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Hiking Everest base camp as a solo female

Hiking-everest-base-camp-solo-female
hiking-everest-solo-female

Amanda O’Brien runs the travel blog www.theboutiqueadventurer.com. After 20 years in marketing and visiting over 80 countries in her 5 weeks off each year she decided to combine her skills with what she loved and start a travel blog. The blog focuses on adventurous activities and destinations but usually ends up in a hotel with a high thread count on the sheets. The blog is designed for travelers who are over 35 and is often focused on solo travel.

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I had trekked to Kilimanjaro five years ago. I suffered from big headaches but a combination of paracetamol and ibuprofen got me through. So I thought I was ok when it came to altitude sickness. However, I hadn’t counted on how many days were spent over 4000m on the Everest Base Camp trek. This is of course to help you acclimatize but it seemed to have the opposite effect on me – more symptoms for more days. The headaches started about 3500m.

Day six of the trek I lost my appetite – the nausea was mild, thank goodness. But 2 days out a weird thing happened – no matter how much I drank I just peed it out moments later – and I was constantly extremely thirsty and with a bad dry mouth. This was at its worst at night – particularly the night before getting to base camp and the night of getting there.

At this stage you are also seeing the worst of the tea houses. The rooms are tiny – you can barely swing a cat. You end up with one squat toilet for 15 people and the smell is horrendous. Don’t even think about showers. And the worst thing of all for me was the hideous cold – it was maybe 2-3 degrees. The only warm area is where you eat – but this is kept warm through these odd stoves that are often burning yak dung etc and the smell made me feel nauseous – so it was that or the unbelievably cold rooms. The tea house at Gorack Shep didn’t even have a sink. Coming back to this after getting to base camp was pretty horrendous.

You can also hear everything in the tea houses – the walls are super thin and the doors and floors tend to be very creaky so you can almost hear someone in the next room roll over. And of course you hear everyone getting up to go to the loo.

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One of the worst days was the day before getting to base camp. I felt like I could pass out at any moment. Even when we stopped for morning tea I had to put my head on the table. I felt like I was in a dream and that I was going to wake up in my flat in London at any moment. In hindsight I should have possibly stopped at this point but to be honest I was too out of it to even think about that.  

The night I got in from base camp I went straight to bed and to sleep – it was about 5pm. I was ok till 2am and then I woke up unbelievably thirsty with a vice like headache and needing to go to the loo. This process continued till morning. It is normal at altitude to pee a lot more – it is one of the ways your body is trying to adjust. But it was at the point I appeared to be keeping no water in – and this was on top of 3 days of barely eating.

As a result I was shaky and exhausted. Not ideal when you are trekking at high altitude and dealing with heading down hill and lots of rocks and boulders.

I had decided the morning after getting to base camp that now that I had achieved my goal if I didn’t feel better by the end of the day I was going to look at options to get out. I was hoping my symptoms would lessen considerably as I continued to go down as this is what happened with Kililmanjaro. This wasn’t the case.

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When we reached our town for the night there was a doctor. All my vitals were fine – which was a relief but would not have covered my kidneys with the constant peeing issue. But I had basically everything on the list for altitude sickness – so I had moderate-severe altitude sickness but it wasn’t life threatening. But of course I was very sick and felt absolutely dreadful – and very worried about how on earth I would navigate the 45km odd over the next 3 days heading down 2000m. It felt like almost a certainty that I would injure myself. The doctor wrote a note to say that I should head down immediately due to moderate to severe altitude sickness.

So I thought this was all fine – I had a doctor’s note and I had specific insurance to cover these types of issues. However, the lead guide on my trip didn’t seem to agree. He essentially argued with me and made out that I was not sick enough to leave. He got 3 more guides around him and sat and interrogated me – if I was so sick how come I went to base camp? Why hadn’t I said anything? I couldn’t understand this as I had told him several times that I felt very unwell – especially with the headaches and dizziness – and I had updated this in the form we filled in every night with our conditions.

The reality was I was not getting any better – and I couldn’t see how I would possibly recover sleeping in a freezing tea house for 4 more nights and walking 15km a day. I was already a nervous down hill trekker – this would make things much worse. He was actually quite dreadful to me. At one point he even accused me of saying that I was going to sue him when I had said nothing of the sort. It was particularly intimidating when he had 3 other Nepalese men with him and it was just me – and this was in the middle of the communal area.

It was an awful experience. I finally realized I was going to have to find a way through this to get off the mountain. He kept going on and on about the insurance and how it works differently in the mountains etc – ignoring me when I said I had worked in insurance and I knew how this worked (the insurance company was based in the uk).

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I think what was going on was he thought I wanted an emergency helicopter brought in and then I would be taken to Kathmandu. I knew full well I didn’t have anything life threatening so there was no need for anything emergency. He only calmed down when I said why didn’t I pay for the helicopter with my credit card and that I would sort the insurance out from London. He had assumed I wanted to go all the way to Kathmandu via helicopter – I said I was fine to get to Lukla whichever way was easiest and then to fly from there to Kathmandu (standard plane fare is 145 USD from Lukla to kathmandu).

I ended up getting a helicopter from Pheriche to lukla – it was only 10 minutes and US1200. I did notice that they had managed to put some supplies on the helicopter for the village when it came in. They did send someone on the flight with me – a girl who had looked after the yaks. When we landed I was met by a woman who was very helpful and organized my flight to Kathmandu for me.

I also spoke with the tour agency who were helpful in terms of accommodation – I had had enough wifi to email the hotel where I wanted to stay and had also been able to check on booking.com that they had availability. They sorted this out with the hotel – and to pick me up at the airport. So I was well taken care of and was back at the hotel by 130pm. The hotel took one look at me and said they had a doctor visiting another guest and did I want to see him too. I said yes and he prescribed a number of different over the counter medications for me.

I got 2 phone calls from the local reps that afternoon to again ask me what had happened and check in on me and I got several texts from the tour guide who had also apologized that morning.  So it was an odd one. I think the way I was treated by the lead guide was appalling and totally unacceptable. It is only because I have a strong personality, have travelled a lot, knew I had the money to pay for everything if insurance didn’t hold and knew how insurance worked that I was able to hold firm.

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To be at 4500m and that sick and being brow beaten by 4 Nepalese men as one western female was very unpleasant. I have no doubt that I would not have been treated that way if I was a man nor if I was travelling with a partner. Being a solo traveler can be tough.  It just got worse and more concerning as he began to make things up about me saying I was going to sue him which never even crossed my mind (for what?) let alone came out of my mouth. So much of it was also his extremely hostile tone.

However, he did essentially apologise the next day and made sure that I had everything completely sorted and the exit went very smoothly. So what do you do? I don’t know how hard a time the guides are given about insurance and helicopters etc. Nepal is a desperately poor country – particularly after the earthquake – and I can’t begin to comprehend the fear that must sit behind those working for foreign companies in this kind of area. He had been a very good guide up to this point.

So I decided to lie. I lied to him and said all was fine. I lied to the people from the travel company who rang to check in on me and said everything was fine and I had been treated extremely well. I lied because I was concerned that if I didn’t what was an unpleasant experience for me would have resulted in a life changing event for him – the loss of his job or reduction of it would have potentially ruined his livelihood, family members he was supporting etc and I didn’t feel what had happened to me justified a punishment that severe.

The guide continued to check on me once I was back in Kathmandu and even went to the effort to go and get the invoice from the helicopter company and meet me at the airport for my flight out.

As if all that wasn’t enough I also got gastro almost as soon as I was back in Kathmandu and eating properly again. Well I was eating properly again for about half a day! Two weeks later once back home I woke up in the middle of the night in agony with a massively swollen left ankle and a lot of pain.

I then entered into 4 very difficult weeks. I was initially diagnosed with a sprained ankle, then cellulitis and then finally reactive arthritis. The reactive arthritis was an outcome of the severe altitude sickness/gastro and my immune system being destroyed. I was on crutches for over a month and am still not 100% walking normally 2 weeks later as I write this post.

So was it worth it? No. Yes the scenery was amazing and it is wonderful that I got to base camp but it was not worth how sick I was on the trek and after the trek. It is done now so I look on the positive side as I can’t go back and change things but sometimes I think we can put the rose coloured glasses on with travel and mine are slightly jaded looking back at this point!

My key learning was to start taking notes if you’re not feeling well. Be detailed. Also I initially got quite upset when the lead guide questioned my level of illness. It was only once I calmed down and took some deep breaths and thought about what was motivating him that I was able to calm the situation by saying there had been a miscommunication and perhaps if I paid for the helicopter that would be helpful. You are dealing with a very different culture and that is just the reality of the situation. But I won’t be doing any heavy duty trekking at high altitude any time soon!

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2 Comments

  1. Kimberly says:

    Hello from the US! I am doing this trek in May of 2019 and would like to know what trekking company you used if possible. I am travelling with two friends but we’re all females and generally inexperienced with long treks. I am trying to be very careful about the company I book with so any helpful tips would be great 🙂 Thanks!

  2. […] connect with, thanks to the platform; Members like the woman who started traveling alone at over 50. The member who climbed everest base camp alone. The many women who have reached out with bold stories. I could list so many cool women I have been […]

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