I just returned to the grid after an incredible 15 days well off the beaten trail trekking the Manaslu Circuit with Vince and Gabe. Occasionally during the trek I’d find myself thinking ‘how the hell could I ever condense this word-defying experience into a blog post?’ And now, sitting in a small cyber cafe in Pokhara and getting to listen to my Spotify playlists for the first time in a while, I’m feeling that pressure!
The basics: Trekking is THE thing to do in Nepal. I’d never attached that verb to anything outdoorsy I’ve done at home, but my understanding is that trekking differs from backpacking in that instead of traveling on trails created for the sake of hikers and sleeping in a tent, trekking generally follows historic routes that link villages and you sleep in small ‘tea houses’ instead. Of course as trekking has become more popular and begun to generate huge amounts of income for Nepalis, trails and teahouses have been established in areas that otherwise wouldn’t support habitation.
I’d talked to people and spent a little time researching Nepal treks, but coming into this I felt pretty underprepared for the sheer physical endurance that it required. I probably shouldn’t have spent my last few weeks in Portland solely going out for ‘goodbye beers’ instead of exercising at all. Granted, Manaslu is one of the more difficult, remote treks in the country and we did it in a relatively short time period without porters. But seriously. I don’t know why no one talks about how physically challenging long treks like this are!
The Manaslu Circuit Trek is in west-central Nepal and borders Tibet and Annapurna. It circumnavigates Manaslu, which at 26,759 ft (8,156m) is the 8th tallest mountain in the world. I’m not exactly sure, but I believe the trek is around 110 miles (117k) which really feels irrelevant because the elevation changes- not the distance- are where the intensity came from. We spent 14 nights out, and had a few acclimatizing rest days built in as we neared Larke Pass (16,752 ft, 5,106m).
[I’m intentionally skipping the names of local places, but if you want actual specific or are thinking of doing this trek, talk to me.]
We had a marathon travel day by taxi-bus-micro from Kathmandu at 6am to the end of the road around 8pm. I’m using ‘road’ in the loosest sense of the word. I know that I have irrational fears (spiders, falling in the climbing gym, etc.) but I know the statistics and very real danger of taking buses in developing countries over monsoon-swept crappy mud roads that wind along mountains. I was mostly convinced that I wasn’t going to survive that day. Thank god for Vince and Gabe laughing it all off with the sort of fatalistic ‘if Ganesh wills it’ attitude they’ve acquired haven taken these buses for a few years. At one point the bus was stuck in deep mud, leaning over a cliff (no joke, sorry mom.) and in fight or flight mode, I slid out the window. That ride deserves a whole chapter.. all of the trekkers we ran into were talking about how terrifying it was. I spent the last several hours zoning out in a happier place (now onto the ‘freeze’ response), assuming what I hope looked like a casual version of the crash position from those airplane emergency talks.
So I was thrilled when I finally got to travel by my own power along the trail. Vince maintains that the miserable bus day was his plan so we’d all be happy to walk. We walked a lot. Because Manaslu is a restricted region we were required to travel with an official Nepali guide, but it really wasn’t necessary because Vince and Gabe know Nepali and are experienced trekkers. Our Sherpa guide, Ang Chirring didn’t speak English and hadn’t been there, but was a nice guy who we essentially paid to tag along to comply with permit regulations. He loves babies and little kids more than just about anyone I’ve met, and wherever we stopped for lunch or for the night you could find him in the kitchen, talking to or helping out the family there and holding a cute bachchha he’d found.
At the moment, Manaslu is not a popular trekking route so the villages at lower elevations maintain a subsistence farming lifestyle that hasn’t yet been hugely affected by Western influences. Electricity is minimal and unreliable if it exists, and comes from local hydroelectric projects. Cooking happens over wood fires, schools are far apart and inadequate, and access to medicine and family planning is minimal. Large numbers of villagers leave to work in Kathmandu or abroad, so it seems that the overall population size has generally remained stable. Goods and food that can’t be produced in the villages (especially propane and concrete) are carried for days along the same trails we hiked on the backs of porters or donkeys. Villages along the trekking route naturally do better economically, and some ‘ghost villages’ are near empty as young people all leave to find work elsewhere. It’s not uncommon for families to live separately as the men work abroad or as seasonal porters. Villages are largely Buddhist, with some Hindu, and some obvious examples of Christian missionaries having been there. As we neared Tibet, the art, language and people displayed more Tibetan influences because massive amounts of refugees have fled to this area of Nepal following the Chinese takeover and oppression.
I learned a lot traveling with an anthropologist and researcher who spoke Nepali, and felt so much gratitude not just to be in such a beautiful place, but to have access to intimate conversations that gave me insights into the local culture I never would have had as just a tourist trekker. We talked with a porter who earned $6 a day carrying over 100lbs and hopes to become a climbing guide,
a father who cooked lunch for us in their firelit home and explained that he was one of very few living people who spoke his native language.
A Gurung village woman who over local millet beer, told us the story of her love marriage as a teen and how she and her now husband had to brew a batch of raksi (wine) for their parents, whose approval of the raksi signified approval of their marriage.
Breakfast was always chapatti with eggs, tea, and a spoonful of peanut butter/Nutella we’d brought from Kathmandu. We woke with the sun, ate, packed and pooped and then hiked until hunger or an inviting village convinced us to stop for a lunch break. Lunch and dinner was almost always dal-bhat, which is eaten at least once a day by Nepalis. For about $1.80 it’s a plate of rice (kanaa), veggie curry tarkari (usually steamed spinach, plus potato), cracker-like bread, lentil soup, and spicy pickled achar. Best part is free, unlimited refills of everything which are really pushed on you. Some of the first Nepali words I learned were “just a little bit” and “enough.” In higher altitudes I discovered yak cheese and started ordering things like fried macaroni and yak cheese with egg and potato. Covering so many miles each day at a high altitude meant that no matter how much yak butter tea we drank and deep fried Snickers we ate, we all lost weight. Lunch might include some awesome aged yak cheese and chapatti and our carefully rationed snacks from Kathmandu were dried fruit, nuts, Snickers and electrolyte replenishments. There aren’t really opportunities to buy anything along the trek.
It’s hard to write about hiking. We went up, we went down. Knees hurt, we UV-filtered water constantly, talked about poop and dating and what we’d eat when we got home (Captain Crunch). We hiked past hundreds of waterfalls that rival anything in Yosemite. Most of our path was along a river full of constant, unrunnable rapids. In what felt like the majority of the path, tripping in the wrong direction would mean almost certain death. I saw a heavily laden donkey fall and we saw a monkey plummet down a cliff, but no humans fortunately. Everything was massively gorgeous and completely defies my ability to describe. The first time we saw the Himalayas was when the dawn broke through clear skies and we jumped out of our sleeping bags at 5am to watch the stars disappear and the jagged snowy giants around us illuminate one by one. It was absolutely magical and cold and enlivening and joyful. We spent the second half of our trek in the mountains and I honestly felt a jolt of awe every time I saw one of the many peaks. They’re beautiful and daunting and change constantly throughout the day. They hide behind clouds and reveal mountains beyond mountains as we kept climbing. I didn’t take many pictures because I knew nothing would ever do the scenery justice.
We saw at most maybe 12 other Westerners trekking a day. I’m so fortunate that English is the common tongue of travelers and Nepalis (following Nepalese). We met a sweet Swiss couple, a fast solo Russian, a trio of Australians who reinforced my belief in Australians all being awesome, and many others crazy enough to want to be in that corner of the world. All of our guides and porters hung out together in the warm kitchens where the food was made and delivered our dal-bhat refills to the tiny dining rooms where we ate. We got cheap triple rooms with walls made out of stones or plywood, read Malcolm Gladwell, played cards and entirely skipped basic hygiene. A week in I paid $2 for a hot bucket shower after a long day and felt like paradise scrubbing down while watching the alpenglow fade on the Himalayas through a hole in the stone wall. Life was good.
Manaslu is a major mountaineering feat, attracting dozens of international climbing expeditions each year. It’s the fourth most dangerous peak to climb after K2, Nanga Parbet and Annapurna, having claimed 59 lives since 1950. While we were there a veteran Japanese climber was killed in a fall. Most of the climbing teams we passed brought it up, and had conflicting stories about what had happened. Only just now I read news reports confirming that Yoshimasa Sasaki, 59 had fallen into a crevasse and his body was recovered a few days later. I couldn’t get the Japanese climber out of my mind while hiking. Still can’t, actually.
It was really cool to get to talk to foreign BAMF high altitude mountaineers. Shockingly, they communicate like regular people and were happy to chat with lowly trekkers like us. Very cool to hear their stories. Especially my favorite, an exhausted Austrian who missed the summit and said that he’s going back to Kathmandu for ‘eating, drinking and f*cking.’ The only successful climber we talked to was a solo woman from Iceland who wasn’t sure if she’d set a speed record or not and is my new hero
Back at our relatively low altitude, the high point of our trek was Larke Pass at 16,752 ft. (5,106m). It was my first time anywhere near that altitude. My first night sleeping high (around 11,000 ft I think) my heart rate was around 95, up from usual 60. After that night I took Diamox to help with the side effects, and aside from hiking incredibly slowly, I was fine. High altitude made my big muscle groups feel like they were being compressed when I tried to move, and I felt like a goldfish flopping around outside a tank. I’d collapse each water break, feeling like I was trying to breath through a straw. I think that Vince and Gabe were in better shape maybe. Likely my backpack was too heavy too. I don’t think altitude related illnesses are a big risk for this type of slow hike over a pass.
What was an issue for me was the sun. Even with putting sunscreen on every break and trying to cover my skin, there was no way to stop it. I’d gotten a decent gash in my shin, almost to the tibia a few days into the trek and a doctor I chatted with recommended I start taking Doxycyclin so it didn’t get infected at altitude. Fortunately the wound was fine, but the Diamox + Doxycyclin combo left my Irish-skinned self way too susceptible to sunburn. I’ll spare you a description and photo of a severely sunburned and blistered lip, but know that it sucks. A lot. Given how far we were from medical care though I’m so grateful that a blistered lip and Gabe’s sore Achilles tendon were the worst that happened to us. It was a scary and humbling experience to be aware of our vulnerability when so remote. I felt empowered but also completely inadequate with a Wilderness First Responder certificate days and days away from a hospital.
This trek was the type of thing that will go down as Truly Amazing Life Experiences. I think I’ll still be processing what I saw for a while. Being exposed to the level of poverty and lack of economic opportunity out in the villages is difficult. I’m grateful to have gotten to be exposed to cultures so different from my own. Physically I’ve never been in better shape and am proud of how much I pushed myself (meaning how much Gabe and Vincent pushed me). I’m happy and tired and blistered and sore. Flying solo for my first time abroad in the touristy lakeside city of Pokhara, in central west Nepal. It’s been nice to enjoy luxuries like music, a Western style toilet (more on that later), and variety in my diet. I miss dude time with Vince and Gabe, and my first night in my own room without two stinky boys was sort of lonely. Fortunately, making friends has never been a problem for me and while I’m relishing the solo relaxing time, my next post will likely be about some of the great conversations I’ve gotten to have.
Life is good. I am healthy and happy and adjusting to backpacking life has been easy so far. I continue to think about and miss everyone back home. Love you all. If you actually read this whole thing you are a marathon reader and deserve a medal. Go watch a cute cat video or something. I’m going to go tend to my bleeding lip and eat Korean BBQ.