From Kathmandu, fly to Lukla on Yeti Airways (from $100 one way; yetiairways.com).
Permit Pick up a TIMS independent trekking permit ($10/person; taan.org.np) in Kathmandu.
Season Autumn boasts the clearest skies, but highest traffic. April has slightly fewer crowds, and blooming flowers.
Itinerary Many hikers go counterclockwise, since the route climbs more gradually in that direction. Go against the grain. Just take your time to get to Thame—the trip unfolds better, with more spectacular views, going east. Ideally, budget a full month to give yourself time for side trips, weather delays, and sick days.
Teahouses Expect to pay up to $6 per night for a double room, and $3-$8 for meals.
Island Peak $400 permit (and guide/gear) available in Chukkung. Get almost as high—no fee or climbing skill required—by scrambling to the top of Chukkung Tse, a 19,282-foot hill above town.
Map Get the Schneider 1:50,000 series Khumbu Himal in Namche Bazaar.
GuidebookTrekking in the Everest Region, by Jamie McGuinness, 5th edition ($16).
Porter/guide Most of the eager guides crowding arrivals at the Lukla airport are competent, but get a personal recommendation from your hotel operator (ask for Dawa Sherpa from Bhojpur!). Expect to pay $20 a day, plus a 20-percent tip.
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.