The Three Passes Trek in the Everest region is one of the toughest treks in the Nepal Himalayas. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but for various reasons, the pandemic being one of them, I was repeatedly held back. As part of “revenge travel” 2022, I decided wrap things up for year 2022 with Everest Three Passes Trek, Nepal.
I’ve visit Nepal for no fewer than 10 times. On a few of my visits, I had applied for the visa in Singapore. Then, I found out that visa on arrival had become a lot more convenient with DIY kiosks at the airport and even an online option. So I went ahead and applied online. Everything went smoothly and I even had the acknowledgement printed out. You can imagine how flabbergasted I was when my application was rudely rejected at the visa payment counter at the airport. No explanation, no apology, just a curt “do again”. Some say it’s a scam. It’s not because no money was paid yet. The application was submitted at an official site! How could this be a scam unless hackers have permanently taken over the site?
Feeling a bit sore, I reluctantly went to queue up at the visa application kiosks. I asked the helpful ladies assisting foreigners but even they couldn’t give me any answers. It’s as if they’ve only been trained to say the words required to process the visa application at the machines. After keying in your particulars and submitting your application, there’s supposed to be a printout, but it’s either not working or they’ve run out of paper. No explanation. Just take a screenshot with your mobile phone and present it at the payment counter.
What about the online application? Could it be a scam? I don’t think so. The most probable explanation is, the link between the online application and the payment counter is somehow broken and nobody bothered to fix it. Well, this is Nepal. Paradise has its inconveniences. You need to let all this pass right through you in order to enjoy yourself.
Thankfully, immigration clearance was a breeze but as usual, baggage claim was the nightmare. Yes, there’s a long queue for security check before you can even enter the baggage claim area. I can’t understand why they need to do that. When I finally made it through, I pushed my rickety luggage trolley through a new underpass and emerged at the car park where I spotted a man holding up a placard with my name on it. He’s my guide Soraj. He brought me back to the Holy Himalaya Hotel where I met up with the boss and my old friend, Jyoti. I wasted no time to check out my other old friend – the streets of Kathmandu.
There were not that many noticeable changes in Thamel compared to 5 years ago. It was early November, getting quite chilly and there were not many tourists around. Noticeably and audibly missing were those from China – until I went into a phone shop to get my SIM card. I sat for a while waiting as two smoking men bombarded the poor lady at the counter with questions. It might have been a little more tolerable if I were a smoker and didn’t understand their coarse language, but after a couple of minutes, I left. At the Chhetrapati circus, I got my SIM card and some Diamox. After a dinner of chicken momo at Gaia Restaurant just outside the Holy Himalaya, I was as ready as I could be. Months before this trip, I shared on Facebook that this is one trek that I was not very confident of completing because of its sheer intensity and my advancing age. Most people my age would have trouble climbing up 10 flights of stairs. I was audaciously challenging Everest’s Three Passes. Even though I managed Ala Kul Pass in Kyrgyzstan pretty well in June, I was deeply aware that there was a real possibility of suffering a humiliating defeat in the mighty Himalayas.
It was still dark at 5.00am the next morning, but when we arrived at the new domestic terminal, the building was already bustling with activity. The outside looked clean and modern, but the interior failed to impress. Compared to the past, the terminal was more spacious and well-lit, thanks to LED lights, but of the many check in counters, only a few of which were working. Things were still as chaotic as ever. Some of the newly laid tiles were already falling out.
After checking in, we got our boarding passes and proceeded to the “traditional” security check. Once that was cleared, I helped myself to breakfast in a box (boiled egg, sandwich, pastry, banana, apple), seated in the new, slightly more spacious passenger’s lounge. Our flight was called out, we boarded the bus and stopped halfway on the tarmac when someone on another flight was found on our bus. After ejecting the dreaming chap, we continued to where the Twin Otters were parked.
It was a cold morning but there was no wind. The haze was low and light. We boarded the plane, the engines roared to a start and the cabin attendant shouted inaudibly against the reverberation. We took off, greeted by the early morning sun. With the valleys passing beneath, the Himalayas stood in the distance like a white, serrated wall. Most the passengers seemed like they were taking this flight for the first time. Excitement in the cabin grew as the runway at Lukla came into view. Through the cockpit windscreen, we could see the plane flying straight into the mountain. As the wall in front got closer and closer, we felt that drag of relief as the wheels hit the tarmac and we slowed to a stop. We disembarked at 7.00am. From Lukla, was the iconic Kongde Ri 6187m, glowing like a pyramid in the morning sun. It was a crisp 6 deg C.
After a light breakfast of instant noodles, we were on our way. From the main street of Lukla, the trail leads downhill passing villages like Chaurikharka. The trail descends further to the the bottom of the valley, nourished by the Tharokoshi river. Lukla was high above. From here, there’s a clear view of the awesome, crown-like Kusum Kanguru 6367m. The formidable peak peers through the gaps between the soaring hills in the foreground. Expectedly, the flora is thicker and richer here.
Phakding now is not quite the same as the Phakding I last visited in 2008. The lodges have become a lot more sophisticated. I felt as if I had stumbled upon a new trail that was familiar in some ways but utterly strange in others. Yaks or dzos used to be the workhorses here, carrying loads to resupply the lodges (some of which might already qualify as hotels). Mules are now the new kids on the block and could often be seen jostling for space on the stone-lined paths. Apparently, these animals are tamer, safer and more surefooted than the clumsy yaks. Their loads now include gas tanks instead of firewood. In the lodges, there are now attached bathrooms with hot showers, paid WIFI and even latte/cappuccino. Some rooms even have made-in-China electric blankets.
It was a long day with nothing much to do after lunch. My guide Soraj was right about resting in Phakding instead of going all the way to Namche. Since I didn’t sleep well the night before, I decided that I could do with an early night.
Some readers have asked me for tips on ordering food at the “hotels”. Frankly, I can’t give any reliable recommendations. As far as food is concerned, standards are not particularly high in the mountains. Occasionally, I came across some unexpectedly tasty dishes, but ordering the same dish at another place may get you something very different. If you don’t like unpalatable surprises, ordering something local could be a safe bet, but no guarantee. I’ve ordered a vegetable curry and gotten a bland potato soup without a speck of curry in it.
I checked my pulse oximeter reading. Everything seemed OK. Actually, I was quite impressed with myself. Phakding’s 2610m altitude seemed to have no effect on me. The hot shower in the room worked. The bed was warm and with no compelling reason to stay awake, I slept like a log after dinner.
Phakding at only 2610m is the lowest night stop on the classic Everest trek. From here, it’s an easy trek to Benkar and Monjo. With Kusum Kanguru dominating the skyline and the Dudh Koshi humming just next to the trail, much of this part of the trail is a pleasant, relaxing walk on relatively flat ground. At a steep crossing between Benkar and Monjo, however, Thamserku 6608m appears.
We soon arrived at the national park entrance at Jorsale where our papers were checked. Prominently displayed at the office, were signboards saying no drones allowed. They say it’s for the sake of the environment, but it has probably more to do with aviation safety as the skies were buzzing with helicopter activity, unseen in all my previous visits. Deep inside the valley with the Dudh Koshi roaring past just a stone’s throw away, dark and sacred Khumbila at a modest 5761m, oversaw Sherpa life in every direction. Apparently, when the Sherpas first migrated here 300-400 years ago, their lamas “saw” their guardian spirit on Khumbila.
The lodges were not the only structures that have been upgraded. The rocky, ankle-snapping trail by the river that I was so familiar with, has now been flattened, making it a lot easier to walk. Soraj suggested an early lunch before we crossed the last suspension bridge before Namche. It’s called the Hillary Bridge.
After that was a long, steep tortuous ascent with numerous switchbacks to Namche Bazaar, 3440m. Another new feature on these trails were rubbish collection points. Styled like recycling bins, I’m not sure if they’re really put to good use, especially those in the more remote areas. After numerous switchbacks on the dusty trail, exposed in some parts and shaded in others, Namche Bazaar soon came into view.
Already a small tourist town since years ago, Namche has grown even more upmarket, with bars with live bands and massage parlours. The only new development I liked was the column of water-powered prayers wheels on the steps ascending towards the town centre.
Namche Bazaar has often been described as the Sherpa capital of Nepal. It rose to prominence hundreds of years ago as a trading hub. Tibetan traders crossed the Nangpa La 5716m bringing goods from China to trade with the local Sherpas.
Until some 2 decades ago, weekend markets here were still bustling with activity. Tibetan traders with braided hair and fur coats would lay out their wares like thermos flasks and other household items for sale. I’m fortunate enough to have witnessed this sight. That’s how Namche Bazaar got its name. It was a bazaar.
But apart from a trading hub, Namche also grew into a trekking and mountaineering hub. Western trekkers and climbers flocked to the Everest region after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first climbed the highest peak in the world 1953.
All paths into the Khumbu, Gokyo and Bhote Kosi Valleys pass through Namche. Enterprising Sherpas set up simple teahouses to cater to the never-ending flow of adventurers. They just kept coming; more and more of them. The spartan teahouses and Tibetan traders became a thing of the past. Prices have skyrocketed, but as amenities grew more upmarket, with hotels, restaurants and even bars and spas, the budget backpackers were edged out by well-heeled Westerners, Koreans and Japanese. There were no empty rooms here in the “best month” in October. Unfortunately for a lot of trekkers in 2022, October saw freak weather conditions, raining practically every day for the first two weeks.
With Tibet in lockdown, Namche which has reinvented itself from trading hub to a travel and trekking hub, continues to grow and flourish.
The hotel where I stayed was quite a distance from the town centre. The advantage was it’s quiet. The “disadvantage” was, it’s several terraces away from the action on main street. It’s not really a disadvantage as I was not keen on shopping here. All was silent and sullen after sundown. It was considerably colder in Namche than in Phakding but the room was comfortable and the heated blanket, exactly like those in budget hotels in China, was most welcome. Outside the unheated, nominally insulated rooms, temperatures plunged to -6 deg C. It got cloudy from noon onwards and after sunset, Namche went to sleep.
Dawn broke like a smile on the snowline of Kongde Ri. The sky was crystal clear. Braving the freezing cold, I rushed out into the courtyard to capture the precious moment when a thin band of golden light was drawn over the mountain peaks in the west.
For all mere mortals, an acclimatisation day at Namche is obligatory. My SPO2 at Namche was a very encouraging 96%. At altitude, heart rate is usually 30% above normal. Back in 1994, I trekked up to the village Khumjung 3790m where the Edmund Hillary School was to achieve that “climb high sleep low” effect. This time, I decided on Everest View Hotel, the highest hotel in the world at over 3800m.
The climb began in earnest after breakfast. It was steep at first, but gradually flattened after Shyangboche. Further up was the Sherpa Panorama Hotel. It looked like an upmarket place and location is great, but somehow it had to resort to gimmicks like yoga sessions at 3841m.
Behind the hotel was a flattish trail running almost 1km above the Dudh Koshi River. All along this path, the most spectacular peaks of the Khumbu region came into view like goods on a shelf, divinely majestic and beyond the reach of mere mortals. Kusum Kanguru, Thamserku, Ama Dablam 6814m, Lhotse 8516m, Everest 8848m, Taboche 6495m all lined up across the magnificent gorge. Above the standard Everest trail, this trail leads to the helipad outside the Everest View Hotel 3962m. Once a treeless field, it is now a busy landing point for magnificent flying machines. It was a sight to behold. With memories of trekking here 12 years ago still fresh in my mind, it felt like I had travelled in time as gusts stirred up by the helicopter rotors seemed to have brought me into the future. How the “atmosphere” here has changed. Every few minutes, a helicopter would land or take off with passengers and cargo loading and unloading. The commercial engine in this barren landscape is roaring throughout the Himalayas with the wheels of commerce spinning at an insane speed.
The Japanese-owned Everest View Hotel was open to the public; even for those not staying there. Most visitors arrived on foot. Some arrived on choppers and were taking a “breather” en route to Everest Base Camp. As choppers became ubiquitous, “trekking” in the Himalayas may take a different form going forward. An American lady staying at the same hotel at Namche had earlier fallen ill at Periche 4371m. She descended back to Namche where she booked a helicopter day tour to Kala Patar, Everest Base Camp and Gokyo, stopping at each destination for 15 minutes (oxygen is even provided onboard) – all for just USD700.
Outside the Everest View Hotel, the well-heeled travellers who flew in picnicked and popped champagne before the amphitheatre of peaks. For an expensive, somewhat isolated hotel that very few people would stay in, the crowd here was impressive. Most were either on transit to Everest Base Camp (via chopper) or trekkers on acclimatisation hikes like me. The majority came here not just for the views but also for the horribly overpriced snacks and drinks at the open-air cafe. With occupancy rate low, this is probably a main source of income for the hotel.
On the return trek, I stopped by at the museum at Shyangboche. There was an art gallery here with creations assembled from recycled materials and rubbish retrieved from the mountains.
After an easy acclimatisation day at Namche, I set off with the full knowledge that it was going to be another tough day. The first part was a breeze, walking on an almost flat trail high above the Dudh Koshi, passing small trailside settlements like Kyangjuma 3620m. Then, it’s downhill all the way to the river crossing at Punki Tengka. All the gains we made climbing up to Namche were lost. We were back at Phakding’s altitude. As I always say cynically, going down means going up again later. We had an early lunch here and the “dreadful” and dusty part of the long steep climb to Tengboche 3860m began in earnest after that.
Tengboche is a small settlement near the tree line. With a vast treeless field in the centre, it looks like an arena ringed by a good number of Himalayan giants. Ama Dablam, Lhotse, Nuptse, Everest, Taboche, Thamserku surround this quiet little village that hosts an important monastery – Tengboche Monastery where climbers would often seek blessings from the lama. Most folks on the classic Everest trek would stay here for the night even though it can get very windy up here. Since I’m already quite familiar with Tengboche on previous visits, we went further up to Debuche 3700m where there were better accommodations. The clouds closed in late in the afternoon, but Ama Dablam, clearly visible from my bedroom window, seemed to have been spared.
The view of Ama Dablam and Nuptse and even a bit of Everest from my room was pretty good even though the icy grip of Himalayan nights was clearly upon us. Nightfall was still hours away, but I knew that from this point, the comfort level was going to be dragged down by the plunging temperatures.
I slept well, but was feeling a bit lethargic the next morning. I didn’t eat well because of a knotty stomach, probably caused by drinking too much icy cold water too quickly before dinner. It cost me my appetite; the upside was, I made an important discovery. My gut is not as resilient as it used to be. I need to carry a thermos flask with enough hot water to drink on cold weather treks.
From Debuche, the trail descends to a familiar metal bridge. The Dudh Koshi had parted ways with the Everest trail and diverts to the north towards Gokyo. This river accompanying the trail now is the Imja Khola. From here, we drifted west, ascending almost imperceptibly to Pangboche 3985m. We’d gotten a little closer to Ama Dablam and not feeling sufficiently strong that morning, I decided to skip the side trip to Ama Dablam base camp. I decided to conserve energy for a big acclimatisation climb coming up.
Trekking further, flora thinned down. With the monsoon over, the grasses and shrubs had turned brown and shriveled . There was less and less soil; more and more rocks. As we moved on, we crossed another altitude barrier at Shomare 4010m where we had lunch. The owner of the lodge also owned a lodge at Dingboche. After we left Shomare, he overtook us and went ahead to check on his lodge at Dingboche. With the Imja Khola (river) running along the trail, we went westwards around Ama Dablam till its characteristic rounded peaks gave way to the jagged profile on its west face. It was getting cloudy by noon and I got a little worried. What would the weather be like in three days’ time? Will the views be good when I cross the Three Passes?
Further beyond the treeline, the trail entered the realm of rocks, shrubs and pastures. The clouds rolled in a little past noon. The blue morning sky had turned white and grey. We soon arrived at the fork dividing the path to Periche 4371m and Dingboche. Both settlements are conveniently located on the classic Everest trek. As Periche was the nearer and more accessible one, it used to be the preferred place to stay. Nowadays Dingboche has caught up in terms of amenities. It is now preferred over windy Periche. Our night stop for the day would be Dingboche 4410m, a very significant gain from Debuche. At this altitude, the SIM card for the mobile network provider had stopped working and Wi-Fi scratch cards were going for 400 rupees for 20 hours. This happened to be another popular acclimatisation stop on the Everest trek. Business was good. The lodge was packed.
Himalayan nights at this altitude and in this season can be brutally cold. October was unusually wet. November was unusually cold at -10 deg C. When I woke up in the morning, the window was literally frosted. I could scratch out the thin layer of ice that encrusted the glass. The water in my water bottle was also frozen. Out on the streets, puddles of water had also turned into ice. When the sun rose, it was time to go on a practice hike.
Dingboche sits inside the Imja Valley, with mountains rising in every direction. The valley is named after Imja Tse or Island Peak which is easily visible from Dingboche.
Above the valley, many peaks came into view. Apart from Ama Dablam and Thamserku, looking back towards the valley, there was also Cholaste 6440m and a very distorted Taboche 6495m in the direction of Periche. The views were great but the path was steep. The higher we climbed, the more difficult it became. Soraj said it didn’t matter if I didn’t reach the highest point. Many groups gave up at the convenient rest point of Nangkartsang Gompa 4800m. It’s not really a gompa but just an outpost with flag pole and prayer flags. Psychologically, I was diffident about climbing so high so soon. But as we went on, walking became a meditative, hypnotic experience. Little by little, I pushed on and before I knew it, I arrived at a field of scattered black rocks that looked greyish up close. Colourful prayers flags were fluttering in the wind. It’s an acclimatisation day but this was also the first day on this trek that I broke the 5000m barrier. The point we reached is called Nangkartsang Peak 5083m. My confidence level for Kongma La went up a notch. It had been a taxing morning. We returned to the lodge for lunch, dinner and much needed rest. Things looked promising. The skies were clearer than the day before.
It’s a relatively easy day from Dingboche to Chukung which is situated at 4730m. The many paths leading to Chukung ramified over a rolling plain covered with tough grasses and shrubs. It was also littered with rocks and crisscrossed by partially frozen streams, some of which we had to cross with great caution, hopping on rocks. The trail got less and less distinct until multiple radiating paths diverged in the direction of Island Peak. One may feel a bit breathless on exertion, but the gradient was gentle so the ascent from 4410m to 4730m was virtually imperceptible. Unlike the previous day, the sun shone bright and the skies were clear. We reached a barren, rocky place with just a few lodges.
It was a short day and somewhat easy day even though I had barely recovered from Nangkartsang Peak. The lodges in Chukung were a far cry from the very basic stone and wooden teahouses I was so familiar with. The terrain had not changed over the years – just rocks, pools and streams. Lodges used to be smaller and fewer in number. There’s still no great demand for accommodation here. Those on the Everest trek would have gone to Lobuche instead. Yes, there is actually a relatively easy path to Lobuche without going deeper into the Imja Valley and over a difficult pass but this is Three Passes trek. Further up from Chukung, would be Island Peak Base Camp, situated near the end of the Imja Valley. We would be walking back a short distance to enter the path towards Kongma La.
The brutal cold set in early at Chukung. By late afternoon, the sky was overcast and the sun was completely blocked. After another cold night, I would meet my first major challenge.
Day 8 Kongma La
You get to meet trekkers of all shapes and sizes on the main Everest trail but those staying at Chukung would have bigger plans. At 5.00am, the dining area was already buzzing with activity. Some folks were on their way to Island Peak. Some were like me, crossing the Kongma La. Above the valley, the terrain was rocky and barren. For a moment, I thought I was getting frostbite as the cold seeped into my fingers through very poor-quality gloves I bought online. Fortunately, I had a better pair and all was well after I made the change. Our night stop would be Lobuche 4910m – for all intents and purposes, almost 5000m. It would be a very long day.
The initial ascent was quite steep, but from what seemed like the ridgeline, the trail gave way to a flat plain carpeted with tough, desiccated grass. It was a wide-open space with the massive wall of Nuptse 7861m and Lhotse 8516m behind us and Thamserku and Kangtega in front of us.
Heading north, we encountered the sea of fine loose scree which was the Nuptse Glacier. It was a long slog over the Nuptse Glacier, mostly flat terrain around 5000m until the trail funneled us into a sanctuary formed by Pokalde 5806m, Kongma Tse 5849m and other lesser rocky peaks. At the foot of these two trekking peaks, were two beautiful lakes. The jade-coloured lake at the foot of Pokalde was the bigger one. The other milky looking and smaller lake was located nearer to Kongma Tse. Kongma La lies in between the two peaks of Kongma Tse and Pokalde which are only slightly higher.
The trail began to climb towards the thick, overlapping lines of prayer flags. As we climbed, we gradually pulled away from the lake at the foot of Pokalde. When we reached the top, there were finally views both back and front. On the Imja side, was a lake and a formidable wall formed by Kangchung 6067m, Makalu 8481m and Baruntse 7162m and the massive Chukung Glacier in the background. There was absolutely no flat ground on the pass, just a pile of randomly stacked rocks and boulders.
The nice thing about crossing passes is that you get two panoramas in one day. Looking across the Khumbu side is the markedly humbler yet no less attractive panorama of the Khumbu Glacier and Lobuche peaks. The descent was a lot trickier with large, irregular rocks in messy piles. The steep, precarious slope gave way to a grey river of sand and gravel – the Khumbu Glacier. Defying the greyness and whiteness of nature, were the striking blue rooftops in the settlement of Lobuche. It didn’t seem like it was very far away, but after a rather hairy descent to the Khumbu side, the trail leading to the Khumbu Glacier didn’t seem like it was going to end anytime soon. When we reached the embankment overlooking Lobuche, thinking that we just had to cross the breath of the Khumbu Glacier to reach our night stop, a stretch of milky green water appeared before us.
Eddy climbed over to have a look at the extent of the pool of water and came back with bad news. The water went quite a distance down the glacier and we had no choice but to go around it. Walking down in the direction of Dughla, we finally came to a suitable crossing point. It was still not a walk in the park here. We skirted around pools of water swarmed by fine scree that threatened to turn fluid and suck you in with the lightest step. Everything was moving in inches on the glacier. Some parts were dominated by imperceptibly tumbling piles of rocks with numerous foot traps in the gaps. It was getting cold and dark. Thankfully, we found the trail between Lobuche and Dughla and a short walk brought us to our final destination for the day. We checked into the relatively well-appointed lodge. The lodge keeper greeted me warmly, but I was too tired to respond. Lobuche today is indeed a very far cry from the spartan teahouses of yesteryears. By then, it was dark and I was pretty much near exhaustion after trekking for almost 12 hours.
It had been a tough but very encouraging day. I felt relieved. We were back on the standard Everest trail and I had lots of company. Most came from Periche or Dingboche via Dughla. Only a few of us came over Kongma La. The toughest pass, at 5500m, has been cleared on Day 8. The rest would be easier, I hoped. Kongma La check.
Check out the Pictures.
This was supposed to be a short day, but it turned out to be rather taxing as I had barely recovered from the crossing of Kongma La. Whether it was due to fatigue, physical deterioration, amnesia or actual changes in the terrain, I don’t remember the trek from Lobuche to Gorak Shep to be so tough. Maybe it’s because with just one night’s sleep (and at such high altitude to boot), I had not rested enough after crossing Kongma La. Or maybe I’m getting too old for such challenging treks. Still, it’s important to note that we recover from fatigue much slower at altitudes close to 5000m.
On previous Everest treks, I would get up before the sun was up and trek all the way to Kala Patar or Everest BC. This time, I was starting off early in the morning. The sky had never been clearer. All morning, Nuptse and Pumori were beckoning me. The relatively flat ground just out of Lobuche was still fine. But we soon encountered an embankment. The long, steep ascent took us face to face with a more proximal part of the massive Khumbu Glacier descending from Mt Everest. Traversing it was tough, much tougher than I remembered. I didn’t remember there were so many ups and downs on the glacier. It was a reminder of the previous day’s desperate dusk trek, albeit under the full glare of the morning sun this time.
We had lunch at Gorak Shep. Again, the new Gorak Shep is a far cry from the very basic stone huts of yesteryears. This tiny settlement sitting on permafrost can now accommodate many more trekkers. Back on the standard Everest trail, demand for accommodation here was high. In spite of the nice and new accommodations, the rooms were like freezers nonetheless. The remarkably flat ground between the settlement and the foot of Pumori is actually a permanently frozen lake with a layer of sand over it.
I wasn’t at all keen to spend the night here but Soraj assured me that if the weather is good, sunset from Kala Patar would be a view to die for – figurative exaggeration. At 3.00pm, we set off for Kalar Patar. I just realised that the altitude of Kala Patar is not 5545m as what all the books said. Everyone referred to an inaccurate source and came to an erroneous consensus. The more recent and accurately measured altitude for Kala Patar is 5643-5644m. Just like before, Kala Patar had never felt so tough. Miraculously, the sky remained solid blue throughout the afternoon. I had not seen such good weather on any of my other visits to Nepal.
By the time I reached the prayer flags, I was practically in my last legs and shivering with cold. Most of mountains were already in the shadows, except for the death zone on Everest that had turned gold with the setting sun. For the first time, with the benefit of direct, muted light, I could clearly make out the yellow band of limestone on Everest. It was mesmerising indeed because on previous treks, I had only managed to see Everest either backlit in the morning or under the blinding glare of the afternoon sun. Blessed with good weather so late in the day, I captured the treasured sunset view of Everest and companions.
There was of course, a price to pay for a sunset view on Kala Patar – we descended in darkness. Frozen by the night air above 5000m, my transition glasses refused to turn clear again. As it got dark, my glasses make it even darker. I had my head torch with me, but we needed more lights. Other trekkers began to huddle together and with the combined illumination of torches and mobile phones, we managed to descend safely back to Gorak Shep. Along with dinner, I finished a small pot of hot lemon. I realised why I had felt so cold and why my performance was “subpar”. I was dehydrated. When you are preoccupied with capturing the best shots, thinking about how to tell your story and feeling tired, it’s quite possible to forget to drink enough water, especially when you’ve had an upset stomach after drinking too much icy cold water just a few days ago. I was tired, but sleep was not easy inside a freezer.
On the menu at Gorak Shep, is an extra item printed on the back page. Helicopter to Lukla US$500. Someone had opted for it. Not me.
It was neither easy nor too difficult, but the trek from Louche to Dzongla was quite spectacular and should not be missed even if you don’t plan to cross Cho La. From freezing Gorak Shep, we retraced our steps back to Lobuche. This part was pretty OK. The sky remained solid blue and crystal clear as I had my lunch at Lobuche. Soon after lunch, we were on our way again, walking down the length of the Khumbu Glacier. We soon reached a fork. The trail on the left cuts across the fringes of the glacier and ascends to the small forest of memorials dedicated to fallen climbers and then to Dughla. It retraces the standard Everest trail back to Namche. The trail on the right however, turns sharply westwards, cutting across a flat expanse of broken rock and ice before climbing to a flat trail that goes around the south face of the Lobuche peaks.
From the terminal moraine of the glacier beneath, we climbed up to a flat trail encircling the south and west faces of the Lobuche peaks. It was a steep drop on the left hand side. At the bottom of the ravine Cholaste Lake soon came into view; a glistening turquoise body of water. From the lake, the spectacular pyramid of Cholaste broke the skyline. The trail soon started to descend, drawing us closer into another sanctuary with an amphitheatre of peaks.
From here, the settlement of Dzongla 4800m was clearly visible, perched on what seemed like the only piece of flat ground in the area. It was still early in the afternoon, but the sun was already being screened by the peaks. The sanctuary would soon turn dark, long before sunset. From our rest point, it was clear that reaching Dzongla would involve a long descent to a stream crossing followed by a tiring ascent. I felt terribly lethargic but managed to drag myself there. This would be base camp for our assault on the second pass. Like Gorak Shep, the spartan room at Dzongla was nothing worth describing even though it wasn’t as cold as Gorak Shep.
Check out the pictures.
Day 11 Cho La
Another long day and the challenge was Cho La 5420m, my second pass. The pass appeared quite soon after I left Dzongla but it turned out to be an unexpectedly long day. Nevertheless, Cho La also turned out to be the most interesting and enjoyable pass to cross on this trek.
Departing from Dzongla just after sunrise, we descended into a wide valley floor surrounded by rock and ice sliding down imperceptibly from an unfamiliar west face of the Lobuche peaks. The landscape was surreal. It could have been made into a scene in some science fiction movie. The walking was easy and exhilarating. If there were no plans to cross the pass, a picnic here would have been a wonderful experience. As we walked on, the flat valley floor soon came to an end. Once again, we were greeted by precariously stacked boulders. Curiously, there were clusters of tiny green plants encrusting the rock. On a certain stretch, it was so steep that pitons were seen embedded in the rock. It would certainly have been a tricky technical climb if there were snow and ice.
After that very steep stretch, the trail next to the moraine of a glacier led to a frozen greyish and whitish block. This is the Cho La icefall. Given that the weather was so dry these few days, it was a welcome surprise. We strapped on our crampons or micro spikes and mounted the ice. At the gently sloping top was a dazzling snowfield. It was beautiful. It was exhilarating. Trekkers in both directions were in high Christmas spirits. There was something exhilarating about walking on snow and ice. It reminded me of my younger days and my recent trip to Kyrgyzstan. The brilliant white, relatively hard snow was a welcome break from the rugged paths of grey sand, scree, gravel, random rocks and boulders. We walked merrily up the snowfield. Our lungs completely forgot that we were above 5000m. This had to be the most enjoyable part of the trek even though the views from Cho La were not that spectacular.
We soon arrived at the rocky foot of the pass. We took off our crampons and scaled some craggy bare rock to the lines of prayer flags marking Cho La 5420m. The guides and porters were in such high spirits that they sang and danced at the top of the pass. The wind was blasting and chilled us to the bone, chasing us off the abode of the gods. We descended on the other side. This side of the pass looked somewhat different. It was like a desert. Every now and then, strong winds whipped up stinging blasts of sand. The mountains seemed too distant to offer any shielding effect. What I was not prepared for, was the long walk, a descent far longer than the ascent on the other side. On and on we went along a gurgling stream. When it seemed like we had reached the bottom, there was another descent. Just like the trek to Lobuche, the Ngozumba Glacier seemed so near yet so far away. There was no way I could cross the glacier and reach Gokyo before it got dark at 3.00pm. By the time we arrived at Tangnag 4356m, I was not in the mood to go any further. After a late lunch and an early dinner, I had a very nice chat with a few foreign trekkers, one of whom was a very curious and enthusiastic 26-year-old Vietnamese man who reminded me of my younger days. Cho La check. One more pass to go.
From Tangnag, it wasn’t a particularly difficult trek to Gokyo, but crossing the Ngozumba Glacier over sliding, almost fluid scree was a challenge. Equally challenging were the rocks and the natural foot traps. As imperfect as Mother Nature goes, glaciers can never grind up rocks evenly. Some are turned into fine pebbles and scree. Some rocks remain large, piling up like Jenga blocks, seemingly immobile until the pile decides to collapse from the micro movements underneath. Dotted all over this undulating expanse of rock and gravel covered ice, were exposed areas where the ice had melted. Everything would fall through the pools of glacial melt.
As in life, there is some measure of random inequality here. Why did some parts of the glacier lose their rocky insulation and melt into pools of various shapes and sizes, randomly distributed throughout the imperceptibly moving river of rock and ice? Why were some of the pools grey like freshly mixed cement and some clear and turquoise? Like fate, it’s hard to explain.
All day, the sun beat down on trekkers going in both directions. The sky was a clean steel blue infinity. Again, precious, perfect weather. We would be headed for Renjo La the next day. The folks walking towards us were off to Cho La. One man’s unknown is another man’s experience. Soraj warned me about rockfall as glaciers are constantly moving. Over certain stretches, we had to move as quickly as possible to avoid being hit by unpredictable rockfall. There were not as many trekkers here as on the classic Everest trail and there is a much simpler explanation for that. This route is tough.
Looming ahead was the majestic east face of Phari Laptsa 6017m. On our right, some 10km away, was the formidable white giant that is Cho Oyu at 8188m. After hours of trekking, the sliding and tumbling ground gave way to solid earth. We mounted a ridge and just round a bend, I could catch a glimpse of Gokyo Lake directly under Phari Laptsa. As we descended, the wind picked up speed. The sky remained amazingly clear and the lake was a milky green. The lakeside settlement of Gokyo sits beautifully at the eastern shore of the lake.
We were back on the mainstream again. Though not as popular as Everest BC, Gokyo does see quite a number of trekkers trekking in and out the same way. We checked into the lodge and I had lunch. Sadly, quite a number of trekkers who came over from Kongma La and Cho La were beginning to fall ill after many days of exhausting trek and exposure to hypoxic and subzero conditions. I was well and ready for the final challenge.
Check out the pictures.
Day 13 Renjo La
My final pass. Feeling fine and ready to go was my biggest assurance. The morning was cold as we had to start off early. Gokyo Lake was calm. The family of ducks were happily flapping their wings, oblivious to the icy water and frosty air. The first part of the trek was a relatively gentle climb from the right corner of the lake. Of course, at this harsh altitude, no gentleness could be felt. The long, deep plunge over the edge of the trail looked absolutely intimidating.
The trail soon left the lake behind. We were on a relatively flat and barren moonscape. Where the flatness ended, the path rose steeply towards the end on snow-covered grey rocks. Behind us, was the best panorama of the three passes. Rising majestically from the now turquoise pool of Gokyo Lake, were Everest, Lhotse and Makalu in the distance followed by Cholaste and Taboche. It was the most spectacular sight of the three passes.
As we made our final approach, the wind suddenly picked up speed. I would never forget that moment I was almost carried away. Invisible sand particles whipped up by the wind blasted into my face. It was a terrifying feeling. Luckily, the wind died down towards the top where the rocks took on a curious orange hue of Everest’s Yellow Band. Another multi-layered curtain of prayer flags beckoned. This was it. Celebration time.
Looking over to the other side of Renjo La 5360m, was a picture quite similar to that from the Goyko side of Cho La. There was a lake on the Bhote Koshi side of the pass and the snow-capped peaks seemed very far away. Before us was the same desolate, undulating brownish terrain. It was quite an easy descent, albeit tricky at certain boulder-dominated parts, but my feet were hurting all the way to the bottom of the pass. Mercifully, most parts of the trail thereon were practically flat. The landscape was barren and surreal. We were probably still at about 5000m. Presently, we came “behind” Phari Laptsa. Its glacier ended in a pool of water in a sea of fine sand. It was like an oasis in a desert but devoid of flora, this environment is definitely more hostile than a desert, I figured that the pool must be quite a lake on wetter days. Except for the ubiquitous sheltered rubbish bins, there were no manmade structures in sight. It was as beautifully deserted as the Hongu Valley I saw in 2000.
Not far beyond that, the trail began its long and painful descent. Quite predictably, the sun was blocked by 3.00pm. Walking in the shadow of the mountains, I hobbled into a lodge at Lungden 4370m. It had been a very long day, not as tiring as it was painful. Thanks to a pair of socks that claimed to prevent blisters, my toes were all busted and swollen. A dinner with vegetable “curry” that looked and tasted like bland potato soup didn’t help to lift my spirits. The food was lousy. Given the remoteness of the place, the lodge was remarkably well-constructed. The dining hall could accommodate quite a number of people, both independent trekkers and groups that were obviously not casual trekkers.
Check out the pictures.
Lungden 4370m to Namche Bazaar 3440m. It’s not Lukla yet, but returning to Namche Bazaar does hold a great deal of excitement. It’s the closest to civilisation one could get in these parts and the most interesting thing about returning to Namche on this trek was that I was taking an entirely new route without backtracking.
We had an early start from Lungden. The Kiwis I met the night before were going to climb a peak. They had a very strong team of porters who had been on Everest. After breakfast, we moved off on the almost flat trail, only to be stopped by partially frozen streams. Soraj dumped some rocks into the water and we were soon on our way, snaking along the Bhote Koshi. The gorge here was not as deep as that with the Dudh Koshi. There was only a vague feeling of being in the mountains. It’s a plateau-like Tibetan landscape.
Of the three main routes branching out from Namche, the Bhote Khosi Valley is most remote. Unlike the classic Everest trek where there are literally lodges every few hundred metres, accommodation on this trail was confined to the main villages and there were not many inhabited settlements. The entire stretch from Lungden to Marulung 4210m and Thame 3750m was treeless, barren and rocky. The trail is somewhat friendlier than that on the Everest BC, being relatively flat, but there was little traffic here. Ironically, before Western mountaineers came, this was the busiest trade route between Tibet and Nepal. But as trade took a backseat and tourism took over, the trails that lead to Everest BC and Gokyo Lake diverted all the traffic, interest and money away from the Bhote Kosi which leads northwards to the international border at Nangpa La 5806m.
Thame may be a small village, but it was the childhood home of the the legendary Tenzing Norgay. It was also the home of Ang Rita and Apa Sherpa, all legends in mountaineering history. Although it’s somewhat nondescript, the village has a beautiful stupa, a miniature Boudanath. From the trail leading out of Thame, Thamserku could be seen. I knew that Namche was not far away. From Thame, the trail descended through a forest until we arrived at a very deep gorge with a tall, roaring waterfall. There were two bridges here. We had to descend steeply to the lower bridge to cross the river below. The higher, more convenient bridge was still under construction.
From here, the trail descended even further until we reached another small village which was obviously better equipped, being nearer to Namche. It’s the village of Thamo. Our lunch stop was a beautiful lodge with a small dining area enclosed with glass walls. The greenhouse effect made the room warm under the afternoon sun. It was here where I had the best vegetable fried noodles on the entire trek. After lunch, we followed the trail which wound round and round the mountain side much like the trail out of Namche Bazaar.
After 3.00pm, the mountains blocked the sun. The valley grew dim and the trail pulled away from the river. The shade of the tall trees made it even darker. Presently, we came to an open area where we could hear the roar of rotor blades from the distance. I was as elated even as my feet were painfully protesting. We had arrived at Namche helipad. From here, there was a steep flight of steps to downtown Namche. We checked into the same lodge where we stayed on Day 2 and 3. Full circle with a spectacular Himalayan crossover.
I had my first good hot shower in many days, wolfed down a plate of dal baat and had a great night’s sleep with the comfort of an electric blanket.
Check out the pictures.
The trek has entered a completely stress-free phase. The Three Passes had been cleared and we were on our way back. Amazingly, the skies were still crystal clear. The window of good weather had miraculously remained open. I changed out of my thick, toe-jamming socks and got into a thinner and more comfortable pair. I didn’t need so much insulation from then on. Walking down from from Namche was a relaxing experience. We cleared the Jorsale gateway and as we approached Monjo and Benkar, my toes started acting up again. I slowed to a crawl and by the time I arrived at Phakding, the lunching crowd had dispersed. Sad to say, the fried noodles were quite tasteless and nothing like what I had in Thame.
I had a good look at my feet and it ain’t a pretty picture. After snipping some broken nails and draining some fluid, I managed to convince myself that I was on the mend. I forgot what I had for dinner, but after another hot shower, I had a great night’s sleep. Phakding was marvelously warm and cozy compared to what I had been through.
I was in high spirits that morning and for good reason of course. The sky was as clear as ever. The birds were chirping and the rustle of leaves on the trees told me it’s the last stretch before Lukla. As I crossed the first bridge out of Phakding, I greeted every school-going kid I met. Mercifully, my toes were not hurting that badly. My speed on this day surprised Soraj. It was a long ascent from Phakding to Lukla, but I did it pretty fast, checking into my well-appointed room with attached bath. My hotel room was just next to the runway. I joked with my friends that I could check in late and run after the plane.
Lukla brought me back to the familiar world of banks and ATMs. Another hot shower. After dinner, I organised a Khukri Rum party with Soraj and my porter Eddy. The next morning, I boarded the plane to Ramechap. It has been one of my most enjoyable Himalayan treks. Not only had I succeeded to check in at all Three Passes, the unprecedented good weather conditions gave me all the opportunity to take some of the most beautiful images in Nepal.