The Dhaulagiri Debacle: 10 lessons from a trekking fiasco

The Dhaulagiri Debacle: 10 lessons from a trekking fiasco

This is a guest post by Meghan J. Ward. Photos by Paul Zizka.

It's the kind of thing that seasoned backpackers don't think will ever happen: one group becomes two and, despite years of backcountry experience, has trouble reuniting. But this is exactly what happened when my friends and I went trekking in Nepal back in October 2011. What should have been a temporary separation resulted in a two-day game of Cat and Mouse.

I tell this story not to recount some tragic tale, nor a story of survival. But, what happened to our group could be easily repeated, and result in more severe consequences, so it's a story worth telling. At the end of the ordeal, with our assumptions leading us — literally and figuratively — down the wrong trail, we sure finished our heaps of dhal bhat with a big slice of humble pie, and lots to learn.

So, how did it happen?

A Bit of Background

Unlike Nepal's Annapurna and Everest regions, where hikers can leave the tents and food behind and enjoy "teahouse trekking", the Dhaulagiri Circuit offers a more remote experience amidst some of the most jaw-dropping views on the planet. Here there are no teahouses, only a few guided groups, and even fewer independent trekkers.

Traditionally, the 8- to 14-day circuit around 8167-metre Dhaulagiri begins near the village of Darbang, after which it leaves the road behind, passes through a few small villages, climbs steeply through thick forest to Italian Base Camp (the first of a series of climbers' base camps), winds up the undulating folds of the Chhongardan Glacier and up and over French and Damphus passes before descending to Marpha in the valley below. In October 2011, our clan of five — three guys (Adam, Paul and Dave) and two girls (Rachel and Myself) — chose to do the circuit in reverse, and on our own.

The trek is considered "challenging" for a few reasons, namely because of the remoteness, altitude, dynamic weather, and glacier travel. Our choice to do the trek without guides is indicative of our group's level of experience hiking and mountaineering, mostly in the Canadian Rockies. Still, no amount of backcountry know-how, navigation skills, or self-sufficiency saved us from the fiasco we created for ourselves on the Dhaulagiri Circuit.

How One Group Became Two

Meghan descending the moraine to Dhaulagiri Base Camp. Dhaulagiri stands tall in the background. Photo Paul Zizka Photography. Meghan descending the moraine to Dhaulagiri Base Camp. Dhaulagiri stands
tall in the background. Photo Paul Zizka Photography.

There's no short way to tell this story, so stick with me if you can. And if you're tight on time, skip ahead to the "10 Lessons" listed at the bottom.

Day 1.  On this morning (day five of the trek) we awoke early to hike up and over French Pass, and make our way to Dhaulagiri Base Camp (DBC). On this day, and all the previous days on this particular trek, Paul, Rachel and I lagged somewhat behind Adam and Dave, choosing to keep a slower pace as a way to manage altitude.

Our group met up at DBC around noon and, enticed by the magnificent views, discussed the possibility of spending the night there. After many cold, sleepless nights, however, Dave was eager to continue on to Italian Base Camp (IBC), which was about 7-kilometres away according to our map. The map indicated a structure of sorts at IBC — perhaps a teahouse. Both Adam and Dave had damp gear from the night before, and the idea of sleeping in a shelter and warming up with a plate of dhal bhat (a traditional lentil and potato dish) was appealing to them. Paul, Rachel and I weren't particularly keen to split up, but we were eager to spend a few minutes taking in the views and fuelling up on snacks.

We somewhat hastily decided we would meet up at IBC the next morning. After all, we were all going down the same narrow valley, on the same trail, and surely would not pass each other without knowing it. I distinctly remember agreeing to meet at IBC at 9am (a fact that has since proved to be debatable).

Adam en route to Dhaulagiri Base Camp. Photo Paul Zizka Photography. Adam en route to Dhaulagiri Base Camp. Photo Paul Zizka Photography.

With that, Paul, Rachel and I (Group A) remained at Dhaulagiri Base Camp and Dave and Adam (Group B) set off down the trail. We ensured both groups had proper camping gear and camp stoves. Group A spent about 20 minutes resting at DBC before deciding to continue down the trail and meet up with Group B.

And so the game of Cat and Mouse began.

Ahead or Behind? What Happened to Group A

Day 1 (continued). The trail descending the valley from DBC snaked its way down the Chhongardan Glacier and up and over endless piles of rocky debris. Within a kilometer of hiking, we realized just how much work it would take to get to IBC. Not only did the trail seem to spend more time going up than down, but poor weather was moving in. The twisting trail was a far cry from the direct line on our map.

Around 4:30pm we finally stepped off the glacier. Weather was deteriorating, with rain turning to sleet and temperatures dropping. By about 6pm, it was beginning to get dark, so we pitched our tent amidst an organized trekking expedition on the flattest land we'd seen all day. That night stands as one of the best memories of our 9-week trip to Nepal: the three of us crammed into a two-man tent, sharing the sweets we had left in our packs, completely oblivious to the fiasco we'd soon be facing.


Photo 4: Meghan (left), Rachel (right), and Paul (behind the lens) get cozy in the two man tent on the first night of separation. Meghan (left), Rachel (right), and Paul (behind the lens) get cozy in the two man tent on the first night of separation.

Day 2.  The next morning we awoke early to get to IBC in good time. A layer of fresh snow made the route quite slippery, particularly on a rather dangerous portion of trail that hugged a treacherously steep slope. A slip into the canyon below would be a fatal one, and made for some nervous hiking when 100 trekkers and porters arrived coming the other direction.

Having not seen Dave or Adam along the way, we expected to find them at IBC. But they were nowhere to be found. Also missing was the teahouse we'd all been dreaming about. Instead, there was a rugged shelter used by trekking guides, and a campground.

We asked the guides, as well as some Canadian trekkers, if any of them had seen Dave or Adam. They had not. We looked around for their tent, or any indication that they had been there, and couldn't find any trace of our hiking partners. With that, we began to speculate. Where could they be? We hadn't passed them on the trail, and
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