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How does altitude affect you when hiking to Everest Base Camp?

Have you ever set yourself a goal, only to realise that you have underestimated the difficulties that come with it?

We did this recently when trekking to Everest Base Camp.

Walking around the isolated areas of the Himalayas in Nepal was an amazing experience, but one of the hardest things we have ever done. Before we tell you about how altitude affected us, let us turn back the clock to when we embarked on the trip of a lifetime.

Touchdown.

It was October 2017 and we had just arrived at the worlds most dangerous airport  Lukla – only a short 45 minute flight from Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu. We counted our lucky stars that we landed safely as Lukla has been plagued by many air disasters over the years, but that wasn’t our fate today and our feet were firmly on the ground.

Our trek to Everest Base Camp looked OK on paper – only about 10-12 kilometers each day, with a few hills on the way. We were pretty fit, having run half marathons all over the world, this was going to be a piece of cake! Mmmmm cake.

Initially, the walking was great and the scenery was something out of a fairytale book. Majestic mountains towering overhead, massive waterfalls crashing to the ground, and the light breeze rustling through the trees. Not a speck of stress in sight, and my ‘nine to five’ back in Australia was a distant memory. As the trek progressed, the scenery didn’t change, but our perspective of it did. We were still passing mountains that would stretch to the heavens, and the sound of waterfalls weren’t getting any quieter, but day after day we were required to don our hiking shoes and head up the mountain. After four days of hiking exhaustion started to set in, and as we passed the 4000m above sea level we noticed that the tree line suddenly stopped and turned very baron – if trees didn’t want to live at these levels, then what are we doing here?

Plenty of people on other treks were starting to struggle with altitude, and in fact, some were given the ‘scenic route’ down the mountain by a helicopter – a very expensive one at that. We had a couple of mantras in our head which helped us on our way, one being ‘Relentless Forward Motion‘ which kept us putting one foot in front of the other, closer to our goal destination.

The higher up we climbed, the more it felt like our hearts were about to jump out of our chests. With our organs working overtime for the lack of oxygen in the air, we felt like we were running those half marathons while we slept! Needless to say, it took a lot of mental determination to keep on the straight and narrow.

As people started to feel defeated by the thin air, we tested our oxygen levels at one of our teahouse stops. The amount of oxygen at this level, was only 53% of that at sea level, meaning that the oxygen in our blood stream would surely be way too low for normal bodily functions. This was not wrong; I had an oxygen saturation of 87%, with a resting heart rate of 90 beats per minute (normal oxygen levels are between 95-98%, and my resting hear rate normally 50-60 beats per minute).

I mentioned bodily functions. Normally you would feel famished with the amount of walking we had been doing – 10-12 kilometers each day, gaining altitude with each step. I remember logging down the food I had eaten throughout the day in my diary – 2 eggs, some soup and a little bit of stew for dinner. That was all that was required to make me feel like I had just had a good birthday feed at a buffet restaurant. If anyone was looking for a ‘lose weight fast plan*’ this was the place to do it.

*It is not recommended to lose weight without a sustainable diet and exercise balance.

Summit Street

The day had finally come – we were about to reach Everest Base Camp! We had trekked for the past eight days towards the foot of the World’s highest mountain. Walking towards the pile of rocks we would eventually take photos of at 5364m above sea level, we couldn’t help but think that this was the hardest thing we have ever done – give us a half marathon any day!

Everest Base Camp, as well as a bunch of rocks, was fairly underwhelming. It was a good season to hike, but the colour of the tents from climbers who try to summit the mountain are only there in April/May. By now, the effects of altitude had fully hit us and we were not able to take much in. In total, we spent about 30 minutes at Base Camp, putting on a smile for the camera, then hunched over to catch our breath after even the smallest movement.

The way down from Everest Base Camp was even harder – you would think that once you reached your destination, that was your job over.

Wrong.

Jo started to stumble, like a drunkard late on a Friday night. I was losing concentration and couldn’t shake my nagging headache. That night, we slept at 5100m but needed to stay sitting upright which decreased the forces on our lungs to make breathing easier.

Walking down the mountain took three days, but was just as hard physically as it was mentally. They were long days with over 16 kilometers clocked on each day, it was all about getting to the finish line, back in Lukla. Finally we finally made it and were able to hang up the boots, before enjoying a much needed shower that we had sacrificed for the last 11 days.

Everest Base Camp was the destination, but the journey is really what made the trip great. We had a magical time in the Himalayas and can now safely say that we have achieved a bloody tough goal (which we underestimated before setting out). Tick it off the bucket list.

For a more detailed, day-by-day itinerary and a video of our trip, check out this link!

About the authors: Jeremy and Joanna run Coming Home Strong (www.cominghomestrong.com) where they love to have epic adventures all over the world. To date, they have been to over 68 countries, and have no signs of slowing down.