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Linking to Himalayan valleys

We had planned for several years to trek in the Khumbu-Everest region in Nepal.  We wanted to be independent and to see as much as possible without long stretches of backtracking.  For us this meant planning a trip across one of the regions’ high altitude Passes called Cho La (5420m) which joins the two main trekking routes in the Khumbu and Gokyo Valleys.  We had decided that with adequate acclimatization, this short trip would allow both valleys to be trekked, while adding a stunning mountain experience to our journey.

The Khumbu-Everest region is the second most popular trekking destination in Nepal.  Sagarmatha National Park, which includes all of this areas main walks, attracts about 15,000 visitors per year.  Most trekkers fly from Kathmandu into Lukla then walk to the large market town of Namche Bazaar, the gateway to the Everest region. During the trekking season (October to December and February to May), the Khumbu Valley, which connects Namche Bazaar and Everest Base Camp is the most popular path with a constant flow of trekkers and tour groups filling the lodges. These days you can even get a cappuccino and slice of freshly baked mudcake along this route! One of the main draw cards of the trek in the Khumbu Valley is the views of Everest, particularly those from Everest Base Camp and Kala Patta at the head of the Valley. The route is also popular because it offers the chance to walk in the footsteps of Everest expeditions, as well as the opportunity to visit one of the highest monasteries in the world at Tengboche with its stunning views of Ama Dablam.

Paralleling and to the west of the Khumbu Valley, is the Gokyo Valley, also accessed from Namche Bazaar.  The walk to Gokyo is a similar in distance to the Khumbu Valley trek, although it is steeper in sections so care needs to be taken to acclimatize to the altitude properly. It is a quieter and less touristy place than the Khumbu Valley and the lodges tend to be more relaxed and less cluttered by frenetic large tour groups. The sights in this valley are surprising gems given its relative lack of popularity.  Gokyo Valley is an active glacial landscape containing the Ngozumpa glacier, the largest in the Nepal Himalaya.  At night you can hear the glacier cracking and rumbling as it slowly makes its way downward to eventually become part of the Ganges River in India.  A dawn climb to the summit of Gokyo Ri (5350m) with its brilliant coloured prayer flags is an unrivalled opportunity to watch the sun rise over the Everest massif.  The views of Everest are more distant than from Kala Pattar but show its classic shape and face with great views of the South Col and Hillary Step.  Another feature of the Gokyo trek is the glacial lakes at the head of the valley.  They are a shimmering emerald green, and from the Sixth Lake at the head of the valley you see one of the most beautiful panoramas of Himalayan scale with Everest, Cho Oyu, Lhotse and Makalu forming the horizon.

Most trekkers choose to walk one of the valleys only, or spend several days back tracking in order to see both.  Cho La is a high altitude 5420m Pass connecting the two valleys that offers an interesting alternate route allowing the valleys to be joined.  It is possible to cross the Pass independently with no special mountaineering skills or extra equipment at certain times of the year (weather permitting) and assuming you have carefully acclimatized to the altitude.  No permits are required for the trek and, apart from a cautious awareness of the weather and terrain conditions, only warm clothing and wet weather gear are needed.   A guide is not necessary, as the route is busy and generally clearly defined, except after heavy snow fall.

We decided to cross Cho La from the Gokyo side, having spent three nights at Gokyo to explore the region and let our bodies get used to the altitude. The Pass can also be crossed from the Khumbu side, but from that direction the climb and descent are slightly more difficult.  It takes approximately three days to cross the Pass from Gokyo to Lobuche, a distance of approximately 15 kilometres. Our trip described below is typical of the journey. We trekked independently in the region, though in Namche Bazaar we did hire an English speaking porter to carry some of our gear.   Each day we carried a small pack with clothes for the day, snack food and water and tended to meet our porter, Karma Sherpa, at a lunch stop or the day’s destination.

We left Gokyo in the afternoon having spent the morning relaxing and eating.  A week into our trek, we hadn’t yet been game enough to try the popular menu items of  “Yak Sizzler” or “Yak Stroganoff”.  Apparently Yak meals are only available when one dies of natural causes and is found some days later!  After a surprisingly good (and Yak-free) pizza we left Gokyo, initially following the main trekking route southwards for about 2.5 kilomtres to a point near the Second Lake.  Here a series of tracks branch to the left (east) to mount the lateral moraine of the Ngozumpa glacier.  Due to the constant movement of the terrain, there is no single direct route across the glacier.  There are, however, numerous distinct connecting tracks and cairns all of which ultimately lead to an obvious notch in the lateral moraine on the other side where you can scramble up and off the glacier.

The walk across the glacier itself was a surreal and eerie out-of-this-world experience, with the ice cracking and crumbling around us.  It is a lunar-like landscape, monochrome with no vegetation.  As we walked through the maze of paths through the lakes and ridges, we walked across sand like on a beach, and saw ice escarpments 40 metres high showing the bedding of the glacier  The terrain is at times rocky, icy and slippery but you do not need special equipment, however walking poles come in handy, and so long as you are careful the route is not at all dangerous.  It takes approximately one hour to cross the glacier.

From the eastern lateral moraine it is an easy and predominately downhill and flat one kilometre walk to the guesthouses at Dragnak (4680m).  We stayed at the Friendship Lodge which was busy with two tour groups planning to cross the Pass the following day.  We spent the afternoon playing cards and eating cinnamon porridge as we watched the weather close in from the lodge windows – and to our (and every other trekkers) horror, it began to snow!  We watched as the snow began to build up on a yak’s back standing near the lodge window.  For some unknown reason the thickness of snow on the contented yak’s back was being used as a gauge to determine if the Pass could be crossed.  The debate continued with seriousness into the night among other trekkers.

After a sleep in one of the more rudimentary rooms on our trek (the bed was made of a stack of loose rocks!), we woke at 6am for a 6:30 start.  We set off well rugged up with our head torches lighting our path and a clear starry sky above us.  The ground was covered with five to 10cm of snow at Dragnak and our fingers and toes froze and burned with pain as we headed up the valley.  Thankfully it turned into a beautifully clear day with no wind and the sun warmed us and defrosted our fingers!.

After a few hours of hill climbing along a distinct track we entered a large moraine field that was covered in snow.  Here the track was marked by rock cairns. It was slow progress negotiating the slippery rocks – real ankle breaking territory.  From here we got our first good glimpse of the eastern face of Cho La – a pretty imposing sight. It looked almost sheer and impossible to climb.  Looking closely we spotted people making their way diagonally across the face and as we got closer it became more obvious that there was a reasonable route up.  The path up to the Pass is predominantly snow and rock and involves an easy scramble when soft snow coats the face.  The climb would be more difficult after rain or when hard ice covers the route.  At these times some judgment may be needed and it would be best to discuss the route with locals and other trekkers who have crossed.  We found that talking to other trekkers, local guides and porters was an indispensable source of advice regarding current conditions, logistics and time needed to cross the Pass.

As we reached the top of the Pass, it was sobering to see so many locals with heavy baskets on their backs using the route to transport material between the valleys.  As we puffed our way up one side of the pass, they were running down in the opposite direction, no doubt covering three or four times our distance in one day.  It surprised us how busy the Pass was and how distinct a route was formed in the snow across the top.  This made it  easy to stay on track and avoid potential danger of crevasses.  It also made us appreciate that crossing Cho La is an everyday event for the local Nepali.

The flat saddle of Cho La was stunning; huge mountains  surrounding a neat little hanging glacier that formed the cradle of the Pass.  Our porter Karma Sherpa was surprisingly suffering from some altitude sickness at the highest point of the Pass and we quickly sent him ahead to a lower altitude while we carried his load down! A bit of a knee jerking experience due to the added weight.

We enjoyed a packed lunch of Chappatis and boiled eggs (thanks to the Friendship Lodge) on the Pass before descending to Zongla approximately 3.5km and 600m drop into the valley.  The descent is particularly steep, rocky and rough in sections.  Some care has to be taken during the scrambles from one rock ledge to another, but the track is clear and quite safe. By the time we arrived at Zongla with our heavy packs we were tired.  While it  is possible to stay at Zongla, it is not a very inviting place, but it is an option if needed – such as during poor weather or a lack of time to reach Lobuche.

Despite one of us having a bout of flu, we decided to push on to Lobuche with Karma Sherpa, who by this time had recovered from altitude sickness.  From Zongla the track to Lobuche skirts southeast for about 2km and joins with the main Khumbu trekking route at the small town of Dughla, 2km south of Lobuche.  We arrived at Lobuche late at night, it was raining and nearly all the lodges were full.  We thankfully scored the last room in town albeit miniscule and next to the toilet.  Rob slept while Clare refueled on well earned chocolate pancakes.

From Lobuche it is a one or two day return walk to Kala Pattar or Everest Base Camp respectively – easily manageable if you planned your acclimatization well. In retrospect, considering Rob and Karma Sherpa were unwell, we should have stayed at Zongla after descending from the Pass.  This would have made the trek easier and the final day less of a slog.  The next morning laying in bed beside the toilet at Lobuche watching the rain falling while swallowing pain killers poignantly reminded us that it really is the journey and not the destination that’s important.

Track Notes
Total Distance: 15km
Approximate Altitude: 1000m ascent/ 1000m decent
Approximate Days walk: 2-3
A general Permit is required for Sagamartha National Park

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