Dhaulagiri Circuit trek advice
This was originally written in the mid-1990s and in 2009 I trekked around
Dhaulagiri again, updating this. Even by 2017, not much has changed; this info is still very relevant.
- Jamie McGuinness
Trekking around Dhaulagiri is an exceptional trek that passes through staggering alpine terrain. It is definitely not a standard trek, being tough and demanding and has shocked many trekkers who expected something similar to the Annapurna Circuit or the Everest trek. It is better labelled as an extreme route; extreme, because you need a rope and should also take ice-axe and crampons. Going without a guide is for mountaineers only.
With its extended high altitude nature it should only be attempted when snow-free, from late September to December or perhaps May and early June. This means don't go during March or April, these times can be particularly unpredictable and dangerous.
Rock fall - there is real rock fall danger in two places, and if it has rained recently it will rain rocks in a place that you have to trek under. The danger is extreme, and I don't say that lightly. I was watching the rocks fall while my friend walked the dodgy section (too long to run). So I was watching for rocks coming from a large face, they were coming in at a 45 degree angle - then suddenly, one shattered a foot away from me that had fallen vertically. Understand that I was watching for rocks, and I still didn't see that missile.
In perfect conditions, ie dry and fine for a while there is much less rock fall danger, but there is always rock fall in at least one spot.
Spring snow - breaking trail though deep snow is arduous but doable, no problem, especially going downhill. However from between Dhampus Pass to near Yak Kharka, the trail is dangerous in snow. First, finding the trail is difficult and it traverses steep ground, second there is real avalanche danger, and third, when the snow is melting, snow-water-ice streams flow and these are extremely dangerous. That "extreme" word again...
Getting trapped - if it snows during a trek, usually it is not a problem, occasionally it may mean waiting a day or two for it to clear. However you are trapped if real snow falls (25cm+) in Hidden Valley. Breaking trail on either trail out will be very dangerous. Ensure you make the right decisions. You may be able to helicopter evac out, but what about your crew?
Ascending to Dhaulagiri Base Camps and through the Hidden Valley involves a dangerously sudden rise in altitude. If you aren't previously partially acclimatized you risk serious altitude sickness in an area that is tough to escape from.
Many groups have simply trekked clockwise, beginning from Darbang, with with only one acclimatization rest day en route to the base camps. In all cases most people were distinctly uncomfortable and some dangerously sick with AMS on reaching Hidden Valley. Being held up a day here by snow or an emergency would probably have killed trekkers. It has killed porters. Also expeditions and groups heading anti-clockwise from Marpha up to Hidden Valley have reported numerous worrying altitude problems.
Instead, plan to acclimatize properly first. There are many options: en route to Marpha you could begin with the Annapurna Circuit or, from Pokhara, start with the Annapurna Sanctuary trek (10-12 days), however simply trekking via Ghorepani and Poon Hill does not offer enough acclimatization.
A clockwise Dhaulagiri trek could be started from Thamgas, via Dhorpatan and the Jaljala (8-9 days to Bagaraha) or, starting from Darbang, there are routes via Asnam Dhuri from the Rahughat Khola or Marang Khola.
All companies say they have a good acclimatization plan but 95% of them are talking yakshit, and this often includes foreign companies as well.
The reality is this is no place for porters. Even in October night temperatures in Hidden Valley are likely to be -15 to -20C, and in November, -18 to -25C. Porters don't have the equipment to sleep outside or under rocks in these temperatures. Again some companies have killed porters in this way.
From the south the last village is Bogahara but people from here run simple teashacks at four or five places up to and including Italian BC. Do ask the locals which ones are open. The main places are Doban, Salla Ghadi and Italian BC.
Beyond Italian BC there are no facilities until Marpha.
Carry water for the day from Marpha. From the mani wall at the centre of Marpha (now clearly labelled) take the stairs heading west for the relentless and brutal climb. Several hours up the goat tracks divide, almost unseen, into 3 trails, each of which round the ridge to the south then rejoin. Perhaps around lunch time you pass two sets of roofed goths (summer houses). Water is tucked slightly off the main trail on a minor trail just below the first set of goths.
Above, spreading south is Yak Kharka with its numerous trails and many roofless shelters, only a couple of which are near the small year-round water supply. These are several hours from the roofed summer houses, and roughly in the middle of the vast hillside. After camping here stock up with water since tomorrow there may not be any more until near Kalapani.
On the skyline above Yak Kharka, perhaps slightly south, is a string of several large cairns that lead to the trail higher up. This initially heads close to the Dhampus ridge but mainly stays below the crest. Later in the day the climb eases to a long contour. After crossing several minor ravines, which may have water, there are a few flattened camping spots among the barren rock. This is Kalapani (black water), the usual camping spot. From here the trail continues contouring and gently rising to the pass, an hour or so away. A line of small rock pillars leads to the trail over the other side.
Welcome to the Hidden Valley expanse! Once on wide open valley floor there are numerous camping spots, some with free expedition litter. Hidden Valley to Marpha can be done in one tough day, hard on the knees though.
Climbing Dhampus Peak 6065m
From near the pass head up the easiest line on the rock scree. Eventually gain the ridge and just beyond is a snowfield attached to the ridge. Ascend on the ice then return to the rock crest. From the summit the panorama of the Annapurna range is stupendous. Manaslu and Huin Chuli rise majestically above the area where Tilicho (lake) is. The true summit is 6065m, not the 6035m that is recorded. There are several fore-summits, but of course there is only one real summit, and it is the furthest!
If Hidden Valley is as far as you are going the long half-day trip (return) to the top of French Col is rewarding. It is less strenuous than Dhampus Peak and, if snow-free, doesn't require crampons.
To Dhaulagiri Base Camp
Trails on maps, even "latest" ones, don't always mark the trail correctly, use your eyes first. From the top of French Col the descent is gentle at first. The cairns lead to then follow the top of the moraine wall then abruptly you must descend to the glacier. This is steep and potentially dangerous: descend one at a time and some groups use a rope here. Once on the ice move quickly since avalanches can land uncomfortably close.
Reached in a couple of hours from French Col, the base camp (sometimes called Army BC) is usually marked by flags. It's merely a collection of flat tent spots on glacier rubble opposite to where the icefall from Dhaulagiri descends into the main valley, unless expeditions are in residence.
Descending from the Base Camp should only be attempted in high visibility conditions. If you follow the correct route there should be no hidden crevasses, but stray from the route and you are in terrain that definitely needs a rope.
Initially stay west (right) on the rubble which turns to glacier ice then head to the centre of the glacier on a higher ridge. Past the incoming glacier to the west there are seracs on the east side. After these some groups head off the glacier on this eastern side following the stream and bergschrund before heading to the jagged ridges at the centre of the glacier. Gradually move to the west side and pass some cleared areas where groups have camped. Once off the glacier rubble stay on the west bank of the stream descending to a grassy area. The camp is by a large stone.
To Italy Base Camp
After a steep descent the trail abruptly falls down dangerous moraine to cross the incoming glacier. Groups have often had to make their own trail down using shovels and setting up a handline.
Ascending the moraine on the other side is steep and DEFINITELY requires a rope and somebody game enough to climb it first without a rope. The grassy area is called Italy Base Camp. There are simple shelters here open during the season.
Pick up the delightfully small trail that winds through pleasant forest. After crossing several streams there is a particularly beautiful forest camp among huge cedar trees. Further down are several bridges to the west bank, one of which you should cross. The roller-coaster trail stays on the west side and crosses several streams on flimsy bridges. After one of these is Doban, a small clearing amid the forest, and has two simple teahouses that are often open during the trekking seasons.
More roller-coaster. Although several grazing areas are named on maps the first village is Jeldung, 20 mins above Bogaraha (which is occasionally called 'bugger-this!'). Groups commonly camp by the school.
You may have reached human habitation but the trail is still grotesque. It continues ascending and descending and crossing steep faces with gay abandon to the hamlet of Naura, half a day down. Slightly beyond is a choice between taking the shortcut across the Myagdi Khola to Malimpaa or Khibang or staying on the west bank for the longer but more scenic route via Muri and the delightfully situated village of Takum. Along this stretch are some shops and simple lodges.
The routes converge at Darbang, a prosperous trading village where there are several Dal Bhaat lodges and numerous shops. The road now finishes here and so this is where you can catch a bus to Beni.
You can believe the better trekking companies when they say they outfit their porters for this trip. If you are only 1-2 people do take a look at The Mountain Company, They run well put together treks around Dhaulagiri.
Me and Matt would just like to thank you for writing and posting all the information in the first place as this was a good catalyst for our research and it is great that someone is being so helpful and responsible and telling it how it is as we dont want to be with porters who dont have proper clothes and get abandoned en route etc. Also great to have the advice about the acclimitisation etc as it is apparent how short the itineraries are of companies all over the world when they are trying to jam in the numbers of people to maximise the time of work, so shorten ascent times. Unfortunately I am guilty of this I suppose as I am coming over for a month then going back to work but hopefully we've sussed out something that will work out well for everyone - about twelve days independently on the annapurna circuit including the thorong la pass over to marpha , then meet our staff there to do the dhaulagiri circuit and they are already on it before us so hopefully will be happy and acclimitised but we are going to check out the kit situation in kathmandu before we go on trek.
Beth and Matt