Day 6 was supposed to be a relaxing day for us. We woke up early as usual and watched the sunrise lakeside at Gokyo. It was a clearer day than yesterday. We joked about going up Gokyo Ri again. Our original plan was to check out Cho Oyu base camp and come back to stay at Gokyo Lake one more night. However, we both felt restless and ready to move on from Gokyo that morning: we wanted to cross Cho La Pass that day.
We told our server at the lodge that we were checking out that morning and we planned to head over the pass. He gave me an incredulous look and said, “It’s a long way, you know.” I nodded and smiled, yeah, we will hustle. As we were chowing down our breakfast, a fellow trekker also chimed in on how difficult it was to cross Cho La pass coming from EBC trail, which we heard was the easier direction to traverse the pass. He and his travel mates had no guide and had lost their directions a few times. Hearing the same warning twice that morning left me a bit uneasy. I remember looking at my watch and making mental calculations on our pace in order to cross Cho La.
It was 8:30am when we left Gokyo lake. In retrospect, we should have left at 6am. We hustled through the glacial scree field east of Gokyo and arrived in Tragnag by 10am. Tragnag marked the beginning of miles of climbing.
By 10:30, the clouds had moved in and the path ascended into a dense fog. By 11:30, we saw the end of a ridge. I was really glad to see people resting on the ridge, which I thought was Cho La pass. My right thigh had been a little tight and I was concerned that it may cramp up. Going up Gokyo Ri twice the previous day had been more taxing on my body than I realized.
By the time we got to the ridge, it was clear that it was not Cho La Pass. There was another valley beyond this ridge that we needed to cross. On the other side of the valley we could see groups of people waiting and resting. The far side of the valley was a wall of snowy mountains. Tricia pointed to the wall and said ominously, “we are gonna have to get over those mountains.” I shook my head in disbelief. I didn’t think it was possible.
As we crossed the belly of the valley, we passed groups of trekkers coming in the opposite direction. They looked downright miserable. Few of them made eye contact with us. Tricia and I exchanged a look. We waved down a guide and started chatting with him about the conditions on the pass. He told us that the descent from the pass was snow covered and slippery. The glacier was stable but also slippery. Then he looked at us incredulously and said, “are you guys going to cross the pass now?” Seeing our nodding heads, he said, “Just make it out alive, ok?!” Tricia and I were both taken aback by that statement. I think we both gave him kind of funny look. I thought to myself, why would you say something like that? That’s not cool.
After the last group of hikers with their guides passed, the landscape became notably abandoned. It seemed Tricia and I were the only ones left on those jagged snowy mountains. Tricia was right that Cho La Pass traversed those monstrous snowy mountains. Wayfinding was particularly difficult here because there was no trail. We were told to follow the cairns, rather than footsteps. Every time we reached a cairn, we took a little time to breath and to locate the next to make sure that we were going the right way. The slope got steeper and the rocks to climb over became larger. Over an hour after starting from the foot of the hill, we finally summited Cho La Pass.
Much like many mountain tops in Nepal, Cho La Pass top was also covered with prayer flags and cairn fields. We were ecstatic to be on the top even though the dense fog left us with visibility of no more than ten feet. To say that I wasn’t scared while climbing over the field of steep loose and slippery rocks would be a lie. I had to force myself to stay calm so that Tricia wouldn’t panic. I knew Tricia was doing the same for me. It was a huge relief standing on top of Cho La. I wanted to shout like people do in movies, but I was terrified of triggering an avalanche so we had a quiet celebratory hug.
Then it occurred to me that I had no idea where to go next. We came up the pass from the west side. The east side of the top of Cho La pass has a small cliff with at least a 30 foot drop. I could vaguely see a glacial field below through the dense fog. When there was one cairn every 10 to 20 feet, it was sign of direction. A cairn field on top of Cho La made wayfinding confusing in limited visibility. There were footsteps leading to the left and right side from the edge of the cliff. I followed the footsteps to the left and the footsteps quickly ended in front of another steep dropoff. I consulted my GPS but the trail line was not precise enough to give me step by step directions. We looked around and realized we were stuck. We hadn’t seen anybody on this path for at least an hour. The world seemed quiet and the fog made us partially blind.
I thought since following cairns had led us here, perhaps we should continue to follow them. There was another peak to the left of us which was covered with cairns of various sizes. Perhaps that was the way to go. After a brief discussion, we decided to go up. This peak was even steeper than the trail we had previously been on and turned quickly to loose rock. We had to scramble on all fours and within a minute I started to have doubts. I didn’t see any footsteps and I didn’t think half of the people we passed down at the valley could have successfully scrambled up or down this peak. I took a look down to the top of Cho La pass, as marked by flags. It was a steep and dangerous way down. No way this was the right direction. I felt nauseous and dizzy. Are we lost? How can we get help?
I stopped climbing and told Tricia that I didn’t believe we were on the right path. She agreed. We needed to get down which was even tougher than climbing up. For a while, I was so focused that I didn’t even feel the heavy pack on my back. I forced myself not to think about the consequences if one of us lost our footing. I was in survival mode. I took a different route back down to the top of Cho La pass from the little peak since the original route seemed more treacherous going down than it had been climbing up. When we had secure footing on the top of Cho La pass, which was flat and safe, I checked my GPS again. I knew we definitely had to cross the glacier on the east side of the pass. I suspected the glacier had receded so much that what used to be a direct connection between the top of cho la pass and the glacial surface was now separated by a height difference of 20 feet drop and a gap of 30 feet.
I decided to explore to the right of the cliff which I dismissed initially since it seemed to lead to a collapsed section of the glacier. That was where I found a small scree footpath. I couldn’t tell exactly how far it went since the fog severely limited my visibility, but I thought it was worth exploring. So we put our packs back on and headed down this little path. Within minutes, we were led onto the glacier where chaotic footsteps trotted out a path east.
We were safe! We put our micro-spikes on so we didn’t need to worry about slipping on the glacier. I explored the possibility of refilling our water bottle with some the glacial melt but the ice cracks were too small to fit the bottle for refill. We were down to our last half a liter of water. It was 2pm by my watch. The glacial path was only about 10 minutes long. It was the most comfortable 10 minutes of our entire adventure today. We knew we were on the right path and we knew that we were safe. It was a great feeling.
From the glacier, it was steep down hill for about a mile which ended in the flat belly of a huge valley. It was another mile or so before we saw the blue roofs of lodges in Dzongla. We arrived in Dzongla just before 4pm. I was exhausted. We checked into the first lodge on the left side as we entered the village. It was called Maison Sherpa Lodge. It had one room left. We had no energy left to look at another lodge. The dining room was crowded and noisy, but I found it comforting to see people. We sat in a corner of the dining room quietly enjoyed our medium size pot of ginger tea and a moment of warmth and safety.
What an adventurous day! Keep on following my posts. We are about to discover a little oasis up high in the Himalayas: the pyramid.
Interested in reading about our food adventures in Kathmandu? Click here.
Are you planning a trekking trip of own? Check out my packing list.
This is the MicroSpikes I was talking about in this post, in case you are curious. It’s definitely worth packing if you plan to traverse a glacial pass in Nepal.