Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Big Monsoon Lie

"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom."
-Thomas Paine

If you read any guidebook, trekking book, or talk to almost anyone in Nepal, both foreign or local, about trekking during the monsoon you will get the same answer; don't. Many books and people will advise that you only trek in places where you are in the Himalayan rain shadow, but many of these places require expensive permits like Mustang and upper Dolpo. Others like the Nar and Phu valley, which has a cheaper permit still requires that you use a guide and sign up through a trekking agency. Eventually this will be something I will do personally, but many people (including myself in most cases) enjoy independent trekking and like to be able to hit the trail on their own terms. The result of this common knowledge about monsoon trekking creates a complete lack of tourists through the summer months; Thamel has only a trickle of tourists and the trails are all but empty. You can go entire days without seeing another foreign  trekker.

Why is the trekking so bad during the monsoons?
We are told that there are no views of the mountains as they are covered in clouds, that the lowlands are infested with leaches, that the temperatures are unbearable, that we will get rained on constantly, and that in short we will have a miserable time. Most guide books will list things like; Season: September to May. June through August are right out. Don't even consider it.

Here's the thing, it's all a lie. Not only is it a lie, it's an absurd lie. The idea that some of these high altitude trails and passes are more bearable in months like December and January is hard for me to understand. I can deal with a little moisture much easier than I can deal with sub freezing temperatures, snow and ice on trails that are three feet wide with thousand foot cliff drops. No contest there. So let me start dismantling this lie one piece at a time.
Yours Truly Enjoying Fine Monsoon Weather at 14,000 Ft.

Views: Yes during the monsoons the views are not quite as good as other times of the year. Yes it gets cloudy, and much of the time the peaks that soar some ten thousand plus feet over your head are lost to you. That said, I got better views on this hike in July then I did on some of the hikes that I have done in March, a month that is considered high season.

View from Kyanjin Gompa

I will grant to the nay sayers that at low elevations the views of the high Himalaya are rare. The clouds move about the rocky cliffs and somewhere a few thousand feet above you they regularly obstruct your view. At higher elevations however the clouds seem to regularly dissipate in patterns, leaving spectacular views of the mountains and increasing the grandeur in some ways by buffeting them with wispy clouds that give them an almost otherworldly feel. 

Clouds Give an Almost Otherworldly Mantle to the Mountains

Old Growth Forest South of Singh Gompa

The clouds don't only enhance the look of the mountains, but can also really make the forests quite beautiful as well. Rhododendron and pine forests are particularly beautiful when covered in mist. They also become extremely photogenic.

Langtang Lirung's Veil of Clouds Disappears in the Morning Sun

Normally it seemed that in the morning, especially if it rained the night before, the clouds would clear and you could get fantastic views. This also occurred sometimes around sunset.Because the rain had often just cleared the air of any dust or other particles in the air you get spectacularly clear views when the clouds do clear out. While climbing to Gosainkund we could see all the way to the Annapurnas in the far west.

Leeches: Yes there are leeches, but there are not hordes of them. They do not hang from every branch and twig, and you do not have to constantly fend them off. In the eight days we spent the mountains I only had a single day that I had any leaches on me. Over half of our time was spent at elevations that are supposed to have leaches. 
The Tiger Leech 

There are two types of leeches that we encountered, smaller black leaches that were comparable to what I have seen in the water back home or on land in Australia, and the larger (by a multiple of three or so) tiger leach which seemed a bit more aggressive. 

Donnie Bloodied by Leeches

While certainly a little gross, these things aren't that common and certainly not worth deterring you from a trek in the Himalaya. Due to the anti-coagulant they use the wound might bleed a bit and make a mess, as Donnie demonstrates above, but the wound itself is like a small mosquito bite that barely itches. Back home we deal with ticks all the time, and really leeches are much more hygienic in that they don't carry debilitating diseases like Lyme and they are easier to remove, thus reducing any risk of infections. The only time we saw leeches in quantity is if we left the main trail. Just stick to the trail and don't go through thick brush and you can just about completely avoid these guys.

Temperatures and Weather: Weather wise this was one of my most pleasant treks, maybe second only to the Annapurna trip I just did recently (though this was in the off season too). At the lower elevations there was plenty of humidity, but often the sun was obscured by some clouds, keeping the temperature actually quite nice. The rivers are so bloated from the monsoon rains that the spray from them decreases the temperature a full 15 degrees or more, the Langtang river was quite a force to witness this time of year and it acted as a natural air conditioner. The humidity however does make it difficult for things to dry, and your sweat never seems to evaporate. You will get damp quickly, and most of the time you will stay that way while hiking. Carry a set of clothes for the end of the day in a compression pack, and designate them your "dry clothes" and you'll be comfortable at the end of any day.

Relaxing at Gosainkund Lake

At higher elevations the weather is much more pleasant this time of year. For this whole trip all we needed were fleeces and light jackets. Even at the Gosainkund lakes which sit at 14,500' we were able to walk around with just light windbreakers. No shivering, no shortening your walks due to cold. No sitting in your guest house room covered in blankets.  

Trails Like This Seem Better Without Ice and Snow.

Then there is the ease of walking over trails at high elevations compared to other times of the year. We did not have to worry about ice and snow making the trails slick. We were not afraid that the pass we were going over would be snowed in from a recent storm. Some of these trails are quite narrow with some very steep drops at their side, I'm happy to do this without worrying about slipping on snow that was packed by other trekkers and yaks.

Calm Morning at Gosainkund Lake

As for weather, yes it rained. In the eight days we were out there though we only got rained on once, with sprinkles a couple of times. The one time it rained on us was due to the fact that we were hiking late, we were still on the trail after 4PM, when most of the rain seems to set in. As a rule both while hiking and in Kathmandu the rains seem to develop in the afternoon, they come down for an hour or two and that is it. It also rains at night, but usually one is in their Guest House at night, not on the trail. 

While it definitely rains during the monsoon, it isn't the overwhelming deluge that most people believe it to be. To be honest it isn't any more rain then we get most Springs or early summers in New England. because Nepal is so dry during other parts of the year, I'm sure it seems like a lot of rain to them, but to be honest, every part of the year back home is like the monsoons here. Most of the time the rain is a warm rain too, not that terrible cold rain we have back in New England. If you get caught in the rain you just get a little wet, put poncho over your pack, and put things that need to stay dry in compression sacks or ziplock bags. 

Monsoon Bonus: The above are the reasons people tell you not to go, but aside from most of those being a little suspect, there are also some advantages to trekking during the monsoons. First is that the trails are all yours; most people think this is a bad time to hike so there are no crowds. You don't have to race to get space at a guest house, and when you do get there, it is a more intimate experience as you get lots of personal attention as well as having time to talk with the person running the lodge. Some lodges are closed, and sometimes entire towns, so if you are planning on stopping at a smaller outpost just ask down the trail as to what is open.

Wild Flowers are in Bloom Everywhere

Flowers are in bloom in the forests and all over the fields, especially at the high elevations. In the forests you can see mushrooms as big as your head and get to eat some freshly dried mushrooms that people have collected from the forests. At high elevations yaks have also been brought to the high pastures, and at places like Kyanjin Gompa you can get fresh yak curd (actually quite good) and watch the yaks be quite a bit more active than when they are cold. Seeing a string of them running down the mountainside was not that uncommon a site, and was quite cool I thought.

Waterfalls were Amazing

All that water also makes for some really impressive water falls. Everywhere you looked there was water cascading down huge Himalayan cliffs. It wasn't uncommon to see three or four near each other falling as far as 400 or more feet. The rivers were also bloated and flowing with a force that was something I had never seen before, really impressive to witness up close.

Th big lie is that you can't or wouldn't want to trek during the monsoons. It's bogus. It's just as good as spring, and at high elevations it may be one of the best times of the year. The impact that this long held belief has had stifles tourism and keeps people from even considering what could really be a good trip. So if you are thinking about coming to Nepal don't rule out the monsoons, and if you are here during them and had ruled out doing a trek, please reconsider. 

EDIT: Since writing this post I have become ever more convinced that guidebooks overly distort which times of year are good for trekking and travel in Nepal. I've followed this post up after another gorgeous stretch of weather in late May, heading into June. I've also had more time to talk to other trekkers who have been in these regions in the off season. Follow up Post.

EDIT 2: Another great trip in the middle of the monsoon (July/August) to the Solukhumbu region again goes smoothly and with great views. Post can be read HERE. After a few years of doing this now there is no doubt in my mind that monsoons are very much over demonized and hardly a reason to avoid a trek in the Himalaya.


  1. Neat. I love reading about your treks!

    Of course one data point is hard to draw conclusions with. You now must go for a trek each monsoon season. After three or four years running it will be even more interesting to see what you think.

  2. Great site, great photos, but I take issue with the "the big monsoon lie".
    I did the exact same trek in May 1996. It rained every day, we had no mountain views, despite taking in Surya Kund Peak, and had lots of leaches. The trails were also very slippy, and navigation was difficult in the mist. My photos show all of us in mist or rain.

    I also did the Annapurna Circuit twice, once in Oct/Nov and once in September. The September one was hotter and wetter at low elevations, and I didnt have the clear mountain views that I did have on the Oct/Nov trip.
    Landslides across the trails are also more common in the wetter monsoon months. On my September Annapurna trip, we had to take several alternative routes, one outside Tatopani was the most exposed and risky stretch I have ever been on. Usually by the monsoon end, the slides will have been cleared and the normal routes opened.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Thanks for the feedback Gerard. No doubt any ones experience will vary, and some times of the year definitely have better chances of clear views than others, but no time is sure to give great views, and no time is sure to be rain free.

    I've done three treks this year that fell in the off season, bordered the monsoons, and most of them were not much worse than what I had done in the spring in the past. Maybe I got lucky, maybe the weather pattern was quite different this year. Over all though I stand by that in some cases the trails, especially up at high elevations are more bearable at the cusps (or possibly even in the middle) of the monsoons than they are in winter or even late fall. Maybe it's just because I hate the cold, and don’t mind the wet.

  5. Hi Brian,

    I'm an avid fan of your blog here from Britain, and was wondering what your thoughts were on trekking to Everest Base Camp in early July. I am returning to Nepal with a friend (we both spent 3 months volunteering in Patan in 2010), and we are planning on spending at least 2 months travelling around, but our first plan is to do Everest Base Camp straightaway to avoid the worst of the monsoon. As you say I have read many articles/posts about not trekking in the monsoon, and while this blog post of yours is very encouraging (!), I was wondering what your thoughts would be on getting the whole trek (i.e. Base Camp/Kala Patthar/Gokyo) done around early July. We have both trekked in the Annapurna region before, and may do so again if EBC seems a little inconvenient at this time of year! We are obviously prepared to put up with rain/leeches/poor views etc., but I was wondering if you thought it was worth it! We may start from Jiri/Shivalaya to see some more of Nepal too.

    Any advice/help appreciated!

    Thanks a lot,


  6. Hey Ed,

    First, glad you enjoy the blog and thanks for reading. By the time early July roles around you are for the most part right in the thick of the monsoon. Now, the rain really isn't that bad, but one thing to keep in mind about the Everest trek is that it is a North-South valley so the clouds coming up from the south will not have anything substantial stopping them. At the higher elevations I'm sure it will be just a roll of the dice as to whether you'll get good views or the clouds might part for you. One adjustment I'd make to my itinerary would be to set aside a few extra days at any of the viewing points (Gokyo Ri/Kala Patar) to give yourself a couple additional chances of getting decent views. Another thing to keep in mind is that flights in and out of Lukla are unreliable that time of year due to the amount of fog, so it's also best to realize there is a very real chance that you might have to walk in and out via Jiri/Shivalaya.

    The trail from Jiri to Lukla is wide enough and well traveled enough that leaches shouldn't be too terrible, but be prepared to get very wet in the middle hills. Once you reach Namche I can't imagine leaches will be much of a problem at all.

    So, while EBC has a few added difficulties that time of year, if it's something you guys really want to do I'd say go for it. Right now is supposed to be the second best part of the year for trekking and oddly it's been raining off and on for the last two weeks, something uncommon for this time of year, which just goes to show that any that in some ways it's always a gamble as to what the weather will do here. So set aside a few additional days, a good sense of humor, some water proof stuff sacks, and a bit of patience and you'll have a good time.

  7. Massive thanks for the information Brian, really helpful! I'm almost positive we'll start from Jiri and then head up all the way to EBC, and then potentially fly out from Lukla or trek back down to Jiri depending! We may even go hardcore and try to do Kala Patthar-Lukla in a day like you did!

  8. Excellent piece. I totally agree with you Brian. I was afraid the first time I stayed in Nepal all through the monsoon, and now find that its a great time of year - nice temperatures and no crowds. Certainly the leeches are totally over-rated as they are not the problem they are made out to be.

  9. Hi Brian,

    I really appreciated your posts. They are so informative and helpful. I have a quick question for you if you don't mind. I would like to go on a trek in Nepal in late August, sometime after the 15th or so. I am constrained to going during this time frame. I, like many others, have heard about the monsoon. Is there any route that is particularly better during that time frame. I am very interested in EBC, but would consider other routes if the conditions are notably better during that particular time as compared to EBC. I would appreciate any feedback you have. Thank you,


  10. Hey Jennifer,
    Late August is right smack in the middle of the actual monsoon, so while I think it's still worth going, make sure you pack anticipating to get wet and not drying out all that easily. You're biggest challenge may not so much be the trails but getting to them. Transportation that time of year is somewhat unreliable to most trail heads. Flying to Lukla is difficult due to fog and low clouds, and many of the roads will have been clogged with mud or be shut for miles at a time (forcing you to walk and get a bus on the other side) due to land slides. The most accessible would be to just walk out of Kathmandu and possibly do the reverse trip that I did when I did this post (we did this in the end of July early August). That would take you through Helumbu, over Gosainkunda, and down into Langtang.

    Visibility, better climate and chances for decent views are probably best on the back side of the Annapurna circuit that time. EBC, as I mention in a comment above is a North/South valley ad so there is nothing to stop the monsoon rains from rolling up the valley. That said it doesn't mean you couldn't have a good trek, its just a roll of the dice. As I note, most days you should at least get a few hours where the clouds will clear in places and you may get some decent views. The other thing to consider with EBC is that there is a good chance you may have to walk in and out of Jiri, or spend several days waiting for conditions to clear so planes can land in Lukla. If you do decide to do EBC, make sure to plan for plenty of possible additional days for transportation. while this is true for any trek this time of year, it is especially true for EBC. Best of Luck!

    1. Brian, I did not get a chance to reply earlier but I very much appreciate the advice. If you don't mind I may ask you additional questions as I progress with my planning. I am going to do AC instead as you suggested though. Thank you!


  11. Hello -
    We are planning a trip to Nepal for just about 10 days. I know it is short, but alas that's all the time we have after visiting family in India.
    We will be going in the first week of August. We have two children ages 10 and 8, so I am wondering if there are any short treks that you could recommend for young children. I would love to explore the trails with them, but like you say, most guide books say don't even think about it during the monsoons. Since the kids are still young, we need something reasonably moderate. Also, we will be flying into Kathmandu but also visiting Pokhara. So are the treks better from Kathmandu or Pokhara? Any advise you can give is much appreciated.Thanks, Sushma

  12. Hi Sushma,

    With only 10 days it's really hard to recommend anything as transportation this time of year is somewhat difficult and unpredictable. Most of the short hikes I can think of that are quickly accessible from Kathmandu or Pokhara are some of the worst ones because they are not in any kind of rain shadow. Maybe your best option would be to fly into Humde on the north side of Annapurna from Pokhara, hike over to Manang and do some day hikes there before trekking back to Humde to fly back to Pokhara.The only problem with this plan is that weather may delay flights, but for an easy trek with children with a short time frame in the monsoon, it's the only thing I can think of.

  13. I want to Visit ABC on coming August , may be at 15th of august. What is your opinion?

  14. ABC is on the south side of the Annapurna range and thus it will be extremely wet. While it still might be worth doing, be prepared for some damp weather. Rain in that area is some of the highest in the country that time of year, although again it will mostly come in the form of quick downpours. As usual I would advise that some of the treks in rain shadows will be better, but if that's the trek you want to do, then doing it is better than not.

  15. Hi Brian,

    Could you clarify what is ABC and also which is the desirable "side of the ranges" to be on during July?
    I assume ABC means Annapurna Basecamp Circuit? And it is desirable to be on the North side of any ranges during Monsoon period?
    I'm heading there for all of July and one week of June. Wanted to do all the Annapurna circuit, but after reading your lovely blog, am also quite happy to do another less mainstream one.
    We're fit, ready for some rain and mud, and our priorities would be 1- authentic villages 2- scenery.
    If you like, you could recommend a couple of shorter treks or a long one. We have 5 weeks and no fixed plans yet. Thanks, and regards from Sydney! (currently in a mini-monsoon itself!)

  16. Yes ABC is the Annapurna Base camp trek, which is on the south side of the Annapurna massif. As the rains move up from the south and unload when they hit the mountains, you are much better off on the north side of any range where you are considered to be in the rain shadow.

    If your number one goal is authentic villages I would not recommend the Annapurna circuit as it probably ranks last in this regard, save for possibly the upper Kumbu heading toward Everest. If you don't mind shelling out a little extra money and getting permits I would recommend the Manaslu, Mustang, or the Nar & Phu valley- all being on the north side of mountains that should make the trekking a bit easier this time of year. Although I'm not familiar at all with Western Nepal, I believe this is a decent time of year to do treks out in Dolpo and some of those regions, though again these usually require guides, porters and permits.

    If you are looking for no permit, no guide trails with authentic villages, I might recommend the Tamang Herritage trail which is accessed in the Langtang area, but I think that might be quite wet up there, and as you don't get any serious elevation I'm not so sure about your number two goal of getting decent views would be reached. That and the road to get up there that time of year can be truly miserable. No choice will be perfect and the weather will be a bit of a roll of the dice, but regardless you'll probably have a great experience with whatever you choose to do.

  17. Thanks for this lovely blog entry Brian! I printed your detailed blog entry for Langtang and Gosakund and used it while trekking by myself there the first 10 days of June! I stayed in many similar lodges as you did and it was great to relate to somebody else's experiences. Thank you so much! If you are interested in my blog:

  18. Hi there, thanks for making such an informative and interesting blog! It really has a wealth of information! I am going to be in Nepal next July/August doing a placement in a hospital there and was hoping to do a trek after this with a friend, starting about the 10th august. I was wondering what you would recommend, we have about 10 days to do this before we fly out. We would love to be able to do a trek which will give a view of everest although we could be convinced to go elsewhere if it would be much better. We're finding it hard to get much information on trekking in the monsoon so would really appreciate your input and being from Northern Ireland we're rather used to a bit of rain!

    Many thanks!

  19. Hey Johnny,

    If you don't mind a little rain, then the Everest region should be fine. Your biggest challenge regardless of where you choose to go will be transportation. With only 10 days you are really limited by delays due to rain, fog or landslides. Planes going in and out of Lukla can be delayed for almost a week at a time on occasion, so if you're on a tight schedule it can be tricky unless your willing to drop the cash for a helicopter (which is very pricey. You also face not being able to go too far due to the number of days it takes to acclimatize.

    When I did a trip up there this last August we had no problem with our flights in and out, but just to make sure we got back in time for my wife's friend to catch her flight we returned to Lukla with a few days to spare. with ten days, including flying days, we only went as far as Tengboche.

    While buses may be slightly more reliable, they too can have difficulty. With only ten days the only other treks I could recommend are Langtang & Helumbu, but both are quite wet and the views aren't as nice. Also it's my personal opinion that Langtang should be avoided due to the repeated missing person, murder, and assault cases against foreign trekkers.

  20. Hey Brian,
    I'm hoping to trek Langtang in July, just unsure about the rain and if the tea houses will be open?
    Also it's hard to find info about the trek since the earthquake, do you have any idea on what it's like?

  21. Hey Nikki,
    I honestly can't say as I haven't been in Nepal since I went back to help out with earthquake relief, which was last April/May. What I do know is that the Langtang valley saw more destruction than most places as a huge ice shelf fell over a mile and completely destroyed the entire village of Langtang (killing everyone there as well). I also know Nepal has been suffering under an Indian imposed trade embargo that has severely limited important supplies like cooking fuel and petrol. While Langtang may be open for trekking I have no idea if they have managed to rebuild the trail. The upper section was damaged quite severely. In the past it wasn't tough to find lodging in the off season as long as you stopped at the major villages. With Langtang gone and damage up and down the trail I'm not even sure what is left. I would highly recommend chatting with someone who has been there in the last few months and doesn't have any interest in selling you something. People in Nepal have been overly enthusiastic about what tourism they can actually support in the hope of getting incoming tourist dollars at the expense of an accurate portrayal of the current infrastructure. The Everest region and Annapurna had significantly less damage and I've had friends who have been in both regions without any difficulty recently.

  22. Hello Brian,

    Thanks so much for this fantastic blog. I came via a search for "leeches during monsoon", but found so much more.

    I am planning a trip to Nepal this August with my two children. Based on your experience, do you think they would be able to cope with the climate? Would you have any recommendations for families trekking during the monsoon time?

    I lived in India for two years and witnessed the monsoon time first hand. I loved the season and also think that the warnings against travel during the monsoon are partly exaggerated. But I have never travelled with children and am trying to find as much information as I can.

    Many thanks,

    1. Thanks Jack, glad you found some of the information worth while. As far as experience with children, I really can't say and don't have much; I suspect it depends a lot on the age and temperament of the children. In general it will be moist and things won't dry, so as long as you think they can cope with this and the chance that they get poured on they should be fine.

      Also I should note that lots of things have changed in Nepal since I wrote this. Infrastructure has deteriorated over the last few years as Nepal slowly becomes something resembling a failed state. The earthquake, Indian embargo and a lack of any kind functioning government means infrastructure is even worse than it has been in the past. Trails have opened back up, but many regions are still rebuilding from the earthquake. Major tourist trails are open. For that time of year, and given the current conditions I would probably recommend the Annapurna region, but be warned that outside of the rain shadow that region gets lots and lots of rain that time of year. Anyway hope some of that helps.


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