EVEREST is more a pilgrimage than a trek: a tough personal challenge with a clear goal at the end, it passes deep into Buddhist Sherpa country, among some of the world’s most sublime peaks. In terms of popularity, the region runs second to Annapurna. That said, the majority of trekkers in Solu-Khumbu, the Everest region, are all heading up the same trail. From the alarming airstrip at Lukla, the trail leads north into mountainous Khumbu, the dizzyingly high Sherpa homeland. The trail forks above the Sherpa capital of Namche Bazaar (or Namche for short): one route leads to Everest Base Camp and the viewpoint of Kala Pattar; the other for the beautiful Gokyo Lakes. Both high points are about eight days from Lukla, and can be combined by crossing the high pass of the Cho La.

Relatively few trekkers now take the switchback hike from the roadhead at Jiri through Solu, the lower, greener, more populous and more ethnically diverse country to the south. It’s a stunning route, and offers a great way to acclimatize, but the extra five to seven days’ walking is too much for many people. You should leave slack in your schedule even if you’re flying, though, as getting a place on a plane out of Lukla can be problematic if bad weather causes cancellations to stack up.

To get a good look at Everest, you’ll have to spend at least four nights above 4000m and at least one at around 5000m. At these altitudes, there is a serious risk of developing acute mountain sickness (AMS) and you must know the signs (see Altitude). Everest is also the coldest of the major treks, so you’ll need a good sleeping bag, several layers of warm clothes, and sturdy boots that will keep out snow. The rental shops of Namche, in Khumbu, allow you to stock up on high-altitude gear and return it on the way back down. Because of weather, the trekking “window” is especially short in Khumbu – early October to mid-November, and late March to late April – and this, in turn, creates a seasonal stampede on the trails and at the Lukla airstrip. Winter isn’t out of the question, but it’s just that much colder.

While Everest isn’t as heavily trekked as Annapurna, its high-altitude environment is even more fragile. Khumbu, with less than four thousand inhabitants, receives anything from ten to twenty thousand trekkers a year, and probably twice as many porters. Lodge-building almost destroyed the Blue Pine and Silver Fir forests around Lukla, and the demand for firewood is many times the regeneration capacity of the area. Near trekking villages, up to half the juniper shrubs have vanished in smoke. The Sagarmatha National Park, which covers most of Khumbu, has done some fine work in reforestation (funded by the Rs1000 entry fee), but it can’t be said often enough: have as little to do with wood-burning as possible.

The popular trails through Solu-Khumbu are well equipped with lodges, some basic, some fancy and surprisingly expensive – until you consider the costs of portering in all supplies this far. Prices rise as you ascend; near the top, most lodges offer basic bunk beds only. The main Jiri–Lukla–Namche–Base Camp route is very straightforward, as is the alternative high-level spur, to the Gokyo lakes, but a guide is advisable for pretty much anything else. Solu-Khumbu is the easiest area in Nepal to hire a woman porter – a Sherpani – although few speak enough English to serve as guides.

Everest Base Camp

From Lukla (2840m), the trail powers north up the Dudh Koshi (“Milk River”) before passing into Khumbu and the Sagarmatha National Park at Jorsale (2740m), and bounding up to lofty NAMCHE BAZAAR/NAMCHE (3450M), where Khumbu and the serious scenery start. Nestled handsomely in a horseshoe bowl, the Sherpa “capital” has done very well out of mountaineering and trekking over the years, and shops sell (or rent) absolutely anything a trekker could desire. There’s also a bank (with, astonishingly, an ATM), a post office, a bakery, a place calling itself “the world’s highest bar”, and even internet access. Try to make your trip coincide with the Saturday market, which draws Tibetans from the north and Rais from the south, or visit the national park visitors’ centre, perched on the ridge east of town, which contains an informative museum. Thame, a beautiful few hours’ walk west of Namche, makes an excellent side trip.

There are numerous possibilities above Namche, including passing through the relatively untouristy and unusually flat settlements of Khumjung (3780m) and Khunde. The main route contours to Sanasa (where the trail to Gokyo breaks off), before descending to cross the genuinely milky-looking Dudh Koshi (“Milk River”), at Phunki Tenga (3250m). The trail veers northeast into a tributary valley and climbs steeply to Tengboche (3860m), where the wildlife-rich juniper forest has long been protected by the local lamas and there’s a show-stealing view of everybody’s favourite peak, Ama Dablam (6828m) – the “mother with a jewel box”, as Sherpas call it. Tengboche’s large monastery was lavishly rebuilt in the early 1990s, and has a fascinating permanent exhibition. Mani Rimdu, the Sherpa dance-drama festival, is held here on the full moon of October–November. The trail briefly descends through birch and fir forest to Deboche, a settlement with a nunnery, before ascending again to Pangboche, containing Khumbu’s oldest gompa, where for a donation the lama will show you some yeti relics. (The higher trail leading west out of Pangboche allows you to cut across to the Gokyo trek, on the opposite side of the Dudh Koshi valley.) After crossing the Imja Khola, the trail follows the terraces of the valley floor to Pheriche (4250m), site of a Himalayan Rescue Association post (AMS talks are held most afternoons, and $50 consultations are available). Above Pheriche, the stone and slate-roofed Sherpa settlements are strictly seasonal – trekking lodges aside.

The village of Dingboche (4360m), in the valley of the Imja Khola a little above Pheriche, is a slight detour from the fastest route up, but sitting right under Ama Dablam as it does, it has a more appealing situation than Pheriche, and offers some fine acclimatization side trips: to a gompa 400m above, or further up the Imja Khola to Chhukhung (4730m). This sensationally situated village is tiny, with only a few lodges, but can serve as a base for higher explorations still: on to Imja Tso (a glacial meltwater lake marooned in moraine that threatens to burst), up to the peak of Chhukung Ri (5546m) or ascending towards the Kongma La. The Dingboche route rejoins the trail up from Pheriche at Dughla (4620m), which is where acclimatization problems set in for many trekkers. Do not ascend with symptoms of AMS. Immediately above the trail climbs the stony terminal moraine of the Khumbu Glacier, passing a series of monuments to Sherpas killed on Everest, to reach Lobuche (4930m). Another day’s march along the grassy edge of the glacier’s lateral moraine brings you to Gorak Shep (5180m), the last huddle of lodges – and a cold, breathless and probably sleepless night in uncomfortably crowded bunk rooms.

The payoff comes the next day, when you climb up the mound of Kala Pattar (5545m): the extra height provides an unbelievable panorama, not only of Everest (8848m) but also of its neighbours Lhotse (Nepal’s third-highest peak, at 8516m) and Nuptse (7861m), as well as the sugarloaf of Pumori (7165m), the “daughter mountain”. A separate day-trip can be made across the thrillingly ice-spired Khumbu Glacier to Everest Base Camp. The trail is well trodden by climbing expeditions and their yaks and porters, so you don’t need any technical equipment beyond stout boots. Only the very fittest and best-acclimatized can manage Kala Pattar and Base Camp in one day; if you have to choose one over the other, make it Kala Pattar.

The Gokyo Lakes spur and Cho La
You’re that little bit further away from Everest, but the scenery is every bit as good at GOKYO LAKES, in the next valley to the west, and the lodges are much more appealing, with their glazed-in sun decks. The route breaks off the Base Camp trail at Sanasa, below Khumjung, following the Dudh Koshi north via Machhermo (where there’s an HRA medical post) to Gokyo, a cluster of lodges set beside the Ngozumba Glacier – the biggest in Nepal. It can be done in a long day if you’re fit and acclimatized; two or three if you’re not – there are lodges at frequent intervals all the way up. Several jewel-blue lakes, dammed up by the glacier’s lateral moraine, dot the west side of the valley above and below Gokyo. The high point is an overlook, Gokyo Ri, surveying a clutter of blue teeth – Cho Oyu, Everest and Lhotse are just the ones over 8000m – and the long grey glacier tongue.

It’s possible to be in Gokyo in two days from Gorak Shep (or vice versa), if you can manage the strenuous CHO LA (5420m). There are a couple of simple lodges at Dragnag (4700m), four hours from Gokyo, on the opposite side of the glacier, and a couple more at the unappealing Dzonghla, two to three hours from Dughla or Lobuche (4910m). But the high, middle section, crossing the pass, has to be done in one long day (unless you have tents): that’s six to eight hours, or more in bad conditions or if you suffer from altitude problems – which is all too likely this high. The pass is usually snowy on the eastern side, where you have to cross onto a glacier, with some tricky and slippery sections. Don’t attempt it if you’re in any doubt about the weather, or your own condition, and team up with a group. In good autumn and spring conditions, full crampons aren’t usually necessary, but mini-crampons are an excellent, lightweight idea, and an ice axe could be handy; a guide or a thorough understanding of the route is essential.

Solu: the Shivalaya walk-in

The SHIVALAYA WALK-IN is one of the classic Middle Hill treks in Nepal, and the crowds flying straight in to Lukla don’t know what they are missing. Cutting across the lay of the land, the trail dips and soars between tropical valleys as low as 1500m and alpine passes as high as 3500m, but the sense of excitement as you get closer to the mountains proper makes all the gruelling legwork worthwhile – not to mention the fitness and acclimitization you’ll accrue. A few glimpses of peaks – notably Gauri Shankar (7145m) – urge you along during the first five or six days, although the lasting images of the Solu region are of tumbling gorges, rhododendron forests and terraced fields hewn out of steep hillsides. Expect to walk for six or seven days to reach Lukla, not counting side trips – but thereafter you’ll be walking much faster than those flying in, skipping up to Namche Bazaar in a day from Lukla. The bulk of traffic through Solu consists of porters humping in gear for trekking groups and expeditions flying into Lukla, and this is reflected in the relatively no-frills food and lodging available.

There are a number of variations on the route, but essentially you’re switchbacking over three passes, each bigger than the last. After the steamy, bustling riverside bazaar of Shivalaya (1770m) you climb over the pass at Deurali (2710m) – an alternative side route takes you higher, via the cheese factory at Thodung (3091m) – and down via the handsome village of Bhandar (2190m) to another settlement on the warm valley floor: Kinja (1630m). It is possible to get transport from Shivalaya to Bhandar, where the road ends, but you won’t save much time and the road is slow and deeply uncomfortable.

Most people choose to break the monumental third climb that lies ahead into two parts by spending their third night out of Jiri at Sete (2575m), halfway up to the Lamjura La (3530m), a pass where you first taste the scale of the mountains ahead. From there, it’s a long descent through forest to the idyllic quasi-alpine Sherpa village of Junbesi (2680m). Most trekkers are understandably impatient to get up to Everest, but a side trip to the powerfully Tibetan Thubten Chholing Gompa, north of Junbesi, is well worth it, and it’s possible to spend many days in the area. The airstrip at Phaplu is just two hours south, and immediately below that is Solu-Khumbu’s rarely visited capital, Salleri, a long strip of two-storey houses strung out on a green hillside, with a thriving Saturday bazaar at its bottom end.

Less than two hours above Junbesi, Everest View gives the first serious view of the Khumbu range, with Everest itself apparently subsidiary to the nearer peaks. The next pass, Traksindho La (3071m), finally takes you into the Dudh Koshi Valley and, at Jubing, an attractively bamboo-festooned Rai village below, the trail bends north towards Everest. Two days later, it sidesteps Lukla and joins the well-trodden route to Khumbu.

The eastern routes

The EASTERN ROUTES to or from Everest are sometimes treated as an exit by trekkers who want to avoid the long backtrack to Shivalaya, but there’s no reason why the itineraries can’t be done in reverse, except perhaps that it’s better to gain some confidence before tackling this less-trekked region. Another factor to consider is the season: try to do the lower section of the trek when it’s cooler. The routes are equipped with lodges and a guide isn’t needed, but don’t expect many English signs or much fancy food.

From the Everest region, the most interesting route leaves the Shivalaya walk-in at Kharte, about a day south of Lukla, and heads southeastwards to reach Tumlingtar five to seven days later, crossing three passes over 3000m. Part of this stretch traverses the Makalu-Barun Conservation Area, and the Rs1000 entrance fee may be required at a checkpost. The first half of the trek passes through tangled hills inhabited mainly by Rais; after reaching the last and highest pass, the Salpa Bhanjyang (3350m), it descends steadily to the deep, hot valley of the Arun – the traditional Rai homeland, though with a strong Hindu-caste presence. After crossing the river at a mere 300m, it’s a short day to Tumlingtar, a busy bazaar overlooking the Arun River; from here there are flights twice daily or more to Kathmandu, or you can pick up a local bus for the tortuous journey back via Chainpur and Basantapur to Hile.

Other routes head south from the Tragsindho La or, alternatively, Junbesi, to the Phaplu airstrip, which is now connected by road to the Terai. A full route description, is included in Mountain biking. Another southbound route aims roughly due south from Jubing down the Dudh Koshi, then bounds across the big hills on the eastern side of the valley and over to Lamidanda airstrip.

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