The wilderness offers discovery, pushing limits, engaging with surroundings and experiencing growth. Very few places are open for that type of discovery in the Himalayas, forced into the throng of people herded in the same direction. Seeking the path less traveled and eager for an adventure, the triple col route catches our attention. The route requires full mountaineering gear, mountain navigation and crossing three of the highest passes in Nepal: Sherpani, West and Amphu Labsta. Better yet, it remains legal for independent climbers to access without the circus of guides, porters and porters for your porters. The prepping begins for our expedition by meticulously weighing all of our gear, making a spreadsheet, purchasing a few more pieces of gear (down pants, stove fuel and snow pickets) and finding a grocery (harder than you think) to supply for 5 days in the backcountry.
Day 1: Kathmandu to Khadbari
Flying is the most terrifying piece to the puzzle. Small prop planes, steep valleys, third world regulations. Terrified and exhilarated, we catch our first views of Mt. Everest in the most iconic mountain range in the world. The quick flight takes us to the village of Tumlingtar. The first orders of business are to figure out how to get to Num, our launching point for the trail, and finding a porter. With 100+ pounds of gear, clothing and food we are depending on assistance to Makalu base camp where we will start our journey into the wilderness. We arrive in a dusty haze, swarmed by independent jeeps insisting they will take us for only $150. No thanks. We stumble around town. Jordan heads into the streets; I bury myself in WIFI, coming across a recent blog about the journey to Makalu BC at our moment of greatest need. This is or first reminder that we are not alone; God is here, tangibly present assisting us through the most difficult parts Apparently there is a public means to get there. We just need to get to the next town, Khadbari, and catch a 6 AM jeep the next morning.
Day 2: Khadbari to Seduwa
The morning begins by piling 14 people into a normal size jeep to start the 4-hour bumpy ride. Twenty minutes and the back tire goes flat. I’m thankful for a breath of fresh air, stepping out and praying for relief of my stomach cramps from yet another food born illness. You would think that our stomachs would be adapted. Although we have a theoretical porter listed on our spreadsheet weight division, we do not have said porter. Getting more accustomed to flying by our pants, we get to Num with high hopes that sink in the next hour. No sign of porters in this town. A drunken Nepali with broken English stumbles into the picture. He has the perfect guy so he says. An hour later he returns with the next best guy (“perfect guy I could not find”). He’s wearing boots. Good sign. He doesn’t know how to mount our bag. Bad sign. He and I walked equally slow. My breaking fever and nauseation slowing me down; his first time carrying weight and alcoholic sweat dripping down his brow.
Day 3: Seduwa to Tashagoan
Easy hike, three hours uphill. The porter quits! I have never been so thankful for what should be a bad moment. No porter would be better than this porter, but God brings miracles from disasters. Dhoma, the teahouse owner, translates between us. He speaks zero English and I don’t think the Nepali words that I know—water, eggs, toilet—are helpful in the conversation. More relaxed that he’s gone than staying, we trust in a bigger plan. It’s delivered. Dhoma, of the Nepalese Sherpa culture who live and climb highest in the mountains, phones her nephew. He arrives in minutes, bag packed, brawny by Nepali standards, bright and interesting. We swoon. Lakpa Sherpa is our hero.
Day 4: Tashagoan to Khongma Danda
Night and day. The lightness of the situation transfers to our steps and we spend the day at ease, climbing up to 3,000m to Kongma Danda. The owners, Pemba and Shiva, are Lakpa’s uncle and auntie—amazing. While we feasted on fiddlehead ferns at Dohma’s, Shiva withdrew wild mushrooms, a variety of Chanterelles, to accompany our dahl baht (lentils and rice). For the first time while hiking in Nepal, it feels like a genuine experience. We are invited into their space, treated with local cuisine and are content to just sit and wait for the long hours to pass, sharing time together.
Day 5: Khongma Danda to Dhobate
Dhabote is a temporary hut that Pemba occasionally opens. Conveniently he hands Lakpa the keys. The weather yet again dictates our travel. Afternoon rains consistently force us to stop around 2:00 p.m. We are anxious, eager to keep moving, nervous about the objective ahead. Even though the day has been on tougher ground, up and over a couple passes through some icy snow, the day feels so young.
Day 6: Dhobate to Yangle Kharke
The trail parallels the river, slowing us down over landslide areas entering into a lush valley where yak and goats graze surrounded by a mountain cathedral. The afternoon is spent with rest, chasing baby goats and scoping out the granitic walls, awaiting to be ascended for the first time.
Day 7: Yangle Kharke to Makalu Base Camp
Giant granite domes, a glacial carved valley, shepherds and livestock. The magnitude of the beauty is overwhelming as the scenery shifts dramatically to dry glacial moraine at the foot of Mt. Makalu, the fifth highest mountain in the world. Walking the last hour through wind and snow, we finally reach the much anticipated Makalu BC.
Day 8: Makalu BC, Swiss BC, Makalu BC *Gear Drop
Lakpa has completed his task; now it is up to us to finish our expedition on our own. Our “rest” day is a four hour gear drop where we take the mountaineering bag to Swiss BC. The trail increasingly becomes more difficult, walking over unstable talus. We tuck our bag beneath a boulder, not that anyone else was passing through. Back at camp, I declare bath day. The bath is a water basin of hot water used inside the outdoor toilet that is missing its roof. My wash was lovely; however, Jordan’s became cooler by the minute highlighted by the howling wind by the time I was dressed.
The second night at Makalu BC was incredibly special. It was just Jordan and I, plus the owners Pemba and Pisang. (Note: Sherpa people are often named after the day of the week they are born. Pemba is Saturday.) We discover that Pemba did not start climbing until he was 35 and has since summited Everest 9 times in the last fifteen years. His sister is currently on an expedition attempting the southern route from Tibet. Pisang, shyer with less English, opens up. She shares Chang, the local fermented beer as we look at pictures of their beautiful children who are in private school in Kathmandu. Language ceases to be such a barrier.
Day 9: Makalu BC to Sherpani Col BC
As we were leaving, Pemba goes to the back room, extracts two juice cans and blows off the dust from the top. “Good for the mountain,” he says as he gifts them to us. The gift touches the deepest sense of generosity that we can imagine. We are not the only tourists coming through; despite that, he chose to pour love into us, wishing us luck and blessing in the mountains. He energizes us as we retrace our steps to Swiss BC. The full load is hardly bearable. My pack weighs around 40 pounds, Jordan is at least 55. Braking our hiking speed, we finally reach our base camp after a 10-hour day of wandering across talus, hunting for the glacial snout where we must camp in order to make two of the passes the following day. We are whipped. Darkness falls by the time we setup our tent and crawl inside to cook dinner. The first order of business is to make hot water. In a matter of seconds our quiet vestibule has turned into a bonfire as the fuel canister bursts into flames. Jordan kicks it out, managing to unscrew the fuel before we lose all of our gas. In shock, I stare mouth open at what could have been the biggest disaster we’ve ever had. Singed but not scarred, Jordan regains composure and we continue with making dinner.
Day 10: Sherpani Col BC to West Col Bivvy
What I am about to describe to you is the most physically challenging, and borderline epic, day of our lives. First, we never heard the alarm and woke up an hour late at 4 AM. By the time we were walking, the fatigue of our heavy packs and the altitude gain starting taken immeasurable tolls on our body and minds. It took hours to reach the base of the first pass then even more to crawl our way up through rotten snow and loose rock and rappel back over the icy side. The rappel spits you onto the Barun glacier, the most isolated area of our expedition. To boot, it is a total white out with eight inches of fresh snow. Disoriented from the fog but needing to move, we traverse the glacier as best as possible, pointing ourselves in the direction we think we should go. An hour of zombie mode hiking is interrupted by an adrenaline boost as Jordan’s leg shoots into a crevasse. Fortunately it was small or he is big (or both) and we remember we are traveling a freshly snow covered glacier. The fog lifted for a brief moment. Mostly on course, we readjusted to align our position to the West Ridge. After another hour of hiking we are standing at the notch, dog tired. We are faced with the choice to attempt the 200m rappel to the other side and possibly have to continue hiking for a couple hours to camp or to bivvy right here at 6100m. We had become physically lethargic and mentally dull from the fatigue and couldn’t trust our ability to descend safely, so we started making camp: digging out the ice to make a platform for our tent and melting enough water for the night. After an hour of exhausting chores, we plummet inside our sleeping bags, take diamox to help prevent AMS by increasing the oxygen in our bodies and prayed that no rocks would fall on our heads.
Day 11: West Col Bivvy to Somewhere Past Buruntse BC
Still breathing, we wake to a beautiful sunny day. Since we are only 5m or less from the notch, we take the morning slowly. During second tea, we have another fire explosion in the tent’s vestibule. This one’s even worse. I cross threaded the fuel attachment to the canister the previous day. Worse than the fire (that we again survived), our fuel had leaked all night. We still have 2-3 days out. Fuel is our source of food and warmth (hot drinks, nightly hot water bottle for the sleeping bag). There was one hope, to make it to Buruntse BC where extra fuel might be laying around. Before thinking about that, we need to get down. The altitude has affected us more than we realize and each passing minute we feel worse. What follows is a harrowing 200 m rappel on a fixed nylon rope with three attachment points: the anchor and two additional ropes tied to the first. The rope seems to be from this year. Our motto is to back it up for Jordan; if he makes it, surely it will hold me? Not sure how sound that philosophy is, but so far so good. Once on the other side, we are thankful for the decision we made to stay under the col. The glacier offers no immediate respite. We follow existing footprints through the heavily crevassed glacier.
Now to find fuel, Buruntse BC. The map shows it in the vicinity of our location, but we see nothing. Determined to get there, we trek on until we are stuck in a dry valley. No base camp and now no water. Today was supposed to be a short day, but the only thing we can do is to hike another hour downhill to find water. The advantage—we are 1000 m lower than the previous night and should sleep and feel better. I’m mentally trashed. I think I was on my third crying breakdown of the day. I hate being cold. I hate being scared and vulnerable. The past two nights I have dreamed about sauce burgers, steaks and hot baths. I’m over the mountaineering. In my journal write, “I just want to be a normal wife. Jordan needs more climbing friends so I don’t get dragged into this.” I had resigned that we weren’t going further; we were bailing via the lower trail and escaping to Lukla. I waited until the next day to divulge my plan.
Day 12: Somewhere Past Buruntse BC to Amphu Labsta BC
So much for my plan. Looking further at the map, we can either proceed and be in civilization the next day or have another week of hiking just to get to Lukla where we would be three days further behind on the continued trek to Everest Base Camp. Rest reset my bitterness, but I was still dubious and a little chafed that I didn’t get my hot water baby the night before due to fuel conservation. The hike to Amphu Labsta BC is a breeze. We reach the upper lake in just a few hours where I notice a tattered piece of blue tarp in the distance. I sit down my pack to go investigate, stating “another man’s trash could be our treasure.” Turns out there is nothing but trash by the blue tarp, but I keep exploring. Adjacent to that site, I find a stone circle with four fuel canisters sitting there. Before my heart leaps, I shake each one, newest to oldest. The last one that could sell for a trail antique is full!
I had promised myself no tears today, but God’s faithfulness and goodness overtake me. How could I forget that He is our guide, with us each step and again, turning disasters into miracles. My confidence is restored. Firing up the stove eager to make endless hot drinks, I am startled by a thick German accent “Hallo, Ver is da tea-haus?.” I laughed, then realized he wasn’t joking. Thankfully they were fully supported with food, but had heard rumor that there was a teahouse at the basecamp. Many times I get irritated with other people ruining my wilderness experience. I am grateful, relieved, exorbitantly thankful to share company especially as we make our last (and most dangerous) pass the following morning.
Day 13: Amphu Labsta BC to Chukhung
The pass is a stark difference from the others. As a group of four, we maintain a steady pace navigating to the massive ice blocks. One technical pitch, 10 m of mixed snow and rock slows us down, but after that we cruise past the chunk of ice and relish in the views. The rappel down is facilitated with the extra rope from Roland and Flo. Although more technical overall, the last col is much easier. I am thankful that we did not reroute an extra nine days to avoid the best crossing. Once on the other side, we have a four hour push to make it to civilization. We make our way, Nepali style, resting on every other rock. Exhausted yet rewarded, we’ve made it to the other side.
Day 14: Chukhung to Dingboche
One hour of hiking today, to a teahouse with a bakery! We were recommended this teahouse by a fellow hiker we met on the Makalu. He mentioned the owner is a trustworthy climber who could help us find a porter to take our bag south to the town of Namche while we traveled north to see Everest Base Camp and to travel over two other passes. No longer needing our ropes and mountain equipment, we need to shed the weight so we can travel faster further. The owner mysteriously disappears after we check in. A familiar problem, no porter. At dinner we were chatting with a Nepalese guide leading a group tour. He had impeccable English, so we figure why not ask him how to go about finding someone in the town. He says, “I’ll talk to you later.” Hmmm. After dinner he says, “My porter isn’t carrying much. He’ll take it.” Come to find out, this porter has hiked the entire Great Himalayan Trail—120 days of mountain travel—on the expedition that fueled the writing for the guidebook that helped us cross our passes! We are stoked to be in the company of this guy and are honored to pay him to carry our gear. Before we leave, we exchange info with the guide. His name, Lakpa Sherpa. God, the great comedian.
Day 15: Dingboche to Labuche
I’m not sure what happened to the philosophy of travel light and fast. Another round of bad food doesn’t help the pace. Neither does walking 30 minutes in the wrong direction downhill.
Day 16: Labuche to Gorak Shep to Everest Base Camp
Everest Base Camp is in full glory, an array of colorful tents, choppers every fifteen minutes and climbers sprawled in masses. The weather pushes the summit date to May 19, so there is an air of restlessness in the camp. We are mesmerized, imagining the life of these climbers, the huge production that it is to climb the mountain. While it is quite the circus, it is enjoyable to be in the presence of greatness.
Day 17: Gorak Shep to Dzongla
Jordan begins the day with hiking up Kala Patthar to watch the sunrise over Everest. I begin the day with an extra three hours of sleep then French Toast. The pictures are great 🙂
Day 18: Dzongla to Gokyo
My energy finally returns after a few days of struggling. We easily cross the Cho La Pass then descend down to the town of Dragnag, decide to keep going over the glacier to reach Gokyo—the best place on the Everest Circuit. We stay at Namaste Lodge where we are treated like family, offered hot drinks upon arrival and chased down by the owner Pisang to bid us farewell with biscuits (cookies) for the road.
Day 19: Gokyo to Lumde
Too anxious to sit and wait another day, we cross the Renjo La Pass on a cloudy day. This is supposed to be THE view of the Sagamartha himal but we cannot summons the patience to wait. We pause at the pass for an hour, break out the stove and make tea, praying for the clouds to dissipate. Everest briefly comes to view enshrouded in the highest of clouds. What a mountain!
Day 20: Lumde to Namche
I have to keep reminding myself that there is no vehicular access in the mountains–Namche is large by any standards, built into the hillside tucked next to the Sagamartha national park. Apple pie, bread, brownies and yak steaks greet us in the mountain village.
Day 21: Namche to Lukla
We stood for 2 hours at the end of town debating whether we wanted to go north for a second mountaineering objective or if it is truly time to leave. At last we determine our hearts are not into another 10 day push. We can be proud of our accomplishments without needing more. Unfortunately the stall puts us way behind; Lukla is a hard 6+ hour hike, especially with the reunion of the beloved mountaineering gear.
Day 22: Lukla to Kathmandu
With no flights in 5 days from bad weather, the airport is absolute chaos. We thrust ourselves at the airline attendant displaying our tickets. The way it is supposed to work–you have priority on the date of your ticket, otherwise it is the waiting list. I believe we were quite lucky, only delayed and bumped for an hour and a half. I also think we were the last flight of the day; the pilots nervously navigates through thick clouds but delivers us safely to Kathmandu. Truly the scariest part of the journey. The flight records are not so good.
Nepal has captured our hearts. The mountains have refilled us with adventure excitement joy and a reminder of how present that God is with us. Spending the last few days with our friends who run Bethel Fellowship Trust ministry in Kathmandu, we have been offered a bigger perspective on God’s kingdom here in Nepal. We had the opportunity to share a message with bible students as well as the congregation yesterday. In essence, we shared 4 cycles of journey (from Quadratos). 1. Stepping into the unknown 2. Experiencing suffering 3. Receiving joy 4. Applying what we learn through the journey. And the cycle continues. Our journey in Nepal has taught us to be willing to listen to what God has put on our hearts and be willing to go. Yesterday I ended the message with: serve God with open hearts and open hands. An open heart to receive his love and open hands to share it with others.