Back in the Rolwaling we already decided not to cross Tilman’s Pass, the last truly technical stretch on the high route. The Iron Lady in Thame told us that no one goes there and true enough, we found no information whatsoever on this pass. Here and there we caught that the ice on top of it was melting, that there was a lot of rockfall, that only a handful of people really know the way. It meant carrying more harnesses, hiring more guides and a tough as start out of Kathmandu. Tilman’s was a blind spot. We voted against it. We played our luck three times now on these high passes, we shouldn’t taunt mountains too much.
That meant we would not be getting into the Langtang valley, something I had been looking forward to. At first we thought we’d have to skip the Langtang area altogether. In Kathmandu we found another way on the map: south of the valley through the Helambu region, on a track we knew nothing about and expected nothing from. But if there was a path we should walk it. The trail passing by the sacred lake Gosainkund turned out splendid and in the end we were all happy we came that way.
For four days we rested in Kathmandu and we could not have timed those days better. When we met up with Robin Boustead (who created the trail) for beers at Sam’s we ended up sitting in between the GHT spearheads and legends over whose books and websites we poured for many hours before the start. One of them was Stuart Bilby, who soon after entering the bar asked me “did you happen to walk Te Araroa?” I was baffled and wondered if he’d seen our blog, but it turned out that it was him whom I met on the first day on the TA, who told me about this trail and his adventures on it and hence planted the seed for this whole adventure to begin.
The inspiration was reciprocal, as Stuart went home, quit his job and walked Te Araroa entirely a few weeks behind us. I never knew that until now. It’s a small world, I thought, small and peculiar. Some meetings are simply bound to happen. We spend quite some time with that gang, and it was almost as if we’d come home to old friends. In their honesty we heard that no one had really believed or expected that we would pull it off so far, including the agent who fixed us the guides for the three cols. They all said they would have advised against our starting, and they told us bad things that happened to other people who attempted the GHT on their first visit to Nepal. But the universe and the mountains had smiled on us. Stuart, Lisa Lee Johnson and Jamie Mcguiness shared the best of their advice with us for the stretch to come and even more for the black spots of Dolpa and the Far West. We learned their scariest, strangest and funniest stories. I realised that most people almost die on the GHT in one way or another. After those talks we were suddenly a lot of knowledge and wisdom richer.
We managed to extend our visa for an extra month beyond the 150 days limit by carefully reading the rules and handily applying them at the immigration department. That was the most important accomplishment of all, because now we bought ourselves the time we needed to get to the finish. With everything we know now it didn’t seem impossible anymore, this winter crossing of the Nepali Himals. And damn it, we will not stop before: fingers crossed for no more head injuries or other serious complications, but it would have to be near lethal to deter us now. Many times we believed we’d never see Hilsa and I’ve never been as determined about anything as to make sure that I do.
Four days was a good time to allow ourselves to rest enough aside of dealing with the practicalities. Admittedly, it was somewhat bitter putting those clean clothes back into the duffel and leaving the comfortable hotel room, but the hardest part was leaving the food: the banana and Nutella pancakes for breakfast, the double lunches, double dinners and the snacks in between. But we had new permits now, a new visa, and that meant it was time to leave the concrete realm for a rocky one.
Obviously the pause had been good: even though the foot hills threw height meters in four digits at us every day we moved fast. Our well fed and well rested bodies were recharged. The starting point was only and hour north of Kathmandu in the hot low hills, through Shivapuri national park and a maze of trails which eventually led into Langtang national park.
The devastation of the earthquake was still big along this entire stretch. Half collapsed structures or tilted buildings whose foundations had been lifted meters above ground loomed over the trail. Everywhere construction was still ongoing, houses and tea shops being erected anew. Inside the national park accommodation seemed to have been rebuilt a while ago. The foothills posed a few minor navigational challenges, but once we reached the park the trail was good: through beautiful forests and ever up the ridge to Lauribina pass and the sacred lake, where according to legend Shiva had planted her trident and saved the world.
Even high up, the days were still warm as long as the sun was out. But in the shade, and as soon as she set, chilly air betrayed autumn and the winter coming. An icy cold wind blew for the first few days while clouds obscured the mountains from time to time. In between the grey spells the white giants lined the horizon again, coming closer with each passing day. Teahouses on north-south oriented ridges allowed open views to the east and the west, allowing for spectacular sunrises and sunsets that coloured the Langtang and Rolwaling ranges in deep reds. It felt good to be amongst the mountains again.
To our delight, the mountains were still smiling on us. On pass day the sky was warm and blue: there was no wind and no clouds to be seen, only a fierce sun moved across the sky. Clouds rolled in below us when we reached Lauribina Pass after a 900m climb, and for an hour we sat at the top, watching the clouds swirl against the ridgelines below.
On the eastern horizon there was only a white blanket as far as the eye could see: the brown ridges running down from the pass cutting through the clouds like knives’ edges. On the western horizon, the clouds obscured the valleys but over them towered the Ganesh Himal, the Manaslu and Annapurna ranges, even Dhalaugiri was visible far in the distance. It was amazing seeing the spine of the Himalaya lined out like that. What was even more amazing was knowing that we would be passing by each of these ranges in time, no two ranges and no two areas alike.
After all the effort it took acclimatising I am glad to have so much time in Nepal. Now I can make the best use of my adjusted body, of that hard-grown muscle power and extra oxygen capacity. I felt only mildly lightheaded going up to 4600m again. I don’t have to fear the numbers anymore. I can just go and enjoy. Enjoy the views of the white giants, of deep valleys, of eagles flying high in the sky. Enjoy the sunsets turning the sky deep gold against a burning red sun. It’s great to be here, and it’s great to be alive. Sometimes I think back about the fall on Sherpani Col and know that things could have been otherwise.
All in all, the track over Lauribina Pass was a pleasant surprise. The descent reminded us once more of the stark contrasts in the country: from snowy heights to green fields and lush forests where big grey monkeys live, all in the course of a few hours.
On the way down we met a young man on a horse, who told us it would be crowded in Thulo Syabru for Election Day. We had been cautioned about the election. It was Nepal’s first free election since the civil war with the maoists ended in 2006 and the acceptance of a new constitution in 2015, so expectations were high. Some of the maoists did not agree with the constitution and vowed to boycott the election through violence: cars had been bombed in the capital during the preceding weeks. Clearly the authorities were prepared: the building hosting the voting was surrounded by armed military and swarming with police, a strange sight for us Europeans. In Thulo all went peaceful: one of the women of the teahouse we stayed at told us satisfied that there had been no fighting there. Posters were seen all over the country for weeks: no bribing, no rioting, no fighting, and something that looked like no picknicking. The result of the election will be known after December 7, when the southern part of the country goes to the polls.
Marylene and I both got our second round of giardiasis. The parasite has the habit of resurfacing after 6 weeks. We had medication for it and started a treatment at the first signs, but it was hard to shake it off. It would take well into the Ruby Valley trek until we seemingly got rid of it. I doubt our stomachs will be any good until we head home again.
The last day brought us down to Syabru Besi, a grim and dirty place at first sight. We found a small hotel where we had a room with an attached dirty bathroom, but soon found out that the food and the really comfy beds made up for that. It’s always a bit of a shock to reach a roadside town: the roads seem to kill the charm and attract more dirt, more noise and more litter than the places away from them. Now we reached the high route again and were due west: west to Manaslu and Annapurna before the winter snows close their two high passes.
Total ascent: 29490 m
Total descent: 30490 m
Total distance: 476 km
Fun facts from PJ: it is much more comfortable pooping at 4600 meters than at 5700.