Ambling the Alpamayo in Peru

I have been loving the high altitude treks in the Himalayas, and have a few weeks free so am heading to Northern Peru to hike the Alpamayo and the Cordillera Huayhuash (pronounced Why wash) treks. The guidebooks say each trek takes 10 days with mules and porters, so I have planned to do each in five days and carry my own food and gear. Lets see how it goes… (Note this is a very hiker oriented post, so if tents and mountains bore you…… definitely time to click on :-))

Described as a tough circuit for experienced mountain hikers, the Alpamayo is a 120-140km circuit circumnavigating the mountain passes around the beautiful Nevado Alpamayo (5947m). I will start at Cashapampa and finish at Hualcallan, scaling a lot of high passes in between. The map below shows the route (map from the Quechandes trekking website). Most nights I will be above 4000m where temperatures will almost certainly be below zero, so I am packing a heavy sleeping bag (good down to minus 20 celcius), down pants, down slippers, a well insulated sleeping matt and my new tarptent stratosphire li (which is a little bit warmer than my beloved Duplex tent). One of the reasons for covering both routes in five days is that it never really takes me that long to cover the distance (20-25km per day on my 5 day itinerary), AND it is a hell of a lot easier to carry five days food than ten days food. With 6 days of food (one day extra for emergencies) and very warm gear, I am at 16kg of weight without water, which hopefully will be available frequently. The food weight is probably about 4-5kg, so at least it will get lighter as I go and I eat it.

My starting point was Huaraz (accessed by bus 8 hours from Lima), a bustling mountain town, where I planned to stay four nights to acclimatise. Most of the hikes get to 4000m very quickly and have multiple 5000m plus passes so acclimatising is key. Lima is at sea level, Huaraz is at 3000m. I have learnt the hard way not to rush it. I could feel the headache hit me as the bus went over the 4100m pass on the way to Huaraz and then I struggled to get up the stairs carrying my 24kg duffle when I arrived at the hostel. I had intentionally decided to do naff all on day 1 apart from some errands. I sorted a sim card (see below), bought some food to make breakfasts, got gas for my stove, had a steak and enjoyed the sun shine and reminisced about Peru (I hadn’t been for 24 years, and met my husband last time I was here)

Acclimatisation hike 1 to Wilcacocha at 3700m, 700m of ascent 8km

I had loads of time, so wandered to the market to take the collectivo to the trail head (2 soles/40p) rather than take a cab. Collectivos are as rammed as london rush hour tube, but better you can tell them exactly where you want them to stop. I was anticipating a bit of breathlessness, but I made the 3km hike with 600m of ascent in an hour and ten minutes, just taking it slow and keeping my heartbeat below 130. The trail was well marked and well populated with kids and donkeys descending to town. I arrived at the village of Wilcacocha to the sight of the whole village tidying the path (tree cutting, drain digging and rock moving). The laguna at the top isn’t amazing but the views were pretty delightful. Rather than go back the way I came, I guessed at a route that would come out at a bridge closer to Huaraz where I could take a collectivo back. The route was lovely, and I did manage to tumble on a rock and have a huge bruise on my shin when I was distracted by the view. I passed more villagers cleaning, and a couple of the old men shook my hand. I found my way the 3km back to the road and took a collectivo back to town and arrived at 11.30am. Another lazy afternoon, I tried the local curry house (bad idea), bought more supplies and chilled out).

Acclimatisation hike 2 to Laguna Churup at 4550m –

I arrived at 6.50am for the 7am collectivo (minibus) to the trail head at Pitec (10 soles each way) which of course left about 7.50am when there were enough gringos for it to leave.   We arrived at the trail head at 8.45am and 3850m for quite a high start.  I took it easy up the trail, never stopping for a break, but keeping my heart rate below 130 the whole way – much better for the acclimatisation.   It took an hour and ten minutes to get to the lagoon, most of it on very easy trail, but the last 20 minutes was a scramble/rock climb up a chained section that made me grateful I had been working on my pull ups.   The view was spectacular, and I had a chat with the young men who had hiked up with me (everyone here is pretty much 23 years old).  I had breakfast and then lost feeling in my fingers so decided to wander back down the hill.   I went the less scrambly long way back down for a different view.   It was a spectacular day, and then wandered to the market with my new friend Andrea for an outstanding pork sandwich. Feeling surprisingly good given this is the highest I have been for a few years – no headache, no dizziness, and slow but feeling fine.

Acclimatisation Hike 3 – Laguna 69 to 4750m (hiked en route to the start of the Alpamayo Circuit

The joy of being a midlife flashpacker is that I really enjoy staying in hostels (I am at the El jacal backpacker which is a costly usd 91 in total for four nights in a room with private bath and a balcony), but feel fine spending money on things which increase my time spent enjoying stuff.  Today that translated in hiring a driver to take me first to do an excellent acclimatisation hike to Laguna 69, keeping my 16kg bag in his car, and then driving me up to Cashapampa to start the Alpamayo circuit.   Saved me about two half days of driving and collectivos

The hike to Laguna 69 was lovely.  I was worried it would be overcrowded.  But while we left Huaraz at the same time as the guided tours, those inevitably stop for breaks.   We arrived first and on the two hour gentle walk up the 700m ascent to 4600m I only passed one very friendly Peruvian family.    The path was excellent and I was feeling good.   I stopped at the top for some salami and an apple (the best picnic I found and then wandered back down passing about 60 very red faced tired people and about 4 fit hikers (I passed them first as they were racing to the top).   I got back to the van in four hours, at 11.45 and we bumped back down the gravel road to Yungay and then headed up to Cashapampa to start to alpamayo trail

Alpamayo Circuit – Day 0 – 5.5km*, 706m ascent

Cashapampa was down at 3000m so 1000m lower than where my morning hike started today.  This meant it was easier to breathe but it also meant it was hotter.   I had originally intended to stay the night here and start in the morning but the accommodation choices were grim. So, I left the pueblo at 2.30, and grunted and sweated up the path, now carrying 16kg of gear, only planning to walk far enough to pitch the tent.   I always have an hour on the first day when I wonder WTAF am I doing, and I definitely had it today.  It’s been a while since I have carried a pack this heavy but at least it will get lighter as I eat the food.  And given how cold it was at 4000m this morning when I was hiking I think I will be grateful for the gear.  

I wasn’t planning to hike far, just as well, it took me 2 hours to do about 5.5km, which was when I found the first obvious flat spot to pitch with river access.   Most of the way up the steep quebrada, the river was far below and a tough scramble to access.   I arrived at 4.30, made lunch/dinner, had two teas and a cocoa, and got into bed at 6pm as darkness fell listening to the river rustle by.  My favourite thing about my new gear is when I stuck my feet in my sleeping bag it was like putting them in front of the fire.  Amazing.  I woke up twice to pee and the moon was in full beam, enough to make the donkeys eyes light up watching me do my evening ablutions 

Alpamayo Circuit – Day 1 – 27km*, 1313m ascent to Taulipampa via Alpamayo base camp and Laguna Huayracocha – cold and breathless

I was awake at 4.45 so made some coffee and stayed in my sleeping bag until about 5.15 when I packed up and headed out, walking by 5.45.  I needed a head torch for the first ten minutes but after that the sun started rising. 

I walked about an hour and a half to Llamacorral campsite – my idea of hell – a campsite with a group of 11 hikers and their crew of 20 plus mules and horses.  I did pick up three adorable dogs here who escorted me for a few hours.  By 9am I was getting hungry so stopped for brunch next to a lovely stream (with the optimistic dog waiting for food).  The trail was ‘easy’ but walking with 16kg is always tiring.   The scenery is lovely and the flowers wonderful, this whole stretch reminded me of the Rees and the Dart valleys in NZ 

Around 11 I reached the end of the river valley and decided to take the 10km side trip to see if there was a view of Alpamayo and to visit Laguna Huayracocha.  It was raining so I wasn’t optimistic.  This was the beginning of two grunty uphills of the day – neither terribly difficult but tough at 4000m, in the rain and slogging a pack.   The view was worth it, but it was cold and raining, and I had to put on all my layers and gloves and it still took me a while to regain feeling in my fingers

Descending was slippery and cold but the sun came  out as I returned to the main trail to Taulipampa.  I arrived at Taulipampa at 2.45 and decided to stop for the day as didn’t want to push camping at too high an altitude (plus I was pretty knackered).   The sun was shining and for brief moments when the wind wasn’t blowing it was lovely and warm. 

Dinner was beef stew, some nuts, lots of tea and some dark chocolate.  Am not that hungry but what I eat doesn’t have to be carried in the pack! 

My gear is working well.  Having a new double walled tent (tarptent stratosphere li)  is lovely as there is no condensation and also the ‘solid’ (but extremely light inner wall blocks the wind more than my duplex’s mesh).   The very heavy sleeping bag from Rab is worth the 1.2kg weight as it is so wonderfully warm.  And for the first time in years I am hiking with a proper goretex parka (in Europe I never take anything more than an ultralight waterproof), and it earned its money to day as well keeping me bone dry and warm enough in the rain and hail.  

Alpamayo Circuit Day 2, 25 knackering kilometres* with 1751m of ascent taking an astonishing 11 hours (including breaks)

I didn’t sleep well, woke up at 3am with a big headache – not really surprising given I am sleeping at 4250m so I popped a Diamox and an ibuprofen and tried to get a few more winks.

The morning got off the a punchy start at 6.15am with a 500m ascent (I counted 40 switch backs)  up to 4750m punta union pass.   The view was stunning if freezing.  I could see roughly where the next pass I had to go over but it looked like an impossible wall of sheer mountains…. hmmm, yup another wtf moment.

The descent down the other side was swift and sunny, and I saw some young British kids I had met in Huaraz and a few other hikers as this section is part of the more popular Santa Cruz trek. I left the main Santa cruz trail around 9am and descended all the way down to 3900 m in a valley then stopped for brunch and more coffee to brace myself for another big pass 

 It was a hot and sweaty 59 switchbacks and 400m of ascent up to Pucaraja pass.   Normally I would have that done both of those climbs in the Pyrenees before 9am without much of a sweat but climbing is brutal at altitude and with a full pack.   I didn’t get to the top of Pucaraja until noon.   And I was beat!

The meander I was expecting down the Wicrococha lake didn’t turn out that easy, and when I got there at 2pm  I had walked a total of 15.5 km (ie nothing).  I am British now so I had a cup of tea and reminded myself I can do anything, and found the resolve and my big girl pants to do the last 10k up the river valley.  It was a moment 

About 7.5km of the river valley was fine if a bit boggy.  Then I had to cross a freezing river up to thigh deep and bush bash up 300m of vertical to the lake I had planned to spend the night (the trail didn’t exist where the GPS said it was).   I arrived at 5pm, the sun had gone behind the hill, I was cold and knackered. But I was hopeful that every tough day is making me fitter.   Camp was set up super quick, three more cups of tea, dinner, muesli and a hot chocolate and in bed by 7pm.  It was one of the toughest days I have had in the mountains in a long time, but proud I made it.

Alpamayo Circuit Day 3 – 23k* to near Huilca with 1536m ascent with lots of local entertainment

I woke up at five with ice inside my tent, on the outside of my (very toasty inside) sleeping bag, and socks and shoes that were frozen stiff.  Oh well. 

I made two coffees, packed up (I cunningly pack everything without ever exiting the tent, apart from breaking the tent down when I get out) Stuffing my massive sleeping bag into a compression sack and decompressing the thermarest to help to warm me up a bit more .  

First up a gentle 150m ascent to the pass above where I camped, then it was a 7km rock hop down the valley with a mostly good track to Jancopampa.   There wasn’t much going on in the village but they had electricity and most houses had new exterior toilets.  

Turning up the valley, following an easy road for 1km, then the locals pointed me across the valley on an invisible path with three bridges that got me across without wet feet.   I then tracked around the north side of the valley keeping out of the bog until the right turn to yanacon Pass at 4650m .  Sadly going down to Jancopampa meant I had descended to 3500m and had to start going right back up again.  I was overtaken in the bush by two lovely locals – the lady on horse back and the man holding onto the horses tail for extra speed.  They asked how heavy my pack was and where I was going.  

It was a tough but do-able morning, I grunted up the hill without really stopping until I reached a nice lake in a river valley about 400m of ascent below the pass at 11am.   I met my friends there and shared my brunch with them and their dog.  

My friends were not going over the pass but advised me to follow the about 70 locals in various groups who were heading that way.  I think there was an actual trail (my gps said there was), but I followed the locals who pretty much just went straight up, all taking different paths.  It was hilarious, they all had music playing and were taking selfies.    

The last approach to the pass was dreaded scree, so I put my head down and just did it without thinking about the other side.  Got to the top and almost crapped my pants as the other side was a vertical drop.   I sat precariously at the top hoping a local would go down that way but it appears they had all gone up there to pick some specific herb off the rock and were going back the way they had come.   I genuinely thought about turning back but then decided to descend 10-15m to see if I could find a path – which thank god I did.   I picked my way gently down the 600m descent to Huilca, very grateful to stop for a tea at the first water source.  

I made it to Huilca around 3pm, and the village consisted of four run down buildings and I saw one couple farming llamas.  I could have walked further but the next reliable water source is 5km and a 400m uphill grunt away so I pitched up by the river .   I also realised I haven’t seen a single gringo since getting off the Santa Cruz trek on day 2 at 9am.   Wonder if I will see any at all.  This is a spectacular hike.  

Day 4 – The hardest day Huilca to  Osoruri – 26km* and 2021m ascent

I had looked at the map overnight and realised I was cutting it a bit fine on the last day if I didn’t hike a bit further today. So I roughly added about 500m of ascent to the day (about 2.5 hours at current pace). The morning was stunning and quiet – first up an easy albeit mostly pathless ascent over the grassy Mesapata Pass then a lovely balcony trail along the side of the ridge until the river valley had risen to meet the altitude at around 4200m.

Then it was a long and lovely walk up the river valley on the approach to the Cara Cara pass at 4850m – this was the first day of nothing – no people, no animals in the valley, just utter stillness. I spent most of the valley walk wondering how the hell the trail got out of the vast wall in front of me at the valley end. Most of the altitude had been gained slowly in the walk up the valley but the last 300m of ascent was a lung burner with the path switchbacking up scree. The pass was gob smacking with amazing views of Alpamayo and the range. It was also another WTAF moment with a yucky scree path down the other side – I look like I am smiling in the photo – but I was having a moment.

The descent was actually ok, scree, then pampas, and after 650m of drop I ended in a lovely river valley at 11am where it was time for brunch. By this time it was hot, and I had 8km to go to Ruinas pampas. I had a headache on one side, and couldn’t figure out if it was a altitude or a sore shoulder so had a diamox and an ibuprofen for good measure. It was a nice stroll but unremarkable.

I got to Ruinas Pampas at 2pm ruinas pampas and had a cup of tea and adjusted my big girl pants. I had added the extra 550m of up in my plan last night. I figured I would be there by 5pm. I was slow and steady – walking at altitude is best if you just don’t overcook yourself, but I am pretty sure I set a record today for slug like movement. I stopped and looked at the gps at 4pm and was surprised to see I was already at at 4550m but no campsite. Hmmmm, I had a closer look and realised (without my glasses) that I had missed the fact that I had to go up to another pass at 4750m and then back down to the campsite. Oh well. Nothing for it but to keep moving as I hadn’t seen water since Ruinas Pampas, and I sure hoped there was a water source at Osoruri. I eventually made it at 5.30pm and got my tent up before the sun went down – I have a head torch and can always walk in the dark and put a tent up, but I like to be inside when it is cold. It was a lovely deserted spot, with water (yay) and an almost flat pitch site. That was definitely the hardest day of the trail and I was tired, but not knackered when finished. Dinner, then bed by 7.30pm. (and I didn’t see a human all day)

Day 5 – easy stroll out down to Hualcallan 17 km* and 798m of ascent

I had a lie in until 6am, and woke up to a very crunchy icy tent – unsurprising given I was at 4550m. I got going slowly and headed out at 7am. My expectations were low, as the last day always seems to be mostly about getting to a road. Luckily I was pleasantly surprised. The hike up to the Osoruri pass at 4850m was lovely on a nice graded path, and I had another gobsmacking view back over the Alpamayo range. The views improved as I descended past the Laguna Cullicocha which was spectacular. I sat in the sun at 9am and enjoyed the views.

After that, it did get a bit dull, just a long hot descent from 4600m at the lake down to the trail head at 3100m. There was a water source half way where I stopped for tea (I was meandering as my pick up was scheduled for 2.30pm). The most challenging part of the day apart from the heat were the grumpy cows. There are lots of new babies and mamas are very protective. I steer well clear and divert from the path to avoid them, but occasionally some of them take it into their heads to start coming towards you. Buggers. I talk loudly and keep moving but VERY slowly…. and so far that has worked

The last 2-3km were on a dusty bulldozed path under construction, and I arrived in the apparently deserted village of Hualcallan at 2pm and plonked myself on a shady street corner and reclined on my pack. After about five minutes about ten people came out to ask who I was, if I was ok, where I had come from. All very lovely and friendly and a bit surprised I was by myself and had walked so far so fast.

Daniel arrived on time to drive me back to town, where I was so excited to shower, eat a steak and give the hostel my laundry. Definitely not one of the easier hikes – but incredible.

Next stop the Cordillera Huayhuash (“why wash”) for another tough circuit…

Huaraz, June 5, 2023

Additional information

Transport – Super easy to get from Lima to Huaraz on the bus. I booked a luxury seat on Cruz del sur – like a business class seat, and the bus has a loo. Take snacks as they don’t stop at all.

Local transport – I used an excellent private driver arranged through Ricardo at El Jacal. Daniel can be reached on =51 944 722 560

Accommodation – I stayed at the El Jacal Backpackers – lovely, very clean, good internet and has everything you need.

Tour – If you want to go on a tour – then this company is highly recommended (website here)

Permit – You need a permit to visit the park – I bought mine at Churup park post (150 soles for a month). You could go to the office in Huaraz, but it is often closed, so it is easier to just buy it when you enter the park

Connectivity – I bought a 5gb esim for my main phone for $20 from airalo (the cheapest on the market and uses the Telefonica/Movistar network in Peru). I also bought a local Claro sim card. Do not buy the claro in arrivals – they charge about USD$50 for a month, whereas if you go to a proper claro store with your passport you get 14gb of data and unlimited calls and texts for 45 soles (about usd 10). I didn’t have time to go in Lima (and the store upstairs in the airport which does offer cheap cards near domestic departures was closed). But you can get one at the big claro store in Huaraz. I also carried a garmin mini inreach with me so I could text home every day from the hills

Gas – can get camping gas in multiple stores – i went to montanas magicas.

Hiking food – I bought almost all my food from home as I am fussy and like to know I have the right balance of fibre and protein. But you could get supplies to keep you going in Huaraz.

Route details

*Note that Gaia understates the distances on the route planner, at least when compared to my Garmin tracking distance on the ground, so I used the garmin distances

Meandering around Manaslu

There are four circuits in Nepal that I have put on my ‘must do’ list – and to ‘must do’ soon as there is significant development of roads in most of these areas. The first was the Upper Mustang which was wonderful and I visited in October 2022. The second is the Manaslu circuit – which I have just almost completed. And hopefully I will visit the Dolpa and Kachenjunga in the next few years.

I decided to extend the Manaslu circuit by also doing a tour up the Tsum valley. And I significantly altered the recommended trek to get more walking in most days at lower altitude (more or less copying the Manaslu trail race itinerary). In the end, the weather was against me, with temperature on the Larke La pass being sub 10-15 degrees celcius, and I did not have the gear for that weather, so I turned around at Dharamsala. However, I did manage to get 250k of good hiking in during 9 proper days of walking.

The trail overall MAP

Day 1 getting to the trail head at Tatopani and getting a head start walking to Seleri – 11km, 665m ascent, 250m descent

Manaslu is one of the only circuits which is ‘easily’ accessible from Kathmandu by jeep. It was a 7 hour bumpy ride from town to the trail head just after Machhakhola. It is possible to take a public bus, but those days are behind me. We left at 6am, had espresso at 7am on the outskirts of Kathmandu (it takes a while to get out of town), and then had Dahl Baht at Soti Khola. We arrived at Tatopani around 1pm and started walking from there.

The ‘road’ used to stop at Soti Khola, and then Machhakhola, but the ‘road’ these days is mostly built up to Philim. In the earthquake, parts of the road have been destroyed, so brave vehicles can only get to Jagat. And on the day we started walking the army was blasting explosives at Dhoban so we had to get out 10k before Jagat to walk. It was a quiet stroll, no tourists, as it was late in the day, and while the views were nice, the road was dusty and rocky and not ideal to walk on.

We went a few km past Jagat to Saleri to a nice guesthouse, and had an early dinner of omelette and chapatis and an early night.

Day 2 – From Saleri to Chumling in the Tsum Valley via Philim and Lokpa – 23.4km, 7 hours, 1730m ascent, 730m descent 

I was very much looking forward to a proper day hiking, so we left 6.30am, and I had my breakfast and lunch (omelettes and chapatis) packed in my bag, as well as half a thermos of coffee. The trail up until Philim was largely the gravel road, and it was very quiet until we got there. We arrived around 8 ish and the normal trekking crowd were rousing themselves to leave. We had to stop for 15 minutes for our permit registration, but quickly caught up the trekkers who had stopped in the next village for a break (after walking 2km….. the guides really don’t think westerners are that fit, or perhaps this group weren’t).

After Philim we were now on proper trail, albeit largely pretty well benched trails which were wide enough to accommodate the mules who transport every single thing required up the valley. The mules were not particularly well treated, and were tough to pass. I never met a local or a trekker who did overtake them, but I did as they annoyed me to walk slowly behind them (plus I hated watching the mule guys throw rocks at the mules).

At the junction of the Manaslu valley, I went right to head up the Tsum valley, and fortunately most of the mules went left to follow the Manaslu circuit. I arrived in Lokpa, a tiny settlement at 10.30am, and ended up waiting 45 minutes for the guide, who wasn’t in peak fitness. We had a coffee, and then I agreed to meet the guide in Chumling, which was the furthest he was willing to walk that day.

It took me 2.5 hours to arrive in Chumling, and the trail was interesting with a lot of ups and downs to avoid landslide areas. The amusing part of the trail was a series of ‘cantilevered’ bridges which were literally hanging off the side of the cliff with sheer drops to the river below. I was reassured by the fact that the mules walked this trail every day, so if the structures could take the weight of the mules, they should be able to take my weight. It turns out I was lucky on the way in – as you can’t quite see how badly some of these bridges had been damaged in recent rockfall, but as you will see from the photos on the Day 5 entry, there was bugger all holding those bridges up when you viewed them from the Tsum valley side. Oh well, I made it across. I also managed to successfully move some mules on the final suspension bridge before Chumling. An annoying mule driver had stopped for tea but sent his mules across the bridge nonetheless. The problem was they were blocking the last 20m of the suspension bridge. It turns out it is quite hard to squish yourself between a mule and the side of a suspension bridge – the buggers are quite unyielding. I eventually took my pack off, breathed in, and squished sideways between the mules and the wire support on the side of the bridge, taking a few headbutts as I went. It was worth it, as I was very keen for a cup of tea at the final destination of Chumling.

I arrived in Chumling and found the lovely Tashi Dalek hotel (easily my favourite of the accommodation and food for the whole trek), and we were worried when the guide took a whole extra 90 minutes to arrive. The hotel owner was about to send out a search party. I had a lovely hot bucket of water to wash with and then wandered around the village. It feels properly remote up here – and I didn’t seen any tourists on the way up the trail. I had an excellent dinner of dhindo (buckwheat mush), nettle soup and boiled eggs. Dinner was quiet with only two other trekkers in the lodge – a young couple on a belated honeymoon. Their guide was hilarious and was making tiktok videos with his gopro.

Day 3 – From Chumling up to Mu Gompa at 3700m (via Chekempar and Nile) at the end of the Tsum valley and back to Nile 35km, 1850m of ascent, 9 hours, 34km, 850m descent

An early start with buckwheat pancakes and omelettes to go….. The trail was very quiet for the first 6km to the small settlement of Domje, and then the mules started. From Domje there was a wonderful steep benched trail in the sun up to a lovely high valley which starts with the village at Chekampar. I was accompanied by the mules up the trail, and it was actually quite fun as these mule drivers were friendly and were surprised I was walking as fast as the mules. As we crested the pass into the high valley, we could tell they had had a decent dump of snow the previous evening, though in the bright morning sun, it was already melting. I stopped at Chekempar to have some coffee from the thermos and my breakfast, and ignored the young kids who were asking me for chocolate.

The next few hours were a leisurely stroll through villages in a wide open valley flanked by stupendous peaks. I arrived at the village of Nile around 12.30 and found the pretty grotty guesthouse which was to be home for the evening and left my pack there.

I had lunch by the river and then hiked onwards to mu gompa – the last place tourists are allowed to walk in the valley, as it is quite close to the Tibetan border. It was only a 10km round trip, but the last 1/2km kicked my arse, with a steep 200m climb up to the gompa at 3700m. I had started the day at 2200m so was feeling the lack of oxygen. I said hello to the monks and had a quick look around, and the weather was turning, so I put three layers on, plus hat and gloves and trotted back down to Nile (where the guide had eventually arrived). I amused myself by singing to the Yaks on the way down – there were lots of them, and no humans thankfully to hear my tunelessness.

The guesthouse kitchen was crowded and warm with an odorous yak dung fire and three groups of hikers who had joined up into one bigger group to feed. It was pretty filthy, but remarkable to see how much food the boss could turn out from a wood fire with two burners on top and no running water.

I had a rough night sleep, which was probably a combination of the cold and the altitude and the hard mattress.   But it was worth it, as this was probably the best days hiking of the trip – i love a long hard day in the hills with epic views, sun shine and very few people. (note the sunshine was slightly problematic as I neglected to put sunscreen on the back of my knees and they blistered a few days later – oooops).

Day 4 Meander back down the valley to Chumling – 23km , 460 up, 1330 down, 5.5 hours

Today was an easy day, just returning to Chumling. So we slept in until 6.30 :-). On the way back down we meandered, visiting a monastery in Chule and also in Lamagaun. We stopped in Chekempar as I was tempted by a sign offering fresh coffee (it was ok but weak). And then we stopped again for tea and a gossip with some Czech trekkers in Domje and played with the two Tibetan mastifs which their guide had bought on the trek. Tibetan mastifs are gorgeous and excellent guard dogs – the guide had paid c. $40 for each dog, and was carrying them in his pack down the mountain.

We arrived back at the Tashi Dalek lodge at 1.30 just before the rain started. I treated myself to cheese momos and another bucket of hot water for a wash (as it turned out my last for the circuit, as it got too damn cold to get naked). It was like coming home. I read my book and the newspapers (quite good wifi up here), and then had an excellent dinner of buckwheat pancakes dahl soup and boiled eggs. They definitely had the best food of the circuit.

Day 5 From Chumling back to the main circuit at Bhi Pedi – 25k 1200m of ascent, 1500m of descent down, 6 hours

Another early start at 6.30am, though the guide had told me he wasn’t prepared to walk further than Bhi Pedi, so I would have to stop there for the evening. Oh well. The return to Lokpa was nice and energetic, and good practice for walking down steep stairs. The shite cantilevered bridges were a lot more vomit inducing from this side (see pictures below). Blech. If I hadn’t already crossed them, I am not sure if I would have been able to get myself over them. Oh well, I breathed in and went for it.

I arrived at lokpa after 2.5 hours of hiking just as the 8-10 tourists from Lokpa were starting their hiking day. The guides always look confused as they ask me where I started from. I really don’t understand why everyone doesn’t start hiking at 6.30 am as it is the best part of the day, but it is probably better for as it keeps the trails nice and quiet.

Shortly after Lokpa I was back on the main Manaslu circuit trail where all signs pointed to Larke Pass. And there was a lot of mule traffic, so i really started honing my overtaking skills and my mule whispering (I feel like I calm them when I talk to them, though I don’t think they like my singing). I meandered through Nyak Phedi and Pewa and arrived at Deng just after noon. At Deng the valley narrows and the wind howls down the Buri Gandaki river. I had a tea, and was amused by the site of some local hikers who were in various states of disrepair on the guesthouse terrace – all pretty much lying prone with their feet in the air and moaning. Unlike the foreigners, the locals don’t need to pay for a guide, and I was quite impressed to see the 5 of them out hiking (it isn’t a very Nepali thing to do for leisure).

As I was finishing my tea, I heard the sounds of mule bells, and figured the 150 mules I had overtaken on the way up the valley were about to go past, so I hustled my butt and got back on the trail ahead of them. Another hour later I arrived at the one shack metropolis of Bhi Phedi. A lovely Nepali family run guesthouse – the Singla guesthouse was more of a shack with no insulation, and the dining room was jutted out over the cliff with a fierce draft coming in. But the nice man made excellent dahl baht and spring rolls, and their son amused me by basically sitting next to me for a couple of hours and playing me jumanji videos on his mums phone. He was pretty snotty, but did add to the warmth. I read my book in my room (amused by the fact I could see through the gaps to both the adjacent rooms and the rooms downstairs), staying warm in my sleeping bag until dinner. Dinner was delicious and I met a nice german couple who were just doing the circuit and were worried (appropriately) about the weather on the pass, which was forecast for minus 15 degrees. Ouch. Another early night, always an easy decision when your sleeping bag is the warmest place to hang out (tip for trekkers – I always ask for extra blankets, not to put on the sleeping bag – which would squish the down and ruin the insulation, but to put on the mattress to make it softer and warmer)

Day 6 from Bhi Pedi to lho at 3200m, 25k and 1800m of climbing, 600m descent 7 hours

Another lovely dawn departure, and I didn’t see a soul on the undulating trail between Bhi Phedi and Ghap, just stunning views of the river in the deep gorge. After Ghap, things got a little more spicy as the mule trains rest at Ghap for the evening, so it was a little busy on the trail.

Getting up to Namrung was a nice steep grunt, but I was motivated by a few signs promising an espresso machine and Illy coffee at the lodge. It was a huge disappointment to arrive, see the machine through the window, and not be able to find a single person in the hotel for 20 minutes. And another disappointment on the other side of Namrung to find the fresh grind coffee shop also closed. (`And yes I recognise these are deeply first world disappointments). The trail was fine though with some pretty slippy eroded bits on landslide zones, but I normally felt fine crossing them, secure in the knowledge that the mules seem to make it fine.

From Namrung I had intended to make a detour to the monastery at Hinang, but the valley was full of cloud and rain, so I kept going to Lho enjoying the meandering trail. I got to Lho at 2pm, checked all the hotels and decided to stay at the Manaslu guesthouse (had the cleanest rooms and the warmest dining room). It also ended up having four other guests (quite busy! – a swiss couple and a dutch couple). I had lunch of dahl and chapatis and a huge pot of masala tea and chatted to the dutch doctor. Then the fire was lit, so we sat around and I a yummy dinner of Ting Momo (a bit like Bao buns), more tea and then an early night

Day 7 – easy day to Samagaon at 3500m, 14.5km, 5 hours 930m ascent, 580m descent

Another early start with an apple pancake/cheese omelette combo to go. I had planned a detour en route to Samagaon to visit Pungyen Gompa which is at 4200m. The trail diverted from the main circuit at Shyala. All was well for the first 300m and then the trail disappeared under snow. I probably made 400m of ascent, and a few km headway, before the deep snow, lack of traffic and lack of confidence that the weather wouldnt’ come in turned me back. Pungyen is uninhabited and I was by myself, so if I had fallen or had an issue I would have been in trouble (especially in the freezing temperatures).

Oh well, I retraced my steps down the hill and wandered up to Samagaon. ‘Sama’ as it is affectionately known is a pretty big settlement, with both the circuit traffic passing through, and also it is the supply town for Manaslu Base Camp. We were staying at a fairly grotty hotel – the Mt Manaslu – which is apparently the best in town. To be fair, the bulk of the grot was due to the overflowing loos which were created by the burst pipes from the freezing weather. I was also pretty itchy after sleeping on the sheets. On the upside, I picked the most insulated room, and the cook actually turned out pretty good food (and I had stopped over-thinking the hygiene standards).

I had some extra energy, and it was blimmen freezing, so I headed up to Birendra lake, which was lovely even if the views of the peaks were obscured by the clouds. I managed to get back to the hotel before the rain came in. I had some veg curry and then retreated to my room to get in my sleeping bag and stay warm (the dining room during the day was minus 2).

I resurfaced at 6pm, as the fire was going by then. And said good evening to all of the residents of the guesthouse in Lho from the previous evening. We sat roasting ourselves around the fire and contemplating the wisdom of trying to get over the pass in this weather. The poor swiss couple had been told they didn’t need sleeping bags, so they were already struggling with the weather. The dutch couple were new to trekking but pretty upbeat. All four of them decided they would give the pass a crack, and were amused that I probably wouldn’t (as i was definitely the strongest hiker…., but that is probably why I am now sage enough to make good trail decisions).

Day 8 – from Samagaon to near Dharamsala (4360m) and back, 23.4km, 6 hours, 930m ascent and descent

I had pretty much decided the weather wasn’t going to cooperate with me crossing the Larke La pass at 5200m, especially with the gear I had with me. But I did want to walk up to see the view of Mt Manaslu from near Dharamsala (which is the last accommodation before crossing the Larke La pass). I was up at 5.30am and it was fiercely cold even at 3500m. The cold was good incentive to walk very fast. I got to Samdo after 8km as a few trekkers were leaving to head to Dharamsala (this route normally takes people two days to go up for acclimatisation), and overtook them on the route up. The sky was clear as I left Samagaun, but the clouds had started to obscure the peaks from 9am onwards. However it was still a little warm with the sun, and the trail was free from snow, so it was a nice walk. I made it to 4360m and then decided I had done 12km, and should probably turn around.

I got back to Samagaun in time for a robust lunch of veg pizza (it was quite good), and then retreated into my sleeping bag for the afternoon with all my clothes on, my down jacket hood on and zipped up around my face, as that was the warmest place to be. I was the only guest in the lodge that night, but was grateful to the crew who still lit the fire for me at 5.30pm. That fire was wonderful, and i had a lovely dinner of soup and pancake, until the fire cooled down at 7pm and went back to bed. Bugger me it is freezing, and I am grateful I wasn’t sleeping higher up.

Day 9 – descending down to Ghap in the snow – 6.5 hours, 25km, 540m ascent, 1860m descent

I woke up in Samagaon to a 15cm snow dump, which definitely reinforced the wisdom of my decision to walk down the hill. Walking out entailed a 78 km back track, or an extra 38km hiking versus completing the circuit – but it was a no brainer in these weather conditions versus traversing a high, potentially snow blocked, pass. I popped my microspikes on, and we walked through the snow for about 10km to Lhi at 3000m where the snow and the snow fall stopped – I was grateful I had the spikes.

We kept meandering until Ghap, as the wind and rain was forecast for the afternoon, and we made it to the Nubri Ghap Lama Guesthouse around 2pm just before the rains. I re-met the trekkers from the Tsum valley on the way down, and they were all surprised by the retreat – though they will likely be able to get over the pass as the weather forecast for 5 days out was much better.

I was the only foreigner in the guesthouse that night, but was joined by 6 young monks who had finished a meditation course. They were quite sweet company. The guesthouse was basic, with gaping holes in the planks in the wall, but fortunately it was much warmer at 2200m.

Day 10 walk out to Jagat – 30km, 7 hours, 1200m ascent, 1900m descent.

It was a long day descending, so we headed out at 6.15am. I was delighted that there was still quite a lot of climbing on the day – unrelenting descent is tough on the knees, so the uphill is a nice diversion. The first couple of hours were lovely and quiet with rolling trail alongside the spectacular gorge with the Buri Ghandaki at the bottom.

I have started getting hiker hungry so for the first time I actually ate my breakfast at 6am, and was starving by the time I hit Nyak Phedi around 10.30am. The flies were offputting though so I kept walking until I had done 22km of the day and stopped for an omelette and tibetan bread (deep fried chapati) at ElekBhatti after being held up multiple times with mule trains coming in my direction on narrow ledges. After Elekbhatti, I was passing fresh trekkers who were coming into the circuit, and they oddly smelt quite perfumed. By this time I was not smelling good, so kept my arms quite tight to my sides when passing.

The last 6km from Philim were crap, walking along the road being built with a lot of wind blowing in my face and too much dust. I arrived at Jagat around 3pm and investigated the hotels – all varying degrees of grot. I quite liked the boss lady at the Manaslu Shanti hotel and she promised me a hot shower ($2), good wifi, and some fruit. So I enjoyed her hospitality with the peeling pink paint and concrete and some of the hardest mattresses of the circuit. But Ranjana made an excellent cheese and veg spring roll, and the hot shower in a filthy cubicle was EPIC.

We had hoped the jeep could pick us up in Jagat, but the driver called and said it was too hard (he was a Kathmandu driver versus a local one – as the locals can get to Jagat), so we got a bonus 8km early the next morning walking out to Dobhan, but it only took an hour and a half. Then a bumpy 7 hour jeep ride back to Kathmandu where I had a lovely few relaxing days  in my favourite Nepalese hotel having massages, eating steak and sleeping in nice sheets.

Notes on the tour

Guide and porters – I didn’t use a porter, most people did. I didn’t need one, I only had about 10kg with water. If you are taking a porter it is normal (not really optional) to tip $7-10 per day. You should also make sure the porters food is being paid for by their agency. Their wage is 2000 rupees per day (about $15), and as they climb, their two daily meals will cost 600-1000 rupees per day which is a big chunk of their wages if the agency doesn’t cover it. Guides are mandatory in the Manaslu (and about to be mandatory for all trekking in Nepal). They get paid between $20-80 per day by their agencies, and the would also expect $15 tip per day (from the whole group or individual, tip is per day per guide). I organised through Neer and Ram at Hidden Trails, who also organise the Mustang and Manaslu trail races.

Gear – Weather can be unpredictable – take warm gear. I had gear which would have kept me warm hiking at zero degrees. I did not have gear that would have kept me warm moving slowly at the minus 15 degrees forecast on the Larke La pass. I was warm enough in the tea houses as I had an excellent sleeping bag and a good down jacket and I slept in all my clothes. Also note that you should remember that you cannot hike in your down jacket if it is proper down. Once it gets wet (from sweat), it loses all of its insulation qualities. Your down jacket should be reserved for when you stop and you need to warm up. (I was surprised how many trekkers were wearing all of their gear while moving – it is dangerous as you have nothing to put on when you inevitably cool down when you stop, especially if you have sweated in your down jacket and gotten it wet). Also take good boots or microspikes for snow. I had one pole which was also helpful.

Tea houses – Note these are very very basic. Most of the ones we stayed in had no insulation and holes in the walls (or gaps between planks). Do not be suckered into taking the room with the big windows and the views – those windows will let the freezing cold in at 4am when it is minus 5. Pick the warmest room – normally downstairs, and ideally with stone or brick walls. Don’t expect hot showers as you go up in altitude, though a bucket of hot water is normally available for a fee. On my trip all of us were too cold to even consider taking our clothes off to wash even in hot water once we got above 3000m

Connectivity – Wifi is available most places, and if you bought the NTC sim (the government network) versus the Ncell sim at the airport, you can get data and signal in quite a lot of the valley all they way up to Samagaon. Wifi is 100 rupees in Jagat and 500 rupees in Samagaon, and on a sliding scale in between based on altitude (and cost to provide).

Route – I would not recommend starting hiking before Machhakhola… you will be walking along a muddy road with a lot of jeep dust up your nose. Apparently the tour agents like to start as low down the valley as possible (Arughat or Soti Khola), even if it means 2-3 days of road walking, as it means they get more work. Hmmmmm. I would take a jeep to Jagat which is the furthest you can currently get, and you will still end up walking on a half built road to Philim (6km further on). The nice trekking starts on a normal hiking path from Philim. Note also that the jeep road can pick you up from Dharapani, so there is no need to trek further than that

I would also recommend working out what distances you want to walk each day. Most of the tours walk very short distances, they start late (at 8), have a long lunch, and finish early. I don’t really see the point as the tea houses are not luxurious places to hang out (half the time they are freezing and I had to spend the afternoon in my sleeping bag until the fire was lit at dinner time in the dining room). Starting late also means you miss the best bit of the day. Most fit trekkers can easily do 20km per day rather than 10km, at least until you get to 3500m. The companies will edit the itinerary around you, if you are clear with them what you want.

Mules – once you get on the normal trekking trail the mules are a problem if you want to maintain a good pace. All the trekkers I saw let the mules overtake them. I didn’t – they walked too slowly – so I would routinely overtake 100-150 mules every day. However the guide counselled against overtaking. Oh well. I avoided getting kicked or bitten, though I did get shoved a couple of times. My advice is to overtake on the hill side (not on the steep drop off side of the trail). And they are much easier to overtake in villages (when you can walk up the other side of the prayer wall, or go around them when the stop for a drink). And be careful when they swish their tales or shake their heads. They are pissed off so be careful and make no sudden moves. Note also mules come with a distinctive pee and poo……, its quite memorable and odorous. On the bright side if you are at a fork in a junction and are unsure which is the main trail, it is always easy to figure out – just choose the path with the fresh mule crap. Everything north of Jagat arrives on a mule, so expect to see lots of them, and it is depressing watching the mule drivers throw rocks at the mules and whack them to make them go faster.

Food – The food is pretty dire. I don’t eat the meat while trekking as it is carried up on mules and not refrigerated. So the options are dal baht (watery dahl soup, veg curry (normally potatoes), rice and pickle) or a million variations of rice, pasta, pancakes with egg, cheese or veg. And the veg variety gets sparse as you climb. I would recommend taking some hiking meals to rehydrate and also carry some fruit. I also avoided stopping for lunch, as everything is made to order and can take an hour or more to make. I would order a double breakfast of omelettes and chapatis (or pancakes) and roll them up into burritos and eat them later in the day. I also always ordered a pot of coffee in the morning and took half with me in the thermos. This meant I could stop and eat breakfast and lunch when I was hungry. I didn’t carry any snacks or chocolate, mostly as I am trying to stop eating so much junk and processed food, but I didn’t miss the lack of snacks. Three meals a day was fine. By the time I came back, I was very sick of eggs (I was eating 4-6 per day to get some protein in). I also got some protein from drinking a litre of masala tea (a small pot) every afternoon and a litre of milk coffee every morning.

Kathmandu, March 2023