Well, that depends on who is asking the question. However, if you are fit and have a good degree of stamina, coupled with a strong desire to achieve something very special, read on—this trek may well be for you. The Kanchenjunga Trek is an epic trek on a path far less traveled and not on the radar of most of the tourist community that visits Nepal.
It is one of the most challenging high-altitude treks in Nepal. Trekkers have to cross 4000–5000-meter high passes and hike along remote high-altitude trails for several days, with the highest point at 5143m. Altitude can be a major problem on the Kanchenjunga Circuit Trek if you do not properly acclimatize; rest days built in are essential as you go. The infrastructure on the trail, while improving, is still very basic, so do not expect gourmet meals; Dal Bhat (rice and lentil soup with vegetables) and instant noodles are likely to be the dishes of the day. Also, the trails can sometimes be misleading, especially when covered with snow. Stamina is important, as trek itineraries generally range between 20 and 24 days, not including time spent in Kathmandu.
As you are hiking through remote landscapes, communication at higher altitudes (while also improving) remains poor. There are several difficult ascents and descents, and as the elevation increases with the thinning air, the level of difficulty seems to double.
Having said all of this, to sum up, if you are up for it, fit, and passionate about the challenge, you are already unbeatable.
Mount Kanchenjunga: Some Facts
Mt. Kanchenjunga is a mighty giant in far-eastern Nepal, straddling the border between Nepal and India, with Tibet to the north. Considered a massif and not a single peak, it dominates all the other peaks in one of the most beautiful conservation areas in the country. It is the second-highest mountain in Nepal (after Mt. Everest) and the third-highest in the world at an elevation of 8,586m.
Kanchenjunga, a Tibetan word, is translated as "The Five Great Treasures of Snow" (gold, silver, precious stones, grains, and the Holy Scriptures). It comprises the two significant peaks that make up Kanchenjunga and the three peaks within the massif. The region is protected by the Kanchenjunga Conservation Region (spread over 2,035 km) and is jointly run by WWF Nepal in partnership with the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development.
The Kanchenjunga Trek (a brief):
A circular trek that starts from Taplejung on a trail that takes you up through lush valleys, full of seasonal flowers nourished by the heaviest monsoon rains throughout the Himalayan range. As you trek north, you enter a spectacular high-alpine region with landscapes covered in woodlands amidst a plethora of mountain streams. The trail leads you up and over high passes to both Kanchenjunga Base Camp and Ramche Yalung Base Camp before trekking back down again to lower elevations and finally returning to the Taplejung.
There are two ways to reach Kanchenjunga: by air and by road. My choice would be the flight to Bhadrapur as it saves a lot of hassle and uncertainty whilst also providing an opportunity on the bus to soak up the local landscape.
Fly Kathmandu to Bhadrapur (45 mins)
The most straightforward way is to take the 45-minute flight to Bhadrapur. A town situated on the plains in the south of the country. There are daily flights that your trekking company will manage, as most quotes provided will include transportation. From Bhadrapur, it’s a ten-hour jeep ride to Taplejung, where the trek begins.
Fly Kathmandu to Suketar Flight: 1 hour and 20 minutes
If life were easy, this would be your best bet: fly into the tiny mountain airport of Suketer. From here, it’s just a case of starting to walk for around an hour to Tapljung. Unfortunately, weather conditions make this option a very dodgy choice. Flights are irregular, and they are also canceled on a fairly regular basis.
Kathmandu to Taplejung by Road
If you are up to the rigors of Kanchenjunga from day one, a road trip is always a possibility. You will need to break your journey at either Bhadrapur or Birtamod before continuing to Taplejung the following day. If you are thinking of a road trip, a private Jeep is by far the best option; hiring a vehicle in Kathmandu (your trekking company will arrange it) provides the options and flexibility to stop off on the way, take things on your own pace, and truly get ready for the journey to come!
The other option is a local bus. Several daily buses are leaving Kathmandu for Birtamod (12 hours away) from the New Bus Park. The following day, take a bus up into the hills to Taplejung (10 hours). Any discomfort is more than made up by witnessing the different aspects of the country, culture, and local people along the way.
Coping with Potential Difficulties on the Kanchenjunga Trek
Kanchenjunga Base Camp is a strenuous trek, as mentioned; however, with a good degree of fitness, it is very achievable. By following appropriate advice, you can improve your chances of success and, more importantly, enjoy completing the journey.
Acute Mountain Sickness
One issue, to begin with, is how to minimize the risk of acute mountain sickness. High altitude and unpredictable weather are the main problems when trekking in the Kanchenjunga area.
Acute mountain sickness does not discriminate and can affect anyone, regardless of their level of fitness. You must keep your fluid levels constant, as hydration is one of the keys to avoiding any problems. Another important issue is not gaining too much altitude in one day. A good guide will take care of this by planning acceptable days on the trail. The better trekking companies provide their guides with a pulse oximeter to check guests' health twice a day. This helps the guide keep track of SPO2 (the running oxygen level in the blood) and BPM (blood pressure) before deciding whether to trek on or take an extra day to acclimatize.
In a real emergency, there are helicopter rescue services available; however, arranging a helicopter rescue is time-consuming, so don’t expect one immediately; it can take many hours. You must make sure that your insurance covers evacuation costs.
Get fit and keep fit
It should be clear by now that this trek is not a walk in the park. If your daily routine already includes a lot of sport and exercise, you are probably OK on this one. If, however, you feel you could benefit from toning up your muscles and improving your lifestyle, here are a few tips that will help.
- Get walking in some hills regularly before your arrival.
- Join a gym; stretching and muscle-building exercises will go a long way toward ensuring that you enjoy the trek.
- Eat well; a good constitution goes a long way.
- Go swimming, and when you feel tired, keep going and do one more length. Swimming is great for building lung capacity.
- Don’t take lifts or elevators; take the stairs whenever possible.
- If you are prone to drinking, try to limit your intake before you arrive. Never drink at high altitudes.
- Mindfulness is all the rage nowadays, but it does help in difficult situations. It will help you to concentrate on your breathing, which in turn normally helps people focus on the task (often a difficult one) ahead.
- Make the trek more comfortable
- If you feel the cold, take on more "layers."
- Fill your water bottle with boiling water at night.
- Wear a hat and thick socks, and pull in your sleeping bag baffles.
- Use dry bags to protect important items.
- Use a sleeping bag liner (preferably silk or fleece) to add up to 5 degrees of extra warmth.
- Permits and bureaucratic stuff before beginning the trek:
- You need to obtain a special trekking permit to visit the areas made available by the Nepal Tourism Board. Your agency will cover this and arrange it.
- Trekkers also need to purchase a Kanchenjunga Conservation Area Permit (KCAP). Your agency will cover this and arrange it.
- You need to hold a valid passport and a visa to enter Nepal via air or road for at least six months before they expire.
- Government Rules for the Trek to Kanchenjunga Base Camp
- Travelers must be in a group of at least two people.
- You must be accompanied by a government-registered, licensed guide.
- You must go through a trekking agency to purchase a trekking permit.
- Kanchenjunga Base Camp Trek Permit Cost Updated in 2020:
- Restricted Area Trekking Permit: USD 20 per person per week
- Kanchenjunga Conservation Area Permit Cost: NRS 3,000 per person or equivalent foreign currency
- All of the above will be covered by your chosen trekking agency, which will advise you before you travel on what you need to bring (photos, etc.).
People and culture
If Kanchenjunga were a Swiss mountain, it would still be a fantastic trek; however, what makes a trek in Nepal so special is the magic of Nepal and in particular the Kanchenjunga region.
The Kanchenjunga region is well known for its bio-diversity; it includes the world's largest natural rhododendron forest along with the highest number of rhododendron species in the world. You will be trekking within an alluringly rich cultural heritage, reflected by the Buddhist gompas (monasteries), where the flowing waters of small streams continuously spin prayer wheels with the prayer "Om Mane Padme Hum" inscribed on them. Its meaning (but I am not sure many trekkers will make it, certainly not in 24 days or so!) is that, in dependence on the practice of a path that is an indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha. "Work that one out!"
The cultural diversity of the region is remarkable, with the region being home to many different ethnic groups, each with its own customs and way of life. Limbus Chhetris and Brahmins occupy the lower levels, with the higher regions inhabited by Sherpas, Rais, Gurungs, Tibetans, Magars, Newars, Sunwars, and Tamangs.
Cardamom farming, agriculture, animal husbandry, and tourism are the major sources of income for the people here. The Sherpas, who arrived from Tibet more than four hundred years ago, live in the highest altitudes, although their culture and traditions are quite different from those of the Sherpas of the Solukhumbu district in the Everest region.
Kanchenjunga Trek equipment checklist
For many people, a trek to Kanchenjunga will be their first remote, high-altitude trek. Whilst the Kanchenjunga Trek takes you over high passes of 4500 meters and more, it is not like climbing a high mountain. Mountaineering requires a lot more technical equipment; you will not need ice axes or crampons, and there is no need for ropes and helmets. The secret is to travel as light as possible while ensuring the gear you have is reliable and adequate for a comfortable trek. Below is a list that will help you plan what to bring. If trekking in Kanchenjunga is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, then it is not necessary to bring all your gear with you. Kathmandu is full of trekking and climbing shops that will sell or rent you almost any article or piece of equipment you will need.
Consider microspikes; they are adjustable, fit easily onto trekking boots, and will help you in the snow at high altitudes.
Suggested Gear List:
- Walking boots. A pair of good-quality water-repellent boots with ankle support Make sure your boots are well "worn in."
- Sports shoes for the evenings at a lower altitude
- Gaiters. A pair used to keep boots dry if walking through deep snow. (winter only)
- Walking socks. 2 pairs of thin, lightweight inner socks 2 pairs of heavy poly or wool socks Cotton socks (optional)
- Lower Body:
- 2 pairs of breathable underwear briefs
- 1 pair of hiking shorts
- 1 pair of hiking trousers
- 1 pair of lightweight thermal bottoms (seasonal).
- 1 pair of fleece or woolen trousers
- 1 pair of waterproof shell pants with breathable fabric
- 1 pair of lightweight polyliner gloves
- 1 pair of lightweight wool fleece gloves with a polar-fleece mitt liner (optional)
- Upper Body:
- Polypropylene shirts (1 half sleeve and 2 long sleeves)
- Light and expedition-weight thermal tops
- a fleece windbreaker jacket or pullover.
- Waterproof shell jacket (preferably breathable fabric)
- Down jacket
- Gore-Tex jacket with hood, waterproof and breathable
- 1 sleeping bag (-15/20 degrees)
- Fleece sleeping bag liner (optional)
Rucksack and Travel Bags:
- 1 medium rucksack (50–70 liters (3000–4500 cubic inches)), which can be used as an airplane carryon.
- 1 suitcase/duffel bag
- A small daypack or backpack for carrying your valuables should have good shoulder padding.
- Small padlocks for duffel-kit bags
- 2 large, waterproof rucksack covers (optional)
Medical items to consider:
- small, personal first-aid kit (simple and light)
- Aspirin, first-aid tape, and plasters (Band-Aids)
- 1 skin-blister repair kit
- Anti-diarrhea pills
- Cough and/or cold medicine
- Anti-altitude sickness pills: Diamox or Acetylzolamide
- Stomach antibiotics: Ciprofloxacin, etc. Do not bring sleeping pills, as they are respiratory depressants.
- Water purification tablets or water filters
- 1 set of earplugs
- Extra pairs of prescription glasses and contact lens supplies
Practical items to consider:
- 1 small roll of repair tape, 1 sewing repair kit
- 1 cigarette lighter, 1 small box of matches
- 1 compass or GPS (optional)
- 1 alarm clock or watch
- 1 digital camera with extra cards and batteries
- Large Ziplocs
- 1 water bottle (1 liter): consider 2
- 1 small folding knife (the Swiss Army's best)
- 4 large, waterproof, disposable rubbish sacks
- Toiletries: Wherever possible, please use biodegradable products.
- 1 medium-sized quick-drying towel
- Toothbrush or paste (preferably biodegradable)
- multi-purpose soap (preferably biodegradable).
- Nail clippers
- Face and body moisturizer
- Female hygiene products
- Small mirror
- Personal Hygiene
- Wet wipes (baby wipes)
- Tissue/toilet roll
- Anti-bacterial hand wash
- Reading books
- Trail map/guidebook
- Journal and pen
- Travel games, i.e., chess, backgammon, scrabble, and playing cards (to help you pass the time at teahouses or camps)
- Voltage converter
- Plug adapter (2 round pegs to 2 flat pegs)
I hope this helps. If you have gotten this far, then you are probably thinking of the Kanchenjunga Trek. I have trekked and climbed in Nepal for many years and have many fond memories of high trails and clear summit days. Among them all, the trek to Kanchenjunga is up there with the very best.