or how to tackle the 3 Passes and the Everest Base Camp
06/05/2014 - 25/05/2014
A longer post this time, to relate about my recent trek in the Himalayas. Indeed, this was always my goal, to finish on a high note this amazing trip around the world, near the roof of the world: Mount Everest....
Obviously I could forget about actually climbing Mount Everest (even if that would have been quite cool!), as for that you would need a lot more money that I could have and more importantly some very good ice/rock climbing skills (and at least another two months). Just the permit to climb the Everest is around 18,000 Euros if I remember well, plus the cost of your equipment, wages of the Sherpas, food, etc... and you could find yourself having to pay easily around 50,000 Euros. Well anyway that wasn't an option for me and I was fine by just trekking to the base camp, located at 5,364 metres high, on the Khumbu glacier, a few hundred metres below the deadly icefall which killed 16 Sherpas this year, forcing them to cancel all the expeditions to the top for this season.
So before coming to Nepal and reading the news about this ice fall, I got a bit worried that trekking in this region would become difficult as a result and would force me to trek somewhere else. I mean it is not like Nepal is lacking of nice hiking trails to explore (the Annapurna circuit for example) but being able to see the Everest for real was kind of something I had been looking forward for a long time. Fortunately when I arrived in Kathmandu, in the beginning of May, everyone told me that there weren't any problems for trekking in the region and that only the climbing expeditions were cancelled. As a result the Everest Base Camp (EBC) would probably be completely empty but at least still accessible.
The next thing to do was therefore to choose a trekking route to reach the EBC. Actually to be honest, anyone who is an average walker can do the EBC trek, no matter how young, old or unfit you are. The trails are well marked, wide and there are no difficult climbs as the path goes up following the valleys so the only difficulty lies with the altitude. Indeed from the starting point in Lukla (located 30 minutes away by plane, east of Kathmandu) at 2,800m to the Everest Base Camp at 5,364m there is quite a difference and if you rush too much, without taking a few days to acclimatise to the altitude, then you will suffer what people call AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) which is basically headaches, nausea, vomiting, etc... all the effects that the altitude can have on your body. And it doesn't even matter if you are fit and young, you could be more affected than someone older and less fit than you. In front of Altitude sickness, everyone is different and the only thing you can do is to take your time when going up.
But to come back to the choice of the route, instead of walking just the EBC trek, I decided to go for the "loop" which is also called the 3 passes trek. This one is definitely more challenging as it makes you cross 3 high passes at more than 5,300 metres high and also let you combine with 3 peaks (around 5,550 metres each) and of course the Everest Base Camp. And as a result, while the standard EBC trek would usually take around 12 to 14 days, this one is meant to take longer, from 18 to 21 days, depending on your speed. And now I can say it, YES, this was definitely the harder and most challenging trek I have ever done, by far. But the views were so fantastic that it was definitely worth the pain!
The next thing was to choose whether to go independently, with a guide or with a tour operator. And in Kathmandu it is hard to make an objective opinion as the people who know the best are also the ones trying to sell you a guide or a complete package which includes a detailed itinerary/schedule and guide + porters. They would tell you that you ABSOLUTELY need a guide and porters because it is a hard trek so you cannot possibly carry a big backpack and a guide is needed because the trails can be hard to find... Well they are wrong, the choice is entirely up to you and depends hugely on your budget, on how much you can afford to spend during this trek and if you have done some similar treks before.
My personal opinion is that if you are between 20 and 40 years old, fit and with already some trekking experience then you probably don't need a guide and even less a porter to carry your stuff. Actually the guide can be a nice bonus if you can afford it as he would be a local, you will be able to ask him all the questions you want and in case of a bad weather, he will help you find the correct path in the mountains. But a guide costs around 20-25$/day so that is quite a budget if you are not prepared for it. Besides if the weather is clear, then the trail are really easy to find so no problems about that (it is always recommended to take a good topographic map anyway and if you can, a GPS device).
If you are a bit less fit and/or have more money to spend, then you can hire some porters or sign up with a tour operator in Kathmandu but you will end up paying at least twice as much as the ones doing it independently and will have to share the trails constantly with another 10 to 20 people... So much for being alone within the nature...
So by reading the lines above you can now guess which option I chose... Indeed I decided to go on my own, with my big backpack (weighting 18kg without water at the beginning). Well not entirely on my own as I had met one Dutch guy in the hostel in Kathmandu, and we had decided to do at least a part of the trek together. It is not really recommended to trek alone in those mountains anyway as it is always possible to twist an ankle for example and to be stuck in a bad situation, without any help to call for.
The next thing one has to organise for this trek is to book some flight tickets to Lukla (or choose to go by bus to Jiri and then walk for 5 to 6 days). And for me this was a surprise... I knew I had to take the plane (I wasn't really keen on walking 6 days on bad trails and with a probably very bad weather because of the low altitude) but I didn't know how much it would cost... And in 2014, a one-way flight to Lukla costs around 165$! Make it return and you have already spent 330$ even before you started walking... whoops! But the alternative of walking takes quite some time so I emptied my wallet and bought my return ticket.
Turned out that actually because of the weather, it is really common for flights to be cancelled, even for a few days in a row so even though it sucks, you need to be prepared to that possibility... And it is exactly what happened to us, the day we were supposed to fly out to Lukla, all flights were cancelled, which left us waiting at the domestic airport for hours, until a last minute deal was offered to us in the afternoon: flying in a helicopter! (for about 35$ more obviously...)
And on the way back the same thing happened, very few flights each day because of the weather deteriorating as the day goes by, so we had to wait almost two days before being able to fly back to Kathmandu... (no helicopter option this time unfortunately).
- Day 0 - Kathmandu to Lukla (2,840m)
Instead of catching an early flight and starting to walk straight away, we wasted a whole day waiting at the airport for a flight, only to take a helicopter in the afternoon. By the time we arrived in Lukla, it was too late to start walking so we decided to stay there for the night.
- Day 1 - Lukla to Monju (2,835m)
Nice walk without a lot of elevation
(walking time: 4.5 hours)
- Day 2 - Monju to Namche Bazaar (3,440m)
Short hike up to Namche but with a 600m elevation. I started to find myself out of breath quicker than usual due to the altitude.
(walking time: 2.25 hours)
- Day 3 - Acclimatisation day around Namche Bazaar
As the altitude starts to be felt, we took the day to do a nice hike around, up to the Everest View Hotel (3,880m), to get the first views of the Everest of this trek! Then went back down to Namche via Khumjung and Kumde.
(walking time: 4 hours)
- Day 4 - Namche Bazaar to Thame (3,820m)
Hike up to Thame.
(walking time: 3.25 hours)
- Day 5 - Thame to Lungden (4,368m)
Not a difficult hike but we missed the last section of the trail and found ourselves having to climb the last 200 metres on a very steep section. The headaches started to appear...
(walking time: 3.75 hours)
- Day 6 - Acclimatisation day around Lungden
Acclimatisation day a bit failed as we didn't go high enough that day. Usually for a good acclimatisation day, it is recommended to go quite high and come back down at the altitude where you were the night before so that the body can get used to the altitude changes. Headaches were still there...
(walking time: 4.5 hours)
- Day 7 - Lungden to Gokyo (4,790m) via Renjo La pass (5,360m)
Probably the hardest day of the trek and also the longest... It took us 5 hours to go up to that pass (1,000m elevation) with the last section made of steps but still being really challenging. The headaches came back stronger and by the time we arrived in Gokyo, François was almost crawling on the floor due to his headaches and I wasn't a lot more better...
(walking time: 8 hours)
- Day 8 - Rest day in Gokyo
A well deserved rest day after the previous one.
- Day 9 - Gokyo to Dragnag (4,700m) via Gokyo Ri peak (5,360m)
Waking up at 4am, I started to climb (alone, François still suffering headaches) a peak nearby and after about 1h30min of efforts, I arrived just in time to see the sun rising behind the Everest. Magic... (see video below).
Later that day, after a nap, we resumed the walk by crossing the glacier and finally reached Dragnag, ready for our second pass the next day.
(walking time: 2 hours)
- Day 10 - Dragnag to Dzongla (4,830m) via Cho La pass (5,420m)
Another very challenging day, especially the last 200 metres which was a climb among lose rocks and also with some falling from the top of the mountain. A few scary moments. On the way down, we crossed a glacier which was kind of cool.
(walking time: 7 hours)
- Day 11 - Dzongla to Gorak Shep (5,140m)
Gentle hike to Gorak Shep with a lunch break in Lobuche. We were joining back the official EBC trek trail and it was definitely getting busier.
(walking time: 4.5 hours)
- Day 12 - Everest Base Camp (5,364m)
Day trip from Gorak Shep to the Everest Base Camp. Apart for a few tents, the camp was mostly empty like people had told us but it was nice to see the place where so many legendary climbing adventures had begun. The only thing is that from the base camp, seeing the Everest is not possible as the mountains around, Nuptse and Lotse, block the view.
(walking time: 3.5 hours)
- Day 13 - Gorak Shep to Lobuche, via Kala Patthar peak (5,643m)
Another early wake up (still alone) and another sunrise view from the top of the Kala Patthar peak, with amazing view of Mount Everest.
Later that day, we made our way back to Lobuche, to prepare the crossing of the last pass of the trek.
(walking time to the top of the peak: 1.25 hour - walking time to Lobuche: 1.30 hour)
- Day 14 - Lobuche to Chukkung (4,730m), via Kongma La pass (5,535m)
François still not feeling well, we decided to split, him starting going down and me going up to the pass. It was a scary start for me as I took an old path through the moraine/glacier, only to see that path stopping after 15min. I then tried to make my own path through the falling rocks and thought more than once that I was going to find myself in a crevasse or under some big rocks... Luckily after more than an hour I finally managed to get through that section and the steep climb started. I took me a total of 3 hours to get to the top of the pass, a good time considering the time lost in the moraine. The views at the top were fantastic. Going down took actually a bit longer even if it was more pleasant.
(walking time: 7 hours)
- Day 15 - Chukkung to Deboche (3,820m), via Chukkung Ri peak (5,550m)
My last early bird start to climb the peak called Chukkung Ri. It's always quite fun to start hiking with only your flashlight to light the path but it can also lead you to take the wrong path (and wrong mountain) in the dark. Fortunately thanks to the map and the sun rising I could catch up with the right trail and it took me 3 hours to get to the top. And there was a nice reward because even though you cannot see the Everest (hidden), you get a splendid view on several valleys around you. Definitely worth the climb! Later that day I decided to cover as much ground as I could to go down until Deboche.
(walking time: 8 hours)
- Day 16 - Deboche to Namche Bazaar (3,440m)
Not a big day but not that easy though as the path is going up and down with some steep sections.
(walking time: 3 hours)
- Day 17 - Namche to Lukla (2,840m)
Finally, after having caught up with my friend, we made that last walking day through a path that we knew already, back to our starting point. Not that easy as we had a good pace and didn't want to arrive too late in Lukla, so that we could change the date of our return flight ticket.
(walking time: 5 hours)
- Day 18 & 19 - Waiting for a flight back to Kathmandu...
About the money, one should count around 2000-2500 rupees (20-25$) per day on average throughout the trek, covering meals, accommodation, snacks and the occasional shower, battery charge and internet access.
And here is the elevation profile of the trek, with its highest point being the summit of Kala Patthar (5,643m).
About this peak, it is to note that even though all maps record Kala Patthar with an altitude of 5,545m - 5,550m, I met a guy who had a Garmin GPS and who told me that on its highest point, his device recorded 5,622 metres. That's quite a big difference but after a few researches online, I found out that other people had found the same discrepancy, leading me now to consider that Kala Patthar is actually the highest point I have ever climbed in my life (though not the hardest).
Definitely one of the best treks I have ever did and without any doubts the most challenging. Unless you are blessed by the gods and belong to the 10% of the population which adapts well to the altitude, you WILL experience at least once the headaches and exhaustion that comes with trekking at high altitude. But given time, your body will adapt and will start to produce more red blood cells to carry more oxygen. And once this side of the things taken care of, this trek offers some of the best mountain views in the world. After all this is not the "roof of the world" for nothing...
Photos & Videos
Short video taken on top of Gokyo Ri. It's in French but I have added the English subtitles...