Latest news from the Himalaya and Karakoram

Monday, 21 November 2011

Selected photos of Lunana Snowman trek in Bhutan (September 2011)

I have added below a selection of photos from The Mountain Company's 2011 Lunana Snowman trek in Bhutan:

Photo: Taktsang (Tiger's nest) monastery near Paro

Photo: Mount Chomolhari

Photo: Mount Jitchu Drake

Photo: herd of blue sheep

Photo: approach to Ngele La

Photo: Lingshi camp

Photo: Lingshi dzong (damaged from recent earthquake)

Photo: camp below Tiger mountain

Photo: Laya village

Photo: women dancing in Laya village

Photo: view from Karchung La (entry into Lunana)

Photo: summit of Karchung La at 5.240m

Photo: valley near Tarina

Photo: lake near Kesha La

Photo: camp near Lhedi village

Photo: view of Lunana valley

Photo: farmhouse in Thanza village

Photo: wall paintings in Thanza

Photo: cordyceps sinesis (caterpillar fungus)

Photo: Lunap woman

Photo: camp near Tshorim lake

Photo: yaks near Tshorim lake

Photo: valley near Gwechewoma

Photo: view from Phorang La to Mischugang camp

Photo: Worithang camp

Photo: yaks carrying our gear

Photo: forest and waterfally near Dur Tsachu

Photo: our wonderful crew at the end of the trek

Trip report for Lunana Snowman (Bhutan) led by Roland Hunter in September/ October 2011

Photo: Druk Air (Royal Bhutan Airlines)

The Mountain Company's 2011 Snowman group had fourteen members with people coming from UK, Germany, Canada, Australia, India, Portugal, Ukraine and Ireland. It is common with our groups to have different nationalities signed up although this was our most international group yet. It is great to have a mix of clients especially on a long trek like Lunana Snowman and this certainly makes for interesting conversations along the way.

I flew by Druk Air (Royal Bhutan Airlines) into Paro on September 22nd to help with the organisation and preparations for the trek before the arrival of the group. It was good to see our Bhutanese crew again especially Dawa (Sirdar) who I had trekked with on our 2008 Snowman trek. Dawa knows the remote Lunana region extremely well having completed Snowman many times including two treks back to back a few years back.

The group arrived to Kathmandu on September 23rd and then flew by Druk Air into Paro on 24th, it was good to finally meet the group after being in touch for so long with everyone on email. After lunch of "Ema Datse" (Bhutanese national dish of cheese and chilies sauce with red rice) we drove to our hotel near Paro. In the afternoon we visited Paro dzong although unfortunately could not go to National Museum as this had been damaged by the recent earthquake.

Photo: Taktsang (Tiger's Nest monastery)

On 25th we hiked up to Taktsang monastery (also called Tiger's Nest) this is the famous cultural icon of Bhutan. Guru Rinpoche flew to this location from Tibet on the back of a tigress and the gompa was consecrated to tame the Tiger demon. The trail to Taktsang starts outside Paro and climbs about 900m to reach the monastery located at an altitude of 3,120m. Everyone enjoyed the walk and it was good to stretch the legs after travelling for so long.

Today the weather was cloudy with some rain and we were hoping the weather would clear for flights to land at Paro airport later in the day. This is because one member was still waiting for his trek bag to arrive after being held up in London. In Nepal my partners Tulsi and Prashant did a great job collecting the missing bag on arrival to Kathmandu and then later in the afternoon, when the visibility had improved at Paro airport, the Druk Air flight landed at Paro . Now everyone was ready and looking forward to starting the trek!

Photo: Mount Jitchu Drake

Selecting the right time of year is essential for improving ones chances of successfully completing the Snowman trek. The crux of this trek is getting in and out Lunana before the winter snows close the high passes (Karchung La and Gophu La both over 5,000m) guard the entry and exit of this remote valley. There is a narrow weather window between the end of monsoon and onset of the snows that will block the passes. As this is a long trek at 28 days there is a tradeoff by starting at end of September where it is quite likely the first few days will be rainy however this means we should be out of Lunana before the onset of winter snows.

I was well aware that when I completed my first Lunana Snowman trek in September/ October 2008 that our group was fortunate with the weather and conditions. Since then I have read numerous read accounts of groups who a attempted this trek in other years where there was far more snow making crossing of the passes more challenging and in some cases impossible for pack animals to continue due to the depth of snow.

On 2008 Snowman we experienced rain for the first day of the trek at the tail end of the monsoon and then very fortunate to get clear weather for the next 27 days! Again in 2011 we experienced a very similar weather pattern with one day of rain at the start of the trek and then settled and stable weather for rest of the time. There was some light snowfall overnight towards the end of the trek at Mischugang and Worithang however this snow soon melted after the sun came out in the morning.

Photo: campsite at Lingshi

In terms of itinerary we organise the complete Snowman trek from Paro to Bumthang. There are very few other trekking operators that run the complete Snowman trek as most groups take the shorter exit route from Lunana down the Nikka Chuu valley. In fact we had two people in our group who had already done this shorter version of Snowman and came back again to Bhutan to do it properly! It was very interesting to hear their views on the differences between the two Snowman treks, they both confirmed that the longer Snowman to Bumthang is far better and includes the best days of the entire trek such as Tshorim Lake, Gophu La, Phorang La & Saga La, Dur Tsachu hot springs and the Djule La pass.

There is also an increasing number of trekking companies that are shortening the Snowman by walking from Punakha to Laya then attempting to cross Karchung La pass into Lunana. This itinerary reduces the number of days and therefore cost of the trek however this is risky as there is simply not enough time to acclimatise to the high altitude before crossing Karchung La into Lunana. We met several groups following this itinerary where members had to turn back with altitude sickness and also several others who were rescued by helicopter later on in the trek due to combination of exhaustion and altitude sickness (also by pushing hard like this people are more susceptible to getting sick from chest infections etc).

Photo: on summit of Karchung La (5,240m)

In terms of logistics the crux for organising the Lunana Snowman trek is to arrange the animal transport in advance and work with reliable contractors. We had four changeovers of pack animals: first from Paro to Chomolhari BC; then to Laya; then to Thanza and finally at Dur Tsachu to Minchugang. It is also important to consider whether to use yaks or horses, in fact these days more groups are relying on horse transport mainly because they are faster than yaks. However yaks are stronger and are able to cross high passes even if there is some snow that would make the trail impassable for horses. We decided to use horses on three sections of the trek and use yaks for the section from Thanza to Dur Tsachu where there are several high passes to cross.

Many groups hope to find yaks on arrival to Thanza in Lunana however this is a risky strategy as the yak herders from Lunana are not reliable and often groups wait up to a week to find animal transport. The main reason is because the Lunaps make serious money picking Cordyceps Sinesis ("caterpillar fungus") over the summer, these are sold to the Chinese as herbal medicine and is worth more than per kg than gold! As a result the yak herders are not very interested in working with trekking groups to make money and also at the same time do not like to take their yaks out of Lunana valley in case earlier snows block their return journey.

Dawa had arranged to use yaks on the section from Thanza to Dur Tsachu however had made an agreement with a yak herder living near Dur Tsachu. This meant that the yaks were heading on homeward direction with our group. The contractor was same one we used in 2008 and is reliable although I was still relieved to see the yaks arrive a day early on our rest day on Thanza!

I was very surprised to meet another group who were hoping to find yak transport and local Lunap guide on arrival to Thanza however not unsurprisingly they were unable to find either yaks or guides so were forced to continue onto Bumthang with their Laya horsemen. The problem for this group was that none of their crew including their horsemen had ever walked on the trail from Thanza to Bumthang so they had no idea where to go! The trail is not very obvious in places so it is essential to check before departure that your guides, cooks and yak/ horseman have previously walked this way before.

Photo: cordyceps sinesis ("caterpillar fungus")

On October 27th day we arrived to Minchugang at the road head and after celebrating everyone's achievement of completing one of the most challenging treks in Himalaya we thanked our Bhutanese crew for their help during this long trek and handed out their tips. Our bus was waiting for us so we drove onto Bumthang and checked in at the lovely Swiss Guesthouse, everyone enjoyed staying here with their friendly hospitality, good food and beer (Red Panda weissen beer on tap)- for more information on Swiss Guesthouse

Photo: Lunana

Lunana Snowman is one of the most challenging treks in Himalaya due to the logistics involved, it is also one of the most beautiful trek visiting a remote area rarely seen by other trekking groups especially if you follow the longer exit from Lunana to Bumthang. Of course Lunana Snowman is a long trek and expensive to join however it is a very special place to visit summarised well by Mark one of the members of our 2011 Lunana Snowman trek- see his comments below:

"The Lunana Snowman trek in Bhutan was for me a dream fulfilled that transcended the magical. Yes - it was long and challenging but now indelibly etched on my mind as the most beautiful place I have been privileged to visit. The highlights were....Karchung La....the rest day in Thanza......Tshorim Lakes....Saga la (surprisingly for me)....simply stunning... and inevitably the Swiss Guest House! Superb leadership by Roland; a master logistician and absolute gentleman." Mark Simmonds 2011 Lunana Snowman trek

On a personal level I felt incredibly privileged to have the opportunity to walk the Lunana Snowman trek for the second time and also was proud of the groups' achievement with all fourteen members of the team completing the trek. There are few other trekking companies who have successfully organised the complete Snowman on more than two occasions.

Of course none of this would be possible without our wonderful Bhutanese crew who worked very hard and looked after us well throughout this long trek. Kahdinche (Bhutanese thanks) to Dawa (Sirdar), Tashi (guide), Tsering (guide), Tenzing (cook) and helpers Karma, Pema, Dogguy and Nima. Many thanks also to Kinley Tshering and Wangmo based in the office in Thimphu for all their help organising the logistics of this trek.

Lunana Snowman trek is now part of The Great Himalaya Trail ("GHT"), this is a trek crossing the Himalaya from Arunchal Pradesh in India through Bhutan to Nepal, India and Pakistan. For more information on the Bhutan section of GHT please take a look at The Geat Himalaya Trail website

Yesterday I uploaded to TMC blog a selection of photos from 2011 Snowman trek please click here to view these photos. I also wrote a brief report on 2011 Snowman trek shortly after return so I suggest you also read this report.

If you are considering joining the Lunana Snowman trek in the future then I suggest you read a book by Kevin Grange called Beneath Blossom Rain: Discovering Bhutan on the Toughest Trek in the World and also well worth reading Bhutan: A Trekker's Guide (Cicerone Guide) by Bart Jordan. This is the best guidebook currently available for trekking in Bhutan and covers most of the Snowman trek.

The Mountain Company is planning to organise our Lunana Snowman trek in September/ October 2012 (dates:September 21st to October 26th 2012), please get in touch soon if you are interested in joining this group.

Roland Hunter

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Trip report for Mera Peak (Nepal) led by Roland Hunter in November 2011

Photo: summit day on Mera Peak

Our Mera Peak Expedition arrived back to Kathmandu as planned on November 18th, we were very lucky to fly out of Lukla on schedule as there was a backlog of over 1,000 people waiting for flights as a result of several days of cloudy weather causing cancellations. In fact we were also lucky to fly into Lukla at the start of the expedition on October 31st, our plane landed at 5.25pm and there were no more flights for four more days. Our pilot must have wished he had stayed in Kathmandu as he was also stuck in Lukla for this period! Take a look at the article on BBC website about the delays in November at Lukla (Tenzing- Hilary airport)

I have led groups to Mera Peak during the month of November since 2007 and usually the weather at this time of year is stable with sunny days however this year the pattern was rather different. We experienced cloud and rain until we reached Kote and then it cleared up with several sunny days while at Tagnag and Khare. On November 12th we trekked to the camp at Mera La and as predicted by our weather forecast there was some cloud in the valleys however we were luckily enough to be above the cloud and basking in the sun at this altitude. As we walked to High Camp on November 13th cloud built up by midday although then dropped off again later in the afternoon to reveal the superb view from High Camp of the surrounding mountains.

At 3am on November 14th our group left High Camp on their summit attempts, it was a clear & starry night and pretty cold especially as there were strong gusts of wind. Although by the time the team arrived at the summit there was little wind and superb views in all directions including five 8,000m peaks: Everest, Cho Oyu, Lhotse, Makalu and Kanchenjunga. Nine of our group reached the summit of Mera Peak some climbing Central summit and others climbing to the South summit, so congratulations and well done to everyone!

Unfortunately the day after the summit walking back to Kote we descended into the cloud and there was snow overnight as well as for most of the next day. These conditions made our walk to Thuli Kharka (camp before Zatra La) quite challenging while the group arrived in late afternoon some of our porters arrived in the dark after a long day for them.

On November 17th we crossed Zatra Og and Zatra La passes for our return trek to Lukla. The conditions on descent were pretty good as recent snow was soft with no ice however we decided to fix rope to aid our porters and for group to use as extra security. The snowline was much lower than usual and most people kept their crampons until shortly before Chutanga where we had lunch. Here we met another group heading into Mera Peak and heard more about the number of people waiting for flights to Kathmandu due to the bad weather and in fact this group were fortunate to arrive at Lukla by flying Twin Otter to Lamidanda and then by helicopter to Lukla.

On arrival to Lukla I checked the weather forecast in an internet cafe and unfortunately it did not look too promising for the rest of the week however on the next morning we were woken in our tents by the sound of the large Russian MI17 taking off and on looking out of the tent we could see the weather was clear with blue skies. Our flight to Kathmandu with Tara Airlines took off at 11.30am and three hours later (!) we landed at Kathmandu- usually the flight takes 35 minutes although as Kathmandu airport was busy we circled for a while then we had to divert to Biratnagar for refuelling.

Overall our Mera Peak group was very lucky this year, in spite of the worst weather I had experienced on this trek since 2007 we managed to fly into/ out of Lukla on schedule and also had good conditions on our summit day. In fact only the next day a large group of forty people from Leeds Metropolitan University (undertaking acclimatisation research) went for the summit and only six members of their team reached the top- by reading their dispatches it sounds like they hit bad weather with snow and strong winds.

My view is that November is probably the best month to climb Mera Peak. I have been leading groups at this time for last five years and the vast majority of these days on trek we experienced sunny and stable weather. It is worth pointing out that one can get snow and bad weather at anytime of year however on balance November seems to better than other months. Interestingly in the past we have organised groups to Mera Peak in October and April and both of these trips also hit bad weather on their summit days. There are other factors in choosing the best time of year to climb Mera Peak for example in October it is much busier and can be hard to find enough space for all of the tents at High Camp. By December the days are getting shorter and it is much colder so I would certainly not want to be climbing Mera Peak at that time of year.

The other notable comment to make from this year's expedition to Mera Peak was the number of porters that died while we were there from other groups attempting the mountain. It was very sad to hear of three porters dying near Tagnag and my understanding from speaking to owner of Mera Guest House was that the cause of all of these deaths was severe altitude sickness. It seems that in at least one of these deaths the porter was sent down alone while the rest of the group carried on to cross Amphu Laptsa (of course you should send a sick porter down with another porter).

From meeting other groups along the way on Mera Peak it is clear that most of them are ascending way too fast and not spending enough to acclimatise to high altitude. Of course what most people in these groups did not consider is the effect of rapid ascent on their trek crew, it may well be fine for members of the group who are probably anyway taking diamox and also not carrying much weight however it certainly is not fair on the porters carrying heavy loads.

Our approach at The Mountain Company has always been to design our itineraries to allow for adequate time for natural acclimatisation, for example our Mera Peak itinerary from arrival to Kathmandu is 22 days which is 2 or 3 days longer than several other UK based operators. By having these extra days means you have a far higher chance of summitting Mera Peak and also more likely to enjoy it at the same time! We also include one contingency day in our Mera Peak itinerary so provides a buffer in case of any delays along the way.

As always I would like to thanks our Nepalese trek crew who did a great job this year under challenging conditions. Danyibad to Lhakpa Rita Sherpa (Sirdar) and to our Sherpas: Nima Tendi Sherpa, Lhakpa Dorje Sherpa, Sonam Sherpa and Lhakpa Gyaljen Sherpa. Of course thanks to Saila Tamang our cook who along with the rest of the kitchen crew provided tasty food throughout the expedition.

The Mountain Company is planning to organise two Mera Peak Expeditions in 2012, the first one is in Spring from April 15th to May 6th followed by our Autumn departure from November 4th to 25th. Please get in touch soon if you would like to join one of these groups.

The Mountain Company