Latest news from the Himalaya and Karakoram

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Weather forecasts for our Himalayan treks and expeditions during 2015



The Mountain Company has recently made an agreement with EverestWeather.com (West Coast Weather, LLC) to provide professional weather forecasts for our Himalayan treks and expeditions throughout the Spring and Autumn seasons in 2015.

Following the severe weather from Cyclone HudHud that impacted Nepal in October 2014 and also Cyclone Phailin in October 2013 we have performed a detailed review and risk assessment for all of our trips in the Himalaya. As discussed in our blog post The Mountain Company statement on Cyclone Hudhudand its impact on trekking in the Himalaya (October 2014), we detected this cyclone from weather forecasts several days before impact in Himalaya. We were able to communicate this extreme weather warning to our groups in the field and the leaders took appropriate action by not crossing the high passes.

Following our review we believe it would further enhance the safety of our groups to have regular weather forecasts throughout the trekking season from an experienced organisation like EverestWeather.com. The main purpose of these forecasts is to give advanced warning of major storms that move out of the Bay of Bengal that can bring heavy rain and or snow in the Himalaya. Their forecasts are based on computer generated weather data generated from government agencies. Of course weather patterns and forecast models are very complex and these storms can quickly change course and our leaders have to be ready to adapt to these situations.

We plan to have rolling weekly forecasts provided by EverestWeather.com for the Everest region covering the next seven days. If there are any significant storms brewing then we will obtain more frequent updates between these weekly forecasts. The main purpose is to inform our leaders of the chances of a big storm, like a cyclone or a big dump of snow (i.e 10 inches or more of snow in 24 hours).  The focus of the forecast is on a big precipitation event and less focused on wind speeds.

We will also have region specific weekly forecasts for our more remote western led camping treks such as Upper Dolpo to Jomsom GHT, Dhaulagiri Circuit, Lunana Snowman, Kanchenjunga Circuit, Naar to Mustang and Kanchenjunga to Makalu GHT. During the course of these treks our forecaster will be keeping an eye on any systems coming towards the Himalaya and we will get further forecasts if there is any indication of cyclonic storm activity. For our expeditions to climb mountains like Mera Peak we will get specific summit forecasts including precipitation and also wind speed at high altitude.

At The Mountain Company we have always taken the safety of our groups very seriously. We believe that by investing in weather forecasts like those provided by EverestWeather.com, this will further reduce the overall risk of our groups trekking in the Himalaya. It will also increase your chances of successfully completing your objective as we can plan the itinerary around any major storms. For further information on our risk assessment process and our work toward complying with British Standard8848.

Roland Hunter

Friday, 2 January 2015

Trip Report for Kitiphu Ridge trek in Bhutan during December 2014


In December 2014, I visited Bhutan in order to develop our program of shorter treks in this country. I posted a blog article yesterday with the Trip Report for Druk Path describing how we enjoyed excellent weather and superb views during this five day trek. As discussed in this article my plan during this visit was to find short treks in Bhutan that have good views of the Himalaya, beautiful landscape and also cultural interest too.

From speaking to several friends I heard good reports about the three day trek along Kitiphu Ridge (also called the Bumthang Owl trek). So we decided to walk this trail to find out whether Kitiphu Ridge would be a good objective to promote for future groups. From reading the Bhutan Tourism Monitor report I gather there were only 71 tourists who completed Kitiphu Ridge trek in 2013 so it was unlikely to be too busy especially in December.

There are several variations of this trek however after discussion with our Sirdar, Dawa, we decided to start at Gyetsa village near Chumey and walk along Kitiphu Ridge to end the trek at Dur village. Now having completed the trek there is no doubt this is the best way as you walk in a northerly direction with views towards the Himalayas.

During Kitiphu Ridge trek we used GPS SPOT where we checked in at each camp and main passes during the trek, to view our the trail on SPOT Adventures website mapped onto Google Earth

Photo: start of trek at Gyetsa village near Chumey
Photo: crossing bridge near at roosting area for black-necked cranes
Photo: black-necked cranes in flight near Gyetsa village
Photo: black-necked cranes near Gyetsa village
Day One: From Gyetsa village to Tharpaling monastery- three hours walking.
We started this trek on December 10th at Gyetsa village and we were very lucky as shortly after setting off we saw a flock of black-necked cranes fly over us then land in the fields outside the village. On our return after the trek we found an article on Kuensel Online explaining how the numbers of cranes overwintering in this area has increased significantly from only five or six birds for last twenty years. It is wonderful to hear about the healthy population of cranes and it was a fantastic experience to unexpectedly see them at the start of this trek.

Photo: view down to Gyetsa village
Photo: looking up the ridge to Tharpaling monastery
After walking across the fields and crossing a bridge over a small stream we walked on a path up through pine forest, there were good views back down to the fields around Gyetsa village. After 45 minutes we reached several traditional Bhutanese farmhouses and a private monastery. From here we followed the ridge up through more forest and along the way we passed prayer flags, mani wall and an old gateway (probably marking the old trail from Trongsa to Bumthang) with a beautiful mandala painted in the roof.

We could see Tharpaling monastery above us near the top of the ridge and after about three hours walking we arrived to our camp in the grounds of the monastery. Our tent had been pitched next to eight stupas and it was wonderful to have a cup of tea watching the nuns walking koras while spinning their hand-held prayer wheels.

Photo: traditional Bhutanese farmhouse
Tharpaling is a cluster of isolated monasteries at an altitude of 3,700m and one of the gompas is located with a cliff behind. Tharpaling is an important monastery complex founded in 1352 by Longchen Rabjampa during his enforced period of exile from Tibet. There are usually more than 100 monks however during the winter they head south to a warmer place so in December we only saw a few caretaker monks. Outside the main assemby hall are eight stupas built in 2011 commemorating the major deeds in the life Shakyamuni Buddha.

Photo: row of eight stupas outside Tharpaling monastery
Photo: Tharpaling monastery
Day Two: From Tharpaling monastery to Shonath camp- six hours walking
After breakfast we walked up through the monastery complex and visited one of the temples to attend a morning puja (religious ceremony). Above the monastery we followed the trail up to a pass on Kitiphu Ridge where we saw our first views of the Himalayan peaks to the east. As one walks up the grassy ridge to the first view point bedecked by prayer flags Mount Chomolhari becomes visible to the west. We passed through a section of forest with blue pine and rhododendron before continuing on more grassy slopes to the second viewpoint. From here one looks down to the Bumthang valley far below and we clearly saw Jakar Dzong located on a hill top.

Photo: walking along the trail above Tharpaling monastery
Photo: walking along Kitiphu Ridge
Photo: view of Himalayan peaks from Kitiphu Ridge
Photo: Kitiphu ridge
Photo: view of Bumthang valley from Kitiphu Ridge
Photo: lammergeier above Kitiphu Ridge
At the end of the ridge is Mount Kitiphu (4,050m) and it is from this point we saw Mount Gangkar Punsum. At an altitude of 7,570m it is the highest unclimbed peak in the world. At this high point there are many prayer flags, a large Buddhist prayer umbrella and a shrine for pujas. We arrived at Mount Kitiphu in early afternoon and had lunch while enjoying the view. After taking many photos we started the walk down Kitiphu Ridge and on the descent we saw two large lammergeier (bearded vulture) flying in the sky high above us.

Photo: view of Himalayan peaks from Kitiphu Ridge
Photo: Mount Kitiphu at 4,050m
Photo: view of Mount Gangkar Punsum (7,570m) from Mount Kitiphu
Photo: descending from Mount Kitiphu
Photo: walking along Kitiphu Ridge
Further down Kitiphu Ridge after passing a yak herder's hut we reached Drange La (3,600m), at this pass we descended through a beautiful forest of spruce, fir, rhododendron and bamboo for about 45 minutes to our camp in a grassy clearing called Shonath. In the forest around this camp are many owls, hence giving the trek its name, however sadly we did not hear any hunting that night.

Photo: Shonath campsite in the forest
Photo: ponies used for carrying our luggage
Day Three: From Shonath Camp to Dur Village- two hours walking.
It is a short walk out through blue pine forest to the road head at Dur Village. After exploring the village and saying farewells to our horseman, we were driven to Bumthang where we checked into Swiss Guesthouse for the night. In the afternoon we visited two monasteries in Bumthang valley starting at Tamshing Gomba and then walking over the suspension bridge to Kurjey Lhakang. Kurjey Lhakang is an important place as has the body print of Guru Rinpoche preserved in a cave inside the oldest temple.

Photo: walking through forest of hemlock and juniper
Photo: river near Dur village
Photo: Dur village
Like for Druk Path trek once again we had perfect weather for Kitiphu Ridge trek. As discussed in my Trip Report for Druk Path I would recommend trekking in the Himalaya during December as the weather is normally sunny (never guaranteed!) and the views of the Himalayas tend to be clear with less haze than often experienced in other months. Of course there is a risk of getting cloudy weather with precipitation at anytime of year however you have a good chance of dry and sunny weather in December.

Kitiphu Ridge would be a good choice for a December trek as the camps are not too high in altitude with highest near Tharpaling monastery at 3,700m. Therefore it should not be too cold however you certainly need to bring along warm clothes and a good sleeping bag to enjoy the experience!

My view is that Kitiphu Ridge is wonderful trek and I would highly recommend considering this option if you are looking for a short trek in Bhutan.  During the three days on Kitiphu Ridge trek we visited monasteries at Tharpaling and Bumthang; walked through forests of blue pine, hemlock, spruce, fir, rhododendron and juniper; saw lots of birds (black-necked cranes; lammergeier, nut crackers etc); met monks, nuns, yakherders and locals from Dur village. Once onto Kitiphu Ridge the view of the Himalayan mountains is superb and gets better as one ascends up towards Mount Kitiphu where the impressive Gangkar Punsum can be seen on a clear day.

We have not yet set up Kitiphu Ridge on The Mountain Company's website however we will do so soon. Please get in touch if you are interested in this trek and we will provide more information and tailor an itinerary for you.

Roland Hunter
www.themountaincompany.co.uk

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Trip Report for Druk Path trek in Bhutan during December 2014


Photo: view of Mount Chomolhari from near Jili Dzong
In December 2014, I visited Bhutan in order to develop and expand our program of treks and tours in this country. The Mountain Company has been operating trips in Bhutan since 2006 and has successfully organised the Complete Lunana Snowman trek six times. To find out how our groups got along please take a look at our Trip Reports for Snowman trek. The Snowman trek is certainly the hardest trek in Bhutan taking 29 days to traverse from Paro to Bumthang crossing eight Himalayan mountain passes over 5,000m.

Since 2006, we have organised several other treks in Bhutan such as Chomolhari Base Camp and Laya Gasa however we are now planning to expand our portfolio of trips. I was interested in shorter treks in Bhutan that also have amazing Himalayan views as I understand not everyone has the time and budget to be away trekking for a month like on Snowman trek! After doing some research I found two treks in Bhutan, the first one is the five day Druk Path and the second one is the three day Owl trek along Kitiphu Ridge near Bumthang.

We flew to Paro on November 29th and were lucky to get superb views of the Himalayas from the plane. We decided to fly with the new airline called Bhutan Airlines and were able to get seats next to window on the left side of the plane with views of Everest, Kanchenjunga, Makalu and Chomolhari among many others. In the past there was only one airline flying to Bhutan called Druk Air and during the peak trekking months of April, October and November it was difficult to obtain tickets.

Photo: view from Bhutan Airlines flight to Paro
We started the Druk Path trek on December 1st and having checked the weather forecast we were expecting a week of settled and sunny weather. In fact December can be one of the best times of year to trek as over the last ten years in the Himalaya there has usually been a high pressure resulting in blue skies and clear views of the Himalaya. Of course it will be abit colder in December however a trek like Druk Path (with maximum altitude of 4,200m) is fine as long as one brings the right clothes and gear i.e down jacket, fleece layers, hats and gloves, warm sleeping bag etc.

It is worth pointing out there is always a risk of having snow on the ground at this time of year, if so, the horses carrying the luggage may not be able to proceed.

Druk Path starts in Paro on the road above the National Museum and finishes in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. This trek follows a quiet forest trail then above tree line up through yak pastures. Given clear weather you will see the spectacular view of the Himalaya along the Bhutan - Tibet border including Mount Chomolhari, Jitchu Drake and Gangkar Punsum. Along the way there are a number of beautiful high mountain lakes.

It is possible to walk Druk Path in four days although this means walking some long days. Others prefer to take longer and opt for the six day Druk Path however on balance I think five days is about right for reasonably fit walkers. As you can see below there was only one longer day from Tshokam to Jana Tsho taking about 7 hours. I have described our itinerary and our trek below.

Day One: walk to Jili Dzong camp- four hours walking
We drove up the road to the watch tower above Paro Dzong where we met our trek crew. Then we walked along a jeep track for an hour passing several farmhouses and apple orchards. On the way we saw an archery competition with several families having a picnic. The trail winds up through blue pine forest and after an hour and half we arrived at a mani wall where we had a break. 

There are good views looking back to Paro valley and soon Jili Dzong is visible at the top of the ridge. After another hour we stopped for lunch in an grassy area and then afterwards ascended through more blue pine and fir forest. There is lots of old man’s beard hanging off the trees and this is always an indicator of good air quality. Higher up on the trail there was bamboo and rhododendrons. We walked through yak pastures near the pass (3,520m) and from here we descended a short way to our camp in a meadow below Jili Dzong.

Photo: start of the trek in Paro above National museum
Photo: view of Paro valley and farmhouses at start of Druk Path
Photo: archery competition
Photo: mani wall at Damche Gom
Photo: walking in blue pine forest on Day One
Photo: blue pine forest
Photo: Guides, Tashi and Tashi, walking through yak pastures towards the pass
Photo: pass below Jili Dzong
Photo: campsite below Jili Dzong
Day Two: walk to Tshokam- four hours walking
The sun arrived early this morning so we sat outside to eat our breakfast cooked by Dawa and his helper, Haba. After breakfast we walked back to the pass and up to Jili Dzong, this is located in an impressive spot on top of the ridge. From the Dzong there are views of Paro valley far below while in distance the Himalayan peaks can be seen including Mount Chomolhari. 

The trail follows the ridge and then enters forest of blue pine and rhododendron. After crossing to the east side of the ridge the trail continues through rhododendrons and cedars to the camp at Jangchhu Lakha, then further along the trail we stopped for the night at Tshokam camp.

Photo: Jili Dzong
Photo: walking on ridge near Jili Dzong
Photo: view of Paro from Jili Dzong
Photo: view of Mount Chomolhari
Photo: Tshokam camp
Day Three: walk to Jana Tsho- seven hours walking
This was a truly wonderful day as we had clear blue skies and the view of the Himalaya mountains was spectacular. There are two trail options and I would recommend you take the high path along the ridge where you get the best views of the mountains. From Tshokam camp we climbed up on a small path through forest for ½ hour to get above the tree line, for the rest of the day we followed the trail through grassy slopes scattered with rhododendron and juniper bushes. The view to the south is to the Dagala mountain range, in this area there is a trek called the Dagala Thousand Lakes treks.

Along the high trail from Tsokam there are a number of passes and after four hours we reached the ridge where there is a good viewpoint of Mount Chomolhari. We followed this ridge for ½ hour before descending through forest to Jimilang Tsho lake where we had a late lunch. After lunch we passed through rhododendron forest and after crossing a minor pass we ascended to our campsite near the lake at Jana Tsho.

Photo: taking a break above Tsokam camp
Photo: high trail to Jimi Jimi Lang Tsho
Photo: minor pass on high trail to Jimi Lang Tsho
Photo: view from ridge
Photo: walking along the ridge on high trail to  Jimi Langtsho
Photo: walking along the ridge on high trail to  Jimi Langsho
Photo: Mount Chomolhari seen from the ridge
Photo: Jimi Lang Tsho (lake)
Photo: view of Jana Tsho (lake)
Photo: camp at Jana Tsho
Day Four: walk to Phajoding- six hours walking (also an extra hour to walk to our camp in the foesrt below the monastery).
This was another classic day trekking in the Himalayas, after an ascent from Jana Tsho we crossed a small pass and then contoured past another lake called Simkotra Tsho. Today we walked over seven minor passes, the best view is from Thujedraj where the whole vista of the Bhutan Himalaya can be seen from a rocky viewpoint. I would recommend walking up this hill located to the left of the pass to see the Himalayan vista including Mount Gangkar Punsum (the highest unclimbed peak in the world). You can see the whole of the Bhutan Himalaya from Mount Chomolhari in the west through to the Lunana peaks of Masangang and Table Mountain to several unnamed peaks in the east.

The last pass is Phume La where it is also possible to see Gangkar Punsum again however by the time we reached here the mountains were obscured by clouds. From Phume La one looks down to Phajoding monastery and Thimphu valley below. We descended to Phajoding and visited the monastery then descended further to a camp in the forest next to a derelict house.

Photo: pack horses on the trail
Photo: on the trail to Phajoding
Photo: dogs always follow the trek groups
Photo: first minor pass
Photo: walking with a dog
Photo: Mount Chomolhari
Photo: Thujedraj pass with rocky viewpoint
Photo: Himalayan view from Thujedraj pass
Photo: walking towards Phume La pass
Photo: view of Thimphu valley
Photo: chorten on Phume La
Photo: Phajoding monastery
Day Five: walk to Motithang- two hours walking.
On the last day of the trek we descended through the forest to the roadhead at Motithang where we met our driver. After a visit to Takin reserve we drove to Peaceful Resort and checked in for the night.

During Druk Path we used GPS SPOT where we checked in at each camp and main passes during the trek, to view our the trail on SPOT Adventures website mapped onto Google Earth

As you can see from our photos we experienced excellent weather during our Druk Path trek in December. One needs a good sleeping bag for the nights however overall we did not feel too cold especially as sun always hit camp in the morning before we had breakfast. The other advantage of doing this trek in December is the trail is quiet with few other groups, we saw only three other trekkers during these five days.

You can also trek Druk Path during the peak trekking months of March April, October and November and being Bhutan it is unlikely the trail will be too busy with other groups. I would not advise trekking in Bhutan from May to September as during monsoon months it will be rainy and you are unlikely to get any mountain views.

If you are looking for a short trek where you can see the Bhutanese landscape including views of the Himalaya I would recommend Druk Path as a great choice. I think the best of exploring Bhutan is to get out into the hills for a few days rather than only driving to the main places such as on the classic tour circuit of Bhutan.

If you are interested in joining Druk Path trek please take a look our website. Please get in touch if you have any questions or would like further information.

Roland Hunter

The Mountain Company