Category Archives: 2009 Dolpo

Summary of our trip to Dolpo

We’re back from Dolpo, and what a trip it was.

I am back-posting daily notes for those of you who want the details, and I’m afraid it’s many pages. The notes go back to October 10, the day we flew up and left contact with the internet. Although they are all posted with today’s date, I have tried to arrange them so that they display in chronological order. To see all the entries, you will have to click the “Older Posts” link when you reach the bottom of each page.

For those of you who don’t want the details, here are the statistics:

• 25 nights mostly in a tent
• 4000 photographs
• 100 blue sheep but 0 snow leopards
• 300 kilometers walking
• 7 passes over 5000 meters (16,500 feet)
• 6 courses of antibiotics for digestive problems
• 1 strained muscle but 0 serious illnesses or accidents

Our trip went through all the major parts of Dolpo, one of Nepal’s most backward but interesting regions. The civilization and language are Tibetan, and much of life still revolves around the short growing season and the long yak caravans.

The scenery is astounding, though mostly high desert rather than the spectacular mountains one normally associates with Nepal. Although we did see some classic Himalayan views such as Dhauligiri and Lake Phoksumdo, much of the trip was on the north side of the Himalayan crest, where the terrain resembles the high deserts of Tibet and the American west. Wildlife is sparse in these desolate regions, but we were able to see Himalayan blue sheep (bharal), vultures and golden eagles.

Dolpo has always been difficult to reach and travel in, and it was virtually off limits for most of this decade, as it was the center of the Maoist uprising that decimated this poor country until a few years ago. Trekking infrastructure is minimal and even food is limited, so we had to bring in most things from Kathmandu in a full camping trek. Although the food and company have been great, the camping took its toll and we are happy to be back to the city, at least for a bit.

More details in the daily postings. At least look at the pictures!

Day 1 – Oct 10 – We made it to Dolpo!

As I predicted, when we finally got to Dolpo, the postings would stop for almost a month. For a week in Nepalgunj, we had nothing better to do than write notes in a relatively modern internet café. But in Dolpo, we were suddenly back 50 years and by tomorrow we will be in the 14th century. Some people in this town have email by satellite but it is very slow and expensive. So from now on, I am writing notes on Marcia’s cell phone and posting everything in order once we return to something resembling civilization around November 6.

After 7 days of delays, our departure from Nepalgunj was almost an anticlimax. We got up at 4:15, ate breakfast and left for the airport at 5. We were delayed a few minutes at the entrance gate because the Yeti Air staff hadn’t arrived, but once they did, everything was in order. The district manager Mr. Bimh was waiting to shake my hand as I came in, and he assured me that our party was all on the first flight. Apparently I had scared him so much that he had told Kathmandu that he was being held hostage until they brought us a plane! Several other group leaders thanked me for being enough of a jerk to make something happen.

The only catch was that it was quite foggy. So after the security check (men and women separate), we had to wait nervously for almost two hours. The plane was loaded with our bags and I was ready to lead a group out on the tarmac if they started to unload them. But we knew that the flight had to leave by 10am or it would be too late for yet another day. While we waited for the fog to lift, the Yeti Air ground staff drank tea under the tail of the plane.

Finally, a little after 8, the fog cleared and the staff opened the doors. Mr. Bimh was out there himself and shook my hand again and gave me his email address. He seemed happy to hear that we are going back a different way, and he won’t have to fear my return. All 19 passengers strapped on seat belts and the Twin Otter took off at 8:20 for a beautiful trip across plains, foothills and mountains.

If the takeoff was routine, the landing was as thrilling as any I’ve ever had. Nepal has several mountain runways that are built on a slope because they would otherwise be too short. The plane looks like it’s flying right into the mountain until the last second when it pulls up and makes a quick stop uphill. We could see rocks about 10 meters off our right wingtip. But stop the plane did and we all got out and watched the plane take off downhill.

And then, we were suddenly on the trail we had been dreaming about for a week. This first day’s walk was an easy 3 hours downhill past soldiers and villagers to Dunai, the largest town in Dolpo district. The scenery was spectacular, with snowcapped peaks across the valley. It was hard to imagine that these aren’t even the highest range in the area. In fact, we’ll be crossing passes almost as high as those peaks. But if this scenery is any guide, we are in for a fantastic month.

Dolpo is very poor and isolated and we are a curiosity. Children seem happy just to hear us say Namaste, and not one has begged for anything even though they are the poorest of the poor.

Dunai is the regional capital with about 100 Tibetan-style houses. Some of the newer houses had steel roofs rather than the traditional mud. There is one stone-paved path through town. Mule pens line the edge of town – some of these will be our traveling companions. An occasional goat or rooster walks through town foraging for whatever bits they can find.

In Dunai, our guide and cook went about town to adjust our trekking permits for the week’s delay, to buy food, and to assemble a staff. By dinnertime, they had fixed a huge spaghetti dinner but were apologizing that they hadn’t had time to fix anything fancier.

Marcia and I walked up the hill to a Tibetan-style stupa. One child was sitting there and helped us over the wall. He then rang a bell and about 15 more kids came running, along with a young man who spoke quite good English. This was a Bön temple and school, he explained, opened only last year to try to teach the old ways to the next generation. Already the Bön language is almost lost, with only a few people knowing the old words but not their true meaning.

Bön is the original religion of Tibet. When Buddhism came over the mountains from India, it eliminated animal sacrifices and other things, but it mostly absorbed the existing Bön practices into techniques like Tantrism that are now characteristic of Tibetan Buddhism. But the descendents of Bön remain in isolated places like Dolpo, practicing their own religion. The Dalai Lama recently accepted Bön as the fifth school of Tibetan Buddhism even though it differs in certain ways.

On the way back to town, we passed a more standard Tibetan Buddhist temple, which also included a school. These are among the few schools anywhere in Dolpo.

We slept the night in the last guesthouse we are likely to see for a while, listening to the sounds of the river.

Day 2 – Oct 11 – On the trail

We knew we would be getting a late start today because our guide had to pick up our adjusted trekking permits from the administrative office. Nepal government offices are closed on Saturdays, and while we did find the official and got him to make the adjustments on the holiday, he couldn’t stamp them until 10am today. So we spent the morning walking around town, got our things together, had an early lunch, and then left.

Our team consists of Marcia and me, our guide Kinna Sherpa, our cook Sonam Sherpa, three kitchen men Mahendra, Deepak and Gopal, two mule boys Hari and Danjeet, and five mules. They use mules in this area because human porters are in short supply and unreliable, and yaks are too valuable. Kinna and Sonam are not related: all members of the Sherpa ethnic group use Sherpa as their last name. They are true Sherpa, coming from villages in the area around Mt. Everest. Built like fire plugs, the Sherpa are renowned for their strength and faithful service, so much so that mountain guides from other ethnic groups often call themselves sherpa (lowercase s) even though that is not technically correct.

Today was another short day of three hours of easy walking up a canyon that reminded me of the inner canyon of the Grand Canyon. But the Himalayan mountains are more rugged and the canyon deeper.

We stopped for the night at a small campsite that our guide had reserved at the park office. Unfortunately, another group of 13 arrived with no reservation just before dark, and we had to share the site. So we now have about 10 tents pitched wall-to-wall in this one small area. That’s not uncommon in these parts, since Dolpo is too backward and unpopulated to have lodges and flat camping places are in short supply. We may have similar problems for the next few nights, but the crowds should thin after that.

Dinner came just after dark, always too much food because the staff is happy to eat our leftovers. Tonight we had popcorn as an appetizer, chicken soup, very tough local chicken, french fries, two vegetable dumplings like samosas, and fruit. We don’t really need this five-star treatment, but it’s just the way it is done. At least our staff is supposed to be better trained than the locals on how to cook in a way that won’t make foreigners sick.

We were in our tent by 7:30 with nothing to do but write these notes and go to sleep. We’ll be up with the sun in the morning.

Day 3 – Oct 12 – Up the canyon

Today was a long day because we needed to catch up the half day we lost in Dunai. The morning ritual began with tea at 6:30 followed by hot water for washing and then breakfast at 7. We were on the trail at 7:30.

Today’s trail followed a river valley uphill. We gained about 800 meters of elevation but had to climb a lot more than that because the trail frequently climbed high above the river over a rock wall then dropped back down. After four hours of this in the morning and another four hours after lunch, we were ready to find our campsite.

If yesterday’s terrain looked like the bottom of the Grand Canyon, today’s reminded us of the Sierras. Very suddenly we passed from low desert shrubs into a stand of juniper and pine trees, and the forest kept up all day. The river raced down the canyon in a long series of cascades.

In Dolpo, it is hard to escape reminders of the Maoist revolt such as this symbol painted on the rocks. The revolt, modeled somewhat after Peru’s Shining Path, began just south of Dunai, and for years much of Dolpo was controlled by the rebels. Nepal’s corrupt government had ignored these remote regions for years and created a fertile ground for this People’s War, which ultimately impoverished the country and the people it was trying to liberate. The situation resolved itself into an uneasy truce in 2006 when the king was forced to step down and the Maoists engaged in a political solution. Attempts to form a new constitution are still ongoing, but for now at least the country is at peace. Among our party, the three kitchen men used to be gun runners for the Maoists, but they like their new job with us because it pays much better.

Near the end of the afternoon, I was just thinking that we would be very fortunate if 6 days delay in Nepalgunj was the worst thing that happened to us, when suddenly I tripped and found myself falling forward. It was a downward slope and with no chance to brace myself, I fell flat with a pretty heavy hit on my head. Fortunately, I fell right on the trail on a place with no rocks, so I was not badly injured. My eyeglasses took some scratches but might have protected me from much worse. This was a good reminder how careful we need to me in this rugged country many days from the nearest hospital.

Day 4 – Oct 13 – Unscheduled acclimatization day

Marcia and I both had digestive problems during the night at our campsite, ironically named Rechi. Mine seemed to be routine reactions to a change in food, but Marcia had the more serious problem of nausea, one of the symptoms of minor altitude sickness. We got up and had breakfast, though neither of us had much enthusiasm for it.

The morning’s trail was only 2 hours, though it seemed longer because of the continued climbing and descending to avoid outcroppings. Finally we reached a monastery and boarding school, where the children were lining up for outdoor activities. 15 minutes later we reached our lunch spot, a traditional Tibetan medicine clinic built by the government to keep the art alive. Marcia and I took naps waiting for our lunch.

I spoke with our guide Kinna and we agreed to spend the night here at the elevation of 3100. If we had followed our plan of climbing to Phoksumdo Lake at 3600 meters, we ran the risk of turning Marcia’s minor symptoms into more serious forms of altitude sickness including cerebral and pulmonary edema, which are life-threatening. The only cure for those is immediate descent, which would mean an end to our trip. We had plenty of time, so we could just wait.

We are taking all the standard preventative measures. We are taking Diamox, which prevents and relieves both minor and severe altitude sickness. The locals swear by garlic soup, so we’re sipping that as well. And we are making sure to drink at least 3 liters of water per day. All of this means a lot of trips to the bathroom, but we hope it will make it possible to ascend tomorrow.

I was feeling pretty good after lunch and a short nap, so I took a few walks up and down the valley. It is much drier than even last night’s campsite, because it is in the rain shadow of two chains of 5000-meter peaks. The brush was almost desert-like and the weather spectacularly clear. Gone were the afternoon clouds that had been a daily occurrence further south.

We are spending the night in a room in a small lodge so that we can get a good night’s sleep and recover. It’s primitive but more comfortable than a tent.

Day 5 – Oct 14 – Up to Lake Phoksumdo

We both felt okay this morning, so we began the big climb to Lake Phoksumdo. It was a long climb, but it felt better to know that we would just keep going up rather than dropping back down around the next bend.

At the top of the final climb we were rewarded with a view of 200-meter-high Phoksumdo Falls, the largest and highest in Nepal. We could also see a small piece of the lake where we would be spending the night. Between us and the lake was a forested slope just starting to turn colors. We walked down through it and reached our lunch and camping spot at 12:30.

Lake Phoksumdo is a deep blue that varies from azure to turquoise depending on the light. It is very deep and exceptionally clear because nothing lives or grows in it. On each side are high peaks, including a 6600-meter summit of Kanjiroba, Dolpo’s highest mountain.

We had the afternoon off to explore the nearby monastery and the town of Ringmo. The monastery appeared empty – perhaps the monks had already descended to a lower altitude. The town was more lively, with numerous teams of goats and yaks passing through. One large team of about 30 yaks arrived on the trail from the north just before dark. It could be that the fall migration to lower altitudes is already underway. Dolpo herders used to take their flocks into Tibet for the winter, but after the border was closed in 1959, they had to adapt and use warmer areas at lower altitudes within Nepal.

Back in our camp, our cooks had bought and slaughtered a goat. Although both Tibetans and Nepalis are mostly vegetarian, a little meat is helpful at higher elevations. We had goatburger for dinner.

Day 6 – Oct 15 – Around Phoksumdo

There was some cloud cover in the night, but the day dawned bright and clear, with only some fog in the valley at the end of the lake. It was so beautiful that I ran back to the monastery to take some photos of Kanjiroba, which had been shrouded in mountain clouds the night before.

The morning’s trail began with a two-kilometer stretch cut into the rock above the lake. Marcia had been dreading this because early books all talk about it being very exposed and scary, but it really was not bad. Even so, a dead horse at the bottom of one slope was a grim reminder of what can happen if you’re not careful. Our mule men had enough respect for this stretch to carry the loads across themselves and then lead the mules across unladen.

The real work was the next stretch, which climbed 500 meters over a ridge to avoid a much longer and steeper cliff. The views from the top were spectacular, but the wind was also very strong – so strong that it blew my magnetic clip-on sunglasses off my face, never to be seen again. By the time we got down the other side to our lunch spot it was 2pm.

The afternoon was mercifully short, only a couple hours up a glacial valley behind Kanjiroba. Just before camp, however, we had to cross a rushing glacial river where a bridge had washed out. Our guide Kinna and our cook Sonam insisted on helping us across the foot-deep cold rushing water. They were so strong it was like holding on to trees. Kinna told me later about a trip in Tibet where he had needed to carry a group of German tourists one by one on his back because they refused to walk through a waist-high stream that they needed to cross repeatedly. The only mishap involved a woman who weighed 130 kg (280 pounds). On the last trip, her pants split, and her fellow travelers had a grand time taking pictures. It’s astonishing to think of this mild-mannered short man carrying 130 kg across a river.

Just across the river from our camp are three hanging glaciers, which creak and break from time to time. In the night, however, the main sound is the faint, rhythmic sound of bells attached to yaks chewing their cud while they sleep.

This camp is at 3700 meters (13,000 feet), the same elevation as Lhasa and the top of Mount Fuji. This will be the lowest point of our next two and a half weeks until our final descent to Jomsom.

Day 7 – Oct 16 – Up to the high camp

I am writing this from our “high camp” at about 4700 meters (15,400 feet) after climbing about 1000 meters today. I say about because all of the maps are wrong in important details and none place this campsite accurately. I came to that figure by tracing contour lines on the better maps and the got almost exactly the same figure from my iPhone’s GPS.

This camp is what Peter Matthiessen called Snowfields Camp, and he tells horrifying stories of carting porter loads uphill through waist-deep snow. No such problems this year. There are patches of snow on north-facing slopes above 4000 meters, but nothing we’ve needed to walk through. And the way to the pass looks clear.

The point of the climb was to place ourselves in striking distance of Kang La, the pass over the Himalayan crest that leads to Shey Gompa. (Maps also disagree on the name of the pass, but that is what I’ll use.) We have to camp high enough to make the rest of the climb in the morning before the winds get too strong, and also to get down to town before it is too late in the day.

The day consisted mostly of putting one foot in front of the other and stopping to catch our breath. The air is thin up here, but neither of us is showing signs of altitude sickness. I find I get into a kind of meditative state by breathing out hard with each left foot and in with the right, letting a rhythmic sound play repeatedly in my head with every eight steps. I hardly notice the relentless climb.

It is cold up here. Marcia and I wore everything we have to bed, and we have down jackets piled on top of our sleeping bags. Unfortunately, we don’t have our winter bags, which we bought 10 years ago for our Everest area trip. Those were too heavy for Marcia to bring by herself to Tokyo and we weren’t sure we’d need them. So we had only one three-season bag and a rectangular bag that is really only good for summer, although it is Marcia’s favorite. Our organizer in Kathmandu promised to provide a full winter bag, but it turned out to be less warm than our three-season bag. So we brought all three bags, and at higher elevations Marcia uses the Kathmandu bag and we supplement with the rectangular bag wherever we’re feeling cold. Hot-water bottles supplied by the staff are a big help for the first part of the night. So far our system seems to have kept us warm on what should be one of the coldest nights of the trip.

Our tent is also funky compared with the high-tech gear of all the big groups camped around us. Our tent is green with a traditional ridgeline design, probably made in India. The inner tent appears to be made of cloth, and we haven’t tested the rainfly in a heavy storm. But it has plenty of space for us and our gear and it seems to do the job. The other groups have stylish yellow dome tents, but they’re also paying twice as much as we are.

Just before dark, our guide pointed out a couple small groups of bharal, or blue sheep. These wild animals are found only in isolated high Himalayan regions like this, and they were the object of many of the early naturalist expeditions to this area. With characteristics of both goat and sheep, they are actually a separate evolutionary line off the common ancestor. In the evening light they looked brown to me, but we should get a better look at them near Shey Gompa where they are supposedly numerous because they have traditionally been protected by the lama there.

What we surely won’t see is a snow leopard. Neither did Peter Matthiessen, which is actually the point of his book by that name. The snow leopard is a master of camouflage, intensely shy, and very rare with a wide hunting area. Early estimates were that there were only six in the entire Dolpo region, and I doubt that number has increased. Marcia and I did see one up close a few years ago in the Darjeeling zoo, and it’s one of the most remarkable animals on earth. Its long whitish-gray fur covers its whole body, making its tail look 15 cm (6 inches) thick. May protection efforts succeed at keeping this magnificent species alive in its home high in the mountains.

Day 8 – Oct 17 – Over Kang La

Today was the day we passed over Kang La into the heart of Dolpo. Some refer to this as Inner Dolpo or Upper Dolpo, but purists would say that the true Dolpo is the four high valleys with purely Tibetan civilization isolated from the rest of Nepal by high passes. Nepal has confused things further by defining an administrative region Dolpa that includes both Upper and Lower Dolpo, but the government seems to have very little presence this far up.

I got many things wrong in yesterday’s account of our camp’s location. We could not see our way to the pass, only the first long pitch of the climb up to another high valley at about 4900 meters elevation. I think Peter Mattheissen’s “Snowfield Camp” was actually in this higher valley, not the lower place where the park now requires travelers to camp.

And there was definitely snow on the pass. In fact, there was so much snow on the normal crossing that we had to use a much higher alternative route. How much higher we’ll never know because my iPhone’s GPS refused to believe our location and insisted on a much lower altitude. From the maps, I am guessing it was about 5500 meters (18,100 feet) because we were pretty much even with the surrounding summits. The regular pass was maybe only 5200 meters, but its north-facing slope made its snow too deep. I suspect this is the reason for the divergences in names and elevations on my different maps, as there are actually two passes that get used in different seasons.

In any case, it was a long, hard slog up snowy switchbacks to the pass. Marcia and I were both feeling the altitude with minor dizziness and headaches, respectively. Even the yaks seemed to be taking their time.

The views from the pass were glorious in both directions. To the south were the Kanjirobas, with the glaciers we had been admiring now slightly below us. One large peak was also visible further south, and the full stretch of Dhauligiri and maybe Annapurna to the east.

To the north, the mountains looked completely different. Although they were still rugged, they were dry, brown and rounded, as if the wind were the major force shaping them. Off in the distance was a striking pyramidal mountain, probably on or over the border in Tibet.

I narrowly averted a disaster with our mules. They were unhappy on top and were looking for any way down. It wasn’t easy because earlier groups had left the main trail a steep, icy mess. While our crew was preoccupied cutting steps in the ice, the lead mule decided to look for another route down on an inviting snowy place. The problem was that this was a cornice, and he would have fallen through way down the slope. I saw him heading that way and three other mules following, and since I don’t speak Nepali Mule, I shouted at our mule man, who should have been paying attention. He ran screaming and almost fell through himself. But he got the lead mule’s attention just as the first foot was discovering the snow was not solid.

The trip down the other side was not bad after the first twenty icy steps. Marcia and I have lots of experience galumphing down snowy slopes. I was tempted to follow others in a glissade until Marcia reminded me how far it was to the nearest hospital if I tore my butt on a rock. Down, down, down, all afternoon down. Marcia got her second wind and beat the rest of us to Shey around 4pm. I could have walked another hour but was glad I didn’t have to.

We slept very well.

Day 9 – Oct 18 – Shey Gompa

Shey Gompa is the destination of most trips to Upper Dolpo. It has three monasteries and abundant Himalayan wildlife. Many of the original visitors spent a month here studying blue sheep and hoping to spot a snow leopard. We are spending a rest day to relax and look around.

Shey Gompa is situated at the meeting point of three valleys. We are camped by a small stream that is also used by yaks to cool down. They seem to like the ice-cold waters.

Gompa means monastery in both Tibetan and Nepali. There is a fairly large one right in town, which we walked around in the morning. Between the monastery and its outside mani (prayer) wall was a huge field of stones almost like a crowded cemetery. These were old mani stones whose carvings had been worn down by continual use but were kept for the continuing power of their prayers. Usually a mani stone is carved (often repeatedly) with the Tibetan mantra om mane padme om. Properly, you should walk with a mani wall to your right, though Bön practitioners do the reverse. Locals take these things seriously – a Tibetan woman chewed Marcia out for sitting on a mani stone.

A chörten is a traditional Tibetan building in memory of a lama or other important person. Dolpo has a unique style of chörten that I have not seen anywhere else. In the Dolpo style, they will often use a row of posts around the second story to hold up another roof. Dolpo chörtens also have decorated circles on each level.

The monastery itself was closed as the high lama had gone to another monastery for training. His previous incarnation was crippled and spent winters meditating at the monastery in the mountains. Our guide says the lama is also the brother of the king of the neighboring region of Mustang, now the only king left in Nepal.

We visited the other two monasteries after lunch. Both were up a trail coming down from high above the valley to the northwest. The trail is actually the end of the kora (circuit) around the Crystal Mountain, which gave Shey its name and its significance. The Crystal Mountain is topped by a rock that looks like Mt. Kailas, the holiest mountain in both Hinduism and Buddhism. Every summer, believers from throughout the region come here to walk around this oddly shaped mountain, a strenuous hike that takes them almost back to the pass we crossed yesterday. A kora is always done clockwise with the mountain to one’s right.

Marcia turned back after the main viewpoint, but I went on with Kinna to visit both monasteries, which were again viewable only from the outside. The first was a relatively large one built directly into the face of the cliff. It enclosed a cave where salty holy water was dripping. The second was a very small hermitage, apparently not associated with the head lama since he doesn’t have a key.

But the real treat was to encounter two small groups of blue sheep at close range, close enough to photograph. There was no direct sunlight, so it was hard to see the blue on their backs. At least one had a good set of horns.

I need to close with another rant against the large organized tours that are the most common way people come on treks. We paralleled a mostly British group all the way from our first campsite. Their trip was scheduled so tight that when they lost a few days to Yeti Air in Nepalgunj (which almost always happens) they had no choice but to rush through their itinerary. They cut out rest and altitude acclimatization days, only to have to retreat when a member got sick trying to cross the pass. And when they reached their destination, they spent one night exhausted and left early the next morning with no chance to look around. On top of that, they are required to engage in small talk with their traveling companions, mostly macho stuff about who almost lost toes to frostbite on previous expeditions. For this failed trip, they may have spent $10,000 each. Not my idea of fun.

Marcia and I feel quite fortunate to be able to do this at our own pace with a great guide and no plane ticket or job to force us back too quickly.