Solu-Khumbu (Nepal)


By: John McCully


Last October there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of trekkers in the drainage to the Southwest of Mt. Everest in Nepal, called the Khumbu or Solu-Khumbu. Annapurna attracts three times as many trekkers as the Khumbu and must seem like the Big Apple. The plus side of all this traffic is that Nepalese are responding with plenty of services to ensure all these tourist are comfortable.

Two basic trekking styles are popular in Nepal, tent and tea house.

On a tent trek one travels as part of a self contained unit, similar to going on a backpack in this country. Many folks enjoy tent trekking more than backpacking. Someone else carries the load, makes/breaks camp, and does the cooking. Many commercial outfitters here in the US arrange tent treks, charging often outrageous amounts of money for this service. For many people this extra cost is easily justified by the comfort of knowing that absolutely everything is going to be taken care of by someone who knows how to get things done. I was trying to get an obstinate airline agent in Syangboche to sell me a seat on a helicopter to Katmandu when an American from Seattle appeared and started chattering away in Nepalese with my adversary across the counter. This American speaks fluent Nepalese because for many years he has been leading Nepal tours for REI. I have no doubt that the REI group was on one of the several helicopters that we ordinary folks enviously watched take off carrying those with better connections to Katmandu and hot showers and flush toilets. And unlike yours truly, the REI folks didn't spend an entire day going from one airline office to another in an attempt to wear at least one agent down to the point where he would sell them a ticket. Instead they sat in a lodge somewhere while their man took care of the problem. Quickly. In Nepalese.

For folks willing to accept a bit of uncertainty in their vacations, however, it is possible to arrange a tent trek directly with a Katmandu outfitter. A US outfitter arranges the trek with a local outfitter just like you or I would, oftentimes the same one, and then usually adds a nice reassuring American guide to the group to make sure that the Katmandu outfitter delivers the goods with the least amount of discomfort to the customers. I suspect that the primary differences between a trip that a US outfitter arranges ahead of time and one that is arranged directly by the customer on the spot are 1)the price and 2) a trek arranged directly with a Katmandu outfitter will almost certainly be accompanied by an English speaking Nepalese instead of someone from the client's home country.

There are two basic ways to go directly to a Katmandu outfitter and bypass a US middleman and his mark up. One way is to make arrangements upon arrival in Katmandu. I would be quite surprised if it would take more than a day to arrange even a quite complex tent trek once one is in Katmandu. There are dozens of local outfitters, all seemingly hungry for work. These guys are aggressive. Having trouble getting a ticket to Lukla? Forget going to the airline. Go to an outfitter and offer him five bucks above the cost of a ticket. That's what I did and the guy spent hours on the phone until finally at 5 PM he obtained a supposedly impossible ticket for the next morning. A good outfitter makes happen whatever you want to happen.

A second, and probably better way to fix up a tent trek is to FAX and/or Email several Katmandu outfitters a few weeks before arriving, specifying an itinerary for the desired trek and the level of services desired, and then compare prices. I found that the outfitters I contacted from the US made several useful suggestions on improving my itinerary. In the end I decided to arrange for only a few services prior to leaving the US, (airport pick up, hotel reservation, and trekking permit) for which I paid the outfitter an extra $30. I met folks who arranged their entire itinerary via Email. For example I met two women who sent FAX/Email to seven outfitters in Katmandu (the addresses of which they obtained from a guide book) and eventually settled on one of the middle priced outfits. They decided a crew of seven would provide the level of comfort they had in mind, and their Nepalese guide spoke excellent English. All this for a cost $65/day/each. Absolutely everything was taken care of and the guide was with them for the entire time they were away from Katmandu. I even found myself taking advantage of this clever fellow in solving problems. It was he who finally got me on a helicopter out of Syangboche. As long as he was arranging to get tickets for himself and his clients it was no extra trouble to pick up one more for me.

There are very few things to worry about on a tent style trek. The cook and his helpers on a tent trek know where the finger is going to point if anyone gets the runs, and they faithfully do all the things that they learned in sanitation class in Katmandu. In addition on a tent style trek one knows exactly how soft the bed will be at night, and who one will be sleeping next to.

Nowadays "tea house" trekking is actually done in "lodges", although a few tea houses linger on. A lodge always contains a kitchen, a dining room and a dormitory. In almost all the dormitories it was difficult to determine where one sleeping place ends and another begins since the foam mattress press up against each other. I hated sleeping in a dorm. Since I snore other people also hated it when I slept in dorms. Of my 17 nights in the Khumbu only two were spent in a dorm and one in a dining room. Thankfully almost every village now contains one or more newer lodges with private rooms.

For a tea house trek a sleeping bag is the only major addition to a kit that one might otherwise use on a mid winter New England car trip. Just like in New England one purchases such services as food, lodging, washing, and baths from local providers. But predictability is emphatically not the case with tea house trekking. To be sure there may be many nights where one's comfort exceeds that of a tent, but there will likely to be a night or two when the private rooms are all gone and one is squeezed between two snoring monsters who haven't bathed since they left France three weeks ago. Mattresses may be paper thin and sometimes the dorm is filled with the smell of burning yak dung. But there are ways to minimize the discomfort of dormitories. In a dining room one usually one gets a padded bench and there is no question of a snoring mass of flesh rolling into your space at 3 AM. And a dining room is usually heated, at least until the last diner leaves. I rarely saw a dorm that was heated and I doubt that any private rooms in the Khumbu are heated. Another alternative to a dorm is to take a dorm mattress and sleep in a bivvy sack outside. One night I paid a dollar instead of fifty cents to guarantee that I had two adjacent beds and no nearby companions. One should be careful when buying extra beds, however, as the porters have to fend for themselves (porters don't pay for their sleeping places in the lodges) and have to settle for what's left after the foreigners are all tucked in. I heard that every year several porters freeze to death after being forced outside because the foreigners have completely filled up the lodges. Porters normally don't have sleeping bags, but are loaned blankets of widely varying quality by the lodges.

I chose tea house trekking for several reasons. In general one has more options available at any particular time. No problem with convincing the porters (or one's companions) that a 10 hour walk between those two nice spots is just the thing to do today. To be sure the itinerary of a tent trek can easily be changed on the spot as long as the porters don't get overworked but it's difficult to split up the people on a tent trek. Everyone has to go wherever the cook goes. A group doing a tea house trek can break apart and reform according to individual needs. A second reason I like tea house trekking is that it is much cheaper than tent style trekking. As long as one keeps away from beer (which can be extremely expensive at the higher altitudes, three or four dollars a bottle) one would be hard pressed to spend more than $IO/day on a tea house trek in the Khumbu. Still another advantage (from my point of view) is that tea house trekking tends to be more flexible socially than tent trekking. When tent trekking one's primary companions tend to remain the same for the entire trek. There seemed to me to be quite a bit of camaraderie among the dozens of tea house trekkers I met. And after the second or third meeting (complete with what have you been up to since we last saw each other) it was a real joy to see some of these people again. The tent guys seemed to run in (often huge) packs with a group of twenty or more tent trekkers suddenly appearing in the dining room because it was starting to rain outside. In addition almost all the tent guys seemed to have jobs, unlike quite a few of my tea house friends, many of whom somehow managed to arrange their lives so they could take eight month vacations. I'm really a tea house kind of guy.

For years the classic way to get into the Everest area was to take a bus from Katmandu (4593) to Jiri (6348) and then walk for about a week to Namche (11,319). It has long been possible to fly into Lukla (9350), a days walk from Namche. Lukla has a notorious reputation for the short (and steeply tilted) airstrip that ends in the side of a mountain. After much bouncing around on the airstrip the fixed wing aircraft seems to stop only 50 feet short of certain death. Landing at Lukla was one of the most intense and exciting things I've ever experienced. Judging from the screaming and general elation at finding that we were all still alive it appeared that the dozen or so other people on the plane shared my feeling.

Legion are the stories of people spending days, even weeks, trying to fly out of Lukla. Guide books detail strategies for getting to the head of the queue and for walking out. To acerbate matters many folks choose to walk in from Jiri (to acclimatize) and then fly out of Lukla, creating a demand imbalance. In the bad old days when things got tight at Lukla ordinary folks trying to get seats out seemed to always find themselves at the end of the queue. Having a confirmed ticket for a particular flight that failed to take off sent one straight to the end of the last queue where the whole waiting process began over again. Having an aggressive Nepali working one's case seemed to help. However the main response from the service providers for this situation was to develop many hotels in Lukla to house the folks desperately trying to get out.

All this began to change in 1991 when the Nepalese government decided to allow private airline companies to offer an alternative to the Royal Nepal Airlines monopoly on flights to and from Lukla. Royal Nepal Airlines has yet to give up all it's old monopolistic ways. When I asked my travel agent in the US to purchase a round trip Katmandu-Lukla ticket his computer only showed RNA. Nice and reassuring having a ticket printed on standard stock. Ha! The only thing nice about these useless pieces of paper was my travel agent was able to give me a refund for the unused tickets when I got home.

Flight cancellations are extremely common. When my Royal Nepal Airlines flight out of Katmandu was canceled after waiting an hour (because of bad weather in Lukla) and the airline policy kicked in wherein folks on the following flights shouldn't be inconvenienced by our bad luck, I thought that there was going to be a lynching.

An hour or so later we all surrounded some poor guy at a desk at the RNA office in downtown Katmandu who eventually agreed to lay on an extra flight early the next morning just for us. When I had hired Mandoz, my porter/guide, the previous day the agency had told me that flying on Royal Nepal Airlines was a mistake, that that my porter/guide would quite likely get to Lukla the next day on Nepal Airways, but that there was a good chance that my RNA flight would be canceled. Whereas one hour of waiting for the weather to clear was enough to convince RNA to cancel the flight (and no doubt make some other use of the plane), Nepal Airway waited five hours until the weather finally cleared and took my porter/guide to Lukla. When I found out this I hot footed it back to the agency and had them buy me a ticket for the next day on Nepal Airways so I could feel confident that my airline would do all in it's power to get me to Lukla. It turned out that the weather cleared early the next morning so even the RNA flight made it to Lukla, only a few minutes after my Nepal Airways flight landed. The RNA flight had at least one empty seat. Mine.

If you're going to do your own inter-Nepal airline tickets here is my advice -- wait until you get to Katmandu and buy a ticket from a local outfitter from whatever airline he recommends as being the most likely to actually get to where you want to go when you want to get there. I heard that the helicopters were more likely to fly than fixed wing planes when the weather was marginal. The helicopters are made in Russia and flown by real Russians, complete with black leather jackets and dangling cigarettes. Perhaps using a helicopter increases one's chance of getting there on time but also increases the chance of not getting there at all.

As of last October there were several helicopter services flying into and out of Syangboche (12,795) half way between Khumjung (12,434) and Namche for $125. The demand for these helicopters was huge making getting onto a flight difficult. I was told by folks who should know that a flight out of Lukla, a half days walk away was easy. But I was determined to fly out of Syangboche. As mentioned above I was able to get onto a helicopter after spending only one day in Khumj ung.

Rumor had it that in November the government was going to stop allowing helicopters to fly to and from Syangboche. The towns below Namche were suffering too much loss of business.

The Nepal government has decided that all trekkers should spend a minimum of $20/day. It is also apparently the law that one is required to buy insurance for the porter/guides. Some agencies initially attempt to charge this minimum but will back down rather than lose the business, other agencies don't even bother suggesting insurance or the $20 minimum. It's my understanding that the insurance is similar to workmen's compensation. For example if your porter gets sick and has to be evacuated then you are responsible. He is your employee and you (or your insurance company) have to take care of him.

A trekking permit ($15 for three weeks) and an environmental permit ($13) are required for trekking in the Khumbu. There are several glacier free peaks in the Khumbu over 19,000 feet tall that one can easily climb using only the trekking permit. A number of nice peaks have been classified as "trekking peaks", however, and can only be done by purchasing a trekking peak permit and arranging for a guide. Island Peak (20,252) and Mera (21,246) are popular trekking peaks requiring such a special permit. Earlier this year in Ecuador I met some Czechs who had done Island Peak without buying a Trekking Peak Permit ($300). Doing something wicked always appeals to me and my initial plan was to some- how do Island Peak without a permit. When I discussed my plan with an outfitter in Katmandu he said that if I was caught I would be fined $100,000 and forbidden to enter Nepal for 10 years. I later heard that a couple of Belgians had recently tried to climb a trekking peak without a permit and wound up in the hoosegow and fined exactly that amount. Now I figure that for someone like myself landing in a Nepalese jail would be a virtual death sentence. How does one convince the warden that bottled water is required for my delicate tummy instead of that slimy stuff in the bucket. The Belgians somehow managed to escape and had the good fortune to find some other Belgians who helped them reach the Indian border. I reckon that being suspended from entering Nepal for ten years is something these Belgians will learn to live with.

I took a bunch of extra diamox (which costs almost nothing in Katmadu) trekking with me. When Mandoz complained of getting a headache I gave him some diamox which seemed to help. He then told some of his buddies (he seemed to know half the porter/guides in the Khumbu) that I was a walking pharmacy and I wound up handing out quite a few Diamox's to various porter/guides. Apparently sometimes even Sherpas who normally live at high altitudes get AMS after spending weeks in the low lands looking for work. Some porter/guides even live in the low lands despite being of the Sherpa caste. For example Mandoz lives in a village at 4,000 feet except when he is working.

It's quite easy to hire a porter/guide in Lukla or Namche for about six to eight dollars a day (if they pay for their food) or three or four dollars a day (if you pay for their food). If you want a porter/guide who speaks passable English it's probably easter to hire him/her in Katmandu for about twelve dollars a day (no insurance) or up to twenty dollars/day (with insurance). A porter/guide hired in Katmandu must also be provided with plane tickets (Nepalese pay $22 each way to Lukla, foreigners pay $83). I hired Mandoz Sherpa for $12/day through an agency, of which Mandoz got about $7. Mandoz spoke quite good English and by the end of our seventeen days together several people had remarked that we seemed like an old married couple, often arguing about where to go next and where to spend the night. Mandoz was thoroughly familiar with the Khumbu and was always right when we would have a difference about what was the best approach to a problem. Many times people who weren't using guides would get off trail (rarely is this disastrous, one just winds up in the wrong village), but Mandoz always knew the way. Mandoz almost always knew where the best lodges were (although sometimes a new lodge had been built since he was in the Khumbu in the spring) and whether there would be private rooms available. And of course one of the main advantages of having a porter/guide was that Mandoz carried 18 kilos while I carried four or five. Because of my foolish dream of climbing Island Peak I brought heavy boots, crampons and ice ax along, greatly increasing my weight. Without those items I could have easily managed my pack, and many people doing tea house treks carried their own packs. Very light weight hiking shoes were adequate for the entire trek, including the passes and peaks.

After flying into Lukla (9350) in the early morning several of us tea house people decided to ignore the advice in the books and hiked straight to Namche (11,319), arriving in mid afternoon. I had no trouble getting a nice private room for $2. I decided to spend three nights in Namche to acclimatize and hiked one day up the Bhote, the westernmost of the four valleys that trekkers use that converge on Namche. Thame (12,467) is as far as trekkers are currently allowed in the Bhote because Tibet is considered too nearby. Thame has a couple of nice lodges and some parties choose to overnight there before going back to Namche.

The next valley to the East is the Gokyo, and is perhaps the best valley to use for acclimatizing with excellent lodges. On leaving Namche I spent one night in Dole (13,254) and another in Machermo (14,468) before getting to Gokyo(15,584). Gokyo has a lodge (Gokyo Resort) that recently added a dozen private rooms ($4). The poshness of this lodge was the talk of the Khumbu last fall. It should be noted that the walls of the private rooms were the usual thin plywood, giving rise over breakfast of discussions of various happenings in the private rooms of people not yet present at table. Otherwise the private rooms were quite nice with two single beds that could be pushed together for additional comfort. The items available at Gokyo Resort store were so tempting that 1 wound up spending an $10 a day. The large dining room and solarium were almost always filled with folks including many tent people. And the food was good. There are a number attractive hikes that can be done from Gokyo which gives one things to do while acclimatizing. I spent three nights at the Gokyo Resort and now wish I had stayed another night or two. I tried to do Nameless Teeth (19,029) on my first full day in Gokyo, but gave up 200 meters short of the summit. I should have made another attempt on my last day, and if I ever get back to the region bagging this glacier free class III peak is high on my list. There are several places in the Gokyo region that give distant but excellent views of Everest.

My next major goal was to cross the popular Cho La Pass (17,782) to Loboche (16,207) from West to East. It's possible to get from Gokyo to Loboche in a very long day, but it's easier to stay a night at Dragnag (15,420) close to the pass on the West side or Dzonglha (15,912) on the East side. There are several private rooms at Dragnag but several folks from an enormous group of French tent trekkers had grabbed all the private rooms by the time I got there. Fortunately the dorm at Dzonglha wasn't crowded that night. Mandoz liked to hang around in kitchens and he told me that he didn't think the kitchen at Dzonglha on the East side of the pass was very clean. In any case it takes about two hours to get from Gokyo to Dragnag, five hours to cross the pass to Dzonglha, and two more hours to get to Loboche.

Loboche (16,207) is an armpit. The government restricts building in Loboche and private rooms are very difficult to come by and in the high season the dorms are very crowded. If I get back to the area I think I would do one of the following to avoid spending the night in Loboche.

1) Since last September there is a very expensive option to staying in Loboche, a new hotel called the "Italian Pyramid" by the locals and the Himalayan 8000 by the folks that run it. The Italian Pyramid was previously a scientific research station and is a 20 minute walk above Loboche. Normally the upper limit on a private room in the Khumbu is $4 and I never saw a dorm bed that cost more than a dollar. The Italian Pyramid charges $20 for a private room and $6 for a dorm bed. It has electricity and running water (supposedly hot but no one I talked to had seen anything other than cold come out of a tap) and oriental flush toilets. And the mattresses are just like what you'd find at the Ramada Inn. The food at the Italian Pyramid was excellent. The main fault I can think of is that the dining room wasn't heated!

2) Stay in Gorak Shep(16,962). The lodges here are not particularly nice but they are almost never crowded. Gorak Shep has the advantage of being quite close to Kala Pattar (18,373) a prime view point of Everest (see cover photo) that is a goal of almost all high altitude trekkers in the Khumbu. If one wants to do Kala Pattar and Everest Base camp both in the same day then Gorak Shep is the place to stay. Gorak Shep has a reputation for getting quite cold. Mandoz really didn't want to spend a night at Gorak Shep.

After spending my second night at Loboche (in the Italian Pyramid) we crossed Kongma La pass(18,159) to Chukhung(15,584). Chukhung is the highest village on the way to Island Peak. Island Peak Base camp is a frequent destination for folks staying in Chukhung. Chukhung Ri (18,238) and Chukhung Peak (19,216) are two peaks often climbed from Chukhung.

On the day that Mandoz and I did Chukhung Peak the weather began to turn bad so I decided to bail. The distances in the Khumbu are actually fairly short and it's not unusual for people to walk from villages at 16,000 feet out to Namche in a single day. Hikes that take four or five days when going in because of the necessity to acclimatize take only a day or two when going out. People who arrive in the Khumbu already acclimatized do what appear to be awesome walks in very short periods. So Mandoz and I walked from Chukhung to Tengboche (12,664) before lunch. I didn't like the private room offerings at Tengboche so we continued on to Phunki Tenga (10,663) where as Mandoz promised I got a very nice quite private room for two dollars.

The next day we walked to Khumjung (12,434) about an hour above Namche. Khumjung had several extremely nice lodges, far nicer than anything available in Namche. I know this sounds like heresy, but I think that Khumjung is a much better place than Namche to spend a few days for acciimatizing when one first gets to the Khumbu. Thanks to a hydroelectric project all the towns around Namche (including Khumjung) are now electrified.

If I had this trip to do over again I would make the following changes. I would fly into and out of Syangboche and stay several nights in Khumjung. I know this is pushing the envelope on acclimatization, but one can easily drop down to Phunki Tenga if altitude is a problem. I would then spend 10-12 days knocking about the Khumbu staying in lodges getting and acclimatized, before switching over to self carried tents for Island and Mera. i wouldn't use porters anywhere on the trek. I would arrange for permits and a guide for Island Peak (20,252) and Mera (21,246). I reckon the total extra costs for the two permits and the guide would run a bit under $1000.

I only used one book on this trip, Trekking in the Everest Region, by Jamie McGuinness. The second edition of 256 page book was published in the summer of 1996 and except for new lodges built in the last year it seemed quite up to date. Most of the book is about the Solu-Khumbu but it also contains enough information about Katmandu to make bringing a book about the rest of Nepal unnecessary. All of the phone numbers below are in Katmandu, and are preceded with 011-977-1. PO boxes are in Katmandu, Nepal. When in Katmandu I use the Tibet Guest House (229145,FAX 220518, PO 10586) which has a good location and when asked will rent a double room with bath for $15. I hired Mandoz and bought a plane ticket at Adventure Center (424257,FAX 414440, PO 10542). I was also impressed with Overseas Adventure Trekking (229145,FAX 209145, PO 1017). Mandoz can be hired directly by writing to Mandoz Sherpa, PO 8165.

To simplify things I have used a conversion rate for the Nepalese rupee (50/dollar) that is lower than what was available at banks (56/dollar) or easily obtained on the black market (60/dollar). Hence the actual prices paid were slightly lower than what is quoted in this article.

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