The Everest region of Nepal is known as one of the world’s great hiking destinations, with good reason. The scenery is simply stunning. However trekking in the region has a number of challenges – crowds in peak season, altitude, weather and trail conditions. Taking the time to plan a trip that is in line with your goals and expectations will help keep you safe and maximize your enjoyment.
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Hiking to Everest Base Camp (EBC) is a top bucket list item for many people, attracting both hikers and non-hikers. So many that trail conditions during the short October/November season are becoming unbearably overcrowded with large tour groups that clog the route and take up all the guest house accommodations.
If this is not your cup of tea but you still want to experience the region then I suggest that you think about what your goals are – see Everest (it is not visible from EBC), experience the highest panoramas in the world, explore Nepalese culture, confront the challenge of high altitude trekking?
Most traffic in the region, including the transport of goods by porter or beast, travels the main corridor from Lukla to Namche and then on to Lobuche and Gorak Shep via Dingboche. While you can’t easily bypass the main route to Namche, you do have other options further up. There are other routes with amazing snowy peak vistas.
Some of the best views of Everest are actually from Gokyo Ri, the “hill” above Gokyo or from Renjo pass just beyond Goyko. While Chhukhung does not offer Everest views the area has amazing views of other impressive peaks including Ama Dablam, a trekker favorite, and the awesome face of Nuptse that blocks Everest views from many viewpoints.
Of the 3 passes on the 3 Passes trek, Kongma la, Cho la and Renjo la, I thought the views from Renjo la were the most stunning followed by Kongma la and then Cho la. If you’re more interested in the hiking experience, though, some like Cho la best because you cross an icy glacier to reach it. (On other glacier crossings the ice is underneath a layer of dirt and rock and you are not walking directly on the ice.)
All the passes are more difficult when taken in the clockwise direction because for each you climb a nearly vertical wall to reach the pass. From the anti-clockwise direction the climbs are broken up between sections of more level ground. However, for the hardy the clockwise direction has fewer trekkers and the more dramatic views when you first pop over the ridge. This is especially true for Renjo la with that first view of the Everest range.
For those more interested in culture, I would suggest starting lower down, south of Lukla. The green valleys below the tree line have a lush beauty in contrast to the stark desolate landscape of higher elevations. Also, here is where you will find the Nepali people engaging in their everyday life. Other advantages are that you can avoid the hassle of flying into Lukla and take your time acclimating to higher altitudes. Whatever your goals it’s an amazing experience and worth taking the time to plan for what you want out of it.
For us the biggest challenge of the 3 Passes trek was the altitude. This of course is a very individual affliction. Some people adjust easily with a gradual increase in elevation. Others suffer the effects of mild AMS – headache, digestive problems, sleep apnea and breathlessness. Some suffer serious symptoms and need to descend immediately. Do not ignore the situation and push on if you are experiencing symptoms. It’s a serious condition and people do die!
Diamox, or the generic acetazolamide, can help and I strongly recommend taking the drug as a preventative measure. We ran into people who had read incidents of negative side effects and were reluctant to take the drug. However, in truth it helps far more trekkers than it harms and the side effects are generally quite harmless, most notably a tingling sensation in the fingers, especially with temperature changes. Of course I’m not a doctor and you should consult one for your particular situation.
Knowing that I don’t acclimate easily to altitude we did a pre-acclimatization trip to the mountains of Colorado before departing for Nepal. We met others on the trail who had done treks in Bhutan or the Annapurna region of Nepal before hitting the Everest region with the same idea in mind. The pre-acclimatization seemed to help enormously with the early stages of the trek.
It took me nearly a week in Breckenridge Co at 2900m to get used to the thin air. We were hiking to over 4250m a couple of times a week, so that when we arrived in Namche Bazar at 3440 we were doing quite well despite some minor issues; walking more slowly, some loss of appetite and digestive problems. With a gradual increase to 4730m at Chhukhung over 4 days we were ready for our first pass, Kongma la at 5535m.
This is where the acclimatization process broke down for us. We just never got used to hiking over 5000 meters and sleeping over 4700. Although we completed the 3 passes with only moderate difficulty (It seemed like we could not possibly walk slower but we were actually matching the expected times for crossing the high passes) we had increasing difficulty sleeping at night. I was waking more frequently because of sleep apnea in Goyko (4790m) than I was 5 days earlier in Chhukhung (4730m). I didn’t sleep the night through until I got down to Thame (3800m).
Climbing at altitude, not sleeping, digestive problems and the cold temperatures in the guest houses all put tremendous stress on your body. So by the end of the trip we were worn down and exhausted.
While the idea of tea house trekking has an almost romantic connotation, for me the conditions are not pleasant. Mostly it is the incessant cold that I find challenging. The structures are really not warmer than sitting outside. The only difference is you have a roof over your head. Generally only the dining room is heated and often this is only during the dinner hour. Dining rooms are often nicely decorated in warm woods and that’s where trekkers spend most of their waking hours when they are not on the trail as the rooms are too cold for lounging.
Bring plenty of reading material, cards or whatever else will occupy your time. During the first week especially expect a lot of down time as trekking days are short while you’re acclimating to the altitude. A wifi network is available in most of the valleys charging 2000 rupee ($18USD) for 20Gb of data. As the access code is good for the region it works from tea house to tea house. However, some more remote locations such as Lungdhen are not connected. You can buy access codes at pretty much all of the tea houses.
Rooms are generally a basic box with two beds that can sometimes be put together for a couple. It’s much warmer sleeping together. The basic box is often drafty and cold with ice forming on the inside of the single paned windows by morning at higher elevations. There were a few exceptions of better built structures, the Thanka Inn in Gokyo for instance, that actually retained some heat during the night. Some better establishments offer rooms with a private toilet, rarer is a toilet and sink combo and a private shower is rarer still, generally only found in larger towns.
Squat toilets are frequent, but I prefer them as the seat of western toilets is often wet from people splashing water on it when they try to flush it with the bucket of water provided. Generally toilets don’t flush per se you have to dump a bucket of water in the basin.
The region has a universal menu with all guest houses offering more or less the same choices – pizza with some sort of thin bread for crust; pasta and noodle dishes with tomato sauce and cheese; fried noodle and rice dishes with vegetables, cheese and or tuna. The one locally grown choice is potatoes which prepared in a variety of ways and generally very good.
After one bad tuna experience I was advised not to eat the tuna as once the can is open it sits until someone else orders tuna. It is also advised not to eat meat at higher elevations as nearly all food products need to portered in, taking several days without refrigeration.
For protein we ate lots of eggs and cheese. In place of vegetables we took vitamins and Metamucil as vegetable dishes are light on actual vegetables, consisting of mostly of starch, i.e., pasta, rice or bread.
Once of the best tasting and most authentic dishes is dal bhat. A rice dish with pickled vegetables and a small bowl of thin dal (lentils). This is the daily diet of the guides and porters.
For breakfast you have a choice of oat porridge (not bad if you add some salt), bread products – chapatti, pancake, Tibetan bread (fried bread), toast – and eggs in various preparations. Bigger towns have bakeries with decent options for a change of taste. Needless to say with the altitude playing havoc on your appetite the menu choices are not much help. If you’re looking to lose that extra five pounds this could be the way to do it.
Bookings in high season are getting more difficult for individual trekkers. As larger groups are becoming more frequent they book up accommodations on the more popular routes, making just showing up and expecting a room more difficult.
While guides can sometimes call ahead not all places have cell coverage and they don’t always answer the phone when they are busy. While I don’t think they will leave you out in the cold, you may have to sleep in a bunk room or the dining room. We ended up in a tent in Lobuche and actually it was as warm or warmer than a room in a guesthouse. Lobuche and Gorak Shep are the most congested, but with large groups passing through Tengboche and Dingboche they can be a problem as well.
Starting our trek on October 5th I was worried that it was still a bit too soon after monsoon season. They say that the rainy season ends in mid-September but that it is becoming more unpredictable. 2018 was a year when the rains did last longer and I heard rumors that the airport in Lulka was closed for nearly 2 weeks at the end of September. We met a number of people on the trail who took a jeep into Jiri and then walked 3 to 4 days to catch the main trail just north of Lukla. On Oct 5th flights were delayed some because of the weather but mostly because of air traffic control in Kathmandu.
As far as clouds and views we had very cloudy weather the first 3 days. It wasn’t until day 4 that we actually had good views of mountain peaks. Then the next couple of days in Dingboche and Chhukhung we had a mix of clouds and sun that sometimes obscured the mountains but also made for more interesting photos than a plain blue sky.
On Oct 13, the day we crossed Kongma la, we had our first blue bird day. The clouds didn’t arrive until mid-afternoon and even then didn’t obscure the mountains completely. For the rest our time at the higher elevations we had generally clear skies with clouds arriving mid-afternoon. The couple of days we were in Goyko the skies were clear even in the afternoon, making afternoon or even sunset climbs of Gokyo Ri worthwhile.
Once back in Thame, October 19, the clouds were lower and obscured the mountain views by late morning. One Swede who now lives locally said that above 4000 meters it is generally clear in the morning and that there are more clouds at lower elevations. I don’t know if this is true but it was certainly our experience. Our last morning walk to Lukla, October 21, and the day we flew out, October 22, both started out with clear skies.
Temperatures in October were cold at the higher elevations with ice on the windows when you woke up in the morning, the ground frozen and streams icing up. Hiking could be uncomfortably cold until the sun reached the trail and warmed you. We had a few windy days, one crossing Renjo pass, but generally winds were light. The one thing I didn’t have but wished I did was a buff to protect my face against the cold and wind.
If these trails weren’t at altitude they would be great fun for avid hikers and not particularly difficult. Yes, they are sometimes slippery due to loose dirt or scree but nothing compared the trails in Colorado or Europe. The passes are very steep heading in the clockwise direction but there is a path that winds through. Having a guide is an advantage as the exact path is sometimes difficult to follow, making the trail more difficult than it needs to be.
The biggest challenge is crossing the glaciers because the path of the trail constantly changes due to the movement of the glacier. This is especially true of the Khumbu Glacier before reaching Lobuche coming down from Kongma la. A good guide makes a big difference and if you choose to hike independently you may want to tag along with a guided group when crossing Khumbu.
Trails often run along the hillside up or down the river valley with expansive views, although often into the sun with peaks obscured in a hazy white.
Getting to and from hiking trails in the Everest region generally involves a flight to Lukla. Unfortunately frequent delays occur because of weather and traffic control issues in Kathmandu. For more specific information on our experience see the following posts.
Hiking in the Everest region is a fabulous experience. As I look back through my blog and photos it was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. It may not be for everyone, but if you consider you goals carefully and plan accordingly an incredibly rewarding journey awaits you.
Hiked the 3 Passes Trek October 5-22, 2018
For links to all the posts in this series see the 3 Passes Trek page.