The name of the game on the Manaslu Circuit is acclimatization: getting your flatlander body conditioned to survive in the low-oxygen environs at the top of 5160m Larke La pass. Staying healthy, uninjured, warm and dry also count for a lot. After leaving the Tsum Valley we started a six day climb along the Budhi Gandaki from 1800m to 4460m at Larke Phedi with the pass, and the dangers associated with it, always in mind.
Up we went, counter-clockwise around the Manaslu Himal with the towering centerpiece, Mt. Manaslu (at 8163m the 8th highest and 4th most deadly mountain in the world), and Manaslu North (7157m) often visible to our left and a variety of lesser peaks on all sides. In order to start pushing our bodies’ limits and to avoid sleep-induced respiratory problems, we hiked high during the day and slept low at night.
During a rest day in Samagaon (3520m) we hiked along the Manaslu Glacier to 4200m on the Manaslu basecamp trail. As we rested at our high point we listened and watched as pieces of the glacier broke apart to plummet down toward the turquoise blue Birendra Tal below. The sound of a groaning, cracking glacier as it warmed in the eastern morning sun was only surpassed by the booming crash of these periodic avalanches.
The next day, after reaching Samdo (3875m), we hiked straight up the nearby hill through low-lying, fragrant juniper to an altitude of 4500m. As was the case on most days, clouds started to roll in and the wind picked up significantly by the early afternoon whipping the ubiquitous prayer flags into a frenzy. Before climbing down we were able to get our first glimpse of the pass, a formidable jumble of loose rock and drifted snow in a landscape formed by glaciers long ago.
The last stop before the pass was the stone huts of Larke Phedi, an outpost with no other purpose than as a launch pad for crossing Larke La. The afternoon in Larke Phedi was spent with another steep climb, this time to 4800m. The views to the pass were partially obscured by cloud and mist adding to the ominous sense that we were heading into a place where mistakes could be quite costly. That evening Braxton was stricken with a bout of food poisoning and the next day’s pass attempt looked uncertain. Nonetheless, we set the alarms for 3:30am, and, Braxton having miraculously recovered, awoke from fitful sleeps to pack, sip some tea, gag down a chapati and boiled egg and head into the pre-dawn darkness on a slow but steady pace toward Larke La.
Within three hours we’d reached the pass and by 8:15am, having taken the requisite photos, we started a treacherous descent down the west side. Ice-covered rocks, drifted snow, and loose gravel contributed to many a stumble mostly landing on our backsides and none of them serious. We avoided turning ankles or breaking bones during the four hour downhill run and pulled into Bimthang (3590m) just after noon ready for a hot meal and our first hot shower in over a week.
The final day of walking took us on a relatively gradual descent through stunning forest scenery to the trail head at Dharapani from which we made our way by road back to Kathmandu the next day.
Crossing Larke La — a literal high point in the trip — gave us a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, but it was, at the same time, anti-climactic and felt like a milestone marking the final stages of the trip we’ve been on since mid-January. Oddly, the ease with which we crossed the pass was almost disappointing: the much-feared disasters did not materialize and no stories of derring-do or perseverance in the face of tough odds emerged from the experience. Yes, thankfully! But the notion that the trip would be all downhill from here (back to the flush toilets and varied menu of Kathmandu, back to the wired world, back towards home via the clean, organized countries of Europe, back to our own beds, a car, a refrigerator) brought with it a feeling of loss; specifically, the loss of a sense of adventure that comes with entering the unknown.
Resigned to the fact that now we are heading toward the known, we are really looking forward to getting there!
(We should add that a guide is required for the Manaslu Circuit, and we were accompanied by a great one, Jaya Bhandari, and a strong porter, Tara. These guys were a tremendous help and the trip would not have been as successful or enjoyable without them. They were both great with the boys. Jaya is also a naturalist, birder, yoga instructor, and reiki healer, all of which came in handy throughout the trek. If you are considering a trek in Nepal, get in touch with these guys through http://www.thirdpoletreks.com or directly with Jaya at firstname.lastname@example.org)