Himalayan highs


I was initially preparing to run the 2021 Everest Trail Race following the 2019 Annapurna Marathon and another trip in 2016. The race was canceled because of the pandemic, but when Nepal re-opened to vaccinated tourists I immediately grabbed the opportunity to trek, since there would be only few other travellers on the otherwise usually over-crowded trekking trails. I had to move fast to get all the shots, tests, visas and Covid forms to get to Nepal on 7 October.

I have kept returning to Nepal, true to the country’s former tourism slogan: ‘Once Is Not Enough’. What draws me here is the hospitality and kindness of the people, the rich cultural heritage, and of course the superb scenery.

The glaciers and high mountain ecosystem are feeling the threat of global warming, but the isolation of being in Nepal‘s Himalayas is unparalleled. And it is even more isolated because of the slump in tourism internationally.

Trekking in Nepal, you get to challenge yourself on the best (and some of the hardest) hiking trails in the world. No wonder Nepal is repeatedly listed by the Lonely Planet as a top destination, as it did also for 2022.

This time around, I wanted to go solo, fast, high and far. I wanted to be where few other trekkers go. So with the trek company that took care of me on my previous trips, we created a customised itinerary and on 11 October set forth with three guides and porters.

We headed east to the Kangchenjunga Conservation Area on Nepal’s northeastern tip, and below the world’s third-highest mountain.

Lodgings on the Kangchenjunga trail are more basic than those on the Annapurna Circuit, but it is more authentic. Rooms and food are simple, there are no printed menus. The dal bhat is the staple, with at least one meal a day. We ate by the warm kitchen fire, often sitting on the floor.

We trekked higher along a rumbling, roaring river and passed waterfalls, streams and other glacier-fed rivers. At Kambachen, a wide-open view showed evidence of receding glaciers all around. Near Lhonak, a lake with icebergs marked the point where the Kanchenjunga Glacier was calving.

The glaciers flowing down from Kanchenjunga and Jhinsang merge here, and it is an awe-inspiring place to be with its primal, unspoilt beauty. We were the only people there.

Next, the high passes of Nango La and Lumba Sumba were the hardest part of the trek. Very few people had used the Nango La trail in the recent past. At the Yangma River a crew from Olangchun Gola was replacing a washed out bridge to reopen the route. They tied four logs roughly together and then walked over the Yangma. This sure makes Nepal an adventure destination in the true sense of the word.

On 19 October were pelted by heavy post-monsoon rain in Olanchung Gola, the snow was deep at  higher elevations so we added two porters with tents and kitchen for the Lumba Sumba traverse. We camped on new snow at Pass Camp and then began a hard 10 hour push breaking trail up to the pass.

As daylight faded, we dug a snow shelf at 5,159 meters and made camp. The next morning’s sunrise view of Kanchenjunga to the east and Mt Everest to the west was other-worldly. The trek team’s determination and confidence made the Lumba Sumba crossing possible.

It felt like a family dinner the next evening on the other side of the pass, when six of us snuggled into sleeping bags on the kitchen floor and benches of our Thudam home-stay.

Trekking has highs and lows, and the next day was the worst. It is impossible to enjoy a long day on a muddy slippery trail with leeches clinging to your pants. You just have to keep on walking with the prospect of a cold beer at our Chyamtang lodge beckoning us.

The final challenge was crossing the Arun, up to Shipton La to Makalu Base Camp. At Num, I said thanks and goodbye to the porters and camping equipment. Only three of us would carry on. There were more trekkers on the Makalu Trail, and several were Nepali families who spoke English. More and more Nepalis are trekking now, and making up for the absence of international tourists.

There are two things about Makalu that were remarkable: the trail steps from Tashigaon to Dobato. Nepali engineers build the best and safest trail steps. Both uphill and down I try to hold a quick pace. My heart is racing, and I literally yip and shout with joy at the challenge.

Pemba Ringin Sherpa and Lakpa Kipa Sherpa own the Langmale Kharka and Base Camp lodges on Makalu who kept the lodges open despite the deep snow just for us. Lakpa welcomed us with a warm stove, delicious dal bat and a can of Tuborg. Their kindness gave me more joy than photographing the Milky Way over Makalu, or seeing a bright, crisp sunrise the next morning.

Nepal, I will keep coming back. Next year, it will be Manaslu and Tsum Valley.

David Pokorny is a 54-year-old American traveller. His nickname in Nepal, ‘Poko’, means ‘pack’.

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