Photos by the author

My Altitude Sickness Didn't Ruin the Pizza at Mount Everest's Basecamp

You never know what you’re going to get at the Nepalese teahouses along your trek.

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Apr 2 2019, 6:00pm

Photos by the author

It is not easy for outsiders to sleep in Lobuche, Nepal. The elevation at this remote settlement, located on the trail to Everest Base Camp, is 16,210 feet. For the unadjusted, that means waking up in the night gasping for air. The effective oxygen level here is only about half what it is at sea level. Your face is so cold that it hurts as you panic to breathe in your sleeping bag. The water in the squatting toilets in the bathroom nearby has frozen in the frigid Himalayan night.

“Every day is cold,” says Bhimiaj Kulung, a Nepalese cook working at the Alpine Inn, one of Lobuche’s few guesthouses. He’s wearing a down jacket over a couple layers of fleece as he chops vegetables and prepares the Tibetan dumplings called momos.

Bhimiaj is from Mahakulung, a town four to five days walk from Lobuche. He started cooking 14 years ago, originally learning the craft at a training center here in Nepal’s Khumbu region. He tells me that it’s difficult to cook in Lobuche because of the altitude. Like the water in the bathroom, things freeze. Resources are scarce. These setbacks are common for those cooking at the Nepalese teahouses scattered in the Himalayas. But that doesn’t stop people like Kulung from being able to create hearty, diverse meals for the locals and tourists who come to their dining rooms.

The otherworldly peaks of the Himalayas beckon to those who love the great outdoors. To hike to Everest Base Camp is a bucket list adventure for many travelers, including myself. I joined a group trek from Intrepid Travel to walk for 12 days through Nepal’s scenic landscape, not only to test my endurance and attitude tolerance, but to eat a ton of Nepalese food and meet the people cooking it.

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Towns of the Himalayas.

My journey to Base Camp began with a very short but gut-wrenching flight from Kathmandu to Lukla, Nepal. The anxiety came from knowing that Lukla’s Tenzing–Hillary Airport is said to be the world’s most dangerous. Its short runway runs straight into a mountainside, making it particularly problematic for pilots to land if the weather is bad. So when we boarded the 14-seat plane in a light drizzle, my jaw clenched.

But we land in Lukla alive and well. I climb out of the plane onto the infamous runway in one piece, ready to hike until my legs give out from under me. On my back is a big, cherry red backpack stuffed with Western essentials like sweat-wicking t-shirts and high-end skin care products to keep my face from falling off. There are also last-minute additions shoved in there that I bought in Kathmandu, including fleece-lined yak-wool socks, water purification tablets, snow gloves, and a headlamp.

Most of my nonessential gear has been loaded into a duffel bag and taken over by Intrepid’s porters—Sagar, Sejun, and Sonam. Porters are the real heroes of the trail. They do the heavy lifting (literally) to support the influx of foreign adventurers. There are no roads for vehicles out here in the mountains, and most goods have to be painstakingly transported on the backs of animals and people who are paid according to the number of kilos in their load. Men and women carry enormous bundles, sometimes much larger than their bodies, up incredibly steep, terribly uneven terrain, all to support life (and tourism) in this remote area.

With all of the gear accounted for, our group embarks to Base Camp. My guide and translator is Hem Raj Dhamala. He shepherds us like a herd through the dirt, stone, snow, and mud paths, keeping us from getting trampled by actual animals. The trail, although extremely isolated, is well-populated. Lines of lumbering yak, horses, donkeys, and Jokpe (the product of breeding a yak with cattle) carrying goods constantly pass us, alerting us with their presence by the jingling bells on their necks. Hem tells us to stay on the mountain side of the path, always, because, “if they push, they push,” meaning the animals can push us over the edge to our untimely deaths.

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Tibetan bread and an omelette in Lukla, Nepal

Our long, daily slogs of four to nine hours of trekking are peppered with stops at teahouses to refuel with drinks and food. The menus are varied, and tend to include dishes from Nepal and beyond. It’s not uncommon to find burgers and pancakes alongside momos and curries. There is always dal bhat, Nepal’s national dish of a lentil soup (dal), bhat (rice), and vegetables. The best part about ordering dal baht is that you get free refills on any or all of the components of the dish. It’s like hitting a lentil jackpot. Dal bhat is so beloved, and so practical on the trail, that there’s a common phrase you hear over and over again: “Dal bhat power, 24 hour, no toilet, no shower.”

You never know what you’re going to get when you order a dish at a teahouse. What Tibetan bread means to one cook could be very different from another. Sometimes it’s thin and cracker-like; other times, it’s like a savory cake doughnut bigger than your hand. It’s a joy to discover what comes out of the kitchen with every meal.

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Chow mein at the Alpine Inn

On day three, we reach one of the largest towns in the Khumbu region, Namche Bazaar. Elevation: 11,286 feet. In the kitchen of my teahouse, I meet with cooks Samita, Sunita, and Ropilla who are busy cooking dinner for their windburned guests. The women are all wearing down jackets and sandals. Pots of water are boiling on the stove and omelettes are cooking on pans in the corner. Through Hem’s translations, the women tell me that porridge is the most common breakfast order, pizza for lunch, and vegetarian dal baht for dinner. I look around the kitchen, considering how every ingredient, utensil, appliance, and kerosene was been hauled in by foot.

In the morning, we climb all day to Phortse Gaon, a town that looks like it’s from another time. Its farms are divided by stone walls. Men and women till snow-flanked dirt fields with hoes. Cows and yak and horses wander around the quiet pastures. In the terraced distance, there’s a tan stupa adorned with prayer flags flapping in the wind and a thick white cloud creeping into town. The bucolic scene is hypnotizing.

Hem introduces me to Mingma Phura Sherpa, whose family owns the Phortse teahouse where we’re staying tonight. Mingma and her family are Sherpa, one of Nepal’s 126 castes and ethnic groups. Sherpa people became world-famous for their mountaineering prowess, and their role in helping foreigners summit Mount Everest for decades. Hem explains that while most people think the word “sherpa” refers to an occupation, it actually describes an ethnicity. Sher means East Tibet, and Pa means migration. Some 400 years ago, the Sherpa people left Tibet for Nepal and settled in the remote, high altitude areas of the country’s Solu-Khumbu district. Most of the Sherpa people share the last name of Sherpa.

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Mingma Sherpa cooking dinner at her family's teahouse in Phortse Gaon

Mingma is a marathon runner and mountaineer who comes from a family of marathon runners and mountaineers. She’s summited Lobuche Peak (20,075 feet) and Yala Peak (18,110 feet). Her husband works as a mountaineering guide and has summited Everest (29,035 feet) nine times, not to mention Cho Oyu (the world’s sixth-highest mountain, at 26,864 feet) 12 times. Her father and brother are Everest guides, too.

Every Friday or Saturday, the family hikes down to Namche Bazaar to buy supplies for the week. In their fields and garden, they grow red and yellow potatoes and bok choy. Mingma’s mother taught her how to cook, and now she’s the only one responsible for making meals at the teahouse. While her mother watches after her baby, Kunsang, in the other room, Mingma starts to prepare dishes for our group from scratch, like dal baht and Sherpa stew, a deeply comforting vegetable soup with potato dumplings that remind me of gnocchi.

From Phortse, we travel to Dingboche, then Lobuche—where we eat Bhimiaj Kulung’s chow mein and porridge at the Alpine Inn—and Gorakshep. The higher we get in altitude, the more expensive our meals at teahouses become. The landscape becomes more desolate, the accommodations more basic. We slow down physically and mentally. Hem watches us closely for signs of altitude sickness including headache, nausea, weakness, vomiting, and loss of appetite. I appear to be doing OK, because most days I’m ravenous. Only at Gorakshep do I think my eyes are going to pop out of my head and that maybe I won’t make it to the goal destination.

But I make it, despite my migraine’s best attempt at shattering my brain. An exuberant yet exhausted feeling hits me when we reach Basecamp, for unlike the Sherpa people, I do not function so well at 17,600 feet. We take photos of the victorious moment and begin the hike back to Lukla.

On day ten, we arrive in Tengboche, a settlement known for its colorful monastery inhabited by about 30 buddhist monks. Mountaineers make pilgrimages here to pray before they attempt to summit Everest. Our Tengboche teahouse, the Tashi Delek, is well-known around these parts for its food. “Best pizza in this valley,” Hem tells the group.

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Pizza making at Tenboche

Another Mingma Sherpa (of no relation to the woman of the same name in Phortse) runs the show here at the Tashi Delek when its owners are away in the off-season. She shows me around the kitchen where the staff is busy prepping fresh ingredients and manning the pizza oven. In addition to the pizza, veggie burgers are a popular order. I ask her if it’s difficult to get the buns.

“It’s not hard,” Mingma says. “We make them here.”

Just about everything on the menu here is made from scratch, including the pizza, the veggie burger patties, and pasta. Despite working with limited electricity and no running water, Mingma and the staff come through with delicious meals served with a view of Mount Everest in the distance.

When the 12 days have passed and we arrive back in Lukla, our group hunts down a beer to celebrate the end of the journey. Since you’re not supposed to drink alcohol at high altitudes, we’ve been fantasizing about cracking open a cold one since we left town. We toast with tall cans of Sherpa Brewery Khumbu Kolsch, a local craft beer, and it tastes like gold.