We have now been trekking for three years in different countries and it was always a dream to go to the world’s highest mountain range. We had heard many stories and we wanted to live it ourselves; life on the mountains, sherpas, teahouses…etc. So after lots of planning we bough flights for The Himalayas in Nepal.
Choosing the route.
The Himalayas are a mountain range 1500 km long that extend east to west in the north of Nepal, this as you can imagine, opens the door to 100s, probably 1000s of different walks so making a decision and choosing a route is no easy task.
Mount Everest, the highest peak on earth, is in the east of the country, therefore walks in that area are more popular, busier as well as being more accessible with better accommodation. The further west you go, the more complicated the logistics are in every aspect, but you are rewarded with quieter paths.
We hate crowed places, so for us it was a must that the trek was off the beaten track. After hours and hours of research we decided that Kophra Ridge would be our trek. A perfect combination of peace and comfort, a trek in the popular Annapurna region, but away from the main paths for most of the walk. We planned to extend it to Khayer Lake to put our bodies to the test by going to a new highest altitude of 4700m.
Agency or self guided?
If you have read some of our blog, you will know by now that we don’t like being guided, in fact we enjoy finding our way as much as we enjoy walking. So the first idea we had was to self guide, especially from my point of view, the challenge of guiding our expedition in the Himalayas was incredibly appealing. The info out there is vast, however information for that particular area was sadly limited. We had a look at the option of having a guide, but agencies have ridiculous prices and want to sell you all kinds of crap we weren’t interested in. Porters, western hotels, western food etc. We just wanted someone to guide us up the mountain, so in first instance we ruled out that option.
We kept searching for information. One day we would make up our minds about doing it independently. The next day we’d feel the oppposite. There was a lot of conflicting information online, and mixed reviews of other peoples experiences of the area.
After many hours of researching and assessing the situation and growing concerned about how Pata’s heart would behave at high altitude along with the fact that maps for Nepal are not like our OS maps here in the UK, and I didn’t feel 100% confident about guiding us using said maps, we decided to go with a guide and luckily we found one at a much more reasonable price without any of the trimmings like porters etc.
Now that we are back, I can say that we wouldn’t go back with a guide unless it involved some serious peaks, Nepal or at least the area we trekked in (and it is not the most popular), has very well maintained paths and tracks as well as accommodation along the way. Although we did it with a guide, in this post I’m going to tell you all you need to know to do, Khopra Ridge without a guide.
Regarding the gear we had lots of questions as we had never been to The Himalayas before and although we had been to similar altitude we weren’t sure about the climate in Nepal. We took a very standard kit for 9 days trek bearing in mind we wouldn’t have porters and carried it all ourselves:
- Pair of trousers and spares
- 2 thermal long sleeve
- 2 T-shirts
- 6 pairs of socks
- 5 pants
- Soft shell
- Down jacket
- Rain coat
- Winter hat
- Winter gloves
- Sun glasses
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping bag liner
- Head torch and spare batteries
- Electrolyte tablets
- Water bladder
- Solar battery pack
- Life straw
- Water purification tablets
- Camera equipment
- Walking poles
It may seem like an extensive kit, but knowing that we would go from temperatures of +25 at the bottom of the valley to below zero at the top and it being our first time there, we thought it was quite fair. Not everyone thought the same as both our guide and planner were a bit surprised when they saw the size of our rucksacks and it was suggested that we make them smaller. Well, today after the trek is done I can tell you that I wouldn’t take much out of the rucksacks, we used pretty much every piece of gear and were happy to carry it all for 7 days. If you still think it’s too much, I can recommend you remove:
- Life straw and purification tablets – There is water available at every teahouse for a very economic price, although if money is more of a problem than weight, keep them in as there are plenty of rivers/sources of water where you can use them.
- Electrolyte tablets – For us they have on more than one occasion given us that bit of strength you need at the end of a long day.
- Snacks – You will find all sorts of western snacks like chocolate bars, crisps, nuts… but at a cost!
- Sleeping bag liner – We bough this as a hygiene thing, but the sleeping bags we hired were very clean so was the bedding at the teahouses
- Winter gloves – were the only thing I didn’t use, but I always have warm hands, so maybe other people find them more important. (Pata used hers!)
- Soft shell jacket – We didn’t use ours much and if you are happy to walk with the down jacket, this is definitely something you can leave behind.
- Sleeping bag – If you really need to reduce size and weight, sleeping bag is probably one of the best options. There are blankets at all the teahouses and with the exception of 2 of them, I didn’t use my sleeping bag. At the end of the trek we were told that you can ask for more blankets (at least on this trek)
- The only thing I would add if trying to reach Kayer lake is spikes for the boots.
When to go
The list above is the gear we used at the beginning of April, and as I said we had temperatures of +25 at the bottom and negative at night above 3000m. The other discovery we made on the second day of the trek is that in spring, the weather is very stormy specially in the afternoon/evening, a benefit of this is that there aren’t many people around, so it is a personal decision.
- Late March to early June, mostly clear during the day, storms in the late afternoon/evening therefore less busy.
- June, July and beginning of August rainy season, not recommended.
- Late August to November, is meant to be the best time to do the trek, meaning busier paths.
- November to March is winter, If the cold is not a problem for you, it can also be a good option, in fact we are planing on doing EBC in winter next year. Be aware that in winter some of teahouse might not be open.
The best map you can buy for the trek is the Nepa Maps 1:50000 (NA501), they have enough detail for the trek, the paths are very clearly marked they have interesting info about times of bigger circuits. We found a little mistake with a town that was named in the wrong place. The biggest problem for me was that there isn’t a proper cuadricula, the one the map has is huge and it is all in degrees which surpassed my map reading skills!
As a tip I’d recommend waiting until you arrive at Pokhara or KTM to buy it as the price of the maps there is ridiculous in comparison with online prices.
How to get there
The best way to get to the country is to fly to KTM international airport. To reach Pokhara, there are different options. We do recommend the tourist bus as the price is cheap $25 and although it takes over 8h, the views and the experience is worth it.
The other options are:
– Public bus which after seeing how people are packed in the little vans like animals, also highly no recommended.
– Luxury bus (Easy to find around $35-$40)
– Fligh of 30 min at cost of $125 per person.
– Driving is not an option unless you are from a country similar to Nepal and are used to driving like a lunatic, beeping your horn, avoiding cows on tiny dirt roads with 3 times more cars than lanes!
We took a flight back to KTM and regretted spending $125 each for a 30min flight. If you are a bit scared of flying you will regret it even more. The Himalayas have lots of thermals floating around them and that in a very tiny plane feels like a rollercoaster.
Day 1 – Nayapul (1070m) to Ghandruk (1940m).
We got a taxi ($50 return) from our hotel in Pokhara (Hotel Buttercup) to the starting point in Nayapul, although in reality we didn’t start walking from Nayapul, but a few hundred meters before Nayapul, next to a bridge that crosses to the other side of the river. On the right hand side of the road as you come from Pokhara.
As with every walk, the beginning was one of the most complicated bits of the walk. Once you are on the right path, it is very easy to follow. From the other side of the river you have to take the road. This leads you to the police check point at the entry to the Annapurna Circuit in Birethani where they will ask for your TIM and ACA cards that you should’ve got before starting, otherwise you will have to pay double the normal price to get it at the check point plus risk the possibility of not being able to access the trek at all. EXPLAIN HOW TO GET PERMIT INDEPENDTLY!!!! Around the check point in Birethani there are some shops in case you forgot any of the basics or if you want to buy souvenirs.
Once your permits are stamped, you won’t need them again till Ghorepani 5 days ahead.
Birethani is the point where the return path meets the start of the walk, so you could go northeast or northwest, but we highly recommend you do it anti clockwise (northeast- right after the bridge in Birethani).
The beginning of the trek is anticlimactic. It doesn’t feel like you are on the magnificent Himalayas, there is rubbish everywhere, its a road that cars use, and there isn’t much of a view of the mountains.
The ascent is steady at the beginning of the day, crossing through different plantations where you discover the first terraces of land, it was very dry at that time of the year. The path goes through different small villages where you can see the first and more developed teahouses of the trek. The track continues ascending northeast till Kliew, where the heading changes to north and the endless steps begin. It is difficult psychologically- the steps don’t seem to end, and when you feel that you have already done 1000’s, you get to a sign saying 4252 steps to Ghandruk. We stopped at Kimche (1550m) for our daily break, nice little place, where you can have a cold/hot drink, buy water, use the toilet, buy snack bar… Also Kimche marks the end of the road for vehicles, so everything from there is carried onward either by hand or by donkey.
Kimche up to Ghandruk is all steps for a further 2hours. It really felt endless. Ghandruk is a bigger town where there was even a tiny post office! It has many possibilities regarding accommodation, from the most basic teahouses to a very smart building where alcohol is included, alongside many other luxury options. We highly recommend the one we used “Ghandruk Guest Huose” where the owners are very friendly, it is cheap, food is really nice and the place is nice and tidy, above all the views are breathtaking. It was our first glance of the high peaks of The Himalayas. Reflecting on the trek we regret not giving better tips here as the owners really deserve it, so if you have some extra cash, use it here!
Ghandruk (1940) to Tadapani (2630).
Next morning after a dramatic storm the sky was completely clear and it was a very pleasant day for walking. Getting little glimpses of the snowy peaks every now and then through the dense forest. Today was the shortest day of the trek and also the easiest, we were worried we would have too much time to fill at the next teahouse, but the settlement after Tadapani is a little too far to reach in one day and would make the altitude gain more than recommended for one day.
Despite the path becoming wild it is still very easy to follow. You head northwest for most of the day at a very steady ascent, bear in mind that after around 1.5h you will reach a set of steps. Don’t panic, these ones are just a kids’ game compared with the ones from the first day!
Approximately 3h after leaving Ghandruk, we got to our rest point. We decided to do just one rest stop each day at the midway point of the walk. Dawa our guide approved of this and told us it was ‘Nepali style.’ It was a very little hamlet but as usual it was very friendly. It was a colourful place with lots of locally crafter souvenires to buy. We didn’t have a great experience with the toilet in that place so if you are at all fussy make sure you do your business before or after! From the rest point it is just over 2km to Tadapani.
We arrived at Tadapani very early in the day as we’d expected, so we had time to explore the little village. It was full of walkers from many different groups, this is because Tadapani is an important crossover point for different trekking routes including the Annapurna circuit. This means that there is a lot of life. Lots of little craft stands and shops where you can buy anything from hand made bracelet to a pack of playing cards. We saw many options for teahouse, and all of them seemed decent. Our teahouse was called “Hotel Grand View Lodge”, we rated it as being pretty standard, it definitely wasn’t as good as the one the day before but it was adequate. The beds were comfy, the room was a bit chilly but manageable, the food was good and prices were standard. The down side of this teahouse was the shower, it was a bit… crap! It wasn’t very warm and a lot of people were using it so it was a slow trickle at best. Not that we expected better being high up in the mountains. It was definitely the best teahouse for views over Annapurna south.
We found later on in the trip that there is an organisation that regulate the prices for the teahouses so tourist can’t get ripped off. So while the accommodation cost rises slightly at some, the food prices remains the same.
Tadapani (2630) to Dobato (3448).
This is the day when the things start getting serious. It is the first day of proper climbing and is also the first day you feel the altitude. It is also the first bit of walking we did when all the other walkers had seemed to disappear, so we could enjoy being alone in the mountains. It was so rural in fact that our GPS tracker kept losing its connection.
The path at the beginning of the day is less obvious but is still visible. You can follow blue and white markings along the way on the tree trunks and sadly you can also follow the electricity line that will go along with you all the way. After descending down the valley into the jungle at the beginning you then have to climb back up, and it feels like the ascent goes on forever! As Dawa would say- it was ‘all the up!!’
Parallel to the hard work ahead, you will also enjoy what is one the best views without having The Himalayas as a background. It really feels truly wild. There is nothing around apart from some little shacks dotted about the place. There is a rest point close to where you start in Tadapani, but we decided we’d wait till the next one which is quite far along the days walk, nearer to the end of the route. This however does mean that it is a lot more rewarding having to almost complete the ascent to get to it. Plus the views are fantastic. The teahouse where we stopped was very unique and the owners were very friendly.
From this teahouse, you carry on your way up till you reach Dobato pass around 30 minutes later, then there is short gentle descent, followed by some flat areas. The last kilometre of the day is another climb to Dobato (3448m). After Dobato pass, we found some patches of snow that continued all the way to Dobato.
In Dobato we stayed at Hotel Mount Lucky, it is the first of the teahouse you come across the others you have to climb a little off the main path. The teahouse was without a doubt the least developed one, but that gave it a lot of character that we’d felt had been missing from previous teahouses we’d stayed at. This is what we were expecting the teahouses to be like in the Himalayas!
This time the sleeping facilities were in a different building to the communal area. The communal area is like the other teahouses, one big room with a couple of large tables and benches, with an old home made wood burner on one side that works as a heating system as well as a dryer for clothes. The food was good, but you could really tell that this was a much more isolated place than the other teahouses.
The sleeping facilities were very basic, the building was made of wooden panels covered with tarpaulin to make it water proof. The rooms were just two single beds made of tree branches with a very basic slither of foam as a mattress. The windows were a hole in the panels covered by a single pane of plastic which allowed all the wind and cold into the room. This wouldn’t be such a problem lower down on the route, but up here the temperatures were well below 0. When we got up the following morning the toilets were frozen.
Dobato (3348) to Sistibang (3020) via Muldai view point (3637)
This day in my opinion was the hardest one, specially psychologically speaking as you have to go down a lot to come back up again. It is also a hard one if you have issues with altitude sickness, as you reach pretty much the highest point of the whole walk.
It is best to start the day climbing to Mulday view point at sunrise which is just 40min south west from the teahouse,(there isn’t a track recorded of this, but it is really easy to find). It is quite an intense ascent, specially just after waking up if you have issues with the altitude, but it is really worth the views of the Annapurna range from such an amazing location.
Once the sun has risen, it’s time to go back down and have some breakfast, and then the moment of truth. You have to decide what route to take to Sistibang. Due to the fact that our guide wasn’t a mountaineer but more, a man that knows the way.. he said it was too dangerous to do the higher pass meaning we would have to take the lower path. (Just as a note, the night before, a group of Australians including a 73 year old man arrived at the teahouse in the middle of a blizzard having come via the high pass). If we did it again there is no doubt we would take the higher route.
Leaving the teahouse behind we started our walk heading North keeping pretty much the same height. After crossing to the other side of the mountain around 90 minutes from the teahouse, you start the descent. Unfortunately the descent is long, it takes around 3h to get to the lower point next to the river. A painful 2854m in fact! made worse by the fact that you know you will have to climb back up to Khopra Ridge that stands at over 3600m. Fortunately, to get to the teahouse at Sistibang you only have to get back up to 3020m. On that day we were meant to go all the way up to Khopra, but the weather came in and we had to stay at Sistibang. From the river to the teahouse it is just 2km, but it felt endless.
At the teahouse in Sistibang we had a very disappointing time for many reasons. This was the only day we didn’t take notes so don’t remember the name of the teahouse. The teahouse itself was pretty decent, built of stone, it is big, clean and comfortable. I can’t say we were that happy with the owners, as they couldn’t be bothered to fire up the wood burner even tho it was very cold. Electricity was based on solar panels, so a day like the one we had with awful weather, there was pretty much no electricity.
Sitibang (3020) to Khopra Ridge (3660) to Swanta (2270)
Sleeping in Sistibang to climb up to Khopra the next morning will allow you to leave your big bags there and do the ascent with minimum gear which is a very nice thing, as the ascent is… let’s say intense.
From the teahouse you can see the signs to the East pointing to Khopra ridge, it is a very visible path and although it is quite steep in places, it isn’t technical, just put your head down and keep going. It is just under 3km and it took us 2.5h to get to the top. On your way up you more than likely will be welcomed by the yaks, a typical Nepalese animal that is very much like a hairy bull. It is used on expeditions to carry gear, and you will only find them high up on the mountains.
The views from Khopra are breath taking, if someone like our guide try to put you off going, saying it isn’t worth it to get there for sunrise – go anyway! We couldn’t do it and almost took ourselves up there without our guide, but that is another story.
The teahouse in Khopra was incredibly basic. We were told that food is very limited and facilities aren’t great, as you’d expect from such a rural high up location. We can’t comment on this as we just had a hot chocolate and left 10 minutes later. If you are planing on doing Kayer lake, you will have to spend the night at this teahouse as the lake is a long way away and takes a full day. Our guide said it was too dangerous to go due to the weather, but I reckon with spikes for the boots and some winter knowledge it would’ve been doable as the terrain didn’t look too bad.
We were meant to go to the lake, but our guide’s lack of knowledge along with the bad weather forced us to change plans. Although the day we were meant to attempt the lake, was actually a gorgeous day. If you are flexible with how long you’ve got for the trek, be patient and wait for a weather window, it might come it might not, but you will be really disappointed if you don’t wait and find out you had an opportunity to do it.
As you can see from the photos, the weather came in and we didn’t stay to watch it! It wasn’t long till were we on our way back down. From here, apart from some short slopes, it is all down hill for the rest of the day. From Sistibang you head South West on the very visible path that indicates Swanta, the terrain is very steep, even too much, we got knee pain from so much climbing down. You cover a lot of terrain as the down hill speeds up the pace at the same time as the altitude decreases. We found a couple of nomads with their animals just outside Sistibang. You might see or hear their dogs, but don’t worry, they are harmless. There is a little teahouse not far from Sistibang if you want to stop for a cold drink and at the bottom of the valley by the river there were a bunch of guys working on constructing a building which I imaging will be a new teahouse.
You get to the river at the bottom of the valley in around 2h, here is the only part of the day that you will find some uphill sections, they aren’t a big deal after what you have done days before, but if like us you aren’t mentally prepared, they are a killer, so be aware that there are some slopes to deal with! From the river you continue south west through the forest and not far from there you will start seeing houses on your right hand side, unfortunately, that isn’t Swanta as it’s on the left, but it is the sign that there isn’t far to go. The last bit feels endless, but it isn’t far to go and Swanta suddenly comes into view, so it is a big relief! The path comes to a fork, you take the left hand path following the signs for “W.E. CAMP.”
This path will guide you to the outskirts of Swanta where you will have to navigate your way through rice paddies. This is fine, don’t worry, just be respectful and keep to the small path at the edge of plantation. Soon you will see Hotel Candle Inn. We cannot recommend that teahouse more!
The teahouse in Swanta was without a doubt our best experience, the owner was super friendly, it was the only teahouse where we could enjoy a small double bed, the food was amazing and couldn’t be fresher, Pun the owner literally pulled the carrots and other vegetables straight out of the garden for our meals, she invited us into her kitchen while her and Dawa prepared the food, this really made us feel welcome and a part of it. Again there were amazing views.
It took us 7h 11min to do today’s walk. It is a very long day, but very rewarding specially when you reach Khopra and Swanta.
Swanta (2270) to Banthanti (2271)
Today the path joins the popular Annapurna circuit, so get ready for coming across lots of people on the way, especially from Ghorepani which is the door for Poon Hill, the easiest and shortest view point of the Annapurna range which is rammed at sunrise and sunset by people on short excursions or day treks.
You head south east for the whole day, descending till you find the river near Swanta and crossing the bridge built by the Gurkhas (Nepalese military special forces that collaborate with the British army). From here it is a steady, long ascent up to Ghorapani.
There is a small section near the river where you have to navigate through a small village where the path isn’t very obvious, but after that the track becomes clear. You will see lots of donkeys transporting all sorts of things from live chickens to bricks, up and down the track. From Swanta it is around 3h till you get to Ghorepani. This is a good place for having some cold drinks, before starting on your way down again. Here is also the place where your permits will have to be checked by the police, the same as at the beginning of the walk.
The landscape from here is really pretty, a dense forest of huge rhododendrons surround you pretty much all the way down and you will also see and cross some nice rivers. This section of the walk was terribly busy, we came across countless groups carrying just a little tiny bag and a few minutes later big groups of porters carrying all their luggage. I really don’t understand what people have to carry for 3 day treks. It annoys me that because they have someone carrying their stuff they pack a stupid amount of stuff that they don’t need.
Choosing the accommodation for this day was a hard one, we didn’t want to reach Ulleri because it is the normal ‘tourist’ stop on your way to Ghorepani, and as we saw the next day it was completely infected with them, so Dawa suggested we stop in one of the villages before Ghorepani called Banthanti. At the beginning it sounded like a great idea because we don’t like crowed places and some how we don’t feel like typical tourists. Unfortunately it turned out to be the worst teahouse without a doubt. The accommodation was incredibly basic for being on the main access route to the Annapurna circuit, food wasn’t great and what is worse, there were thousands of moths! we called this day mothmagedon!!
We are not fussy whatsoever and we can sleep pretty much anywhere, but that was ridiculous. It all started when we were having dinner. The teahouse is right on the edge of a steep cliff with glass windows with views over some mountains, sounds nice right?When the sun sets and night falls, thousands and thousands (and I am not exaggerating) of moths kept crashing into the glass panel windows and finding their way inside attracted by the lights. After a very unpleasant dinner, we decided to go to our room and… yeah, there were moths inside and they kept coming in wiggling through holes all over the room, and not just moths, all sorts of insects. Pata was scared of some big spiders and somehow we ended sleeping together all snuggled up in one tiny single bed, we actually slept surprisingly well!
Banthanti (2271) to Nayapul (1070)
Today is the last day of the walk and with that we felt sad that the walk was nearly over. At the same time knowing that by the end of the day, we would be back at our hotel, with a proper shower, clean clothes nice food and not having to carry our rucksacks we couldn’t help but be a little excited too!
Today 98% of the day is down hill on a very well marked path, pretty much impossible to get lost, with the 100’s of tourist coming in the opposite direction. It feels amazing after so many days of trekking going down and knowing it’s “all the down!!” Today you will find out the reason why I said at the beginning of the post to do this route anti clockwise; when you get to the famous 3000 steps to Ulleri! Just thinking about going up all those steps hurts! Today is a day of reflection or at least it was for us. It felt like it had been weeks since we’d started the walk in Nayapul when in fact it had been a mere week. It felt so good coming across people starting the route struggling with the ascent, thinking to yourself, hang on a minute…. we’ve just done it!!
At the bottom of the steps you will reach a river that you are meant to cross, this is the end of the mountainous bit and from here the paths are more gentle. We took advantage of this great news to have our last stop for a cold drink in one of the teahouse after the river. Very nice place and even better the feeling of coming away from the mountains!
It is a very easy, wide dirt road from now on, cars are back and you will see lots of people using 4×4 to reach the village. You walk through many groups of small houses with chickens running free, surrounded by rice paddies. Soon you will get back to the point where your permits were checked at the beginning, and again they will be checked before leaving the area.
After the check point just retrace your steps back to where you started.
As I mentioned in the post, we left this trip with mixed feelings, on the one hand we felt a little disappointed, we felt that the route had been misrepresented to us, and that it wasn’t made clear to us that reaching Kayer Lake was an unrealistic expectation for that time of year. If we’d known we wouldn’t get to the lake we probably would have chosen a different route. So we felt the trek lacked the element of adventure/real mountaineering that we so love. Instead we met lots of people on quests to ‘find themselves’. Being in the cities could also be hard work, at times we felt like walking wallets rather than human beings, being harassed to spend money all the time.
On the flip side, the views and the walk were of a whole new league. Those giant mountains surrounding you at all times, plus that feeling of isolation we got at the remote teahouses was exactly what we wanted, it is a pity that you have to experience all the above to get to that point.
Would we go back? Undoubtedly yes, both to Nepal and this area, but we would make sure we did a trek that was completely of the beaten path or go off season.
I want to mention how proud I am of my other half, Pata, that you see in many of the pictures. She had an injury in her left ankle that she drags from a diving accident plus aggravated with a sprain last year in Greenland and she manage to do the whole walk, carrying her own bag with all her gear and without a single moan.
I was going to put a list with all the expenses, but unfortunately we lost the note book with all the figures.