Over the Passes

Three Passes: Week Two

Everest through the prayer flags

We woke up on the morning of April 15th in Chukhung to find the water in our camelbacks frozen and a thin layer of snow on the windowsill inside our room. The little thermometer hanging off Morissa’s backpack read 19°F.

We’d seen our last tree two days ago, just outside of Pangboche. For the next ten days, we’d stay above tree-line, spending the majority of our time above 5000m (16,400ft) and never dropping below 4500m. When the guidebooks described the Three Passes route as a high altitude trek, they meant it.

To acclimatize, we spent a day in Chukhung climbing up Chukhung Ri, a “small” 5559m mountain with spectacular views of the Chukhung and Lhotse glaciers, the peaks of Ama Dablam, Taboche, Numbur, Island Peak, and, off in the distance, the pyramid of Makalu, the fifth highest mountain in the world. The world’s fourth highest mountain, Lhotse, towered just behind us, making what we’d just breathlessly summited seem little more than a molehill.

An eagle, soaring over the Lhotse face; Jamie taking flight at the top of Chukhung Ri; Morissa climbing the steep face of Chukhung Ri

The peaks along our route through the Khumbu were so large that they defied visual comprehension. Taken at a glance, you could mistake some for the mountains of Colorado or the Alps, but start tracing your eye up the towering cliff faces, hanging glaciers, and cloud draped summits, and all comparisons of scale began to fall away. We’d climbed the highest either of us had ever been and we were barely on the ground floor.

The next day, April 16th, we set off on the first of the “Three Passes” along our route. At 5535m, the Kongma La would be the highest of the passes we crossed, a doozy to start the trip off with. We remembered the name of the crossing by calling it “King Kong Pass,” and the trail lived up to its monstrous moniker. A gradual climb out of Chukhung soon turned into a steep slog up a cliff face at the end of the valley.

It’s hard to settle on the right metaphor for how altitude effects the body (we’d learned earlier that many of the medical effects of altitude also remain a mystery), but to us it felt something like being in the worst shape of our lives and then trying to walk through water with a rag stuffed in your mouth. That sounds awful — and at times it was — but actually, once we got our pacing down, i.e. a slow crawl that Morissa termed our “granny gear,” it all became more manageable. As a volunteer doctor from Massachusetts General had told us back at the Himalayan Rescue Clinic in Pheriche, if she got vitals like ours on the streets of Boston, she’d send us straight to the Emergency Room, but low blood oxygen levels and high pulse rates were just the norm up at altitude.

Stringing prayer flags up on the Kongma La

We chugged along over the pass, hung our first strand of prayer flags on the summit, and then descended down a long slope of scree and boulders to the lateral moraine of the Khumbu Glacier. The guidebook described the final path across the glacier as a “sucker punch” at the end of the day, but despite our aching muscles (and Morissa’s turbulent tummy, a bug that had her tossing off her backpack and running behind boulders), the trip across the rock strewn ice was thrillingly alien. We wound our way past glacial lakes and boulders the size of houses, rocks the glacier had wrenched free from the mountainsides on its way down from Everest. It was a surreal landscape, one we were glad to pass through, and happy not to get stuck in.

Crossing the Khumbu Glacier…to collapsing in bed.

We spent the next two nights back on the Everest Base Camp trail, first in Lobuche and then up in Gorak Shep, two outposts on the edge of the glacier. We visited base camp on April 17th, taking in the sprawl of brightly colored tents, prayer flags, and communications equipment. Rumor had it there was even a bakery. Most climbers had yet to arrive, but the area was still a hum of activity with sherpas and porters lugging in the seemingly endless amounts of supplies (and beer) that goes along with a serious expedition. Jamie snuck out of camp to go wander about the base of the Khumbu icefall for a bit, but caution got the better of him before any crevasses or other obstacles snuck up and preemptively ended our trek.

Camels on the Ice Fall; the flags at base camp; tents along the glacier

Early the next morning, we climbed up Kala Pattar, a 5554m Everest viewpoint. Trekking into the Khumbu from the south, the famous mountain is hidden from view except for a few distant glimpses, so this was our first real sighting. Obvious to say, but the scale was truly extraordinary. Just when we thought we were getting used to the size of Lhotse, there’s Everest towering another 1,000 plus feet above it. There are few places where sheer size takes the breath away — the ocean, the Grand Canyon, perhaps others — but Everest is surely among them. We took in the view, made all the more dramatic by the occasional avalanche cascading off the mountains.

Everest at sunrise

After our Everest viewing, we scampered down Kala Pattar, trekked back to Lobuche where we’d spent a previous night, and then curved around another valley towards Dzonglha, a village at the base of our next pass. We started our hike to Dzonglha after lunch and as we went up the valley, a snowstorm swept in, killing the visibility and covering up our trail. We wandered along yak paths for a while and had just pulled out the map when we heard shouts from up above. Geoff and Steve, two trekkers we’d met going over the first pass, and Pemba, their porter, had spotted us amidst the flurries and directed us back to the main path. Saved! We warmed up that night around our lodge’s yak dung stove, thankful not be lost out in the storm.

The next day dawned crisp and clear, a perfect morning for a rest day. We soaked up the sunshine on the patio outside our lodge, Morissa busy conquering her stomach bug and Jamie starting and finishing “Into Thin Air” in a single push.

On April 20th, we headed up the valley for on second pass, the 5420m Tsho (Cho) La. What a difference a few days of acclimatization make! We trekked our way up towards the pass with plenty of heavy breathing, but little of the suffering that marked our slog up the Kongma La. After climbing a steep trail up a cliff face, we came out at the base of the Tsho La glacier just before the pass. Unlike the dirtier glaciers in the valley, this was a clear tongue of ice, jaggedly carved into small ridges and peaks by the beating sun. The crunching snow made for good footing and we were soon at the top of the pass, stringing up our second strand of prayer flags, and peering down at the long winding descent.

Up the Tsho La glacier to our second pass

A few more hours of hiking brought us to the edge of the rock covered Ngozumpa glacier. The original path across the glacier had been changed due to the growth of several large lakes on top of the ice, another sign of how global warming is affecting the Himalayan landscape. Our trekking friends Geoff and Steve had told us that many of the ice routes they and friends had climbed up decades ago were now completely melted away. We headed north along the glacial moraine until we found the new trail across the glacier and into Gokyo, our next destination. It was an easy hike compared to the Khumbu glacier, although rock slides on the final climb up the moraine kept us on our toes.

The Gokyo Lakes are a series of six bodies of water strung along the western side of the Ngozumpa glacier. On the shores of the third lake is Gokyo kharka, or grazing ground, a resting place for both yaks and people that trekkers just refer to as the town of Gokyo. We found a cozy little lodge right by the lakeside and settled in for the next three nights.

The third Gokyo lake

Our first day in Gokyo we climbed up Gokyo Ri, another spectacular viewpoint with vistas of Everest and Makalu. Compared to the crowds of trekkers back on Kala Pattar, the peak along the Everst Base Camp route, Gokyo Ri was serene, with just a few other intrepid couples for company. The next day, Morissa rested up to try and finally defeat the stomach bug and enjoy a day of not strapping on her boots, while Jamie hiked up the edge of the Ngozumpa glacier and summited the Ngozumpa-Tse, or “Knobby View.” Not exactly an inspiring name, but the views from the top were superlative. Cho Oyu and the Kangshung peaks towered up to the north on the border with Tibet, while across the valley, Everest and Lhotse sparkled, high winds kicking off long streamers of snow from the summits.

Scenes of Gokyo

The next day, April 23rd, it was time for our final pass, the Rhenjo (Lhenjo) La. We walked around the edge of the lake, switchbacked up a gravelly ridge to just below the pass, and then pushed on over a cliff face to the top. Morissa strung up our third strand of prayer flags, three for the three passes, and we admired the vista. Looking back, we could see much of the route we’d just trekked for the last week, back down to Gokyo, over the glacier and up to the Tsho La pass, and then beyond to the Nuptse wall, where Kongma La was tucked somewhere out of sight.

Celebrating the final pass

Turning in the opposite direction, we looked down another steep trail, a route that would take us to the bottom of the Bhote Valley and back towards Namche, Lukla, and home. But there’d be plenty of time for all that in the days ahead. For the time being, we turned back towards the mountains and just took in the view.

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