As my departure date for Nepal drew near, I found that most people assumed I was trekking to Everest Base Camp (EBC). I knew I wasn’t, but the fact was, prior to arriving in Nepal and taking a good look at a map of the Everest Region (also known as the Khumbu), I really didn’t know what my destination was. As I read our tentative itinerary, it seemed we were hiking up one way, then back down a bit, then up another way and then all the way back down. I didn’t realize that we were actually following a popular alternative to the EBC trek. We were heading to Gokyo Ri, a peak at an elevation just about the same as EBC and one offering a view straight across at Mount Everest.
Almost all treks in the Khumbu begin the same – by flying into Lukla, at an altitude of 2840 meters. While some ambitious groups make the trek from Lukla to Namche Bazaar, the largest village in the region, in one day, we broke that journey up into two days. We arrived in Lukla by about 9:30 a.m. and stopped at a lodge near the airport for tea as our dzokyos (a cross between a cow and a yak) were loaded up with our bags. From Lukla, it was mostly downhill to the village of Phakding, which sits lower at 2610 meters. The next day, we headed mostly uphill from Phakding to Namche, arriving in the pouring rain. With Namche sitting at 3440 meters, we ascended nearly 800 meters in what we were told would be one of the toughest days of the two week trek.
After a full day in Namche to acclimatize (fairly standard for almost all trekking groups), we split off from the majority of trekkers who were heading to EBC. We followed the Dudh Khosi (a river) up to Gokyo while the EBC trekkers followed one of its tributaries, the Imja Khola. Our next stop would be the village of Khumjung, the hometown of our Sherpa guide, Kami, at an altitude of 3780 meters. We reached Khumjung by lunch and spent a much-needed afternoon relaxing and eating popcorn as rain poured down outside. The next morning, with clear skies, we were able to enjoy our first views of another popular peak in the Khumbu – Ama Dablam. Before heading out for the day, we stopped at the Khumjung Monastery, where we got to take a peek at what is allegedly a Yeti scalp, and at the first Hillary School, found by Sir Edmund Hillary.
The trek from Khumjung to our next stop, Mong La (3957 meters), was short, not too hard and unfortunately a bit foggy. From Mong La, we headed on to Dole enjoying our first full day of sunshine! The trek itself started with about an hour of downhill and then about two and a half hours of straight uphill, with several sections of what I liked to call “the stairs of death.” Luckily, there were also plenty of opportunities to stop and take pictures of our gorgeous surroundings. After lunch in Dole (4110 meters), we headed up a bit further to acclimatize some more and encountered an amazing field of flowers that was hell for my allergies but heaven for taking photos.
From Dole, it was on to Machermo – another day of sunshine and another relatively easy day. We arrived by lunch and in the afternoon, went to the Porter Rescue Station to hear a talk on altitude sickness. Sitting at 4470 meters, Machermo was officially the highest altitude I had ever reached, beating out the Dead Woman’s Pass on the Inca Trail.
The next day was a tough one, going from Machermo to Gokyo (4790 meters), which would be our base for climbing up to Gokyo Ri the next morning. Because there were no real villages along the way, we packed bag lunches, which we ate along the shores of the first of the Gokyo Lakes (known simply as the First Lake). This was a challenging day with more stairs from hell, but also incredibly scenic. After the First Lake, we passed the Second Lake before arriving in Gokyo, which sits next to the Third Lake. It could not have been a more perfect setting: the sun was shining, the lake was sparkling, the temperature actually felt warm.
Finally, the next morning we reached our version of EBC – the peak of Gokyo Ri, at an altitude of 5357 meters (EBC is at 5364 meters). We departed at 3:30 a.m. and, after a stop about two-thirds of the way up to take pictures as the sun rose, we reached the top by about 7:00 a.m. I’ll write more about that in another post, but suffice it to say I could have stayed up there all day enjoying the view.
The next day, we started heading back down, retracing our steps to Dole in one day and then crossing the Dudh Khosi to arrive in Pengboche (3930 meters) the next day. The trek from Dole to Pengboche, with a stop in Phortse for lunch, was one of the most strenuous, with long stretches of downhill followed by longer stretches of uphill, often with steep, stony steps. The incredible views made up for the difficulty and we were rewarded in Pengboche with a luxurious gas-heated, indoor shower that was heaven after the previous showers in Mong La and Gokyo.
From Pengboche, we had an easy half day trek to Tengboche (3860 meters), which sits at the confluence of the Dudh Khosi and the Imja Khola. Here, the trail suddenly got incredibly crowded. For a good part of the way up to Gokyo, we were often the only ones on the trail; we rarely passed others heading down and only encountered a handful of other groups going up. That all changed between Pengboche and Tengboche as we were on the same path as the trekkers going up to EBC. Where the trail was narrow, we often had to wait for several minutes for groups to go by before we could continue on our way down.
Tengboche should have been quite scenic, but instead it was just rainy and muddy. The same can be said for the trek from Tengboche back to Namche Bazaar the next day. While I had been looking forward to returning to Namche to explore the bustling village and take a lot of pictures since it was raining the first time we passed through, it was raining even more when we returned.
Altogether, our trek to Gokyo Ri took a couple days longer than most treks to and from EBC do, but we also went quite slow – a few of the groups that we did run into on the way up were going a bit faster than we were. I liked the fact that it was likely much less crowded than the EBC trail and that often, we had our teahouse all to ourselves – meaning we could claim extra blankets at night, didn’t have to wait long for the sole shower and could take over the whole dining room.
Interestingly, as we talked to people in Kathmandu, Namche and Lukla, almost no one had heard of Gokyo Ri. The one guy who had commented, “wow, that’s supposed to be really tough. Good job!”
While I think he was thinking of another peak, I didn’t bother to correct him.