The first Western exploration of the Rolwaling Valley was undertaken by Eric Shipton and his team at the end of the 1951 British Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition. After extensive exploration of the Solukhumbu for potential routes to tackle an Everest summit attempt, the team decided on their return to cross over the Tashi Lapsek Pass and return to Kathmandu via the as-yet-unexplored Rolwaling Valley. It was here that Shipton took the iconic and original yeti footprint photographs, starting a storm of debate and rumors. And just like that, the Rolwaling Valley was carved into the annals of mountaineering folklore.
Since the 1950s however, Rolwaling has received scant attention, particularly when compared to other valleys in Nepal. It has, though, remained connected with the noisier Khumbhu Valley to its east via Beding, an important settlement that numerous Everest summitters call home. Yet apart from this, the Rolwaling Valley remains not exactly forgotten, but rather drowned out between Solukhumbu to its east and Langtang to the west. Considerably fewer trekkers pass through this windy valley than they do the ones on either side. Such little attention is not deserved. Its connection to mountaineering history and its thinner tourist numbers make it an attractive option for trekkers and mountaineers alike.
The hike to Tso Rolpa, the largest glacial lake in Nepal, is just one of the many draws of the Rolwaling Valley. The valley differs from most in Nepal with its east-to-west orientation. This creates an easier climate for animals to wander, and as such the valley is home to a large variety of animals, including bears, jackals and most notably the snow leopard (if not the legendary yeti).
The valley is not just home to animals and mountaineers. According to Buddhist mythology, Gauri Shanker (the 7,134 metre mountain that dominates the valley) is the embodiment of Tashi Tseringma, the leader of the Tsher Ring Mched Inga. For Hindus, the peak symbolizes Lord Shiva and his consort, Parvati.
Starting out at Chetchet, two hours in a jeep from Dolakha, the trail to the frozen lake begins by crossing a small suspension bridge over the Tamakoshi, and quickly climbs up steeply up for almost 800 metres. After an hour or so of vertical climbing, it arrives at Simigaon, a small town sprawled out among the terraces, which makes a good rest stop for the first day. Tents can be pitched or lodgings and food arranged here with ease.
From Simigaon the next day, the trail continues up high alongside the right flank of the valley, with trees swallowing up the views of the river at the bottom, allowing you to look only straight ahead or behind. After lunch at Surmuche, you end up in Dogang, a beautiful settlement on the river bank consisting of a few houses, animal shelters and a small guesthouse. This is a cozy place to spend the night, with fantastic Tibetan bread for breakfast and the gurgles of the river a welcome accompaniment to the sounds of the Himalayan night.
Leaving Dogang, the trail starts off a lot flatter than before, with only a gradual climb along the river bank, all the while cutting through dense green trees. The air is thick with the smell of tree sap and damp soil. After a few hours, the forest and the flatter ground, is left behind. From here you can see the vibrant blue of the river and the sky contrasting with the incredible white of the tops of Chekigo and its neighbouring peaks. The deeper you ascend into the valley, the faster the hills beside the trail give way to mountains. Gaps in the trees reveal sparse vistas, too steep for major vegetation or trees to grow. The wind picks up and barrels off all sides of the valley. The temperature drops as you continue to ascend.
Beding, a Sherpa town, is one of the biggest settlements in the valley. Its outskirts are littered with huge mani stones. It is often windswept and covered in clouds, but there are plentiful lodgings and supplies, so it is a haven for the weary. One night here before the early morning start to Tso Rolpa is enough. Those struggling to acclimatise should stay two nights, just in case.
If setting off early in the morning on the way to Na, you may be greeted by the stunning sight of clear snow-capped mountains, remarkably close. In the mornings, the first light hits the upper echelons of the Himalayas, and radiates its way back through the valley. One such illuminated mountain is the sacred 7,134 metre Gauri Shanker.
The trail leaves Beding and heads up through the valley, following the river before climbing to a plateau in the valley. In the near distance is a small settlement, Na, and behind that the rise of the banks of Tso Rolpa.
Na, the last lodging before Tso Rolpa, is uninhabited in winter, with its ground too cold for growing vegetables. Here, the trail crosses the river and in winter often gets buried in snow. Just a few days earlier, this trail was a small path alongside the Tamakoshi River. Now, it is no longer at the feet of the Himalaya but straddling its shoulders. With paths to peaks veering off the main track, with the right ropes and equipment you can easily bag several 6,000-metre peaks in a few hours.
An hour’s walk from Na are the lower the banks of Tso Rolpa. Tso Rolpa is the largest glacial lake in Nepal and in an increasingly precarious state. It’s considered to be at high risk of Glacial Lake Outburst Flooding, so the banks have been reinforced and early warning systems put in place (even if their batteries were ‘liberated’ by the Maoists). The final section of a steep 200-metre climb is an ordeal, but every 10 metres or so you are offered a new view as different mountains come into view. The final steps are covered in snow, and eventually–after three days and at the height of 4,580 metres, Tso Rolpa appears.
The shimmering white hue of the lake fed by the Trakarding Glacier is completely frozen in winter. Looking up from Tengi Ragi Tau to Bigphera Go Shar, you are surrounded by peaks on all sides. Behind is the Rolwaling Valley stretching out beneath you. In front, and only a short distance away, is the 5,700-metre Tashi Lapek Pass and the route to Namche Bazar and the Solukhumbu. Tso Rolpa then marks the end of the valley, but what an end it is.
How to get there: Jeeps and buses run daily from Dolkaha to Chetchet. Snow can block the route from November to February. It is possible to camp and find accommodation very easily along the trek. Charikot Panorama Resort is a great base from which to start and finish the trek.
Article by Maximillian Mørch