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Thursday, 19 December 2013

Trip report for Kanchenjunga Circuit (Nepal) in October/ November 2013

Photo: north face of Kanchenjunga
This year we had eleven trekkers signed up for our Kanchenjunga Circuit trek starting in Kathmandu on October 30th 2013. Almas Khan was the leader of this group having stayed on in Nepal after leading our Dhaulagiri Circuit trek earlier in October. Supporting Almas for this trek was Jire Rai, he is one of our most experienced Sirdars and knows this region very well having completed Kanchenjunga Circuit trek on six previous occasions.  

On October 31st the group flew to Bhadrapur airport in the east of Nepal and then drove for five hours to Ilam where they stayed in a hotel for the night. After an early start the next day the bus arrived to Taplejung/ Suketar for lunch and then the group started the trek by walking to the first camp at Mitlung village in about three hours.

Earlier in October this year I walked along the same section of trail from Suketar to Lhonak with my Kanchenjunga to Makalu GHT group. After returning to Ghunsa from Lhonak my group crossed passes heading west into the Makalu region whereas Almas’s Kanchenjunga Circuit trek crossed Mirgin la to the east. As you can read from my Trip Report from Kanchenjunga to Makalu GHT we experienced very heavy rain and snowfall as a result of Cyclone Phailin. Luckily for Almas’s group the weather was much more stable in November; it was cloudy for the first few days with rain overnight at Chirwa camp however it cleared up after Sekathum and stayed settled throughout the rest of their trek.

Overall this trek went well and for the first five days followed the itinerary as planned arriving to Ghunsa on November 6th. Everyone enjoyed this day walking to Ghunsa especially passing through Phole village where the group visited the monastery, shops and school. In Ghunsa they camped at Kanchenjunga Guest House where they had the benefit of the comfortable dining room with a fire and power points to charge batteries.

In Ghunsa they woke to a clear morning and most of the group decided to go for an acclimatisation walk along the route to Lobsang La. This turned out to be a good option as the trail gains height quickly. The group got to 4,000m in about 3 hours after leaving the camp and took 2 hours to return to Ghunsa for lunch. This was a good walk for acclimatising purposes by following the rule “climbing high and sleeping low”. This would have helped the group adjust to the gain in altitude over the next three days as they travel up to the northside Kanchenjunga Base Camp.

From Ghunsa it is a two day walk to Lhonak the highest camp on this trek at 4,785m. On the way the group stayed at Kambachen which is a cold camp as, at this time of year, the sun disappears behind the mountains at 2.30pm. On the next day's walk up to Lhonak there was some snow and ice remaining on the trail from the heavy snowfalls my group experienced earlier in October so took a little longer than usual with the group arriving to Lhonak camp around 2pm. It was a beautiful clear day although there were cold winds coming up the valley.

On November 10th the group walked to the northside Kanchenjunga Base Camp. Due to a several landslide areas they took a higher route than usual reaching Base Camp in about four hours. After enjoying the views of the dramatic north face of Kanchenjunga for a while they walked back to Lhonak in about three hours on another cold and windy afternoon.

That evening a group decision was made to walk back down to Ghunsa on 11th and then have a well-deserved rest day on 12th. This walk to Ghunsa would be a long day however by going lower in altitude would help everyone recover after the tougher days higher up due to more oxygen in the air. In fact this group had not had a proper rest day since leaving Kathmandu so everyone enjoyed relaxing in the sun and by the evening felt re-energised for the next few days crossing the Mirgin La over to the south side of Kanchenjunga.

On November 13th they left camp at the usual 8.00am start and arrived to the Mirgin La high camp at about 2.30pm. Everyone had a good day as it was a sunny and warm with wonderful views along the way. On 14th they left camp earlier at 7am anticipating a longer day, luckily it was another sunny day with little wind so everyone made good progress arriving to Tseram camp at 3pm.

The next morning they walked up to Ramche camp arriving by midday and then after lunch everybody joined the side trip up to Oktang. It took about about two hours to walk up to the chorten at the viewpoint and then about hour and a half back down to Ramche. Today the weather was sunny and clear so everyone enjoyed themselves looking at the superb views of the south west face of Kanchenjunga. It was simply a classic trekking day in the high Himalaya!

From Ramche it took Almas's group five days to walk out to Suketar camping along the way at Tortong, Yamphudin, Pumphe Danda and Khunjari. On November 21st they drove back to Bhadrapur arriving at 7pm in the evening. On November 22nd they flew to Kathmandu and were checked into Hotel Tibet by 3pm. That evening I gather the group had an enjoyable dinner together at the Fire and Ice restaurant eating their legendary pizzas and ice cream.

I would like to thank Almas and Jire very much for their help in leading this trek as well as the rest of the trek crew. We have received good feedback from the group, please take a look below:

“The trek was great and on reflection, perhaps enjoyed it more than any other trek I've been on.  This is largely down to it being a stunningly diverse trek, a very good leader, excellent porters/kitchen staff and a good group.” Helen, November 2013

“The trip really was superbly organized and we were looked after extremely well by the efficient team, for whom nothing was too much trouble. Almas is a good leader and his ability to converse with the Nepali staff in Hindi is a big advantage. Your Sirdar, Jire Rai, is superb too and a wonderful human being. He is a major asset to the Mountain Company.” Nick, November 2013

The Mountain Company is organising our next Kanchenjunga Circuit trek in late October 2014, this group will be led by Jill Lawson. We already have quite a lot of interest in this departure so please get in touch with us soon if you are interested in joining this trek.

We are also organising a longer trek from Kanchenjunga to Makalu along the first section of The Great Himalaya Trail ("GHT") in late September 2014.

Roland Hunter

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Trip report for Dhaulagiri Circuit (Nepal) led by Almas Khan in October 2013

Photo: Hidden Valley (Almas Khan)
This is the eighth time The Mountain Company has organised the Dhaulagiri Circuit trek in Nepal. This year we had nine trekkers signed up and like previous years this group was an international mix with people coming from UK, USA, Australia, Netherlands, Hungary and France. Our 2013 group was led by Almas Khan who led our Lunana Snowman trek in September/ October2012. We had our regular trek crew on board for this trek with Chandra Rai as Sirdar; the Sherpa guides were Bishu, Danak and Sonam; Saila Tamang was the cook.

The first day of the trip was on October 6th when Almas met and briefed the group. I was also in Kathmandu at the time so I enjoyed meetings several members too. The next day the group flew to Pokhara then drove by private bus to the starting point of the trek at a town called Beni. Here the kitchen crew had lunch ready and afterwards the group started the trek then arrived to Tatopani camp at 5.30pm.

Photo: farmhouse near Muri village (Almas Khan)
The trek went well for the next five days following the itinerary as planned. They arrived to Italian Base Camp on October 13th and, after lunch, the group went out for an acclimatisation walk. Today was Graeme’s birthday so Saila made a cake. What a great place to celebrate a birthday! On October 14th the group awoke to rain which unfortunately carried on for the whole day. The group did not want to get wet so they decided to spend the rest day relaxing in their tents rather than going for a walk. However the guides did a recce of the route to Glacier Camp along with some of the porters who carried up gear.

Photo: snowy Glacier camp (Almas Khan)
As discussed in our trip reports for Lunana Snowman and Kanchenjunga to Makalu GHT treks the reason for this bad weather was due to Cyclone Phailin coming off the Bay of Bengal and unfortunately the Himalaya experienced poor conditions for a number of days. It is rare to get a cyclonic system affecting the Himalaya in October as usually there is a blocking high pressure resulting in fine weather: for further information read this article for the impact of Cyclone Phailin in the Himalaya.

On October 19th the group was scheduled to cross the French Col (5,360m) over to Hidden valley however they woke up to another cloudy morning. After much discussion between the leaders and the trek crew, the decision was made to move up to French Col after seeing a break in the weather. Almas and Chandra wisely kept the option open to retreat back to Italian Base Camp if the weather deteriorated later in the day. The group left camp at 9am with everybody including the porters walking together. During the day it snowed lightly so they did not get any views along the way, although there was sufficient visibility for the guides to find the route.

As expected, there was deep snow on the other side of the French Pass but very little snow on the ground when they descended down into Hidden Valley. Everybody had safely reached camp by 6pm after a long and tough day. That night was cold but the group was very happy to wake up the next morning to clear blue skies and fantastic views of Hidden Valley. They spent the day exploring around the valley and I gather everyone had an enjoyable time.

On October 21st they woke up to another clear and windless day. Today the plan was to cross over Dhampus Pass. This is the longest day on the Dhaulagiri Circuit trek and fortunately the weather stayed fine until the group arrived to camp in the afternoon. Due to the recent heavy snowfall there was deep snow for most of the day however the Sherpas did a great job in breaking trail and finding the best route over the pass.
Photo: ascending Dhampus pass (Almas Khan)
It took almost five hours to get to the end of the snowy traverse and from there they descended to Alu Bari camp. Luckily everyone arrived to camp during daylight hours with the last porters and trekkers getting in at 6pm. The next day the group walked out to Jomsom and in the evening, after celebrations, the trek crew was duly thanked and tipped for their hard work. The following morning on October 23rd the group flew back to Pokhara and Kathmandu.

Our 2013 Dhaulagiri Circuit group did very well to cross French Col and Dhampus Pass especially given the poor weather and conditions. I gather other groups at Dhaulagiri Base Camp decided not to cross the passes so had to retrace their steps back to the start point at Beni. One of the reasons it was possible for our group to safely complete this trek was due to our well thought out itinerary based on our experience of operating this trek over the years. We include more time at high altitude compared to most other itineraries i.e. two nights at Italian Base Camp (3,660m), two at Glacier Camp (4,200m), two at Dhaulagiri Base Camp(4,740m) and two nights at Hidden Valley (5,050m). As a result our trekkers, crew and porters should be well acclimatised and stronger at altitude; an advantage when faced with difficult conditions such as deep snow. Furthermore having days to spare within the itinerary allows for flexibility and changes if required.

I would like to thank Almas and Chandra very much for their help in leading this trek. Both of these leaders made a good call in continuing over the passes rather than turning back to Beni. Thanks also to Saila plus the Sherpas and rest of the crew who worked incredibly hard throughout the trek. In particular I would also like to thank the porters who did a superb job as carrying loads in snowy conditions is of course much harder work than usual.

We have received great feedback from the group. Please take a look below:

"Everything went smoothly (except the weather at times) and I think all of us had a blast. I have no doubt that this trek involves loads of organising and arrangements but all went very, very well. I have no concern recommending your company to my friends and in fact I have already done so. I came back to UK absolutely glowing and could not stop smiling for days:). I only have one advice, just look after your customers as you do now, even if you company will grow even bigger. Thank you again, hopefully I will have time to do another trip next year with your company" Suzy (Hungary & UK)

"I really enjoyed watching the slowly changing landscape and geology while hiking up and over the Dhaulagiri range. The Hidden Valley was amazing, particularly being a geologist, and I could easily have spent several days up there. So I was very happy that our guide team decided to move on even though the weather conditions weren't optimal when crossing the French Pass, and I feel sorry for the groups after us that decided to turn back and missed the spectacular views. We were very lucky to have brilliant weather on the long traverse, this section could be a problem in poor weather conditions. The itinerary of this trip was one of the reasons why I chose TMC and I think it worked well. I wouldn't have liked to miss the rest day in the Hidden Valley." Corine (Netherlands)

The Mountain Company is organising two Dhaulagiri Circuit treks in 2014, our first departure is in April with second departure in October, please get in touch with us soon if you are interested in joining one of these treks.

Roland Hunter

Monday, 2 December 2013

Trip report for Lunana Snowman led by Paul Burditt in September/ October 2013

Photo: view from Karchung La (Paul Burditt)
This is the fifth time The Mountain Company has organised the Complete Lunana Snowman trek in Bhutan starting in Paro and finishing in Bumthang. This year we had ten trekkers signed up and like previous years this group was an international mix with people coming from UK, USA, New Zealand, Australia, Netherlands and Slovenia. Our 2013 Snowman group was led by Paul Burditt who also led our Dhaulagiri Circuit trek in October 2012. We had our regular Bhutanese trek crew on board again with Dawa as the Sirdar; Tashi & Tashi as guides and Tenzing working as the cook.

The group arrived to Kathmandu on September 21st then flew by Druk Air to Paro on 22nd. The weather was fine for their first few days in Bhutan so initially it seemed that the post monsoon season had begun well with sunny and dry conditions. However it turned out the weather and conditions were considerably more challenging this year compared to our previous Snowman treks. For example last year's group experienced fine weather for most of the trek apart from two days of rain and snow on October 9th and 10th. For 2013 Snowman group the general weather pattern up until Lunana was clear mornings followed by rain/ snow most afternoons. Luckily their day crossing Karchung La into Lunana was sunny and clear; I gather everyone enjoyed having lunch at the summit of the pass while looking out over the superb mountain view in all directions.

Photo: yaks heading up to Narethang (Paul Burditt)
On October 13th as the group walked from Danje to Tshorim the weather deteriorated significantly. The morning was overcast with drizzle then later on turning to sleet and snow. The reason for this bad weather was Cyclone Phailin coming off the Bay of Bengal and unfortunately the eastern part of the Himalaya experienced poor conditions for the next three days. It is rare to get a cyclonic system affecting the Himalaya in October as usually there is a blocking high pressure resulting in fine weather. In fact at the same time I was leading a trek in the Kanchenjunga region of Nepal where we also had very heavy rain with snow higher up: for further information read this article for the impact of Cyclone Phailin in the Himalaya.

Due to the large amount of precipitation there was concern about the possibility of crossing the remaining high passes.  At this point in the trek fortunately we had already planned to have yaks to carry the luggage as these pack animals are far more effective in walking through deep snow compared to horses. On October 13th the group crossed the Gophu La out of the Lunana region. They had snowfall throughout the day and evening.  By the next morning the snow on the ground was too deep for the guides to break trail, so in the end Paul and Dawa decided to delay departure until the yaks were ready and loaded up. The yaks went first to stamp down a path through the deep snow ahead of the group. Following the yaks trail through the snow proved to be a successful plan and after a late start the group made good progress reaching the base of the Phorang La by lunch time.

During lunch the decision was made to continue the trek over the Saga La that afternoon rather than cross the next day as originally planned in our itinerary. Saga La is the steepest pass on the Snowman trek so Paul and Dawa felt it would be better to keep moving and cross the passes now before more snow fell possibly blocking the pass later on. At 3pm the group started the climb up the Phorang La following a trail bulldozed by the yaks through half a metre of snow while admiring the yaks innate ability to pick a good route and gradient. The faster team reached the summit of Phorang La at 5.30pm and on top experienced a sublime moment as they got above the cloud level to witness the sun setting over the far peaks. Dusk fell quickly as the party moved on but fortunately they had moonlight to illuminate their way onwards to the Saga La. The final ascent was tough going although outstandingly beautiful as they were walking under a clear starry sky. The group crested the pass at 6.30pm and luckily Dawa had already set up camp just over the pass.

Photo: snowy camp at Worithang (Paul Burditt)
The next morning was bitterly cold in camp and there were frozen boots all round. Despite the struggles of the night before everyone revelled in the snowscape in which they were camped. The walk over the Worithang La and Nephu La thereafter was stunning with clear skies and pristine snow. It was another long day for the group as they arrived at the Dar Tsachu camp near the hot springs in late afternoon. It took much longer for the yaks to get to camp as Dawa and the herders had a tough time driving them along as they were hungry since snow had prevented grazing for four days.

After a rest day at the hot springs, where everyone enjoyed soaking in the hot tubs, the group left camp early for the long walk to Tsochenchen over Gonto La and Djule La. These are the last two passes on the trek and luckily the sky cleared briefly for group celebrations and lots of team photographs. At this point in the itinerary there was an unused contingency day, so it was decided to have another rest day at Tsochenchen where Tashi organised a cultural visit to some yak herders living nearby. The group was lucky enough to be invited into one of their huts for butter tea and yak cheese so the group were able to gain a fascinating insight into their hard lives in the mountains.

On the last day of the trek after breakfast, the group thanked the crew with speeches and tips in a happy ceremony. Thereafter they walked out to the road head to finish the Snowman trek. Well done to everyone for completing this classic Himalayan traverse, especially considering the challenging weather and conditions throughout the trek.

By late afternoon the group was enjoying the comforts and hospitality of the legendary Swiss Guesthouse in Bumthang. By chance Jampa Lhakhang Drup festival was held in Bumthang that evening at the 1400 year old temple. This was a highlight for the group as they saw the masked dancing monks and the locals dressed up in their best traditional costumes for the festival. Over the next three days the group drove to Paro by minibus visiting dzongs (fortified monasteries) along the way in Trongsa, Punakha, Thimpu and Paro.

As commented upon in previous trip reports, we start our Snowman trek a couple of weeks earlier than most of our Autumn treks in Nepal. The reason is to ensure an exit of Lunana by mid-October before the winter snows block the passes. There tends to be more precipitation in the eastern Himalaya than elsewhere, so after a heavy snowfall the mountain passes are often closed until Spring time. This strategy of starting early has worked well for our groups in the past and so far The Mountain Company has a 100% success rate in finishing the Snowman trek. Congratulations to the 2013 team for being the only group to successfully complete the full Snowman trek to Bumthang this Autumn season despite difficult conditions.

I have copied below several testimonials on how our Snowman trek went this year. While there are certainly some areas where our service can be improved, this feedback demonstrates that in the key areas of logistics, time of year and leadership, we were effective in maximising the groups' chances of completing this trek.

“My overall perspective is that the Snowman trek was successful because of the knowledge that The Mountain Company has gained on previous Snowman treks the last few years. And the Mountain Company has made several important adjustments to the Snowman trek logistics to increase the probability of success. Personally at no time did I ever have doubts or concerns that we would not finish the trek. Everyone was always very positive and we felt that there was an underlying strategy that we were going to be successful.” Roger (USA)

“I really enjoyed the Snowman, despite the awful weather. It must be a very difficult logistical exercise to organise it but everything seemed to go really well. Paul made an excellent job of leading it and I was delighted to have been able to complete it, a real accomplishment. Dawa's organisation was excellent. Tulsi's personal collection and return to the airport in Kathmandu was first class. This is the type of trek which I revel in and I will be looking for something similar in future” Chris (UK)

"The trip went really well . My thanks to Paul, Dawa and his team and the horse/yak people in looking after us in sometimes trying conditions. We would have never got through without Dawa's organisational skills and experience with the very complicated logistics involved with this trek, particularly managing the animal transport. Having the yaks come all the way through from Dur (Bumthang) to meet us at Lunana was the key to us succeeding this year, when everyone else failed. Paul was a really good go between us and the crew and was very diplomatic and patient with all our foibles." Peter (New Zealand)

Thanks very much to the entire trek crew who worked exceptionally hard throughout this trek in challenging conditions. Thanks to Paul, Dawa, the two Tashis, Tenzing, Pema, Haba, Wande and Gimba plus the pony men and yak herders. Thanks also to Kinley and Wangmo in Thimphu for their help and support.

The Mountain Company is organising Lunana Snowman again in 2014 and this group will be led by Almas Khan. He knows the Snowman very well having done this trek five times before including our successful 2012 Snowman group. We already have quite a lot of interest, so if you are considering joining this trek please get in touch soon.

Roland Hunter

The Mountain Company