In 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first people to summit Mt. Everest. Their expedition started in Kathmandu, and led them to the village of Jiri; from there they trekked across 160km of mountains and jungle. We just hiked the same exact route.
Each year, tens of thousands of people journey into Nepal’s Sagarmāthā National Park to witness Everest Base Camp firsthand. Most fly into the tiny airport of Lukla to begin their journey, but an adventurous few retrace Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s historic steps from the beginning. We were among those adventurous few.
Most people who travel to Everest Base Camp today begin their journey by flying into “the world’s most dangerous airport” in the town of Lukla. From Lukla, it’s just a few days’ hike into the Himalayas along a path that has been neatly cultivated to facilitate thousands of tourists.
We chose to take the path less-traveled, and began our adventure in Jiri — just like Hillary and Norgay — 160km from base camp of the world’s highest mountain.
Why go? Of the tens of thousands of people that travel into Sagarmāthā National Park every year, mere hundreds do so by entering from the adjoining Gaurishankar Conservation Area, where our journey began. The 105km from Jiri to Lukla that we hiked through were constantly changing with the elevation. The area down low reminded me of the Costa Rican rain forest — vegetation was lush and green; turquoise rivers raged through every valley. Up high reminded me of the areas I’ve explored in California — massive rock faces were littered with pine trees; ridgeline after ridgeline filled the sky. In between, fields for farming were beautifully carved into the hillsides; small villages were dotted throughout. Every so often, we were reminded of where we were heading when the Himalayas would peek out from behind our immediate view. I had never seen so much ecological variety in such a short time — the landscape literally changed by the hour.
In addition to the trek’s natural beauty, the route provided an incredibly rich cultural experience — one that’s not available high in the Himalayas where tourists greatly outnumber the residents. Oftentimes, we dined with local porters or lodge owners. Most of our conversations were with Nepali people; we picked up a few words and phrases along the way. The local children loved “sweets” so we shared chocolate whenever we stopped. At one point, a small boy and his older sister “guided” us for several kilometres to the next town. Daniel and I both have our fair share of facial hair (Daniel has a “zunga”, or moustache in Nepali; I have “dahdi,” a beard) so when we passed a couple of Buddhist monks with dahdi themselves, we quickly bonded and took a selfie to commemorate the moment.
Despite the area’s low traffic, a full trekking infrastructure was in-place. Each village that we passed through had a handful of lodge/restaurants to choose from, but we rarely had neighbours while sleeping. This was a great contrast to the Disneyland-like atmosphere of many of the villages located above Lukla.
Day 1 – Jiri to Deurali: We woke early with anticipation of the days ahead. Daniel and I had arrived in Jiri by bus the previous afternoon. After breakfast, we hiked to the end of the road and followed some orange markings to the trail. Off we went.
The trail led us through a handful of tiny villages. We passed a couple kids and broke off some Toblerone for them. Pretty soon we were surrounded by close to a dozen. They all loved chocolate, it seemed! We continued on our way; soon we passed through another tiny village, but this one was butchering a hog; people were coming from all over to purchase meat in celebration of a Nepali holiday. Pemba Sherpa was running the event. He gave us some tea; offered for us to stay in his guest house if we came back through.
Our day finished after nearly 20km of hiking with a final ascent up to 2700m; we arrived in Deurali an hour after dark. A full meal; off to bed.
Day 2 – Deurali to Kinja: Immediately after hiking up to Deurali, we descended a couple of thousand feet. This would be a normal occurrence. None of the trails followed the contour of the land – it was always up and down.
We met a young boy and his sister along the way. After sharing our munchies, they “guided” us for a few kilometres until we reached the village of Kinja, located in a river valley at about 1800m. Kinja would be our home for the night. By this time, we were good and sweaty. Daniel and I arrived with a couple hours of daylight left, so we dipped into the river to cool off and rinse away our filth.
Day 3 – Kinja to Lamjura Pass: What goes down, must go up. And up we went. And up. And up. 1800m of up in 10km. From rainforest to pine forest to spooky hanging moss forest; we finally topped out at Lamjura Pass — an 3500m high Sherpa village surrounded by clouds.
Gelmu Sherpa was on break from school, running her parents’ Himalayan Lodge and had a fire going inside. We shared a large pot of milk tea while huddling by the fire until bed.
Day 4 – Lamjura Pass to Ringmu: We started our fourth day off with a descent through a forest that reminded me of the Sierra Nevada. Soon we passed through some farmland, rounded the side of a hill, and were rewarded with a brilliant view of Junbesi in the valley below, with the snow-capped Himalayas towering above. We stopped in the village for lunch and made the mistake of ordering momo (similar to dumplings). They were delicious but took entirely too long to make.
After lunch we started climbing back up before the trail flattened out for a few kilometres — in what was probably the only flat section of trail between Jiri and Lukla. Eventually we dropped back down into the valley, crossed a river, and made a short climb up to Ringmu. We stayed at the Sherpa lodge and took a couple of lukewarm showers that night.
Every field we saw was terraced into a hillside. Efficient use of land!
Day 5 – Ringmu to Kharikhola: Not five minutes after having left the lodge, I heard heavy breathing and swift, but light footsteps behind me. Apparently there was some kind of miscalculation with our bill from the night before. The lodge owner’s preteen son (who seemed to be running things) had caught up with us to right the wrong. We balanced out the total and were again on our way.
Asses on parade.
Before long, a donkey train was bounding down the trail heading straight for us. This would be the first of many that day. They were carrying fuel and supplies from village to village. We moved aside to let them pass and continued hiking up to a 3000m pass. Then descended to 1500m, to cross a river. And then back up to 1900m to Kharikhola, where we’d stop for the night.
Day 6: Kharikhola to Surke: Eat, sleep, hike, repeat. This was our life. We climbed. We descended. We climbed some more. Local: “Porter? Guide?” Us: “No porter, no guide.”
I made friends with the Sherpa kids.
Surke was the last village before Lukla; we arrived there after about 15km of hiking. The next day, we’d pass Lukla, and be amongst the hordes of people flocking to see Everest Base Camp. Daniel and I were in no rush to leave the quiet trail (sans donkey bells) we had been following the past week, but Island Peak was waiting. You’ll read about that later this week.
Hot tea completes every meal in Nepal.
What You’ll Need to Bring: A TIMS (Trekker Information Management System) Card and Gaurishankar Conservation Area permit. Both of these can be purchased at the Nepal Tourism Board in Kathmandu for about 2000 Nepali Rupees each. If you travel into Sagarmāthā National Park, you’ll need a permit for that park as well. It runs about 3000 Rs and can be purchased at the Nepal Tourism Board or at the park entry.
There’s a great trekking infrastructure in place, so there’s no need to carry food (except for snacks, which you can buy in Kathmandu or along the way) or a tent. Expect to pay 1000-1500 Nepali Rupees ($18-$28) per day for three meals, drinks, and lodging. Meals are usually 200-500 Rs per item, but as a rule-of-thumb, food is more expensive the higher you go. Lodging is usually 100-200 Rs per person, but trekkers are expected to take meals at the same lodge. Oftentimes, lodges will give free accommodations if you ask. However, I didn’t mind injecting a couple extra bucks into the local economy.
We trekked throughout November, which was the end of peak season. We didn’t experience any precipitation during our entire three weeks on the trail. From Jiri to Lukla, it was often hot and humid during the day, but would get cold at night, especially on passes. Once we passed Lukla, it was warm and dry during the day and cold at night. Dress appropriately. We carried winter sleeping bags (our main objective was climbing 6000m Imja Tse, better known as Island Peak) but all of the lodges provided blankets upon request.
Most trekkers purchase bottles of water throughout the trip. Not only is bottled water expensive (100-150 Rs p/litre) but plastic bottles are bad for the environment and have to be carried out on some Nepali guy’s back. Instead, we carried a Sawyer Squeeze (3 oz, $US35) and filtered our own water whenever we wanted. It worked brilliantly. Iodine tablets or AquaMira would work too, but be prepared to carry a few weeks’ worth.
The Goal Zero Guide 10 Plus recharges its battery pack in only four hours of direct sunlight.
Only one of the lodges in between Jiri and Lukla had power outlets in the room. The rest charged 200-500 Rs for battery charging. A small solar charger like the Goal Zero Guide 10 Plus will charge your phone, providing power independence.
This kid loved Kashi bars. Can you blame him?
How Do You Get There? Take the microbus from Kathmandu to Jiri. The first one leaves from the bus station (just have a cab driver take you there) at 6 am and costs about 650 Rs per person. The bus ride is about eight hours long; it’s a bumpy ride, but a great cultural experience.
What Should You Do While You’re There? Most people who begin their treks in Jiri use it as an alternative entry to Sagarmāthā National Park. The route is pretty straight forward and doesn’t offer much deviation until higher up in the Himalayas.
Try to get by without using a guide or porter. The trail was well-marked along the way, there’s no need to carry a lot of stuff, and our independence was respected by the locals.
There are tons of different food items on the menu. Try them all. We also made a game out of not showering. Beat our record of three weeks. Try to learn some Nepali while trekking, it’s a good way to connect with people along the way.
Daniel’s feet were feeling a little rough after five days through the jungle and mountains.
What We’d Do Differently: We would have packed lighter. Our end objective was climbing, so we carried parkas and mountain boots. I carried my own climbing gear, plus camera equipment, the Surface Pro 3, and a bunch of other things that you probably won’t need. Wish I didn’t need them either, because my pack weighed 27kg. Yours should weigh 9kg.
Pictures: Chris Brinlee Jr