Three Passes : Take Two
For the last 5 years, intertwined with all the other things we’ve done with trail running (Sierra Trail Runs, creating the Via Valais and Via Grischuna, and our mini-guides), we’ve had one objective looming: returning to the Himalaya and trail running Nepal’s Three Passes Trek.
Nepal’s Three Passes Trail
Three Passes is a 60km trail connecting the village of Namche Bazar with the lodges at Chukhung, right at the base of the Lhotse South Face. The route is a popular variation to the obscenely busy Everest Base Camp Trek (EBC). Three Passes only has a loosely defined itinerary, can be done as an add on to EBC, or independently in about 7 days. The route is traveled in either direction – we opted to go counter-clockwise from Chukhung to Namche as it has less vertical gain and is the direction to get down from the Khumbu Valley.
By the numbers, ultra runners might see Three Passes as a piece of cake. If it were in the Alps, we’d have it done in time for a late lunch. But, given that it crosses three 5000 meter passes (5550, 5350 and 5400 meters), the fatigue that accumulates goes deep and is difficult to recover from. Beyond dealing with the elevation comes a whole slew of other variables; travel, abundant viruses, the approach to even get started, and of course Himalayan weather.
This was not our first time running Three Passes and for me, it was my tenth time to the region. Our intention was to repeat everything we did on our first effort (our 2018 Story) with the exception of stopping one pass short. To prepare, we committed to following a training and nutrition program custom built for us by our coach Alyssa Clark from Uphill Athlete. We were in the best hands, and we knew we’d need it. Since our 2018 Nepal trip, Kim was diagnosed with breast cancer and went through a year of chemo, radiation, surgeries and a lengthy recovery process. Me, I just put on 5 more years and didn’t fail to notice my qualification for an AARP card. We had some concerns about how we’d do.
Traveling to the Khumbu Valley
At the beginning of May, after two days of walking, we arrived at Namche Bazar motivated, healthy, and strong. We spent an extra day there to run and further acclimate before moving higher. Our strategy was to walk up Gokyo Valley before crossing the middle of the three passes, Cho La. Just ahead of our arrival the Khumbu had a long spell of cold, wet weather and we knew the passes held a lot of snow. We wanted to see just how much. Additionally, crossing Cho La would be good acclimatizing for what was ahead of us.
Kim was sick with a sinus infection by the time we arrived at Dhole, our first overnight in Gokyo Valley. A day later, she was bedridden and we were forced to spend an extra night in Thagnak. Based on dinner conversation with trekkers, it was clear that a lot of viruses were going around. If there’s a soundtrack to the Himalayan lodge experience, it may well be the sound of coughing, snorting and loogie hocking. 2023 was an exceptional year for each of these. I was up next.
We headed to Chukhung and the Khangri Resort Lodge, where our friend Lopsang Sherpa would be our host for a couple of weeks of day runs as we prepared for Three Passes. The Khangri Resort is an ideal basecamp. It sits right at the Three Passes trailhead at the base of Kongma La, has 3000 meters of Lhotse towering above, and Ama Dablam fills the windows of the rooms. Lopsang runs a tight ship and the lodge offers exceptional food, comfort, cleanliness and even by Nepali standards, an especially friendly staff.
Upon arrival, I spent the first two days in bed followed by a period of easy running where we both tried to get back to form. As conversation shifted from the topic of mucus to our reason for being there, running Three Passes in one day, we knew we were getting close to being ready.
Trail Running Nepal’s Three Passes
When the big day finally came, we woke to 10cm of unexpected snow. Until then, the forecast had been correct and consistent; morning sun with increasing afternoon clouds and possible light evening snow. That snow finally came. Assuming the morning sun would stick around and go to work melting it, we ignored the snow and set out. By the time we got to our first pass and the day’s highpoint, Kongma La, we were ankle deep in the snow searching for the descent through talus. The sun wouldn’t make many more appearances that day, but plenty of snowfall would. Somehow, we’d managed to choose the worst weather day for our objective. Ultimately, beyond the delays on Kongma La, it didn’t impact us that much beyond blocking the views.
Our strategy was simple, keep moving. I was forbidden to make photos unless it was on the fly – one and done. After Kongma La, we arrived in the Khumbu Valley at Lobuche feeling fresh enough to run much of the way to Dzhongla before putting our legs into low gear for the grind over Cho La, which we’d do in heavy snowfall.
After Cho La, getting to Gokyo requires crossing a rock glacier that’s a seemingly never ending maze of up-down-right-left-this-that-way navigation. Mentally, it’s one of the hardest sections of the tour. It isn’t fun when you’re fresh and it’s a nightmare when fatigued. Before it ends, it punches you in the gut one last time with an absurdly steep trail to get onto the moraine. For us, the lodges at Gokyo were a significant landmark in that it was our stopping point in 2018. This year, we felt great.
We made a quick stop, refilled soft flasks, downed caffeinated Tailwind Recovery drinks, squirted Trail Butter into our zerk fittings and answered a whole lot of questions from the diners at the lodge where we’d stopped. As they were settling in for dinner, we were facing our last pass, which we hadn’t failed to notice was rapidly clouding up again. After moving headlamps into our shoulder strap pouches, off we went with the squeaky lodge door groaning behind us.
Renjo La is a blur of fatigued marching and panicked dashing for the top. Some maps show the pass at 5200 meters. I had forgotten that this is wrong, and the error is not in our favor, it’s 5400 meters. That 200 meters is way more than minor when you are cooked like I was, it’s starting to snow again, a thick cloud is building on the pass, and it’s about to be pitch black.
“Let’s get the fuck off this thing!” I hurried Kim as we arrived at the pass and started descending the icy, snow covered trail. My fear was that we’d be engulfed in thick fog rendering our headlamps useless on what could be a difficult to follow trail.
Thankfully, none of it played out that way. Instead, the cloud dropped with us, the snow stopped, the night sky went dark and clear, and the trail easily led us down.
This descent will forever stay with us, not for anything to do with running, but for the solitude, silence and darkness we found ourselves immersed in. We were two people, the best of friends, with huge fatigue buzzes, in a world void of input. The trail became so smooth that our feet didn’t even make noise. Fittingly, when the moon made its appearance, it was a tiny sliver at the exact angle to form a smile. We were doing the same.
As we neared the end of the descent there was a decision to be made. It was approaching 9 pm, there was 18km of trail left, and we wouldn’t arrive in Namche until around midnight. The lodge owner, who was expecting us to arrive said he’d lock the doors at 10, nothing would be open. We were too late. Our options were to hope for the best and just get it done, or stop at one of the lodges in Lungdhen, at the base of the descent, and see if anyone was around.
I’d come up with a story in my head where we pulled into Lungdhen, tapped on a door, and were welcomed into a warm kitchen. Kim’s story, I found out later, was that we would stagger into Namche and huddle in a doorway through a long cold night.
My story is the way this thing ended. In Lungdhen, we found all the lodges pitch black except for one faint, yellow light. As we approached the window with our headlamps shining the way, we saw two Nepali men sitting next to a fireplace. Once they saw us coming they jumped up, opened the door and with great concern asked if we were okay.
Suddenly, we found ourselves inside a dining room in the last warmth of their fire. We dropped onto a bench and explained that we’d done Three Passes which, in Lungdhen, is every trekker’s itinerary, nothing out of the ordinary.
“Yes, but where did you come from today?”
“Chukhung. We did Three Passes today.”
They looked at us in puzzled awe as I questioned myself about how I would feel if we called it quits. Yes, we’d done Three Passes, but we hadn’t gone into Namche, and that is the finish we’d set for ourselves. While Kim was ready to continue into the night, I wasn’t so sure. Comfort, coziness, and the company of these two kind men was starting to help me make up my mind.
“Let me make you some tea.”
I undid my pack’s buckles, slipped it off, and let it drop to the floor.
By Dan Patitucci
Coming up Next
Part Two of Trail Running Three Passes is all beta for trail runners interested in doing the same trip. It’s tips & tricks and lots of try and stay healthy talk.