Friday, February 26, 2010
My Top Mountain Treks in the World
This was the toughest list to come up with since the choices were countless and I could include 100 treks of equal merit. But limitations are good since it then narrows down the field to something manageable. To be absolutely unbiased and fair to the entire world, I have therefore selected an odd number like 18 treks. This would represent three treks for each of the six continents, leaving Antarctica out of the field since even a walk of few hundred meters anywhere in this continent ranks among the best. Since I have a list of top ten treks in the Indian Himalaya, my real backyard, no treks from Indian Himalaya is included in this list, though there are a few that would definitely rank among the top treks in the world. Asia is a vast continent with magnificent mountain landscape and innumerable hikes through them and to offer a wider selection I have included only one trek from the Himalaya (which is most unfair). Even I had a hard time reconciling to this self-imposed restriction. But my aim here is to offer a wider spatial choice to my readers. As always my primary reason to like a trail would be its beauty and degree of difficulty. The trail names are either the most popularly accepted ones or on a pass or glacier or the region. The criterions considered for this list are as under:
1. The trails must be through some mountainscape (not only through forests or canyons, etc).
2. The trails should relatively be less popular, known, or remote.
3. I should have personally done the route.
4. Only three treks per continent. This is highly unfair to both Asia and South America but I had to have a limitation somewhere else most of my treks would come from these two continents.
5. Must be difficult and dangerous to some degrees and not a purely tourist trail.
6. All foot and walking treks only. No jeep or camel or horseback trails have been considered.
7. Only multiday treks have been included.
As always this list is by no means exhaustive or even close to that. My exposure to the world is highly limited and I guess prejudiced. So don’t fret if your favorite trail is not there. Please add it in the comment section to this post with reason why do you rank it among your favorite. My apologies to all the nations from the six continents that have amazing mountainscapes and trails. Depending on the response I might come up with list no 2. Now to begin our world tour!
Australasia & New Zealand
a) Westland National Park Glacier Trek, New Zealand. New Zealand is a land of beauty for any mountain and nature lover. It has more than 50 treks all over the country with perhaps a dozen of them regularly being featured among the world’s top hikes. Considering the ratio between the country size, population and number of hiking trails, NZ is certainly one of the most densely trekking trail countries in the world and each one of them is of outstanding beauty. Though the highest peak of Mt Cook doesn’t reach the 4000 m mark, NZ has glaciers, ice caps and breathtaking mountainscapes. The Westland National Park trail is not as popular or well known as many others for obvious reasons. It requires a considerable glacier and ice walking experience, excellent physical conditions and around 7 – 8 days to do it in its totality. You can traverse three of the major glaciers on this trip including Franz Joseph, Fox and Tasman and climb at least one of the tallest peaks in the continent. But for the low altitudes, for most part of this trail you could believe that you are either in the Himalaya or the Andes.
b) Port Davey Track, Tasmania. Australia is a rugged continent with nearly 80% of its land being uninhabited. This makes it a Mecca for nature lovers and sun worshippers. It has mountain ranges too, though they are too tiny in altitude and hence Australia has never been among my favorite destinations. I have climbed a bit in the Blue Mountains and they are a thrilling playground for any big wall and trad climber. Of the few trails I have done in Australia, the Port Davey Track in the southern part of Tasmania has remained my favorite. It is really remote and pristine and takes you through a diverse landscape that has mountains, rivers, rainforests and exotic flora and fauna. This track may take 5 – 6 days to complete depending on weather, river levels and one main harbor crossing at Bathurst, if you don’t miss the boat. Preferred time is during the winters.
c) Kokoda Trail, PNG. This is the most famous and popular trail in Papua New Guinea and it does cross the 2000 m mark at a point. It is mostly through rainforest and not really my kind of landscape but I have included it for the sake of diversity, else I would have nominated one of the several other favorites of mine from NZ. Kokoda trail has historic importance being the sight for one of the bloodiest battles of WW II between the Japanese and Australian forces. It is usually done in less than a week and should be aimed only by those who like bushwalking. It links the southern and northern coast of PNG.
As is evinced from above, I couldn’t find a single trail from the Australian mainland to include in the above.
What got left out: All the trails in New Zealand that could not be included and the South Coast Track in Tasmania.
a) John Muir Trail, USA. Those of you who have done this trail in its entirety (even those that are not Americans) would certainly agree with me that this is perhaps the most complete hiking trail in America. It simply has everything and is a very well marked trail at that. Since for me it was once in a lifetime chance, I packed in several big wall climbs both in Yosemite and along the trail as well the prize summit of Mt Whitney at the end, while joining people from one section of the walk to another. For those with lesser time periods you can do any section and be struck with its splendor. US has amazing walking trails all over the vast country and this is a trail that takes you to some of its most beatific spots. One can also learn from the Americans how to preserve and maintain a trail such as this. The trail crosses six high passes and goes through three major national parks.
b) Auyuittuq National Park, Canada. Though I have visited the Baffin Islands in Arctic Canada only twice it is a place that haunts me in my dreams. Mt Thor in the Auyuittuq National Park remains among my best climbs. The park is full of steep walls and remnants from the last ice age. One can easily get lost in its awe-inspiring mountains and mammoth ice caps. Reaching this remote park is difficult and expensive so do pack in maximum when you plan to visit. The trail through the park takes usually a week and should be done only by experienced hikers. Though the summer months from July – September are the ideal period, I would recommend a bit early in April or May to do more of snow traverse and ski across frozen creeks.
c) Sunshine to Mt Assiniboine trail. Despite its immense popularity, I had to include this trail since it is among the prettiest trails in the world. For a mountaineer like me a chance to climb the Canadian Matterhorn of Mt Assiniboine was an additional temptation. Though the trail can be done comfortably in three days, I would recommend around 7 days to explore all the side valleys and glaciers in the region and add three more days if you wish to climb Mt Assiniboine, which by no standards or route is an easy ascent. Being in Canada it is an expensive place to be, so it is better to be self-sufficient. Despite the seasonal rush and people around, I would recommend this trail to anyone visiting the Canadian Rockies since nothing and absolutely nothing can diminish the exquisite beauty of this trail – simply out of the world.
What got left out: All the major trails of USA & Mexico as most of them are actually canyon trails or along the coast. Some of the best treks in Alaska and Yukon Territory of Canada, the Appalachian Trail, several other trails in Baffin Island, etc had to be sacrificed.
As you all know by now that this happens to be my single most favorite continent on earth and I can easily name most of my top ten treks in the world from the Andes and Patagonia. But following my self-imposed restriction I would stick to three.
a) Huayhuash Circuit, Peru. Jostling with two others, this would be my personal best trek in the world. It takes around 10 days to complete the circuit and it is meant only for serious and experienced hikers who have had earlier high altitude exposure. The entire trail is far above the tree line and gives close views of some of the most dangerous and difficult mountain faces on Earth. The wild Andean landscape and wild life is perhaps best experienced in this trail. The highest point on the trail at Punta Coyoc Pass (18,012 ft) is a difficult proposition for most. Death or getting severely hypothermic are possibilities in this hike and there are bandits too. But then, the best alpine hike in the world must have its obstacles.
b) Torres Del Paine, Chile. Many hard core hikers call this as the best trek in the world and I am willing to agree. The 102 km trail takes you through such amazing landscape that if you could or would do only one hike in your life time I would recommend you the Paine route. The trail takes you along glaciated lakes, sheer rock and ice towers, tumbling glaciers and grass lands without any altitude problems. You can do it at leisure and is fairly well marked. It is a relatively popular trail though most people do only half the circuit. The sunsets and rises through the Patagonia is an unforgettable experience. If you can manage it, then you must do this trail in your life time at least once. If you stick to the path then it is not a demanding trail and can be done by almost any one in normal health. The only serious problem in this trail is the weather that can completely blow one out. A natural conclusion to this trail would be to have Argentinean visa as well and continue to Fitz Roy circuit that is equally breathtaking and exit at Calafate.
c) Illampu Circuit, Bolivia. This is a serious high altitude alpine trail through the finest sections of the Bolivian Andes and is often rated among the top twenty alpine hikes in the world. You can expect snow on any month on this route. The highest point is around 15,500 ft hence altitude is a serious threat. Glaciers, sheer ice faces, frozen lakes and abundance of wild life are some of the attractions. This circuit can be done with pack animals hence one doesn’t have to carry heavy back packs.
What got left out: Every other trek from Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile and Argentina. The journey to Angel Falls in Venezuela is among my favorites but could not be included for its primarily a boat trip followed by a short hike.
The highest trekking route in the world is in Africa, which is among the most popular in the world as well since a climb to the summit of Kilimanjaro is indeed nothing but a trek. In our present list we will keep it out.
a) Rwenzori Mountain Central Circuit, Uganda. The Rwenzori Mountain range in the Great Rift Valley between Uganda and The Democratic Republic of Congo is often called the moonscape on Earth. Nowhere can it be better experienced than on a hike along the Central Circuit that takes around 10 days and can include an ascent to the highest summit in the range of Mt Margherita (5109 m). The trek would be wet with occasional showers and through exotic jungles and the final climb to the summit would be tough for most, but all said and done it is an out of the world experience. More than anything else, for me this trail invoked a sense of awe for the simple reason that very few before me had ever stepped where I was walking.
b) Drakensberg Grand Traverse, South Africa. A 12 – 14 day long trail that is majestic and exhausting as it is calming and breathtaking. It needs good physical fitness though no technical expertise. The chances of losing trail are high. The trail mostly remains at an average altitude of 10,000 ft and many classic trad climbs can be included into the itinerary. A close view of the Tugela Falls, which is the world’s second highest waterfall, can be combined into the route. I had done this route with a bunch of buddies from the Mountain Club of South Africa (MCSA) and was in no hurry to complete the trail, while bagging peak after peak in sheer frenzy.
c) Atlas Mountain Circuit, Morocco. This trail doesn’t really have a specific name and this is the closest I could come up with. A moderately challenging trek that takes around 5 – 6 days depending on your option to include climbing Mt Jebel Toubkal (4167 m) the highest peak of North Africa. This trek is ideal for winter when a climb of Jebel Toubkal using the WSW ridge route can be quite challenging. The views are as grand as in the Alps while costs are less than one tenth. Morocco has many rock options for serious climbers and is today considered one of the most popular destinations for rock climbing.
What got left out: Going by our criterion, not much. All the routes in and around Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Mt Kenya circuit in Kenya, the Simian Range traverse in Ethiopia and perhaps the Mandara Mountains of Cameroon.
Given the immensity of options, I had to cut down my choices to only one trek each from the entire Himalayan & Karakoram Range, exclusive of Indian Himalaya (which I know is nothing short of blasphemy), Tien Shan Range & Pamirs and Altai Range. So please forgive my abomination for I know I have sinned and heavily at that.
a) Sherpani Col Route, Nepal Himalaya. When I had the choice of the entire Himalaya and Karakoram that contains the world’s second and third largest glaciers and all the 14 highest peaks why would I pick up a route that is seldom done and is among the least known outside the serious climber’s world? The answer is obvious since it lets you cross arguably the highest mountain passes in the world. The route normally takes more than 25 days and is actually an expedition and it needs seriously fit and technically competent ice climbers to complete. When I had done this route over two decades ago, no one had even heard of it outside of a very small group of Everest climbers. Today this circuit is named as Ice Col Route and is commercially offered by quite a few outfitters, though I am not sure how many teams do this route each year in its entirety. It’s basically a trek through the Arun Valley of Nepal that gives kissing distance views of Mt Everest, Mt Lhotse and Makalu. The route crosses three passes of staggering heights: Sherpani Col (6145 m), West Col (6130 m) and Amphu Lapcha La pass (5855 m) on three consecutive days. Amphu Lapcha La is the most technical of the three and requires serious ice climbing skills to negotiate.
b) Lake Trek, Tien Shan, Kyrgyzstan. I am not sure if this trek has a name even today or if it is any standard trail. I had done this trail with an excellent Kyrgyz guide by the name of Tanya. We had crossed six high and snow bound passes that took us to four lakes including Lake Issyk-Kul, Karakol, Alakol and another the name of which I can’t recall now. We had interspaced the trek with ascents of two summits above 6500 m, both which I was told were first ascents. We did it in March when the snow was really deep and heavy. I have climbed and trekked quite extensively all through the Central Asian Mountains including in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Xinxiang Province of China across the Pamir, Tien Shan and Kunlun but rarely have I found one that could surpass the beauty of the trek that my guide Tanya had shown.
c) Altai Trek, Mongolia / Russia (Siberia). Altai Mountain Range run through Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia and China and is the longest mountain range in Central Asia. The entire range is remote and mind-blowing. Among the numerous treks that one can do in this range, I have done only two and I couldn’t select one over the other hence have mentioned both. The one in Mongolia starts from Ölgii in western Mongolia and the entire circuit takes around a fortnight of intense walking. Though I believe today a part of this trail is jeepable. Besides the magnificent mountains, glaciers and lakes the most memorable part of this trail for me was befriending the Kazakh people and traveling with them through their homeland. The Altai trek in Russia traverses to the highest peak in Siberia of Mt Belukha (4506 m). Anyone with some amount of high altitude and ice walking experience can make a quick dash to the summit of Mt Belukha within the trek, like I did. This trail too takes you along pristine lakes, high passes and glaciers. Both the treks are remote and of medium grade in terms of difficulties. There could be few outfitters today offering these two treks for a price.
What got left out: Plenty and all of them equally worthy of inclusion. There are at least 50 treks from Nepal (like around Annapurna, French Col, Mustang, etc), Bhutan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Mongolia, Japan, Kamchatka Plateau, Karakoram, etc that had to be excluded. Not to mention the ones in West Karakoram and Hindu Kush, the areas where I have not been to.
The birthplace of alpinism running through the immense ranges of Alps, Dolomites, Pyrenees, Scandinavia, Scotland, etc where I learned my basic ice craft is not an easy place to encompass with only three trails, in fact it is impossible. But then attempt must be made, so here goes:
a) Jungfrau Tour, Switzerland. Though every guide book ranks the Walker’s Haute Route from Chamonix (France) to Zermatt (Switzerland) as Europe’s best trek, my personal favorite is the Jungfrau tour that is done by very few in its entirety. One reason for it being that it gives you a ring side view of the dreaded north face of Eiger. This is a high alpine and glacier trek route and must be done only by experienced hikers. There are plenty of options and detours that can be included to make it an extraordinary trekking experience, not to mention ascents of few 4000 m high summits.
b) Cuillin Ridge, Isle of Skye, Scotland, UK. If I did not include at least one trek from Scotland then my Scottish friends would surely kill me so here it is. The other reason being that my solo three day long winter traverse of the complete Cuillin Ridge is among the most insane enterprise of my entire life and if I live to tell the tale then it is more due to the prayers of my friends than my own survival abilities in one of the most hazardous and rugged terrains found anywhere in Europe. This ridge can be done in a long single one day push by experienced munro baggers. The trail encompasses everything that Scotland and the British mountains have to offer and even more. The winter conditions are apocalyptic and one has to use complete climbing gear and pro placements to get by. Not recommended for faint-hearted or those without adequate technical knowledge and experience. Route finding is harder than in the middle of Africa.
c) Brenta to Molveno, Dolomites, Italy. Well, my brother lives in Italy, one of my climbing heroes, Walter Bonatti practiced his skills in these mountains and I have done several routes in the Dolomites so it had to score over the Pyrenees. This is a trail that will tempt the hiker every step to leave the trail and climb the accompanying mountain massifs. Can be done in comfortable three days but I would recommend those keen on bagging some big walls and ice faces to set aside a week at least for there is plenty to keep you busy and dizzy in that order. Molveno ranks among the top ten prettiest mountain villages that I have seen in the world and I have seen some. If I could find an Italian woman willing to marry me, I would and settle down in Molveno for sure.
What got left out: My alma mater of Chamonix, Mt Blanc Massif, Austria, other parts of Swiss Alps, Italian Alps, the Pyrenees trails, all of Scandinavia, Iceland, the trails of Svalbard and those in Wales and Lakes. All these are unpardonable but I had my limits.
As you will see that the omissions by far exceed the inclusions and do not do any honorable justice to either. Therefore I might come up with my top ten hikes for each continent at a later point in time, depending on reader’s requests and reactions to this post. Till then you enjoy your treks and I will try to find new ones that I am yet to embark upon. Happy trekking!