Trekking to Gokyo Lakes in the Everest region – the second pillar of this rather extensive fall trip that has us meandering from Western Europe (Tour du Mont Blanc and Lake Bled, just to pick two) all the way to south Asia (interested in some beautiful Sri Lanka beaches?) . Regular followers will be familiar with how much we enjoy hiking in Nepal so, with 4 years having passed since our last visit, it was high time for a return visit. This time around we were planning a bastardized version of the challenging Three Passes Trek, with the exact itinerary to be determined as went, but definitely including Renjo La, Gokyo Ri and Ama Dablam, and contingent on weather, health, exhaustion and our overall interest level in the food available high up in the mountains.
Our Everest Route
Last time we were in Nepal we did the standard Everest Base Camp trek with a small side trip to Thame thrown in to use up an extra couple days at the end. We debated trying one of the best treks in India this time around but decided to stick with Nepal, his time something different, focused the magnificent Gokyo Lakes area. Potentially quieter, as the main trail is getting absurdly busy these days. It wasn’t actually too bad when we did it in 2015 as we arrived only months after the big earthquake, which apparently scared a lot of people off. There were reportedly around 5,000 trekkers in the area in October 2015. However, this number steadily increased back to the normal figure of 10,000 in 2017 and spiked to an incredible 14,000 in 2018. The 2019 tally wasn’t in yet when we passed through but I doubt it is a small number. We managed to stay mostly off the truly beaten path – it was rather shocking how often we found ourselves alone on the trail – but when we did end up on the main EBC route the difference was extremely noticeable.
Route Map (clockwise starting in Phaplu, through Gokyo Lakes, ending in Lukla)
Hiring Guides and Porters
After mixed results regarding porters/guides on our previous three visits to Nepal – the first time we went it alone, which was exhausting and made us feel guilty for not providing a job (or jobs), we had a decent porter/guide the second time other than the fact he chain-smoked and got tired almost as fast as us, and the third time we got a pair, the porter was good but the porter/guide was infuriatingly attentive, socially awkward and, worst of all, pungent – and this time we went back to the well again with more than a little trepidation. But Chandra, who we booked through the very knowledgeable and helpful Info Nepal Treks, turned out to be the perfect fit for us – friendly, funny, knowledgeable and willing to walk on his own most of the time rather than hover over us like a concerned parent watching his children experiment with condoms for the first time. He knew the trails well, so could offer opinions when we needed, but was happy to take whatever route we chose, as well. No complaints this time around.
Anyway, our idea started with the Three Passes Trek, an exceptionally scenic but very difficult route that circles around to Gokyo Lakes and many of the best viewpoints while avoiding the main trail as much as possible. However, as we are wont to do, we continually messed around with this itinerary, attempting to create a customized route that would maximize scenery while minimizing moments of extreme physical distress and pathetic crying. Then, after all that, we even made some changes on the fly based on weather, exhaustion and the opinions of other hikers. The end result was the following weird, hybrid trek:
1 high pass (Renjo La)
1 peak (Gokyo Ri)
1 base camp (Ama Dablam)
3 valleys (Thame, Gokyo, Khumbu)
Countless boiled eggs
Overall, a tremendous success. We got pretty great weather, with only one day of slight rain and a couple nights with rain/snow. Good weather is mostly expected at this time of year (which is why thousands of trekkers flock to Nepal in Oct/Nov) but there are never guarantees in the mountains. A few times we could have hoped for a little less cloud cover, and we did experience a nasty cold snap for much of our trek with normal daily temps of 10/0 Celsius dropping to 0/-10, and even a touch colder a couple nights up close to 5,000 metres above sea level. Numbers which may not sound so daunting for seasoned Canadians but, I assure you, negative temperatures are a much different proposition when the only heat source is a small fireplace in the dining room (from 5-9 pm only) and the walls are merely thin plywood. As always when trekking in Nepal, we spent a lot of time huddled in our sleeping bags fully geared up reading (standard) or watching pre-downloaded Netflix (a new, and most welcome, development).
Despite the cold nights, however, the days were consistently stunning, mornings in particular. Maybe not shorts weather (except for the occasional Kiwi who stuck with shorts even when crossing high passes – I think it would take a South Pole trekking expedition to get a Kiwi hiker to resort to long pants, and even then, reluctantly), but often a t-shirt was enough, and we did our best to find calm, sunny spots for tea and lunch breaks. And, as always, the scenery was absolutely mind-blowing. Almost every day provided something stunning and notable, even at the lower elevations, where the lush greenery, rushing rivers and picturesque swinging bridges were a fascinating contrast to the stark, barren high elevation mountainscapes.
Trekking in the Everest Region: Highlights
Without a doubt, the hour and a half we spent at 5,360m Gokyo Ri was the pinnacle of our trek. It was a tough 2-hour climb straight up the hill from our 2-night base at Gokyo Lake (4,800m) but we lucked out with a stunning cloudless day that allowed us to fully appreciate the incomparable mountain panorama. In addition to the 360-degree view of at least a dozen impressive peaks, not to mention the aquamarine lake far below and the beautiful valley leading off to the east, this was the only place in the entire Everest region where majestic Mount Everest actually looks like the tallest mountain in the world. Everywhere else it is either partially hidden, or the greater distance makes it look smaller than those around it. Of course, not to be discounted were the many other peaks on display, including the 4th, 5th and 6th highest in the world (Lhotse, Makalu and Cho Oyu). It was honestly breathtaking. And, as an added bonus, there was plenty of room up there for everyone to wander around, enjoy different angles, and find their own quiet spot now and then. There was even an unusually social mood of camaraderie and teamwork, with trekkers acting especially courteous toward each other, offering to take photos and happily making room for that perfect shot. You’d have to dig pretty deep to find a downside, although at a stretch you could complain that this incredible experience took place on day 9, leaving us 6 more days left that would surely pale in comparison.
Ama Dablam Base Camp
Never part of our original plans, I didn’t even know this existed until Laynni discovered it in our guidebook while working on our itinerary in Gokyo. Having read very mixed reviews of the next pass (Cho La), and with snow in the forecast, we were researching alternatives when she uncovered this gem. Done as a day trip out of Pangboche, it involved over 1,000 metres of elevation gain (600m to base camp, 400m more to a viewpoint at the end of a moraine ridge). Reaching a final height of 5,000 metres, oxygen was once again exhaustingly scarce, making the last hour or so challenging, to say the least. But the close-up views of Ama Dablam (Mother’s Necklace) were epic, and even the intermittent and strange cloud cover that day added to the atmosphere and provided some uniquely compelling views. Also, unlike Everest Base Camp, which is only occupied in spring, Ama Dablam Base Camp was bustling with eager climbers hoping to summit what many have described as “the Matterhorn of the Himalaya” and “the most beautiful mountain in the world”.
This was the first, and only, high pass we tackled on the trek. Climbing from Lungden (also sometimes called Lumde) at 4,370m to this rough, rocky, snow-covered saddle at just a hair over 5,400m was one of the most physically difficult things I’ve ever done.
It probably didn’t help that we passed up our originally planned rest and altitude acclimatization day in Lungden, the village immediately before the pass, because we both decided we were feeling “good enough” and, more importantly, Lungden was grim and cold and depressing and we had no intention of spending 2 nights there. Meaning our bodies maybe weren’t quite as ready to cross the 5,000m threshold has they could have been.
Laynni was undoubtedly exhausted, as well, although, for whatever reason, she definitely made it look easier than I did, or our Sherpa porter, Chandra, for that matter – acclimatization, nutrition, lack of whininess or maybe technique (she claims that she ‘belly breathes’).
The last 300 metres took forever as I seemed to stop at every switchback to gasp and pant, desperately short on both oxygen and inspiration, before glaring up at the rugged summit that never looked that far away, yet never seemed to get any closer, eventually putting my head down and trudging on, employing occasional strategic photographic pauses to somewhat ease my pain.
The view from the top, though. Oh my. The desolate moonscape back the way we’d come, featuring alpine lakes, distant peaks and rivetingly strange bands of cloud, and then, on the far side, bright aqua Gokyo Lake, loomed over by a massive line of the best the Himalayas have to offer, similar to the vista we would later enjoy from Gokyo Ri, but from a different angle and, rather importantly, first.
An unexpected benefit of our constantly fluctuating plans was the day we spent hiking down the Gokyo Valley to Phortse. In our minds, simply the most direct route to our next set of feature destinations (Chukhung and Pangboche), this extraordinary valley turned out to be one of the scenic highlights of the entire trek. The regular trail runs along the south side of the river, passing through a couple larger villages that allow trekkers to acclimatize on their way up. Since we were heading down, however, we had no need of caution on that front, and because we would be heading back up at the end of the valley it made sense to take the less-trodden northern path. This route was much narrower and occasionally treacherous, but ran much higher than its more popular counterpart, providing amazing views the entire way. Sure, we did find it a little baffling that we could manage to face close to 800m of elevation gain while walking down a valley, but our somewhat unexpected exhaustion quickly disappeared in the rear view once we were settled into our cozy little room at Thamserku View in Phortse, with the sun beating in strong enough to make shorts and t-shirts acceptable lounge wear, an unheard of development, even if it did only last until the sun disappeared behind the mountains at around 4 pm, like clockwork.
Trekking in the Everest Region: Lowlights
Nepal has always been an adventure when it comes to internal flights and, over time, everything seems to just keep getting progressively worse. To “ease congestion” at Tribuvhan International (Kathmandu) in high season, the powers that be in Nepal have now taken to re-routing all early morning Everest-area flights to Ramechhap, a tiny little dirt strip 4-6 hours from Kathmandu by bus. Meaning, if you want to fly to Lukla before 9 am (realistically the only time you can hope for a better than 50% chance of clear enough skies for flights to make the challenging 20-minute flight low through the hills to Lukla’s alarmingly short, angled runway) you need to get on a bus at 2 am and travel for hours in the dark on horrendously rough, winding roads to this little dead-end town in the middle of nowhere. And then if your flight is delayed or cancelled, as probably half or more are, you are stuck there, in a place with little to no accommodation and basically nothing else. The popular conspiracy theory (and one I personally subscribe to, despite my natural aversion to conspiracy theories) is that this is the corrupt Nepali government’s clumsy way of forcing all of us “rich tourists” to avoid all this idiocy by paying $US2,500 for a private helicopter instead. Even if you buy into the “congestion” thing – which is certainly a problem but maybe screwing over Everest trekkers, by far the most lucrative tourist market in the country, shouldn’t be their first choice – are you telling me they couldn’t clear the space of two football fields anywhere closer than that? Complete bullshit.
Needless to say, we opted for a Plan B. We hired a private jeep to take us to a small village called Phaplu. You can fly there as well, although facing the exact same issues as flying to Lukla, which would have defeated the purpose. We just wanted to know we’d be starting when we wanted to start and avoid a ridiculous middle-of-the-night bus trip and potential extra night in exotic Ramechhap. The pros: date and cost certainty. The cons: an 11-hour jeep journey on just as bad of roads (in fact, the first 4 hours are along the same route), plus 2 extra days of hiking. The extra hiking had the potential for a nice contrast, being at slightly lower altitude, with lush valleys and green rice fields. However, it turns out they are working hard to extend the road even farther up in this area which meant a lot of the trail criss-crossed road construction. Combined with randomly mediocre weather (foggy and cloudy much of the way) this stretch was less than scintillating.
With less concern for exact dates on the way down we stuck with the standard flight back from Lukla, to wonderful Ramechhap, of course. After a wild and woolly morning in the chaos of Lukla’s “airport”, our flight left within an hour or two of the scheduled time (a serious victory in Nepal), arriving on a dusty dirt patch in Ramechhap at 9:30, where we then boarded a minibus for the rest of the journey to Kathmandu, suffering awful roads, horrendous traffic, multiple driver’s pee breaks and questionable roadside restaurants to make it there at 3:30 pm, a 6-hour trip. Considering we arrived at the airport at 7:30 am, that makes a total of 8 hours dedicated to a 15-minute flight. Jeez, Nepal, get it together.
It also wasn’t ideal that I got sick basically upon arrival in Phaplu, completely stuffed up with a sinus infection, meaning I spent the entire first day of trekking blasting through cheap tissues like it was my sworn duty to rid the world of their scratchy, irritating flimsiness. The exact same thing happened on our last trek in Nepal, and I’m now convinced the thick, disgusting air of Kathmandu is to blame. However, while last time it got progressively worse and led to a horrible sore throat and debilitating fever (like climbing up a mountain range wasn’t hard enough already), this time I went all out to neutralize it with absurd dosages of Vitamin C, cold pills and oregano oil (to the extent that I burnt important parts of my mouth). Whether this did the trick or I just got lucky, we’ll never know, but within a couple days I was on the mend and was thankfully feeling good as new by the time we hit the really tough stretches (i.e. everywhere over 4,000 metres above sea level).
One part of our trek that was completely expected, and dreaded, but can in no way be blamed on Nepali corruption or incompetence (as far as I can tell), was the bone-chilling cold up in the mountains. While the days are normally gorgeous and plenty warm while you’re walking, the late afternoons (before the common room fireplaces are lit) and nights (in tiny, flimsy-walled rooms) are usually frigid. It didn’t help that we experienced an uncommon cold snap for much of our trek, with temperatures dropping below -10 a couple times. That may not sound that bad compared to the -30 routinely suffered in Saskatchewan but, let me tell you, it’s a very different story without heat. The heavy, 4-season sleeping bags we rented in Kathmandu served us extremely well, but the worst part of every day was forcing ourselves out of them in the morning, racing to dress (in freezing clothes) and scraping ice from the windows to see what the day had in store. Which is why we planned our time immediately following the trek for hot and humid Kuala Lumpur, then some serious downtime on the beaches of Sri Lanka.
Day 8 crossing Renjo La. As previously mentioned, climbing over 1,000 metres of elevation gain to a high point of 5,400 metres at the pass meant simply breathing was a daunting enough challenge, let alone trying to do it with incomplete acclimatization while scrambling up over rough, rocky moraine trail rather inconveniently coated with the previous night’s inch of snow. Anyway, a moment that accurately sum up my personal experience: croakingly calling Laynni back from her perch a couple switchbacks up from me, desperately imploring her to find me some food, any food. So there we stood, huddled along the side of the narrow, treacherous trail, trying not to be too intrusive as a group of mainly French men squeezed past us, me frantically chucking back trail mix and shakily peeling a boiled egg, somehow hoping this meagre bit of added sustenance would suddenly provide me with the spryness of a Himalayan mountain goat and the lungs of a plodding yak. Full disclosure: it did not. But eventually I made it to the top, with great difficulty, and much grumpiness. Although that part faded pretty quickly once I was finally able to catch my breath and enjoy the phenomenal view. Then eventually start the 700-metre downhill slog, but that’s a bitchy rant for another day…
Day 2 to Kari La. 7 hours of hiking, 1,700 metres of elevation gain and 1,200 metres of elevation loss. Despite those crazy numbers, this was actually an easier day than Renjo La because it took place between 2,000 and 3,000 metres, making it infinitely easier to breathe and make your legs continue moving.
Day 9 climbing Gokyo Ri. I’ve already expounded on the beauty and majesty of this incredible viewpoint, but it is worth noting that it also involved a debilitating 2-hour climb straight up the side of a mountain to 5,300 metres. The point being, it wasn’t easy.
Day 13 to Ama Dablam. The climb to base camp from Pangboche was tough enough, 650 metres of climbing to 4,600. But then we felt the need to continue on to a reputedly even better viewpoint up at 5,000 metres, nothing to sneeze at with significantly reduced oxygen after punishing our legs, lungs and psyches with 12 straight days of high-altitude hiking.
Despite what I may have made it sound like to this point, not every day was an epic struggle for strength and motivation. Day 6 from Namche Bazaar to Thame we enjoyed a pleasant 4-hour walk that still involved around 500 metres of gain but it was spread out over numerous “undulations” (a favourite guidebook term intended to allay fears and improve morale, but really just means going up and down, over and over).
Day 11 from Phortse to Dingboche took us much less time than anticipated and was spent mainly on a high ridge overlooking the main trail on the other side of the valley.
Day 12 from Dingboche to Chukhung and down to Pangboche. The intention was to continue on to Island Peak but after the short 1.5-hr journey to Chukhung we stopped for tea, looked around a bit, looked at each other, slowly deliberated, then decided it was “cold and windy and cloudy and, you know, screw this, we’re going back down”. So we did, and then continued on to Pangboche, lower, warmer, and featuring marginally better oxygen ratios. In the end, it saved us an entire day, and we stand by our decision.
After 2 months in Europe, the Himalayan teahouses were never going to compare favourably, even the relatively posh options in the Everest region. But there were certainly some that stood out, good and bad.
Green Tara Resort (Namche Bazaar). While “resort” may be a touch grand, this is a great place with a sunny rooftop terrace. We stayed here on our last trek as well, and liked it so much we called ahead to reserve one of their best rooms (hot shower, electrical outlet, two windows, lots of sun).
Valley View (Thame). Friendly and comfortable common room, decent room with a small private bathroom and, most importantly – and a theme you will probably notice – windows facing the all-important sun.
Thamserku View (Phortse). Another place where we had windows facing the sun, to the point that we actually spent time sitting around in t-shirts and shorts (!). I can’t really remember anything else about the place but, trust me, that was enough.
Om Kailash (Pangboche). Just a nice place all around.
Hiker’s Inn (Lukla). By far the most modern place we stayed at throughout the trek, and exactly what we were looking for after 15 meagre nights in basic teahouses. Big room, big windows, big menu, big shower, big fluffy towels (my little pack towel and I are long-time adversaries, reluctantly managing to work together in the interest of the greater good and slightly inoffensive hygiene, but our relationship is far from affectionate). Big prices, too, but at that point do you think we cared? We did not.
Everest Hotel (Phaplu). The place itself was fine, from what I recall, but in the morning when I went to pay I discovered two mystery charges on our bill, both of which were removed based on my question alone with a suspicious lack of surprise. One was simply listed as “khana”, the Nepalese word for “food”. Since this was our first teahouse of the trek we were instantly concerned this might be an ongoing problem but, no, it turned out to be the only time it happened through 16 nights.
Sonam Guesthouse (Kari La). Chandra’s pick, but in fairness to him, it was the only option in this particular village. Although maybe it would have been worth walking another 15-20 minutes down the hill to find a place willing to light the fireplace at night, had someplace to brush our teeth besides the ground and offered a more appealing way to close the door of their nasty squat toilet than with a 2×4.
Lungden View Guesthouse (Lungden). I hate to say it, because they were really nice people and stoked up the fire nice and high to make the common room comfortable in the evening. But it just didn’t stack up in other ways – the walls were even thinner than most, my spaghetti was awful (in fairness, a poor choice on my part in those circumstances) and, although this isn’t their fault, the overall aura of Lungden itself was cold, dark and grim. What is their fault, however, was the creepy Styrofoam liner they tied directly onto the bowl of their Western toilet option, presumably to reduce the shock on cold mornings but which, in practice, simply served to soak up the buckets of water used to flush and, of course, a whole bunch of urine.
We ate more dal bhat (Nepali curry and rice) this time around, probably since it was no longer the most expensive item on every menu. We ate lots of fried rice, occasional fried noodles and treated ourselves now and then (brownie in Gokyo, popcorn often).
Laynni stuck with porridge most mornings although I could only stomach it a couple times (I’m pretty sure it’s the texture more than anything that gets me) while I kept toughing it out with fried eggs (fine, can’t make those gross) and dry white bread slightly heated to stiffness (that you certainly can).
It is religiously forbidden to slaughter animals anywhere above Namche Bazaar, meaning any meat needs to be carried in, likely on the back of a mule or yak. Which equates to us not taking a chance on meat for nearly 2 weeks. Which made my final night’s pepper sauce tenderloin down in Lukla taste so special. Yes, I know, eating meat is terrible for the environment. Unfortunately, I am simply not ready to let go just yet.
However, in hopes of balancing that out, we felt pretty smart carrying our SteriPEN with us to purify water along the way, at least for the first week or so. After that we discovered that it is very hit and miss in cold temperatures, which were pretty much standard above Namche. However, we also had a plentiful stash of Aquatabs iodine pills to use whenever the SteriPEN was being fickle. Using these methods to treat any water we could find we were able to do the entire trek without using a single plastic bottle of water. We estimate this saved us buying a minimum of 100 1-litre bottles. Environmentally beneficial, of course, but considering the rising prices as you climb (a bottle that costs $US0.25 in Kathmandu went for as much as $US4 up top, and probably averaged around $US2) we figure we saved around 250 Canadian dollars. Also, while far too many people still rely on these bottles for their trek, it is nice to see that the stigma is at least starting to lead to changes in behaviour, however small. It was amazing how many times we saw people walk away from the restaurant counter with arms overflowing with 1-litre bottles, only to return for dinner casually sipping from eco-friendly reusable options.
Random Thoughts from Everest:
Considering all the stories to this point, you probably shouldn’t be surprised to learn that we lost a bunch of weight. I can’t say how much exactly (I opted against standing in line behind all the Nepali guides to use the luggage scale in the Lukla airport) but there was a point once we were back down in Kathmandu when I stood staring into the first mirror I’d seen in weeks poking wonderingly at my new, unfamiliar pelvic dents, while Laynni worked diligently to add another hole to her belt.
On a related note, I don’t know if Nepal has upped the tax on beer or something, but it is basically impossible to find a beer – in Kathmandu or in the mountains – for less than 5 Canadian dollars. Which would be acceptable, I guess, if Nepali beer is any good but I’d say it is passable, at best. Plus, half the time it’s just Carlsberg or San Miguel (except brewed in Nepal, presumably poorly). And with rooms in teahouses usually going for $US2-5 it hardly seemed worth it to spend so much on crap beer. Another factor in my great pelvis re-shaping, I’d guess.
We have met many fine, friendly French people, and during our visits to France have always felt welcome and respected. However. Based solely on our personal experiences, which may not be representative of a larger trend but, in fairness, are pretty extensive at this point, if you happen to come across a fellow traveller, or trekker in particular, who is acting like a complete dick, there is a better than even chance he or she is French. Simply our observations… Recent anecdotal evidence includes the couple who refused to get into the minivan until everyone who had gotten there before them rearranged themselves to suit their preferred seating plan, the group who monopolized the best photo spots at Renjo La, then tapped Laynni on the shoulder and told her to move when she finally got a brief chance for a French-free view, of course, the many, many groups who simply refused to budge for anyone else on the trail and, finally, the guy who took a shit right at the best viewpoint coming down from Renjo La (which also happened to be the top of a stream), while I was sitting there 10 yards away.
Every teahouse seemed to have one really cute, fat toddler wandering around to the amusement of all the trekkers. Not 2, never 3, always just the one. Like they were carefully doled out by the tourist association.
I have never had gnocchi at home, although Laynni assures me it is never great. So what possessed me to order it in Gokyo at 4,800 metres – and a really, really long way from Italy – we will probably never know. Altitude sickness, maybe. Nonetheless, it was a serious mistake.
Sign o’ the Times: Laynni FaceTiming with her mom, dad and sister from the helipad in Namche Bazaar, while some travelling monks looked on.
Weight update: Thanks to the generous contributions of Snickers, ice cream, pizza and basically any other comfort food you can imagine, we are well on our way back to our normal, “fine” travelling weights.
New weight update: I seem to have contracted some sort of bug upon arrival in Kuala Lumpur, vomited in a McDonald’s bathroom yesterday, and have barely eaten in 24 hours. Back to square one.
Another eminently successful Himalayan trek. No matter what happens in Nepal – and plenty will, clearly they are determined to make everything progressively worse year by year – they will always have the most beautiful mountains in the world. Now, if only someone can step up and make sure they don’t destroy their entire lucrative tourism infrastructure through greed, corruption and inattention. The photos are always amazing, at least.