Those who have read previous blogs may have noticed a common thread that is woven throughout and one that clearly defines my fervent passion; mountains and everything associated with mountains, be it rock climbing, scrambling, snowboarding, winter mountaineering, camping, hiking and trekking. Mountains are mighty, magnificent and mystical. Mountains emanate a potent lure to many. There is something so captivating about looking thousands of metres up at a peak or gazing out from a high perch down to the valley below. Mountains can be dangerous, challenging or simply enjoyable.
Trekking the Annapurna Circuit is not a technically difficult trek. During the peak seasons it can be completed with a small day pack holding nothing more than a few extra layers and a bottle of water. But with the more predictable, warmer weather comes a predictably larger concentration of trekkers. It was by coincidence that I trekked the circuit in January, before the second large wave of trekkers take to the trail and when the daily tea house race begins, a competition for beds. January proves to be the coldest month to trek the circuit which means that cold weather gear, a sleeping bag and even micro-spiked crampons are almost a necessity. Nearly everybody treks in the same direction, anticlockwise, and as the cold weather attracts fewer people this meant that some days we didn’t see a living soul. It was divine, tranquil, absolutely perfect. As a trekking family of four, evenings were thoroughly enjoyed in each others company but despite enjoying a quiet trail, from time to time it is also a pleasure to interact with others and share trekking and travel stories.
Manang, at 3,519 metres is an acclimatisation hub. Above 3,000 metres everyone is at risk of altitude sickness and must take precautions to ensure that they are adequately acclimatised. It is recommended that all trekkers spend two nights in Manang, either taking a rest day or follow a side trail, both of which will aid in acclimatisation before starting the final few days of ascent to Thorong La Pass. Therefore, Manang provided ample opportunity to socialise with fellow trekkers in the evening.
We checked into the Tilicho Hotel and enjoyed a high altitude pint and complimentary popcorn around the face melting log burner that was radiating volcanic heat. The group decided to split for two days and whilst weighing up our options and planning our acclimatisation days we were acquainted with Will, a Australian student who was, until now, trekking the circuit solo. He seemed like a genuinely good guy and accompanied Emma, who was recovering from illness, on a trek to Ice Lake whilst I had plans for a two day excursion to Tilicho Lake.
I had prepared to trek to Tilicho Lake on my own. I woke early and during breakfast, a change of heart and a late entry from Jemima and Thomas meant that we would trek as a trio, I was delighted and thankful for the company. We left Manang at 11:00, the trail crossed the Marsyangdi River and passed through the small settlements of Khangsar and Shreekharka. The trail ran along the snow free, south facing side of the valley and offered views of the icy, desolate north facing slopes that are perpetually sheltered from the sun. Half way along the trail Thomas stopped abruptly, his fight or flight reflex shot into action, like a ninja, his bamboo trekking pole was raised up to where the path dipped out of view at what he believed was a wild bear scampering over the ridge, my heart raced for a second, until we realised it was a yak, but this yak was moving at quite a pace, we jumped into the thicket to the side of the trail as it stomped past and laughed it off.
The sun dipped behind the ridge and the trail was cast into an eerie shadow as we descended to what is known as La Grande Barriere, a 45 degree slope of loose rock and shale that is prone to landslides. The slopes were penetrated by twisted rocky spires that had been sculpted over decades by the rushing waters of the monsoon. We stuck to the track as we traversed the impossibly steep shale until we came to a section of about 10 to 15 metres that had been covered by a recent rock fall. In pole position I put on a brave face, took two steps and suddenly the acorn sized rocks began to slide, I quickly hopped back to the relative safety of the one-foot wide trail wide eyed as adrenaline rushed through my veins, I glanced back at the others. Jemima, the nimble yoga teaching fairy, confidently stepped up to the mark, one slow, gentle step at a time, leaning into the slope, calm and casual as if this was her daily commute she made it across, a pond skater skimming across the surface. Crossing was possible and there was no turning back. Once again it was my turn, I sheathed my bamboo pole behind my rucksack, looked over my shoulder to Thomas “Wish me luck!” Leaning with one hand carefully pressed into the slope I took my first few tentative steps, the loose shale once again started to slide “Slow and careful, you can to it, it will be fine” Jemima said calmly and encouragingly. The sliding came to a halt, my left foot came over and felt for a firm placement, the stones moved again, I genuinely didn’t think I could get across, my heart was racing, I could feel my pulse beating a tribal rhythm, I slowly transferred my weight, more stones came loose and covered my toes, I held my breath, they eventually stopped, a few pebble sized rocks were sent bounding down to the deep valley below. With the focus of a cheetah before making a kill, I slowly inched my way across, for a second I glanced down at the river thousands of feet below and envisaged myself plummeting to the depths, death almost a certainty, attempting to slow a fall down the slope would be futile. Finally and fortunately, I made it across, I was shaking, exhilarated and almost delirious. Few things scare me, I’m not afraid of heights but this did not feel safe and I knew we had to cross back across the following day, but that’s tomorrow, another day, future Luke can deal with that.
The next few minutes were a blur as my heart slowed back to a steady beat. I hardly dared to watch as Thomas followed, but mimicking Jemima’s prudent precision we were united on the other side. “If my mother could see what we just did she would be in absolute horror!” We continued on walking single file along the thin track, we believed we were the fellowship of the ring making a crossing into Mordor. As darkness set in, the Tilicho Base Camp appeared at the end of the valley. We could see the distant trail etching its way up to Tilicho Lake, I was buzzing with excitement for the mornings adventure.
It was the low season and we were the only people at Tilicho Base Camp, it was uncomfortably quiet except for the scurrying of the resident mouse along the dining room floor. The lodge owner stoked up the fire with yak dung and a few twigs that he had carried up the trail. It appears that trees don’t reside at 4,200 meters in the Himalayas. Fatigued due to her inability to acquire sufficient sleep over recent nights on the trail Jemima decided not to continue onto Tilicho Lake the following morning and with Thomas showing signs of acute mountain sickness, dizziness, headache, lack of appetite and mood swings, he decided to follow suit. That meant a solo ascent at the crack of dawn to an altitude that I had never experienced, excellent. I was excited, so much so that I struggled to sleep.
At 07:00 I left Base Camp. The morning light had only just started to illuminate the valley, the clouds hung heavy in the sky, it was overcast, I stood for a minute to take in the surroundings. Man, I felt small. With a concoction of awe and anxiety I set out up the path, it wasn’t too steep but it was relentless and before long the trail was covered with compact ice, I donned the micro-spiked crampons. The diminishing oxygen level became apparent as I needed to open up my lungs and take ever deeper breaths. The solitary stillness was suddenly interrupted by a deep rumble, my hearing focused and my eyes followed the sounds as a cloud of snow plumed into the air, the aftermath of an avalanche. Fortunately, it was across the valley from the path, I continued on. After a series of switch backs I reached a plateau, the snow was deep and untouched, the trail was clearly marked with tall blue and white poles. Mine were the only footprints.
The clouds still clung to the mountains, the sun rarely fought its way through, a gentle snow had started to fall. After 30 minutes making my way across the snowy plateau, Tilicho Lake appeared, completely iced over and covered with a layer of snow, perfectly flat amongst razor sharp ridges. At Manang I was advised that the trek isn’t really worth doing because the lake was iced over, but I was elated to be here in winter, it felt so mystical. I stood with my face nestled into my down jacket and hands firmly in my pockets. The wind had picked up and the temperature had plummeted, I feasted on the view for a few, solitary moments and decided to head back before I lost complete feeling in my fingertips. At 4,919 metres this was officially the highest altitude I had experienced, second to my cycle touring adventures in northern Pakistan and the ride to the Khunjerab Pass. I felt exposed and vulnerable and a long, long way from home but I felt so alive, invigorated, so focused and present in the moment.
I was glad that Jemima and Thomas had accompanied me to Tilicho Base Camp but they would be well on their way back to Manang. As always, keen for a challenge there was a small chance that I could catch them so I set out back across the plateau at a brisk pace. I reached the switchbacks, tightened my rucksack straps, sheathed my bamboo pole and started to fell run down the slope, the crampons holding firmly to the packed ice. Before long I was sweating and down to my t-shirt. In the distance I could see the trail that lead back down from Tilicho Base Camp, there was no movement, no sign of life, they were long gone, I felt such a sense of isolation. I stopped briefly to take on some water and snack on a peanut bar as a small herd of musk deer grazed on shrubs on the barren slopes. I was grateful for the company. I made it back to Tilicho Base Camp in record time, a quick stop and I set out on the trail back to Manang.
I had just ascended and descended approximately 900 metres over 10 kilometres at high altitude, I still had 17 kilometres to Manang. I pressed on and quickly came face to face with my nemesis, La Grande Barriere. This time I had to traverse the rock fall section solo. Fortuitously, our footsteps had left small stepping stone pockets of refuge and I made light work of the crossing. The path climbed and my legs screamed during the ascents. For once in my life I had no appetite and was beginning to fatigue but the sun was shining, the views were spectacular and I had covered a fair distance in a short time, “What’s in your head that puts you in such a fine mood captain?” Said Mr. Gibbs, “I’m catching up!” I recited to myself in the voice of Jack Sparrow.
Thomas and Jemima had stopped for lunch and as I passed back through Khangsar, in the distance I spotted the royal blue and cyan of their down jackets. The final few kilometres to Manang were extremely tough, I was physically worn out. I was surely delighted to be back at Tilicho Hotel, hiking boots off and perched next to the wood burner as I annihilated a plate of egg and veg noodles followed by a delicious hot apple crumble.
What an incredible and invigorating experience. Trekking to Tilicho Lake was such a good decision, one that I can thank Michael for recommending, and although it was such a shame that Thomas and Jemima were unable to join me for the entirety, the solo adventure surely satisfied my venturous appetite.
That evening I felt quite shaken, my appetite never really returned, perhaps I had pushed the boat out slightly too far. Luke Woods, “The mechanical man” as Will had once referred to me, had met his match. Six consecutive trekking days covering a total of 124 kilometres to Tilicho Base Camp followed by a seventh demanding day to Tilicho Lake and back to Manang, a total of 27.1 kilometres with an ascent at high altitude. My endurance had been pushed extremely close to the edge. But, no rest for the weary, tomorrow we would set out for Churi Ledar, thankfully a relatively shorter day. One bonus, I was perfectly acclimatised for the next stage of the Annapurna Circuit, and the crowning jewel, Thorong La Pass.