Through Cho La to Dzongla
With two major valleys in the Everest region (Thame and Gokyo) behind us it was time to see the most popular one - Khumbu. Its name comes from the famous Khumbu glacier that flows from the Western Cwm (cirque) of Mount Everest. Khumbu is the most developed valley in the Everest region too, with villages and lodges lined along the trail to serve the thousands of tourists visiting each year. The crowds on that trail turned me off initially and made me choose a longer circuit trek instead of going straight to the Everest Base Camp (EBC) but its main attraction - being able to see the highest mountain in the world from up close - was still there so I was looking forward to it. But before that we had to cross through another high mountain pass: the famous Cho La.
From Tagnak you need to gain 700 m / 2300 ft to the Cho La pass and descent that much after to Dzongla. The walk is long and very scenic with the landscape changing dramatically at the pass. The key is the final climb to Cho La as it is also the steepest section of the trail. As you will go to above 5000 m and you are expected to walk the entire day, it is a good idea to start before sunrise to beat the bad weather and clouds that are likely to come in the afternoon.
It was still dark outside when we started from Tagnak. The trail goes straight up in valley that starts east from the village. In a couple of hours we were on the top of a hill with some prayer flags and excellent morning views in all directions. We could see the Cho La pass north-east from where we stood. From this angle it looked almost vertical and impossible to climb. This is part of the reason why so many people get scared and try to stay away from it.
After descending and quickly crossing a flat area we were standing below the final climb to Cho La. From this point it looked steep but much more manageable. The trail switches back and forth as it finds its way among some huge moraine blocks. In the upper part we had to negotiate some loose rocks and scree but in the end it wasn't as bad as it was described to me. This is a high-mountain trail and it is as rugged as any trail at that altitude would be so one should be prepared before venturing on it. I have been told that the real danger of crossing the Cho La pass is in bad weather and snow when the tracks are covered and the scree on the west side is very slippery.
On the top as if a curtain was pulled before my eyes and the dry and rocky west side of the pass was replaced by a small glacier almost reaching the col from the east and surrounded by 6000 m / 20000 ft - mountains from left and right. From this point I could see Lobuche West and Lobuche East with the top of Nuptse peering between them. To the far right was a small white pyramid - the top of Makalu (the fifth-highest mountain on the planet).
Descending through the glacier wasn't hard at all as it was mostly flat and not too slippery. Shortly after the glacier the trail took a turn and I saw one of the highlights for the day - a full view of the western side of Ama Dablam (6812 m / 22349 ft) coming out of the clouds: sharp and white and rugged and very distant.
Dzongla is a tiny hamlet lower in the valley. One of our sherpas had run forward earlier to make sure we got our rooms as it has just two lodges for the trekkers and they tend to fill up pretty fast.
Dzongla exists only to support trekkers crossing the Cho La pass. It is tucked in a side branch of the main Khumbu valley. From there the trail heads first east and then north to go around the eastern slopes of Lobuche East (6119 m / 20075 ft). Shortly after it joins the main Everest trail and an hour later it reaches Lobuche. Overall the walk is flat and very pleasant with excellent views in all directions. Starting from Dzongla you will see the mighty north face of Cholatse (6440 m / 21129 ft) and just next to it the even higher Taboche (6,542 m / 21463 ft). To the east Ama Dablam (6812 m / 22349 ft) shoots up in the sky and the moment you turn the corner of the trail and step into the Khumbu Valley you will see Nuptse (7861 m / 25791 ft).
Lobuche is too high to have any agriculture and has only lodges. It is a busy village as the entire traffic to the Everest Base Camp goes through it. The area around it is flat and from there and you can see the crown of white mountains that mark the border with Tibet to the north: Chumbu (6859 m / 22503 ft), Pumori (7138 m / 23418 ft), Lintren (6713 m / 22024 ft) and Khumbutse (6640 m / 21784 ft). Nuptse is so big from this angle that it completely hides Mount Everest directly behind it.
We arrived at Lobuche in time for lunch and in the late afternoon I took a walk to the top of the nearby lateral moraine of the Khumbu glacier. The walk was easy and was totally worth it! I could see the mighty Khumbu glacier disappearing beneath a chain of mountains turning golden in the evening light.
We had a busy schedule ahead of us on the next day: move to Gorakshep, drop the luggage there and then visit the Everest Base Camp and be back before dark.