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Have you always wanted to hike the trail to Mount Everest but have neither the time nor the stamina? Consider a fantastic alternative: walk part of the very same trail and make your personal summit the base camp of Ama Dablam, arguably the most beautiful peak in the Himalaya anyway. (Sneak preview …)

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In the early days of this trek, you will be on the path with the Everest hikers, both trekkers and climbers, if the season is right. The scenery is also best on the first five days of the Everest trail; as the elevation increases later, the vegetation diminishes and the views of Everest and Lhotse actually get worse or disappear altogether. The very first challenge of this trek is the scary plane ride that takes you into the Khumbu region. I have written about this flight before, so I’ll jump right to the first day’s hike, the day after flying in from Kathmandu to Lukla.

Lukla to Monjo

Today’s trek is gorgeous and a perfect way to begin the journey to Ama Dablam. Leaving Lukla, you descend gradually to the Dudh Kosi, or Milk River, so called for its whitish, glacial lake color. The walk winds through Appalachian-like trails, filled with rhododendron and the smell of pine needles underfoot, but the presence of lumbering yaks and rickety swinging bridges quickly disaffirms any comparison to U.S. forests. You pass through a number of small villages, where the children invariably greet you with a big smile and ‘Namaste’ and there is even a small family-run restaurant in a village (Phakding) along the trail, where you can sit outside in the fresh air and sun.

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The afternoon brings more of a climb. Many of the segments involve long, steep sets of stone stairs, and you must cross and re-cross the Dudh Kosi multiple times on the swinging metal bridges with slats that open to the tumbling, in some cases raging, river below. On our final crossing, we had to wait before starting because our sharp-eyed Nepali leader spied a group of 18 mules getting ready to clump the other way. You do not want to share quarters on those bridges with yaks, mules, or even porters with huge loads, as the bridges are very narrow and it’s nearly impossible to squeeze by each other, especially if the others have long sharp horns.

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By mid-afternoon, you arrive in Monjo, a village perched on a hillside at 9317’. There is a pretty lodge* here, with a profusion of flowers softening the stony climb to the patio. All in all, day one is a pleasant traipse and quite manageable, covering about 8 miles and taking about 6 hours to walk the route.

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Monjo to Namche Bazaar

Today’s hike is short but intense. Setting out, the path allows for a gradual wake-up before depositing you at the base of the infamous Namche Hill, a 2000-foot rise via short switchbacks. A slow and steady pace is best here as the route is very steep and the elevation is starting its assault on the lungs. You can sneak in a much-needed break on occasion by graciously letting a herd of yaks pass, and you can look forward to the reward of a first glimpse of Everest about three-quarters of the way up.

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If you’ve gotten a reasonable start in the morning, you will arrive (perhaps panting), at the entrance to Namche Bazaar (11,286’) – the unofficial capital of the Khumbu region – around mid-day. Don’t relax yet, though! For many lodges or teahouses, you will still have to climb up the hillside to reach your lodging and lunch. Today is a day to carbo-load. That hill beats most people up, and the days ahead will continue to burn up glycogen, so grab a solid lunch of momos, French fries, bread, and pasta (yep, I ate all that), and then take it easy this afternoon.

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If you want to keep moving (which of course I did), you can explore Namche in the afternoon. At the top level of this terraced amphitheater of a town, there is a monastery where you can do the kora (circumambulation), turning every prayer wheel the whole way around to stockpile some good karma for the rest of the trip. This may also be your last good shopping opportunity, so check your battery supply, load up on energy bars, or complete your hiking outfit at one of the many gear shops crammed into this tiny village. If souvenirs are your thing, take a look at the yak bells; Namche has one of the best selections of these that I saw anywhere in Nepal. Almost every spot in the town has a great vista of the crenelated edges of the hanging glacier, Kwangde (20,293’), while the street-level view includes a parade of shops and internet cafes, as well as great meandering herds of yaks and cows, seemingly without owners or herders. They are quite docile, however, and can be easily diverted if you lightly push their horns or even so much as point them aside.

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Today’s walk is only about 3 miles and will take you anywhere from 3 to 4 ½ hours, depending on how fast you like to walk interminably uphill. Some people spend an extra night here to acclimatize.

Namche Bazaar to Tashinga

Leaving Namche today, you can hike back up to the monastery and then continue up for several hours to the very top of a high ridge, with Kwangde in full view much of the time.

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Over the ridge, the trail undulates all the way to Kunde, where the Hillary Hospital is located. Its setting is stunning – in a field of potato patches all delineated by stone walls and a jaw-dropping view of Everest, Lhotse, and Ama Dablam. (This is not the most direct route today, but the views and the Hillary facilities make for a nice deviation from the main trail.)

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As you leave Kunde, you wind through the charming village and then head steeply downhill to Khumjung, home of the Hillary School for grades 1-10. A bit later, there is a most incongruous German bakery along the trail where you can get some coffee and pastries, cinnamon rolls, or apple strudel. It’s a cozy diversion, but the treats are mediocre at best (or maybe we are already losing our appetites in the higher altitude).

Post-baked goods, you head steeply downhill for a while, then the trail flattens out and floats through a nice deciduous woodland. The Tashinga mountain lodge* is beyond the town, so it’s possible to cut off on a narrow trail that bypasses Tashinga and leads to a lodge at 11,800’.

Approaching Tashinga Lodge

Approaching Tashinga Lodge

It’s getting cold by now, folks! The lodge rooms on the trail are not heated, but the dining rooms have stoves and, like moths to a flame, everyone soon emerges from their chambers for tea and a warm spot to read or write. Today’s walk is also not terribly long – about 6 miles. You are still acclimatizing as well as resting up for a bear of a day tomorrow.

Tashinga to Pangboche

The Namche Hill is billed as the worst climb on the trail, but for my money, today’s morning hike surpasses that day’s misery. Today you ascend from about 11,000’ to over 12,600’ before lunch. The trail is gorgeous as always and it’s helpful to focus on the beauty rather than the inevitable panting and quad burning that go on for an annoyingly long time this morning. The total elevation gain is not that bad, but many of the steps up and down seem made for a giant, so the legs are begging for mercy this morning.

A natural lunch stop is at Tengboche (12,680’), the famous and important monastery where Everest climbers ask to be blessed by the Rimpoche of Tengboche. Rest up a bit and take the time to walk the grounds and tour the monastery; the lunch options here are abysmal, so if you haven’t packed in your food, you might as well get some spiritual if not nutritional sustenance!

View from Tengboche Monastery - Lhotse, Mount Everest, and Ama Dablam

View from Tengboche Monastery – Lhotse, Mount Everest, and Ama Dablam

After lunch, it is only about two more hours to Pangboche. As you rise from a ramble along the Imja Khola river, the three peaks of Everest, Lhotse, and Ama Dablam become strikingly visible. It is almost hard to keep an eye on the ground with these dazzling ladies looming off in the (nearer and nearer) distance. Before you know it, you are walking into the collection of buildings known as Pangboche.

As you go deeper and deeper into the Khumbu, the lodging becomes less and less appealing. Although the Pangboche mountain lodge* (13,107’) is better than most here, it is still very cold and spartan. My basement room smells of mildew, the shower dribbles a lukewarm, septic stream, and the temperature hovers in the 30s, and that’s indoors. Whining does not seem fitting, though, because this place has a sunroom/library upstairs with incredible views of Ama Dablam. A book, a journal, and multiple cups of hot tea with that vista absolutely redeem this place.

View from Pangboche Lodge: Sunset and moonrise

View from Pangboche Lodge: Sunset and moonrise

Pangboche to Ama Dablam Base Camp

Today is the big day, and you will want to be up early for this long day of trekking. The route starts with a brief descent to cross the Imja Khola River (are these river crossings beginning to sound familiar?), after which you will do the steepest climb yet, at the highest elevation yet, all before you are fully awake. Zig-zagging endlessly up a loose-dirt path with a near vertical pitch and a lack of firm footholds make for a very tough early-morning task. Even our young Nepalese guide is not looking good when we finally scramble over the lip of a huge plateau after an hour or so, and his proceeding to throw up gives all of us pause. This is a great rest spot, though, with 360-degree views of some Himalayan giants – Dobuche, Everest, Lhotse, Ama Dablam, and an assembly of lesser-known but equally impressive peaks.

You gain over 1000’ in that short first stretch and another 1000’ in the next three hours. The views all the way up are spectacular and when the path flattens out for the last 45 minutes, you can fully take your eyes off your boots and the boring tundra landscape and really look around. With an early enough start, you should arrive at base camp (at 15,100’) in the late morning. If it is climbing season (it was in October when I was there), base camp is a colorful array of tents and yaks and climbers. It is quite large, and the setting is much nicer than Everest north base camp in Tibet and the south base camp here in Nepal. There is a spongy, almost grassy field, which looks softer and less severe than the dirty glacial ice and rock at the higher elevation base camps.

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If you are lucky, you will see a few climbers high on the ridgeline leading up to the summit face, or on the triangular face itself, in the last stages of their ascent to the summit at 22,493’.

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Cold and wind are an inevitable presence at 15,000’, so it is wise to warm up with a drink and a snack and then think about going back down. You may find yourself pulling out every layer in your pack; on my trip, I started this descent in a t-shirt, long-sleeved shirt, light jacket, down jacket, and wind jacket on top, pants and liners on the bottom, and a hat and warm gloves on the extremities. It does get warmer as you descend, so you’ll keep busy stripping this all back off on the way down. The difference in the ability to breathe is marked; imagine finding 13-14,000’ oxygen-rich!

All told, it takes about four hours to get up and only two to get down. While you wait out the day before heading on to Everest or back down to Lukla, you can visit the old Pangboche village, built up high on the hill around the oldest gompa (temple) in the Khumbu. If you are lucky, the lama will be there and you’ll be able to go inside.

The Return 

If you are continuing on to Everest Base Camp, you have about 3-4 more days of walking ahead of you – on through Dingboche, Lobuje, and Gorak Shep before reaching EBC. If you are turning back, the return to Lukla takes only three days.

You can simply retrace the original trail (you will have to at some points), but to start out there is a lovely alternative out of Pangboche. It’s a longer route, but particularly beautiful and serene in parts. You will start going down to the bridge that led to Ama Dablam, but then turn right and follow the river back.

There is a wobbly plank bridge to cross, and an area where you must pick your way through a sea of boulders and rocks. After that, this trail to Tengboche is relaxing and beautiful, with rhododendron everywhere, musk deer hiding in the trees, a series of rock walls enclosing yak pastures, and some old stone buildings. Surrounding this idyllic landscape is a ring of Himalayan peaks, and the aroma of a profusion of incense plants fills the air.

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The next two days are a reverse walk through Namche Bazaar (no need for an acclimatization stop here on the way back) and Monjo. There are some excellent views of Everest where it is not dominated by Lhotse, and Ama Dablam still commands attention off to the right. (If you really want a break in Namche, you can visit the Sagarmatha National Park Conservation Memorial up above the town.) Leaving Namche, you have the killer hill in reverse, a couple of hours of quad- and knee-burning downhill steps and hills.

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* Note: Everest Summit Lodges are some of the nicest accommodations on the EBC trail. All rooms are unheated, but hot water bottles are often provided. Warm dining areas provide a cozy spot to eat, read, write, and talk. I highly recommend them.