Location ✦ Upper Khumbu
Region ✦ Everest National Park
Country ✦ Nepal
Length ✦ 245 kms
Vertical drop ✦ 13 200m
Max altitude ✦ 5645m
Difficulty ✦ D
Duration ✦ 3 weeks
Interest ✦ ★★★
Access to the place
Map & topo
The total loop from Phaplu with return trips to Everest Base Camp, Kala Patthar and the 4th Gokyo lake is around 250 kms with a total vertical drop of over 13,000m. This itinerary can be completed in between 15 and 20 days, depending on the stages chosen.
Access to the real starting point of the loop, Namche, capitake of Sherpa country, takes 1 or 2 days from Lukla, 3 or 4 days from Phaplu. The 3 passes (La in Nepalese) to be crossed are: Kogma La, 5460m (between Khunjung and Lobuche), Cho La , 5420m (between Dzongla and Gokyo) and Renjo La , 5360m (between Gokyo and Marulung). The highest point of the trek is Kala Patthar, at the foot of Pumo Ri and facing Everest, at 5645m.
What are the difficulties?
There's little difficulty in orientation, as the trails are wide, almost always well-groomed and fairly obvious, linking one village to another. The difference in altitude is no great difficulty either, except in the lower part of the trek to Namche from Phaplu, where the route sometimes climbs and descends over 1000m. The duration of the trek should be taken into consideration, as the sequence of efforts makes it essential to plan rest days that will also serve for acclimatization.
A difficulty not to be underestimated: altitude
Mountain sickness is bound to strike once you're above 3,000m, 3,500m, 4,000m or more, depending on the individual. Migraine to start with, mild second-order state with loss of lucidity or hallucinations, vomiting and more serious cerebral or pulmonary oedema in extreme cases... Well, it doesn't come to that, but the idea is that, unaccustomed to climbing at 5000m, there are a few things you need to know and do to avoid these inconveniences.
Acclimatization is essential, which means not climbing too fast, staying well hydrated and spending time at 3000m, 3500m, 4000m to allow the body to adapt. Rest days are necessary for this, even if you're not tired. It might also be ideal to spend a week above 3000m before starting out.
Mountain sickness is capricious, and is triggered or reversed by a number of personal factors, such as your state of fitness, whether or not you're sufficiently hydrated, cold, ascent or descent... What's certain is that if more serious symptoms appear (hallucination, vomiting...), the safest thing to do is to make an emergency descent to lower altitudes to let it pass. For milder symptoms (migraine), keep well hydrated, cover up and take ibuprofen if necessary. Medications such as Diamox or Diamozide should be avoided whenever possible, as they are probably taken by people in a hurry.
Apart from that, even without mountain sickness, altitude poses a real problem of oxygenation, and it can be interesting, when approaching or exceeding 5000m, to try out other forms of effort to make progress: instead of climbing slowly and continuously, try an intermittent form of effort such as 30 steps followed by a 30-second pause to reoxygenate. This is what sherpas do, and probably with good reason!
When to trek?
It's fine weather versus the world! The best time is probably before or after the monsoon, outside winter, i.e. from April/May and mid-September to mid-November. This is when the weather is drier and the skies clearer, but also when the crowds are heaviest. And on such a long trek, especially the access to Everest Base Camp, it's really crowded: you can find hundreds of people on the same stretch of road, queuing up to access a summit or a pass.
In monsoon season, rain and overcast weather make access conditions and trails difficult. And, of course, the views are blocked. In winter, the weather is quite clear but the cold and snow are there, with other difficulties to deal with or certain passes impassable without equipment.
We chose to go during the last 3 weeks of September. The weather didn't really cooperate, as the monsoon was delayed this year. On the other hand, the crowds remained reasonable, except at the end of the trek, when hordes of trekkers set off for the heights, crowded guest houses, queues on Nepalese bridges...
How much does it cost?
The Kathmandu-Lukla flight currently costs around 500 USD return. The 4×4 option is much cheaper, but at proiri the bus takes the same amount of time for an even lower price (worth a try?).
There are also trekking permits, entry to Everest National Park and access to the Khumbu Valley to pay for. It's hard to say how much, as it changes from year to year, with certain taxes appearing or disappearing, but let's say around 40 to 50€ in all.
Then, the idea is that the further up the valley you go, the closer you get to base camp, the more the prices of the guest houses soar: the price of meals, showers (when there are any), battery or smartphone recharging, wifi multiplied by 2 and then by 3. At present, it can cost as much as 10 to 15 USD for a meal, 6 or 7 USD for a shower or battery recharge...
So be sure to budget accordingly, or do without a shower (or cold shower?), wifi and a small solar panel to recharge your batteries, and hope for sunshine! Beware of wifi access sold along the way: some only work in one valley, others are sold to work all along the route (Everest Link), but in reality they don't work everywhere and by far...
Guide or no guide?
The itinerary and the presence of villages and guest-houses all along the way don't make the presence of a guide really necessary. You can easily do without one without taking any risks or getting into trouble.
Having a guide can, however, have its advantages: providing information on traditions, mountains, culture and religion, facilitating access to monasteries, possible exchanges with villagers, saving time in obtaining permits or park entrance tickets, facilitating requests for guest-houses...
It's also worth noting that the prices negotiated by the guides are lower, so you'll pay more on your own. And probably, in the event of an accident or difficulty, the presence of a guide will facilitate care and evacuation.
This time we had a guide with us and the cost of our trek was USD 50 per day over 21 days, all inclusive: transport, accommodation, food and permits. We only had to pay for our extras, showers, refills and wifi.
Here's the breakdown of our loop. Other options are possible, but this gives you an idea. For more details on each stage, see the corresponding posts for each part.
Part 1: Khumbu Route
Day 1: Phaplu 2480m - Taksindu 2930m
Day 2: Taksindu - Bupsa 2360m
Day 3: Bupsa - Cheplung 2680m
Day 4: Cheplung - Namche 3440m
Day 5: Rest and acclimatization Namche
Part 2: Everest Base Camp
Day 6: Namche - Tengboche 3860m
Day 7: Tengboche - Dingboche 4410m
Day 8: Dingboche - Chukhung 4660m
Day 9: Chukung - Lobuche 4940m (Kongma La 5460m)
Day 10: Lobuche - Gorak Shep 5165m (EBC 5360m)
Part 3: Kala Patthar & Gokyo
Day 11: Gorak Shep - Dzongla 4830m (Kala Patthar 5645m)
Day 12: Dzongla - Gokyo, 4750m (Cho La, 5420m)
Day 13: Rest in Gokyo (4th lake 4900m)
Day 14: Gokyo - Thame 3750m (Renjo La, 5360m)
Day 15: Thame - Namche 3440m
Part 4: Back to Kathmandu
Day 16: Namche - Lukla 2860m
Day 17: Lukla - Bupsa 2360m
Day 18: Bupsa - Taksindu 2930m
Day 19: Taksindu - Phaplu 2480m
Day 20: Phaplu Kathmandu (4×4)