Scoping out: A New Trek Route in Solu

Text and Photo By Don Messerschmidt

There are three ways to trek – Alpine (minimalist): carry your  own gear, eat and sleep wherever it works out, on the cheap; Teahouse style: stay and pay in inns with full spread meals, hot showers and beds; and Luxury camping: with Sherpa guides, numerous porters, a gourmet cook, private tents, all at a leisurely pace, for a price...

Our trek to Dudh Kund (‘Milk Lake’) fell somewhere between alpine and teahouse style. It was not a luxury jaunt. We did it in five days (fast, on purpose); but take my advice, it’s normally a 10-12 day trip. We went in April; but the weather and the views are best in October-November. If you’re a pilgrim, or want to see the lake when it is crowded with hundreds of worshippers, go for the Full Moon Festival of August, Janai Purnima. That’s monsoon season, of course, but it’s also the designated time and one of the holiest places for males of ‘twice-born’ castes (Brahmin, Chhetri, and some others) to take a spiritually cleansing bath, commune with the mountain gods, and change their sacred thread, the janai, which is worn over a man’s left shoulder and around his torso.

The Dudh Kund of our ambitions is high in the southern part of Solukhumbu District, directly under Numbur Himal, west of Lukla and the Everest trail. High lakes called dudh kund or dudh pokhari (literally ‘milk lake’) abound in the Himalayas, virtually all of them holy to Hindus. Their whitish color is due to glacial silt. Gosainkund (north of Kathmandu) and Tilichho (in the Annapurnas) are well known, but there are dozens more across Nepal and north India.

The ‘we’ of this trek included my friend Vidya Hirachan Piya, who owns Mustang Trails Treks and Expeditions, and Peggy Anderson, an avid recreationist and retired university phys-ed teacher from the USA. Peggy and I had a few days free when Vidya asked us to join her to scope out the Dudh Kund trek, we said “Sure. We’re on!”

Vidya was following up on a Nepal Tourism Board suggestion to check out Solu’s Dudh Kund as a new trek destination. She thought it might work for some of her European and American clients – and, indeed, it surely will. It’s a spectacular trek, and if taken at a moderate pace, with comfortable camps and time for sight-seeing, it goes well. Vidya didn’t have much time (she’s an active business woman and the mother of a toddler) so we agreed to join her ‘on the run’, so to speak. It’ll be exploratory and low budget, she told us. We’d go light, follow the main trails, avoid most side trips, and trek hard and fast to see the lay of the land, locate good water sources, scout out future campsites, and help her plan a far more leisurely future trek itinerary catering to her regular, more leisurely and higher paying clients.

Our plan was: n Day 1, fly to Phaplu, trek to Ringmo

  • Day 2, ascend to the high yak pasture below the lake
  • Day 3, trek to the lake and back to the yaks
  • Day 4, cross the Paré Danda (‘Paré Mountain’), then descend to the Sherpa village of Junbesi
  • Day 5, return to Phaplu. If it all went well we’d be in Kathmandu the next morning.

The Dudh Kund trek has many highlights. Flying to Phaplu is one. There’s a very tight (but safe) wing-tip turn on the approach, and the landing has been described (greatly exaggerated!) on YouTube as “the absolute scariest moment of my life”. (He must not fly much.) On the afternoon of Day 1 normal trekkers can hike above Phaplu (2,469 m.) to a viewpoint on Ratnagi Danda (3,000 m.). On Day 2, Vidya’s trekkers will visit nearby Chiwong monastery (2,743 m.). Day 3 will take them past picturesque farms and Sherpa houses to Ringmo (2,720 m.). On the way, the forests and meadows are bright with flowering trees and plants (the rhododendrons were out for us), and wildlife (we saw birds, monkeys and deer). Taksindu monastery (2,930 m.), an attractive destination with monks, nuns, temples and great views, is normally reached on the 4th or 5th day of a regular trek.

After landing in Phaplu we hired two porters and added a knowledgeable local guide in Ringmo. The porter loads were light – two tents, sleeping bags and pads, a change of warm clothes each, a little food, and some cooking pans. For our recce, however, we skipped Ratnagi, Chiwong and trekked directly from Phaplu to Ringmo the first day, then Ringmo to Sarsar Beni the second.

Sarsar Beni is high (3,800 m.), and is the last campsite (in a high yak pasture) before the sacred lake. Getting there made our Day 2 long and exhausting. In camp that evening we did the math: up 1,280 m. in 10 hours. We agreed that it would have been better (more sanely) done in two or three days. Climbing that high in one day is not a good idea. The Himalayan Rescue Association strongly recommends ascending at a much more conservative rate – no more than 500 m. per day, and less the higher you go – to avoid acute mountain sickness. On a normal itinerary, trekkers should expect to arrive at Sarsar Beni on Day 5, 6, or 7, depending on the side trips.

The Day 2 trail was challenging, steep in places, and wild, and short of water (in the dry season). Other parts were pleasant, in dense forest for awhile, then along high ridges with great views. Back before Sir Edmund Hillary built the nearby Lukla airfield (1965), part of our route was the original early mountaineers’ trail to Everest. For her future clients, Vidya noted various camp sites along the way.

We stayed over at Sarsar Beni for two nights. We three tented, while the porters slept and cooked in the local dharamsala, a stone hut for pilgrims. Dudh Kund (4,561 m.) was directly above us.

On our Day 3 – but, by now, the end of Week 1 for normal trekkers – we hiked slowly, at altitude, up to the lake, a more moderate ascent of only 761 m. We took our time, and brought our lunch. Along the way we passed a side trail to a lesser lake called Kalo Pokhari (‘Black Lake’) slightly east of the main pilgrim track. Our local guide said that if we wanted to see Kalo Pokhari, we’d have to do it on the way up. There’s a belief that you cannot safely gaze upon the lesser pool after you’ve seen the more sacred Dudh Kund.

Near the sacred lake we came to a ‘town’ of sorts, cleared in the midst of a large boulder field. It was totally empty and still, but each August when a thousand or more pilgrims show up to worship at the lake, it turns into a bustling bazaar with temporary inns and eateries.

The legend of Dudh Kund says that up until the dawn of the August Full Moon Day the lake is low and dark, but during the night it miraculously fills up and turns the color of milk. When we were there, the lake was dull gray and very low, but the views were bright and dramatic: of glaciers and glacial moraine, surrounded by ice-and-snow-bound peaks. Directly overhead are two magnificent summits: Numbur (6,959 m.) and Karyalung (6,681m.). Both peaks were clearly visible for several days from many vantage points on the trek up from Phaplu and Ringmo.

Later that afternoon, back at Sarsar Beni, we met two ladies from Connecticut enjoying a luxury excursion. They had trekked up slowly from Junbesi. The differences between ‘them and us’ made us chuckle. They had everything – a covey of Sherpa guides, cooks and personal porters, fancy trekking gear, separate tents, gourmet meals, and short days on the trail. Their Sherpas even brought a volleyball net for afternoon games, as if the short days were not enough exercise. By comparison, we managed quite well on two pots for cooking, a metal cup, three aluminum plates, and three spoons between the six of us, and we dined simply on rice, potatoes, onions, a few eggs, some tinned meat, muesli, a little bread, hot drinks and a few chocolate bars. We didn’t need volleyball to be happy; we had enough fun burning up the trails! Vidya’s normal itinerary, however, will feature creature comforts comparable to those the two ladies enjoyed.

You might think after seeing Dudh Kund and the great peaks that the trek down and out to Junbesi is an anti-climax. Not so! On our Day 4 (or the second week on a normally-paced trek), we left Sarsar Beni and climbed up through a yak meadow to the pass over Paré Danda that we estimated to be at 4,500m. It was unmarked on our map, but the porters knew the way. It took us two hours and 20 minutes.

The wind-blown pass was well marked by numerous stone cairns erected by previous travelers. Through the swirling mist we briefly saw some other trekkers silhouetted against the skyline a little south of us, but in no time we were enveloped in thick cloud. Normally, on clear days, the panoramic views from the pass are fabulous, but for the next few hours all we saw were our feet on the track. We stayed close together so as not to get separated or lost. From Paré Danda it was all downhill to Junbesi, gradually at first along the ridgeline, then (after we had a light lunch), it dropped steeply into the valley. Part way down was through a rhododendron forest ablaze with blossoms scarlet, pink and white. By late afternoon we reached the trail linking the famous Thubten Choling monastery to Junbesi.

‘Normal’ trekkers, will arrive at Junbesi (2,675 m.) on the 10th or 12th day (depending on the side trips). Add another day for visiting the several monasteries for which Junbesi is famous. While Vidya’s future itinerary will take her regular trekkers from Sarsar Beni to Junbesi in two or perhaps three easy days, it was another 10 hour day for us, with a descent of over 1,800 m ! After checking into a Junbesi lodge we ate a good meal and were soon out for the night in comfortable beds.

From Junbesi our last day was easy – a few miles down the Basa river to the small settlement of Beni (where we ate dal-bhat), then uphill to the airfield at Phaplu. The next morning we flew. There’s also a walking route out that goes west from Junbesi a few days to Jiri, then by bus (or pre-arranged car) on to Kathmandu. But after what our legs and knees had suffered coming down from Dudh Kund and Sarsar Beni, we were content to fly.

Perhaps next year I’ll lead a ‘real’ trek, luxury style, to Dudh Kund, at a slower, more enjoyable pace. Then, I can enjoy all the great places we missed this time, along with the Sherpa guides, the gourmet meals, the short days and – “volleyball, anyone?”