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Appalled Around Dhaulagiri

by Jamie McGuinness

Originally for the Trekking Agents Association of Nepal (TAAN) newsletter. They didn't print it.

Here is the 1996 article unchanged although i most recently trekked the route in 2009. See my quick guide to it for more up-to-date info.

It is still a dangerous trek for many reasons. Ropes are needed, the rockfall danger is very real, snow conditions can be seriously dangerous (not just a bit difficult, but life-threatening) so take care on this trek.

What is my favourite trek? Around Dhaulagiri is hard to beat. Hidden Valley and Dhaulagiri Base Camp are in such wild difficult terrain that you know mere mortals are not supposed to be there.

Around Dhaulagiri has to be the toughest 'standard' commercial trek in Nepal. It is also one of the most dangerous. The truth is that many of the foreign companies who have jumped on the 'here's a new trek' bandwagon, and the trekking companies that are suddenly asked to take a group, have little idea about just what sort of trek this is. Most groups are not prepared for just how tough it is. We met one Australian group who had been told it was like the Annapurna Circuit. Incredibly everyone managed to finish it - just - but a number of them won't return to Nepal because the extreme nature of the trek put them off. A few loved it and will perhaps be mildly disappointed by their next trek.

We watched another large group struggle up French Col. Some members were OK. Observing the others was heart-breaking. They plodded up, head hung down gasping 2 ragged breaths to every step. One looked so sick we wondered if he might die soon. And the sirdar had the cheek to say that everyone was fine and not suffering from the altitude.

It isn't just tough on the members. Many porters are not prepared for the rough glacier walking and the intense cold. Some we met begged food, others only had one shoe left. Several gave up on the glacier, abandoning their loads and running back down.

These sights appalled us but worse was to come on my next Circuit. A member of a big group mentioned one of their porter's was sleeping in the snow. He wasn't sleeping. He was dead. Within an hour we passed three more dead bodies. They had died of the cold. We also met a sirdar beating a porter who had collapsed. The boy was obviously not far off dying. We screamed sense into the sirdar, gave the load to a sherpa and instructed 2 members to look after the porter. Obviously the sirdar wasn't going to. Once past Dhaulagiri Base Camps one more porter was dead from altitude sickness. Everybody was appalled. A trek, a holiday for the foreigners is not worth people dying for. I am sure all of you would agree.

Why is this trek so tough and dangerous? For those that haven't been, the standard trek begins from Baglung and goes via Darbang and Muri or sometimes Khibang to Boghara, the last village. From here the wilderness begins, first with a small difficult trail set is beautiful virgin forest. From the alpine grasses of Italy Base Camp the terrain becomes very rough. The route crosses a difficult rubble-covered glacier (fixed rope required) then after some rockfall danger climbs onto the main glacier. The hard-to-find trail traverses knife-edged ridges on loose rock where a slip would mean death. As the path roller-coasters up the scenery becomes unbelievably spectacular. Past Army Base Camp heading up French Col the trail eases then drops into Hidden Valley, broad and open with rich hued rocks and barely a blade of grass. Here, at 5000m it is perpetually cold, at least -15C° in October and -20C° in November at night. The only exit is Dhampus Pass leading to Marpha or Tukuche.

To run a safe trek you must ensure the sirdar, a sherpa and a porter or two have been there at least a handful of times. Porters must be provided with warm pants and a jacket. They also ALL must have a wind-proof jacket. The sirdar should carry spare pairs of shoes. All crew must have a tent to sleep in (and 40 porters need more than one dining tent). They should also have 2 blankets at minimum and perhaps an extra tarpaulin. You need porters to be in top condition so YOU should provide them with fuel and food after leaving the last village. The reason is there is no firewood and they often don't take enough to eat, dangerously weakening themselves. The sirdar and a sherpa or two should have plastic or very strong leather boots.

Does this sound over the top? If conditions are perfect, all these preparations will be just enough. If it snows you'll wish you had taken more. If this was raftable river, this route would have been closed as too dangerous for porters long ago.

The last concern is altitude sickness. Every group I have seen has had some potentially dangerous AMS problems. Following the HRA acclimatization guide-lines would mean sleeping 3 more nights on the glacier (in addition to the standard 2 nights at Italy Base Camp) - basically impossible.

Soon a foreigner will die up there from AMS. Diamox must be carried and used by most members and the best companies will take a Gamow bag, with a sirdar trained in its use. Many members and porters suffer altitude sickness on this trek.

Absolutely the best option is to alter the itinerary to begin with the Annapurna Circuit then trek around Dhaulagiri in the opposite direction to standard. With everyone already acclimatized this is much safer, and means that most members will actually enjoy the trek.

There is more info on trekking around Dhaulagiri under the Treks & Travel info section, or click here...

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