This will probably not come as much of a surprise to you, but we can now say with certainty that Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park – home to several of the world’s highest mountains – is one of the most unique and breathtaking places in the world. Impossibly steep and high peaks loft through clouds in all directions, their jagged sides caked with snow and glaciers. Countless waterfalls cascade down kilometer-high cliffs. The rock and scrub high above tree level is dotted with tiny colorful wildflowers. Golden eagles and enormous Himalayan vultures soar over mountain goats perching on rocky ledges. Shaggy yaks and stalwart porters – both strong and surefooted – haul heavy loads up steep granite and dirt trails. Tibetan prayer flags flutter everywhere and Buddhist monasteries and prayer wheels mark every settlement. Cute Sherpa children play next to farms and buildings or are busy washing clothes in the cold streams. Even when an overcast sky obscures the dramatic backdrop, every scene is naturally beautiful and distinctly alpine.
We spent 11 days exploring the park on our way up to the settlement of Gokyo and back. We covered 100km and climbed a total of 7150m (23,500ft) while at an average elevation of 3600m – and our trek was actually a shorter itinerary than most! Many visitors combine a few high-altitude destinations connected by passes and the single-most popular site is Everest Base Camp. As you can’t actually see Everest from the camp itself, it’s more of a “I’ve been there” destination (coupled of course with the beautiful journey, which has plenty of sightseeing) that we chose to skip. For us the views were paramount, and Gokyo offered good opportunities that fit into our timeframe. We made that decision months ago when first considering going to Nepal – fast forward to late September and now we’re actually doing it!
Day 1: Kathmandu to Phakding via Lukla (2860m) – Not Quite What You Expected
We woke early – Elaine still under the weather but feeling much better than the night before with a high fever – and met up with our guide Tersang to head to Kathmandu Airport. Our mountain trek was to begin in Lukla, a mountain settlement just south of Sagarmatha National Park, and to get there we had to hop a short flight. Because Lukla is perched on a mountainside at high elevation, weather often disrupts schedules and it was by no means certain we would actually fly. It’s fairly common to wait several days (going to the airport each day, of course) for the right conditions. This occurred to many folks planning to depart in the days after we flew, but we were lucky and our Twin Otter aircraft departed ontime.
The word most associated with Lukla Airfield is “extreme”, and whether or not it’s the Most Extreme (a common claim) it’s certainly a fitting descriptor. The very short 1600′ runway slopes upward on the hillside by 12 degrees (this is a lot) and dead-ends at a combo of stone wall and higher mountainside. There’s no going around once a landing attempt begins. Add in the shifty mountain clouds and winds which appear rapidly and you’ve got a very tough job for the pilots who fly here regularly – on busy high season days there are over a hundred landings and takeoffs here. We only knew some of this boarding the Twin Otter (only short-takeoff and -landing aircraft like the Twin Otter and Dornier 228 can handle this runway) but enough to feel the thrill as we departed Kathmandu.
Once aloft we flew over hill villages and green terraces slicing the terrain into neat topological layers. Further away the clouds cleared enough to catch glimpses of some of the high peaks in the Himalayas. Lukla is about a 25 minute flight east of Kathmandu and so we quickly neared our destination, ridges rising underneath us until we were just skimming over some heading into the approach. I never saw the runway until we touched down but sure got a very close look at the hillside just below through the canopy as we rocketed in on final with a heavy load in the thin air. At the last moment – but not before Elaine looked over for reassurance to only hear me say “whoa, shit!” as the green hillside rushed up – and then we flared for a perfect uphill landing. [Here’s some video we took of a takeoff and landing at Lukla].
Tersang laughed at our white-knuckling – he’s done this plenty of times – and introduced us to our porter as we exited the fenced-in airfield. Meg Raj is tiny at about half my size but was a humble powerhouse the whole trip. Considering that many porters earn their pay hauling up to 100kg, sometimes more, up steep mountainsides for days at a stretch (no exaggeration, it’s mindblowing) it’s probably a good gig to carry less than 20kg for a couple low-altitude folks like us and this is how our guide Tersang started out himself.
Day One was an easy hike. After taking some tea in Lukla we walked downhill a couple hours to Phakding, a small settlement before the real uphill begins. We saw our first mountain views, prayer wheels and flags, and Buddhist inscriptions along the way as a warm up, and arrived in Phakding for lunch and a nap.
This was our first introduction to the trekking lodges we would be staying in each night and we were pleasantly surprised. Don’t ask me where I got this from but I had the image of being stuffed under a stairwell in a smoke-filled drafty room with a smelly yak pelt for a blanket and the most rustic imaginable toilet facilities. Instead, each night we had our own room with simple yet comfortable beds and blanket, the toilets were decent, and there was far more variety of food available than expected. That’s not to say all the food on the menu was a good idea to order: Elaine, under duress to quickly make a new selection after being informed that the chicken helicopter had not arrived in a while, once tried a tuna sandwich which was a Bad Idea. So we got more than our fill of rice and potatoes. But it sure is hard to complain about 3 hot meals a day while clambering around in the mountains!
Day 2: Phakding to Namche Bazar (3450m) – Up and Across
Our first uphill was a big one with 1240m of climbing through the Khumbu Valley to the hub Sherpa settlement of Namche. Passing trains of laden dzo (yak/cow hybrids – full yaks hang out at higher, cooler elevations) we followed the Dudh Koshi Nadi River with several crossings on cable bridges along the way. One dramatic one is definitely the highest such bridge I’ve been on, a good 150m above the rushing white river below (the glacial water is the color of skim milk and the waterway is actually named the Milk River for this).
We were still low enough that the altitude wasn’t catching us too short of breath and Tersang set a slow strong pace, so we got ourselves up to Namche without dying (though walking around the stairs in the town later it was clear my body had enough!). I picked up a few last-minute items and snacks and we settled in as fog enveloped the town for the evening with what would become a well-worn deck of cards.
Day 3: Namche Bazar to Phortse Tenga (3600m) – Peak Panoramas
This is the day we would split from the Everest Base Camp trail and head north up toward Gokyo. We left early, hoping to catch some clear morning views. After a brisk uphill through cool morning clouds we reached a high point north of Namche where we had an amazing sight – the sun rising behind the neighboring peaks of Thamserku and Kangtega cast a huge shadow on the clouds nearer to us. Not much later we had a golden eagle soar overhead and several other new mountain views – more Thamserku (the peak we would see the most of on our trek) as well as Tobuche and the dramatically sheer Ama Dablam.
We hiked up a ways, climbing 850m and getting above the treeline a bit, before descending down to just below 4000m for a night in Phortse Tenga. We passed our first group of true yaks along the way [video!]. We were surprised to find them actually squatter than cattle (for whatever reason I had expected them to be larger), looking as if someone had simply draped a long woolen blanket over their backs, and sporting some spectacular horns. This also brought us our first encounter with yak piss which, it turns out, has an unrivaled potent odor.
Day 4: Phortse Tenga to Machhermo (4430m) – Above the Trees
More climbing today with a steep stretch straight out from breakfast. We left the trees behind after passing through a swath of huge rhododendrons, entering a higher region where bare boulders are surrounded by low green and reddish scrub scattered with blue and purple wildflowers. We lunched in a small settlement called Luza and then continued onto the busier lodge and yak town of Machhermo.
We arrived in time to attend one of the daily altitude health talks put on by some volunteer doctors running a clinic. It was brief but interesting, telling us about the symptoms and treatments for various forms of altitude-related illnesses and how to avoid having problems. We met several other trekkers as well as some locals including one who had summited Everest multiple times. We also got to try out measuring our 02 saturation in our blood, which at sea level ought to be very nearly 100% but at altitude can vary quite a bit. Elaine had 84%, Tersang and I both had 88%, and Meg Raj was doing the best of everyone in the room at 93%.
In the evening we enjoyed hanging out in a nice warm lodge next to the yak-pellet-burning stove, playing cards and learning a bit more about the local economy. We were surprised that food costs weren’t higher than they already were (perhaps 2-3x more than Kathmandu) given how difficult it is to get supplies up to these lodges. We learned that a heavy-lift helicopter is used to resupply storage sites near Namche; that further up from there, all building materials except the stone for the walls come on the backs of man or beast; that it costs only ~$1.00 per kg to fly supplies from Kathmandu to Lukla and then merely another $1.50/kg for a porter to hoof it all the way up to where we were in Machhermo. Hard to believe – and it explains why the porters load themselves up so much for the journey, lest they end up actually losing money feeding themselves along the way.
Day 5: Machhermo to Gokyo (4800m) – Lakes and Glaciers
Now we were really getting up there in altitude. We had started to feel it the previous day once we got above 4000m or so, and hadn’t slept as well with more rapid breathing and telltale headaches at the backs of our skulls. Additionally we had both picked up a cold, not surprising. But upward and onward! Soon we had a glorious view northwards of the rushing river flowing down through a valley of glacial till with magnificent Cho-Oyu, bordering Tibet, capping it off. Looking back south we could see the valley we had climbed up through underneath our constant companion Thamserku.
Climbing higher still we reached the first of Gokyo’s several aquamarine lakes. The first lake at 4700m marked a record for us – the highest we had ever been on foot! It was a bit mindblowing to think that when we had previously hiked this high we were at the peak of a mountain in Guatemala – the highest thing around with expansive views out to the ocean far below – and yet here we were, higher than that, at the bottom of a valley not even half as high as the tallest summits nearby. Wow!
We passed by the second lake and arrived at the third where Gokyo is situated. Gokyo was a high Sherpa settlement before trekking became a thing here. Some of you may already know this but I didn’t: Sherpa isn’t a role or a title but rather a people/culture/caste with roots in Tibet and a penchant for living in the mountains, which has made them famous as key members of expeditions.
Gokyo has three local sights. There’s the lake with a the jagged Pharilapche as a backdrop; Gokyo Ri, a rise that tops out at a 5360m viewpoint, our destination the next day; and, over a small ridge next to town, the Ngozumpa Glacier. This is the largest glacier in Nepal (at least that’s what I read) and flows downhill from Cho-Oyu and Gyachung Kang which are both on the Tibet/Nepal border.
We had no idea how dynamic and fascinating the glacier would be. As soon as we stepped up onto the ridge above town we began to hear its constant crackling and rustling. I knew glaciers moved but had no idea it was enough to constantly make noise, as if it were alive! The grayish ice – in some spots black, others blue – is covered with rubble, as are the walls of the kilometer-wide valley its carved for itself. It looks like a giant smear of sheetrock powder. Pools dot the surface, each a different color from milk-white to bright aqua. Constant little rockslides and rumbles echo around. Super cool!
Day 6: Gokyo Ri (5360m) – Day of Disappointment
We woke extra-early this morning with the intent of summiting Gokyo Ri – the local peak next to the Gokyo settlement – in time to see sunrise over Mt Everest and then descend for a nice breakfast. The weather up in the mountains is anything but predictable but we had had several clear mornings in a row and so when we set out at 4:30am in a gray mist we weren’t too worried. Worst case once the sun was up it would burn off, we thought, and more likely we would break through the low overcast on our way up the 600m climb.
It was definitely tough going. We hadn’t slept well in the thin air of Gokyo, our colds were getting into swing, and we had already burned off the rice and potatoes from dinner the night before. Not to mention the elevation – a 600m (2000ft) climb at sea level will get your heart pumping but at 5000m elevation it’s a whole new ballgame. Still, we kept our sights firmly on the summit where a much-heralded and highly anticipated 360-degree Himalayan panorama – the goal of our trek – awaited us.
The clouds persisted as we climbed. The temperature hung at zero C. We got a brief glimpse of Pharilapche in the sunrise but that was soon lost. After a bit over 2 hours we reached the cold gray summit to join some other trekkers also hoping for a view. We waited and got chilly; it snowed a little. We waited some more. I really really wanted to see this view and would be more than OK to wait a while even though I was getting pretty hungry.
After a couple hours the sun was well up – though we could barely tell – and several folks started heading back down. My resolve started to waver. Was it possible this wasn’t going to happen? This was our best shot to see a full view of Everest as well as a host of other glorious peaks – I couldn’t leave without it! It’s why I came! But the weather didn’t seem to care. Another hour later we started to get enough breaks in the immediate clouds surrounding us that we could see an impenetrable wall not far beyond and so after more than three hours we called it off. Perhaps we would try tomorrow before we hiked out… could we even do that?
Descending back down to we came out underneath the clouds and got some nice views of the immediate Gokyo area with the aqua lake and moonscape glacier. But for me it only sharpened the loss of what I couldn’t see beyond, what I had come to Nepal to see. Fatigued, hungry, sick, drained of oxygen and totally heartbroken, I cried the rest of the way down the trail.
Elaine did her best to cheer me up, and I got some really delicious food in me (vegetable omelet on top of a banana pancake – you should try it!). It was hard though. We rested and recharged. Perhaps there would actually be a second chance tomorrow. It would make for a very long day indeed as we needed to head back downhill from Gokyo as well.
Day 7: Gokyo to Phortse Tenga – Redemption!
We had decided with Tersang the evening before that if the weather looked great in the morning we would make a second attempt, which probably meant skipping some later parts of our itinerary; if it was overcast again we would stick to the original plan and leave Gokyo. We rose for the earliest breakfast we could get (no going hungry this time) and looked out the window – to a crystal clear morning! Elaine groaned at the prospect of the steep climb again but Tersang insisted enthusiastically, “we should go!”.
The steep uphill was easier this time knowing our vista awaited. Once we were partway up we got a great look at a completely unobscured Mt. Everest (a somewhat uncommon sight) along with fellow massive peaks Lhotse and Makalu. Huzzah!
By the time we reached the summit some clouds were already rolling by but not enough to spoil our victory. Everest, now partially hooded by clouds, shared the expansive horizon with many of the worlds tallest: Lhotse, Nuptse, Makalu, Cho-Oyu, Gyachung Kang, and further snowcapped peaks deep into Tibet. We also had great views of Cholatse, Taboche, and Pharilapche, lesser in height but just as beautiful. Beneath us we could see the Ngozumpa Glacier sweeping all the way up to its lofty roots. Amazing.
We ended up sharing the view with a few other folks we had met the previous morning – we weren’t the only ones to try twice in a row! We shared our sweet and timely success, as the clouds continued to thicken – had we taken breakfast at 7 instead of 6, we would have totally missed out. Here’s a video from the summit too. Thankful and enlivened, our climb down was also much easier and we happily sat down for an early lunch.
This was only the start of our day. From there we quickly packed and headed back down the trail. How far we got today would determine how much of our original plan, which included heading over to Pangboche and Tengboche, we would follow or would shortcut. Well going downhill is certainly a lot easier, especially at altitude, so we made good headway through the now thick clouds and fog. We managed to press on to our furthest possible destination – Phortse Tenga – 12 hours after we started the days’ hiking, exhausted.
Day 8: Phortse Tenga to Tengboche (3860m) via Pangboche – Cliffs and Creatures
In real life we both would have taken a sick day today. Our colds were on the way out – helped, I think, by a solid night’s sleep below 4000m – yet still very energy-sapping. This was the day we started wishing, at moments, to be done with our trek. But instead of a sick day we hiked 11km and climbed almost 1km! Our route took us up through Phortse (higher and across the river from Phortse Tenga) and up over to the adjacent valley, the one leading towards Everest Base Camp. Just getting up through Phortse was a bit tough on our tired legs.
From Phortse we hiked along a trail that wasn’t entirely cut into a sheer cliff but close enough (the consequences of falling would be equivalent). This was the most hair-raising part of our journey, but was well-rewarded. Not far along we had a graceful flyover by no fewer than six huge Himalayan vultures; a bit later we encountered a large group of Himalayan tahr (shaggy mountain goats) that played on the rocks and peered at us quizzically. We got quite close! And all along we had magnificent mountain backdrops: first Thamserku and Kangtega, and then once we rounded a corner, Ama Dablam and Lhotse (with a slight peek at Everest’s summit as well).
We stopped in Pangboche for lunch and the delicacy of real fresh brewed coffee. It really perked our tired bodies up! Poor Elaine was struggling with the tail end of the cold – I was a day behind. But the morning had been the hardest part so we enjoyed a nice lunch in the sun.
From Pangboche we had an easier afternoon, descending to cross the Imja Khola River flowing from Everest’s Khumbu Glacier and then an uphill hike to the monestary town of Tengboche. (Really all of these towns have Buddhist monestaries but Tengboche’s is particularly famous.)
We arrived to a new situation for us: busy! We started our trek at the beginning of the fall season so the trails and lodges were sparsely populated (twice we had stayed in a lodge where we were the only guests). No more. Furthermore poor weather had caused a backup in Kathmandu for a while and recently flights had resumed, so we were encountering a massive front of trekkers heading uphill towards Everest Base Camp. All the lodges were full! Well, almost. Tersang’s first choice was full. So was his second. And the third and fourth. He finally found us the last room in an old establishment off behind the monestary. I’d say it was the worst place we stayed but I can’t complain much – I don’t even know where Tersang and Meg Raj spent the night! We survived, so did they. And we actually had some delicious chicken with dinner, though Tersang told us later the hosts had to scour Tengboche for it!
Day 9: Tengboche to Namche Bazar – Chants, Cheese, Final Climb
First order of business was to check out Tengboche Monastery. No pictures were permitted inside so you’ll have to take our word for it. It’s a beautifully constructed set of buildings (more accurately, reconstructed – several times following major earthquakes) surrounded by stupas and prayer wheels. Inside we found a small cadre of red-robed monks ceremonially reciting a reading. They were wearing heavy red wool blankets, because it was just as cold inside as out. Around them were colorful paintings, carvings, and a large Buddha statue; unoccupied were two higher chairs which Tersang explained were for visiting senior monks.
the entranceway to Tengboche monestary
We then departed Tengboche and headed down, down, down through tree-sized rhodedendrons to cross the Phungi Khola. Here we encountered some waterwheel-driven prayer wheels and snacked on a yak cheese pastry which was delicious (no small feat considering both the yak and high-altitude baking aspects). From there it was up and up some more, a 300m climb. I was feeling like Elaine had the day before with the headcold (very tired), and additionally, my camelbak – nestled closely to my core – had been filled with boiling-hot water that morning. It wasn’t my favorite climb. But we made it of course and then it was an easy flat hike back on familiar ground to Namche.
Day 10: Namche Bazar to Phakding – Gloriously Thick sub-3000m Air
Our second-to-last day of trekking brought us back down the steep hill from Namche into the Khumbe Valley. By now we were both over our colds and as we dropped lower and lower the air felt so rich and fulfilling it was almost dizzying. On the trail down we happened to run into a Himalayan monal strutting about – this is a pheasant-sized bird, blue and red, iridescent like a peacock. Tersang told us it’s Nepal’s national bird. Totally unexpected on the brown and green terrain!
Days 11 and 12: Phakding to Kathmandu via Lukla
An easy uphill brought us from the river valley up to Lukla – we arrived before we expected to. And we were happy to be done. Tersang put us up in an extraordinarily comfortable lodge with a private bathroom and shower! Elaine had an entire chicken breast for lunch and my fried noodles had sausage – total luxury. We watched a few planes come into the airstrip and tried to find the post office to mail some postcards. This was interesting: I ended up being shuffled into a small backstreet room which was combination storefront and bedroom and offered what might have been real stamps at 50% higher than list price. If you get that postcard, I’m surprised it made it!
We woke extra-early the next morning to go to the airport (a five-minute walk) and check in with fingers crossed there would be flights that day. The small terminal building quickly became packed with trekkers. We all watched the sun rise on a super-clear morning and it wasn’t long before helicopters were clattering around with the fixed-wing aircraft not far behind. Ours happened to be the first to depart – lucky again! – and we walked out to greet our plane, a Dornier 228 this time.
The turnaround time from when the plane pulled off the runway to when it was ready to depart again was a mere five or so minutes. They don’t mess around here when the weather is good. Before we new it we were on the runway, brakes held while the engines hit full throttle, then off down the slope like a ski jumper. [video] Once the runway ends you’re off over a thousand-foot valley with a ridge dead ahead to clear. Needless to say we made it and returned to dusty Kathmandu for a long nap, hearty dinner, and cold beers.
What an incredible trip!