Everest base camp trek Thangnak to Phortse Tenga

Thangnak to Phortse Tenga – Day 11 – Trek to Everest Base Camp

It’s day 11 of our trek to Everest Base Camp – it’s been snowing heavily for most of the night.  We won’t be attempting the Cho La Pass – instead, we’re retreating from Thangnak to Phortse Tenga.  We need to do this, if we have any chance of getting to Everest Base Camp and back to Lukla in time for our flights back to Kathmandu.



Everest Base Camp Sign

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The wake-up knock came at 4:30am.  Breakfast to be at 5.  It was a warm if short night  The fleece liner, sleeping bag, and a duvet on top, plus I’m wearing thermals, a beanie, socks, and gloves.   Still, 4:30 is early.

There are porters milling around, this will be a tough day for them – we often forget that while we’re toting our day packs and water, they have upwards of 30 kilos on their backs.

Thangnak Lodge Waiting to Leave

There’s been more than a foot of snow outside.  And we’re at the bottom of the pass right now. at 4700 meters.  The Cho La Pass sits at 5420 meters and there will be even more snow up there.    It doesn’t look good.

Even from the toilet.

Deep Overnight snow at Thangnak

We Have Three Options

There are three options that Ramesh leads a discussion about.  We can go over the Cho La Pass.  There will be more snow higher up, a possibility of avalanche, and the dangerous roping area we talked about last night, well yes, even more, dangerous  That option is discounted pretty quickly by everyone.

We can stay another night here and hope the snow goes.  If it doesn’t we will have no chance at all to get to what is many people’s primary goal – get to Everest Base Camp.  This is hard because we all want to get to Base Camp, but we want to take the high pass too.  We want Base Camp more.

Thangnak to Phortse Tenga

Or we can head down the valley, all the way to Phortse Tenga – the glorious campsite by the side of the river where we stayed on Day 4. We will stay there for the night and then head back up the main valley.   Logically this is our only option if we want to get to base camp.  It just feels like a defeat though.  We’ve gained all this ground, now we’re going back down to almost start again.  We’ll be descending nearly 1,000 meters in altitude.  Still, we all suppose, the walking will be easier…

Thangnak to Phortse Tenga Logistics

If you’re interested in the details of how far we trekked each day and what the altitude gain is, here are those details.

Thangnak to Phortse Tenga Distance

I have no idea what the distance between Thangnak and Phortse Tenga is.  I just know that it was long and wet and exhausting.  And 11 hours of long wet and exhausting.

Thangnak to Phortse Tenga Altitude Gain

The altitude of Thangnak is 4700m, and the altitude of Phortse Tenga is 3680 m.  Today we descended over 1,000 meters.

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Thangnak to Phortse Tenga Time Trekking

It took us 11 hours to trudge, slip, slide and drop all the way from Thangnak to Phortse Tenga.

Thangnak to Phortse Tenga Map

Thangnak to Phortse Tenga Map

Setting off from Thangnak towards Phortse Tenga

And so after breakfast, on what becomes known as “Snow Day”, we head down the valley.  We’re all togged up.  Waterproof jackets and trousers.  Gaiters.  Crampons.  Covers on day packs.  (Find out what it was we brought on our trek in our Trek Gear List) Our Big Red Bags are covered in plastic.  Our porters are all in their red World Expeditions waterproof kit.

Rod waits to set off from Thangnak to Phortse Tenga

Trekking in snow

It’s kind of fun to start with.  There’s very little to see.  It’s just snow everywhere.  It’s hard to figure out the direction we’re going in, the blanketed whiteness is tough on the eyes too, so most of us wear sunglasses against the glare.

It makes for some very uninteresting photos.  Here’s the trail and the rest of the group.

Weather and Trail conditions Thangnak to Phortse Tenga

It’s not too difficult if you take it slow.  And we’re most definitely in single file.    Even Sherpa’s have to follow sometimes!  But not for long.

Slow Trail conditions from Thangnak to Phortse Tenga

It’s not long before we catch up with our porters.  That’s the first and last time we’ll do that.   There is no trail here.  No one has walked out before us so our team are cutting the trail.   Snow almost up to our knees might not sound like much, but when you’re carrying 30 kilos on your back it’s not easy.

Especially when there are the usual Nepali ups and downs to negotiate.  Lapka is called to the front to figure the trail out and after that, the porters lose us.

Cutting our own trail from Thangnak to Phortse Tenga
Porters on the Trail from Thangnak to Phortse Tenga

Getting Lost

For a good 30 minutes, it feels, though, as if we don’t know where we are going.  That our Sherpa guides are also as lost as we feel in the featureless landscape.

River Crossing Thangnak to Phortse Tenga

And then we spot the bridge (and of course have to get down to it),  on the other side of the river, there’s a more distinct trail – and a very distinct trail of people.  All heading back down the valley.  This is one of the main routes now.  It doesn’t mean it’s much easier, just that there are more people on the trail and we end up mixed up in other groups.

Trail Conditions Thangnak to Phortse Tenga

Trekking in my dotage

I’m stopped at one point by three folks.  Well, actually they stop for me to clamber up a narrow point and they wait for me to go past.  “‘Allo Madame,” says a French accent attached to a youthful male face.  “ow old are you?”    Too stunned to do anything other than reply, I tell him I’m 43.

“Ah, congratulations on doing this trek”, he smirks and waves goodbye.

I’m pretty sure it’s amusement that fuels the next couple of kilometers of trudging towards my dotage.  Or indignation.

Yak on the trail Thangnak to Phortse Tenga

And it is indeed a trudge.   The snow starts to lessen as we get further down the valley, but it’s hard to tell where we are.  We pass buildings heaped in snow that only days ago were in glorious sunshine and they’re unrecognizable. (see what it looked like en route from Machhermo to Gokyo and from Dhole to Machhermo)

Even when we corner the ridge and head down to Machhermo where we’ll lunch it’s almost a white out.

Campsite at Machhermo in the snow

Machhermo Lunch Stop

We snack on the goodie bags we’ve been given this morning, giving some of the items to our porters, who are sheltering in the dining room at Machhermo with us.  This is where we put Tim in the helicopter, on our Machhermo rest day, when he was medivaced out to Kathmandu.

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Then after a quick lunch, we have to get going again.   We have a long way to go.

This trek back down feels much longer and more difficult than coming up.  It’s still snowy underfoot.  It hasn’t melted to mud yet and the sky remains overcast, there’s no contrast between ground and sky.  The grey and brown landscape here is no more.   Just white.

It’s not particularly hard walking, it just feels endless, as if we are on the retreat, defeated, with no idea of where the end might be.

Machhermo to Dhole

Eventually, we make Dhole – our stop from 6 nights ago.  We trekked to Dhole from Phortse Tenga.  So far, we’ve trekked down two days’ worth of up in this one day,  one more to go.   It should be easier than this.

And on we go.   It’s now wet underfoot.  And as we walk through the trees it’s wet overhead.  It’s hard to figure out if you get wetter wearing a waterproof or not.  It’s much warmer now and the sweat or wet internal discussion starts.

Dhole to Phortse Tenga

And while it’s wet underfoot the snow is not all melted, so the rough steps and trail that we’re on need careful attention to avoid slithering and sliding and falling.

Finally, we’re at the top of the “wouldn’t wish it on a goat” hill that we crawled up 6 days ago, pleased only at the thought that we’d never have to go back down it.  And now, of course, we do.

Arriving in Phortse Tenga

Over the bridge at the bottom and the short walk through the woods to the Phortse Tenga campsite – the gloriously isolated one by the river.  I’m barely able to tell Lapka what my big red bag number is, as he effortlessly carries it and picks my tent for me.

The remainder of our group straggle in over the next two hours – I was mid-table again – in varying stages of exhaustion, all consistently wet though.  Manny’s boots (designed for the desert, not a mountain trek) are sodden again, his feet frozen and tingling, so he soaks them in washy water in the dining room where we all converge.

The dining room lighting is solar-powered, although there are Coleman lamps bright enough to have you confessing to anything, but there’s been little light today.  We eat mostly by headlamp and hang washing lines around the stove, hoping to dry boots, socks, and gloves.

Drying socks at Phortse Tenga

The weather tomorrow is likely to be the same as it was today and it will be another long day.  In order to meet our goal of getting to Base Camp, we need to now head back up the other valley and get back on track.   I’m cozy and warm, but walking pretty stiffly for the first time as I head off to the tent.  Dispirited that we’ve retreated, disheartened that it was such a long tough walk down and tomorrow will be harder as we go back up again in altitude.

Tomorrow we’ll be heading from here in Phortse Tenga to Dingboche. 

Read a Day by Day Guide to Trekking to Everest Base Camp

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