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Archive for the ‘Manaslu Circuit’ Category

The sky is still speckled with stars, it’s 3.30am and I’m struggling to eat a poor excuse for porridge. Today we cross the pass and whilst I’m looking forward to the prospect of going over, I can’t help to be a little apprehensive as we shall be the first group to attempt the crossing this spring.
The Larkya la is notorious for being difficult to cross, especially in March owing to heavy winter snows that persist on its slopes. None of us had expected the constant daily flow of groups returning down the trail defeated owing to bad weather and impassable conditions. Their faces etched with a mixture of disappointment and resigned acceptance.
A group of four polish men had first alerted us to the situation on our second day of trekking. They all appeared very strong and capable, so their turning back was alarming for all of us. We calculated that we would reach the point where they retreated 9 days later and so hoped that conditions would improve, but every day we were met by more groups returning right up until yesterday when a small group of four had turned back at Samdo, which is half a day’s walk from Dharamsala. They had in fact been the first to reach this point but decided not to continue up to the high camp.

Manaslu Circuit

Manaslu Circuit

In the last few days we have teamed up with a family from Australia. Phil and Sue, Liam the oldest son is 18 and Jaylan who is remarkably only 9 years old. We decide as a group that the snow conditions look difficult but achievable if we commit to a very early start. The walk up to Dharamsala proves manageable and we were able to stay for much of the time on top of the frozen snow and reached camp just as it began to melt. The final hour was diabolical but we reached high camp in just under four hours.

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With our good friends and fantastic mountain guides Nasir and Habib from Pakistan here with us, I feel a sense of comfort at least. I finish the last mouthful of porridge and deliberate if I’ve eaten enough to sustain the crossing. In my pockets are granola bars and I go through my bag to ensure all my essentials are there. Today we estimate the trekking time will be around 8 hours maybe an hour or so more given the snow conditions. I pull my balaclava over my head and secure my head torch and walk out into the cold night.

Larkya La

Getting close to the top of the Larkya La

The snow crunching beneath my feet I try to keep a steady pace whilst regulating my breathing affected by the thin air. The moon bright tonight, revealing the mountains in the most beautiful cool light, it’s hard not to be distracted, but I try and keep eyes fixed on the back of Habib who’s a few feet in front. Walking in a straight line and closely together, we come to a sloped area that feels a little icy and I quickly lose my footing, cursing I wish I’d packed some small crampons. I make a mental note as I pick myself up to always ensure that I have them in the future, it’s crazy that none of us have a pair.
Fortunately the climb up the pass is not too steep but traversing across the smooth hard packed snow is difficult and we all take turns in slipping and sliding down the gulley a few feet. We are lucky so far not to have encountered too much ice and it is only due to this blessing that any attempt is possible. It’s impossible to know what the ground is like and we remind each other to be careful, it would be easy to make a mistake and twist and ankle with such unstable footing.
I look up ahead and see Rick, he’s falling into all sorts of deep snow and sits down to take a break. I myself am making progress but am continuously dropping again and again into knee deep snow. The pass going up may not be steep but it’s never ending false ridges tease and break your heart.

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After a couple of hours the sun rises behind us. Sunglasses go on and down jackets come off. Within minutes the temperature soars. The snow which is already struggling to support our weight gives in and becomes a powdery mess. Our progress is now reduced to crawling out of holes, every third step and sometimes less. At times it’s so bad that your hands also sink and you have to wriggle out using your torso. In desperation we take to jumping across from one rock to another. Occasionally we miss the target and sink down again into the white prison. All you can do is curse and laugh at how ridiculous the situation is. As I reach another ridge, I can hear above me everyone’s happy chatter, and it can only mean one thing… this is the top. It’s taken just over five hours to reach. The guide book assumes it normally takes around three to four at most.
Congratulating each other on what has been a taxing morning our attention turns to the descent on the western side of the pass and it looks incredibly steep. What’s more unnerving is how hot it is already and how badly the snow has started to melt, something we’d been fearful of.
Nasir and Habib tell us they have never encountered this kind of snow before. “It’s so powdery” Habib say’s. Normally in Pakistan the snow is much more firm and stable. He tells us how on the way up he had nearly fallen into a lake, he had been very lucky. I can’t even remember where there might have been a lake, maybe a good thing for me that I wasn’t aware of this precarious situation.

Larkya La

Rick looking tired as we head down

We slowly begin to make our way down. I look to my right and see a steep slope where any loss of traction would soon see you sliding onto the glacier far below. Further down Greg and Nasir are in a hazardous situation. I watch horrified as Greg drops into waste deep snow and Nasir self-arrests as he slides rapidly down the slope. A large slab of snow has broken free and tumbles down the slope. There is a moment between them as they look at each other worried. Nasir shouts up to us that the snow is really unstable and we need to be really focused. I start to wonder what we’re going to do if there is an accident but dismiss these thoughts as I realise that I have to remain calm and concentrate on the task at hand. Everyone looks a little frightened.
My throat is dry from heavy, nervous breathing. I realise that we are committed to getting down. There is no way we can climb back up now. We must keep going and we must do it safely. The slope is so unstable that I lean into my metal pole to support myself and as I pull it back out to move it has been bent into a shape that resembles a Urie Gellar illusion.
Sections leave me breathless and my forehead hurts from the muscles tensing up from clenching my jaw and frowning. This is the most physically challenging task I have undertaken. Rick shakes his head. Shouting up to me he asks for my thoughts on how we’re going right now. I shout to him “one word springs to mind…ordeal” he shakes his head again and agrees he to thinks this is the most difficult thing he’s ever done. Thank God it’s not just me. I look at everybody else and see the strain on their faces. I know we will get through this but right now I am seriously wondering what I am doing. I must be nuts…..

Larkya La Pass

Heading down the Larkya La

Every third step I fall into thigh deep snow and as I come to an icy section, terror pulses through my body. My pack feels so heavy and is weighing me down so much and pulling me off balance. I see the boys below sitting down and sliding down a shallow gully spreading their body weight across the snow. I take their cue and do the same. I am sure I saw Bear Grylls do this once on his TV show and it seems to be doing the trick. I cover ground much quicker though stopping is somewhat tricky. I have to dig my heels in hard to arrest the slide.
Greg shouts up to me that we’re nearly there just a few more sections to go and we’ll be on dirt again. I am so relieved to have finally reached bare earth. I sit for a moment to slow my breathing. I am so thirsty my lips are cracking from dehydration. I throw myself down and lie on my pack, gulping water it’s been over 8 hours of continuous slog and I am very thirsty. We all change out of cold weather gear and cool down. We have another 3 to 4 hours of walking until we get to the town of Bhimtang.

Bhimtang

Entering Bhimtang

Everyone is ecstatic to have crossed the pass. We have done it and celebrate and start talking about the food and the drinks that we will have when we get to Bhimtang. I have around half a bottle of water left, if I sip conservatively it should be enough. Legs shaky and bodies aching we make for the last section it seems to go on forever. As I take my last sip of water Greg points to an area where small buildings are dwarfed by a giant mountain. I decide on sight that I will finish my water, we’re only an hour a way I think to myself. When we get there I will have a nice cold can of coke.
As I drag my feet through the last section of town. I see the boys all sat outside a tea house. As much as I find the idea of a welcoming committee a nice gesture I find it odd. But as I draw closer I see no joy, no laughter, nothing and then I realise why. I can’t utter the words to myself it can’t be true…. Nothing is open, the town is shut! We can only deduce that because no one has crossed the pass this year and with so many people having turned back, the tea house owners have remained shut waiting for the snows to abate before opening. I am in shock. I can’t believe this is happening and I sit down deflated and despondent.
We seriously contemplate breaking in and paying for any damages caused later, we are that desperate and tired. It becomes a serious option that is discussed but our guide Dilly is not confidant this is a good idea. The next town is still another 4 hours away but already the sun is starting to disappear behind the mountains. In the next hour or so it will be dark and cold. We have run out of food and have no water left.
I am reluctant to continue. I’m worried that we will arrive at the next tea house and that too will be closed. But what are we to do, we are forced to continue. We’re all so cold and tired but we put our backpacks and head torches on anticipating the fading light to come. We talk of the possibility of wild camping something I am becoming increasingly in favour of. We walk past a few small caves, stop and look but resign to carry on. We stop near a river gasping for a drink and take the gamble to fill our bottles with the stream water. My overwhelming thirst diminishes any kind of concern. I just hope that the water is clean enough not to make me sick. The sterilisation tablet should work under normal circumstances.
Not a morsel of food has not passed any of our lips for nearly 5 hours. My stomach is so noisy that its rumble can be heard over the sound of our footsteps. Night envelopes and we take a break to discuss what we should do next, should we continue or just lie down under a tree. We look at the area we’re in, it seems ok. But as we look at a moon being draped in clouds we debate what we would do if it were to rain during the night. Our down sleeping bags would be soaked. No we must push on and keep going. I know that this makes sense but physically my body is fighting every decision I make, it simply wants me to lie down. We press on.

Nasir, Emma, Rick and Habib

Nasir, Emma, Rick and Habib

Hours pass and we try to keep each other’s spirits up. I can’t help to feel sorry for Habib and Nasir this is supposed to be a holiday, a time to hang out with us, enjoy a relaxing trek. Nasir tells me that he and Habib have never had such a challenging situation. They too are now exhausted. Our conversation halts as we see a torch light coming towards us. Dilly has seen ahead a building. A jubilant cheer erupts. But there is a hitch…of course. The building is just a shell there is no one there no windows, no doors, no food and no beds but there is a roof to provide shelter. None of us care we will sleep here tonight and tomorrow continue to the next town. I don’t even care that I won’t be able to eat. I am passed that need. All I want more than anything right now is to get in to my sleeping bag and sleep. I don’t even care that I am sleeping on planks of wood. My eyes are heavy I look out at the stars and a moon washed with fleeting clouds and drift into a deep sleep.

Jaylan the 9 year old boy who didn't turn back

Jaylan the 9 year old boy who didn’t turn back

The sound of talking awakens me. My body is stiff from sleeping on hard wood. I have a tingling sensation running up and down my back. Outside a fire has been lit and the boys are sat around warming themselves. I pack up my things and climb down the ladder from the second floor. It’s amazing how hunger can motivate a person. We are hopefully just a couple of hours away from the next tea house. Of course we have to hope that it is open given what happened yesterday in Bhimtang. But we must continue regardless we have no choice.

The half finished house we slept in

The half finished house we slept in

I sip what remains of the river water in my bottle, so far this has not caused any of us to be ill. We set off through some of the most pristine pine forest I have ever encountered. The floor of the forest is soft with fallen pine needles that have built up over the centuries. It’s so beautiful that I am momentarily distracted by a rumbling tummy that has had no food in over 18 hours. We walk past ancient trees covered in moss, every now and again breaking into open areas where gigantic mountains soar high above.

Beautiful Pine Forrests

Beautiful Pine Forrests

Two hours later we sight a small collection of houses on the far side of river. We cross a small bridge but can see no sign of activity. The first few houses are empty so we continue up a small slope and around a bend. There sitting in a charming garden is Habib, Nasir and Dilly. I can see a lady wiping down tables inside the dining room. We have made it. Thirty hours after leaving Dharamsala we can at last relax. I feel relieved to have reached a soft bed and warm food.
We spend a few more days trekking down to the road head. I feel so fortunate to have made it over and not have turned back. We could so easily have missed out on all of this. We set our sights on Pokhara and a long recuperation before heading east to the Everest and beyond…

Food at last

Food at last

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