What is it about mountains that throws us into such raptures? Is it the sight of soaring spires of rock, flecked by ice or covered by snow? Is it the compelling mysteries of the deep forested valleys, filled with the gurgle of dancing streams and bird-chatter? Is it the sight of rolling emerald green meadows and swathes of impossibly colourful wild flowers swaying in the breeze?
Of course, it’s all of those things. But it is also about negotiating the right of way with a gigantic cow on a narrow trail, the thrill of fording a mountain river in spate, or the simple joys of a cup of tea at the end of a long day’s walk, as the sun goes down behind a peak.
One of the things I missed most over the past two years of the pandemic was going to the mountains. But now, fingers crossed, the mountains are opening up again, and hopefully things won’t ever get that bad. As far as the Himalaya is concerned, we are smack in the middle of the summer trekking season, and the received wisdom is that this is the best time to head up. Personally, I don’t subscribe to that view because some of my best Himalayan treks have also been during the monsoon. As the Himalayan climate changes due to global warming, these days the post-monsoon season is probably the best.
It’s true that the rains make everything more difficult and you have to have a certain degree of tolerance for always being wet. But if you do, and if you pick your trails and your trek operator with care, I can guarantee you will see sights of unimaginable beauty that just do not exist during any other time of the year. Of course, there’s a cheat code as well. If you are only free in July and August, you could always head to Ladakh, Spiti or Zanskar. These valleys, lying well in the rain-shadow of the Great Himalayan Range, remain perfectly dry during the monsoon.
For the sake of distilling the best Himalayan experience you could have, here are three treks you should absolutely do, whenever you can. I have been lucky enough to walk on each of these trails, and I can vouch for the fact that each one is mind-blowing in its own, unique way.
Everest Base Camp Trek, Khumbu, Nepal
This is the quintessential Himalayan trek, right in the middle of the throne room of giants such as Everest, Lhotse, Thamserku and Ama Dablam, to name just some of the famous peaks here. The trek begins at the Lukla runway overlooking the Dudh Kosi gorge, where you would fly in from Kathmandu in one of the most scenic—and scary—plane rides in the world. From there, two days’ walking takes you to the Sherpa capital of Namche Bazaar.
After two days of winding up through the deep Dudh Kosi valley and picturesque hanging bridges, Namche is where the skyline expands and a glittering array of peaks beckon from all sides. From the ethereal pyramid of Ama Dablam to the winged Viking helmet of Thamserku, the impossibly high serrated ridgeline of Kwangde Ri and the holy peak of Khumbila. Oh, and Everest, a distant black pyramid that looks like a planet-conquering spaceship, peeking above the Lhotse ridge.
Over the next few days, as you head up the Khumbu valley and inch closer to the Everest Base Camp (roughly a week’s walk from Namche), you will get the most unadulterated experience of being in the middle of the Great Himalayan Range, with impossibly beautiful peaks, giant hanging icefalls, huge rivers of moraine-covered glaciers filling you with an euphoria which is in part due to the increasingly meagre amounts of oxygen in the air. At least you will be sleeping comfortably every night at large, well-appointed tea houses.
Once you are at the tented village that is the Base Camp, head up to the vantage point of the small (relatively speaking) rocky pinnacle called Kala Patthar, for your view of the fabled Western Cwm and the Khumbu Icefall. Apart from the fabulous views, which are unforgettable, it feels like living inside a story. And given the way this fabled geography has shaped the history of mountaineering, some awe is called for.
When to go: April-June; September-December. How to go: South Col Expedition has a fixed departure in November this year, and it includes a side trip to the Ama Dablam Base Camp. Price: ₹85,000, plus 5% tax, per head; this includes the cost of guides, porters, stay, permits and Kathmandu-Lukla flight fare. Visit southcol.com
Rumtse to Tso Moriri Trek, Changthang Plateau, Ladakh
One of the most amazing things about the Himalayan range is the sheer variety of ecological zones it nurtures. If the Everest Base Camp trek is the ultimate trail approaching the Great Himalayan Range from the temperate valleys to its south, then this classic trek on the Changthang Plateau feels almost Central Asian. Lying to the far north of the Great Himalayan Range, this part of the Trans-Himalaya lies in the arid rain shadow of the mountain. But don’t be fooled by that description, because here you will be at an average height of at least 4,500m above sea level.
The nine-day overland crossing from Rumtse on the Manali-Leh highway to the great inland lake of Tso Moriri follows a well-trodden trail used by the Changpa nomads. It’s an ancient trail, a part of the branching routes from the Silk Route leading south into the north Indian plains. Indeed, in the old days, trading caravans would pass by here, continuing from Tso Moriri and over the Parang La to Spiti, and then finally down the Sutlej gorge into Punjab.
The current trekking route is just a fraction of that long trail, but it is a right old psychedelic trip. Crossing no fewer than five passes that are over 5,000m high, as well as rolling pastures, gurgling streams and Changpa settlements, it isn’t uncommon to see wild horses, huge wolves, tiny mouse hares and even the occasional snow leopard. The moment when you crest the final pass, the 5,400m high Yalung Nyau La, and see Tso Moriri laid out 2,000ft below, will take your breath—whatever’s left of it anyway—away.
When to go: July-August. How to go: There are many local trekking operators and they can all boast of a basic to high level of expertise. Price: About ₹70,000 per head, including ponies, guide, food, tented accommodation and travel to and from the trailhead to Leh.
The Dhauladhar Ridge Traverse, Kangra, Himachal Pradesh
The two things that will probably cross your mind as soon as you hear “trekking” and “McLeodganj” are Triund and Indrahar Pass. This next trek actually takes in both Triund’s scenic ridge as well as the airy heights of Indrahar but it goes way beyond. Ever since weekend mountaineers from the British army would hop over from the Dharamsala Cantonment in the early 1900s to practise rock climbing up the perpendicular ridges of the Dhauladhar Range, these mountains have been a delightful secret for those in the know. The range may only be around 4,500m high on average but it’s more difficult to navigate than many higher ranges.
This epic route goes up to the crest of the Dhauladhar and then moves west along the ridge, forming a traverse. It’s a wild land of building-sized boulders, sacred to the snake deities of the Gaddi people, and seven remote lakes that are considered their home. The largest of these, Nag Dal and Lam Dal, are truly huge, and yet, if you were to look up at the Dhauladhar from McLeodganj, you would never imagine there are nine lakes hidden up there. Although the altitude is low, for about a week you have to depend on your wits, sure feet, route-finding abilities and decent rock-scrambling abilities. While definitely not meant for trekking newbies, the traverse between Indrahar and Minkiani Passes and then the descent to Kareri is nothing less than magical.
When to go: April-October. How to go: The McLeodganj-based Manu Adventures can help you organise this traverse and provide you with tents and excellent Gaddi guides who double up as cooks. However, you must have prior experience of alpine-style trekking. Price: ₹2,500 per head per day for guide, porter, tents and meals. Visit manuadventures.in