Trip Report for Kanchenjunga Circuit in November 2022

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

In November 2022, we organised our eleventh trek around Kanchenjunga Circuit in Eastern Nepal. Our last Kanchenjunga trek was three years ago in the Autumn of 2019. We had no groups in 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid pandemic. Our international leader was Natalie (known as Nat) Wilson from the UK. Our Nepali sirdar was Bishwo Rai and the head porter was Pemba. The assistant guides were Bal, Jons, and Ratna. The cook was Sangram Lama.

I had heard that several new jeep tracks had been built in the Kanchenjunga region since 2019. Some help to service remote villages and others are used for the construction of a hydroelectric dam above Chirwa. I noticed that some of our competitors had reduced their trekking itineraries using jeeps to drive further in and out. I was very interested to find out the current situation on the ground. Nat, Bishwo, and I discussed this together before this trek. We agreed to take a flexible approach and make changes to our itinerary during the trek if required. Nat and I also talked about this at the trek briefing with the group on November 2nd. We would take jeeps if that would provide a better experience for the group. 

In practice, Nat and Bishwo decided to take jeeps at the end of the trek from Khande Bhanjang to Suketar. This was a change from our previous itinerary where we used to walk two days from there to Suketar. To use up this extra day Nat called a rest day at Yamphudin village two days' walk away from Khande Bhanjang. Both the group and the trek crew were very happy to have a day to relax in a warmer place. Everyone had earnt this downtime after 17 days of trekking and 12 of these days over 3,000m. 

It was interesting to get post-trek feedback from the group and debrief with Nat and Bishwo. At the start, our trail avoided the jeep track for the first day and then after that walked in places on the “road”. There was little traffic (only about 5 or 6 vehicles per day) and the road in practice was like a wider walking trail. The feedback from the group was that they definitely preferred to walk rather than ride on a very bumpy track in a crowded jeep. The other consideration is that jeep tracks in Nepal are prone to landslides, especially during rainy weather. The risk of having a shorter itinerary that relies on jeep transport means there are no buffer days in case of delays.

This is Nat’s summary in her own words of leading her sixth trek around the Kanchenjunga Circuit:

“This trek went incredibly well. The weather was perfect for the entire trip, giving great views both day and night. We had no rain at all just clear blue skies with a little localised cloud in the afternoons and beautiful starry skies with the Milky Way on display by night.

We all enjoyed the variety of landscapes throughout this trek. Favourite places were Lhonak, Kambachen, and Oktang for the amazing mountain views but the group also really enjoyed walking through the many tiny villages and seeing the traditional houses and gardens and the black cardamom plantations, plus a special visit to the Monastery at Phale.

There have been some changes to the area since 2019 with hydro schemes in progress in both major valleys but certainly nothing that detracts from the splendour of the big mountains.

The local crew was excellent - hardworking and friendly and the cook team did a great job of keeping us well fed, with fresh pakora and cake being particular treats.”

The other significant change since 2019 is the construction of more teahouse lodges. There are many groups that now do Kanchenjunga Circuit as a lodge-based trek. Whereas our November 2022 group was on a fully supported camping trek where our cooks provided the meals in our mess tent. For personal tents, we bring along our Mountain Hardwear Trango 3s.

In 2023, we will continue to organise our Kanchenjunga Circuit trek as a camping-style trek. There are significant disadvantages to relying on lodges. They are hard to book ahead so there is no certainty of getting rooms. Also, some lodges close up shop with no notice for various family or work-related reasons. The lodges are still quite basic. Most of our trekkers would prefer to sleep in a tent as more comfortable and cleaner. Also, the food menus are limited in the lodges plus the hygiene standards vary from lodge to lodge. And lastly, camping treks employ many more people from the local area. Our porters are sourced from nearby villages. We have a strong relationship with porters in the Kanchenjunga region. During the Covid pandemic, we donated a 25kg bag of rice to each family on two occasions.

One other change to note compared to 2019 is the trail from Lhonak to Pangpema. It now takes longer as there are two new places with significant erosion that we have to walk around. It took our group an 8-hour round trip for us at a good, steady pace. It could take 9 hours+ for slower walkers. There is a new memorial to Wanda Rutkiewicz and some toilets at Pangpema now.  

We have updated our Kanchenjunga Circuit itinerary for 2023 by reducing it by a day to 26 days from arrival in Kathmandu. We save one day as we now drive by jeeps at the end of the trek from Khande Bhanjang to Suketar. In our opinion, other trekking operators have moved too quickly to reduce their itineraries to rely on driving by jeeps. There is no doubt a larger market for shorter treks yet we design our trip based on the level of enjoyment and "flow". One of the reasons people like to trek in the Himalayas is to get away from the rush of modern life. It is best to slow down and take the time to absorb the experience.

You can read our AITO reviews received over the years for Kanchenjunga Circuit

Thanks very much to Natalie, Bishwo, Sangram, and the rest of the team for their hard work on this trek.

Our next departure for Kanchenjunga Circuit is in April 2023 and followed by November 2023. There are currently Early Bird Discounts available for both of these departures. If you would like to talk about the Kanchenjunga trek, you can book a Zoom call and I will be happy to discuss it with you.