A Quick Summary of the 'Three Passes' Trail
While the whole world knows the Everest Base Camp trail very well, relatively few know about this variation with the three passes. The three passes trail follows the Everest Base Camp route in most parts, and diverges at some points, taking you over three passes that give amazing views of some of the highest peaks in the world! If you have never been on a trek to Nepal before, and wish to see as many 8000m peak views as possible, this is the best trail to do that.
While going on the Everest Base Camp route is great because of its commercial status, the three passes trail takes you beyond the well-trodden paths, with lesser crowds and even more beauty. The best part of going on this trail is that you can choose to do one, two or all the three passes based on the level of challenge you are looking for. Personally, I would recommend choosing all the three passes, as they each offer a different sort of adventure!
The Best Time to go
There are typically 2 'season' windows for the trek - May-June and September-November. I know of some people who have gone 'off-season' too, in April or December. But the three passes trail is more challenging, and it would be best to stick to the peak season times to be safe. I had gone in October, and the weather was perfect - chilly in the morning and evening, and clear and bright in the day.
Level of Difficulty
If you have ever been on a pass crossing trek, you would know that it tends to be challenging. While the traditional EBC trail is easy-moderate, the three passes trail is definitely more difficult. If you are attempting to do that three passes trek on your own, you should definitely have good fitness and solid high altitude trekking experience. If you do not feel confident, it is best to get a guide or go with a trekking agency.
Things to Carry
I have created a list of things to be carried for the three passes trek in this post. I have also indicated what items are essential, and which are optional, whether you are going independently or with an agency.
Major Costs and Overall Budget
I have put down a detailed budget breakdown in this post. This budget accounts for all major local costs including the flights in and out of Lukla, permits, food, and accommodation. This budget will increase or decrease depending on the number of trek days, choice of accommodation and food, and whether you fly to Lukla or take the longer trail from Jiri/Salleri.
How to Reach the Start of the Trek
Aeroplane: The most popular way of getting to the starting point of the trek is by flight. But the flights to Lukla only operate in good weather conditions, and they’ll fly out of Kathmandu only if they are sure to be able to do a round trip flight. There are often delays and cancellations, so make sure you have a couple days to spare before flights in and out of Kathmandu. I spent an entire day in the Kathmandu domestic airport, due to delays and eventually my flight got cancelled. However, they reschedule you on flights for the next day in this case. I booked my tickets online through Tara/Yeti Air, but you can also book them in Kathmandu. Book the earliest possible flight, as they are most likely to take off.
Helicopter: Helicopters are chosen by those who have more cash to shell out. Also, when there are frequent flight delays or you have no extra time in your schedule, helicopters can be a good option. But they can be very EXPENSIVE!
Jeep/Bus: A 9 hour bus/jeep ride from Kathmandu takes you to Salleri, which is a different starting point for the EBC trail. Of course this is a much cheaper alternative than flying to Lukla, but it adds 3-4 days to your itinerary. If you are on a tight budget, but have some extra time, this is a great option to consider. You can even do the ascend via Salleri, and then take a flight back from Lukla to save the one way flight cost.
Itinerary for the Three Passes Trek
I am sharing the itinerary that I followed. You can customize this to add/reduce days, cover only one or two passes, and go clockwise or counter-clockwise.
Day 1: Fly from Kathmandu - Lukla, Trek from Lukla - Phakding | 2-3 hours | 2610 m
Day 2: Phakding - Namche Bazaar | 5-6 hours | 3440 m
Day 3: Namche Bazaar - Pangboche | 5-6 hours | 3985 m
Day 4: Pangboche - Chhukung | 4-5 hours | 4730 m
Day 5: Chhukung - Chhukung Ri (5550 m), and back to Chhukung | 5-6 hours | 4730 m
Day 6: Chhukung - Lobuche via Kongma La (5535 m)| 10-12 hours | 4940 m
Day 7: Lobuche - Gorakshep, Trip to Kala Patthar and back to Gorakshep (5643 m) | 7-9 hours | 5164 m
Day 8: Trip to EBC (5380 m), Gorakshep - Dzongla | 7-9 hours | 4830 m
Day 9: Rest day at Dzongla | 4830 m
Day 10: Dzongla - Gokyo via Cho La (5420 m) | 8-10 hours | 4750 m
Day 11: Gokyo - Gokyo Ri (5357 m), and back to Gokyo | 3-4 hours | 4750 m
Day 12: Gokyo - Lungden via Renjo La (5345 m) | 4-6 hours | 4380 m
Day 13: Lungden - Namche Bazaar | 6-7 hours | 3440 m
Day 14: Rest day at Namche Bazaar | 3440 m
Day 15: Namche Bazaar - Lukla | 6-8 hours | 2860 m
Important Tips and Things to Keep in Mind
The last ATM is available at Namche Bazaar, but these are not always reliable. Keep enough cash, including some extra for emergencies before you get to Lukla. Most cards (even Indian), would work at the ATMs, but there would be a service charge of around NPR 500 for each transaction. Indian currency is accepted in Kathmandu, but these rules keep changing all the time, so make sure you have a card to withdraw NPR.
Normal, unfiltered water is available at the tea houses/guest houses. Carry you own filtering device if you need it. As an Indian, I did not face any troubles with drinking the normal water except at Gorakshep. While bottled water is available everywhere, try not to use it as it just creates plastic waste and pollutes the environment. Hot water comes at an extra charge.
There is a variety of food available at the tea houses you will stay at. Most menus have a selection of local food (dal-bhat), momos, noodles, and even fancy dishes like pizzas! Gokyo especially is famous for its bakeries and most places have delicious cakes. Of course, fancier food is more expensive, and as you go higher, the same items would start costing more. Dal-bhat is a great filling option, as you get unlimited refills of dal (lentils) and bhat (rice).
All tea houses provide guests with blankets. If you are traveling light, you can ask for extra blankets and do without a sleeping bag. I had carried my own sleeping bag, and only needed it 3 nights on the trail (in Gorakshep and Chhukung).
Try to start your day as soon as possible, especially on the longer days of pass crossings. That way, you reach the pass during good weather and clear views, and are able to complete the trek before it becomes dark.
You will pass through a Lobuche glacier, and Ngozumpa glacier on the trail. Glaciers are constantly moving, and you will encounter multiple trails on them. Keep track of the direction you want to go towards, as some trails might meet dead ends, and there may not be anyone to ask around.
Keep some snacks (like dry fruits, energy bars) to munch on during your trek. Make sure you carry atleast 2-3 litres of water each day on the trail.
Most bookshops in Kathmandu have large scale maps of the trail (their price is NPR 150-400). It is worth buying a map, especially if you are on your own, to get enough details about the trail.
Listen to your body. The itinerary I followed eventually was based on how I was feeling day-to-day. I took a rest day when I needed, and pushed forward when I was feeling ok. The three passes trail goes above 5300 m 5 times! If you are not well acclimatized, you will feel its effects, and might end up in a potentially life-threatening situation.