A three week trek around the Nepalese side of the world’s third highest mountain, the Kanchenjunga Circuit is one of the most varied hikes in Nepal. It starts and finishes in lush, tropical valleys with bananas growing, but the middle part rises to over 5,000m above sea level to visit the northern and southern Base Camps for views of Kanchenjunga.
I walked it in November 2022 with The Mountain Company, as part of a group of ten, supported by an international trip leader, and a local crew of 37 – 4 guides, 5 cooks, and 28 porters. We camped, though in the three years since the trip last ran (due to Covid) there are now guest houses at almost every point along the hike. Permits are required and online it states that you have to have a guide, and cannot walk it solo (even if with guide) but I saw both these rules broken. There is more consistency, and cleanliness, of both food and accommodation through a group camping approach though, and a much more support in case of bad weather / illness (the former wasn’t an issue on this trip, the later definitely was as I struggled with a bad cold in particular at altitude).
It was hard to take it all in at the time, the focus was on walking 5-8 hours every day through varied terrain, sweating in the heat of the valleys, and freezing (it was -10C one night inside the tent!) at altitude. Reflecting on it now though here were the highlights from the three week adventure.
One of the most remote places on the circuit, the Tibetan village of Khambachen was surrounded by epic mountain scenery.
Ramche was even more remote, and the highest (and coldest) place I slept, at 4,580m above sea level. The campsite was only a few hundred metres from the moraine wall of the Yalung Glacier.
Relatively close to Ramche was Kanchenjunga’s southern base camp, offering the closest views of the 8,586m summit, though I found the neighbouring mountains more interesting – Koktang (6,147m), Rathong (6,679m) and the Kabrus at over 7,000m.
My clear favourite peak though was the distinctive 7,711m Jannu, which we saw throughout the trip. The hike would better titled as the Jannu Circuit rather than the Kanchenjunga Circuit given how frequently it was seen, and we did a more complete circuit of it. It isn’t possible to do an actual circuit of Kanchenjunga as it lies on the Indian Nepalese border.
It was a trip of contrasts, and walking through the villages and lush landscapes at the start and end of the track made wonderful bookends to the high altitude mountain sections. It is amazing how many people live in these relatively remote areas, though roads advance every year further in.
There wasn’t much wildlife to be seen, though signs did note when we passed through snow leopard, bear, and red panada habits. Yaks and horses are used as the main form of transport in higher areas, and we saw blue sheep on the way to Ramche.
There are so many river crossings, all of which were bridged, though their condition was somewhat variable…
I spent a quarter of the trip in Ghunsa, five nights due to illness, and found it a lovely and scenic Tibetan village, one of the largest on the circuit. The sun didn’t hit the village till 9.30am though and it was freezing overnight…
The views between Sele La Pass and Tseram were quite phenomenal, with a rare and beautifully reflective alpine lake, and views of Makalu, the fifth highest mountain in the world.
The clear lowlight for me was being ill for two thirds of the hike, making it more of an exercise in endurance than actually enjoyable. The travel to and from the start of the hike were also exhausting, 10-12 hours driving along rough and winding roads. Thankfully these memories tend to fade leaving the photos and better memories of the incredible landscapes we walked through.