I Explored the Great Himalaya Trails With a Local Family As My Guide — Here’s How You Can, Too

In the land made famous by Mount Everest, luxurious lodges and new trekking routes are safeguarding an ancient culture.

<p>Carol Sachs</p> Namgyal Sherpa dives into Chhema Lake, in Lower Mustang.

Carol Sachs

Namgyal Sherpa dives into Chhema Lake, in Lower Mustang.

On a crisp morning in October, I flew, with some trepidation, on a small commercial plane from the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, to the town of Lukla, often described as the gateway to Mount Everest. Lukla’s Tenzing Hillary Airport is the first thing that comes up when you type “world’s most dangerous airport” into Google, mostly thanks to its incredibly short, L-shaped runway. But by the time we began our descent into Lukla, which sits at an altitude of 9,350 feet, I was so spellbound by my first sighting of the Himalayas that I barely noticed the landing.

<p>Carol Sachs</p> From left: An alfresco lunch at Chhema Lake arranged by Shinta Mani Mustang; momo for lunch at Jhong Monastery.

Carol Sachs

From left: An alfresco lunch at Chhema Lake arranged by Shinta Mani Mustang; momo for lunch at Jhong Monastery.

It was a fitting introduction to a trip designed to highlight Nepal’s extraordinary mountain landscapes, the forces that threaten their future, and the people looking for new ways to protect them. My journey was to begin with an eight-day trek along a new circuit of the Everest Base Camp Trail, sleeping in upscale lodges along the way. Then I would fly west to stay at the highly anticipated — and extremely remote — new Shinta Mani Mustang, a hotel designed by Bill Bensley, one of the biggest names in Asian hotel design.

<p>Carol Sachs</p> From left: Nepalese embroidery on the Shinta Mani staff uniform; inside Shinta Mani's bar.

Carol Sachs

From left: Nepalese embroidery on the Shinta Mani staff uniform; inside Shinta Mani's bar.

Soon after we disembarked, our group — about a dozen intrepid middle-aged international travelers — strolled down Lukla’s main avenue. Thousands of colorful prayer flags were strung up overhead, and every storefront seemed to be a café or a shop selling gear and souvenirs. We made a quick stop at Lukla Lodge, a small hotel with mint-green shutters. As we sipped milky, cardamom-infused masala tea on the terrace, Namgyal Sherpa, the host for our trip, gave us an overview of the places we’d be staying. Namgyal and his family own Mountain Lodges of Nepal, a collection of more than a dozen small hotels, including the one in which we were sitting. “This lodge was the first one my father built, 24 years ago,” Namgyal said. (The family’s operations extend to Nepalese tour operators, expedition companies, and even regional air transportation.)

Related: 25 Incredible Hiking Trails Around the World

<p>Carol Sachs</p> From left: Shinta Mani Mustang's lounge; a traditional Nepalese trunk at the hotel.

Carol Sachs

From left: Shinta Mani Mustang's lounge; a traditional Nepalese trunk at the hotel.

Namgyal’s father, Sonam Sherpa, is a renowned mountain climber and expedition organizer who has summited some of the world’s most iconic peaks, including Mont Blanc and Kilimanjaro. He set up the lodges in hopes of bringing new sources of income to his community.

In 1953, the New Zealand–born explorer Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa partner, Tenzing Norgay, gained fame as the “first” people to ascend Mount Everest. But the Sherpa people, an ethnic group native to Tibet, had been living and climbing among the high peaks of the Himalayas for centuries. Today, locals are so often employed to help climbers that the word sherpa has come to mean someone who carries someone else’s backpack. (It’s also common among Sherpas to take the term as their last name, as Namgyal and his family have).

<p>Carol Sachs</p> From left: Buddhist monks at Jharkot Monastery; villagers in traditional dress perform a dance at Thame Lodge.

Carol Sachs

From left: Buddhist monks at Jharkot Monastery; villagers in traditional dress perform a dance at Thame Lodge.

But within the climbing world, a major reckoning is under way — and the story of Namgyal’s mother, Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, has been a central part of it. A riveting documentary about her life as an entrepreneur and activist, Pasang: In the Shadow of Everest, drew attention to the pivotal role the native community has long played in the industry when it debuted in the U.S. in 2022. The film recounts Pasang’s story: In 1993 she became the first recorded Sherpa woman to reach the mountain’s peak — only to tragically die in a storm on her way back down.

<p>Carol Sachs</p> From left: Stopping for lunch on the walk from Namche Bazaar to Thame; on the trail between the villages of Lukla and Phakding.

Carol Sachs

From left: Stopping for lunch on the walk from Namche Bazaar to Thame; on the trail between the villages of Lukla and Phakding.

“My mother was fighting a double fight,” Namgyal told me. “For women, and for Sherpas. She asked, ‘Why can’t we do more than carry people’s bags?’ ” Now Namgyal is honoring Pasang’s memory by creating experiences that help travelers engage with local people and culture — like the trek I was about to embark on. With the help of travel consultant Jason Friedman, Namgyal and his family are developing new circuits that bring much-needed tourism revenue to Nepal’s less-explored communities, while offering routes that are more accessible to non-backpackers.

<p>Carol Sachs</p> From left: A group of travelers at Monjo Lodge getting ready for the day's hike; the bar at Phakding Lodge, on the Dudh Koshi river.

Carol Sachs

From left: A group of travelers at Monjo Lodge getting ready for the day's hike; the bar at Phakding Lodge, on the Dudh Koshi river.

After changing into our hiking boots at Lukla Lodge, we made our way to the edge of town, where one such path would take us in the direction of Everest Base Camp. The trailhead was marked by a stone gate with a roof of red ceramic tiles; plinths on either side held identical busts of a proud, smiling Sherpa woman. Namgyal didn’t say anything as we walked past, but I saw that the statues were of his mother.

<p>Carol Sachs</p> From left: The Himalayas as seen from Jhong Monastery; sheep grazing near Shinta Mani Mustang lodge.

Carol Sachs

From left: The Himalayas as seen from Jhong Monastery; sheep grazing near Shinta Mani Mustang lodge.

Our group — along with Namgyal, Friedman, five local porters, and a guide — was slated to cover 17 miles in eight days. As we began our first day of hiking, each of us walked at our own pace; some alone, others chatting in groups. We passed backpackers, porters carrying luggage, long-haired yaks with jangling bells, and cylindrical, carved-wood prayer wheels that spun at my touch, installed on the façades of buildings. Mani walls, made of stones and painted with Buddhist mantras and symbols, often lined our path. The landscape around us was green and hilly; on all sides, the white-dusted Himalayas reared up, larger than life.

<p>Carol Sachs</p> From left: Travelers' luggage waits outside Thame Lodge; Namgyal Sherpa, whose family owns Mountain Lodges of Nepal.

Carol Sachs

From left: Travelers' luggage waits outside Thame Lodge; Namgyal Sherpa, whose family owns Mountain Lodges of Nepal.

More than four hours later, we arrived at Phakding Lodge, a welcoming 18-room complex named after the surrounding village. I was happy to trade my boots for slippers and sip a mug of hot lemon water before dinner, which was served in a dining room with towering ceilings and windows overlooking a bend of the Dudh Koshi River. “The Mountain Lodges are the only accommodation on the Base Camp Trail that offer delicious food, good beds, and a warm shower,” Friedman told me. My room, paneled in local wood, was cozy and cabin-like, and when I gratefully crawled into bed that night, the sheets were already warm, thanks to an electric blanket.



"Mani walls, made of stones and painted with Buddhist mantras and symbols, often lined our path. The landscape around us was green and hilly; on all sides, the white-dusted Himalayas reared up, larger than life."



The next morning, instead of following the main trail, Namgyal and Friedman led us on a short detour, across the river and up a wooded slope, in the direction of the 17th-century Rimijung Monastery. The path narrowed as it meandered through a pine forest, then past small farmhouses surrounded by fields of corn, potatoes, and wheat. Clusters of laughing, red-cheeked children in uniforms waved at us on their walk to school, which our guide, Rinji Sherpa, told me could take as long as an hour.

<p>Carol Sachs</p> A Shinta Mani Mustang suite with views of the Himalayas.

Carol Sachs

A Shinta Mani Mustang suite with views of the Himalayas.

Arriving at Rimijung Monastery about an hour later, Namgyal greeted one of the resident monks as I gazed up at the building’s dramatic façade: rust red, set with elaborately carved orange window frames and prayer wheels on the wall. The sound of drums and Tibetan horns drifted from one of the windows as monks in training practiced ceremonial music. A smell like honey wafted from a pile of drying azaleas that would later be ground into powder and turned into incense. In the distance I could see Mount Thamserku, its jagged outline sharp as a serrated knife. Namgyal told me that his father risked his life when he ascended its treacherous peak in 1987. After he safely returned, Sonam named the family mountaineering company Thamserku Trekking in honor of that summit. Now, because of climate change, the lack of snow makes it impossible to climb.

<p>Carol Sachs</p> A view of the Himalayas from Thame Lodge.

Carol Sachs

A view of the Himalayas from Thame Lodge.

The following two days rolled by as we hiked north more than six miles, slowly gaining altitude, often following (and crossing) the Dudh Koshi River. We passed grazing ponies and more mani stone walls, and one day sat down spontaneously to eat momo, Nepalese dumplings, at an outdoor café. Entering the town of Namche Bazaar, a former trading post set at an elevation of around 11,400 feet, felt like arriving at a Himalayan backpacker’s heaven: there were shops loaded with gear, Irish pubs, and cafés selling banana pancakes and microbrews. Especially during “Everest season” — a two-month window in April and May in which climbers flock to the mountain — the town is filled with travelers letting off steam, acclimating to the thin air, and waiting for the best moment to start their ascents.

<p>Carol Sachs</p> The Bauddhanath Stupa, the largest Buddhist monument in Nepal.

Carol Sachs

The Bauddhanath Stupa, the largest Buddhist monument in Nepal.

Every year, about 800 hopefuls and their support teams try to summit the famous peak. In addition, approximately 30,000 hike the Everest Base Camp Trail. About 80 miles long, this round-trip route begins at Lukla and reaches 17,598 feet at Base Camp; it takes most people about two weeks to complete. “Everyone rushes along the trail, pushing themselves to be at the next place by a certain time, barely pausing to take in the villages they pass,” Namgyal said. “We want people to slow down, experience local culture, take in the beauty of the mountains.”



“Everyone rushes along the trail, pushing themselves to be at the next place by a certain time, barely pausing to take in the villages they pass,” Namgyal said. “We want people to slow down, experience local culture, take in the beauty of the mountains.”



The next day was the hardest for me; short of breath from the altitude, I walked slowly. But it was also by far the most spectacular stretch of the trail. Where other trekkers headed east toward Everest Base Camp, we went west in the direction of the village of Thame, for no other reason than that it was the road less traveled — and in Friedman and Namgyal’s opinion, exceptionally beautiful. They were right: the trail snaked along valleys backed by majestic peaks, passed the occasional yak munching on wildflowers and grass, crossed rushing rivers, and ran through tiny villages. We didn’t meet a single other traveler the entire time.

<p>Carol Sachs</p> A yak on the path between the towns of Namche Bazaar and Thame.

Carol Sachs

A yak on the path between the towns of Namche Bazaar and Thame.

After crossing a river gorge over a long hanging bridge and hiking up yet another steep slope, I rounded a bend to find a completely different kind of landscape. The open, rocky mountain terrain had been softened by rhododendron bushes and an icy blue stream, covered in some places by rolling fog. Passing through the whitewashed, pagoda-shaped town gate to Thame, I saw green fields crisscrossed by stone walls, with horses grazing within. Soon we reached the 18-room Thame Lodge. It had been a long day, so when we walked into the lounge, decorated with brightly painted murals, I collapsed on a sofa and sipped a warm mug of masala tea. That night in the dining room, local women performed a traditional welcome song and dance. Namgyal told me it was a shame that the lodge — one of his favorites — was almost always empty because so few travelers make it there. “This is the kind of place we want visitors to know about,” he said.

Related: 6 Adventure Hikes That Will Take You Around the World

<p>Carol Sachs</p> From left: The village of Kāgbeni, in Nepal's Lower Mustang region; Thame Lodge, a hotel at the base of Sumdur Mountain, near Mount Everest.

Carol Sachs

From left: The village of Kāgbeni, in Nepal's Lower Mustang region; Thame Lodge, a hotel at the base of Sumdur Mountain, near Mount Everest.

After a day of rest in Thame, it was time for Namgyal and me to say goodbye to the group and head to Shinta Mani Mustang, his family’s sumptuous new hotel in the remote Nepalese Mustang region — once the Kingdom of Lo-Mustang — on the border with Tibet. To get there, we returned to Kathmandu by helicopter, took a flight to the city of Pokhara, in the central part of the country, then flew in another chopper to Jomsom village, the entry point to Upper Mustang.

As we flew north, the landscape shifted from green to subtle hues of gray. Far below, I could see a narrow river winding through a wide ravine. Flanked by two mountain ranges — the Dhaulagiri and the Annapurna — the Kali Gandaki Gorge is a dramatically barren landscape that at times reaches down more than three miles. Millions of years ago, this arid land, now dotted with fossilized cephalopods, was an immense sea.

We landed right in front of Shinta Mani and walked through a stone gate into the courtyard. At first glance the U-shaped, two-story property resembled one of the many Tibetan Buddhist monasteries we had seen on our trek. But inside, thanks to designer Bill Bensley’s creative eye, the lodge feels like a colorful, elegant palace. There are large public spaces appointed with a mix of regional antiques, lampshades with cascading yak-hair trim, pops of orange and yellow throughout, and landscape paintings from the mid-20th-century Australian artist Robert Powell, who lived and worked in Nepal for three decades.

My room was kitted out with a leather-clad mini-bar and a woven tiger-print rug on the polished, black-painted floor. A heavy blanket on the bed, embroidered with a parade of local animal species, was made of felt sourced from a Nepal-based workshop that supplies cashmere blankets to Hermès. But none of these riches could compete with the view of Nilgiri Himal, three major peaks of the Annapurna Massif, which glowed in the sun through my floor-to-ceiling window.

Although tempted to pamper myself in the spa or spend all day reading in one of the deep couches in the lobby, I signed up for as many of the hotel’s guided adventures as possible. One afternoon Namgyal and I were driven 30 minutes to visit Marpha, a beautifully preserved village surrounded by apple orchards. Its narrow main avenue, paved with flagstones, is flanked by whitewashed traditional houses with mud roofs and stacks of firewood piled against their sides. (Lumber is still a sign of wealth in the region, because it’s so hard to come by.) The next day I hiked to an alpine lake, which glistened in the midday sun, to find a bottle of rosé chilling at its edge and a table set for lunch. On another, I did an hour-long drive north of Jomsom to visit religious sites, including Muktinath, a temple for Hindus and Buddhists where holy water spouts from 108 cow-head statues made of gold.



"But Namgyal is less focused on the one hotel than on bringing up the entire community. “It’s not just about reaching the top,” he said. “It’s about helping other people get there, too.” "



These relics were evidence of Mustang’s gilded past. In the late 14th century, Tibetan warrior-king Amepal unified the land along the Kali Gandaki River into a new realm, the Kingdom of Lo-Mustang. The area was home to an important stretch of the Silk Road; as Buddhist scholars traveled its lengths and merchants traded Tibetan salt and wools, the area flourished and became a wealthy domain. (In Tibetan dialect, one of the translations of the word Mustang is “plains of desire.”)

But in the late 18th century, the kingdom was absorbed into modern-day Nepal as a principality. In the 1950s, when China invaded Tibet, the Nepal-Tibet border was fraught with tension and travel through the region was restricted. Mustang, caught in the middle, was suddenly cut off from the world — its Buddhist treasures and spiritual sites largely protected, but unseen.

Because the region remains so remote, animistic practices and beliefs still thrive. On my last afternoon, I met Tsewang Gyurme Gurung, an 11th-generation traditional Tibetan medicine doctor who consults at Shinta Mani’s spa. A charismatic 38-year-old who could make much more money being jetted from one wellness center to another as a Tibetan health guru, he chooses to stay in his hometown of Jomsom, treating local villagers who sometimes pay him with eggs or buckwheat. “I have responsibilities,” he said. “I’m not just a doctor, I also farm and take care of the land.” It was Gurung’s relationship with Namgyal that convinced him to dedicate part of his time to the resort’s spa, consulting with guests and offering traditional treatments.

My last dinner at Shinta Mani Mustang was a multicourse meal of more momo — one kind stuffed with mushrooms, one with chili pepper and locally made cheese, and, for dessert, one with chocolate. As we ate, Namgyal told me that, even as a Nepali, he’s often caught off guard by the beauty and wisdom he encounters in this region. By opening Shinta Mani and arranging trips like mine, Namgyal and his family are working toward a future in which upscale travelers come to this far-flung part of the country and help spark the local economy. But Namgyal is less focused on the one hotel than on bringing up the entire community. “It’s not just about reaching the top,” he said. “It’s about helping other people get there, too.”

That evening, as I drank a local apple cider mixed with lemon juice and crushed ginger in front of the fire on the patio, I thought about Namgyal’s mother and her Everest summit. She undertook that trek in part to show Sherpas that their future could go beyond carrying travelers’ packs. I thought how proud she would be of Namgyal and the rest of his family. They’re showing the world how high Sherpas can climb, and taking a few lucky travelers along with them.

Where to Stay

Mountain Lodges of Nepal: Namgyal Sherpa’s family organizes 11-day treks along new trail routes, including accommodations at the family’s renovated lodges (including Namche, Phakding, and Thame), meals, and a helicopter ride to the Kala Pattar viewpoint to take in Mount Everest.

Shinta Mani Mustang: This 29-suite, all-inclusive retreat in the Mustang region of Nepal beckons upscale adventurers, with rates that include spa treatments and excursions to nearby villages.

A version of this story first appeared in the July 2024 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "Go High."

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