Mountain Love Affair

One visit to the Himalaya will never be enough.

Back in 2011, when I naively agreed to my husband Barry’s suggestion to trek the Annapurna Circuit in the Nepal Himalaya, I had no idea what lay ahead. A seasoned mountaineer, Barry considered the 23-day circumambulation of the Annapurna Massif a jaunt. My longest multi-day backpack trip to date was 10 days rambling through the hills of England’s Lake District with luggage delivered each evening to a cushy B & B.

“And, if we’re going to travel all that way, we could add the Annapurna Sanctuary to the itinerary,” he said.

“Another 13 days?” I gasped. Not to be outdone I countered, “Well, I’ve always wanted to see the forbidden kingdom of Upper Mustang. It’s 14 days trekking and tenting. Are you up for sleeping on the ground?”

“We really should include the classic Everest Base Camp circuit,” said Barry. With trepidation I agreed.

So, at the age of 66, we shouldered our packs and set off for a

three-month trekking adventure in Nepal.

We hoped our regimen of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, combined with four-hour summer pack-laden hikes, would prepare us. Thirteen hours to Hong Kong, then on to Kathmandu.

ANNAPURNA HERE WE COME

Many hours in a private car over pot-holed roads from Kathmandu left us relieved to lace our boots and start trekking.

Sharing muddy trails and suspension bridges with school children, ponies and porters, we gained an appreciation of Nepali flat, ukalo, oralo, a little bit up, a little bit down.

Thorang La, the trek’s high point at 5,416 m was only days ahead. Mild headaches and shortness of breath couldn’t dampen our delight in bridges festooned with flapping prayer flags and yaks roaming the heather covered hillsides.

Day 13 we grumbled out of sleeping bags, donned headlamps and set off at 4am in the footsteps of our guide, Raj Neupane. At 7:30am we celebrated at the summit, Thorang La, with laughing trekkers and singing Nepalis.

To avoid the three-day hike along the gritty road to Jomsom we opted to catch a bus. We came to regret this decision: the teenaged driver fancied himself as a NASCAR race driver, barely negotiated the wild switchbacks above the Kali Gandaki River, the world’s deepest gorge!

Back on the trail we left the relative peace of the Annapurna Circuit to merge with crowds on the six-day Ghorapani to Ghandruk trek. We joined mobs of tourists trudging up Poon Hill for sunrise photo ops of Annapurna South and Dhaulagiri. Then for a few days the trail wound down through farms of millet, rice and mustard. Blissfully back off the beaten track, we ate Nepal’s best chocolate cake at Chhomrong’s Cottage Bakery.

Instead of continuing to Naya Pul, the traditional end of the circuit, we detoured to Tadapani. Our plan: continue to the centre of the Annapurna range to experience the 360-degree view of the glaciers and peaks of the Annapurna Sanctuary from Annapurna Base Camp. Once there, our spirits were dampened by the descent of a dinnertime fog, however, aging has its benefits: “Lucky I had to get up to pee at midnight,” I said, sidling up to Barry, his camera set on a tripod. “If I were younger, I might have missed this view.” Miraculously, the heavens had cleared.

Two days later we guzzled Everest beer on the patio of the Evergreen Hotel in Jihnu Danda before luxuriating in the local hot pools. Next stop, lakeside Pokhara. Five days of laundry, reading and hot showers. Five nights of pizza, wine and gelato. I felt fit, confident and ready for the next challenge.

ON THE ROOF OF THR WORLD

Our route to the capital city Lo-Manthang snaked along the ankle-jarring pebbles of the Kali Gandaki riverbed from Jomson and over several 4,000-metre plus passes.

Six mornings of blasting winds, sand grains biting at our skin, swathed bandit-like

in neck tubes, hats, sunglasses and long-sleeved shirts. Six nights of camping

in dusty packed-earth courtyards, our tents protected from fierce afternoon

sandstorms by mud-brick walls. Every step was worth it.

Long days of ukalo, oralo through the fascinating geological features of Upper Mustang brought us to its capital Lo-Manthang, at an altitude of 3,840 metres on the high desert of the Tibetan plateau along the border of Nepal. Surrounded on three sides by Tibet, politically part of Nepal, it’s geographically and culturally Tibetan; travel to the area is restricted.

On our morning walk along the outer perimeter of the city of Lo-Manthang we witnessed women gossiping at the communal water source, trekkers sipping steaming tea by their tents and expedition cooks lined up at the kerosene depot vying for rare fresh fruits and vegetables.

Walking back to our tents we heard the din of cymbals, whining trumpets and the rhythmic pounding of drums. Buddhist monks were preparing for Duk Chu, the next day’s festival of dances and prayers marking the coming of winter. Sixty percent of the one thousand resident Lhobas would depart for the warmer climes of Kathmandu and India.

We too, headed south to the ancient monastery at Ghar Gompa, past the red cliffs of Dakmar, followed by several more days retracing our steps to Jomson for a return flight to Pokhara. More relaxation and refueling prepared us for the next leg of our journey.

THEN THE FUN BEGAN

Instead of the planned flight from Kathmandu to Tenzing-Hillary airport in Lukla, considered the world’s most dangerous airport, inclement weather forced our pilot to set the 18-seat plane down on the isolated dirt track at Lamidanda village. From there we whirled through darkening skies in the last helicopter available to tiny Phakding village where we began walking.

Accustomed to minimal crowds in the Annapurna area and virtually none in Upper Mustang, Barry and I, who had chosen to travel with only a guide and porter, were rudely awakened from our serenity on the Everest Circuit. Sullen groups of 30, passing with not so much as a Namaste or a nod, jammed the pathways.

Five days in, near Lobuche village, we wandered in silent vigil among stone memorials to climbers who had perished on Everest. Lobuche was as far as I went. The following morning, exhausted by 50 days of trekking, I chose to descend to Pheriche village with our porter, Khil, while Barry and Raj climbed 5,644 metre Kala Pattar for a view of Everest. Together again for a late dinner, we decided it was time to head back to Kathmandu, then home.

In 2013, prior to our next planned trip, Barry ruptured his Achilles tendon. After much discussion I made the decision to return to Nepal on my own to volunteer as a teacher and return to the medieval kingdom of Upper Mustang. A chance visit to a small village changed my life and consequently the lives of the villagers whose home was at the epicenter of the 2015 earthquake. Since then Barry and I have trekked the challenging Manaslu Circuit, visited the Tsum Valley and with the help of countless family, friends and Rotarians have built a school. We will return in October 2020 with a team from Vernon’s Kalamalka Rotary to rebuild two homes ruined in the earthquake.

Read about my solo teaching and trekking adventure

NEPAL ONE DAY AT A TIME

A Himalayan adventure Travel Memoir with a Humanitarian Twist

available on Amazon and in bookstores.

Find out more at pattishaleslefkos.com


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