“Vassi, dig, dig!” My Mill Valley neighbor and friend David Fairbrother is yelling at me as I slide down a steep, icy slope toward a pile of rocks hundreds of feet below. A few moments before, I was leading my favorite Nepalese trek — an arduous three-week jaunt around Manaslu, at 26,781 feet the eighth highest mountain in the world. We were hours into a long, hard climb that started before dawn and were descending from Rupina-La when a member of our team went off the trail and off the fixed rope. I followed to help him, but he did not listen to my instructions and now here I am—in a near free fall on a pitched sheet of ice three miles above sea level.
“I know I need to dig, Dave,” I mutter to myself, “but first I must turn so I am heading down feetfirst instead of headfirst!”
I kick, grab with my stick and manage to get my feet pointing downslope. Now I need to self-arrest, so I claw at the ice with my hands until I finally come to a stop. All right, I think, enough adrenaline for today. A second later, though, gravity grabs me and I am off again, sliding even faster because it is steeper here. Below, I see a snow ramp and beyond that a number of big rocks.
Even though I am speeding downhill, everything seems to be moving in slow motion. I whiz past two porters, who stare at me like I’m some sort of carnival act. Unless I stop very soon I will hit the ramp, be catapulted into the air and land, most unfortunately, on the rocks.
In what seems an eternity, but is in fact just seconds, I grind to a halt. I lie motionless, catching my breath, collecting my wits and trying to be sure I’m secure. I do a damage check—skin ripped off two fingers from digging so hard in the ice, but nothing broken. My camera is still around my neck. It survived and, unlike me, won’t be sore for the next week.
I give Dave the thumbs-up and slowly work my way up to the trail, thinking about the capriciousness of life in these wild mountains. Just 20 minutes ago I was at the top, at 16,500 feet, taking photos with friends, laughing and enjoying the spectacular Himalayan scenery. Seconds later, I was well on my way to being just another foreigner buried in a grave marked by prayer stones and flags.
Around Manaslu, the Hard Way
Circumnavigating Manaslu is one of the five best treks in the world. It is a challenging route even for experienced trekkers: 23 days on the ground, 150 to 200 miles depending on detours, two high passes, Rupina-La and then even higher Larkya-La, with 10 days’ hard walk between them. The total elevation gain and loss on the trek is nearly 53,000 feet. Geographic Expeditions is the only company that offers treks on this route, and this time out—my fifth—we were a big group: 13 Westerners, 10 Sherpa staff and about 75 porters.
This trek starts at Gorkha—home of the legendary soldiers the British call Gurkha. Then after 10 days we enter an area much like Tibet with gompas (fortified monasteries), chortens (Buddhist architectural structures representing the various elements) and prayer wheels. A few days later we edge along the Tibetan plateau and border, where caravans still come through, and here we are back in Nepali villages and culture. The area had been basically off limits to outsiders for 10 years due to the Maoist insurgency, but now things have settled down a bit, although not completely.
At one point on the trek, we come around a bend in the trail and are greeted by a big red sign reading “Welcome foreigners to our area.” I think to myself, Here we go. We’ve arrived at a Maoist “donation station.”
A number of people are clustered about a small desk set in the middle of the trail. An old woman who appears to be the boss asks me to sign a form and give a donation. I have been traveling so long in these parts of the world that I know “the people” will never see a penny of this so-called charity. The whole thing is a scam, but we have to pay or we’ll surely face trouble farther down the trail. The only question is how much. The woman and I discuss the matter heatedly. She wants a $700 fee from us for entering the area. I say we’ve already paid a fee in Kathmandu to enter the restricted area around Manaslu plus another fee to enter the Annapurna conservation area. This is an additional fee for “the people,” she says. After half an hour and quite a bit of shouting, I am able to reduce the “donation” by half and we are on our way. Our parting words are under our teeth: I say something in Greek about her family and she tells me something in her dialect about mine.
Happy Birthday Before the Storm
The three days after my slip-and-slide descent from Rupina-La are spectacularly beautiful. The going is tough, the days long and the scenery like the Swiss Alps, only here the elevation is above 14,000 feet. We see no one on the trail except for an old shepherd carrying an aging musket, trying to find three lost goats.
We connect to a more common Manaslu route by taking a steep, narrow trail down to 7,000 feet, where the weather is warm and humid. Here, we will follow the Buri Gandaki River for five days before we start our climb again, this time to 17,400-foot Larkya-La. One of our group, Michelle, is celebrating her birthday and what the cook prepares that night amazes even a veteran trekker like me—salad, pizza, pasta and a delicious chocolate cake, which in this remote area tastes as good as a slice from my favorite Marin bakery, Sweet Things in Tiburon.
We are a day short of the Larkya-La when the storm hits. The footing has already been dangerously dicey, the result of a heavier-than-normal monsoon earlier in the year that left in its wake a spate of active avalanche areas, washouts and steep, loose, wet trails that get your heart going, not because of the effort but because of the peril. One missed step and you’re definitely gone, down to the rough river, wherein the next stop will be a few days later in the flatlands of Nepal.
On my previous Manaslu trek, we got hit by the biggest storm of the decade and snow so deep the yaks could not break trail. It forced us back from the pass. I have visions of encountering the same, so we stay put in a small village at 15,000 feet called Samdo and wait. Two days later the weather clears and we set out in earnest for the pass. After spending a night at the extremely cold base camp, we start at three in the morning for a 14-hour up-and-over trek, some of it through deep snow. We arrive at the other side exhausted, but happy and ready to clear the teahouse of all its beer.
The next few days of the trek the going is much smoother because we are now on the Annapurna trail with many trekkers and teahouses, where beer and chocolate are readily available. Everyone is dreaming about Kathmandu, the legendary Yak and Yeti hotel, a shower, a soft bed, and a restaurant in Thamel. As much as I long at this point to get back to civilization, I know the reentry will be difficult. After a long trek, life in the city pales by comparison and I will yearn for the trail, where the day-to-day routine and worries of home are so far way.
All adventures must end, though, and on my flight over the Pacific to San Francisco I gaze out the window in the darkness. My mind wanders back to the trail, the pleasure, the pain and, most especially, the people I met along the way. From experience I know that friendships made on a hard trek in the mountains last a lifetime.
Photos 1 and 2: Sherpa on top of Rupina-La and the massif of Manaslu from the village of Lho.
Photos 3 and 4: Chorten at Samdo and teh valley below Rupina-La.
Photos 5, 6 and 7: Outside Gorkha, a villager collects hay; prayer stones and flags along the trail; porters keeping warm in the early morning chill.
Photo 8: Gompa at the crossroads of the small village of Nyak.