The way to Num was long, hard and full of surprises.
I’d like to explain, first of all, that I will be talking a lot from the I perspective in my writings from the Great Himalaya Trail. This is because, even though we are a team, at the same time it is a very personal journey. Different days are difficult for different people for different reasons. I can observe the others, ask how they are doing and if they are fine, but I can not read into their heads. The only perspective I can relate to is my own, hence that is what reflects in these writings.
With Dashain festival coming, Kathmandu was getting crazier by the day and we were itching to get out of the city. I could write an entire post just about the journey to Taplejung, but I will keep it concise. We left the hotel in Kathmandu at 8 in the morning. The airport was packed with people: Nepali travelling home for the festival, and tourists in an endless stream towards Everest base camp and the Annapurna circuit. We got many strange looks boarding that plane to Bahdrapur, and didn’t see any more white people for another 12 days.
That was one of the most beautiful flights I have ever been on. Massive white peaks towered over fluffy clouds as far as the eye could see. A kind Nepali couple changed sides with us so we could look more and take pictures out of the window. Everest, Lhotse, Ama Dablam, Makalu and Kanchenjunga: they all majestically stood high in the sky. Later that day, as we crossed a pass at 2500 meters of altitude, I looked back up at those fluffy clouds and it was hard to imagine there were mountains around us higher than that.
Before we left, we hadn’t managed to fix a jeep from the airport to Taplejung so we had to negotiate on the spot. First no one wanted to take us, because of the festival and because it was too far. Then they wanted a lot of money so we negotiated on the price and in the end we found ourselves crammed in a little car for a 9 hr drive to the starting point of the journey. The driver didn’t entirely know the way so we got lost a few times, drove on some sketchy roads, and had to get out to push where the road had been wiped out by landslides. The few hours driving in the dark were not my favourite ones ever spent in a car.
Apparently Taplejung has a holy site close by, so every single hotel was fully booked because of the festival. We entered the Dashain madness once again and hence found ourselves homeless after finally arriving at 9.30 PM. The guys who were at the Mountain Hotel offered to make us a meal, and in the end the owner of the hotel offered us rooms in his home. He provided us with breakfast in the morning, helped us find kerosene for the stove, and served us some home grown tea which we drank in the company of his family. It took some convincing to pay him something for his hospitality but in the end he accepted. We shouldn’t be freeriding in this country.
Thus it was already quite late by the time we started heading downhill to Dobban. Soon we started to feel that merciless sun and a murdering humidity, which only grew stronger and stronger as we descended from 1800 to 600 meters of altitude. Heat and humidity are some of my personal weakest points. At around 1000 my face got the same colour as my pink shirt and I frequently had to stop to prevent fainting or vomiting. There, on day 1, I got myself a good heat stroke and didn’t make it beyond 5km down the hill.
For the first two days we followed the ‘cultural trail’ of the GHT, a lower altitude route from village to village. Much of this route has been wiped out by road building, which unfortunately often simple means randomly bulldozing the forest.
For those who thought that the low trail is an easier alternative to the high route, think again. Even the toughest trails we walked for training in Norway compare nowhere to the magnitude and the steepness of anything in these hills. Combine that with heat and humidity, add a 17-20kg pack and what results is brutality. While climbing those hills under that merciless sun, PJ and I concluded a few times that we used to live in the mountains of Norway, but now we live in the hills.
Everywhere we would pass people would stare. Entire villages stopped doing what they were doing, and stare. We quickly discovered that most of the time we could break the awkwardness with a friendly ‘Namaste!’. Children followed us around, played with our sticks, tried our sunglasses and got curious about our tents. People would come over to chat to us, most often a ramble in Nepalese that we couldn’t understand at all. They ment well, and those moments I will always cherish. But the blank stares without saying a word, I cannot get used to.
On day 3 we started climbing towards a high ridge that we would follow all the way to Num. We tried to make our way on vague jungle trails and when we became unsure simply followed a trail of instant ramen packages. The next day we awoke to a magnificent sunrise with views over the Makalu and Kanchenjunga massifs. Little did we know that this incredible moment would be the start of some of the most distressing days I have ever experienced.
An hour or two after that sunrise a fog settled over the ridge, a fog that didn’t disappear until we were almost down in the valley again. Sometimes we could not see more than a meter or two ahead, which made navigating very challenging. That first day we climbed from 2800 to 3690 meters of altitude. The ridge was tough going: there was the fog, and there were countless steep and long ups and downs that wore us out.
At around 3500 meters I could feel the altitude as my head started banging with every effort. We had a long way to go to the only campsite with water available, where we would take a zero day to acclimatise to the altitude. Of course the higher we went, the slower progress became. By 3 in the afternoon, we were dead. At around 5 we realised we wouldn’t make it and we needed to find a place to camp. After 11 hours of walking with almost no breaks we went to bed without food and without water. A thunderstorm kept us awake that night: we anxiously counted the seconds between thunder and lightning, trying to decide if we should evacuate our exposed tent.
The next morning we had no choice but to push on towards water. My mental state of mind started falling low: no matter how hard we tried, we always came short of our goal. Luckily we found a little trickle of water after about 1,5 hours so I knew we would be ok. The acclimatisation camp at Giddhe Danda was only 4km away, but it took our exhausted selves over 4 hours to get there. We didn’t realise in the moment how slow we were but we feared we had gone wrong somewhere.
Suddenly a teenager and two boys doomed up out of nowhere. They told us Giddhe was only 10 minutes away. Relieved to know we were on the right track, we stumbled on. They followed us, first playfully, but after a while I got the feeling they were taking care of us. The youngest boys went ahead, while the teenager always stayed behind the last person. They showed us the place, and where to find water. We never would have found the source if it wasn’t for them.
After an hour or two their father, Ongjuk, showed up and forcefully insisted that we come inside the house. We just wanted to pass out in our tents, but could do nothing but obey. Hours later, long after he had left to another family house and after sweet tea and rest made my mind fully functional again, I realised I owed this man so much. It was thundering and pouring rain again outside, but we were warm and dry by the fire. One of his sons stayed there, made us tea and dinner, kept the fire going. We ate churpi, a Tibetan cheese hard as rock made from yak milk, and fried yak meat with potatoes.
The next day we awoke refreshed but still smashed from excessive height meters climbed every day, nights of bad sleep, and from the mental stress of the whole situation. I started thinking that the ridge was too hard, that climbing up to 4200 meters of altitude in the fog and in the storms was too dangerous. It was all too hard: the fog, a new country, hard trails, navigation, finding water, acclimatising in a wet tent carrying a super heavy pack. I convinced the others and to my relief, we turned around.
I just wanted to get off that ridge and out of the fog. There was a lower ridge known as Milke Danda heading west from where we were to Khadbari, from where we could take a jeep to Num. The ridge however didn’t let us go. We couldn’t find the turnoff to Milke Danda so we spent 6 hours going back and forth between camps 4 and 5 in the fog and in the rain. When we finally found it we had two hours left before sundown. After going down for about 1,5 hours we met 3 vicious dogs that we had to fend off with our sticks. Then suddenly those same boys came running up, tied their dogs down and once again led us into their family house.
I was so happy to see them again. I felt that we hadn’t been very good at making conversation or thanking them the night before, because we were too destroyed to do so. Once again we sat by the fire, we ate, drank and laughed while the heavens opened outside. The entire family was present now, including one girl who spoke fluent English. This time we got the chance to pay them for 2 nights of hospitality and some amazing food.
Ongjuk offered to guide us down the first part of the ridge, under a warning that this would be a hard way. The first 5km took us 5 hours and were more of a climbing than a hiking affair. He was in the front, whacking his way through the jungle with his machete. If someone would have predicted me 5 years ago that I would be following a man I met two days ago who did not speak English but carries a machete through the jungle, I would have declared them nuts. While Ongjuk whacked his way we fought a full-on war with an omnipresent army of leeches: for every leech we managed to shoot off our pants, 3 had already crawled into our socks and sleeves. The leeches wouldn’t disappear for another two days. The fog followed us down, too.
Hence our escape route became a challenge in itself. For every day that passed, Num seemed further and further away and became more and more of a promised land. Just as we got lost in the fog again, another man appeared whistling out of nowhere. He informed us that we were on a trail split and that the trail down let to a small city called Barhabise, from where we could find transport to Num. From that moment, Barhabise became a beacon of hope, an escape from these damp, foggy and god forsaken ridges.
Going down we entered a beautiful forest, through which a jungle path led us. The path however did not follow the right bearing, and there were no noodle packs present. A few bypassers assured us that this was the way to Barhabise, so we kept going.
We stopped early that afternoon on a grassy clearing next to a small river. Our feet were shattered from 10 days of wet boots so a few hours of relaxing could be good. PJ and I struggled to find a proper spot for the tent, and even after we found one I didn’t feel good about it. I didn’t feel good about that place at all. We argued a bit because I did not speak up. But with rain already falling again and the time ticking, it was too late to move. I felt so stressed about everything that I couldn’t eat. I just lied in the tent, looking at the leeches crawling all over it.
At 10.30 at night the heavens opened everything they had. It was beyond downpour, as if someone was pouring endless buckets of water over and around us. We were standing on a little slope and within minutes the upper wall of the tent was hanging inwards. Water seeped through it, in the tent. I felt the ground: as if we were standing on a waterbed. Water came from above and from below. We packed away our down sleeping bags to save them.
At first PJ stayed calm, but already in a bad state of mind I panicked. I opened the inner tent to find my pack in over 2 cm of flowing water underneath the fly. We both took our packs inside and put them up against the wall of the tent, like sandbags in a flood. That probably prevented our tent from collapsing. There we sat, soaked and cold, with everything we held dear in drybags on top of our mattresses.
I asked PJ if he wasn’t scared to die. He replied no, we would not die that night. I asked if he wasn’t scared of a flash flood or a landslide. In that moment, he realised. He realised what could happen. We didn’t know what to do: to stay or to go. But that little river was now all around us: under the tent, on the trail, on the entire face of the mountain. There was nowhere to go.
What followed were hours of anxiously waiting for the day to come. We heard the river rise as the rain fell. We heard trees cracking and falling around us. Rocks started thundering down the mountainside. The rain came and went with various strength. I prayed. For the first time ever I spoke to a God of whom I do not know whether or not he exists, to not let the river breach through the little gully that stood between us. I asked the mountain for mercy. Even as I write it now, I feel my throat close.
PJ and I huddled up in our tent, hoping that it wouldn’t wash away. We told each other that we loved each other. We cried. Finally, around 2.30, the rain subsided and the water seeped away. PJ took his sleeping bag out again to cover both of our cold bodies.
When daylight came I just wanted to get out of there. We started running down the mountain side without waiting for Marylene or Marie Caroline. We stopped a few hundred meters below to wait. From where their tent stood, they had no idea what happened. I burst into tears again explaining what had happened. Until halfway through the day, when we walked on a beautiful riverside trail that surely led to Barhabise, I was a wreck and I could not get anything down my throat.
Barhabise did not bring the promised car to Num, but it did bring a small hotel offering shelter, a chance to dry our things, and finally a proper meal and a good night’s sleep. The next morning we walked up to the next town, where we struggled for hours and payed too much money for a jeep that in the end wouldn’t bring us to Num but only to Khadbari. After a night in a shabby hotel, an argument about the price of transport, and a driver having shots at 8 in the morning we finally reached the promised land of Num.
For those who worry now and think we should stop before we kill ourselves, we remain optimistic about the first leg of the journey. That the more touristy trail to Makalu Base Camp will offer greater ease of going, the safety of tea houses for shelter and dhal bat for dinner.
Mentally and physically, all of us have cracked at least once during those 10 days. We’ve all had days where we thought we would collapse: from stomach bugs, dehydration, exhaustion or other reasons. But we are all still standing and will remain.
Then I haven’t mentioned yet the beautiful views of rice fields too green to be true, of colourful houses on the hillsides, of snow capped mountains in the distance. Of people showing us the way, asking us how we are doing, of the smile on children’s faces when we greet them with a namaste. Those things make it worthwhile going on.
“And after the storm, I run and run as the rains come. I’m out of luck… on my knees and out of luck I look up. Night has always pushed out day, you must know life to see decay. But I won’t rot. Not in this mind and not in this heart.”
Distance covered: 85km
Total ascent: 4650 meters
Total descent: 5300 meters
Kilos lost: 3-5