High on freedom
An exhausting and challenging Himalayan trek puts life into perspective for one adventurer
IT’S 4.30 on a cold, clear morning. The snow has finally stopped. What I thought was a great idea just two weeks ago now seems utterly crazy. At over 5000 metres, my lungs are screaming for more oxygen. I will my breath to harmonise with each heavy step as I inch towards the highest point of the trek, the top of the Larkya La pass. I steady my emotions and remind myself the most rewarding things in life are born of hardship.
I follow the narrow, snow-covered trail through a vast, white panorama. It seems identical and endless in every direction. Cast against such immensity, a feeling of insignificance grips my being. My mind tells me to stop, but I know it always looks for the easy way out. A hot cup of tea, shelter, and help, for that matter, are at least a day away. I soon realise I’m not in control, and fear looms when we are not in control...
Arriving in the Nepalese capital Kathmandu in early April, four of us hired a young Sherpa, Lakpa, and two porters, Pudi and Dowa, and we headed to Soti Khola in a four-wheel-drive. From Soti Khola we set out on foot, trekking for six or seven hours a day, to cover 230km to Dharapani. There are tea houses offering basic accommodation and food along the route. Our plan was to circumnavigate the eighth highest mountain in the world, Mt Manaslu.
For the first eight days we followed the roaring Gandakhi, a deep gorged river that weaves its way through the Himalayas, criss-crossing from one side to the other over high suspension bridges made of 40mm diameter steel cables that support downward-sagging steel walkways.
We turned east after the village of Philim into the sweeping Tsum Valley, a remote and heavenly region of Nepal known for its Tibetan culture. After three hours of uphill struggle we entered an evergreen forest of native fir trees, abies, mixed with deodar cedars, blue pines and morinda. Thousands of slate stone slabs have been formed into staircases that ascend through these 40 to 60m high giants. Bright flowering rhododendrons, a trickling stream, the tinkle of goats’ bells and the scent of warm spruce and honey added to the enchantment of the walk.
The valley floor is a flat, fertile plain divided by a river that flows through lush green fields of maize surrounding charming stone and slate villages. Glistening white peaks towered overhead against deep-blue sky, as families toiled cutting fresh grass, collecting wood and tilling crops. Children giggled and yaks grazed. Monasteries, prayer flags and Mani walls – which are made of thousands of stone tablets intricately carved with drawings of deities and inscriptions of the prayer Om Mani Padme Om – are reminders that this land is steeped in Buddhism. We left the Tsum with a feeling of regret, as though we had left a loved one behind.
Two days later we reached the village of Lho, which is 3180 metres high, and caught our first glimpse of the 8156m giant, Mt Manaslu – a serrated “wall of snow and ice hanging in the sky”. The mountain’s long ridges and valley glaciers culminate in a peak that towers steeply above its surroundings. This spectacular sight will dominate the landscape for the remainder of our trek.
Within an hour of leaving Lho we emerged from the tree line and spent another four days hiking along steep sides of valley ridges, occasionally inching along precarious cliffs where signs reminded us of the danger of landslides, hauling ourselves up slopes of loose sand and scree, and giving way to dozens of donkey caravans laden with goods for remote villages.
We all know deep down that this pass will define our adventure. As I trudge through the snow, too exhausted to admire the view, thoughts turn within. Out here, there are no communications, no annoyed feelings at Facebook updates, no anxiety of ignored text messages, no road rage, no stress of the morning commute or sadness of a news story. There is no television bombarding the senses with doom, and no grouchy attitudes of our loved ones. Here, nature is in charge and I realise that I am free. Free to see all these things that cause anxiety and stress back home. Free to be separate from them. Free from fear. I pause in the snow and look up to see fluttering in the distance the prayer flags and the stone cairn that mark the summit of Larkya La.
‘‘ Here, nature is in charge and I realise that I am free. Free to see all these things that cause anxiety and stress back home. Free to be separate from them. Free from fear.
◗ The imposing peaks of Mt Manaslu. The Manaslu and Tsum Valley is a three-week plus trek in the Himalayas.
From left, hikers visit the village of Chhokkum Paro in the Tsum valley during a three-week plus trek in the Himalayas; a local in the village of Namrung, and the Larkya La pass.