Imagine: after two days hard trekking, finally you see it. Jagged, snow-shrouded, and utterly awe-inspiring – Everest rises ahead. So far on this epic Himalayas expedition, you’ve climbed to 3400m. You’re hot, dusty and have eleven more days hiking ahead – traversing mountain trails, skirting glaciers and bunking down in teahouses. You'll grow used to wet-wipe washes, a symbiotic relationship with odd pieces of gear, and friendships forged in unforgiving environments. Your objective is Everest Base Camp. Snow-fringed and framed by fluttering prayer flags, it sits at a testing 5346m at the foot of the Khumbu Icefall.
Expedition leader Jo Bradshaw takes new adventurers on this journey to Base Camp every year these days through worldwide tour company 360 Expeditions (360-expeditions.com) (she summited Everest itself in 2016). As part of our new ‘Ask an expert series,’ we asked Bradshaw about Everest, the unique challenges of trekking through the Himalayas, and some essential gear and tech tips.
Jo, you’ve led 10 trips to Everest Base Camp – what do people get from them?
JB: They’re about so much more than just a trek. They’re challenging. But difficult is good because it makes you stronger. It’s about getting out of your comfort zone, going 12 days without a proper shower, being with a group of strangers, surrounded by incredible culture in the most famous mountain region in the world. These treks broaden people’s horizons because they take us away from the comforts of home and put us in the land of simplicity.
Talk us through logistics and schedules.
Most people join an organised trip. At 360 Expeditions we fly into Kathmandu [1350m]; a noisy, smelly, incredible city – and then onto Lukla [2800m]. Lukla has no cars and no roads and is a massive culture shock to some. From there on you see real life as it’s lived in Nepal, because you’re trekking from village to village and sleeping in teahouses – basic but comfortable places with really thin walls. On the way you can get onto quieter, more remote trails. The best trekking seasons are March/April and October/November; you could encounter anything from chilly temperatures to quite warm days.
What can you do to prepare for the trip – can you prepare for altitude?
Altitude is a huge factor – you’re trekking from around 2800m to 5550m in 13 days. We take it slowly, but you’re walking for three to seven hours a day. Your trekking firm can offer information about any recommended medication. Although you can’t prepare specifically for altitude, you should definitely concentrate on fitness. Get your body used to what you’re going to be doing - that’s walking every day. Fitness is the key. You don’t need to run a marathon in four hours but you do need to be able to walk up big hills slowly. Your heart, lungs and muscles need to be used to working and you won’t get fit by sitting on the sofa!
What does any explorer need to keep in mind when prepping their kit for the trip?
There’s a 15 kilo limit for all your kit for two weeks. That’s the 80L mountain bag the Sherpas carry and the 30-35L backpack you’ll carry. Remember weight allowances include the bag’s weight; you can waste three to four kilos with ‘stuff’ that you just don’t need, so think light: Osprey (ospreyeurope.com) rucksacks are the only ones I use. Your trekking firm will provide a full kit list; it should include a four-season sleeping bag – that’s with a comfort rating of around -15.
Down sleeping bags are best for warmth to weight ratio and, because the air is so dry at altitude, down is best for this trek. If you don’t want to buy a down bag you can hire sleeping bags at a great outdoor shop in Kathmandu called Shonas.
You’ll need trekking poles; they’re personal preference, but I really love Pacerpole (pacerpole.com), they’ve got a very different, ergonomic handle. The sun’s UV rays are fierce at altitude so it’s essential to have category 4 sunglasses; wraparound ones to reduce glare.
What kind of clothes should prospective trekkers be thinking about?
The biggest mistake people make is to take too much stuff; amazingly you can wear underwear for more than one day – on expedition it’s allowed! I go for one wicking base layer top, I wear Páramo (paramo-clothing.com) all the time, and two-to-three thermal tops of differing grades – I just layer up as I go higher. Icebreaker (icebreaker.com) base layers are essential; also think about wicking underwear, such as SueMe (sueme.com). I’ll take two pairs of trousers, one light; one heavy, and a full set of waterproofs – Berghaus (berghaus.com) are good; Páramo lasts for years. I’ll add a thin down jacket, a Berghaus down/PrimaLoft one, as well as a thicker down one; I go for a Rab (rab.equipment.us) Extreme or a Berghaus Popena.
Cold hands and cold feet can be real issues so you’ll also need good quality trekking socks and a couple of decent pairs of insulated trekking gloves – but not ski gloves, they aren’t designed for sustained altitude. Add a liner pair and make sure they aren’t too tight when worn together. Add a warm hat and a wide-brimmed sun hat, and a buff; really useful for sometimes covering your mouth - the Himalayas are so dry and dusty, especially when the yaks are moving around.
I take something to change into in the evening, so a really light pair of jeans and a fleece, plus some North Face (thenorthface.com) camp boots, with proper soles. Or go for crocs or trainers; something to give your feet a rest from trekking boots.
Any hiking boot preferences?
Brands depend on your feet width. I like Salomon (salomon.com) or Meindl (meindl.co.uk); I have a pair of Millet (millet-mountain.com) boots that are my current favourites. You don’t need anything technical to do Base Camp, just comfortable, good, waterproof, three-season trekking boots with a decent ankle support. Wear them in for training, though, with your backpack on, to make sure they’re comfortable.
Are there particular hydration methods that work best?
It’s essential to drink 4-5L of water a day at altitude. It’ll have either been boiled or sterilised. I go for one 1L Nalgene (nalgene.com) water bottle and one 2L Osprey water bladder. I like bladders as that way I can keep rehydrating while I’m walking; if I have to stop to swig I don’t drink enough.
What tech do you need?
Take the minimum amount of technical kit. People often take really heavy solar chargers and battery packs, but on this trek you just don’t need to because you can charge up at teahouses, for a small extra fee. Also a battery pack can weigh a kilo or half a kilo – that’s a couple of thermal tops and a packet of wet wipes. You can also buy most things on the trail including electronics, batteries, snacks and toiletries.
I recommend a point-and-press camera. I use a Panasonic Lumix (panasonic.com) which is very rugged and waterproof and I know works well at altitude. Large SLRs take better pictures but you’re also carrying an extra 2kgs around your neck – not recommended. I take a spare battery; store batteries down your sleeping bag at night as it prolongs usage.
Mobile phones do work most of the way up the Khumbu Valley but you could also buy a local SIM card in Kathmandu or up the trail. You’ll need your passport to buy one but then the charges are so much less for making calls or using mobile data. Take an unlocked phone though!
I take a Kindle or an iPad so I can read a variety of books. There are book shops up the valley too so you can do swaps with fellow trekkers.
Have you noticed many changes since you first went to Everest Base Camp?
I first went to Base Camp in 2010. You could really only get online at internet cafes, where you go and sit in front of a computer. It’s changed massively; we get to a teahouse the first thing clients ask is not ‘can I have a hot drink’, but ‘what’s the wi-fi password?’ Social media means getting photos up so loved ones can see what we’re up to. I totally understand that – we all do it. But it has changed the feel of it a lot.
Last thoughts on technology’s role in the Himalayas?
Sometimes you’re sitting in a remote teahouse and people are just looking at their phones. And all around are Sherpas with multiple Everest climbs and multiple ascents of 8000m – and they’re the most incredible and humble people. And everybody is just looking at Facebook. Take advantage of the company up here – you don’t want to come back and think ‘I wish I’d talked to the Sherpas about how many times they’ve been up Ama Dablam’, or ‘I wish I’d spoken to that guy next to me because he’s done seventy summits’.