Manaslu Trek Through Larke Pass (full)
The plan for the three of us good friends, Rachel, Laura, and myself, was to head out to Nepal for the first two weeks of April, dates that coincided with Hong Kong’s generous Easter bank holidays so that Rachel and Laura could take a good amount of time off from work. We met at least five years ago in Hong Kong and had gone together on a whim to trek Kota Kinabalu in Borneo almost four years prior in 2019. Having had such a remarkably good time, we planned another trek the following year to Nepal. However, covid hit and so we had to wait until Hong Kong eased its tight restrictions and opened up to the rest of Asia and the world.
So, four years later, when at last we could enjoy quarantine-free travel, I asked the advice of one of the Nepalese guides I had met a few months earlier about which trek we should do. He strongly urged that we do Manaslu trek as Annapurna has become overcrowded and touristy, especially with the influx of travelers post covid who had been waiting for years to put their boots on the ground (aka just like us). We were looking for something more authentic and difficult than just a walk in the park, and now looking back on it, we certainly got more than what we bargained for.
The trek follows an ancient salt-trading route which supplied salt to the region and is not only known for its turns in foul weather, but also famous for dangerous landslides which causes changes in trails. Through it all, we encountered bands of roaming goats, mammoth glaciers, mini avalanches, subzero temperatures, wizened monks, falling into waist deep snow, and more, but most importantly, we were fortunate enough to experience the generous hospitality of the peoples of the Gorkha district, deepen the bonds of our friendship with each other, and share laughs with our exceptional guides and porters who were with us every step of the way, and without whom this trip would never have been possible.
Below are the entries from my journal that I kept throughout the trek, along with side commentary and explanations. The edits I’ve made are for readability, spelling corrections (I categorically cannot spell), grammar, and I’ve removed some inner monologues that would make even the most patient person roll their eyes. The journal entries are italicized and in bold while the commentary or background information is not.
Day One – Arrival to the Capital of Nepal, Kathmandu, Before Heading out to the Mountains by Jeep
Our trip began with a 10pm flight from Hong Kong’s tidy airport to the bureaucratic chaos that defines Kathmandu’s airport late in the evening. After some arguments on which currency the visa-on-arrival counter worker would accept and helping out a stranger fellow tourist with some cash since the ATM was broken, we finally left the airport where we were picked up by our Nepalese guide, Paban. Lucky Paban, who had had the pleasure of being my guide during EBC (Everest Base Camp trek) just four months prior, was a tall man from a nearby district with sarcastic wit who had handled my endless fears and eccentricities deftly in those two weeks we had spent together in the harsh Himalayan climate.
We arrived in our hotel late in the night of the 1st of April, where we were handed large duffle bags which each contained a down sleeping bag, heavy-duty jacket for subzero temperatures, and a map of our upcoming trek, all of which are included in our trekking fee. The porters would be carrying the duffel bags, two bags for each porter, and we would each carry our own day bag on top of that.
In the morning we put on some warm weather gear in preparation for our long and hot car ride ahead and headed downstairs to meet Ganga, the trusty administrator of Nepal Hiking team to complete payments, ask any questions, get a rundown of our upcoming adventure, and return our room keys. Our jeep came up to the hotel as our duffel bags got tied down to the top and we meet the fourth trekker of our trip, Chrissy, along with our porters and assistant guide. Chrissy rocked up with an adventurer’s attitude, large acrylic nails, caterpillar extension eyelashes and was brave enough to join our motley crew at the last minute while in between jobs in the UK.
Laden down with our things, the nine of us (four trekkers, two guides, two porters, and the driver) piled into the jeep made for eight and we winded our way through the hectic roads of Kathmandu until we were out of the city and onto the dusty, partly unpaved roads that acted as the often choked veins and arteries that fed the capital. For hours we rode until we get to bumpier roads and started to pass by small villages which were surrounded by banana trees and other crops. There was minimal traffic out here except for the couple of times we were road blocked by stubborn sheep and goats who decided that a dirt road was a good place to make camp until the shepherds could come and herd them away.
April 2nd 2023, Dahding Besi
Successful flight from Hong Kong airport to Kathmandu last night with just minimal hassle. My personal hell would be to be forever looped in that KTM [abbreviation for Kathmandu airport] 9th circle of hell bullshit for eternity. This time I was prepared with extra cash and armed with patience. I think I adequately prepped Rachel and Laura for the administrative blockage and ineptitude that defines Nepalese governance.
Paban picked us up and I gave out a big squeal, hug, and ruffled his red-hued henna hair to the scandal of the conservative men around us but God it was good to see him.
Today, right now, we’re stopped in a relatively large town for lunch. Paban said that after today, meat options deteriorate rapidly so I am thankful that I am heavily armed with cat food [euphemism for some deviled ham] this time [as compared to EBC – Everest Base Camp]. Today will be all car ride until we arrived in Machha Khola where we’ll be able to stretch our legs a bit before we start our 22km trek tomorrow.
Paban said Manaslu is medium difficulty while EBC was hard, Annapurna would be considered easy. We don’t break 4.5km [altitude] until day 9 of the trek so hoping that we’ll be well acclimated by then – I’ll need to stretch everyday to keep my knees in check.
Our scenic yet bumpy ride soon came to a stop as a light drizzle started up – the road was impassable in front of us because a tractor’s power died in a rut and wouldn’t start up again, presumably due to a bad battery. It seemed that the whole village and neighboring villages had come out to see the drama so I headed down from our jeep to join the fun and watch as a second tractor came to pull out the first one. We join in the cheering as a third tractor joined the fight and, after much debate amongst the men of the area, finally hooked into the first and second tractor, and successfully pulled the original tractor out of the mud.
However, the rain continued, and the multiple tractors had made the passing tough even for our off-roading jeep. Our driver decided it was not a risk he wanted to take, so our gear was unloaded, and we prepared ourselves for the couple of hours hike in front of us to reach our destination for the evening.
I was having trouble with my new shoes and my calves instantly seized up which caused me to fall far behind as I try to warm them up. A bit of panic began to set in because I had broken the cardinal rule of new gear – test your gear BEFORE starting your adventure. I worried that I wouldn’t make it as I hobbled in pain- Paban found a second walking stick to go with my first to take some weight my legs.
That evening we made it into a small village down the road where we tucked into our rooms for the evening. I climbed a nearby rock in the dark to get enough service in order to call my friend and previous fitness trainer if he had any suggestion on how to properly take care of my calves so they don’t impede or ruin the trip. He asked some questions to get a better idea of what I’m suffering from then gave me a good list of exercise and stretches to offset the pain. I prayed that with his help I can mitigate some of my poor planning.
That evening, over potatoes and rice (to be a common staple of our meals), the three of us chatted and got to know each other better to the sound of rain drops and kids playing outside.
Day 2 – Trekking from Machha Khola to Jagat through Nepalese Jungle
April 3rd, 2023 – a village on the way to Jagat during midmorning tea
Today’s the long day of 22km through winding Nepalese ‘jungle’ with banana trees and plentiful goats. Maybe one day I’ll come back for some of these small-statured Nepalese goats because they are the perfect size for the farm I envision having one day.
With Nepal Hiking Team, there are two groups of four with two guides and two porters for each group. The other group seems like a fun bunch, the same age as mom and dad, and all from the UK so I’m the odd one out as the token American.
After a call with Kush [the best fitness trainer of HK], last night, I’m hopeful that my calf issue will be resolved with copious amounts of stretching and warm up/cool-down.
[Later on, in Jagat]
We arrived in Jagat, which is a shockingly beautiful town with clean streets and new buildings with a rough guess population of around 300. Goats abound and the fourth member of our group, Chrissy, gasped in horror as one was being butchered in a main square in front of our quaint lodge, the “Mongolian Cottage”.
In Jagat, I enjoy a nice Somersby and had my first taste of ‘raksi’ or rice wine that is homemade from one of the guides. It tasted as one would expect of home-made rice wine, but it got the job done and filled my insides with warmth. I figured at only 2,000m (7,000ft) I could let loose a little before the altitude really set in.
After dinner we played our first round of Uno for the trip as we watched some of the bad weather roll in from inside the window-pained dining hall and big wet raindrops began to fall.
Day 3 – Trekking from Jagat to Deng Where We Start Entering Tibetan Villages
The morning of April 4th, I woke up early to try to make a call for work, and failing that, I got to enjoy watching the sunrise come through the gorge we were nestled in – enjoying the visage of soft pink and baby blue hues making their way over the mountains and gradually lighting up the turquoise river below. Thankfully the bad weather from the night before had passed and it was promising to be a beautiful day.
April 4th 2023 – Bhangsing, on the way to Deng
Today is 20km with a 700m altitude climb net. I woke up Chrissy and myself with a loud alarm at 5:30am to [make a work call] but being in the gorge blocked all service and the Wi-Fi was turned off for the night (days usually start at 6am [or I found out, often even earlier] in the villages/lodges to start cooking for porters, guides, and trekkers alike). I enjoyed the beautiful sunrise over the mountain pass and the river that ran through the gorge, watching a train of donkeys laden with packs start their day down below.
Today’s hike started on a road in the process of being built, where some large boulders fell mid construction zone and the construction crew used dynamite to bomb it into pieces then clear it – it was a medium size boom followed by a cracking echo through the valleys. Trekkers and workers waited on both sides while a man in a yellow hat ran from the dynamite pre-explosion. Two blasts and we were through to the other side.
After the road, we found ourselves back on the rolling stony path/trail through small villages where dirt smudged kids came running out asking for chocolate after uttering a hastily cheeky namaste.
My ankle is giving me a bit of trouble – my outer calf area was punishing me for a bit before loosening its tight grip and I’m hoping this won’t be a daily tribulation because it slows me down substantially. Was fine by midday and feeling sprightly after a can of deviled ham, affectionately called ‘cat food’ to the smelly delight of all the other trekkers.
Often when we’d pass through villages in this region, little kids would come running out to us with upturned hopeful faces putting their hands together up near their heart and saying namaste. The bravest one, or youngest, would then start asking for chocolate and sometimes they would eagerly hold out their hands. We once had a few kids put bamboo sticks up on the road and try to demand a toll – chocolate in exchange for passage – before their mother came out and harshly berated them for the inhospitality, but I couldn’t help but think that the ringleader of that group was going to go far.
April 4th was also the last day of truly warm weather for us, something that we longed for in the days coming up and didn’t get to experience again until on the last day of our return to Kathmandu. The turn in weather in the evening gradually crept up on us until the sun started to set, mixing rain and sweat to create the wonderful combination of misery and cold.
Day 4 – The hike to Gorkha District’s own Rivendell; Namrung
April 5th, 2023 – Bur on the way to Namrung
Yesterday afternoon, we got caught up in the rain and it was a cold and disheartening trek to Deng after that. We made it stumbling and drenched to the main lodge of the four-building village looking like a group of wet rats shivering in the cold. We swarmed the warm fire to the grumblings of the lodge owners who were preparing to feed a full house.
Our plan this morning was to hit the trail early to avoid the afternoon rains that the weather report threatened. I’ve not really had to deal with soaking rain on a trek before and I now have a newfound determination to keep as much of our things dry as possible. Tonight should get to -1C so I’m hoping that here on out will be snow which I assume will be less drenching but maybe it comes with its own can of unknown [to me] worms.
Last night we got a bit wild late into the night (8:30pm) playing uno with the guides and porters. We were hooting and hollering having a grand ol’ time. The much younger porters and assistant guide were a bit shy at first, but we managed to pull them out of their shells a bit since we were all on this trek together and they seemed like a raucously fun group.*
Paban made me laugh quite a bit as we started a steep ascent this morning – he was making the sounds that the donkey herders make since we were (mostly me) making languorous process up the steep switchback. Makes me think of how we must seem like pack animals to our guides, just like the trains of donkeys that pass us by multiple times a day. The guides lead us, one in front, one behind, water us, feed us, house us. We are in many ways dependent on them, and they can’t but think that we’re a bit slow paced and slow witted as we don’t know the mountains nor trekking to the same degree that they do. We’re also all outfitted in this primo gear while the guides and porters are wearing knockoffs and carrying the bare minimum of personal gear while still outperforming us in both fitness and technical ability.
Thankfully on the 5th, we were able to beat the bad weather on the way to Namrung, a town which ended up being my favorite in the entire trek. Earlier in the day, the paved stone under Laura’s feet gave way and she took a tumble down into the bushes on the side of the trail. A large enough portion of our trek had already taken us through steep winding paths that induced my vertigo easily, so it shook us up quite a bit when we saw her fall. The bushes seemed to cushion her, but we were all fawning about her to make sure she was okay to her most probable chagrin – in some ways it was a close call that the stone gave way there instead of nearly anywhere else on the trail. It was a good reminder to us all to be wary of our steps.
After getting settled, we walked into Namrung where cows masticated happily in courtyards and the streets of the village were lined with smooth stone. The views were astounding at 2,600m (8,700ft), with white topped mountains, light blue glacial streams, and we started to see more yaks. We were entering Tibetan communities from here on out until the end of the trek, and the people here decorated their homes with brilliant hues of primary colors and wore clothes that look as if they haven’t changed in hundreds of years. Namrung was remarkably clean compared to any village I’ve been in and new buildings were being erected all around with sturdy material, showing just how much of an influx of money was coming in and how it was being reinvested into the community.
View from one of our tea stops
*I’ve edited out some of the fun we all had together since I am not sure what the rules are with their company in terms of drinking, card playing, interacting etc and it would break my heart if I got anyone in trouble. Let’s just say this is a shoutout to them for everything, thank you guys <3
Day 5 – Leaving Namrung to head to Lho Gaun, Heading Deeper into the Himalayas with Views of Glaciers on the Way to
Morder Larke Pass
April 6th, 2023 – Lho 3,200m (10,500ft)
Today was an easy day compared to the last three. Steep climbing into the mountain ranges, their snow ladened peaks reflecting the clear strong sun, the wind picking up its hostile volatility as the visibility deepens in the high altitude/low viscosity air. It’s starting to become chillingly beautiful with tonight projected to reach -7C so after being on our cold and lonesome last night, Rachel and I have agreed to room together from now on for extra warmth and for morale since sleep will quickly start to deteriorate. The sleeping bags we have this trek seem of better quality than EBC, as well as the lodges – or maybe the sleeping bags are the same quality, I just know how to use it this time – strip down to bare skin and completely cocoon so your body heat can regulate the temp. Do this and you won’t wake up covered in sweat and going to the restroom isn’t the hell it once was since your own body heat takes a bit to dissipate if you wrap up as soon as you exit the cocoon in a fleece.
Last night, in Namrung, we had Rivendell-esque village vibes with Tibetan charm where I picked up a bracelet for [my niece] and [my sister] made by a cheery Tibetan woman who proudly showed us how she weaved hearts into many of the designs.
I decided to rest in the village of Lho, as it was one of the most comfortable lodges I had ever been in, with large glass windows that made it feel like we were specimens in a very warm greenhouse. We could strip down to base layers without the furnace even being lit and still be comfortable during the day and there was room to spread out, instruments to pluck at, and even internet connection to catch up with the outside world (for better or for worse). Manaslu peak rose above us, fierce and covered in snow and it glowed golden in the sunrise. Even in this terrain, the village maintained fields of green sprouting crops that coloured the landscape and we each had our own mini cottage where we could wash and hang clothes.
I was lucky enough to see one of the area’s horse ceremonies, where the women and children came out to cheer on their fathers, brothers, and sons as they rode heavily decorated horses from village to village to show off their horsemanship. Horse after horse cantered through and circled the giant stupa that centered the village before heading off up the slope to the next village. First were the older men, then the horsemen become younger and younger until young children were urging their own ponies onwards. The group was followed by a procession of villagers on foot who were singing and enjoying themselves.
Day 6 – Hike from Lho to Samagon, the Last Trading Outpost Before the Big Push through the Pass
April 7th, 2023 – Shyalla Tea Break on the way to Samagon (3,500m (11,500ft))
Starting to see snow on the trail as we wind around river paths, colorful Tibetan women with their sun kissed skin carrying whicker woven baskets on their backs. Yesterday, the other three went to the monastery while I stayed behind in the warm cozy lodge. Like temples in Bali or cathedrals in Rome, when you’ve seen one monastery, you’ve seen them all [not quite true looking back on it but hey, sharing with you what I wrote at the time, and what I was writing was justification for my own laziness]. I’m a bit less prickly about it [the monastery] this time because the communities here have an influx of money with new cabins being built and a hopefulness in the air that some of the villages in the EBC lacked.*
Had an early night last night after a few games of uno and thankfully shared with Rachel. What a difference in morale and warmth! We had a backdoor where I hung some clothes to try on during the day and we just scooted our butts out to pee [at night] and stay warm which reduced misery levels.
The other two ladies in the [other] group shared some soap with me which was a relief because having fresh underwear is one less thing I have to worry about.
On we went to Samagon, which Paban described as a large village which acted as a crossroads to many smaller villages in the area. It was bigger than quite a few of the other places we had seen, with an interesting mix of old stone structures and newly built lodges with cows, dzho [a combination of a yak and cow, similar to a mule], and yaks fenced in and some left to roam with large bells on them. Mana walls lined the roads and another monastery was in the hills just above us. We were to spend two nights here to acclimatize and one could choose to either make the trek to Manaslu base camp here or go see the lake, which the Manaslu glacier fed.
* I had been annoyed on the EBC trek when I’d see communities in abject poverty send their very limited resources and children to the Buddhist monasteries for the promise of a better future in the next life when there was still so much that could be done to improve their current life. But I don’t know the full story or reasonings so there’s probably more to the situation than met my foreign eye.
Day 7 – Acclimitization Day in Samagon, We Visit the Lake and Hear the Creaking of the Glacier
April 8th, 2023 – Samagon (3,500m)
Today was ideal in every way with hikes, a beautiful lake, glacier, mini avalanches, hot chocolate over an open fire, Christmas music, and great friends. Everyone else woke up at 5:30am to see the sun rising above this small trading hub while I laid in bed catching a few more snoozes with my morning reads playlist.
Late breakfast before heading to the lake near the town. It was an easy trail on the rock-strewn path before we went off the donkey-beaten path over ridges and hills in the blissfully warm midday sun. We climbed over the final ledge to the vast beautiful panorama of Manaslu glacier in its glacial tumble to the turquoise blue water of the placid still lake. The mountains’ snowy white edifices loomed over us and cairns dotted the landscape. I made one for coco-bear who passed away recently and took a picture so Charlotte would know that she was honored.
There was a note of apprehension in the air in our group since three out of eight of us total trekkers had left for Manaslu base camp which was past the glacier and up in the blankets of snow at around 4,700m (15,000ft). The glacier creaked and groaned as rocks and ice tumbled down and the mind couldn’t help but think of the fragility of the lives above crossing the behemoth.
I took my time stripping down to base layers for the hike back so I wouldn’t overheat. It was fun walking back with Paban as we lost our way because of our chatting and giggling about gossip and the mindset of Western people vs Nepalese.
Spent the rest of the day exploring more of the town – Laura, Rachel, and I went to the café next door where this lovely lady served us hot chocolate in her cabin with an open flame/oven in the center of the room. I put on Christmas music and with the company, the rare warmth of the room, and the clean tidiness yet bustling of our host, it was a perfect winter moment.
Walking out with a warmed morale and belly lifted our moods dramatically and it was almost a culture shock re-entering into the agricultural subsistence town of Samagon with tis stone hewn structures and wandering yakow.
I laid down with the children of our lodge owners and we built little snowmen with Paban and their father as their mother worked the wooden loom beside us, creating a colorful scarf. The kids giggled with their new toys, and I looked curiously into their faces because all the kids seem to have frost bitten cheeks from over exposure, having truly apple red cheeks on their tan faces. I wonder if it’s the way of things with such proximity to a harsh sun or if they’re purposefully exposed young to help the skin build up resistance.
I’m also curious about the vaccination scheme. I couldn’t help but notice a rusty nail by us as we played in the snowy dirt and it just makes me wonder about basic healthcare for tetanus, childbirth, etc. Is child mortality higher but people are healthier than in a place like Miami? Or does exposure and the cold whittle away at one’s immune/cardiovascular system and diminish ones’ health over time?
There’s scientific consensus that people who have a history of living in the Himalayas have a genetic predisposition to do well in these mountains ranges in ways that us Westerners do not. Larger lung capacities, more red blood cells to name a few. From my point of view, life here seems brutal tough regardless. This region didn’t open until 1991 so 32 years post isolation and I am seeing people still using wooden yolks on yaks to plow the land and wooden looms to make clothing for themselves and tourists alike. The hot chocolate lady and her second story cabin was such an anomaly for its appearance with cans and supplies lining the walls like an old fashion fur trapping shop, and her slightly different appearance to the other villagers made us debate if she was a seasonal Nepalese worker who lived elsewhere and has seen other kinds of establishments and had brought it back to Samagon. If she is a seasonal worker, then she is probably one of the first wave of many to come as tourism increases in the region.
That evening we enjoyed birthday celebrations, a warm furnace, and some good rum.
Day 8 – Trek to Samdo, a Village Just a Few Hours from the Tibetan Border. Snow Flurries Set the Scene for the Days to Come
April 9th, 2023 Samdon (3,885m/12,700ft)
Today’s been a great day on my list of things conquered – first time going above 4,000m (13,000ft) without a breakdown, in fact, I even had a smile on my face!
Last night we hung around the fire/furnace where I met a girl who was taking her gap year teaching English in the village and traveling to Thailand afterwards. She was sweet and earnest about it all and I wondered if I was so bright-eyed and bushy tailed at her age as well.
It was Gorkha’s birthday, so Paban and the others got him a cake, some Nepalese scarves, and rum as we all sang happy birthday. Nepalese music played and we danced a bit before subsiding around the furnace and I played my sudoku. So far, there has been no statistically significant decrease in sudoku cognition with altitude – in fact I’ve been getting personal records in speed and points. I’ve also flunked out of a few games so I’m thinking my inhibition is lowered with the altitude. Everyone else among the trekkers went to bed but I stayed up a bit with the porters and guides. I enjoy their chatter as I lay curled around the warmth of the furnace. The lodge owner had his daughter in his lap (she’s maybe 3 years old) and she slowly nodded off as he watched her fondly while listening to one of the porters tell an animated story. I sipped a bit of rum, and they teased me in Nepalese which I’ve been learning at quickly enough. Paban and I had an arm wrestle after he said he could carry me over [Larke] Pass and I told him I was too ‘motti’ (fat) and he was too weak. We both laid on the floor and were circled by the others while a referee got in place. With two hands I won easily but he casually defeated me one arm on one to the cheers of the audience.
This morning we had a late start for a very short hike to the next settlement. I took it veerryyyy slow, often in the back with my little walking sticks and Paban by my side ushering me along or grabbing my pack when I veered off the road like the lazy slow pack animal that I am. We’re usually in companiable silence but other times he tells me the history or names of the peaks or continues to teach me Nepalese – often with a strong refrain on using back language (such as ‘muji’ which I found out when last night I parroted the word and everyone roared with laughter). Before I would’ve wanted to always be first but these days I love being last. I know I struggle in altitude, so I want to take everything easy and really, truly, see the beauty of the Himalayas around me. Stop and see the women who walk along separate trails in the woods, their dress seemingly a hairy to me, harking to times long past, or the donkey shepherds taking breaks in the sun and laughing and teasing each other, or the guides secretly handing out sweets to the village kids who sometimes come running out with their apple cheeks.
Every day offers another treat to see and another terrain to experience. Today was pastureland as we go above the treeline ahead of the snow clouds which chased close behind. Wandering horses tossed their manes on the steep inclines, their shaggy hair protecting them from the increasingly cold winds.
This town is the most barren and harshest so far and it’s a miracle that humans have made a life here, somehow eking it out of the land.
We had lunch before heading up a nearby hill to try to get our bodies up to a higher altitude to adjust before coming back down again. I had a bit of trepidation because I always seem to break at 4km. but as the snow began to flurry and blur the landscape, I kept on steady and slow up the steep incline, a grin on my face as I relished in the new weather challenge. Up we all went, the village falling below us to blue tin roof specs. Up and up and I continued to feel fine before we, as a group, decided to head down. It was steep and a bit hairy – following what looked like mountain goat trails and switchbacks with narrow footings but I made it down without a single slip – the trust in my shoes is increasing.
I went to the room to check on Rachel who’s the main person of our group suffering from the altitude with low appetite and headaches. One of [the other members] gave her some Diamox which will hopefully righten things out because having suffered altitude sickness before, its no joke.
We were aiming to cross the crescendo of our trek the day after next, on April the 11th, through Larke Pass, the third most dangerous pass in the Himalayas. The death toll is mostly due to changes in weather conditions and landslides which lock people into its snowy depths and misguides trekkers down steep crevasses. We were to go early in the morning, while everything was still frozen to prevent the potential avalanche or landslide and to go before the afternoon storms blow through.
High altitude seems to bring out the Allan Poe inside of me so bear with my rambling fears of mortality – my only defense is that you start to become a little hypoxic (feelings of being high) and judgement goes out the window with altitude.
Day 9 – Trek to Dharmasala, Which We ‘Affectionately’ Call the ‘Refugee Village’
April 10th, 2023 – Dharmasala 4,500m/14,700ft
We wake up at 3am tomorrow to attempt Larke Pass by 4am. It’s the safest time as the pass is dangerous when the weather turns foul, and we’ve had afternoon snowstorms. Little bits of snow are flying onto the page now while I sit at the stoop of our makeshift camp. No village here, just a base camp of basic stone structures and old-fashioned tents. Nothing but the bare minimum since it’s the only stopover before the pass.
The mountains are covered in snow around us though our path has stayed rocky and full of soil, but I have a feeling that will change as we prepare to put on our crampons for tomorrow’s eight-hour trek. It’s going to be a tough day for us as the altitude has finally hit (for me). Rachel started with no appetite and is in survival mode, keen to finish tomorrow and make it back down to a lower altitude again. I’ve been alright until today’s trek where we hiked up to 4,800m (15,700ft) before coming back down to the camp of Dharmasala. Paban had to take my bag and I put on the album Graceland to stave off the pangs of panic I tend to get at altitude. Still, I can be proud of myself for not feeling the pangs until almost 5,000m this time instead of 4,000m.
I danced to the music between lightheaded wheezes. If I get HACE or HAPE [deadly conditions caused by high altitude] or fall to my death like I dreamt last night over and over again, I might as well meet the reaper with a smile and a jig. I’ve lived a damn good life and no use worrying twice about the pass when this time it’s a choice [to worry] and tomorrow there’ll be no choice but to get through it.
Last night when I dreamt my fall into a ravine on broken record repeat, I slowly changed it from fear to me falling from the icy terrain into a nice warm bed with the one I love’s arms around me so that will be my little heaven if I do fall. But enough of that dreadful malarky and melancholy chat! As the old wise woman said in the Daoist temple, my time won’t come until I’m 84 and I’ve just got to have faith. The pass doesn’t appear to have ravines, we’re in a big group, other than some light headedness I feel fine, I still have an appetite, I got great night’s sleep last night, I just ate some cat food, I’ve befriended the camp’s dog with a pack of tuna and I have utter faith in our guides and their judgement.
I just did a sudoku at lunch and was just a few seconds from my PR so cognition hasn’t drastically reduced (or maybe just my inhibition) and I just did a small hike up a little hill without a problem and got a good view of today’s afternoon snow storm coming in.
I don’t know what it is, being in the mountains with snow falling around invigorates and excites me like a small kid because I’ve so rarely seen snowfall that I almost go binkying around with a grin on my face which tells me that I am getting into my head with altitude.
Rachel and I will be sharing a small tent with broken zippers so we’ve made a makeshift blanket door on the front to keep out the cold that will for sure chill our bones this evening.
I’m going to feed the friendly camp dog some more in the hopes that she is the mountain spirit or that by doing so I can gain some good karma for a safe passage and fair weather.
For a couple of days before the pass the wind had picked up in the afternoon to snow flurries that I would not want to face in the white snow-faced pass and so none of us grumbled too much at the early morning wake up. Still, life above 4,000m (13,000ft) is tough no matter where you are, especially when the only reprieve from the cold is ignited yack dung in stone structures which the cold winds easily permeated. This next place, Dharmasala, we jokingly called the refugee camp due to its lack of inspiring any joy and obvious only function as a barebones rest space pre-pass crossing. They had run out of rooms so Rachel and I had to stay in a tent which froze over in the night – we were just thankful we had brought in our shoes and bags as they would have probably been frozen solid during the night. Earlier in the trek, our guides were a bit concerned that we wouldn’t make the pass due to a bout of bad weather in which we’d need to turn around and come back down.
Our guides didn’t want to take any chances with our crew and so they kept in close contact with other groups who were trekking in front of us; their progress, the report on the pass-ability of the pass, and their ability to ‘break’ the trail (where you carve a path through the snow that other trekkers can then use without having to worry about accidentally falling into a hidden hole). We had been given the green light a few days before and so we had a few days to mentally prepare for what the pass would bring.
I woke up at 2am that morning, my nerves going into overdrive as my imagination created deadly scenarios that would involve steep drops and stormy weather. It was more the fear of the unknown, of not knowing what we were to face that had my thoughts in chaos. Little did I know that the obstacle I had to face that day had nothing to do with ravines nor foul weather…
Day 10 and 11 – We Pave Our Way Through the Pass and Try to Recover in Bhimthang
April 12th, 2023 – Bhimthang 3,800m/12,500ft
I want to write in vivid detail how hard Larke Pass was less I forget the travails of the trip and stupidly sign up for another trek (which I probably will) since the pain of it is already fading away, being replaced with the joy of achievement and camaraderie.
Yesterday, we woke up at 3am to a warm enough tent though the wind howled, and the outer tent was frozen hard over [we slept in a two layered tent]. Thankfully, we had kept our boots inside, otherwise they’d certainly have frozen over and putting our feet into frozen blocks would’ve lowered our already low mood. My nerves had me up at 2am and I could feel the gurgle in my belly which foretold my doom.
After an untouched breakfast, the 16 of us [eight trekkers, four guides, four porters] headed out onto the moonlit trail. My headlamp flickered out in the first five minutes, probably due to the subzero temperatures and I quickly fell behind in the group so I could play my music and breathe slowly to calm myself. Paban, as usual, was by my side leading me like the shepherd guiding his troubled wayward nak [female yak]. Neither of us had our lights on as the moonlight reflecting off the deep layers of snow gave us more than enough light to see the still dirt trail.
During breaks, I carved my name in the snow to lighten my mood and I felt alright, even hopeful.
Then the stomach trouble hit.
We made it up the trail to the beginning of the snow trails where prayer flags flapped in the aggressive wind and a Tibetan couple had set up a shop in an orange tent with their sassy white mountain dog. I trudged a path in the snow far over a ledge to have some privacy. To try to stay clean, I stupidly plunged my hand into the snow, but it was more ice than snow and I made a literally bloody mess it. After cleaning up, I sheepishly returned to Paban, who was enjoying his second cigarette of the day, and we continued the well-tread snowy path to catch up with the group.
We soon put on our crampons (first time for everything) as I battled between needing to poo and vomit. I struggled to get in any fluids or food that I so desperately needed at that altitude. I could feel myself growing weaker as I looked out over that snowy endless expanse before us with its undulating hills which partially hid the trail for stretches at a time.
Chrissy must have noticed my flagging state and she stayed with me, giving me a steadying hand as I swayed at times, losing myself to the fatigue and hypoxia. My mind started to go, and I maybe became a bit out of it as I started to see different colors around me. My legs wanted to give, and I nearly shat myself without a care in the world and the thought of giving up and collapsing entered my head more than once. But then the thought of my sweet baby niece flashed crystal clear in my head, along with images of my family and loved ones, and so I realized I had to make it, my life was no longer my own to throw away in the Himalayas and I had to make it back down again [being dramatic as usual].
At the nearest I’ve been to breaking this trek, I had to go to the toilet again, so Chrissy came with me as we once again trudged a path to a rock that would at least partially hide me from others’ view. I fell hip deep into a hole and Chrissy had to give me a helping hand out since without her I probably would’ve flailed around helplessly. I was nearly crying in shame, but Chrissy gave me words of encouragement as I caught my breath.
Step after painful step, we made it to the top of the pass where hugs from the rest of the group reduced me to the tears that had been threatening for a while. I tried my best to recover at our 5,100m (16,700ft) but each breath was a struggle in that hostile yet beautiful environment.
I don’t remember too much other than the endless expanse of snow, continuing height and the internal struggle to just breath, but I was told I was in rough shape and Chrissy’s hands steadied me a few times as I swayed in place.
Tears continued to stream down my face which I tried to tactfully hide as I thought about base camp four months ago and how different this trip was. I was feeling melodramatic, and the thought crossed my mind that maybe a piece of me had wanted to die on EBC. I had initially prayed to make it [at the prayer wheels], not to also make it back down, I had also given my parents my funeral wishes, I hadn’t properly prepared for it [the trek], I mistreated my body, and I was fascinated with HACE and HAPE. The sinking depression I fell into after completing it, the emptiness, lack of meaning, and red-light district self-sabotage in Thailand was of someone who found themselves unwilling to take on a purposeful existence.
When I had touched that EBC stone, I was fully ready to find a hole or rock to shelter from the wind and go to sleep peacefully, logically knowing that that would have probably spelled the end for my weak body. So spent and exhausted I was, how easy to go out on top, having completed my feat, being added to the pile of memorial rocks that we passed and not having to face my own sins or my own need for self-forgiveness. It would’ve been an easy step to take but Paban promised he wouldn’t let me die on that mountain and so he followed through on his promise, making sure he thwarted my feeble attempts to lose the group and sleep, his guidance combined with the other trekkers fatherly demeaner brought me back down again in one piece.*
This time there was no subconscious potential death wish whatsoever but instead a realization of how much I had to live for. Going back home for those months was tough as I navigated a new identity, but it gave me back a shelter for my hurting heart and room to grow again. It gave me people to love and reflect the selfishness of which depression inevitably sinks you into. It also gave me back my roots which, underneath the layers of self-loathing were unshakably there and were strong pinnacles of value. Not only that, but my family wanted me back and [my niece] was a rebirth of family community that brought us all closer. She was one of us as much as I was one of them, regardless of how far away I was or how long I was gone from home.
When we made it to the next camp, we ate and retired to our sleeping bags for a well-deserved nap – but I couldn’t sleep. I snuck out of the room where Rachel was sleeping deeply and walked down past the dining house when Paban pulled me into the kitchen where an open flame burned and the porters and guides were gathered. One of the porters was butchering a freshly killed chicken and I sat with them watching the women of the compound prep food, laugh, and give duties to the porters for food prep. I was studiously ignored as I was a foreigner entering Nepalese space [the other half of the lodge was demarcated for us trekkers, each lodge having a separation with one side for the cooking, fire, and to let the Nepalese company let loose a little, and the other for the Western trekkers and their weird foreign ways].
So, the porters and guides made room for me around the fire as I shivered and felt so exhausted that I’m sure I seemed like a small, diminished figure huddled amongst the guys who looked none the worse for wear for the hellish pass. But soon I was using what Nepalese I had, laughing at the few jokes I could understand, and I began to help a bit with the cooking by stirring the meat. I tried a new grammar combo in a sentence that had the matriarch shoot me a warm smile and others laugh. She seemed to take a shining to me after that and when the rice wine came out, I got a big glass of it unbidden. Of course, thinking it was water, I nearly chocked on its tart taste but it went well with the fried chicken. I scarfed down the loosely butchered parts with my right hand [left hand is considered unclean] and licked my fingers over the chicken liver, spitting out bones without hesitation.
Between the rice wine and chicken, I stopped shivering and briefly felt part of a community with the two young kids [family members of the lodge owners] running around and the guys around me having a lively debate about Buddhism where I could catch the meaning of a word or two. It was one of those perfect warm moments of being with capable people who enjoyed the hearth, fresh food, and passable drink. I could’ve sunken into that moment forever and I can’t describe the feeling of belonging, how learning a bit of language can open certain aspects of life, and how it opens the eyes to different ways of existing in happiness. It breaks the boundaries of ‘otherness’ that humans naturally fall into.
After dinner I asked for a touch more rice wine to some giggles and it wasn’t long after that that I passed out until early morning, sleeping deep and long.
Trip Wrap Up – Celebration, Dancing, and Camaraderie in (town) before Our Final Return to Kathmandu
April 15th, 2023 – Kathmandu
We made it back to the capital yesterday night after a twelve hour drive through bumpy dirt roads and chocked Kathmandu traffic. Just like last time, it’s jarring to be thrown back into the overpopulated and dusty city after the clean mountain air and friendly affable faces.
The day after Larke Pass, we trekked for about five hours or more through luscious rhododendron forests and mossy meadows. Nominally tamed horses with wild shaggy coats grazed between overhanging vines, shaking their manes at the proliferation of insects in the newfound air and humidity. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in the Witcher game heading towards a new great quest, not in the process of finishing one.
We walked a bit with a German who we’d catch up with on and off again the last few days. He worked in a city south of Kathmandu, bringing renewable hydropower to small village outposts. We discussed the other treks he’s done (which has given me ideas against my better interests), the politics of Nepal, and how our shared addiction to being on the road.
It was maybe some of the most beautiful scenery of the trip, aided by the fact it was almost all downhill and that the seasonal village of Gowa was pure carpentry luxury compared to our last two weeks. There was a free flow of beer, cider, and rum as the evening descended into a night of dancing- mostly to Nepalese traditional love songs but [another one of the trekkers] and I gave it our all for Dancing Queen to the raucous joy of our hosts (or so I’d like to believe).
By 10:30pm, our guides sent the rest of us to bed to get a good night’s sleep before our one hour hike the next day and the long jeep ride, we had ahead.
Yesterday morning I woke up a bit hungover, having gone to bed after waking up Rachel to open the door and giving her a giggling whispered lowdown on the night’s dacing. The morning sun shone multicolored rays over the mountains, the haze of low altitude scattering and refracting the light so prettily it was breathtaking. I called the parentals to let them know I was doing well and alive and to give mom some details of the trip so far to try to distract her from the frustrations of the cold she was suffering from.
We said a sad farewell to the other four members of our trekking group and their guides and porters. The event in my mind was titled the ‘Breaking of the Fellowship’, as the other trekkers were going to spend two more days to go down to see Annapurna Base Camp trek. We had all gotten along so well during our fourteen days of relative hardship and had gotten to know each other and each other’s stories, helping each other out when times got tough. So, it was sad to say goodbye, but I was grateful that we were able to share our experiences of the trip together.
The last hour of our hike was bittersweet, especially because we were unaware of the cramped long car ride we had ahead. After passing through one last town (actual town this time!), we loaded up and squeezed in together, heads on shoulders and legs sticking out in different directions to try to find a comfortable position in the jeep that was once again one person too small.
We stopped a few times for tea and food, and I enjoyed seeing the countryside go by when I wasn’t sleeping on someone’s shoulder, recovering from our mountain journey.