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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 scratching your head at some of them. The people behind this website (N.B. all blue text is clickable!) came up with a novel idea – Why not check out a number of books which contain such lists and on the basis of a trek’s appearance in more or less 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 (except for the Inca Trail).
Having done the four South American hikes over the past few years (from 2006 to 2011), I can say with confidence that the #1 trek in the world is, as far as I know, the trail I walked over a three-week span in Sagarmatha National Park in Nepal.
(Sagarmatha is a term Nepalis use instead of the name Everest; there is also a Tibetan term for the world’s highest mountain peak- it is often spelled Chomolungma, but also Qomolangma).
Not to discount the wonder of Machu Picchu and the great walk to get there, not to discount the great views of glacial lakes and Siula Grande on the Huayhuash trek, not to dismiss the iconic towers at Torres del Paine Park or of Fitz Roy, but the High Passes of Everest trek offers all of this and more- and all on an epic scale.
It 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 trek I am thinking about 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.” This ultimate trek is called The Three Passes Trek by the LP writers because during the twenty days or so of your adventure you cross three 5300m+ passes (Kongma La, Cho La, and Renjo La) as you traverse from valley to valley and glacier to glacier. In case you’re wondering, the word “La” is Tibetan for “pass”!
To see the trip right from Kathmandu to Jiri (the traditional start point for trekkers walking the old route) to the airstrip at Lukla (by far the most common start point these days) to Namche Bazaar and points beyond in “live” Google view click here. If you zoom in enough you can actually see the trail from Lukla go up the Dudh Kosi valley!
Beginning in Kathmandu, an endlessly fascinating sprawl of humanity which deserves its own blog entry, I did the 30-minute flight to the trek’s starting point at Lukla. Some people trek to Lukla over the span of a week after having taken a bus from Kathmandu to Jiri- either to help themselves get in shape and acclimatize slowly to altitude, or because it is the classic route taken by Tenzing and Hillary back in the day.
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 details and with the quality people 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 calls The Three Passes Trek was given the name High Passes of Everest by the Exodus marketing department. It has been renamed; the dead link tells me that this particular trek has been replaced by one called High Passes To Everest Base Camp, perhaps using the base camp promise to make it more marketable.
If you are up to the challenge to taking full charge, the next step would be hiring your own porter/guide once you get to Nepal. Check out this informative Lonely Planet forum thread on the do-it-yourself alternative. Having done it once with Exodus, I’d feel comfortable doing it on my own a second time. (By “on my own” I really mean with a guide/porter that I would hire once I got to Kathmandu. Given the cost of a guide or a porter/guide and what he can add to your experience in terms of explaining things that you see or pointing out things you don’t, it would be a good investment. The folks back home will also appreciate the added safety factor! To go completely on your own would be foolhardy – at least have a partner with you so you can take care of each other if need be.
In the end, I’ll admit that letting someone else sweat all the details about internal fights and accommodation and food and route finding while I worry about interesting camera angles had its attractions! Besides, 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 (often spelled Tengboche), and all along the way that truly enriched our trek.
Part One: Lukla to Namche Bazaar
The 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.
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!
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.
My visit in November of 2006 was a time when the civil war between government forces and the Nepalese Communist Party (Maoists) 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 mid-2012 that would be about $34. U.S.) By the time I left Nepal in late November a peace accord had been signed by the Prime Minster and the Maoist leader Prachandra.
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 the heck are all these people doing here?” is a very obvious- “Exactly what you are here for- the stunning scenery, the chance to be up close to Mount Everest, to finally make a trip you’ve dreamt about for years….”
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.
Our second day’s walk- about four hours or so- took us to the administrative capital of the Khumbu region, Namche Bazaar. The ready availability of hydro-electricity in the bowl-shaped town means that vast quantities 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.
Acclimatization was not a big problem. 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 walk above the town on a pleasant circular route which took us to the Everest View Hotel, the village of Khumjung, and then past the airport on the way back down to Namche. The mountaineer’s advice had been followed- “Walk high, sleep low”!
Part Two: Namche Bazaar to Chhukung
On Day Four we left Namche and headed up the trail along the Dudh Khola valley to the point where the Imja Khola meets it from its origins at the foot of Imja Tse. Along the way we ‘d pass through the spiritual heart of the Khumbu, the monastery village of Thyangboche (also spelt Tengboche, but not to be mistaken for Dangboche or Dingboche, villages further up the trail!)
To continue the trek from Chhukung over the first of the high passes, Kongma La, just click here.
Next Post: Chhukung to Everest Via Kongma La