Everest Three Passes, Everest Base Camp, and Gokyo
The hike to Everest Base Camp is the seminal Nepal Himalayan hiking experience, with thousands of trekkers making the trip into the Khumbu region each year. While several routes link the region, one of the most beautiful and challenging of the treks through Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park is the Three Passes Trek. As the name suggests, this trek includes crossings of three high mountain passes, with numerous peaks, base camps, and amazing side excursions possible along the way.
Having warmed up with the Annapurna Circuit, we began our Everest Three Passes trek just a week later, flying into Lukla on October 21st. We spent 19 days trekking through the region – over the passes, to Everest and Ama Dablam base camps, along the sacred lakes of Gokyo, and to the top of several peaks with stunning views in all directions – all among the the highest peaks in the world.
Below is the description of our day-by-day travels through the region, as wall as approximate trekking time, trekking distance, overnight elevation, and pretty pictures. For a detailed guide of the Everest Base Camp and Three Passes treks, including logistical information, visit our Everest Base Camp Trekking Guide.
Without further ado…
Day 1: Lukla to Phakding
Approximate Trek Time: 2-3 hours
Distance: 7.9km / 4.9 miles
Overnight Elevation: 2,610m / 8,563ft
Our journey to the Everest region began with a short flight from Kathmandu to Lukla, the unofficial gateway to all Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park trekking. While it’s possible to hike to Lukla (approx. 5-7 days from Jiri), the vast majority of trekkers opt to fly into Lukla to begin their journey. The flight from Kathmandu to Lukla is only about 30 minutes, and in our opinion, was part of the magic of the journey to the world’s highest peaks.
Our morning began with a very early cab ride through the dark streets of Kathmandu. The domestic terminal at Kathmandu’s Tribhuban Airport included a small side door for employee entrance and a large garage door for passenger entrance to the departing flights. Here, we waited, the terminal not yet open. We had been told by one of the staff at Elbrus House (our guesthouse in Kathmandu), “airport opens at 6:00”. Holding tickets for a 6:15am flight, this seemed unlikely, though wasn’t far from the truth. While a couple of solid cues had formed before we arrived, these were quickly dissolving as time marched forward, and as guides and porters marched their group’s equipment and duffels – along with their group – straight up to the doors past the lines. The cues quickly became a messy throng of trekkers, which blobbed forward when the door was finally rolled up just after 5:30am.
We cued ourselves through bag security as best as we could, our bags taking a trip down a conveyer belt that had no visible x-ray scanning system or authoritative figure examining contents behind a screen. But, having gone through one end of the belt and popped out at the other, all bags were approved. Onward!
From here, we lined up at the Simrik Airlines desk. All around us, other flight companies checked in their customers. Our desk sat empty. Hmmm. Eventually a man showed up at the desk… “Waiting,” he said, and walked off again. After a long while, he emerged with a man looking very expedient in his task. It appeared that their computer system was down. No worries though, he quickly gave up and started scribbling all necessary information – ticket numbers, passport info, and baggage weight – onto a scrap of paper. Seemed legit. After weighing our packs, we were weighed, and then pushed off toward the departure area with our boarding passes.
In the boarding area, we waited for our flight announcement. While announcements for the Tara Airline flights had come through a very official speaker, the announcement for our own flight was shouted by an airport traffic operator through the door, “Simrik flight!” he called. “Red bus,” he instructed as we marched forward with our tickets. They wasted no time. As soon as our red bus was full with its 15-ish passengers, it was off – driving the short distance to our small passenger plane.
Looking at the plane, I had to laugh, remembering our guesthouse owner, Raj, helping us book the tickets in Pokhara. Looking through different airlines he stated, “GOMA, very good. Two engines. Simrik same – also two engines! Good plane!” He had placed a lot of calls to get us on an early morning flight. “First flight better. Second or third – later – no good. Sometimes no fly.”
We were definitely among the first flights and the crew wasted no time getting the bird off the ground. Despite the check-in process being fuddled and slow, the airline was now all efficiency as the plane sputtered to life, heading swiftly to the runway at 6:15am sharp. There is only so much time to get flights into and out of the mountains before clouds or weather (or both) close in and flights are delayed – canceled – rescheduled. On a clear day, Lukla probably receives 50-60 flights, all before noon.
The flight attendant made her way down the aisle with a basket. Small wrapped candies on one side and on the other…, mmm candy. While I had given little attention to what was on the other side of the basket, it wasn’t long into the flight that I realized it was wads of cotton for your ears because the plane was VERY LOUD. I looked around at the other passengers. It seemed we had all made this mistake, distracted by the “Lacto-Fun” candies. I quietly hoped that the fun would not include a toilet.
The views from the flight were amazing and further highlighted the fact that the vast majority of Nepal is nothing but mountains – and very large hills that in many parts of the world would also be called mountains. We flew high above some, and so close to others we could practically see their inhabitants eating breakfast. Looking through the cockpit window (since we were close enough to do this in a small plane), it often looked as though we were about to fly directly into a mountainside. The obstacle warning blinked nearly constantly from the cockpit, “terrain ahead”. I stopped looking into the cockpit.
At one point, Shawn turned to me, showing me the altitude reading on his watch – 11,749 ft. (3581m) – “we’re flying about 6,000 feet lower than we’ll be hiking soon!”. It was an amazing thought. We were far above much of the mountain landscape, and in a few short days we would be above this elevation, eventually trekking over passes and peaks at greater than 18,000 ft. (5480m).
Soon, the plane curved through a pocket in the mountains and we were heading straight toward the runway – the very short, uphill runway. It was unreal how short the runway was. With limited space, planes landed at the downhill end of the slope, slowing quickly as the runway angled upward toward the mountains, which would surely stop anything that didn’t stop in time on its own. Thankfully, we did.
The plane cruised quickly into the tarmac area in front of Lukla’s small terminal. In an astounding display of efficiency, our flight’s passengers and baggage were unloaded, the new passengers and baggage bound for Kathmandu were loaded, and the plane was heading back down the runway for take-off, all in a span of approximately five minutes. Other airlines: take note!
Grabbing our packs, we headed out of the airport gates and stood along the pathway above the runway for a bit, just watching planes take-off and land, in no rush to get out of Lukla quickly since our hike for the first day would be short. It was truly the most stunning airport we’d ever flown into… from the spectacular scenery of the surrounding mountains to the astonishing runway and quick take-offs and landings, it was a scene you could watch all day.
Eventually we pulled ourselves away from the airport area and headed through Lukla, making a quick stop at the kitschy Lukla “Starbucks” for a cup of joe on the way out of town. After registering at a permit checkpoint, we headed down the trail through the Pasang Lhamo Memorial Gate, named after the the first Nepali woman to summit Mt. Everest. Just beyond, a dull white moss-covered memorial chorten was dedicated to the victims of a 2008 Yeti Airlines crash.
One of the best things about the Khumbu region: zero roads. No cars, no buses, no motorcycles… no bicycles even. No honking. Villages were connected only by well-worn trails, beat into the earth from hundreds of years of trade, travel, and trekking in the region, traversed only by the feet of locals, trekkers, pack animals and livestock.
The wide, well-maintained trail wound its way through pine and other hearty trees and bushes, the trail sometimes paved in inlaid stones and others more natural dirt and rock. Passing by waterfalls, over bridges, past small vegetable fields, and around chortens, stupas, all sizes of both brightly colored and more weathered prayer wheels, and large boulders and mani walls with stone tablets engraved with Buddhist mantras and sacred scripture, we hiked through the villages of Cheplung (which we pronounced in the same manner of the sound of a fat rock being dropped into a lake), Thadokoshi, Ghat, and Chhuthawa before arriving in Phakding.
Phakding (2610m/8560ft.) stretches from north to south along the Dudh Kosi River. We walked through the bulk of the village, crossing a suspension bridge to the other side of the Dudh Kosi, where we checked out a few lodges before staying at the Mountain Resort, situated high upon a hillside overlooking the river. Speaking with several lodge owners in Phakding, it was here that we learned that everything at the lodges along this trek would be priced a la carte, with separate charges for rooms, showers, Wi-Fi, and charging. The take home: fewer showers and less time online. Check. I busted out the playing cards.
Walking back through Phakding later in the afternoon, it seemed that if it was an actual village (other than guesthouses, restaurants, and toilet paper and candy bar shops), the homes must be hidden either up or down the surrounding hillsides. Popping our heads into a few bars, we also learned that the beer prices (and for that matter, prices of everything) would be much higher in the Everest region than they had been along the Annapurna Circuit. Because there are no roads throughout the Khumbu region, all goods are hauled in on the backs of porters, yaks, horses, and donkeys (and the occasional helicopter in some regions), so everything carries a higher price tag, with prices rising as quickly as the altitude.
Damage from the 2015 earthquake was visible along some portions of the trail, though in some cases it was difficult to discern between rebuilding efforts due to earthquake damage and new construction, which is also common through the region. One lodge in Phakding where it was not difficult to determine earthquake damage was Jo’s Eco Cottages, situated along the river below Mountain View. The small cottages had been reduced to rubble, with only piles of crumbling bricks atop blank foundations, and no current signs of reconstruction. While some villages received more damage than others, on the whole we found that most damages had been or were in the process of being repaired and most lodges were open for business.
Day 2: Phakding to Namche Bazaar
Approximate Trek Time: 4 – 5 ½ hrs.
Distance: 9.7km / 6 miles
Overnight Elevation: 3420m / 11,220ft
Our dinner last night had been a rave affair – with the lights flickering on and off during our meal of daal bhaat. A dark dining room, there was little to do after dinner but head to bed. Our 11 hours of sleep was interrupted only briefly during the wee morning hours by the unmistakable sound of rats on the rooftop. Having lived in an apartment in China for a year, where I dealt with rats from time to time, I knew the sound of a rat. The difference between hearing a mouse and a rat is pretty simple: a mouse makes a tiny tiny scratching noise – soft like a fingernail scratch against wood. A rat sounds like the size of a cat, with loud scratchy claws. You can hear its girth; it sounds big and heavy; you can hear its belly dragging across the floor/ground. Luckily, the noises were coming from outside and we didn’t hear anything inside the lodge, but nevertheless, I was ready to get up and start hiking in the morning.
Hitting the trail around 7:30am, the air was cool and brisk. The first part of the trek took us along wide rocky dirt trail that weaved its way along the river valley, undulating between nice flat sections and brief uphill and downhill jaunts, some with seemingly no purpose other than to take you by a lodge or restaurant. Walking along and above the river, we crossed by gorgeous waterfalls, their mists blowing in the breeze created by their own power, gently showering us as we bounced over stepping stones or small bridges across their streams.
Soon, the sun filtered warmly through the trees, splashing across the trail shared by the trekkers, porters, herders, and locals, all walking from village to village. Porters carried unbelievable loads on their backs – five or six cases of beer, building materials, and the large duffel bags of trekkers and climbers – all braced for the haul by the wide cloth band strapped around their foreheads. The most common loads seemed to be cases of beer and trekking duffels, the two of which surely went hand in hand. Other goods, such as large gas tanks and giant bags of rice and lentils, were hauled in by yaks, horses, and donkeys herded up the trails, the clangs and tinkles of their bells hanging endlessly in the mountain air.
In the villages we passed through, we walked by a number of large boulders engraved with the Tibetan Buddhist mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum”, the lettering painted in white to “pop” out from the stones. Land surrounding the trails, when a patch of it was available along the mountain slopes, was covered in small fields – cabbages, wheat, and hay – among other crops used for food, animal feed, and trade throughout the region. Kids along the village paths ran up to us for high fives.
Most of the first two hours of the trek was relatively easy. Not far past Jorsale (Jorsalle), the trail took us to the valley floor before ascending back into the forest of pine, magnolia, and rhododendron, and up a stone staircase to a set of high suspension bridges over the Dudh Kosi (the lower one older and unused) that lead to a spur just north of the confluence of the Dudh Kosi and Bhote Kosi rivers. Crossing over the higher of the two bridges and standing at the edge of the spur, we could see both river valleys – one right and one left – with the spur rising up in between, an impressive view as we began our climb up the center of the spur toward Namche Bazaar.
After an hour to 90 minutes of climbing steep switchbacks and rocky steps through the trees, we emerged at the eastern reaches of the first lodges outside Namche Bazaar. We continued past, winding our way along the level trail that hugged the mountainside. Coming around a bend, the incredible view of the iconic Namche Bazaar (3420m/11,218ft.) was suddenly just before us, the lodges, homes, and businesses all layered tier upon tier up the mountainside, the village curving like the side of a bowl into the mountainside from the east to the west. A central staircase climbed up through the middle of the village, with side paths branching out on every level. It was very surreal to suddenly be staring at a location we had seen many times in the mountain movies of the region – and here we were.
Walking under a kani (entrance archway) along the trail, we crossed a small bridge over a man-made waterway at the base of the village. Situated along the first flight of the central staircase, water flowed down the wide decorative waterway, plunging into a fountain near the bridge, the spouting water feature clearly signifying Namche as the most prosperous settlement, and unofficial capital, of the region.
A large stupa and mani wall were also situated along the base of the village, and locals washed clothes in the public water spouts below the bridge. We shared the main staircase with a very tired looking yak train on our way up into the center of the village, where we found lodging at the Khumbu Lodge. The oldest lodge in Namche Bazaar, the Khumbu Lodge is something of an institution, having hosted many accomplished climbers and Everest expeditions, as well as Jimmy Carter on his trek through the region in 1985. Here, we splurged on an en-suite room – the “Snow Leopard” – for our two nights there. The room included, among other small luxuries, electric heat pads on the beds. I would be wishing for these days later in Gorak Shep.
The convenience of an en suite bathroom is a perk that’s worth splurging on once along the trail… beyond the easily accessible hot shower, the cleanliness associated with having your own toilet is a welcome comfort. Plus, it’s much better than trudging your ass down a dark corridor late at night to a shared toilet or squatter where the door latch never works, to squat precariously over an eastern squatter toilet – or far worse, a western toilet rimmed in piss – trying not to touch anything. This would be our only stop along the trek where we had an en suite bathroom (before returning to Namche again), and it was a nice treat. Also the shower was piping hot, which was doubly great since we wouldn’t be having another one for quite awhile after leaving Namche.
Before 2pm, fog had begun rolling down the valley, blocking all views of the surrounding mountains. With foul weather, we did what any logical traveler would do and retreated to the local Irish pub – the highest in the world (!) – with drink prices that might also match that description at $10 for a pint of Guinness. Walking into the establishment, Shawn promptly proclaimed, “it even smells like an Irish bar!” Since the prices were going to be high no matter what we ordered, Shawn took the opportunity to try out the only craft beer in Nepal – Sherpa Brewery’s Khumbu Kolsch (about $8 for a 500mL can), and I ordered a nice hot Irish coffee.
The bar was an eclectic mix of country flags – naturally favoring large Irish flags, which hung from every wall – signed t-shirts, soccer team posters, and other signage with bar witticisms such as “Please do not flick your cigarette butts on the floor, it burns the hands and knees of those trying to leave”. The remaining décor was rounded out by ratty couches, a large picnic table, a pool table, and foosball table. We sat at the bar next to the large bottle of “Homemade Namche Whiskey”, which was nearly full. We did not partake.
For dinner, we made our way to the dining hall at the Khumbu Lodge, which was warm, well lit, and full of the clamor of trekking groups – some of which were celebrating the last days of their treks and others, like us, excited to begin their journeys further northward into the Khumbu. After dinner and a basket of popcorn (my favorite lodge snack), we retired to our cozy, electric heat-pad warmed beds.
Day 3: Rest Day in Namche Bazaar
Approximate Trek Time: Variable, about 3 hours up and around Namche Bazaar
Overnight Elevation: 3420m / 11,220ft
In order to properly acclimatize, it’s recommended to spend a second night in Namche. As an acclimatization day, we could do basically whatever we wanted, but with great Himalayan mountain views surrounding the entire village, it would have been foolish not to hike around the area a bit and soak them all in.
We decided to do a bit of a loop up and around Namche – hiking up the mountainside to the west, across the slopes high above to the north of Namche, and dropping back down along the east side of the village.
Leaving our lodge, we took a left, hiking up staircases along the western side of the village, climbing up past the Alpine Lodge and around the Namche Gompa (gompa = monastery). The bright red monastery had yellow awnings and was bordered by prayer wheels, each a golden bronze color, set into the walls and partially covered by more yellow curtain-like shades. A large red and yellow prayer wheel marked the end of the wall along the front of the building, where the trail curved around the edge of the mountainside to the backside of the gompa. Along this trail was a wall of stone tablets with Tibetan mantras (mani wall), some merely engraved on the tablets and other painted with blue, yellow, and other colors to make the mantras pop from the stones. Another long wall of prayer wheels lined the right side of the trail.
Past the gompa, we followed the trail leading upward, climbing steps and rocks toward the top of the ridge to the west of Namche. From here, you could look down into Namche and see the full arc of the settlement tucked into the mountainside. We zigzagged up rocky trails through the boulder strewn ridge, continuing upwards until reaching Shyangboche, which contained little more than a solitary lodge and an unused grassy airstrip, which had apparently been built to service the Everest View Lodge, though was never able to be used for this purpose. Other than the airstrip, the scenic point of the area was a large boulder with mantras painted in white, blue, green, and yellow, protruding high above the trees.
Beyond the airstrip, the trail continued to the north, past a large boulder where yak dung patties were laid out to dry in the sun. Used as fuel for fires throughout the region, the dung chips are worth their wait in gold in the cold mountains. Continuing upwards, the trail emerged in a high pasture with a beautiful white stupa, its all-seeing Buddha eyes gazing out in all directions. Yaks grazed in the open pastures.
From here, we continued heading upward along the grassy hillside, past the yaks and to the east, where we eventually reached a viewpoint near a group of three stone chortens at just under 13,000ft (~3960m). Here, we got our first view of Everest, as well as Nuptse, Lhotse, Ama Dablam, and many of the other Himalayan giants to the north. We sat against the north side of the chortens to block the cold south wind at our backs, enjoying the view for a bit before descending eastward along a narrow trail to rejoin a wider main trail running north/south high above the deep Dudh Kosi valley. We headed southward, passing by the Everest Sherpa Resort, another excellent viewpoint where several trekkers were stopped along the trail admiring and photographing the peaks to the north.
Continuing southeastward we hiked down a long zig-zagging rock stairway into Chhorkung and back toward Namche. Before heading back to our lodge, we continued along the level high trail that skirted along the mountainside above Namche – back to the west side of the village, where we had begun our hike upwards earlier that morning.
Here, we took a trail that diverged into a grove of trees along the mountainside. Surrounded by tall trees, the narrow trail was covered in pine straw and splashes of sunlight stole through the branches, spotlighting the quiet path. In the middle of the mountainside grove, protruding high above the trees, was a huge boulder with a large, beautiful mural painted on its lower reaches, mostly below the treetops. The mural depicted the local protector of the Khumbu – Khumbu Yul-Lha. We climbed up through the trees to get a better look at the gorgeous painting, with brilliant blues, reds, yellows, and whites. The head of the protector poked just above the treetops, looking over Namche.
Just up the trail, another prominent rockface jutted from above the trees, this one with a mantra painted on its lower reaches and a similar sacred protector or deity-type image painted toward the top, perhaps also Khumbu Yul-Lha. Surrounded by prayer flags, a stone bench curved around the area facing the rockface.
Finished with our hike, it was time for lunch. Back in Namche we went to Herman Helmer’s Bakery and ordered pizzas. I asked what was on the “Namche Spicy Pizza”, to which the worker replied, “salami, tuna, a type of pepper… bitter.” I wasn’t sure what he meant by a bitter pepper, but I generally liked peppers and spicy food, so I decided to try it out. This strategy has proven poor for me. The good news is, the pizza came with a lot of delicious toppings he hadn’t mentioned: mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, carrot (could have done without the last one on a pizza, but somehow carrot makes its way into everything here). The bad news is… DAMN, were those peppers BAD. At first taste, I thought… interesting…but soon after, the very bitter taste – which lingered and intensified in its aftertaste – became disgusting and then unbearable. I tried to find the peppers and scrape them off the pizza, but it seemed that their evil nectar had infected the whole pizza. Soon, my tongue, mouth, and the inside of my lips started tingling, as if they were going numb. I drank some water, and the feeling got worse. I hadn’t even eaten half the pizza and couldn’t eat anymore. I hated to waste the food, but even Shawn found it terrible. We rushed back to our lodge so I could quickly eat some granola bars and get the taste out of my mouth. The lesson I learned today was that Nepal has at least one type of pepper that tastes VERY VERY bad. Trying local dishes or specialties on the trekking routes has not worked out well for me.
Day 4: Namche Bazaar to Tengboche
Approximate Trek Time: 3 ½ – 4 ½ hrs
Distance: 9.2k / 5.7 miles
Overnight Elevation: 3870m / 12,696ft
Waking early, we were dressed and in the dining room for breakfast by 6:30am. We enjoyed heaping plates of hash browns with a fried egg (a nice addition to the menu that wasn’t available on the Annapurna Circuit) before setting off.
Leaving the Khumbu Lodge, we headed up the stairways out of Namche – a rude beginning to the first part of the morning – up big steps and small, weaving our way past yak trains and trekkers toward the east end of Namche and into Chhorkung, where the steps met the trail at a giant mani boulder, at the top of which a dog had been sunning itself when we passed by yesterday morning. Not yet very warm, this morning the top of the boulder sat vacant.
Spinning the giant prayer wheel near the boulder, we passed through Chhorkung, continuing down the level trail that curved along the mountain ridge, heading northeast toward Tengboche.
The trail was pleasant going for awhile, with flat sections and short gentle ascents and descents, the first part of the hike following the mountainside high above the valley where the rushing Dudh Kosi flowed hundreds of feet below us, its torrent perceptible even from high above. We wound around the mountainside, passing chortens and stupas at some of the bends, the first of which was the Tenzig Norgay Memorial Stupa, “built and blessed with the unerring support of Rolex, Geneva”.
Continuing along the trail, we eventually hiked down a rocky section through the shade of a gorgeous grove of trees, spinning a large heavy prayer wheel by the Ama Dablam Lodge as we passed through Kyangjuma. The next village along the trail was Sanasa, where laughably long tables of souvenir garb were lined up through the village. Even Lonely Planet had commented about the “overly enthusiastic” vendors here, though no one tried to peddle anything as we passed through. Sanasa also marked the juncture in the trail for those heading toward Gokyo and those heading toward Tengboche, and we continued along the trail to the latter.
The rocky trail continued its descent through the forest, marching us toward the valley floor with the heart-wrenching knowledge that once we hit bottom there was nowhere to go but up, up, up to Tengboche. We bottomed out at Phunki Thenga, where large groups were enjoying a tea stop at a sunny riverside lodge. The rushing river cascaded over large boulders and along the trailside several water-powered prayer wheels spun rapidly in their small houses.
From this point, it was a long soul-crushing ascent to Tengboche – probably one of the toughest climbs for me thus far, despite being less than half of our ascent to Ghorepani on the Annapurna Circuit, and likely not as bad as a few other climbs we’ve had on our treks. Nonetheless, I was exhausted making my way up the rocky steps and steep slopes, switchback after switchback. Even the long gradual steps were punishing. There seemed to be no end to the uphill, and there wasn’t, until we had actually arrived in Tengboche (3870m/12,693ft.), greeted by one last set of steps to the entrance kani.
Beyond the entrance kani, with brilliant bright painting and bronzed-brown prayer wheels on its interior, there were a few last steps to a large stupa with mani stones arranged around its white base. Bright prayer flags flapped in the wind around the stupa, just beyond which you could see the famous Tengboche Monastery (also known as the Dawa Choling Gompa). The brick red monastery stood out above the tops of the other buildings on the surrounding grounds.
Not far from the entrance kani, we got a room at the Himalayan Lodge, the first of many Himalayan Lodges we’d stay in (popular name), with views of Thamserku from our bedroom window. After dropping our bags off and donning warmer clothes, we headed down to the Tengboche Café, a bakery situated between two ramshackle guesthouses on the other side of a large open grassy space from our own lodge. The bakery, which is owned by the monastery, served some of the best pizza we had in Nepal. We both got the chicken and mushroom pizza, which was seasoned nicely and had both sauce and cheese (not true of all pizzas in Nepal – particularly the sauce), with a delicious thin crust. Highly recommended.
We sat in the sun for a bit at the bakery before being driven away by all of the coughing of a large trekking group that came through – it wouldn’t be long before this sound would be quite common in the high mountain lodges and I’d have a hacking cough of my own. From here, we moved to a large sunny space behind our lodge, where we enjoyed the views of Everest, Lhotse, and Ama Dablam until the clouds started rolling in, at which point we moved to the outdoor patio in front of our lodge, taking in the views of Thamserku until these were clouded as well.
Tengboche Monastery Visit…
Around 2:45pm, we went to the monastery to view the 3pm prayer session. The entrance to the monastery is a large and colorful squared gateway, guarded by bright statues of mythical beasts.
Just inside the entrance to the monastery, we removed our shoes before entering the main prayer hall, walking to the right side of the hall, where tourists could sit quietly and watch the prayer session. The floors of the main prayer hall were a rich wood, shining clean in the low lights of the hall. In the front of the hall, a large gold-colored statue of Shakyamuni Buddha adorned in bright yellow robes sat in a recessed alcove, flanked on each side by statues of two other Buddhist deities. The walls, central pillars, and ceilings of the hall were all covered in bright paintings of Buddhist scenes, flower patterns, and mandala designs. Tapestries and other colorful wall hangings completed the bright décor.
Walking into this magnificent prayer hall before 3pm, the drum beating and chanting had already begun. The highest of the monks, or head lama, sat in the front of the prayer hall on a high chair, above the rest of the monks. Two others sat in (less) raised chairs on each side. The rest of the monks sat cross-legged along long benches that ran perpendicular to the front of the room, two rows of benches on each side, facing the center of the room. In front of each of the monks in the front were small pedestals with food stuffs – cracker boxes, fruit – as well as small urns of incense that wafted through the room. The rows of monks also had foodstuffs in front of them, as well as small dishes/bowls of sorts. Shawn said he even saw one Toblerone box.
For the prayer chanting, one monk toward the back beat a large green drum that hung on a colorful red and yellow stand while the rest of the monks chanted. While I’d expected that the prayers would be memorized, the monks chanted/sang the prayers from small pieces of paper, flipping to the appropriate sheet as new chants began. The head lama, likely the oldest, held his paper right up next to his eyes, which were squeezed into tiny slits, squinting to read the text. The papers wobbled in his gently shaking hands.
Toward the end of the prayer session, several individuals were lined up to have ceremonial scarves (kata) blessed by the lama. Another monk led them to the front, taking each scarf and placing it around the neck of the individual. They then bowed for the lama, who blessed them by touching their head. Many mountaineers heading through the region on climbing expeditions, such as Everest summit attempts, will travel through Tengboche to have their journeys blessed by the lama.
You could tell who the “trouble” monk-in-training might have been – we’ll call him “Toby”. He got up in the middle of chanting to leave the room and return, and toward the end, when the head lama was blessing the ceremonial scarves, Toby was munching on crackers while everyone else sat silently.
After the ceremonial scarves had been blessed, the prayer session was over and the monks removed the dark red robes they had worn in the prayer hall over their thinner robes and filed out of the hall. One of the monks helped the lama down from his high seat, and as they left the room, we were ushered out as well. It was certainly an interesting experience and I was glad we’d taken the time to watch the session.
We passed the rest of the day with our usual afternoon/evening trekking rituals – hanging out in the dining room, drinking hot tea, and reading/writing until dinner and darkness.
Day 5: Tengboche to Pangboche + Ama Dablam Base Camp
Approximate Trek Time: 1 hr. to Pangboche; 4 hr. Ama Dablam BC (return)
Distance: 13.5k / 8.4 miles
Overnight Elevation: 3860m / 12,664ft
We were awoken at daybreak by the sound of horns from the monastery. The sounds were sometimes higher pitched, like trumpets, and others very low-pitched, like those from a French horn or tuba – or, as I’d imagined, that very long horn the man in the Ricola commercials plays… something from the Swiss Alps. What they actually looked like, we don’t know since we could only hear them but not see them.
We rose, packed, ate a quick breakfast, and were on the trail toward Pangboche just after 7am. While we had originally planned to spend a second acclimatization day in Tengboche, after looking at the map, we noticed that Pangboche was situated at around the same altitude and we could make the side-trip to Ama Dablam Base Camp from there in an easy half-day trip, staying the night in Pangboche for the same recommended acclimatization. Since it was currently climbing season for Ama Dablam, the base camp would be active with a small town of tents and climbers (unlike Everest Base Camp), which would be exciting to see, and the trip would also aid in acclimatization (climb high, sleep low).
The hike from Tengboche to Pangboche was only around an hour, and the first section of trail was among my favorite. While mountain views were few (at least for the first half hour), the trail and surrounding foliage were beautiful. Rhododendrons covered the hillsides, shading the trail with an archway of branches. Everywhere, bright green moss carpeted the forest floor, covering the base of the trees and rocks and stones along the path. Mosses, lichens, and small grasses grew on the rocks and mani wall stones, adding to the old and sacred appearance of the tablets.
Descending from Pangboche through this beauty, the trail passed by a long mani wall near the Debuche Nunnery, hidden back among the trees. Continuing further along the rocky trail, trees suddenly dripped with Spanish moss, completing the atmosphere of a magical enchanted forest.
Eventually, the trail emerged from the trees, becoming dry and sandy, following along the Imja Khola (river), where a ruined metal bridge clung along the dusty slope to the river. Just down the trail, another bridge – first logs, then metal – crossed the river to a steep climb of switchbacks. Here, we unknowingly started up the dangerous shortcut that our guidebook advised us not to take. While the majority of the path was fine, the shortcut included two VERY airy ledges. One wrong step and we’d have been over the mountainside. On the second of the ledges, I removed my gloves to have a better grip against the rocks around the narrow jutted corner. We recommend not traversing anything that looks even remotely like a shortcut on the hike from Tengboche to Pangboche. Hint: you always know a shortcut is a bad idea if the porters are not taking it. Generally, they can handle and will take nearly any shortcut possible, and they were NOT taking this one.
Just up the path from the second ledge, the shortcut rejoined the main trail. Here, the safe wide trail followed uphill along the mountainside up rocky steps and gradual ascents, past small chortens, stupas, and mani walls. A large stone staircase led to the entrance kani for Pangboche, though beyond this the trail continued along further, past a slope where large yaks grazed on grasses, before entering the lower part of the village.
In Pangboche (3860m/12,660ft.), we quickly found a guesthouse for the night, The Highland Sherpa Resort, where we unloaded our packs and began our trip to Ama Dablam Base Camp.
Ama Dablam Base Camp…
The trail toward Ama Dablam Base Camp veers off from the main trail through the village at the far end of Pangboche near Sonam Lodge. Here, we descended a dusty path to a metal bridge over the Dudh Kosi.
Beyond the river, the trail made a very steep ascent through loose sandy switchbacks, which already had me worried for the downhill return. Loose sand and rock slid under my feet with each step. Though steep and slippy, at the very least this section was relatively short, emerging upon a large rock-strewn meadow. From here, we hiked up a boulder-strewn hillside, where a myriad of loosely defined trails allowed trekkers to choose their own path to the top of the hillside.
At the top of the spine, a number of trails lead along the ridge to the north/northeast, all heading in the same direction at different levels along the slope. To the other side of the ridge was a deep valley, the thin Cholungche Khola River thundering through the rocky terrain below. The opposite side of the valley was a steep eroded slope of sand, gravel, and rock, and we could hear rocks tumbling down the slope from where we stood. Continuing along the narrow ridge trail, we rounded up, over, and around small slopes toward Ama Dablam. Many sections of the trail had fine silty sand, like beach sand, a reminder that this entire region had been under water thousands of years ago.
The views along the route toward the base camp were spectacular. Taboche loomed like a massive giant to the west. The peak of Pumori poked out above the landscape far to the north, where it straddles the border of Nepal and Tibet. Mt. Everest and Lhotse continued to be in view, as well as Island Peak off to the east, and of course Ama Dablam, growing more and more prominent in front of us with each step we took.
As the terrain leveled out in our approach toward the base camp, the Cholungche Khola trickled along the trail, some portions around the rocks clinging to crusts of ice, melting in the sun. Much of the land along this portion was choppy, with large gaps between chunks of earth caused by the continual freeze-thaw cycles of the stream.
Finally, we climbed over a last set of rocks to the view of base camp. Ama Dablam Base Camp (4580m/15,022ft.) sits in a flat meadow right at the base of the mountain, which towers above at a height of 6,856m (22,282ft), its eastern face one of the most unique and easily identifiable peaks of the mountainous landscape. Likely over 100 tents, both small and large, were set up in groups of the many mountaineering expeditions that were tackling the summit this year. The colors of the bright yellow and orange tents popped out on the landscape of short, dull green grass and the gray rocky base of Ama Dablam.
We wandered through the camp, relaxing in the grass near the base of the mountain for awhile and admiring the amazing peaks all around us. A complete 360° view of Himalayan peaks, the Ama Dablam Base Camp was an amphitheater to the mountain gods. Eventually we pulled ourselves away from the majestic views and made our way back toward Pangboche to relax for the rest of the afternoon.
Day 6: Pangboche to Dingboche
Approximate Trekking Time: 2 – 2 ½ hours
Distance: 6.4k / 4 miles
Overnight Elevation: 4360m / 14,304ft
This morning we lingered in our beds a bit longer, not pushing out of our sleeping bags until just after 6:30am. The dining room in the lodge was cold, nearly freezing in fact, Shawn noting that the temperature was a balmy 39°F – inside. Everyone’s breath was visible and small clouds of steam rose into the air… our breaths steamed, our tea steamed, our breakfasts steamed – all into the bitter cold air.
We hit the trail around 8am, the first part of the cold mornings among my favorite, still bundled up with the sun warming me, but not yet hot enough to sweat in my layers. Just warm and comfortable, soaking in the sunshine. Hiking out of Pangboche, we passed the side trail we had taken yesterday toward Ama Dablam, continuing down the main trail. The majority of the day’s trek was fairly easy hiking, flat or gentle up and down grades, until toward the end when, as usual, the trail marched us toward the valley floor to cross a river before marching us back up the rocky slopes along the other side of the valley.
Starting out, the trail followed along the valley, curling around the mountainside past stone chortens, mani walls, painted boulders, and stupas, before dropping into the rocky boulder-strewn plains around Orsho, which appeared to be little more than a solitary lodge. From here, the trail dropped to the river valley where the Imja Khola and Khumbu Khola converged. We took a bridge over the latter, walking around a large pile of mani stones on the other side before beginning our hike upward past yak caravans.
The yak trains are a constant in the daily trail scenery and I loved the sound of the bells that signal their approach – some clung like small gongs and others had a bright tinkle, as if a magical fairy was about to round the bend at any moment, only to be greeted by massive, hairy horned beasts. Most of the “yaks” (or “naks”, for the females) we see are actually mixes between pure-blood yaks and either cows or Tibetan bulls. We figure the biggest and hairiest of them are the REAL DEAL yaks. Sometimes we are able to pass to one side of them and others, we have to step aside the trail to let them by.
The mountain views were superb as usual, though from our new vantage point the unique peak of Ama Dablam was barely distinguishable. The snowcapped summits of Island Peak and Lhotse were still in view. The further we hiked, the more the peak of Taboche shrank toward the landscape. Soaring massively above everything from yesterday’s perspective, it now seemed as if we could reach out and touch it from the slopes we hiked upon.
Eventually, we came around a bend with some stone chortens and a view over Dingboche (4360m/14,300ft.), our stopping point for the day – a conglomeration of lodges, homes, and yak pastures, all set below small peaks and slopes with stupas, shortens, rock cairns, and prayer flags tittering in the wind.
We found a room at the Snow Lion Lodge, one of the first lodges along the trail through Dingboche, and spent awhile relaxing in the nice sunny courtyard, enjoying freshly boiled baked potatoes that the lodge owner kindly shared with us. Here, a guide from another group told us about an acclimatization hike that his group had done the previous day, climbing up the slopes along a ridge above Dingboche. He pointed toward their turn-around point, where a vertical prayer flag flapped in the wind high upon the slope. While I was going to be perfectly content with taking an easy day after yesterday’s hike to Ama Dablam Base Camp, with this ridge hike now in Shawn’s head, I knew it was happening.
Around noon, we set off for this hike up the slopes. Not quite sure where the trail started, we hiked to the end of town and started our way up what we thought was a trail… but then just ended up picking our own way up the slopes, sans trail, until we reached the aforementioned Tibetan flags flapping in the wind at just under 15,000 ft. (4572m). From here, we looked down to see perfectly delineated trails leading to where we stood, beginning practically right from the back of our hostel. Such dummies.
From here, Shawn continued up further toward the top of the peak, while I headed back down (the trails this time) to our guesthouse, passing by two large stupas toward the end of the route. The older of the two was higher up and tarnished in that very-very-old-relic looking sort of way. The lower of the two, just above our guest house, looked as though it could have been painted yesterday, bright white and gleaming, with the colorful Buddha eyes looking out from all directions. Shawn turned around at about 16,000 ft., the clouds beginning to close in, and we spent the remainder of the afternoon in our guesthouse.
With yak dung fueling the wood stove in the center of the dining room, the room was nice and warm and we spent the remainder of the afternoon and evening here, as usual, consuming a large pot of hot tea throughout the day. Here we talked to Florence, from Switzerland, who we had met at the lodge we stayed at last night. And, we met more Americans than we’d met during our entire travels… all in this one room at the Snow Lion Lodge in the middle of the Himalayas. Dan, from Colorado, was trekking independently, like ourselves, and also doing the three passes trek. We ended up hiking with him and/or meeting up at the same lodges each day, for the remainder of the trip.
There was also a bigger group of Americans, also from Colorado. The affable talker of this bunch, Ken, regaled us with stories, including how he had recently discovered (in a not so pleasant manner) that he had been taking 4x the amount of Diamox (an altitude sickness prevention/treatment medicine) than he should be taking due to an incorrect prescription label. Having revealed and corrected this, he was happy as a clam and having the time of his life. Friendly as ever, once he learned that Dan was also from Boulder, he was quick to suggest they go hiking together when they returned to the states. Dan looked a little less thrilled about this idea, but you had to love Ken’s enthusiasm. At any rate, it was nice to chat with fellow Americans for the evening.
Day 7: Dingboche to Chhukung
Approximate Trekking Time: 2 hours
Distance: 4.5k / 2.8 miles
Overnight Elevation: 4730m / 15,518ft
Hiking out of Dingboche in the morning, we witnessed a sight that would keep us laughing for the rest of the day. Heading down the trail through the village, a yak suddenly and swiftly jumped up on a stone fence as nimbly as a Billy Goat. Until this moment, we had no idea these large burly creatures could maneuver themselves in this way. We stopped in shock. The yak looked around at its audience, peacefully contemplating his next move. A passing Nepali looked at our gasps and responded with a smile, “mountain cow”, he said, and continued down the trail. No kidding.
The hike from Dingboche to Chhukung was a relatively easy gradual uphill – and sometimes level – trek of about 2 hours. We crossed above the tree line yesterday and, with the next week or more over 15,000 ft. (4572m), it will be awhile before we see a proper tree again. The landscape from Dingboche to Chhukung was primarily rock and scree fields and boulder-strewn meadows with short scrubby bushes. For nearly the entire hike, Dingboche was still in view when looking back over our shoulders, making progress seem slow.
While yesterday’s trails occasionally had tiny rivulets of water that were frozen along the shady sections of path, today’s trek passed over far bigger streams frozen over even in areas where the sun shone warmly, and the bits of ice we walked over crunched and cracked delicately under our shoes.
Along the way, we passed rock fences with round stones stacked so precariously on top of one another, with large gaps between each ill-placed stone, that it looked like one good shove would topple the whole fence. I marveled at some of the building and it wasn’t very hard to imagine the infrastructure crumbling to the ground in a major – or even minor – earthquake.
We also passed a memorial stupa dedicated to those who had lost their lives climbing Lhotse’s south face. All of the names on the plaque were from the ‘80s. Lhotse, which means “South Peak” in Tibetan, is the fourth highest mountain in the world, and a quick Google search reveals that at least 10 climbers have died on its southern face (Lhotse Shar). The majority of those that died in the 80s were killed in an avalanche (1987), though the cause of death for three others in the early 80s is listed as “disappearance”, according to Wikipedia. Lhotse’s south face loomed massively – forebodingly – in the distance.
Eventually, after passing our daily requisite of prayer-flag laden chortens, stupas, and mani walls and bouncing across stepping stones over half-frozen creeks, Chhukung (4730m/15,514ft.) came into view ahead. A truly spectacular setting; while the village itself isn’t much to look at, it sits in an impressive amphitheater of Himalayan peaks to all sides – Ama Dablam, Taboche, Nuptse, Lhotse, and Island Peak, among others – completely surrounding the valley village.
After getting set up with a room at Chhukung “Resort”, we decided to continue hiking a bit since it had been a short trekking day to Chhukung, and set out from the village in the direction of the Island Peak Base Camp. Crossing a makeshift bridge of plywood balanced over boulders across a small, but rushing, river, we hiked uphill to a ridgeline, which we continued up for another 30-45 minutes taking in the stunning views of the surrounding mountains, the Lhotse glacial moraine field, and the clear blue skies.
We kept the hike short and were back to the lodge and in the dining room for lunch around 12:30pm. Here, we slowly moved ourselves to tables closer and closer to the central stove throughout the day in anticipation of the warm dung-fueled fires that would burn in the evening, a location we would soon seek out at each lodge as we climbed higher in elevation and nights became colder and colder.
We spent the rest of the day in the dining room with Dan, Nathaniel, Erica, and Ube, the latter three of which we had met in the courtyard at Dingboche, before they continued on to stay at another lodge. Nathaniel and Erica were from Missouri and Ube from Japan. We’d hike in tandem with this crew for the majority of the rest of our trek, an entertaining group.
In the evening, we all scarfed down our usual dinners of daal bhaat (lentils and rice, served with a vegetable side – the only meal that comes with free refills), eating enough to ensure we were miserable the rest of the night but primed for the next day’s trekking. Daal bhaat power 24 hour!
Day 8: Chhukung Ri
Approximate Trekking Time: 3-4 hours
Distance: 5.5k / 3.4 miles
Overnight Elevation: 4730m / 15,518ft
Our rooms in Chhukung were freezing. The three worst parts of the day are: (1) getting out of our warm sleeping bags in the morning, when room temps are often as freezing as those outdoors, so cold we can see our breath; (2) leaving the dining room at night to head to our freezing rooms and get into our cold sleeping bags; and, (3) the multiple nighttime bathroom trips into the freezing abyss beyond our sleeping bags (now warm). In addition to my sleeping bag and the provided blanket, I go to sleep in ALL of my layers, including my down puffy. Occasionally I warm up enough to shed at least this heaviest layer, which I then still keep inside my sleeping bag to take up space that might otherwise hold the cold air that creeps in because the top of my sleeping bag is a bit too wide.
Despite this cold, once I am all tucked into my layers, sleeping bag, and blanket, I’m warm enough for the night, and the fleeting moments of cold when we first crawl into and out of our sleeping bags and make late night trips to the bathroom are all worth it considering this amazing experience hiking in arguably some of the most beautiful country in the world.
We spent today in Chhukung again to climb Chhukung Ri (ri = peak), the highest point of our entire trek at 18,191 ft. (5546m). To access the trail up to the peak, we hiked through the village, heading over a rock field that crossed three streams – first over rocks, then logs, and finally boulders – being careful not to step on the icy bits of the rocks. Significant portions of the streams were still frozen in cold morning shade of the valley.
Heading uphill along the sandy slopes, the sand sparkling in the sun, the trail climbed first steeply, and then gradually, and then more steeply again, continuing uphill until reaching a gradual false-flattish section, strewn with rock cairns. Beyond this barren sandbox of stacked rocks, the trail continued steeply uphill through the fine sand and rock over short switchbacks.
Along our ascent, we were greeted by a lanky German guy that was very keen to tell us that hiking while high was not a good idea, advertising that he had very recently smoked a joint. He also proceeded to tell us that his lodge owner had told him that a storm may be coming in over the Kongma La tomorrow afternoon or evening, something we decided to check into later. While a decently quick hiker, he was a strange individual and we referred to him as “storm predictor guy” whenever we saw him along the trail in days to come.
The whole trail was quite slow going for me and by the time we reached the cairn-strewn ridge at the top of the slope we had just climbed, I was pretty content to just call that point good enough, though it wasn’t the summit. So, from here we pushed on. The remainder of the climb was up steep slopes of rocky scrambles across brittle rocks and slippy gravel. Taking an exposed path along the right side of the side of the rockface, there were several very sketchy sections along the route to the top.
We gingerly picked our way through the sketchy unclear trail, finally making our way to the summit. A large chorten marked the top, and the surrounding views were stunning – all of the peaks we had seen from below in Chhukung, up closer – as well as Makalu, the fifth highest mountain in the world. From our summit view, we could also see the turquoise lakes at the base of Ama Dablam, as well as Imja Tsho (tsho = lake) near the moraine of the Lhotse Glacier, swollen to dangerous levels due to the effects of global warming. We also thought we could see Kongma La (la = pass), the pass we would cross over the next day, though the trek the next day would reveal that we had not been able to see the pass.
At the top of Chhukung Ri, we enjoyed our summit Snickers and snapped some photos, soaking in the beauty all around us before beginning our descent. Luckily, the best route down from the summit was much clearer from above than it had been on the ascent, and the trip down the top portion of the peak wasn’t nearly as sketchy as the trip up had been. Past the rock scramble, we continued down the trail we had climbed up and back into Chhukung.
With the high peak behind us and a long day over the Kongma La ahead of us, we ate daal bhaat for both lunch and dinner. After dinner, we went outside to look at the stars, the milky way a clear bright band across the sky. Possibly the most stars I’d ever seen. Unfortunately, while stargazing is amazing in the darkness of the high mountains, it is short-lived due to the frigid air, and we were soon tucked into our sleeping bags for the night.
Day 9: Chhukung to Lobuche over the Kongma La Pass
Approximate Trekking Time: 6-7 hours
Distance: 9.3k / 5.8 miles
Overnight Elevation: 4930m / 16,174ft
Kongma La day! This was a very long day. Our small group of weary travelers – Shawn, Dan, Nathaniel, Erica, Ube, and myself – rendezvoused in the dining room at 6:30am, breakfasted, and headed out by around 7:15am, starting the trek together in a group effort to find the start of the trail to the pass.
Crossing over the same three small streams as we had the previous day to head up Chhukung Ri, we walked downstream to pick up the trail, where it climbed northwestward along the hillsides. While the trek along the rocky riverbank was cold, still sitting shade of the valley, the sun soon warmed the slopes we climbed up, over, and around.
The first hour of the trail included some rock scrambling and some nice flat sections that contoured around the slopes, eventually leading to a steep climb of switchbacks (where storm predictor guy overtook me) that topped off at a broad open alpine meadow. Continuing past the meadow, the trail was somewhat flat, with some gradual incline as it curved around the mountainside. Toward the end of this section of trail, Nathaniel caught up with us. Erica had twisted her ankle almost immediately after we’d set out, along the rocky banks of the stream, and had decided to stay in Chhukung to rest for the day. He planned to continue over the pass, and they would meet in Namche Bazaar in a few days (a very vague plan that it later turned out they had not really flushed out the details for). Onward and upward.
Further along, the trail continued to wind its way up very steep rocky switchbacks. I was sure that the pass must be at the top of this misery, and I trudged my way slowly up the brutal inclines, Shawn waiting patiently for me to catch up every so often along the way. Much to my chagrin, the steep switchbacks did not top out at the pass. Here, the trail dropped down, and then crossed over a small slope to a marshy bog area – like an alpine fen. We walked around the far side of the water, bouncing over the mushy pockets of earth protruding from the water, rejoining the trail that continued along the other side.
Here we climbed again, the trail eventually leading to a small turquoise blue lake. From here, we could see the pass, marked by prayer flags, high above the other side of the lake, perched at the top of a menacingly steep climb through spiky black rocks; basically, it sat atop Castle Grayskull. Curving around the lake, we made our way to the bottom of the scramble, which thankfully, looked much longer and harder than it was, and we were at the top of the pass in another 15-20 minutes.
The highest of the passes along the three passes trek, Kongma La sits at 18,155 ft. (5535m). The pass was a hive of activity, with many trekkers taking photographs and lingering in the sun, enjoying a break before they started down the other side, trekkers having come up from both sides of the pass. We did the same, donning some warm layers to sit and eat our summit Snickers and the Tibetan bread we had packed out from the lodge that morning. After the quick respite, we snapped some of our own pics and started down the other side of the pass.
From the top of the pass, Lobuche was visible in the not-so-far distance and didn’t even look too far away – WRONG! What started as a nice trail quickly turned into a boulder scramble from cairn to cairn, eventually giving way to steep loose-gravel switchbacks before descending along a more reasonable downhill slope to the Khumbu Glacier. Beyond this very short section of nice trail, the route became an undulating roller coaster of ups and downs over boulders and scree through the moraine field. The trail shifted endlessly over the boulders, loosely marked by cairns leading the way up the never-ending mountains of rock. Each time we climbed to a high point, hoping to see Lobuche on the other side, we were sorely disappointed by views of more boulders. And so we continued, climbing ridge after ridge, following the loosely defined trail and rock cairns past frozen glacial lakes, up and down the rocks and boulders of the moraine.
At last, we gained the final ascent, looking down into Lobuche (4930m/16,170ft.) over a grassy pasture that ran up the slope. Relieved, we followed the trail across the slope and down into the village. Lobuche was nothing to look at – definitely the most unbecoming of all of the villages we had stayed in – with ramshackle lodges connected by muddy pathways. In “Into Thin Air” by John Krakauer, an account of the Everest disaster of 1996, Krakauer had described Lobuche as a “shithole”, and while I’m sure it’s been improved over the last two decades, this description could still hold water.
After a long day of trekking, we had a problem: there were no rooms available. Lodges in Lobuche and Gorak Shep in particular, settlements that now exist solely to service the trekking and climbing industry, are quick to fill up during high season. Most travelers approach from the south, arriving earlier in the day, so by the time we had taken the longer route over the pass, we were getting in later than the main crowd and rooms had booked up. Ube had checked at all of the lodges and they were sold out. He, Nathaniel, and Dan had been lucky enough to grab a 4-bed room at the Himalayan Eco Resort, and graciously offered us their fourth bed. Luckily, Florence also had an extra bed in her room and was kind enough to let me use it, while Shawn slept in the guys’ room. Crisis averted.
In the dining room, most of the tables were taken up by large trekking groups and we ended up at a table near the door, which swung open and closed all evening, a constant flow of trekkers, guides, and porters. The dining room was small and dingy, the lodge far from the “Eco Resort” that it billed itself as, but we were happy to have beds and the food was descent.
Its been so nice to have a group to travel with through much of this trek… while we don’t do all of our hiking together, it’s fun to meet at the top of the passes and peaks, and it’s nice to have a group to gather with at the lodges at night. We were also very appreciative that everyone had helped us out with rooms and beds for the night.
Day 10: Lobuche to Gorak Shep + Kala Patthar + Everest Base Camp
Approximate Trekking Time: 1 ½ – 2 hrs. to Gorak Shep; 3-4 hr. roundtrip e/ to Kala Pattar & EBC
Distance: 16.4k / 10.2 miles
Overnight Elevation: 5160m / 16,929ft
This day was exhausting, but one of the highlights of the trip. I dressed quietly, trying not to wake Florence, and met the rest of the guys in the dining room for a breakfast of Tibetan bread and honey. Having determined that their meet-up plan was not well flushed out, Nathaniel had left early in the morning for Dingboche in attempts to intercept Erica along the trail from Chhukung. Ube got a head start toward Gorak Shep to acquire rooms while Shawn, Dan, and I finished our breakfasts before heading out.
Having rejoined the main trail toward Everest Base Camp (EBC) after yesterday’s less traveled route over the pass, the trail toward Gorak Shep was full of groups and porters, the busiest of the trail sections we had hiked along yet. We bobbed and weaved past the groups, hiking through the boulder-strewn valley until the trail gradually climbed to steeper rocky switchbacks, curving through the moraine en route to Gorak Shep. Around some of the narrow curving trails through rock fields, bottlenecks of trekkers formed, everyone making their way to Gorak Shep to head to EBC and the top of Kala Pattar for the spectacular Everest views.
Finally making our way past the crowds, we descended into Gorak Shep (5160m/16,925ft.) and veered right to the Himalayan Lodge, where Ube had secured two rooms for the four of us. In the room, we ditched everything but warm layers, water, and snacks and made our way toward the trail up Kala Pattar.
Dropping down from our guesthouse, we walked across a large open sandy field to the trailhead. The beach sand here, and on many of the trails, lasting evidence that this region was once under water, part of the ancient Tethys Sea. Fossilized rocks and shells of Jurassic period sea creatures are found throughout many riverbeds in Nepal. Called saligrams (or shaligrams), these black ammonite fossils are considered iconic symbols of Lord Vishnu by many Hindus. We had seen the rocks for sale throughout the Annapurna region and in Thamel.
The trek up Kala Pattar climbed steeply, then gradually, then steeply again… and then even more steeply… to a final rocky boulder scramble to the top. I moved l like a grandma with her walker in the thin air, kicking up dust with each step in the fine soft dirt. But, the views at the top were worth it.
While Everest Base Camp receives all the hype, Kala Pattar (5545m/18,188 ft.) affords the best views of Mt. Everest in the Khumbu; in fact, the summit of Everest is not even visible from the low vantage point of base camp at the foot of the mountain. From the top of Kala Pattar you are treated to one of the best views on earth, with Everest, Nuptse, and Lhotse to the east – the Khumbu Glacier sprawled out below them, Pumori to the north and Lobuche West to the southwest.
At the very top, tattered prayer flags flapped from a flagpole in the wind, others pressed and flattened between boulders at the summit. I sat along a mass of prayer flags wedged between the boulders, they were warm in the sun compared to the cold rock and it felt spectacular to sit at summit among such stunning scenery. The warmth didn’t last though and we didn’t linger once colder wind gusts pushed through. After a few photographs we made a quick descent back to Gorak Shep.
Back in Gorak Shep, we ate a quick lunch at our lodge and were back outside on the trail toward Everest Base Camp by 1pm. We had originally planned to take an extra day for this, but the prevailing knowledge was that spending more than one night in Gorak Shep – which sits at an altitude of 16,925 ft. (5160m) – is a terrible prospect. On our way to Gorak Shep, we had also run into a group of Canadians that we had met several times along the trail and they assured us that the trip to Everest Base Camp was only 3 hours roundtrip, including some time spent for photos, etc., and that it was easy to do both Kala Pattar and EBC in the same day – so this was our new plan.
With rumor that the trek to EBC was relatively “flat”, I was cursing the undulating rocky traverses for the first half or more of the trek. Eventually the rocky ups, downs, twists, and bends spat us out on a long ridge – the flat portion of the trail. From here we could see EBC ahead of us, set in the rocky Khumbu glacial moraine field.
After a steep descent into the moraine, we wound our way along a narrow trail back up through the boulders to the Everest Base Camp area (5340m/17,515 ft.). Situated in a glacial moraine, the area was strewn with mounds of rocks everywhere, not a flat spot in sight. Our first thought was, “where the hell do they put the tents?” Clearly the expeditions must find – or make – some flattened areas come spring time and it would be fascinating to see the base camp during climbing season (April-May).
EBC was strewn with rock cairns, prayer flags, memorials, and flags, and we strung our own set of prayer flags below an American flag with the names of those who had perished in the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and February 1993 (WTC bombing). While Everest’s summit is not visible from base camp, the view of the Khumbu icefall was amazing. The first region that climbers must navigate en route to Everest’s summit, I tried to imagine how deep the crevasses through the jagged ice might be, and the difficult and dangerous job of those who worked to fix ladders through the ice. Just two years ago, 16 Sherpas had been killed by an avalanche in the icefall as they worked to fix the ladders for the 2014 season. The following climbing season was also ended promptly after avalanches triggered by Nepal’s devastating 2015 earthquake killed 18 climbers and guides.
After soaking in the views, snapping some pics, and hanging our prayer flags, we hopped our way over boulders and out of the moraine, and back down the trail toward Gorak Shep. It was an exhausting but amazing day, and we were happy to have seen everything in one day so we could descend from Gorak Shep in the morning.
Day 11: Gorak Shep to Dzonglha
Approximate Trekking Time: 4 ½ – 5 ½ hrs
Distance: 10.8k / 6.7 miles
Overnight Elevation: 4830m / 15,846ft
Happy Halloween! Today I dressed as a burnt marshmallow, the costume of my big black puffy jacket that I don every day to keep warm.
Our night of sleep was cold and restless, as expected, one of the consequences of sleeping at high altitudes often being shitty sleep. We “woke” (already fairly awake) early at 5am to the noise of a group assembling outside our room to make an early trip up Kala Pattar. Poor suckers. We had heard their guide explaining the early morning plan to them over dinner last night and, knowing how chilly it had been on the summit even at late morning in the sun yesterday, did not envy their freezing pre-dawn departure to the top.
Later over breakfast, we overheard a conversation between two of the girls in the group, one of which had stayed behind at the lodge while others made the frigid trek up Kala Pattar. The one who stayed behind asked how it was. The other responded almost in shock, “it was so cold.” The other pressed again, “but how were the views?!?”, to which the other responded again dully, “I don’t remember… it was so cold.” I shivered just listening to this conversation. Despite opportunities to perhaps catch amazing sunrise or sunset photos, the latter riskier with cloud cover, I have been perfectly content to make our climbs to peaks during warmer hours of the day.
Following breakfast, we bundled up and headed back down the trail toward Lobuche. Luckily the sections that had been bottlenecked on our way up the previous day weren’t yet too clogged, with mostly only porters along the route thus far. We also ran into Florence, who was revamping her plans to climb Lobuche East, and making the trek up Kala Pattar for the day. Further down the trail, the valley flattened more as it gradually descended into Lobuche. I was also very happy we wouldn’t be spending another night here, and we trekked through, continuing down the valley in the warm sun until the trail toward Dzhonglha branched off from the main trail to the right.
The trail toward Dzhonglha lead through the wide rocky valley floor, which we crossed to join an exposed trail that ascended southwestward along the mountain before leveling out as it curved along the mountainside, making for a very pleasant flat hike with a great view of the valley and surrounding mountains. The trail rounded the mountainside heading back toward the northwest, passing a yak(?) skull on a rock and a beautiful turquoise lake far below, eventually descending across a muddy plain before climbing back up the slope on the other side of the field. It was at this point we went a little wrong.
While, we later discovered, we should have followed the trail up and over the top of the slope, we veered left on a trail along the side of the slope and what began as somewhat trail-looking eventually became less and less so, and soon we were just hiking along the mountainside, blazing our own trail. Eventually, we spotted the trail toward Dzhonglha below and descended through the brush toward it, crossing over a river and making our way up the other side of the valley on a steep dusty trail leading toward toward the village.
Dzhonglha (4830m/15,842ft.) was basically a small collection of less than half a dozen lodges, like most of the villages we’d been in lately, all perched in a natural bowl on the mountainside. After awhile, we saw Dan hiking up with none other than Nathaniel and Erica in tow. Nathaniel had found Erica the previous morning and they’d stayed the night in Dingboche, an easy rest day before making the trek toward Dzhonglha his morning, opting to skip the tourists of Gorak Shep/Kala Pattar/EBC altogether. They’d run into Dan just down the trail and Ube wasn’t far behind. The whole family was back together again!
After lunch, Shawn tested out the shower, which was apparently in another lodge and not too bad. A bucket shower, where heated water was carried to the top of the roof to drain through a shower head in the ceiling, the water had lasted long enough to get clean, the first shower since Namche Bazaar. However, when I went to ask for a shower I was told, “no more water, come back in another hour.” I returned in an hour. No water. “Maybe come back later… maybe water… maybe no…” At this point, I gave up. Better luck at the next lodge. The water for the shower in Dzhonglha was carried up from the river below in large buckets and heated on a solar heater, a process that took a long time. Also, since the river wasn’t directly next to the village, but rather down a steep slope, it took a lot more effort to fill and carry a large bucket up the hill, and it was likely that they weren’t keen on making this effort many times a day. Nothing about living in the mountains of Nepal is easy.
So, we whiled away the afternoon hours in the dining room with tea and lots and lots of people coughing their lungs out, a common sound over the past week as trekkers suffered through the hacking cough and wheezing that often develops in the dry mountain air. The older lady across from me sounded like she might die. I had developed the cough myself not long after Tengboche and was looking forward to its dissipation when we descended from the high elevations.
Day 12: Dzongla to Tagnag (Dragnag) over the Cho La Pass
Approximate Trekking Time: 5-6 hours
Distance: 8k / 5 miles
Overnight Elevation: 4700m / 15,420ft
Today we cross the Cho La Pass. Our handy map offered no fewer warnings than: “crampons recommended”, “glacier crossing stay on left side”, “danger of crevasses”, “possibility of rock fall”, and “slippery path.” So, that’s cool. Apparently in good weather conditions no special equipment is needed, and luckily, we had just that. A bright, clear, sunny beautiful day.
We set out just after 7am, picking up the trail heading northwest just behind our guesthouse. The morning was cold and crusty frost covered the grass. After a short uphill, the trail curved left along a slope following a wide valley, which it eventually lowered us into and we walked a long section through a rocky meadow – flat and then gradually uphill – leading us to the end of the valley where we would soon be heading up steep switchbacks toward the pass.
The steep gravel trail lead over boulders and river, climbing onward to a long rock scramble up the mountainside. A porter from another group followed me up the scramble. I stepped aside to let him pass a couple times (since porters are like mountain goats, no matter how heavy their loads), but each time I stepped aside he stopped to take a rest, waiting for his clients and their guide, whose slow speed he seemed quite bored with. Eventually I said, “go ahead”, to which he happily replied, “Let’s Go!”, encouraging me to the top of the rock scramble where it flattened out a bit.
It would have been wishful thinking to assume that the top of the pass would be at the top of the rock scramble – at the top of the one mountain that we were scrambling up. Mountains are systems – and naturally when I reached the “top”, it was not the top at all, far more mountain stretching northwestward before us. Looking back toward the valley we had just walked up, Ama Dablam was framed perfectly by the valley, rising above the landscape in the distance. Nepal is beautiful everywhere you look.
From here, Shawn and I continued our way forward, soon walking around ledges to a field of snow. We inched our way over the rocks along the ridge, avoiding the shiny areas of ice, and eventually making our way down to the snow, following the well worn path to the left side of the glacier (just as the map had cautioned). Eventually, the slippery trail through the snow curved around two large boulders to a rockface climbing above and around a small frozen lake and over a sketchy rock scramble and a steep bit to the top of the pass, which we had gained 2 ½ hours after setting off that morning.
The Cho La (5420m/17,778ft), like the other passes, was covered in rock cairns and prayer flags. Sunny and beautiful, we sat for awhile watching other trekkers cross the snow and waiting for the remainder of our group while eating our summit Snickers. A large number of people loitered along the rocks, celebrating their arrival to the top of the pass from either side.
The descent along the other side was through steep loose gravel and rock, my least favorite terrain, and I moved slowly, shuffling my way through the rock. When we eventually made our way out of the steepest section, there was still quite a bit of boulder hopping and cairn following until the trail eventually turned to soft reddish dirt leading up a grassy slope.
Soon enough, the trail was all downhill, following the riverside through a narrow gorge into Dragnag (aka Tagnag; 4700m/15,416 ft.). Dan waited at the edge of the village to lead us to the best lodge he had found, the Cho La Resort, which did indeed receive a five-star rating from all of us. For me, personally, most of this rating was based upon the shower since it was the first shower I’d had since Namche Bazaar and it was fabulous. Also a bucket shower, the steaming solar-heated water was piped into a shower head in a shower room that was warmed by panels that allowed the sunlight to filter though part of the ceiling and wall. The toasty room made for a pleasant shower, and it was refreshing to feel scrubbed and clean for the first time in over a week. Beyond the cozy shower experience, the dining room was warm and toasty as well with a hot stove and double-pane windows, and served good food and a nice sized popcorn basket.
Day 13: Tagnag to Gokyo + Gokyo Ri
Approximate Trekking Time: 2 hrs. to Gokyo; 3 – 4 hrs. roundtrip to Gokyo Ri
Distance: 8.9k / 5.5 miles
Overnight Elevation: 4750m / 15,584ft
Despite being one of our favorite lodges, the Cho La Resort was one of the coldest nights for me, my sleeping bag feeling less warm than usual. As usual, the windows were etched in frost when we awoke. Before leaving the hostel, the owner called ahead to Gokyo to assure that we would have four rooms waiting at the Namaste Lodge when we arrived, since Gokyo was supposedly very busy. He also served us complimentary cups of delicious steaming milk tea, and after drinking them around the dung-fueled stove, we set off for Gokyo.
Our hike from Dragnag to Gokyo took us through the Ngozumba glacial moraine: up, down, and around slopes of rocks and boulders and by tiny frozen lakes and ponds, which we stopped to throw rocks in – some busting through, some lodging partway into the top layers of the thick ice, and some just bouncing across the ice, their bounces sending a fun warping echo through the rock field. We followed the myriad of cairns and trails as best as possible, eventually emerging upon a grassy hillside with a view over Gokyo.
One of the best village settings in the Himalayas, Gokyo (4750m/15,580ft.) is situated along the eastern bank of a beautiful, gleaming turquoise-colored lake, with Gokyo Ri along the northern side of the lake, the trail climbing up to its peak looking steep and stiff from a distance. The lake, Dudh Pokhari, is the third of six sacred lakes that stretch from south to north of Gokyo. After taking some obligatory photos atop boulders with the spectacular view in the background, we hiked down into the village, greeted by the odd brown warbling birds we had seen several times over the past few days – looking something like a cross between a pigeon and a pheasant (I couldn’t find their proper name, and I’m sure birders would cringe at this description).
The Namaste Lodge welcomed us with warm cups of mango drink and, after settling in rooms and unpacking our bags, we set out for Gokyo Ri, walking across the rock bridge where water trickled into the northeast edge of the Dudh Pokhari to reach the trailhead.
The trail climbed steeply over soft sand and then rocky trail, zigzagging its way up a number of possible paths past cairns. Though it became rockier, there was a trail all the way to the summit of Gokyo Ri (5360m/17,581 ft.), where tattered prayer flags flapped in the winds, the windiest of the summits we’d climbed. Prayer flags wrapped around a chorten housing a small Buddha figure. From the top, there were clear views of Cho Oyo, Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Cholatse, and Taboche, as well as the sacred lakes of Gokyo stretching to the south of the peak. The view atop Gokyo Ri was also the first vantage point from which Mt. Everest clearly stood out as the highest mountain on the landscape. Chilly at the top, we didn’t linger long, taking the requisite landscape and group photos before heading back down to our lodge.
With the day’s hiking completed, we spent the rest of the afternoon drinking tea in the dining room and playing a new card game that Shawn had learned from another group of travelers in Dzhonglha. Quite addictive, we played the game (Kaboom!) a lot over the next few days in Gokyo.
Day 14: Gokyo Lakes
Approximate Trekking Time: Trekking Time: 3 – 4 hrs. roundtrip to Scoundrel’s Viewpoint
Distance: variable (12.9k / 8 miles return from Scoundrel’s Viewpoint)
Overnight Elevation: 4750m / 15,584ft
We took our time getting up this morning, since there was no need to pack bags with only a day hike in the area planned and another night in Gokyo tonight. After breakfast in the dining room, packed with large trekking groups, we set off from the lodge around 9am, heading northward on a hike to the northern sacred lakes.
Numbered from south to north, Gokyo sits along the third of six sacred lakes. We planned to hike at least to Scoundrel’s Viewpoint, which was just beyond the fifth lake, though also considered the possibility of continuing toward the sixth lake and Cho Oyo Base Camp, situated along its northern banks.
While I had thought it was supposed to be an easy hike for the most part, both Shawn and I were feeling pretty drained as we moved slowly over the endless ups and downs over rocky hills up the valley. While there were some flat sections, they inevitably lead to more rocky slopes and short climbs.
We reached the fourth lake, Thonak Tsho, in under an hour. Its waters were more of a dull blue-gray, surrounded by crumbling dirt slopes that were shadowed by distant snow-capped Himalayan peaks. Continuing on through the rocky terrain, we eventually reached the fifth lake, Ngozumba Tsho, where we caught up with Nathaniel and Erica. The color of this lake was a bit more blue-green than the last, though still not as brilliant turquoise as the lake next to Gokyo.
Somewhere around this fifth lake, though more tired than expected, we grudgingly resolved to continue toward the sixth lake and Cho Oyo Base Camp. This plan deteriorated very quickly after the short climb up Scoundrel’s Viewpoint (5000m/16,400 ft.), where the four of us found a nice little patch of grass out of the wind, plopped our butts down on the ground, and proceeded to eat all of the snacks we had brought. We lazed here for awhile in the grass, admiring the views, each of us waiting for another person to make the definitive call that we’d done enough hiking and head back toward Gokyo. Since we eventually acknowledged that this was what we were waiting for and no one seemed enthused by the idea of continuing northward, we set back toward Gokyo.
Our trip back was very windy and slow and we were beyond ready for a rest day, which we would be taking tomorrow. Thoroughly tired, we were content to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening playing Kaboom!
Days 15&16: Rest Day in Gokyo
Approximate Trekking Time: N/A
Overnight Elevation: 4750m / 15,584ft (still here)
Ah, fifteen days into our trekking and finally a full rest day! Our one and only on the trip so far and boy did we need it, as evidenced by our drained bodies on yesterday’s hike along the lakes. Our bodies have been over 14,000 ft. (4267m) for 10 days, 9 of those actually above 15,000 ft. (4572m). The body is not designed for this, and while I assume we would eventually acclimatize better, as it is, most trekkers have coughs or colds – or worse. We have thoroughly enjoyed the Khumbu trekking experience and views, the challenge and adventure, and the amazing people we have met along the way – that said, we are ready for the end of the trek. Ready to get rid of our colds and coughs (me), ready for warm beds and good sleep, and ready for hot showers, clean clothes, and more pleasant bathroom facilities.
We spent the day in the dining room lodge drinking tea, reading, writing, and playing cards. We also splurged on Wi-Fi cards to catch up with e-mail and Facebook and ensure our friends and families that we were alive and well.
The next morning, we woke and packed to head out of Gokyo over the third and final pass of the trip (Renjo La), but downstairs while waiting for breakfast I suddenly started to feel terrible. Unfortunately, this feeling didn’t go away and there wasn’t any way I was going to be able to hike through it, so Shawn and I ended up spending another day/night in Gokyo, a bummer since we were anxious to get to lower elevations. We both spent the day in our room, sleeping and reading in our sleeping bags.
Late in the afternoon, wispy clouds rolled quickly up the valley, settling on the dark turquoise waters and drifting with them northward across the lake, leaving behind much colder looking steely-blue waters. As quickly as they had come, the clouds disappeared. It was a stunningly beautiful sight.
Day 17: Gokyo to Namche Bazaar
Approximate Trekking Time: 7-8 hours
Distance: 22.5k / 14 miles
Overnight Elevation: 3420m / 11,220ft
Down we go! The original plan for today (or rather yesterday) had been to continue along the Three Passes trek, hiking over the third and final pass – Renjo La – and down to Lumde and Thame. Unfortunately, since neither one of us has been feeling that great, we decided to detour from this route and head directly back to Namche Bazaar today. Actually, one of the great things about the Khumbu is that there are a number of trails and routes through the region, and generally no matter where you are you can descend to Namche Bazaar (and beyond) quickly if needed.
While we were a bit disappointed to not be finishing the Three Passes trek as planned, we also really enjoyed the trek from Gokyo to Namche Bazaar, still new trail for us until the very last section of the trail beyond Sanasa.
We ate an early breakfast and hit the trail by just after 7am, hiking southward out of Gokyo. The first part of the valley was still in the shade at this hour and bitter cold until we began trekking in and out of sunlight, finally losing the frigid shade. The trail through the boulder-strewn valley passed by the second and first sacred lakes, eventually following, and then crossing, the Dudh Kosi River, sacred to both Hinds and Buddhists. Crossing the river, we walked along an exposed ridgeline with rock staircases, gingerly stepping around the ice of frozen rivulets that streamed down the slopes from the rockface above.
The trail weaved its way around the slopes, descending into the village of Machermo, where we crossed through the lodges and yak pastures and ascended the other side of the ravine. This trend would continue throughout the hike: descend into small village and climb back up the slope on the other side.
We eventually dropped down a slope into Dole, crossing a rickety bridge over a stream and passing a few lodges before ascending through a grove of rhododendrons, the first trees we had seen since ascending past Pangboche. Climbing out of the trees to the remainder of Dole, we stopped at a lodge along the trail for lunch, in need of some energy.
The trail past Dole soon became very beautiful. For the past 10+ days we had hiked through an arid glacial landscape of boulders, dotted only with lichens, sparse mosses, and scrubby brush and grass. Now, we were entering vibrant forest with an abundance of tree and plant life. Spanish moss hung from the tree branches, bright green mosses clung to rocks and trees, and the dead leaves of fall crunched beneath our feet on the trails. We were finally back in an environment hospitable enough for green life – and easier breathing.
Trekking southward along the western bank of the Dudh Kosi, opposite the village of Phortse, which was perched along the opposite side of the river valley, the trail descended down, down, down to the river, switch-backing along the path of a waterfall to cross it at several levels – its icy waters frozen along the edges in the shade and in all but the swiftest flowing currents. Beyond this waterfall, we crossed others before finally hitting the bottommost point of the descent.
From here, we had our biggest climb of the day. A long climb of steep rocky steps and switchbacks to Mongla, a small mountain pass in the clouds. We continued up, up, up, stone step after stone step, through sun and shade, past porter after porter and a number of yak trains. One group of porters carried building materials down the trail, large sheets of plywood and long heavy metal beams strapped to their backs. The things you see these guys carrying… their strength in the mountains is amazing.
Finally, we emerged at the pass at Mongla, greeted by a large stupa, a couple of teahouses and bright beautiful clear blue skies. We stopped only long enough for a quick water break and continued hiking down the ridge along the mountain, slowly descending into Sanasa. There was also a high route we could have stayed on above Sanasa, though this route ends with a very long crumbled-rock staircase into Chhorkung, a route we had descended on our acclimatization day hike around Namche and I was not keen to do it again, particularly with our full packs. We descended through the trees into Sanasa to the low route, spinning the giant prayer wheel as we passed the Ama Dablam Lodge and the women with their tables of souvenirs.
Beyond Sanasa, the trail was a repeat (in reverse) of what we had done en route from Namche Bazaar to Tengboche. The trail was wide, with short ascents and descents undulating along the mountainside, the deep valley below. We passed the same stupas, including the one “…blessed with the unerring support of Rolex, Geneva”. On our first trip by the stupa perched above the path, we had walked up the stairway and read its plaque, this time we were on a mission, marching quickly by as the afternoon grew later.
Despite our last experience in Namche, where fog had closed in on the village and surrounding area by early afternoon, we were fortunate that today remained crystal clear for the entire hike into the village. Soon Chhorkung came into view and Shawn enthusiastically spun the large prayer wheel along the trail, happy that our long day of trekking was almost over.
It was 4pm as we descended the narrow alleys and staircases into Namche Bazaar (3420m/11,218 ft.) and back to the Khumbu Lodge, where we reclaimed the “Snow Leopard” room. So good to be back!
In the days since we had left Namche Bazaar, we had each had only one shower and, while I’d done some wet-wipey washes, we were both pretty grimy; the state of our hair was unmentionable. Needless to say, we took quite long hot showers to scrub down. Finally clean, we were hungry and devoured yak sizzlers in the dining room, the entire room staring as the loud sizzling plates were delivered to us. In some ways it felt like we had just been here, in others it felt like it was so long ago. Just 13 days ago we had left this lodge for our adventure northward.
Day 18: Rest Day in Namche Bazaar
Approximate Trekking Time: N/A
Overnight Elevation: 3420m / 11,220ft
With a long day of trekking yesterday, and several days before our scheduled flight back to Kathmandu, we decided to spend a second day in Namche Bazaar relaxing and attempting to move up our flight. Despite waking up very early to: loud boots in the rooms above us, clock bells, mice scampering in the ceiling or walls, barking dogs, yak train bells, circular saws, and other construction noises, we managed to roll over and not officially wake up until around 8am. It was another hour before we fully pried ourselves from our warm beds and went to the dining hall for breakfast, nearly empty by 9am, most trekkers and groups either off to their next destination or out on an acclimatization hike.
In the quiet of the room, sun pouring through the windows, we enjoyed our breakfasts with real Americanos made from the café downstairs and caught up on life with the decent Wi-Fi speeds that come with being two of only a very few people using up bandwidth. We sat in the dining room all morning, long enough to see Dan come in from his morning trek from Thame, having finished the full three passes trek beyond Gokyo. Once he was showered and rested up a bit, he rejoined us in the dining room and we all went to grab lunch at Café de 8848, where he told us about the Renjo La Pass, Sunder Peak, and the quiet side of the valley.
After lunch, Shawn and I relaxed a bit before heading to the Irish Pub for the 3pm movie – Into Thin Air. “Based” on John Krakauer’s book, the movie managed to contain many discrepancies from the book and was clearly a low budget film with B-rate acting, though entertaining enough to pass the afternoon in the world’s highest Irish pub. J The bartender quoted several of the most dramatic lines of the movie before the actors delivered them, having likely listened to the movie several times a week for the past many years.
Back at the lodge, the lodge owner helped us call Simrik Airlines and get our flights moved up so we could make the hike to Lukla tomorrow and fly out to Kathmandu the following morning. Despite having a “confirmed” flight, he noted that we would still need to stop by the Simrik office in Lukla tomorrow afternoon to officially confirm it. Two days from now, we’d be back in the chaos of Kathmandu.
Day 19: Namche Bazaar to Lukla
Approximate Trekking Time: 5-6 hours
Distance: 17.7k / 11 miles
Overnight Elevation: 2860m / 9,383ft
Our last day on the trail! Bittersweet. We took our time getting moving (somewhat) before setting off toward Lukla. Heading out, we took a few parting shots of Namche Bazaar before we rounded the corner on the trail, disappearing from the knoll in the mountains where Namche’s tiers of buildings and homes arched around the slopes and climbed into the skies.
Our hike out was a bit of a family reunion, meeting several people we had hiked with and met at lodges along the way over the past 19 days. Not far down our descent from Namche, we ran into the English group that had taught us Kaboom, who we hiked with for a bit talking about upcoming travel plans as we passed yak trains and porters heavily laden with beer and eggs. Further down the trail we reunited with Florence, who was just meeting some friends of hers to start another hike into the mountains toward Gokyo.
Crossing over the valley with the double bridges, we hiked along the rocky valley floor before ascending back out of the valley and passing through villages and by large mani boulders, waterfalls, lodges, and teahouses – a trip down memory lane as we hiked over the same trail that we had hiked in on just under three weeks ago. I remembered specific people and sights from particular sections of the trail on our way in – the climb to a guesthouse and descent past a waterfall, the narrow trails between stone fences bordering vegetable and wheat fields, the colorful prayer wheels and large stone staircases – I soaked it all in.
Within three hours, we reached Phakding, where we had spent the first night on the trail from Lukla. While we had no intention of spending another night here, we did take a quick break to stop at the Herman Helmer’s Bakery for some late-morning calories, a fresh slice of chocolate carrot cake for myself and a cinnamon roll for Shawn. Washing the baked goods down with sugary sodas we energized ourselves for the remainder of the hike to Lukla.
The hike from Phakding to Lukla was another six miles and took just over two hours. I didn’t remember near the amount of decent on the way out as the ascent that we were now climbing back to Lukla. Some flat bits, but mostly a seemingly unending number of large stone staircases and more gradually inclined rock tiers, sneakily climbing further uphill along each turn. It was definitely a climb to Lukla. But, it was also another beautiful day. The sun was shining, the skies were clear, and the villages all seemed to be nestled peacefully into the mountainsides and valleys. Life was good. And, after 10+ days at over 15,000 ft., the air seemed to be almost soupy with oxygen as we headed back toward 9,000ft., adding an extra bounce to our steps down the trail.
After a few last winding smoothly tiered rock ascents, we climbed our last staircase into Lukla (2800m/9,184 ft.). Lukla was even larger than I remembered. We continued down the main trail through the village, paved with flat stone slabs, passing the unmanned tourist checkpoint and keeping our eyes pealed for the Simrik Airline office, which we did not find on the walk through town. Asking around, we received vague directions and descriptions that it was “two buildings down”, “by the airport tower”, “like a house doorway”, “doesn’t have a sign”, and “not open until 3:00”. Both because of and despite all of these semi-helpful directions, we were eventually able to find the unmarked office as it opened at 3pm, nothing more than a small room with barren walls and an empty desk, and confirm that we were indeed on the flight manifest for the next morning. The woman instructed us to be at the airport by 7am. Asking what time the flight would be, she looked at me as if I was crazy… like, how should I know that? I would understand this better the next morning.
We passed the remainder of the afternoon and early evening in Lukla’s dingy Irish pub, which played an eclectic mix of everything you could think of … from Queen to Metallica to CCR to The Police, and possibly an Irish song or two. Before we left, we signed our names to the bar with an uncreative “Shawn and Kate were here!”
Back at our lodge, we enjoyed our last Khumbu region yak sizzlers, unable to consume anymore rice, noodles, or daal bhaat. The lodge owner told us about his visits to the U.S. to visit his daughters who both studied in Texas. Describing a road trip they had made from Texas to Colorado, he talked about how nice the roads were. So straight and no potholes – not having to drive all over the road to avoid holes (and other vehicles). He said Colorado reminded him of home. We remarked that the mountains weren’t nearly as big. “No,” he agreed, “but still very beautiful.”
Day 20: Lukla to Kathmandu
Approximate Trekking Time: N/A
Distance: WHO CARES! WE FLYIN’!
Overnight Elevation: N/A
Waking early, we packed up and headed downstairs for breakfast, consuming our Tibetan breads while we watched some of the first election results for the U.S. Presidential election pour in. Not many state results were in yet and we’d have to wait until we returned to Kathmandu to watch the remainder of the election coverage.
We headed over to the airport terminal early, only about 100 meters from our lodge doorstep. While it hadn’t been obvious when we flew in, the Lukla Airport did indeed have a small and organized, if not somewhat chaotic, terminal. Arranged around a large open room, each airline had a small check-in desk and baggage scale; windows along the west side of the building overlooked the small tarmac, runway, and flight tower.
A few groups stood in line at some of the airline desks and piles of large duffels were scattered around the room. We were the first in line at the empty Simrik desk. As the clock ticked closer and closer to 7am, the room crowded with more and more people, the piles of duffels grew larger, and men in yellow vests ran in and out of the terminal from the tarmac with the flurry of activity that accompanied each flight arrival and departure.
We waited and waited. A large cue formed behind us, but still no one occupied the other side of the desk. The room filled. Every other airline desk had people staffing it. Seriously Simrik, pull your shit together!
Finally, a Simrik agent arrived and, despite being the first in line, she was rushed by trekking guides and travel agents, all trying to get seats for their clients. After a few guides pushed their way to the counter and the scales ahead of us, we put a dog in the fight and became equally pushy. Pointing to our names on her flight list and handing her the tickets, we pushed our bags onto the scales and were finally issued baggage stubs and tickets. What a fight. If we had been anywhere other than the very front of the line, we would have never gotten tickets for the next flight. There were many trekkers in line behind us that were apparently told to come back later. Take home message: arrive early and respectably, but aggressively, push for your tickets along with everyone else. The group guides will scoop up all the tickets for their clients if you aren’t proactive.
From here, we dropped our packs at the baggage counter, where they would be sorted into carts for the appropriate flights, and joined the male and female lines for a check of any small bags we were carrying. While these checks usually included a brief pat down, they skipped this portion, asking only if we were carrying any weapons or flammable items. Shawn was asked twice whether he had any cigarettes or a lighter, I guess owing to his wild hippy beard, they didn’t believe him after the first time they asked and checked again.
From here it was a waiting game. What time did the flight leave? When your plane showed up, that’s what time. For all the inefficiencies in Nepal, the flight turn-around time in Lukla is not one of them, as we’d noted upon our arrival to Lukla. Five minutes to land, de-board, board, and get the bird back in the air. We watched this marvel of organized chaos with every plane… Tara… Sita… Tara… Sita… GOMA… finally the Simrik plane cruised up the runway. No sooner than the passengers were off the plane, we marched on, buckled up, accepted our cotton balls (remembered this time) and Lacto-Fun candies, and cruised down the runway and into the sky.
Other than low clouds in some of the valleys, the day was crisp and clear as we flew away from the massive snow-capped giants we hiked among just days before, soaring high above the crop-terraced hillsides and back toward the sprawling haze of Nepal’s capital. Eventually the plane made a giant 180° swath and we touched down in Kathmandu, the air heavy with oxygen. Our bodies rejoiced!