In the wake of much-publicised recent fatalities in the Himalaya, Cicerone author Kat Morgenstern recalls an unforgettable couple of days crossing the Larke La pass on the Manaslu Circuit, near the Nepal-Tibet border.
The knock on the wooden door of my shack comes early, but I have been expecting it, and since there is no way of getting comfortable in my cabin anyway, I’m out of my sleeping bag in under a minute. It hasn’t been a good night. My cold has kept me – and, more than likely, the guys next door – awake for the third night in a row. A bad time for a head cold.
Lying in the utter darkness of this gloomy stone hovel while trying in vain not to think of the various spiders and creepy crawlies of Nepal, it wasn’t easy to get to sleep. The shack’s bare dirt floor, covered only by a dirty tarp, and the stone walls with just a bit of mud smeared over the biggest gaps between the stones, make a perfect wildlife habitat. And the thin corrugated metal sheet that served as a roof has defied the rocks placed on top to keep it steady to rattle loudly in the wind all night long.
To make matters worse, I have had to get up several times to brave the elements. Drinking six litres of water a day is bound to have that effect. And even so, due to my constantly pouring nose, I’m constantly dehydrated. Apparently that’s normal at 4500m but that isn’t making it any easier.
Trying to move as quietly as possible while grappling with the stiff sliding lock of the creaky door in the pitch black was one challenge. Another was avoiding the potholes and rocks that dotted the windswept yard outside in the pitch dark. The outhouse, which could be found easily by the stench alone, even by someone with a heavy cold, was as dismal as everything else in this forlorn place on the edge of the world. The campsite of Dharmashala, our last stop before crossing the Larke La was a memorable place for all the wrong reasons.
During the early part of the night I was just glad to manage my little excursions and find my way to my cabin again. But as the night went on the skies cleared and the sight of the velvety night sky, draped over the mountains made every bit of discomfort utterly worthwhile. The snowy mountaintops seemed to emanate a mysterious silver light, painting a stark silhouette against the night sky. What a huge sky it was! Yet, it was so densely packed with twinkling stars that it would have been difficult to fit another one in. It looked so close, so nearly within reach, that I could have just jumped into the heavens and taken a wander down the milky way.
When I get to the ‘dining hall’ – a roughly hammered-together mess hall with long wooden tables and benches – after my wake-up call, Ramsi and Ramesh are already waiting for me. The guides and porters have spent the night in there. They are hugging their mugs and wearing every item of clothing they have brought along on the trip. It must have been freezing in that big, open space without a source of heat. ‘We will set off in half an hour. Have you got your stuff packed?’ Ramesh asks, with a note of urgency in his voice. ‘Yes, everything is ready to go’ I reply. ‘Good. Ramsi, go and get her bag.’ ‘You should have some strong garlic soup.’ Ramesh says, turning back to me. I have been living on garlic soup for the past few days. They say it helps not only with the cold but also with the altitude.
Today everything is a bit more rushed than usual. The previous mornings we have set off at a leisurely pace, without any sense of hurry, but today Ramesh is itching to go. I don’t mind. I’m glad to leave this gloomy place, and the breaking dawn is spectacular.
The first rays of the sun now hit the very tops of the mountains, making them shine like giant beacons, lighting up our way and casting a sharp contrasting shadow onto lower slopes still enveloped by the night.
Soon our small troop sets off into the breaking dawn. We are walking in silence, engulfed by a strange sense of awe and apprehension. Talking suddenly seems a waste of precious oxygen and full concentration is needed every step of the way.
I pause often, partly to tell my brain to direct all available oxygen to my legs, and partly to savour the scenery. Around the campsite there were still some remnants of sparse vegetation, low rhododendron and juniper bushes, some mosses and tiny plants tucked between the rocks for protection. They were all huddled and covered in furry, felt-like leaves for extra warmth. Gradually, as we ascend along the Larke Bhanjyang pass all signs of life are diminish until the only signs of life are some colourful lichens that decorate the rocks along the way.
The path, known as the moraine route, is a barely visible trail through a chaos of rocks. It is a landscape in the making – the gods (or was it Slartibartfast?) are still in the process of pushing gigantic piles of rocks around to shape this incredible scenery. A landscape factory, so to speak, far removed from the sphere of any and all human activity. The scenery is dominated by glaciers in various stages of their evolution. Some are fully-fledged giant tongues of ice; others have been and gone, leaving just a groove carved through the mountains, and giant boulders ground into rocks and stones.
The moraine we are crossing comprises rocks embedded in ice and frozen sand – a dangerous mixture, especially once the sun warms up enough to melt the ice just enough to make it exceedingly slippery, and, although the path is not that steep, it is hard going.
As we climb, ever more peaks come into view: Kyonggma Kharka behind us, Hindu Himal to the right, separating us from Tibet, Pawar Himal in front. Larke Himal and the north face of Manaslu are always off to our left – a forbidding wall on other side of Larke glacier. At the old base camp hut all signs of life have vanished. Only discarded coca cola bottles and plastic wrappers reveal that human beings have passed by. I feel ashamed. It seems that no place on earth, however remote and pristine, is safe from our plastic garbage.
By now the morning has finally fully broken into a surreal, glaringly bright, crystal clear blue sky. We are lucky to be crossing on such a fine day. But by the time we finally reach the pass big clouds are puffing up above the peaks. We share a moment of celebration and relief as we marvel at the sight of Kangguru, Annapurna II, Himlung, Cheo Himal and Gyaji Kung. After four hard hours we have made it to the top! We hug and cheer and share energy bars in celebration. Yet what really prevails is the overpowering sense of human insignificance in the face of this awesome, raw power of nature. Any notion of ‘man’s dominion over the earth’ must be a ridiculous delusion.
Ramesh scans the sky and looks concerned. Gently he urges us to move on. ‘We don’t stay up here long,’ he says. ’You get headache.’ At 5106m the air is thin. But that isn’t the only reason he’s in a hurry. The clouds that are looming in the eastern sky are foreboding and the wind is beginning to pick up. Meanwhile, the sun has melted the ice to a dangerously slick consistency. Little do we know that the hardest part of the day is yet to come.
The way down from the pass, via a very steep and very slippery scree slope is treacherous. I slip several times, but thanks to Ramsi and Ramesh we all make it safely down, at several points all three of us holding on to each other. Then suddenly, a terrific roar stops us in our tracks. Seconds later we watch a huge avalanche thundering down Salpudanda glacier, followed by another, just minutes later. ’Wow, what awesome power! You wouldn’t stand a chance if you got in the way of one of these,’ I remark, rather superfluously. ‘Yes,’ Ramesh whispers pensively. ‘Very dangerous mountain… Killer mountain.’ Inadvertently, our thoughts go out to the victims of avalanches everywhere. To me they are only names I’ve read in the papers, but seeing the look in Ramesh’s eyes, I am sure some of his friends and colleagues have been among them.
Finally we reach the bottom of the slope, just across from an impossibly bright turquoise lake perched among the rocks. How does it get to be that colour? We cross a stream and suddenly I feel the presence of life again, even before I see it. This early in the season, pre-monsoon, it is just a pale shade of green among the rocks. By a little grassy patch we take a much-needed rest. Needless to say, others have been here before us and their plastic garbage marks the spot. I pick it up and stuff it into my bag, unsure where I can dispose of it properly. There’s really no such place as ‘away’ when it comes to plastic.
‘I could go to sleep’ Ramesh says. He has a great penchant for relaxation. We sit quietly for a while, just listening to the wind, the only sound to break the silence. I am still overcome by the majestic scenery, the wilderness beyond the human scale. We have reached our goal and made it across the Larkye La.
Only a few more days of trekking would take us back to civilisation, yet it seemed like a world away.
While I am pondering the vastness of the mountains and the insignificance of mankind Ramesh is chewing on a bit of grass and closes his eyes.‘What do you think about when you are up there, in the mountains?’ I ask him. He looks at me seriously, and replies without hesitation ‘I just think about getting my clients safely across the pass. I am responsible. I carry that responsibility. I just think about their safety.’ I am humbled as I remember how he has just carried me down that dangerously slippery slope. His pack might be light, but responsibility weighs heavily on his shoulders. I am grateful for his caring and responsible attitude.
Soon after we reach our quarters for the night at Bimtang, the clouds we have watched puffing up over the mountains burst into a tremendous thunderstorm. How easily it could have all turned out so differently.