Sunday, February 4, 2018

Climbing Stok Kangri, Ladakh

I’m an incorrigible high-altitude junkie. I’m never satisfied with simply crossing a mountain pass, I always need to find a nearby peak to scramble up for a little extra boost. My lungs only really start functioning properly above 4500m and my entire lower body seems best designed to walk at a 45-degree angle. The problem is that I have no technical climbing skills, so I’m limited to scrambles that require neither rope and harness.

Headed up the gorge behind Stok

Views from the hills above Base Camp

I’ve always wanted to take that first step from trekking to climbing, so after a couple of weeks trekking in Ladakh in July I signed up for a climb of Stok Kangri, Ladakh’s most popular trekking peak. The peak is clearly visible from Leh, which makes it both accessible and madly alluring. The first two or three days take you up the valley behind the village of Stok, with an overnight at Mankarmo at 4480m and base camp at 4980m. You can climb the ridge west of the Mankarmo camp to help with acclimatisation, but the best way to adjust to the altitude is to walk the week-long Markha Valley teahouse trek beforehand, since that takes you over a 5000m-plus pass en route.

Ladakhi cooks prepare great meals at Base Camp

The climb itself starts around 1am. The mistake I made was wearing all of my warm clothes. It was freezing getting dressed at that altitude but after ten minutes of uphill hiking I was generating some serious body heat and was soon drenched in sweat under my down jacket (a bad situation as this can lead to hypothermia when the real cold sets in). As you follow the snaking line of head torches, your sensations quickly adjust to climbing in the dark, as total silence encases you like cotton wool. The only sounds are the crunch and squeak of snow under your boots and the labour of lungs heaving at 5500m.

The start of the climb, with Stok Kangri peak in the distance

Crossing the glacier on the return from the summit

After an hour you gingerly cross a glacier, then start to ascend on a mixture of rock and snow. In general there are enough rocks to not need crampons at this point. The skill is knowing exactly when to strap on your spikes. Put them on too early and you’ll be scraping around on stone. Put them on too late and there will be moments when you will feel distinctly nervous on a 45-degree snow slope without points to steady you.

View down to the glacier from near the summit, with a line of tiny climbers far below (click on the photo for a larger version)

The trail veers to the left and then traverses the ridge line. There’s nothing too scary, though there are a couple of fairly narrow sections that drop off to the left. Your fitness and more importantly your acclimatisation will decide whether or not you make the summit, but honestly it’s not a difficult climb. If you’ve timed things right you will reach the summit just as dawn's rays beam out from the horizon's orange glow. Below you to the north is Leh and the main Himalaya range, with the Nubra Valley, Karakorum range and Tibet beyond. To the south, just below you, is the Markha Valley, with the jagged Zanskar range beyond. 

Dawn on the summit

From the summit, with the Himalayan range behind

Back at base camp it's a one and a half day walk back to Stok, where you can visit the atmospheric fort and monastery before heading back to Leh, less than an hour away.

If you've always wanted to make that first transition from hiking to climbing, Stok Kangri is the perfect choice. It feels like a real summit, and a real achievement. You are on the way to being a climber.

Several companies in Leh offer guided climbs. I liked Ladakh Mitra, as they are local guys from Stok and they run the base camps that lead up to the mountain.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Returning to Nepal's Langtang Valley

On April 2015 Nepal’s worst earthquake for 80 years shook the Langtang Valley. Within seconds a kilometer-wide wall of rock, snow and ice detached from Langtang Lirung peak high above Langtang village and dropped in an unseen avalanche, picking up speed and shooting off the lip of the cliffs 300m above the valley floor, to pulverise the unsuspecting village below.

Before the earthquake Langtang was a popular stop on the Langtang Valley trek route, as one of the few actual villages on the trail, and it boasted dozens of trekking lodges. Today just one house remains from the village, cowering under the cliff that protected it from the avalanche.
The avalanche poured over the cliff that towers above former Langtang village

One solitary house is all that remains of Langtang village

Around 155 villagers were killed instantly, along with around 40 foreign trekkers and many Nepali porters and guides. As it was noon most trekkers were settling down to lunch, while many locals were attending a funeral in the village. As the avalanche engulfed the village it sent hurricane force winds up and down the valley, stripping the surrounding area of trees, killing wildlife and ripping the roofs of lodges. Multiple landslides tumbled down the hillsides simultaneously, blocking the trails down valley. 

Everest hogged all the media attention, as it always does, like a pouting Kardashian with its glacial cleavage pushed up to its chin, but far more people died in Langtang and help was slower to arrive. Locals from nearby Kyangjin Gompa rushed to the village to find their houses and families vanished under 20m of rubble; disappeared, gone without even the chance of a goodbye. Most bodies were never recovered.
Memorial to Spanish trekkers and their Nepali crew.

Memorial to an Israeli trekker

Heading back to Langtang today the devastation is still shocking, especially if you know what you are looking at. Not a single piece of wood or trace of the village remains. It takes about 20 minutes to cross the tomb-like rubble that sits atop the former village, until you finally get to a collection of prayer flags and a memorial chorten that records the names of the dead: villagers from Langtang, Gumba and Sindum; seven trekkers from Spain; four French walkers from the same family. Individual memorials to lost trekkers are visible along other parts of the trail. One Israeli trekker was swept into the river by a landslide. A team from Italy is commemorated with a cairn.

This is what remains of Langtang village

Trekkers crossing the landslide that covers Langtang village

It’s a sobering experience talking to lodge owners and hearing their recollections from the day. Many of the survivors were elsewhere, looking after family lodges elsewhere along the trail but almost everyone lost family members in Langtang, often from multiple generations. After being evacuated to Kathmandu’s Yellow Gompa for six months following the earthquake almost all have returned to rebuild their houses and businesses. What was clear to me is that the mental scars are yet to heal and that raw trauma simmers just below the stoic surface.

The lady I stayed with in Kyangjin Gomba lost her husband and two of her children. The sorrow in her face was penetrating and was the reason I stayed in her basic lodge, despite the rats scampering across the ceiling all night. Over two years after the quake, she needed all the help she could get. Many widows are facing life alone for the first time and summoning the courage to rebuild their lodges as they face the future alone.

In some ways Langtang is lucky. It has received much goodwill and donations from trekkers who have fond memories of the region. There are many, many other villages in Nepal that suffer in silence. Mixed with a lingering sense of sadness was an admiration for the self-reliance of the people here. Most were not waiting for the government to help; they knew better than that. Most were rebuilding their lodges by hand, riding out two years of no trekkers. The Langtang trail is now fully open and lodges have been rebuilt along its length.

View of Langtang Lirung from the Langtang trail

One of the five Tsona lakes near Kyangjin Gompa, Langtang

Langtang's trekking lodges are once again open for business
Panorama of Kyangjin Gompa, Tsergo Ri and Lasngshisha Kharka from Nyengang Kharka, upper Langtang Valley

So my recommendation if you are interested in trekking in Nepal is that you trek the Langtang Valley. The scenery is as stunning as it was before and the lodges are better than ever. Kyangjin Ri offers some of the finest viewpoints in the Himalaya. Adventurers can now rent camping equipment and a guide to climb Yala Peak without the need for trekking peak permits. With the opening of the Tibet border at nearby Rasuwaghadi overlanders can now combine a Langtang trek with the amazing overland trip from Lhasa. If you have more than a week you can add on a visit to the Gosainkund Lakes or the Tamang Heritage Trail for a fabulous two or three week walk.

Head to the Dorje Bakery in Kyangjin Gompa for a slice of chocolate cake and chat to Lhakpa about how he rebuilt the bakery after it was destroyed, or to lodge owners who are trying to rebuild the one clinic in the valley, or repair the destroyed monastery. And as you trek up the valley know that every cup of tea and every dal bhat you order is helping a community recover from the worst disaster in living memory. 

Memorial Chorten and Prayer Flags at Langtang village

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Latest Guidebooks

Forgive me, for I have some new books to plug.

Firstly, and out now, is the new edition of the Lonely Planet guide to Bhutan. This is a favourite of mine, and I wrote a blog post last year about some of the interesting new places covered in the guide.

Second up is a hiking guide to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, by Wilderness Press. This is my update of Andrew Dean Nystrom's original work. I worked with Andrew on the first edition of Lonely Planet's guide to Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Park and so it was great to work with him again on his excellent dedicated hiking guide.

For this edition I added a few hikes, including the ascent of Electric Peak and the Sky Rim trail in the far northwest of the park. Electric Peak is a great summit hike, best done as an overnight hike, while Sky Rim is a ridgeline day hike that takes you past petrified trees to great views of the Gallatin range.

For Grand Teton I added the Table Mountain trek, which offers a different perspective on the Grand Tetons; from the back side.

The title is out now.

And finally two upcoming books. In July comes the latest Lonely Planet China guide. For this I updated the Tibet chapter, which included a trip out to Mt Kailash in far western Tibet and the four day trek from Ganden to Samye.

Then comes Lonely Planet India. For this guide I updated the West Bengal Hills as I normally do, and also added the ancient Buddhist sites of Bihar. Visiting Bodhgaya was a real highlight for me, as was tracking a couple of 'new' ancient stupas to include in the new edition. That book is out in October 2017.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Six weeks in Bhutan

In February/March this year I was once again lucky enough to get some serious time in my favourite country: Bhutan. Luckily Lonely Planet agreed to foot the bill on this one, since Bhutan is seriously expensive at almost US$300 per day for a single traveller in high season.

I've been to the country several times before but I still managed to fit in some new destinations to this research trip around the popular western region. The following are my favourite places; off-radar destinations that I strongly recommend you try to visit, even if you are (understandably) short on time.

My thanks to Karma Gyeltsen of Bhutan Mountain Holiday, who organised this trip for me and to my great guide and driver who showed extreme patience, even after visiting the 15th hotel in one day in the Paro Valley. Bhutan Mountain Holiday have arranged my last three trips to Bhutan and are great at customising small group trips. Contact them at

This is a wonderful hidden hermitage in the Haa Valley. It feels like a million miles away but you can hike there in less than an hour and the valley itself is only a couple of hours drive from Paro.

Entrance chorten to Juneydrak

Juneydrak caretaker

View of Haa Valley from Juneydrak trail

Tamchog Bridge  
One of Tangtong Gyelpo's original medieval iron chain link bridges! It's beside the main Paro-Thimpu road so is easy to visit.

The luxury camp at the foot of this cliff-face shrine gives you a great taste of trekking in Bhutan. It's a fairly tough hike (all uphill on day one, all downhill on day two) but at the end of the day you'll be pampered with a proper bed, a sun lounger and a heated tent. Plus you get to walk down to the spectacular Tiger's Nest the next day.

Hiking up to Bumdrak

Sunset view from Bumdrak camp

Drak Kharpo 
This little visited pilgrimage site is high on the hillside southeast of Paro and involves a bit of a drive on dirt roads to get near. Walk the short kora path, explore the sacred Guru Rinpoche cave and then visit the main shrine. Bring a torch - I forgot mine and had to navigate in the pitch black using only the flash of my camera.

Bhutanese pilgrims in the Guru's cave
Squeezing through the pitch darkness

Pilgrim on the kora path

Phobjikha hike   
The Phobjikha Valley is a real charmer and a great place for hiking or biking. Bring binoculars to spot the many black-necked cranes.

View from the Valley hike

Gangtey Monastery

The northwest valley

Thimphu Textile Museum 
Opened a year or two ago, this new museum features a fine collection of royal robes and examples of Bhutanese weaving styles from across the country.

A Bhutanese gho (male robe)

Hiking from the Dochu-la Pass   
For a lovely half-day hike, drive to the Dochu-la pass and then hike up through rhododendron forest to the hilltop Lungchuzekha Goemba and then downhill to the charming Trashigang Monastery, before getting picked up at Hongtsho.
Rhododendron forest en route to Lungchuzekha Goemba

Trashigang Monastery

This was my first visit to the Norbugang Lhakhang high above the Punakha Valley. The monastery is charming but the real highlight here is the mountain scenery.
Norbugang Lhakhang


Saga La Trek
I didn't have much time for trekking so chose this overnight option that links the Haa and upper Paro valleys. The views of Jhomolhari and Jichu Drake peaks from just above the pass are superb 

Views from above the Saga La

Sheldrak Hermitage behind Haa 
I'm a sucker for hillside meditation retreats, so here's another lovely option just off the Haa Valley. You can drive uphill most of the way, from where it's a short downhill walk. Nearby is a lovely meditation cave.
Sheldrak Hermitage

Dzongdrakha  Monastery
Strung along a cliff just southwest of the Paro Valley is this lovely series of monastery chapels. It's an easy trip from Paro and you can combine it with a trip up to the Chele La.

Zuri Dzong hike, Paro
For the best views of Paro Dzong you need to hike from Paro Museum up to Zuri Dzong. It's not particularly strenuous and the views of the Paro valley are lovely. 



Classic Pamiri Scenery of Gorno Badakhshan

Current Favourite Track