The Annapurna Circuit is a classic long distance hike set in the heart of the Himalayas. The start and finish points vary, as does the amount of time taken to hike it, but the key to successfully completing the circuit is time. The high pass of Thorang La demands a healthy respect for acclimatisation and the only way to do this is to climb slowly and incorporate acclimatisation days. Successful acclimatisation days involve side hikes where you climb high and sleep low. The Ice Lake (Kicho Tal) is a great side hike to help with acclimatisation and may be the highlight of any Annapurna circuit trek.
This is a guide to hiking ice lake from Braga. At 3400m, Braga is a small village just below the more commercial town of Manang. This village is much quieter than Manang and provides the perfect location to embark on the well marked trail to ice lake. I describe what you can expect on this beautiful but demanding hike.
- Starting elevation: 3400m
- Finish elevation: 4600m
- Elevation gain: 1200m
- Distance: 17km
- Time: 7-10 hours
This hike will take all day so it is important to get an early start. We hike quite quickly so we left at 8:30am and got back to the lodge at 3:30pm. We spent over an hour at the lake and took time taking photos as we went. We spoke to other hikers who left at 7am and returned at 4pm, so be prepared for a full day. The trail tops out at 4600m so it is important to listen to your body and be prepared to turn back if you are feeling any symptoms of altitude sickness.
From Braga, begin the hike by walking towards the monastery. This fabulous site is in itself worthy of some exploration and offers fine views from the top. Track down the key holder to gain access to the inner temple for which there is an entrance costs of 100r. As you walk towards the monastery and village you will see the blue and white flags denoting a side hike on the Annapurna Circuit. The Ice Lake is also signposted.
After passing through the village the ascent begins as the trail traverses across the hillside in an easterly direction. As the trail ascends, the views back up the Manang valley get more and more impressive. Once you reach a flatter section with rock seats designed for porters to rest their bags, the trail takes a left turn. It is signposted Ice Lake. Straight on takes you on the high trail back towards Ngawal.
At this point the trail gets steeper as you zigzag your way up the dirt track. At around 3800m the trail flattens into a pasture with a gompa to the right. Enjoy this all too brief flat section before the trail swings around to the left and once again begins to zigzag up the hill. Soon you will reach some prayer flags where the view of the Annapurnas to the south and east becomes even more impressive. This is roughly the half way point.
The trail continues its switchback ascent, before it starts to traverse around the side of the hill and up to the teahouse. The teahouse, at 4200m offers food and water if required. From the teahouse the trail crosses another plateau with old ruined herders huts. Keep your eye out in this section for Himalayan blue sheep with their impressively huge horns.
After the flat pasture there is a steep section, which with the thin air really begins to test the lungs. The trail then bares around to the left to traverse the hill. From here on the trail climbs gradually in a series of long switchbacks to bring you up to the first lake. This is lower ice lake. Walk to the left of the lake and follow along the trail to the next lake which is upper ice lake or Kicho Tal.
At this lake there is a small shelter to protect from the wind and another Gompa. You are almost finished! For the best views, continue on following the trail around to the left until you reach the far end of the lake. Now, at 4600m you can sit down and enjoy the fruits of your labour. A beautiful lake (which may or may not be frozen) with the incredible backdrop of Annapurna III, Gangapurna and Kangsar Kang.
The descent is fairly straightforward as you simply retrace your steps. As you return to lower ice lake take some time to walk around the top side of the lake. If the weather is calm you may get some reflections of the mountains in the lake.
We took 3.5 hours to reach the far end of upper ice lake and then 2.5 hours to walk down. My phone tracker stated 17km in total. The trail on maps.me suggests the route is 12km in total, but I don’t think it identifies all the zigzagging along the way. On the Annapurna Circuit in general we found maps.me to underestimate the distances slightly.
Another incredible side trek from the Annapurna Circuit is the Dhaulagiri Icefall Trek. Take a look at this post for more information!
In Braga there are four options to rest your weary legs.We stayed at Hotel Buddha which has basic rooms, some with private toilets attached. The food here is amazing (splash out on a yak burger!) and the dinning room has a stove to keep you warm in the cold evenings. The village has a small shop and two bakeries.
Sturdy walking boots: The trail is well established and mostly a dirt path, however it is rocky in parts. I’ve had Han Wag boots for a couple of years now and have been impressed with how comfortable they are.
Warm layers: Once you reach the lake at 4600m you’ll want a puffy to keep you warm.
Water bottle with a filter: This will allow you to safely refill at lake. I use a Water To Go bottle.
GPS or map: This trail is marked on maps.me app.
Food and drink: There is a teahouse en route but depending on the time of year, it may or may not be open. Ask the guys at your guesthouse before you set off.
Sunscreen and hat: Get a high factor for extra protection at high altitudes. This sunscreen is also free of nasty chemicals.
All distances and elevations used in this post were recorded on my iphone
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