The day began as others, but sharper with the anticipation that we would soon be in the Himalaya proper. Kumar’s promise of ‘real’ mountains was alive and crisp in the colder air. The jungle trees gave way to tougher pine forests as we trekked from Dharapani–our path climbed steeper than previous days, and the Marsyangdi transformed to an erratic jade line below. The pine trees were spacious enough to allow simple passage, but obscured the view eastward. Across the valley, sharp granite and limestone peaks jaggedly marched along the skyline, and deep gouges cut dark towards the river below. Finally, we broke into a clearing, and the clear air brought into focus our first real mountain–Manaslu.
Manaslu is the eighth-tallest mountain in the world. Think about that–there are only seven taller mountains than what we were seeing before us, seven. It is 8,156 meters above sea level–some airplanes don’t even fly that high. I try and try, but still can’t express the sheer size of the Himalaya, and I will fail with Manaslu. The sharp white ridges against the cobalt-blue sky, the sheer falling ridge thousands of feet, the massive glaciers crawling with the fatality of time, the bursts of spin-drift kicking off the edge–Manaslu waited as only a mountain can wait, with the patience of the world. It was no wonder that monasteries are built overlooking the inexorable slide of ice and rock–it elicits feelings of both the eternal of the earth and the effervescence of life. And lives, Manaslu has taken. In 2012 alone, one avalanche swept away 11 climbers on her slopes; Manaslu’s peak has been reached almost 300 times, but she has claimed 53 climbers in return.
We lunched in Temang, on a rooftop that provided a clear view east towards the Manaslu massif. We were in the midst of a large alpine bowl, with just the hint of a glacier peeking over the top to the south. Opposite our bowl, the dragontail peaks still jut into the crisp air. The sun shone clear and warmed us as we drank in our prerequisite tea and surroundings. I know not how many meals I will eat during my time on Earth, but that lunch will surely stand as one of the most beautiful in my life.
We continued to Chame, and the mountains marched along with us. The peaks to our south continued to grow, eventually crowning into Lamjung Himal, an almost 7,000 meter mountain. Manaslu sat squarely to the east still, gorgeous in the slanting light. In Chame the road ended for cars, though we had seen precious few after leaving behind the dam. The town had the feel of the ‘last homely hearth’ before we would head out to the real wild. Beautiful mani walls (stones with Buddhist inscriptions) hemmed in the trail, and a stupa protected the trail out of town. It was a great day, and the late alpenglow shone golden off the snows high above.
Again, climbing as we would much of the day. We left Chame through the guardian stupa, and entered another pine forest, slowly gaining elevation. The Circuit jagged somewhat north here, before sliding away west again. At the turn, a huge wall of granite had
been filleted by glaciers to a smooth slide. At the top, like a dusting of sugar, lay snow, and all of us skiers immediately thought how amazing it would be to ski down this giant granite curve. However, the unlucky skier would have nowhere to go but off the last few cliffs into the Marsyangdi. Still…
A moment to speak of the vagaries of temperature. In the morning, it was always cold. We wore various layers and gloves and hats, but we never wanted to wear too much because at some point, we would wander into the sun and have to shed all those layers. It was impossible to predict exactly what was the right combination, because sometimes the shade would last a little longer than thought, and we who had stripped would be frozen, or the climb would prove steeper than imagined and some of us would be sweating into fleeces. I’m proud to say I never got it right until the very last day…but that was when it really mattered!
We lunched in Dhukure, a small village just after the giant granite bowl. At this point, there were fewer villages, and many of the various parts of the Circuit had started to come together, so we saw more trekkers. We wondered what their varied stories were–a lone Asian lady, maybe in her mid-forties, with two guides and a huge camera; two fit young trekkers who made their own tea; a random collection of British-ish accents; a French family in a large group like ours; some very abrupt northern Europeans…we would see different groups later, but those we are continued leap-frogging companions on the trail.
We passed through a narrowing of the valley and came upon the great north face of Annapurna II. Of this peak, I’ll write more in the next installment–but the sheer closeness of the ominous black and white icefields and rock was overpowering. Her dangerous beauty and stark lines shot skyward at what seemed only an arm’s length as we climbed to Lower Pisang. She was a wonderful mountain to contemplate, and monks had been doing so for over 500 years at the gompa in Upper Pisang. We dropped our gear at the teahouse in Lower Pisang and then climbed up to visit the gompa above.
The gompa clung to the lower foothills of Pisang Peak, and stared directly across the valley to the face of Annapurna II. From its perch, the monks could meditate on the glaciers and wind and valley and river and the dark expanse of sky and stars at night. The gompa itself was brilliantly colored inside with golds and reds, blues and yellows. A lone monk bobbed off to the side, reciting mantras and beating on a drum. Incense burned, and the scene could have been pulled from any day in last five hundred years. However, outside another monk was checking his iPad and brewing up ginger tea for us. I love the juxtaposition of culture, and this high-tech monk, out in the far away, embodied the idea that no matter where you go, there you are. The ginger tea was excellent, the view from the gompa superb, and the burning last light off Manaslu and Annapurna a flame in the heavens.
This was our real test run day. We would hike a long uphill to above 12,000 feet, then stay up above the valley for most of the day before finally descending to Manang. We set off earlier than normal, waiting patiently to cross the river while a few cows meandered across the bridge. After a little climb, we came upon a beautiful emerald lake. Two Nepali women had been gathering high country hay, and had rested their massive loads on a small stone wall near the water. The pokhari, the Nepalese word for lake, was perfectly still so that every
stone and branch and rock under the surface was sharply magnified. A few late season ducks floated on the surface, appearing to swim through a pool of translucent jade. The women didn’t want to be photographed, and resolutely shouldered their burdens to hike back down. They were stoic in what one must do to keep her family going–to think that they may every day gather the massive bundles of hay and carry them up and down footpaths, it puts my petty trials and tribulations in perspective. Within that hay are the weights of family and duty, heavier than all the yellowed stalks put together. But we too had to leave the golden-lit pokhari, and we left the momentary stillness to the quiet ducks.
We soon came to a deep gorge, crossed by one of those improved Nepali bridges (many years ago, these were simply large buckets on wires that were pulled across the expanse.) After this bridge, we started up and up and up. Switchbacking up the trail, we soon left the last bits of pine forest and were treated to the raw expanse of Annapurna II and IV. The scale was enormous, glaciers like advancing armies, seracs sharply poised, thousand-foot couliors painted in between hard rock. As we sweated upward, the mountain only looked more formidable, as if somehow the act of seeing more simply gave it strength.
Then a plane dropped a bomb somewhere in the valley. At least, that’s what my mind instantly went back to as the thump of a large
amount of air displacing itself echoed across the mountains. We turned, and saw the beginnings of a massive avalanche on Annapurna II as a chunk of ice the size of a football field crashed off the glacier. The resulting avalanche sped downward, snow billowing around the leading edge. It was the largest avalanche I had ever seen–the scale was simply impossible to gauge from across the valley. Anything (or anyone) in the destructive path was simply obliterated–though the likelihood of a winter attempt on the north face of Annapurna II meant there was little likelihood of casualties. It’s a cliche to write the “raw power of nature” but this is the only saying that fits–the absolute force of the speeding snow and ice could never be held in check; the low rumble of its finishing stayed to reverberate the valley for minutes.
We heard continual avalanche bombs go off as we continued up, but none so impressive. It’s amazing the Hedonistic principle at work–any of the ‘smaller’ avalanches at home would be noteworthy, here in the Himalaya they faded into the background. At turns in the trail, the little wells that dotted the trail were covered in ice, and the temperature in the shade was significantly colder. But walking kept the heat going, and we finally crested the lip of the stupa at Ghyaru at over 12,000 feet. The prayers flags whipped in the wind, splashes of color in a white-blue-brown-black landscape. The whole valley opened from our little stance–from Manaslu’s cold heights to the east to the continuing massif of Annapurna south and west, and behind us the rolling snow of Pisang Peak. The Marsyangdi snaked small below, a writhing motion that seemed insignificant amongst the giants escorting her down towards the plains. It was epic; it was the Himalaya.
After many, many photos, we left Ghyaru for Ngawal, the small village tucked up here on the mountainside where we would have lunch. Walking out of Ghyaru, we could see that much of the building material was stone and rock, the readily available components in these mountains. Gharyu was quiet, many of the Nepalis leave for Kathmandu after the tourist season begins to die down in late November. Our footsteps rang about the stone walls, accompanied by the constant wind and the creak of prayer wheels turning as we passed. Turning back towards the village from the trail, Ghyaru provided a sense of scale, a small outcropping of houses pressed against the giant bosom of Pisang Peak–the view reinforced how small we are in comparison to the seemingly immortal mountains, how tenuous and fragile our little patch of Earth can be.
The sense of the immensity of time and place increased as we passed a fortress on the trail–it was over a thousand years old. Almost a millennium ago, Tibetans had piled stone and rock to control this valley. It was remote, but a symbol, a stamp, a line in the sand from antiquity. Eventually abandoned, this relic had fallen into ruin–what once was so important forgotten in the steady flow of time. Kingdoms rose and fell, empires and civilizations, in the millennium these stones overlooked the Manang Valley–my own country just a child when this fortress was ancient. The wind screamed across the collapsing turrets, and prayer flags beat brilliantly against the remains of a fallen kingdom.
We arrived in the deserted village of Ngawal, where the wind hit in waves–a howling-quiet-howling mix. We retreated into a communal sun-room, which was wonderfully warm and cozy with the wind rollicking along outside. Kumar and Kanche (the porters has followed the lower road, as it was easier and shorter) went downstairs to cook, or help the cooks–not sure which–and a few more trekking groups pulled into this one place that seemed open in Ngawal. Kumar served up some fine Tibetan tea–which tastes like a stick of butter has been melted down and some tea bags have been allowed to soak in its fatty goodness. Perfect for climbing mountains in the cold, I drank my entire cup. Kumar explained that the villagers had left for the funeral of a local woman who was very respected, thus the deserted appearance. The sun shining through the windows felt wonderful, and the post-lunch sluggishness settled nicely in that little room, but we knew it wouldn’t last–we were headed for Manang.
Finally the path started to head back down to the valley floor. At an overlook, we saw the small airstrip at Hongde; it is a brave flier
who coasts into that hemmed-in ‘airport.’ The scenery more and more resembled parts of the eastern Sierras, the high desert valleys and weathered hoodoos. The Annapurna massif caught much of the moisture coming from the Indian Ocean, and created this semi-rain shadow landscape. It was surreal and beautiful.
We were supposed to check out the gompa (monastery) at Bryaga, but it seemed to be closed. Thus ensued a comical scene in which Sanjeep (the youngest porter who had ran back to check on us) ran towards the gompa, was chased by a dog (Kanche then ran after him to help,) ran up to the gompa door, found it locked, then got lost in the small collection of houses while new routing a way back down. More so, I think the altitude and near-finished aura of the day made it funnier for us than normal–and it became a staple on our trek.
Finally, we walked into Manang–the last real village before we were committed to the pass. Much of the village was settling into winter hibernation, but we could see that during the high season, it must be absolutely packed. Manang was also where we would spend our acclimatization day–we didn’t have to pack up or start incredibly early! Also, it was Christmas! We didn’t know it, but the guys had bought a special cake for Christmas, probably around Chame, and carried it all the way to Manang–it was very special. Also, we finally allowed ourselves to have some rum and rakii (Nepali moonshine, drank with water to cut). All in all, it was an incredibly festive little atmosphere we got going inside the communal room of our guesthouse–Christmas at 10,000 feet, under the shadow of Annapurna III, drinking watered-down moonshine and playing cards as the wood stove radiated warmth to keep out the glacial cold.