Did you miss me?
I’m finally back in the land of reliable(ish) internet. I’ve been in Nepal almost 5 weeks now, and this is my first blog post so it’s going to cover a lot.
The main reason for my traveling to Nepal was to do some trekking. I’ve been doing research into different treks and every other imaginable aspect of trekking in Nepal since I started planning this trip. In many ways, I’ve looked at it as the climax of my trip. South-East Asia was warming me up to the backpacking life and toughening me up, and Nepal was my adventurous destination, and the rest of my trip will be (believe me) much more relaxed — a wind-down, of sorts. So all that to say, I’ve done some very cool stuff here other than trekking, but I’m going to focus on the trek and just briefly go over the other things I did.
I arrived in Kathmandu on Jan 17th and spent a few days there buying all the gear I needed to trek. Which was everything. Having spent a few months in South East Asia, I wasn’t exactly equipped to do a trek in the Himalayas in winter.
After a few days of buying a sleeping bag, jacket, gloves, etc., I made my way to Pokhara, which is the launching point for the trek I wanted to do. On top of being the starting point for the trek, Pokhara happens to be the only place in the world right now where you can do Parahawking. Parahawking you ask? Let me show you
A company in Pokhara has trained Egyptian Vultures to fly with you as you paraglide in the shadows of the Himalayas. Once I found out about it, I had to do it, and it was an experience I’ll never forget. The flight lasted roughly 30 minutes, due largely to the fact that they are able to follow the bird into thermal currents and actually gain altitude. Truth is we could have kept flying, but the bird can only stay in the air so long before needing to land again. Oh, and you’re feeding the bird in flight the whole time as well.
After my parahawking adventure, I had a few days to kill before I was going to be leaving on my trek so I decided to do a three-day trip to a national park called Chitwan. It was through an all inclusive resort, and I was bunched in with a group of 16-year-old Australian school kids, so I wouldn’t exactly call it a culturally engaging experience. But I was there to see some wildlife, and I was not let down. Chitwan is a national park that has wild elephants, rhinos, tigers, alligators, pythons and more birds than I could ever dream of identifying. We did a few hikes, and an elephant ride. On one hike we saw a wild rhino, which was something I’ve never seen before. I was thrilled about that, but was even happier when we did the elephant ride and saw another wild rhino and its baby. Wild rhinos are dangerous, and so when we saw one on our hike, we couldn’t get that close, but being on an elephant gave us a safety net. A rhino would never attack an elephant, so we were able to get really close.
So after three days in Chitwan, it was back to Pokhara to get this trek under way. I didn’t want to do it alone, and had not met anybody in Nepal who wanted to do the same thing as me, so I posted an add on “trekkingpartners.com” from which I received a few email responses. The one that actually materialized was from a guy named Jake from the UK. We met up in Pokhara and confirmed that neither of us were axe murderers, and decided we would do the trek together! We both wanted to do the full Annapurna circuit, which stretches just over 300km around the Annapurna mountain range. It’s not Everest, but it’s home to some of the highest peaks in the world, including Annapurna 1 which stands at 8091m (Everest is 8850m).
The Annapurna circuit starts just outside of Pokhara in Beshi Sahar (820m) and does a loop around the range finishing 50km from Pokhara on the opposite side from where you started. My lonely planet for Trekking in Nepal rates it as a “medium” difficultly trek — with one challenging mountain pass. The pass is called Thorung La and at it’s highest point is 5417m high (roughly 2/3 the height of Everest). This pass was my only concern about the trek. I had asked around to several travel agencies about the condition of the pass this time of year, and I got a mixed bag of responses. Some people told me it was fine, and some people told me stories of people getting frostbite or having to turn around because there was too much snow and they couldn’t find the path. So (with some wise advice from my parents) Jake and I decided to hire a guide to take us around. Both of us wanted to maximize our chances of getting over the pass, and do it as safety as possible.
So the day after we met, we went to a travel agency and hired our guide, Kumar. He has been doing the circuit for 17 years and assured us that the pass would be cold and difficult, but that we would be able to go over it. And so at 6am the next day, we were all off.
I won’t go through a day by day synopsis of the trip (I would never leave this internet cafe) so I’ll just give some general highlights:
What makes this trek so famous is the variety of landscapes you encounter. But they all have one thing in common: Amazing.
Going up in altitude limits how far you can go every day. We started at 820m and were going up to 5517m, so we needed to take our time and acclimatize properly. If not, you can get altitude sickness, which if left untreated can be fatal. The scary thing about altitude sickness is that it can affect anyone, regardless of your physical abilities or how much training you’ve done. According to Kumar, several years ago someone died of altitude sickness on the Annapurna circuit who had climbed Everest the previous year. So, generally going up about 500m a day is regarded as a good pace. Anything more and your increase your risk of getting sick. This meant that we were only walking about 4-5 hours a day for the first 10 days. We were usually off in the mornings by about 8:30 because that was the clearest time of day for good views. Usually around 2 every day, clouds started forming over the mountains, so to get the best views, I was forced to become a morning person. But it was worth it. Everyday the views kept getting more and more impressive. At one point I was worried that one day I would stop being so amazed by the views, but luckily that never happened.
That last picture was taken at a Buddhist temple in one of the small towns we stayed at along the way called, Upper Pisang (3300m). It was one of my favorite places we stopped at. The views were amazing, and I have a memory from Upper Pisang that I’ll never forget. This was the first place we had been to that had a satellite dish, and a TV! The locals loved it and it seemed to invite people from all over the village. For the most part they watched Bollywood movies and Jake and I attempted to figure what was going on, which definitely held it’s own entertainment value. But at some point, I guess they figured since they had English speaking people with them, they should watch something in English. So, they turned to HBO to find that Sex and the City 2 was just starting. Most of them spoke no English, and neither Jake or I had any interest in seeing Sex and the City, but the whole thing was too hilarious to tell them to change. At one point there was a a scene involving a gay wedding that seemed to really confuse them. I never in my life thought I would be at 3300m in the Himalayas watching Sex and the City with Nepalese men who spoke no English. We watched it for a little while until dinner was served. I don’t know why, but I can’t help but laugh whenever I think back on that.
One of the upsides of doing the Trek at this time of year, is that there is almost nobody else on the trail. For our first 8 days, we saw seven other tourists. From what I’ve heard, the trail can be a bit of a zoo during peak season, so it was nice to be able to enjoy it with just the three of us.
On day 8, we got to a place called Manang, which is a common place for people to stop and take a break. For us, it was also a potential launching point for a three day side trip. We had wanted to do a trip to visit Tilicho lake, the highest lake in the world (4900m). But we got to Manang and were informed that the trail was closed this time of year. It was disappointing, but the upside was that we met some other people there who were all planning on doing the high pass at the same time as us, so we all agreed to go up there as a big group and go over together. But not without enjoying the scenery of Manang first.
From Manang, we had a two-day walk before we would reach the high camp, just before the pass. In total, there were probably around 20 people all headed for the pass the same time as us. We were now getting into some high elevations, and although I never had any symptoms of altitude sickness, you definitely feel the effects of high altitudes on your body. Everything seems to be much more difficult than it usually does, and I found myself out of breath after doing pretty much anything. Despite feeling a little tired, I was able to enjoy the absolutely amazing views at this height.
Getting up to high camp involved climbing a steep 500m hill, which at these altitudes was no easy task. But everyone made it, and was getting excited for the pass the next day. Our plan was wake up at 5:00am and be on the trail by 5:30am. Usually it takes people about 7 hours to go over the pass, and so getting an early start is a good idea to avoid bad weather, and to just leave yourself with plenty of time. The pass requires climbing 600m to the top, and then going down 1600m to Muktinath on the other side.
At 5:00am my alarm went off and I put on everything warm I owned and opened the door to find that it was snowing. It wasn’t snowing heavily, but I went to find Kumar to see if we would still go over the pass anyway. There were four guides with the group that had assembled and they all decided that we would go anyway, despite the snow. From their experience, typically what happens is you walk an hour or so up, and you get above the storm and its fine the rest of the way. So with our headlamps on, we set out. There was snow roughly up to my shins at this point, but I was too overcome by a sense of adventure to pay it any mind. Here I was, in the dark, in the snow, trekking through the Himalayas.
One couple hadn’t even emerged from their rooms that morning, and had clearly been put off by the snow, and another group of Chinese travellers set off, but turned back fairly quickly. This surprised none of us, as a few of them had really seemed to be struggling the day before. So in total, there were 14 of us going. 9 tourists, 4 guides, and 1 porter.
After an hour or so, the sun started to come up and revealed there was much more snow than I had thought. Still, I didn’t mind and was enjoying the adventure.
The path over the pass is marked with poles, so you can see where you’re going even if the trail is covered in snow. So it was simply a matter of arriving at one pole, and then moving on to the next. We did this for roughly about two hours, all the while the storm kept picking up. Every now and then a gust would come along that was strong that we would have to stop and turn our backs to it to avoid the whipping snow in our faces. After a few hours we came across an old stone building with the door blown off, so we stopped for a break. This the is the first picture I have of that day, as the storm was starting to blow at full force.
As we set out from the building after our break, I knew that this wasn’t exactly in the plan, but I didn’t feel anything other than that. Everyone was in good spirits, and we were heading the right way. Soon we would be at the top of the pass and start going down. Everything we had heard about the other side of the pass suggested that it would be much better. We even joked that there would be hot tubs with beers waiting for us just on the other side.
The next few hours we kept walking, and the storm kept blowing harder. Not long after we set out from the building we started hearing the unmistakable sound of avalanches. I couldn’t see much more than 15 feet in front of me, so I had no idea how far away they were or how big they were. I didn’t even know if we were walking along the foot of a big hill or not. But every so often we would hear a loud crack followed by a boom. I thought there was no use in worrying about them too much, and just focus on moving forward. By this point I was starting to get worried. It was taking way too long to get to the top, and we were having a hard time finding the poles through the snow. We would get to one, and then stand there in the wind getting colder waiting for a break in the snow to find the next one. The snow was getting deeper as well, which meant we had to chose our paths carefully, avoiding low areas where there would likely be snow up to our stomachs.
This kept going for way too long, and everyone was getting noticeably more worried. When we stopped to find a pole or figure out a route, people would huddle for warmth. At one point, I was walking right behind Kopal (the guide who was leading at this point) and stopped to wait for people who had stopped to huddle and warm up. One of the other guides came up to me and asked what they were doing. His words were, “If we stop, we will not succeed.”
I didn’t ask him to clarify what he meant by “succeed”, but that’s when I realized that things had gone completely wrong. This should not be happening.
We kept going for another little while until Kopal stopped and told me that we were close to the top, but that he didn’t know where it was. The rest of the group caught up to us and the guides talked amongst themselves in Nepalese while the rest of us took an inventory of how we were all doing. People were beginning to get scared of frostbite. That’s when I realized I couldn’t feel my toes, and trying to move them felt like moving icicles inside my boots. Everyone seemed to be freaked out about what was happening, but otherwise okay.
After a few minutes, the guides stopped their conversation, and Kumar went and sat behind a rock. A few others followed and I asked him what we were doing. He said that we couldn’t see where the top was, so we were going to wait a few minutes to see if the wind died down and we could go out and look for it. To no one’s surprise, the wind didn’t die down. Kopal ran out in a few directions to see if he could find anything, but came back unsuccessful. At that point people started asking about the possibility of going back down to high camp. With no real idea of what we were doing, Kumar said we were going and so I followed him. We only got about 30 feet before we had to take refuge behind another rock. The wind was too strong to go anywhere, and if you tried to look up and see where you were going, you could get a face full of snow and you’re eyelids would start to freeze together.
The others followed, and soon were all huddled behind another rock. We had made it 30 feet. That was the point when I realized that frostbite might be the least of my problems. Kumar told us that going back to high camp was just as dangerous as trying to find the top, because we couldn’t see where we were going. What worried me most, was that Kumar didn’t seem to know what to do. He had 17 years of experience and had done this pass countless times. There was nothing we could do. If we went out, we risked walking in the wrong direction and getting completely lost. All we could do was sit behind that rock getting colder and colder.
At this point, I looked over and saw Katherine crying, Ronny was sitting on the ground and looked like he was not doing so well, and Sinaed was freaking out about getting frostbite, and Kumar was sitting there and looked to be almost in shock. At one point he grabbed me and started bear hugging me to keep me warm. I had started shivering uncontrollably and was starting to get worried about hypothermia.
I have no idea how long we stayed behind the rock, but after a while Kumar got up and told us to follow him. I have no idea where we were going, but less than 5 minutes after we left the rock, Jake yelled out that he thought he saw the top. He pointed towards it, and sure enough there it was. That whole time it had been 150m away and we had no idea. We all got there and were feeling great. There were hugs all around and some pictures of the sign at the top that reads, “We hope you enjoyed your trek”
From the top, it’s supposed to a four hour trek down to Muktinath. We were thrilled that we made it to the top, and once we started going down, the weather would get better and we would be eating Yak steak and drinking local wine (more like hot vodka) in a few hours.
Within half an hour, it became clear that it wasn’t going to be that easy. The storm was just as bad, and the gusts were even stronger, and there was still the ominous sound of avalanches in the background. There was one gust so strong that, despite the fact I was braced for it, it knocked me over. I had no idea what time it was, or how long we had been walking. After a few hours, it became clear that we had taken a wrong turn somewhere and were in a valley that we shouldn’t be. All four guides were up front trying to figure out where we were going. We would walk for two minutes and then they would spend five minutes discussing a path to get us back on course. Geoff at one point mentioned that we only had a few hours of daylight left, so we had better be close. We finally got out of that valley and were back on track, but the problem was that we realized how far we were from Muktinath, and knew we would not make it there before dark.
Kopol said he knew of a village somewhere not too far from where we were, but that he wasn’t sure where exactly. If we could find it, we could spend the night with a family — if they would take us in. We kept walking in complete whiteness. For most of the day, I couldn’t distinguish where the horizon ended and where the sky began. I was walking with Nick who had seen me looking at my map the night before and asked if he could take a look. Turns out he works in search and rescue in the U.S. He took a look at the map and determined that as long as we kept going the way we were, we would hit Muktinath eventually, even if we didn’t find the village we were looking for. It was somewhat reassuring news.
All of a sudden, we saw houses! We went towards them and saw that they were abandoned, but just as we arrived at the houses, the headlamps started coming out for the second time that day. The sun was setting, and we were still about two hours from Muktinath. We all agreed that our best option was to break in to one of the abandoned buildings (to our luck they were guesthouses) and spend the night there. After a few failed attempts to break the lock, Geoff kicked the door in just as the sun was almost gone. And just to add insult to injury, the building we broke into (we had a choice between three) had a hole in the ceiling and there was snow all over the ground. But there were a few small rooms off to the side with a total of 5 beds. This was the first time I realized how much ice had built up on my beard. This is a photo Geoff took as I was trying to pick it out of beard.
We lit a fire on the floor, and Kopal found some instant noodles in the cupboard and made us noodle soup for dinner. This was a welcomed surprise, as most of us had just accepted we wouldn’t be eating anything that night. After some noodle soup, I got my sleeping bag out and went to crawl into one of the beds, where we were all going to pile in. That was when I realized that the aluminum water bottle I had with a liter of water in in it had not only froze during the day, but had burst a hole in the side of the bottle.
I didn’t sleep too much that night. The light sprinkle of snow on my face from the hole on the ceiling, and the thoughts about what had happened that day were enough to keep me up all night. We had walked 14 hours through a blizzard, gotten lost more than once, and had to break in to a cabin to spend the night.
The next morning was one the clearest, most beautiful mornings of the whole trek. We could see where we needed to go, but what was scary was that I didn’t know where we had come from. Nothing looked liked how I had guessed it would the night before. I didn’t even know there was a mountain range in front of us.
We made it Muktinath around 10am to some rather puzzled looks. People aren’t supposed to come into town that time of day. Usually people make it over the pass mid-afternoon sometime. Evidently they had gotten the same storm — everyone was out shoveling as we were walking into town. We found our guesthouse, and spent the rest of the day relaxing and talking over what had happened the day before.
We had all agreed unanimously that we would find the owner of the building and pay for the broken door. We had no choice, and were grateful for it being there. The guides spent the day tracking the owner down and discussing how much we would all have to pay. I was prepared to fork over whatever they asked for without question. As far as I’m concerned, finding that building meant surviving.
Unfortunately the police had heard about what happened and came by the guesthouse and spent a great deal of time talking with Kumar in the kitchen of the guest house. An unfortunate reality in many developing countries (at least the ones I’ve been to) is that the police have a tendency to be more than a little bit corrupt. Our fear was that they were going to threaten to charge us with breaking and entering unless we paid them a large bribe. Luckily this didn’t happen, and we ended up paying the owner $15 dollars each to cover the door and the food we ate. That and a few glasses of apple brandy, and the owners seemed more interested in hearing our story than they were about their damaged cabin. He told me that the last storm he had seen like that was three years ago, and someone died going over the pass in it. He told me several times that we must be a strong group.
The rest of the evening was celebrating, and eating. Our guesthouse made us a complimentary chicken soup for dinner with the freshest chicken I’ve ever had. I watched Ram (the porter) rip the head off a chicken with his bear hands and then bring it in to the kitchen to be cooked.
In the end, we all made it out with no permanent damage. Kumar had a little bit of frostbite under his chin, but it was almost all healed by the time the trek was over. A few others were having issues with feeling in their toes, but after a trip to the doctor they were assured it would come back soon.
The last week of the trek seemed rather quick and easy after that. The trail for this part of the trip was much busier, but still amazingly beautiful. We had become a topic of conversation on the trail. Several people we talked to about it had already heard from someone else about what had happened. On one occasion, a couple started telling us a story about these 14 people who crossed the pass in a storm.
In the end, the trek lasted 19 days. Despite the close call going over the pass, it was an absolutely amazing experience. I’m glad we had a guide, and I’m glad we had the group of people that we did. Most of the people in our group flew home from Jomson, which is just a day after the pass (that had been their plan all along), but I’m glad we another week on the trail. That wasn’t the experience that I was left with. I got to have another week of trekking through the Himalayas.
We got back to Pokhara, and took some long awaited hot showers. Kumar owns a small restaurant in Pokhara so his wife made us the best Dahl Bat we had eaten in the last three weeks. (Dahl Bat is what 20 out of 25 million Nepalese eat twice a day. It’s rice, with Lentil soup and curried vegetables. You mash it all together and enjoy. The best part about Dahl Bat is that it’s endless. If you finish what’s on your plate, they bring you more no questions asked. We lived off it while we were trekking.)
I’m back in Kathmandu now waiting on my Visa for India (it may take a while… ) so I can head down there and meet up with Alanna again!
Nepal has been a series of unforgettable experiences.
Hope everything back home is well!