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The Dhaulagiri Circuit

 

If you’re reading this blog, then the chances are you are probably contemplating trekking around The Dhaulagiri Circuit.

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I will provide some background before I start. My wife and I have been travelling to Nepal and Pakistan many times over the past fifteen years. We generally prefer to trek independently, but in some cases have used commercial trekking agencies on climbing peaks and remote locations such as K2 base camp. I first came across the Dhaulagiri Circuit well before I even started trekking. Twenty years ago I purchased a book entitled “Top Treks of the World”

The Himalaya section had many classic routes that I had already heard about, but my attention was drawn to an amazing photo that leapt of the pages with trekkers passing directly under the face of a vast white mountain. It loomed over them and for me was the most startling photo in the entire book. It was captioned “The French Pass on the Dhaulagiri Circuit.” I tried to find out as much as possible about this trek, but information at the time was very limited. Still to this day there is not a lot written. I did come across an article that warned about the severe nature of this trek and that the route and terrain should not be underestimated. In short it outlined many obstacles and perils awaiting those who think it might be like doing The Annapurna Circuit. Twenty years on and having just returned I can see what they mean, although I have been told that sections of the trail have improved in recent years.

The big question I had before any serious planning could commence was can this trek be done independently? All the commercial trekking agencies run this as a camping trek, but I was curious to know just how much camping was actually required? Were there any teahouses and could we get food along the way (as Independent trekkers) thus reducing the amount of food to be carried in from the start. I found it very difficult to get “up to date” confirmed information but hopefully this story will be of use to independent trekkers thinking of doing this, but also to other trekkers who would like to know more about this trek before going with a commercial trekking company.

We decided without knowing what lay ahead to go semi-independent. We hired some porters and a guide to help carry the food and tents and also to be there as a back up in case things went wrong, or the trek started to prove too difficult. We saved money by doing it this way when compared to a commercial trek, but obviously it cost more than just going completely alone.

Please keep in mind this is a personal and subjective travel diary but I will also try to insert neutral and factual information so as to help others planning this trek.

Day 1 Pokhara to Darbang – Drive via Beni

Journey time by Private Van and Public Bus 7 Hours

Owing to the fuel crisis in Nepal, we hired a 4WD van to take us from Pokhara to Beni. Normally we would have taken a local bus but did not want to risk losing any time. The usual price for a bus ticket is around 250-300 rupees per person. The private hire of the 4WD was 15,000 rupees or around $150 USD. The journey time to Beni was 2.5 hours. The town sits on the confluence of the Kali Gandaki and Mayagdi Khola River systems. Usually most commercial trekking companies will start from here and cross over to the left side of the river heading upstream, but we decided to transfer to a bus and take the road up to Darbang which is another 3 hours away and pulls back about 1.5 days. The cost for each ticket was at the time around 180 rupees. Our guide informed us that a private van would have been another 7-8000 rupees.

Keep in mind prices were around double the normal rate because of the fuel crisis. The road was pretty rough and the bus was very packed. Even though winter is just 4 weeks away, the heat during the day is still very intense at these low altitudes. The jungle is screaming with insects and I am grateful to have kept my sun visor out. We arrive into Darbang around 3pm and walk down through the narrow streets to a basic teahouse set near the edge of a football field. The Rainbow guesthouse (unknown to us at the time) is the last to offer any familiarity that people on other treks in Nepal may be accustomed to. The beds are very hard but they do have a small room downstairs where one can eat dinner and watch Indian television. The cost for each room was 300 rupees per bed. Dinner and breakfast was prepared by one of our porters Kargee who is also doubling up as a cook.

Our guide warned us that cooking hygiene was potentially poor on this trek and he was keen to ensure he could control food quality if not for us at least for themselves. We also brought food in the form of freeze dry meals and were going to cook for ourselves on certain days. In short we did not sample much of the teahouse cooking, but they were offering Dhal Bhat for 400 rupees. Important to note is that this was the only food on offer for fully independent trekkers. Don’t expect to see any menus like you would on the Annapurna Circuit. I must admit I was expecting the teahouses to be similar to those on the Manaslu Circuit (for anyone who has done this trek) but the Rainbow Guesthouse was even more basic than those as a benchmark.

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Tea House room in Darbang

Day 2 Darbang to Khamla 800m – 1600m

6 hours walking time (not including lunch, but including stops)

This day was to prove a little confusing as I had assumed we would follow the traditional trail via Sibang and Muri, but instead of crossing the suspension bridge that starts close to the Rainbow Guesthouse and takes you over to the left side of the Mayagdi River, we crossed the football field and walked up to a narrow road on the right side of the river heading upstream. Not many people do this and the deviation was not to become apparent to me until later in the day.

Darbang Dhaulagiri Circuit

Football Field leads to the path that is a short cut on the first two days 

We leave just after 7.00am, keen to get an early start before the temperatures start to rise. It’s important as walking long into the day can become very tiring in the heat. Thankfully the right side of the valley is shaded and the road is free from any jeeps.

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Darbang the bridge that takes you over to the left side of the river

It seems our guide has taken us on a short cut. By taking us up the right side of the river you stay lower and walk less distance and can make up a day over the traditional route. So if you are a little pushed for time and doing this trek independently and carrying a heavy load, this is a good alternative. You miss out on walking through Muri, but you get to walk through villages that see very few foreigners and are also very attractive in their own right.

The road turns abruptly into trail an hour after departing Darbang. A little under 2 hours later and we reach a small farm house in Kalleni just after 10am. A more lovely setting would be difficult to locate anywhere in Nepal. A bush that has been shaped into an arch shades the entrance and there is a small table under shelter from where to take a meal. Kargee our cook makes use of their kitchen and prepares some fried macaroni with cheese. While he is cooking, I make some coffees and wash my feet in cold water. A good tip when trekking is to take your socks and boots off during lunch and allow them to dry before you start off again in the afternoon. It really helps with feet hygiene and blisters, especially when lower down and it’s hot and sweaty.

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Day 1 of walking Dhaulagiri Circuit

Lunch takes around 90 minutes to prepare and eat and we set off just after 11.30am. Min our guide informs me that it’s about another 3 hours to our campsite. I ask him about teahouse options in Muri? He looks confused and says we are not going to Muri we are going to Khamla on the other side of the valley. As I said I was not aware that this was the plan, but the trail so far has been very beautiful and we are happy to be taking the alternative route. The sun has now started to creep across to the right side of the valley and the trail also steepens just to make it a little bit harder.

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Day 1 Dhaulagiri Circuit

I can see on the traditional left side of the valley the regular trail to Sibang and Muri is much higher. Our right side trail continues to climb as well, but there is a distinct time advantage in coming this way. Two hours after leaving our lunch stop we climb to a high point in the trail about 150 meters above the river and receive wonderful views of the farm terraces across the other side of the valley.

The valley now turns hard to the right meaning we are covering less distance as we are on the inside of the valley’s right-hand bend. The afternoon clouds have started to shield the sun and our sweat turns a little cold in the afternoon breeze.

Khamla is a collection of farmhouses draped across the side of the valley. The path is a little hard to follow through the farm fields but the locals point the way to a bright orange farmhouse where we set up camp for the night. You can’t miss it!

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Heading towards the orange farm house at Khamla 

The owner allows us to pitch two tents and use his kitchen for cooking and washing. We pay him 2100 rupees for doing so, but Kargee cooks our own food, which just happens to be Dhal Bhat with some chicken added. Dhal Bhat was available for 500 rupees each (Kargee insists his is the best) and a tent pitch for independent trekkers is 500 rupees per tent. The man who owns the farmhouse is ex Indian army and can speak some English, a rare conversation on the Dhaulagiri Circuit.

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I am beginning to understand that the infrastructure on this trek is far more basic than I had imagined. There are no little shops selling Mars bars or even bottles of water and no sign of Coke and Sprites, but I like it all the same. It feels like we are far removed from commercialised trekking in Nepal and back to what it may have been like 40 years ago. With this is mind bringing water purification tablets is required and a clear water bottle to make sure what you are collecting is free from sediments.

Day 3 Khamla to Boghara 1600m – 2080m 

6 hours walking time

The day starts with a gentle stroll through farm fields and terraces and soon falls under the cover of the jungle. Half an hour later we reach the right bank of the Mayagdi Khola and continue to walk under the shade for another 20 minutes. From here we look up and can see high above us on the other side of the river the village of Muri, which most treks pass through when doing the Dhaulagiri Circuit. Another 15 minutes and we reach an old swing bridge about 30 meters in length that takes you across to the left side of the river.

Emma and Min cross the bridge, which looks very flexible and swings up and down with every step. I take a nature break but before setting off, I spot a long bushy creature that resembles a large ferret crossing the bridge. A moment later a second creature emerges and follows its partner across the bridge and into the jungle. It is a Yellow throated Marten. Emma spotted one 10 years ago while on the Everest Base camp Trek. I thought she was exaggerating at the time about its size but they really are as big as she described. Emma feels redeemed.

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Day 2 of walking Dhaulagiri Circuit

After walking for another 30 minutes we reach two small farmhouses and a large campsite at Jiggapani. This is where the regular trail from Muri connects to the river after a very long descent. We are now on the main trail and following the same route as everyone else for the rest of the trek.

We take lunch at another farmhouse in Nuara around 3 hours after setting off fro Khamla, and sit on their front patio trying to get a little shelter from the hot sun. They charge us 500 rupees for using their facilities but we do our own cooking. The owner is able to provide only Dhal Bhat for 300 each, if you did not wish to cook. It’s important to keep in mind that most of the farm houses we passed through will cook for you, but it’s going to be basic Dhal Bhat the whole way. There is no pasta or coffee or even bad porridge in the mornings for that matter. So if you like diversity in your meals, you need to carry that yourself. But for the hard-core trekker who is looking to go totally alone and needs to reduce weight and food carried, it is possible to get meals. It is very difficult to buy provisions however for further up the trail when the farm houses eventually run out. I will elaborate later.

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Lunch Stop day 2 with Min our guide

After lunch the path climbs very steeply up to an exposed and narrow section of trail that clings high above the left side of the river. Caution needs to be taken along sections of this trail, as it’s a long vertical drop to the river below. The path is very rough with lose stones, so placing your feet carefully is good practice. I would not class this section as scary, but you certainly feel attentive. A couple of hours after lunch and passing through a zig-zag cutting, the valley turns left. We get breathtaking views of a large waterfall plunging a couple of hundred meters across the other side of the valley. Thirty minutes later and we reach the sparse village of Boghara.

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Slightly dangerous path heading to Boghara

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About an hour away from Boghara

There is an extremely basic teahouse without a name, but you can’t miss it as it’s the first house you reach. It has 3 tiny rooms, each containing 3 concrete hard beds. Each bed is 300 rupees and the old lady will make Dhal Bhat for 300 rupees each. She is consistent if nothing else. We pitch our tents on a lawn 20 meters below the house for 200 rupees each and cook our own freeze dry food with our MSR cooker. Roast Chicken with Mashed Potato makes a nice change. We are now just over 2000 meters and as darkness envelops us so too does the first evening chill.

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Boghara Dhaulagiri Circuit campsite with the basic teahouse

Day 4 Boghara to Dobhan 2080m – 2520m

6 hours walking time

We leave Boghara around 7.30am and descend back down to the river in twenty minutes. Down here there are a few more farmhouses and a large camping site that I am sure is used by the big commercial trekking companies. We climb back up a steep bluff and then drop back down again. The left side of the valley is very steep so climbing up and down around steep spurs becomes a common and slightly frustrating occurrence, but I remind myself, that trekking is not always easy.

We manage to spot several large beehives hanging high above us in the cliffs. Thin worn strands of rope lead up to the much sought after honey. A dangerous job on two accounts owing to gravity and potentially angry bees.

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Lunch Stop Day 3 of walking

We stop for lunch in a small clearing where two local men are tending to water buffalo grazing. They ask for some headache tablets as one of them has pain in the side of his head. I resist giving out sweets and pens to children but who can deny someone with pain some temporary relief. It’s always a good idea to take along a couple of boxes. I tell Min to let him know that if the pain continues for few days he should try to see a doctor, I doubt he will somehow.

There is a sign saying that Dobhan is 3 hours away but it takes us around 4 hours to reach. The afternoon walk is spent mostly in dense jungle with very little views. The path is wet and crawling with roots and stones and starts to play a little on my nerves. The pack feels heavier today, I must be getting tired. The last hour is consistently up hill until we reach a large clearing in the Forrest at Dobhan. I think the sign indicating 3 hours on this occasion was correct, we were just a bit tired and slow.

Dobhan has a farmhouse with camping, and a new teahouse, which is nearing completion. Expect to see this up and running in 2016. I take a look inside and can see beds and a dining room but again don’t expect the luxury you get on the Everest base Camp trek, this will be fairly basic. We pitch our tents and use the kitchen room for cooking and eating. Min pays the old lady 3100 rupees for all of us to stay and use her wood and facilities.

We notice her squeezing a pale brown sludge into her cooking from a rather old and dirty plastic bottle. Min tells us it’s lemon chutney, which he procures for further meals up the trail. Visually it’s not very appealing but Min seems convinced it will spice up our cooking. Kargee makes spinach dumplings for dinner. I decide it’s his worse meal so far and not overly appetising but that’s just my personal feelings. You can’t have it all your own way. Emma is consuming more than I can stomach that’s for sure.

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Tea House in Dobhan e slept in our tents

Staying at the same campsite that night are two Czech lads in their late 20’s. They are attempting the trek completely on their own. We talk for a while and I can’t help but to be impressed by their plan to complete the trek alone. We are carrying about 13 to 15 kg each. They on the other hand are required to carry around 25 kg each and this makes a huge difference. I have trekked before with 18 kg but I can’t say I liked it very much. Not many people will attempt this trek on their own, so I do respect the challenge they are taking on. They seem experienced and have an amiable but cautious approach to going on their own.

Day 5 Dobhan to Sallaghari Camp 2520m – 3100m

4 Hours walking time

I had gone to bed the previous night thinking we could go the next day to Italian base camp, but it has been described as a long day and it’s also 1100 meters higher in altitude which is not great for acclimatisation. We decide instead to only go as far as Sallaghari (which is only 650 meters higher) and break the long day into two. I would say that very strong trekkers can do this in 1 day, but perhaps for good acclimatisation two is better. If you have come off another trek recently crossing high passes this would not be required.

We leave after 8am, as it wont be such a long day and descend down to the river, which takes us about 10 to 15 minutes. There is a small bridge that takes you immediately to the right side of Mayagdi Khola. Upon reaching the far bank we turn left and scramble across and up a recent landslip. Care needs to taken when ascending that you are not hit by any lose rocks but the slope is not too steep. We reach the regular path, which by now is well camouflaged but not too difficult to locate and follow. The jungle is dense overhead but the temperature remains cool further into the morning. The path is pretty steep and goes up for about an hour before levelling off and then meandering along the right side of the valley.

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An hour further on and we set up for an early lunch on a dry wash in a clearing. I make up some Back Country dehydrated Beef Stroganoff by adding some boiling water. Kargee does not seem impressed and cooks up some Dhal Bhat for himself and the other porters. He offers us some, feeling sorry for us I imagine.

The trail after lunch meanders up and down for a while and then climbs very steeply over the next hour. This is very steep terrain where you really have to lean forward and zigzag up the side of the valley. We climb into Pine Forests that are a welcome sight after spending a few days in the straggly jungle lower down. The smell in places is very fragrant and refreshing. I have to say it has always been my favourite zone when trekking.

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The trail levels off again and then gently lifts and falls around the side of bluffs. There are a few landslips to navigate and one small tree ladder to walk up but nothing to strenuous. For me this is a much nicer day in terms of scenery and forest walking compared to the day before

By the time we reach Sallaghari it’s just gone after 1pm, when a campsite greets me filled with dozens of tents and around 50 people milling around. It feels very strange to see a big group after days of being alone, but more importantly I can’t work out why they are here.

They would not have walked up here today and I can’t see why they would stay here for 2 nights. I conclude they must be coming back. One of the group members sees me and says hello. They ask me where I am from and what group I am with. I inform them that we are just 2 people with a few porters. Then they deliver the bad news. They have turned back at Dhaulagiri base camp because they believe the snow on the passes is too deep to cross. By now Emma has joined me and we stand there feeling very deflated. We had been told the same thing a year earlier on the Manaslu Circuit and made it over that time but the Dhaulagiri Circuit is a different proposition. There are two passes to cross in two days with a high valley over 5000m to negotiate. Deep snow here could really spell the end of the trek as it has for this large Dutch Group.

My only feeling on this is that they didn’t try, so they can’t know for certain and it also appears a couple of the groups members were not feeling very well. Maybe there is still a chance. All we can do is try and hope for good weather. One Dutch lady who is a little rude tells us “its impossible” and “not to bother”. This just spurs us on and becomes our catch phrase for the rest of the trip “Not Possible”. I think she is just disappointed that she didn’t make it and hates the thought that others might. Not a great attitude while meeting other trekkers.

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One thing to keep in mind about Sallaghari is that it was not on our map of the Dhaulagiri Circuit, but I can see from commercial trip dossiers it is used a lot. There is a small wood cabin where a young girl no more that 17 runs the camp and collects the fees for its use. I never do find out what it costs to pitch a tent there, but I am assuming its around 300-500 rupees per tent and I did notice she could serve up Dhal Bhat but I wouldn’t count on that always here at Sallaghari. If I were returning I would plan to cook my own food here.

That night our porters light a small fire at the top of the site about 20 meters away from the small wooden cabin which is filled with smoke and not pleasant to remain in for too long. The porters belonging to the large group below are all partying as they know they are going home without having to cross the passes and also will get paid more owing to the extra days spent backtracking. The night is not as cold as the previous night even though we are 600 meters higher. The forest also does a good job of blocking the wind. I think this is one of the nicer campsites on the Dhaulagiri Circuit.

Day 6 Sallaghari to Italian Base Camp 3100m – 3660m

Walking time 3.5 hours

It’s a beautiful morning when we leave camp. Immediately after departing the trail runs into a long stone wash that continues long up the valley for about a kilometre. We pass a couple of independent trekkers traveling like ourselves with just a few porters. They too are turning back. Our guide seems a little frustrated and asks a Frenchman why he didn’t try to go further. The Frenchman I believe has had enough and simply wants to return.

About 30-40 minutes of walking across the rocks the path bends a little to the right and we continue for another 20 minutes on the rocks before reaching  a large dirt wall that lifts us back up to the high ridge. Keep in mind this is still on the right side of the main valley as you are heading up.

The climb up the dirt wall is very steep but not exposed and soon we reach the top after 15 minutes of hard slog. We re-enter a pine forest but the trees are much smaller than those we left back at Sallaghari. Dominating the skyline is the vast ominous West face of Dhaulagiri. This is the first day where the big mountains really close in around you.

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20 minutes later and about 90 minutes after leaving Sallaghari camp we reach a very small area to pitch a couple of tents. It’s not serviced by anyone but could be used for those who tried to get from Dobhan to IBC and didn’t quite make it in a day. The forest or rather what is left of it becomes thin and wispy. Finally the trees surrender to heather and juniper bushes. We cross a few more small river washes and walk up a small bank to a large perfectly flat area that is guarded by a stone teahouse and a couple of stone kitchens and toilets. We have arrived at Italian Base Camp. The area is large enough for several trekking groups but when we arrive all we see are the two Czech guys we had met lower down the trail. They have only reached here today after stopping short in their attempt to get here in one day from Dobhan.

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We will be spending two nights acclimatising at IBC, so inspect one of the rooms. They only have 3 rooms none of which have beds and only 1 of which has a light. Room 1 is the better option but I think you would be better off in a tent than spend time in room 2 and 3 they should be called sheds and that is being kind. I’m only harsh to drive home the point that this is not a tea-house trek and anyone thinking that part of the way is, will be sadly mistaken.Being empty we do take up the offer to sleep in room 1 as it has lots of space and a large bench to lie out our gear. This makes cooking and clothes washing the next day a much more pleasant and spacious exercise.

The main living room has a fire pit, around which to sit, but no chairs to sit upon. We use small blocks of wood instead. The lady who runs IBC can cook for you if travelling independent. So you could definitely count on getting meals here if you are looking to limit the food you carry. She can even cook up some potatoes and porridge with the regular Dhal Bhat on offer.

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Italian Base Camp Dhaulagiri Circuit

Camping was 600 rupees per tent and Dhal Bhat 500 rupees per person. Later in the afternoon I take a short walk up to the edge of the lateral moraine. Before me is vast chasm filled with jumbled rocks and steep cliffs. I can see on the far side the entrance to gorge we have to reach, but the way across is not apparent. If travelling alone and without a guide the lady in the teahouse will probably be able to point the way. I will describe in detail the route we took later on.

Our plan is to stay here for 2 nights and then proceed to Japanese Camp or Glacier Camp at 4100m for 2 nights, then onto Dhaulagiri Base Camp 4700m for another 2 nights. Normally most treks will only spend 1 night at Japanese Camp but we are keen to be well acclimatised and feel strong for when we reach Dhaulagiri Camp and cross the passes. The terrain after leaving IBC is severe and coming back down with any kind of altitude issues would be extremely difficult when compared to retreating on the Everest Base Camp trek or the Annapurna circuit. So unless you have a proven track record of being quick to acclimatise, I would highly recommend spending 6 nights from the time you reach IBC to the day you cross the French Pass. Again if you have recently completed another high pass trek in the last 2 weeks then only 3 to 4 days would be required.

Day 7 Rest Day at Italian Base Camp

A cold strong wind woke us early in the morning and persisted for several hours. It made getting out of our sleeping bags very difficult and with nowhere to go why bother. I did get up to see what conditions would be like for the following day and noted that the sun did not reach us until 9.30am. Keep in mind this was mid November. We set about washing our clothes, as we wanted to get them into the sun as early as possible. Drying clothes in the shade only causes them to freeze. You have been warned.

Later in the day we climbed up along the grassy side of the long lateral moraine that runs from IBC up to the West face of Dhaulagiri to a small ice cave. It can be covered in 30 to 40 minutes as a gentle stroll. On our way up we were lucky enough to spot a large herd of Blue Sheep running through the rocks and up into the cliffs.

The winds that rose up in the morning eased off, but I did notice that the afternoon clouds for the last 2 days have been getting thicker and persisting longer into the afternoon. We go to bed that night ready to move on and looking forward to reaching Japanese camp tomorrow.

Day 8 Italian Base Camp to Japanese Base Camp 3680m – 4100m

5.5 hours walking

This morning we were greeted by a magnificent morning with little winds to speak of. Our guide had indicated that the walk would only be 4 hours, which was not to be the case. We left IBC just before 8am still in shadow of Dhaulagiri’s west face. The path heads up a grassy slope behind IBC and within 10 minutes you reach the lip of the glacial moraine. The trail then traverses the inside of the moraine gently for another 10 minutes until you reach a steep Shute dropping down to your left onto the glacier below, which is completely covered in rubble. It is very steep about 50-60 degrees and 100 meters in length. In icy conditions small crampons would come in handy here and possibly a rope but today it’s just a matter of being careful and making use of our trekking poles. Our packs make life a little harder, but the average trekker with experience should not find this too difficult. We reach the bottom of the lateral moraine and then veer left at a 45-degree angle and head for the brown dirt moraine on the other side of the small glacier, which is about 150-200 meters away.

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Day 8 descending onto the glacier after leaving IBC

The left side of the glacial moraine is already exposed to the sun and looks just as steep as our descent 10 minutes ago. I can see the path zigzags up until it reaches the visible top and disappears around a corner on the top right of the moraine. Our porters are ahead of us but I decide to wait as they are sending rocks hailing down from above. This section of the trek is a hazard. We have definitely made a mistake by setting off too late. I would in the future leave at 6am and make sure I ascended this moraine while it is still frozen in the shade. The potential here to be struck by debris is concerning. All I can do for now is to move quickly while keeping an eye out as often as I can for falling rocks. One person should remain at the bottom and keep a watch for rocks, for those ascending. Once they reach the top they should do the same for the last person coming up. This small section is sketchy and I have read other accounts of people being injured here, some seriously in the past. If you have helmets wear them. Chances are independent trekkers wont.

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Dangerous moraine with potential rockfall path goes off to the top right

As I approach the top, the path bends around towards the left and disappears around a bend that heads directly to the cliff wall on the left side of the valley heading up. It is very narrow in sections with a steep 100m fall should you stumble or your pack pulls you off balance. With 5 minutes of careful walking you reach the steep cliff wall (that overhangs the path) and therefore provides protection from any potential rocks falling from above. The path also widens here and I feel that the little hazard is now behind us.

We are in a small gorge with a small pass to climb up a long grassy slope a few hundred meters in length. We can see back to IBC and the Shute we descended 40 minutes ago. About 30 minutes later we make the top of the small grassy pass and reach the entrance to the main Chongarden Gorge. It is simply one of the most vast, foreboding and magnificent features I have seen in all my years of trekking. The bottom of the gorge here is only 90 meters across. A small river runs along the flat bottom. We are on the left of it heading up. On the right side of the valley is the near vertical west wall of Dhaulagiri that rises over 4000m. We are literally at the base of this incredible mountain. The left side of valley only rises a scant 3000m in comparison. The gorge is very straight for two kilometers and then bends gently around to the right. It lures us forward. I feel microscopic in the huge valley. After years of trekking in stunning scenery, being impressed becomes harder but today I’m overwhelmed by my surroundings.

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About ten minutes into the gorge we reach the stone hut that is Swiss Base Camp. It has taken us 1 hour 40 minutes but I think stronger trekkers could reach here in 1.15 if required. Larger groups will take longer owing to the moraine of falling rocks and ascending in staggered formation.

Today the hut is all locked up with a stout chain but I’m told it is sometimes open. Independent trekkers can on occasion get Dhal Bhat here but I wouldn’t count on it. There are some small level platforms to pitch tents and water is just a 5-minute walk down about 50 meters to the river. In short this is a good place to camp and is about 150 meters higher than IBC. Our plan is to spend two nights at Japanese Camp around 200 meters higher again at 4100m before going up to DBC at 4700m. I later decide that maybe it would be better to have spent 1night here and then do just 1 night at Japanese Camp instead of 2. I will explain a little later.

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In the centre distance you can see the small white line we descended to reach the bottom of the glacier 

We snack on some nuts and a power bar before continuing up the gorge. The path is easy to follow and even if you do lose it you just keep heading up keeping the river on your right. An hour later and we pass underneath a steeper section of lateral moraine to our left. Again just keep an eye out here as you walk and move quickly for about 150 meters.

We reach a section of the valley floor covered in large rocks, which we pick our way over for 20 minutes and stop to take lunch. I can see that the clouds that have been gathering behind us are now closing in and turning nasty shades of grey. The winds start to freshen and just as we are finishing our meal, sleet and snow starts to fall.

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Reaching the main gorge between IBC and Japanese camp

The valley that was filled with sunshine only an hour ago, is now consumed by thick clouds and cold winds. We put on our shells and down jackets. The fall in temperature is swift and abrupt. Thank goodness for good clothing. Around 45 minutes later we reach the terminal snout of the Chongarden Glacier. The river we have been following emerges out of a dark icy glacial cave. The snout of the glacier is about 80 meters in height. Previously trekkers used to climb up the left side of the valley and onto the glacier but recently it has melted back leaving steep cliffs that would be extremely difficult to ascend. This means we will have to ascend up the right side of the snout, but this as well comes with an obstacle. It will mean having to cross the small river, which at best guess is running at around 2 feet in depth. Crossing in boots will be impossible. The water is freezing and we are also in the grip of a small blizzard. Wind and snow is blowing at 30 to 40 Miles per hour. Visibility is down to 30 meters! This is no longer fun and I start to feel a bit concerned. I must admit if it were not for the company of the porters I may be feeling a tad scared being alone in this situation.

One of the porters tries to find a route up the left hand side but it is far too dangerous to contemplate in this weather. I would say you could rule this option out for the foreseeable future. They may try to repair or create a new route but for us there is no other choice we must cross the river. I search for an area that may allow us to jump across on rocks and sand banks but it’s no use. We find a way to get half way across but that’s the best we can do and start removing our boots and socks. Aside from our feet freezing, I am also a little concerned about falling over in the river on the uneven rocks obscured by the fast running water. We throw our boots over to the right bank, tighten our packs and wade into the frigid flow.

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Bad weather coming from behind

The pain is instant and burns up my legs. I just stay focused on not falling over and 20 seconds later step across onto the right bank. It doesn’t help that’s its covered in snow. The wind catches our wet feet. I can feel ice forming on them almost immediately. We quickly sit down and dry our feet as best we can and pull on our warmest socks that we placed in the top of our packs in preparation. It’s difficult to get my boots on; I can hardly feel my feet. I stand up and start stomping and jumping on them. The best thing is to keep moving so we begin making our way up the snout of the glacier.

I’m cursing a little that I didn’t keep our baby crampons out, as the fresh snow and ice on the glacier is a little slippery. It is manageable but having them on would have been an advantage. The visibility is getting worse and is down to 10 meters. Thank goodness the wind is blowing from behind as our backpacks help to shield the gale and keep us warm.

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Our guide looks a little lost and keeps stopping, trying to get a sighting, so we can reach Japanese Camp (glacier camp). It’s been about 30 minutes since we crossed the river and the feeling in my feet has returned but they are still very cold. I can feel myself getting a little agitated not knowing how far we have left to go. Min thinks it will be another 40 minutes but he normally likes to under-estimate and that’s in good weather.

The ridges and gullies on the glacier can hide a campsite at the best of times. I just hope we don’t walk past it by accident. Eventually about 90 minutes after crossing the river and ascending onto the glacier we reach Japanese camp. A collection of level platforms dug into the glacier with some abandoned old chairs and a few shredded old tents. It’s a relief to be here but we still need to get our tents up in the strong wind. Min seems pretty adept in all conditions and has our dome tent up in about 15 minutes. We crawl in and unroll our sleeping bags grateful to be out of the bad weather. I think finding this campsite on our own in the storm might have been very problematic. Possibly in good weather not so much an issue. Again a lesson learned is that bad weather usually comes in around midday. If we had left earlier from IBC we would have reached here before the storm arrived and I’m sure it would have been a much more pleasant experience.

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Japanese Camp

We cook up some freeze dry meals in our tent being careful to allow venting despite the cold. We even make some coffee. Kargee brings us a bowl of popcorn. The storm continues to bash us for most of the night. All I can think about is how much snow must be falling up on the passes, and how all the other groups have turned back. I’m feeling pretty despondent. I had hoped that good weather might see us through but now after this storm, I’m not so sure anymore. We have another rest day tomorrow in any case; perhaps the storm will only last overnight.

Day 9 Japanese Camp (Glacier Camp) Rest day 4100m

Some time during the night the storm abated and the stars illuminated a black sky. The altitude is playing havoc with my bladder and I’m lucky if I can get through the night without at least three visits to the toilet. This is normally a few meters away as it’s too cold and dark to stray much further. I should explain that this is just for a pee. By the time morning breaks, I go for my fourth nature break only to discover that our tent is surrounded by large paw prints. It’s exciting to think that something wild was prowling around during the night only a few feet from where we slept.

The morning is crisp with very little wind, a perfect day in the mountains but we are still well under the shadow of Dhaulagiri at 9am with no sign of the sun appearing soon. The combination of shade and camping on ice is harsh. The sun eventually reaches our tents at 10.30am. I can see that as we approached Japanese camp yesterday were too far over to the right. We should have been more in the centre left of the glacier heading up. This makes sense as the old route ascended up the left side of the glacier while we came up the right.

Adjacent to the campsite is a waterfall coming down on the left side of the valley wall. This is a good feature to gauge your proximity to the campsite. As you face up the valley it is directly to your left. You may also fetch fresh water by descending a small hill to the left. It’s about 50 meters away, but be careful as you approach the stream there are some small lakes covered by ice and snow that might break. Despite the snow last night we can see some partially filled in footsteps leading down there.

We set up some of the abandoned milk crates and unfold some broken chairs and place them in the sun. We could walk towards Dhaulagiri base camp as a recce, but decide to conserve our energy and relax around our new makeshift dining table. I think back to our stop in Swiss Camp yesterday. In many ways it is a much nicer place to spend a night and break the journey from IBC to JBC into two days. This means an earlier start in the gorge with good weather as you ascend the Glacier Snout. It also means you can relax on grassy slopes the day before instead of spending a very cold rest day on ice at JPC. I make a note next time to do so, instead of spending 2 nights at the very cold Glacier Camp.

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The weather holds fine for the entire day and there are no traces of storm cloud build up during the afternoon. Maybe (and more so hopefully) we are heading into a stable weather window. That night several large avalanches wake me. They crash down the sides of the gorge with the sound of canons and thunder that echoes off the walls. Despite the foreboding rumble they are exciting to listen to in the depths of the night, wrapped up warm in my sleeping bag. I’m really looking forward to our walk up to Dhaulagiri Base Camp tomorrow.

Day 10 Japanese Base Camp to Dhaulagiri Base Camp 4100m – 4700m

6 hours walkingdeep snow

We wake to another fine morning in the mountains but it is bitterly cold at 6am. With the build up of snow from two days ago we decide to get an early start so as to try and keep on top while the snow is still frozen.

We immediately head steeply up the central moraine bearing slightly to the right. In no time I am out of breath and feeling somewhat sluggish. Sometimes you just have bad mornings. I remind myself not to worry and just go slow. There is no point in fighting altitude, it always wins.

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Walking directly under Dhaulagiri on the way to the base camp is a humbling experience 

We keep bearing towards the right at a slight angle before reaching a small avalanche zone and then bear left. It is difficult to give exact directions but it is just a case of following the stone markers (not always obvious) and natural direction of the curves of the glacier as you head up. An hour after leaving the JBC we get our first views of Tukuche. The rounded summit glistens in the sun. It seems some distance off but DBC is near the base so there is work to do as the last of the morning shadows departs. Within a minute the temperature soars and it is time for a complete costume change, sunglasses and sunscreen. It is especially important to get those sunglasses on straight away when walking on snow. Snow blindness is a painful experience and like sunburn you don’t release it’s happening.

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The valley opens to a wide T-junction with the saddle between Dhaulagiri and Tukuche off to our right. The icefall that runs down from the saddle is impressive but not nearly as dramatic as the uninterrupted sheer face of Dhaulagiri now above to our right.

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Dhaulagiri Base camp is right where the brown ridge on the left meets the snow

We descend a small hill and then walk across a long flat basin. The snow here is very deep and the sun is baking off the pristine white surface. The one litre of water we started off with now seems unacceptable and I kick myself for not bringing more. It’s slow going through the deep snow but we make our way back onto the medial moraine and the rocks that prevent us from sinking. We pass remnants of older camps and ahead I can see the porters. It appears to be another hour away. The new base camp is closer to where the valley narrows under Tukuche, but just on the left side before you enter the next canyon. It has taken 7 hours but without the snow I would imagine this could be done in 5 and possibly 4 if you are very strong.

 

Day 11 Dhaulagiri Base Camp Rest Day – 4700m

For the third morning we are blessed with good weather but we still need another two if we are to cross the French and Dhampus Pass. Taking three rest days is more than most treks provide and it may cost us with the weather but we are determined to be well acclimatised before taking on both passes and camping in hidden valley. From the camp we take a short stroll over a small hill and around the left into the Tukuche Valley. To the right is Tukuche itself. A very steep high lateral moraine guards the left side of the valley. The view of Dhaulagiri’s North face is sublime from here and continues to improve as you head up towards the French Pass. But for now we just sit and admire the natural beauty of the mountains while trying to work out the exact route ahead, up the French Pass. From here it doesn’t appear too far, but looks do have a way of being deceitful in the Himalayas.

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Dhaulagiri from base camp

During the afternoon and while lying in out tent, I hear an avalanche that seems to go on and on. I come out of the tent to look to see where it is coming from, but I can see no tell tale signs of white powder trails. Min sees my confusion and lets me know that the noise is high winds on the summit. I have read about this before in climbing novels but this is the first time I have been close enough to a summit to actually here it. The roar sounds like a freight train that never ends. I can only hope that we are not moving into a period of high winds when we cross the two passes.

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Dhaulagiri Base Camp looking back down from where we came

By late afternoon the tents are being bashed off and on by sudden gusts that abate as quickly as they arise. That night we retire early and plan to leave at 5am.

Day 12 Dhaulagiri Base Camp – French Pass and Hidden Valley 4700-5300-5100m

7 hours walking

Despite best attempts we are 30 minutes late out of camp at 5.30am. There is no wind and the morning is not overly cold. We walk over the small hill to the north and head up the narrow Tukuche valley on the left side. An hour of picking our way over rocks and we get to the point where you start to ascend the left side of the moraine. There is a breach in the wall where you can gain about 100 meters in height before then zigzagging up the left hand side of the brown stony wall. The last 60-meter traverse is fairly steep with little path cut into the side for traction. I can feel the weight of my pack pulling me off balance. In icy conditions or with snow, some rope protection would be advisable here. The slope slides a little as the wall is now loose shale and rocks but Min manages to provide a helping hand and we reach the lip of the moraine safely. It is a small relief and I am reminded that these sections are what make the Dhaulagiri Circuit harder than the Annapurna Circuit.

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Heading along the left side of the valley you go up the left moraine wall then walk along the lip before veering left towards the true pass

It has taken just over two hours to reach this point and the rest of way ahead appears sedate both in gradient and difficulty. We continue along the lip of the moraine for an hour before reaching a large cairn but this is not the top. We then leave the lip of the moraine and turn 45 degrees to our left across a large bowl that is filled with snow. The slope then rises again up to the true pass. The distance is not too far but again the snow cuts our speed by half. The sun is out now and again the temperature in the windless bowl rises. The slope up to the pass becomes relentless. This is not the most difficult pass I have ascended and aside from the slightly scary scramble up the left side of the moraine, I would say that the Throng La is longer and steeper than the French Pass.

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This was taken the morning we left looking back to DBC French Pass is behind us

About 4 hours after leaving DBC we reach the top of the French Pass. In front of us is the high Hidden Valley. Tukuche is directly to the right and behind us is the massive North Face of Dhaulagiri. It dwarfs everything around it. Having seen Everest and K2 I can say that this view of Dhaulagiri is more impressive than both with possibly only Nanga Parbat in Pakistan as a rival for big close up views of an 8000m peak.

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Having climbed up the moraine wall and now walking along the lip towards the French Pass

From the top of the pass we make our way down the right hand side of the gentle valley through very deep snow. Straight ahead to the right is Dhampus peak, which one should aim for when walking through the Hidden Valley. As long as you stay to the right of the river now frozen, you are going the right way. We walk for another two hours then climb and descend a small hill about 50 meters in height and make camp at the base of the hill at 5100m. The way over the Dhampus pass is off to our right, but that can wait till tomorrow.

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Leaving the lip and veering left to the true pass. This section in the snow was a bit harder than it looked

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Tukuche left and Dhaulagiri right walking across the snow bowl

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Nearing the top of the French Pass

The last two hours in the sun and snow have again been draining so we get inside our tents and try to rest up for the crossing of the Dhampus Pass tomorrow.

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French Pass Dhaulagiri Circuit

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After crossing the French Pass it is a gentle walk down the right side of the valley for 2 hours to Hidden Valley Camp

Owing to the snow and ice in the hidden valley, there is no accessible running water, and we are left to melt ice for cooking and drinking, a very slow process when hungry and thirsty. It is a cold night sleeping on the ice and with moderate winds blowing the temperature drops to minus 25c. If only for one night you will be grateful for a good quality sleeping bag or miserably regretful. Seriously make sure you do have a warm bag for the trip, as hidden valley is a frozen icy place.

Day 13 Hidden Valley – Dhampus Pass – Yak Kharka 5100m -5250m-4400m

9 hours walking

For the fifth morning in a row the sun is shining and even the winds have eased during the night. It looks as though the weather is going to hold, but mountain weather is known to change suddenly and with a long day ahead we leave early at 6am.

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Dhampus Pass cutting the slope on a traverse to the top

From our camp we head in a straight line to our right and over to the large hill on the right hand side of the valley. We reach the bottom in twenty minutes and start the long traverse up the Dhampus pass. As you ascend across the slope it runs down hill from right to left. Directly to your right the pass is higher so keep going straight ahead at a slight right angle to the low point. It takes us about 90 minutes of traversing and we start to reach the low point in the saddle. I can see the top of the Annapurnas just cresting over the top of the pass but they are still some distance off.

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Top of Dhampus Pass with Annapurnas straight ahead

Another 10 minutes of slight ascent and we reach the top of the Dhampus pass, which is marked with prayer flags and ram horns. Despite the short distance we are both feeling pretty tired after a sleepless night and also soreness from the previous day crossing the French Pass. A rest day in hidden Valley might have been worthwhile before crossing the Dhampus Pass.

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Descending Dhampus Pass 

From the top of the pass a broad valley stretches before us. To our right is the Ridge line and summit of Tukuche. To our left is Dhampus peak and straight ahead in full view are the Annapurnas. The way down appears to be straight ahead and to the right but this is not the correct the way to go and will eventually lead to cliffs and a dead end with a long and painful hike to get back. Today the Dhampus pass is free from wind and basking in sunshine but I can see in bad weather this is a potentially deadly place. We walk straight ahead down a long gentle slope but keep high on the left side of the valley, being careful not to lose too much height.

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Dhampus Pass

For two hours we keep staying on the left side of the valley keeping high. The traversing across the slopes in the deep snow is very tiring. I feel we must be getting close to the point where we begin our descent, but Min our guide dampens our resolve but saying we still have another few hours to go at least. This does come as a bit of shock but I can see the porters, three small dots ahead much higher on the left slope.

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Dhampus Pass looking back you can see the saddle just below the small mountain top left. This is where we came from so you can see how you have to stay high on the left as you descend

There is more traversing to go, each time we come around a small left spur we see several more and release we still have to go up as well. The snow is getting softer and more difficult to cross. There are only small patches of dirt from time to time. It is now 6 hours into the crossing and still we are showing no signs of descending. In fact we round a bend and see the porter trail again rise steeply across the slope and off to the left. The obvious way down is to the right but I can see now it leads into a very steep shute and eventually cliffs. I can only imagine how heart breaking and dangerous it would be to have made this serious mistake. In bad weather it could mean death. It is at this point we see a body further down the slope covered in plastic. It is a sobering reminder that this pass does claim lives.

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Dhampus Pass long left turn

Min informs us we are extremely lucky and that he has never crossed the Dhampus pass without strong winds. Many times he has had to camp if the visibility becomes bad. I can see even on this perfect day how this could all start to go horribly wrong. There is no path to follow and if you have not crossed before, then knowing to stay high and left would not be obvious.

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Still more to traverse on the Dhampus pass up through the rocks

We traverse up the steep left wall again. It is energy sapping this late in the day. I feel very tired. The slope across to some large rocks becomes steeper and drops sharply off to our right. If on a dry slope it would not be so scary but on the ice and snow it does present a hazard if you slipped and fell. A bad fall is possible here so I stay focused and place my feet carefully. At the end of the traverse are some large rocks. We scramble up them but the ice is very slippery. Min cuts some steps into the slope above the rocks which is too steep to ascend with out. We are both wearing small spikes held on by elastic straps. Proper crampons are not required but the spikes most certainly are. There are a few sections of traversing that would have been difficult if not dangerous without them.

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Dhampus Pass Dhaulagiri Circuit

The last 20 meters is a slightly sketchy experience and a small ice axe would have made me feel re-assured. As it is the walking pole does the job, just!

We reach the top. From here I can see a long spur stretching far down into the Kali Gandaki Valley straight ahead. I can see a marker pole indicating the way down is again down the left side of the spur. If in doubt on the Dhampus pass remember stay left and keep staying left. The view is simply breathtaking. To our right is Dhaulagiri. Its summit ridge stretches for miles down into the valley. Moving to the left we can see the green lowlands of Nepal. A blanket of cloud is far below and stretches all the way into India in the south. The Annapurnas on the far side of valley are to the east and as we pan left to the North we can see the greenery turn dry and brown into the high barren but beautiful highlands of upper Mustang and Tibet. Of all the passes I have crossed this must be the most beautiful or is it a case of victory tasting so sweet. All the doubt from the Dutch group about having the turn back and the struggles through the snow are behind us. We are going to make it! And in that moment of realization and with the vista before me, I can feel my breath getting shorter and tears start to well up. They are the best tears in life, tears of joy and tears of pride. We’ve made it!

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Finally heading down 

The decent down the spur into the Kali Gandaki is very steep but is well marked by a series of poles. Within a few hundred meters we are out of the snow. The safety of solid ground and grass is overwhelming. Our progress down improves but we still have a good 90 minutes to go before we reach Yak Kharka. I can see a small stone refuge far below, which will be our campsite for the night. By the time we reach our tent it is late in the afternoon. My big toes are very sore from descending on the steep slope and I worry about the state of my toenail, which is starting to throb in my boots. It’s our last night before reaching Martha and a bittersweet moment.

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Reaching Yak Kharka late in the day with the Annapurnas behind

I can only reflect that the Dhampus pass is much harder than I had anticipated. This is mostly owing to the very long traverses after reaching the high point. It is not a case of reaching the top and then going straight down like the Throng La on the Annapurna Circuit. Without the snow this could have been done in 7 hours and possibly 5-6 if very strong and knowing the route.

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Camp site Yak Kharka

Day 14 Yak Kharka to Marpha – 4400m to 2670m

3-4 Hours walking

From here down to Marpha it is all steeply down hill. Within 30 minutes we descend down to the tree line and onto a well-worn path. The valley floor is getting closer but still seems a long way down. We reach a small hut and campsite within 90 minutes after leaving Yak Kharka. It is a very pleasant spot among the sparse dry pine forest that grows on the sides of the Kali Gandaki valley. We stop for a break near a large tree wrapped in many prayer flags. Min tells us it is one of his favorite spots for rest so we make good use of the setting and watch eagles and huge vultures riding thermal breezes for half an hour.

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Yak Kharka to Marpha Dhaulagiri Circuit

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Yak Kharka to Marpha

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Last day Dhaulagiri Circuit

Four hours after setting off we reach the bottom of the valley and enter the small Tibetan township of Marpha. This is a beautiful whitewashed village with ornamental doorways and windows painted red. It is very different from the Nepali villages we passed through on the other side of the French Pass. We have reached the end of the Dhaulagiri circuit and connected into the Annapurna Circuit. All of a sudden there are modern Teahouses with menus and showers, pizza and apple cider and central heating. I miss the wilderness but a hot shower is welcome and so too an apple cider. We say goodbye to Min, Kargee and our two porters.

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Reaching Marpha on the Annapurna circuit 

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Marpha the end of the Dhaulagiri Circuit

They are keen to get back Pokhara. We decide to stay on in Marpha and plan to walk down to Ghasa in two days. I won’t go too much into that as this section of the Annapurna circuit is well documented, but I will say it was a very beautiful two days following the new paths that take you away from the road. In Particular the town of Chimang high up on the Eastern side of the valley or left as you head down was stunning and a very beautiful authentic experience. The other option for leaving is to head up the valley to Jomsom about a 90-minute walk from where you can fly out to Pokhara.

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Emma with the Dhaulagiri Team we miss them already

Summary

In short, I would not attempt this trek on your own unless you can carry 25 kg over high passes and have previous experience with wilderness trekking at high altitudes. You will need to carry your own food for at least 6 days between Italian Base Camp and Marpha, as there is nothing in between to sustain you in any way.

The Dhampus pass may appear to be easier on paper than the French pass but I can assure you that the Dhampus is the harder and potentially more dangerous of the two, so keep this in mind. You should always allow 3 rest days before attempting the French Dhampus pass double unless you have come off a previous trek and are already acclimatised. We immensely enjoyed this trek and hope you do as well.

Happy Trekking,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hello everyone, ever wanted to know what crossing Africa and Asia looks like? Well this short movie will give you an idea of what you can see when you stop flying in a plane and take the long way around by bus, train, taxi and tuk-tuk.

This version will play on a desktop or laptop computer

This version should work on a mobile device or tablet

https://mobileyt.com/42548264.php

sit back and enjoy this journey over 71,000km across this beautiful planet

 

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