This article has been written by our climbing consultant Jaimie Mc Guinness in 2006
What is my favourite trek? Around Dhaulagiri is hard to beat. Hidden Valley and Dhaulagiri Base Camp are in such wild difficult terrain that you know mere mortals are not supposed to be there.
Around Dhaulagiri has to be the toughest ‘standard’ commercial trek in Nepal. It is also one of the most dangerous. The truth is that many of the foreign companies who have jumped on the ‘here’s a new trek’ bandwagon, and the trekking companies that are suddenly asked to take a group, have little idea about just what sort of trek this is. Most groups are not prepared for just how tough it is. We met one Australian group who had been told it was like the Annapurna Circuit. Incredibly everyone managed to finish it – just – but a number of them won’t return to Nepal because the extreme nature of the trek put them off. A few loved it and will perhaps be mildly disappointed by their next trek.
We watched another large group struggle up French Col. Some members were OK. Observing the others was heart-breaking. They plodded up, head hung down gasping 2 ragged breaths to every step. One looked so sick we wondered if he might die soon. And the sirdar had the cheek to say that everyone was fine and not suffering from the altitude.
It isn’t just tough on the members. Many porters are not prepared for the rough glacier walking and the intense cold. Some we met begged food, others only had one shoe left. Several gave up on the glacier, abandoning their loads and running back down.
These sights appalled us but worse was to come on my next Circuit. A member of a big group mentioned one of their porter’s was sleeping in the snow. He wasn’t sleeping. He was dead. Within an hour we passed three more dead bodies. They had died of the cold. We also met a sirdar beating a porter who had collapsed. The boy was obviously not far off dying. We screamed sense into the sirdar, gave the load to a sherpa and instructed 2 members to look after the porter. Obviously the sirdar wasn’t going to. Once past Dhaulagiri Base Camps one more porter was dead from altitude sickness. Everybody was appalled. A trek, a holiday for the foreigners is not worth people dying for. I am sure all of you would agree.
Why is this trek so tough and dangerous? For those that haven’t been, the standard trek begins from Baglung and goes via Darbang and Muri or sometimes Khibang to Boghara, the last village. From here the wilderness begins, first with a small difficult trail set is beautiful virgin forest. From the alpine grasses of Italy Base Camp the terrain becomes very rough. The route crosses a difficult rubble-covered glacier (fixed rope required) then after some rockfall danger climbs onto the main glacier. The hard-to-find trail traverses knife-edged ridges on loose rock where a slip would mean death. As the path roller-coasters up the scenery becomes unbelievably spectacular. Past Army Base Camp heading up French Col the trail eases then drops into Hidden Valley, broad and open with rich hued rocks and barely a blade of grass. Here, at 5000m it is perpetually cold, at least -15C° in October and -20C° in November at night. The only exit is Dhampus Pass leading to Marpha or Tukuche.
To run a safe trek you must ensure the sirdar, a sherpa and a porter or two have been there at least a handful of times. Porters must be provided with warm pants and a jacket. They also ALL must have a wind-proof jacket. The sirdar should carry spare pairs of shoes. All crew must have a tent to sleep in (and 40 porters need more than one dining tent). They should also have 2 blankets at minimum and perhaps an extra tarpaulin. You need porters to be in top condition so YOU should provide them with fuel and food after leaving the last village. The reason is there is no firewood and they often don’t take enough to eat, dangerously weakening themselves. The sirdar and a sherpa or two should have plastic or very strong leather boots.
Does this sound over the top? If conditions are perfect, all these preparations will be just enough. If it snows you’ll wish you had taken more. If this was raftable river, this route would have been closed as too dangerous for porters long ago.
The last concern is altitude sickness. Every group I have seen has had some potentially dangerous AMS problems. Following the HRA acclimatization guide-lines would mean sleeping 3 more nights on the glacier (in addition to the standard 2 nights at Italy Base Camp) – basically impossible.
Soon a foreigner will die up there from AMS. Diamox must be carried and used by most members and the best companies will take a Gamow bag, with a sirdar trained in its use. Many members and porters suffer altitude sickness on this trek.
Absolutely the best option is to alter the itinerary to begin with the Annapurna Circuit then trek around Dhaulagiri in the opposite direction to standard. With everyone already acclimatized this is much safer, and means that most members will actually enjoy the trek.
Dhaulagiri Circuit trek advice
This was originally written in the mid-1990s but is still applicable.
Trekking around Dhaulagiri is an exceptional wilderness experience that passes through staggering alpine terrain. Until recently few trekkers ever attempted it but now foreign trekking companies advertise it along side standard treks. It isn’t standard, being tough and demanding and has shocked many trekkers who expected something similar to the Annapurna Circuit or the Everest trek. It is better labelled as an extreme route; extreme, because you need an ice-axe and crampons, and if anyone (ie porters) don’t have these a rope is necessary too. Going without a guide is for mountaineers only. With its extended high altitude nature it should only be attempted when snow-free, from late September to December or perhaps May and early June.
Ascending to Dhaulagiri Base Camps and through the Hidden Valley involves a dangerously sudden rise in altitude. If you aren’t previously partially acclimatized you risk serious altitude sickness in an area that is tough to escape from.
Many groups have simply trekked clockwise, beginning from Baglung, with with only one acclimatization rest day en route to the base camps. In all cases most people were distinctly uncomfortable and some dangerously sick with AMS on reaching Hidden Valley. Being held up a day here by snow or an emergency would probably have killed trekkers. It has killed porters. Also expeditions and groups heading anti-clockwise from Marpha up to Hidden Valley have reported numerous worrying altitude problems.
Instead plan to acclimatize properly first. There are many options: en route to Marpha you could begin with the Annapurna Circuit from Besi Sahar via Manang and the 5416m Thorung La (12-14 days and best) or, from Pokhara, start with the Annapurna Sanctuary trek (10-12 days), however simply trekking via Ghorepani and Poon Hill does not offer enough acclimatization. The clockwise Dhaulagiri trek could be started from Thamgas, via Dhorpatan and the Jaljala (8-9 days to Bagaraha) or, starting from Baglung, there are routes via Asnam Dhuri from the Rahughat Khola or Marang Khola.
All companies say they have a good acclimatization plan but 95% of them are talking bullshit. This includes any major company you can think of: they have all messed up, and most have KILLED porters in the process.
The reality is this is no place for porters. Even in October night temperatures in Hidden Valley are likely to be -15 to -20C, and in November, -18 to -25C. porters don’t have the equipment to sleep outside or under rocks in these temperatures. Again some companies have killed porters in this way.
Carry water for the day from Marpha. From the mani wall at the centre of Marpha take the stairs heading west for the relentless and brutal climb. Several hours up the goat tracks divide, almost unseen, into 3 trails, each of which round the ridge to the south then rejoin. Perhaps around lunch time you pass two sets of roofed goths (summer houses). From October onwards there is no water near here.
Above, spreading south is Yak Kharka with its numerous trails and many roofless shelters, only a couple of which are near the small year-round water supply. These are several hours from the roofed summer houses, and roughly in the middle of the vast hillside. After camping here stock up with water since tomorrow there may not be any more until near Kalapani.
On the skyline above Yak Kharka, perhaps slightly south, is a string of several large cairns that lead to the trail higher up. This initially heads close to the Dhampus ridge but mainly stays below the crest. Later in the day the climb eases to a long contour. After crossing several minor ravines, which may have water, there are a few flattened camping spots among the barren rock. This is Kalapani (black water), the usual camping spot. From here the trail continues contouring and gently rising to the pass, an hour or so away. A line of small rock pillars leads to the trail over the other side.
Welcome to the Hidden Valley expanse! Once on wide open valley floor there are numerous camping spots, some with free expedition litter. All require a walk for water.
The return to Marpha
Although tough on the knees it’s possible cross and descend to Marpha in a single day.
Climbing Dhampus Peak 6035m
From near the pass head up the easiest line on the rock scree. Eventually gain the ridge and just beyond is a snowfield attached to the ridge. Ascend on the ice then return to the rock crest. From the summit the panorama of the Annapurna range is stupendous. Manaslu and Huin (spelling?) Chuli rise majestically above the area where Tilicho lake is.
If Hidden Valley is as far as you are going the long half-day trip (return) to the top of French Col is rewarding. It is less strenuous than Dhampus Peak and, if snow-free, doesn’t require crampons.
To Dhaulagiri Base Camp
The trail marked on the Pokhara to round Dhaulagiri Himal map is incorrect – ignore it. From the top of French Col the descent is gentle at first. The cairns lead to then follow the top of the moraine wall then abruptly you must descend to the glacier. This is steep and potentially dangerous: descend one at a time and some groups use a rope here. Once on the ice move quickly since avalanches can land uncomfortably close.
Reached in a couple of hours from French Col, the base camp (sometimes called Army BC) is usually marked by flags. It’s merely a collection of flat tent spots on glacier rubble opposite to where the icefall from Dhaulagiri descends into the main valley.
Descending from the Base Camp should only be attempted in high visibility conditions. If you follow the correct route there should be no hidden crevasses, but stray from the route and you are in terrain that definitely needs a rope.
Initially stay west (right) on the rubble which turns to glacier ice then head to the centre of the glacier on a higher ridge. Past the incoming glacier to the west there are seracs on the east side. After these some groups head off the glacier on this eastern side following the stream and bergschrund before heading to the jagged ridges at the centre of the glacier. Gradually move to the west side and pass some cleared areas where groups have camped. Once off the glacier rubble stay on the west bank of the stream descending to a grassy area. The camp is by a large stone.
To Italy Base Camp
After a steep descent the trail abruptly falls down dangerous moraine to cross the incoming glacier. Groups have often had to make their own trail down using shovels and setting up a handline.
Ascending the moraine on the other side is steep but perhaps not quite as nasty. The grassy area is called Italy Base Camp.
Pick up the delightfully small trail that winds through pleasant forest. After crossing several streams there is a particularly beautiful forest camp among huge cedar trees. Further down are several bridges to the west bank, one of which you should cross. The roller-coaster trail stays on the west side and crosses several streams on flimsy bridges. After one of these is Doban, a small clearing amid the forest.
More roller-coaster. Although several grazing areas are named on maps the first village is Jeldung, 20 mins above Bogaraha (which is occasionally called ‘bugger-this!’). Groups commonly camp by the school.
You may have reached human habitation but the trail is still grotesque. It continues ascending and descending and crossing steep faces with gay abandon to the hamlet of Naura, half a day down. Slightly beyond is a choice between taking the shortcut across the Myagdi Khola to Malimpaa or Khibang (no shops or lodges to Darbang) or staying on the west bank for the longer but more scenic route via Muri and the delightfully situated village of Takum. Along this stretch are some shops and simple lodges.
The routes converge at Darbang, a prosperous trading village where there are several Dal Bhaat lodges and numerous shops.
Need a good soak? Among the many villages is Tatopani, meaning hot water, with some good pools. Darbang to Beni is a long day’s walk away.
Bus services are about to start up between Beni and Pokhara so you might be able to avoid staying in one of the rather ordinary trekkers lodges.
Copyright Jamie McGuinness/ updated 4 Jan 2006
|DHAULAGIRI TREK||Streunous||26 days|
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