The ABCs of a winter trek in Nepal

Ever since trekking became the mainstay of tourism in Nepal, guidebooks have decreed that hiking in the Himalaya is only advisable in spring and autumn. What nonsense.

As we saw this past week, Nepal becomes a winter wonderland during January. The mountains emerge with a fresh coating of snow, the air is crisp and the sun blindingly bright. And the best thing about it is that there are very few other tourists.

Winter trekking is now possible not just because of global warming, but also because there are new roads, guest houses, homestays and facilities along the trails. And while the high passes like Thorung La and Kang La in Manang, the Mardi and Khopra Treks, or Cho La in the Everest region may be completely snowed under, the Annapurna Base Camp trek is do-able.

Hikers on their way from Machapuchre Base Camp (3,700m) to Annapurna Base Camp (4,130m). This part of the trail is closed due to heavy snowfall this week, and may reopen in about 10 days. All photos: MONIKA DEUPALA

A recent trek to ABC showed that the trail is mostly occupied by Nepalis and Koreans who are more adventurous and no longer satisfied with throwing around snowballs on Pulchoki or Chandragiri.

“It is hard to describe the pleasure of walk on a snowy trail with just the sound of your heavy breath, friction of your jacket, or boots crunching through the snow,” says Lee Chul from Korea, at Machapuchre Base Camp.

After Kathmandu Valley did not meet his expectations about Nepal, Chul headed off to Pokhara and the ABC trek despite the snowfall. He went without a guide, and says that although he had to rough it, the adventure was worth every minute. He adds bravely: “The cold cannot keep us away from the Himalaya.”

At the Annapurna Conservation Project checkpoint in Chomrong (2,177m) Sarita Pun shows us the entries for January which have numbers that are almost the same as for December.

“After this week’s snowfall, some trekkers have turned back because of ice on the trails,” she tells us, while many trekkers are waiting it out in Ghandruk for the snow to start melting on the trails above Bamboo, which is at 2,340m.

Unique Gurung, 21, is a cook at the Annapurna Sanctuary Lodge at ABC (4,130 m) and says the temperature hit -20 this week. He has headed down to Deurali (3,200 m) along with his team to shovel the snow to keep the trail open for trekkers.

Gurung says October is the peak season at ABC with 70 guests a day, and although the number is lower in winter, there has been an unusual surge of Nepali trekkers venturing up through the snow.

Almost as adventurous as the Nepalis are Koreans, and tourists from China have started arriving for the Chinese New Year Holiday. Some 50 of them had to be evacuated by helicopter from Deurali after heavy snow blocked the path down this weekend.

Nabin Balla from Bhaktapur is a new breed of Nepali trekker who has been exploring different parts of Nepal. Although he finds October the best time for treks in Nepal, he is always open to adventure and was in ABC in mid-January.

“It is actually more expensive to trek in winter because you need extra heavy-duty gear to keep warm, but it has its rewards in mountains that are crystal clear and empty trails,” he says.

Rana Roka of the Eastern Light Trek in Pokhara recommends Poon Hill and Jomsom as the best bet for winter, although he does not rule out ABC once the snow on the trails has thinned.

Says Roka: “You have to be careful about avalanches and sickness, but trekking in winter is challenging and exciting at the same time."

Monika Deupala