Monday, March 21, 2011

The Long Hard Slog: Jiri to Lukla

A couple weeks ago Donnie and I set out to walk in to Everest from the old starting point of Jiri. It's old because most people fly into Lukla these days and the walk in from Jiri makes the trek longer by almost a week for most people, and that is if you plan on flying out. The views over this portion of the trail can be nice, but it pales in comparison to what you see in the upper Khumbu, the valley that is home to Lhotse, Nuptse, Ama Dablam and Everest. On top of this, instead of heading up a large valley this route is hard slog that takes you up and over several passes as you cut across four different valleys before reaching the Khumbu valley itself. In fact you gain and lose so much elevation that by the time you reach base camp you have climbed more than the equivalent elevation as if you had gone to the very top of Everest from sea level, almost 30,000'. Still despite the difficulties and the lack of breath taking snow covered peaks walking in from Jiri is in my opinion worth it and offers some things you just don't get on the rest of the trek.

Our trip started around 5AM with a trip to Ratna bus park, where we located the ticket booth around the north end of the bus park and got a ticket for the 6AM bus to Jiri. As bus rides in Nepal go, this one isn't too bad, and all but a very few stretches of road along this route are paved. Our bus made spectacular time and we were in Jiri in time for lunch, which we ate in the town. Now in theory the road continues all the way to Shivalaya, and books like Lonely Planet insist that most people now take the bus onward to there. Well I'd advise against it. The road south of Jiri is not paved and the walk is only a little shorter as far as time goes. The short half day of trekking (it's roughly a 3 hour walk) is a nice warm up and the scenery is really nice. One thing to be aware of though is that they have constructed quite a few new roads through this region in the last few years and it's very easy to lose the old trail that takes you to Shivalaya, and in fact parts of that trail are now in fact road too. Still there were no vehicles and people were more than helpful in pointing the way when we were unsure of which track lead to where we were going.

On the "trail" to Shivalaya

Once in Shivalaya we got a room at the River Side Lodge, and planned out the next couple of days. Our loose plan was to make our way to either Kinja or Sete on day one, tackle the Lamjura La, the highest pass on the this part of the trek at 3,530 meters, on day two and rest in Junbesi, on day three we hoped to make for Khari Khola which we thought would put us in a strong position to make Namche Bazaar on day four. It was an ambitious itinerary but I had done roughly a similar schedule back in 2002.

With our planning out of the way we took a stroll around town. Something that you miss if you fly directly into Lukla is a real look at village life. Sure these villages along a main tourist route are a little different than one that isn't but they are also a far cry from many of the villages in places like the upper Khumbu and Langtang that only exist because of the number of trekkers that come through. As villages go, Shivalaya is a pleasant one and just strolling through its streets is time well spent.

Children in the village request "One Photo"

The next day we were accompanied by a Kiwi named Jeff, who was looking at a somewhat similar schedule to what we were doing. The first pass we crossed was Deurali at 2,705 M (8,875') before descending down to Bhandar for lunch. Arriving some time just after 11AM we were a little perplexed that the Lonely Planet book would really suggest that this should be the end of your day. While we recognize that we go a little faster than average, this really seemed to be a short day by any standard. Our lunch took forever here, and after over an hour wait, despite all of us ordering the same thing to keep things simple, we headed back on to the trail and made our way down into the valley toward Kinja. Despite reaching Kinja rather early, some time before 3PM, we decided that we'd gain very little by pushing on to Sete, as regardless of where we ended today, the only real option to end tomorrow was going to be Junbesi.

Stupa in Bhandar with the Deurali Pass in the Background.

We stayed at the very friendly Sherpa Guest House here in Kinja, which had very nice views of snow capped peaks in the north. The neighbors were plowing their field with a pair of oxen and the warm sun and dry breeze gave us an opportunity to wash out some of our clothes and hang them out to dry. Despite the name of our lodge the village of Kinja looked to be inhabited by Hindus from down the valley, by the construction and decoration of most of the houses in the village. At a low elevation of 1,630M (5,348') Kinja sits at the bottom of the intimidating climb to the highest pass on the this portion of the trek the 3,530M (11,581') Lamjura La which we would have to cross the next day. Sitting in Kinja you can see the trail go almost straight up the adjacent hillside. Still the guest house courtyard with the sun was pleasant enough that you could just relax and try to ignore the seemingly absurd challenge that sat next to us for tomorrows climb.

The lowland village of Kinja.

Sure enough though, tomorrow came and we hit the trail some time just before 8AM, as any earlier this time of year is just too cold to really bother with, in my opinion. Now of all the days one treks from Jiri all the way to base camp, none are tougher than this day in my opinion. Although the scenery is beautiful and the blooming rhododendrons were a pretty distraction, nothing can really get your mind too far from the fact that you need to climb a fairly steep 6,000 vertical feet. Sete really doesn't offer much for accommodation, and so I was again glad at our decision the previous day. We reached Goyom, the last possible stop for lunch before crossing the pass sometime around noon (I think) and stopped to have some candy bars and tea- the lunch of champions. Despite the difficulty we were having with our roughly 10KG packs, it seemed somewhat absurd to me the loads that some of the commercial Nepali porters were carrying. Some of their loads must have been roughly 100KG and they consisted of such needed things as 8 cases of beer or coke products. I'm not sure how these guys do it to be honest, and they do it in sandals...and in the the Himalaya. Props to them, despite what some people think of my abilities, there's no way I could match these guys.

Prayer Flags Mark the Snow Covered Lamjura La

After our short break for refreshments we made our final push up and over the pass, which was slow going as we tracked onto the north side of the mountain and thus into snow, ice and mud on the trail which made for slow going. Once we wound our way over to the actual pass we sat down for a moment to rest and take in the scenery, but the snow and a bit of wind made sure we didn't linger for too long. The initial descent was also slow going due to the snow that had not melted due to the thick cover of oak and rhododendron trees. This section of the trail was also quite steep, but thankfully because it is well traveled there were plenty of side trails and alternate routes blazed through the snow for us. Once we cleared the heavy trees and moved down into slightly warmer climbs the snow gave way to muddy trails which quickly became dry pleasant trails again.

Descending Toward Junbesi

This portion of trail around Junbesi is particularly beautiful and if someone just dropped you from a plane into this region you could easily think you were in the Swiss countryside, if not for the Buddhist monasteries that sit on some rocky crags. Descending into the town of Junbesi we were able to rest up after a rather tough day, arriving in the Apple Orchard guest house some time around 3:30PM. After a late lunch we walked around town, including a quick trip to one of the nearby monasteries. This is a really interesting village, and for me one of the highlights on this part of the trek. Aside form a gorgeous location you have also moved firmly into Sherpa country, and the differences in the housing styles and the presence of Buddhist stupas and gompas attest to this. There is also a large school here that was funded by Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to summit Everest. He has several schools he helped start through the Sherpa region, and they have simply become known as Hillary schools.

Monastery in Junbesi 

The next part of the trek gave us the first view of the high mountains in the Everest range, and on a clear day supposedly you can see Everest itself from the ridge just east of Junbesi. Looking back behind us we also got a great view of the pass we had come up and over the day before the Lamjura La. The last pass that stood between us and the Khumbu valley was the Trakshindu La which hit a high elevation of 3,071M (10,075'). Just before the pass there was a bit of a steep climb, but all in all it was a stroll compared to the effort required the day before. From here the trail meandered down to the village of Nunthala, where we decided to stop and grab some lunch at a sunny open courtyard of a tea house. Now back in 2002, I had started a day here, early in the morning, and reached Namche Bazaar at sundown the next day. I had thought that my long run from Kala Patar to Lukla in a single day was my hardest trekking day I've done, but after retracing this route, I'm thinking my 24 year old self outdid my 33 year old self.

Me Passing the Chorten that Marks the Trakshindu La

Anyway, after lunch we descended to the lowest point of the trek, where we crossed the very large bridge that spans the Dudh Kosi and our first real glimpse up the Khumbu valley. From here the trail climbed back up and after what was more climbing than we really felt like doing, we finally arrived in the village of Khari Khola, where we stayed in a guest house named "guest house". This place had some of the worst photo shopped posters with cheesy sayings on it I have ever seen, and that's saying something in these parts. Still the staff was quite friendly and the hot shower was well worth the 100 Rs. That night we were convinced that it would be an easy day to Namche Bazaar the following day.

Himalayan Traffic Jam- Mule and Yak Trains Colide

Hitting the trail around 8AM again we made our way north up the valley, and every time we snaked onto the north side of a valley the trail would turn to crap- a mix of mud, mule piss and shit, ice and snow. Soon we caught up with the mule trains that were leaving all the shit on the trails and their farting and shitting aside from their slow speed made them quite miserable to be stuck behind, but passing 30 mules on thin trails where one side often has very steep drops can be quite tough. Eventually you'd get around them, but it often took quite some time for the opportunity to present itself.

Me crossing the first bridge over the Dudh Kosi (109M).

This section of the trail also seemed to have much more climbing than the Lonely Planet book, map, or my memory indicated, and by about 11AM or so it was becoming clear to me that there was a good chance that at the pace we were going we were not going to make Namche. On top of that, all three of us had lost any kind of enthusiasm for making this into a long hard day. So by noon we all agreed we'd take it easy and head for Lukla where we could get pizzas, pringles and sprite at the Khubu lodge. For the first time our whole trip the weather started to go to crap as afternoon closed in, and as we made the final climb up to Lukla (we missed the first turn off somehow and came up directly from the west) rain clouds moved in. No sooner were we ordering pizza than the sky opened up and it started to pour, making us all very glad that we didn't push any further north. Still from this point on the quaint villages of the middle hills would be left behind and the tourist mecca that is trekking in the Solo Khumbu lay before us. weary from four hard days of trekking we dove into our chicken pizzas and toasted each other with bottles of Sprite.


  1. I thought I just traveled along the this trail with you right now and I realized one day I have to do this for real. Thanks for sharing.

    Btw, I landed on your blog after reading your amusing writeup in today's Kantipur ( ). I liked the phrase "यो कुइरे संग त पैसाको बोरै छ" as I used to be one of those to think that way :)


  2. we r heading to this trek on march 8 for 6-7 days. we plan to return by plane from Lukla. any suggestions.

  3. Well 6-7 days isn't a lot of time in the region. For most people that's how long it takes just to get to Lukla from Jiri. It can be done faster if you don't mind long days and are fit, but even going very quickly you would be hard pressed to even make Namche Bazaar and then back down to Lukla with that time table.

    While I enjoyed this trek as part of a larger one to gain access to the high Himalaya, I'd recommend against doing it on its own.

  4. Amazing reading Mr. Smith, thank you for the words and the stunning pictures!

  5. Hello.. I plan to do EBC and Kala Patthar, from JIRI and back.. plan to start from Jiri on 6th May 2014..a solo trek..Your advise please.. :)

  6. Very nice write-up indeed. I did this trek a couple of weeks back and wanted to see how others see of it compared to how I did. This is a superb narration! Many thanks.


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