One of our nearest and dearest, Shelbie Ebert, a certifiable high country local born at Vail Valley Hospital, has been an adventure guide for the last decade. She is currently working on her nursing degree, and is an Emergency Medical Technician. While she has done some multi-day backpacking in the past, she says her recent trip to Nepal was her “most ambitious journey to date.” I was able to sit down with her and her mother, Karen, and hear all about the literal ups and downs on the Annapurna Circuit, in the central mountain region of Nepal, where they reached the highest point at 17,769 ft (5416 m)! They were in Nepal from April 17th to May 17th.
This trek is of international fame, and there are many resources to inform those looking to embark on this historical, spiritual, mental, and physical adventure. All in all, they spent 14 days on the trail. But I was so curious what it was like for those more familiar with the unique challenges posed by Colorado’s high altitude environment.
Did you do anything different from others you observed on the trail?
Most people had porters; we decided not to do that. Even those who didn’t have porters hired a guide.
Having been born and raised at a higher elevation than most, did you notice a difference between your own process of acclimation and that of your colleagues?
I did get sick in Nepal, but it was mostly stomach sickness. No headaches or anything like that. Mom didn’t feel a headache until we got pretty high up. We noticed a lot of people dropping; a lot of people bused into Manang, and from there, it’s a two-day hike up to the base camp, and from there you cross the pass. They got on the trail from there. Manang is at about 10,000 ft. Those people definitely struggled more.
A father and son hiked the trail side-by-side with us. They didn’t hire porters. Shortly after we got over [Thorung La Pass], the son got really, really sick. The pass tops out at about 17,200 ft. When we saw him at the top of the pass, his lips were bright blue. I think he started to get sick on the ascent. I think he was probably about my age, and he was a doctor. He had some drugs stocked up and he felt pretty confident about doing the hike.
How long did you take before you started hiking?
We flew into Kathmandu, spent two days there, then took a long bus to the city where we started hiking, and we started hiking as soon as we got off the bus. We did take an acclimation day in Manang, at 10,000 ft. We hiked to it, then we spent an extra day there, about 48 hours.
What was the greatest challenge about this excursion?
How much constant up and down it was, with the altitude gain. The day that we went over the pass it felt like a good day to me, because it resembled hiking in Colorado. But those days of up and down prepared us well for the pass.
Did you do any training in particular in preparation for this excursion?
No, absolutely not. I read a lot of blogs so I knew what to expect. I tried to have just a really good plan for what we could and couldn’t do, and when we got to Kathmandu, I stocked up on all kinds of drugs, because anyone can buy them. Diamox. I think I maybe only took one once on our ascension day, just to get ahead of the game.
Did you change or adjust your diet at all to prepare for this excursion?
I thought I did. I looked up some Nepali food online and tried cooking it at home to prepare my stomach for the type of food that we would be eating, but I found it was nothing like actual Nepali lentils and rice.
Learned some hard lessons about food. A lot of the lentils in Nepal made me sick. Luckily they have a lot of potato-based dishes.
[There was a] surprising amount of good snacks available, [lots of pre-packaged cashews, nuts, cookies and snacks]. I would recommend for anybody to bring five or six cliff bars for the harder days.
Also kept some sugar on me: Snickers, chocolate, gummies … I forced Karen to eat some sugar when she wasn’t feeling well, and that seemed to improve her condition.
Karen did experience some symptoms of altitude sickness as they ascended the highest point of the trek, Thorung La.
In retrospect, is there anything you would have done differently in preparation and/or on the trail?
I would have packed a lot less. We had about 35 – 40 lbs. in our bags, and that was way too much — and totally unnecessary. Less is more on the trail. We did end up hiring a porter to carry my mom’s pack on our big day, and that was an excellent decision.
Did you notice anything different upon your return to a much lower elevation?
I felt really strong! I was really grateful for my body. I think it was mostly a mental shift. I felt more capable doing most activities, whether it was mental or not. I started taking better care of myself. I started running in the mornings before school, which is something I never would have felt before.
I thought, “I hiked 17,000 ft, I can probably run a mile and be okay in the morning.”
Any other advice you’d give in particular to other travelers intent on similar excursions?
You know what, go for it! It’s not as hard as you think. I came to a country I’d never been to before with a book in my hand, and we did it! I think anybody can really do it.
Shelbie is honored to have shared this experience with her wonderful, strong mother. And this isn’t the first or last adventure they will have been on together. True backcountry buffs, I can always find them on all types of gear on the snow, on the river, or on the trail.
If you’d like to read more details about their Annapurna Circuit Trek, Shelbie maintains a blog where you can find all kinds of tips and recommendations on backcountry gear at lahlahdesigns.com.
Roberto Santos is from the remote island of Saipan, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. He has since lived in Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, and has made Colorado his current home, where he is a web developer, musician, avid outdoorsman and prolific reader. When he is not developing applications and graphics, you can find him performing with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, snowboarding Vail or Keystone, soaking in hot springs, or reading non-fiction at a brewery.