From Dolpo to the stunning Phoksumdo Lake

Posted on 07 Jul 2019

What it's like trekking in June

I am writing from Jumla and trekking during June offers a mixed bag of experiences. I've noticed that the drier Dolpo offers less snowstorm risk in June and the new roads being built could bring in the trekkers needs. But after the first monsoon rains have cleared the air, the views are magnificent.

This was particularly the case when we reached Jungben La at 5100 metres with clear skies following us behind as we made our way up unrelenting steep climbs. And en route was an unwavering vista of Thorong La.

Though, it made me think, like Schrodinger’s cat, does magnificent scenery really exist if no one sees it?

My day-to-day accounts

Day 108 (June 15): Muktinah. Chris (who has an enviable lifestyle as a reef diver) and Padum left early. They are going back to Pokhara by road as Jomsom airport is closed for runway resurfacing.

The next stop: Dolpo.

Bikash (our new team leader), Sue and I left with seven mules, who now replace the porters. The road is now sealed to Kagbeni at 2800 metres. On the way down we spot a large new apple orchard branching out and new buildings stand amongst the old medieval alleyways.

We stopped at a lovely coffee shop just with a viewpoint of the river overlooking Mustang – I strongly recommend lingering there in the afternoon when the dust is blowing high in the air on the Kali Gandaki.

With a last-minute chocolate restock we left Kagbeni at midday but were followed by very strong winds. The horizontal dust plumes were 30 metres long, stopping only when I managed to get my camera out. Some excavation work was occurring at the first crag just north of Kagbeni for road construction, but the road further north into Mustang appears to be a decent two-lane highway.

Some funny things you pick up on along the trail are things like, how mobile phone coverage in Nepal is fantastic despite how remote we were. Sue could not find her red water bottle, so the crew simply phoned the muleteer to look for it, which was found in the dining room and returned to her.

We’ve reached Dolpo: an open, high, barren, dry, largely empty region. It was an easy walk up to a camp at 3500 metres in the warm spring.

Day 109: Sue got up early to watch the sun rise over the mountains, welcoming a lovely clear day.

Climbing up with the kitchen crew, who knew the short cuts on the zig-zagging road, we scrambled up a steep slope above us to avoid a little overhanging cliff nearby that we used to cross under. The last few manoeuvres up took 10 minutes to prepare! Way below, you could see the mules come up to the scree and turn back. We all reunited at the road above.

“Adventure,” said Bikash.

The kitchen crew hitched a lift on a passing tractor trailer, only one of two vehicles on this road.

The mules were heavily loaded, as we all were, with food for both men and horses; resupply in Dolpo not being realistically possible. At midday the mules grazed for a bit, so I was able to follow them closely after lunch capturing them on my time lapse camera.

We soon arrived at a very windy and dusty Santa (3700m). Santa is an old Tibetan village, higgledy-piggledy with no through alley. Worth a film set with its green fields to one side.

My rain trousers kept the worst of the dust off; and in changing my socks and washing my feet and dusty socks, I used the old socks as a damp rag to clean my rain trousers and tent floor. Keeping clean is not easy, but you do what you can.

Day 110: As I type 110, I start to see the end of this trek, the indulgence and the privilege. The view to the east is over 50 kilometres with the sky so vibrant, there’s hardly a cloud in sight.

Today entailed a very dusty underfoot all day. We had a nice lunch by the river then took on a hot, steep climb to Ghalden Ghuldun at 4300 metres, which is where we camped.

What I learnt on trek: you do get a neck-ache if you keep looking up at the next morning’s climb.

Day 111: Lakpa Sherpa – the big, hard-working happy Sherpa who was on Stages 1 and 2, carried with him the pack Martin gave him at Jumla. He left to lead an Everest Base Camp trek.

“Easy,” he said.

Day 112: Cold dawn, below freezing, but very clear. A sun with no warmth in it. Slow climb up to Jungben La with astonishing views across to Thorong La and through it. At the top of Jungben La there is spikey snow and a few metres past the top there are views towards Dhampus Pass, which is above Marpha/Tukche.

A broken pair of rim spectacles found at the camp below Jungben La made a great stiffener for my camera chest harness.

Continuing on with mesmerising views etched in, we experienced a long cold, windy walk going slightly downhill to nowhere at Nulungsumde Kharka at 4900 metres. At camp, strong wind broke Sue’s tent, and she took over Bikash’s tent.

Day 113: What should have been a simple “Nepali flat” walk turned into a problem. The stream had washed hard against the right-hand cliffs, so we had to wade two streams to the other side. Cold water, with slightly slippery stones.

Later, crossing back, I wore my KT26s to get more grip. Then changed back to my dry boots. The KT26s dried quickly before I wore them. They survived, so I recommend the technique.

It was a long walk in the wind, with dusty patches, though the weather was clear overall. The land is less green than two years ago.

There were a herd of yaks, maybe 50 or more, who were reluctant to move off the path; and a herd of about 20 blue sheep below us, who ran off as soon as they saw us. We then passed five traditional black Tibetan tents just before Chharka Bhot at 4300 metres.

There were big herds of goats, far more than locally required, but also accounting for the degradation of the vegetation. For the festival of Dashian in early October, when every Nepali eats meat from a sacrificed animal, these goats are driven over Jungben La to Pokhara. Worth $US20 each at Chharka Bhot, they sell for $US$300 at Pokhara. So, while the goat herders here may look poor in their smoke blackened clothes, and their life is hard, but they do make serious money by Nepalese standards.

Day 114: I relished a rest day, sunny, slightly cool wind, and high fluffy clouds.

Chharka Bhot has expanded slightly using traditional building techniques but no road yet. It’s a very photogenic village in the old Tibetan style. Women would gather brush wood to be stored on stone wall tops for winter, as well as scraping the fields with rakes made from wood, with metal tines. There is a school now, and more than 10 motorbikes.

I met Maria, a young Swiss woman, who stopped in Chharka Bhot for lunch. She had cycled to Nepal, then started a GHT with a group. However, with the extra snow at Lumba Sumba, her group of porters turned back. The money given to the guide to buy suitable clothing for the porters had not been spent on that, so their group retreated. She then had to restart at Namche with another company as the sole trekker.

Day 115: We walked down the river on Nepali flat to Chap Chu at 4300m, a Tibetan summer encampment with good grazing. Although the Tolkien cleft in the rocks was of great amusement in 2017, today, Sue the NZ trekker said that she would rather have followed the mules wading across the stream.

The only incident was me, shortly after the cleft tunnel, I put my left hand firmly down on a very prickly plant. Despite wearing gloves, I received about 20 splinters. Ouch.

Day 116: Bikash did a kit inspection of my day pack and red bag. I was carrying too much in my day pack.

It rained lightly all night, and a dog barked repeatedly, presumably guarding some goats. We all prepared for a hard-miserable day. But luck was with us. The rain soon stopped, and the clouds slowly cleared. Up to Chan La at 5300 metres, muddy above 5000 metres, then down to camp at about 4200m. It was tiring but not draining.

Day 117: We followed a motorcycle track to Dho Tarap at 3900 metres. There was no one at Maran as all had gone caterpillar hunting. At Dho Tarap, I met Matthew, an English physicist, living here to try to develop privately the use of spray insulation from a bottle for housewarming as the winters here are very cold.

Lunch was in a house which had a huge computer-generated image of west Lhasa. I was horrified to see that blocks of flats now extended 10km out to that northern access valley. I correctly guessed the city. Drepung looked unmolested, but I do not believe the greenery between the blocks of flats. City buses were evident.

We camped at Namala base camp at about 4200 metres. It was an easy day, and the motorcycle track continued north from Dho Tarap.

Day 118: We made it up to Namala pass at 5300 metres. While it was a clear and overcast day, the wind chills picked up at above 5000m with a patch of snow at the top of the pass. We then headed down to Danagar at 4500 metres for camp.

Day 119: With some light rain at night, dawn broke with low clouds which created a misty walk into Bagala at 5100m. There were snow patches on the left of the trail and on our descent, the mist turned to light rain. Despite this, Temche valley was wonderfully green with steep sides and we passed 20 colourful tents that were set up for caterpillar hunting.

After five hours of trekking and a few mule sightings, we had lunch and camped at Temche where it rained all afternoon.

Day 120: We had a laidback three-hour walk in clear, sunny weather to Ringmo and Phoksumdo Lake. The lake’s colour is still the same stunning blue with steep cliff sides that go straight into the water with no foreshore. It looks like someone has taken an image of a deep valley, and crudely photoshopped a poorly chosen lake colour.

Sue and I walked along that lakeside path. It has been improved, and now takes quite heavy traffic of mules with standard loads and of yaks.

That tight section of about 50 metres at the first corner still requires concentration, but the margin of error between the rocky side and the fatal drop has increased from 5 cm to 10 cm.

The wide loads of World Expeditions with camp chairs strapped to the outside of the red bags would not make it, but we do not go that way. Instead, we take a different path that leads to Shey Gompa, a name mentioned so casually, as though it was Uxbridge. To me it is almost mythical, like in Peter Matthiessen’s ‘The Snow Leopard’.

Beyond that difficult section is a flat forested area, and beyond that, the path climbs 400 metres. To avoid that climb, a new path is being constructed lakeside, at about the same height as that first section.

- Brian

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