The Three Passes trek is the grand tour of the Everest region, a three- to four-week circuit that hits the highlights on every backpacker’s checklist—Everest Base Camp, Ama Dablam, Buddhist monasteries, stone villages, yak trains, prayer wheels, and swaying suspension bridges festooned with prayer flags—but also loops well away from the usual trade routes, so you get the iconic sights as well as quiet villages and remote backcountry few trekkers see.
The 80-mile journey starts at Lukla, just like the main route to Everest, but after three days the trail breaks away, crossing over three big passes—Renjo La, Cho La, and Kongma La—each more than 17,000 feet high. In between, you trek up the four main valleys below Everest, Cho Oyu, Lhotse, and other giants along the Chinese border. Every few miles, the route passes villages where you can usually get a cheap bed and a steaming plate of fried noodles or dumplings. But the trails going over the passes between the valleys are steep, high, and wild.
For Leah and I, seeing the Himalayas up close was at the top of both of our life-lists. We finally quit postponing it, cashed in a decade of frequent-flier miles, and began planning a DIY trip. We’re both experienced backpackers and travelers, and I’d done enough research to feel confident about going without a guide. The idea of having a third wheel tagging along for a month, toting our stuff like some kind of mountain bellhop, seemed absurd. Plus, we’re both fascinated by Tibetan Buddhism, and we wanted to see how isolation and the tight-knit culture of the Sherpas had helped preserve ancient traditions. We felt we’d have the best shot of crossing the cultural divide as independent travelers.
But in the final week before the trip, we faced a minor travel catastrophe. Leah had an old, painful knee condition suddenly flare up, and was limping around the house even without a 35-pound pack on her back. It was clear we’d need some help after all.
Which is how I make the acquaintance, reluctantly, of Dawa Sherpa, a 24-year-old porter (and default guide), on day one. When he shows up at our lodge in Lukla, he doesn’t look like much of a guide. He’s wearing a threadbare white cotton T-shirt, a UV-bleached head wrap, and an old nylon jacket that looks like it has spent a few years on a highway median in Los Angeles. For the month we’ll spend on the trail, Dawa packs all of his things—two pairs of thin cotton dress socks, a knock-off Millet jacket, 80s-era ski gloves, and a battered Thermos—in an ancient schoolboy’s backpack re-stitched at every seam.
Our plan is to hike a loop with some 30,000 feet of climbing over about 130 miles, with all the side trips factored in. Dawa looks like he’s ready for a day of gardening.