Climbing over Cho La pass in Nepal was quite possibly the most physically and mentally challenging day of my life.
November 15, 2018 (Trek Day 10) – The day started pre-dawn in Thagnak. The air was cold, but the skies were clear giving us a bit of encouragement as we started out the days journey. I knew this day of the trek would be challenging, but I didn’t know exactly what to expect. In order to get to our next destination, Dzongla, we needed to hike over Cho La pass along the Gokyo trail. For those who are unfamiliar, a “pass” is a point at which hikers or climbers must summit a mountain ridge to continue along the same trail. Cho La pass reaches a peak of 17,782 feet (5,420 meters). For perspective, Everest Base Camp rests at approximately 17,600 feet (5,380 meters) which is lower in elevation than the pass we were about to climb.
The first hour of the hike was a slow and steady incline with a cross through an open flat range. We could see the mountains in front of us, but at this point we were unsure of where the climb over the pass began. When we reached the bottom of the mountain, the trail ahead looked incredible. Cliff faces, boulders, and no less than a 45 degree incline the whole way up. We rested for a bit to collect ourselves, get our gear all set, and get ready to go.
To help illustrate the difficulty of this pass, I want to take a minute to describe the environment. The trail up the pass was a series of switchbacks up a volatile rock fall area. Our porters warned us to take minimal breaks because of the risk of rocks coming loose. The majority of the climb involved scrambling and scaling large rocks with steep drop offs on either side. There may have been one or two moments where I thought ropes would have been useful in providing an added level of safety. If climbing non-stop up a rock fall over boulders wasn’t challenging enough, we were taking in 50% less oxygen than we would be down at sea level due to the elevation. Lastly, and thankfully, the weather was nice, or that would have added a whole other layer of difficulty to the challenge.
This climb was straight up for 5 hours providing a true test of our inner strength and ability to get to the top. Our lead porter, Ram, stayed with me the whole way up. He would continuously encourage me to keep moving and not stay in one place for too along. He never displayed any frustration with my pace, just encouragement to keep going to the top. When we reached the top of the pass, I cried out of joy and pain. I embraced my friends, cheered with joy, and looked back at the accomplishment we had just achieved. The view from up there was what dreams are made of.
We rested, ate some lunch, and regained our strength for the several hour journey down the other side of the pass. For this part of the trek, we put spikes on over our boots to cross the icefall below. This was my first time using spikes, or crampons, and was both excited and little anxious about what was to come. As we made out way down over the ice, you could hear creaks and cracks all around us. The environment on this side of the pass was a mixture of the icefall, rocks, at roughly a 30 degree decline. Sometimes the ice was covered in snow and sometimes it was sticking up like shards of glass. Pretty treacherous terrain, but we moved cautiously down the mountain.
That was until in a split second I was laying on the ground. I had slipped on the ice. Even with spikes and poles, I had fallen in an instant with all of my weight. I sat there in shock at first, then mentally took inventory of my body for pain, then with the help of those around me got back up. This fall put me on edge to say the least. We continued down the trail and I began to get my confidence back.
Then, out of nowhere, the boulder under me came loose, and I fell to the ground. This time I immediately put my arms up over my head. My first thought was, “usually when something comes loose in this environment, other debris is going with it.” Thankfully that was not the case and my friends were right there to grab me after the fall. This one hurt, and mentally had pushed me to my limit for the day. I sat upright, shed a tear or two, caught my breath, and got up. At this point, I was not in the best of moods, but knew I had to keep going.
The rest of the hike had a steep decline with several climbs down boulders. The fog settled in and we found ourselves on a grassy plateau for the remaining few hours of the trek. Our bodies were tired, but we were thankful for the calm end to the 8-hour mountain pass hike. Sitting in the tea house that night, we drank black team, ate biscuits, and told stories of the day.
Cho La pass was an incredible experience and personal challenge. The key lessons that I learned were that I need more practice in both mountain pass and glacial environments. I now have a better understanding of my current limits and where I need to further develop my skills and abilities.
Below is a google map of where Cho La pass is located in the Himalayan mountains of Nepal.