The Himalayas are hot. With the success of Into Thin Air, the excitement of the Imax movie, Everest, and what seems to be a new Hollywood release every month, the world’s highest mountains are definitely in vogue.
Pakistan: Snow Lake
The Karakoram, the westernmost range of the Himalayas, is a desolate land of extremes that encompasses the earth’s most dramatic, jagged high peaks and its longest glaciers outside the polar regions. In the middle of it all is Snow Lake, a vast basin of ice at 16,000 feet ringed by sawtooth peaks that explorer Martin Conway described as “beyond all comparison the finest view of mountains it has ever been my lot to behold, nor do I believe the world can hold a finer.” The route to Snow Lake starts at the village of Askole and proceeds up the 40-mile long Biafo Glacier. The glacier ends at Snow Lake, where trekkers then cross the 17,000-foot Hispar La to the Hispar Glacier, which descends 35 miles to the Hunza Valley, the prototype for James Hilton’s Shagri-La. Although the terrain is gentle by Himalayan standards—most of the time you’re walking on the glaciers themselves—the footing can be difficult. And the utterly barren landscape, devoid of vegetation and people, can be mentally trying for some. But for one glance at the grandeur of Snow Lake, these are scant drawbacks indeed.
Nepal: The Manaslu Circuit
If you regret not having done the Annapurna Circuit 20 years ago, before it turned into a trekkers’ autobahn, head for the higher, more rugged peak just to the east, 26,800-foot Manaslu. Start in the town of Ghorka and climb up to the 15,500-foot Rupina La, with Himalchuli towering dramatically overhead. (Ropes will help get you over a short field of boulders at the pass.) Trek down to the Buri Gandaki valley, then follow it up through Nupri, an isolated region that still maintains an unspoiled Tibetan Buddhist culture. The high point of the circuit is 17,100-foot Larkya La, a pass just this side of the Tibetan border. From there, you’ll descend to the Kali Gandaki Valley and for the last few days rejoin the mobs on the Annapurna Circuit back to Ghorka.
Bhutan: Laya and Lunana
Bhutan, which charges very high trekking fees, has resisted the flood-tide of trekkers that have invaded Nepal. In this land of wild and little-traveled trekking routes, the wildest and least-traveled of them all begins in Punakha and proceeds north to Laya, hard against the Tibetan border. From there, head east into the remote Lanana region, traversing six passes from 15,000 to 17,000 feet. After passing beneath 24,900-foot Gangkar Punsum the world’s highest unclimbed peak—head south to Tongsa and the trail’s end. The Lanana loop is a classic Himalayan trek—peaks, villages, monasteries—in an untouched region visited by only a handful of Westerners. At a typical cost of $5,000 to $7,000, this may be the world’s most expensive trek, but well worth the price.
Tibet: The Kangshung Face of Everest
Ninety percent of the people who see Everest view the south face from Nepal. Another nine percent or so see the north face from the Tibetan side. But only a handful see the east, or Kangshung Face, visually the most impressive of Everest’s faces. With yaks shouldering the load, the Kangshung trek begins in the Tibetan village of Kharta and proceeds across a high alpine desert into the Kangshung Valley to Pethang Ringmo. The jutting face of Everest is visible almost constantly—unlike the Khumbu side, where the summit is often hidden by other peaks and ridges. From Pethang Ringmo, loop back to Kharta via the 17,000-foot Langma La. While this is not an especially long (about two weeks) or arduous trek, it takes you into a virtually untouched area with perhaps the best views of Everest anywhere.
Nepal: The Ultimate Everest Trek
Say what you will about the Khumbu, that it’s too crowded, too Westernized. But there’s no way a serious trekker can miss the Everest region of Nepal, which contains four of the eight highest peaks on earth. To see it all, start from Lukla and trek the main drag up to Namche Bazaar, the Sherpa capital. From Namche, head up the Dudh Kosi valley to the Gokyo Lakes and Gokyo Ri, an 18,000-foot lookout point with stunning views of the Big Four peaks (Everest, Cho Oyo, Lhotse, and Makalu). Then cross 17,800-foot Cho La to the Everest Base Camp area. Hike up 18,100-foot Kala Patar for the classic in-your-face view of Everest, then walk to the base camp itself if you like. Then head back down the valley to Namche Bazaar, stopping at famed Tengboche monastery.
Pakistan: Concordia and Gondoro La
Our Top Ten Treks certainly must include a close-up look at K2, second-highest mountain on earth. The classic route starts at Askole and proceeds for a week up to the Baltoro Glacier to Concordia, a spectacular glacial intersection ringed by four 26,000-foot peaks (including K2) that have been called the “Throne Room of the Mountain Gods”. From Concordia, the K2 base camp is a day’s walk along the Godwin-Austin Glacier. To return, most K2 trekkers retrace their steps down the Baltoro, but a more challenging alternative is to climb from Concordia to Gondoro La, a difficult snow-covered 18,400-foot pass into the Hushe Valley to the south. The pass crossing typically requires crampons, ice axe, ropes and Best Base Layers For Cold Weather, but is within the capabilities of the hardy trekker.
Tibet: Trekking to Mt. Kailas
Quibblers may say that Kailas, a dramatic 22,000-foot peak, lies on the Tibetan Plateau and is therefore not technically part of the Himalayas. And that this trek includes a two-day jeep leg. Let ’em quibble. The trek to Kailas at least starts in the Himalayas, in western Nepal. The trek from Simicot along the Karnali river valley to the Tibetan border takes about a week. From there, you’ll need a vehicle to take you across the plateu to Kailas itself, where you’ll join thousands of pilgrims making the ritual five-day 32-mile circumnavigation of the mountain. In keeping with Buddhist custom, you’ll take the clockwise route. (It’s not necessary to do the route on your hands and knees, prostrating yourself every few seconds, as some pilgrims do.) The return trip retraces your steps to Simikot. It’s certainly the most spiritual of all the treks listed here.
Kyrgyzstan: The Turkestan Range
At the northern end of the Himalayas’ vast 2500-mile sweep lie the Turkestan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan, a range of 15,000 to 18,000-foot peaks and Yosemite-like valleys with sheer granite walls more than a mile high. The valleys are populated in summer by nomadic tribesmen who tend their herds of sheep and yaks. The Turkestans may well be the next great trekking area. All the elements are there: big snow-capped mountains, a network of beautiful valleys and connecting passes that allow convenient trekking routes, interesting local people, readily available pack animals, major cities (Tashkent and Samarkand) nearby, and a very exotic national culture. The most popular trekking route winds through the Aksu , Orto-Chasma, Karasu, and Karavshin Valleys.