Big thanks to Brian Fagin for this guest trip report! – Sudeep and Seth.
This trek is a bit of a Frankenstein. I started with the Tenzing/Hillary Trek, which begins in Jiri and ends at Everest Basecamp (as opposed to flying in to Lukla and hiking to EBC). Beginning in Jiri adds anywhere from 5-8 days to the trek, but Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa had to begin here, as there was no airport in Lukla when they summitted. Today it is still worth it to begin here, as the scenery and culture are incredible, and solitude much easier to find than higher up.
I combined this trek with 2 of the 3 passes in the 3 Passes trek, skipping Kongma La due to timing concerns (winter in the Himalaya was pretty intimidating to me). I also added a few popular side trips, including Kala Patthar, Gokyo Lakes, and the extended Gokyo Lakes hike.
Below is a rough itinerary:
Route & Timing
Jiri/Shivalaya – December 10th
Namche Bazaar – December 17th
EBC/Kala Patthar – December 21st
Cho La – December 24rd
Gokyo Lakes – December 25th
Gyozumpha Tsho: December 26th
Renjo La – December 27th
Namche Bazaar – December 28th
Phaplu – January 4th
Total Days on Trail: 26
Rest (Zero) Days: 5
Total Actual Trekking Days: 21
Hiking in the Himalaya during the dead of winter can be scary! I had a rough time finding many people who had done this trek during this time of year, or even finding reliable weather data online. I did not bring any weather instruments with me, so I am not much more help. But with the below gear, I was very comfortable, and even had great weather, until Gokyo Lakes. A little snow right after Christmas, then a lot more once I got past Lukla and got into Phaplu. Aside from that, it was clear and gorgeous every single day, and freezing at night (but clear with amazing stars and lit up mountains).
- Short sleeve synthetic shirt
- Long sleeve Under Armour shirt
- Patagonia trekking shorts
- Jack Wolfskin trekking pants
- Patagonia Nanopuff jacket
- Marmot PreCip lightweight rain jacket
- Heavy weight fleece*
- Heavy weight merino wool tops and bottoms
- Mid and heavy weight wool socks
- Synthetic trail running socks
- Wool cap
- 2 pairs Exofficio travel boxer briefs
- Glove liners
- Heavy weight down over-mits*
- Marmot Helium 15 Degree bag
- Trekking poles*
- Brooks Cascadia trail runners
- Mariners baseball hat
*Purchased in Kathmandu or Namche Bazaar
**Metal spikes that strap on to boots or trekking shoes, that everyone calls crampons
Kathmandu -> Jiri
• Local bus from the Old Bus Park, close to Thamel, direct to Jiri
Phaplu -> Kathmandu
• Local bus, organized through my guesthouse in Pahplu
TIMS Card: $20
Gaurishankar Conservation Area $20
Sagamartha National Park: $33.90
In true Nepali “figure it out as you go” fashion, I purchased all of these on the trail, very easily, at no additional cost. I think this is the better option than navigating the tour and sales offices of Kathmandu. I didn’t even need to know where these offices were located, as the National Park and TIMS officials waived me in off the trail, to either check my permit, or sell me the required one. I was never over charged, and always offered friendly conversation and advice.
Daily Budget: $30/day
• This budget allows for 3 meals a day and lodging, but does not include the above permits
• This could be done for less with some creativity and frugality, or more if you like to indulge in candy, beer, or western food
A note about ATMs:
• The only ATM on this trail is in Namche Bazaar. There could be ATMs in either Jiri or Phaplu, but neither are much help as they are at the very beginning or end of the trail
• The power and internet were out in Namche Bazaar for almost a week, stranding me there as I had run out of cash. In Nepal, you can always figure things out (my hotel let me run up a tab until the power came back on). It would be best not to rely on this ATM, and just bring 25%-50% more cash than you think you’ll need
I am a big fan of trekking independently. I love the freedom it offers, and as a budget traveller on a very long trip, this was my method of travel for all of my treks in Nepal.
That being said, when I go back, I will absolutely be hiring a guide. On all 3 of my treks, I witnessed first-hand the guide community in Nepal, and it is fantastic. They are well trained, knowledgeable, and just fun to hang out with. They are well worth the relatively low cost they charge for their services.
I hiked extensively with one guide and his clients in particular (I didn’t hire him, they just invited me along), and would definitely recommend him. His clients raved about him, and I had a blast hiking with them. He was very knowledgeable about local tradition and culture, hiking and the mountains, and flat out one of the friendliest and most genuine people I met in Nepal.
Preparation/Getting to Jiri
2 maps must be purchased for this trek, as it is not a traditional trek. It combines the Tenzing/Hillary Trek with the 3 Passes Trek (I only did 2 passes due to time/weather concerns). I used one map for the Jiri to EBC section, and purchased a separate 3 Passes map.
I took a public bus to Jiri. This bus leaves from the Old Bus Park in Kathmandu. I went to the Old Bus park the day before to purchase my ticket and get confirmation on the timing. They leave very early in the morning, and although I was told they run until 8 am, I opted for the 5 am bus just to be safe. We were also budgeting a 10 hour ride, so we wanted to get an early start. Any hotel or taxi will know where the Old Bus Park is, just make sure to clarify you are going to Jiri to leave no room for confusion.
Even on my most horrific bus rides in Nepal (I’ve had some truly terrible experiences), the locals and bus drivers have always been amazing and helpful, and I have always arrived where I needed to (give or take a few hours!). No exception on this route! Fun locals, great lunch stops, gorgeous views, and a relatively smooth ride! This was my easiest and most pleasant bus ride I took in Nepal. Anyone on a budget, or just valuing an interesting and authentic way to travel should have no issue on this route.
The bus took about 10 hours. We arrived in Jiri at about 3. We should have stayed there for the night, but we decided to push on to Shivalaya. I do not recommend this, as there are no guesthouses until Shivalaya, and we ended up hiking well into the night.
Jiri – Namche
This section is not easy. The total elevation is not as high as achieved higher up on the trek, but the gain/loss is brutal, sections of the trail are pretty rough, there are donkey trains, and because of the lack of other trekkers, a map is necessary. That being said, for the reasons listed below, in addition to the training and acclimatization achieved, I would not miss this section for the world.
The section of the trail has some of the most authentic and least spoiled Nepalese culture I witnessed in all of my trekking in Nepal. It is not well travelled by tourists, as most opt to fly into Lukla. We had the trail to ourselves (aside from school children, guides hiking up to Lukla to meet clients, and the locals hiking in between villages).
As a result of the lack of tourists, we were much more of a spectacle to the locals than I found on more popular routes. This is fun! People love to chat, ask where you are from, give you great info on your hike, or maybe just practice English! The kids were hilarious. Some of them begged around the smaller villages, and I wish I had brought some paper/pencils to give them, as it is not advised to give money or candy. But most wanted to practice English, hike with me, try on my sunglasses, and have me take pictures of them with my camera so they could see themselves (then exclaim “how handsome!”).
The scenery on this section is gorgeous. We hiked through lush forests, rice terraces, farm land, and up and over some passes with gorgeous views of the Himalaya. The mountain views were surprisingly great very early on. As opposed to the Annapurna circuit, where you have to hike for a few days to get the good views, Numbur makes an appearance as early as the second day.
We had an amazing panorama in Phurthang, at a lovely guesthouse that seemed to be either attached to, or the same as a cheese factory. The owners were lovely, they made incredible Dal Bhat, and the sunset was one of the best we got on the entire trek.
Speaking of guesthouses, my favorite one was the Khumbu View Lodge, in between Puiya and Surke. The lodge is owned and ran by Pemba Galjen Sherpa. The food and lodging are great, and Pemba and his family were very accommodating. They offered me the most authentic view into Sherpa culture, including eating traditional food with their family, drinking tongba (hot wine made from millet), and hearing stories of Everest summits around a fire. The view isn’t bad either.
It is not necessary to hike into Lukla, as it is somewhat off the trail. I was able to hike from Puiya all the way to Namche. It is not easy, but I had already been trekking for over a month in Nepal, so I felt strong. This could easily be broken into two days.
Once I got past Lukla, the trail got much more crowded, and this didn’t let up until I left EBC for Cho La. My Norwegian friend that I met on this section of the trail liked to start late and hike until sundown, as the twilight hours offered more solitude and gorgeous lighting for pictures. I found this to be a great strategy for avoiding the crowds and donkey trains.
Namche was a great place to recharge, eat, drink, buy more supplies, and rest. I bought warmer clothes and crampons here (for Cho La). It can be a bit of a money pit, and I enjoyed it much more on my way down (it felt more earned). I spent two days here before setting off for Everest. I loved the Khumbu Lodge. The owner was hilarious and kind, the food was great, and they had rooms for budget backpackers like me, as well as actual hotel rooms for more short-term travellers with a bigger budget. It is also where Jimmy Carter stayed. If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me!
Namche to EBC
I had a really late start leaving Namche, so I only made it to Tengboche that day. There are only a few guesthouses here, all with similar accommodation. The monastery is gorgeous and the view was great.
From Tengboche I hiked all the way to Lobuche, taking the high route above the canyon, and skipping Dingboche. The views on this trail were stunning, and felt like a truly alien world.
There is a memorial for fallen climbers right before Lobuche. It was a very powerful experience, and should not be missed.
From Lombuche to EBC can easily be a full day, but I opted for tackling Kala Patthar as well. This was a tough day, but worked out perfectly. I left most of my gear at the guesthouse in Lobuche (TO EBC Guesthouse, very nice kids, one of which actually hiked with us to basecamp just for fun!), hiked to EBC, came back to Gorak Shep to get a room and lunch, then hiked up to Kala Patthar for sunset, leaving around 2 pm from Gorak Shep. We stayed on top well into sundown, and had to hike down in the total dark, but it was absolutely worth it. Bringing a thermos of hot tea helped (thanks Paul!).
I met many people who skipped EBC. I have to admit, compared to the other views, it wasn’t the best. If timing is tight, it could be skipped in lieu of Kala Patthar. However, if possible, I would definitely recommend both. While the views from EBC aren’t stunning, you are standing in the middle of the Khumbu Ice Fall. It is majestic and the power is tangible. I loved it, and I am really glad I made the trip.
The trail to Basecamp can be a little tricky. It wasn’t well marked, and during the off season, there isn’t a lot going on at Basecamp, so it can be easy to miss. Luckily I had a guide, who worked for head scratches and coconut biscuits.
Another late start held us at Lobuche for another day, as we were all tired from the monster day we had before. From Lobuche we hiked on an absolutely surreal trail to Dzonglha, which serves as a basecamp for Cho La. This was a short day, but it worked out well because the views and surroundings are amazing, and we spent a ton of time taking pictures and just being in general awe. That night was spent discussing Cho La, which would be attacked the next morning.
A word of caution about Cho La. It is recommended to do this pass with a guide, or at the very least with a group. I have done some mountaineering, and was hiking with a couple of gentlemen I met in Gorak Shep, so we did not feel the need to hire a guide. At the very least, you absolutely have to have crampons (which can be purchased in Namche), and should not be alone. It will always require glacier travel, and when we crossed, there was no cover snow at all. It was all ice. Case in point:
A very nice couple we met in Dzonglha had been hiking together, without a guide. They opted to follow the multiple groups of people over Cho La. The group in front had a guide, and the rest of us broke into smaller groups and followed them. The couple, along with my 2 friends from Gorak Shep, were the last over the pass. I saw them cross the glacier, pointed out my path to them, then descended quickly, as I was starting to really feel the elevation and was a bit worried about my health. I got to the first guesthouse I saw and ate lunch. 30 minutes later my friend Paul ran in saying the woman hiking behind them had fallen off the glacier and injured herself. Her and her boyfriend were stuck on the glacier, with our other friend, waiting for some kind of help. The descent off of this pass is sketchy and dangerous with healthy legs, it would be impossible to do if you couldn’t even walk (she couldn’t). We did not know if they had insurance for a heli ride, the sun was starting to set, and we had already had one of the toughest days of hiking on the entire trek.
As luck would have it, I just happened to eat lunch at a guesthouse owned by Pemba Tenzing Sherpa, one of the toughest human beings on this planet. He grabbed a guide who was playing cards with a client, and the 4 of us set out as the sun was setting, up the pass we had just come down. We found our other friend first, as he had left the couple when the sun started going down. At dark, we found the couple, and loaded the woman onto a stretcher that Pemba had made out of a ladder. The 5 of us rotated on the back of the stretcher, while Pemba manned the front himself, stopping only to smoke (Sherpa oxygen!). The woman was in good spirits, but freezing. The temperature drops dramatically at night, and the only reason we weren’t also freezing was because of all of the hiking. Pemba eventually grew impatient with the pace and put the woman in a harness, strapped her to his forehead (porter style), and ran the last mile down the creek bed back to his guesthouse. Everyone got back safely, and the couple was helicoptered out to Lukla the next day. Crossing glaciers is no joke, and mistakes can have huge consequences at 17,000 feet. Luckily Pemba is a real life super hero, so everyone ended up ok.
The hike to Gokyo is tricky, as you have to cross a giant glacier. It is also awesome, because you have to cross a giant glacier! This glacier is covered in scree, so no crampons are necessary, but the hiking is slow. Luckily the views are insane, and the glacier makes a very eerie noise as it carves its way through the valley. The approach into Gokyo Village gives you a fairy tale vista, as a collection of guesthouses surround a gorgeous glacial lake. We stayed at the Gokyo Resort for a few days and loved it.
The next day we made the hike to the last lake in the series of Gokyo Lakes, called Gyozumpha Tsho. It was an all day hike, but the views were well worth the effort the entire time. The Gokyo glacier looms next to you the entire time. I still think the main lake, by the village, is the prettiest though.
I opted to skip Gokyo Ri, a very popular side trip from Gokyo village. The weather had already started to turn, as I had gotten snow on my hike to the lakes the previous day, so I wanted to get low as fast as possible. I was also told that Renjo La offers a very similar view. The hike up was of course brutal, as this trek made me earn every beautiful vista I witnessed. After a gruelling hike up, losing the trail a couple of times (always look for cairns, they are pretty consistent along this part of the trail, I just missed them), I finally got to the top. I was treated with the most impressive view of Everest I have ever seen. This was also the only view of Everest I saw where Everest appeared taller than the surrounding mountains.
The views don’t stop on the way down either. All the way to Lungdhen were amazing vistas and surreal landscapes.
Back to Namche
We decided to push from Lungdhen all the way back to Namche, skipping the very popular stop Thame. This was a mistake. Thame is gorgeous, has a wonderful monastery, and is the birthplace of Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, the first person (along with Sir Edmund Hillary) to summit Everest. My friends stayed there and raved about it. It was especially dumb to skip, as I ended up stuck in Namche for almost a week waiting for the power to come back on so I could pull out more cash. They were able to get the ATM working for 15 minutes a day by charging it all day with the solar panels, only to have the internet fail! Namche isn’t the worst place in the world to be stuck though, and the lovely family at the Khumbu View Lodge let me run up a tab while I ate and drank there. We also had a great NYE party in a dark bar around a fire, complete with live music and raksi (Nepali moonshine). Nepal is one of those special places where even getting stuck somewhere with no power or cash can turn into a wonderful experience.
The Journey Back
The trail back to Phaplu backtracks all the way to Ringmu, where it veers off the original path to head south towards Phaplu. I stayed at my friend Pemba’s guesthouse The Khumbu View Lodge, for one more night with him, his family, and that amazing dal bhat, tongba, and towa (traditional Sherpa food I can best describe as gnocchi, delicious). Pemba was also cooking up some yak steak, from one of his animals which was killed by a tiger. From there I went straight to Phaplu. After leaving Ringmu, the trail is gorgeous, and the hike into Phaplu is just as amazing as every other inch of this trek. It was surreal seeing the first motor vehicle in almost a month! I stayed at the cheapest guesthouse I found, and had the treat of watching Nepali action movies and REM music videos with a bunch of locals, and eating more great local food. After 2 months, you’d think I’d get tired of dal bhat, but it is some of my favorite food I’ve had traveling, and as an aspiring vegan (only at home, not while traveling), I love Nepali food for its plant based and cruelty free nature.
The bus ride home was not as nearly as pleasant as the ride in, and ranks up there with one of my worst. The window next to me was broken and permanently open, so I was freezing the whole time. Then we got stuck in the snow amid an insane traffic pile up of giant trucks, buses, jeeps and mopeds. I was forced to go handle some business in the snow on the side of the highway in front of everyone. I was somehow colder than I was on the bus ride. But of course, since it’s Nepal, I met some more amazing people, starred in a few selfies, and had some laughs about the whole thing. Eventually we got back to Kathmandu, and I was able to get my old room in Kathmandu, eat 5 veggie burgers, and watch the NWA movie on tv.
I am a habitual ranker. I rank everything. My favorite food, favorite rappers, favorite countries, and of course my favorite hikes. After trekking in Langtang and the Annapurna region, which were both great, I still held the JMT in California as my favorite hike of all time. That is until I did this trek. This is hands down the most amazing hiking experience of my life, and I could not recommend it enough. The views are stunning and better than anywhere I saw in Nepal. The Buddhism is fascinating and inspiring (it is actually illegal to kill animals in the Khumbu region, past Lukla). The stupas, monasteries, and prayer walls were among my favorite. The people were incredible. The side trips are almost endless. The variance in scenery is unparalleled. Everything from lush cloud forest to moon like landscapes, and everything in between are available on this trek. Solitude can be had at will. I spent the vast majority of my time on this trek hiking alone or with friends of my choosing. I cannot wait to come back and hike in this region again, it is truly a special place.