MY EVEREST THREE PASSES TREK
I’ve been told I should share my previous trekking experiences. And as I sit in my office, I reminisce: the fun of slogging up to the mountain pass; and my aching knees as I make the steep descent. Because of my schedule, I can only afford to go out on treks twice a year. But writing about my trekking experiences seems to be the next best thing. So… below I write about my Everest Three Passes Trek experience in November 2021. The Everest Three Passes Trek is a comprehensive circuit of the Khumbu region along the southern slopes of Mt. Everest.
PURPOSE OF THE TREK
Two years ago, as we were slowly shedding our fear of COVID and adjusting to a new post-pandemic life, there was much talk about pent-up-demand for travel. I thought: what better way to help aspiring female guides than to train them to lead groups of trekkers that would soon flock to Nepal. 3 Summits for Nepal had just completed building two girl’s hostels in the Kanchenjunga region during the lock-downs. And we were eager to begin another project. So as a board member of the Mira Rai Initiative (MRI) I decided that previous graduates of MRI’s training program would be the best candidates for the first training program. MRI is an organization founded by the legendary trail runner – Mira Rai. Along with trail running skills, here, Nepali female trail runners are trained on life skills. We selected five candidates for the first training program.
THE EXCITING FLIGHT INTO LUKLA
For me, flying into Lukla has always been nerve-wracking. And although I’ve traveled to the Everest region several times, as someone troubled by anxiety attacks, a lingering effect of the 2015 earthquake, this flight was no different.
We were flying on Summit Air – a twin propellor, 18-seater, Czech plane. Our flight took off on a clear day. But I knew from previous experience about the notoriety of the section above the Lamjura pass. And, lo and behold, as we were just above the Lamjura pass, the plane began shaking violently. This apparently is called the Clear Air Turbulence (CAT) and is caused when, in the absence of visual clues such as clouds, bodies of air moving at widely different speeds meet. I had already clenched my arm rest and was expecting the turbulence. A trekking group from India sitting in the back rows and chattering away suddenly let out shrieks. The turbulence that lasted about 5 seconds ended as abruptly as it had begun. And soon we landed at Lukla which is dubbed the world’s most dangerous airport.
CHILLY BUT BEARABLE
My coldest camping trek experience has been the one I undertook many years ago with my friend, Chris, in January in the Kanchenjunga region. On that trek, while the days were warm (in T-shirts and shorts), the nights were so cold – probably dipping to – 25F/-31 C – that the moisture from our breath left a streak of ice on our sleeping bags. And as we crawled out of the tent in the morning, we would have to dust off the ice on the fly sheet to unchain the zipper.
But because our Everest trek was in November and we were sleeping in lodges, it was never so cold to be unbearable. We trekked in shorts and T-shirts for the first few days; as we ascended the days got cooler. The temperatures at night did dip to around 10 F/- 12 C near the Base Camp. Regardless, probably because we were sleeping in rooms, it got uncomfortable only when we had to get up to use the restroom.
LODGES ON THE TREK
Although I have slept in the most basic of tea-houses, as I age I prefer a certain level of cleanliness and solitude. But the much-improved quality of the lodges enroute was quite a shocker. While I could not find any data on the per-capita income by ethnic group in Nepal, I am quite certain that the Sherpas from the Khumbu region top the list.
The positive effect of tourism was quite evident; not only in the clean trails but also in the cleanliness and quality of the lodges – and also in the environmental awareness of the local Sherpas. There is a good chance that because I was mostly staying at the lodges owned my in-laws, I got the best rooms. But the general attitude towards good hygiene and cleanliness was evident.
In Lukla, Phakding, Monjo, Namche and Gokyo a lot of the lodges offer ensuite rooms. And there are some high-end lodges too that charge between $300-$500 a night viz., Yeti Mountain Home, Everest Summit Lodges and Hotel Everest View. The Rivendell Lodge at Devuche just below Tengboche though not as expensive is also a good option. And so is the Thangka Inn in Gokyo.
At Namche, we stayed at the Khumbu Lodge that belonged to my co-brother-in-law (my wife’s brother in law). Apparently, Jimmy Carter had stayed here on a visit during the 60’s. And so the room he stayed in is now called the Jimmy Carter room.
The lodge at Gorakshep was my least favorite of the lot. But that’s because it is located at the highest altitude where there is a shortage of water supply. There are only 5 lodges in Gorakshep and when there are crowds of trekkers it is difficult to keep the lodges clean.
The Everest Three Passes Trek is the most difficult trek in Nepal that does not involve any technical gear. Yes, the Sherpani Col pass trek from the Makalu region to the Mera region and the Ama Lapcha pass trek from the Mera region to Chukkung are more challenging. But they require sleeping in tents, walking on glaciers, using mountaineering gear mainly rappelling gear and walker longer distances. The Everest three passes trek on the other hand can be done in the relative comfort of a lodge with very few objective danger.
Of the three passes on this trek, the Khongmala pass is the most difficult (see mileage chart at the end of this blog)
Chukkung to Khongma La to Lobuche
Distance: 11 kilometers/7 miles
Ascent: 2,948 feet/899 meters
Descent: 2,250 feet/686 meters
Dzongla to Cho La to Thagnag
Distance: 9.35 kilometers/5.8 miles
Ascent: 1,876 feet/572 meters
Descent: 2,351 feet/716 meters
Gokyo to Renjo La to Lungden
Distance: 11 kilometers/7 miles
Ascent: 1,931 feet/588 meters
Descent: 3,397 feet/1,035 meters
None of these passes are as long as either the Thorung La pass on the Annapurna Circuit Trek or the Larkya La pass on the Manaslu Circuit Trek. But it is the fact that there are multiple challenges on the trek that make the Everest Three Passes Trek more physically demanding than other treks in Nepal. The first challenge on this trek is the optional hike to Amadablam Base Camp and back – total mileage of 5.3 miles/8.6 kilometers with elevation gain 2,300 feet/685 meters and the same elevation loss. The next challenge is the day hike to Everest Base Camp and then the ascent of Kalapathar. And of course the three passes.
DANGERS ON THE TREK
Besides coping with the altitude which is always important on a high-altitude trek, there are some other subjective hazards on this trek. This includes rock falls at the passes. So don’t stand in sections where rock fall is probable; make sure you walk past those sections quickly. Some sections of the pass can also be icy and hence slippery. There are cables attached near the trail for support so use those if you want.
Another major issue is the ever changing route on the Ngozumpa glacier. Since it is an active glacier which keeps moving, the route changes every year. There are cairns and signs but some sections are a bit tricky. When we were there in 2021, descending into the glacier was a bit tricky as part of the trail had been washed away. And so we had to improvise.
Why trek to Everest Base Camp? What are the other options?:
For many, the Everest Base Camp Trek is a bucket list item. Total trekkers to the Everest region in 2023 could easily cross 70,000. While there is no data that divides where these trekkers go to in the Everest region, it is obvious from the foot traffic that a majority of them trek to the Everest Base Camp. For many, the goal is to tick off a bucket list item. Of these, many hikers are beginners – meaning this is their first major multi-day trek. For some the Everest Base Camp, which is simply a jumble of rock, can be a disappointment.
Instead, I try to encourage trekkers to visit other places in the Khumbu – either the Gokyo Lakes trek or the Ultimate Everest trek. For me, it is OK to skip the trek to Everest Base Camp. The view from the Renjo La pass is more stunning. Besides Everest and Lhotse, it is also possible to see Makalu from the Renjo La pass. Also, I have always been a big advocate of trekking to the Everest Base Camp either in November or December when there are relatively fewer trekkers. Check out my recent blog: Must you trek to the Everest Base Camp?
FOOD ON THE TREK
I must admit that the food in the Everest region is the best I’ve had while on a trek in Nepal. Again, because I mostly stayed in the lodges belonging to relatives of my wife, I might have been given special treatment. Besides the normal “trekker” food, we were offered many Sherpa fares. Two must-try Sherpa dishes include Shyakpa and Ryikikur. Shyakpa is a simple stew made with vegetables and flour dough. You may or may not add meat. Ryikikur is a potato pancake eaten with butter and a spicy paste. If you are trekking with our Sherpa guides – Pasang Kaji or Lhakpa Gyalzen – you may just be invited to their homes near Lukla for a Sherpa meal.
There are also a few bakeries in this region that serve pastries, tarts, pizzas and specialty coffee. My favorites were Pasang T’s Sherpa Barista Cafe in Namche and Nyima Tshering’s French Bakery Cafe in Dingboche. In the photo below is Mingma Yangzi (second from right), owner of the Snow Lion Lodge and Nyima Tshering’s mother-in-law, with a “Welcome to Dingboche” cake for our group. Mingma Yangzi was part of the first Nepalese women’s team on Everest along with Pasang Lhamu Sherpa’s – the first Nepali woman to summit Everest.
Facts about the Everest Three Passes Trek:
- Total mileage of the trek is around 100 miles/160 kilometers with elevation gain and loss of around 23,000 feet/7,000 meters. (See chart below). This depends on the side trips. Highest point reached is Kalapathar (5,545m/18,200 ft) and include crossing three passes.
- The big giants that can be seen on this trek include:
Sagarmatha – Everest (8,848 m), Lhotse (8,501 m), Cho Oyu (8,153 m) and Nuptse (7,896 m)
- The Sagarmatha National Park is a World Heritage Site. According to the World Heritage site “Sagarmatha National Parks’ superlative and exceptional natural beauty is embedded in the dramatic mountains, glaciers, deep valleys and majestic peaks including the Worlds’ highest, Mount Sagarmatha (Everest) (8,848 m.).”
- The vegetation found at the lower altitude of the park include pine and hemlock forests, while fir, juniper, birch and rhododendron, scrub and alpine plant communities are common at the higher altitude. The park is home to the red panda, snow leopard, musk deer, Himalayan tahr, marten, Himalayan mouse hare (pika) and over 118 species of bird including the Impeyan pheasant, snow cock, blood pheasant, red billed cough etc.
Daily mileage and ascent/descent chart: