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Running Nepal’s Three Passes

Runners redemption? Or learning to let go.

Kim Strom

September 25th, 2023

13 min read


Photos by Dan Patitucci

Relax. And Maybe.

In Phakding, a Sherpa guide borrows a chair from our table to scoot closer to the heat of the stove. He’s wearing a black t-shirt with a strand of prayer flags across the chest. Above the blue, white, red, green, and yellow flags, three words: Relax. And maybe.

As we scoop our first spoonfuls of dal bhat, I nod to him, “like the shirt,” and we share a laugh, a knowing huff through our nostrils. One of Nepal’s mottos, along with “bistare bistare” (slowly, slowly), it expresses a disparity in our ways of thinking.

Nepal’s Khumbu valley isn’t exactly a place for relaxing. And “maybe” seems all too noncommittal. The dining room’s perimeter is lined with people on agendas. Some already wearing their 8000-meter boots while slurping their soup. Some are aiming for Everest, others for Everest Base Camp, some for the Everest marathon. They all have plans to do this, that, or some other big thing based around the tallest mountain on earth. Their plans have been set, calculated, weighed, worst case scenario-ed, back-up planned, and re-packed. Multiple times.

Just like ours.

The view from a helicopter as it arrives to the Lukla airport, Nepal

Dan and I are in Nepal to run Three Passes.

It’s a popular trekking route in Nepal that goes over three high passes. Kongma La (5,5400 meters / 18,176 feet), Cho La (5,420 meters / 17,782 feet), and Renjo La (5,435 meters / 17,830 feet). The full trekking route makes a loop traveling in either direction from Namche, the largest village in the Khumbu Valley. Large meaning there are cafes, small markets, some fruit and vegetables, amenities that haven’t had to be carried for too many days up the valley. Our plan is to do all three passes in a day from Chukhung, a small cluster of tea houses situated at 4700 meters / 15,420 feet, the closest base to the easternmost pass, and the perfect base for acclimatization before finishing back in Namche.

Most of us have arrived today on a flight or heli from Kathmandu to Lukla. A few are headed back down. So far, we’ve walked just a couple hours to Phakding, the typical first stop before reaching Namche the following day.

“What time is our flight?” A Canadian woman tries to coax the next day’s plan from her guide.

“Just get a good sleep and we will have a good breakfast,” is not the time stamped response she was after.

“But what time do I need to wake up?” She tries again.

“Just delete your stress. After sleep, we will have a good breakfast. And then go.”

“Delete your stress.” The whole room laughs at that one.

It’s a popular trekking route in Nepal that goes over three high passes. Kongma La (5,5400 meters / 18,176 feet), Cho La (5,420 meters / 17,782 feet), and Renjo La (5,435 meters / 17,830 feet). The full trekking route makes a loop traveling in either direction from Namche, the largest village in the Khumbu Valley.

Also among the guests at the tea house gathered around the yak-dung fueled stove, is a group of trekkers from Kyrgyzstan on their way to EBC. One is a blind politician. His friend Akhmed sits down at our table and starts introductions.

“My friend in the glasses over there,” he nods across the room over his shoulder, “is the only honest politician I know of. Maybe I think that because he’s my friend, but I really trust him.”

“But how can he walk on these rough trails?”

“He is very driven. And he holds my arm.”

Dan and I both imagine that scene in the movie Amelie. She takes the blind man’s arm, walks him across the street, describing the scene, who walks past, the lollipops in the bakery window, the horse statue has lost an ear, sliced melon, a baby’s watching a dog that’s watching the roasting chickens, and now the metro kiosk…all in a blur of harmony. I picture their hike like that, only maneuvering rocks with each step, and much longer.

We separate from the crowds going up the Khumbu to make our way up the Gokyo Valley, a less direct way to Chukhung, by Dhole, Machermo, Dragnag, over Cho La, Dzonglha, Dingboche. But in the morning, before our trails split, Akhmed gives Dan a quick lesson on how to guide Dastan and entrusts his friend to his lead for a section of unusually smooth walking. Watching the changes in the ground for each step, tense and cautious, Dan leads him by the elbow. 

Some days later we see Dastan standing at EBC in a photo. The friends sent us an update, Dastan wearing his felt Ak-kalpak hat, and a wide grin.

We intend to spend exactly ten to twelve days in Chukhung until weather, acclimatization, and good health align to attempt the run. While we make short runs from there up to Chukhung Ri, down to Dingboche, to Lobuche base camp, towards Kongma La, to Island Peak base camp, we settle into our temporary home, eat noodles and rice, sleep through long nights, and try our hardest to stop being sick. We’d both picked up the usual sinus infections and coughs somewhere lower in the valley. Mine started in the ears and sat in my face before moving into the hollow Khumbu cough deep in my chest. Dan’s condition is similar, but also requires naps. From the sounds that pass through the plywood walls, nearly everyone passing through has it too. The rooms fail to contain the hacking, farting, and even crying that fills them.

We can’t be sick, again. In 2018, Dan and I came with a similar plan. And we made it over two passes before calling it quits in Gokyo because I had this same infection. The pressure was so strong that my sinuses started leaking out my eyes. I may have had some altitude sickness too, and I was in bad shape so we stopped for the night and finished from Gokyo over the third pass, Renjo La, to Namche the following day.

For both of us Three Passes felt unfinished.

Five years later, we’re here again.

Same same. The menu, fried noodles, fried rice, fried eggs, fried bread. The expedition photos between windows covered in blue curtains, yaks standing outside on the frozen ground. Cold air pushing through open spaces. Snow chickens waddling over the rocks. And the same infection compromising our plans.

Again, we question: Will we recover? Will the weather be good? Can we do it?

Maybe is all we’ve got.

We step out of the guest house into dim morning light, and look down at the new snow that gathered around our ankles. Overnight, ten fresh centimeters covered the roof, the tables, the trails, the rocks and passes. Maybe the morning sun would melt it quickly, so we start off towards Kongma La, the first pass.

We move slowly enough to keep our breathing relaxed, and the snow doesn’t pose much of a problem until obscuring the talus descent into the Khumbu Valley. The first pass behind us, we  are able to run, and gain some distance, as we make our way toward Cho La, already sunless and snowing again.

“Try singing,” I sputter into the sideways-blowing snow as we approach the second pass. I’m amused by only squeaking out two or three syllables at this elevation. After Cho La, we get to Gokyo by crossing a crumbling rock glacier. We make a quick stop to refill water at Gokyo, and feel the pressure to get over Renjo La and down to less technical terrain before dark.

We move efficiently up Renjo La, even the extra 200 meters (600 feet) of it that are mislabeled on the maps. Over the pass, darkness reaches down from the sky and a thick cloud rises from below. We hustle over slick rocks, the talus trail hidden beneath snow, our pulses high from the stress of wayfinding into a dark fog.

The cloud descends with us and the sky is clear and black as we drop onto a less technical part of the trail. We run through silence and darkness, even our footsteps swallowed by soft ground and enormity. For a few seconds a thin orange moon, like a smile, glows between a black sky and a black silhouette ridge.

At Lungdhen, our bodies turn off the trail, drawn towards a dim light. Inside the tea house, two Nepali are sitting beside the last warmth from the stove. We join them and answer their questions. It’s only 8:30, but everyone else is sleeping.

We don’t intend to stop, we haven’t decided or even discussed quitting. We’re only three passes and 14.5 hours from this morning in Chukhung.

I find myself tucked-in beneath a pile of stinky blankets too early. Shivering in wet socks, sweat-salted clothes, with my mind still moving towards Namche.

We can make it there in just a few more hours, it’s mostly downhill, but this is our last chance to find beds tonight. The doors will be locked if we continue to town, but we can wait in a doorway until morning…

Our route had an arbitrary start in Chukhung to an arbitrary finish in Namche. Or maybe that arbitrary finish could be in Lungdhen. We had made it over all three passes, from Chukhung to Lungdhen. I stared at the cracks in the ceiling until I let go of the plan, and slept.

Dan Patitucci and Kim Strom running the Himalaya’s 3 Passes trek in a one day push in snowy, cold weather. Khumbu Valley, Nepal.

After the Three Passes push, we have some days waiting in Namche before we need to end up in Lukla to fly back to Kathmandu. I’m decidedly not finished.

“Can we do this? Can we go there? What about Sunder Peak? We could run…”

Dan puts me off. “We’ll see. First rest. Maybe.”

We eat fruits and vegetables and run at lower altitudes and drink more tea and take our first shower in over three weeks and sleep really well, I already want to go higher again. But as I rub crust from my eyes and peer through the narrow opening in my sleeping bag, the bare lightbulb wobbles away from the center of the ceiling. My running vest, still not unpacked, sways from its hook beside the door, and as I try to sit up, the entire room swings and swirls.  

The sinus infection turned into vertigo. I can’t focus or balance and I stumble even down the smooth hallway, but we need to start our walk from Namche back to Lukla over the uneven and shifting stones.

As we step out of the guest house, beneath the yak statue, Dan bends his arm across his middle and I thread mine through.

“I’ll help you. Step down.”

Slowly, slowly.

A fog has settled below the high mountains. A light rain taps the brims of our hats. Everything is green and damp. Breathing is easier now.

The bridge is tasseled with cream colored scarves. A white-capped water redstart stands on a low branch. Water pools in deep, clear ovals. A woman calls Namaste, she’s wearing a checkered apron and a deeply lined smile. A chicken balances on a fence rail. Dogs are curled in the middle of the way. A line of children walk to school wearing red sweater vests. Coffee beans are roasting. A man saddles a white horse with a quilted cover and round bells. An old man walks with a cane in one hand and spins a long line of Buddhist wheels into motion with his free hand. Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ emerges in relief on a boulder on our right. Smoke rises from golden leaf burning in brass bowls. Yaks chime as they saunter under their loads. Strands of blue, white, red, green, and yellow flags release their prayers into the wind.  

2 thoughts on "Running Nepal’s Three Passes"

  1. Mandy Gill says:

    I loved reading this. Thanks for your raw honesty of the beauty, and also challenges that Nepal presents to those of us fortunate to embrace its monstrous, yet delicate beauty. As a mountaineer climbing Ama Dablam and Lobuche Peak last year, this brought back so many wonderful memories. And also the ones of getting a very similar sounding infection in my chest. Following 4 weeks of climbing, the shower in Kathmandu was so welcomed to be in a lower elevation, and let the steam do its work. Congratulations on both of these huge endeavours!

  2. Lonna Ramirez says:

    Wow. I can appreciate how difficult it would be to do the 3 passes in a day (particularly Cho La, which had deep snow/crevasses to avoid)! We hiked this 10 years ago–between the altitude and the stomach and respiratory illnesses, it was far from easy! I remember the lodge in Chukkung fondly, where we stayed for a few days and played cards with some of the porters. Thanks for the article. It was fun to read about this area and an experience I’ll never forget.

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