Everest and Gokyo Trek, Part IV: Phortse to Gokyo to Lukla

Part I – Lukla to Tengboche
Part II – Tengboche to Lobuche
Part III – Lobuche to Kala Pattar to Phortse

Day Thirteen: Thore (Elevation 4300m Walking time 4 hours)

Thore? Thare? Where the hell were we today? It turns out that the map is wrong. It switches the locations of these neighboring, similarly named villages. And, Cameron’s map was wrong too. Who checks this shit? Anyways, today we had grand ambitions to hike all the way to Gokyo. We didn’t get very far! Thankfully.

The day started beautifully with some wonderful lenticular clouds billowing up like giant jellyfish over Aba Dablam. Like yesterday, we were pretty much on our lonesome. Cameron gamely hobbled a few meters behind but still burning up the track a lot quicker than Kate who likes to take it very easy. We saw two other hikers all day.

The trail was high over the Dudh Kosi River and a real upper and downer. We seemed to get nowhere slow. The underfoot conditions were not great either. We really didn’t fancy slipping into the river several hundred feet below. The trail was practically deserted and we passed through a couple of sweet little villages on the way.

Gompa. Little village north of Phortse
Little village north of Phortse.

Around lunchtime we happened upon the delightfully rustic Sherpa Lodge. It was a real surprise after the relative plushness of lodges on the main trail. We were in the land of mud floors and smoky dining rooms. The whole lodge was partially built into the huge boulders that were a feature of the landscape here. The landlady was a lively and welcoming Sherpa lady so we decided to stay for a bite to eat and check on the lodges and conditions ahead. Kate and Chum rolled in half an hour later and we were joined by a chatty Swiss couple. The food was good and the conversation lively. A couple of hours slipped by and somehow we all decided at the same time that this atmospheric spot would be our bed for the night. Anyways, Gokyo definitely was unobtainable at the pace we had set and it seemed like our fallback lodge up the valley at Nha was closed for the season.

Thore village
Thore village.

We nipped outside to get some water at the stream and had our best wildlife viewing of the whole trip. A huge herd of tahr had roamed into the village. There were loads of them and they seemed particularly unconcerned by humans. They are big beasts too especially the dominant male. You wouldn’t want him butting you in the ass!

Himalayan tahr
Himalayan tahr.

Eerie mist rolled through this slightly spooky village giving it a ghost story in the Scottish Highlands vibe. Conversation got livelier than intended in the lodge. You really don’t want to be wibbling on about the respective merits of Buddhism and Christianity whilst hiking. It’s boring and contentious! The lodge was surprisingly warm given how rickety it was and we had our first decent night of sleep for days.

Fog over Thore
Fog rolls in and out of Thore.

(Breakfast $10; Loo roll and cookies $3; lunch $11.80; dinner $10; room $2)

Day Fourteen: Gokyo (Elevation 4750m; Walking Time 4 hours)

Hello Gokyo
Arriving at Gokyo.

Another clear morning. Another up and down trail. There were a few gnarly dark corners on the trail in places where the sun definitely don’t shine. We negotiated a number of treacherous icy stone stairways and thankfully avoided plummeting into the abyss! The trail eventually heads down towards the river, passes through Nha, and crosses a small bridge over the river. Route finding was a little tricky before the bridge but with the help of Chum and the Swiss Couple’s guide we safely got through. The trail rises stiffly clinging to the cliff above the Dudh Kosi and eventually crosses another bridge bringing you into the wide valley heading up to Gokyo. After 10 minutes you reach the first of the 5 sacred Lakes in the valley. The lake is the least impressive of all the lakes but it did have a few pretty Brahmin Ducks swimming around. The trail continues to meander through the rocky valley before skirting the impressive second lake. We had thought this lake would be the setting for Gokyo. Sadly, it wasn’t and that always makes for tougher last hour!

Gokyo sits at the far end of the third lake, which is a dazzling turquoise blue. It sits beneath Gokyo Ri, the mountain that affords one of the most glorious views in all the Himalaya. The various ribbon like trails heading up the Ri can be seen as soon as you hit the lake. Up valley was the mighty 8201m Cho Oyu. The walk was a little more challenging than we expected. Still no X-Men superpowers and the brutal in your face wind ground us to a halt on many occasions.

Bart the Pole called out to us from the Cho Oyu View Lodge so that seemed an auspicious spot to shack up for the night. The view from our bedroom window was the single best hotel view I have ever had. A perfectly framed Cho Oyu.

From our window at Cho Oyu View Lodge.
View from our room at the Cho Oyu View Lodge.

We caught up with Bart’s recent exploits with the Pass Crossers. They had managed to persuade him to climb over Cho La. He made it but the Canadian and Kiwi dudes ended up carrying most of his gear! He looked even more dishevelled than usual. Strangely, the Cross Passers looked in fine fettle despite the heavy load they ended up with! A fierce wind blew up the valley for the rest of the day so we grabbed a book each and settled in the warm dining room for an afternoon of reading, feeding, and drinking. The Cho Oyu View Lodge was another of our absolute favorite lodges. Another splendid Sherpa woman at the helm and great cooks churning out delicious soups, grilled cheese sandwiches, fried potatoes, and hot teas. We were thankful that the lodge was generous with the yak dung on the fire since Gokyo was definitely the coldest spot on the trip. All three nights plummeted below minus 20C. Laura piled on all her clothes, her sleeping bag, and two duvets… and still needed me to help her get warm at night! Brrrrrrr!

(Breakfast $13.30; Lunch $15.70; Room $1; Dinner $12.30)

Day Fifteen: Climbing Gokyo Ri (Elevation 5360m Walking Time 4 hours)

Gokyo lake.
Gokyo village and lake from the Ri.

It amused us that on at least three occasions on the trek we sauntered up mountains that exceed the highest points in Western Europe and the Lower 48 states. Gokyo Ri was one of those points. Climbing up was fairly easy given that we were well acclimatized and in pretty good shape two weeks into the trek. The trail is a knot of ribbons meandering up the hill. Follow any combination and you will eventually top out. We pretty much had the summit to ourselves. It was really windy and cold but the views were so good we lingered for over an hour. You get a true 360 panorama of some of the most majestic peaks in Nepal. You can see 4 of the world’s 14 eight thousand meter peaks- Cho Oyu, Makalu, Everest and Lhotse. You also get fabulous views of the glorious blue lake and gnarly sweep of the Ngozumba Glacier below. We preferred the views here to Kala Pattar. Kala Pattar impresses with the sheer in yer face hugeness of the world’s biggest mountain but Gokyo Ri has the wider panorama and more intriguing perspectives of the same peaks.

Panorama from Gokyo Ri. Click the image to see the large photo.

Everest from Gokyo Ri
Everest and friends from Gokyo Ri

We met a few interesting characters in Gokyo. The first was a lithe French boy on the top of the Ri. He was dressed all in latex and definitely had X-Men powers. He was hopping around the summit like, er, ahem, frog! He explained to us that he was a mountain runner and that he had run the Ri in 32 minutes. Apparently, the previous record was 49 minutes. He was clearly proud of this fact as we saw a couple of days later, when we noticed he had started his entry on the fastest runners up the hill board in one of the hotels. After wearing us out with his hyperactivity for five minutes he was off back down the slope. I looked over the edge after a couple of minutes and I swear he was nearly at the village! Maybe he was an X-Dude after all. The wind picked up and after two minutes of sandblasting our faces we decided to head down. The descent was fairly brutal. It was sandy and rocky underfoot, steep, and unbelievably windy.

Pure blue. Gokyo lake.
Paul is framed against pure blue. The hill wasn’t really as steep as it looks here.

We retreated to the lodge dining room as fast as we could. We were looking forward to a quiet read and cup of tea but odd character two, an arrogant Nepali guide, decided to regale us with stories of Gurkha power and how Nepal could crush the Indian army. He was obviously, and rightly, pissed about India’s ongoing fuel blockade of his country but highly unrealistic when it came to solutions! He was ready to march on India with a battalion of Gurkha and Sherpas. Toughest people in the world he continually declared. Good luck with that, mate! He spent the whole afternoon marching up and down the lodge pontificating on this and that. Urgh, what a knob. Worse still he kept drawing highly reluctant trekkers into his conversation. His clients were an oddball bunch of Chinese trekkers. The Chinese amaze me. They utterly disregard all other nationalities’ conventions. Altitude sickness? Nope, that won’t affect me. No smoking in the rooms. Nah, not written in Chinese so that doesn’t apply to me either. Walk the Everest trail in 14 days? Fuck that dude, I got a week. Maybe this is Arrogant Guide’s secret weapon. Chinese X-Men. Mind you if they whimper as quick as they did when the admittedly fearsome Sherpa landlady yelled at them for smoking in the bedroom, then AG may need a Plan B.

Cameron finally saw sense today and rested his knee. The cold night did his weary limbs no favors. It was a real shame. Having hobbled his way the whole distance to Gokyo he definitely deserved to see the real sights from the Ri and from the upper lakes which were our destination tomorrow. Mind you it was probably more sensible to rest up rather than run the risk of having to be helicoptered out. A couple of folks were less lucky than Cameron today. Two helicopters swung in to evacuate a couple of hikers. I suspect they were hit by altitude sickness. We saw a couple of people who were defeated by the altitude on the Gokyo trail.

(Breakfast $15.70; Lunch $14.40; Dinner $12.70; Room $1)

Day Sixteen: Walk to Fourth and Fifth Gokyo Lakes (Elevation 5000m Walking Time 5 hours)

Frost on our window, Cho Oyu
Frost on our window in Gokyo.

Last night was really cold. The water in our bottles was frozen solid. The windows were frosted over. It took a lot of effort to crawl out of the sack. We weren’t the only ones huddled round the stove in the morning. The Cross Passers headed out for their third and final pass, Renjo La. Bart bailed on them this time and took the easier route back down the valley. One of the real joys of trekking in Khumbu is the short term friends you make. We all take different routes and are on different schedules but it is fun to catch up with people and get their stories of the previous days. No two stories are the same and thankfully there is little machorama on show. Everyone is super supportive and looks out for their newly made trail buddies. There is no doubt Cameron slowed us down a bit but there was no way we were going to let him hobble along at this altitude and terrain on his own. We didn’t always trek side by side but we stopped at key points on the trail to let him catch up. I am sure he appreciated the support and we sure as hell liked his dry wit and great stories from home. He had planned to hike for 5 months in Nepal but I think he has revised that plan already. Hopefully, he is on a few beach spots we recommended in South India. I am sure his knees appreciate us!

Fourth Gokyo Lake
The fourth Gokyo lake.

We headed further up the valley to the fourth and fifth sacred lakes. We were on our own the whole day and this felt like real wilderness trekking. The terrain was extremely rugged. The trail is squeezed in between steep peaks and lateral moraine for most of the way. There are no lodges or teahouses up here. It is just you and the wilds. The fifth lake had a thin layer of ice covering it. A warning of the harsh winter to come. We clambered up to a little outcrop of moraine over the mighty glacier that spills down from the Cho Oyu massif. There is an extraordinary view of Everest from here. For once, you can see the whole mountain separated from Lhotse and Nuptse. It is not the most beautiful mountain but it is an impressive hulking beast all the same.

Everest from Scoundrel's Viewpoint
Everest (far left) from the moraine by the fifth Gokyo lake.

I think the utter isolation and silence unnerved me a little and much to Laura’s annoyance I began to get the jitters. The path back was clear and we had plenty of daylight left but this place really didn’t feel like a place for humans. It felt utterly alien to me. We spent an hour or so up here before turning back towards Gokyo and relative civilization. I have seen some incredible mountain scenery in my life but this spot is number one for me. You should make the effort before all the glaciers have melted!

Again, we had tremendous weather and completely clear skies. This is the first time on our entire trip that the views and weather have been in sync. Shame we had to spend one more night with Arrogant Guide but nothing could ruin the finest day of trekking I have ever done.

(Breakfast $15.60; Lunch $14.70; Tea $1; Battery charge $3; Dinner $14.65)

Day Seventeen: Phortse Tenga (Elevation 3750m Walking Time 8 hours)

Stillness. Goko Lake reflection.
Frosty morning on Gokyo lake in front of the lodge.

Another cold night in Gokyo. I don’t blame the Sherpa hosts for closing up shop soon and heading to Kathmandu for the winter. The water bottles had iced up again. I think Laura had too! Why do women have to put their icy fingers on their dude’s back? And, why do they always find it hilarious? Cameron loaded up on ibuprofen and headed out an hour before us. He actually made damn good time and it took us a while to find him again! The Sherpa host loaded us up with free cookies and hot drinks before we left. This should definitely be your lodge if you come here. It really is a friendly spot. We had no real destination in mind for the night. We would just walk until we dropped. We hoped to make it to Namche Bazaar but in hindsight that is an hilarious thought.

Although we were backtracking our aim was to walk down the opposite side of the Dudh Kosi valley to the one we walked up. The skies were incredibly clear again so we ended up dawdling out of Gokyo to take photos of the lakes and the perfect reflections of Cho Oyu.

Gokyo and Cho Oyu
Gokyo and Cho Oyu reflected in Gokyo lake.

However, once we packed away the cameras we made really good time. There were a number of attractive villages on the way. Machhermo and Luza in particular had fantastic settings. They were both set in hanging valleys that reminded us a little of Phelps Basin back home. There were some really attractive lodges on this side of the valley but we wanted Namche and its promise of baked goods and free Wi-Fi! We were a little concerned about Cameron. We hadn’t found him yet. Surely, he couldn’t be ahead of us. Maybe his knee flared up and he stopped for the day in Luza or Machhermo. We plowed on and finally found him hobbling through the spookily deserted village of Lhabarma. This would have been an ideal lunch spot if we could find the hostess. For the first time, the times in Lonlely Planet didn’t reflect the situation on the ground. The walking times suggested for this part of the trail were whack! We ended up getting a late lunch at a grotty old lodge in Dole. Lunch took an hour to make and five minutes to wolf down. Note to self: when in a hurry coordinate with the group to all order the same for lunch!

It was a long hot dusty and steep descent down to Phortse Tenga. This was agony for Cameron. He was surprisingly spritely over the ascents but he ground to a snail’s pace on the descents. We sprinted down and took breaks to let him catch up. The descent was actually quite pleasant. For the first in days we had forests to walk through. Lots of rhododendron, which must look fantastic when they bloom in the spring. We had another wildlife spotting too. A herd of cute little deers bounced across the trail at one point.

We finally rolled into the River Resort around 4pm. Laura leaped straight into the shower while I helped Cameron down the final few yards. I didn’t begrudge Cameron his two… three… four beers at all. It was a sterling effort to do that walk in a day. I just wish I hadn’t bet Laura I could go the whole hike without a beer. I could have murdered a Khumbu Kolsch that night.

We had two elderly Aussie hikers and an English dude for company for the night. The Aussies were a cranky old pair and we didn’t much appreciate their myopic view of immigrants. We had heard about the Paris terror attacks a few days earlier but these were the first folks we had met with decidedly racist views on the matter.

The Brit was sadly heading down after a vicious bout of altitude sickness higher up the trail. He looked OK but he was still coughing up blood, which was worrying. We saw him on the trail the next day. He will live but it must have been scary higher up. I am glad I am a conservative hiker at high altitude. I have never had too many problems beyond a headache. Seems this guy was doing all the right things but his body still didn’t adjust quick enough. Shame. Must have cost him a fortune being on a group hike booked from home. But, good to see he was sensible and had a good porter to make sure he got safely back to Lukla. We were looking forward to Namche tomorrow. All those creature comforts were only a day’s walk away.

The lodge was okay but I gotta tell ya… lodges run by dudes are always inferior to those with a solid Sherpa woman at the helm!

(Breakfast $14.65; Lunch $13.90; Dinner $12.60; Showers $8; Loo Roll $1.50; Room $2)

Day Eighteen: Namche Bazaar (Elevation 3400m Walking Time 3.5 hours)

Mong La
Mong La.

A brutal start to the day! Since we had dropped to the river for a lodge for the night we had to climb up a couple of hundred meters to get back onto the ridge. Doesn’t sound like much but it hurt. Maybe the accumulated bumps and bruises decided to make themselves known all at once. We knew we were in good physical shape now but it was harder to motivate ourselves to dig in. Thankfully, we were rewarded with fine views of Aba Dablam from the village of Mong La. It was a cute spot to with a crumbling old stupa, frayed prayers, and a rock painting of Padmasambhava and what looked like Yak poop offerings below it!

The lack of wind and lower altitude also meant hot weather. It really is a hot sweaty grunt back to Namche. The trail to the junction at Sanasa was dusty too. All in all probably our most unpleasant day of hiking. Or, maybe we just wanted that apple pie already! We dodged yak trains and Chinese tourists, and in the end we all but abandoned poor old Cameron in our haste. But, pleasantness prevailed and we stopped in the shade to let him catch up. Shame I then rewarded him with a wrong turn into Namche and a longer more brutal path back to the mighty Khang Ri Lodge. After all our plaudits about the food there, he also ordered the crappiest meal on the menu. Oh well, I am sure he appreciated our help and camaraderie over the past couple of weeks. We headed to a bakery he recommended, which served piss poor brownies. Maybe that was his revenge for lunch! We tried to change our flights out to a few days earlier but it seems like this can only be done in Lukla.

The one problem with Namche is that it feels like the trek should end here but you need to steel yourself for one more day. I showed off my newly inverted love handles to Laura and she relented on another visit to a bakery. If you want good pie go to Herman Heller’s place. The apple pie and coffee really hit the spot.

(Breakfast $12; Lunch $12; Crappy brownie and coffee $7.40; Second cake and coffee $10; Room $3; Dinner $13.80)

Day Nineteen: Lukla (Elevation 2800m; 5 hours)

Cracked stupa. Namche Bazaar
Stupa at Namche Bazaar.

We bid our farewells to Cameron who decided to take it easy and head down over 2 days. He ain’t the most emotional dude on the planet so hugs were inappropriate and emails would definitely not be exchanged. Just a swift English handshake and we were on our way. We took a few quick photos of the obligatory picturesque stupa at the foot of town before heading down the gnarly trail.

And, the trail really is a gnarly one. We didn’t notice on the way up but this is a rutted nasty piece of trail. I wonder how many poor buggers go the whole trail with nary a bruise on the knee and end up twisting an ankle a day from the end? The trail was like a goddamn highway too. We dodged a gazillion donkey trains and porters headed up and down. I don’t know what they are building up trail but we saw at least two hundred donkeys hauling bags of cement up the hill. We raced through the flat sections but it was damn hot on the valley floor. We really wanted out of Lukla the next day so we wanted to get there before the Tara Air office closed. We got to Phakding in good time, wolfed down a chapatti and omelette, and all but ran the hot dusty last two hours. The final ascent into Lukla all but finished us off. I am sure Laura was convinced I would break my no beer bet. But, before that we needed to change our tickets with Tara Air. No problem, sir. Be at the airport at 7:00 tomorrow for a 8.30 flight. Um, that sounds far too straightforward for Nepal!

And so ended my 104th day hiking in the Himalaya. Laura has notched up a respectable 43 days too. We are already talking about returning in the future to hike to Mustang and Nar Phu so we expect those numbers to rise. Nepal really is my favorite country to visit. I never get bored of visiting despite the hassles. Nepalis also know what travelers want and I like that.

We checked in at the Himalaya Hotel, ordered dinner for 7:00, and then ran off for beer (for Laura) at a local bar. We bumped into a few familiar faces from the last three weeks, shared a beer, grabbed some fries, and then headed back for dinner. Shower was good. The sleep even better.

(Breakfast $15.10; Lunch $9.80; Dinner $13.40; Beer and fries $13)

Day Twenty: Lukla to Kathmandu

Doorway with Tibetan curtain. Lukla
Storefront in Lukla with Tibetan curtain.

The hike’s finished, right? What more is there to say? Like I said yesterday, the change of flight sounded way too easy. We rocked up to the airport at 7 on the dot. All the check-in desks were busy except ours. We started a polite orderly line with a few of the regulars from the trail. The Berliners were there, the odd Portuguese-Indian duo from Gokyo, the Kiwis we met last night, and we saw Kate and Chum for the first time since the walk to Gokyo. 8.30 came round but still no check-in. Other airlines were going about their business so what’s up with Tara Air? More and more folks turned up to check in. Lots of tour groups with guides. Suddenly, around 9:30 the Tara staff arrived and the experienced guides went about the business of cajoling their clients ahead of us. Christ, it was frustrating. No one would explain to us what was going on. Worse they seemed not to find our names on the flight list. Grrr!

After another half hour of confusion someone grabbed our flight confirmation and passport and declared that we were on the ninth flight of the day. So, logically they gave us a boarding pass stamped with flight number 3 on it. Uh? Well, at least the weather was good and planes were busy coming and going.

It transpires that Tara will keep on flying planes back and forth while the weather is good, and try and get everyone out that they promised. Not that there are any promises. If you don’t get out that day you go on the additional flights after the scheduled flights the next day. Can you imagine the pandemonium that happens when flights don’t come in for a few days in a genuinely busy year?

Around 12 noon, our plane arrived in at Lukla. Whoo hoo! Or, maybe not. The pilot and crew headed off into the town. Around 12.15 we were lead out to the runway to board the plane. Or so we thought. We stood in the blazing sun for another 45 minutes. Shit! Is the plane grounded? And, why is flight 4 now boarding before us? Of course, no one lets you know what’s up. At about 1pm the pilot and crew saunter back from lunch, climb into the cockpit, and then we pile on in. Within minutes we were hurtling down the runway off the edge of the cliff. It was a clear day and the flight was perfect but I can’t say it was entirely enjoyable! We got great views of the Annapurnas and the Langtang range but I was most happy when we safely hit the ground at Tribhuvan Airport.

We had the small matter of negotiating hard with the taxi drivers who were taking full advantage of the fuel crisis to gouge tourists before heading into Thamel for pizza. Since we had flown back three days earlier we now had a good chunk of time to go exploring in one of our favorite cities. But, that is for another post.

After every trek in Nepal, I have made it a tradition to stop off at Fire and Ice for pizza. We were goddamn starving after the long wait at Lukla so we piled into Fire and Ice with packs and grubby clothes. I had enjoyed our three weeks of simple food: dal bhat, fried potatoes, tsampa, and Tibetan bread but it’s great to get a little taste of home!

Final words

Us on Gokyo Ri
Us on Gokyo Ri.

Best trek ever? Definitely! Culturally it is not quite as rich as the Annapurna Circuit but you really do get a sense of being in the high mountains from day one through to the end. The views at Gokyo and Kala Pattar are virtually incomparable for big mountain scenery. The trek up the Baltoro Glacier to K2 base camp in Pakistan is a fantastic trek but it really is arduous. The pay off can be great and call me a softy but I prefer the teahouse vibe to tents and mess tents on a glacier.

I also love hiking these trails with Laura. She is as tough as they come on these high altitude trails and bloody sensible too. No macho bollocks from the missus. We take it nice and steady and come for the great views not the records! If you come here do yourself a favor and don’t rush. It is goddamn Everest. Savor it!

It was great meeting up with numerous other trekkers on the trails too. I always say the best people we meet are on trails, well those without dogs, and Everest more than proved the point. No one treks alone here if they don’t want to. Everyone who flies in alone finds trek buddies within a couple of days and everyone checks in and looks out for everyone else.

I not convinced we would walk this trail again since we had a lucky year in which trekker numbers were low and the weather utterly perfect. I don’t want these great memories spoilt by trying a repeat trip in a regular season and potentially hitting bad weather. This trek was perfectly formed from the first minute to the last. I want to treasure those memories.

However, you should goddamn do this trek already. And, do both sections. It’s daft to come and miss out on the main Everest trail and views but Gokyo really has something special. Utterly wild mountain scenery with relative ease? Do it!


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3 thoughts on “Everest and Gokyo Trek, Part IV: Phortse to Gokyo to Lukla

  1. Pingback: Everest and Gokyo Trek, Part III: Lobuche to Kala Pattar to Phortse | Design Think Travel

  2. Pingback: Everest and Gokyo Trek, Part II: Tengboche to Lobuche | Design Think Travel

  3. Pingback: Everest and Gokyo Trek, Part I: Lukla to Tengboche | Design Think Travel

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