MANASLU, NEPAL — Desperate for a deep inhalation of oxygen, I forced myself to put one boot in front of the other to continue up the rocky incline. The sooner we reached the top of the pass, the sooner we could lose altitude on the other side. A confusion of fluttering prayer flags indicating the topmost point of the trail appeared tantalizingly close in the clear mountain air. But we estimated it would take another half hour to reach the 5,106m summit of the pass, Larkya La, the highest spot on the 16-day circuit around majestic Manaslu Mountain.
For years I had trailed behind Barry, my fit mountaineering husband. This time it was me who led the way. Never before during many years of hiking in Canada and several months in Nepal had this ever happened.
But, because I had experienced nausea and headaches when we had reached 3,700m a few days before I had taken Diamox, or acetazolamide, a drug used to prevent and reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness. Feeling no ill affects, Barry had not.
I stopped to catch my breath. When he caught up, I noticed he seemed unusually tired.
Above: Breathtaking beauty surrounds those who challenge this circuit breaker.
“We didn’t do enough acclimatization,” he said. “I don’t feel well. I’m worried.”
Even though we are both slightly over 70 years of age, I had never heard Barry talk this way before. Shocked by this uncharacteristic turn of events, my heart rate quickened.
“You go ahead and I’ll walk at your pace,” I said. He began to walk off slowly up the long incline toward the prayer flags and the pass. I followed.
Having added a side trip into the Tsum Valley onto the regular route of the Manaslu Curcuit we had been trekking and camping for 19 days. Accommodations on the Malaslu Circuit and in the recently opened Tsum Valley are rudimentary, at best, not yet up to the standard of the more popular Annapurna and Everest Base Camp treks. We opted to camp for our own comfort as well as to provide employment for locals. Our crew consisted of two guides, Tula and Dipak, and our Sherpa cook, Kusang. Lapka and Bishal, young fathers both in their 20s, acted as kitchen helpers and porters. Umesh, an astonishingly fit teen, joined us as a third porter. Myla, our charismatic, slightly older donkey drover, had friends in every village. Our entourage felt like being part of an expedition with Sir Frances Younghusband, the British explorer who marched across Asia to Lhasa, Tibet in the late 1800s.
We rose at 6 a.m. each day, breakfasted on Kusang’s eggs and pancakes, then shouldered our packs to walk at least four hours before lunch. We crossed long trembling suspension bridges hanging over rushing rivers. We shared narrow trails with heavily laden yaks and ponies, up and down steep hills, bordered by vertical cliff on one side and alarming precipices on the other. The crew would scramble ahead, set up a makeshift kitchen and miraculously have a hot lunch waiting for us.
Above: Patti steadies herself as she treks through the Manaslu Mountain range.
Usually after two or three more hours of afternoon trekking we reached our next camp in time for journal writing and photography closely followed by dinner and an increasingly early bedtime.
Three days before our attempt at the pass, we had reached Samdo village. Perched at 3,785m it was the perfect spot for a rest day to help our bodies adjust to the altitude. We planned to follow the mountaineering adage, “hike high, sleep low.” Mistakenly, as I was feeling fatigued, we hiked higher only the second day. On the first we lazed around camp, napped and did our laundry. The arrival of a helicopter to rescue a young Danish woman who had succumbed to altitude sickness unnerved us, but we decided to continue on.
After a sleepless night we pressed on to Dharamsala, at 4,460m, a desolate congregation of huts before the pass. The expected trekking time listed for foreigners going over Larkya La Pass from Dharamsala to Bhimtang, the only settlements on either side of the pass, is nine to 12 hours. We had no idea how long we would take. With a challenging day ahead we got up horribly early, packed in the dark, drowned cold muesli with hot Nescafe and hit the trail before dawn. On the trail by 4:30 a.m. we witnessed a breathtaking sunrise over Manaslu Peak before finally reaching the pass.
Feeling dangerously exhausted, we stopped amid the jungle of prayer flags for photos, water and chocolate. Barry looked grim. My concern deepened. But, once we started downhill on the other side of the pass, Barry’s breathing, his spirits and his pace increased. My worries switched to my knees. Valiant efforts to remain upright through slippery pebbles on the steep downhill sections of the more than 2,000m descent irritated my knees, challenged my balance and tried my patience.
Four hours later a miracle appeared in the distance. Our solicitous cook Kusang and thoughtful helper Bishal approached from below bearing a thermos of hot mango juice. They had already been to camp and were returning with refreshments to fortify us for the last hour. We reached Bhimtang in nine hours. Not bad for a couple of 70 year olds. Kusang rustled up an early supper. We were asleep by 7 p.m.
Above: The hike completed, the guides and clients dance for joy.
After two more relatively low-altitude, gentle trekking days, we reached Tal. That evening we celebrated together, crew and clients. I washed down a veritable feast of freshly cooked chicken, potatoes, greens and rice with my new cocktail of choice, Kukuri rum with Fanta. We treated the guys to raksi, the local home brew. As per Nepali trekking tradition, Kusang produced a chocolate cake that went down like velvet. We laughed, sang and danced the night away.
Months later, Barry still attributes our lack of stamina and comfort on the ascent to Larkya La to the lack of acclimatization hikes.
One high hike each day for the last five days before the pass would have made a huge difference. Lesson learned.
We’re ready for the next adventure.