Planning an Everest Base Camp (EBC) trek through Sagarmatha National Park can be intimidating, and like many travelers setting out to complete the 62-kilometer hike from Lukla, Him and I were torn between hiring a tour company and going at it on our own. We ultimately decided to play it safe and hired the Amazing Nepal Adventure company for a private, 12-day hike at the cost of 168,000 rupees for both of us (at the time, almost US$2,000). The price, about half of what TripAdvisor’s top-rated EBC tour companies typically charge, included airfare from Kathmandu to Lukla, hiking permits, lodging each night, a guide, a porter and a single entrée each for breakfast, lunch and dinner (Drinks, even water, cost extra).
We set off on our trek on March 28 of this year, and as future blog posts will attest, we experienced both the highs and lows of relying on a tour company. In case you can’t wait for or don’t care to wait for the narrative, below is an abbreviated “pros” and “cons” list.
Despite the substantial “pros,” of hiring a tour company, Him and I agree we probably would not do so if we were to go back in time and start again. The trail is highly trafficked and well-marked. For most of the journey, the path ahead is quite obvious (discounting a stretch through some valleys near Pheriche). A good map and guidebook would be sufficient for understanding the scenery and precautions against altitude sickness. Possessing a simple first aid kit and common sense regarding safety (pass pack animals from the inside, so they can’t knock you into oblivion) and inclement weather goes a long way.
If we were to hire a company, it would be for limited assistance. Here’s why: Our 18-year-old tour guide was moody and at times immature, spoke often unintelligible English and failed to carry a first aid kit or his own water. In addition, the accommodation his company booked ranged wildly from a pleasant, but Spartan lodge in Namche Bazaar offering unlimited hot showers for a price to a leaning, two-story shack in Lobuche with plywood walls and large gaps along the windowpanes despite sub-freezing temperatures. (That Lobuche lodge, it should be noted, came equipped with toilets overflowing with frozen feces). We did not book our trek with the expectation of being pampered or coddled. We knew we would be roughing it as amenities along the trek are understandably limited and deteriorate progressively as one nears Everest Base Camp. But when the options varied, as they often did in the beginning stages of the hike, we wished we had had the freedom to choose our own lodges – preferably ones with working stoves and at least minimal insulation (We’ve never been so freakin’ cold in our entire lives).
Some pros of hiring a tour company:
- Can arrange for equipment rentals in Kathmandu (down jackets, down sleeping bags, hiking poles, etc.)
- Can arrange for transportation to and from the Kathmandu airport
- Can easily reschedule postponed or cancelled flights from Kathmandu to Lukla
- Can arrange for the (required) TIMS (Trekkers Information Management System) permits
- Can arrange for porters to carry excess baggage
- Will have emergency contacts should someone in the group need medical aid or evacuation
- Can, if you’re lucky, supply an experienced guide who explains the scenery along the way and adequately conditions his employers for altitude changes
- Can pre-arrange lodging (helpful during the high tourist season)
Some cons of hiring a tour company:
- Will be much more expensive than going on your own*
- Will provide less freedom to hike at one’s own pace
- Won’t allow group members to select their own lodging along the trek
- Will impose restrictions for ordering food and drinks at lodge restaurants
- Won’t allow group members to interview and select their own porters
- Will potentially subject hikers to large group numbers
If Him and I were to do it all over again, our ideal EBC trip would:
- Include, in the interest of keeping it interesting, perhaps three or four (adventurous) friends.
- Include less clothing so we could carry our loads without the aid of a porter
- Include a slim, solar-powered battery for charging cameras, cell phones, iPods, etc., along the way
- Include a guidebook providing history and facts of the hike and surrounding area
- Not be part of a larger, round-the-world adventure (so we would only possess equipment and clothing related to the trek, negating the need for cold-weather rentals, lockers in Kathmandu and porters)
If we solicited the services of a tour company, it would:
- Arrange our airfare from Kathmandu to Lukla (and vis-à-vis).
- Provide a certified guide who is outgoing, responsible, extremely knowledgeable about the area, certified in first aid car and speaks fluent English. The guide would give recommendations for lodging and help with bookings, but the ultimate selection would be our responsibility.
- Not impose a pre-packaged deal including lodging and food. We would pay for lodging and food as we went
- Arrange for emergency care and evacuation, as needed
Of course, there is no right or wrong way to tackle the Everest Base Camp trek – just your own way. We came across countless other hikers during our journey, all traveling in different configurations. One woman in her mid-20’s hiked without companions — just a guide. Aside from the blow-up doll fastened to his backpack, a Welsh fellow hiked solo during the day and met up with the other members of his small group at night. We encountered large high school and college groups, parents with pre-teen children and tours containing surprisingly overweight and/or elderly hikers. While waiting in the Kathmandu airport, we met two scientists from Kazakhstan about to climb and camp along Island Peak on their own. They seemed surprised when they learned we had hired a guide for our trek because they didn’t understand why we would need one. Members of 30-person guided tour with TripAdvisor’s top-rated company paid twice as much as we did, but many seemed annoyed by the pace set to accommodate the slowest hikers in their group. (Hiking among a group of strangers, it should be noted, is not always a bad thing. In 2010, Him and I hiked the Inca Trail guided by stellar company Llama Path. In addition to two knowledgeable guides and multiple porters, our group included 15 tourists unknown to us, but we enjoyed getting to know our companions, many of whom we still keep up with on Facebook. The pace of the hike seemed acceptable to most everyone involved, and there were just enough of us that we could hear and keep up with the guides’ explanations without feeling awkward about a constant, one-on-one situation with a single stranger).
When it comes to any multi-day hike, our advice is to complete plenty of research beforehand so as to understand your options. Thus equipped, you can decide which way is best for you.
Can you think of any pros and cons we forgot to mention? If so, please share your thoughts in the comment section below. Thanks for your help!
*If we had privately booked our lodges along the way, the cost would have averaged about 200 rupees per double room per night (although, at this price, the lodges often mandate guests order all their meals at the lodge). At lodges and restaurants along the hike, a two-liter container of hot water ranged in price from about 200 to 700 rupees (the price increases as you near EBC and become more isolated from civilization). Breakfast, lunch and dinner entrees typically ranged from 200 to 600 rupees. For more price examples, view our pictures of the menu from the Riverside Restaurant and Lunch Place in Phunke Tenga.