Monday, 22 December 2014

Breaching the Unknown Part 4 - Conquering the Pass

Khoo, a local Manang dish
            Day 9 – Nothing like trying some yak meat first thing in the morning. A dish local to the Manang region, Khoo. A rice and potato porridge with fried yak meat and chives on top. An extremely simple dish, but so flavourful. A prime example of how the mountain villages make the most of what they have to work with. I found the yak meat similar to beef with a stronger flavour, slightly gamey. Comparable to the difference between lamb and mutton. 
              Leaving Yak Kharka walking through pastures with yaks grazing (the literal translation of Yak Kharka, yak pastures), it was a short day and reasonably effortless day compared to previous days. Over a couple dodgy looking bridges and Thorong Phedi appeared around the edge of the mountain. We decided to spend the night here instead of going up to the high camp, only about an hour further up a steep path.
              Day 10 – Rest.
              Day 11 – Five in the morning, that time when you would rather throw your alarm across the room. It was hard to get motivated, the rest day had taken my momentum and the poor weather didn’t help. It had rained recently and the clouds threatened it might again. I couldn’t justify sitting around another day, I was anxious to reach the pinnacle of the Annapurna Circuit and conquer the Thorong-La Pass.
At the pinnacle, Thorong-La pass 5416m
              First stage was to climb the steep path to high camp, recommended to do the evening before. Now I see why, as doing this first thing in the early morning was, well let’s say not ideal. A quick tea break, then the final two hour ascent of six hundred meters to the climax. My quads burning, my chest heaving, but as the mountain of prayer flags came into view, I was flooded with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. A fresh wave of energy flowed through my veins as I almost broke out into a run to reach it. One of my most rewarding accomplishments.
Taking in the valley on the way to Muktinath
              A celebratory shot of whiskey was slugged back as the photo shoot began, everyone getting their fair share of pictures at 5416 meters, crossing the Thorong-La pass. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t on our sides obscuring the view with thick cloud cover. Sitting around enjoying the atmosphere of such a tremendous achievement, after thirty minutes a light snow began to fall and it was time to accept that the only way forward was back down.
              Three hours of constant downhill put the strain on my knees to stop me from running forward. At the beginning it was barren mountain desert, void of most life. It had a quiet beauty of its own as I lost everyone in the thick fog. The clean air, arid landscape and noiselessness of it all cleared my mind, taking my thoughts into the vast expanse of nothingness. Breaking through the fog into the valley leading down to Muktinath was a view meant only for the eyes. Almost a shame to even bother capturing it on film.
Yak Donald's combo
              Day 12 – Originally planning on renting mountain bikes to carry on to Jomsom, there was none available due to off season. Oh well, what’s one more day of trekking. Only downside was for the most part we were back on the developing road with minivans, cars and bikes honking away, disturbing the peace. An annoyance I had almost forgotten about. A short stop in Kagbeni, the entrance to the Mustang region of Nepal (special permits required to go any farther), to eat at a restaurant I heard so much about, Yak Donald’s. One of those things you have to try. I ordered up the Yak Donald’s combo, a yak burger with yak cheese, fries, salad and sea buckthorn juice. Simply put, McDonald’s has some competition. Much better food, if your one who considers McDonald’s food.
              The next morning we caught a bus from Jomsom back to Pokhara since everyone was running short on time left in the country. This was one the best experiences of my life, physically and mentally pushing myself to limits I was unaware of beforehand. The people, culture, scenery of the Himalayas is incomparable to anything I’ve come across before. The food humble and unique to the region. This is an experience I wouldn’t wish on anybody, but would recommend to everybody.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Breaching the Unknown Part 3 - Tilicho Lake

Day 6
               Day 6 – It’s recommended that once you reach Manang that a day is taken to rest and acclimatize to the elevation. Since I made it here in five days, one day ahead of the guidebooks I probably shouldn’t have left at seven in the morning to take on the most difficult and dangerous side trek on the Annapurna circuit. They also recommend not trekking this section by yourself. Since I happened to meet another group of seven trekkers who were going in the morning, I had two choices. Skip acclimatization or trek by myself the following day, so off I went.           

Kids of Khangsar

                Before the most strenuous part of the day, we had stopped in the small village of Khangsar for a quick snack break, all craving for a snickers. Once we left, it was almost constant climbing on a hard to decipher path until we reached the landslide crossing. This said to be the most dangerous section of the trek. It was a potential death trap where one slip or accidental waver with the weight on your back sending you off balance to a gravelly doom. The gravel slipping beneath my feet to the abyss below, threatening to take me with it if I didn’t keep moving forward. The path at points only as wide as my foot having to place one directly in front of the other. If there wasn’t enough to worry about even though it was an adrenaline rush, a constant eye and ear had to be aware of the potential of falling rocks from above. Making it safely across, a reasonably smooth path led us into the Tilicho Base Camp for the night.
                Day 7 – Sleeping in slightly for the first time since setting out, it was a ten o’clock start for an eight hundred meter climb. The steepest and most constant ascent, trekking only uphill for three hours with about one hour worth of breaks. The air becoming so thin, the lack of oxygen kicking me in the chest today. I’d never seen my chest heave up and down so much and rapidly attempting to catch my breath but never quite succeeding. It was a demoralizing climb at points, thinking you’ve been climbing forever and gone so far when around every bend it just got steeper. A pounding headache came on quick, but luckily with the help of a couple peracytamols, it faded just as fast. This is clearly why acclimatization is important. Finally flat land was under my feet and Tilicho Lake (one of the highest lakes in the world, 4950m) appeared before my eyes. The turquoise pool fed by a glacier, surrounded by snow-capped mountains was one of the most beautiful and rewarding sights I’ve ever embraced with my own two eyes. Truly seemed like the home of a mythical being where one would pilgrimage to.
Inuksuk at Tilicho Lake
               A plan to light a fire and cook some instant noodles for lunch was put out by the wind and the light drizzle of wet snow that was beginning to fall. In the meantime while everyone made their attempts at lighting one, I built an Inuksuk and decorated it with some prayer flags. A little bit of Canada left behind mixed with Nepal and Tibet. Once the idea of lunch had been forgotten, we made haste back down to our lodging as the rain was picking up. Strolling back into base camp was a relieving feeling after such a demanding and rewarding day. Dinner and the warmth from an actual fire was in order. It would have been an extremely trying day had I been by myself. Sometimes the helpful push from your group is needed besides my own drive and stubbornness.
Crossing the land

                Day 8 – It was time to get back on the initial Annapurna circuit via the side trail leading up to Yak Karka. First things first was to follow our way back and over the landslide area again. This time it seemed a lot less daunting. Once across the path forked, one going back where we had come, the other heading up and around the side of a mountain. Randomly there was what seemed like an abandoned village, run down and lifeless except for a few livestock that were still residing in the barns. Over the last peak for the day, and I began to descend through a forested section with a scent at first I could not decipher. Constantly inhaling deeply through my nose, I realized it to be the aroma of apples and cinnamon baking. Odd but pleasant.
Seemingly  abandoned village

                At the bottom of the valley I crossed over the Thorong River with only the last stretch along the road to Yak Karka ahead of me. I met a local from Kathmandu who was sitting on the bridge with a notebook. At first I thought maybe he was an artist, but as we made the last hour hike together he explained his job, which had me a little jealous. He would spend about 15 days each month trekking from Besi Sahar to the last town before the Thorong-La Pass inspecting the bridges and reporting back if maintenance was needed. Once I reached town and slipped off my boots it was relaxing to see a group of locals crowded around the television trying to keep up to date with the FIFA World Cup, a great way to end the Tilicho Lake Side Trek.