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The Benefits of Small Footprint Trekking in Nepal

“Sagarmatha National Park has about 10% of bird species of the world, 10% of plant species and about 200 different herbs or so grow here,” says Bir Singh, our knowledgeable lead guide. Sagarmatha, known for its dramatic mountains, including Everest, the world’s highest peak at 29,029 feet (8,848 meters) above sea level, and extraordinary scenery, was created in 1976 to protect the area. Shortly after, in 1979, the park became a UNESCO World Heritage site.

View from camp at Khangjuma

Mount Everest can be seen from Lhotse and Ama Dablam from the World Expeditions Kyangjuma camp. The village of Kyangjuma at 11,485 feet (3,550 meters) is a welcome stop along the trail to re-hydrate at a teahouse, buy souvenirs, or just relax and enjoy the view towards Everest (which is tucked around the corner in this photo) and surrounding peaks. At top, the World Expeditions Monjo eco-camp is seen with the morning light highlighting the Himalayas in the background. (Kate Robertson photos for VacayNetwork.com)

I’m on an eight-day trek of the Everest Trail with World Expeditions, hiking from Lukla (9,383 feet / 2,860 meters) to just above Pangboche (13,228 feet / 4,032 meters), a distance of 10.6 miles (17 kilometres). In the North American mountains on reasonable terrain, such a distance might be completed in a day or two, but in high-altitude destinations, the ascent is slower to allow for acclimatization. Our first overnight, after a two-and-a half-hour hike, is at the World Expeditions eco-camp at Ghat (8,300 feet / 2,530 meters) which is actually lower in elevation than our starting point at Lukla, because it’s recommended to avoid an ascent to sleeping elevation of greater than 9,022 feet (2,750 meters) in one day.

I arrived off the plane in Kathmandu two days before with a deep cough, so I’m not feeling super spritely. Fortunately, the next day my health didn’t detract from the beauty and exoticness of the trail, where, on our way to Monjo there are numerous trailside villages with spectacular stone buildings dressed up with bright shutters and colorful flower boxes, and friendly smiling locals.

Building with bright shutters and porter bag

Houses with bright shutters are common along the trail. The porter bag leaning against the building is the style of gear that commercial porters carry, sometimes with loads up to 220 pounds (100 kilograms). Porters get paid per kilogram. The stick, seen on the ledge beside the bag, helps them keep their balance. (Kate Robertson photo for VacayNetwork.com)

On the trail from Monjo to Namche (11,286 feet / 3,440 meters) the numerous suspension bridges back and forth across the Dudh Khosi river are fun. My group often has to wait for herds of mules or long-horned yakows, a cross between yak and cow, wearing tinkling bells and carrying loads of supplies, to traverse the bridges before we can go over ourselves.

It’s on the longest suspension bridge on the trail, where the steep switchback section to Namche begins, that our tour splits into a faster cohort and a group at the back of the pack. I am in that latter bunch. As we hike, we sometimes have to stop every few yards to catch our breath. I start to realize that, with the added complication of a chest cold, the trail is going to be much harder than I’d expected.

Prayer flags over the Dudh Khhosi river

Prayer flags flying alongside a suspension bridge crossing over the Dudh Khosi river. The flags, which are inscribed with a sacred mantra, are a Buddhist symbol for peace and good tidings and are seen flying everywhere along the trail. (Kate Robertson photo for VacayNetwork.com)

That night I started to take altitude sickness medication, with the hopes that it would help the cough and shortness of breath problems. The next day, I chose to take the shortcut to our next eco-camp, Kyangjuma (11,647 feet / 3,550 meters), meaning that I arrived there in 2.5 hours, rather than the six-hour higher route that the rest of the group was taking.

As we go uphill from Namche, there are fewer villages and the landscape becomes more rugged, but it’s a highlight day, when I round a curve to find a stupa (temple) outlook and get my first really clear glimpse of awe-inspiring Everest and the surrounding high peaks, Lhotse and Ama Dablam. Nepal’s main religion is Hinduism, but the principal religion in Sagarmatha is Buddhism, and religious relics like stupas (small temples) are numerous, as well as mani stones, inscribed with the six-syllable prayer mantra, are placed in significant places at entrances to villages and alongside trails and rivers.

Everest behind the stupa

Mount Everest is viewed behind this stupa. Stupas are dome-shaped Buddhist structures placed in special places and used for meditation. Stupas have a path around the outside for meditative walking and should always be circled clockwise for good fortune. (Kate Robertson photo for VacayNetwork.com)

The higher altitude is bad for my cough, and the next morning it’s worse. Rather than joining the group for the last day of ascent to the eco-camp above Pangboche at 13,125 feet (4,000 meters), I begrudgingly opt to head down to the lodge at Namche for a rest day, where the group will pick me up on their way back.

As we descend our treks are longer, and in three days we’re already down what took us five days to ascend. It’s easier to descend in altitude, and there are less steep uphill sections, so my lungs and cough start to feel better, and I feel more in the flow of the daily treks. As I finish the trail, I feel celebratory. Having made it as far as I did, despite being ill, was an accomplishment.

The History of Trekking in Nepal

Finishing the trail in Everest

Image of Vacay.ca Contributor Kate Robertson finishing the trail in Lukla, which is the start and end of the Everest Trail and home to the Tenzing-Hillary airport. It is where trekkers fly in and out via small fixed-wing propeller planes. The village has several restaurants, guest houses, shops, and bars. (Photo supplied by Kate Robertson for VacayNetwork.com)

Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made their record-breaking ascent of Everest in May 1953 and since then the world’s desire to walk in the footsteps of the greatest climbers and see Earth’s highest mountain has considerably increased. Climbing Everest has become a commodity, with people paying huge fees for an almost guaranteed chance at the summit. The 1980s and ’90s saw a significant increase in trekking, and in the last few years another spike has occurred.

Despite the protection of its national-park and UNESCO World Heritage Site status, Everest had no pollution, garbage, or human-waste control protocols in the early years of the trekking craze. As a result, it became known as “the world’s highest garbage dump” and drinking water in communities lower down the valleys became contaminated.

Namche Nepal village

Namche Bazaar village on the Everest Trail is the main hub for the Khumbu region and is the gateway to the high Himalayas. Like Lukla, Namche has several restaurants, bakeries, bars, shops, and guest houses. (Kate Robertson photo for VacayNetwork.com)

Programs from Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC), and governments and NGOs are attempting to clean-up the mess on Everest with different initiatives. For example, the Mount Everest Biogas Project is working to find a long-term sustainable solution to the area’s sanitation problems, with a solar-powered system that could turn human waste into fuel for local communities.

Since 2014 Everest climbers have to pay a few thousand dollars as a deposit, which is refunded if they return with 17.6 pounds (8 kilograms) of garbage, the average amount that a single person produces during the climb. In 2019 a campaign to clear 22,050 pounds (10,000 kilograms) of trash from the mountain was launched and single-use plastics have been banned on Everest since 2020.

Garbage and recycling bins along the trail

Funds from national park permits and trekking permits that each trekker must purchase help the region improve the upkeep and cleanliness of the Everest Trail, including with garbage and recycling bins. (Kate Robertson photo for VacayNetwork.com)

On the beginning section of the Everest Trail where I am, despite many other trekkers on the path, garbage is nil to minimal, thanks to  programs  like Carry Me Back, a campaign to remove garbage from the foothills (pick up a full bag of garbage from the SPCC in Namche Bazaar or at the trail checkpoint below there and drop it off at the garbage collection site as you leave the park at Lukla) or company initiatives like World Expedition’s 10 Pieces litter collection program (they provide the bag and you pick up and carry the garbage back down to Lukla). There are several garbage bins at resting points along the trail.

Everest guide in front of a mani stone

A World Expeditions guide stands in front of a mani stone. Mani stones are rocks inscribed with a six-syllable mantra (om mani padme hum), a Buddhist prayer, and placed along the trail as a devotional offering. (Kate Robertson photo for VacayNetwork.com)

Each trekker also has to buy a Sagarmatha National Park permit at the park entrance in Lukla (your tour company will probably do this), which currently costs $3,000 Nepalese rupees (about $22 USD) and an Everest Himalayan Trekking Permit, $2,000 Nepalese rupees ($14.75 USD), proceeds of which go toward things like garbage management and upkeep on the trail to prevent erosion.

How to Reduce Your Nepal Trek Footprint

For trekking tourists, the benefits of travel to a magical destination like the Himalayas is that we get to learn about another culture, see spectacular scenery like the highest mountain in the world, and make lifetime memories. However, as visitors we also have a responsibility to show restraint and practice responsible travel to help shape and support environmental conservation.

Although overtourism in Nepal is real, another reality is that one in four of the Nepalese people live below the poverty line and depend on tourism for income. Climbing and trekking tourists contribute significantly to the local economy with jobs and income.

To reduce your environmental footprint and be a responsible traveler:

  • Consider booking a less-traveled trail like the Manaslu Circuit. If booking a classic like the Everest Trail, consider scheduling your trek for shoulder season. Trekking season is March to May and October through November, and if you go in the earlier or latter part of those dates, the trails are less busy.
  • Travel with a company like World Expeditions, which is committed to sustainable travel and operating responsibly. Such companies ensure that any locals that they work with use propane for cooking to stop deforestation, boil drinking water so bottled water isn’t used, and eat local as much as possible. Their eco-camps are permanent and support the locals, and the lodges they contract use solar-energy panels, rather than firewood.
  • Companies like World Expeditions are also mindful of their guides, porters, and staff, making sure they have insurance, fair wages, good clothing and shoes, and weight limitations for porters (66 pounds / 30 kilograms). Private commercial porters might be carrying three times that weight while wearing flip-flops. They also 100% carbon offset their tours by purchasing carbon credits through South Pole, an award-winning carbon project developer.
  • Donate or volunteer with an organization like Kathmandu Environmental Education Project, which educates locals on the need for responsible tourism and tree-plants, and inspires communities to maintain biodiversity and clean their surroundings.