The High Passes of Everest Trek – Lukla to Namche Days 1 – 3

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A View of Mount Everest from Renzo La with Buddhist Prayer Flags in the foreground

The World’s #1 Long-Distance Trek (IMO!)

There is no way that everyone will agree on a list of the top ten must-do treks in the world. Google the topic and you’ll come up with an incredible range of choices – and be left disagreeing with some of them.

The people behind the  Wiki Explora website came up with a novel idea – Why not check out a number of books that contain such lists and on the basis of a trek’s appearance in more or fewer books, come up with a ranking? Almost sounds scientific! In the end, it is still subjective, however, no matter how well-travelled were the writers of the various books.

The above site, for example, has as its goal the promotion of outdoor activities in Latin America. This could explain why Torres del Paine ended up as the #1 hiking destination and the Inca Trail as #2 and why they’ve provided write-ups (highlighted in blue)  only for the South American entries.

Over the past few years (from 2006 to 2019), I’ve done the four treks ranked above the Everest B.C. trek, as well as the other South American hikes on the list below. There is a wide range in trek durations:

  • the Inca Trail takes 4 days,
  • the TDP trek and the Kilimanjaro hike take a week, and
  • the Tour de Mont Blanc takes 10 days.
  • The Everest Base Camp trek is the longest at 12 to 14 days

Having walked all of these top 5 treks,  I think the Everest B.C. trek should be at the top of the list.

The Top 5 treks in the world – Wiki Explora list

And yet – there is an even greater trek – the true #1! The Everest B.C. Trek is only a part of this longer Himalayan trek that I have in mind.

map of Nepal and surrounding territories with Sagarmatha N.P. highlighted

Click here for the interactive Google map version that you can zoom in or out on.

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One Trek To Rule Them All:

The High Passes of Everest Trek

The trek I have in mind is what the Lonely Planet’s Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya describes as

“an epic journey that will take you over some of the highest mountain passes  in the world. It stitches together the best of the Everest Base Camp and Gokyo treks and two of the most rewarding side treks of the lower Khumbu.”

Called The Three Passes Trek by the LP writers,  during the twenty days or so of your adventure, you cross three 5300m+  passes –

  • Kongma La 5535
  • Cho La 5420
  • Renjo La 5335

as you traverse from valley to valley and glacier to glacier. In case you’re wondering, the word “La” is Tibetan for “pass”!

Included in the trek are three non-technical peaks that most choose to walk up for yet more incredible views:

  • Chhukung Ri   5546    18196′
  • Kala Pathar   5645   18,519′ 
  • Gokyo Ri    5357 m   7,575′ 

This puts the Three Passes of Everest Trek in a category all of its own.

  • Not to discount the wonder of Machu Picchu and the four-day hike to get there,
  • not to disparage the fine views of glacial lakes and of Siula Grande on the Huayhuash trek,
  • not to dismiss the six-day walk around the iconic towers at Torres del Paine Park or
  • three or four days doing day hikes at Fitz Roy,

but the High Passes of Everest trek offers all of this and more- and all on an epic scale that the Andes just cannot match. In the twenty days of the High Passes trek, you could do any three of the South American hikes without rushing!

The High Passes of Everest Trek has everything a trekker could want –

  • the stunning physical landscape of the Himalayas,
  • the fascinating vibrant local culture of the Sherpa people infused with their Tibetan Buddhist religion which becomes a part of your journey,  and
  • the physical challenge of staying healthy and acclimatizing to the demands of the high altitude over a three-week period.

The High Passes of Everest Trek

The Khumbu region above Lukla is defined by three great river valleys. From west to east they are the Bhote Kosi, the Dudh Kosi, and the Imja Khola.

The High Passes of Everest Trek has you walk up or down all three of these river valleys, as well as a hike up and down the Khumbu Glacier to Kala Pathar above Everest Base Camp.

A Google Earth View of The High Passes Route:

If you want a Google-Earth 3D view of the High Passes of Everest route, download this internet-accessed kml file of the route from my Dropbox folder.  Just click on the download prompt in the top left-hand corner and then open the file in Google Earth.

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How To Do The Trek

1. The Trekking Agency Option

A. Exodus UK

I did not do the trek on my own; rather, I booked the trek with Exodus, a UK adventure travel company that I have used on a number of occasions, always quite satisfied with their service and attention to detail and with the quality Nepalese guides and support staff it has on the ground running the tours.

There are other trekking companies which offer a similar package and I am sure most of them do a pretty good job. A bit of research on your part should lead you to a good match.

What the Lonely Planet called The Three Passes Trek was originally named the High Passes of Everest by the Exodus marketing department. Then it was repackaged as High Passes To Everest Base Camp; perhaps having “Base Camp” in the title made it more marketable.

And post-COVID?  The Three Passes trek does not exist at all in the Exodus catalogue. Click here to see the details of the 19-day teahouse trek that is now the most ambitious trek Exodus offers in the Khumbu region.

B. Mountain Kingdoms – a UK agency

I did find the trek offered on the UK’s Mountain Kingdoms website but given that it does the trip clockwise and thus adds an extra level of difficulty and potential acclimatization issues to the trek,  I’d probably pass on their offering. The post-trip comments are quite positive so perhaps my fears are unwarranted.

C. Other U.K., European,  or North American-based trekking agencies

Some googling may turn up yet other non-Nepalese-based agencies which offer variations of the High Passes of Everest trek in 2022. You do pay a premium for using a U.K., European,  or North American-based trekking agency, sometimes a whopping one.  In the end, they all are required to hire local guides and support teams so it can be cheaper just to eliminate them and go with a Nepalese company.

The Lonely Planet guidebook is a reliable source of information on which Kathmandu-based trekking agencies will be able to meet your expectations.

approaching Kongma La from Chhukung and the Imja Khola valley

2. Doing It On Your Own (Or With Porter/Guide)

Since it was my first time, I really had no idea what to expect before I went off to Nepal. I’ll admit that letting a trusted trekking agency take care of all the details about

  • internal flights
  • accommodation
  • food
  • health and safety issues
  • route-finding (such as it was!)

while I focused on interesting camera angles had its attractions!  However, had I been 25 instead of 55, my bank account may have encouraged me to do more of the above myself!

I will say that the Exodus crew definitely added value to my experience thanks to the fact that they themselves were born in the Khumbu and had countless contacts in Namche, at Thyangboche (i.e. Tengboche), and all along the way that truly enriched our trek.

If you are up to the challenge of taking full charge, the next step would be hiring your own porter/guide once you get to Nepal.  Check out this informative and up-to-date BestHike webpage with its emphasis on the do-it-yourself alternative.

Click on the header to access the Best Hike webpage

However, having done it once in an organized group, I would feel comfortable doing it on my own a second time. I might still be tempted to get a guide/porter that I would hire once I got to Kathmandu. A good guide can add to your experience in terms of explaining things that you see or pointing out things you don’t see. Your people back home will also appreciate the added safety factor!

A bad guide, of course, would be a disaster that could ruin your trip! The BestHike website points out some of them:

Certainly, trekkers regularly have trouble with guides:

  • some can be insistent on where they want you to stop each night. This sometimes leads to conflict.

  • they may ask for more money, or gear they “forgot” to bring

  • they may want to change/shorten the itinerary

  • they may ask you hire an additional porter once you get on the trail

There is also the issue of insurance for guide/porters and getting them to Lukla from Kathmandu and then back again.  Somehow setting off as an independent trekker and not having to deal with all of the above has its attractions. I like the idea of hiring a guide for certain sections of the trek where potential trouble may occur – i.e. the Chhukhung to Lobuche over Kongma La hike.  In the end, you certainly will not be the only one doing the Three Passes Trek on your own and may end up finding a trekking companion when you are on the trail.

The Permits You’ll Need To Get:

When I did the Three Passes Trek the Maoist Insurgency was still going on. Since I was a part of an organized group, it was our guide/leader who took care of all the permits and form submissions. Three different permits were required:

  1. a TIMS (Trekkers’ Information Management System) card issued in Kathmandu
  2. a Sagarmatha National Park Entrance Permit
  3. a “tax” collected by the Maoists just north of Phakding on Day 2 of the trek

These days the Maoist tax is no more – the leader of the group actually served as Nepal’s Prime Minister in the 2010s!

The TIMS fee is also no more, having been replaced by a 2000 rupee (about $20.) Khumbu entrance fee levied by the municipal government of the Khumbu. This permit can be gotten in Lukla or at the Park Entrance gate at Monjo.

internet-sourced example of the Khumbu municipal government entrance fee permit

The other fee is for the 3000-rupee Sagarmatha National Park entrance permit.  You can get it in Monjo at the official park entrance gate.

internet-sourced example of the park entrance permit

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From Kathmandu To Lukla

The 1950s Approach from Jiri to Lukla  – six days

Himalayan Maphouse map – paper copies available in Kathmandu – see here for digital source

Jiri (and now Shivalaya) are the starting points for a walking trail that takes you up to Lukla over a six-day period. The main attraction of this route is the fact that in the 1950s this was Hillary’s approach to Lukla and the Everest Region.  Do note that the villages along the route were heavily damaged in the 2015 earthquakes.

Over the six days, you gain less than 1000 meters in altitude (1950 to 2840), so as an acclimatization exercise it has very limited value.

If you see the trail as a way to get into shape before you get to Lukla, the question is – what were you doing at home in the three months before your arrival to improve your fitness level?

However, read this Backpack Adventures’ account of the Jiri-Lukla trek by a Dutch traveller which she did in 2021. She may convince you that time spent in the lower hills below the Himalayas is time well spent!

——————-

The Flight From Kathmandu to Lukla – 30 minutes

My agency-organized trek began with a thirty-minute flight from Kathmandu to Lukla. The Exodus team took care of all the duffels- there were 14 of us on the trek, all but me from the U.K.-  plus all of the supplies needed for the trek.  Good weather meant no problems with take-off.

Exodus duffel bags at the airport check-in...common bag helps to keep things together

Exodus duffel bags at the airport check-in…the bags are only available to UK customers so my red North Face duffel kinda stood out!

Shangri-La Air! our 18-seater airplane getting loaded- I can see the baggage handler with my red North Face duffel!

the airport, Lukla village, and the start of the trekking trail to the Khumbu

Lukla Airport- supposedly one of the least safe airports in the world

Lukla Airport’s single landing strip is 460 meters long and slopes a bit upward

Mera Lodge- a Lukla landmark and one of the many lodges with rooms available

cultivated fields just west of Lukla airport

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Part One: Lukla to Namche Bazaar  

The Trail From Lukla (A) to Phakding (B) to Namche (C)…click here for a “live” Google view of the clearly visible trekking route

Day 1 – From Lukla to Phakding

  • distance: 9 kilometers
  • altitude change: from Lukla 2860m to Phakding 2610m
  • time: four hours

Lukla to Phakding – satellite view

Lukla – Phakding…Himalayan Maphouse map…hard copies available in Kathmandu

the Dudh Kosi as we come down the trail from Lukla

Sherpas with their straw cone baskets (dokos) full. Each man has a tokma, a walking stick with a T-Shaped handle

A Mani wall on the trail…a common sight

Phakding lodge/teahouse where we stopped for the night

Our first day was a pretty easy one.  The morning was spent in Lukla while the sirdar got everything organized- the food, the tents, the fuel, as well as the porters and the rest of the crew who would be walking with us for the next three weeks.  There may have been as many locals as there were clients on the trek!

Exodus Tents up behind the Phakding lodge

Mornings began with a cup of hot tea delivered to the tent door by one of the assistant guides. This would be followed a few minutes later by a bowl of hot water for washing purposes.

main street Phakding with a porter coming by

the other side of the Dudh Kosi from Phakding- notice the yellow trekking tents!

Phakding rooftops at dusk

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Day 2 – Phakding to Namche

  • distance: 8 km.
  • altitude: from Phakding 2610m to Namche 3340m
  • time: 5 hours (2.5 hrs. from Monjo)

welcome sign from the local Maoists-  and then came  the “shake-down”

The Maoist Insurgency – mid-2000s

My visit in November of 2006 was a time when the civil war between government forces and the Nepalese Communist Party (Maoist) was still going on.  The trek leaders had to pay a tax or entry fee to Maoist representatives for each of the foreign trekkers they had in the party.

A few kilometers later we’d enter the official park boundaries and pay the government-mandated trekker’s entry fee. (In 2022 that would be about $30. U.S.)  By the time I left Nepal in late November, a peace accord had been signed by the Prime Minister and the Maoist leader Prachandra (1954- ). here is a brief intro to his life story –

Prachanda, byname of Pushpa Kamal Dahal … Nepali rebel leader and politician who headed the Maoist insurgency that ended Nepal’s monarchy and established the country as a democratic republic, which he served as its first prime minister (2008–09); he later was returned to that office (2016–17).  See here for the full encyclopedia entry

Since my trek, worries about Maoists have been replaced by the impact of the 2015 Gorka Earthquakes on the tourist infrastructure of the region.  The Maoist tax issue was followed in 2017 by the decision of the Khumbu municipal government to impose its own tourist tax (NR 2000 per visitor) since it rightly argued that it received little of the money taken by the national government’s compulsory Trekkers’ Information Management System (TIMS) fee.

The 2020-2022 COVID pandemic has not helped the local economy of the Khumbu, which has become very reliant on foreign trekkers.

Getting the paperwork done- and paying the “tax”

Looking up the Dudh Kosi Valley to the next teahouse

Brass incense burner at teahouse stop

Monjo at 2835m is halfway between Phakding and Namche. By this point, we had gained 215 meters since Phakding and we were back at the same altitude as at Lukla. The bulk of the day’s ascent was up ahead – the 600 meters up to Namche. Just north of Monjo is the entrance to Sagarmatha National Park.

Monjo Satellite view

amassed trekkers at Monjo

“What are all these people doing here?”

One of the things that took me a day or two to understand was that this is not a wilderness trek.  Once I realized that I was on a pilgrimage and not on a voyage of exploration, things went much better.

The answer to the question- “What are all these people doing here?” is the very obvious- “Exactly why you are here! For the stunning scenery,  the chance to be up close to Mount Everest, and to finally walk a trail you’ve dreamt about for years….”

A porter’s package of pelts at rest on the trail to Namche

more trail traffic on the approach to Namche

Instead of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, we’re all pilgrims heading for one mountain peak or another, with Mount Everest attracting the most devotion.

Namche – the Khumbu capital

The satellite image below gives a view of the final stretch from the confluence of the Dudh Kosi and Bhote Kosi up the village of Namche,  the administrative capital of the Khumbu region.

the steep climb up to Namche from the Bhote-Dudh confluence

Namche is nestled in a bowl;  the downtown area where the bazaar area is located is at 3440m. Also visible on the satellite image is the start of the trail to Everest Base Camp which heads from Namche to the top right side of the image.

the covered entrance to Namche Bazaar with the stupa up ahead

Since my visit, the local government has spent some tax money upgrading the central market area and paving more of the streets. Compare the image above with the one below for a sample of the changes –

See here for the image source and an informative Nepali Times article from 2019

The ready availability of hydroelectricity means that vast amounts of wood do not need to be burned to provide trekkers with hot water. Higher up, though, yank dung patties and wood are still used as energy sources.  Our trekking crew brought fuel cans along for cooking purposes.

Namche’s bazaar area- the market

main street Namche

the view from our tenting grounds above the town

my first shot of the Mount Everest peak taken from near our tent site in Namche

Namche at night

Day 3 – Acclimatization Day

Acclimatization was not a big issue.  The various trekking companies have worked out a schedule that seems to fit most trekkers.  If they didn’t, they would have to continually deal with sick clients on top of all the other logistical challenges that running a trek entails. We would spend an extra night in Namche, specifically to help with the acclimatization process.

During our “rest” day we did a day hike above the town on a pleasant circular route which took us to the Everest View Hotel, where we stopped for a bite to eat and admired Ama Dablam.  Then it was on through the village of Khumjung, and past the airport on the way back down to Namche. The mountaineer’s advice had been followed- “Walk high, sleep low”!

yak grazing in fields above Namche

walking up to the Everest View Hotel with Ama Dablam in the background

Everest View Hotel menu

a view of Ama Dablam from the terrace of the Everest View Hotel above Namche Bazaar

walking above Namche towards Khumjung  as a part of our acclimatization-day hike

Stupas and prayer flags in the village of Khumjung above Namche Bazaar

yak dung patties drying in the sun above Namche

the pre-2015 Khumjung monastery front

We stopped for a few minutes at the Khumjung monastery and stepped inside to see the main prayer hall.  Also on display in a small glass-paned box was what some locals still believe is a Yeti scalp. Since our visit, the 2015 earthquakes did some damage to the building. however, given the importance of the monastery to the Sherpa community, within two years a reconstructed building was open again.

the Khumjung Monastery post-2015 Earthquake reconstruction

overview of the temple interior

Buddha figure close-up

we’ve looped back to the Namche bowl- our blue tents are visible on the upper left; the market area can be seen on the bottom right

The Trek leader takes us to his father’s home…

where a picture of him as a young man as a part of Hillary’s Sherpa team makes the rounds

men playing a game of chance in the market area of Namche

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Next Post: Namche to Chhukung Days 4 – 7

See also:

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4 Responses to The High Passes of Everest Trek – Lukla to Namche Days 1 – 3

  1. ulrika näsmark says:

    Nepal is such a nice country. And Lukla airport is a special airport to land at …

    • true_north says:

      It has been a while – six years – since I was last in Nepal. I hope to go back in 2016 and redo either the Annapurna Circuit or trek in Sagarmatha Park again. You’re right about the Lukla airport being “special”!

  2. yves says:

    Hmm… thanks for this great journey, mouth-watering! I’ll read the next bit soon!

    • true_north says:

      Namaste, Yves! I checked out your Indian cinema blog and you highlight some great films. I hope you get a chance to get back to it soon.

      My wife and I spent a memorable four months in India back in 1996 and one day I am going to scan the images so that I can include them in a post. Hampi, Pushkar, Puri, Bodh Gaya, Jaipur, Darjeeling, Kanya Kumari, Chaennai,,,so many fond memories.

Your comments and questions are always appreciated, as are any suggestions on how to make this post more useful to future travellers. Just drop me a line or two!

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