The Three Passes Trek is considered the hardest multi-day journey to Everest. In a period of 17 to 20 days, you ascend to six peaks that are higher than 5300m, climb near vertical terrain, and gaze at four of the world's eight tallest mountains: Cho Oyu (8201m), Makalu (8481m), Lhotse (8414m) and Everest (8848m). Instead of short days followed by acclimatization hikes, the Three Passes trek takes you on long days that end with glaciers, boulders bigger than houses, and valleys straight out of Lord of the Rings. In short, it's the ultimate Everest experience, especially when you organize it in your own, trek it without guides or porters, and pick up amazing friends along the way.
NOTE: I took the iPad with me on our trek and wrote most of this trip diary in real-time. Because of that, it doesn't share the same format as our other posts, but it does provide an accurate account of our oscillating excitement and exhaustion on the mountain.
Total Spent Over 17 Days: US$1309 (including flights to/from Lukla, permits, all food and lodging) Average Spent Per Person/Day: US$38.50
Day 13: Hike up to Gokyo Ri (5360m)
Stats: 3 hour roundtrip hike
I was against the 4:45am wake up, but the views from the top of Gokyo Ri were worth it. By 7:15am, we had Everest, Lhotse, and the other giants surrounding us, the three Gokyo lakes and the watery channels of the glacier below us, and a clear blue sky with a hot sun above us.
The hike, with over 500m of a steep and rocky climb, was incredibly difficult and tiring, but we had the rest of the day to rest and take in the beautiful views of the lake and the mountains. The sun was even hot enough to dry my wet socks from the day before!
Day 14: Gokyo to Renjo La (5345m) to Thame (3800m)
Stats: 9 hours of trekking with pack
We left Gokyo at 6:45am to complete the last Pass of our trek. At 5345m, we knew the morning wouldn't be easy, but the sparkling Gokyo lake and towering mountains all around us kept us going for the first 1.5 hours of the climb. After reaching a plateau with beautiful blue flowers rising out of the snow and mountain chickens/pheasants that mooned me with their tail feathers when I got too close, the true climb began.
Steep, rocky, and indirect, we wound our way up the mountain, all the while keeping our eyes on the flags that signaled the Renjo La and the last high point of our trek. With about 100m of vertical climb to go, we hit snow and ice.
We conquered the top in a bit under three hours, one hour less than the Lonely Planet estimate. It was from the top of the Renjo La that Everest finally looked like the tallest mountain in the Himalayan range.
The snow-capped mountains and the valley below us provided quite the view, best enjoyed with another "cup" of black coffee and a celebratory dance party.
The rest of the day was supposed to be a pleasant downhill, but first we had to get off the mountain through the snow and ice. Thankfully, it was easier than it looked as there was enough soft snow on the sides of the trail to sink our heels into. From there, the trek was exactly as the map had promised, although the views surpassed what we expected.
The valleys were among the most beautiful we've ever seen, complete with stone houses, white sand beaches, snow-capped mountains, and turquoise streams. We all felt like we were trekking through Lord of the Rings.
After a quick lunch break in Lumde, we continued on through more pastures and valleys, now complete with trees and rhododendron flowers. By the time we arrived in Thame, we had descended almost 1.5 kilometers and the excess air was making us giddy.
After settling in at a humble lodge, we learned that the proprietor has summited Everest 13 times. Nothing like being brought back down to earth when you're feeling proud of your accomplishments.
Day 15: Thame (3800m) to Namche Bazaar (3440m)
Stats: 3 hours of trekking with packs
We started the day by visiting the Thame Gompa, a 350-year monastery set into the cliffs above Thame. It was a beautiful and peaceful place and we spent about an hour just soaking in the atmosphere.
From Thame, it was supposed to be an easy two hour hike to Namche, but we got a bit lost by crossing the river at the wrong time, which made it closer to a three hour hike with more ups and downs than necessary. My feet were both throbbing with blisters from the long descent the day before, but other than that the Thame Valley spectacular. The smell of fir trees got stronger the farther we went and the vegetation became greener and denser as we approached Namche.
Seeing the "city" from atop the hill was the final validation and we all strolled into town singing the Rocky theme song.
We had done it and celebrations were around the corner, right after another free movie at Liquid Bar. This one was an account of the sons of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Sherpa following in their father's footsteps and summiting Everest, so it was much more upbeat than Into Thin Air. Did you know that neither man would ever say who made it up first? Despite being asked for decades, they always said they made it together.
And in that same vein, so did we. I honestly couldn't have climbed any of those peaks without these guys.
Day 16: Namche Bazaar (3440m) to Lukla (2840m)
Stats: 5.5 hours of fast trekking with full packs
Nobody tells you how much this day sucks, but it really really does suck, especially if you're carrying your own gear and your feet are covered in blisters. With almost 20km to cover and a final ascent of almost 400m, the final day of trekking tests you almost as much as the high passes.
It took us 5.5 hours of ferocious walking to reach Lukla, but it wasn't all bad. The sky was clear and the sun was shining and we were back to the land of trees, flowers, waterfalls, and suspension bridges.
Unfortunately, joining the main EBC trail meant we were also back to the land of tour groups. With the season officially in high swing, we saw more people going up on the trail than we saw in the last 16 days combined. The huge groups, complete with yaks and porters, made us realize how lucky we were to have had such a quiet journey. I mean, you can't really take these shots at Base Camp if it's full of people.
The other thing we saw over and over on this stretch of trail was porters carrying ridiculous loads at unbearably young ages. So here's a plea: if you use a porter, make sure they A) have real shoes, B) aren't in primary school, and C) aren't experiencing permanent spinal damage because you packed too much crap. We're all for providing jobs to the locals, but if you can't pick up your pack and walk with it uphill for an hour, nobody else should be expected to either.
Upon arrival in Lukla, we confirmed our flights, took off our boots, and hopped from one happy hour to the other. Consider it a medical expense.
Day 17: Lukla to Kathmandu
Stats: Three minute walk to the airport followed by lots of waiting and a 25 minute flight
Outfitted in my ski jacket and flip flops, with a cup of fake Starbucks coffee in one hand and sunglasses in the other, we bid adieu to Lukla and Everest and returned to civilization, which for me meant hummus, fast WiFi, and fresh vegetables!
Interested in seeing Mount Everest and the Himalayas without the pain of trekking? Check out our Everest Three Passes photo tour.
You can also share your tips for trekking Everest on a budget by leaving a comment!