“I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”
In December 2014 a sudden onset of winter prevented me from going to Tilicho Lake and crossing the Thorong La in the Annapurna region. I was snowed in for days in a little village and eventually had to abandon my trek. In spring 2017 I went again, hoping for better conditions.
I’m trekking in the Nar-Phu Valley, a remote and sparsely visited region near the Tibetan border which is open to tourism since 2002. The trail leads along the Phu River in a deep gorge, often the path is very exposed, cut into vertical cliffs hundreds of meters above the river. To the west is Pisang Peak, to the east is Mount Kanguru, the view back south is dominated by Lamjung Himal and the tremendous Annapurna II. I pass through old, abandoned Khampa settlements, with every step I walk north the landscape gets drier and drier.
After two days I reach Phu Gaon a few hundred of years back in time. Dark flat stone houses, prayer flags everywhere, narrow alleys. Next day I hike up the hill next to the village to the Tashi Lhakhang Gompa. The weather is perfect, the location of this small monastery beautiful. The hill is full of Chortens, colourful Mani walls and hundreds of prayer flags blowing in the wind.
Later on I continue towards Himlung Himal (7126m), the path is hard to find, I follow the moraine east. Altitude, strong wind, dehydration and the exertion all contribute to a splitting headache. From the top of the moraine I get my view of Himlung, Nemjung and Himjung, beautiful white mountains, in stark contrast to the brown hills in this dry area.
Next day I walk from Phu Gaon to the other village in this area, Nar Gaon. I follow the valley south, after a few hours the path branches off to the west. The views are spectacular: Kanguru to the east, Lamjung Himal and Annapurna II south, Pisang Peak straight ahead looks rather bleak from the north.
Early afternoon I reach Nar Gaon. I stroll around the village, thinking about the next days. Tomorrow I want to set off early to cross the Kang La Pass (5322m). Then it begins to snow heavily. Oh no, not again. Snowed in again in a tiny village in the Himalaya? Déjà vu.
Next morning the whole valley is covered with a thick layer of snow. All I can do today is stay here and wait. I go for a walk through the village, the warm sun melts the snow quickly. I ponder about my options. Can I do the pass alone in these conditions? Without a rope, crampons, etc? Will I be able to find the way? Or should I turn around? In the afternoon there is some new snow, the other trekkers in my lodge decide to abandon the trek and turn around. I still have hope. If only the snow could stop! In the evening the weather finally improves. The sky clears, revealing Pisang Peak and Kanguru, illuminated red by the setting sun.
I decide to give it a try. Nervously I go to bed this evening, trying to rest for a few hours.
Kang La (5322m)
WHAT A DAY!
My alarm goes off at 3, at 3:30 I start from the lodge. The stars in the sky and my headlamp are guiding my way through the night. I move up the valley quickly, trying to reach the pass as early as possible before the clouds roll in. For some time I follow a little stream, the trail is faintly visible through the snow. After a while I realise that I’m lost. The track has vanished and I got dangerously close to the snow-laden slopes of the mountains to my left. Day is already dawning and I lose precious time looking for the path. I ascend the slope to my right, then I continue west. After a while the narrow valley opens up a bit. At the head of the valley I can now see the trail again, zigzagging up the slope towards the pass. After what feels like an eternity I reach the end of the valley and join the path again! It feels good not to be lost anymore. Now the hard work begins, up the long, steep slope towards Kang La. The last few hundred meters are particularly strenuous, through knee-deep snow. I need to rest a lot, the view east is incredible. Manaslu, Ngadi Chuli, Himal Chuli can be seen in the far distance, Kanguru, Pisang Peak, Chombi and Gyaji Kang are shining bright in the early morning sun.
Finally I reach the pass (5322m), marked by a cairn with a sign and prayer flags. I’m glad I reached pass early enough, hardly any clouds in the sky. And what a view! The whole Annapurna range is unfolding before my eyes. Annapurna II (7937m) is simply breathtaking and dominates the view. Lamjung Himal and the Myabasa Danda ridge to the south-east, Annapurna III, Gangapurna, Roc Noir and Grande Barriere south-west. I can even see the very tops of Machhapuchhare and Annapurna I – a rare pleasure from the north.
I have a long break on the pass, then I start the 1700m descent to Ngawal. The first few meters down are steep and treacherous, over loose, slippery slabs. Very slowly, step by step I make my way downwards.
After a while the slope eases. I take it easy for the rest of the descent, it’s a long but easy stroll down to Ngawal. At 11am I reach Ngawal. It is still early, I don’t feel too tired and so I continue to Manang. I’m now back on the popular Annapurna Circuit, the crowds on the trail are somewhat shocking after the solitude in remote Nar-Phu. But the landscape is beautiful, the weather great, smell of pine trees in the air, the Annapurnas around me.
Great Ice Lake
From Manang I’m heading for Tilicho Lake (4920m). In Khangsar I stop for tea, this place brings back a lot of memories. In 2014 I was stuck here for almost a week because of large amounts of snow and eventually had to go back to Manang. This time I’m more than ever determined to reach the lake. From Khangsar I go on, after a while the infamous landslide area begins.
Quickly I continue on the narrow trail, past bizarre looking rock formations, the river deep below to my left. I stay the night at the Tilicho Base Camp Lodge. Next morning I have an early start, it snowed at night and the landscape looks winterly. Grande Barriere and Roc Noir get closer with each step, the view back on Gangapurna, Chulus and the Marsyangdi Valley is awesome.
Soon the path eases, some more walking on flat ground, then the lake comes in sight!
Finally I made it to Tilicho Lake. The French expedition of Maurice Herzog in their quest to find Annapurna crossed the frozen lake in 1950, calling it The Great Ice Lake. They were disappointed to find a 7000m wall of rock and ice – La Grande Barriere – where they hoped to find access to Annapurna I.
“On our right, instead of Annapurna, rose a gigantic barrier of mountains with many summits of about 23,000 feet. Before us opened out no deep valley but a vast plateau, in the center of which was a great frozen lake covered with snow. On the left, cliffs fell sheer to the immense white expanse of the lake”
Just like 1950 Tilicho Lake is frozen solid. Roc Noir and Tilicho Peak are hidden by clouds, small avalanches roar down the slopes of the Great Barrier. Glaciers reaching right into the lake are cracking loud. I walk around the viewpoint at the south-eastern shore, it is cold and windy and after a couple of hours I go back.
Thorong La (5416m)
Next morning I walk in bad weather from Shree Kharka to Thorong Phedi. I pass Gunsang, Yak Kharka, Ledar, and cross the suspension bridge between Ledar and Thorong Phedi, my turnaround point last time. Now conditions are not much better, but at least the forecast for tomorrow is good and this time of the year there are way more people breaking trail. In the afternoon the weather improves, I walk through another landslide area but the path is well trodden and easy to negotiate. On the slopes above I can see plenty of blue sheep.
This is snow leopard territory and I constantly keep an eye out for the big cat – in vain. Eventually I reach the lodges of Thorong Phedi (4530m), the sky clears for sunset revealing great views back on Gangapurna.
Next day I start at 5 towards the Thorong La Pass. Day is already dawning, making my headlamp needless. It is a bitterly cold, clear morning. I follow the line of trekkers trudging up the hill. Then the sun finally rises over the mountains, warming me up instantly.
At 8 I reach the Thorong La (5416m), notched in between the sixthousanders Khatung Khang and Yakawa Kang. The view from the pass exceeds my expectations. The Chulu Peaks, Putrun Himal and the ever present Annapurna II are towering skyhigh in the east, the Kali Gandaki Valley lies deep below in the west.
It is extremely windy and I start the long descent to Muktinath very soon. I more or less run down, losing altitude quickly. Before noon I arrive in Muktinath (3760m), a sacred place for both Hindus and Buddhists. I spend some time resting and watching the many Indian and Nepalese pilgrims at the main temple, then I go to the neighbouring town of Ranipauwa for lunch.
Kali Gandaki Valley
In the afternoon I continue to the medieval town of Jhong. From the slopes north of Jhong I get fantastic views on the Nilgiris, Tilicho Peak and Dhaulagiri I, even the top of elusive Annapurna I comes into sight.
Walking through Jhong I’m looking for a place to stay the night but all the lodges seem to be closed. I have no choice but to go on with heavy legs. Dead tired and just before sunset I arrive at Kagbeni.
Next day I spend the morning exploring town and its surrounding area. With its ancient houses and beautiful location at the Kali Gandaki River, this place blows me away.
For a short distance I walk north along the Kali Gandaki River to the tiny settlement of Tiri. Like yesterday the weather is just perfect. In Tiri I hike up to the small monastery for more beautiful views. From this vantage point I can peek into Mustang, the former Tibetan kingdom in the north.
Two days later, I’m heading south along the Kali Gandaki to Kalopani. I take it easy and do plenty of side trips off the main trail. In the beautiful village of Naurikot I stop for breakfast and enjoy the awesome views, especially on Dhaulagiri I, the seventh highest mountain in the world.
I continue west from Naurikot and ascend the lower slopes of Dhaulagiri to a small cave and waterfall. From here views are even better. At this point the Kali Gandaki Valley is one of the deepest valleys in the world, with an altitude as low as 2550m in between the eight-thousanders Annapurna and Dhaulagiri.
Khayar Lake (4600m)
From the lodge at Kopra Dhanda I start at 5 towards Khayar Lake, a sacred lake for Hindus at the foot of Annapurna South. It’s a hazy morning, I’m praying for good weather today. The trail to the lake is okay to find, frequently walked by pilgrims. After a couple of hours I cross the snow line, at around 9 I reach the lake at ~4600m. The shore is lined with tridents and bells, symbols of the Hindu god Shiva. I circumambulate the lake, scramble on the slopes around and take in the wonderful scenery. Clouds come and go, allowing close-up views on Fang and Annapurna South occasionally.
Through thick fog I walk back, retracing my own footsteps in the snow. The atmosphere is eerie, the view very limited. Luckily it doesn’t rain.
Next day I descend in the rain from Kopra Dhanda to Tadapani through a dense forest. I pass Bayeuli and Dobato, in the afternoon I reach the lodges of Tadapani, beautifully located at a scenic clearing.
The trek comes to an end with a spectacular sunrise next morning, the Annapurnas rising majestically one last time.