The Three Passes Trek in Nepal is in the Everest Region (Sagarmatha National Park) and takes trekkers across three high passes, Kongma La (18,209 ft / 5,550 m), Cho La (17,782 ft / 5,420 m), and Renjo La (17,560 ft / 5,360 m) – hence, the Three Passes Trek. It's a lollipop loop that can be done starting at Lukla (that scary mountain airport that you fly into) or further down the mountains at Jiri, Shivalaya, Salleri, or Phaplu (I recommend starting at Jiri if you have the time – it will also save you on having to buy plane tickets to/from Lukla).
If you're only going to go to Nepal once in your life – as you should – and you're intent on hiking (and are not doing a meditation retreat or growing dreads and hanging out in Pokhara), then you need to do the Three Passes Trek. And ideally, you need to hike in from Jiri. Fuck Everest Base Camp, fuck the Annapurna Circuit, fuck the Manaslu Circuit, and fuck Poon Hill. Three Passes Trek from Jiri. This is what you need to do. And if Everest Base Camp is really important to you, it can easily be done as a detour from the Three Passes Trek (normally this will add one day – if you're slow, maybe two; if you're fast, maybe none).
Are you required to have a guide for the Three Passes Trek? No. Do you need a guide for the Three Passes Trek? Not really (do not buy into all the fear mongering in Kathmandu – these are just people trying to get you to hand over your rupees). Is hiking the Three Passes Trek expensive? No. Do you need to bring a tent, sleeping pad, or winter sleeping bag? No. Is it expensive to fly to Nepal? Usually, yes, but once you arrive everything is cheap!
Three Passes Trek Facts
- (Unofficial) Capital: Namche Bazaar
- Language: Nepali
- Currency: Nepalese Rupee, NPR
- Time Zone: NPT (UTC+05:45)
- Calling Code: +977
- Drinking Age: 18
- Drinking In Public: Yes
- Drinking Tap Water: No
- Flushing Toilet Paper: No
- Vaccinations Required: CDC
- Credit Cards: Carry cash
- Tipping: Not expected
- Emergency Number: 100
- Outlets: Type C / D / M (230 V / 50 Hz)
- Visa Requirements: External Link!
Three Passes Trek Basics
- LANGUAGE | On the Three Passes Trek, most everyone you meet will have some English language abilities (talk to the kids – they're very interested in you), so don't fret if your Nepalese or Hindi is a bit rusty. The two words that you'll need are namaste (hello) and dhanyabad (thank you). The Sherpa language, called Sherpa, is also spoken by some people. Sherpa is unwritten, which accounts for the various spellings of many of the villages (e.g. Dzonglha/Dzongla/Zonglha); so don't worry if you're confused by different spellings on your map versus the menu in your tea house versus your guidebook (which is probably too heavy to be carrying in the first place).
- GEOGRAPHY | The route to the Three Passes Trek follows heads north into the mountains until Namche Bazaar. From here, hikers can choose to hike either clockwise or counterclockwise. Counterclockwise is the more common route and the one I recommend (particularly if it's your first time at altitude). The Three Passes trek takes trekkers through four valleys in addition to the three passes, Kongma La (18,209 ft / 5,550 m), Cho La (17,782 ft / 5,420 m), and Renjo La (17,560 ft / 5,360 m). Kongma La is generally considered to be the most difficult (longest), Cho La requires you to cross a glacier (microspikes are helpful here), and Renjo La is commonly thought to be the easiest. Granted this can all change depending on weather and conditions. For more on the Three Passes Trek route, check this post.
- TEA HOUSES | The tea houses (i.e. lodges) scattered throughout the villages along the Three Passes Trek are where you will (probably) stay each night (if you wanted to camp, you could, but it's totally unnecessary and absolutely not required). During peak season, these can (apparently) get crowded. However, if you're awesome and you go in the winter (more on this below), then you shouldn't have any trouble at all finding space in a lodge (as practically half of all the buildings in any given town are lodges). The tea houses usually cost between 100 and 400 rupees per night (~$1-$4) and have hot meals and beverages for purchase.
- VILLAGES | As much as you may imagine “trekking through the Himalaya” to be an exercise in solitude, this idea errs wildly on the side of “nope, sorry”. On the the Three Passes Trek you will be constantly met with other trekkers, locals, pack animals, and, most exciting of all, villages. You may pass through as many as five or six villages in a single day depending on your route. All of them (at least on the Three Passes Trek) have food, accommodation, and friendly mountain-dwellers to aid you on your way up into the mountains. If you go up alone and decide you need a guide, it will also be possible to hire someone from one of the villages to go with you on your trek.
- WHEN TO GO | The most popular season for the Three Passes Trek is the same as Everest Base Camp, the fall (September to November). The second most popular season is spring (March to May) – this is also peak season for Everest climbers. The summer months are monsoon season in Nepal so unless you are a huge fan of trekking through the rain with limited views, it's probably best to avoid this time (unless you are willing to trade views for solitude – but maybe you'll get lucky with the weather). Winter generally has limited crowds and great weather, but it is cold (I like the winter – more on this below).
Three Passes Trek Route
- THE TRAIL | The Three Passes Trek trail is very well-defined. The scale of the mountains makes navigation much different than what you would find in a heavily forested area. Most of the time you are walking up, down, or across a valley and you have very few options as to where to go. It's not like you're going to all of a sudden make a wrong turn left and accidentally go over a 23,000 ft / 7,000 m. You can get a paper map in Kathmandu for the region which should help you with the big junctions (that is, if you somehow find yourself alone and with no locals to ask for directions). For more on the Three Passes Trek route, check this post
- THE PASSES | As stated above, the passes are Kongma La (18,209 ft / 5,550 m), Cho La (17,782 ft / 5,420 m), and Renjo La (17,560 ft / 5,360 m). Again, Kongma La is generally considered to be the most difficult (longest), Cho La requires you to cross a glacier (microspikes are helpful here), and Renjo La is commonly thought to be the easiest. Granted this can all change depending on weather and conditions. It's wise to get an early start on the days you plan on crossing each pass to give yourself adequate time and to avoid the afternoon weather (which is typically worse than what you wake up to).
- EVEREST BASE CAMP | If you want to make a detour to Everest Base Camp and/or Kala Patthar, this is completely doable. The first village west of Kongma La (the second village east of Cho La), you can make it to Everest Base Camp and back in a day (via Gorak Shep). If you also want to hike Kala Patthar, you could either do one huge day back to Lobuche or stay the night in Gorak Shep and do Kala Patthar the afternoon before your stay or the morning after. For more on Everest Base Camp, check this page.
- HIKING FROM JIRI | Taking a bus or jeep to Jiri (or Shivalaya, one village ahead) and then hiking to Lukla (instead of flying to Lukla) is a challenging and rewarding section of the region that is not as heavily trafficked as the trail above Lukla (where most trekkers start). If you're short on time, instead of starting from Jiri you can save yourself a day or two and take a bus or jeep to Salleri or Phaplu instead which puts you about two days close to Lukla from Jiri.
- TURNING AROUND | Every time I have been up in the Everest Region there has been a lot of fear-mongering about the passes. “The passes are closed, there is too much snow” or “The passes are closed because ‘I don't know why I just heard somebody say that'”. Listen, friend, if you're in Nepal to hike the Three Passes, go and hike the Three Passes. Go and see for yourself. Start early in the morning and if the trail, pass, or weather turns out to be too much then turn around. In absolute terms, the passes really aren't that far from the nearest villages. Don't be afraid to go and check out the conditions for yourself, but also don't be afraid to turn around if things look to be above your experience level.
Three Passes Trek Food
Food on the way to Three Passes Trek is far more plentiful than you may imagine. Many of the lodges have a surprising number of options and you could easily find yourself eating something different every night (or be like me and stick to Dal Bhat, pizza, and momos). For more on food on the Three Passes Trek check out this post.
- DAL BHAT | Dal bhat is perhaps the most plentiful dish on the road to the Three Passes Trek, and is certainly one that you should be eating to fuel your marathon mountain march. This traditional meal consists of rice, lentil soup (dal), and vegetables (and/or some meat if you've opted to eat animals on this trek). In addition to typically being one of the cheaper options on the menu, dal bhat also means refills. Yes, you get complimentary refills on your rice, lentil soup, and vegetables. It's easy to see why this is what the guides and porters usually eat. Remember, “Dal Bhat power, twenty-four hours”.
- MEAT | There's not a huge debate surrounding the quality of meat on the way up to Base Camp (that I'm aware of), but it's definitely something trekkers should think about. Personally, as much as I love eating roasted animals, I do not eat meat in the Himalaya. Do I have a scientific reason for this decision? No. It's simply because I don't know how many days in the sun each meaty meal spent on the back of a porter (and because meat is generally more expensive). Also, since eating beef isn't really a thing in Nepal, and since cows are my favorite animals (to eat), it's not worth the risk.
- ALCOHOL | As with meat, alcohol is something I avoid whilst hiking (upward) in the Himalaya. This is a personal decision, but drinking alcohol (especially in excess) can hinder your acclimatization efforts – and altitude sickness is not something to be taken lightly. A night of partying in Namche is not worth turning your Three Passes Trek adventure into an expensive (but probably awesome) helicopter ride back to Kathmandu.
- WATER | So now that you've sworn off the bottle, it's time to get serious about hydration. Water should be something you're constantly ingesting on the Three Passes Trek. Chances are that your body will be in nonstop and desperate need of water to fend off the effects of altitude sickness, dehydration, and the possible fallout from your third helping of dal bhat last night. I bring a SteriPEN with me on my hikes in Nepal and purify water that I get from the tea house's tap (you usually have to ask for this). Buying plastic bottles of water just contributes to the garbage problem in the mountains (and we all know plastic bottles are evil).
Three Passes Trek Tips & Tricks
- THE WINTER | Yes, “winter in the Himalaya” may sound scary, but the truth is that it's probably the best time to visit (this based on me having been there twice in winter and once in spring). You may expect the winter months in the Himalaya to bring with them a ton of snow, but this is not the case. Most days you can expect clear skies with very little precipitation. Just make sure to bring an extra base layer because it's cold.
- WI-FI | Yes, with the civilization in the Himalaya, you will also find wi-fi. Generally speaking, once you get above Namche Bazaar it will be difficult (if not impossible) to get free wi-fi. Generally, you will have to buy cards from the lodges with passcodes for accessing the “EVEREST LINK” wi-fi network. These cards are sold in different denominations with the most expensive being 1,000 NPR (~$10 US) for 24 hours of use. These cards may not always be available, and lodges may not always sell them at face value. Also, many lodges turn off the electricity after a certain time (which means no more wi-fi), so be sure to ask ahead of time. If you have a SIM from Kathmandu (Ncell is what you want), you will probably also get a cell signal in many places.
- LUKLA FLIGHT | I highly recommend that you take a bus to Jiri and begin your hike from there, but if your time is limited, then a flight to Lukla may be your only option. The flight to Lukla is commonly referred to being “the most dangerous flight in the world”. This is largely because of its being placed on under-researched lists of random internet blogs (there have been three fatal accidents involving airplanes at the airport – the most recent of which was in 2010). Yes, the flight to Lukla is an adventure, but it's certainly not a death sentence. The flight will cost you around $150 each way – more on the flight here.
- ATMs | Yes, there are ATMs in the Everest Region. As of writing this, there's one in Lukla and two in Namche Bazaar. None are guaranteed working so I would bring cash from Kathmandu to avoid any headaches. Ninety-five percent of places do not accept card. If the ATMs aren't working there are places in Lukla and Namche that offer cash advances with a credit card. Some places in Namche Bazaar accept cards, but very few places above Namche will take anything other than cash. Make sure you have enough money for the way up (and back down).
For more on the Three Passes Trek, visit my Three Passes Trek page.
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