Even though we lost a day looking for phantom trails out of the Ruby Valley, we still arrived a day early to Machhakhola. Manaslu is a restricted area: it requires a special permit and a guide for company. I was quite grateful for a day of rest in the wait: the past 7 days alone had taken us up and down over 11.000 vertical meters. We caught up on our calories, played cards, read, relaxed. Marylene and I took a morning at the hot springs, spectacularly located right by the roaring river.
The circuit follows the valley of the Budhi Gandahki right to its origins at the glaciers surrounding Larkye La, a high pass at 5135m. During the first 3 days of the trek the river valley was deep and surrounded by sheer cliffs over which waterfalls tumbled their way down. The roaring turquoise river cascaded down over high-walled canyons and through dense forests. The mountains hid behind the walls, yet the walk was stunning all the same.
The Manaslu circuit has grown rapidly in popularity during the past five years, being one of the last two remaining big mountain circuits. We were all sad to hear that a road is being put in now which will destroy the track until almost up to the pass. The pristine river valley, the hot springs, the quiet towns and the beautiful, clean tracks: they will all change and be spoiled in face of the road. Plenty of roads already exist into Tibet, so why it has to go so far I wonder about.
I was glad to be here now. Manaslu was a section I had been looking forward to for a long time and it did not fail to deliver on any part. The views were some of the best we’ve had, the crowds were gone in the face of winter, the people kind and helpful and the food was amazing with more fresh vegetables than anywhere else. We came upon some wildlife along the way: monkeys, eagles, Himalayan martens, griffins and even a herd of blue sheep.
We’d been warned that the last teahouse before the pass might be closed and true enough: we met the staff of Larkye Phedi on our second day up. That meant we now had two days we needed to combine into one ahead of us: a 12 hour walk to cross Larkye La from Samdo to Bimtang. We could have camped but our guide had no sleeping bag, so a long day it would be.
The going was not as easy as we all expected. While the Ruby Valley had been throwing quadruple digit vertical meters at us, going up only 500 – 600m a day was a rather splendid thought. In our enthusiasm about that we’d forgotten about the horizontal meters: distances were long. We made over 20km a day for many days, and Himalayan kilometres count for more than New Zealand or European ones. So far we kept the indicated times on the maps, walking at a leisurely pace and including breaks and lunch. We expected the same in Manaslu, counting on nice and short days. It was not the case at all: indicated times were walking only, so days on the trail were long.
On day three into Namrung I came down with food poisoning. The last 500m up to the village were a struggle. Shortly after I arrived I threw up and had to run for the toilet a few times. I shivered uncontrollably, rolled around with cramps and quickly developed a fever. Now that we needed to take two days into one we had an extra day to spare. I got to sweat it out while the others rested in Namrung.
There were few people on the trail now, and the few who were all had a healthy mountain attitude. We were maybe 12 in teahouses that could hold 100. The bubble soon developed into a merry bunch of people, chatting as they went. When I had to rest in Namrung they continued, and the village became a ghost town: no one else came. New company was really refreshing after so long.
Our guide was called BJ and he too was a great guy. We played at cards for many a night while the stoves burned in the teahouses. It was strange having a guide again at first, but really nice in the end. He started speaking in Nepali to us, to teach us a bit of the language. We didn’t pick up more than a few words and it was probably more hilarious than educative, though we all appreciated it.
After Namrung we climbed out of the canyon and the valley opened up. From Lho we got our first really good view over Manaslu, dominating the skyline over the village. Lho was a stunning place, one of the most beautiful villages we’ve come across. It has been a long time since we’d come so close to an 8000-er. Standing face-to-face with one again the beauty and power of it took me aback once more. Soon we were all in doubt if Manaslu was going to dethrone Makalu as the most beautiful 8000-er. We’d have to spend a few days in its vicinity and see it from different angles to decide.
When I turned on my phone I received bad news from several fronts at home and felt guilty for not being there. It darkened my thoughts for a good part of the day into Lho. As we continued up the valley widened even more, unfolding the entire Manaslu range towering in the sky like a white spine. All that beauty and the upbeat company of BJ and the other hikers put me in a happy state of mind during most of the days. I lay pondering over everything at night, wondering if my long-gone Belgian friends were right when they got angry at me for leaving and called it selfish. I never quite figured it out.
The hiker bubble grew more and more significant as we caught up with other people. We mostly got on with a group of 3: Agaman, Ian and Alfred; a Nepali, an Aussie and a Swede. They all lived and worked in Kathmandu, Ian and Alfred spoke fluent Nepali. We rejoined with them again in Shyala. We had no intention of stopping there but the view was so spectacular that we couldn’t resist. BJ the boss agreed. Both sunset and sunrise created magnificent light over Manaslu itself.
The next day was planned to be a short one: three hours up to Samdo, and the big push over the pass the next day. BJ suggested on making a detour to some lake but we were all more set on saving our legs for the next day. When we arrived at Samdo 4 people were already there with their guides, and one of them was trying to arrange for a local to open up Dharamsala for a night. We were already 7, and when we told them there were 8 more people coming up behind us they agreed. We left our plans of reading or napping through the afternoon for what they were and continued for another 2,5 hours up the mountain. Already then I was happy I did not need to do that stretch at 4 A.M. the following morning.
Because Dharamsala had been closed for the season everything had to be setup very makeshift but that didn’t matter. We hung out in the dining room that was stuffed with mattresses while waiting for the local guy to show up and open the rooms. When he arrived he was already full on drunk and drank more during the evening, so it was the group of guides taking charge of rooms and food.
There is no stove at Dharamsala: it was bitter cold. We shared a large sleeping space with the 3 guys and two Czech, who kept Agaman out of his sleep all night by first continuously tapping him as soon as he snored a bit and then snoring really loud themselves. As soon as we settled in everyone crawled into their sleeping bags for comfort. The guides brought us all dal bhat in bed, which was really kind. We had a pretty cosy night up there in our sleeping hall. The guides did not: the one, small blanket they were given bought them little protection against the cold.
Already higher up the mountain we negotiated with BJ for a post-dawn start. The morning light was stunning, but the air was icy. About 2 hours after we started clouds began to roll over the pass, the first signs of the storm that had been predicted for later that day. Without the sun and with a fierce, howling wind temperatures dropped far below -10C. We hadn’t ventured above 5000m since Tashi Labsta in the first half of November, something I felt hard after we got on the moraine at 4900m. The cold and altitude illness combined made me 100% miserable up there: I just wanted to get down. I tried to appreciate the view: the walls of the Manaslu massif, the glaciers, the hanging ice. But it wasn’t until we got a good ways down and the jagged peaks of the Kechakyu Himal pierced to wards the sky that I started to have a good time.
A poor dog had followed a German couple up to Dharamsala. I felt really bad seeing him outside all alone in the wind in the morning. He followed us up towards the pass, so we made sure that he safely got over and down again. We gave him cookies on the way and rice when we arrived at Bimtang: he was so skinny that his fur had started to detoriate. I was happy to see that many people cared about him: he had slept inside with one of the guides at Dharamsala and been fed there too, he got tuna and pancakes later in the day and the following morning. We tried to get him further down, away from the cold. It worked: he followed. I felt so sad for that dog: such a sweet, sad and lost big boy.
From Bimtang the view over Manaslu Himal was amazing. The teahouse there had rooms in little cabins with 2 beds: it was one of the nicest teahouses we stayed at. We talked about the cold, the wind and how it would affect our route in the future. Larkye La had been miserable yet it was good we got a taste of that, to know what the high routes in Dolpa would be like. Most likely, though unfortunate, we will not be pursuing them. Upper Dolpa will be something to come back for on a nice spring day.
Manaslu was stunning, and I’m happy to have gone around it before the road is put in. Yet slowly I was growing weaker in my head. When we arrived at Dharapani I felt tired, thoroughly tired, both mentally and physically. We had 6 days of walking left before a break in Pokhara but first we took a day off there and informed ourselves to make sure that Thorong La and the teahouses were still open. If not we’d have to detour to Annapurna South. The route over Annapurna North lay open to us, though I had mixed feelings about that. Nevertheless maybe Thorong would be the last 5000+m pass, so we had to pursue it. Onwards and westwards.
“There are many things that I would like to know.
And there are many places that I wish to go.
But everything’s depending on the way the wind may blow.”
Total ascent: 40590m
Total descent: 41040m
Total distance: 709 km