The first leg of the Three Passes trek winds up the Dudh Kosi valley through terraced foothills and riverside villages. In early April, the apple trees, dogwood, and rhododendron are in full bloom. Prayer flags hang from the eaves of houses, draped to nearby fir trees. Stupas (dome-shaped Buddhist shrines), prayer wheels, and long stacks of mani stone tablets etched with the Buddhist mantra, om mani padme hum, dot the trail.
At Namche Bazaar, the trading center of the Khumbu region, the Three Passes route branches off into the quiet, arid Bhote Kosi valley. We climb gradually to Thame, the boyhood home of Tenzing Norgay and Apa Sherpa (who later in the season climbs Everest for a record 21st time). Despite the smattering of lodges, the town feels untouched by time or outsiders; its potato fields and grazing yak and dzo (yak/cow hybrid) herds and slate-roofed stone houses probably looked no different 200 years ago. We’re the only foreigners at the 344-year-old monastery above the village, set into the side of Sumdur Peak with a breathtaking view down the valley. In the dim prayer hall, the walls are painted with rich and lurid scenes from Buddhist lore. In the stone yard out front, a monk dances and sways across the yard with a young boy on his feet. Another shows us a steel oxygen bottle stamped with the year 1953, which the monks use as a dinner gong.
The next day, Dawa saves us from our temporary bushwhacking session on the way to Lungde. He knows the way, it turns out, and I can’t deny I’m relieved to be in a warm teahouse rather than out wandering in the cold and dark. After a fitful sleep at what amounts to camping atop a Fourteener, we get up at first light and eat a double breakfast of omelets and fried rice to prep for our first big pass: 17,500-foot Renjo La. It’s only a seven-mile, 3,300-foot day—a piece of cake closer to sea level, but a thousand feet below the top, the altitude kicks in. The 50 pounds in my pack feel like 100.
By the time we crest the rocky, prayer-flag-draped pass, clouds have descended on the peaks above us, and the skyline I’ve seen pictures of—Everest, perfectly framed above the turquoise Gokyo Lake, over a sawtooth range of giants like Cholatse and Taboche—is lost in the milk. We’re in no condition to linger anyway. Leah feels like there’s a nail in her forehead. My head is stuffed with cotton. Even Dawa looks a little glazed. We stumble down the crumbling trail to 15,582-foot Gokyo, overlooking the frozen glacial lake, and spend the night slurping garlic soup (some say it helps with altitude) and black tea in a lodge warmed by a yak-dung stove.
The high village is perched in a magnificent setting, and we decide to spend a few days here. On a cloudy afternoon, we sit by the edge of the Ngozumpa Glacier, listening to it crack and grumble, stones tumbling down its retreating flanks. When the skies clear, we take side trips to high vistas—catching sunrise on the way up to the 17,519-foot overlook of Gokyo Peak, where we meet one of the local lodge owners stringing a line of prayer flags in the rocks. I ask him how often he comes up here. “Every day,” he responds, beaming proudly. Every day? I repeat, skeptically. We’re 2,000 feet above town. “Every morning,” he insists. He and a friend jump between rocks, stringing up the five-colored flags. Behind him, dozens and dozens of lines of old, fading flags snake away along the ridge, frosted with rime in the 25°F morning air.
The next morning, Dawa takes us on a side trip up the Gokyo valley. We walk several miles along the glacier toward the enormous crystal pyramid of Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth highest peak, and then veer off the trail, sidehilling for a couple of hours up faint yak paths to a stunning surprise: a private view of Everest. The cloud-caped pyramid looks like a black shark fin above the fluted peaks around it. Most of the Everest overlooks around the Khumbu are jammed with snapshot-mad trekkers. We sit by ourselves and watch the clouds swirling around the summit.
My misgivings about hiring a porter have been eroding, and the spectacular, private view eliminates any shred of doubt. We might have managed to follow the Three Passes route with some trial and error, but we never would have found our way here. And knowing the right trails and secret overlooks are just two of the ways Dawa keeps adding to our trip. His help is not only practical, like catching snippets of gossip as we hike, thus learning that a big commercial group is up ahead and rooms are short. But it’s also meaningful, like when he bridges the cultural gap, breaking the ice with monks and locals we meet along the trail. He gently corrects my cross-cultural faux paux—like asking a young Nepali woman porter how much her load weighs (a social no-no that made her blush with embarrassment).
Knowing my interest in Tibetan Buddhism, Dawa gets me an invite to watch the private prayer ceremony of the family running one of the lodges we stay in. I enter a room with an elaborate Buddhist shrine—an intricately painted wall of drawers and cubbies anchored by a Buddha and 14 silver bowls of water. The air is filled with the smoke of smoldering juniper branches and incense. I watch a young woman perform a ritual refilling of the water bowls, and make an offering of incense in an ornate copper censer. She bows and prostrates several times in a way that’s both casual and elaborate. I ask her how often she performs the ceremony, and should have expected the reply: “Every morning.”
Dawa thinks my interest in Buddhism is funny, and starts calling me “lama,” Tibetan for priest, and cracks himself up—flashing his broad, gap-toothed smile—every time he says it. But he isn’t without faith. Dawa passes every stupa and mani stone pile to the left in a sign of respect, even when he has to walk well out of his way to do so, and after a few days I find myself following his example, even when he isn’t around.