Like the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the key to a great Everest Base Camp trekking experience is choosing the tour and itinerary that is “JUST RIGHT.”
Choosing The Right Itinerary
For the typical EBC trek, it is at the very least a 11 Night/ 12 Day commitment; a more conservative acclimatization and descent plan would require 14 Days. There are multiple options to extend the trek to 20+ Days should you decide to include destinations like Island Peak or any the three Passes:
- Kongma La (5,535m)
- Cho La (5,380m)
- Renjo La (5,388m)
Treks can include one, two or three of the passes. There are also 3 trekking peaks that can be included as side trips:
- Gokyo Ri (5,483m)
- Kala Pattar (5,545m) – feasible to include in a typical EBC itinerary
- Chukkung Ri (5,550m)
The type of itinerary you choose will be depend on a combination of time, physical fitness, and your threshold for living in tough, cold conditions for an extended period of time. Regardless we highly reccomend building in a few buffer days should you discover that your body needs extra time to acclimatize.
The ability to have flexibility in your schedule is critical to success, as you can’t predict how you will adjust to the altitude. Here is a side by side of our original itinerary and the adjustments we made while on the trek:
How To Organize Your Trek
There are primarily three options for organizing your trip. Below are the three options in order of most expensive & least flexible:
- Organized tour groups via international agencies: There are a wide range of tours and price points but this generally the most expensive and least flexible as you are bound to the group itinerary.
- Individual/ personalized group trek via a local agency: This was the option we chose, which included a guide and a porter. Before arriving we asked for quotes from multiple tour agencies and found that a personalized trek program is half the cost of joining an organized trekking group. By working with a local agency, we also knew our money was staying in Nepal. We chose to work with Sherpa Society Trekking, more later on how we found this agency. Many of the large international tour companies we researched had high mark ups to their prices, they also had the most slick website. Our guess is that most of the mark up is absorbed by the infrastructure and marketing cost before even reaching Nepal.
- Solo Trekking: This is the most economical option and by far the most flexible. The trails are well defined and many hikers (more Europeans than Americans) opt to go solo, but there is always risk during high season that you may have trouble booking into lodges as you go higher up.
Below we break down pros and cons of both acknowledging that we are very partial that the option we chose.
Organized Tour Groups
There are a wide range of international tour agencies that offer EBC trek packages at a range of comfort and price levels. A few of the big names include Intrepid, G Adventures and World Expeditions.
- Camaraderie: The grueling schedule and sheer accomplishment of reaching Everest Base Camp makes it inevitable that you’ll form lifelong friendships with those who share the journey with you.
- Staff & Amenities: With professional international tour outfits you are going to be given top shelf guides who speak English and excellent support staff. These groups are usually equipped with a top rate first aid kit including a pulse oximeter to check O2 levels as you ascend.
- Reliability: The EBC trek is the bread and butter of these large agencies and therefore rarely cancelled. The all inclusive ones that include a chef means that there is typical a higher quality control over what you’ll eat. Hygiene gets lower as you ascend in the tea houses and getting sick from food is almost unavoidable.
- Price: This is by far the most expensive option, prices start at $1,400/person and can go above $3,000USD. These lower end packages do not include food while the higher end can include amenities like a staff chef for the expedition and accessories like sleeping bags, down jackets, and even toilet paper.
- Part of the Pack: These are typically groups of at least 12 and as many as 17. By default you will never have the trail to yourself. For us the most beautiful moments of the hike were when we found we had the trail and the mountains to ourselves. Whenever we passed one of these tour groups we did our best to lose them as quickly as possible as the chatter of the group would often drown out the sounds of nature on the Himalayan trail.
- Acclimatization Risk: There is also innately a higher risk for altitude sickness with this format. It is essentially a lottery draw in terms of the age and physical capabilities of the group you are matched with. For the sake of the group, the schedule is followed tightly which means no allowance or buffer should you discover at altitude that your body needs an extra day or two to adjust.
- No Independence: Your schedule is given to you each day by the tour leader including what time you eat, hike, and sleep. This format just would not have worked for our independent spirits.
Individual/ Personalized Group Trek via a Local Agency
One of the most difficult part of choosing this option is figuring out which agency to work with.
In her first trip to Nepal in 2014 Quan organized a trek to Ghorepani and Poon Hill where she was accompanied by a porter who spoke very little English but carried her bag and served as a guide. She did this by visiting the Thamel neighborhood of Katmandu which is the backpacking epicenter with lots of agencies that can make these arrangements. For those short on time and in particular for the Everest Base Camp trek where booking a plane ticket early is critical – this is may not be the best approach.
This time we were lucky that during our Gobi Desert Roadtrip we befriended Nidup whose family runs an agency in Nepal called Sherpa Society Trekking. The family agency has been operating since 1973 and is now run by Meena Sherpa. Meena specializes in bespoke programs for her guests that range from adventure travel (like our EBC trek) to cultural family experiences. She really treated us like family while we were in Nepal and we can not reccomend her agency enough to anyone looking to go with this option of trekking. Meena spends very little on advertising and has a minimalist website, the majority of her business is word of mouth and via repeat customers (which we’ll surely be!)
Here are the Pros and Cons of working with a local agency:
- Customization & Flexibility: The best part of booking with a local guide is that you have as much flexibility as possible. You choose your start date, route, length and difficulty. Even more important since it is your trek you are able to further customize while on the trek as you discover how your body reacts to the altitude and conditions in the mountains.
- Price & Sustainability: Compared to some of the price points of the major international touring companies, we found that local companies can be up to HALF the price! Not only is this a huge saving for you but your money is staying in Nepal. Further by eating and staying at the local tea houses you are helping the loca economy. Many of the international tour agencies set up their own tents and bring their own cooks up and down the mountain. We met one tour group from Colorado who told us that their morning pancakes were served with Kirkland’s syrup from Costco. To us it seemed like a huge waste of resource to fly in “food from home” and a waste of an opportunity to try local food.
- Friendship With Your Guide & Porter: An experienced Nepalese guide can make the trek for you, they can share their knowledge about the area and way of life; and can save you some unneeded steps by guiding you towards the easier trails. Ours was especially invaluable when Jesse became sick on the way up and Quan on the way down. He made adjustments to our program which got us much needed medical attention. He also acted as a liaison for us to get to know our porter better. Along the way we celebrated key milestones together as a team over tea and cards.
- If You Love Team Sports: We loved having only each other and our guide as our company on the trail as company. We recognize that this may not be for everyone and that the lack of camaraderie and atmosphere can be a major downside of a customized tour. Typically after a long day of hiking the large tour groups are rambunctious and celebratory with each other.
- Language Barriers: Depending on the agency or guide you’re working with there is always risk of miscommunication with the local staff due to language barriers. We were lucky that both our agency Sherpa Society Trekking and our guide spoke English, but wanted to pose this watch out.
- Buyer Beware: With so many tour operators in Kathmandu, there is a small chance that the company may not deliver what they promise and quality can vary greatly. Quan was not completely happy with her tour operator from 2014. Do your research and check out reviews before booking!
This is the ultimate EBC experience – you, your backpack, and the trail! The trails are pretty well defined and we met many happy hikers going up and down this route. This option is only reccomended for very experienced hikers.
- FREEDOM: You do you on the trail. You can go where you want, when you want and at your own pace. With a good map and a bit of research the trek is quite easy to follow.
- Cheapest Option: Porters and guides are paid by day, by going on your own you can avoid this cost. During low season tea houses offer hikers free accommodation if they pay for meals. Even in high season rooms can be as low as $2.50 / night with the same stipulation of buying food from the property.
- Bragging Rights: Reaching EBC all on your own… mic drop!
- Safety: With such risks including weather, altitude sickness and injury, safety is always a concern when trekking solo. Disorientation can be a side effect of altitude sickness – so at least consider trekking with a partner.
- Accommodation: During the peak seasons guides often rely on their relationships with lodges to find you a comfortable room. If you’re on your own you may have to shop around a bit more before finding a bed. At Gorachep, the highest (and coldest) sleeping point, several solo hikers were stranded without a place to stay. They ended up sharing the common room with the guides.
- No One Has Your Back: Booking thru an agency means everything is organised for you. Having to organise routes, times, weather, air tickets, equipment and the endless list of other details can quickly become tiresome (especially if you aren’t an experienced trekker). More importantly the when something was goes wrong you won’t have the support. Our flight to Lukla was delayed due to weather and Sherpa Society took care of rebooking our return flight so we could complete our trek. Though it never resorted to this, when Quan became really sick after EBC, we knew a helicopter rescue was only a phone call away as Meena already had our insurance information and would provide the cash guarantee required for the rescue.
As stated earlier we are very partial to the tour option we chose with Sherpa Society Trekking as we think it’s the most economical and best supports the local economy as well as a family business.
We hope that we were able to give you a lay of the land of the many options available. Check back here for more updates on our EBC packing list and an overview of our experience.