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Nepal was the crown jewel and cornerstone of our yearlong trip. Of all the places we’ve wanted to go, our lust for the Himalaya was by far the strongest. As such, our travels were planned around ~1.5 months of Himalayan trekking in April and May. We began with the Three Passes Trek, a long loop through the Solukhumbu region of Nepal and Sagarmatha National Park. This is where the best mountaineers have come to test themselves against the world’s highest peaks for almost a century. The hiking and the views are absolutely unparalleled. In this post, you’ll find a video summary of our trip, our itinerary and packing list, trekking tips, and other essential information for a successful Three Passes Trek.
Why the Three Passes Trek? First, the challenge of crossing three high mountain passes and experiencing truly high altitudes called to us both. The trek takes you over 5,000 meters 8 times, reaching a maximum elevation of 5,643 m (18,513 ft) at Kala Patthar. Second, we’ve spent many years armchair-mountaineering our way through the Himalaya, reading all of the climbing epics and dreaming of the day when we’d finally see these legendary mountains through our own eyes. We couldn’t miss the opportunity to see first hand the places where pivotal events of mountaineering history have unfolded. Himalayan peaks like Everest, Cho Oyu, Lhotse, Nuptse, and Ama Dablam are celebrities of the mountaineering world, and the Three Passes Trek offers spectacular views of them all. Third, is there anything more satisfying than hiking in a big loop? Especially when you get to absorb the unique Nepali and Sherpa cultures along the way? Out-and-backs are just the worst.
Kathmandu: Our journey began in Kathmandu, a gritty city with tightly packed, dusty streets. Tourists love to hate on Kathmandu, but we immediately took a liking to it, probably because we had been looking forward to Nepal for so long. Delicious smells of curry and Indian spices waft through the air. Everything is brightly colored, from the clothing to the buildings to the prayer flags, and the warmth of the Nepali people was immediately apparent. Kathmandu boasts a very international tourist crowd, which makes for a fun bar and restaurant scene, and the excitement in the air is palpable, since mosts tourists are either preparing for or returning from the biggest adventure of their lives. When it finally came time to fly to Lukla, our stoke was at an all time high and the airport was full of nervous energy.
Stepping off the plane in Lukla was surreal. The airstrip is tiny and tucked beneath massive snow capped peaks. Yaks and burros with heavy loads amble down the “street”, and there are no cars – not a motorized vehicle within miles. And suddenly, after years of preparation, we were trekking in Nepal. It is hard to describe our feelings during these initial steps. To say we were filled with excitement, gratitude, and awe feels like an enormous understatement.
Itinerary: April 28, 2017 – May 18, 2017
A major key to our Three Passes game plan was to take it slow. This optimized our chances of successful acclimatization and allowed us to enjoy as many side treks as possible. Most importantly, we didn’t want to get sick and be forced to turn around or cut our trip short (something we saw happen over and over to people in a hurry). We recommend not buying a return flight until you get back to Namche so that you can be as flexible as possible – the prices are fixed so buying the day before doesn’t change the cost. The pace of our trip felt mellow to us. We took several rest days, and there were a few days when we waited out bad weather (we didn’t want to miss out on any views by crossing the passes in the clouds). Not everyone has the luxury of time, but if you do, the slow and flexible approach is definitely ideal.
Experience level: if you are an experienced hiker, you can absolutely do this trek without a guide; however, the seriousness of the trek should not be underestimated, and it is advised not to do it alone. We saw many inexperienced hikers who were out of their element and who had to turn back for various reasons. Be aware that the trek includes real elements of danger. The high altitude can lead to altitude sickness, which can be deadly. Rockfall is often a risk. There are also several glacier crossings, and although people seem to have a cavalier attitude about glacier crossings in Nepal, they are inherently dangerous. Additionally, 3rd or 4th class scrambling is required at times (climbing using hands and feet, where a fall could lead to injury or death). Lastly, the weather in the Himalaya is extreme, and you need to be prepared for sun, rain, snow, and extreme cold (in 2014, blizzard conditions resulted in the deaths of 43 people on the Annapurna Circuit). All that being said, this is a trek most people can do with some hiking experience. But, it is not a beginner hike and don’t expect it to go well if you haven’t backpacked before. As our German friend from the trail said, “People come here to learn how to hike… What are they thinking?… You can die here!”
Guides/Porters: Porters can be hired for about $10/day. They’re expected to just carry gear. Guides are $15 – $30/day and carry less gear, but they speak English and help with things like trip planning and booking tea houses. Most people we met doing the trek didn’t hire a porter or a guide. The entire route is supported by many teahouses, so your pack should be lighter on this trek than on a normal backpacking trip. But, if you want a lighter pack or the security of having a guide with you, there are many options. If you do hire someone, make sure to be very specific about the route, what is expected of them, and the price. One of our friends had an issue with their porter offering to help book teahouses. It turned out he was booking teahouses for 200 rupees and telling our friends that the cost was 400 rupees. Lesson – be clear about expectations upfront.
Acclimatization: The key is to go slow and give your body time to adapt to the altitude. Abide by the general rule of hike high, sleep low (use day hikes to expose your body to high elevation but return to a low elevation to sleep) and don’t sleep more than ~300 m (~1,000 ft) higher than you did the night before. Take rest days, especially if you are feeling fatigued or ill, and stay hydrated! Drink 3-4 liters of water/day and avoid alcohol. Know the symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS), high altitude cerebral edema (HACE), and high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), and understand what to do if you experience symptoms.
Cost: We spent $44/day for the two of us, in addition to permit costs and flights. You can pick up your trekking permit (TIMS card) for $20 USD in Kathmandu (you’ll need two passport photos). The Sagarmatha National Park Entry Permit is an additional $30 USD. Expect to spend between $15 – $30 (USD) per person, per day depending on your budget. Prices go up the further you go into the trek because everything is being carried in by porters and yaks. At $44/day (for both of us), we were living comfortably and indulged in tea, plenty of food, and dessert most days. Lodging typically costs 100-500 rupees/night and meals cost between 200-800 rupees. Most teahouses have hot shower facilities (~500 rupees), wifi (~600 rupees), and battery charging (~100-500 rupees). Snacks, toiletries, and other (very) basic essentials will be available in most villages, but acquire all your gear/supplies in Kathmandu as prices will be higher in Namche Bazar and even higher in more remote villages. If there are specific items you need, do not count on being able to pick them up along the way. Lastly, bring cash from Kathmandu. There is an ATM in Namche Bazar but relying on it would be risky. Very few teahouses accept credit cards.
Route: We went counterclockwise and felt that this was the best way to go. There were people doing the trek in the other direction; however, each of the passes seemed like it would be more difficult this way given the steepness of ascent/descent and the degree of altitude changes. For what it’s worth, most guided treks also go this direction.
Route-finding: Route finding is easy on the main trails but can be challenging over the glaciers. At lower elevations (around Lukla and Namche Bazar), there are trail signs. There are not signs up at higher elevations, but navigating with a map is easy and in most places, there is only one trail to follow with few junctions. Over the passes, you must navigate more complex trails, sometimes using cairns and topographical awareness to guide your way. We heard several stories of people getting lost while trying to cross the high passes in the snow. Everyone on the trails can be a resource, so ask porters, guides, other trekkers for directions if you’re unsure.
Season / Weather: The trek is notoriously crowded in October, the high season. We heard it can also be crowded in early/mid April. During our trek (April 28 – May 18), crowds were not much of an issue, especially outside of the Everest Base Camp trekking sections. The weather tended to be very good in the early mornings, with sun and clear blue skies. Clouds typically rolled in between 10am-2pm and often brought light snow or hail (rain at lower elevations). Occasionally, it cleared up again in the evening. There were a few days where several inches of snow accumulated and visibility was poor all day. Give yourself lots of time so that you don’t have to trek in poor weather.
Everest Base Camp (EBC): Be aware that sections of the Three Passes Trek overlap with the EBC trek, and these areas will be crowded. This was an annoyance to us, but not a serious problem. In Gorak Shep, there are just 4 lodges and a bottleneck of people, so it would be wise to ask your teahouse in Lobuche to call ahead and make you a reservation for a teahouse in Gorak Shep (we’d recommend the Himalayan Lodge – the first one as you enter Gorak Shep).
Language: Most of the Nepali people we encountered along the trek spoke some English, but we both took the time to learn a little Nepali, and this went a long way. For instance, Connor was invited to join a group of Sherpa for tea after engaging them in conversation in Nepali. Everyone greets one another with “Namaste!”, but it’s easy and fun to learn more phrases like “kasto cha?” (how are you?) “thik cha” (I’m good), “dhanybhad” (thank you), “subha din” (have a good day), and “kahaang jane?” (where are you going?). We found the local people along the trek to be incredibly warm and welcoming.
Water: We used an MSR Autoflow Gravity water filter for the trek and brought water treatment pills as a backup. Many people use chlorine pills exclusively and many others used UV water treatment systems – these methods seemed to work fine as well. You can also buy treated or boiled water from the teahouses, although this gets costly. Whatever you do, don’t be lazy and rely on plastic bottled water (which sadly, is available throughout the trek). It’s crazy that porters carry bottled water up the long trail to a place that has some of the purest glacier water on the planet… And then of course, they carry the plastic bottle back down for you in the form of trash. Just don’t.
Lodging: The beauty of trekking in Nepal is that it is supported – you don’t have to bring your own food or tent! It is the glamping version of through hiking. You can choose to bring a tent, sleeping pad, stove, etc. and do it the hard way, but 99.9% of people do not. Chances are, when it is below zero and snowing outside, you’re going to wish that you were inside a teahouse around a fire with a hot meal. Teahouses are seriously affordable (100-500 rupees for a room) and sometimes free as long as you eat your meals there. Teahouses are also a great way to meet other trekkers and get closer to the Nepali and Sherpa cultures. They are typically run by families who are willing to share their stories with you if you are curious enough to ask. All teahouses provide a bed and extra blankets (no sleeping pad needed). The rooms will be unheated and at times extremely cold. During the high season (October), the teahouses can become crowded such that there are not rooms available and people sleep in the teahouse common rooms, but this was never the case for us. All teahouses will have toilets and some form of “sink”, although the condition of these amenities is highly variable (it is BYOTP – toilet paper not provided).
Food: In general, all of the teahouses have the same menu and a surprising variety of food options. The quality of the food was generally great, with only a few exceptions. There are egg dishes, toast, potatoes, and muesli available for breakfast. For lunch and dinner, there are sandwiches, soups, spring rolls, curries, yak steaks or burgers, pizza, momos (dumplings), and of course dal bhat (rice and lentils). Dal bhat, the staple dish of Nepali cuisine, always comes with a side of curried vegetables and free refills (no joke), so if you’re hungry, it’s often the best bang for your buck. Most teahouses also offer apple pie and other desserts. There are a variety of teas available as well as coffee, sodas, and juices. Beer, wine, and liquor are also often available but are quite pricey. *Tip – bring a few pounds of snacks – you’ll save money and your pack will get lighter over the course of the trip. Per person, we recommend: 1 lbs nuts, 5 snickers/bars, 1-2 lbs chocolate, and powdered drinks (such as Emergen-C, gatorade, tea, etc.)
Flora/Fauna: There was an abundance of wildflowers during our late April – mid May trek. The rhododendrons were particularly striking. Trains of adorable yaks and mules are used to shuttle gear and garbage up and down the villages. You can also see pica, eagles and a wide variety of other beautiful birds, and tahr, a Himalayan mammal that looks like a cross between a deer and a goat. Maybe a yeti if you’re lucky.
Emergencies: All villages have the ability to call helicopters for emergency evacuations. Apparently you can also snag a heli if you just want to quit and you have a big budget. We literally watched a group request a heli ride out because they were tired (they paid over the phone via credit card and were gone in 30 minutes). The availability of these services is weather dependent of course. Some of the villages have medical clinics, but if you’re seriously ill or hurt, you’ll probably want to descend or get an evacuation out. There are also “horses for hire” if you are unable to walk out but don’t want to spring for a heli ride. Most teahouses have wifi available for a price if you need to communicate with someone or use the web. Make sure to check that your travel insurance covers you above 5,000 meters – we’ve heard of people having issues with insurance companies because trekkers went “above” their plan.
Approach: The majority of trekkers fly into and out of Lukla. Flights are $150 each way, but are dependent on good weather. Try to book the first flight in the morning if possible, when the weather tends to be best. You can also take a bus (~8 hrs) from Kathmandu to Jiri Bazar or Salleri, and begin your trek at a lower elevation. This is a great way to improve acclimatization and to visit the “less touristy” villages of Nepal. If you opt to start lower, you’ll experience warmer temperatures, quieter trails, and cheaper accommodations.
Climbing Culture: If you want to summit a “trekking peak”, you’re required by the Nepal Mountaineering Association to pay a guide and acquire a permit (e.g., Island Peak, Mera Peak). This gets pricey. Most people arrange for this ahead of time and the costs are included in a package deal with a guiding company. However, it is possible to find guides and permits for the smaller trekking peaks once you are on the trek (e.g., Lobuche East, Pokalde, possibly others). We found that you could climb Pokalde for ~$350 USD and Lobuche East for ~$500 USD, which includes guides, porters, fixed ropes, and gear (tent, sleeping bag, and prepared meals for high camp, harness, etc.), all of which are required if you want to climb a peak above 6000 m. While it was tempting to tag a higher summit, we decided that it didn’t really suit our climbing style. Perhaps in the future.
Three Passes Trek Packing List: Thamel is the tourist district of Kathmandu, and from any given corner, you can literally see 5-15 gear shops. Since we came from two months in southeast Asia, we had to acquire most of our cold weather gear upon our arrival. Two days was the perfect amount of time to make this process enjoyable and stress free. Most of the gear shops have an assortment of cheap gear made in China, but there are also genuine Northface and Mountain Hardwear shops in Kathmandu where you can get the real thing (for the real price). We found that the cheap Northfake gear held up just fine, and if you spend some time bargaining, you can walk away with some decent gear for a killer price. However, don’t expect to find a ton of variety – all of the shops pretty much carry the same stuff, and you won’t find all of the nice gear that you might elsewhere. For instance, they didn’t have much for wool base layers. Extra gear that you don’t need on your trek can be left with your hotel in Kathmandu. Your gear is likely to remain safe, particularly if you assure your hotel that you’ll stay with them again when you return. We had a great experience with Hotel Bright Star.
Here is a list of everything we brought on the trek (some gear from home, most from Kathmandu), and few things we wish we would have brought (per person):
- Down sleeping bags: -10 for her, -5 for him (we both could have used warmer bags, but all of the teahouses provide extra blankets, which we used often)
- Cocoon sleeping bag liner (1)
- Down jacket (1)
- Gortex rain shell jacket (1)
- Waterproof backpack cover (1)
- Beanie (1)
- Buff/bandana (2) – keep dust out of your mouth, sun off your neck, and more
- Lightweight hiking pants (1) – you do not need soft shell or heavy hiking pants
- Warm, comfy pants to wear in teahouses and for sleeping (1)
- Short sleeve hiking t-shirt (1-2)
- Long sleeve hiking shirt (1)
- Base layer bottoms for layering warmth (1-2)
- Base layer top for layering warmth (1)
- Warm long sleeve top for teahouses/sleeping (1)
- ~5 pair socks
- ~2-5 pair underwear
- Hiking boots
- Shampoo, lotion, chapstick, toothpaste/brush, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, soap, baby powder, baby wipes (50 each – we use 2-3 after a long day of hiking for a quick rinse)
- 4 lbs food – Snickers, peanuts, chocolates, hydration salts
- Water bottle – 1 liter Nalgene or stainless steel (stainless steel is nice since it can be used to heat on the teahouse stoves for warm water)
- Travel towel
- Trekking poles
- Emergency kit: ibuprofen and opiate painkillers, diamox, cortisone cream, antibiotic ointment, prescription antibiotics, antiparasitics, bandages/medical tape, water treatment tablets, treatment for any other conditions to which you may be prone (do not count on being able to find anything at the pharmacies in Nepal)
- Duct tape and zip ties for repairs
- MSR Autoflow Gravity water filter
- Small 15 L daypack for day hiking (probably unnecessary but nice to have)
- Headlamp with charger and/or extra batteries
- Deck of cards (most days you’re done hiking before noon – lots of down time)
- iPhone and charger
- Microspikes (many people do the trek without these but we found them useful – we used them on two of the three passes and also on Chhukung Ri on a icy/snowy day)
- Small combination lock, helpful for teahouse rooms so you won’t have to keep track of room keys
- Journal & pen
- Olympus OM-D E-M5 Camera with extra battery, extra memory card, and battery charger
- Kindle with charger
- Sleeping pads – we literally did not use these a single time (do not bring)
- SIM card for iPhone – someone suggested we buy a SIM card for emergencies, but the data didn’t work at all on the trek. Save your money and just rely on wifi.
- We recommend bringing old/flu medicine such as decongestant, throat lozenges, Emergen-C, cough medicine, and/or DayQuil/NyQuil. MANY of the locals and hikers around us were sick with cold/flu symptoms, and you cannot find this stuff in teahouses or stores along the trek. Yuck.
Trekking Quick Tips:
- Be bold, start cold – i.e., start with fewer layers than you think you need, you’ll warm up quickly.
- Sunscreen early! You can get burned quickly at altitude, even in the morning.
- Hike slow! Find your sustainable pace, don’t worry about the porters passing you, they’re superhuman.
- Snack and hydrate hourly. A consistent mix of water and food will allow you go to all day – we’ve learned this from mountaineering. Keep snacks in your pockets for easy access.
- Start early: order breakfast before the big groups, hike before the dust gets kicked up, the sun comes out, and the storms arrive, and find a lodge by 2 or 3 pm at the latest.
- Upon arrival at a lodge – immediately take a baby wipe shower (while you’re still warm) and change into your clean teahouse clothes.
- After dinner, brush teeth then return to the fire to get warm before bed. If it’s really cold, fill Nalgene with boiling water, seal tightly (this step is important), put in sleeping bag.
- If you can make it to Monjo your first day, the next day to Namche with be much easier, and it’s less crowded than Phakding.
- Learn some Nepali. We found this helpful site: http://the-voyagers.tripod.com/language.htm
- Get to know the teahouse family – many of them are owned by Sherpa who’ve climbed Everest (sometimes more than 5 or 10 times) and other 8,000 m peaks.
- When you encounter a stupa, structures used for buddhist meditation, it is tradition to walk to the left of it (clockwise).
- Eat – as much as you can. Protein becomes harder to find the higher you go, and the meat less fresh, so we relied on a lot of eggs. Consider bringing protein powder if you want to retain weight.
- Only hike when it’s clear. In 21, days we only hiked in clouds twice, both times it was clear when we started and then weather moved in. Why hike over a great mountain pass with no visibility? You’ll risk getting lost or injured, and you’ll be missing the views of the highest peaks in the world.
- Unplug! Yes, there is wifi and you can charge all your devices, which is totally great, but there is a lot of value in being disconnected. Embrace it and just see what happens. Don’t be the abrasive New Yorker who storms into the teahouse demanding wifi, a battery charge, and a cappuccino (yes, this happened).
The Three Passes Trek was the truly experience of a lifetime. Unquestionably the most beautiful hiking we’ve ever done with the most awe-inspiring views and some unforgettable people. The sheer magnitude of these mountains leaves one at a loss for words. It literally takes your breath away. There is something supremely holy and spiritual about this place that is hard to articulate but that once felt, won’t be forgotten.
If you have any questions about Nepal or our trek, shoot us a comment/message. We’d be happy to share more about our experience with you. Namaste!