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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

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Trip report for Mera Peak (Nepal) led by Chris Horobin November 2013

Photo: Mera Peak summit in November 2013
As discussed in our Trip Report for Kanchenjunga to Makalu GHT trek I led in October, the weather was very unstable in Nepal in early Autumn with a lot of precipitation and snow at higher altitudes. Luckily by the time our Mera Peak group arrived to Nepal in November, the weather had settled with high pressure system over the Himalaya resulting in sunny days as one would normally expect at this time of year. However this group had the added challenge of large amounts of snow and very low temperatures throughout the trip.

For our November 2013 expedition to Mera Peak, we had a full group of fourteen people and as usual this was an international mix with people coming from UK, Australia, Canada, USA and Italy. The leader Chris Horobin had been to Mera Peak on three previous expeditions and therefore is very familiar with the route on this mountain. This is the second time Chris has worked for The Mountain Company; in August 2012 he led a successful trek to K2 BaseCamp & Gondogoro La in Pakistan. Our sirdar for this expedition was Domi Sherpa who had been with me on our 2012 Mera Peak Expedition. Our regular cook, Saila Tamang, was in charge of the kitchen and his team would no doubt  provide a range of tasty meals to the group throughout the expedition.

After the flight to Lukla airport on November 4th, the group started their trek into Mera Peak Base Camp following the longer trail rather than taking the short cut option over the Zatra La pass (4,700m). We have never organised this expedition by going over Zatra La direct from Lukla as this is simply too risky in terms of lack of acclimatisation. Also when approached from Lukla side this pass is quite steep and holds its snow & ice for longer due to its northerly aspect, therefore in practice many groups are unable to cross the Zatra La as planned.

Instead for The Mountain Company’s Mera Peak itinerary we take ten days to walk to Base Camp following the long trail through Pangom village and past Panch Pokhari holy lakes. Not only is this a beautiful walk through a less travelled region of Nepal, but also involves long days with significant ascent and descent. This trek into Base Camp will improve everyone’s fitness level before arriving to Mera Peak (as well as of course helping the acclimatisation process) and thereby increasing their chances of summit success.

On arriving to the camp at Tagnag (4,400m) there was still snow on the slopes only 200m above the village. This was leftover from the heavy snowfalls experienced in October. In the past I have led six expeditions to Mera Peak and have never seen snow this low in altitude as the snowline is usually near the glacier on the way to Mera La. Throughout this trip I gather it was very cold with much lower temperatures than normal at this time of year.

Our Mera Peak itinerary has two nights at Tagnag to help the acclimatisation process and on the extra day Chris organised a training day to show the group how to use fixed ropes. At Mera Peak Base Camp (Khare) Chris and Domi held another training day, this time for winter skills to show the group how to use crampons and ice axes practicing on the snow slopes nearby. This training is essential for people who have joined this expedition with no prior mountaineering experience and also a good refresher for those who already have learnt these technical skills from past expeditions.

On November 15th the group headed up to Mera La (5,300m) and due to the low snowline this was far more challenging than usual, especially walking along the ridge to access the glacier. Once onto the glacier it is a flat walk around to Mera La before descending to the camp on east side of this pass. On the next day the group continued up the glacier to High Camp (5,800m). This section of the mountain is exposed to the wind and I gather was a very cold day for everyone. The view from High Camp is superb as one can see Makalu and Kanchenjunga to the east, Everest and Lhotse to the north and Cho Oyu to the north west. The mountain vista from High Camp and above is no doubt one of the most impressive viewpoints in the Himalaya.

The summit day on Mera Peak starts early and this year the group left High Camp at 2am. It is always a cold few hours as everyone is walking in the dark and by the far the best way of staying warm is to keep moving. The roped groups made good progress and summited Mera Peak between 9am and 10am. I gather it was a clear and sunny day although very cold with strong wind. After enjoying the views from the top it is a quick descent to High Camp for hot juice and noodle soup before continuing down to Base Camp. This year the group arrived down at Khare between 3pm and 4pm after a long but incredibly satisfying day. Well done and congratulations to the summitters!

It takes a further three days to walk out from Base Camp to Lukla for the flight back to Kathmandu. On the third day one crosses Zatra La pass and as mentioned the descent on Lukla side is steep and can be icey. Our Sherpa crew went ahead that morning to fix some rope to safeguard the descent for the group and porters.

In summary, this year there is no doubt that the conditions were very tough on Mera Peak with a low snowline making the trail up and down to Mera La far more challenging than normal. The temperatures were cold throughout the expedition and in particular when accounting for the wind chill factor on the mountain. Therefore it is essential that you bring clothes and equipment that can cope with these low temperatures. I heard from Chris that the estimated wind chill factor on summit day was down to -35 Degrees Celsius.

Mera Peak is not a technical climbing expedition however it is a tough objective for anyone. Right from the start there are long walking days with significant ascent and descent. Once onto the mountain you are walking at high altitude where any physically exertion is always really hard work. For many people who have already completed the classic circuit treks in Nepal there is no doubt that Mera Peak is significantly more difficult. For that reason we have given Mera Peak our highest trip grade of "Challenging/ Mountaineering": to view all of our grading definitions.

We have received some great feedback from the group and have copied two of the testimonials below:

“Absolutely awesome trip! No complaints whatsoever. Great group! Chris was a fantastic leader and I would go on another trip with him in a heartbeat. Very experienced leader with a fantastic attitude. Domi Sherpa was extremely competent. Our safety and comfort was always his top priority. One of the nicest persons I have ever met! The kitchen crew did a fantastic job of keeping us very well fed and the food was great. All the other support staff were very friendly and fulfilled their duties to a very high standard. Thanks for organising a great trip!” Patrick

“This was a fantastic trip and experience which I will never forget and has inspired me to get in to climbing in the near future. Chris was an excellent leader who is highly experienced and has a great attitude who was firm but very fair when it was needed. I would not hesitate to use him again for a similar or more technical trek / climb.” Anthony

I would like to thank Chris and Domi who did a good job leading this group and of course the rest of our amazing Nepali trek crew. I would also like to thank Choire, Chris's son, who helped out during the mountaineering training days as well as volunteering to escort one of the group back down early on summit day, sacrificing his own summit in the process.

For a more detailed description of this Mera Peak Expedition please take a look at Chris Horobin’s blog

The Mountain Company is planning to organise Mera Peak Expedition in April and November 2014, please get in touch soon if you would like to join one of these groups.

Roland Hunter

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Kanchenjunga Base Camp to Makalu Base Camp trek along section 1 of The Great Himalaya Trail (GHT) in October/ November 2013

By October 5th all of our group had arrived to Kathmandu for our 36 day trek from Kanchenjunga to Makalu following Section 1 of the Great Himalaya Trail. After our restricted area trekking permits had been issued on 6th we flew by Buddha Air to Bhadrapur airport in east Nepal on 7th. Our Sirdar, Pema Tshiri Sherpa, and Ang Kami came with the group from Kathmandu whereas the rest of the crew had driven by bus a few days earlier.

On 8th we had a full day’s bus drive to Taplejung and onto Suketar where we stayed the night in a lodge before starting the trek on the next day. It was good to see Lhakpa Sherpa again and also our cook Ang Gombu who had been on our successful Makalu to Everest expedition in Spring 2012. I last visited Taplejung on Gary Pfisterer’s Kanchenjunga Expedition in 2003 and since then the road to Taplejung has been improved significantly and now there is a metalled road the whole way to Suketar. There is a STOL airstrip at Suketar however there are currently no scheduled flights due to the lack of a Twin Otter and Dornier 228s in Nepal so instead this year all groups are flying via Bhadrapur to the south.

Photo: view of Kanchenjunga from Suketar
For our first day on trek we had a short walk to Phurumbu village where we camped near the school. As we left Suketar I was glad to see the weather was now settled with clear mountain views of Kanchenjunga and Jannu to the north. Well it certainly looked like the stable post monsoon weather had arrive with high pressure over the Himalaya. For the first three days of the trek our trail followed Tamor Khola river in a northly direction and then just before Sekathum camp at the confluence we took the right fork up along the Ghunsa Khola river.
Photo: Tamor Khola valley
On the fourth day of the trek we woke up at Amjilossa camp to a cloudy morning and later just before we stopped for lunch it started to rain. Unknown to us at the time this was the first effects of Cyclone Phailin coming off the Bay of Bengal  and we experienced heavy rainfall for the next two days, this cyclone caused extensive flooding in India- for further information take a look at BBC's news article. That afternoon we arrived to Gyabla camp in the rain, the heavy precipitation continued all night and throughout the next day during our walk to the village of Ghunsa. Luckily there are several good lodges in Ghunsa so our group could warm up there and dry out in front of a fire. We heard afterwards that many other groups trekking in the Himalaya at the same time were far more severely affected sadly with fatalities on Mera Peak and on north side of Everest, for more information take a look at this article on the The Adventure Blog

Photo: Tamor Khola
Photo: bamboo swing set up for Dashain festival
I received further detailed weather forecasts from Kathmandu predicting the end of the system with dryer and sunny weather to follow and during our rest day in Ghunsa luckily the rain stopped. As a result of this weather system it was clear there would be a lot of snow at high altitude with risk of rock fall and avalanche so we would have to see what the conditions were like higher up before deciding how far we could go towards Kanchenjunga Base Camp.
Photo: North Face of Mount Jannu
The walk from Ghunsa to Kanbachen is very beautiful through pine and larch forest then further up on the trail looking towards the east there is a superb view of north face of Mount Jannu. Kanbachen is a small settlement with yak pasture around although now some of the fields are used for camping and there are even a few basic lodges for independent trekkers. As Kanbachen is at 4,100m we decided to spend two nights there in order to help acclimatise before pushing onto Lhonak at 4,785m. On the spare day the group went for a short walk around Kanbachen and I decided to walk up towards Lhonak to check the conditions on the trail. There was lots of snow up to one metre deep near Lhonak however luckily a good track had already been broken into the snow 

Photo: looking north up from Kanbachen

Photo: trail to Lhonak
Photo: deep snow near Lhonak
On October 17th the whole group moved up to Lhonak, the weather was clear and higher up there were good views of the western flank of Kanchenjunga however it was a tough day for the group due to the large amount of snow on the trail. Along the way it was interesting to exchange news with the groups who were descending about the conditions higher up. Most groups who had walked up on 16th had decided there was too much snow to move higher, so were descending.

Photo: west flank of Mount Kanchenjunga

Photo: view to Pangpema and Frontier Peak
For our Kanchenjunga to Makalu trek it was planned to sleep at Lhonak on the way to Kanchenjunga Base Camp in order to help the group acclimatise before crossing our first pass, Nango La, on the GHT traverse heading west towards Makalu. However after one night at Lhonak the decision was made for our group to descend back down to Ghunsa as it was not possible to move safely towards Base Camp as a result of deep snow with high risk of rockfall and avalanche.

I received another detailed weather forecast from Kathmandu and unfortunately it showed another deterioration with further precipitation for the next few days. Also at the same time we heard from locals they were unable to cross Nango La with their yaks due to too much snow on the pass. I discussed our options with our sirdar Pema and after looking at the map and discussions with the owner of our lodge in Ghunsa we found out there was a lower pass over to Olangchung Gola above Gyabla village.

This new alternative route would be half a day longer than Nango La route and at the time it was still not known whether we would be able to cross our second pass Lumba Sumba as it was likely there would also be a lot of snow here too. Therefore we had a group meeting where I summarised our current situation and the risks of not being able to cross over to Makalu region in time for the trekkers who were doing the short itinerary (i.e walking directly to Tumlingtar and not going all of the way to Makalu Base Camp). In the end two people decided to walk back out to Taplejung to make their way back early to Kathmandu and two others opted to walk the classic Kanchenjunga Circuit over to South Base Camp. We spent an extra day in Ghunsa to help organise the new itineraries and logistics for the four trekkers leaving the main group.

On October 20th we left Ghunsa and descended the main trail to Gyabla then walked a short way above this village where we found an open grassy area to camp. Everyone enjoyed this day as the weather was fine in contrast walking up it had been rainy. Along the way we stopped off at Pholey village and watched the women weave Tibetan style carpets. Also this was the start of our GHT traverse heading west towards Makalu and we would now be leaving behind the relatively busy Kanchenjunga Circuit trail.

Photo: Pholey village
Photo: carpet weaving in Pholey
On 21st we had a steep climb for 1,250m through forest to our camp at the top of the ridge at 4,150m then on next day it was a steep descent along a muddy trail descending into Tamor Khola. From here we followed the main trail to Olangchung Gola and on arriving at this village we heard the news that the bridge crossing Yangma Khola was broken therefore if we had managed to cross Nango La we would have been unable to walk out to Olangchung Gola!
Photo: Pema Tshiri Sherpa and me on descent from Ridge camp
Photo: view from below Ridge camp to Olangchung Gola and towards Luma Sumba
In the morning after taking some time to explore Olangchung Gola village we walked up to the lower Lumba Sumba Pass Camp (possibly Yangetar camp on the Nepa map 1: 125,000?) by following Tamor Khola and then taking the Dingsamba Khola at the river confluence called Langmale (this is the location of River Camp). This is a beautiful walk and higher up towards camp the hillsides are covered with rhododendron, this would be a stunning place to see in Spring when in flower.
Photo: Olangchung Gola village
Photo: kani and mani wall outside Olangchung Gola
Photo: crossing cantilever bridge near River Camp/ Langmale
Photo: walking to Luma Sumba lower pass camp (4,200m) through rhododendrons
If we had been able to take the shorter route as originally planned over Nango La, we would have had lunch at Olangchung Gola village then continue further up the valleu to River Camp for the night. The next day we would have been able to camp at Lumba Sumba High Camp at 4,450m thereby decreasing the walking time to cross the pass. Because we had not crossed the Nango La, we were leaving from Lumba Sumba Low Camp, therefore we realised we would have a very long day to get over the pass especially given the large amount of snow. We set off early the next morning and as expected we encountered snow shortly after leaving. After an icey and slippery river crossing we walked up a steep snow slope to get above a black rock band. Once over this feature there is an upper valley where Lumba Sumba High Camp is located. We moved over to the left hand side of this valley and starting climbing in deep snow before reaching a plateau with a lake and views of Lumba Sumba pass.

Photo: Lumba Sumba High Camp
Photo: climbing up to Lumba Sumba first pass
At this stage after discussions with Pema and the Sherpa crew we decided there should be enough time to cross the pass and reach our camp on the other side in one day. At 1pm the group summited the first pass at 5,050m and then an hour later reached the Lumba Sumba La at 5,150m. The mountain views from the pass were superb and Makalu was clearly visible to the west. There was a long descent into Lapsi Khola valley where we arrived at 5.30pm luckily still in daylight. This was one of the best camps on the whole trek with flat grassy area next to the river.
Photo: snowy traverse from first pass to Lumba Sumba La
Photo: Lumba Sumba La
Photo: descent from Lumba Sumba
Photo: camp is located down Lapsi Khola valley
Photo: camp after Lumba Sumba
One of the reasons we pushed on to cross Lumba Sumba pass in one long day was we had received a weather forecast that another system of rain was due for the next few days. Unfortunately the forecast turned out to be accurate and we received more rain on and off for the next week however at least we had a fine day for crossing Lumba Sumba and our group was still making progress towards the west.

The Arun Valley that flows near Makalu was now only a three day walk away. After a late start we had a short walk to Thudam village and then next day we followed a spectacular narrow trail through forest to Kharka campsite. It was along this section of trail that well known long distance runner, Lizzy Hawker, fell during her attempt to run the GHT (her so called "Sky Dance"), for more information take a look at her Expedition Report  published on The North Face Journal. On October 28th we descended into Arun Valley and crossed the bridge before continuing onto Chyantang village. Just before we reached the village we encountered an intense thunderstorm with heavy rain followed by hailstones, luckily we were able to use a house located near our camp to warm up around their fire.

Photo: bridge near Thudam village
Photo: steep forested slopes on trail below Thudam village
Photo: narrow trail
Our original plan was to walk to Makalu Base Camp along a high trail entering Barun Valley at Yangle Kharka however after discussing the current condition of this route with our Sherpa guides and locals in Chyangtang it was clear there was way too much snow to go this way. So again we had another group meeting where I explained our options for the rest of the trek, we could either walk into Makalu Base Camp over Shipton La or as an entirely different Plan B walk through the middle hills towards Jiri. Jiri is the road head for the Solu Khumbu and our trail would take us over Salpa Bhanjang pass at 3,510m. Due to the large amount of snow on Shipton La as well as up towards Makalu Base Camp the group decided to go for Plan B and walk out to Jiri. Whilst this was disappointing not to achieve our original objective the idea of traversing a large section of Nepal through Solu Khumbu was exciting and we would certainly get fit as a result of the large amount of ascent and descent on this trail!

Photo: Chyangtang village
Photo: houses near Chyangtang village
From Chyantang it took three days to get to Num village passing through remote villages in the Upper Arun valley with fields of millet higher up and rice padis as we descended to lower altitudes. From Num we decided to walk along the west bank of Arun river rather than following the normal trail to Chichila and onto Tumlingtar. This trail is not frequently walked by trekking groups although is used by locals from Seduwa and surrounding villages to reach Tumlingtar and Khadbari. The vegetation is very lush due to the high humidity level and heat, being only at 600m altitude. There were also lots of large bugs and spiders! At Bamling village we started heading west and spent this night in a school near Kulling village. This day was Tihar festival (or in India known as Diwali) and some local school children came by our campsite and performed a traditional Nepali dance for us.

Photo: millet water mill
Photo: inside water mill
Photo: jungle trail on west side of Arun river
There are many rudraksha trees in the Arun Valley, these are large evergreen broad-leaved tree whose seeds are used for prayer beads in Hinduism. We met a number of  rudraksha collectors who would travel to Kathmandu to sell them and would receive a high price for the five faced seed which is believed to be auspicious with high healing power. The gentleman in the photo below was proud of his collection and would hopefully earn some good money for his efforts.

Photo: Rudraksha collector
By lunch time on the next day we walked to Gothe Bazaar located on the main Tumlingtar to Lukla trail so I was now back on familiar ground as I had walked over Salpa La last October. From here we made good progress and two days later camped just before the pass however it was at this point we heard there was national strike (in Nepali known as a Bandh) starting on November 11th and rumoured to last for 10 days. This had been called by a Maoist party in order to disrupt the upcoming elections on November 19th. This would no doubt cause problems in getting the group back to Kathmandu for their flights home on 15th. Once again, we decided to change the itinerary and finish the trek at Salleri (district headquarters of Solu Khumbu) rather then in Jiri. From Salleri we could take a bus back to Kathmandu as unfortunately we were not able to fly back as the nearby STOL airstrip at Phaplu was currently closed for renovations and upgrades.

Looking back on this trek it was clear we did not complete our main objectives of reaching Kanchenjunga or Makalu Base Camps but at least by going over the Lumba Sumba pass we succeeded in crossing a rarely trekked pass linking Tamor and Arun Valleys. As explained in this trip report the weather was very unstable throughout the eastern part of the Himalaya during this Autumn season and I think we were very fortunate to have a brief window between two weather systems to safely cross the Lumba Sumba pass. After we turned west off the Kanchenjunga Circuit trek we saw only a handful of other trekkers as we were walking on remote trails all the way to Salleri in the Solu Khumbu region. These days in Nepal it is increasingly rare to have this experience away from other trekking groups especially during the peak season of October. Of course this was one of the reasons for setting up The Great Himalaya Trail in order to spread trekkers across Nepal to take the pressure off the more popular treks like Everest, Annapurna and Langtang regions.

One of the characteristics of GHT treks is the degree of uncertainty of the itinerary unlike some of the more regular walked classic treks in Nepal. If you are considering joining a GHT trek then it is important to come along with an open and flexible mind as there are many factors that could prevent successfully completing the trip objectives.I was fortunate on this trek to have such a group of adaptable and positive people. We encountered unseasonal weather conditions with high precipitation as a result of Cyclone Phailin. The large amount of snow meant that our first pass over Nango La was still blocked, however we found an alternative route at a lower altitude below the snow line. In contrast, the Mirgin La on the classic Kanchenjunga Circuit trek was open to trekkers only a few days after the snow storm due to the high volume of traffic and more established nature of the trail.

For GHT we are often walking in remote areas of the Himalayas where the trails can be narrow and difficult to follow (i.e from Thudam to Kharka). There are also unstable landslide areas with risk of rockfall and river crossings where there are no bridges. However for most people joining GHT trips, this is the kind of true adventurous trekking experience they are looking for where the benefits of accessing these remote areas outweigh the risks and uncertainties of mountain travel.

I would like to thank the trek crew for all of their help during this long trek. Our sirdar, Pema Tshiri Sherpa, did a great job in oganising the logistics and leading this group. Our Sherpa guides did a fantastic job: Lhakpa Sherpa, Tashi Sherpa, Wongchu Sherpa, Ang Gombu Sherpa, Phuri Sherpa, Dawa Sherpani and Ang Kami Sherpa (left at Ghunsa to guide Andy and Steve over Mirgin La to South Side of Kanchenjunga). Our cooks Ang Gombu and Tenji Sherpa provided tasty and high quality meals throughout the trip; our khana was derri mitho chaa!!

And lastly I would like to thank the group who entered into the adventurous spirit and ethos of GHT. Everyone was understanding with the various changes of plans forced upon us due to the weather and conditions experienced in the Himalayas this season. Thanks to each one of you for your understanding and support in challenging times.

The Mountain Company is planning to organise the full 36 day trek from Kanchenjunga Base Camp to Makalu Base Camp as well as the shorter 25 day trek from Kanchenjunga Base Camp to Tumlingtar in October 2014. Please contact us if you would like any information about this trek.

Roland Hunter

Saturday, 17 August 2013

K2 trek cancellations in Pakistan over Summer 2013

Photo: K2 mountain in Pakistan
Yesterday on August 16th our K2 & Gondogoro La group should have trekked up to the Base Camp of K2, the second highest mountain in the world, and visited Gilkey Memorial on the lower reaches of this mountain where there are many plaques to remember mountaineers who died while climbing on K2. Unfortunately our group never arrived to Pakistan as we had to cancel both of our treks to K2 Base Camp this summer as a result of the terrible terrorist incident at Base Camp of another 8,000m mountain called Nanga Parbat.

On June 22nd sixteen militants from the Islamic extremist organisation Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) attacked Nanga Parbat Base Camp then killed ten international climbers and a local Pakistan guide. Three of these climbers were from Ukraine, two from China (including one Chinese-American), two others from Slovakia, one from Lithuania and one from Nepal. Please read this article with the full story of what happened as well as description of the daring escape by a Chinese mountaineer. Ehsanullah Ehsan, a spokesman for the TTP told The Associated Press the reasoning behind the attacks was "by killing foreigners, we wanted to give a message to the world to play their role in bringing an end to the drone attacks”. Please click here if you would like to learn more about TTP.

From our side as a travel operator we had to make a decision whether to proceed with our treks or to cancel so we immediately started the process of finding out and understanding the current risks by getting in touch with a wide range of our contacts both in Pakistan and in UK. I sent an email out to our clients on June 24th explaining we were reviewing the situation and would make a decision soon whether to go or ahead or cancel.  

I have led trips in Pakistan every year since 2004 and have trekked to K2 Base Camp eight times and crossed the Gondogoro La four times (2004, 2006, 2008 and 2011). However I realised as soon as the Nanga Parbat incident happened that the risk level had increased to a far higher level than in previous years, the key change being this was the first time extremists had directly targeted westerners travelling in Pakistan. Frankly I was not surprised when the British Government changed their Foreign and Commonwealth Office (“FCO”) travel advisory to Paksitan in the afternoon of 24th to “only essential travel to Gilgit-Baltistan”. Click here to read FCO travel advisory to Pakistan.

It is worth pointing out that Nanga Parbat is located south of K2 region and a full days drive away along the Karakoram Highway ("KKH"). It is well known fact that Skardu and surrounding villages on the drive to the K2 road head at Askole village are more stable, friendly and secure than Nanga Parbat area due to a number of factors. For a start the people living in this area are mainly Shia muslims and not Sunnis like further south. These villagers have strong historical links with foreign expeditions and earn vital income from tourism. Also the overall security is much better in K2 region due to the presence of a large number of Pakistan Army stationed here along the Line of Control with India. 

We had to perform a careful appraisal of the situation in the country and determine if it was safe enough for our clients and also our leaders to visit Pakistan. In the end we had to make the tough decision to cancel our two K2 treks over the summer mainly due to FCO travel advice to Pakistan and as well as our own conclusions of the current risk levels with travelling in this country. On 25th we emailed all of our clients confirming the cancellation of our Pakistan treks and offered a full refund of any money paid to us for these treks. 

The Mountain Company has operated treks to K2 every summer since 2004 and this is the first time we have cancelled a trip in Pakistan. I feel very sorry for our K2 trekkers who were hoping to visit this amazing country however I am also glad for them that most have been able to re-book on one of our treks to Nepal and Bhutan later in the year. These cancellations will be devastating news for everyone involved in Pakistan tourism from local operators, guides and porters as many of these people rely on income from tourists as there are few other opportunities to earn money to support their families in this region.

My view is the only way for Pakistan to get tourists visiting northern areas of their country over the next few years is to make the Islamabad- Skardu - Islamabad flights operated by PIA far more reliable by using a smaller plane and upgrading radar equipment to enable reduced visibility landings at Skardu and Gilgit airports. I guess this might be unlikely to happen as the powers that be in Islamabad have less at stake although it is the people of Gilgit-Baltistan who will lose out most due to earning less revenue from tourists. Or the other option worth considering is to enter and exit Pakistan from China over Khunjerab pass and in practice more groups may decide to do this in future therefore avoiding Islamabad and the KKH.

The Mountain Company will return at some point to operate treks in Pakistan however only when it is safe to do so and unfortunately given the current situation I do not see this happening for several years. If Pakistan government is serious about promoting tourism in their country they must make changes to increase the reliability of Skardu flights as well as making it easier for foreigners to obtain a tourist visa to enter the country. The feedback we have received from well over two hundred people we have brought to Pakistan over the years has been 100% positive from the friendliness of the people to the most amazing mountain scenery in the world. Inshallah I will be trekking with my Pakistani friends up the Baltoro glacier to K2 and crossing over Gondogoro La again very soon….

Roland Hunter

Monday, 27 May 2013

60th anniversary of first ascent of Mount Everest to be held on May 29th 2013

Photo: Tenzing Norgay on summit of Everest on May 29th 1953 
This week on May 29th 2013 is the 60th anniversary of first ascent of Mount Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. In 1953 a British expedition led by John Hunt was launched to the Nepalese side of Everest following the South Col Route. Hillary, a New Zealander, and Norgay, a Nepali Sherpa living in Darjeeling, reached the summit at 11.30am local time on 29th May 1953. As it turned out this was wonderful timing as news of the expedition's success reached London on the morning of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation on 2nd June.

Photo: Hillary and Norgay after their Everest summit
There are a number of events planned for May 29th to celebrate the first ascent of Mount Everest. At the Royal Geographical Society (“RGS”) in London there is a special evening called “Crowning Achievement, Lasting Legacy” with lectures and slideshows by the great and good of the Everest world including Sir Chris Bonington, Doug Scott, Rebecca Stephens, Peter Hillary and Jamling Tenzing (sons of the two who reached the top), Jan Morris (Times correspondent in 1953) and Stephen Venables. I am very lucky as I have a ticket for this event and I am very much looking forward to the evening.

If you are based in UK I would highly recommend you visit RGS’s photographic exhibition of 1951 and 1953 Everest expeditions. The prints shown within the exhibition represent some of the most historic and stunning moments of the team’s journey up the highest mountain in the world. This exhibition provides a rare opportunity to see some of the images taken on Everest by team members including John Hunt, Edmund Hillary, Alfred Gregory, George Lowe and George Band. The exhibition is being held at Oxo Gallery on South Bank in London from 23rd May 2013 to 9th June 2013, for more information please see RGS website

Photo: summit of Mount Everest
A frequently asked question is how many people in total have climbed to the summit of Mount Everest? Per Everest Chronicler, Alan Arnette, in 2011 the total number of people who have summited Mount Everest is around 5,652 by 3,425 different climbers meaning that 2,220 climbers have multiple summits. And sadly so far 223 people have died on Everest and during Spring 2013 season there were nine deaths plus one more on Lhotse.

Of course much has changed on Mount Everest over the last 60 years with the majority of these recent summits made by commercial expeditions rather than the national or private expeditions as seen in the early years. Stephen Venables recently wrote an article in the Telegraph explaining why in his view Everest has lost its allure now that climbing to the summit is part of the global adventure tourism circuit. Venables explains "real adventure is all about risk, uncertainty and self-determination – not buying a predictable, packaged commodity: you pay me £40,000 and I’ll make your dream come true." A possible solution he puts forward to reduce numbers on Everest each year is to ban the use of supplementary oxygen.....this is certainly an interesting idea although of course is unlikely to happen in practice [click here to read Stephen Venables' article on Telegraph website]

Photo: The Mountain Company's group at Everest Base Camp
The Everest climbing season in Spring 2013 was marked by a controversy widely reported in the media with the fight between European climbers and Nepalese mountain guides. Of course not being there it is tricky to lay blame for this fracas however it seems both sides were partially responsible although of course resorting to violence is inexcusable. For an in depth article discussing the changing nature of the Sherpa-climber social contract and more about the culture of Sherpas that helps put this fight into perspective take a look at Broughton Coburn's article published by National Geographic

On a brighter note there were lots of "firsts" this Spring season on Everest including the oldest person to reach the summit by Japanese climber Yuichiro Miura at 80 years old! Phurba Tashi from Himex summited for the 21st time equalling the current world record holder Apa Sherpa. Samina Baig became the first Pakistani woman, Raha Moharrak the first Saudi woman, Tashi and Nancy Malik from India the first twins and Rafiq Malik became the first Kashmiri to summit the Big E. British climber Kenton Cool made a record by summitting all three mountains along the Everest horseshoe (Nuptse, Lhotse and Everest) during a 10 day climb and also making his eleventh summit of Mount Everest.

The Mountain Company organises a wide range of treks in the Everest region including Everest Luxury Lodges and Everest Base Camp. We are promoting a special Everest 60th anniversary trek to Everest Base Camp in November 2013 led by one of our most experienced leaders Jill Lawson. For those of you who would like to trek to Everest Base Camp while staying in a higher standard lodges then you could consider our Luxury Everest Base Camp trek.

Roland Hunter

Monday, 20 May 2013

Humla trek to villages around Simikot in west Nepal organised by Great Himalaya Trail Development Program

In March I received an invitation from the Great Himalaya Trail Development Program (“GHTDP”) based in Kathmandu to join a familiarisation (i.e free, yay!) trek in Nepal, as I was already in the country I replied quickly asking to join the trek to far west Nepal as this is an area I had not been to before and was very interested to visit.

Photo: map of The Great Himalaya Trail in Nepal
Most people these days have heard of The Great Himalaya Trail (“GHT”) , this is a trekking route that crosses Nepal starting near Kanchenjunga in the East and continuing to Humla on the Tibetan border in the West. In fact there are two main trails along GHT, the Upper trail takes the highest feasible route along the spine of the Himalaya and involves very challenging trekking as well as several mountaineering sections over technical passes (eg Sherpani Col near Makalu). Whereas the Lower trail traverses the country of Nepal further to the south at a lower elevation and unlike Upper trail involves no mountaineering and one can stay in teahouse lodges for most of the way apart from the section through Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve.

GHTDP is a project supported by the Dutch Aid organisation SNV and also UKAid to help develop GHT as a new tourism product for Nepal . GHTDP sees the long term advantages of encouraging trekkers to visit more remote regions of Nepal other than main destinations of Annapurna, Everest and Langtang. By getting more trekkers away from the busier trails this will of course bring income and opportunities to more isolated communities.

The reason for GHTDP hosting a free trek to Humla for international trek operators and journalists was to promote this region and especially the homestays set up by GHTDP in conjunction with the Simikot based NGO called Nepal Trust. In our group there were representatives from tour operators based in Holland and Switzerland plus two Nepali journalists. We were also accompanied by Linda Bezemer who works as a Tourism Product Development Advisor for GHTDP.

Photo: Twin Otter plane at Simikot airport
Humla is located in far west Nepal and receives very few trekkers due to its remote location. Our group flew from Kathmandu to Nepalganj and then early next morning by Twin Otter to the mountain airstrip at Simikot. On arrival we had breakfast at the Nepal Trust office and guesthouse before starting our walk to the village of Buraunse. Our trekking guide, Janga Lama, is from this village so we were privileged to visit his house and meet his family who gave our group a wonderful traditional welcome. 

A custom in this region is to greet guests by smearing butter on their head and then followed by the offer of some tea or more often locally brewed chang made from barley.  After lunch we continued our walk down to the main part of Buraunse village where we were again welcomed by the locals dressed up in their traditional clothes with the men banging drums and offering kata scarves to us while the women smeared more butter on our heads. We followed the crowd to a flat roof top on one of the houses where both the men and women performed traditional Humli dances for us.

Photo: traditional Humli welcome at our guide Janga Lama parents' house
Photo:  welcome at Buraunse village
Photo: dancing at Buraunse village
One of the objectives of GHTDP is to build tourism capacity in more remote areas of Nepal where there has been only a small number of tourists visiting before. One of the reasons our trek visited Buraunse village was because GHTDP, working in conjunction with Nepal Trust, had already provided training, support and advice to develop a homestay program. So far five houses had been approved as homestays in Buraunse and we stayed in one of these during our visit, this is a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the Humlis way of life, customs and traditions.

All of the homestays provide bedrooms with clean bedding, newly constructed toilets and an endless supply of local food and of course chang! We ate with the host families so the food was traditional local fare and was all delicious, healthy and of course organic- for our meals we had dishes such as buckwheat pancakes with honey, tsampa (roasted barley), thukpa and momos. I certainly think that homestays are an effective way of local families earning extra income and benefiting from tourism while the guests receive a really special experience in return.

Photo: Buranse village
Photo: our hosts at Buranse homestay
Photo: comfortable and clean room at homestay
A highlight of the trek was a night camping near Raling gompa, this monastery is the most important in the area and is located at 4,000m under Crystal mountain.  The important Saga Dawa festival is held at Raling gompa each year on the full moon of the fourth lunar month of the Tibetan calendar (in late May or early June).

Photo: Raling gompa
Photo: Raling gompa
After Raling gompa we stayed a night at Bargaon village and next day walked through the Hindu village of Tehe before spending our second night camping near Karpunath village at confluence of Karnali river. On the sixth day we walked back to Simikot for our flight back early next morning to Nepalganj and onto Kathmandu.

Photo:Thakuri woman
Photo: Shaman Hindu priest
Photo: beautiful wedding headdress
Overall I would highly recommend trekking in this area for a unique cultural experience, the short circuit we walked over six days is an easy trek where you have lots of time to learn about the Humli people and their way of life. If you are looking for a longer or more challenging trek then there are many options from Simikot such as to Mount Saipal Base Camp, Limi Valley or Mount Kailash however it would be also be worth spending a few days in the homestays around Buraunse village at the start of your trek especially if coinciding with Saga Dawa festival.

I would like to thank Linda at GHTDP for organising this trek as well as our excellent guide Janga Lama from Buraunse village who did a superb job explaining to us about the local culture and customs as well as his many entertaining stories along the way! For more information about this trek please take a look on The Great Himalaya trail website.

At the moment The Mountain Company organises the trek from Simikot to Mount Kailash every year in May however we plan to develop more treks in Humla in the near future, please get in touch with us if you would like more information about trekking in west Nepal.

Roland Hunter

The Mountain Company