Everest Base Camp Trek + Sherpa Nutritional Wisdom

My mum is a keen world traveller and a beyond anal organiser. She hasn’t finished one adventure before she’s got the next already in the pipeline. In the days (sometimes weeks!) leading up to any trip, whether she’s going for 6 weeks or 2 days, she has over-run the guest room in our home with all of her lists, piles, ziplock baggies, and travel-sized bottles, laid out over both beds and covering the floor. Admittedly, the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree, so when we are teaming up for a mother-daughter junket, I’d be damned if we weren’t well-equipt! Especially in the healthy snacks department. I rarely, if ever, leave home (even for an afternoon!) without some form of healthy food in my bag. I am definitely a victim of low-blood-sugar hangry (hungry-angry) episodes. Even more than that, I hate being out and about and having to stop what I am doing to go in search of something healthy to eat, which can often, especially when traveling in unknown places, be hard to come by. Hence, I always make sure to have a small bag of almonds, a bliss ball, a piece of fruit or something of the like to keep me going. 

When Sus (the appellation I’ve endearingly given my mother) and I were preparing for our Everest Base Camp trek in Nepal, the primarily discussion point when it came to packing was what snacks and supplements we were bringing to Nepal to appease both of our health-food addictions. 

Sus had visited Nepal and the Himalayan mountain region for a trek about 10 years ago.  What she recalled most readily from her time there was how awful the food was, calling to mind scaring experiences like being apart of a Sherpa ritual in which she was forced to drink yak butter tea. The only foods that she remembered were available to eat on the trek were cheese toast, fried eggs and, of course, the Nepali staple: dal bhat = lentils and rice. With this insider knowledge, we were both mildly freaking out about the no-green-vegetable-situation that was soon to ensue upon arrival into the Himalayas, so we did our very best to bring as much healthiness from the West that we could stuff into our already-bulging-at-the-seams 50-pound duffels. 

 Our pile of lute

Our pile of lute

On the first day of the trek, we met our sweet Sherpa (porter), Ram, who was very slight and small, and (without being rude) looked quite old! Sus and I looked at each other and thought: “Geez, I hope this poor guy isn’t the one stuck with carrying our bags” but sure enough, he was. In addition to all of our mountain gear, he also had the added weight of 15 pounds of snacks! Everything from nut butters to greens powders to dark chocolate-covered-anything, we had it in there! We promised Ram that our bags would get lighter day-by-day as we consumed the food. Always smiling, he really didn’t seem too fazed either way! Or maybe it was the language barrier?

I was eager to try this (in)famous dal bhat Sus had (unexcitedly) told me about, so I ordered it at the teahouse on the first night. To my shock horror, it was delicious! Plump red rice; soupy, mildly spiced lentils; boiled potatoes and carrots; and…low and behold…sautéed green vegetables!! The perfect warm and nourishing meal after a long day of walking outside in the cold. I couldn’t believe it and was so relieved to be eating vegetables which I thought wouldn’t exist in the mountains.  

 Dal bhat tarkari

Dal bhat tarkari

As we continued ascending up the mountain and into the altitude, mum and I ordered dal bhat for either lunch or dinner, and sometimes both! We oscillated between dal bhat and sherpa stew, a thick and filling soup made with vegetables and either noodles or rice. We were really digging the trekking food, and, unfortunately for Ram, were neglecting the 15-pound food sack in our bag!  The thing about cold and altitude is that it really changes your palate. Your body doesn’t want sweets, fats or heavy proteins….or at least our bodies didn’t. We were craving warm, soft and light meals - making dal bhat and sherpa stew go down a treat! Not feeling like eating my beloved chia seeds or packets of coconut butter, I thought would be impossible, but this was probably the only time in my life I couldn’t stomach them! We were amazed, as well as a little guilty, for having dear Ram carry all that food all the way up….and then all the way back down, without hardly making a dent! We had no idea that, essentially, a mono-diet of lentils and rice, plus oats porridge for breakfast, would be such a hit on the trail! The thought of eating lentils and rice for 2 meals a day for 17 days would ordinarily sound terrible, but there must have been something in the air up there in the Himalayas that brainwashed us into eagerly sitting down to every meal and scarfing the whole lot. 

 Ram was as strong as the yaks!

Ram was as strong as the yaks!

The more I thought about it, however, the more it made sense. The Nepali Sherpa people, who are high altitude Himalayan dwellers, have culturally figured out what works and what doesn’t - and dal bhat is a perfectly balanced meal. Dal, or lentils, are low in calories and high in nutrition. They are an excellent source of vegan protein, fiber and complex carbohydrates, providing steady, slow burning energy. They are cooked with herbs and spices such as turmeric, cumin, coriander, garlic and ginger giving them a delicious taste while facilitating good digestion. Bhat, or rice, especially Himalayan red rice, is nutritious, filling and easy to digest, providing nourishment and sustenance for your body without weighing you down. The combination of the legumes and the rice forms a complete protein, providing you with all the essential amino acids you need! The vegetables they serve on the side are just the added bonus. So, I suppose the Sherpa adage “Dal Bhat Power 24-hour!” isn’t around for nothing!

 At the top of Kala Patthar (5550 meters) - as close to the Roof of the World as I could get! 

At the top of Kala Patthar (5550 meters) - as close to the Roof of the World as I could get! 

In addition to being surprised and grateful about the fact that I wasn’t becoming malnourished up there near the Roof of the World, I was also humbled (and slightly embarrassed) by how little faith I had in venturing to an undeveloped area of the world and being well-fed. I thought I had it all worked out with all my vitamin supplements and greens powders and nutrition bars, but really, in fact, I should have been more willing to leave my nutritional requirements in the hands of the people who have been surviving (thriving?!) for hundreds of years. They lived happily and healthily up there between 10,000 - 18,000 feet and were darting up the mountain ahead of us with (seemingly) boundless energy while carrying massive loads on their backs. We definitely needed to tear a leaf out of their book and eat what they were eating!

This calls to mind another reason why I ADORE travelling: it allows me to discover how health and nutrition is practiced amongst different cultures. Picking up wisdom, knowledge, and age-old tips and tricks from various civilisations around the globe has had a profound influence on my nutritional knowledge. I never want to stop traveling and learning!

 Sus and me at Everest Base Camp

Sus and me at Everest Base Camp

In case you have your sites set on doing the EBC trek in the future, below are a few healthy essentials that I had, or wish I’d had, on our trek: 

  • digestive enzymes (because your digestion isn’t functioning optimally at altitude)
  • cinnamon powder (for jazzing up the oats porridge)
  • herbal tea, whatever kind tickles your fancy - I like lemongrass, ginger, and tulsi chai masala
  • electrolytes - I used Coco Hydro, which is powdered coconut water (because altitude is very dehydrating)
  • light snack bars for mid-morning and afternoon munchies - Triangle Raw Foods, True Bar and Love Force are my fave brands
  • nori sheets, if you’re a seaweed lover like me and want a healthy salty/savory snack option
  • dried fruit - I like golden raisins, figs and mulberries
  • Clif Shot Bloks - for when you’re at altitude and don’t feel hungry but need some quick energy
  • healthy dark chocolate - otherwise Bounty, Mars and Snickers are your only options for a chocolate fix on the mountain! I like Theo and Endangered Species brands. 
  • Digestive biscuits - these are a British brand of biscuits that they sell at all the teahouses. They aren’t gluten-free or sugar-free but they are delicious and were our savour some days!

This trek was such an incredible experience, I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity (thanks mum!!!) and had a willing and able body and mind. There was nothing easy about it, but worth every second!

Steph x

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