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The Three Passes

Published
July 1, 2021
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My Three Passes Route. This time around, I started from Phaplu, where there is also a local airport in addition to the one at Lukla, though in fact we drove to Phaplu from Kathmandu. North at top.

I WENT to Nepal for the second time in November 2015. My plan was to trek in the Khumjung region and climb Lobuche (6,120 m) and Imja Tse/Island Peak (6,189 m). There had been a massive earthquake in April that had left almost 9,000 dead and hundreds of thousands homeless. I didn’t witness the full effects of the earthquake, since I got there seven months after the quake. I did, however, see the beautiful statues, temples and historical sites that had been destroyed by the quake. Tourism had been badly hit. Friends back in New Zealand who had planned to go trekking in September and October had cancelled their visit and many tourists were doing the same.

Restoration of the Krishna Mandir, Patan Durbar Square. Photo by ‘Sushan116’, 24 May 2017, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

What was more prominent at that time was the lack of fuel. Nepal had ratified a constitution in September after many years of political squabbling, but people in the southern plains were not happy with some of the provisions and they had sat down at the borders with India to protest. Nepal blamed India for siding with the protesters and imposing a trade embargo on the landlocked country, which relies on India for almost all its imports. India squarely denied any embargo and said it couldn’t send in trucks if people were sitting on the bridge at the border and blocking land crossings. Whatever the case, it was chaos in the capital. People were lining up for fuel with their trucks and motorbikes. There were never-ending lines outside petrol stations but hardly any traffic on the road.

People were also worried they would have to spend the winter without any fuel for cooking and heating. Apparently, China was helping out by sending a large shipment of aviation fuel and petrol. The road from Lhasa to Kathmandu is a tough one; it’s a dirt road in most parts and transportation is difficult. But people seemed optimistic about it. (The blockade would end, eventually, in early 2016, after several months, and after costing Nepal about $5 billion in economic damage, roughly the same as the dollar cost of the earthquake.)

I checked in to the Eco Hotel. The building was still standing, but it seemed like tourism had taken a double whammy with the earthquake and the fuel blockade. There were hardly any tourists. Western government travel warnings were making it harder for people to get insurance from their usual insurers.

I had pre-booked everything with a company in Kathmandu. It was going to be a 21-day trek and I would be climbing the two peaks I wanted to. The plan was ready, and I was looking forward to it.

The day after I arrived in Kathmandu, my trip was cancelled. I was quite horrified. I called up the company and told them I would never have come to Kathmandu if I had known the trip was going to be cancelled. They tried to book me for another trek and there was a lot of communication going back and forth. I didn’t want to spend more time in Kathmandu than was necessary. For one, it’s dusty. I’d much rather spend all that time walking along the mountains and climbing them.

The cancellation was understandable under the circumstances because fuel was in such short supply. If you couldn’t work out a way of getting fuel, you couldn’t transport tourists to the places they wanted to go to. But I had come from the other end of the planet and wasn’t prepared for such a sudden change in plans. So, it was in the midst of desperation that I walked around town.

At the Eco Hotel, an Italian expedition had heard of my plight. I was introduced to the owner of the tour company. His name was Nuru Sherpa and he sat down and drew an itinerary for me that covered 21 days. The plan was to drive to Phaplu, then trek to Namche Bazaar and then onwards through the Renjo Pass to Lobuche. We would then climb to the summit of Lobuche, return to the base camp, walk on through Kala Patthar and Chukhung to the Island Peak Base Camp, reach the summit and come back. I would return to Lukla and fly back to Kathmandu from there.

Nuru’s itinerary for the trek through the Three Passes

I frankly didn’t want to be stuck in Kathmandu, so I decided to go with Nuru’s plan. At the same time, the government had introduced a policy that required climbers to pay an insurance premium of $800 per Sherpa per peak, which I didn’t mind paying. But it all meant my expenses shot up and I ended up paying a lot of money for the trip.

Nuru provided me with someone I will call my new guide, a Sherpa who was quite an angry man. The new guide came from Khumjung in the Khumbu region, and he had been to the Tibetan side of Mt Everest. I had differences with him throughout the trip. He slept with a lot of cooks and cleaners from the hotels and put down my mountaineering skills, saying I did not know how to use crampons and so on. So, I did not trust him at all! My porter was called Mr Limbu and he was a lovely man. He was Christian, which I thought was interesting because I hadn’t met many Christians in that region.

We drove to Phaplu on the first day. The drive was interesting because there were almost no other vehicles on the road. We stayed at Phaplu that night and trekked to Nunthala the next day. From here on the type of hotel we stayed in became an issue. It started on day two and lasted throughout the trip. My new guide had been told by Nuru to save money and not to spend in excess of 1,500 rupees per customer per day. I refused to stay in cheap, dirty hotels. The last time I was in Nepal, I had paid around $1,300 for a 21-day tour. This time round I had paid close to $6,000. And for the type of money I had paid, there was absolutely no way I was going to stay in rat-infested places!

To add to that, I took ill on the second day. I don’t know what I had eaten. I was puking. I had to be careful because I couldn’t just eat anything. My new guide said that I wasn’t up to it and that we wouldn’t make it through the hard trip ahead of us. Those who have read my earlier books know that I have done my fair share of climbing and I am quite capable of using crampons, having used them on numerous occasions. But my new guide kept questioning my abilities and I was tired of it. I had bought my climbing gear in Namche Bazaar once we got there. I had hired boots from Nuru in Kathmandu, but only because I was travelling to several countries and boots were too heavy to take everywhere.

Nuru had also kept my passport. New Zealanders do not like their passports to be kept by tour organisers or agencies. I was nervous about it and attempted to get my passport back. I emailed the New Zealand representative in Nepal telling her that my travel agent had kept my passport. She was supportive and told me that she could arrange to have it sent to me, but I didn’t want to risk having it transported simply because it could go missing and that would create a whole new set of problems.

So, with all this, I was stressed enough and the last thing I needed was the additional stress of staying in horrible teahouses. I wasn’t paying backpacker prices, so I didn’t see why I should do the backpacker bullshit. In the end, I put my foot down and told my new guide we would stay where I wanted to stay and I would eat what I wanted to eat. It went on like that for the rest of the trip. We constantly bickered about the accommodation and food.

At the village of Basa, I stayed at Mr Limbu’s house. I didn’t really want to, but I did it out of politeness. I had said I would stay only where I could get hot water and I was starting to sound quite demanding. I ended up staying at his house all the same and I used the shower next door. The food was great! We ate freshly cooked chicken and I enjoyed it. I have always loved the food: dal bhat and the curries. And what I do like about Sherpa food is that it is not sweet. Mr Limbu’s wife was a lovely woman. She cried and said she missed him, and that she didn’t see why he had to be away all the time.

They had two sons. One was studying in Kathmandu, and the other had come home to take care of his mother. Mr Limbu’s wife ran a boarding house for locals because some of them had no place to stay after the earthquake. At Basa, and in many places along the way, I was surprised at the number of Sherpas whose wives were running teahouses.

I was also quite surprised at the cost of education. Like Mr Limbu’s son, my new guide’s daughter was in a private school in Kathmandu. The fees were upwards of $120 a month, and so it was understandable to see people running multiple enterprises to meet these costs. My new guide had recently led a wealthy American up a peak (I think it was Lobuche). This man had a manufacturing company in the United States, and he had promised to get my new guide out of Nepal. So, unbeknown to his employer, my new guide was going to get a job in a manufacturing company and go climbing with this man in the States.

But at that time, my new guide was a very angry man. I didn’t understand the anger many Sherpas felt until I watched the 2015 film Sherpa, which was made around the time of my first two trips to Nepal.

For instance, one of the issues described in the film Sherpa is the fact that while climbers and trekkers might only briefly or occasionally pass through a certain danger zone in the mountains, at risk of avalanche or ice-fall or slipping and falling oneself, Sherpa porters bringing up the supplies often have to go back and forth through these danger zones with the regularity of the delivery service they provide. Even the guides will, obviously, do the same route again and again.

There had been a fall of overhanging ice on Mount Everest in 2014, reported in the media as an avalanche, that killed sixteen Sherpa guides and porters. The route that passed through the spot where the ice fell was changed to try and minimize the risk of this type of incident, which had happened before, from happening again; though the risk probably cannot be eliminated entirely so long as people are in the mountains at that altitude.

Plus, while many of the clients are wealthy and pay a great deal to the guiding companies that lead them up the highest mountains, Sherpa porters earn a comparative pittance, in addition to bearing so many risks along with their burdens. According to Sherpa, Everest porters earned $5,000 in the two-month climbing season in the mid-2010s; which was far more per day than the porters on my treks but still not a heck of a lot. The whole Himalayan mountain business is in some ways the last vestige of a primitive, labour-intensive economy of the sort in which masses of toilers are paid next to nothing.

A porter at Basa

The Sherpas complained that the Nepalese government collected large amounts of money from foreign expeditions and their permits but did little for Sherpas either in terms of their conditions of life, or their safety, even though the whole mountaineering business rested on the Sherpa’s back both literally and in a wider sense. There were acrimonious negotiations, boycotts and strikes aimed at getting the death compensation for mountaineering Sherpas, which had stood at only $4,000, increased to $20,000. This demand was accompanied by a range of others, including more help for the injured and disabled. The Sherpas made some gains in the short run, including a rise in the death compensation to $10,000. It’s because of these improved benefits that my premium went up. You wonder what mountaineers and trekkers would have to pay if the Sherpas got a really good deal as opposed to merely not being exploited quite as badly as before.

The subsequent 2015 avalanche at Everest Base Camp, which was triggered by the earthquake and killed at least 22, also claimed many Sherpa along with foreign climbers.

A number of foreign countries, including New Zealand, have their own nationals working as guides working in Nepal, and they are paid well — much better than the local Sherpas. When disasters strike, it’s usually the latter that die. In Sherpa, some of the Sherpas guiding a French expedition refused to continue as guides on perilous climbs. They said they wanted to be fathers, see their children born and not simply risk their lives guiding people up Everest without adequate financial compensation. They went back to being farmers, which is what they essentially are when they are not working as guides. They grow fantastic food!

(Local mountaineering guides and porters are generally all referred to as Sherpas by the way, though many are not ethnically Sherpa.)

A lot of young people also resented the stereotype of the smiling Sherpa. Sherpas, including Tenzing Norgay, are always depicted as an ever-smiling race. There wasn’t much to be smiling about; forget smiling all the time. Not under the present circumstances, at least. But I didn’t understand this resentment at that time, and I certainly didn’t understand why my new guide was angry. He kept putting me down and questioning my mountaineering skills. He seemed to have no intention of taking me to the summits and that really pissed me off! Of course, if I had slept with him, he probably would have taken me to the top of the mountain. I have had the same old rubbish in New Zealand as a single woman. If you are a guy, you wouldn’t have to be gay and sleep with your guide to please him. What a load of crap!

The night at Basa was the night of Diwali. It is an important festival in Nepal as in other parts of South Asia. To me, it felt like another Christmas night in Queenstown with a lot of drunken men outside. As a single woman, I didn’t feel safe going out or walking about on my own. We left Basa the next morning and set out for Namche Bazaar. We had night halts at Surke (2,290 m) and Phakding (2,610 m) on the way.

We reached Namche Bazaar (3,340 m) on the sixth day and stayed there for one more day to acclimatise. We then went to Thame and from Thame to Lunden. Many of the teahouses were already closed and we were lucky to find accommodation that night. In Lunden we met a Sherpa who worked in Japan as a cook during the winter months when it’s not the climbing season. We stayed up late and talked about the Yeti. I hadn’t heard many tales of the Yeti before, and it made for an interesting conversation.

In Lunden, and throughout my journey, I was struck by the resilience of the people. The earthquake had destroyed their houses and hurt the tourism industry, but the Sherpas were absolutely resilient. They picked themselves up and started repairing and rebuilding. Some of them had received international aid and others were waiting for compensation from the government, but they didn’t sit back and wail about the earthquake and wait for help. They took their tools and started carving stone bricks and rebuilding their houses the traditional way. There was a lot of activity going on wherever I went, and it was uplifting.

The Sherpas were also missing the trade with Tibet. They used to have an active trade across the border, and they bought their clothes and a many other things from Tibet. Five years earlier, the Chinese government had closed the borders and that killed the trade. What a shame! In a few parts, however, people still trade with the Tibetans on certain days on the year.

The next day we had to cross the Renjo Pass to get to Gokyo. It wasn’t easy! The Three Passes trek is the toughest of the three that I have described up to now. In my chapter on the Everest Base Camp trek, I told a story about a retired couple who came with us: the one where the old man was a bit of a rock-hound and would have added to his collection, if their porter hadn’t quietly got rid of the rocks to lighten his load. Well, anyway, I don’t think you would come across too many retired couples on the Renjo Pass.

The other thing, which makes it tougher still, is that there are fewer towns and villages along the way than on the Everest Base Camp or Annapurna/Manaslu treks. As such, you end up in a tent quite a bit, making your own tea.

Making our own tea in the tent

We started from Lunden at three in the morning with our torchlights and crossed the pass which is at 5,340 metres above sea level. We stayed the night at Gokyo (4,750 m) and what a beautiful place it was!

The Gokyo lakes, the highest lake system in the world, were beautiful; the environment was scenic and Gokyo Ri peak was in the background. It was quite the perfect place! I didn’t really mix much with the locals there. My new guide, on the other hand, used to try and chat up every female cook that we came across.

With my guide and porter near the Gokyo Lakes

The Gokyo Lakes and the village of Gokyo

The main Gokyo lake with a communal building at right, for scale

The day after that, we went to Dragnag, which is at the same altitude and was just as lovely.

After Dragnag, I headed to Zonglha via Cho La — another pass, located at 5,420 metres above sea level — and that wasn’t any easier. I found it quite difficult, but I have never really suffered from mountain sickness, as I tend to go slow and breathe a lot, and that helped me get across.

From Zonglha (4,830 m), we went to the High Camp at the base of Lobuche. Once again, I decided where we would spend the night because I was certainly not staying where my new guide wanted me to. We ended up staying at a new place that had been opened by a young guy. He had received some subsidies from the government and the place was worth staying at. But this young man was quite angry. He jokingly said he would go to India, pretend to be an Islamic terrorist and blow up something there. All this, of course, was about the fuel blockade that followed close on the heels of the devastating earthquake. I looked at him and I thought to myself that if this is what some Sherpas high up in the Himalayas think, then a lot of the bombs that are set off by so-called Islamic militants probably aren’t about Islamic extremism at all!

We were to leave for Lobuche East Peak the next morning. The peak is 6,145 metres above sea level. I met an English couple who had been to the summit and back. They told me that if we left at three in the morning, reached the summit by eleven a.m. and then returned straight away, we would be fine. I had all my gear and was ready for the climb. But my new guide clearly had no intention whatsoever of taking me to the top. He didn’t want to help me rope on to him — absolutely nothing! It was four a.m. by the time we even started, and he just walked on ahead. In the end, I decided I was not going to go with him; it just wasn’t going to happen. I didn’t need to be with someone I didn’t trust. And though having paid all that money, I didn’t trust him.

We didn’t go to the summit. We went to Kala Patthar and came back to Lobuche. The next day, we went to Chukhung (4,730 m) and stayed there for two nights. We were to go to the Island Peak Base Camp from there, climb to the summit and return to Base Camp. But as I didn’t trust my new guide, I didn’t want to climb Island Peak, also known as Imja Tse, with him. I just sat in Chukhung looking at Ama Dablam instead.

Ama Dablam

Ama Dablam means Mother’s Necklace. This really spectacular-looking mountain bears that name because the highest of its peaks seems like a mother cradling her children, while the hanging glacier resembles a necklace. It was a beautiful sight and I looked at it for three days and then grew tired of it. I became bored with it all. I was bored of being with a guide, I was bored of being with a porter, and frankly, I could well have done it all by myself!

While in Chukhung we had stayed at a teahouse, and I had got talking with the owner. He was a lovely guy and we talked for long into the evening about Yeti folklore and mountain lions. The Yeti is the Nepali version of the abominable snowman, or ‘bigfoot’. He is a hairy, ape-like human that is supposed to live high up in the mountains of the Himalaya. He told me that the locals call it ‘Meh-Teh’ and stories get passed down through the generations.

Snow leopards were also quite common around the more remote villages of the Himalayas. Like the kea of New Zealand, snow leopards were often seen by humans despite being quite rare, for both species were drawn to where people were in the hope of some kind of an easy feed. Obviously, this was more of a problem with leopards than with a cute green parrot.

The owner also told me about winter when the temperatures are far too cold and the weather is extreme, turning the beautiful mountains into harsh, white, frozen lands. The mail doesn’t even get delivered and most locals depart to stay in warmer areas where they can find work. He leaves for those six months to Japan where he works as a chef. He also told me Tibetan traders used to frequent his village, but because of tensions with China, they closed the borders and now they do not come. He said it was sad because he liked the company and news from other villages and Tibet that the traders would bring.

We went on to the Island Peak base camp and on to Tengboche. At 3,867 metres, Tengboche is at a much lower altitude. I had been to Tengboche on my earlier trip, and again, I decided where we stayed. I met a nurse there who told me she had established a medical centre in Langtang with Australian volunteers working there. The region that takes its name from the village is halfway between the Annapurna-Manaslu region and the Khumbu (Everest) region and considered the third major trekking region in Nepal. Langatang isn’t as famous as Annapurna-Manaslu and Khumbu, mainly because it doesn’t have such famous mountaineering destinations. But that may be neither here nor there if you are a trekker.

Tragically, 243 people were killed when a really gigantic landslide buried the village of Langtang during the 2015 earthquake or a few moments afterward: mostly villagers, but also some dozens of trekkers. The nurse I was talking to, and her husband, were supposed to be there on the day of the earthquake. Thankfully, none of her staff had disappeared and they had re-established the village in tents for the time being. (Update: the village is being rebuilt, and it’s said that the best way to help the people of Langtang is to go trekking there. It won’t be as crowded as the more famous locations of Khumbu and Annapurna-Manaslu!)

From Tengboche, we went back to Namche Bazaar and then to Lukla. We took the flight from Lukla to Kathmandu and my 21-day trek came to an end. I had quite a few disappointing moments and thought there were many ways in which it could have gone better.

However, I had met two mountaineers who had wanted to climb Ama Dablam the year before, but when they got there, the weather was so bad that they couldn’t do any trekking at all. And I remember what they told me: You could choose to leave Nepal with wonderful memories — take it for what it is and come back and do things again. Or you could choose to leave with nasty memories. I then decided I was going to leave Nepal with all the great memories.

If I were in a position to climb Mt Everest from Nepal, I still wouldn’t want to do it. I think it’s all become an industry and I don’t like it. I really did notice a lot of anger during my journey as well. The Sherpa guides are angry, and the people are angry, though the situation is completely understandable. I would prefer to do it from the Tibetan side instead because there are fewer people doing that.

My guide told me that Sir Edmund Hillary was his hero, and that he was very grateful for all the things that Sir Ed, as we tend to call him in New Zealand, had done for the Sherpa people. He also said that you could go skiing at Khumjung during the Christmas period. I hadn’t thought about Himalayan skiing in all this time! There are in fact several ski resorts in the Himalayas, with China currently proposing to build the highest, at up to 4,500 metres, in Tibet.

A bit later, I decided to go back to Nepal and climb Imja Tse/Island Peak, which I hadn’t managed to get up before, and Mount Mera. I’ll describe whether I succeeded, or not, a little further on in Chapter 11. Meanwhile my next stops were to be in India and Pakistan!

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