Monday, October 1, 2018

Everest Trek: The crossing of Cho La Pass (5420m)

Cho La Pass
The Everest trekking season is here once again and many trekkers will be attempting to cross the Cho La which links the Khumbu and Gokyo valleys. This post gives an account of this crossing.

Many years ago I was sitting in a lodge in Upper Pisang on the Annapurna circuit trek. I started a conversation with an elderly Jewish gentleman who was quite amazed to see Indian trekkers in Nepal. In the course of our discussion I happened to mention that I had trekked in the Khumbu.
"But have you crossed the Cho La" he demanded.
I replied that I had not.
"If you haven't crossed the Cho La you haven't done the Khumbu" he replied triumphantly.
This remark rankled me and for the next few years whenever I went to the Khumbu, the Cho La was on my radar. However invariably due to bad weather, snowfall, etc the pass could not be crossed. This happened on a number of occasions.

Finally on November 18th 2015 in near perfect conditions we crossed the pass from Dzongla on the Lobuche side to Thagnak on the Gokyo side. It had been more than 15 years since that discussion in Upper Pisang.

A detailed account of the crossing along with photographs is below.

November 17th 2015
Indraneel, Sanjukta and myself accompanied by our sirdar Shyam and two porters left Lobuche around 9.40 am for Dzongla, which comprises of a number of lodges at the foot of the pass. The trail initially followed the main trail down to Pheriche but after around 25 min, the main trail crosses the stream over to the other side. Do not cross but remain on the same side of the valley. The trail then crosses a broad maidan which is used as the Base Camp of Lobuche East.

It then starts climbing and skirting the hill directly opposite to the Pheriche trail. After a few minutes you can see the lodges of Dugla far below, the Dudh Kosi river and in the distance Pheriche. The view is extremely impressive covering Pumori, Lingtren, Kumbutse, Nuptse, Ama Dablam, Kangtega, Thamserku, Taboche, Cholatse and Lobuche East. A feat for the eyes!

In around an hour and a half the trail turns a corner and you can see a beautiful emerald green lake below Cholatse. The trail then travels high above the shores of the lake until it reaches a high point from where the lodges of Dzongla can be seen across the valley.

The lodges of Dzongla and the first part of the route marked in red
The last thirty minutes crosses a frozen stream and then climbs up gently to the lodges of Dzongla. We stayed at the Mountain Home lodge which was pretty full with trekkers both going to Gokyo and coming down from Cho La. 

Around three in the afternoon, we got the news of an accident. A trekker coming down had been injured in a rock fall and she could not move. She was carried down in a make shift stretcher in a Gamow bag. By then the weather had broken and a thick cloud cover had reduced visibility to fifty metres. No helicopter could come in today to pick her up. The thick cloud cover, the chilling temperatures and the aftermath of the accident depressed us sitting in our lodge dining room. While I wrote this note Shyam and the other sirdar's were engaged in a game of cards. We all hoped that the weather would improve tomorrow.
Lobuche (4940m) to Dzongla (4850m) 3 to 4 hours easy walking

November 18th 2015
We had decided to have breakfast at 4.30am and leave at 5 am for the pass provided the weather was good. I woke up at around 3. 30 am after a bitterly cold night- somehow Dzongla was the coldest place we had stayed in so far on this trek. I looked out of the window from my sleeping bag and found the stars shining brightly in the sky - our climb was on!

Ultimately we got away at around 5.40am. As I stepped outside the night sky was fading and Ama Dablam was in silhouette bedecked by the stars.

Ama Dablam before dawn on th start of the walk to Cho La
To the east was Cholatse it's menacing wall dominating Dzongla. We used our headlamps to navigate the trail. It was cold around 8c below zero and despite my gloves my hands became numb and started to pain.

The trail was more or less level for the first fifty minutes remaining below Cholatse and crossing some small streams which were frozen in the early morning. It then started to limb up to a ridge which we reached around 7 am and around the same time the rays of the morning sun hit us, chilled as we were to the bone. In front of us was a formidable rock face. The trail now vanished and we had to scramble over rocks and boulders staying close to the rock face.

Cho la has a history of falling boulders and we moved carefully keeping a look out for any rock falls and sounds.

Scrambling over boulders
The climb through the boulders took around 45 minutes and we reached the top of a ridge which was also a small pass with cairns on top which would be useful when the area was under snow. The trail then took a sharp left turn and we were soon on a vast snowfield just below the Cho La which could not be seen from this point. Luckily for us the snow was hard and we followed the footprints of the trekkers in front of us.

Crossing the snow field below Cho La
We had brought micro spikes for the snow but they were not needed. The peaks had also started to open up and we saw Baruntse, a peak not seen very often in the Khumbu. The tip of Makalu was also visible.

We climbed gently up the snowfield avoiding the crevasses to the right some of which were large. Finally we could see the pass above us and fairly close. The trail to the top had been almost obliterated and another scramble over snow and rocks followed. Luckily a rope had been fixed for a few metres which we could hold on to before reaching the top.
The last scramble over rocks to the top of Cho La
The view was indeed impressive. A long chain of peaks were visible towards the Gokyo side and looking back towards the way we had come were Lobuche , the tip of Lhotse and Lhotse Shar, Makalu , Baruntse, and Pokhalde, a trekking peak.
Looking back from the top of Cho La towards the Dzongla side and the snow field which we had crossed. The trekkers are heading towards Dzongla
It had taken us almost four hours to reach the top from Dzongla, though the usual time was around three to three and a half hours. We stayed on top for about half an hour and then started down. It was just after 10 am. As it is with most high passes in Nepal, the descent was harder than the ascent! The trail dropped away steeply and the scree and rubble made the descent even more precipitous.

The difficult descent from the top of the pass through scree and boulders

From the top of Cho La looking towards the Gokyo side. The red line indicates the route which we would have to follow to the pass with the prayer flag (see photo below). 
Even with trekking poles it was hard to maintain balance. In some places the trail had vanished and scrambling over rocks was the only way of descent.

The rocks finally ended and we dropped down to a level patch in about 75 minutes from the top where we stopped for a break. In front the trail climbed up to a small pass which could be seen from a distance - it had a prayer flag on top.

The pass with the prayer flag. Its is still 75 minutes to Thangnak from here.
From this pass also there were good views of the trail going back up to Cho la as well as some of the peaks like Cholatse. From this pass the trail dropped down again to the valley and finally followed the river all the way to Thangnak. It would take around an hour to 75 minutes to reach Thangnak from here.

Dzongla (4850m) to Cho La(5420m) 3 to 4 hours; Cho La to Thangnak (4700m) 3 to 4 hours

November 19 2015

We left Thangnak around 9. 15am in the morning. The trail followed a path for around 30 minutes and then reached a small pass with a white prayer flag. From the pass we could see across the whole Ngozumpa glacier and our route across the glacier to Gokyo.

The present route actoss the Ngozumpa glacier to Gokyo from Thangnak
All through this walk in front of us was Cho Oyu and behind were Cholatse, Taboche, Kangtega and Thamserku. The path then dropped steeply from the pass onto a rough trail which skirted the edge of the glacier for around 30 minutes. It then started to cross the glacier through the tangle of rubble and scree. It was a tenuous route with parts requiring scrambling over rock and rubble. The trail came onto a broad plain right in the middle of the glacier and then descended again.

Cho Oyu and the Ngozumpa glacier
We could see the trail on the other side across the rubble leading up to a high point above the third lake of Gokyo.

Finally about two hours after leaving Thangnak we reached the grassy trail which climbed up to a ridge from where we had a splendid view of the third lake of Gokyo, the trail to Gokyo Ri and the peaks around Gokyo.
The lodges and the third lake of Gokyo
It was quite apparent that the path across the glacier changes from time to time and possibly a new route needs to be developed every season depending on the movement of the glacier.

Thangnak (4700m) to Gokyo(4750m) 2 hrs 30 min to 3 hours

Note: It is easier to cross the pass from the Dzongla side than from the Gokyo side as there is a very long uphill climb from Thangnak to the top of Cho La which is easier to desscend despite the scree and boulders. We found trekkers as late as noon below the Cho La who had started from Thangnak in the morning and they were still a good hour and a half away from the top. Also rockfall increases as the day progresses so it is best to be over the top by 9 am-10 am.


  1. Enjoyed reading about this tough adventurous account and the pics...

  2. Great account, Sujoy. Fantastic photos.

  3. Thank u for this was really very informative and a wonderful read..we r doing this route in the first week of October this year..felt like as if I was already doing it..the pics were great too..

    1. Thanks Baishan, I hope this year the monsoon is finished by the first week of October as weather is very important for this crossing - Good luck!

  4. Thanks Sujoy. Very informative and actually interesting to read.

  5. Hi Sujoy. Great information on the route regarding glacier at Chola Pass. Could it be possible to hire a guide at Tokyo or Dzongla specifically to cross Chola Pass?

    1. Unlikely as there are only lodges and lodge owners there- you can follow a group up the Cho La usually in season a lot of trekkers cross the pass



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