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Friday, 28 November 2014

Trip report for Ama Dablam BC led by Jill Lawson in October 2014

Photo: Yeti foot by Ama Dablam group in Rumdoodles restaurant
Photo: Ama Dablam BC 2014 team photo in Lukla
Jill Lawson, one of our regular leaders, also runs walking holidays for Secret Hills in the Lake District where she lives. These trips are for solo folk who wish to join a group to enjoy a weekend of sociable walking. Jill wanted to offer her Secret Hills clients the opportunity to trek in Nepal so we helped design a bespoke itinerary to Ama Dablam Base Camp in the Everest region. The Mountain Company worked in partnership with Secret Hills to organise and promote this trek led by Jill and one of our Nepalese guides, Buddhi Rai.

This trek is sixteen days in duration from arrival to Kathmandu and consists of eleven days trekking in the Himalayas. On the second day of the trip we included sightseeing in the Kathmandu valley with one of our guides where they visited Swyambunath (also known as Monkey Temple), Kathmandu Durbar Square, Pashputinath (holy Hindu temple and cremation site) and Boudhanath (Buddhist stupa). The feedback from the group was this day was useful orientation to Nepal providing useful information on the culture of Nepal.

Photo: some of Ama Dablam 2014 team on trek
A few of the group arrived to Kathmandu a day or two early and had the opportunity to be joined at dinner by Jill's friend, Kenton Cool, who was very happy to answer lots of questions about trekking in Nepal.  Kenton is a well-known British climbing guide having summited Everest eleven times for moreinformation please see his personal page on Wikipedia

Overall our Ama Dablam Base Camp trek was a huge success, the group were blessed with nine days of sun and blue skies which gave the group tremendous views of the Khumbu region. When Cyclone Hudhud hit the Annapurna region Jill’s group only had an afternoon of rain so they were not really affected by this storm that wreaked much havoc in Central Nepal.

The group stayed in comfortable lodges know in Nepal as teahouse lodges, I gather everyone enjoyed the tasty food that was served to them each day. All of the group stayed healthy throughout the trip and no one suffered any signs of altitude sickness as they followed our well devised itinerary which included sufficient days to acclimatise.

Photo: walking to Khumjung on high trail
On each day of the trek Jill taught the group a 'nepali word or phrase of the day', this was a huge success as everyone thoroughly embraced these lessons and were able to actively engage with our Sherpa guides, lodge owners and porters. Learning a few words and phrases in Nepalese is always really appreciated by the local people and helps the group make the most from this cultural experience.

Our itinerary follows the main trail to Everest Base Camp up to the village of Pangboche at 3,875m and then from there our goal is to reach the less frequented Ama Dablam Base Camp at an altitude of 4,576m. On the way down from Pangboche this group followed the wonderfully quiet, high level traverse along the hillside path to via Phortse to Khumjung village. This day the group had fantastic views of the whole area and over to the otherside of the valley to the trail they had walked a few days earlier. The group then visited the quiet valley of Thame and its famous monastery before returning to Namche and Lukla.

Photo: Mount Thamserku
Photo: walking near Khumjung with holy mountain Khumbila behind
On their return to Kathmandu the group choose to visit an orphanage supported by Tulsi the owner of our partner travel agency in Nepal. Jill’s group spent an afternoon meeting the children and I gather everyone found this very insightful and a humbling experience to see the opportunities available to them. The overall feedback received from this group was they felt their holiday to Nepal was more than a trek, it was a holistic holiday which also gave them a good initial insight into Nepal and its people and its cultures.

We have received very positive feedback from most of the group and Jane has described her experience as follows:

“The Ama Dablam Base Camp trek was an excellent 'taster' of what Nepal has to offer - a wonderfully heady mix, from the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu, then following the famous route of past and present mountaineers heading for their conquest of Everest, or its Base Camp, before taking to the quieter, arguably more beautiful surroundings of Ama Dablam Base Camp and on from there to even more secluded Sherpa villages and Buddhist monasteries that are still unspoilt by tourism.

A real insight into such a fascinating culture, wonderful mountain scenery, on a route that was sufficiently challenging to provide a great sense of satisfaction at the end, with lodge accommodation run by local families that gave a glimpse of traditional Sherpa lifestyle that continues in the region, and provided us with excellent food throughout.” Jane Binyon (UK)

I would like to thank Jill and Buddhi for their hard work leading this group and thanks also to the Sherpa guides Utta and Susman. Well done and congratulations to this group who trekked to Ama Dablam Base Camp!

The Mountain Company will organise Ama Dablam Base Camp trek again in conjunction with Secret Hills in October 2015, and we are very lucky to have Jill leading this group again. If you are interested in joining this trek please get in touch soon as this will no doubt be very popular following our successful Ama Dablam Base Camp trek in October 2014.

Roland Hunter

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Trip report for Kanchenjunga Circuit led by Jill and Tom Lawson in October/ November 2014

Photo: TMC 2014 Kanchenjunga team at Pangpema
As usual for our trips we had an international mix of trekkers for our 2014 Kanchenjunga Circuit group with people coming from UK, Australia, Canada and USA. A few of the group had already travelled with us before joining our treks to K2 & Gondogoro La, Everest Base Camp, Dhaulagiri Circuit and Manaslu Circuit. We are always very grateful when people come back for more than one trek with TMC and we really appreciate their trust and support.

Our leaders for this group were Jill and Tom Lawson, they led separate groups for TMC in October (Jill led Ama Dablam BC and Tom led Dhaulagiri Circuit), and in November they joined forces to lead our Kanchenjunga Circuit group. Supporting Jill and Tom were our superb Nepalese crew with Jhire Rai as Sirdar and Sangram as the head cook. The Sherpa guides were Khumbu, Kobe and Pasang, all these guys and Jhire are from the same village, Gudel, in Solu Khumbu.

The group arrived to Kathmandu on flights throughout the day of October 28th and in the evening met up together with Jill and Tom for a meal at Hotel Tibet. On morning of 29th Jill and Tom gave their briefing to the group and I also was in Kathmandu so I attended this meeting too. In the evening we all met up for a group meal at Rumdoodles restaurant in Thamel, I enjoyed meeting the group as well as catching up with those were coming back for repeat treks with us.

On October 30th the group flew to Bhadrapur airport in east of Nepal then in the afternoon they drove up to Ilam. This town is located in the tea growing region of Nepal and they stayed here in a hotel for one night. On 31st they continued the bus journey arriving to Taplejung to meet the rest of the trek crew, in afternoon they walked downhill to their first night’s camp at Mitlung at an altitude of only 921m. During this section of the trek the trail passes through large cardamon fields. Cardamon is a new cash crop being grown in this region and is bringing more prosperity as cardamom sells for a high price in India.

On their return to Kathmandu after the trek I enjoyed meeting the group for a meal at KToo restaurant in Kathmandu to hear about the trek and their feedback on how it went. Everyone I spoke to was very positive and told me how they really enjoyed Kanchenjunga Circuit. As you can see from the photos on Kanchenjunga Circuit webpage this trek visits a beautiful, unspoilt and remote region of Nepal that combines walks to both Base Camps of the third highest mountain in world. Kanchenjunga Circuit is still a quiet trek with only about 500 trekkers each year compared to over 77,000 in the Everest region. From speaking to Jill I gather during their time away they only saw about 90 other trekkers.

This group were blessed with twenty three days of sun and blue skies which gave them tremendous views during the trek. The condition on the trail was excellent with both Pangpema and Mirgin La free of snow. This was rather different from the conditions experienced by Almas group last year as there was still snow around after Cyclone Phailin, to read Trip Report for Kanchenjunga Circuit November 2013.

I gather from Jill jokingly the group very quickly realised they were actually on an eating holiday which involved eating lots for breakfast, going for a walk, stopping for a huge prepared lunch then walking a bit more for afternoon Pringles and biscuits then followed in the evening bu a huge three course dinner. The group renamed the trip as the 'fat camp' thanks to Sangram's excellent cooking! Daily fresh coffee was a huge success within the group. At Kambachen the group were joined for afternoon and morning coffee by another TMC leader Ade Summers who was at the same overnight camp with a different group.

We have carefully designed our itinerary for gradual acclimatisation to the high altitude as well as several rest days to allow for recovery from the longer days and also as a buffer in case of delays along the way due to bad weather or conditions etc. Almost the whole group trusted our well designed itinerary of acclimatisation days to adapt naturally without taking diamox. Our itinerary proved itself again as there were few symptoms of mild altitude sickness and everyone successfully completed the trek.

During the trek Jill and Tom gave a demonstration of the PAC/ gamow bag and I gather the group found this session informative and interesting. For our remote treks like Kanchenjunga Circuit we always bring Thuraya satellite phone for communications and TMC office kept in daily contact with Jill. Jill also had a  GPS spot tracker and checked in each night so we were able to follow the groups progress, please click here to view SPOT Adventure online map. Having this equipment and level of back up support gives everyone the confidence in case required in an emergency.

During this trek we had some issues with the porters as on several days a small group of them were late getting into camp. Luckily for one day of the trek to Yamphudin village when two porters were very late arriving with Jill’s and a member’s bag there was a lodge for them to use nearby until their gear arrived. In the past we never had problems with porters on Kanchenjunga Circuit trek however it is getting increasing challenging to get reliable porters in this region. One of the main reasons is there is now other work opportunities especially with cardamom plantations so there is other less strenuous work available. We will carefully consider our approach to porterage for our Kanchenjunga Circuit trek in 2015 and it is likely we will bring more porters from Kathmandu.

I gather Jill and Tom helped the group learn basic Nepali each day, this is a wonderful idea as helps everyone to communicate with the crew and locals they meet along the way. Tom trained as a geologist and enjoys passing on his knowledge to the group, in particular he is well known for his “rock of the day". A rock is selected from the day’s walk and passed around after supper for analysis and identification. This was a huge success and I gather the Sherpas also started to get involved and enjoyed learning about their environment.

I would like to congratulate the group for successfully completing this trek, I heard they worked as a team and got along well together. I gather the crew appreciated the group helping out at times to pitch the tents and other jobs around camp. Of course I would like say a huge thanks to Jill, Tom and Jhire for their leadership and hard work throughout the trek. I would also like to thank the rest of the trek crew.

Our next Kanchenjunga Circuit trek is in late October 2015 and this group will be led by Almas Khan. Almas knows this trek well as he led our successful Kanchenjunga Circuit group in Autumn 2013, I know he is very much looking forward to doing this trek again. Please get in touch soon if you would like to join our Kanchenjunga Circuit group in 2015.

Roland Hunter

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Recce trek from Arun Valley to Makalu GHT in October 2014

Last year I led a group on our epic 36 day trek from Kanchenjunga Base Camp to Makalu Camp following Section One of the Great Himalaya Trail “GHT”. During this trek there was heavy snowfall at higher altitudes as a result of Cyclone Phailin so it was not possible for us to complete the final section from Arun Valley over to the Barun Valley: see Trip Report for our October 2013 trek from Kanchenjunga Base Camp to Makalu Camp GHT

Photo: Hongon village
Photo: At pass above Hongon: far ridge is Molun Pokhari
Therefore this last part of Section One of GHT was unfinished business and I was determined to come back this year to complete the full traverse to Makalu Base Camp. In fact three of our trekking guides (Gopal, Sonam and Prem) went on a recce in July following GHT trail from Kanchenjunga over Lumba Sumba into Arun Valley and then walked along this high trail into Barun valley. Of course being the summer there was poor visibility from cloudy conditions, alot of rain, overgrown vegetation obscuring the trail as well as many leaches. So these guys did extremely well to successfully complete the walk out to Tumlingtar! 

For my own recce trek in October, Gopal came as my guide so I knew I would be in safe hands as he knew the way. This link section on GHT from Arun valley to Barun valley is rarely trekked by commercial groups so there is little information and rather inaccurate maps available. Our plan was to follow paths used by local herders during the summer and in many places the junctions are not obvious so having a guide who knows the area is essential.

Photo: Molun Pokhari lake
Photo: descending to Tin Pokhari lakes
On October 8th, Gopal and I flew to Tumlingtar where we met our two porters, Langer and Bal, who had travelled by bus from Kathmandu. After a tasty dal bhat at the Makalu Guest House we got into a jeep for the drive to village at Num. Over the last few years the road has been improved and there is now a local shared jeep service plying from Tumlingtar to Num. We arrived to Num by late afternoon and checked into Jyoti Guesthouse where I had stayed during my Makalu Expedition in 2009.

Rather than following the standard trail from Num to Barun valley passing through Sedua and Tashigaon we followed the Arun Valley north for three days to the remote village of Hongon. On the trek for the first night we stayed at Pathibara and second night at Barun Dovan then after a long third day we arrived to Hongon.

Photo: Dhungge Khola
Photo: bridge at Saldim Kharka
Barun Dovan is located at the confluence of Barun with Arun Valley, I was interested to enquire with the locals whether it was possible to walk up the Barun valley to Yangri Kharka then to Makalu Base camp. This lower trail is marked on the trekking maps however at the moment is only used by locals as I gather is steep and also no suitable places for camping. However there was a sign at one of the lodges promoting a project, funded by an American to widen this trail for trekker access. This would give another option as it would mean trekkers could access Barun Valley even when Shipton La was blocked due to snow. I am sure this lower trail would be popular as would be possible to trek a circuit into Makalu via Shipton La and out following the Barun valley.

Hongon is a Tibetan Buddhist village and I enjoyed staying here, as there are few trekkers passing through so the locals are curious to know what your plans are and where you are heading. Hongon is only one day’s walk from Tibet (China) and many of these villages trade at the border crossing called Kimathanka. I gather Chinese traders are allowed to visit Hongon to purchase yarchigompa that grows in the high mountains on Nepal side. 

Photo: hollow tree
Photo: bridge over Khola
Photo: cow herder family below Cave camp
After one night at the lodge in Hongon we started the climb to the pass above the village. From this pass there is a good view of the ridge near Molun Pokhari, this is easy to spot as there is waterfall coming out of the lake. From the pass we followed a trail through bamboo and rhododendron to Bakim Kharka (kharka means pasture in Nepali) where we camped for the night. In fact we spent two nights here for acclimatisation and on the spare day I walked up to Molun Pokhari and back to Bakim Kharka camp.

We arrived to Bakim Kharka on October 12th and it was on this day that I received weather forecast from our office in London with an extreme weather warning as Cyclone Hudhud was tracking towards the Himalaya. A this stage Cyclone Hudhud was predicted to severely impact central Nepal however luckily for me the weather in Makalu region was likely to be less extreme. 

On October 14th we started early to beat the storm, by the time we got to Molun Pokhari it was cloudy and then after the pass it started to rain and snow. Although by the time we descended to Tin Pokhari we were below the clouds and it was dry again. We descended past the cow and sheep herders camps used during the summer months and down into Dhungge Kharka valley. After crossing the river on a log bridge we walked to the second (dryer) kharka where we camped for the night. At around 5.30pm the storm came in with thunder and lightning for most of the evening however we were safe down in the valley in a protected location.

For more information on Cyclone Hudhud I suggest you read The Mountain Company statement on Cyclone Hudhud and its impact on trekking in the Himalaya (October 2014)

Photo: Cave camp
Photo: Mount Makalu seen above Cave camp
Photo: trail above Cave camp
On October 15th, we walked down Dhungge Kharka along a narrow trail through mainly bamboo then into forest lower down. After several hours the trail follows a tributary river to the wide grassy area at Saldim Kharka. There is another good bridge crossing this river and we had our lunch at an unused herder’s hut. It started to rain again and after lunch we had a long walk on a very muddy trail to the well known (locally) hollow tree, photo above. 

We crossed the next river on a new bridge recently built by a local herder, then shortly after we came to his camp and while chatting with him over a cup of tea he told us had recently built this bridge for his cows to access the other side of the river. This is the reason why this section is so muddy as these animals have churned up the trail. After our tea we continued on to ascend up to Cave Camp where we stayed the night under this cliff overhang. We were very wet after the days walking in the rain so the crew made a fire, as we gathered around we saw stars appear in the night sky so we were hopeful the weather was finally starting to improve.

We woke on October 16th to clear blue skies, from Cave Camp there is a narrow and loose trail to the right of the waterfall. I think if there is snow or icey this section would be very tricky and risky however we were lucky as the trail was dry. There is a steep climb up for three hours to the first ridge and about half way up this slope one gets superb view of Mount Makalu. The view from first ridge is superb with a full panorama from Kanchenjunga out to the east and Makalu further up the valley. This is a special spot as you can see the start point and end point of Section One of GHT.

Photo: view of Kanchenjunga from ridge above Cave camp
Photo: Gopal, Langer and Bal
After the first pass we continued upwards passing a kharka then a further climb up to second pass, there was a thin layer of snow on the ground however Gopal knew the trail well from his recce in July so easily found his way. By the time we got to the second pass the clouds had rolled in so we quickly descended down to Kalo Pokhari where we camped for the night. This is a lovely campsite next to this black lake (kalo means black in Nepali).

On 17th we planned to walk in one day to Yangri Kharka in Barun valley and back onto the standard Makalu Base Camp trek. From Kalo Pokhari one follows the trail climbing for an hour and then traverses past an unused herder’s hut to the first ridge. From here one descends the gulley, as this is north facing it holds the snow so we used YakTrax for security however we had no issues coming down. At the bottom of the gulley the trail hangs a sharp right and passes underneath the cliffs then drops to the river below then ascends the other side of the valley. One walks for an hour or so to the next ridge where one can look into the Barun valley and the trail to Shipton la is visible on far side of the valley (plus the lodges at Debota).

Photo: Kalo pokhari
Photo: view to Shipton La and Barun valley
Photo: first ridge above Kalo Pokhari, descent down gulley
From this second pass the trail descends past a small lake and then down to a grassy kharka where some people camp whereas we decide to crack on. After a steep descent through blue pine forest covered in moss and lichen we reached the Barun river where we continued for another hour and half on a trail to reach the lodges at Yangri Kharka. Here we met our first other trekking group since leaving Num ten days earlier.

My view is that this trek lived up to my expectations of a remote and rarely trekked trail with lovely scenery from the villages in Arun valley, to the many kharkas and high mountain views near Molun Pokhari and for the two days from Cave camp to Yangri Kharka. I am sure more groups will trek this way in the future however at the moment it is quiet! This trail introduces new options for trekking in Makalu region, many people avoid Makalu Base Camp as it is an out and back same way trek. Therefore it is now possible to do the Makalu Circuit…trek into Makalu Base camp via Hongon and trek out over Shipton La.

Photo: descent to Barun valley through blue pine forest
Photo: Barun valley
Photo: Yangri Kharka on Makalu Base Camp trail
If you are considering walking this section of GHT it is worth pointing out there are challenges with organising a remote trek like this one. As mentioned above it is essential to have a guide who has already walked this trail as it would be very difficult to find the trail especially if cloudy or if snow is covering the trail. There are also issues in finding suitable campsites along the way especially as many of them are waterlogged, too small or not flat. Any trip along GHT is true adventurous trekking and you must come with a flexible approach and not to expect the same level of infrastructure and trails as on other classic treks in Nepal.

Photo: Makalu Base Camp
I used SPOT gps tracker for this recce trek where I checked in for most nights of trek, click here to see the way points overlaid onto a map for Arun Valley to Makalu GHT.

The Mountain Company is planning to organise our 36 day trek from Kanchenjunga Base Camp to Makalu Base Camp GHT in September/ October 2015, please get in touch if you are interested in joining this group.

Roland Hunter

Monday, 10 November 2014

Trip report for Dhaulagiri Circuit led by Tom Lawson in October 2014

Photo: view to Dhaulagiri from Muri village
Our Dhaulagiri Circuit trek in October 2014 was led by Tom Lawson and Chandra Rai. Tom helped lead our Dhaulagiri Circuit trek with his wife Jill Lawson for us back in April 2012 (read Trip Report). For Autumn 2014 season Jill led our Ama Dablam Base Camp in October and Tom led Dhaulagiri Circuit and now both of them are now currently in the field leading our Kanchenjunga Circuit trek.

The Dhaulagiri Circuit group had all arrived to Kathmandu by October 5th and in the afternoon Tom gave his trek briefing at Hotel Ganjong also attended by myself and Jill. By October in this Autumn season the weather was fine and settled as the rainy weather from monsoon had wound down by the last week of September. On 5th I checked the weather forecast for the Dhaulagiri region, this predicted sun for the next four days whereas Everest region still had some cloud and precipitation forecast for the short term. Therefore at this point it looked like central Nepal would have better weather conditions than other parts of the Himalaya....however this situation was to change dramatically later on during this trek!

On evening of 5th we had four TMC groups in Kathmandu (Dhaulagiri Circuit, Manaslu Circuit, Annapurna Circuit and Mardi Himal) so we decided to organise a big group meal for everyone at Rumdoodles restaurant in Thamel. I think everyone enjoyed the evening and there seemed to be excitement all around as people chatted about their upcoming treks.

On October 6th our Dhaulagiri Circuit group flew to Pokhara and drove by bus to Beni to start their trek, they arrived to their first camp in late afternoon. For the next week they trekked through the villages and up through the forest staying at Dobang and Sallaghari camps. They reached Italian Base Camp on October 12th. I gather this part of the trek went well, the group enjoyed seeing the views and visiting the villages along the way. As ever the first few days from Beni are hot and humid and I think for many people the weather was hotter than they expected. This is worth bearing in mind if you plan to join one of our October treks in the future and it is important to drink lots of water, wear a sun hat, sun cream etc and also having an umbrella for shade is a good idea too.

On October 12th, I was on trek in the Makalu region and I received weather forecast from our office in London with an extreme weather warning as Cyclone Hudhud was tracking towards the Himalaya. A this stage Cyclone Hudhud was predicted to severely impact central Nepal especially Dhaulagiri region. I immediately contacted Tom via satellite phone to pass on this forecast and to warn him about venturing further beyond Italian Base Camp until the storm had passed through. The forecast was predicting 109cm of snow for Dhaulagiri region.

On October 13th the group went for a acclimatisation walk around Italian Base Camp and in the afternoon when everyone was back in camp the skies became cloudy and it started to rain. The next day on 14th the weather deteriorated as predicted and there was snow at Italian Base Camp and precipitation continued for 30 hours until 15th. As Italian Base Camp is at an altitude of 3,660m this was not too far above the snowline so there was less accumulation of snow however it was clear there was going to be a large amount settling on the ground higher up towards Dhaulagiri Base Camp and on French and Dhampus passes. 

During the storm the group held at Italian Base Camp as this is located in a safe protected place. Whereas in the Chonbarden gorge on the way to main Dhaulagiri Base Camp there were many avalanches releasing the fresh snow that fell throughout this period. By the 17th, Tom and Chandra decided it was safe for the group to go for a foray to see if possible to move up to Glacier Camp however everyone was stopped from proceeding further due to the depth of the snow (up to chest level!). The group turned back and retraced their steps back to Italian Base Camp.

I spoke to Tom via satellite phone on evening of 17th and we both decided it would not be possible to safely move further up so the group and crew would have to turn back to Beni. After the storm there were many helicopters flying up to Dhaulagiri Base Camp and it came out in the news later on that there had been a huge avalanche off Dhaulagiri hitting several tents from an expedition. Sadly two Slovakians and three Nepalese were killed in this avalanche, for more information please read article on Explorersweb

For more information on Cyclone Hudhud I suggest you read The Mountain Company statement on Cyclone Hudhud and its impact on trekking in the Himalaya (October 2014)

On October 18th our Dhaulagiri Circuit group retreated from Italian Base Camp and started their trek back out to Beni. They decided to take an alternative trail compared to the way in, this route is on the other side of Myagdi Khola and is rarely trekked by groups however I gather was well worth doing. On the way back from Darbang to Beni the group decided to avoid the road and crossed the bridge over Myagdi Khola and enjoyed visiting these villages off the main trekking trail. After spending one night at a very basic lodge in Beni the group drove back to Pokhara on October 21st,  everyone enjoyed one night here before flying back to Kathmandu on 22nd.

I was in Kathmandu on their return and I enjoyed going for a meal with them at KToo Restaurant (best steaks in Kathmandu!) to hear all about the trek. Clearly there was some lingering disappointment however of course at the same time everyone realised there is always an element of unpredictability of the weather in the mountains. The group was grateful for the good decisions made by Tom and Chandra and for the fact that everyone came back safe and sound. At least by venturing into Chonbarden gorge they understood how much snow had fallen and how it would have been impossible to break trail to higher elevations. Clearly with this amount of snow there would also have been extreme avalanche risk on the passes too especially Dhampus pass.

We have organised Dhaulagiri Circuit trek in October for the last four years, these groups had experienced pretty good conditions and all successfully crossed the passes to Jomsom. It really is bad luck about the timing of Cyclone HudHud as October is usually one of the best times of year to complete treks over high passes in Nepal. Having said that, there is always a risk of getting cyclones in the Himalayas and last year there was Cyclone Phailin although this impacted east Nepal into Bhutan so our Dhaulagiri Circuit group led by Almas Khan managed to cross the passes only a few days afterwards. Read Trip Report for Dhaulagiri Circuit in October 2013

The Mountain Company is planning to organise Dhaulagiri Circuit trek in April and October 2015 so please get in touch with us if you would like join one of these groups.

Roland Hunter

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Trip report for Lunana Snowman led by Almas Khan in September/ October 2014

This is the sixth time The Mountain Company has organised the Complete Lunana Snowman trek in Bhutan starting in Paro and finishing in Bumthang. I am delighted to report after another successful Snowman in September/ October 2014 that The Mountain Company has 100% track record of organising this challenging trek.

This year we had twelve trekkers signed up for the full Snowman and we also had five trekkers for the half Snowman (i.e leaving the main group at Laya village). Like in previous years this group was an international mix with people coming from UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Belgium, India and Holland.

Photo: view from Limithang camp
Our 2014 Snowman group was led by TMC regular guide, Almas Khan. Almas has now visited Bhutan twenty times to lead many treks including his personal favourite the Lunana Snowman. Almas has completed Snowman trek five times including both Bumthang and Nikka Chu exit trails from Lunana. Almas has been involved in helping to train our trek crew in Bhutan and over the years has developed a strong rapport with our local staff. For our 2014 Snowman we had our regular Bhutanese trek crew on board again with Dawa as the Sirdar; Tashi & Tashi as guides and Tenzing as the cook.

Photo: The Snowman guides. Tash 1, Almas and Tashi 2 (credit: Jim Valentine)
I was in Kathmandu when most of the group arrived on September 21st and I enjoyed meeting them to discuss their upcoming trek in Bhutan. Almas flew to Paro a few days before the group arrived on September 20th, this always works well as he can check the preparations and meet the crew before the start of the trek.

Photo: Laya village
This year several members of this group decided to fly to Paro via Bangkok, Singapore and Delhi rather than coming through Kathmandu. These days Druk air (and new Bhutan Airways) has a more reliable and frequent connections from these other cities. As we realise this may be more convenient for some people, especially if coming from USA or Australia, we have decided for 2015 to start all of our Bhutan trips from Paro.

I think in practice quite a few people will probably still decide to transit through Kathmandu at least this gives people the option and it might save time and money to transit through another country. If you like we would be happy to book your Druk Air or Bhutan Airways flights for you to/ from Paro and also book your hotel in Kathmandu.

As discussed in previous trip reports we start our Snowman trek quite early in the Autumn season and several weeks before our treks in Nepal. This timing has been carefully thought out and tested over the years in order to put the team in a good position to cross the exit passes of Lunana before the winter snows block the way. Therefore the first few days of Snowman can sometimes be rainy as often at this time of the year the monsoon is still lingering.

Photo: prayer flags on Karchung La
Photo: view from Karchung La (credit: Jim Valentine)
However from the start for Snowman 2014 the weather was settled and sunny during the day although I heard there was abit of rain mostly after the group reached camps and this group only walked in the rain for several afternoons during the whole trek. As has been widely reported in the media Cyclone Hudhud caused heavy snowfall and storms in the Nepal Himalaya on October 14th. The Mountain Company received extreme weather warnings on 11th and this was communicated to all of our groups in the field including Snowman. Almas decided to make some changes with the itinerary and to keep the group moving by not having a rest day at Thanza.

Luckily in the end Cyclone Hudhud did not cause much impact in Bhutan and the group successfully crossed Gophu La out of Lunana. To read The Mountain Company statement on Cyclone Hudhud and its impact on trekking in the Himalaya Whereas last year Cyclone Phailin impacted the east of Nepal and Bhutan, there was much more snow experienced by Snowman 2013 however our leader Paul managed to find a way to get the group safely to Bhumtang. To read Snowman 2013 Trip Report

Photo: near Tarina
The conditions on the passes for Snowman 2014 were good throughout the trek and there was very little snow on the trail. For all of our treks crossing high passes in Bhutan and Nepal we included on the kit list: micro spikes (eg Yak Trax XTRs), two trekking poles and gaiters. This equipment can really help when there is snow or ice such as experienced with Snowman 2013 however luckily was not required for Snowman 2014.

Regarding the conditions some members of this group found this trek to be colder than expected, as per our Trip Dossier you can expect to maximum overnight lows of -20 Celsius. Therefore you should ensure you have a sleeping bag rated to this temperature or plan to wear more clothes at night to keep you toasty warm! The coldest night on the trek is normally at Tsorim Lake as at 5,250m is the highest camp on Snowman trek.

As the group skipped their rest day at Thanza they decided to spend an extra day at the wonderful hot springs at Dur Tsachu. This place is always enjoyed by groups as at this point in the trek a good soak is normally required!

Photo: view from Kesha La
For Snowman 2015 we have made one change in the itinerary, we have decided to include two nights at Soi Thangthanka (3,510m) in order to help acclimatisation before ascending to Jangothang also known as Chomolhari Base Camp (4,080m). Therefore our Snowman itinerary has now increased by one day to 29 trekking days.

We used SPOT gps tracker for this group, for each night on trek Almas checked in sending a gps signal to us so we could track this group's progress. Click here to see the way points overlaid onto a map for LunanaSnowman

Most of the feedback for Snowman 2014 has been very positive and I have copied Charles comments below:

“Almas and his team were a credit to your company. It’s difficult to think of anything which would have improved the trip. In my view it was a great success and very well organised. That said we were very lucky with the weather. But if things had not worked out on that front I’m confident Almas and his excellent team would have steered the right course through it.

I’m not blind to the amount of organisation that needs to happen behind the scene to make a trek of this type work- but yet it has to be flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances, such as weather and the health of the participants. I would just like to add how much I enjoyed the whole trip.” Charles Whiteaway (UK)

I would like to thank Almas very much for leading Snowman 2014 and also our excellent Bhutanese crew: Dawa (Sirdar), Tashi 1 (guide), Tashi 2 (guide), Tenzing (Cook), Chencho ( Astt Cook) and the rest of the crew Tashi Dorji, Tashi Wangdue, Lhaba and Hapa. With Almas’s guidance and training we have noticed large improvements from the Bhutanese team's level of service and experience from variety and quality of the food, their guiding skills and the efficiency of completing tasks around camp.

We have just launched the dates and prices for Snowman 2015 on TMC website so please get in touch soon if you would like to join this group. Almas has confirmed his leadership for next year’s Snowman and hopefully we will have the same Bhutanese crew on board as well.

Roland Hunter
www.themountaincompany.co.uk

Monday, 3 November 2014

Trip report for Ladakh Sky Trail GHT in August/ September 2014 led by Almas Khan

Photo: camp at Zangla Sumdo  
In late August 2014, Almas Khan led our first Ladakh SkyTrail GHT with a group of eight trekkers signed up. We set up this itinerary from many discussions with Almas who wanted to organise a trek visiting his favourite places in Ladakh. Over the years Almas has led many trekking groups in Ladakh and for a long time he has been planning to link together a trek to visit as many of these remote and less trekked trails.

Our Ladakh Sky Trail is a unique trek designed by us to help you experience the best of the three areas of this region: Ladakh, Zanskar and Changthang/ Rupshu. Please see the Testimonials copied below for feedback received from our 2014 group on how much they enjoyed exploring Ladakh on this epic traverse. Ladakh Sky Trail starts from Lamarayu monastery and crosses six mountain passes over 5,000m then 21 days later the journey finishes at Tso Moriri lake located on the Changthang plateau at 4,500m.

We used SPOT gps tracker for this group, for each night on trek Almas checked in sending a gps signal to us so we could track this group's progress. Click here to see the way points overlaid onto a map for Ladakh Sky Trail

Photo: on way to Lingshed
Photo: looking back to Hanimul La
Overall our inaugural Ladakh Sky Trail trek went well and the group successfully arrived to Tso Moriri lake on September 12th. Well done and congratulations to the group for completing this traverse of Ladakh! We have recently updated our Trip Dossier for Ladakh Sky Trail in 2015 with some small changes and tweaks based on our experience from 2014. 

One of the issues of organising any trek in Ladakh is acclimatisation as Leh the starting point of the trip is at 3,500m. It is for that reason we include two nights in Leh and one night in Lamayuru (also at 3,500m) before starting the trek. In fact several of the group decided to arrive to Leh early and we helped booked extra nights at the group hotel, this is certainly a good idea to help give more time for acclimatisation to the high altitude. We have designed the itinerary to help your acclimatisation, for example on Day 4 you walk over the Prinkiti La (3,700m) and also we spend two nights at Snigge La Base Camp before the long day on Day 7 crossing the three passes of Snigge La (5,100m), Kyupa La (4,360m) and Neruka La (4,280m).

Photo: Zangla
Photo: on way to Zangla Sumdo
Some of the most dramatic section of Ladakh Sky Trail is from Day 12 as the next four days you are walking in beautiful gorges however please be aware that this also involves many river crossings. I gather from Almas there are 120 river crossings from Zangla to Kumra Sumdo, therefore please make sure you bring sandals and walking poles! Most of the river crossings were not too deep with most around shin or knee height although on the way to Kumra Sumdo there were some deeper river crossings at waist level.

It is worth pointing out we have carefully selected the time of year to run this trek, by starting in late August into September much of the snow in the mountains has already melted over the summer so river levels should be lower at this time of year.

Photo: view from Chubchak camp
Photo: view from Gyama camp
As parts of Ladakh Sky Trail are rarely walked by other trekking groups sometimes there is no established path in places and it is common to cross landslides and rough scree slopes along the way. On this difficult terrain it is often necessary for the crew to unload the horses and then reload further along. On Day 13 trekking to Chubchak, the horses had to be unloaded as the gorge on the other side of Cha Cha la gets so narrow in places that horses cannot go through with bags on. Also on Day 16 Trek to Rabrung La Base (4,405m) there were a couple of landslide patches and all of the staff assisted with unloading, loading and carrying of bags. In fact Almas reckoned they were quite lucky as last year’s trail survived because of less snowfall during the winter, if not then this could take much more time.

Photo: Tshokar salt lake
Photo: Tso Moriri lake
Our 2014 group saw pugmarks from a snow leopard so they were all excited to see the presence of this elusive cat. They also saw other wildlife such as skyangs (wild asses) near Tsho Kaar lake.

Please see testimonials from our 2014 group below:

“I honestly felt that this trip was excellent. The best thing was that we were able to walk through and experience Ladakh, Zanskar and Changthang in one trip. Almas is an outstanding leader. The food was exellent, both on trek and in the hotels. Our cook on trek (Angdu) is a real asset. Hotels were very pleasant and I appreciated that the two-man tents had two entrances and were robust. A small but experienced company like The Mountain Company will always be my first choice.” Majid Al-Khalil (UK)

“First of all, we would like to thank Almas and the rest of the staffs for making this a great holiday. Almas leadership skill, intimate knowledge and passion for this region and his mission to help and support every team member made this a successful trek. Under his leadership the group (staffs and trekkers and horses) were well guided and looked after and had a great time.

The trek certainly lived up to the geological wonderland description in the trip note, every day we were treated with amazing landscape, views from surreal and massive rock formations, huge river gorges, vast plains and the serene salt lake and blue lakes. The TMC itinerary is also unique in that it covers Ladakh, Zanskar, Rupshu Region and both the Tsomoriri Lake and Tsokhar Lake, and the Monasteries in the regions. This trek has it all -  remote and wild landscape, long and steep climb up the Passes and long and zig zag descent, days of river crossings, seeing snow leopard footprints, blue sheep, Kiang, and visiting ancient monasteries, remote villages and Sheppard villages.” Cindy and Robert (Australia)


I would like to thank Almas for doing a great job in helping set up Ladakh Sky Trail and for leading this group in the field. We had a hard working and cheerful Ladakhi team helping Almas, so thanks to local guide Tsering Samphel, the wonderful cook Angdu and the rest of trek crew.

Almas has confirmed will be leading this trek again in 2015 and we have already requested for the same local Ladakhi crew to join our group. Please get in touch soon if you are interested in joining our Ladakh SkyTrail GHT or if you have any questions on this trek.

Roland Hunter

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The Mountain Company statement on Cyclone Hudhud and its impact on trekking in the Himalaya (October 2014)

Photo: satellite image of Cyclone Hudhud hitting the Himalaya on October 14th
As has now been widely reported in the media Tropical Cyclone Hudhud moved north through India and into the Himalaya on October 14th causing large amounts of snowfall and very high winds. This sadly resulted in at least 39 trekkers dying from avalanches and cold exposure in the Himalayan mountains of Nepal. For more information please take a look at Wikipedia page 2014 Nepal Snowstorm disaster 

Cyclone Hudhud made landfall in Andhra Pradesh (India) in the early hours of October 12th. Luckily on October 11th our support team at The Mountain Company heard about the cyclone being reported in Indian news and then started seriously tracking the cyclone and checking detailed weather forecasts. It became apparent on October 12th Cyclone Hudhud was heading towards the Himalaya and would cause severe weather.

Photo: satellite image of Cyclone Hudhud making landfall in India on October 12th
During this period I was trekking in the Makalu region of Nepal and received this disturbing information from our team by satellite phone. On October 12th I was informed that Cyclone Hudhud was likely to result in large amounts of snow with the following snowfall amounts predicted in Nepal: Manaslu region up to 128cm snow, Annapurna region up to 125cm and Dhaulagiri region up to 109cm. These areas are in the central part of Nepal and include the most popular treks in Nepal.

As The Mountain Company had groups trekking on the Annapurna Circuit, Manaslu Circuit and Dhaulagiri Circuit during this period, we started the process of informing our groups of the approaching cyclone. For our more remote trekking groups where there is no local cell/ mobile phone communications, we send a satellite phone (Thuraya system) so I got in contact with the leaders of these groups. I was supported by our team in Kathmandu who did a great job of communicating weather updates to the groups and discussing future plans. Luckily we knew from reviewing the itineraries that none of our groups were scheduled to cross high passes or camp at extreme altitude above 5,000m on October 14th.

During the storm on October 15th we tried to contact all of our trekking groups in Nepal and Bhutan to find out their situation reports and obtain information on the actual amount of snow that had fallen compared to the weather forecasts. Unfortunately the Thuraya satellite phone system went down for an extended period of time from 7pm on October 14th until noon on October 15th, I assume this was due to congestion on the network as a result of high usage during the storm. This is unusual as Thuraya is no doubt the best satellite system for use in remote Himalayan region and is usually very reliable.

This technical glitch with Thuraya resulted in a short delay in getting information back to Edward manning the hot seat in our office London as by that time the media had already broken the story (eg BBC article: Nepal blizzards and avalanches claim many lives). We decided not to confirm publically that all of our groups were accounted for until we had heard back from all of our leaders that their groups were fine and well. As soon as these confirmations were received Edward and Helen updated The Mountain Company’s Facebook group as well as replying to as many emails as possible and handling a high volume of calls from concerned family and friends. The update reported on our Facebook group on October 15th was as follows:

TMC news from Nepal following the last few days of terrible weather: "all of our groups are fortunately safe". Some groups will have to change their itineraries or descend due to high levels of snow and poor conditions, but the good news is that everyone is ok.

October is the busiest month for trekking in Nepal. Normal conditions experienced at this time of year are sunny and stable weather following the summer monsoon rains. This year the monsoon wound down quite early around September 24th and there was sunny weather for several weeks throughout Nepal and Bhutan.  A cyclone in the post monsoon season is relatively rare however by chance Cyclone Phailin also hit the Himalaya around the same date last year. 

In October 2013 Cyclone Phailin approached the Himalaya towards the east of Nepal and into Bhutan, in fact I was trekking with a group on section One of The Great Himalaya Trail from Kanchenjunga to Makalu Base Camp at the time and we experienced heavy rain (as we were at a lower altitude) however there was over one metre of snowfall at Kanchenjunga Base Camp: to read our trip report on TMC blog.

However the impact on trekking groups from Cyclone Phailin was far less serious to trekkers as the regions in the east of Nepal and Bhutan are less accessible with far fewer numbers compared to the popular Annapurna Circuit. I gather before Cyclone Phailin in 2013 the last significant cyclone to cause similar problems and fatalities with trekkers was back in 1986 so these tropical storms are still relatively rare occurrences in the Himalaya.

Photo: Roland and friend on Thorong La in sunnier weather in 2005
Since getting back to Kathmandu I have read numerous reports of the groups crossing Thorung La pass on Annapurna Circuit during October 14th, I will certainly not speculate on what happened as only the survivors can tell the full story of the sad sequence of events. However it must have been a horrifying experience for those involved to have make a decision whether to stay in the tea shop at summit of Thorung La or descend down to Muktinath in a white out snow storm.

Of course if they stayed at the teashop on Thorung La they might get cold exposure leading to hypothermia especially if inadequately equipped with warm clothes as well as facing the possible risk of getting severe altitude sickness. Also given the amount of snow falling it is likely they might be snowed in for several days and risk descending on heavily snow laden slopes prone to avalanche (or wait for a helicopter rescue). It looks like also there may not have been sufficient space for everyone to stay in the tea shop as you can see from photo below it is a rather small building.

Photo: Thorung La tea shop (where many trekkers took shelter on October 14th)
Photo: Thorung La tea shop (where many trekkers took shelter on October 14th)
The one question everyone is talking about in Kathmandu is why Cyclone Huddud was not picked up by the relevant government authorities in Nepal and severe weather warnings communicated to trekkers planning to cross these high passes on October 14th? Trekkers pay for their trip around the Annapurna Circuit, both for the Annapurna Conservation Area Permit (ACAP) for access to the National Park and also a fee of US$20 paid for the trekking permits (TIMS). I wonder where all of these fees go? I am sure very little is actually used in practice to enhance trekking safety and security...

As discussed in this blog, the weather forecasts on October 12th indicated the cyclone would impact the Himalaya region including Nepal. Hopefully new procedures will be implemented in Nepal as a result from this disaster to prevent future incidents like this one happening again. It would certainly be a good idea to install a radio communication network (or satellite phones) in the high lodges of Nepal for early warning and communication of weather reports to groups before they cross high mountain passes.

Or until this system is in place trekkers should ensure they have some means of communication such as via satellite phone in more remote areas in order in order to access weather forecasts widely available on the internet such as Mountain Forecast for Greater Himalaya with regional forecasts too.

My thoughts are with the family of the trekkers, Nepalese guides and porters that died in the bad weather following cyclone Hudhud and would like to express my deepest sympathy.

If you are booked on trip later in Autumn with us then our current advice is to travel as usual however we will be in touch if there are any changes. Please get in contact with us on email or through our at www.themountaincompany.co.uk if you have any questions or require further information on your upcoming trip.

Roland Hunter

The Mountain Company