Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Nepal: Getting here and Up the Mountain

The flight to Kathmandu was a great start to the trip. On the second leg leaving from Abu Dhabi we were upgraded to Business, for reasons unbeknownst to us. It was a shame the flight lasted only 4hrs...however, we fitted in as many rounds of champagne, cognac & pinot as possible between our 4 course meal.

Nepal has been an unexpected overload of activities & experiences these past few weeks. Apart from the temples, lakes & other sightseeing landmarks, the Nepali people have been an intriguing phenomenon. For such a small country they appear not to have any notion of national identity. The mix of Chinese, Japanese, Mongol, Indian & South-East Asian genealogy, has left the current day population with no unifying physical features. This has resulted in a bizarre kinsmanship towards anyone with Asian or sub-Indian continent heritage. Brown-skinned westerners travelling in groups with caucasian travellers are mistaken as Nepali guides by locals & given free food/accommodation/transport. Even when they proclaim they don't speak Nepali, the locals just laugh & think they're joking, continuing to speak Nepali to them & insisting the free treatment.
Most young Nepali's can recognise the tourists, as they are taught 7 subjects in English at school, however, the older generation generally make the mistake.

As we arrived in the low season, there hasnt been a massive tourist population here, so merchandise has been easily bartered to low prices & good accommodation was plentiful. We spent the first week in Kathmandu at a hostel called Alobar1000. The guys running it are awesome, offering free treks around Kathmandu valley & taking us to the best local restaurants. We met a great crew of people there & travelled to Pokhara with an Aussie guy Jake & American Doug.

Our Himalayan expedition was quite a sporadic decision, heavily influenced by the two boys.
They were planning a 21 day trek of the Annapurna circuit, so after locating a Nepali guide in the street, we all wound up in a local teahouse discussing rates & the basic day-to-day structure. Initially Ellen & I were just there to ensure the boys weren't getting scammed as Ellen was adamant she wasn't going to be trekking...after a couple of cups she was contemplating joining in the first 5 days & then getting a jeep back. By the end of the pot she had enthusiastically signed us up for 14days....there was definitely peyote in this tea.

Sitting next to a lake in 25 degree weather, we really didn't comprehend just how cold the weather was going to be 5000m up. As the Nepali people refer to everything lower than 7000m as a "hill", the guide made out trekking the Annapurna circuit was a walk in the park. He didn't mention snowfall in the himalayas was at a record high, so the Pass through the peaks was being closed every couple of days. We jumped on the 6am bus up the next day completely unaware of the chill factors to come.

The first couple of days were quite bearable, walking only 6 hours, taking in the gorgeous scenery, arriving at each new village by 3pm so we could enjoy the afternoon sun, roaming around the village & consuming multiple pots of tea. On Day 4 we were supposed to nestled in at the village renowned for the best Apple pie in the Himalayas. As it was not Apple season, the orchards were rows of dead trees & the village a ghost-town. Instead of risking the cliche horror movie scenario by staying at the only guest house available (owned by a one-eyed man repeatedly sharpening his axe on the front porch) we continued on, unaware the next village was 2.5hours away. 24km & 1800m in elevation later, we finally reached a cosy looking place to bed the night. Although the guest house ws the 'newest in town', this resulted in a reduction in perks. Corrections to mis-measured doorframes & Windows had not yet been fixed, so "draghty" was an understatement to the bedroom conditions. It boasted hot water, so I stupidly stripped off & ventured to the outdoors bathroom in just my towel. Renovations were still underway on the shower, so I was resigned to standing over the squat toilet with a bucket of Luke-warm water, cascading my body as best I could without slipping into the stenchy pit.

The higher we rose, the more we questioned our decision to undertake the trek. In the last 3 villages before reaching the Pass, we met other trekkers who told us tales of the feat ahead: 
-As people had to keep turning around & climb back down the way they came due to the snow, one couple paid the owner of high base camp to guide them through waist-high snow over the snow.
-A week later when it closed over again, a 60 year-old Swiss man approached it from the opposing side of the circuit, spending 3 days camped out in the snowstorm, reopening the path across. 
-The next day a local sherpa slipped on the path, fell down a cliff face & died.
We began thinking this may be just a little too much for us. Whether it was our determination to complete the task we'd set, or the inflicted delusion from our altitude sickness preventing us from making rational decisions, we pushed on. 

The trek from Ledar to high base camp was one of the most grueling days of our lives. Lonely Planet outlines the last 500m ascent from base camp to high base camp takes 45min-1 hour.... I'm not sure which Austrian mountaineering champion they have on staff writing that column, but I can assure you it's the least credible piece of information offered. If you complete it in under 2 hours you have either spent the last 3 days at base camp resting & acclimitizing to the altitude or you are most likely a Nepali sherpa. 
The view from high base camp are worth the pain & struggle, and you knock off that initial 500m ascent, had you attempted to do the Pass directly from base camp. You can walk an extra 300m up to an ACTUAL Himalayan peak & look down the valley you've just trekked. Trekkers have erected about 10 Cairns of various sizes, that you can add a stone to for good luck. 

Arriving just after lunchtime to high base camp is well advised so you can drive your boots & jacket in the afternoon sun & warm yourself in the dining room. Once the sun disappears behind the surrounding mountains, begins the most rapid descent in temperature. Ever. The best thing to do is order an early dinner, rug up in bed & try to sleep as much as possible before your 4am wake up call. Ellen & I did not do this. Again, possibly due to the onset delusion from our altitude sickness, we sat around the common room playing cards with the boys as our core temperature continued to decline. Neither of us had mentioned to the other that we were suffering symptoms of altitude sickness, as Ellen didn't want to delay us an extra day by having to let her recover at high camp, and I was so used to the sickening feeling in my body I'd forgot what normal function felt like. That night consisted of 8 hours of lucid nightmares dying in snowstorms, waking up in bed unable to breathe, finally getting a couple of breaths, then lying back down, only for the same thing to happen 10 minutes later. 

By the time we heard people rustling around outside, both of us gave up on attempting to sleep at all. I walked to the boys room & woke them. They looked like Hell & groaned that they hadn't slept at all die to altitude sickness so were going to stay another day & rest. I trudged back to our room to inform Ellen & confided that I'd been in the same position. She happily admitted the same, but then said "stuff it we're awake, let's just get off this mountain. I'm too cold to stay longer". 

At 4am, 5000m up in the Himalayas, is most likely the clearest you will ever see the stars & moon. We weren't able to appreciate the view for very long, as ellen's torch could barely illuminate a white piece of paper 5cm from the bulb. As we were leaving our nepali guide with the boys, we noticed a group of 3 Russians with floodlight-esque torches, beginning their ascent to the Pass. We quickly scurried off to leech off their illumination. 

Scaling the side of a mountain at a 70degree inclination, on a path 20cm wide, suckling the only light source from 3m ahead of you is just stupid. Compounded with the -15 degree weather conditions & only having fingerless gloves, makes for understandably suicidal thoughts... being overtaken by a 70 year-old sherpa wearing only a tracksuit, Nike high-tops & carrying 60kg luggage from his head puts into perspective the reality of my situation. Sucking up my manhood & putting a couple pairs of socks over my frozen fingers, I continued into the blackened abyss. Around 6am the sun began to rise over the mountain peaks & the sea of whiteness surrounding us was revealed. As the temperature began to warm, a renewed faith that we might survive this trek propelled us onwards. Within another hour the ground flattened to an open plateau & the horizon appeared as a 360 degree panorama of Himalayan peaks. Our troupe of Swiss, Dutch, French, Argentine & Japanese co-trekkers were dancing around a sign half-buried in the snow, labelled "Thorung Pass 5416m". We had made it.

In the middle of hugging & high-fiving everyone in the group, one of the French guys passed me a freshly cracked bottle of cognac, exclaiming he'd carried it all the way from France just for this moment. After an hour of celebrations & photos, we picked up our bags & began the descent down the otherside.

If ever there was a way to ruin the amazing feeling have from completing such an arduous task, the downhill walk from the Pass is surely it. A 14km trail descending 2000m in altitude, over melting ice on top of crumbling rocks. The Annapurna circuit really is just a plethora of endless surprises that make you utter "FML".

Reaching the next village, its either a 5 day trek or 3 day jeep/bus rise down to Beni. Our bodies were shattered, so we opted for the automobile travel...it probably would've been less painful to walk. The Nepali bus ride is the single most terrifying known to man.15 year-old kids speeding a 5 tonne bus down open-shoulder rock-blasted roads, will convert even the most heathen atheist to pray to some form of god. Coupled with a shattered skull & fractured coccyx from  bouncing over the rubbled road, you begin wishing the bus would actually just skid off the edge & tumble down the 300m cliff, just to end pain already!

Surviving it was a godsend. In the village we jumped out at, offered us possibly the greatest guest house in all of Nepal. Paradise guest house lives up to it name! Run by a husband/wife & daughter, for 300 rupees we got the most comfortable double bed, western flush toilets, the hottest & most pressurized shower in the Indian sub-continent and the most delicious homemade food. From this point on, life was pretty smooth sailing. On the bus the next day, we met a bunch of people from Alobar1000 who'd cross the Pass the day before us. Our heads & asses still took a beating, but when we alighted in Tatopani, the hot springs allowed us to heal our aching bodies. We then ordered about 12 plates of momos, which were handmade in front of us by all of the female cooks in the village.

Arriving back in Pokhara the next day, we felt an amazing sense of achievement in what we'd accomplished. I was super proud of Ellen completing it, as I knew it was one of the biggest physical battles she'd ever faced. She kept saying over and over "Tom is not going to believe I actually did this!" It was great to be surrounded by others who'd just gone through the same thing, to exchange thoughts on the experience. 

Being back in civilisation is bizarre, as in the 2 weeks we were in the mountains, a massive influx of tourists have arrived in Nepal. The initial intriguing emptiness of the cities is now gone & I feel as though I'm in Bangkok, or any other tourist-filled Asian city. I can't imagine walking the circuit during the high season, as there would be no solemnity and space to enjoy the peaceful landscape. I'm really glad we did it during the low season because it was an incredible experience. We are definitely well prepared for the Camino de Santiago trek in 2 weeks. 


  1. Epic! That trek sounds soooo intense, I'm dooper proud...and jealous.

    But how do you not have good torches??? I work at a bloody camping store!!!

  2. Awesome ! Awesome! Awesome!


  3. Gripping read. J&K want to read more on the adventures of Ellen and Alex. Sounds fab.

  4. Do I have to comment? Can't u put a simple "like" button here alex?
    Sounds like everything I've imagined it to be. Very jealous

  5. Sounds amazing :-)

  6. cccllamazing,,