Ever since I can remember I’ve had Everest Base Camp (EBC) on my bucket list, as so many travellers do. However, as with many places that are typical ‘bucket list items’, it has become crowded, overly commercialised and littered with rubbish. Not my type of experience. Although I don’t necessarily support so-called “travel boycotts”, as tourists we always need to think about our impact on the places we visit. So, I had already decided before landing in Nepal that I wouldn’t be going to EBC.
However, I had thought that maybe once I was in Kathmandu I would change my mind with the prospect of it being so close, but whenever I mentioned trekking to anyone in Nepal there was always an assumption that I was going to EBC, which only cemented my decision that I would not be.
So, where do you trek if you don’t go to Base Camp but you still want to see the roof of the world with your own eyes? The answer is: Gokyo.
Back in Kathmandu after trekking in the Annapurnas, I walked all the way out to the Tourism Board office to get a permit for the Sagarmatha National Park only to discover that neither the permit nor the park fees could be purchased at that time due to a disagreement between the office and the local Khumbu government. So I had to get both along the way instead.
I hired another sleeping bag, this time from Kala Patthar trekking gear, a tiny shop in a corner in Thamel that is packed full of gear for rent. I paid 90 rupees per day for a brand new -20deg down sleeping bag, absolute bargain, and probably the warmest bag I had out of all four treks.
I bought an Everest Region map from one of the book shops that included the Three Passes, Gokyo and Base Camp all in one.
I packed everything into my 30L backpack for the fourth and final time. Considering this trek was going to be double the length compared to the other treks I’d done, I thought 30L was realistically not enough but of course I managed it somehow.
Most people fly into Lukla outside of the Sagarmatha National Park to start their trek from there but the flights were going for USD$170 one way which includes landing at one of the most dangerous airports in the world. So for that price, I decided to start from Salleri instead where it was possible to get a jeep from Kathmandu. Of course, it would mean an extra three days of trekking tacked on to the start, but there were benefits to doing that, including slower acclimatisation and a chance to warm my legs up.
Similar to getting to Langtang National Park, the journey was a long and arduous one, although thanks to investment from Japan, the road was paved for most of the way making it much more comfortable. Perhaps less comfortable, however, was the 4am start from Thamel where I waited in the pouring rain for the jeep to arrive.
The reporting time for the jeep was 3.30am but of course, it didn’t arrive until 4.15am and we didn’t really get going until 5am. I booked it through my hostel in Thamel, although any travel agent there can do it for you.
It was a long 12 hour trip, although I was able to score the front seat so it was more comfortable for me than the rest of the foreigners squashed in the back. They thought I was lucky, but what they didn’t know was that for the amount of horrendous jeep rides I’ve taken over my time in India, it was about time I scored a decent seat for once!
Salleri is the main town and transport hub in the area, however, most trekkers prefer to spend the night in Phaplu which is quieter and 2.5km further up the road. As the jeep was mostly filled with trekkers wanting to go to Phaplu, our driver decided to take us there, otherwise there are local jeeps that can take you from Salleri or you can walk. Phaplu has one street with a few lodge choices. I stayed at Sunshine Hotel, a small and friendly family run place.
Day one: Phaplu to Nunthala
The first thing I did before leaving in the morning was buy a new pair of earphones (the fourth pair I’d bought hiking in two months!). From Phaplu, the trail followed the dirt road through the villages along the way until Ringmu where the trail then headed up a steep climb to Taksindu. It had just started to rain as I reached the top of the hill and I stopped to put my rain gear on.
From there it was only 5km down to Nunthala, but it was a steep, rocky trail and the rain turned the dirt to mud. I arrived at 2.30pm to find a cluster of quiet lodges. I walked into Himalaya Trekkers Inn, which was pretty nice and so I didn’t bother to look any further. The rain picked up and soon thunder and lightening rolled in and I was glad that I’d made it in time as other trekkers came in much later completely drenched, cold and muddy.
Distance: 19km Time: 6.5 hours Ascended: 615m Descended: 725m
Day two: Nunthala to Bupsa
The rain had been relentless all night, but I woke up to a clear sky. I could even see some snow capped mountains in the distance, marking the Sagarmatha National Park, still a couple of days away.
I left at 8am and followed the trail as it descended steeply. I got stuck behind a mule caravan carrying goods up to higher villages and I had to slow my pace down. I reached the river at the bottom just as I overtook the mules and then the trail began to climb upwards over rocky steps. I climbed and climbed until finally I reached the top of the hill at Kharikola and walked straight into the first lodge asking for lunch at just 11.30am.
I had a delicious buffalo fried rice and saw the group of four Spanish guys who had been in the same jeep as me to Salleri. I’d only covered 7.5km and it had taken just over 3 hours, it was certainly warming our legs up for what was to come.
The trail meandered around the slope of the mountain before I faced another climb gaining 400m in elevation in just 1km. By the time I got to the top at Bupsa, I was more than glad the day was done. Again, a small cluster of lodges were huddled on the side of the mountain and I picked the newly rebuilt International Hotel where the rooms were actually very nice for a trekking lodge.
Distance: 11km Time: 5 hours Descended: 716m Ascended: 865m
Day three: Bupsa to Cheplung
The final day of the trek to Lukla, where the “real” trek would start, was primed to be a killer before I’d even begun. Looking at Maps.me on my phone, the elevation map looked like a heart rate monitor, with relentless ascents and descents for 18km.
I started just after 8am and straight up faced a steep climb for 5km. By the time I’d arrived in Puiya, it had taken me 3 hours to cover just 7km and even though it was only 11am, I stopped for lunch (my lunches were getting earlier by the day).
After lunch the trail became a little, dare I say, flat for a while as it passed through villages. There was now a continuous flow of porters and mules carrying goods up to the lodges on the trekking trails ahead and even young local boys who I assumed were heading up to Lukla to find work for the season.
The trail then headed steeply down over rocks and a sludge that can only have been a combination of animal shit and mud. It was such a tough trail to walk over; to take your eyes off the ground for one moment meant you could either lose your boot in the mud/shit or roll your ankle on a rock.
Mule trains were coming and going in both directions and I got more and more frustrated as I got stuck behind them unable to pass. The final kilometre down to Surke took me one hour as I had to constantly wait for the mules to pass on the skinny trail. At Surke, there were two options. One was to take the trail to Lukla, a steep ascent, and the other was to take the lower trail that continued around Lukla to Cheplung. I took the latter option as it would put me ahead for the next day and I could do without the fancy cafes and WiFi found in Lukla for one more day until I got to Namche.
As I was coming up to Cheplung, I ticked over the 8 hour mark and I was absolutely wrecked. The past three days had certainly been tough, and more than just a “warm up” for the trekking ahead. My thighs were well and truly fit and ready for whatever hills were to come.
Cheplung was on the main trail to Namche and as soon as the minor trail I had been using joined it above Lukla, I suddenly saw all these trekkers in fresh, crisp trekking gear, squeaky clean boots and cameras at the ready. Here we go, I thought, time to join the circus up to Namche Bazaar.
Distance: 18km Time: 8 hours Ascended: 558m Descended: 516m
Day four: Cheplung to Namche Bazaar
Leaving Cheplung, the trail undulated for most of the morning with a continuous flow of trekking lodges, restaurants and shops along the way. After three hours I made it to Monjo where I stopped to have lunch at Mountain View Lodge, where the retired-mountaineer owner had summited Everest five times along with many other Himalayan peaks. He now has the small lodge in Monjo where he feeds hungry trekkers like me with organic vegetables that he grows in his garden, whilst I’m sure laughing at the absurdity that is the circus of people heading to Base Camp.
I sat outside and watched the flow of trekkers, guides, mules, yaks and porters up and down the trail. Just five minutes from Monjo was the National Park office where I had to stop and pay 3000 rupees for the permit.
I had been anticipating the big climb up to Namche towards the end of the day and I was already stuck behind mules and large trekking groups as the trail started to climb through the forest. Then the dark clouds opened up and it started to rain, then hail followed by loud thunder and flashes of lightening.
The temperature dropped to near zero suddenly and the trail turned into more of a waterfall as the rain came pouring down. I was stuck behind all these people and animals, frustrated and unable to push on quickly. So I trudged on with all the trekking groups, many already struggling to breathe in the altitude having flown in to Lukla directly.
A small shelter was up ahead and a lot of groups took a break from the ascent, but I took my chance and overtook them. I pushed my legs up and up, just wanting to get to Namche and out of the cold. Then through the rain I could see a wooden structure with a large crowd of people out the front and the sign, “Checkpost”. I couldn’t believe that they were going to seriously make everyone wait in the pouring rain to check every individual permit, but apparently so.
A guide saw me and said, “Are you alone?”, and he offered to get my permit checked with the rest of his group to save me waiting. I was so appreciative and even more so when I found out later that independent hikers had waited for over an hour there to get through!
Just 10 minutes further up I came into the first lodges of Namche Bazaar and boy, was I relieved. I wasn’t in the mood to be too picky but at first I saw signs saying 1000 rupees for a single room and I really didn’t want to pay that. I stumbled upon Hotel Valley View and asked the lady how much. When she said 500 for a room, WiFi and charging I was sold.
Distance: 16km Time: 7 hours Ascended: 905m
Day five: Rest day/acclimatisation in Namche
Most people take an extra day in Namche for acclimatisation, but I was more in need of a rest day than anything else. My legs needed a day without endless hills. Yet, for a little acclimatisation, I decided to walk up to the Sagarmatha National Park Headquarters, 20 minutes above the town. By the time I got there, I realised I was by far not the only one with the same idea and the small plateau was a little crowded.
I overheard a guide tell his group, “And that’s Everest, over there.” I spun around, where, which mountain? And then I saw it. The triangular peak poking out from behind the mountains in front. Mount Everest, the roof of the world, right in front of my very eyes and a moment I won’t forget anytime soon.
I spent a lot of the day relaxing around Namche. It really is a trekker’s megacity, with absolutely anything and everything you could need available. From Snickers bars, to knee braces, to down jackets, to I climbed Mount Everest t-shirts, to yak burgers and apple pie, to memory cards and new phones, no matter what you broke or forgot, you could replace it in Namche.
A little girl sat out the front of her mother’s shop across from my lodge and whenever someone walked past she would say, “Hello!”. She was such a friendly girl and when I stopped to look at some of the jewellery her mum had, she pointed to a necklace with the Buddhist endless knot symbol and said, “For good luck.” So for $2 I bought it off her, put it around my neck and only hoped that she was right, that it would bring me good luck on the trail ahead.
Day six: Namche to Khumjung
To make sure my body was well acclimatised I decided to keep my first day short and spend the night in a traditional Sherpa village not far from Namche. I wasn’t taking any Diamox pills and so I wanted to keep any chance of getting altitude sickness at bay, despite feeling good thus far.
I first had to climb up to the Everest viewpoint that I had done the day before and then continue on from there over the hill and down to Khumjung village. There were a few lodges scattered around and I picked Sherpaland Hotel. After lunch, I walked around the village to the small monastery until it started snowing and I decided to go back and rest.
Distance: 5km Time: 2 hours Ascended: 350m
Day Seven: Khumjung to Dhole
And so the ascent up to Gokyo began. I left Khumjung behind and passed all the souvenir stalls along the way until the turn off to Gokyo. I was glad to be leaving the main trekking route behind and to get deeper into the mountains away from the crowds.
There was a steep incline for an hour up to Mongo where some trekkers stopped for a tea break. However, I decided to keep going and followed the trail as it descended steeply, losing all the elevation I’d just gained. At the bottom were a couple of lodges at Phortse Thanga and I just stopped to pick up a snack before continuing on.
The trail climbed up again steeply and I walked with a pack of yaks heading up with supplies. It was a slow final 3km to Dhole and it took me nearly 2 hours as I had to stop and rest from the steep incline.
Dhole was a cluster of teahouses sitting at just over 4100m. I checked a couple out before settling on Himalaya Lodge, which was one of my favourite lodges I stayed on the trek. The lady was very nice and the food was excellent, but most importantly, they put the wood fired heater on early in the afternoon before the sun set!
I heard stories from other trekkers on their way back from Gokyo about the danger on the high passes of Cho La and Renjo La either side of Gokyo. With such heavy snowfall this season, the risk seemed too high for me to attempt to cross them on my own. Many people think I’m crazy but I’m not crazy enough to put my life at risk above 5000m in the Himalayas, so I decided that Gokyo would have to be my end point.
Distance: 8km Time: 3.5 hours Ascended: 300m
Day eight: Dhole to Machermo
I knew it was just a short day to Machermo and so I didn’t leave until 9am. The day began with a steep climb up the hill behind Dhole but then flattened out as it snaked around the valley and I picked up my pace. I made it in good time to Luza, passing a lot of other trekkers on the way and then I climbed the last 1km up and over to Machermo.
I arrived in the small trekking village at 11am, a very early end to my day. I could have continued on, however, in order to make sure that I was fully acclimatised for Gokyo it was best to stay the night.
I stayed at Peaceful Lodge as recommended by the lady in Dhole and it was nice and quiet. The manager told me there was a free Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) talk at the medical clinic every day at 3pm so I decided to head over for it.
A 5 minute walk towards the back of the village was a Sherpa Shelter and Medical Clinic operating as a not-for-profit. They offer free accommodation and medical treatment for all sherpas and rely on donations as well as charging trekkers for medical assistance and evacuation to keep the place running. There were two British volunteer doctors there who gave the 20 minute talk on the prevention, symptoms and treatment for AMS, which was interesting.
Distance: 5km Time: 2 hours Ascended: 400m
Day nine: Machermo to Gokyo
I surprisingly slept really well considering I was now sleeping at well over 4000m and I woke up eager to get to Gokyo. I followed a white arrow painted on a rock near my lodge and it took me around the ridge on a fairly flat trail. I noticed other trekkers going up and over the ridge instead and at first I thought I might have been following the wrong trail until I realised the two actually met up on the other side and the way I went was much easier.
The valley slowly opened up and I could see the trail going up into the distance. I was feeling really good and moved at a pretty good pace as I passed trekking groups along the way. At the top of the valley the trail then flattened out as it passed through an amphitheater of snowy mountains, a truly incredible sight despite the grey clouds that had rolled in. As I got closer to Gokyo I passed more people as the altitude started to take its affect on them.
I made it passed the first couple of lakes and then finally the village of Gokyo came into view and I felt a rush of triumph and relief as I had made it to my final destination of the trek. There were around 12 lodges in Gokyo and I first went to a highly recommended place called Gokyo Resort. It was already packed full of trekking groups and so I quickly escaped to find somewhere more peaceful. A guy said to me, “Looking for a room?” and I followed him to a place called Namaste Lodge. It was a large building and although the rooms were old, the view from the dining room on the top floor had to be one of the best in the village and so I stayed.
Distance: 7km Time: 2.5 hours Ascended: 350m
Day ten: Gokyo to Gokyo Ri
I set my alarm for 5am and was down at Gokyo lake by 5.20am, just as the sky was turning pink and the high peaks in the distance were an orange tinge from the rising sun. I began the steep, switchbacked trail up to the top of Gokyo Ri. I was feeling good but took it easy, slowly but surely. This was the very reason I had hiked for nine days, a chance to see one of the best viewpoints in the Himalayas. Naturally, that put a bit of pressure on myself and I was just hoping that my body could get me to the top.
As Gokyo fell further and further below, the view of the mountains around me became more spectacular. I overheard a guide pointing out the triangular peak of Everest tucked behind the mountains in front; once again seeing the roof of the world with my own eyes.
After the halfway point, I started to really slow down. I felt a little ill in the stomach but my head and chest were fine, so I kept sipping on water and didn’t eat anything. I kept looking up at how far I had to go but was unable to see the top. It was a constant battle trying to prevent negative thoughts coming into my mind, I had to convince myself that I was going to make it. I stopped to check Maps.Me and I still had 200m of elevation to gain over 600m, which sounds like nothing but at that altitude it may as well be forever. I kept pushing on, stopping around every 20 steps to recalibrate, catch my breath and get oxygen into my body.
A little further and I could see the top, with prayer flags and cairns marking the summit. 140m in elevation and 400m to go. I was going to make it. Finally, after two and a half hours of slow going I stepped foot on the icy top of Gokyo Ri and man, the view… the fucking view! It was nothing like I’d ever seen before. Everest, Cho Oyu, Cholatse, Aba Dablam, Lohtse, they were all there, right in front of my face with a perfect blue backdrop.
There were a few others up there too and even the four Spanish guys who’d caught the jeep from Kathmandu with me to Phaplu. “We made it!”. I was in tears; it was so beautiful and I was so damn proud of myself for getting there; no guide, no porter, no Diamox, a real triumph.
After an hour of enjoying the view at 5357m (the second highest I’d ever been in my life), I descended back to Gokyo within an hour. I was riding on an absolute high and I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face for the rest of the day.
Distance: 2km Time: 2.5 hours Ascended: 600m (one way/up)
Day eleven: Gokyo to Phortse
I listened to other trekkers talking about crossing the high passes either side of Gokyo, and despite previously deciding I wouldn’t be crossing them for safety reasons, I couldn’t help but be a little jealous. In the end, I was content with heading back down to Namche Bazaar as I wasn’t mentally nor physically prepared to cross any pass on my own, and besides, I had to leave something to aim for next time!
I set off from Gokyo with a fabulously clear day and heading back through the valley I’d come a couple of days before, I stopped to take a lot my photos. At the bottom of the valley, I had a choice to either follow the trail the same way I’d come up or turn off left and follow a lesser used trail on the other side of the valley to Phortse. I decided to take the alternative trail to Phortse, as it would give me a different view on my journey back.
It was an obvious trail and yet I could tell that it was less used than the one I had followed on the way up. It undulated up and down along the valley, certainly not an easy way. I didn’t see a single other trekker and only passed four local porters carrying building supplies the entire day. It was surreal considering how busy I knew other trails were in the region.
I didn’t stop, not even for lunch, and pushed on until I came to a Buddhist Gompa sitting on a hill with a view of Phortse village below. From there, the trail was finally all down hill for the last 3.5km. The village was quiet, a traditional farming village and at first, I thought I wouldn’t find a place to stay. However, I happened across Namaste Lodge with a man sitting out the front who welcomed me inside. He was a trekking guide himself back in the day and him and his wife were lovely hosts for the night.
Distance: 18km Time: 5.5 hours Descended: 1160m
Day twelve: Phortse to Tengboche
From Phortse I could have descended down and met up with the same trail I’d used to Gokyo or I could divert a little and go to Tengboche (a main stop on the EBC trek). After reading so many books on Everest climbs, I knew how significant the Tengboche Monastery was for Sherpas and the mountaineering community and so I decided to go and see it for myself.
I left Phortse at 9am and followed a skinny goat track that descended steeply down the valley to a river crossing. From there, I had to ascend all the way back up the other side to Tengboche where I arrived at 10.30am. I went straight to Trekkers Lodge, a rough, old independent favourite and found a small room to stay. I relaxed for the afternoon and the lodge soon filled up with groups all completing the EBC trek. Hearing stories of the circus at base camp itself made me realise how glad I was that I chose to go to Gokyo instead.
Distance: 3km Time: 1.5 hours Descended: 310m Ascended: 285m
Day thirteen: Tengboche to Namche
I had a rare early start and was ready to leave before 8am. The thought of getting back to Namche where I could have a hot shower, internet and any food I wanted was thrilling. The trail had a steep decline first, before a steep incline to where the trail flattened out and skirted around the mountains back to Namche.
I was that excited at the thought of Namche that I walked at a blistering pace, covering the distance in 3 hours rather than the 4+ average for other trekkers. As I was coming towards Namche, I kept glancing back at the Everest peak as it slowly disappeared behind other mountains. The constant stream of trekkers beginning their trek to Base Camp was staggering; there must have been hundreds of people, with the season in full swing.
I went back to the same lodge and the owner remembered me and gave me a nicer room. I dropped my bags and went out to a cafe where I ordered yak steak and chips, exactly what I needed after dal bhat every day for the past 13 days!
Distance: 10km Time: 3 hours Descended: 555m Ascended: 225m
Day fourteen: Namche to Lukla
I actually started at 8am again, clearly keen to get to Lukla and the end of the trek. I began my descent down the same trail that I’d climbed in the hail over a week before. I went at a quick pace as usual and passed a lot of trekking groups along the way.
After lunch, the trail had short ups and downs until the last 1km where it gained 100m, just in case your legs weren’t tired and fatigued enough already. I arrived at 2pm and walked up and down the main street of Lukla and picked a random lodge for the night. The lady was very nice and tried to get me a plane ticket out for the next day but with flights being cancelled for that day already, it was unlikely I would get a seat.
Distance: 18km Time: 6 hours Descended: 900m
With flights being cancelled for two days, I couldn’t get a seat on a flight to Kathmandu from Lukla. So I reluctantly began to walk back towards Phaplu, to where my trek had began two weeks before. The prospect of another three days hiking was not ideal, particularly knowing that they were not easy, however, my legs were well conditioned by then and I knew I would be able to do it.
My parents were in Kathmandu, patiently waiting for me to finish my Everest trek and when I called to say I would have to walk back I was suddenly given a once in a lifetime opportunity. An agent in Kathmandu was able to get me a seat in a helicopter for just a bit extra than the price of the plane and so I hurried back up the hill to the helipad where I was flown back to meet my parents after not having seen them much over the past year. An epic ending to an epic trek!
The accommodation was your standard teahouse trekking lodges, a basic room with a bed and a shared bathroom. Room charges were 100 rupees up until Namche and then 200 rupees after Namche, while Namche itself was 500. It’s always worth checking out a few lodges before settling on one.
WiFi is available in Namche for free and a local SIM works there too. WiFi is also available at Gokyo and is bought depending on GB and valid days. I paid 800 rupees for use in just Gokyo itself, but you can pay more and have it work across the Everest region.
Most lodges also charge for device charging. Some lodges charge around 200 rupees for a full charge of a phone, but in Gokyo prices were quite steep and I racked up 1000 rupees bill for charging both my phone and power bank.
Food was very standard at basically every lodge, with various combinations of rice, noodles and potato. Dal bhat, the typical Nepali dish of rice, dal and veg curry was by far the best choice to fill an empty stomach and ranged from 450 rupees lower down to 600 rupees at Gokyo.
In Lukla, Namche and Gokyo, more fancy meals were on offer, particularly in Lukla and Namche were you could get steak, yak burgers and chicken schnitzel. Gokyo, also has good food options including two German Bakeries.
Navigating the trails was very simple and it’s hard to go wrong in Sagarmatha National Park. Starting from Phaplu to Lukla, there is really only one way and there are always local people around if you need to ask. Once meeting up with the main trail from Lukla to Namche, it is impossible to get lost as the constant stream of traffic and trekking lodges along the way make it easy to follow.
Getting to Gokyo is also fairly straight forward and there are rarely any alternative trails to confuse it with. All intersections have clear signposts and distance/time averages too.
I used the Maps.Me app simply because I liked to check during the day how far I’d covered and how long I had to go as well as elevation, rather than for any real navigation purposes.
Permit and park fees: 5000 rupees or AUD$65
Transport (to Phaplu): 2000 rupees or AUD$26
Transport (helicopter to Kathmandu): USD$190
Snacks: 1800 rupees or AUD$24
Sleeping bag rental: 1550 rupees or AUD$20
Meals and accommodation: 33,400 rupees or AUD$430
WiFi: 800 rupees or AUD$10
Souvenirs: 1000 rupees or AUD$12
Total: AUD$585 for 14 nights, 15 days + AUD$270 helicopter flight back to Kathmandu