Day 11: Dzongla to Dragnag (via the Cho La Pass)
We woke up this morning to see Dzongla covered in snow, not the best conditions for crossing the Cho La Pass, the most difficult pass on the Everest Base Camp trek. It had gotten so cold during the night that the water in our water bottles had frozen solid while we slept. After breakfast, we set off on the trail which after winding around one hill we very quickly came to a long flat valley floor. We were the only people along this stretch and the footprints we had been following seemed to have disappeared. A steep hill was to our right and we figured that then we could walk along the ridge and over to where we thought the pass was, bad idea! We wasted about forty-five minutes and a lot of energy crawling up the gravelly incline and after getting to the top it dawned on us that there was absolutely no way this was the right path. Walking back down to the flats we saw two porters walking through the flat area towards the other end of the valley, they were headed for a base camp two-thirds of the way up the path. We decided to head that direction and sure enough, we were back on the right trail.
We looked up at the 600-metre sheer cliff face in front of us and tried to suss out the path ahead but we couldn’t figure out exactly how the path was going to get over the pass but we kept going anyway. We climbed up the initial ridge and then we were staring at what looked like a landslide of huge boulders that continued all the way to the top. Scrambling up the boulders was not easy but following the crudely painted arrows here and there we negotiated our way up to the prayer flags at the top. Turning around, we looked back at the stunning views behind us, took some photos and continued on.
We thought things had been difficult so far today but there were plenty of surprises still to come. The other hikers had left our lodge this morning at the crack of dawn and so now we were the only people in the middle of this huge pass. To our right was a massive glacier and looking down at it, it seemed to drop into the centre of the earth. In front of us was the way past. A tiny ledge of snow, no wider than a shoe, on a very steep hillside was what we had to cross and with a huge drop into the glacier below to our right my heart was in my mouth but we had to push on. I went first and together we slowly crept across, leaning all the weight of our bags to the left away from the drop. Every few steps we would sink knee-deep into the snow throwing us slightly off-balance, every step was unnerving but we eventually made it across to the other side unscathed.
With our hearts going ninety miles an hour, we stopped to rest and take in our surroundings. We were standing in the middle if what looked like a huge white field. It was about two soccer pitches wide and maybe four in length and with not a soul in sight it was incredibly peaceful. The snow was completely untouched, not a single blemish, except for an obvious path where others must have gone through that morning. We followed the path sinking into the snow as we went. To our left was an unstable-looking snow and ice-covered hill and as we hurried past I couldn’t stop thinking “avalanche, avalanche, avalanche”.
Reaching the end of the pass there was a frozen pool and the fun wasn’t over yet. We climbed up a vertical rocky, icy wall with a twenty-foot drop into the frozen pool below. Thinking it was surely going to be straightforward from here we made our way down over the rocks and gravel slowly, trying to figure out some sort of path along the way. With the day we were having, it was no surprise that we didn’t find a path at all and suddenly we heard a roar from way down in front of us. A guide was waving and screaming at us “left, left” and so we took his advice and luckily so. When we finally got down we looked back and realised why he had been shouting at us so intensely. Had we kept going on the path we were on, we would have walked straight over the edge of a vertical drop and gotten seriously hurt or worse. We still couldn’t believe we had made it down at all and after a short break, we continued over the huge moraine in front of us.
Finally, we were back on a dirt path and following the trail across the valley and up the other side we stopped to admire the unusual Tibetan Snowcocks building nests before reaching the top but still, there was no sign of Dragnag, our stop for the night. We followed the river down the mountainside, dropping more than 700 metres in altitude, as the darkness closed in and it began to snow quite heavily. We followed what hiking pole marks we could see in the fading light and just as we were starting to get worried Dragnag finally appeared around the corner.
Walking into the guesthouse absolutely wrecked from our hectic eight-hour hike we saw the relieved faces of the guide and the group that had been roaring at us from the valley floor. They looked at us as if to say “phew, they made it!”. Warming up with a cup of tea in the lodge, we shared that sentiment!