Nepal’s Khumbu region, located just south of Mt. Everest in Nepal, is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations. The ‘best’ time to visit is from early March to mid-May, and early September to mid-November. Monsoon hits between June to August, which is when I went, and in my opinion this is actually the ideal time for the trek to Everest Base Camp (EBC). The rain tends to stay confined to the afternoons / evenings, leaving clear mornings with few other tourists.
To approach the trek, you’ll probably start by flying the 30+ minutes from Kathmandu to Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla, with its 460x20m runway on a 12% gradient — the second-most dangerous airport in the world. The experience is unique.
Trekking to EBC takes you through some of the world’s most epic landscapes and gives you a close look at Sherpa culture. But it’s important to remember that a lot of the tourism infrastructure here has been built on foundations of injustice. On my visit, I couldn’t believe how many men and children I saw toiling under slave-like conditions. I’ve covered the sad reality of modern-day slavery in the stone industry in this part of Nepal on my blog. The reality will be plainly evident to you on the trek.
If you choose to hike to EBC, I would encourage you to carry your own pack. Most of the guesthouses in Kathmandu can temporarily store any belongings you don’t need to take with you, so you can travel light — shoot for 10kg. You’ll be offered a guide and a porter, but the truth is neither is needed for this trek (maps are available in many shops in Kathmandu). If you decide to use a porter, keep in mind many of them are from the south of Nepal or India (especially the ones carrying goods to different villages) and work very hard for next to no money by Western standards.
In monsoon time, Tenzing-Hillary Airport can be closed for days, even weeks until the weather clears. Most of the airplanes in service are very old and give a rough ride, but the feeling of flying so close to the mountains is extraordinary. The landing and takeoff from Lukla is a special moment: Locals start praying, and cotton is offered to stop up your ears.
From Lukla to Nurning
A local family walking from Lukla to Nurning village. The mornings are good for trekking, especially in monsoon season. Many paths traverse big stones, which can make the walking challenging -- hiking boots are highly recommended.
Most of the porters come from poor areas of Nepal and India. For the stone breakers, a day's work is 12 hours and earns them US$3-5. Indentured labor in the stone-breaking industry affects several villages in this region of Nepal, where people are caught in the cycle of poverty and debt bondage, forced to borrow money for basic survival. Child slave labor is also a growing problem. It's estimated that there are 2.6 million child workers in Nepal.
On the trek, I found this young Sherpa getting ready to carry goods. Porters can be any age, and in some cases, children.
Over the Dudh Kosi
Before the steep ascent to Namche Bazaar are two suspension bridges over the Dudh Kosi river. From this point to Namche takes three to four hours, along a section of trail where there are no teahouses or places to stay. Bring water and some chocolate!
Because of the frequent mist, I decided to shoot this project in black and white. It gives the images a kind of mystic feel. It was a pleasure to shoot under such conditions, though I'd recommend using a waterproof cover for your camera. Here in Namche, there are great views of the peaks, though during the monsoon it's often difficult to see even to the other side of town.
Porters carry wood from Lukla to Namche, or from Syangboche up to all the villages until Gorak Shep, the last town on the way to EBC. Often, their loads weigh over 80kg. Due to strict environmental law, wood cannot be cut locally to make houses or hotels -- a win for the environment, but a huge loss for human rights. There seem to be no efforts underway to find a balance.
At 3440m above sea level, Namche is the best place to take an altitude acclimatization rest day. It's the main trading hub for the Khumbu region and has internet access, museums, restaurants, and places to hang out. Also a great place to charge cameras and computers before continuing the trek. From here on out, you'll be asked to pay for charging electronic devices.
Namche street scene
Namche is an incredible place for taking pictures.
A porter walking from Namche to Deboche (3820m). This part of the trail is relatively easy. However, before Deboche, you ascend almost 600m. This is the last rise before getting a rest in Deboche.
On the soccer field
The weather from June to August is very unstable. But it didn't seem to matter if it was raining, misting, whatever -- children were always playing on the streets or in the school soccer fields.
Despite the low wages porters earn for carrying goods, the prices of those goods go up as you get higher. A bottle of water costs 100 rupees in Lukla; at EBC, that water will run 350. Gorak Shep (5140m), the last town on the trek, is the most expensive. Keep in mind there are just two ATMs on this route -- one in Lukla and another in Namche. Of course, there's no guarantee that they'll work. For three meals and a hotel, expect to spend US$15-20 per day.
I woke up at 5:30 to get the best light for taking pictures at EBC. Unfortunately, it was raining heavily, but suddenly the sun shone through, and I could see the glaciers surrounding EBC.
No one around
Being at EBC has been one of the best experiences I've had -- spectacular views with no other tourists around. The silence and beauty of the place make you forget the effort you've expended to reach it. A time to have some chocolate and water.
Returning from Lukla, I could see the runway of Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu. Since the airplanes are very small, the few seats towards the front get a privileged view out the cockpit window.