Trip report for Upper Dolpo to Jomsom GHT (Nepal) in May 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 May 2022 we organised our 6th trek to the Upper Dolpo region in Mid-West Nepal. Our leaders for this group were Jason Day (UK) and Bishwo Rai (Nepal). This was Jason’s second trek leading for us in Spring after doing Dhaulagiri Circuit in April. After getting his laundry done in Kathmandu and eating some good food, he was out on the trail again! Bishwo has worked on our previous treks to Upper Dolpo so has built up an excellent knowledge of this remote region. The assistant guides were Bhim, Dorjee, and Arjun. Our cook was Sangram Lama.

The trek crew set off from Kathmandu by bus on May 2nd. They finally arrived by jeep to Dunai on the day before the group landed by plane on May 8th. It is a long way from Kathmandu! Yet, the journey is a bit easier than our earlier treks as in those days they had to walk in from near Surket for 5 days to Dunai. Bishwo travelled with the trek crew on the bus.

The group of thirteen trekkers safely arrived in Kathmandu on May 7th (or earlier). In the afternoon Jason and I gave the group briefing in the lovely gardens of Hotel Shanker (just across the road from Hotel Ambassador). Our Upper Dolpo trek was our second camping group post-Covid since our Autumn 2019 season in Nepal. It was wonderful to get back to what we love doing and to provide work to our trek crews.

To reduce the Covid risk, we implemented Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) COVID-19 Health & Safety Guidelines. We also requested that all trekkers self-test using an antigen rapid test kit for the first seven days of the trip. During this time we kept the group physically distanced from each other as much as possible before forming a “bubble” later on in the trip.

As there were thirteen trekkers in our Dolpo group we had the budget to charter a plane directly to Juphal. Whereas in our standard itinerary we have two days of flights with an overnight in Nepalganj. In May this place is known as one of the hottest places in Nepal.  Our decision to charter a plane was very popular with the group! The trek would now finish one day early so we booked this extra night at Mount Kailash Hotel in Pokhara. This town is a lovely place to relax and this hotel has a swimming pool especially nice to have as June is a very hot month.

After landing at the airstrip at Juphal the group walked for a few hours to their first camp near the town of Dunai. From here they followed our Upper Dolpo to Jomsom GHT itinerary to Phoksundo Lake. They enjoyed the views of this beautiful lake on the narrow “Devil’s Path” on the way to Phoksundo Lake North Camp. They started the approach to Kang La pass by camping at Lar Tsa Camp (4,312m) and for two nights at Snowfields Camp (4676m). The day crossing Kang La at 5,380m went well as there were only patches of snow that could be avoided. We have selected the best time of year in late Spring for optimal weather and snow conditions. Earlier in Spring, there will be too much snow and in early Summer, it is very cloudy with more precipitation.

There was great excitement after Chharka village when everyone saw a snow leopard! Our leader, Jason, was the first to spot the cat only 100m from one of our camps during the trek. You can view the moment from this video on one of our trekker's YouTube channel. As you can see the snow leopard was close to our tents and then moved away to a nearby cliff. The snow leopard has a light brown coat and blends in very well with the landscape. Well done to Jason for spotting the snow leopard. We are delighted that our trekkers had such an exceptional wildlife experience.

In our Blog article Is Upper Dolpo one of the most remote treks in Nepal? we discuss the roads that have recently been built into Upper Dolpo. Since our last trek in Upper Dolpo in May 2018 the road from Jomsom has been extended to Sangda village. In the past villages of Upper Dolpo would trade and go shopping over the passes to Tibet. But, the Tibet border was closed during the Covid pandemic. So supplies came in from Jomsom in the Kali Gandaki valley. As of June 2022, the road has not been built over Sangda La as it is too steep. For this section, mules are used to carry loads over the pass. Once on the Upper Dolpo side then motorbikes will transport the supplies to the villages. However,  there are plans for a road to be built around Sangda La over the next few years. When this happens then jeeps will be able to drive all the way from Jomsom into Upper Dolpo.

Our group walked on sections of the jeep track from Shimen although currently there is little traffic only a few motorbikes. The feedback received from this group was positive and they enjoyed their Dolpa experience. That being said, once the road is built around Sangda La then the jeep track will be much busier with traffic. For future treks, we are planning to change our Upper Dolpo itinerary to follow a trail from Charka village over the passes to the north of Sangda La. In autumn 2022, we will send one of our international leaders to do a reconnaissance trek to check on the options. We are currently looking at the Ghami La (5,700m) and also Kekyep La (5,600m).

Jason sums up his experience leading this group as follows:

“This was a trek into the heart of Upper Dolpo visiting Phoksumdo Lake, Shey and Yanjer Gompas, and crossing five passes above 5000m. During the trip, we followed several beautiful wooded river valleys before climbing to the passes for views of snow mountains including Dhaulagiri and North into Tibet. The terrain became steadily drier as we moved from Lower to Upper Dolpo, and the Gompas displayed contrasting Buddhist and Bon influences. At one of the river valley camps, we were privileged to see a snow leopard moving on the slopes above the camp for about 15 minutes. We also saw Lammergeyers and Himalayan Vultures, Marmot, Blue Sheep and Yaks. We met with the locals in the villages and on the trail who were very welcoming, and some who were hunting for YarchaGumba (Cordyceps) fungus.”

I have copied below an AITO review received from one of our Upper Dolpo trekkers:

"Upper Dolpo is a remote region in mid-West Nepal close to the Tibet border. The scenery throughout the trek is amazing … forest environment, snowy mountain peaks, and dry arid mountain ranges. The trek goes through Shey Phoksundo National Park. Camping at Phoksundo Lake with a lakefront view from the tent is like staying at a five-star resort. Encountered a variety of wildlife… different species of birds, blue sheep, and a SNOW LEOPARD. Though it is a strenuous trek, it is well worth the effort because the remoteness enables one to connect with oneself and Mother Nature by taking one away from the hectic pace of modern life. One also gets a sense of history and lives in this region by interacting with friendly villagers and visiting gompas/monasteries." by SnoMo.

I would like to thank Jason, Bishwo, Arjun, Dorjee, Bhim, and Sangram plus the rest of the trek crew for their hard work. Thanks to the trekking group for their support and trust that we could run this trip safely during the Covid pandemic. Fortunately, we experienced no Covid issues in this group.

Trek on!

Snow leopard seen by our Upper Dolpo group in June 2022
Photo: Snow leopard seen by our Upper Dolpo group in June 2022 (credit David Buccigrossi)