The Dhaulagiri Himal from Poon Hill


A Circuit of Dhaulagiri
DHAULAGIRI is Nepal's most westerly 8000 metre peak and one of the really great mountains of the Himalaya. Taking the form of a huge wedge of glistening ice punctuated by pale, steep and seemingly unscalable rock buttresses, its true size and magnificence are best appreciated when viewed from across the Kali Gandaki valley. Standing in solitary and unrivalled splendour, it floats above a sea of haze, apparently dissociated from the world beneath.

But the world's seventh highest mountain does not stand in isolation; at a height of 8167m. or 26,795 ft., it is the culminating point of a great mountain range embracing seventeen summits rising to over 23,000 feet. In common with its neighbour, Annapurna, the Dhaulagiri Himal lies entirely within the borders of Nepal, and the relaxation of restrictions on access to Dolpo and Mustang has, for several years, provided the opportunity for trekkers to complete a wide circumnavigation of the massif.

Dhaulagiri from Dharapani
Complex Inner Cirque

But I was not interested simply in obtaining distant views of Dhaulagiri; the real challenge was to penetrate its secret innermost sanctuary. Here, at the heart of the massif, cradled within a complex inner cirque of peaks and fed by vast snowfields sweeping off the impressive north face of Dhaulagiri 1, lies the mighty Chhonbardan Glacier. Hidden away and rarely visited, this sanctuary can only be gained by two demanding and totally contrasting routes.

From the south a long and sometimes difficult trail follows the Myagdi Khola river to its source on the Chhonbardan Glacier; whilst to the north, a way from the Kali Gandaki valley leads first over Damphus pass and then French Col - a route pioneered by members of Maurice Herzog's expedition in 1950. By linking these routes one can complete a circuit of the main peak of Dhaulagiri 1.

Unspoilt Countryside

In 1993 I organised and led a commercial trek to the area and, attracted by the prospect of walking in through traditional Nepalese villages and relatively unspoilt countryside, I chose the southern approach. Starting from Pokhara, the way initially leads west, following the courses of the Kali Gandaki and Myagdi Khola rivers as far as Darbang. At this point the route turns north, heading straight into the heart of the Dhaulagiri massif.

It took six long hot days to reach Darbang. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant interlude and with each twist and turn in the river a new and interesting panorama unfolded. The passage of the monsoon leaves lowland Nepal rich in vegetation and colour; the brown, green and yellow hues of woodland and terraced fields were a delightful prelude to the barren white wilderness of the high mountains.

The first real gain in altitude occurred just beyond Darbang on the approach to the attractive Magar village of Dharapani. After crossing the Dang Khola, a tributary of the Myagdi Khola, the tiny path contoured its way up the mountainside high above the river. There was an accompanying change in the flora; sub-tropical forest slowing giving way to Chir pine.

A View Revealed

Upon reaching Dharapani the view to the north was revealed. Initially limited to the summit of Gurja (7193m., 23,600 ft.), it gradually extended to include Churen (7371m., 24,184 ft.) and Dhaulagiri 5 (7618m., 24,995 ft.). The main peak of Dhaulagiri 1 also came into view, separated from the main group by the obvious cleft of the upper Myagdi Khola valley.

Gurja Himal from Dharapani

Two more tributaries of the main river, the Dhara Khola and Dhola Khola, were crossed in quick succession. Situated on an intervening ridgetop, the village of Muri was a convenient campsite blessed with stunning views of Gurja. The descent to the Dhola Khola from Muri marked the beginning of a long day spent negotiating some very steep ground on a cunning well constructed stone path which was safe but required great care.

The trail between Muri, Boghara and Jyardan, the last permanent settlement in the valley, was particularly beautiful and interesting. It passed several isolated hamlets and fine waterfalls hidden away in the recesses between the near-vertical hillsides. Manapati (6380m., 20,933 ft.) was the most obvious peak in view, rising as a snowy pyramid high above afforested ridges. But glimpses of snow covered peaks were limited as the forest cover thickened; maple, bamboo, rhododendron and pine being the most common species encountered.

Negotiating indistinct trails through dense Himalayan forest has its frustrations as well as delights. On this occasion more time was spent swinging from branches, clambering over contorted root systems, sliding down muddy banks and extracting oneself from deep peaty morasses than it was appreciating the kaleidoscopic shafts of light which filtered through the thick green canopy above. The days between the only two practical campsites in the forest, at Dobang and Chatare, were long and tedious.

Rickety Bridges

A Himalayan trek is never complete without a tricky river crossing on a fragile or unstable bridge, and this route was never likely to disappoint. Between Dobang and Chatare the trail crossed two rivers; another tributary, the Konoban Khola, and then the Myagdi Khola itself. We safely negotiated the simple and insubstantial log bridges across these waters but, as they are replaced after each monsoon, their condition, even their very existence, could never be taken for granted. Thankfully, the trail became much drier and easier as it approached Chatare, although the excitement was maintained across two minor landslips. Walking through the forest concealed the steady gain in altitude, and we were surprised to find that Chatare was at 10,000 ft..

The forest thins out beyond Chatare, but never lacks interest as the larger pines are replaced by wild rose, clematis, dwarf rhododendron and cotoneaster. Each break in the forest was more revealing and, at the small clearing of Puchar, we could see across the valley to Tsauarabong (6395m., 20,982 ft.), an outlier of Dhaulagiri 5. Soon the trail crossed a tiny glacier and ascended the terraced grassy hillside beyond. A relatively level section has room for a campsite and is known as Pakabon.

Awesome Location

The location of Pakabon is awesome, almost oppressive, with the massive west wall of Dhaulagiri 1 looming directly above. The way forward appears to be blocked on all sides by towering cliffs, moraines and deep gullies filled with scree and avalanche debris. To the north, the snow dome of Sita Chuchura (6611m., 21,690 ft.), is perfectly framed by the narrowing canyon walls; across the valley the lesser Dhaulagiri peaks are hidden high above.

The Myagdi Khola Gorge

The most treacherous part of the whole trek lies between Pakabon and the snout of the Chhonbardan Glacier, and just for good measure a storm placed several inches of snow on the route before our departure. It took several hours to negotiate unstable moraines barring the way to a path which traversed a rock wall on the west bank of an impressive gorge.

The trail followed the headwaters of the infant Myagdi Khola through this gorge to the glacier beyond. The way was easy but threatened by stonefall, and one or two members of the trek were sent scurrying for cover as stones rattled down from above.

As the terminal moraine of the glacier is reached, the valley widens and turns sharply east to reveal the avalanche torn face of Tukuche Peak (6920m., 22,705 ft.) standing at its head.

The route to Dhaulagiri Base Camp took a line over the moraines in the centre of the glacier and, except for two short cravassed sections, it was generally free of difficulty. It was a very long, hard day from Pakabon to Base Camp, partly caused by the altitude gain of over 3,000 feet.

Base Camp is usually located at the far end of the glacier, opposite an icefall descending from the north-east col of Dhaulagiri 1 and beneath an obvious corner leading to French Col. The site is dirty and uncomfortable, but views of the surrounding peaks are truly magnificent. Endless snowfields sweep down the great north face of Dhaulagiri 1 directly above the camp. Back down the glacier, Dhaulagiri 2 (7751m., 25,431 ft.), Dhaulagiri 3 (7715m., 25,313 ft.), Dhaulagiri 5 and Dhaulagiri 6 (7268m., 23,846 ft.) form an unbroken wall of peaks stretching as far as the eye can see.

Clear Dawn

The day of our departure for French Col dawned brilliantly clear and we enjoyed a colourful sunrise before setting off. After negotiating the moraines near Base Camp, the way up gained and then followed an obvious ridge to the west of the main glacier. The ridge ended at a snowy basin above which easy angled slopes led to the pass itself. We reached French Col comfortably in four hours.

Dhaulagiri 2 at Sunrise and Moonset

A vicious cold wind greeted our arrival, but it was the extensive views which really took our breath away. To the south, the panorama was dominated by Dhaulagiri 1 and Sita Chuchura; across the pass, Hidden Valley appeared as a rich brown carpet flanked by the snow capped peaks of Damphus (6035m., 19,800 ft.), Tashi Kang (6386m., 20.952 ft.) and the Mukut Himal.

The descent into Hidden valley was also easy, first over snow and then grass slopes. Less than two hours after leaving French Col we established a camp across the valley at the foot of Damphus Pass. It was a beautiful setting in a totally remote and unspoilt valley, a scene made particularly haunting by the appearance of a full moon at midnight.

But, with the way to civilisation now cut off by two high passes, the feeling of isolation was intense. It was clear that navigating these passes in bad weather would be difficult, and an easy day could quickly turn into an epic. So the following morning we wasted no time in ascending the final 500 ft. to the top of Damphus pass, again across easy angled snow slopes.

Unlike the previous morning, there was not a breath of wind on the pass, and we took time to take in the view ahead which now included Annapurna 1 (8091m., 26,546 ft.), Fang (7847m., 25,746 ft.), Tilicho (7134m., 23,407 ft.) and Nilgiri (7061m., 23,167 ft.).

Routes Down

There are two routes down from the pass; both follow a steep ridge to its roots in the Kali Gandaki valley between the villages of Marpha and Tukuche. We chose the northern variation, maintaining altitude as long as possible to enjoy stunning views of Tukuche Peak. At the end of the ridge a cairn marked a marvellous viewpoint for the entire length of the Kali Gandaki valley. To the north, barren sandy hills surrounded Jomoson and Muktinath; to the south and east, ridge upon ridge disappeared into a blue haze towards Pokhara.

Dhaulagiri 1 from French Col

It was with more than a little sadness that we took the plunge and descended the 7,000 stony, dusty feet to Marpha, stopping off at a pleasant grassy campsite near Alubari on the way. Having experienced several weeks of solitude in the Myagdi Khola, it was difficult to come to terms with the busy 'Cake and Coca-Cola' trail which leads down to Tatopani. Our mood was further depressed by the arrival of bad weather and, perhaps in a gesture of sympathy, Dhaulagiri refused to reveal itself during most of our passage home.

The clouds did part temporarily at Ghorapani where, with several hundred other trekkers, we ascended Poon Hill to enjoy one of the Himalaya's classic displays. We watched the rising sun slowly cast its colourful rays onto the icy ramparts of Annapurna 1, Annapurna South (7219m, 23,686 ft.), Hiun Chuli (6441m., 21,133 ft.), Machhapuchhare (6993m., 22,944 ft.) and, of course, Dhaulagiri.

Whilst others admired Annapurna, our attention was drawn to Dhaulagiri, standing proudly across the deep cleft of the Kali Gandaki valley. The moment was full of emotion. We felt at one with the white mountain which had, for nearly four weeks, looked over us and revealed its secrets to us. But now we had to bid it farewell. As the clouds rolled in once more we finally turned for home, our minds impressed with that everlasting picture of Dhaulagiri and our lives enriched by the experience.

This article was originally published in the magazine 'Climber' in 1994