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Running Nepal’s Kongde Trail: you can’t always get what you want

A brief clearing for a glimpse at what’s above us on a Chukhung run day.

I smell woodsmoke. Kim swore, anxious for the warmth of the lodge. We arrived at the front door of the luxury Yeti Mountain Home, pushed, pulled, shoved, but of course, the door was locked. 

Thick, blowing clouds hid the lodges right up until we were on them. 

There was zero sign of life. 

Peering in through the window revealed a lodge closed for the season. 

Let’s try the other lodge.

Between the buildings we were buffeted by a strong wind and the day’s first raindrops. 

Again, we found a lodge very much not open for business.

Are you sure you smelled smoke?

I haven’t smelled anything for days, but I swear I smelled smoke. Someone is up here, somewhere.

The trail to Kongde from Thame came highly recommended by several Nepali who had never done it. We were suspicious from the beginning. It didn’t even connect on the map, instead it had breaks in the trail, exactly where the Nepali told us were critical, ice covered, slab crossings. We headed up knowing we might be turning around and returning to Namche, then gunning it to Lukla to catch our flight. Our Nepali friends who’d encouraged us to go had even made calls and confirmed the lodges were open.

The lodges were clearly not open.

In my head we were both in a bind and not in a bind. We’d arrived at the Kongde lodges, directly across and above Namche Bazar, via a mysterious trail. The plan was to spend the night on this high plateau and have the views it’s famous for all to ourselves the following morning. In one of the world’s most beautiful mountain ranges, in the very location with a panorama of it all, we couldn’t see three meters in front of us. 

As we approached the point of shivering, we realized we were also increasingly grumpy thanks to forgetting to bring enough food. Meanwhile, the two dogs that had followed along the entire day were staring up at us waiting for some miracle of human ingenuity. With more than 20 km in their own legs, they were hungry as well.

Let’s go see what we can find at that first lodge, maybe we missed the source of that smoke.

We circled around the building and discovered another door, and strangely, this one had a key in it. 

Feeling a bit awkward, we entered and suddenly found ourselves standing in a commercial kitchen. 

Hello?

Nothing.

Namaste?

More nothing.

I headed straight for the pantry.

There’s rice and pasta and peanut butter and cookies and big boxes of juice.

The dogs whined at the door.

Should we have some juice?

No Dan, let’s look around more.

We moved into a hallway and found the door to each room wide open, down booties at every bedside. I turned on a sink tap and water flowed. 

After a full tour of the lodge, we returned to the kitchen to consider our options. Staying in one of the rooms didn’t seem right. And making ourselves at home in the kitchen was clearly not cool either. 

There has to be some other place where that smoke came from. Let’s give the area another look.

We went back outside and thanks to a break in the blowing fog, immediately saw a distant shack with smoke pouring from its chimney, and a woman’s face looking right at us and our dogs from the window. She was clearly as curious about what was going on as we were. No one walks up to Kongde we learned later, everyone arrives by helicopter.

With a promise of some of the best views in the Khumbu, Kim sees clouds.

We’d been in Nepal’s Khumbu Valley for three weeks. It was my twelfth time there and by far the worst weather and conditions I’d ever seen. But it wasn’t just the weather, we seemed to have bad luck with everything. Forest fire smoke hid the mountains when it wasn’t cloudy, I took my worst ever tumble running and had a very beaten up and sore body, Kim had her usual sinus infection (it was her fourth Himalayan trip), and I’d dropped and destroyed my main camera.

Our biggest run of the trip started off sunny, turned snowy, and ended up as a whiteout.

But even while all of this was going down, we were having a great trip and had managed to pull off several big running objectives. The run to Kongde was something we’d been wanting to do for years and it would be our last adventure run before flying out of Lukla in two days. With a sunny weather forecast and tempered optimism, we departed in the usual thick fog. 

We left the Panorama Lodge in Namche early in the morning and weaved our way through the Everest Base Camp rush hour trekking traffic headed up the Khumbu. Within 100 meters of walking out the door, a white dog speared me in the crotch with his snout, decided one of us belonged to the other, and proceeded to follow along at our heels. 

Namche, the white dog, taking a leak

Leaving Namche behind, we passed prayer wheels, yaks, and all the usual comings and goings of life in Nepal’s Khumbu Valley. All the while, our friend the dog cruised along in front of us. A few times we slowed to make a photo, and each time we had to shoo the dog out of the scene. Then, as we passed through the village of Thamo, another dog, latched on to our little trio. Suddenly, we were four, and our first dog friend wasn’t happy to share his adventure, even less happy to have the black dog’s nose rammed up his ass as we ran along. After a few snarls and snaps, the two settled into some sort of agreement. Now we had two dogs to shoo out of our images.

Namche, Kim, and Thamo on the Kongde Trail

Sitting on a boulder to tighten her shoes, Kim reminded me that animals come along like this for a reason, we just didn’t know what it was yet. We accepted that they would be along until they  decided not to be, and named them Namche and Thamo for the villages they escaped from. Namche sat beside Kim on the boulder, leaning hard against her side with affection. Thamo stretched out below them.

The Kongde Trail forest

Not only had we found ourselves in an all new landscape on a seemingly ancient stone trail passing through a thick rhododendron forest, but we were entirely alone in the Everest Region at the height of trekking season. So many things that had been annoying us seemed so far away now; poor weather, nonstop helicopter traffic, plentiful humans seemingly more interested in engaging with their phones especially on video calls with speakers at max volume. 

The trail to Kongde goes up this wall and across some of the iced up slabs.

The dogs followed along or ran ahead, always together, with no concern for where we were headed or how long we’d be gone, or what we’d see from the top. They seemed to be happy to be on a journey with us, wherever that took us all. They just ran. 

Getting into the trail’s mystery zone

We arrived at the concerning slabs and found them free of ice and easy to pass. Our day, while not working out as we hoped, was turning out to be one of the more memorable days we’ve spent in the Himalaya. Instead of focusing on the distant peaks and photos, we simply looked inward and were able to be more present: noticing the smell of dhoop covering the hillside, the silence of the fog, and paying more attention to how we move over rocks. Most everyone comes to places like this to see, but maybe coming to feel is more important. You don’t meditate with your eyes open. And so in this little side canyon, beneath a thick forest canopy, with no views, where very few bother to go, we found a place to only concern ourselves with what was in front of us. We laughed, shared stories, played with the dogs, navigated our route, dealt with uncertainty, and wondered what we’d find at the lodges. 

Dan and Thamo

It turned out that we had found some of the staff, playing poker in a warm shack, entirely uninterested in opening a lodge for us. Thankfully, they did offer us tea, some much needed coconut cookies, and a few minutes to warm by the fire. After a short, jumbled conversation, they continued their game and we turned our attention to an evening plan. Going down was really the only option. 

Inside the source of the woodsmoke we entered a poker tournament

We stuffed some extra cookies in our pockets for the dogs, downed our tea, and swung the door open to return to the freezing wind and increasing raindrops. Namche was curled like a cinnamon bun against the wind, and Thamo stood guard at the doorway. They both sprang up to be sure not to miss whatever was coming next. 

Where the views should be

Dropping down from Kongde, 1600 meters back to the Khumbu Valley, we wondered if we’d ever come back. We hadn’t seen anything we came for, but we were leaving with everything we needed. The dogs raced us on the rocky downhill, and our pack trotted into the village below. 

By Dan Patitucci & Kim Strom

Kim and Namche
Earlier on the trip, the type of conditions we dream of
Kim passing by Cholatse
Big, cold, snowy days running above 5000 meters

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Comments 4

  1. As always, great story telling and pics! Well done! Was this in the spring season? BTW, did you have to travel to this distant town to fly to/from Lukla?

    1. Post
      Author

      Thanks, Martin, yes, this story is from May 2024, and yes, Lukla is where we flew into to start the trek up the Khumbu Valley where we base ourselves to run. There are several other blogs (like this) on this site where we show the trail running options there. It’s about the best place you can imagine for running.

      1. I follow your site via RSS, so I read all of those 🙂 What I meant to ask is if you flew from Ramechap or Kathmandu. I saw some people say they were able to fly from KTM, but I think most flights are from Ramechap now.

        1. Post
          Author

          We flew from Kathmandu to Lukla, thankfully! I have a Nepali friend I’ve worked with for years and he is able to book the limited flights out of KTM.

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