Snowman Trek v Kanchenjunga Circuit

Two epic near month long hikes in the Himalayas, my first two trips with The Mountain Company. This post compares Bhutan’s Luana Snowman Trek and Nepal’s Kanchenjunga Circuit. In terms of the photos the first set under each heading are from the Snowman Trek, the second from the Kanchenjunga Circuit.

The Treks
The Luana Snowman Trek is a 34 day trip in total, with 26 days / 28 night spent hiking (including Lake Tshorim which was an absolute highlight that most Snowman itineraries skip), and some time in Paro and the Haa Valley for acclimatisation. It is often quoted as one of the hardest hikes in the world, which is overstatement but it’s length, weather, altitude, and cost does mean that very few people have walked it.

The Kanchenjunga Circuit is a 26 day trip in total, with 19-21 days spent walking the circuit, and some time in Kathmandu and travelling to / from the start in Far East Nepal. It is regarded as one of the best, and most varied hikes, in Nepal. It is far less popular than Everest Base Camp or the Annapurna Circuit, but is becoming better known, and more accessible with the opening in recent years of guest houses along almost the whole circuit.

Both hikes offer spectacular mountain scenery, and beautiful untouched forest at their start and end. The Snowman Trek spends more time at altitude but the Kanchenjunga Circuit gets closer to bigger mountains. The change in scenery is probably more noticeable on the Kanchenjunga Circuit, particularly on the descent from the southern Base Camp, dropping over 2,000m in 48 hours. The Snowman Trek crosses 13 passes over 4,000m, whereas the Kanchenjunga Circuit effectively goes up one valley for a week and a half, before crossing 4 passes in two days, and returning largely down another valley. The Kanchenjunga Circuit is a loop as the title suggests, so the landscapes at the start and end are similar, whereas the Snowman Trek is a one way walk showing progression in landscape, particularly once into the Luana region. Overall I think the Snowman had slightly better and more varied scenery.

Both were hard treks, with altitude, freezing cold and long days of walking. The main issue with the Snowman Trek was altitude, with 24 nights sound over 3,000m above sea level, while the Kanchenjunga Circuit had 11 days at altitude, longer days of walking and almost no rest days. I finished both totally exhausted and vowing to never do another long hike at altitude, yet I keep returning… In both groups there were 69 year olds, who walked at the back, but still made it, so it is definitely achievable. Mental strength is as important as physical strength on these trips, walking every day for weeks on end at altitude is a specific challenge.

One of the biggest differences between the trips, and enjoyment of them, was the weather. There is a very tight window of opportunity to walk the Snowman Trek, starting at the end of the monsoon in order to cross the final high passes before snow comes. When I walked it in September / October 2019 the monsoon ran late so for the first 10-12 days there were basically no big views, just constant low cloud obscuring the huge mountains that were right by us. It then cleared and we had perfect weather for the most scenic parts through Luana but that first 40% of the trip was mentally tough. Solar chargers didn’t work that well as there was so little sunlight, and it often rained after we got to camp, and a couple of times while walking.

No such problems with the Kanchenjunga Circuit in November 2022 with clear blue skies almost everyday. On a few afternoons it clouded over but it was basically perfect hiking conditions, relatively cool for walking (other than at the tropical lower altitudes), if often cold overnight. The overnight temperatures were comparable between both hikes, well below freezing. You definitely need a decent sleeping bag, and a hot water bottle or two helps…

The Snowman Trek easily wins on this measure. Bhutan is a fascinating country, and has done a lot to protect its culture. It has strict rules on architectural style, a requirement to wear traditional dress in government buildings, and religion felt much more important to people judging by the number and quality of temples and shrines. None of the places stayed felt touristy, with only a handful of guest houses along the trail. There were some amazing natural hot springs toward the end of the trek, a real treat.

Most of the shrines and passes on the Kanchenjunga Circuit appeared worn, and though there were often some interesting (usually blue) buildings along the way they couldn’t compare with places like Laya on the Snowman Trek. A number of places stayed appeared to primarily exist now for tourism, with 8-9 guest houses in Ghunsa, 3-4 in Khambachen, and 3 in Yamphudin. Given that the Kanchenjunga Circuit can be walked six months of the year (spring and autumn) these investments make sense, whereas the Snowman Trek can only be walked in two very tight periods in spring and autumn.

Track condition
The Snowman Trek is often called the Mudman, though it is nothing compared with the Rwenzori Mountains. The trail is primarily used by locals, with frequent caravans of horses or yak carrying goods into Luana as there are no roads. The track is mainly rocky / muddy and mostly straightforward to walk. The Kanchenjunga Circuit starts with 4WD tracks, then becomes well very formed mostly rocky paths up to Ghunsa. Crossing over the passes and coming down from Ramche the path was far less formed, and therefore more interesting to walk. There were a number of land slip areas crossing the path requiring care on the Kanchenjunga Circuit. I don’t remember anything comparable on the Snowman Trek in terms of technical difficulty.

Due to it’s length, difficulty, and cost more people have submitted Everest than have walked the Snowman Trek. However as the window for walking it is so small you are likely to see a few other groups, though generally only for one or two nights. The trail follows the more popular Laya Gasa track, but gets considerably quieter beyond Laya. You’re as likely to see locals on the track as hikers.

The Kanchenjunga Circuit was a bit of a secret but word now appears to have gotten out, and with the development of guest houses throughout the circuit there is no longer any need to camp. We didn’t see any other large groups, but came across about a dozen others, from individuals to groups of four, most with guides and porters, but some without which shouldn’t be allowed as guides and walking in at least pairs are conditions of permits for Kanchenjunga. We saw few locals on the track, it was mostly hikers and their crew. It is still a relatively quiet place though. The Nepal travel stats for 2019 showed that ~70% of visitors went to the Annapurna region, ~20% to the Everest region, and 0.3% to Kanchenjunga, or about ~900 people.

Camping experience
Both were camping trips, but quite different experiences. The Snowman Trek was much purer camping, setting up in seemingly the middle of nowhere, with only a few nights spent outside guest houses or at formal campsites. Almost all the meals were eaten in the mess tent and we had a couple of toilet tents. The Kanchenjunga Circuit was the opposite, with only a couple of nights spent camping wild, and the rest of the time we were on the lawns of guest houses, usually using their dining rooms and toilets. The advantage of this was warmer dining, and flatter campsites, but it lacked the wilderness feel of the Snowman Trek.

Very similar experiences, though on the Snowman Trek lunch was prepared in the morning and served from containers, whereas on the Kanchenjunga Circuit lunch was usually prepared fresh. It probably tasted better but took much longer to serve, though this was fine given the usual sunny and warm weather around midday. I think there was more rice and meat on the Snowman Trek, and more breads and pasta on the Kanchenjunga Circuit. Both lead cooks worked magic with limited cooking facilities in remote locations.

Track transport
The porter culture doesn’t exist in Bhutan, everything was carried by horse or yak, so we had a relatively smaller crew. Though there were yaks and horses on the Kanchenjunga Circuit trail this was for local transport, all trekking groups use porters to carry everything needed (including gas, mess tent, and a toilet seat!). They both go faster than the group, so camp was usually ready by the time we arrived mid afternoon. I’ve mixed feelings about using porters, but it does provide employment to large numbers of people.

The Snowman Trek, like all trips in Bhutan, must be organised through a tour company, and you are accompanied by a guide throughout. The trek starts half a days drive from the international airport in Paro, and finishes a couple of days drive away from the capital Thimpbu. The Kanchenjunga Circuit needs a trekking permit, granted through tour companies. There is a long journey to the start and from the end of the trek, involving a 1.5 hour flight from Kathmandu to Bhadrapur, and a 10-12 hour winding drive between Bhadrapur and the start / end of the circuit.

There is a huge difference in price. In 2019 the Snowman Trek cost about twice as much as the Kanchenjunga Circuit, about NZD$15,000 versus about NZD$7,500, excluding flights and insurance. In 2022 Bhutan put up their prices by about 50% so the Snowman Trek would now cost about NZD$23,000. For this reason many companies have stopped offering the Snowman Trek. The Bhutanese government may change their pricing, and allow an adjustment for longer trips, but there are no guarantees. Bhutan is a special place, but this is a huge premium, which isn’t really matched by the quality of the service provided.

In summary
The Snowman Trek has better scenery, much more of a wilderness feel, more culture, and fewer people and development, but the weather is highly variable, and it costs a lot. The Kanchenjunga Circuit has much better weather, better infrastructure, and is significantly cheaper.

More information
Posts on the Snowman Trek, and posts on the Kanchenjunga Circuit.

Author: jontycrane

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