The Lumba Sumba Passage

Trekking is evolving fast on once remote east Nepal routes

My time in the Himalaya began as a climber in Kashmir in 1965. But the years pass, and climbing has given way to trekking.

It started in Baltistan, when the youngest of our three children was seven, and during the last seven years my wife Connie and I have trekked every season, covering the entire span of the Himalaya from Ladakh, through Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, to Nepal and Bhutan.

This year’s trek covered a wonderful circuit in eastern Nepal, starting in Taplejung, crossing four major passes: the Lasiya Bhanjyang (3,420m), Selele La (4,632m), Nango La (4,700m) and Lumba Sumba (5,159m) to finish down the Arun River in Num.

Accompanying us was an old friend, Peter Dean, who had been with us in 2013 when we traversed from Jumla to Darchula in far-west Nepal, skirting the great Api and Saipal ranges. Our support team was led by our friend Ang Tsering Sherpa, manager of the Khumbu Shangrila agency.

His cousin Ang Namgel Sherpa, seven-time Everest summiteer, lead the group, ably assisted by Temba Tashi Sherpa and cook Karma Tenji Sherpa, both of whom we knew from before. Three cook boys and eight porters, three from Taplejung, completed the team — a more reliable group of young men would be hard to imagine. And we knew that this trek might also be our final. Filling missing sections of the Himalaya will henceforth be done with less sense of urgency.

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Fresh snow above Langjang campsite (3,722m). Photo: HENRY EDMUNDSON

The year before, we had been in the same region and completed Nango La, but missed the Lumba Sumba due to a medical emergency. The time-lapse view allowed us to witness how trekking is evolving in the remotest region of east Nepal.

Trekking to the north and south base camps of Kangchenjunga is becoming increasingly popular, and perhaps taking a rightful share off routes such as the Annapurna circuit, which are so compromised now by road building. Last year, there was substantial traffic up to Ghunsa and beyond, heading for north base camp. This year there were several large parties negotiating Selele La, an obligatory passage from north base camp to south, or vice-versa.

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For this popular route, lodges are abundant or being expanded. Less travelled was Lumba Sumba pass, which needs camping and full kitchen staff. But for how much longer?

The Kangchenjunga Conservation Project Agency has set up a hut, toilet and tent areas on the approach to the Nango La, and some of the paths are transformed into well made stone highways 1m wide.

A stone path from the new road to the Chinese border from Tiptala La now heads to Lumba Sumba and continues to Pass Camp (4,458m) and beyond. It made for rapid progress, even if it dumbed down the walking experience.

After crossing Lumba Sumba, however, the trail is tough. Between Thudam, an isolated village with more affinity to Tibet than Nepal, and Chepuwa, boot tracks are rare in the vertiginous jungle paths.

Our style of trekking, with complete kitchen team, might soon become obsolete. Just a couple of new lodges and some trail clearing would make the whole area far more accessible. In Ghunsa, locals told us: “You camping trekkers with kitchen staff don’t add anything to the local economy.”

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The rewards of camping, however, are extraordinary: visiting the isolated village of Olangchungola and its fabulous Nyingma-pa monastery housing multiple copies of the Kangyur and Tengyur stacked to the rafters, the golden millet fields of Chepuwa, and the mighty and wild Arun River, which cuts straight through the Himalaya between Kangchenjunga and Makalu massifs.