race to get to our room to see who would get to take off their boots first. After a while, it didn’t matter. If everyone smells, no one smells!

Our favorite daughter: Tenzing enjoys some trailside snacks!

Next week, all of Dan and Meenakshi’s training is put to the test. The Nepal Chronicles continues with our most important day yet as we attempt to reach Everest Base Camp!
Join us on Feb. 10 for the next exciting episode!
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