Manaslu Trek – Final Push Through Larke Pass
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.