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Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Trip Report for Upper Dolpo to Jomsom GHT trek led by Ade Summers and Chandra Rai in May 2016

Photo: view from Muri La
In May we organised our third Upper Dolpo to Jomsom GHT trek along The Great Himalaya Trail. Unfortunately we had to cancel our 2015 trek due to the earthquake in Nepal and it was good to see three of the group from last year re-booked again for 2016. We had twelve trekkers in the group and there was a mix of nationalities with people coming from Australia, UK, USA, New Zealand and Canada.

This trek was led by Ade Summers and Chandra Rai supported by four assistant guides called Hebi, Bhim, Bal Bahadur and we engaged a local guide from Dunai called Narendra. The cook was Ram Pratap Rai with six kitchen helpers. Ade and Chandra have worked together leading our Upper Dolpo group on our two previous treks in 2014 and 2010 so they know this region very well. To find out how Ade and Chandra got along with their 2014 Upper Dolpo trek please take a look at Trip Report for Upper Dolpo to Jomsom GHT trek in May 2014.

Our Upper Dolpo to Jomsom itinerary visits a very remote region of Nepal and instead of following the more popular Upper Dolpo Circuit we head further north to an area very close to the Tibet border. Upper Dolpo has been referred to as the last enclave of pure Tibetan culture with the landscape and Buddhist & Bonpo religion of this region more like Tibet in pre Chinese times than of the rest of Nepal.

Photo: crossing Kang La to Shey
Very few foreigners visit Upper Dolpo and this is mainly due to the remoteness and the expense of getting there. To access this region requires complicated logistics to support a trekking party as it is not possible to purchase food in Upper Dolpo apart from a few potatoes so everything has to be brought in from Kathmandu. Also North of Phoksumdo Lake is a restricted area for tourists and this requires a special permit and for this itinerary costs US$810 per person. However for those people who make the effort to visit Upper Dolpo you will see a beautiful place with traditional villages that has not been significantly impacted by the outside world.

At the start of the trek we chartered a Twin Otter plane from Tara Air for the flight from Pokhara to Juphal rather than relying on schedule flights from Nepalganj further to the west. Transiting through Nepalganj is prone to delays due to lack of aircraft and the temperatures are very hot at this time of year. As anyone who has trekked in Nepal will be aware the flights to STOL (short takeoff and landing) airstrips in the hills are prone to delays and cancellation. If there is poor weather and delays then Pokhara is a far more pleasant place to stay with good hotels and restaurants compared to the sticky, humid climate at Nepalganj.

Luckily for our 2016 Upper Dolpo to Jomsom GHT group their Twin Otter flight from Pokhara operated on time and they landed safely to Juphal on May 9th. After meeting Chandra and the rest of the guides the group walked for a few hours to Dunai where they camped for the first night. For the next three days the trail follows the Suli Gad River flowing down from Phoksumdo Lake. On May 13th the group walked through Ringmo village and onto their campsite on the shores of the stunningly beautiful Phoksumdo Lake. The next day was a rest day where the group enjoyed visited the nearby Bönpo Buddhist monastery and explored the traditional village of Ringmo. 

Photo: Phoksumdo Lake near Ringmo village
On May 15th the group followed the western side of Phoksumdo Lake along a narrow cliff trail, this is the ‘Devil’s trail’ followed by Thinle in Eric Valli’s film “Himalaya”. The narrow path ascends to a ridge with spectacular views over the turquoise lake to Ringmo village and the peaks of Kanjiroba (6,612m), Norbung Kang (6,085) and Jhyarko Dingla (5,892m). There is a gradual descent through stands of birch trees to the northern shore of Phoksumdo Lake to the camp for the night. All foreigners are required to have the restricted area permit as discussed above when they travel north of Phoksumdo Lake.

From Phoksumdo Lake North Camp the group starts the two and half day ascent to the first high pass of the trek called Kang La. This pass is known as the crux of Upper Dolpo to Jomsom GHT as there is often snow blocking the pass. We organise our Dolpo trek to maximise the chances of crossing this pass by selecting the optimal time of year when the snowline is receding as the temperatures warm up in mid-May. However the key to crossing this pass is to use only porters rather than ponies or yaks that will stuck in the deep snow. It is for this reason we send porters from Kathmandu with this group rather than rely on local animal transport. This year there was some snow on the slopes to Kang La however the guides did a good job breaking trail the day before the group's crossing. On May 17th the whole group and crew successfully crossed Kang La over to Shey Gompa.

On May 18th the group had a well-deserved rest day at Shey as they still had two spare days in hand within our itinerary as so far had experienced no delays along the way. On the rest day I heard most people went for a walk down the valley from Shey for an hour to an old monastery and had salt butter tea with the caretaker.

On May 19th the group took the trail ascending Saldang La and the view from this pass was spectacular to the north into Tibet, east to Mustang and west to Crystal Mountain and Kanjiroba. It is on today’s walk one enters typical Upper Dolpo landscape resembling the arid Tibetan plateau with folded rock strata in hues of yellow, orange and purple. 

Photo: crossing Sangda La in Upper Dolpo
Throughout this expedition we received weather forecasts from Michael Fagin at and we send these onto Ade by text to his satellite phone. Having professional weather forecasts is essential for safety in crossing high passes and for decision making in the field. Michael’s forecast on May 14th informed us of a tropical disturbance located in the Bay of Bengal and this was later named as Cyclone Roanu. Michael gave us frequent updates as he tracked the path of this cyclone and luckily there was no direct impact to the Himalaya. There was heavy precipitation in the east of Nepal and also in Everest region (where several of Everest Base Camp groups experienced heavy rain) however our Upper Dolpo group were located north of the clouds so got off lightly with only several cloudy days. For the rest of the trek this group had excellent weather with clear and sunny conditions.

Photo: aerial photo of Cyclone Roanu
We used a GPS spot tracker for this group and for each night on trek Ade checked in sending a gps signal to us so we could track this group's progress. Click here to see the way points overlaid onto a map for Upper Dolpo to Jomsom GHT

As you can see from the map above our Upper Dolpo to Jomsom group GHT made good progress and successfully completed the full traverse from Juphal to Jomsom crossing. This itinerary travels through some of the most remote and rarely trekked areas of Nepal as they head north into Upper Dolpo on border with Tibet then start the traverse eastwards crossing five high passes over 5,000m along the Great Himalaya Trail to Jomsom. Congratulations and well done to this group!

One of the highlights of this trek was the exciting news that the group saw two snow leopards along the way. The first one was seen by Ken near Mischagaon village and the second one was seen by most of the group on way from Tinje to Rapka. I gather there was some debate whether it was a wolf or snow leopard however most of the guides were pretty sure it was the elusive snow leopard. From feedback received from the group the other highpoint of the trek was the visit to a gompa/ monastery for the celebrations and pujas for Buddha Jayanti known as Buddha's birthday.

Photo: snow leopard
The one change to the trek since 2014 is the construction of a jeep track to Sandga village so on last day of the trek to Kagbeni one follows the road. However there was no traffic apart from one or two motorbikes and one can cut a few corners off to save time. We have not heard any negative feedback from the group about this as it is more like walking on a wide trail however one wonders when the road will reach into Upper Dolpo?

The group flew out of Jomsom as planned on June 3rd and after a change in planes in Pokhara arrived to Kathmandu in afternoon to check into Hotel Tibet. One of the risks of organising a trek at this time of year is the chance of more clouds as monsoon advances north across India causing delays to internal flights in Nepal. However this group was fortunate for both flights into Juphal and out of Jomsom and if the flight from Jomsom is cancelled the Plan B is to drive to Pokhara although this is a long and bumpy road where we have to rely on local vehicles. This is the reason we include two nights in Kathmandu at the end of the trip to allow some buffer time to allow for this drive if Jomsom flight is cancelled.

Thanks very much to Ade and Chandra for leading this trek, to the Sherpas guides, Ram the cook, his kitchen helpers and of course the porters for all of their hard work. It is a tradition to thank the local crew on last night of the trek and to hand out tips, I heard this group were generous also purchasing a special meal for the porters too.

The Mountain Company is planning to organise our Upper Dolpo to Jomsom GHT trek in May/ June 2017, we already have enough people to guarantee to run this departure so we expect this group to fill quite soon. As mentioned above we had a full group in 2016 and the numbers are limited to twelve people due to the capacity on the private charter flight to Juphal.

Please get in touch with us soon if you like to join our Upper Dolpo to Jomsom GHT trek in May/ June 2017.

Roland Hunter

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