Thousands of trekkers flock each year to Nepal eager to experience the majesty of the world’s highest peaks and with good reason. The country offers limitless options and opportunities for exploring the roof of the world. One of the newest routes on the Nepalese trekking menu is one of the most challenging and rewarding of the country’s major routes.
The not-very-creatively-named Three Passes trail in Sagarmatha National Park builds on the standard Everest Base Camp out-and-back to create a stunning circuit trek that crosses three high-altitude passes above 5,300 meters. Beyond the main trail, the trek offers access to even more amazing vistas of Everest and other 8,000 meter peaks through an array view-points and short side trips.
Most people tackle the Three Passes trek counter-clockwise. This route makes for an easier approach to each of the three passes, with the closest tea houses located much closer to the base of the passes when approaching from the east. Unless you like starting long climbs up 5,000 meter passes in the dark in sub-zero temperatures, I strongly recommend following the circuit counter-clockwise.
Maps and Guidebooks
Maps of all the major treks are readily available throughout Nepal. In Kathmandu, the Thamel area (the main tourist area) is rife with bookstores and other shops stocked with dozens of different maps covering the Everest Base Camp/Three Passes/Gokyo region alone. Shops in Lukla, Jiri, Namche Bazaar and every other major city you are likely to pass on the way, along with most of the minor ones as well, have a similar range of maps.
The map selection includes everything from high-level 1:160,000 detail to fairly precise 1:50,000 maps. Because the trail is so well travelled, even the less detailed maps have enough information to get you around the circuit without too much trouble.
Prices begin at around 400 Rupees ($4), although prices vary significantly depending on which map you choose and which city you are in. If you want to get an early start on your trek planning and don’t mind paying extra for the privilege, the map I used on my trek is available here
The primary trekking guide for hikers in Nepal is Lonely Planet’s Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya. The book contains comprehensive descriptions of 30 major treks, including basic information on getting to and from the trailheads, hiking times to major landmarks, as wells as a bevy of interesting cultural and historical information.
The major weakness of both the Lonely Planet guide and the available maps is the lack of distance information. The book and most maps have estimates of hiking times between major trail landmarks but rarely provide distance information. The absence of absolute measures of hiking distance leads to significant uncertainty in determining hiking times.
On the Three Passes and in the Annapurna region, actual hiking times for members of my group ranged from slightly more than the suggested times to around one third of suggested time, depending on the conditions and the hiker. Absolute distances between landmarks would be much more helpful for estimating hiking times.
When to Go
The high season for trekking in the Nepal Himalaya is October through November. Although quite cold (as low as -10º C at night), the high season has the most sunshine and the least amount of precipitation. The shoulder season can extend until May, but the high passes, including those on the Three Passes trek, are typically closed in Jan-Feb.
These are only guidelines. Keep in mind that any trip into high altitude is risky. Just days before I began my trek in mid-October, the tail end of a massive cyclone hit the Annapurna Circuit’s Thorung La and killed over 30 people while stranding nearly 300. It is essential to be aware of the local conditions no matter when you decide to do your trek.
Even great weather in the high season can be challenging. During my trek, clouds rolled in nearly every day by early afternoon at the latest. It pays to start early and get your hiking done before the cloud cover brings extreme cold and obscures the amazing views.
Guides and Porters
More on this in a later post. The short story is that you don’t need either a guide or porter for the Three Passes trek, unless you want one to make life easier.
The Three Passes trek typically begins in Lukla, which is reached by air from Kathmandu. Lukla has the distinction of being the most dangerous commercial airport in the world. It’s easy to see why. The short and steep runway combines with unpredictable mountain weather to make for challenging conditions that the local airlines have not always been able to manage effectively.
Four or five different airlines fly to Lukla. In good weather, approximately 20-25 flights go between Kathmandu and Lukla each day. Flights costs $162 each way and can be booked in Kathmandu prior to a trek or in Lukla once you arrive. Due to the vagaries of weather, flights are often cancelled. I heard stories of people waiting as many as five days to get out of Lukla, so it pays to have several open days between your planned departure and any subsequent activities.
A different, although not necessarily safer, option is to take the bus and begin the trek in either Shivalaya or Jiri. The trail from Jiri follows the route of the original climbing expeditions to Mt. Everest. In it’s current iteration, with most trekking traffic entering the Khumbu region through Lukla, this interesting and worthwhile section of the Three Passes trail has few hikers. This is a pleasant contrast to the absolute chaos on some sections of the main trail.
Unfortunately, there are no tourist buses to Shivalay/Jiri. Instead, only the less-safe local buses run the route. The local bus to Shivalaya costs around 700 Rs and takes over 10 hours on some of the hairiest roads you’ll ever travel. Jiri is another 1-2 hours. Be prepared for numerous stops and extremely cramped quarters as the local buses stop frequently and will take any passenger who wants to cram aboard. During the last leg of my ride, the bus was so full that nearly a dozen people clambered onto the roof.
Food, Money and Accommodations
Teahouses line the entire trek so you don’t need to bring much food or equipment compared to a backcountry camping trip. The teahouses offer beds and have rudimentary restaurants that serve nearly identical menus of dal baht, noodles, rice, pasta, pizza and tea. The dal baht, despite being priced a touch higher than other entrees, is a favorite because you get a huge second serving. The extra calories are priceless after a long day on the trail.
Bottled water is available throughout the trek but should be avoided. Firstly, the price skyrockets as you get higher up and you’ll end up paying through the nose if you keep properly hydrated, a necessity at altitude. Secondly, the bottles can’t be recycled and create tremendous amounts of trash. Do yourself and this beautiful place a favor by bringing some form of water purification, whether it’s tablets or a filter. I recommend the Sawyer Mini.
A night in a teahouse costs anywhere from 100-250 Rs ($1-$2.50), on the condition that you eat dinner and breakfast in the teahouse. The price for a night stay can jump to as high as 1,200 Rs ($12) if you choose to bring your own food or eat in another teahouse.
I recommend bringing a sleeping bag. The nights get cold and the bedrooms are never heated. Even the common rooms are often only heated by a yak dung stove in the center of the room. In many cases, a sleeping bag will save you money as teahouses below 4,000 meters frequently charged for a blanket (100-200 Rs). Bringing a few snacks to take the edge off is also advisable. Prices on food, and everything else, climb gradually as you gain altitude and can be more than double at the highest teahouses (500-700 Rs per meal compared to 200-400 at lower altitudes).
The teahouses only take Rupees so you will need to bring a significant amount of cash. I heard that budgeting $10 per day is possible, but found that $15-$20 is a more reasonable amount. ATMs are rare, located only in Jiri, Lukla and Namche Bazaar. These typical limit withdrawals to 10,000 Rs ($100) and have fees of 400-500 Rs ($4-$5).
Gear and Equipment
I didn’t find crampons, ropes or other technical gear to be necessary at any point on the trek. I went during the high season so this would clearly change under less favorable conditions.
You can get anything you need in Nepal, whether you plan to rent or buy. If you shop for trekking equipment in Nepal, keep an eye out for knock-offs. They can be fairly convincing but the quality can be poor. I’ve heard that the knock-off jackets and sleeping bags perform fairly well. However, after putting over a thousand miles on my beloved Merrell Trail Gloves over the last year, I opted to purchase a replacement pair of Solomon running shoes in Kathmandu. Despite my close inspection before purchasing, they turned out to be knock-offs that fell apart just a couple days into the trek. Luckily, I was able to find a replacement pair of authentic Solomons (at a much higher price) in Namche Bazaar before I got too far into the trek.
Permits and Fees
The most common route, beginning in Lukla, requires both a Tourist Information Management System (TIMS) card and a Sagarmatha National Park entry permit. These are available from separate offices within the Nepal Tourism Board building in Kathmandu near Thamel. The TIMS card is issued by the Tourist Service Center (“TSC”) for 2,000 Rs ($20). The Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, around the left side of the building from the TSC, issues the Sagarmatha park entry permit for 3,000 Rs ($30).
Taking the old expedition route that begins in either Shivalaya or Jiri requires trekkers to obtain one additional permit beyond the two mentioned above. Because that section of trail passes through the Gaurishankar Conservation Area, those choosing that route must obtain a Gaurishankar Conservation Area Permit from the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation for 2,000 Rs ($20).
The park entry permits are also available as you enter the parks, although prices may be higher there. Each requires a passport-sized photo, so bring several with you when you go to get the permits. If you are planning multiple treks, you will need to buy a separate TIMS for each trek.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this trek is the interaction with the local community. The trail is covered with small mountain villages and their associated stupas, prayer flags, mani walls and prayer wheels. These elements of local culture make for an interesting trekking environment but also offer an opportunity the unaware trekker to offend. The most common way this comes up is at the stupas and mani walls that often split the trail. According to local custom, walk clockwise (to the left) around any religious markers that lie on or near the trail.
Safety and Security
From my experience, Nepal in general and the trekking areas in particular are quite safe. Historically, Maosist insurgents represented a real risk to trekkers in the Khumbu region. Although signs of communist supporters still exist, the insurgents no longer appear to be a threat.
The only significant negative experience I had on any of the my three treks occurred in Manang on the Annapurna Circuit. While staying in a teahouse, someone entered my locked room and, after searching through my bag and that of my hiking buddy, stole most of the money from my bag. From what I gather, this is a fairly unusual experience.
Beyond petty theft, the trail itself can also pose a threat to safety. The trail is travelled by more than just trekkers, guides and porters. Hundreds of yaks, cows and donkeys make their way up and down the trail every day. More than just a colorful curiosity, these often large trains of massive animals can be a serious danger on the narrow trails. Hikers have been hurt and even killed when they have been pushed off the downhill sides of the trail. Always stand on the uphill side when letting yaks and donkeys pass.
That should be everything you need to have your own amazing experience on the Three Passes trek, one of the world’s best. Drop me a note in the comments if you still have questions or think of something I missed.
Kevin – yet another wonderful posting! I look forward to everything you’re reporting – including the “how-to” tips even though I will never see these places in person. You are a great communicator.
Thanks, Shelley. That really means a lot to me. I can’t imagine these tips have too much relevance on Thomas Jefferson St. (not many yaks as I recall) so I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying them.