How hard is Dhaulagiri Circuit trek in Nepal?

Written by Roland Hunter FRGS (Mt Everest and Mt Makalu summitter)
Written by Roland Hunter FRGS (Mt Everest and Mt Makalu summitter)Managing Director & Founder, The Mountain Company

Difficulty level of Dhaulagiri Circuit trekking trail

About Dhaulagiri Circuit in Nepal

Dhaulagiri Circuit is a camping-style trek and travels into a remote region of the Nepal Himalaya. The trek to Dhaulagiri Base Camp is sometimes called the Dhaulagiri Round trek. It follows a trail around the seventh highest mountain in the world, Mount Dhaulagiri, at a height of 8,167m. This trek is one of the best in Nepal as you will see an incredible diversity of landscapes. There are fields and villages at lower elevations framed by views of the Himalayan range. Higher up you see the high alpine including glaciers and mountain passes. 

I have personally led two trekking groups on Dhaulagiri Circuit, both in May 2008 and in October 2010. Therefore, I have based this article on my first-hand knowledge and experience. The Mountain Company has organised sixteen Dhaulagiri Circuit treks since 2008. Most of these groups were successful and only two of these groups were not able to cross the high passes over to Jomsom. This was due to an earthquake in April 2015 and the cyclonic storm HudHud in October 2014.

The Dhaulagiri trail starts through villages then into a subtropical forest. We get above treeline at Italian Base Camp (3,660m) where we stay for two nights for acclimatisation. We continue our walk in the Chonbarden gorge then onto the Dhaulagiri glacier. After sleeping at Dhaulagiri Base Camp we cross French Pass at an altitude of 5,360m into Hidden Valley. On the day walk from Hidden Valley, one of the best options is to ascend a ridge on the west side of the valley. From here, there is a superb view of Dhaulagiri, Tukuche, Nilgiris, and Annapurnas. You can see the photos from this day walk. After camping in Hidden Valley we cross Dhampus Pass at an altitude of 5,240m and descend to Jomsom.

Dhaulagiri Base Camp in Nepal
Dhaulagiri Base Camp at 4,700m on Dhaulagiri Circuit

How difficult is the Dhaulagiri Circuit trek?

Dhaulagiri Circuit has a reputation for being one of the most challenging treks in Nepal. However, we have only given Dhaulagiri trek a difficulty grade level of Strenuous. This is our second most challenging grade in our portfolio of Himalayan trekking holidays. You can read the grade descriptions on our Trip Grading and Suitability webpage.

There are more difficult treks in Nepal than Dhaulagiri. These involve technical mountaineering and/ or travel to more isolated places. Our Grade 5/ Challenging expeditions in Nepal are Makalu to Everest GHT, Saribung Expedition, and Mera Peak. Having said this you should not underestimate Dhaulagiri Circuit trek. As for any high-altitude trek in the Himalayas one has to respect the mountains.

I have listed below the reasons why Dhaulagiri Circuit is known as a hard trek. These are based on feedback from our previous groups that have done this trek with us.

  • Dhaulagiri trek starts at a low altitude of 1,180m at Darbang village. As a result, it will be very hot and humid for the first few days. The temperatures are often up to 25 to 30 Celsius. This heat can be very tiring. Make sure you have protection from the sun such as a wide-brimmed hat, bandana, or scarf plus sunscreen and lip salve with a high SPF.
  • From Muri village, we follow the Myagdi Khola river along a narrow valley. The trail is high up and there is exposure with a steep drop to the river below. In fact, when I first did Dhaulagiri Circuit in 2005 we had to ascend steep slabs of rock by use of a fixed rope. Since then the trail has been cut into the rock and it is much wider than before.
  • Walking through the forest above Boghara camp the trail has lots of exposed tree roots. Take care and be careful as it is easy to trip up or to take a slide.
  • From Italian Base Camp, we walk down a steep glacial moraine onto the glacier and then back up a slope on the other side. This used to have a fixed rope but now a path has been carved out of it. On the other side of the glacier, we climb up a slope with a narrow path. This is quite exposed and there is a steep drop down to the glacier below. Once we reach the valley floor in the Chonbarden Gorge we follow this easier trail to the snout of the glacier.
  • There is a high risk of rockfall while in Chonbarden Gorge. It is for this reason that we do not camp here. While walking our groups will spread out. We also insist that everyone wears a helmet (included as mandatory on our kit list).
  • There can be challenging river crossings although this varies from year to year. Recently the bridges over the Myagdi Khola have been improved. Over the last few years, our groups have encountered a tricky river crossing in the Chonbarden gorge. This was a crossing of the stream near the glacial snout flowing down from Dhaulagiri Base Camp.
  • The crossing of French Pass does not have exposure although the trail up to the pass is on rocky moraine and is loose in places. The descent of the French pass is not steep although sometimes there is sometimes deep snow on this slope.
  • The crossing of Dhampus Pass is harder than French Pass. There is an easy and short ascent to the top of the pass then there is only a short descent of 100m or so. The tough part is from here where there is a traverse along a contouring path for four hours. This trail is not too exposed although the slope is a sustained 30 degrees. You do not want to fall or slip here in icy or snowy conditions. It is for that reason we include ice axe and crampons on the kit list.
  • Hidden Valley is a cold place located at an altitude of 5,050m. The overnight lows can go down to around -15 Celsius. Please read out the kit list for the cold weather gear you will need such as a sleeping bag and down jacket.
French Pass on Dhaulagiri Circuit trek in Nepal
Descending French Col (5,360m) into Hidden Valley on Dhaulagiri Circuit trek

What outdoor experience is needed for Dhaulagiri?

Dhaulagiri Circuit would be a suitable goal for experienced long-distance hill walkers. You should have a high level of fitness and previous experience of high altitude treks is helpful. Having said this many of our past trekkers chose Dhaulagiri Circuit as their first trek in Nepal. The remoteness and lack of other trekkers in the Dhaulagiri region is a strong attraction. This compares to the busier lodge-based treks like Everest Base Camp and Annapurna Base Camp.

As mentioned above you might need to use an ice axe and crampons for crossing the Dhampus Pass. We send an international leader who will provide basic mountaineering training during the trek. Having previous technical mountaineering skills is not mandatory for Dhaulagiri Circuit. However, it is required if you decide to climb Dhampus Peak from Hidden Valley. There is an extra charge for the Dhampus Peak permit. We need to know in advance so that we can apply for this before your arrival in Kathmandu. For more details take a look at our Blog article Is it worth climbing Dhampus Peak on Dhaulagiri Circuit?

If you have questions about your suitability please get in touch with us. We can provide feedback as well as a training plan to help you get ready and prepared.

Dhaulagiri glacier near Glacier Camp on Dhaulagiri Circuit trek in Nepal
On Dhaulagiri glacier on the way to Glacier camp at 4,200m

Planning and logistics for Dhaulagiri trek

Over the years of organising Dhaulagiri we have met other groups that have encountered serious issues. In almost every case the reason for this is due to poor planning, logistics, and organisation. Or by the operators and guides taking shortcuts to save costs. Sometimes trekkers write blogs explaining why they were unable to complete the trek. This further enhances the reputation of the difficulty of the Dhaulagiri Circuit trek.

The most common mistake is for trekking groups to ascend to Dhaulagiri Base Camp much too fast. Followed by crossing French Pass before acclimatisation to the high altitude. If anyone has altitude sickness in Hidden Valley this is a very serious situation. You are between two high passes over 5,000m. To get out of Hidden Valley you need to climb up one of these passes before being able to descend to a lower altitude.

I have listed considerations to take into account when planning the Dhaulagiri Circuit trek:

  • Having enough days to allow time for the group and trek crew to acclimatise to the high altitude. Our itinerary for Dhaulagiri Circuit has 15 trekking days. This includes two nights at Italian Base Camp (3,660m), two nights at Glacier Camp (4,200m), and two nights at Dhaulagiri Base Camp (4,700m).
  • Make sure you have qualified guides with previous experience in the Dhaulagiri region. We send international leaders working as a team with our Nepalese guides. This provides strong leadership and a high level of medical experience. Make sure there are enough guides available to look after the group. Also, find out what the contingency plans are if a member of the group or trek crew is sick and has to turn back.
  • This is a camping-style trek as there are no lodges and shelter available for most nights of the trek. We need to provide the trek crew including the porters with tents and food for 15 days. We give the trek crew their own personal gear and equipment suitable for 5,000m.
  • Bring expedition tents as cheaply made tents will not survive a Himalayan storm. We use Mountain Hardwear Trango 3.1 tents for our camping groups in Nepal.
  • Get weather forecasts for the Dhaulagiri region before you cross French Pass. This is important especially in the Autumn season when cyclones can impact the Himalayas. For example, Cyclone Phailin in October 2013 and Cyclone HudHud in October 2014 caused heavy snowfall and high winds.
  • Bringing a comprehensive first aid kit. This should include high-altitude medicine and antibiotics for the group and trek crew. It is also essential to have a portable altitude chamber (PAC or Gamow bag).
  • Having a satellite phone is essential for reliable communications. This required for logistics, planning, and group safety. Make sure you also have GPS. You need to give latitude & longitude coordinates to the helicopter pilot for a pick-up.

Our Conclusion

Please do not let Dhaulagiri Circuit’s challenging reputation put you off! It is one of the best three-week treks in Nepal. To find out feedback from our previous groups you can read our AITO Travellers Reviews for Dhaulagiri Circuit. I have copied one review below:

"A fantastic trek. It's got everything; terraced hillsides, bamboo woodland, spectacular valleys. Between even more spectacular mountains, high passes and glaciers. The only thing it's not got are crowds of other trekkers. This was my first Nepal trip and I will certainly return."

The Dhaulagiri trek is a shortish camping trek at 20 days ex Kathmandu. This compares to other longer camping-style treks in Nepal such as Kanchenjunga Circuit at 30 days. Our Naar to Upper Mustang GHT trek is 24 days and Upper Dolpo to Jomsom GHT is 30 days. Our longest trek is Kanchenjunga Base Camp to Makalu Base Camp GHT at 42 days. Followed by Lunana Snowman in Bhutan at 34 days.

We organise Dhaulagiri Circuit every year in April and October. Please get in touch with us if you like to join one of these groups. Trek on!