Everest Three Passes - What a Trek!
Trip Start Jun 30, 2010
58Trip End Jun 01, 2011
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Where I stayed
Various mountain lodges and our tent
What I did
Complete an amazing trek
Recommended? Yes definitely. Its a tough, long and truly fantastic trek; an experience that we will never forget. For us both it marks a point in our lives were our senses were the sharpest, our bodies the most alive and our minds the clearest. Life becomes so very simple, distilled right down to the basics, free of clutter and stress. It's very easy now to understand why climbers get addicted!
Trekkers: Just little ol' us. We were 'free-trekkers', i.e. no guide, porters or pack animals and, to the amazement and consternation of many from organised trek parties we didn't get lost once. For the majority of the trek the trail was obvious due to the predominance of gortex, but the Sagarmatha National Park doesn't go in for signposts and when off the beaten track we were reliant on our map, compass, altimeter, locals' knowledge, common sense and our Lonely Planet 'Trekking in the Nepal Himalayas' guide - the latter being our inspiration and an invaluable reference throughout the trek
Trail origin: There is a powerful mystique surrounding the trek to the foot of Mt Everest, following in the footsteps of many great mountaineering expeditions, but the Three Passes Trek takes the traditional Everest Base Camp (EBC) Trek three steps further. Now considered the ultimate Everest circuit, the trek starts from Lukla, spurs off to Chhukung, before crossing over the Kongma La to rejoin the main trail to EBC, continuing over Cho La to Gokyo, then crossing the Renjo La to Thame and back to Namche Bazzaar and Lukla (see route below).
The Three Passes trekking circuit became possible with the construction of the Renjo La in 2004, an amazing feat considering the location, with beautiful stone steps up the west side of the pass, a welcome rest-ledge and the best views ever. It's tough going, very steep and slippery, and we couldn't quite believe we were seeing heavily laden porters and yaks being taken over the pass. The other major factor that has enabled the trekking circuit is the retreat of the Himalayan glaciers. According to our 1985 Lonely Planet, our un-guided scramble across the moraines of the Khumbu Glacier would not have been possible back then, certainly not without local know-how, ropes or crampons. Since Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary's 1953 Everest Expedition the Khumbu Glacier has retreated 5 km
Trek dates: 14th October - 8th November. This is peak season and it was seriously busy on the main routes with human trains of trekking parties and lodges full with people sleeping tip to tail on dining-room floors. Away from the main Everest Base Camp route we saw around four to ten people a day. Bliss!
Time: 26 days, including mandatory acclimatisation days.
Lowest altitude: Lukla (2800m)
Highest altitudes: Chukkung Ri (5550m), Kongma La (5536m), Kala Patthar (5550m), Cho La (5368m), Gokyo Ri (5357m), Renjo La (5360m)
Height climbed/descended: 8,000m approx
Hours walked: 90hrs approx
Distance: In the Himalayas its not how far, its how long it takes that's important. Check out the route profile.
Restrictions: The Sagarmatha National Park (NP) fee is payable on arrival at the National Park office in Jorsale (1,000NPR each) and a TIMS Green card (for free-trekking) is required and can only be obtained from the Kathmandu TAAN office, located between the airport and Thamel (1,400NPR each). Trekking/travel agencies are no longer able to issue the TIMS Green cards so we had to go to the TAAN office
Weather and temperatures: The trek began with two days of wet weather and low cloud, but the day we walked out of Namche Bazar the weather broke to give the bluest skies and brightest weather. Except for a couple of afternoons of reduced visibility from low cloud rolling up into the high valleys, which never lingered for more than a few hours, and a one-day white-out while resting up in Gokyo, we had fantastic weather. Daytime temperatures were high enough to enable us to trek in one layer (long-sleeved merino top, trek trousers, sunhat and gloves), but on top of the peaks and passes fleeces and windproofs were vital agains the wind chill and the UV was fierce. We didn't follow the common advice to climb Kala Patthar at sunrise, instead climbing at 3pm and were treated to a totally clear vista, although the wind was cutting. Come evening, down jackets were essential, inside the lodges too. Night-time temperatures reached -5°C in our lodge room in Chhukhung and -10°C in our tent in Dzonghla. One couple we spoke to said it had got down to -15°C in their tent near the Kongma La.
An issue relating to temperature that had us thinking a great deal during our trek is the extent to which the Himalayan glaciers, called 'the third pole' by scientists, have melted in the last 25 years - at a rate of 10 to 60m per year on average according to reports. One serious implication is the increase in the number of lakes in the Everest region that are now at a dangerously critical level of a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood. The Imja Tso, upstream from Chhukhung where we spent two nights, is being carefully monitored by experts and with very good reason. This lake has grown from a few ponds to 35 million cubic metres and when it ruptures a vertical wave will bulldoze down some of the most heavily populated and touristed valleys in the Himalayas. Bryan Walsh put another major implication of this glacial retreat very succinctly in a Time Magazine 2009 article. He said, 'Himalayan glaciers supply water to the planet's mightiest river system and the 3 billion people who depend on it. Climate change is melting that ice fast, threatening the survival of nearly half the world's population.' He goes on to say, 'In a water-stressed region with nuclear capabilities, it could be disastrous to let the most valued commodity become rarer still.' Could there be any more convincing reasons to fight climate change?!
Costs: Expensive for Nepal
Agent: No agents were used except to book our flight to Lukla. We booked that through Himalayan Encounters (within the Kathmandu Guest House gates) and although the first flight was cancelled due to weather the agency rescheduled us efficiently and with a lot of physical jostling at the Tara Airlines check-in desk (it was a complete free-for-all) we flew out on the day we wanted.
The route & accommodation: Flight Kathmandu to Lukla (Hotel Shangri La), Phakding (Phakding Star Lodge), Namche Bazar (Yak Hotel), Tengboche (Trekkers Lodge), Pangboche (Highland Sherpa Resort), Dingboche (Hotel Snowlion), Chhukhung (Panorama Lodge), Chhukhung Ri, the Kongma La, Lobouche (our tent outside Above the Clouds Lodge; all lodges full), Gorak Shep (Snowland High Lodge), Kala Patthar, Everest Base Camp, Dzonghla (our tent outside Himalayan View Lodge; for fun!), the Cho La, Tangnag (Cho La Restort - our favourite), Gokyo (Cho Oyo View Lodge), Gokyo Ri, Renjo La, Marulung (Namaste Lodge), Namche Bazaar (Namche Hotel), Cheplung (Hilltop View Lodge), Lukla (Himalayan Lodge)
Many of the lodges were welcoming with cosy dining rooms (with dung-burner), good food (all pretty much identical menus, loads of carbs) and clean sheets and blankets on the beds, but it is no 'holiday'. The rooms are unheated, often partitioned by wafer-thin plywood that seems to amplify next-door's snoring, floors of freezing stone (upturned turfs at one lodge), squat toilets shared by many trekkers (many with upset tummys or an inability to position themselves over the hole!), often no wash-hand basins, no laundry service and if you're lucky you might get to shower in the dark corrugated tin hut outside, except the last trekker probably used up the last of the hot water! Wet wipes, hand sanitiser and a strong stomach essential.
- Scenery - Seeing Makalu rise from behind the other peaks as we ascended Chhukhung Ri; The snow, blue sky and lake reflections at Gokyo; Everest looming higher and dwarfing her sister peaks from Kala Patthar; Watching and hearing an avalanche on route to Everest Base Camp; Seeing the Khumbu Icefall, the stuff of legends; The vivid colours of the Imja Khola valley at sun up - red buckthorn, green juniper, white peaks, blue sky and sparkling frost; Hiking above the turquiose Cho La Tsho; Climbing the Renjo La early morning and looking out over the most phenomenal view of the trip; Enjoying absolute silence on top of Gokyo Ri.
- Well-being - Feeling normal again after that Kathmandu stomach bug (thanks to the Namche Bazar pharmacy); Waking up to blue skies after two days of rain at the trek start; our MSR water filter continuing to perform for us; Snuggling down at 8pm in our sleeping bags; Seeing that trouser waist band get looser; Getting across the Ngozumba glacier; Sleeping in our little Voyager tent at 5,000m; The satisfaction from climbing three high passes and three peaks; Returning from the high passes to a hot shower and sunny room at Namche Bazar; Our long chats (particularly the ones about lush food that had Phil drooling); the relief after retrieving two-thirds of our trek photos from a corrupted data card.
- People - Our evening around the yak-dung burner at Hotel Snowlion, Dingboche; Meeting fellow trekkers Gary (German in China), Greg and Liz and the extraordinary French climber who bivvied in some extraordinary places; The owner of Himalayan View Lodge, Dzonghla who helped us erect our tent and provided us with a thick duvet; The little boy at Namaste Lodge who waved us off, his tiny figure silhouetted as we descended the valley; The kindness of the Tibetan lady owner of Cho Oyo View Lodge who gave us three packets of biscuits for free; The smiley young lad running Hilltop View Lodge, Cheplung; Getting star-struck when hearing that our Sherpa lodge owner had summited Everest three times, twice without oxygen; Rest day with the Russians at the Cho La Resort at Tangnag.
- Wildlife - Watching the blue sheep on the sheer cliff near Phakding, the aerial acrobatics of the choughs and mountain crows, an eagle soaring on the thermals, pica running about in the scree, catching the scent of juniper on the wind at Marulung.
- Food & drink - the veggie burger at Everest Bakery; Phil's birthday chocolate at the top of Kala Patthar (yummy Cadbury's); Thermos flasks of hot lemon or 'hot bliss'; The taste of Himalayan stream water; The sherpa stew at Chhukhung; Eating snickers on top of the Kongma La; The smell of popcorn and gorging on basketfuls of the stuff; Phil's yak steaks
Lows & moans:
- Commercialism - We were more than happy to pay over the odds for goods that had been portered in, but many times we felt as though we were being taken for a ride (see costs above), and good-hearted bartering seems to have disappeared, which is sad.
- Unhappy people - For many the trek to EBC is the trip of a lifetime but the reality was clearly a shock. We spoke to many who, only a few days into the trek, were having a nightmare. They just wanted to get home, worn down by a combination of the long hours walking and the length of the trek, bad group dynamics, the costs, the effects of altitude and cold, and the lack of basic home comforts. Some groups were also trekking to honour a recently deceased friend, adding another sadness to the sum. We saw a number of air rescues and many sick people, some really sick, who had been forced to climb too high, too fast by their schedule, trying to make up for lost time due to delays flying into Lukla, no acclimatisation or rest days. Crazyness.
- Selfish trekkers - There is no trekking etiquette or code of conduct in Nepal and on the trail it's each man or group for himself. There was little giving way for those struggling uphill, acknowledgements were rare, pushing and shoving where main trails thinned was not uncommon (Phil was bumped off the trail twice). In the high lodges all the tables were reserved for organised groups and some territorial individuals wouldn't make a little extra space for us. It was disheartening too to hear some trekkers' attitudes to their guide-porter teams. Many porters were overloaded and having to climb high passes in completely inadequate footwear. Some were wearing Crocs! The group members we asked about this simply shrugged the responsibility saying 'they seem happy to do it'
- Poor hospitality - In Tengboche we were kicked out of our lodge after only one night of a two-night booking to make way for a large group and the owner got pretty aggressive when we questioned him. We did experience some good Sherpa hospitality, but generally we were left pretty much alone while lodge owners pampered the groups. One night at a lodge in Gorak Shep a fight broke out between two Sherpa-porter groups. Punches flew, chairs flew, trekkers fled out the door, all apparently over a comment about the quality of the cooking. Tensions can run high in the mountains
Some of the lows mentioned are serious, but many are just absurd and laughable; incidents and characters that made the trek all the more interesting, colourful and unique. As a counter to the moans I must say that most of our evenings were filled chatting away to friendly free-trekkers, individuals from organised groups and guides, and there was a huge amount of camaraderie and good will. There was also lots of posturing and posing too, which was always amusing to watch!
If you would like any more information about the trek please don't hesitate to get in touch.
Nickie & Phil
- Lonely Planet Trekking in Nepal 2006 Edition
- Lonely Planet Trekking in Nepal 1985 Edition
- Display panels in the Sagamartha National Park office
- Reports by Samjwal Ratna Bajracharya on GLOFs and Change in Glacial Environment of Everest Region, Nepal
- A River Ran Though It, Bryan Walsh, Time Magazine, Dec 2009