The nice thing about trekking in the Everest region is that there are so many different routes to take and so many ways to do it. Most people opt to just go to EBC but there is also the view point at Gokyo Ri which gives equally amazing views of Mount Everest, but is just a little further away and puts all the mountains into perspective. There is also another trek called the Three Passes Trek which goes over three high passes over 5,300 meters. Kongma La is one of these passes and is the highest at 5,535 meters or 18,159 feet. It was an ambitious goal but the nice thing about going big on this hike is that if you have to turn around it is still possible to trek a different route, granted you didn’t trek so far out of your ability you needed a rescue helicopter to get down.
The day we hiked over Kongma La we were up at 4:45am and hitting the trail just before 6am. The first rays of sun came up shortly after our departure and started illuminating the highest peaks around us with pink and orange light. As we climbed higher our breaks became more frequent and the air got thinner. Luckily we had clear skies and calm winds for our trek over. We passed roaming yak herds and flocks of a rare Himalayan geese. The faint dinging of the yak bells could be heard almost the entire way up the pass. After a short and steep section of trail we made it to a couple of frozen lakes. From here we could see the top of the pass but the trail disappeared. I had two GPS apps on my phone to consult but it was a little nerve racking having to backtrack because days like this on the trail are always time sensitive. If you don’t make it to your destination by nightfall you’ll be sleeping under the stars. At this point, Rachel was also suffering from the altitude. Every time I’d ask if she was alright she’d say yes but the expression on her face conveyed otherwise. I took her pack as well as mine for the final accent which had us scrambling on all fours over boulders and rocks hanging over the pass. Once we reached the top, we stopped for a lunch of boiled eggs, peanuts, and candy bars. I hung up a string of prayer flags, contributing to the mess of string and cloth fluttering in the breeze. From the top of the pass we could see our destination for the night, Lobuche, 600 meters below. It actually looked a lot closer and once we started descending we realized it was going to take a long time before we reached the village. The trail virtually disappeared for stretches where we had to boulder hop our way down. We didn’t carry any crampons with us but luckily we only encountered a short patch of ice that was manageable without them. We were told that a pair of socks pulled over our boots can work for crossing ice but we never tried it. When we reached the bottom there was another hill waiting for us up to the Khumbu Glacier. This glacier begins on the slopes of Mount Everest and slowly “flows” down to Lobuche. It eventually turns into the headwaters of the Lobuche Khola before meeting up with the Imja Khola just south of Periche. It was another difficult and frustrating section at the end of our day. Since the glacier is always changing so is the route to take across it. The debris carried down didn’t make it feel like a glacier until we saw a cross section of it and heard parts of the glacier crumbling into the crevasses the trail wove around. We had to keep an eye out for the tiny rock cairns that trekkers left behind to mark the trail. Several times we got lost and had to back track. Going slow and staying observant was the quickest way across. This allowed us see the faint cairns and trail they marked. We ended up arriving in Lobuche after 11 hours on the trail and just before the sun dipped below the mountains for the night.
The next morning we decided to take a rest day since Rachel was having troubles with acclimatization and was feeling pretty exhausted. Yuta decided to keep going and trekked up to Gorak Shep. We did a little laundry in the the creek running through town and washed our feet the best we could. Washing at this altitude is difficult since the water is ice cold and it’s all done by hand. We laid out our laundry on some rocks and pieces of corrugated metal laying in front of our guesthouse to dry. The trail we had taken from the top of Kongma La Pass loomed over our heads all day and every time I looked up to the top I was amazed at what we had accomplished the day before. The rest of the afternoon we hung out in the dining hall of the guesthouse which was surprisingly warm in the sun. Once the sun went down, the owner brought out a bucket of dried yak shit to start a fire. I had no idea yak shit burned so well but this was a common fuel source for the people living above the tree line in the Himalayas. Often times we’d see people in late afternoon walking the fields with woven baskets picking up pucks of yak poop to heat their homes for the night. It doesn’t smell bad at all but even if it did I would still opt to sit next to the fire over sitting in the cold.
The next morning Rachel had me thinking she was feeling better. We decided to just make our trek up to Kala Pattar a day trip and return to Loboche that night. We also decided to skip going to EBC since you can’t even see Mount Everest from there and being so earlier in the season, the mountaineers had not yet arrived either. This was the advise in our guide book since it would also cut out having to haul our pack up there. Shortly after leaving Rachel started to get a headache. Unfortunately the altitude affects everyone differently and it doesn’t matter what kind of shape you’re in. There is only so much you can do to stop the negative affects of it and we were running out of those options. Rachel had already taken Diamox and had taken a couple of Ibuprofen to try and ease the pain. Several times we almost turned back but Rachel wanted to push on just a little further. We had to cross another glacier to get to Gorak Shep which was really the most discouraging part of the day because you don’t see Gorak Shep until the last 200 meters. Once we got there we began our accent up to Kala Pattar which is more or less a giant hill to see Everest. This is basically as close as you can get without being a mountaineer. After our first steep climb the trail levelled out a bit before continuing up the final accent. We came to a small chorten and Rachel informed me that it was as far as she could go. We hung up some prayer flags around the chorten, took some pictures, ate a candy bar and peanuts, and headed back down. That was our limit. I say this because it’s important to know where it is. Everyone has a different limit and it’s important to know when you’ve reached it. Everyone who comes here is closer to death than they realize and accidents happen often, just ask a Nepali emergency helicopter pilot. That’s why in the end it’s not just about EBC or Kala Pattar, it’s about enjoying the whole trek, because you might just not reach your goal but your limit instead. Back at the guesthouse in Lobuche, we discussed where we would go next. The altitude seemed to be taking its toll on Rachel and it was becoming increasingly apparent we would not be going over Cho La Pass or Renjo La Pass but would be heading down to lower elevations.
The trek down Periche ended up being relatively delightful with amazing views of the mountains south of Dingboche. Shortly after Lobuche we reached Thok La which seemed to be a large memorial site for many of those who have died on Everest. To the west of us was the trail going towards Cho La Pass and to the south was the vast, treeless wasteland before Periche. We broke for lunch in Periche and shortly after that the winds picked up and the fog and clouds rolled in. The mountains disappeared around us as we made our way towards Pangboche and Tangboche. To the north, on the other side of the river, we could see the trail carved into the side of the mountain we had taken several days before on our way to Upper Pangboche, which at this point felt like a lifetime ago. It provided a nice perspective of what we had already accomplished on our way to Tangboche.
Tangboche rests on a ridge which provides some nice views of Everest and the surrounding mountains when conditions are clear but this also makes for a miserable climb to get there, especially along the trail from Namche. There is also a nice monastery and a nunnery near by. It is one of the largest in the Khumbu region and I’d advise looking into any Buddhist holidays while you’re planning a trip here to observe and participate in the festivities. From Tangboche the trail descended quickly to the Imja Khola and then right back up to the village of Sanasa which had several guesthouses. The trail hugged the side of the mountain and around every bend we would turn around and see Mount Everest get smaller and smaller on our way to Namche. Since we had a few more hours of day light we thought we’d push on to Monjo and get a room at our favorite hotel. It had been seven days since our last shower but because we had been trekking so hard during that time it actually smelled like it had been two weeks. During dinner we shared some of our stories with trekkers who were on their way up and cautioned them on the effects of AMS, told them how long it had been since our last shower, and how they’ll be staying warm next to a yak shit fire.
The next day was the easiest day we had on the trail. For the most part it was down hill, well maintained, and mule free. We passed through the village of Pakding early in the day and stopped for lunch at the fork in the trail in Cheplung. We discussed what our next move was going to be: carry on like we had originally planned to the village of Phaplu at least three days away to take the jeep out, or hike to Lukla another hour away and take the plane to Kathmandu. We knew what lay ahead if we hiked to Phaplu, mule caravans and lots of hills, and we were both getting pretty tired after hiking for 15 days. We got about 50 meters down the trail to Phaplu before we made sure we wanted to do it and then turned around to hike to Lukla. When we arrived we found a guesthouse next to the airstrip and then at 3pm we went to the various airline companies to look into tickets. We found out the local price is about $50 usd for a flight but unless you’re Nepali you’ll be paying $150. This was the low season price so I’m not sure how much tickets go for during high season after bad weather has caused flights to get cancelled for 5 days. Don’t bother negotiating this price either. The airline mafia won’t take you back to Kathmandu for any less.
The next morning we checked our bags at what is quite possibly the lowest key airport in the world and watched as everyone else left before us. We waited while those planes all flew 45 minutes to Kathmandu and then flew another 45 minutes back. When the plane arrived we were shuffled from the waiting room to the plane in less than 15 minutes. The plane spun around and faced the end of the downward sloped runway and the edge of the mountain. Aside from being the most low-key airports in the world, this one is also possibly the most terrifying one to fly out of. With a whir of the engines we were barreling down the sloped runway before flying off the edge of the mountain. I know these are trained pilots and the danger of crashing is low, if not, no one would take up this career in Nepal, but one cannot think about these possibilities while taking off. Once in the air the thoughts don’t go away. One thing that seems to be consistent in the Himalayas is the wind that picks up later in the morning. This caused our plane to shake almost the entire way back to Kathmandu. It was by far the bumpiest flight I’ve ever been on with also some of the best scenery which I watched to try and take my mind off of the bumpieness. Below us were the terraces carved into the lower Himalayas and the roads we had taken by jeep to Phaplu. It provided a nice finish to our 15 day trek and when we finally landed the plane erupted into applause for the pilot and copilot who safely delivered us to Kathmandu. The hardest part of our trip was now behind us and we were looking forward to spending some time in the lower elevations of Nepal.