Himalayan Trek to Gokyo Ri – Nepal
-Guest Post by Alyssa Torjesen (Avid hiker and kickball champion)
I come up with lots of plans—most of them elaborate, poorly thought-out, and rarely executed. So, naturally, I decided that the perfect way to reward myself for finishing graduate school was to take myself on a solo trip to Nepal to go on a multi-week hike to see Mount Everest. I arrived in Kathmandu with not much more than a pair of hiking boots and a vague idea of the region in which I wanted to hike. I narrowed it down to either the Everest Base Camp trek or the Gokyo Ri trek, both of which boasted spectacular views of Everest (according to my Lonely Planet guide) and peak elevation over 17,000 feet. Everest Base Camp is, by far, the most popular hike in the Khumbu region, but I was drawn to the blurb about Gokyo Ri, which claimed that this trail had fewer people, more natural beauty, and some pretty kick-ass turquoise lakes at the end. They had me at ‘fewer people’, but the other stuff didn’t hurt. I met a new friend who became my hiking partner, booked a flight to Lukla—the little mountain town where all these hikes start—and got some suggestions about finding a guide once we got off the plane. I know, I know, the thought of a guide made me cringe a bit too, but given that these trails are poorly marked and I’d never been above 10,000 feet before, I thought it might be reasonable to follow the crowd on just this one thing.
The flight into Lukla is worth a blog post of its own, but suffice it to say that The History Channel’s naming it the most dangerous airport in the world certainly did seem appropriate. The hike started off relatively gradually, mostly walking along paving stones and passing through small villages. The mountains were covered in a deep, mossy green—evidence of the beginning of monsoon season—and as the trail snaked alongside a full-to-the-brim river, farms tucked away in valleys began to reveal themselves. Within the first 3 miles, I was nearly knocked off the trail no fewer than four times by packs of donkeys carrying loads of supplies up the mountain—something I would become very accustomed to over the next two weeks.
Our first stop was at a small lodge in the village of Phakding, where we would have dinner and spend the night. This is really what makes hiking in the Khumbu region more accessible than most people would likely assume. Despite being at high elevations deep in the Himalayas, the freedom of being able to stay at lodges along the way and not having to carry a tent and all your food makes the region quite manageable for anyone who is willing to endure a challenging hike.
We continued along the trail toward Namche Bazaar the next day, stopping for a lo mien lunch after a few hours. Once we got back on the trail we met our first real challenges—suspension bridges and gaining elevation, quickly, as the air got progressively thinner. Our guide, Prakash, scooted right up the 2,000+ foot ascent in his jeans and leather jacket (which he would continue to wear for the duration of the trek), while we trudged along behind, huffing and puffing.
Rounding the corner to Namche Bazaar, we could see hundreds of homes, lodges, and restaurants nestled into a natural mountain amphitheater. Namche is the largest village in the Khumbu region, and the point at which the trail to Goyko Ri separates from Everest Base Camp trail. We ended up staying two nights at the Himalayan Lodge in order to allow ourselves an extra day to acclimatize at 11,000 ft. There was no opportunity to be bored on a rest day in Namche with the excellent coffee shops, book stores, souvenir stands and short day hikes where, if you’re lucky, you can get your first glimpse of Everest and the surrounding tall peaks.
Once out of Namche, the trail started out relatively gradually, followed by a steep descent for a few thousand feet then immediately went back up a few thousand more feet to Dole village. Dole had only a few structures, some of which were still being rebuilt from the 2015 earthquake. The lodge owners in this village welcomed us graciously as they continued their off-season repairs around us. From this point on, we saw no signs of any other trekkers. All that remained were locals tending to their land and lodges, porters quickly passing us on the trail despite the hundreds of pounds they carried supported by their foreheads and backs, and plenty of yaks.
The views in Dole were spectacular as we overlooked the deep river valley that flowed from Everest toward the base of Kusum Kanguru. Waking up with the sun allowed us to enjoy the tall peaks before they began to be obscured by the midday clouds.
From Dole, there were only a few miles left to go to Gokyo, but in order to avoid ascending too quickly and risking altitude sickness, we split the remainder of the hike into two days. We spent a night in Machermo, where we could wash out our clothes in the river, then began the final ascent to Gokyo the following day. Although the entire hike had been challenging, on this final leg, well above 14,000 feet, every step felt like it might be my last. We could only walk a few minutes at a time before stopping to catch our breath, despite the moderate grade at this point.
As we approached Gokyo, the terrain transitioned from low, green brush with wildflowers to glacial runoff and rock fields with an abundance of arbitrarily-placed cairns, which seemed to only be there to confuse my already delirious self. The trail leveled out as we approached a series of 3 glacial lakes that were a color of turquois I thought only existed in over-dramatized travel books. The village of Gokyo was nested between the third lake and Gokyo Ri—the 17,575 foot peak from which we would be able to see Everest.
We stayed at Hotel Namaste with a beautiful older couple, who spent hours sitting with us around their wood stove telling us their remarkable life story. They were so gracious that I felt like I could have stayed there for months, but my cricket alarm clock went off at 4 am the next morning so that we could get to the top of Goyko Ri in time to see the sunrise over Everest.
We started out in the dark, guided by our trusty headlamps. As I trudged up the hill, significantly behind Prakash, the sky lightened just enough to see the silhouettes of the peaks surrounding us on every side. At this point, we were greeted by some friendly yaks, who seemed to be the gatekeepers of the mountain and were sporting some pretty rad earrings.
After about an hour and a half, we reached the top of Gokyo Ri where there hung hundreds of brightly-colored, frozen prayer flags. We sat down for a moment to catch our breath, and, almost immediately, the first rays of warm sun crept out from behind Everest. I cannot even begin to explain the awe I felt, not only seeing the light beaming from Everest, but being surrounded on every side by dozens of equally majestic Himalayan peaks.
After spending a morning looking at Everest, I just walked around in a daze for the rest of the day. We spent another night in Gokyo village, then made our way back down the valley to Dole, took a detour to the Sherpa village of Phortse, which is home to more Everest climbers than anywhere else in the world, and eventually made it back to Lukla, where we had started our trek.
We planned to get a flight back to Kathmandu, but after four days of rain and cancelled flights, we were told our best options was just to walk. Of course, why didn’t I think of that? I always just walk when I can’t get the flight I want. The two-day walk to the nearest road where we would be able to get a jeep ride out of the mountains ended up being doubtlessly the most difficult part of the whole trip. The rain was ceaseless, the trails were literally knee-deep with a slippery slurry of mud and donkey shit, and the repeated elevation gain and loss left me dumbfounded.
But, hey, I got to watch the sunrise over Everest, and I think that’s all a girl can ask for.
A big thanks to Alyssa for this post. Check out more of her adventures on Instagram @alyssatorj.
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