trekking in Nepal
Mid-winter trekking in Nepal 2019/2o20
Many people do not seem to be aware that it is quite possible to go trekking in Nepal in mid-winter, even at well over 5,000m. For trekking at that time of year, it is not necessary to have any special skills or specialist equipment, or to be super-hard or let alone masochistic, though you definitely do need to have the correct clothing. There are a number of benefits from trekking at that time of year, not least that the trails are very quiet and the weather, in my experience, is generally incredibly clear which gives some fantastic views, especially when high up.
When questions about mid-winter trekking are posted up on the LPTT forum, many of the responses, including some from Nepalis, advise people against trekking at that time of year. Though no doubt well intended, much of this advice seems to be from people who have little or no actual experience of trekking in mid-winter, and they effectively repeat what they have heard from others. I feel that this helps perpetuate some of the myths about the supposed difficulties of mid-winter trekking. This post will hopefully encourage people to at least consider trekking in mid-winter, especially those who want to avoid the October – November peak trekking season, which now gets very crowded. The second most popular season of April – May also now sounds very busy.
By mid-winter trekking I mean trekking between the beginning of December and say the end of February. Most of what follows is based on my experience of trekking in mid-winter, which briefly is:
The 3 high passes in the Everest region in January 2016, flying into and out from Lukla.
The 3 high passes again, in December 2015 and January 2016, this time walking in from Jiri, and flying out from Lukla.
Langtang – Gosainkunda – Helambu in January 2014.
I have also trekked Gokyo, Cho La and EBC in mid to late November 2013. Brief details of my other trekking experience in Nepal can be found under my LPTT profile. I am now 49, keep myself reasonably fit, and live in southern part of the UK, where we do not usually get severe winters. My main mid-winter treks were with my guide, who for me is really a form of insurance as much as a guide. I engage him directly, ie not through a middle man, and pay him on a daily rate basis. I get on very well with him, he is great and amusing company, and I have learnt a lot about “real” Nepali life, views and culture when trekking with him, compared to when I used to trek without any Nepalis. I have even stayed 4 nights with him and his family in his very non-touristy village.
The 3 high passes trek includes most of the Everest region valleys which are accessible to trekkers (as opposed to mountaineers), and involves going over 3 quite steep passes all of which are more than 5,300m high. There are also some quite high hills, the highest point that I have trekked to being Chhukung Hill at 5,833m (which is adjacent to Chhukung Ri), which I went up in late December 2014.
I have posted the actual itineraries for the 3 mid-winter treks in a very brief summary form on the LPTT forum. I have included altitude details.
The weather in mid-winter.
It seems that the main reasons that people do not seriously consider trekking in mid-winter are concerns about snow, strong winds and low temperatures.
Snow: all the statistics which I have been able to find, some of which are from the Italian weather station near to Lobuche (the others do not list the source of the statistics), show very little precipitation in Nepal in the winter months, and virtually none in December and January. This is not that surprising, as the main precipitation is during the monsoon, ie in the summer months (Nepal is in the northern hemisphere).
My own experience bears this out, as in my mid-winter treks, most of the time we had amazingly clear weather, with almost cloudless, pure blue skies and very little haze, especially higher up. I actually think that the clearest weather, for trekkers, may in fact be in mid-winter, though I am not certain about this. There were only two days when we had significant snow, and both times we took rest days. Usually there will be noticeable changes in the weather which will indicate the likelihood of snow. I would advise people to pay particular attention to major changes in the strength and direction of the wind, as it could be bringing in cloud, and to keep an eye generally on any cloud build up. I am sure that all experienced trekkers do this anyway.
One other indicator of possible snow is the local livestock. When we crossed Cho La, a high pass, for my third time, on 31 December 2014, we had unusually strong winds at the top of the pass. When we got to the lodge at Tagnag, after crossing the pass, the 12 or so yaks belonging to the lodge owner were clustering very near to the lodge. The lodge owner explained that when the yaks did this, it was usually a sign that there would be significant snowfall. Sure enough, that night and for much of the next day it snowed. Towards the end of the day, the yaks wandered away from the lodge, and that night it stopped snowing. The next day we crossed the Ngozumpa glacier to Gokyo in clear skies, and with about 4 inches or 100mm of snow on the ground. I did get some light snow when walking up to Gosainkunda in late January 2013, but this soon stopped and the skies cleared.
Generally speaking, lower down any precipitation will most likely fall as rain, higher up it is more likely to fall as snow.
I understand from talking to some veteran trekkers that about every 10-15 years there is a very unseasonable, heavy snowfall which can block the trekking routes. I am not sure exactly which months this has occurred in – it would be interesting to hear others’ experiences. The only time that I have encountered heavy snow was, ironically, at “peak” season in the middle of October 2005, when very heavy snow effectively closed the Annapurna Circuit, and we had to wait 5 nights at Manang, after which we were able to carry on.
Temperatures: during the daytime, even when at well over 5,000m, in mid-winter I have generally needed to wear only 2 layers, which are usually a trekking top or tee shirt and a medium fleece. With the cloudless skies, and the strength of the sun at altitude, and as I carry my own backpack, that has sufficed, though I do keep a Goretexový top and gloves easily to hand in my backpack. The only time it has felt noticeably chilly during the day is when in the shade (which is not often) or when at the top of hills or passes where the wind can get concentrated.
At night though, in fact as soon as the sun goes down, it gets very cold, especially once above say 3,000m. It is therefore absolutely essential to have a good down jacket, a four season sleeping bag, a thermal hat and gloves, as a minimum. I usually supplement my sleeping bag with a blanket from the lodge – this does not cause any problems as the lodges are very quiet in mid-winter.
I would estimate that the lowest, outside, night time temperatures at say 4,800m or above, will be in the region of minus 20C to minus 30C. Inside the lodges the staff keep the dining area warm until at least 8pm, using old fashioned, but very effective, “frontier” type cast iron stoves, fueled mostly by dried yak dung (there are no unpleasant outdoors from burning the dried dung, in my experience). If there are enough people around, and especially if the trekkers are still spending money on drink and food and if the guides and porters are playing cards, then the stove may well be kept going, and I have sometimes stayed up until gone 10pm in the winter. Once the stove goes out, temperatures will drop quite quickly and people go straight to bed.
The lodge bedrooms, which are unheated, benefit from the heat released from the fabric of the building at night, especially where there are high density materials such as stone walls, and from heat from occupants being retained by the enclosure. I always try and pick a room that gets the maximum exposure to the sun during the day, to benefit from the heat release at night. As it is usually quiet, there is usually a good choice of rooms. However people should expect rooms, especially higher up, to drop below freezing at night. The only precise temperature that I have is from a German trekker who recorded a temperature of minus 5C inside his room at Tagnag on 1 January 2015. This sounds about right.
Those who camp in mid-winter, and some do, will obviously not benefit from the stoves and heat retention and enclosure effect of the lodges, and so should be prepared for very low night time temperatures.
I always make up my bed shortly after I arrive at the lodge, ie before nightfall, and I usually tuck the lodge blanket into the mattress and then place my sleeping bag inside the bedding, ie between the blanket and the mattress. I only zip my sleeping bag up part way, to give me some movement, but in combination with the blanket, after about 10 minutes, even when it is very cold, I find that I get very warm and feel amazingly snug. I always wear a thermal hat at night when trekking in mid-winter. Any liquids will freeze at night, so I wrap my water bottle and contact lens fluids in my down jacket, and place them right next to my head. Sufficient warmth radiates out, and this avoids the liquids freezing. I keep any batteries inside my sleeping bags at night.
Generally I have had some of my best ever nights’ sleep high up in mid-winter. If you have the correct kit, make up your bed the right way, are well acclimatized and have had a good day’s trekking, then once you are warm you should sleep very well. I always move a bed away from direct contact with walls or other such things, to avoid any “cold bridging”.
The lodges: for the main trekking areas, ie the Everest region, Langtang and Annapurna, enough lodges now stay open to enable all the normal areas to be visited in mid-winter. There seems to be a system of rotation, whereby at least one lodge stays open right through the winter, whilst the others close and the owners move down. This avoids wasteful competition, but ensures sufficient provision is made for those who want to trek at that time of year. Generally I have found the lodges to be well provisioned, though some tend to have the “B” team running them, as some of the main staff also head to other areas. I do not know what, if any, lodges are open in mid-winter in areas such as Manaslu and Kanchenjunga, and anyone looking at trekking in mid-winter in those areas should check this carefully.
I have not had any stomach problems when trekking in mid-winter, but have had a few when trekking in April – May. Possibly this is due to the reduced load on the kitchens, and the much lower number of flies in the winter. The only exception, which does not really count, was when I unwisely had some local chang beer to which my stomach was definitely not adapted, though various types of raksi have been fine (the higher alcohol content may explain why the raksi was OK).
Other benefits: apart from the generally very clear weather, the main benefit for me is the lack of crowds, especially when compared with October – November, which now sounds horribly crowded, particularly the route from Lukla to EBC. This means that there is also a good choice of rooms in the lodges which are open, meals and so on are much quicker and there is less mixing up of orders.
I have found that flights into and out of Lukla in mid-winter are very easy. The time I flew into Lukla from Kathmandu we arrived at Lukla before about 7.40 am, and the two times I flew out were also pretty quick. On two of the flights I was the only tourist. Weather related flight disruption seems to be much less frequent than it is during peak season.
If anything quite a few places were too quiet, and Namche Bazaar was a little like a ghost town in early January. For this reason I would strongly advise people not to trek alone in mid-winter, especially if doing the high passes or going to other less visited places, as both times I did the each of the 3 passes, my guide and I did not see a single other person from setting out for the pass until we got to the next village. So if someone was trekking solo and say broke a leg, they could well have to wait for 2 or 3 days until someone else used the pass, which could involve staying in the open at high altitude in mid-winter.
Prices: I have found that the biggest savings were on the flights to Nepal, and the hotel rooms in Kathmandu. For the latter I was able to get discounts of over 50% including taxes, as did some other tourists, as many of the hotels are very quiet. I did not really save any money in the lodges, as the prices are pretty much fixed, though I did come across one group who had had some success bargaining with lodge owners. Hiring good guides should also be much easier.
It will be interesting to see what others think, and hopefully this will encourage some to trek in mid-winter. I think that it is not much colder high up in December – January when compared with late October – November.
I will try and post up some links to some of my photos, to show actual conditions that I have experienced, if I can work how to do so.