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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

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