March 8, 2020

Frequently Asked Questions

Safety

First a quick note about safety. The Great Himalaya Trail is a dangerous undertaking, with sections where one trip or wrong footstep can be fatal. Towards the end of our thru-hike we got in touch with a girl named Milena Piasecka from Poland. We gave her advice on various subjects as she planned here GHT, and she started just as we were finishing. A couple of months later, in the Everest region, she was tragically killed in a fall. There were sections where this could have happened virtually every day. All it takes is a loss of concentration or a wrong turn. Be very aware of this when contemplating the Great Himalaya Trail.

Check out my trail notes. You can also get this data in spreadsheet form.

What are the most difficult / technical parts?

There's five “technical” mountaineering passes, where you will need mountaineering gear and experience: Sherpani Col (leg 28), West Col (leg 29), Amphu Labsta (leg 31), Tashi Labsta (leg 43) and Tilman's Pass (leg 61). See the descriptions in my trail notes for more details. Unless you have an experienced mountaineer in your group, you'll need to take a guide for these sections. We tried to minimize the amount of time we were with the guide, so we only trekked with him the minimum to conveniently cross the five passes:

  • Legs 25-31 (Makalu Base Camp to Chhukung) Sherpani Col, West Col and Amphu Labsta
  • Legs 40-44 (Thame to Na) Tashi Labsta
  • Legs 54-62 (Last Resort to Kyangjin Gompa) Tilman's Pass

Finding a guide that will take you over Tilman's Pass is rather more difficult than the other passes. The guide we took for the first four passes didn't want to take us over Tilman's Pass, and the guide we eventually found had never done it before and afterwards he said he would never do it again.

Do you need mountaineering gear for the other parts?

I started in the east in mid-April, and hugely regret not taking my crampons and ice axe. The first few high sections (Nango La, Lumbha Sumbha, Molun Pokhari) were all extremely dangerous without crampons. I would probably recommend always having crampons at the ready, but we sent ours home at the Syabru Besi resupply point (mid-July) and didn't need them for the rest of the trek.

How did you organise resupply / guides / logistics / permits

We used a trekking company called Mactrek who specialise in this sort of logistical assistance. Our point of contact, Narayan, totally understood that we wanted to use the minimum amount of on-trail assistance, and helped us with:

  • Advice for the pre-trek planning.
  • A porter for the resupply points.
  • The mountaineering guide for the technical passes.
  • All the permits.
  • Advice and emergency assistance (e.g. booking my helicopter rescue).

What about permits?

Depending on your exact route you'll need a bunch of permits. Some of these can only be arranged in Kathmandu and have specific dates, so these had to be arranged while we were on the trek and delivered by the resupply porter. Narayan at Mactrek will be able to take a look at your itinerary and let you know which permits are required.

Do we really need the $500 USD Upper Dolpa permit?

If you follow my itinerary, you do. I would highly recommend it too, because that had some of the most spectacular scenery of the entire trek. We were never actually stopped at any checkpoints when leaving Kagbeni (I think we just got lucky), but I would always recommend having the correct permits.

Some of the sections a guide is mandatory?

Yes, this is true. We tried to hike the entire route without a guide. This caused problems only in Manaslu where we were stopped for 24 hours and they insisted we take a local guide for three days. If you prefer not to hike with a guide, my recommendation is just to go for it. Any checkpoint that will stop you for not having a guide is highly likely to be able to arrange a local guide to take you. If you're stopped, just make it clear that you're not going to turn around, and you'll stay there until they arrange a local guide. Make sure you have flexibility in your budget to pay for the guide if this happens!

What are the best resupply points?

We used eight resupply points: Ghunsa, Makalu Base Camp, Thame, Last Resort, Syabru Besi, Muktinath, Ringmo and Gamgadhi. In hindsight we could have probably reduced this by relying more on resupplying with food along the route.

When can you resupply with camping food along the route?

The only food we found for sale along the trek that could be prepared with a backpacking stove were instant noodles. The most common brand is WaiWai (pronounced “why-why”). These can be either eaten dry or rehydrated with hot water. They are available throughout the trek anywhere you find a shop, and most of the guesthouses will sell them. However many of the small remote villages don't have shops or guesthouses. As a rule of thumb, most of the days on the trail notes where guesthouse accommodation is available should be able to also sell you instant noodles. If only homestay accommodation is available, it's less likely. Prices range from 30 rupees ($0.25 USD) in places with good road links to as much as 200 rupees ($1.70 USD) in the Everest region. Remember these are only 300 calories per pack so you'll need ~10 packs per day if you're eating nothing else.

What's the temperature like?

I made a rough estimate of the overnight temperature of each leg, by taking the average climatic temperature in Kathmandu for that month and applying the adiabatic lapse rate (e.g. 10C colder per 1000m) for the elevation of that leg. This worked reasonably well. I never actually saw my thermometer drop below -10C but it's likely it was colder in the middle of the night at high elevation camp sites. You can find the estimates on the Temperatures page, or in the “Overnight temperatures” and “Daytime temperatures” tabs of my planning sheet. Although it shows the minimum temperature dropping to -30C, that's the campsite between Sherpani Col and West Col at 6000m, which most people will skip. Obviously these are very rough estimates, and the actual temperature will depend on the local weather.

When is it best to start?

We started in mid April. This means we have to trek through monsoon. This isn't ideal, but the alternative is to start in the autumn and trek through winter. Trekking through winter has a couple of issues. The locals that live in the small villages in the high mountains usually all disappear to the lower regions during winter, so it's not uncommon to find villages that are completely deserted. Additionally the high passes are often snowbound with avalanche danger in the winter. Although trekking through monsoon sounds bad, we only get really wet every day for about a week. I'd highly recommend a good umbrella, because your gore-tex layers won't work - at the lower elevations it's so hot and humid, that within 10 minutes of hiking in waterproofs you'll be completely drenched with sweat. We bought umbrellas in a shop on the trek and they worked wonderfully to keep us dry. As soon as there was enough wind to make the umbrellas useless then it was usually the right conditions to put waterproofs on again.

What navigational sources would you recommend?

I would recommend using several essential navigation sources:

Trail notes My trail notes can be printed with or without the summary maps. I'd recommend printing them without maps, because the maps included with the trail notes aren't great. Printing them without maps and double sided will run to 43 pages.

Maps.me app This doesn't have topo maps but for 90% of the route it's all you need. Import my special KML file to get the route and waypoints. The offline maps are very quick to download, and you can download all the maps for the whole of Nepal.

Gaia GPS app For the 10% of the route where maps.me isn't useful, you'll need a topographic map. I would highly recommend Gaia GPS… I didn't actually discover Gaia until after our trek finished, but it is far easier to use than the alternatives. Import my standard GPX file to get the route and waypoints. There's two sets of offline maps I'd recommend:

  • Gaia Topo offline maps is essential, and very quick to download for the entire route. Choose the highest zoom level in the download page.
  • World Imagery offline satellite images. If you have time and space on your phone, I would highly recommend downloading satellite images for the entire route. I only downloaded these for about a quarter of the route, and it was very helpful when recently built roads were missing from the topo maps. Choose zoom level 17 when you're downloading these maps and I think you'll avoid the blank grey “map data not available” tiles when you zoom in. It will take many hours to download the images for the entire route because each leg will have to be downloaded separately because of Gaia's limit on the number of tiles per download, but I'd highly recommend investing the time.

Paper maps Robin Boustead created the definitive set of ten maps for the GHT and they are still very useful today. They are available as paper or high-res digital files at Robin's shop. Note that the digital files aren't geo-coded so can't be imported into mapping apps - this is a real shame because they are excellent. Also note that the paper maps ship from Nepal, and can take several weeks to arrive. We had the paper maps for each section brought with our resupply packages, since carrying 10 printed maps for the entire trek would be rather heavy.

Communications

A Garmin InReach satellite communicator device is absolutely essential. This works with the Iridium satellite network, so works anywhere in the world without needing mobile coverage. It has three essential functions:

  • Allows you to send and receive short text messages.
  • Tracks your location on a map, so your logistical helpers can keep track of you and alert the emergency services if you disappear.
  • An SOS button that alerts the emergency services if you get in trouble.

I use the InReach Mini which I would highly recommend. It's the smallest and lightest of the InReach devices - it does exactly what I need and nothing more.

Power

If you're relying on your phone for navigating and your InReach for emergency communications, you better be 100% sure you're not going to run out of power. Plenty of the villages you'll pass have no power, so there are stretches of many days where you will have to be energy independent. We had big problems with solar panels being too small, malfunctioning, cables breaking etc. If I was to do this trek again, I would make sure I had a foldable 28W solar panel (Anker, BigBlue etc) for each member of the group, and a 15 or 20,000 mAh power bank each. Definitely don't rely on having a single solar panel or power bank. This is not an area I would skimp on weight again. Our power needs were keeping two iPhones and one InReach Mini charged, so a group with additional gear might need more power.

How do you get back to Kathmandu from Hilsa

When we arrived (September 2019) there was a regular helicopter service ferrying locals between Simikot and Hilsa for the regular Mount Kailash pilgrimage. I've been told this doesn't run all the time though. We got lucky and there were two spaces available on the last helicopter of the day, and negotiated a price of about $100 per person. The alternative is a jeep / lorry that will take you most of the way back to Simikot, but the road was incomplete, so the jeep would have dropped us at Kermi. Kermi to Simikot is about a 6 hour hike, so realistically would have taken two days to get back.

What about mobile coverage?

Most of the trail has no mobile coverage at all, but for the places that do, I would highly recommend getting both Nepal Telecom (aka NTC or Namaste) and NCell sim cards. Nepal Telecom has coverage in many more places, but it's almost always very slow. NCell has spotty coverage but usually much faster.

How much did everything cost?

This is a very approximate cost, for two people in USD:

Logistics $3,000 Resupply packages brought from Kathmandu to 8 points along the trail
Mountaineering guide $2,000 To assist us over the five technical passes
Permits $1,600 Including $500 per person for a week in the Upper Dolpa region
Food $2,000 Backpacking food brought with us from the UK
Spending money $6,000 To cover guest houses and food along the trek
Helicopter rescue $3,500 Oops

We definitely could have saved money by:

  • Reducing the number of resupply packages (although the porter was only charging $20/day, some of the resupply packages required a 14 day round trip from and back to Kathmandu, so ended up being very expensive.
  • Bringing less backpacking food (we brought food for about 60 nights camping, but only camped for about 30 nights).
  • Not having a helicopter rescue (duh).
  • Budgeting more on food / accommodation during the trek.

What tent would you recommend?

We used a Hyperlight Mountain Gear Ultamid 4, which is a four season DCF (Dyneema Composite Fabric) pyramid tent that you erect with a single central pole (we used two hiking poles joined together with special rubber clips). Apart from a problem with the zip, it performed really well. The tent is just a pyramid of material with no inner, so we also used the full-size inner tent insert which gives you bug net and a waterproof bathtub floor. The only real downside was the space needed to set up. However, once it's set up, it's a palace for two people inside. One thing to remember is that in 80% of the campsites you won't be able to get pegs in the ground. Attaching a longer piece of cord to all the pegging points is essential, so you can wrap it around rocks. I recommend at least one meter of extra cord wherever you have a pegging point. I used this.

What about travel insurance?

The travel insurance business is highly regional, so I can only speak for companies that cover UK residents. I searched for days for a policy that would cover mountaineering above 6000m, and the only one that I found was from the BMC (their “alpine and ski” cover level). Not cheap, but nothing we did on the trek was excluded by their policy wording or small print. If I remember correctly, the only other option was Dogtag but they were even more expensive.

More reading

I did a Reddit AMA - it's worth a read because I answered a bunch more questions, here and here.

Dave

Dave

Normally a software engineer, recently I've been spending a bit more time in nature.

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