Thame to Chukkung: The Three Passes
What a contrast! In this section we walked through the famous Everest Region or the Khumbu as it is known in Nepal. In summary, from Thame we crossed the famous ‘Three Passes,’ and took a detour to visit Everest Base Camp and climb Kala Patthar.
We had a well received rest day in Thame on the 9th of November on which we were grateful for slightly higher temperatures which meant we could do our washing without risking hypothermic fingers. Thame was at only 3800m, the lowest we would be for nearly a month. Naturally we had written off the morning thanks to the celebratory activities of the night before, a pattern which seems to occur the night before every rest day. We had planned a trip to the local monastery but we all chose to spend the afternoon sleeping!
On the 10th we headed up and out of Chukkung. We were now a very large group of nine as Thomas Smart and John Smart had joined us, along with Pemba, our porter from the first half. We ambled up the valley towards Lumden (4350m) passing a series of stupas. In this section we reduced our speed to a more average pace, in part because we were a larger and slower group but also because we were now a few days ahead of schedule and no longer needed to push ourselves.
On the 11th we crossed the first of the famous ‘Three Passes,’ the Renjo La (5395m). The pass itself was beautiful as were the series of lakes below it. At the top we had a fantastic view of Everest. It was the first time Thomas had seen the mountain and he celebrated by playing his ukulele which he carried the entirety of his walk. From there we headed steeply down towards Gokyo, arriving in the late afternoon.
Gokyo is a famous town in the Everest Region which sits beside a large blue glacial lake. John had been there thirty years prior when it was little more than a collection of shepherds’ huts. Today Gokyo is a collection of massive lodges offering every convenience that the modern trekker could dream of, from helicopter services to espresso coffee. We shamelessly beelined to a bakery that afternoon.
On the 12th we crossed a large glacial moraine to Dragnag (4700m). Compared to most of the moraines we have crossed this was a breeze with an actual constructed path! It was only two hours from Gokyo to Dragnag.
The next day we headed up our second pass, the spectacular Cho La (5420m). It was quite a steep pass but with a very well formed path. We were astounded by the crowds and saw a number of people suffering badly from altitude sickness. At the top we stood in a crowd of about 100 people, including a very affectionate dog! On the eastern side had to cross a small icy glacier. John had crossed this pass forty years ago when the glacier was tens of metres higher and hundreds of metres longer. There was no escaping the somber signs of climate change in this region.
We donned our crampons for this short section. Most tourists did not have crampons which made for some amusing scenes as they slipped comically in rapid succession. Some resorted to crawling, others sacrificed socks by putting them over their boots. We arrived in Dzongla (4830m) shortly after noon.
It was about this time that we finally worked out the inverse relationship between the price of dahl bhat and its quality! In truth, we struggled hugely with the food quality in the Khumbu region and its inflated non-competitive pricing. Even dahl bhat was no longer a safe bet. In fact we were all to be slightly unwell from the food at Dzongla while Nic suffered a severe bout of gastro.
On the 14th we headed from Dzongla onto the famous Everest Base Camp route. Unfortunately our illness free streak had ended and Nic was severely unwell with gastro from last night’s dinner. After a few kilometres of spectacular contouring, we hit the Everest Base Camp (EBC) route proper. This track sees around 40,000 trekkers a year in addition to innumerable numbers of porters and guides. The track itself was like a highway but we were grateful for some easy walking. We had decided to take a bit of a side-trip off the Great Himalayan Trail at this point. The official GHT takes a strange route at this point, actually choosing the low route to Chukkung. However we elected to head up the valley, visit Everest Base Camp and then toss in an extra 5000m pass by heading over the Kongma La (5535m) to Chukkung. I think it must be an oversight that the Kongma La is not included in the GHT and I am sure it will be in the future.
While busy, it was an enjoyable walk up to Gorak Shep, although not for Nic who was suffering from stomach cramps. Mules are banned above Namche so we only ran into small trains of dzo and yaks. Gorak Shep is a high tourist village, the final stop before visiting EBC. Our first impression was rather negative, witnessing a giant pile of burning plastic directly outside the lodges. Unfortunately Gorak Shep seems to be suffering profoundly from overtourism and the environment is bearing the brunt. For example, a glacial lake has served as a water source for Gorak shep however it has now dried up due to climate change. Now water for the entire town is being carried by porters from a glacial melt some forty minutes away. The lodges do not provide access to this water, instead forcing tourists to buy bottled water, despite the complete lack of rubbish systems. The sale of bottled water has huge negative impacts and I strongly believe it should be banned outright. We were quite put off by this and Patrick elected to make the walk to the glacial melt and fetch water for the group.
The lodge itself was very crowded, at night the noise of coughing was jarring. Many tourists are evacuated from Gorak Shep after suffering from altitude illness. Indeed the constant flow of helicopters did not cease while we were there. We were shocked to discover some the helicopters were not for rescues, but rather for individuals who decide to avoid the walk back to Lukla and instead charter a helicopter! Coming from Australia where the activities of helicopters are tightly controlled we found the casual acceptance of helicopters within the jewel of Nepal’s national parks to be rather jarring, especially considering that the helicopters fly very close to the tourist path!
On the morning of the 15th we awoke at 4:30 am to head up the famous Kala Patthar (5550m) for sunrise. We climbed in the cold among a trail of torches to see Everest in the dawn light. We climbed quickly, summiting by 6am. It was very cold at the top but we saw a few mice taking advantage of its popularity as a snack stop.
After returning for breakfast, we headed up the valley toward Everest Base Camp. At this time of year EBC is uninhabited and was little more than a few prayer flags on the moraine. We could clearly see the notorious Khumbu ice fall and the scars on the valley walls from the deadly avalanche of 2015. We took a few photos and headed back down the valley towards Lobuche (4910m). Unfortunately, Nic was still too unwell and missed out on the morning’s side trips.
On the 16th we headed up our third of the ‘Three Passes,’ the Kongma La (5535m). To reach its base we crossed the Khumbu glacier, the longest glacier in Nepal and from there headed steeply uphill. On the shaded side of the mountain it was extremely cold and we were glad to break into the sunshine. The Kongma La takes its name from a delightful bird species called the Himalayan Snowcock. We encountered several flocks of these creatures over the previous few days. The best description is that these large birds look like a cross between a chicken and a puffin. They are very rounded, speckled and extremely fluffy looking. While they can fly, they prefer to run along the ground making alarmed high-pitched clucks.
We reached the top by 9:30am from where we had a stunning view. On the descent we skipped stones on a large frozen lake and were amused by their other-worldly sound effects. We were in Chukkung (4730m) by lunchtime where we met Nic who had taken the low route around as he was still feeling unwell.
We afforded ourselves a double rest day in Chukkung, our first of the trip! We had some serious decisions to make. Our next section was due to be extremely technical as we had to cross three mountaineering passes in a row: Amphu Lapsta (5845m), Sherpani Col (6180m) and West Col (6190m). In addition to technical climbing, this section would require several days of camping on glaciers in extremely exposed conditions. However the weather was far from optimal. The forecast suggested that we would be nudging temperatures of almost -30°C during the day. This would be too cold for technical ropework and so we had to make the difficult decision to come up with an alternative route. We decided to cross only the first pass, and then head down the valley towards the Mera La (5415m).
Sadly Nic felt he was too unwell to continue over these difficult passes and decided to head to Lukla airport and then directly back to Australia. Nic had also been struggling with cold feet and didn’t want to risk frostbite as we would be walking in snow for extended periods. We were sad to know that we would not be finishing as a team but we were grateful to get so far and it would have been foolish for Nic to continue. Our final section was to be testing!