Trip report for Kanchenjunga to Makalu GHT (Nepal) in Autumn 2023 led by Ade Summers

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
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View of Mount Kanchenjunga from Kanchenjunga to Makalu GHT

In late September 2023, we organised our second group to trek the first section of The Great Himalaya Trail (“GHT”). This is from Kanchenjunga Base Camp to Makalu Base Camp in Eastern Nepal. Our international leader was Ade Summers and the Nepalese guides were Prem, Sanja, and Suman.

Our 2023 Kanchenjunga to Makalu GHT itinerary was a 36-day trek and in total the trip was 42 days from arrival in Kathmandu. We realise not everyone is able or willing to be away for an extended period. So, starting at the same time we also have a shorter 26-day trek called Kanchenjunga to Tumlingtar GHT. These groups trek together until Chyamtang in the Arun Valley where they split up.

I led our first Kanchenjunga GHT group way back in 2013. You can read how we got along on our Trip Report for Kanchenjunga to Makalu GHT (Nepal) in Autumn 2013. In summary, Cyclone Phailin caused heavy rain a few days before reaching Ghunsa. This weather system also deposited deep snow on the high passes. Yet, we reached Kanchenjunga Northside Base Camp and also crossed the Lumba Sumba pass. Sadly there was too much snow to attempt the high traverse into Makalu Base Camp. So we diverted south crossing the Salpa La pass at a lower altitude into the Solu Khumbu. 

Feeling like there was “unfinished business” I went back in October 2014 with one of our trekking guides and several porters. We walked from Num to Hongon village in the Arun Valley and then followed the high trail into Makalu Base Camp. Our trek went well and we made it to the Barun Valley as Cyclone Hudhud brought heavy precipitation like in 2013! We walked over the Shipton La in heavy snow and safely made it back to Tumlingtar. Kanchenjunga GHT is a beautiful, challenging, and remote trail. In my opinion it is one of the best treks I have done in the Himalayas. You can read our Recce Report from the trek from Arun Valley to Makalu Base Camp GHT in October 2014.

In summary, this year’s group achieved the same as our 2013 group by getting to the Arun Valley. In this Trip Report, I will deep dive into the details of what happened with this group. The bottom line is that Kanchenjunga GHT is one of the toughest treks in the Himalayas. Ade Summers summarises his experience leading this group as “a challenging and spectacular trek in a very remote and rugged of Nepal.” 

Lunana Snowman is often described as the hardest trek in the world. I have walked both of them I can confirm that Kanchenjunga GHT is harder and more challenging. I suggest you read our Blog article Lunana Snowman- Is It The Hardest Trek In The World? Also, take a look at our Blog article What Is The Best Trek In The Himalayas? as you can see I give Kanchenjunga GHT a Physical Challenge rating of 9/10 whereas Lunana Snowman a rating of 8/10.

Our Kanchenjunga GHT group arrived in Kathmandu on September 24th, 2023. This was two weeks earlier than our Kanchenjunga GHT group in 2013. Selecting the optimal date for any Himalayan trek is tough as the weather and conditions vary from year to year. The advantage of starting earlier is that it decreases the risk of snow blocking the high passes later in Autumn as it gets colder. The disadvantage is that it is likely to be rainier as the monsoon will still be operating in the Himalayas. At the start of the trek, as expected the weather was cloudy with small amounts of rain in the late afternoons and evenings. That changed on October 3rd & 4th when a low-pressure system coming off the Bay of Bengal brought in heavier rain. Fortunately, this was not a full cyclone so the quantity of precipitation was lower than experienced by Cyclone Phailin in 2013 and Cyclone HudHud in 2014. The other favourable factor in 2023 was it came in 10 days earlier compared to 2013 and 2014, therefore, the snowline was much higher.

When our 2023 group crossed the Lumba Sumba pass it was mainly snow-free whereas in 2013 there was deep snow. Our 2023 group was in Ghunsa during the rainy period so used the dining room of a lodge to dry out around the heater. In 2013, my group walked for two days in the rain while camping in the evenings. In practice, this was tough as everything was wet and there was no way of drying off. 
That said, our 2023 group lost a day as they stayed an extra day in Ghunsa on October 4th. This was the last rainy day before clearing on the 5th. Ade and I had been in touch through the satellite phone during this time as I was checking the weather forecasts (as well as the World Cup rugby scores!). We did not want to trek in the rain as there is a risk of rockfall in the landslide area on the trail to Khambachen. As predicted by the forecasts, the weather improved on the 5th as the low-pressure system moved out of the Himalayas. Ade Summers summarises the weather experienced on this trek: “Poor weather in the first week with heavy rain. We had to have an enforced extra rest day in Ghunsa as heavy rain all day. The weather was good after that. Cloudy on some days. Great weather towards to end of the trek.”

After leaving Ghunsa, the group walked to Kanchenjunga Northside Base Camp and back to Ghunsa on October 9th. Unfortunately on the walk to Ghunsa, one member slipped over and broke his wrist. After calling Global Rescue they agreed to fly him out. After waiting a day to get the helicopter's permit and for the weather to clear he was evacuated back to Kathmandu (the rest of the group had continued leaving him behind in the safety of a lodge in Ghunsa).

It was decided to forego the rest day in Ghunsa to make up for the extra day they had used up on the way up due to bad weather. From speaking with the lodge owner in Ghunsa, the local information was that the bridge over the Yangma Khola on the other side of Nango La had been washed out. This happened during the monsoon and had not yet been rebuilt. If the group crossed Nango La they faced the risk they would not be able to walk to Olangchungola. If so, they would have to walk back over the pass to go around! Therefore, we opted to take “Pass B” above Gyabla camp. In fact, my group in 2013 also crossed this pass as the Nango La was blocked with deep snow after the cyclone. Ade Summers describes Pass B as: “the alternative route to the Nango La was very challenging with muddy slippy rocks and narrow bamboo forest sections.” It was a long day with several members arriving at Olangchungola village after dark. As a result, the group was tired so they elected to take a rest day on October 13th.

On future treks, if we cannot cross Nango La then we will walk to Olangchungola on the low trail. Pass B is too difficult and risky for the group and trek crew. To walk from Ghunsa to Olangchungola via Sekathum is likely to take four (or perhaps three long days?). In practice, this is the same number of days as our 2023 group took to reach Olangchungola via Pass B. They walked for three days plus a rest day at Olangchungola making four days in total. We have included enough time in both of our Kanchenjunga GHT itineraries with a number of buffer days to allow for this diversion. After reaching Olangchungola our team spoke to two people who had crossed the Yangma Khola and reported that the bridge had in fact been rebuilt and was now open. Unfortunately, this was not known to our team from speaking to the Ghunsa locals before we went on "Pass B” above Gyabala. One of the challenges of trekking The Great Himalaya Trail is getting up-to-date and reliable trail information. That said, for our Kanchenjunga GHT 2024 trek we have a plan to reduce this risk of uncertainty about crossing Nango La. On the way up we will send one of our assistant guides to Olangchungola while the rest of the group trek up to Ghunsa. He will connect with a local guide and do a reconnaissance of this section of the trail. They will walk from Olangchungola over the Nango La in the reverse direction to meet our group at Ghunsa.

From Olangchungola, they made good progress and successfully crossed the Lumba Sumba pass. As mentioned earlier the conditions on this pass were good with a dry trail and very little snow. They arrived at North High Camp (4,400m) on the other side of the pass after 7 hours of walking. In the morning the weather was sunny so they had spectacular views from the top of Lumba Sumba Pass. On the next day, they walked to the very isolated village of Thudam.

From Thudam it should be a two two-day walk to reach Chyamtang village in the Arun Valley. This is one of the most challenging sections of the GHT across Nepal. It is also where ultra-runner legend, Lizzy Hawker, fell off the trail! To find out what happened you can her book called The Runner. The path is narrow and exposed in places and passes through a forest with tree roots to clamber over. There are sections of the trail on slippery mud plus greasy rocks covered in green algae. It sounds like the trail conditions were more slippery in 2023 than in 2013. A possible reason for this is the weather, it was a bit unusual in that the afternoons were cloudy and often had small amounts of precipitation. Whereas in 2013, after Cyclone Phailin had dissipated we had much dryer and sunnier weather. Therefore this year this trail through the forest was muddier and more slippery than usual as it had not dried out. For these reasons, our 2023 group found this section of the trail very challenging. We will update the day-by-day description in our Trip Dossier to more accurately reflect the trail conditions on the ground.

On the day walking from Thudam village to Kharka camp, one trekker started to slow down significantly. It became clear this was more than tiredness and he was sick. As the day went on his speed decreased even further and he became unsteady on his feet. The decision was made to stop short of Kharka and make camp at a clearing in the forest. After calling Global Rescue, they decided to evacuate him by helicopter back to Kathmandu. Helicopters need to get a Restricted Area Permit to fly into the Kanchenjunga region. Due to the bureaucratic nature of this process, it usually takes a day to obtain from the Department of Immigration. So after a day of waiting on October 20th, a helicopter finally landed on the 21st. I visited him at CIWEC Hospital to check up on him and it took at least a week for him to recover but even then he was still feeling weak. His diagnosis was bacterial sepsis, likely from a leech bite.

On October 21st, the group arrived at Chyamtang village in the Arun Valley. Due to the length of the trek, we planned a food and fuel resupply at Hongon village. One of our guides, Bhim Sunuwar, brought this from Kathmandu taking him six days of travel. At this point in the trek, we had the logistics in place. Plus the weather and conditions were great to complete the GHT section from the Arun Valley over to Makalu Base Camp. During the trek, our Sirdar became ill causing some logistic challenges. We addressed this in the field by a reshuffle in the leadership. As we had two capable assistant guides, Sanja and Suman, they took on more responsibility and together with Ade formed a strong team. In the end, the remaining trekkers decided not to continue and to walk out towards Tumlingtar down the Arun Valley. Their decision was understandable given they were close friends of the person evacuated and were concerned for his welfare. Also, this group was now running three days behind schedule. That said, there could have been ways of catching up by combining shorter days. Plus there were other options such as extending the trek. Or the group could have flown out from Makalu Base Camp by helicopter to Lukla.

As mentioned Kanchenjunga to Makalu GHT is one of the hardest treks in the Himalayas. As with any GHT trek, trekkers must understand these trails are very rarely walked by other groups (which of course part of the attraction!). We follow local trails and in many places such as from Hongon to Makalu Base Camp, there is no trail as locals rarely go up there (apart from possibly a few yak herders in the Summer). This means that information about the condition of the trail is sparse and not always up to date. Being flexible with the itinerary is an essential part of GHT trekking. As Ade Summers summarises in his post-trek report: “Kanchenjunga GHT is a tough trek, and groups should be aware of the remoteness, toughness and rugged nature of the trail in-between Kanchenjunga BC and Makalu BC.” To find out what to expect on a GHT trek I suggest you read our The Great Himalaya Trail webpage.

That said, both Ade and I agree that Kanchenjunga GHT should be doable for fit trekkers with previous Himalayan experience. Everyone must know what they have signed up for and have the right expectations. As discussed earlier we will add more detailed information into the Trip Dossier. Our 2023 group of highly experienced trekkers had over forty Himalayan treks between them. They were impacted by a number of adverse conditions during this trek. The bottom line is that with trekking GHT one needs a dose of good fortune to successfully complete the full objectives of the trip. For 2024, we are making it mandatory for everyone considering Kanchenjunga GHT to have a Zoom call with us before signing up. We will discuss the challenges of this trek and their training plan for getting fit and ready for the trip. We always do our best to make sure any booking we take is an appropriate goal for that person.

We have delayed the start of Kanchenjunga GHT so the first day of arrival in Kathmandu will be on September 29th, 2024. Based on our experience of operating this trek in 2013, 2014, and 2023 we feel this is the optimal date. As discussed the chances of success ultimately depend on whether a weather system comes off the Bay of Bengal. The overall impact will depend on the severity of the system and the amount of precipitation plus the date when it hits the Himalayas. As October progresses the temperatures start to decrease and as a result, the snowline drops to a lower altitude.

We have also decided to extend our 2024 itinerary for Kanchenjunga to Makalu GHT by one day. This should help by adding more time if there are delays along the way. If this is not needed then we can shorten one of the longer walking days or take an extra rest day. Having more time will help increase the chances of a successful traverse in 2024.

We have received an AITO Traveller Review from Henry who was a trekker from our 2023 group. It is detailed and informative, we suggest you read it all as it would be helpful if you are considering doing Kanchenjunga GHT. I have copied a section of his review below:

"Why five stars? I will answer in a somewhat poetic form which does not answer all questions but is spoken from the heart. Because of the rarity of this opportunity, because these giant remote mountains did welcome us and reward us with passage, because this wilderness is not going to be here forever; the massive logistical effort, the guides and crew who became our loyal extended family for 5 weeks, without complaint. The camaraderie and the opportunity to connect and care. The bitter and the sweet, the risk, the pressure pushing us to our limit, the successes and failures. Because we came home spent. A pilgrimage in the words of Ian Baker where a “destination is ultimately not so much a place as a new way of seeing”.  Far more profound than any sightseeing joyride. Because in true TMC fashion Roland has stepped up to the challenges to make this trek even better. If you have the inclination - go - prepared to be immersed and with your eyes and heart wide open."

We already have seven or eight trekkers interested in our Kanchenjunga GHT treks in Autumn/ Fall 2024. Therefore it is very likely we will be able to guarantee to run this departure once we open up bookings later in December 2023. If you are considering joining either Kanchenjunga to Makalu GHT or the shorter Kanchenjunga to Tumlingtar GHT please get in touch with us soon.

Trek on!
Roland Hunter
The Mountain Company