Manaslu 2012: The Trek

The monsoon was slowly coming to an end, but the weather was still wet and hot in Kathmandu when, on the 1st of September, Altitude Junkies set out on the Manaslu expedition. We were 13 western climbers, including the expedition leader, Phil Crampton. For once, I was not the youngest of the group, with another 25-year old – a whole 8 months younger than yours truly – joining the team. At least half of the climbers, including the other female member, E, were planning to make the ascent without using supplemental oxygen. After freezing and turning around at Camp 4 in 2011, I had no such ambitions: my circulation issues will, probably, never allow me to climb above 7500 meters without O2. My only wish was to see if, after my most recent injury, I still had it in me to reach another 8000-meter summit.

The Drive to Arughat

A long and infamously bumpy truck ride took the Junkies to Arughat at about 500 meters above sea level, where our Sherpas immediately went to work setting up tents in the rich, heavy afternoon air. It was impossible to stay inside, however, as one felt as if their skin was turning liquid and melting off them. It would be that hot and humid for at least another 3 days of the trek, until the team reached the cooler air of higher elevations; we were keen to get going.

I had done the Manaslu trek the year before, and considered it to be the most beautiful and unspoilt of the popular trekking routes in Nepal. I had hoped naively that if I surrounded myself again with the lush post-monsoon colors, the tall waterfalls and the loud, powerful rivers, I could, perhaps, turn back time and start afresh right where I had left off. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Part of a very strong and well-prepared team, I felt I was its weakest link. I missed my strength and conviction of the year before, when I found it relatively easy to follow the fastest climber in the group. Now, I staggered, doubting every step.

Minor Obstacles 🙂

‘I have read about you in Mark Horrell’s book about Manaslu 2011,’ E told me after a couple of days of trekking.

‘And what did he say about me?’ I wondered.

‘He said you changed shirts every day. And that you were very fast…’

‘Well, you’ve seen the T-shirts… but I don’t think I can show you me at my fastest, unfortunately…’

The trek got cooler and, thus, easier, after the team had reached Dyang (Deng), where I bathed in the cold river by the village, washing off at last the heat and the fatigue of the previous days. Walking back to the campsite in my wet clothes, the refreshing evening breeze on my skin, I smiled because I was feeling the first shy touches of cold again – this meant that I would soon be in my element.

 

Another day of trekking took us to Namrung, and one more – to Samagaon at 3500 meters above sea level, where we would spend three nights acclimatizing before following a steep muddy trail up to Manaslu Base Camp 1400 meters higher. This being my second time in Sama, I was pleased to see how it had changed. For instance, the tired little lodge where we stayed in 2011 was turning into a much larger structure of grey rock and timber. Although still in the process of construction, the rooms were made available to our group by the lady of the house, from under whose traditional dress was showing a new pair of Nike’s.

Samagaon from the Trail to Base Camp

There was not much to do in Samagaon, except wait, drink sweet milk tea and read. Luckily, I remembered the way to the beautiful glacial lake at the foot of Manaslu called Birendra Tal, where I went for a swim a couple of times, the more reckless of my team mates joining me in spite of the very low water temperature. Phil and most of the Sherpas left for Base Camp a day ahead of the rest of the team, to get the place ready for our arrival. I must say, I dreaded following them because in retracing my footsteps from the year before, I was walking along the same path that had led a much stronger me to a very painful failure. What was I expecting now, I, whom I hardly recognized: slow, and clumsy, and awkward, and miserable, and ‘whole’ no longer? I was a ghost in a rusty machine, which refused to perform up to standard – like one of those outdated robots from the sci-fi movies of my childhood. At base camp, I would sit in my tent every night for the first week, with tears painting faint lines on my face for no particular reason. I don’t believe I cried out of self-pity; I was simply a mirror to the rainy weather, mourning the passage of time, the weakening of ties, the disappearance of things from my body and of warmth – from my heart; things loosing support, things missing, things not being missed… It was a bad time, that first week at base camp. I couldn’t wait for the climbing to start, for the moving to replace the thinking.

The Trek

It’s the beginning of September in Kathmandu. Ten climbers are having early breakfast at the cosy courtyard of a boutique hotel in Thamel. Only a few of them know each other and the rest are strangers – the eight men and two women who form the Manaslu expedition team.

They have a long day ahead of them, with a bumpy truck ride to Arughat Bazaar, where they will spend the night before starting the trek to the base camp of the world’s eighth highest mountain, Manaslu. The hot and humid walk through the post-monsoon Manaslu Conservation Area will take the team from 300 metres above sea level to, they hope, 8160 metres – the summit of ‘The Spirit Mountain’.

September 2nd They arrive in Arughat at night and sleep at the local lodge where pink and yellow neon lights shine lazily on dusty electric fans, old TV’s and plastic flowers growing out of concrete walls.

I spread my mat on top of the damp linen and beg myself to fall asleep as soon as may be: I am desperate to start climbing in cold, cold snow, which, breathing in this heavy air, I can only dream of.

September 3rd They wake up to a lovely breakfast prepared by the expedition cook. While the team leader and the sirdar hire porters, the climbers take pictures of the town which was no more than a hot black hole when the truck dropped them off at the lodge the night before. Now, in the morning, it looks less surreal and mysterious.

I go for a short walk. Kids wave at me, heavy mud sticks to my trekking boots, and the trees are ridiculously green.

Porters leave Arughat for Soti Kola and the climbers follow. They cross a river and several streams; this requires taking their boots off. The inhabitants of the villages they pass ask them for things or simply stare – this area in contrast to the Annapurna and the Everest regions sees relatively few foreign visitors.

I don’t recall Soti Kola very well but it must have been small, hot and humid – like all the other villages we’d passed that day. All I remember is that my tent there was full of all kinds of insects. Normally, it would bother me but after a day of walking under the glaring sun on dusty trails I didn’t care about who/what I was sharing the tent with.

September 4th They cross three rivers on the way to Machchekola – without taking their boots off or even rolling up their trousers anymore because the last of the monsoon showers has been following them all day long, and they are all soaking wet anyway. Late in the afternoon they arrive in the village and wait for the porters with their duffel bags, tents and food at a tired little lodge. Rain water drips from their clothes onto creaking wooden floors; quiet conversations start to flow, damp books emerge slowly from shapeless backpacks.

I don’t want to talk and can’t read. The warmth my body is trying quickly to generate is not enough to dry the clothes I am wearing. I dislike the sick, tepid feeling this weak warmth is giving me so I leave the lodge and stumble down the trail to the river. The water is fast, and loud, and cold, and I step into it with pleasure, then, lie down behind a large rock which hides me from the current. The sky is grey and heavy above me and the river’s deafening voice makes my own quickened breathing barely audible. For this brief instant I am just another rock in this river – with a pair of eyes.

I return to the lodge with wet clothes sticking to my pale skin. The porters had arrived and our tents have been set up. I change into a dry jacket and trousers and join the rest of the group for dinner. Except, I am still a rock in that roaring river which now somehow runs through me.

September 5th They walk up and down following the river for hours towards Jaghat. They day is unbearably hot. Today the group enters Manaslu Conservation Area. The villages here look cleaner and the air is more transparent due to the region’s relatively high elevation.

Jaghat is famous for… leeches, which I dread. I’d spent the previous couple of days worrying about the night in Jaghat: in my imagination, I wake up in the morning with leeches, black and plump, sucking on the veins on my arms and legs.

I can’t help smiling when after dinner I take my sandals off in my tent and discover a tiny leech trying to make itself comfortable on one of my toes. I pick it up carefully and lower it onto the wet grass outside my tent. Then, I point my headlamp at my foot and notice a thin streak of blood on it. It doesn’t hurt – not unless you look hard enough.

September 6th Deng – that’s the name of the town the group is trekking to today. They cover 24 kilometres of very steep terrain in just over six hours. The going is very tiring still but less so than during the first days of the trek: at 1800 metres above sea level the air is noticeably cooler and the path underneath their feet is drier than at lower elevations.

Tibetan influences make themselves apparent to the team the moment they arrive at Deng as instead of the usual Nepali ‘namaste’ the villagers welcome them with the Tibetan ‘tashi delek’. Prayer flags, almost entirely discoloured by the sun, decorate the entrance to the village. There is no lodge for the group to have dinner at – instead, there is a small wooden building with a long and narrow table near the camping field where the climbers’ tents would be set up for the night.

I can hear the river far down below the village. I rummage through my duffel bag for shampoo, soap and a towel and begin searching for a path towards the water which I find sooner than expected: the raging mountain river has a quiet sleeve for me to hide and bathe in. I undress and lie down in the clear ice-cold water, looking at the green slopes of the gorge I’m in. I am not cold – I am the cold.

September 7th Namrung at 2700 metres above sea level is the team’s destination for the day. To reach it they will travel through what their leader calls ‘The Enchanted Forest’, where there’s monkeys, deer and even, apparently, unicorns. The path is truly beautiful, and the lack of encounters with unicorns and fairies doesn’t make it any less so.

It is quiet in the forest; I can hardly hear my own footsteps. I don’t see any magical creatures but to me their absence is magical. Although I still can’t see Manaslu, I know I’m getting closer to it, and that feeling of anticipation, this quiet before the storm, is magical, too.

September 8th and 9th The last stop on the team’s trek to Manaslu Base Camp is Sama Goan (3500 metres). They will spend two days in the village to allow them to acclimatize to altitude: their bodies will start to produce more red blood cells to help carry the oxygen, scarce in the thin air of the mountains, to their organs and muscles.

Sama Goan is quite large for a mountain village: there are several lodges here, a helipad, a monastery… Manaslu, up high, is hiding behind the thick clouds of the retreating monsoon.

I am exhausted. Gasping for breath with my mouth open wide, my mind in blank, I keep climbing and descending, climbing and descending up and down relentlessly steep slopes between Namrung and Sama. I arrive at our destination second, behind a Finnish marathon runner, the other woman on the team. Together we settle into the room we’ll be sharing for the next two or three days.

Our 170 porters carrying more than 5 tons of gear and food it total arrive later in the day. We unpack our duffel bags, eat, talk and read at the lodge.

I can hear the river again. I bathe in it the day after our arrival at Sama Goan, looking up towards where I think – hope – the summit of Manaslu is: the clouds are still hiding it from me.

September 10th The group is still acclimatizing at Sama Goan, while their sherpas and porters establish base camp on the mountain a thousand metres higher.

I have seen the mountain at last. At dawn monsoon clouds parted for a few minutes, and it was there – tall, beautiful, and distant. Manaslu was looking down on me, and I knew that I would never reach its summit, that it would always look down on me.

September 11th The day is grey and rainy. They have to climb over a thousand metres higher, to 4900 metres above sea level, to Manaslu base camp. Impatient, they don’t take long to ascend the moraine following a path between low clouds. Sleet and colourless stones welcome them to their home on the mountain for the next month.

I arrive at base camp first. Yellow and orange tents of climbing teams from all over the world are the only bright spots on the horizon. There must be about a hundred western climbers on Manaslu this season; climbing sherpas and base camp staff are many more.

I crawl into my spacious three-person tent, spread out my sleeping bag over the foam mattress and sink into the warmth of its light, puffy down. There’s a cold mountain spring running outside my tent which I listen to, lying motionless… nowhere. I know nothing about the people I will be climbing with: there has been much talking and joking but little has really been said; I can’t see the mountain I feel I must – but won’t – summit and I know it is not the clouds that obstruct the view, it’s something inside me; I can’t understand what I am doing at Manaslu base camp listening to this mountain spring, staring at the orange tent fabric over my head, thinking these thoughts. Yet, I still hear the river running inside me, and I whisper to myself:

‘I am merely a shadow, born of sunrise

And my touch to you, I know, is nothing…’