Phirtse La - From Sarchu to Trangtse via the Phirste La (then to Phuktal or Purni or Darcha)
Beautiful trek, a very good alternative to the classic “Zanskar traverse” from Darcha to Padum (here we avoid the road which has been constructed between Darcha and the Shingo La). The starting point is Sarchu, on the Manali-Leh road, N of Darcha (N of the Great Himalaya Range so the weather is usually good here). The first 2 or 3 days are quite easy (very good for acclimatization), then we cross the Phirtse La (5565m). There are no main river crossings (see the description below and the comments). We did this trek in total autonomy starting August 10th, 2017. In 5 days we only saw 2 groups of 5/6 people (they were with horses, horsemen etc.). We also saw a few nomads (maybe 4 or 5 people). You do not need a guide to do this trek, but definitely need horses/horsemen if you do not want to carry your stuff ! … There are no villages nor shops etc. between Sarchu and the main valley (between Padum and Darcha). Once in the main valley you can ask for homestays, and there might be some shops (all of them where closed when we were there). I spent a lot of time trying to plan a trek in Zanskar, starting from the S, going to the N and avoiding the road and with no big river crossings: this is not so easy to find on the Internet, hence I describe what I have done. (Sorry for the English: I’m not a native English-speaker) Please do not hesitate to send me an email if you need more information on this trek.
Day 0: up to the starting point (4290m). 3,5km, D+ 80m. 1h15.
A very short day: we did it because we arrived around 2pm in Sarchu and wanted to start the trek. In Sarchu (where all the shops are), go N up until the bridge (you can ask the locals), then follow the river going to the W before going up on the moraine. You can camp here: the are small stone walls to shelter from the wind. You can take the water in the river but you have to filter it.
Day 1: from the starting point (4290m) to Camp 1 (4420m). 11km, D+ 430m. 5h15.
Go N and follow the track of the Olizane map. There are different paths on different stages here, follow the one you prefer. The path is clear up until a river, in the valley S of the point coted 5440m on the Olizane map; last place with water before Camp 2. 2h30 from the starting point to the river. (Almost no water between the starting point and the river; we only found very dirty water we had to filter).
Then it gets more complicated: there are a lot of small valleys to cross, going up and down (and up and down). There are a lot of different tracks, it seems that you have to reach a pass at 4600m (Tibetan flags and big cairns). 2h to go to the pass.
From the pass, the path is very easy: clear path which goes down until the river going down from the Humlung lakes. A lot of stone walls to shelter - and unfortunately, garbages too. 45’ to the river.
Day 2: from Camp 1 (4420m) to Camp 2 (4560m). 11,5km, D+ 400m. 3h45.
From Camp 1, a good path going gently up/down leads you in 2h to the vast plain E of the name “Kyonon” on the Olizane map. There is a small stream 1h after the camp and some humid areas afterwards.
The plain is quite long to cross; we cross a first very big dried riverbed, then another one with small water - last water point before Camp 2! Then follow the path going up to the right, we arrived at a small pass. This takes 1h.
From here you cross slopes high above the river; in 30 minutes you arrive to the last pass (we see the meeting point of the two big rivers N of Kham Krap Sumdo, and a beautiful gorge; we also see the path we will take the next morning).
In 15’ you reach the river; you can camp here, on the left or right bank. In August it was very easy to cross in the late afternoon; probably also doable earlier in the season (in the morning in July, it is really not a big river). Ask the nomads or the people in Sarchu (or even Darcha, some people know this area) if needed!
Day 3: from Camp 2 (4560m) to Camp 3 (4840m). 10km, D+ 430m. Less than 3h.
Cross the river, then follow the clear path going NO: first you are close to the river, then high above. Possibility to go down to the river 1,3km after Camp 2, and 8km (2h15) after Camp 2.
N of Chumig Marpo, the path goes up to the right; there was a small group along the river, hence we took the path which rapidly reach the river going down from the Phirtse La. We camped here (a few minutes from Chumig Marpo), a few meters above the river.
Remark: for those who took the path on the right bank of the Lingti Chu (see the comments below), on this day you have to cross the river going NO. It was easy to do in August. Some cairns indicate a way - horses follow this path - but if you do not have horses, the simplest seems to follow the river upstream for 5 minutes on the right bank (there is no path but this is easy to walk nearby the river). Then the river gets wider in “different channels”, and the crossing is much easier here.
Day 4: from Camp 3 (4840m) to Camp 4 (4860m) via the Phirtse La (5565m). 13,5km, D+ 840m. From 5h30 to 6h.
This is undoubtedly the hardest day of the trek.
From Camp 3 to the pass, between 3h30 et 4h, the ascent is quite long. The path goes on the left bank of the river: after 1,6km you are on a small plateau and you can take water. Then the path goes up to the right, and then down to cross the river going NE (2,3km after Camp 3); to avoid this useless ascent/descent you can follow the river and stay on the left bank on the river which goes to the right. Then the path cross the river once again later, and then it clearly goes up to the right (take water for some time). The end of the ascent is quite long: the pass (Tibetan flags and stone walls)) is actually higher than the one indicated on the map (this last one was totally frozen in August).
From the pass to Camp 4: 2h. The descent is quick (very clear path), and once in the valley the altitude goes down slowly. We continued until the altitude of the previous night, but you can stop earlier of later.
Day 5: from Camp 4 (4860m) to the valley (a bit S of Trangtse, 4070m). 13,5km, D+ 245m. Between 4h and 5h.
We follow the river (some up/downs); after a while we cross it to go clearly up on the right - take water for some time (no water before the last gorge). The path is high above the river, for some time we stay at the same altitude with many ups/downs. At a clear fork (with some indications), take right if you want to arrive N in the valley (taking left you would reach Table). 10km after Camp 4 we are still quite high (4450m), we reach a pass (beautiful view on the valley!) and the path goes N. Then it goes steeply down in a beautiful gorge, we camped at the end of it (when it arrives in the valley; possible homestays).
- The key is to be well acclimatized. Before starting, we arrived 4 days before at 1900m, 2 days before at 3400m and 1 day before at 4200m, hence we were not so much acclimatized. So we were going quite slowly: this is probably possible to do this trek in 4 days instead of 5+1 (especially if you do it with horses/horsemen without carrying your stuff).
- The timing do not take into account the breaks. As said above, we were quite slow - because of big backpacks and not so good acclimatization. You could probably be faster.
- For Day 0, Day 1 and Day 2, there is also a path on the right bank of the Lingti Chu (we saw it from the left bank). Nevertheless in Sarchu people told us that this path is a bit more difficult, since there are more river crossings. The path we took on the left bank was very clear.
- After camping in the valley (end of Day 5), a woman asked us 800Rs (!!!!!!) for all the nights from Sarchu to the valley (!!). We finished by giving her 100Rs for the last night we probably spent on her land.
- There is an analogous trek, via the Surichun La (which is higher) instead of the Phirtse La. This seems to be a bit more difficult and less known than the one described here. The path is the same until the end of Day 3. See the references below.
- This trek is probably doable in July (even June ??) - ask locals in Sarchu or even Darcha. The only river to cross is at the beginning of Day 3 (or end of Day 2); it is really not a big river, and it is probably quite easy to cross in the morning. Of course the streams we crossed - and the places we could take water - may change during the season… Earlier it is probably much easier to find water on the way - especially at the beginning of the trek. If you really are in a water-crisis, at some places it might be possible to go down to the Lingti Chu but this would be a very demanding effort.
- From the end of the trek, different possibilities. You are in a very famous valley (on the classical Zanskar Transverse, between Darcha and Padum). You may find a lot of information on this part of Zanskar on the internet, so I do not describe it. We went N and reach Phuktal in 2 days: Day 6, 15km and D+ 310m (we slept in Yal), then 12km and D+ 400m up to Phuktal. If you prefer you can go N up until Padum (you may find transportation in Enmu), or S up until Darcha (but you will reach a road nearby the Shingo La).
- You can find gas (like Kovea or MSR) in Delhi: at the store “Stikage”, not far from the University. Call them before to be sure they have some. We also saw some bottles in Manali, in a shop on the road joigning Manali and Old Manali. In Leh this is much more easy to find… But the simplest in Ladakh is probably to use fuel, as it is available everywhere and quite cheap (MSR sell good products for example).
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