Twelve days in, we hit the second of the three passes, Cho La. From the village of Tagnak at 15,400 feet, the trail snakes toward a wall of snow-dusted peaks for about three miles before switchbacking through some steep, slick granite slabs and cresting the top at 17,782-feet. Unlike the first pass, we’re not alone on top: Porters and trekkers from commercial groups have converged at the same time. We don’t linger. Dawa borrows a rope from one of the porters and tosses it down a 10-foot, ice-glazed section of rocks. We ease down the slick ramp. The descent begins on the flat swale of a small glacier, then drops alongside the unbelievably sheer and monstrous north face of Cholatse. We spend the next few hours hiking along a perfect U-shaped glacial valley before intersecting the main trade route to Everest Base Camp and turning north toward Lobuche.
The detour to Everest Base Camp falls about midway around the Three Passes route, and it’s here we get our first hint of the trekker traffic ahead. We hear through Dawa’s Sherpa grapevine that there’s almost no vacancy in the next towns, and we race to beat a large group of Russians. We score beds, but the lodges here feel more like crowded huts in the Alps. Anyone who had hoped for a quiet peek at Sherpa culture might as well have Googled it.
But crowds be damned, there’s no denying the pull of Everest—or the magnificent scenery along the way. Legendary peaks rise on each side—Cholatse, Nuptse, Pumori. At Everest Base Camp, the Khumbu Icefall’s aquamarine carnage pours 2,000 feet off the Western Cwm (pronounced coom). Early one morning, we join the string of headlamps ascending 18,192-foot Kala Patar, a hill about 1,000 feet above the last lodges at Gorak Shep, to catch the sunrise over Everest and Nuptse, and the first light on the enormous white cone of Pumori.
At sunrise, a large, pushy crowd collects on the craggy summit. Dawa grabs my camera and takes the initiative to crop everyone else out of the frame by swinging out toward a precipice, stemming with his bald tread near a sheer drop. “That’s OK, Dawa. That’s good. Thanks buddy,” I say, trying to coax him off the edge.
“Yeah, yeah, no problem,” he says, leaning back farther and snapping away. I have to smile. By this point, I can’t imagine doing the trek without Dawa.