Trekking Part I: An Ass-kicking in the Langtang (Matt & Laura)
Apr 30, 2007
The road ahead is a brief pause in a sheer cliff extending above and below -- far far below. Loose rock and boulders jar our jeep and bounce us out of our seats as we creep forward. Small rivers flow from the cliff above and across the road as the jeep shudders through its water-filled gully. Boulders balance precariously above us; the road is built out over a sheer drop-off below. I am convinced the tires of our jeep will burst on the sharp rocks. I put aside my fear of hurtling into the abyss below and marvel at the scenery around us and the miracle that not only our jeep, but trucks and buses too, can navigate this road. This is what the Fraser canyon road must have been once, before it was paved and blasted and made into a proper highway. I recall marvelling at the remnants of that road and that people were brave enough to travel it. I am on that road, only the valley below is much, much farther down.
We are travelling from Kathmandu to Dhunche via our jeep taxi with our guide and porter. The next two weeks will be spent in the Himalayas, the Langtang-Helambu region to be precise. It will be just the four of us; we have opted to avoid a group trek to allow us full control of our pace and what we will do when. We have heard stories of people being pressured to go faster than they are comfortable with, and the high altitude sickness that can result. We are confident of our ability to manage the hike ahead: it is a common route, though less popular than some (thus fewer tourists, which is also a reason for choosing it). We have the long underwear we ordered from MEC at home, our cold weather clothes (unused for months), and a selection of pills and bandages from our first aid kit. We feel confident and prepared ... assuming we survive the jeep ride to Dhunche.
We do, of course. Inexplicably, we arrive six hours later with tires intact. We have travelled about 117 km from Kathmandu to the small village of Dhunche, perched amid stepped rice and wheat fields along the Trisuli river valley. It is picturesque. We take a short walk with our guide and porter (Nawaraj Dahal and Krishna Kimsal), buy some umbrellas (despite our preparations, we have no rain gear whatsoever and are loath to buy a full Gore-tex outfit for a two week trek), and relax. Laura meets a local girl who asks her for a Canadian coin for her collection and invites her to tea (she finds some Thai coin instead but declines the tea). I learn about a stinging nettle-like plant that, according to our guide and porter, will cause one hour of pain if touched (good to know!). The day ends as thunder and lightning illuminate the sky and heavy rain falls upon the little town. Tomorrow, the trek will begin in earnest! It is April 23rd, exactly seven months into our trip.
Our alarm wakes us at 7AM the next day. Snowy peaks have emerged from the previous day's cloud. They are impossibly high and looming. These are nothing like the mountains at home. It fills us with excitement for the start of our trek. At breakfast, a parade -- a drum, a horn, and singing followed by a growing group of people -- passes our hotel. They carry a banner and we suspect it is a political march but don't know. Soon, we begin our walk -- our guide in front, us in the middle, and our porter behind carrying our bag. It will be a formation that will remain constant for the next two weeks. Before we have left the town, we find ourselves in the middle of the parade. There are maybe 40 people following the drum and horn down the road. Our guide tells us it is a Maoist rally. They used to force people to attend, we learn, but now "they have changed their party." I am nervous, aware of the unrest and violence that has plagued Nepal in recent years. We have barely started and find ourselves in the middle of a political rally! I feel very conspicuous as we walk around them, passing the man playing a long curved horn and the waving banners and the growing number of supporters. It is an unsettling beginning to our journey.
It is quickly forgotten, however. The rough road stretches in front of us, winding down the river valley between stepped rice and wheat fields that cover the hills around us. It is incredible that farmers climb up and down the steep slopes to maintain their crops. Houses are perched on impossibly steep hillsides surrounded by the horizontal lines of the steppes. We walk between, then through them, leaving the slow grade of the road in favour of a short cut that plunges steeply into the valley below. By the end, my knees are shaking from the effort of continued walking downhill. The views, however, are incredible. Behind us, the village of Dhunche sits perched on the hillside; ahead lies the river slicing between steep mountainsides and, further still, the tiny shapes of buildings in the town of Syabru Besi.
We arrive around noon after a four hour walk. Laura's knees are sore and tightening from the steep walk downhill. She stretches, hobbled a little with the pain, and rests. Excited for the journey ahead, we ignore what should have been a warning.
Rain falls again in the afternoon as Laura naps and I read. Puffs of mist blow through the single road of the village and obscure the surrounding mountains. It seems to be a pattern: sunny and clear in the morning; heavy mists, cloud, and rain in the afternoon.
We are in bed by 9PM after chatting with our guide and porter over a dinner of soup and macaroni and cheese. The next day we will be trekking in earnest, the road ending here in Syabru Besi. We will begin the winding journey up the Langtang valley along the path used by trekkers and local porters alike. We had hiked 10 km from Dhunche and descended from 1900 to 1430 metres.
We are woken by the blasts of a bus horn at 6:30AM. My stomach is cramping and queasy with the now-familiar sensation of bacterial troubles: I take an antibiotic to be safe. By 8AM we are walking down a narrow path toward the river, leaving the road and town behind us. Ahead is a building where we register our names and give our passport and park permit information to a guard. A suspension bridge brings us across the glacier-fed river and into the narrow Langtang valley.
We quickly fall into the rhythmns of walking, our footfalls punctuating the music of bird calls, the dull roar of the river below us, and the rustle of wind in the trees. We are reminded of home: ferns and salal line the path while familiar-looking trees tower above.
We continue up and down, the river always below us frothing and rumbling. The path is mostly uphill, however: our legs begin to protest as the trail switchbacks up steep slopes. We walk higher and higher, yet still the river is just below us. The water has cut a path steeper than any I've seen before as it roars around boulders the size of trucks that have fallen from the steep slopes above. We walk higher and the river keeps pace with us, roaring through the narrow valley below.
Ever-present on the trail are the porters, massive loads on their backs as they proceed up slopes that we are finding difficult carrying just our light daypacks. Most have large bamboo baskets filled with supplies, its weight borne by a single strap across the forehead. It is with growing wonder that we realize that the teahouses (rustic hotel-restaurants) along the trail are entirely supported by these porters: large bags of rice, construction materials, canned and bottled goods, even cast-iron woodstoves, are all carried up the same steep path on porters' backs. Trekking groups, too, are accompanied by their own small army of porters: we might see four trekkers on the trail, followed shortly after by twice as many porters laden with their food, packs, and what I can only imagine are myriad luxury items that don't belong on any self-respecting trek. I am happy for our single bag and that we will eat food at the tea houses where we will stay along the way, rather than bringing everything up the trail we might need on a porter's back. Sure, bringing so much gear employs more local people, but also creates a bubble of luxuries that isolates you from the experience ... at least that's my view.
We stop for a rest at a teahouse along the way. Laura's knee is hurting more now, especially when she walks downhill. She has developed a noticeable limp. I am concerned, but happy to at least understand the problem: it is the same running/cycling injury I have had in the past, and know that stretching and rest will help. We sip our first of many 'hot lemons' (hot water and sweetened lemon juice) before continuing on our way.
At Bamboo Lodge we pause and consider stopping for lunch. As we rest, rain begins to fall. From the shelter of the tea house, we watch as groups pass on the trail, soaking wet and looking miserable. We order noodle soup and sit by the warmth of a woodstove while a boy plays around our packs, wrapping the straps of the bag taller than him around his shoulders. By the time we have finished our lunch, the rain has stopped. We continue on our way, pleased with our lucky timing.
We continue our winding, up-and-down ascent through the valley. Rhododendrons the size of trees line the path, beneath which are scattered their shrivelled red, pink, and white blossoms. By the time we reach the long and steep final ascent to our teahouse, my legs are aching and my strength is ebbing quickly. "Where the hell IS this place?!" repeats itself louder and louder in my thoughts as sweat coats my face and my breath rasps in my throat. I am just about worn out.
It is 2:15 by the time we reach Lama hotel. We'd been walking for six hours, walked about 10km and gained 810 meters (2660 ft) elevation. As I laid on the floor of our room, contemplating the effort needed to remove my sweaty clothes and toxic socks and shoes, I realized that, well, I was bloody tired. The perfume of Laura's socks and shoes proves a good incentive to get off my ass and start moving again, albeit slowly.
Outside in a crooked shack is a toilet and a solar shower. In the sky above, there are clouds. I knew what the combination meant, just as I knew how badly I needed a shower. I was going to freeze in there.
We gather our clean post-trekking clothes into a bundle, an umbrella, and our towel. Laura was first as I stood outside. Her shrieks and cursing did not bode well for the shower I was about to have. When it was my turn to stand under ice-cold water on a freezing slimy concrete floor, wind blowing through slats in the wooden walls, I declared somewhat melodramatically I'd stepped into Hell, mixed liberally with curses, shudders, gritted teeth, and lamentations I would never see my genitalia again. It was really really cold.
To warm up, we settle ourselves by the woodstove in the tea house, then retire to our room (bundled in fleece and long underwear) to rest after our long day's walk. Rain falls all afternoon. Our room -- wood slats, a double bed with a thin mattress, and no heat -- is cold. We eat dinner at 7PM and, after chatting with some other trekkers, are in bed by 9PM.
We are awake, quickly donning our dirty trekking clothes against the cold, and packing our things, by 6:15. By 7 we are eating piping hot porridge and drinking hot lemon before hitting the trail just before 8. The sky has cleared and the trail winds upward through idyllic forests and around mossy rocks. The grade is shallow, though constantly winding ever higher, as we walk in silence through the picturesque landscape. It is at Ghorepati, our first rest stop, that we glimpse the really big mountains for the first time. They tower over us as we crane our necks skyward, their peaks like snowy fingers pointing into the cloudless blue sky. We would have been satisfied with this spectacular view. We are going higher, though. The view would get better, much much better.
We continue past jokpe (part cow, part yak, and very furry) and yaks, cross suspension bridges, and marvel at the huge rhododendron trees that, at this altitude, are still full of blossoms. Still the trail winds its way into the distance, a thread woven through the landscape between the steeply rising mountains.
Langtang village, our destination, when it finally appears, is a cluster of teahouses and local dwellings set in a rocky treeless landscape. Thankfully, there had been enough sun for the solar shower to offer piping hot water! While Laura curls into her sleeping bag for a nap, I wander the village wrapped in a woolly shawl we'd bought in India, taking photos and exploring. The sky is clear and blue, the air cold. Tiny plants struggle to grow in the bleak rocky soil around us, though fields sustain yaks and jokpes grazing. Buddhist chorten wind along the trail, a long line of rocks stacked into a low wall and carved with inscriptions and designs. Their engravings bear memorials, prayers, and religious designs, attesting to the predominantly Tibetan population here. Sheep are herded up the path beside me. A small building sits over a stream, paddles extending down into the current to perpetually turn the ornate prayer wheels above. It is a beautiful and peaceful place.
I return to the teahouse and manage to extract Laura from her sleeping bag to visit a co-op that makes bread and yak cheese. We share a thick slice of bread with melted cheese similar to sliced parmesan, and I gobble up a slice of apple pie. Soon the sun begins to dip behind the high mountains and the temperature drops, forcing us to retreat to our teahouse. A meal of dal bhat awaits us, the ubiquitous local platter of lentil soup, curried vegetables, and rice in massive, unlimited quantities. Perfect after a long day of walking. We had travelled 10 km and gained another 1020 metres (3345 ft). We are in bed by 8:30. I wake in the pitch blackness of the night to the howl of wind outside: it feels strong enough to topple the thin walls of the teahouse and, as I drift back to sleep, feel a nervous awe at the power of the elements outside and around us.
We are awake, packed, and eating breakfast by 6AM, our now-usual time. We follow two jokpes being led up the trail by a young boy as we leave the village. Soon, we are wandering between stone fences and remains of houses, just skeletons of rock walls open to the sky. The trail is easy, ascending another 400 metres into Kyanjin Gompa at 3730 metres (12234 ft). The valley opens around us with huge snow-covered peaks reaching impossibly high into the brilliant blue sky. We pause for a photo before checking into a tea house. It is just four hours after our departure that morning, leaving the entire afternoon free for an excursion.
We have started to feel the effects of elevation, however: Laura stops repeatedly along the trail for bathroom breaks, and our breathing is more laboured, our fatigue setting in more quickly. Laura has a slight headache. We eat lunch and contemplate a hike up the nearby peak overlooking the village and, we are told, with spectacular views of the mountains. Despite a worsening headache, Laura decides to give it a try. We have read our first aid book's advice on altitude sickness which seems to indicate a headache is a mild symptom to be watched. We cautiously begin our ascent.
Effort quickly becomes difficult. I establish a rhythmn to my breath: breathe in, take two steps, breathe out, take two steps. Before long, I am breathing faster, deeper. Breathing becomes a meditative effort, a constant battle to take in enough air. Occasionally I look up, but try to stare downwards, ascending one step at a time. One more step. Then another. And ever upwards.
After about 200 metres and almost an hour of walking, Laura has to stop. Her headache is worse, much worse. She has started to feel nauseous and has to sit down. She is on the verge of tears. The bare and rocky expanse of mountain stretches ahead of us. I tell our guide we have to head back down.
Back at the teahouse, I am increasingly concerned about Laura's condition. I read our first aid book over and over. Her headache is splitting, but her pulse is not high. Her nausea has subsided. I am on the brink of telling our guide we have to descend, but decide to wait and give her body time to acclimatize. Her condition the next morning will decide our next steps. We drink as much water as we can, though it seems to leave our bodies as quickly as we take it in. It is as if our tissues cannot hold water at this elevation. By 8:30 we are in bed. Nervously, I wait for morning and Laura's condition.
We awake at 5:30 to another crystalline blue sky. Laura feels better: her headache is mostly gone and, as we eat breakfast outside in the sunshine, we decide to re-attempt the previous day's ascent.
Every effort is difficult. I struggle to keep my breathing slow and deep, returning to the rhythmns learned in yoga class. One laboured step at a time, we continue our zig-zag path upward, stopping almost every 10 minutes to gulp more water and rest. Two hours later, we have covered the 685 metres (1243 ft) to the top.
We are surrounded by an incredible vista of snowy peaks and glacial valleys. In the distance, the mountains of Tibet reach their craggy white peaks skyward. Closer, the immense Langtang Lirung (7225 metres) and Kimshung (6745 metres) mountains tower over us. They are beautiful, immense, and of a scale greater than any mountain we've ever seen. Before us, a sheer dropoff leads to rough glacial till and, higher, a picture-perfect glacier extending down a deep valley. I snap photos at our first viewpoint before we walk to the very peak, our highest elevation thus far: 4415 metres (13480 ft)!
Prayer flags flutter in the cold mountain air. We eat a quick snack of thick Tibetan bread and peanut butter before walking along a narrow ridge to another, lower peak overlooking Kyanjin Gompa. On one side of us, a rough slope extends down toward where we ascended the peak; on the other, a steep drop-off plunges abruptly into the valley below. The path winds along the knife-edge of the peak, sometimes undercut by rocks that have fallen and eroded the ground beneath. I stop to take a photo and a small rockslide scatters debris from the slope just under where I am standing. I move on quickly, realizing with heart-thumping clarity just how easily the ground could disappear beneath my feet and carry me into the valley below.
Eventually, after relaxing in the sunshine of the lower peak and relishing the vista before us, we realize it is time to go. A cold wind is gathering strength around us and clouds have begun to appear in the sky. The afternoon storm is beginning to form itself and it is time to head back downhill.
Slowly, we walk the switchback descent to Kyanjin Gompa. Laura's knee is sore again, but we make it down eventually. The effort is less rewarding than the ascent: like doing dishes after a wonderful meal. We return by noon, in time for a hearty lunch, an afternoon of relaxation amidst the incredible scenery, and then a retreat into the dining area and its woodstove. It had been an incredible day.
We both wake in the early morning to walk the icy path outside to the bathroom. The clear sky is filled with stars, more than I had ever seen before. The Milky Way was like an immense cloud of stars threaded through the darkness, a blackness punctured by an awe-inspiring array of light. I stand there, half-clothed in the icy darkness, staring in wonder at the sight. Eventually I am forced back to the warmth of my sleeping bag, sadly aware I might never see the night sky with such clarity again. The batteries in our alarm clock had died because of the cold; when I reset them, the thermostat reads just 7 degrees in our room.
The next day, we start our descent back down the valley. Being downhill, we plan to cover much more ground than on the way up. We would stay at the Lama Hotel area, a distance we had covered in two days going up the valley.
Laura's knee quickly starts to seize as we descend, giving her a limp and slowing her progress downhill. Still, she is able to continue, albeit slowly. By the time we arrive at Lama it is 3PM and we have completed 6 full hours of walking and covered 17 km. I stop often to take photos, allowing Laura time to catch up with her sore knee. As we descend, her lingering headache disappears as well. Altitude has not treated her kindly, but she has bravely managed it.
The showers at Lama are, this time, full of piping hot water. The morning sunlight has transformed the icy Hell of a few days before to a heaven of hot soapy water. Ahh! the simple pleasure of being clean!
We end the day in our typical manner: relaxing in front of the woodstove, playing cards, and chatting with fellow travellers until heading to bed. We are tired after a long day of walking!
We are up and ready earlier than usual the next morning, our packs ready and breakfast finished by 7:30. Ahead lies the winding, often steep path that had exhausted me so thoroughly on our ascent. I am worried about Laura's knee on the steep descent and she manages to swallow an Ibuprofen to reduce the inflammation. It is successful: though sore, she keeps up a good pace and we are soon at Bamboo Lodge (where we had luckily escaped the rain on our ascent). This time we stop only briefly: above us in the distance is the village of Thulo Syabru, our destination. It will be a hard uphill journey as the trail branches off -- and steeply upward -- from the one we took to ascend the valley several days before.
As we take the first steps on the new path, we embark on the second half of our journey. It will take us to the highest elevation yet, and offer new, unknown challenges. It will also deliver the consequences of ignoring the subtle warnings we had, innocent and oblivious, ignored in the days before.
With one step, we leave the Langtang behind and voyage toward the high mountain pass and sacred lake of Gosaikunda, toward more remote, less visited destinations, and challenges that will test us both.
Onward and upward, one laboured step at a time...
6 hour Jeep ride to trailhead: $125
Guide and Porter fees for 14 day trek: $378
Lodging and food for entire trek: $350
Checking something off my life list: priceless
Our adventure begins as we marvel at the views through our jeep window. We bounce along gravel roads looking across valleys at terraced hillsides; the sheer magnitude of their size is staggering. As humans we trek around the globe to see pyramids and temples, but to me these human constructions are equally impressive. We stop for lunch and have our first Dal Bhat meal. It is delicious and we enjoy it in the company of two British men. As is so common in our travels, the local restaurant has put the pasty white folk in the back room together. We all laugh about it and enjoy the chance to speak clear English with one another.
Back in the jeep, the road deteriorates and as Matt put it, it is more like driving up a dried up river bed than a road. We stop just before our final destination to buy our 1,000 rupee park permit from an official looking office and then drive into the small town of Dhunche. I am excited to see my first glimpses of snow-capped peaks but they are distant and I know I have some serious kilometres to walk before I am truly near them.
By our second day we are walking along a river that looks exactly like the Stein River valley near Lytton, BC - one of my most favourite places on the planet. I think of my friend Lisa and the hours we have spent hiking there. It is comforting to feel so at home while so very far from it. Unlike at home, we have to occasionally step to the side of the trail to let the porters pass by. They carry huge loads on their back, their necks carrying the brunt of the weight. Does this compress their spines over the years? We learn from our guides that many porters start at the age of 13 or 14 and we see many very old men still working the paths. The porters are paid anywhere from 25 to 100 rupees per kilogram depending on the distance and the terrain (approximately 45 cents to $1.25 CDN per kg). Our guide has seen some porters on the trek to the Everest base camp carrying 120 kgs! Thankfully I am not carrying much as our porter has our big packpack and we have it weighing less than the supposedly regulated limit of 25 kg.
Normally when I go hiking at home I carry my own backpack, tent and food, but here we have the luxury of sleeping in tea houses and buying prepared meals. Also, the altitude is a factor I don't have to address at home and it is something I certainly underestimated. After 3,000m (10,000 feet) it is recommended that trekkers only increase their elevation by 400m to 500m per day. Previously my highest elevation had been 10,000 feet and I was fine, but I had no idea how I would feel on this trek. I did everything I thought would help: I took afternoon naps to rest, I avoided diuretic drinks like pop and tea (hence the million cups of hot lemon!), and I drank insane amounts of water. At our highest points, I managed to drink 5.5 litres of water (certainly a record for me in an 8 hour period). It is a balancing act between drinking enough water and managing to sleep through the night without too many trips to the toilet. I was peeing at least once per hour (one day I went 15 times), but fortunately the mountains provided the most scenic pee breaks I have ever had! Even with what seemed incredible efforts on my part, the altitude headaches found me and latched onto my brain like a vice. I wish I could accurately describe the pain, but suffice it to say that a few times I reached to the back of my head to see if my brains were leaking out. And to top it all off, the unheated rooms we slept in often dipped close to the freezing mark making it difficult to get out of the sleeping bag in the morning. Oh, and yes, my sore knees (but you have already read all about that).
So, why with all this discomfort would I continue to stay at the altitude we were at? Quite simply: for the views. I will likely never see anything like it again. The night sky was so clear that I saw an arm of the milky way that I had never seen before. During the day, the cloudless blue sky played a dramatic backdrop to sheer white peaks reaching over 23,000 feet into the air. As I approached the summit on our second attempt, I saw the prayer flags sending their requests to the heavens and I stood looking at a panorama of mountains I only previously dreamed about. Then I sat and enjoyed bread and peanut butter - each of my senses satiated and overflowing with bliss.
To help you get a sense of the elevations mentioned above, here are the heights of some local mountains you might be familiar with:
Blackcomb Mountain - 2,284 metres or 7494 feet
Grouse Mountain - 1,250 metres or 4100 feet (the "Grouse Grind" is 853 metres or 2800 feet elevation gained)
Mount Cheam, Chilliwack - 2112 metres or 6929 feet
Mount Baker, Washington - 3,285 metres or 10778 feet
Mount Rainier, Washington - 4,392 metres or 14410 feet