Everest base camp trekking route prayer flags Nepal

How hard is Everest Base Camp?

Oct 7, 2021

The Everest Base Camp trek is a tough challenge. But it's also immensely doable. We break down the various things that make it hard – like high altitude, the cold and sparing amenities – to help you work out if this is the next challenge for you!

In our experience there are two main questions people need answering before deciding whether or not to do the Everest Base Camp trek. The first question is regarding the Everest Base Camp Trek Cost. Secondly – how hard is Everest Base Camp? We’re going to say that the Everest Base Camp trek is hard, but not restrictively so. Also, what’s hard about it isn’t necessarily what you’re thinking! Quite a complicated answer, we know.

What we mean by all that is that it’s challenging enough to be something you’ll be extremely proud to conquer. It's also easy enough to be something that anyone with a basic level of fitness can tackle. While summiting Mount Everest itself obviously requires years of mountaineering experience and technique, trekking to Everest Base Camp (EBC) requires no mountaineering experience or technique. A fact that makes it wonderfully open to many, including, most probably, you.

Our goal is not to put anyone off doing the trek, but rather help you identify if this is an investment suited to you physically as well as mentally.

 

'Hard' in different ways

Further to the fitness required to complete it, the Everest Base Camp trek is hard in ways not everyone has necessarily considered. It involves a decent degree of discomfort, such as incredibly cold nights. This is as well as certain mental challenges. You will need to push on even when you’re drained and longing for frothy cappuccinos you cannot have.

But obviously you’d like a little more detail than that. You need some help to fine tune your sense of your own capability and suitability when it comes to the trek. With that in mind, let’s start by discussing what is required of you from a fitness perspective to actually get from the start of the trail to Everest Base Camp trek and back. We’ll then consider the level of discomfort you can expect. Next we will address the mental challenges people who undertake the trek commonly experience.

Amazing snow covered peaks on the Everest Base Camp Trek

The EBC trek is also known as the 'Steps to Heaven'

Trek distance and elevation

The exact route of the trek to Everest Base Camp (EBC) – also known as South Base Camp to distinguish it from the one on the other side of Mount Everest in Tibet – can and does differ from group to group. Many simply follow the shortest route there and back (65 km each way). However, they miss out on many attractions that are just a short distance away.

At Follow Alice we’ve put together what we think is a particularly exciting and varied 14-day trek itinerary that involves a longer return. On this route, you do a loop that takes over the pass known as Cho La and via the beautiful Gokyo Lakes. It takes in more of the area than the classic EBC trek. This route, known as the Everest Base Camp via Gokyo Lakes trek, is 150 km in total.

We also offer the option of taking an exhilarating helicopter flight back from Everest Base Camp. This means you only trek the outward 65 km to each base camp.

Pur. Aerial view of Sherpa village Gokyo (4,860 m)

Gokyo village is one of the stopovers on the Everest Base Camp via Gokyo Lakes trek

The start of your Everest Base Camp trek

Your Everest Base Camp trek with Follow Alice starts in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city. From there you fly to Lukla, a small town in northeastern Nepal that’s 2,680 m above sea level. Lukla has a hair-raisingly short runway positioned on the side of a mountain. You’ll experience this firsthand when you fly in from Kathmandu.

On the same day that you land in Lukla you’ll be strapping on your boots and beginning the trek. You will start with nearly six hours of trekking to the lush valley village of Phakding. This day is a gentle introduction to the trek. It it entails walking along a smooth and easy path, and you actually end up lower in elevation than where you started.

Mountains and riverbed in the Himalayas

A dry riverbed in the Himalayan mountains

Getting higher

Day 2 of the trek we’ll climb nearly a thousand vertical metres to Namche Bazaar. This is the Khumbu region’s largest town. Due to this jump in altitude, the next day is a rest day to allow your body to acclimatise.

There’s a great deal to see in Namche Bazaar, like the Sherpa Museum and Namche Monastery. But it doesn’t have to be all rest. There are also some fantastic short hikes you can take from Namche Bazaar to great lookout spots.

You’ve likely heard the adage ‘climb high, sleep low’. This references the wisdom of climbing to a higher altitude during the day to introduce your body to the thinner air, then dropping back down for the night to let your body recover.

Remote Himalaya

The next four days all involve trekking between 10 km and 15 km a day. This is while climbing higher and further into the remote Himalaya.

The first of these days we’ll spend trekking to Tengboche. The next day involves reaching Dingboche, and the one after that is about reaching Lobuche. From Lobuche we then hike to EBC, the trek’s terminal point.

Note that Everest Base Camp itself is empty most of the year. Summiting season is a short period in late May, so you shouldn’t expect to see the bevvy of tents and buzz of mountaineers you’ve no doubt seen on TV or online. After glorying in the reality of being at EBC, we’ll drop back down to the dot of a settlement called Gorakshep for the night.

The day after Everest Base Camp, we’ll hike from Gorakshep up to the top of Kala Patthar. At 5,643 m it is actually the highest point you’ll reach on the trek. Kala Patthar is popular for offering a magnificent view of the peak of Mount Everest, which you can’t actually see from EBC, as one might expect.

Everest and Lhotse

You enter in a world of snow, ice and cold air in the remote Himalayas

Break from the crowd

So far the route we’ve described is the common trek route to EBC. You can expect to encounter plenty of other trekkers en route. But on the return trip we’ll break from the crowd, as already mentioned, turning southwest towards Cho La instead of south and back to Dingboche. We’ll spend a night at Dzongla. Then the next day we ascend to the summit pass of Cho La, which sits at 5,420 m. This is a long day of trekking, and involves a steep ascent and descent.

The table below outlines the 14-day trek itinerary, including the hours spent trekking each day. This is the trek we offer in our 16-day Himalayan trip package – we host you in Kathmandu both the day before and the day after trek, hence the total of 16 days.

The itinerary below should give you a stronger sense of the intensity level of the trek. The hours trekked take into account the gradient and also the level of oxygen. Everyone has to go slower the higher the elevation. The oxygen level at EBC is roughly half what it is at sea level, so you will feel the impact!

14-day trek itinerary

Day 1: Fly into Kathmandu and gather together at the hotel in Thamel, Kathmandu.

Day 2: Take a short but exhilarating plane ride from Kathmandu to Lukla. Trek to Phakding (2,610 m) and enjoy the rivers, green mountains and relatively mild temperatures.

Day 3: Trek from Phakding up the valley to Namche Bazaar (3,440 m), the largest town in the Khumbu region. This day involves a big jump in elevation.

Day 4: Today is an acclimatisation day. So explore Namche Bazaar (attractions include the Sherpa Museum and Namche Monastery) and take a day hike if you'd like to the beautiful village of Khumjung.

Day 5: Trek from Namche Bazaar up to Tengboche (3,867 m), where you can visit the Tengboche Monastery, the largest monastery in Khumbu.

Day 6: Trek from Tengboche to the small settlement of Dingboche (4,260 m). Today involves another big jump in elevation.

Day 7: Trek from Dingboche to the tiny village of Lobuche (4,940 m).

Day 8: Trek to Everest Base Camp (5,364 m) and snap 1,000 selfies! 🏆 Turn around and trek to down to Gorakshep (5,164 m) for the night.

Day 9: Hike up Kala Patthar (5,643 m) for the best view of Mt Everest. Then trek to Dzongla (4,830 m) for the night

Day 10: Cross the pass called Cho La (5,420 m) and then descend to Thagna (4,500 m) for the night.

Day 11: Trek to the tiny village of Gokyo (4,750 m) and marvel at the beautiful, pristine lake.

Day 12: Hike up to Gokyo Peak (5,357 m) for a panoramic view of some of the world's mightiest mountains. Then trek to the village of Machhermo (4,470 m) for the night.

Day 13: Star the return journey, by trekking to Namche Bazaar.

Day 14: Descend to Lukla.

Day 15: Fly to Kathmandu. Share your best stories from the trip over drinks!

Return via helicopter itinerary

If you choose to fly back to Lukla from Everest Base Camp, then your trek itinerary looks he same as the above itinerary up to Day 8. On Day 9, you still climb up Kala Patthar in the morning for a brilliant view of Mt Everest. But you then hop into a helicopter for an absolutely breathtaking flight back to the trek's starting point. That same day you fly back to Kathmandu.

This is the EBC trek itinerary we offer as part of our 10-day Himalayan trek package.

Pur. Helicopter flies past Lhotse mountain, Everest Base Camp trek, Nepal

Just look at how tiny this helicopter is as it flies past Lhotse!

What does the trail look like?

The trek to Everest Base Camp involves walking along mountain paths. You do not climb, which is a distinction we wish to make very clear, as climbing requires special equipment, skill and practice. Walking a path requires none of that. All you really need are a good pair of hiking boots and some trekking poles.

That said, while the route often consists of a smooth dirt path, there are places where it’s uneven and even rocky. This is where your trekking poles really pay their way.

The importance of sturdy trekking boots also becomes apparent in protecting you from twisting an ankle or worse. You can also expect steps (which can be steep in places) and scree along the trek route. Sometimes the path runs alongside a river, other times it contours along the side of a mountain, and at other times it’s a challenging up or down.

As we’ll discuss in a bit, there will be yaks on the paths transporting trekkers’ belongings. You can expect to encounter them all along the trek. When this happens on a narrow path, it’s important to step to the side of the trail that’s against the mountain, so that if you’re bumped you fall uphill rather than down. Nobody wants the word yak in their obituary.

Three trekkers on their Everest Base Camp Trek

Trekkers on the Everest Base Camp trek route

Training for Everest Base Camp

As you likely already know, walking on different surfaces affects your body differently. A treadmill, for instance, places less strain on your ankles, knees and hips as it offers a degree of shock absorption. Treadmills also don’t strengthen your ankles in the same way that uneven surfaces do. So while training on a treadmill or paved surface is excellent exercise, in preparing for the EBC trek it’s not as ideal as training in natural terrain. For this reason we encourage you to do actual hikes as part of your training.

Training hikes

Training hikes are also ideal for testing out the socks, boots and rucksack or backpack you plan to use on the trek. It’s important to wear in your socks and shoes to check there are no niggles.

The same goes for your rucksack or backpack. Hiking with a bag prior to the trek is also helpful in building up your shoulder strength.

We recommend following the Everest Base Camp packing list and as you would bring on increasingly lengthy hikes. The longest trekking day on the EBC trek is seven and a half hours, which includes uphills. If you’re able to comfortably hike for eight hours in a day in varied terrain while carrying a backpack containing water and backup clothes, then you’ll do just fine on the EBC trek.

 

One of the difficult aspects of trekking to Everest Base Camp that most of us cannot prepare for is the altitude.

As already mentioned, the higher the elevation, the slower you will walk, even on easy paths. This is simply because your body is battling with the low oxygen supply. If it’s within your ability to do so, training at a higher altitude is desirable for preparing your body for the rarified Himalayan air.

Cardio and strength training

While long hikes are fantastic training for the Everest Base Camp trek, they shouldn’t form the entirety of your physical preparation. You should try to include cardio and strength training during the week. The fitter you are the less oxygen your muscles need to move. This is invaluable in the low-oxygen environment of the Himalayas.

We encourage you to really invest in your training beforehand. The stronger you are the more enjoyable your trip will be all round.  

Buddhist prayer flags on the trail of Everest Base Camp

Buddhist prayer flags decorate the Everest Base Camp trek

Hiring a porter

The trek can be made significantly easier if you choose to use the services of a porter to transport the bulk of your belongings. Follow Alice arranges for one porter per two trekkers, and this fee is worked into your Follow Alice fee. That said, if you’d prefer to carry all your equipment yourself, you’re more than welcome to do so.

The porters make use of yaks, the donkeys of the Himalayas, so your bags will be straddled on a yak and herded from pitstop to pitstop. If using a porter, you’ll need to bring a backpack for use during the day. This is as well as a sensible and durable other like a duffel bag for the rest of your belongings. Leave the vintage box suitcase at home.

I can't think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again.

– Bill Bryson

The option of a porter means that you can, to a degree, choose the level of difficulty of the trek. Not an experienced trekker? Only carrying a daypack and sending your bulky and heavy belongings with a porter is an excellent way of literally (and figuratively) easing the load on this trek. This thereby makes the whole journey that much more doable.

3 ladies and massive rocks on Everest Base Camp trek

Arrive with fellow trekkers, leave with lifelong friends

Mental and health challenges

Possibly one of the hardest parts of undertaking the Everest Base Camp trek is accepting that factors outside of your control can arise to hamper, or even derail, your trip. Examples include:

  • Delays at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu or Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla, usually because of uncooperative weather
  • Not being able to trek for a day, or even days, as a result of poor weather conditions
  • Suffering from headaches as a result of the extreme altitude
  • Developing acute mountain sickness (AMS) and having to descend without completing the trek
  • Injuring yourself and having to abort the trek

The main point here is that there’s risk involved. The risk that you won’t be able to finish the trek you’ve been planning for and dreaming about for months or even years. But safety absolutely has to come first in an environment like the Himalayas. If there’s an issue like severe altitude sickness symptoms, then unfortunately you just have to accept the untimely end of your trek.

 

 

Be prepared for the challenge mentally

Of course certain things are down to pure luck (or ‘unluck’). Some people get sunny days and relatively mild temperatures the entire trek, while others get clouds, snow and desperate temperatures. The odd person contracts food poisoning, while everyone else goes untouched. And then someone does something scream-worthy like spraining an ankle stepping out of the teahouse. The chances of most of these things happening are low, but they do exist and they can signal the sad end of your trek.

As a side note, this seems a good moment to point out the wisdom in taking out traveller’s insurance before embarking on the Everest Base Camp trek. Read more about how much the Everest Base Camp trek cost.

Buddhist monument near waterfall Everest Base Camp trek

A captivating Buddhist monument on the Everest Base Camp trek

Altitude sickness

Note too that altitude sickness doesn’t discriminate when it comes to age or fitness level. Acute mountain sickness (AMS) symptoms can include, but aren’t limited to, headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, appetite loss and difficulty sleeping. You can help ward off AMS by taking altitude meds, such as Diamox. If this is something you are considering, for this we advise visiting your GP to get a prescription for something that best suits you. Be sure to also discuss with him or her if the planned trip might aggravate any pre-existing conditions.

Less oxygen

As already discussed, the further you hike along the Everest Base Camp trek route, the rarer the air and so the shallower your breathing becomes. This means even a relatively small degree of exertion can lead to a feeling of extreme breathlessness, which can be disconcerting. Thin air can also mean headaches (even for those not suffering from AMS), and it tends to affect your sleep. This can cause issues such as difficulty drifting off, frequent awakenings, and vivid dreams, all of which can leave you feeling fatigued the next day.

The main thing here is to know yourself: do you fall apart at the hint of a headache? Are you known for coming down with man flu? If so, then perhaps a different sort of adventure trips is in order.

Lobuche village, Everest Base Camp, Nepal

The village of Lobuche, where you stay the night before your push for Everest Base Camp itself, is 4,940 m above sea level

Very cold temperatures

Probably the top of the list of common struggles along the Everest Base Camp trek should go the cold, especially after the sun goes down. At Gorakshep, for instance, the average night-time temperature in November, a popular trekking month, is -15ºC (or 5ºF).

Most of the windows in teahouse bedrooms consist of a single sheet of glass. And while the common room may be heated, bedrooms aren’t. When this happens, trekkers usually wear all their layers to bed, and yet it can still be a trying experience on particularly icy nights.

On top of the night-time cold, the winds can be savage, buffeting you and cutting through your clothes as you trek.

Bright sunlight

Sunglasses are an essential item. Not only do they protect you from glare but they also protect your eyes from wind and dirt.

A Sherpa porter on the Everest Base Camp Trek

You'll get to meet the Sherpa people and experience their unique culture

Narrow suspension bridges

It’s also worth mentioning that during the first couple days of the trek you have to cross a few rope suspension bridges. For those who are fearful of heights these can be a real challenge. The bridges are fairly narrow, though they do just allow for two-way traffic, and they can sway when the wind is up. On the plus side they do tend to offer amazing views up and down the valleys.

Suspension bridge Everest Base Camp trek adventure

One of the suspension bridges you cross on the lower section of the Everest Base Camp trek

Cleanliness is challenging

Next on the list of discomfort is cleanliness. Hygiene on the EBC trek is generally quite circumspect, as you can go days without a shower. Your clothes even longer without a decent wash, or any sort of wash at all. The higher you climb, the more likely it is that you’ll wake to frozen water stores, including a frozen water bottle.

You should know that the towns and villages we visit during the trek vary greatly in terms of size and amenities. Lukla, for instance, has a Starbucks and Wi-Fi, while some of the higher villages rely on solar power and yak dung for power. (The pong of burning yak dung can in itself be a challenge.) Some nights will therefore feel like the lap of luxury compared to others of more spartan means.

For instance, many of the teahouses along the trek make use of long drops, which to some Westerners can be a bit of learning curve. Further, the higher the elevation the more one needs to urinate, which for ladies in particular can mean annoyingly frequent nature calls along the trail. This also applies to other trails in Nepal such as on the Annapurna Circuit trek.

Mostly the issue of hygiene boils down to your personal qualms; if you know you’re something of a germaphobe, you need to consider how much your desire to complete the trek will carry you through these challenges.

Snow-capped peaks on the Everest Base Camp trek

The views along the Everest Base Camp trek are sublime

Limited food choices

Food is another factor to consider if you have dietary restrictions or strong dislikes. The choices are obviously fairly limited as this is a remote, hard-to-access region. Expect lots of high-carb food options like bread, pancakes, rice, pasta and potatoes, which will help power you along the trek route. There will also be plenty of eggs and cheese along with some cooked veg, but little in the way of fresh fruit and salads.

Some also find that what they order from the menu, though written in English, often doesn’t arrive resembling what they were anticipating. So the more flexible and relaxed you are about what you put into your mouth, the easier you’ll find your time on the trek.

Man in Follow Alice top in teahouse in Annapurna

You eat your meals in teahouses like this one

Motivation

Since you’re reading this blog post, we imagine you’re like us: you hear about colourful prayer flags, jagged, snowy peaks and small, mountainside Sherpa villages and your heart beats a little faster. You need to see and experience it for yourself. If that’s you, then we feel sure that the drive to get to Nepal and take on the Everest Base Camp trek will carry you through the trail’s steep inclines, smelly ablutions and other challenging moments.

Teddy Roosevelt famously said:

Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.

From the effort to get to Nepal, to the physical strain, to walk all those kilometres in rarified air – all of this makes the Everest Base Camp trek a worthy challenge for those seeking to push themselves and experience the world in a new way.

Pur. Evening sunset view of Mt Everest, Mt Lhotse and Mt Makalu from Renjo Pass

The peaks of Mounts Everest, Lhotse and Makalu bathed in evening light

Get prepared

While an element of surprise can be nice, if you’re someone who likes to know as much as possible what to expect on a trip, then know that YouTube is awash with documentaries, video journals and more that show trekkers en route to Everest Base Camp from Lukla and even Kathmandu.

If you undertake the the trek with Follow Alice, then many of the considerations and pitfalls discussed are matters you won’t have to think about. We’ll be taking care of most of the admin and our local guides Oangdi and Sonam will be looking after your safety. But as we said, if you prefer knowing, there’s a wealth of online information you can access to learn about all the various aspects of the Everest Base Camp trek.

 

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