Everest Panorama and Prayer Flags

Everest Panorama and Prayer Flags

Three Passes (Nepal)

Part 3

This is Part 3 of my 14-day journey on the Three Passes trek in Nepal’s Sagarmatha National Park. Check out my previous posts for more on this spectacular trek into the heart of the Nepal Himalaya:

Day 5 – Thado Koshigoan to Namche Bazaar

I’d arrived in Thado Koshi late the night before. I had to wander around most of the small village before finally finding a tea house with any openings. The high occupancy would turn out to have a significant impact on the rest of my trip.

Mani Wall and Prayer Pole

Mani Wall and Prayer Pole

The owner of the tea house I landed in was named Mingmo Sherpa. He was not only a tea house owner, but also a licensed guide with experience on several major peaks and, by his estimate, nearly 50 circuits of the Three Passes and Everest Base Camp. As I worked my way through a dinner of fried noodles, he offered to guide me for the rest of my trip.

I’d never hiked with a guide before and was not particularly interested in doing so now. However, one of my goals with this whole 7Trails thing is to experience as many different types of hiking possible. If I was ever going to try out a guide, hiring a Sherpa to be my sherpa while in Nepal made a lot of sense.

Tenzing Norgye Stupa outside Namche Bazaar

Tenzing Norgye Stupa outside Namche Bazaar

I slept on the decision and, following a quick inspection of his official Guide Certificate the next morning, hired him for the next 12 days at $25 per day. I overpaid ($15-20 would have been reasonable), but had just arrived in Nepal and hadn’t yet honed my negotiating skills.

We set off together and began the two-hour hike to Phakding (2,610m). The trail was now swamped with agency groups and massive yak trains, a total change from the serenity of the expedition route the previous four days. We were forced to weave our way through massive, slow-moving crowds for most of the day.

Namche Bazaar

Namche Bazaar

We stopped for an early lunch in Phakding, eager to avoid the mad rush that would hit the village when the big groups arrived. After lunch, the trail out of Phakding began a long, steady climb as it passed through a string of small villages, following the curves of the Dudh Koshi Nadi (river).

We reached Namche Bazaar in the early afternoon. Namche is a large market town that draws locals from all over the Khumbu region to buy and sell their goods. The village is the last point on the Three Passes and Everest Base Camp treks to replenish cash or buy last minute equipment. I took the opportunity to hit the lone ATM (like many ATMs in Nepal, this one had a 10,000 Rs/$100 per withdrawal limit) and replace the disintegrating pair of knock-off shoes I’d purchased in Kathmandu with a pair that might hold up over the miles to come.

Prayer Wheels near Tengboche

Prayer Wheels near Tengboche

Day 6 – Namche to Deboche

On the Three Passes trek, Namche marks the beginning of a large circuit that winds through the furthest points of Sagarmatha National Park and the Khumbu region before returning back to Namche on its way to Lukla.  The trail climbs out of Namche and begins a long march to the northeast that ends in Chhukhung (4,730m) several days later.

The early hours out of Namche are highlighted by the Tenzing Norgye Memorial Stupa, which lies on the trail just outside of Namche, and the town of Tengboche (3,870m). Tengboche is home to the famous Tengboche Monastery, which is renowned for the Buddhist festivals that take place there. We stopped in Tengboche briefly. I spent time exploring the monastery while Mingmo disappeared to visit a friend who lived in town.

We hiked another half hour to reach our destination at Deboche (3,820m), where we were treated to amazing views of Ama Dablam (6,856m), as well as Island Peak (6,189m) further up the valley. We arrived in the late morning and spent the day relaxing on the sunny patio.

Day 7 – Deboche to Dingboche

This was one of my shortest hiking days ever. We left Duboche at 8am and made it to Dingboche before 10am. Along the way, we took the east fork of the trail at Orsho, and then pushed up the Imja Khola as it flows down from its source in the northeast at Lhotse (8,393m/4th highest peak in the world) and the Lohtse Shar Glacier.

Valley near Dingboche

Valley near Pheriche Pass

We kept these first few days short to ensure that I acclimatized properly. The typical rule of thumb during acclimatization is to sleep no more than 500m higher than you did the day before. Dingboche is located at 4,360m and, as we were starting to reach higher altitudes, we wanted to make sure that I didn’t run into trouble. We accomplished that mission, but at the cost of some serious discomfort and boredom as I was faced with long days in frigid and nearly empty teahouses.

I decided to go for a walk around Dingboche to keep things from slowing down too much. I wore sandals and brought nothing but my camera and a mid-weight layer, thinking I would just wander around town. I couldn’t resist though and soon found myself climbing the valley wall above Dingboche. I made my way several hundred meters up the large hill immediately to the west of the village before I decided I’d had enough. My relaxed attire led to some strange looks and funny conversations as I passed dozens of trekkers headed the other direction bundled to the max after descending a high pass.

Ama Dablam

Ama Dablam from Chukkhung

Day 8 – Dingboche to Chukkhung

The trek to Chukkhung (4,730m) was even shorter than the day before. Again leaving at 8, we made it to Chukung by 9:30. We passed group after group on the way as they labored up the mild incline. Mingmo apparently decided then that he liked my hiking style and christened me with my latest trail name, “Karma Sherpa.” It would stick for the rest of the trip. I can’t guarantee that it wasn’t because he forgot my real name.

Stream near Chukkhung

Stream near Chukkhung

We had incredible views from our tea house of the north face of Ama Dablam (6,856m) and Ombigaichan (6,340m). Imja Tse/Island Peak (6,189m) and the Chukkhung Glacier towered to the the east.

Chukkhung offers an excellent side trip to Chhukhung Ri (5,550m). The summit of the small peak offers excellent views of Cho Oyu, Pumori, the Lohtse Wall, Makalu and Baruntse. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to make the trip. I had gained altitude fairly quickly (despite the crazy short days) and felt that something approximating a rest day would be good. Mingma, for his part, was adamant that I keep my energy expenditure to a minimum to make sure I would be ready the next day for Kongma La (5,535m), the first of the three major passes.

Unnamed lake below Kongma La

Unnamed lake below Kongma La

Early that evening, the typical heavy cloud cover that came in nearly every afternoon of the trek began to coalesce into something heavier. We were soon watching light snow that would continue on and off throughout the night. This threw our ascent of the pass the next day into doubt and we went to bed unsure of whether we would be able make the climb.

Day 9 – Chukkhung to Lobuche

We woke the next day to two inches of fresh snow. The majority appeared to be down in the valley so we decided to attempt the pass. The other (west) side of the pass is steep and snow covered, so we wanted to be on our way down from the pass before the sun made the footing treacherous. We began our climb at 6:45 am.

Snow Leopard tracks ... maybe?

Snow Leopard tracks … maybe?

We left Chukkhung, crossed a small stream, and began working our way up the western wall of the valley. The snow cover made the hiking challenging, but led to an unexpected surprise. A set of animal tracks followed the trail for most of the first hour. Mingma concluded that they were from a snow leopard.

The trail rounded a major ridge and turned to the west to follow the Niyang Khola (river) toward its headwaters below Kohnma Tse/Mehra Peak (5,820m). We passed below the Nuptse Glacier and began the long, steep climb toward the Kongma La High Camp at around 5,400 meters. The early part of the climb gave us a great view of the Nuptse (7,861m) face to the north. Clouds moved in quickly, however, and obscured the view the rest of the way.

Kongma La - S. America, N. America, Europe and Asia. Only three left.

Kongma La with the Khumbu Glacier in the background – S. America, N. America, Europe and Asia. Only three hikes left.

We eventually climbed above the clouds and crested the pass to clear-ish skies at around 9:45 am. After savoring the views and the accomplishment, we turned and dropped and down the snow-covered west side of the pass. The Khumbu Glacier, flowing down from Mt. Everest to the north, now lay between us and Lobuche, our final stop for the day. The rolling trail across the glacier was a nest of false trails and dead-ends, but we gradually made our way and reached Lobuche in the early afternoon.

Khumbu Glacier below Kongma La

Khumbu Glacier below Kongma La

In Lobuche, I met two Canadians and a father/daughter pair from the States that I would see on-and-off throughout the rest of trek. We spent a fun afternoon and evening swilling lemon-ginger-honey tea and telling travel stories.

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