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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

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