Chukkung to Lukla crossing the Amphu Labsta and Mera La
We were ready and rearing to go on November 19th after being in Chukkung for three days. We had bade farewell to Nic and Thomas who were heading directly to Lukla meaning that our group was reduced to seven. We were very apprehensive about this section as it was the highest section of the trip and temperatures had been plummeting in recent weeks. Although we were heading only one valley over from the Everest region, very few tourists walk this route and there is very little infrastructure so we were expecting several nights of cold camping at altitude. We also had to cross the Amphu Labsta (5845m), a high technical pass requiring mountaineering skills which has been described as the most dangerous pass in Nepal.
From Chukkung we headed up and away from the crowds on a small trail leading towards the Amphu Labsta. We were looking forward to solitude again after the crowds of the last two weeks. In recent weeks the mountains had been feeling increasingly icy as winter hardened its grip so we had been trying our best to be in camp by mid-afternoon at the latest. This meant we could be in bed asleep before 6pm when it became too cold to venture outside. On the 19th we camped at 5200m in a glacial bowl directly under the pass. The pass looked extremely steep and intimidating as we tried to visualise our route up it. We couldn’t find running water so we had to melt snow, a time consuming process. At about 3pm our camp fell into shade and the temperature began to plummet. We retreated to the tents and cooked inside. Overnight even our water bottles inside our tent froze solid.
November 20th was the big day! Unfortunately we got off to a slow start due to the extreme cold of the night before. Our tent pegs had frozen solid into the ground and we had to use our ice axes to painstakingly hack them out. Patrick cut his hand badly attempting to retrieve the pegs but the temperature was so cold he didn’t notice for some time! Several pegs were reluctantly abandoned. The temperature that morning was so bitterly cold that even our Nalgene bottles became non-functional as water froze around their rims making them impossible to seal. In Australia we never experience temperatures below -10°C so this was a learning experience for us! Small gear failures added up to make it very difficult. For example lighters struggling in the cold caused havoc with our stove, Ciara’s contact lenses froze, our sunscreen was unusable as it was frozen so solidly and our stove struggled despite being used in our vestibule. Not to mention our hands were excruciatingly cold!
We did not manage to leave camp until about 8:15 and from there we began the 600m climb to the pass. We soon hit the snowline and donned our crampons and harnesses. Despite being steep, the snow was well compacted so conditions were ideal for crampons. We soon encountered a long steel cable that had been installed some years before. Although it was not in the best shape, we could attach ourselves to it to reduce our fall risk and it offered some psychological confidence. As the route became steeper we were surprised to encounter another group coming the other way. This was a large commercial group with thirty porters and six clients. The porters, carrying huge loads, were struggling to descend the steep slope wearing only runners and tiny ineffective crampons. Below us we could see the remains of a wicker basket with camping equipment strewn around it. Evidently a porter had slipped in the past months and tumbled down the slope, his load was irretrievable. It was a sobering reminder that porters are often taken for granted and not provided with appropriate equipment. Thankfully our porters were well looked after and had no problems on the climb, even stopping to assist the other team’s porters.
As we continued to climb we rather disturbingly began to hear shrieks and screams while rocks and ice occasionally fell from above. The clients in the other group were being lowered down the pass by their guide but we were dismayed to discover that they had never abseiled before and most were in various states of panic. Suffice to say they were not having the best day. This caused a bottleneck as we attempted to cross this group while avoiding rockfall. We were quite surprised to meet any group at all as this pass is not commonly attempted.
Eventually we passed this group and continued to climb upwards. Our lungs were heaving from the altitude. At almost 6000m there is only 50% as much oxygen as sea level concentration. However we all felt surprisingly clear headed and strong. We reached the top of the pass in perfect weather, without a hint of wind and with clear blue skies! It was stunning. To our west we could see Everest and Ama Dablum, to the north Nuptse and Island Peak, to the East Baruntse and Makalu. However we could also see an imposing ice fall below us which we would have to cross. We stopped to take photos and watched as a flock of crows circled above us. One landed to investigate us and caused a significant rockfall directly below us! We did not linger long.
The icefall was a little tricky to descend, requiring a number of abseils. The glacier is melting very quickly here. Chhiree had crossed this pass only a few years before and the route was now entirely different and significantly steeper due to the glacial retreat. As we took turns to descend the rope we felt uneasy standing under giant ice blocks and listening to their steady dripping in the sun.
By early afternoon we had escaped the ice fall and made our way down the steep scree slope. Several hundred metres below we could see a small building sitting along on the moraine. We learnt that this was in fact an extremely basic teahouse established recently by an enterprising local. I cannot strongly enough emphasise the isolation of this building and the extreme weather conditions it experiences at 5500m! We arrived only in the nick of time, catching the owner placing his backpack on his shoulders to head down the valley! Thankfully he was willing to stay and let us sleep inside. After the extreme cold of the previous night we were willing to sleep inside, especially considering we were still at 5500m!
The description of a ‘teahouse’ is a little grandiose as it was basic in the extreme, little more than a long stone building with dirt floors and a tarp roof. The long building was split into two rooms, one with a large raised platform that could sleep around a dozen individuals and another room for the kitchen. However it served our needs perfectly, and the owner cooked us the best dahl bhat we had enjoyed in weeks! The curry even had dried spinach! I am certain that this is the highest dahl bhat in the world served from the highest and most isolated teahouse in the world. We shared some chocolate with the owner and headed to bed quickly.
We experienced another bitterly cold night with the wind blowing under the tarp roof and through the holes in the stone walls. Patrick had an especially cold night because he had been carrying our frost covered tent which had melted during the day and leaked onto his sleeping bag. His bag had frozen rigid. Nobody slept well at 5500m!
Early the next day we headed down the spectacular Hongu Valley. The glaciers are melting very quickly in this area and we passed dozens of newly formed glacial lakes. They were partially frozen and the wind whistling under the ice created eerie otherworldly noises. After moraine, we transitioned into a long stretch of stunning grassy meadows. We passed through a sandstorm billowing in a dry riverbed. Despite being so close to the Everest region, this valley sees very little visitation and has no infrastructure to speak of aside from a few stone huts that are seasonally inhabited. Late in the day we arrived at Khongme Dingma (4800m), where three rudimentary stone buildings are clustered together and offer a roof to sleep under.
On the 22nd of November we faced our final 5000m pass, the Mera La (5415m). The Mera La sits just below Mera Peak, a popular trekking peak. As we climbed, we saw many figures moving about on the snow slopes above. Coming from the West, we had to ascend a series of steep scree slopes before reaching the glacier itself and donning crampons. The pass was beautiful, a wide glacier dropping off steeply on either side. We carefully descended the other side which was very steep but compacted. That night we slept in Khare, a veritable metropolis that serves as a base for Mera Peak climbers. Because it was early winter there were few tourists around, we were the only ones in the lodge, a recurring event for the next few days.
From Khare the infrastructure increased as we were on the main route to Mera Peak. We headed further down the valley to Kothe (3660m) where it was nice to be below the treeline for the first time in weeks. From Kothe we ascended about 1700m to Chetarwa, a settlement just below our final pass. We are quite attuned to how vegetation is affected by altitude at this stage. For example, on this day we climbed from pine forest at 3600m which soon transitioned to bamboo, then large rhododendron, smaller rhododendron and finally just windswept rhododendron shrubs above the treeline. Walking among rhododendron is a sensory experience as they smell incredibly strong and in fact are often burnt in incense. The walk to Chetarwa was dramatic, with the clouds sitting below us we hugged the mountain as we ascended and descended to traverse ridgelines and negotiate landslides.
We didn’t realise it, but the 25th of November was to be our final day of walking and it included an ascent of 500m and over 2000m of descent! From Chetarwa we ascended steeply to cross the Zatrawa La (4610m), a beautiful stark rocky pass. Unfortunately there was a bitter wind so we raced along quickly. That afternoon we descended well over 2000m, feeling the air thicken as we dropped. We had intended to break this day into two, but decided to push on to Lukla. By late afternoon we reached Lukla and took our final few steps of this massive walk.
In true Lukla fashion, we were stranded for several days waiting for the weather to clear so the planes could land. For good reason, Lukla is a notorious airport. Famously the runway is only 500m long, cut into the steep landscape and surrounded by ridgelines that have proven treacherous in poor visibility. Planes dare not risk landing unless there is perfect visibility. We were not on a strict timeline so we were not too worried and spent a few days gorging on momos and indulging in non-vegetarian dishes!
Finally, on the 28th of November we escaped Lukla on a spectacular mountain flight. Most tourist flights out of Lukla no longer fly directly to Kathmandu but rather Ramechap as Kathmandu airport is too congested. From Ramechap we endured a stomach churning six hour bus ride into Kathmandu. We narrowly avoided several head-on collisions as the driver raced at breakneck speed along the windy mountain roads.
After three whole months in the mountains it was jarring to arrive back in the hustle of Kathmandu. We had five days in Kathmandu during which time we indulged in multiple showers a day and fresh vegetables.
Finishing this trip was a monumental achievement for all of us. It will take a long time for us to process our experience. In total we spent ninety days on track, including nine rest days. We crossed fifteen passes above 5000m and climbed two peaks above 5000m. We had twenty-six nights of isolated camping. In total our trip was exactly one hundred days long!
However we owe a large part of our achievement to Chhiree Sherpa, operator and head guide of Best Nepal Trekking. Chhiree has now walked the upper route of the Great Himalayan Trail twice, a feat that we are not sure is matched! Chhiree kept us safe in many perilous circumstances and always kept the team on track and on schedule even in the most demanding of circumstances. And of course it was special to share this trip with our porters: Pemba, Nerindra and Yelbi. Their stoicism, kindheartedness and humor kept us going when we were all hungry, tired and cold. We also owe thanks to Scouts Australia. Over many many years Scouts taught us the basic skills to put this trip together and gave us the confidence to chase crazy outdoor pursuits.
The three of us will miss Nepal as we head back into ordinary life. We will miss the friendly curiosity of the people, the vibrancy of the culture, the spiciness of the food and the cheerfulness of the music. We will not miss frozen water bottles, chapped lips, sunburn and mules! This trip was as outrageous, epic, challenging and rewarding as we could have hoped!
Expect a final post with a few reflections and statistics in the next few weeks!