The High Passes of Everest Trek Parts 1 & 2- Lukla to Namche Bazaar to Chhukung

Previous Post: The Annapurna Circuit – Is It Still Worth Doing?

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

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).

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

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”!

Three Passes Trek Overview

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! For an excellent recent trekking map of the Everest region check out the Himalayan Map House map here – and then pick up a hard copy to take along when you are in Kathmandu!

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 having “Base Camp” in the title  makes it more marketable.

approaching Kongma La from Chhukung and the Imja Khola valley

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

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.

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!

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

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

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

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 Minister and the Maoist leader Prachandra.

Getting the paperwork done- and paying the “tax”

Looking up the Dudh Kosi Valley to the next teahouse

Brass incense burner at teahouse stop

amassed trekkers at Monjo

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 a very obvious- “Exactly what you are here for- the stunning scenery,  the chance to be up close to Mount Everest, and to finally make a trip 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.

the covered entrance to Namche Bazaar with the stupa up ahead

Satellite view of Namche Bazaar

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.

Namche’s bazaar area- the market

main street Namche Bazaar

the view from our tenting grounds above the town

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

Namche at night

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”!

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

Khumjung Monastary entrance

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

Part Two: Namche Bazaar to Chhukung  

2. The Trail from Namche to Chhukung via Thyangboche and Dingboche- click here for a “live” Google map you can zoom in on and check out the actual trail

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!)

Mani Wall and our tent site above Namche at dawn

boy in upper Namche at 6:25 a.m.

mani wall and Himalaya peaks above Namche Bazaar

our trekking crew in a meditative mood at breakfast in a nearby lodge

a view of the trail from Namche to Thyangboche and its monastery

stupa on the way to Thyangboche

souvenir yak bells tempt trekkers returning to Namche from higher up 

souvenirs on a table on the trail to Thyangboche

suspension bridge over the Dudh Kosi to Thyangboche

trail-side huts with precious firewood stacked high

Thyangboche Gompa complex (3860m) as you arrive on the trail- the spiritual center of the Khumbu region

looking down from the steps of Thyangboche gompa to the trekking trail beyond the gate

Thyangboche Gompa (Monastery) gate from the gompa steps

prayer wheels at Thyangboche with  workers behind

workers adjusting decorative piece on the stupa at Thyangboche with gompa behind

looking out the main gate of the gompa at Thyangboche

our tent spot for the night at Thyangboche- the yellow tents from Phakding are there too!

inside the main hall at Thyangboche Gompa

trekkers/pilgrims watch the service unfold at Thyangboche Gompa

the scene during service at Thyangboche Gompa

a moment during the service in the prayer hall at Thyangboche Gompa

Thyangboche prayer hall scene

Thyangboche Gompa meditation ritual

the stupa (chorten) outside Thyangboche Gompa- from the gompa darkness to outside light!

Thyangboche Gompa at 6:00 a.m.

Thyangboche wall detail – Buddha figure in dancing Shiva-like pose

yaks still chillin’ at Thyangboche at the beginning of a trekking day- but workers are back at the stupa for final touches

sign detailing climbing rules and expectations

bridge over the Imja Khola above Thyangboche (Tengboche)

a view of Ama Dablam from the trail near Dingboche

passing to the left of all shortens, stupas and mani walls

nearing Dingboche (4410m) on the trail from Tengboche (Thyangboche)

looking at the trail up ahead on the way to Chhukung

the trail on the way to Chhukung

a simple bridge across the Imja Khola

the trail along the Imja towards Chhukung, our tent site for the next two nights

Chhukung with Island Peak further up the valley

a view of Chhukung (4730m) from the hills above- our blue tents are visible on the bottom left

a view of the north face of  Ama Dablam (6856m) from the top of Chhukung Ri (5550m)

Looking east up the Imja Khola valley with Amphu Gyabjen (5630m) on the right and Imja Tse (Island Peak) (6189m) on the left

The view from Chhukung Ri of our previous day’s walk up along the Imja Khola from Dingboche

To continue the trek from Chhukung over the first of the high passes, Kongma La, just click on the post  title below

Next Post: Chhukung to Everest Via Kongma La

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4 Responses to The High Passes of Everest Trek Parts 1 & 2- Lukla to Namche Bazaar to Chhukung

  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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