AT A GLANCE
Trek Length: 14Â–31 days, 100Â–200 miles
Maximum Altitude: 18,000 feet
Physical Challenge: 1 2 3 4 5
Price (Group Trek): Price (Group Trek): $5,000Â–$7,000 Self-organized trekking is forbidden by the Nepalese authorities.
Prime Time: MayÂ–September
Staging Cities: Kathmandu, Nepal
The Rhapsody: Here's how the legend goes: After Mao's invasion of Tibet in 1950, rebellious Khampa tribesmen set up guerrilla bases in the high, arid Nepalese districts of Mustang and Dolpo and began kidnapping the Chinese headmen in Tibetan border villages, skinning them, and hanging their remains. The American CIA liked the sound of that and supplied the Khampas with weapons and trained them in Colorado. When the Chinese discovered this, they made Nepal's King Mahendra an offer he couldn't refuse: Seal off the border and close Mustang and Dolpo to all foreigners, or we'll march in and take the land away from you. For decades these northern districts were off-limits to all but a handful of scholars and naturalists, but as Cold War tensions eased they were finally opened to trekkers in 1992. Even so, the inner sanctum of the formerly forbidden landÂ—the northern part of Dolpo, known as Inner DolpoÂ—has remained virtually untracked. In 1999, fewer than 100 trekkers ventured into Inner Dolpo, only about 25 of them Americans. One of the last enclaves of pure Tibetan Buddhist culture, its spiritual centerpiece is Shey, the Crystal Mountain, a peak embedded with crystal deposits that glimmer in the sun, and Shey Gompa, the monastery at its base.
The Route: With its steep ups-and-downs and unstable scree fields, Inner Dolpo is one of the toughest treks in Nepal. Most trekkers follow at least some part of the route of writer Peter Matthiessen and naturalist George Schaller, who explored the region in 1973 to study the rare Himalayan blue sheep and its main predator, the snow leopard. The pair started at Rohagaon (near Dolpo's only airstrip), walked north along the Suli Gad River to Ringmo and Phoksumdo Lake, and continued north over the 16,200-foot Sehu La to Shey Gompa. Unlike most other trekking regions of Nepal, you won't have the feeling of walking among massive, looming ice peaks; although the passes are as high as 18,000 feet, the highest mountain in Dolpo (Mount Kangiroba) is "only" about 23,000 feet. But the trek makes up for that in remoteness: Even your Sherpas will be astonished by the isolation.
Guides and Outfitters: Independent trekking is still not permitted in Dolpo. Trekkers must travel in groups with an approved trekking company, and each group must be accompanied by a Nepalese liaison officer. The route must be preapproved, and no deviations are permitted. And, as a final deterrent, the permit fee is $70 per day. That said, there are several Kathmandu outfitters experienced in the Inner Dolpo region, including Green Lotus Trekking (011-977-1-373729; www.green-lotus-trekking.com) and Tiger Mountain/Mountain Travel Nepal (011-977-1-411225; www.tigertops.com). Only two U.S. outfitters run trips into Inner Dolpo: Above the Clouds offers what may be the longest (and toughest) commercial trek in the world, a 37-day trip that includes both Inner Dolpo and the neighboring kingdom of Mustang. Snow Lion Expeditions runs a trip to Inner Dolpo timed to coincide with the annual full-moon festival at Shey Gompa in September.
Read Up: What Nepal trekker would be caught without a dog-eared copy of Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard ($14; Penguin USA). Another option: the film Caravan (Galatee Films, 1999), French director Eric Valli's lush documentary about the annual migration of Dolpo yak herders. Â—D.N.
Trekking Yellow Pages
For itineraries and pricing, contact the following trekking specialists
Above the Clouds, 800-233-4499
Alpine Ascents International, 206-378-1927, www.alpineascents.com
Bill Russell's Mountain Tours, 800-669-4453, www.russelltours.com
Camp 5 Expeditions, 800-914-3834, www.camp5.com
Concordia Expeditions, 719Â–539-6687, www.concordiaexpeditions.com
Distant Journeys, 888-845-5781, www.distantjourneys.com
Geographic Expeditions, 800-777-8183, www.geoex.com
High Asia Exploratory Mountain Travel Company, 800-809-0034, www.highasia.com
Himalayan High Treks, 800-455-8735, www.himalayanhightreks.com
KE Adventure Travel , 800-497-9675, www.keadventure.com
Mountain TravelÂ–Sobek, 800-227-2384, www.mtsobek.com
Southwind Adventures, 800-377-9463, www.southwindadventures.com
Snow Lion Expeditions, 800-525-8735, www.snowlion.com
Thomson Safaris, 800-235-0289, www.thomsonsafaris.com
Wilderness Travel, 800-368-2794, www.wildernesstravel.com