Kah Phu Che

Where ice tumbles down to a pasture which has now turned into a lake

Kapuche lake in 2015. ALL PHOTOS: HUM GURUNG

Kapuche used to be a meadow where herders from the valley below brought buffaloes and goats to graze in summer.  

The name itself is derived from the Gurung words ‘kah’ (ice), ‘phu’ (tumbling), and ‘che’ (flat land), perfectly describing what happens here: ice avalanches tumble 5,000m from the peaks of Annapurna directly down to the pasture.  

In 2001, small ponds started forming on the accumulated ice. Global warming has now melted the ice, and Kapuche is a turquoise lake shimmering like a jewel below Lamjung Himal, Annapurna II and IV and Sikles Peak. 

The lake is situated at 2,450m, and is tucked away in such a deep valley that none of those peaks are visible from its shore. A two hour walk below the lake is Hugu Goth, a cattle shed where herders used to stay summers as livestock grazed in the succulent grass.

As a boy 42 years ago, I used to walk here barefoot from Sikles on school excursions to learn about the mountain ecosystem. Global warming had not yet melted the ice, so buffaloes and goats could cross over to the other side to graze.

The winter snow used to come like clockwork in January when families in Sikles celebrated Maghe Sankranti. Monsoons were regular with three months of relentless rain and mist. Winters are now dry, and the monsoons have become erratic.

I did my master’s in national parks and tourism in New Zealand and a doctorate in conservation tourism in Australia, and am interested in how climate change impacts the Himalaya, especially my home region below the Annapurnas. 

I next travelled to Kapuche in 2015. By then, the lake was  constantly fed by avalanches and glacial melt flowing down from the cliffs above.  

aerial view
An aerial view of Kapuche from a sightseeing aircraft of Avia Club Nepal. PHOTO: AVIA CLUB NEPAL

Nearly 10 years later, we visited Kapuche again last week, and noticed that the lake had grown dramatically bigger with icebergs floating on the surface. Above, the escarpments of Annapurna IV appear to have much less ice than in 2015. With us was the Chair of the Annapurna Conservation Area (ACA) Management Committee of Parche Village and MP Man Bahadur Gurung who has also noticed many changes here over the years. 

Hugu Goth used to have half a dozen families growing maize, beans and potatoes, and tending to their animals. It was here that French filmmaker Eric Valli and Diane Summers captured the portraits of the two herders and hunters, Bhim Bahadur Gurung and Mej Bahadur Gurung in their classic 1988 book Honey Hunters of Nepal which also became a documentary. 

With outmigration and as trekking took off, some herders converted their buffalo sheds into lodges, and there are now six inns in Kapuche and three in Hugu. Footfalls have also increased because of the 45MW hydropower plant under construction nearby along the headwaters of the Madi River. 

Dogs are a constant companions during the Sikles-Kapuche trek and lounge on the shores of the lake. The hike is increasingly popular with international trekkers.

Locals here recall that avalanches used to be more frequent in the past, probably because there was more snow. Boating is prohibited due to the danger of falling ice, but some trekkers bring rafts anyway. The water is ice-cold, still this does not deter adventurous ones to swim out to the middle of the lake to celebrate reaching their destination.

The forests are lush due to the heavy rainfall as well as moisture from powder snow avalanches. The thick woods teem with wildlife, and are alive with birdcalls. The Annapurna Conservation Area (ACA) is the largest protected area in Nepal and an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area, as well as a Key Biodiversity Area. 

ACA has designed a survey form for visitors to monitor avalanches that they may witness. The ACA Management Committee keeps track of the lake's shape and size with the help of citizen scientists Prakash Gurung and Dhan Bahadur Gurung who run lodges on the shore. 

Lush forest trails along the way from Sikles to Kapuche.

The colour of the lake changes constantly, from crystal blue in winter to green as the snow starts to melt, and turns a turbid grey during the monsoon. 

Just three hours by car from Pokhara, Sikles is drawing domestic and international visitors to experience its rich Gurung heritage, as well as enjoy the scenery of this relatively less crowded trekking area. Sikles also inspired the concept of sustainable ecotourism for Nepal's conservation areas. The village was awarded UNDP’s Equator Initiative Prize in 2014. 

After the wilderness trek to Kapuche, Sikles is a good place to immerse in the culture and learn about indigenous conservation practices of the Gurung people. 

Kapuche, here we come

kah pu che
Kapuche Lake in 2015 and April 2024, showing changes in the avalanche fan, icebergs and snow cover on the mountains.

Nowhere in Nepal is there such an accessible place to observe first-hand the impact of climate breakdown, while also being a popular trekking destination. 

Kapuche Lake, only an 8-hour hike from Sikles which itself is three hours up by jeep from Pokhara, is the lowest glacial lake in Nepal and offers a vivid demonstration of just how rapidly the Himalayan ice-cap is melting.

Selfies and videos posted by visitors on social media platforms in recent years have popularised the trek and lake, bringing ever more domestic and foreign tourists to the site.

Most glacial lakes in the Himalaya are at elevations between 4,500-5,500m and need a week of trekking to get to, but Kapuche is located at only 2,450m at the bottom of a deep avalanche funnel directly below Annapurna II. 

Some scientists say Kapuche cannot even be called a glacial lake because it just collects water from frequent avalanches that thunder down from the vast snowfield at 7,500m between Annapurna II and IV. 

Most Himalayan lakes are moraine-dammed proglacial lakes, or are supra-glacial ponds that started forming after the Little Ice Age 700 years ago, a natural process that was accelerated by anthropogenic greenhouse gas buildup in the atmosphere after the Industrial Era.

Kapuche was only an avalanche fan till a Landsat image in 2001 showed that small ponds had formed in the debris field. Since then, the ponds have merged into a lake that has grown tenfold in size to measure 15 hectares and is now more than 32m deep in some sections.

A video posted on YouTube in January 2021 of a massive powder snow avalanche preceded by an air blast that swept down to the lake went viral. Since then, tourists flocked to Kapuche hoping to be lucky enough to take selfies of another avalanche, with some even venturing into the dangerous debris fan on the other side of the lake.

So many visitors visit Kapuche now that there are lodges by the shore, as well as some canine guides who came here with trekkers and never went back because they enjoy the fresh mountain air.

How to get there

kahphuche map

- Fly or drive to Pokhara, and take the turnoff to Sikles for a 3 hour ride over a newly paved road. Only the last section after Khilang is still rough. 

- Spend a night in one of the many lodges in Sikles, and explore this well-preserved Gurung village and birthplace of conservationist Chandra Gurung.

- Start scenic hike with spectacular views of Annapurna II and Lamjung Himal.

-The trail follows the Madi Khola which drains Kapuche Lake.

- A 5 hour walk brings you to Hugu Goth for the night stop at the cattle shed-turned-lodge.  

- It is a 2 hour hike to Kapuche Lake past construction site of a 25MW hydropower plant. 

 - Camp by the shore or stay in one of the lodges, or hike back to Hugu. 

 - Back to Sikles for ride down to Pokhara.

Side trip on return: At Hugu, cross the Madi and climb up to Kori Peak (3,800m) with its high meadows for a magnificent view of Lamjung Himal. Need camping gear. Descend to Sikles.

Cost: Rs5,000 per day for meals and room.

Foreigners charged $50 for ACA and Trekking Permits.

Transport from Kathmandu or Pokhara extra.