Reflections on a Annapurna and Dhaulagiri Circuits
From October 20 – Nov 12 our group of “old men”, undertook these two classic treks back to back under the excellent guidance of LangtangRi Trekking. Each trek is quite unique and offers different attractions. Dhaulagiri was a full catered trek with the usual collection of guides, cook, porters (including the toilet tent specialist!!) Absolutely wonderful people who enrich the experience (not discounting the added comfort). For Annapurna we had a guide and two porters to assist over Throng La.
Dhaulagiri offers a gradual multiday ascent, several days at high altitude directly beneath the spectacular Dhaulagiri peaks followed by an abrupt descent over two days that brings you back to the urban delights of Marpha. Besides the altitude, thechallenges are the prolonged exposure at high level and the risks of bad weather. It is not particularly difficult trekking but does require extended camping and the rivers can offer challenges if there is heavy rain. Hence it is prudent to allow a few extra days so that you are not bound by any deadlines that will force risky days trekking.
Another advantage of a few spare days isthat it allows you to adjust your trekking scheduletohave the valley to yourself. At the beginning of our trek we shared the same timetable with two other parties totaling 16 trekkers all of whom were seeking the peace and solitude that Dhaulagiri offers. They were all wonderful, like minded, souls but our decision to linger an extra day at glacier camp restored the sense of solitude and wilderness that Dhaulagiri is famous for.
The Dhaulagiri trek is a “fishhook” route that runs north from Darbang up the MyagdiKhola to the base of Dhaulagiri I on the Chhonbardan Glacier. From there it hooks north east over French Pass to Hidden Valley before turning east south east over Dhampus Pass with a steep descent to Marpha. Each section offers different aspects, and each is well worth the visit.
Dhaulagiri Himal is a long ridge with six Dhaulagiri summits and the trek crosses this ridge on French Pass. This means the trek has great views from day 1. From Dabang you are close to the mountains, which is different from trekking Kanchenjunga or Langtang where it takes several days to get amongst the mountains.
Awith all Himalayan treks, development is pushing roads up into valleys that were once the preserve of mules and oxen. Circular treks are now truncated hikes between different road ends. Electricity and Tatahave arrived making life easier for the locals and trekkers but making it more difficult to find the remoteness that many visit Nepal to enjoy. Progress is a multi-hued prism.
Our trek started from Dabang and followed dirt roads for two days through hillside villages above the river, only reverting to the original trails where they offered material shortcuts. This is not to disparage either the villages or the country. Serious mechanization of agriculture is still yet to arrive, and the golden terraces of ripening graintestify to the centuries of hard labor that have hewn them from the mountains. The meter of life still reflects patterns of a hundred years ago despite the cell phones, solar panels and TVs in every dwelling. Water still comes from a common well and the pathways down the narrow streets, past houses with their fringes of drying maize, remain a stone patchwork that echo the clack of hooves.
From the diary “A wonderful walk along the road through several villages before taking the track to shortcut the road that does a long dogleg up a side valley. Beautiful scenery, blue skies, with Dhal (sic) massif and villages. Tranquil watching a group of local ladies reap the rice with a time honed rhythm.”
From Muri (1851m), beyond the road end, the track drops off the terraces into the gorge and follows the river up the steep clefted valley. Across tussock and copsesof trees one can see the red specks of the portersup the zig zag ahead.Three days up the valley passing hamlets that offer “hotels”, but the tents seem preferable. Occasional views of the mountains but mostly forest travel with small flats hemmed in by steep cliffs. Weather typical for the fall, fine mornings with cloud and rain in the afternoons. Temperatures below 10 degrees with ice on the tents only one morning. Altitude gain is gradual due to the ups and downs, Talitre (last stop in the gorge) is at 2,825m.
The climb up to the Italian base camp (3626m) leaves the gorge and starts the serious height gain into theuplands. More open patches with the mountains converging steeply all around. The camp was full ofother trekkers and it was here that the accumulation of garbage became apparent. At this altitude decomposition is slow and the area aroundthe camp is littered with half burnt or just discarded rubbish from previous parties. Given the route’s increasing popularity,parties are well advised to adopt a carry in - carry out policy for all garbage as the current burn - dump practice is degrading routes. All subsequent camps on the trek suffered this pollution to varying degrees. Also, a good idea to have a toilet tent as this requires digging a pit that concentrates the waste and can be filled in on departure. It is obvious that this is not a universally adopted practice.
From the Italian base camp, the trek is above the tree line until the last day. Ignoring the trash, the air is crystal clear, and the views spectacular but the vegetation sparse. Very nice having a trek that has chairs rather than stools as one can relax back with a hot drink and enjoy the mountain panorama in comfort. To hell with toughing it.
Each day has material, though not excessive, height gains. Phurkel, our ever-professional guide, showed ongoing concerns regarding the weather given the exposure. Having a satellite phone gave us accurate forecasts that added a safety margin.
The hiking is not technically difficult, and the track follows the river, a lot of moraine scrambles, and travel up the glacier (crampons not required). Altitude seems to be the main concern. Dhaulagiri Base Camp is on the ice, a spartan camp amongst the moraine below the tortured rock bands of Tukuche West. Regular ice falls cascade off the upper ridge, with the major ones engulfing the camp in a white turmoil of wind and decimated ice crystals.
The scale is humbling. Photos require people toprovide the scale of the towering peaks and ridges. Sadly, the glaciers are now shrunken remnants of the white juggernauts that once inexorably ground and carved the valleys. They look emasculated, sunken shadows, requiring trekkers to descend several hundred meters down the crumbly lateral moraines and then the inevitable scramble up the other side to cross.Rock ridges once draped with mantels of hanging glaciers now look stark skeletons with tattered white fragments that belie a majesty long disrobed under the planet’s progress.
The day over French Pass (5360m) is through moraine, moonscape country with the pass being windswept and barren save for the cairn and inevitable prayer flags. A clear day and the mountains rearing around us, but the wind told us not to linger. A sidle around long spurs down into the Hidden Valley. Pleasant out of the wind and in afternoon sun. Though it is 300m higher than the previous camp thegolden high-level grasses and mosses in the valley gave it an almost pastoral aspect after the rock and ice of the previous days.
From Diary “Hidden Valley Camp.The sun goes and the temperature plunges. 18.40 and in bed as it is getting very cold. I suspect all my water will be frozen by morning. Dinner tonight – spaghetti and roast spud with a spicy sauce – custard for dessert. People seem pretty tired from today’s effort, the longest day of the trek. A long and tedious climb to the pass but stunning views. This is our last night at altitude as tomorrow we cross Dhampus Pass (that is only 150m above the camp) and then a long descent towards Marpha. It is suddenly nearly over.”
After days of managing the ascent to the pass, the prospect of the trek’s end arrived very suddenly as the trip over French Pass is the highlight, but the descent is direct and rapid.
From Hidden Valley the track wanders around over Dhampus Pass, sidles under Tukuche,a very attractive little peak, drops pas
t Elevation Camp, a pitiful litter strewn dump, then a long sidle over gentle rock and snow to pick up the ridge that drops down to Marpha. Gaining this ridge presents a grand vista of the full Annapurna massif. By this time, one has exhausted superlatives, but it provides a memorable backdrop for the long descent, split by a very pleasant night at Alu Bari. On the sidle from Elevation Camp a Nepalese wolf crossed our path. He was the only significant wildlife seen on the trip but while we were excited by this animal, he seemed singularly unimpressed with us.
From Marpha, our chief guide, cook, and most porters departed as Annapurna is a well catered walk.Annapurna trek is the opposite to Dhaulagiri. It has well developed pathways, comfortable hotels, hot showers, and better waste management systems. Doing it in “reverse” involves a climb on day 1 and then a week of gradual descents. We took a taxi from Marpha to Muktinath as walking up the arid valley is unpleasant due to the dust from the wind off the riverbed and the frequent vehicles. Seduced by fresh coffee and apple pie we spent a day at Muktinath that has religious significance and is worth a linger. Next afternoon we trekked up tothe lodges at Muktinath Pedi that provides a good start point for Throng La Pass (5416m).Lovely views back down the valley.
An early start saw us over Throng La pass and down to Yak Kharka after a longish day. The ascent is not difficult unless you suffer from altitude sickness. For that reason, the usual route is the gradual ascent from the other side. Wonderful views that you share with the mountain bikers and trekking masses. Off the pass it was pleasantto be back amongst the juniper and thorns and the softer environment. Even saw a few blue mountain sheep.
These days the trek takes in a side trip up to Lake Tilicho. The altitude of this pretty glaciallake helps with the acclimatization for those going up the valley. A leisurely three days from Tilicho took us down to the forests and the road to Dharapani. Great views of Mansalu and a pleasant stay in Chame to enjoy the colorful local festival. While the track continues down to Besi Shahar weconcluded the trek at Dharapani and got a cab back to Kathmandu 23 days after starting from Dabang.
While no longer “far from the madding crowd” or subject to the hardships that once challenged, the scale of the mountains and their accelerating glacial divestment provide a perfect opportunity for a spiritual reflection of self, the planet and our future on it.
Our thanks to Langtang Ri trekking, who once again, organized everything, solved our problems, fed us well, ensured our safety, shared our loads and enriched our experience with their friendship.