Wild winter wonderlands
Grab your snow gear and head out for the cold and pristine landscapes of the Himalaya
Conventional wisdom has it that there are just two seasons for Himalayan trekking: May-June and October-November. However, just as the recommendation that one shouldn’t trek in the monsoon is a myth, so is it with winter treks. In fact, the benefits of winter treks are many: pristine trails with no crowds, chances of wildlife spotting, and days on end of bright sunshine and clear blue skies. Yes, it can get severely cold, and you will have to invest in the correct equipment (and know how to use it) but the joys of the intrepid winter trek are many. Here are five of the best treks.
Everest Base Camp trek, Khumbu, Nepal
Trekking to the Everest Base Camp (EBC) is in any case one of the most iconic Himalayan walks. If you time your trek in the depth of winter, say, around Christmas, then it becomes even more special. Among the biggest draws, apart from a sighting of the big E, are the wide panoramas of some of the highest mountains on earth that greet you in the second part of the walk, after crossing the Sherpa city of Namche Bazaar. Storied mountains like Ama Dablam, Lobuche, Lhotse and Thamserku are your neighbours for days, apart from Sherpas and their yaks. The lodges on the trail are open, so this needn’t be a hardship camping trek either. Fly in to Lukla from Kathmandu to begin your trek. The Lukla-EBC-Lukla round trip takes about 14 days, but you should keep a couple of days in hand to acclimatize. This is especially important in winter—the cold needs getting used to as well.
Poon Hill trek, Pokhara, Nepal
If Everest in winter is an adventure too far, then this is the trek for you. The 3,200m- high Poon Hill provides one of the best viewpoints in the entire Himalayan chain. You will get a ringside view of the Annapurna Himal and the Manaslu Himal—ranges that carry a fair few 8,000m peaks. Of these, Manaslu, Annapurna 1 and Dhaulagiri are the three 8,000ers, but the star of the show is undoubtedly the beautiful spire of Machapuchare. Start from the village of Nayapul in the foothills, about 35km from Pokhara. Trek up through rhododendron and pine forests to the charming village of Ghorepani. This is the base from where you make a pre-dawn start for the summit of Poon Hill. It takes about 45 minutes to an hour to get to the 3,200m peak, and the reward is the panoramic sunrise view of the Annapurna and Manaslu Himals. You can walk back to the roadhead and reach Pokhara the same day. A longer variation of the trek, which takes about five days, takes you through other beautiful villages like Ghandrung and Tadapani. The latter boasts of amazing views of Machapuchareand the Annapurna Range.
Snow Leopard trek, Ladakh, India
The one really popular winter trek in Ladakh is the Chadar trek on the frozen Zanskar river. However, with a warming climate as well as developmental pressures, the Zanskar doesn’t freeze like it used to, making this trek very unsafe and not a little redundant. A great alternative would be to head to the village of Ulley, deep in the Ladakh Range, about 76km from Leh. The village has some wonderful home-stays to choose from. Stay for as long as you like and go for daily hikes and safaris through the snow-covered mountains for a chance to catch sight of the elusive snow leopard. In this sparsely populated valley, there are plenty of chances for wildlife sightings, especially ibex, red fox, snow hare, jackal and beautiful birds like the Himalayan snowcock. This is a winter Himalayan experience unlike any other.
Kedarkantha Trek, Uttarakhand, India
Both Garhwal and Kumaon have some great low-altitude treks that are perfect for winter. However, if you want some high- altitude adventure, then head for the Kedarkantha trek in Garhwal. This is a short trek you can do through the winter months, and a round-trip from Dehradun takes five-six days. Drive up to the village of Sankri in north-western Garhwal, following the Tons, the main tributary of the Yamuna. The next day’s walk takes you up to the campsite of Juda ka Talab. You get some fine views of the Yamunotri and Gangotri ranges from here as well. The next day, walk up to the base of the Kedarkantha ridge, through forests of oak and pine , as well as open meadows, now covered in snow. Acclimatize well, because the next day’s climb takes you through more forests and over snowfields to the 3,800m summit of the Kedarkantha ridge. There are spectacular views of peaks like Kala Nag, Swargarohini, the Bandarpunch massif, as well as the Gangotri peaks further to the east.
Dzongri Winter Trek, Sikkim, India
One of the loveliest treks you could do this winter, the Dzongri trek takes you part of the way up the Goecha La trail, as far as snow permits. It begins at the roadhead at Yuksom, from where the trail leads up through rhododendron forests and through the gorge carved out by the Rathong river to the Sachen campsite. The next day, climb further and then cross the Prek Chu to reach Bakhim and the settlement of Tshoka. More rhododendron trails take you to the Dzongri campsite the next day. It would be a good idea to acclimatize at Tshoka or Dzongri before the push to the viewpoint of Dzongri Top, which is over 4,000m high. Get fantastic views of the Kangchenjunga massif as well as the Koktang, Pandim, Rathong and Kabru peaks.