High on free­dom

An ex­haust­ing and chal­leng­ing Hi­malayan trek puts life into per­spec­tive for one ad­ven­turer

Central and North Burnett Times - - TRAVEL - BY John McCutcheon

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.

PHOTO: JOHN MCCUTCHEON

◗ The im­pos­ing peaks of Mt Manaslu. The Manaslu and Tsum Val­ley is a three-week plus trek in the Hi­malayas.

PHO­TOS: JOHN MCCUTCHEON

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.

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