10

How to Run Nepal’s Three Passes

This post is a follow-up on telling our story about running Nepal’s Three Passes in a day.

The word is out, running Nepal’s Three Passes has become a thing. And, Chukhung is on the radar as a basecamp for many pro climbers looking to acclimate and for mountain runners seeking high, fun training. We actually met some fellow runners who had used our 2018 blog for trip planning.

With the growing interest, we’d like to offer some tips based on our experience and what we’ve learned from others about how to most effectively do this trip.

Spend some days running around Namche and the villages of Khumjung and Khunde

How to Travel to the Khumbu Valley

After ten trips to the Himalaya, I feel like I have the logistics sorted out well enough to maximize the experience by minimizing the variables that can put the brakes on the fun. Overall, Nepal is a pretty easy place to travel if you’re cool with things being not quite in your control. Nepal is probably the friendliest place in the world to visit and people don’t get much kinder. For first timers to Nepal looking to get into the mountains, in this case the Khumbu Valley, the big questions are about logistics.

  • Consider taking a helicopter from Kathmandu to Lukla to avoid airplane delays and cancellations. Planes are less likely to fly if it’s cloudy, but helicopters can usually fly, therefore you are much more likely to get out on your scheduled day. When airplane flights get cancelled, the passenger backlog grows and chaos follows to try and get out. Days can be lost waiting.
  • Don’t rush to get to Namche Bazar from Lukla in one day. If it’s your first time to the Khumbu, enjoy the walk up. Most people stay a night at about the halfway point in Phakding, especially if you arrive to Lukla later in the day. The Sherpa Guide Lodge is exceptional.
  • Stay two to three days in Namche. There’s loads to do for running, great food and coffee, and comfy lodges.
  • I make my way to Chukhung by taking the long route. I go via Gokyo Valley, staying in Dhole and Thagnak, crossing Cho La, staying in Dzonghla and then going to Chukhung via the high trail to Dingboche. It’s a beautiful route, far less crowded, and you’ll get to check your form and the conditions on Cho La. The disadvantage with going this way is that you are exposing yourself to more lodges, more fatigue, and more potential to get sick. Most people will head up the Khumbu Valley taking two to three days from Namche to Chukhung.
  • Once in Chukhung, settle in, live healthy, eat well, sleep a lot, and enjoy the surrounding terrain.
Crossing Cho La while making our way from Namche to Chukhung

Tips for Traveling & Running in the Khumbu Valley – With an Eye on Running Three Passes

Before You Go

  • Training Tips: Training and preparation should focus on toughness and durability. We learned that a solid running base was likely not going to be enough to allow us to deal with the fatigue that would accumulate from going above 5000 meters three times. In addition to running, our training honed our overall fitness (Uphill Athlete’s Chamonix Fit Program) with a focus on the “small muscles.” In other words, muscles that provide support to the big engine muscle groups. We felt this was a key piece of our preparation and something we’d have overlooked without the Uphill Athlete coaching.
  • Extra Pounds: Weight loss may be a contributing factor in why Kim and I both get so sick. We’re lean to begin with and after just a week at elevation we start getting thinner. This year, we tried to put some extra weight on by increasing oils and nuts in our diet prior to arriving at elevation. We also tried to increase muscle mass, but with our body types this doesn’t come easily.
Curb sinus and respiratory issues as soon as they start

How are You Feeling?

  • Health Issues: Your health is the most critical piece of the puzzle, the outcome of your trip depends on it. Increase the odds of staying healthy through any tricks you can employ. Travel with whatever powders, supplements, or magic potions you know will work for you. I take an Emergen-C pack every day, use nasal inhalers, and obsessively use hand sanitizers. All that and I can still get sick each trip to Nepal. Do your best, and get sleep!
  • High Altitude: Pay close attention to altitude issues; headaches, lack of appetite, inability to sleep, confusion, and low blood oxygen are indicators your body is under stress and may get worse.
  • Blood Oxygen Measurement: The Suunto 9 Peak Pro proved to have a pretty accurate blood oxygen sensor when compared to finger sensors. It was interesting to see that when we were feeling pretty shitty after early runs up high, our blood oxygen would be in the 70’s. As we recovered that same day, the numbers would creep into the 80’s and we’d perk up. Later, once fully acclimated, we’d only drop into the 80’s and pretty quickly bounce back into the 90’s. Some people, who were clearly suffering, were not seeing their numbers rise and had to question their condition and make some decisions. This is an important gauge to reference.
In other words, not feeling your best

Help Going Higher

  • Acclimating: Move slowly up in elevation. We spend two to three nights in Namche (3400 meters) before continuing higher. Assess as you go and if you have the luxury of some extra time, take it to acclimate.
  • Hiking: Let’s be honest, as a trail runner in the Himalaya you’re basically a trekker who runs downhill, trots on the flats, wears tights, carries a small pack, and just like everyone else, walks uphill.
  • Mountain Skills: The difference between a trekking mind frame and trail running approach is that as a trail runner, you’re probably going to be committing to bigger days, being out in less than ideal weather, carrying only enough clothing to keep moving, and making critical decisions when things don’t go as planned. These commitments require a higher level of mountain knowledge.
  • Pro Advice: Ueli Steck felt that athletes can actually have a much tougher time adjusting to elevation because they are continually comparing how they feel up high with how they normally feel doing a similar activity at lower elevation. As a result, they push too hard too soon, which may well have a negative effect on the acclimatization process. His advice was: Go much easier than you think you need to until you’re 100% confident in your acclimatization. 
  • Gear Tip: Thanks to David Göttler, we started using the AirTrim Masks for days when we’d be breathing hard at elevation. They make a huge difference by keeping the air you inhale warm and humid, helping prevent the burnt throat issues from cold, dry air. It’s similar to pulling a buff over your nose, but ventilated, without wet, frozen fabric against your skin.
Kim using the Airtrim mask

Nutrition

  • On the Menu: Pay attention to your nutritional intake. Some advice we were given from Uphill Athlete’s altitude coach: In the early days consume more carbs and less fat & protein. After 10 days at elevation (>3800 meters) start to increase fat and protein. Consume extra protein and carbs before bedtime with drink mixes. 
  • Supplements: For running day nutrition, be 100% certain that what you carry will work for you at elevation. We found that drink mixes were consistent. If they worked for us in normal training, they worked for us on the Three Passes. We used the Tailwind Endurance and Recovery Drinks, no caffeine for the first half of the run, and caffeinated versions for the second half. 
  • Eating: Prior to leaving for Nepal, we tested and determined ProBars to be the bar for the trip. At home, they always taste good and sit well. At the last minute, Kim decided to take a box of something entirely new for us, Fillos Walking Tamales. She knew we could get sweets so opted to include a savory “energy bar.” In the end, ProBars were inedible at elevation while the tamales were perfect. And FYI, we have zero affiliation with either brand.
  • Favorite Foods: Our go to food was, as always, Trail Butter. But also trail mix (fruit & nuts) and plain crackers. If we stopped at a lodge for something more significant, plain rice with soy sauce seemed to sit well. And Kim had a daily ritual of slathering Trail Butter and jam on Tibetan Bread for super high calorie breakfasts.
Trail Butter, so much Trail Butter. We each carried multiple Big Squeeze packs on Three Passes.

What to Carry

  • Packing: Keep that pack light! We never carried more than three 500ml soft flasks at any time. We used the Black Diamond Distance 15 which remained mostly empty since we had to wear our puffy jackets all day. 
  • Water: Speaking of water… try not to buy all your water in the readily available plastic one liter bottles. Instead, use the water at the lodges that comes from mountain sources. If you feel it necessary, treat it with your treatment of choice.
  • Puffy Jackets: Wear a tried and true puffy jacket, preferably synthetic, that you can run in. It needs to be light, warm, and of course work for aerobic output. We did both our 2018 and 2023 Three Pass runs in puffies. It can be that cold. Test them before you commit! We used the Black Diamond Vision Hybrid Hoody.
  • Crampons and Poles: Many trekkers were wearing microspikes, especially on the west side of Cho La. We never felt they were necessary for the conditions we encountered and did not take them. However, this is a personal decision based on comfort and skill levels on icy trails. Consider packing them and deciding if you need them for the day of. We did carry poles for the assistance they provide going uphill, stability downhill, and they make great headrests when you need to catch your breath.
Taking the time to hydrate right

Tech

  • Charging: Most lodges offer charging at a price of about US$5-7 per device or battery. Nepali wall plugs usually take any plug, but always American two prong or EU two prong.
  • WiFi and Data: WiFi is available at most lodges at varying rates. Data is now in much of the Khumbu Valley and typically faster and more reliable than WiFi. Pre-paid data SIMS are readily available up to Namche. But wait… Why not sever the data ties and enjoy the experience without unnecessary distraction?
  • Navigation: Be sure to download the Three Passes route to your phone for offline use. Gaia has the true route marked (as of May 2023) including a recent change to the Cho La Pass track that avoids a section of glacier that became impassable. In the last two years some fixed metal posts have been added to the passes for route finding, but keep that track at the ready.
It’s a puffy kind of place

Getting ready to do 3 Passes? Ask questions in the comments.

Or have you previously done it? Tell your story so it helps others in their planning.


By Dan Patitucci

Share:

Comments 10

    1. Post
      Author
  1. Any experience with connections between Kathmandu airport to Ramechhap airport for ongoing flight to Lukla? I have read that flights to Lukla only leave from Ramechhap airport during high season (October – December). Information and booking of transfers seems patchy I guess you just show up and up for a spot. Can you also just show up at airport and pay for lukla flights on the spot in case transfers don’t go to plan. Planning on fastpacking the three passes route this November within a 2 week window. Thinking this is enough time but maybe too optimistic with to/from logistics?

    1. Post
      Author

      The new flights from Ramechhap are totally confusing. We used a heli to Lukla and a plane from Lukla to Kathmandu. It was our understanding that there are still a few flights a day connecting Lukla and Kathmandu. But, it’s Nepal so anything can change at anytime.
      Not sure about buying a flight at the airport. I have always used an agent to do all that for me as solo travelers get bumped when there is any Nepali guide needing to fly with a client. The system favors being with a guide. I think you can pull off Three Passes in two weeks given the right weather, but careful with your acclimatizing!

  2. When you were coming down Kongma La did you go over the glacier to Lobuche or did you just run parallel to it down to Thukla and then on to Dzongla?

    1. Post
      Author

      We crossed the rock glacier but then angled into the EBC trail to avoid going to Lobuche. The rock glacier had a different way through this year, it’s now much closer to Thukla.

      1. Thanks Dan!

        Done 3 passes a couple of times and EBC 4 times looking for a bigger challenge. Thinking of either trying 2 passes in a day or Lukla -> EBC -> Lukla in 2-3 days.

        Mostly concerned about going over Cho La later in the day, or running in the dark since I will be solo.

        1. Post
          Author

          2 Passes (Kongma La and Cho La) is great, and you don’t have to do the horrible Gokyo rock glacier crossing.

          1. But wouldn’t it be great to finish in Gokyo with the luxuries 🙂

            I know you ran anti-clockwise as it was less overall ascent but to me I feel like running clockwise over Kongma La would be better?

            So you would suggest the easiest would be Chukkung to Thukla?

          2. Post
            Author

            Ideally, Kongma La is done up from Lobuche, down to Chukhung, that descent is great while the descent to Lobuche is not. But, Chukhung to Namche is the route, so that’s how it needs to be. We have thought about Namche to Chukhung but never do it as it doesn’t fiot into the acclimatization program. And, the Renjo La is best done up from Gokyo, the descent to Lungden is great. It balances out.
            Remember, if you stay in Chukhung, you can do 1 Pass, Kongma La, but clockwise so you get the sweet descent right to the lodge.

Your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *