Off the beaten track in the Khumbu of Nepal: Lobuche to Gokyo via Cho La

View across Fifth Lake to Gokyo

In a place where superlatives ring hollow for overuse, Gokyo finds a way to make an impression.

Out the back door of our well-kept lodge in the lakeside town of Gokyo in the northern Khumbu of Nepal, groups of brightly dressed porters stood talking around their cooking fires, smoke curling upward with its now familiar sweet-bitter yak dung fragrance.     The tiny internet room out back was packed with trekkers charging phones and pecking away on laptops.    Looking down from the town’s steep perch on a high glacial moraine, the vista stretched west across a shining satin-jade lake to a craggy ridge; north up a flat grassy yak-strewn valley to Cho Oyu (26,936’) and Tibet; and south past innumerable high snowy peaks just visible through the notch of the Nzogumpa Glacier valley looking toward Namche and beyond.    Without pretense the town offered the soothing feel of a resort, and our group gratefully soaked in the relaxing vibe in the sun of the lodge courtyard.

Cho Oyu looming over the town of Gokyo

Cho Oyu looming over the town of Gokyo

We had just completed the hard push through the Khumbu over seven days from the bustling town of Lukla, through Namche, Tengboche, Pheriche and Lobuche, to Gorak Shep, Kala Pattar and Everest Basecamp -over 15,700’ of ascent counting all the precipitous ridges and valleys in between.    The visual spectacle along our path had met and surpassed all expectations, at once filled with striking beauty and character, unabashed drama, and a stoic and extreme harshness.   Many have passed this way and described the trails and climbs into the upper reaches along the Dudh Kosi river and the Khumbu glacier, and I won’t add more inadequate prose to the already teetering stack.  Suffice it to say that our sturdy group pushed its way successfully to the viewpoint of Kala Pattar (18,240’) with good late-October weather and steady views of Everest and its surrounding giants to reward us.  Still, the push had taken its toll – most of the group was coughing from a shared chest cold, sleeping poorly and suffering from general exhaustion.    Still, there was a feeling of excitement and anticipation as we all snapped on our headlamps and set off in the 5AM dark from Lobuche, back down the valley to cut west over Cho La (pass) to Dragnag, the Nzogumpa glacier and Gokyo.

Heading down the Khumbu valley from Lobuche, Ama Dablam ahead

Heading down the Khumbu valley from Lobuche, Ama Dablam ahead

The night was crystal clear, shading violet around the ghostly peaks of the “mother goddess” Ama Dablam and its neighbors far to the south down the Dudh Kosi valley.   Traversing on the lower flanks of Lobuche peak, the river glittered as it wound through the high mounded rock of the Khumbu glacier’s extensive lateral moraine system.

Traversing the ridge toward Cho La - Ghola Tsho (lake) and Cholatse (5440m)

Traversing the ridge toward Cho La – Ghola Tsho (lake) and Cholatse (5440m)

Rounding the ridge to make our big turn to the west toward Cho La,  the sunglow grew around jagged, forbidding Taboche Peak (20,900’) and majestic snow-cloaked Cholatse (21,128’), the moon grazing the lofty ridges and spires above and turning the waters of Tshola Tsho (lake) a shining silver far below.    Gaining a wide high bench drained by meandering streams from the glaciers above, the path wound past groups of grazing yaks and clusters of chuckling but nearly invisible female Danfe, the Himalayan pheasant which is the national bird of Nepal.  Then,  up a last hill powered by the growling of our stomachs to the little cluster of stone lodges making up the tiny summer yak-herding town of Dzonglha at nearly 16,000’.    A now-familiar, jam-packed and toasty lodge dining hall, trekkers knee to knee at benches and tables along the wall around the omnipresent yak-dung heating stove, the Sherpani rushing madly in their small kitchen  to do their magic on tiny kerosene stoves:   cups of steaming lemon tea and hot chocolate, bowls of porridge, peanut butter toast and plates of fried potatoes with eggs.

Now there was no putting off the challenge right in our faces.  Stumbling out of the lodge under the looming north wall of Cholatse and looking to the west, a solid ridge of seeming vertical cliffs, boulders and scree presented a seemingly impassable wall.  But as we wound steadily upward behind our Sherpa guide we could begin to pick out the colorful dots of other trekkers and heavily laden, neon-attired porters dotting our route to the pass.

Cho Oyu in the distance - at 26,906', the sixth highest in the world

Cho La in the distance

Then, our turn – step, breathe, step, breathe, zig-zag up a scree ridge, hand and feet climbing up a boulder chute, to the large grey-white, crevasse-striped Tshola glacier sloping up gently toward the west, and the pass itself beyond, aflutter with tattered prayer flags.   The ever-present cairns took on a particularly inventive, even playful appearance here, stacked narrow and very high.   Looking east past the cairns, our eyes swept down down to the bench and tiny Dzonglha, across the Dudh Kosi, and then drawn up up UP to Lhotse and Nuptse encircling dark, pyramidal Everest, and finally our first sighting of Makalu (27,825’) 12 miles south and behind.

View southeast to Ama Dablam and valley from Cho La trail

View southeast to Ama Dablam and valley from Cho La trail

Every year, according to the guidebooks, the countenance of Cho La pass and its surrounding rock slopes, glacier and snowfields presents itself to visitors differently.   Some years even the most intrepid climbers are turned around by deep snow and horrific cold.   Our experience was of picking our way on icy rock to the south side of the glacier, then steeply up and across a well consolidated snowfield, before negotiating a rugged rock-boulder wall to attain the pass.

Last section up the glacier to Cho La

Last section up the glacier to Cho La

Peeking over the top, a moonscape presented itself with snowy peaks stepping off north and a rolling, unvegetated expanse of rock to the south and west angling as far as we could see down toward the valley of the Ngozumpa Glacier.   Drained by the climb, and buffeted by a chilly wind from the west, we threw ourselves into the spaces between rocks on the narrow pass ridge to enjoy an infusion of calories and a momentary respite from the steady exertion of the day.

View west from Cho La

View west from Cho La

Finally there was no excuse but to work our way downward.   The path was barely worthy of the name, mostly a steep hop among watermelon-sized rocks with the occasional coarse and slippery gravel path between.   Down, endlessly down, quads burning, the occasional thrill of a rock coming loose and bouncing down toward the trekkers picking their way below…”ROCK!!”.    It was over an hour before our entire group made it down the rock chute to the relative flat at the bottom, taking a moment to rest and gape at the cliff we had just made our way down, and marveling that so many trekkers choose to go up from west to east.

Heading down the steep rockfield to the west from Cho La

Heading down the steep rockfield to the west from Cho La

Little of the remaining path to our night’s rest stop at Dragnag pierced the stupor of our pounding rhythm as the afternoon transitioned to early evening.  Down and around the rocky path, up a moraine, down and back up endlessly, until we finally found ourselves dropping down a steep defile with the smoke of the village in sight below us.   One of our porters met us there, bringing up a thermos bottle of hot lemon tea.   The night was pressing on our backs as we finally fell into the lodge, collapsing onto the benches too tired for food or even to find our beds.  The only memory of that night was of thick yak-dung smoke, held down in the village by an inversion and permeating the air around us.

Finally, Dragnag village, as evening falls

Finally, Dragnag village, as evening falls

It was a subdued atmosphere as our group gathered the next morning for breakfast and the short trek across the moraines and dirt strewn surface of the massive Ngozumpa glacier, the largest in Nepal.  The only indication of the presence of the glacier below us was the occasional meltwater pond and fluted blue-ice wall above.  Word is that this glacier, and many others in Nepal, are fast melting, and a massive lake was building up behind a moraine dam at the southern terminus of the Ngozumpa, risking several villages below.   These ponderous forces were not evident to our eyes, but the sheer size of the glacier made it a full morning’s effort traversing around, up and down rock and dirt, first to gain the glacier, and then to climb over the moraines on its far side.   At last, by late morning we gained a final ridge and could see Gokyo village, jewel of lake below, the massive white cone of Cho Oyu presiding over the scene from far upvalley.

Winding ove te Ngozumpa Glacier on the trail to Gokyo, Cho Oyu (8153m) beyond

Winding ove te Ngozumpa Glacier on the trail to Gokyo, Cho Oyu (8153m) beyond

We scrambled toward it, like Dorothy and her companions finally spying the Emerald City, and by late morning collapsed into its comfortable embrace.

Our lodge at Gokyo

Our lodge at Gokyo

The afternoon sun and peaceful atmosphere Gokyo offered was balm for our ragged souls, and the afternoon was mostly spent on hot showers, email, lounging in the sun and wandering around the lakes in the company of yaks and a pair of colorful, rare Himalayan Golden Ducks.    From the lakeshore we could see our path for the next day, up and over the high pass of Renjo La from which we would descend into one of the most dramatic, pastoral valleys that we had yet encountered in Nepal.  That, gentle readers, will be a story for another day.

Fifth Lake near Gokyo, with Himalayan Ducks

Fifth Lake near Gokyo, with Himalayan Ducks