THE ADVENTURES OF ANNAPURNA pt5 - Tilicho Peak
Day 9 - Manang – Kangsar – Sri Kharkar – Tilicho
I was sad to leave Manang and it’s peanut butter on toast. Glancing behind as we took the left hand path (that no one else was taking) I felt a twang of regret that maybe, possibly, I won’t have the pleasure of visiting this little dusty town and Gangapurna Tal again. I also had another, very good reason to be a bit sad to leave, I just didn’t know it yet. Our ‘easy’ day would soon turn into a mammoth effort and a day that would actually make a damn good attempt at killing me.
Just an hour along the path that no one else seemed to be taking, we come across Kangsar, a village of slim, but peculiarly tall wooden buildings stacked together like some habitable totem pole on the edge of a cliff. Our itinerary says this will be our next overnight and it is 9am. That clearly is not going to happen. Do we want lunch? Not really, no. All the same we climb an engineering triumph of a handmade, freestanding wooden staircase up several floors into the smoky dining room of a teahouse. The HSE have clearly not made it this far into the Himalayas. The views are incredible, if you can glimpse them through the grimy windows, right down the valley to Manang. But best of all, the teahouse owner has the most welcoming and jolly spirit, busily boiling a kettle over the fire for tea and ensuring Dilli, Gyalzen and Nima are filled with noodles.
We, noodle-less, enjoy our tea in the company of a young and incredibly fit German called Roland. Roland is fast on his feet, having started a few days behind us, is off to Tilicho Peak like us, and without a doubt will complete the whole circuit and be back home in Europe before we’ve even dried our socks out. It’s a pleasure to have his company today as he joins us as we decide to continue to Sri Kharkar where we stop yet again for tea and a spot of lunch in the sunshine. Delicious wafts of garlic emanate from the kitchen as pots and pans are bashed and clanged and all are singing, laughing and obviously having a lot of fun in their work. Lunch is thukpa, a tasty Tibetan garlic soup with noodles that is both filling and feels like it could heal all ill, lets hope huh?
Then a discussion ensues. We have made it this far by early lunchtime. Our next stop is only 45 (Nepali) minutes away, but it’s one and only hotel is shut as it’s still snowed in. The next stop, and the end of the path, is Tilicho Base Camp. Tilicho itself will be a much more difficult climb as it is also under very heavy snow, snow that is being repeatedly heated and then frozen as each day passes, increasing avalanche risk. The going will be slow. To dedicate extra time to the climb we need to reach Tilicho BC today.
So with about four hours of daylight left we decide to press on, a chancy move considering how far we need to go and how the snow is slowing us down. This decision leads us across vast snow-laden landslip fields on a pitch so steep it gives even me vertigo. Looking down the 1000m+ drop to the river below my brain can’t quite fathom which way is up and I have to remind myself repeatedly to give my feet, and where I’m putting them, my full and total concentration. This path is just breath-taking, taking in bridges over deep ravines, steep inclines, and rapid descents with scenery almost painted in rose gold and grey against a bright blue sky.
And then, just in the blink of an eye, everything changed. It can and does rapidly in the mountains, but it felt as though these massive lumps of rock had had enough of us crawling over them for one day and like a cat lashing out, it all changed.
Dilli shouts. I’m in front of him but not too close so I don’t catch what he says, I stop and turn to face him. As I do so a bloody great rock screams down the hillside just a step in front. If he hadn’t shouted, if I hadn’t heard, I’d be hurtling down the mountainside with it, quite possibly cartwheeling a fair amount of blood, all the way to the river so far below. I don’t even get the chance to emit any four letter words before Dilli shouts to run. I don’t wait around to see the clatter of rocks behind me, hearing them is enough. If I have any clean pants in my backpack I will need them tonight.
I’m rattled. Susan is rattled. Dilli and Gyalzen are clearly a bit rattled. The going becomes relentless. Deep wet snow. Loose rock. One step forward, one massive slip backward. We are tired, cold and the light is beginning to fade as the cloud closes in for another night of unseasonable snow.
When we finally stumble into base camp Tom has tea and a smile waiting. Exhausted and strangely exhilarated by the experience of a very near and sudden death, I am just happy to be here. I don’t care how rough it is, how cold and damp it is, that there is no running water, mobile signal or that they’ve run out of everything but super noodles. We got through it, we did it and we are here. Tomorrow brings Tilicho Lake, a climb Dilli is unsure is actually possible given the conditions.
Day 10 – Tilicho Lake
Susan remains rattled and quiet after yesterday’s experience. Over breakfast it becomes clear that today’s climb feels a bit beyond her capabilities, seemingly even doubting the rest of the journey. Our night wasn’t particularly restful either, cocooned in every piece of clothing inside down sleeping bags and encased in a freezing wooden box of a room, the only running water dripping through the ceiling above onto our beds, our sleep was punctuated by the cold and noisy toilet stops by base camp’s other trekkers, the dawn greeted by a chorus of expectorating. We’re all tired (it’s 5am after all!) and given the physical and mental exertion of yesterday it’s no wonder she’s feeling a bit down. But she’s a trooper, has made it this far despite the blister, the blood pressure, the rocks, ice and snow and I know she isn’t beaten, even if she can’t be convinced of that right now.
With a huge bowl of sugar-laden porridge weighing my belly down, we pick our way slowly up a flank of Tilicho. The snow is unprecedented, right up to my butt at points, providing a nice little impromptu sit down. My inability at snowboarding has actually paid off here. Having spent much of my previous boarding holidays in the alps picking my way out of deep snow when I’ve accidentally fallen off-piste, I’ve seemingly developed a technique. I reach the shoulder and enjoy the views right down the valley, across the landslip inclines of yesterday, and realise that tomorrow we’ll have to do all that again in reverse. I’d better enjoy today.
The path, turning from a nice amble into scree slope, then snow covered scree, into hairpinned snow-covered-scree changed what I knew would be a bit of a difficult climb into a battle of determination. I forge ahead with Nima – who tells me I’m ‘strong like Sherpa’ - making good time despite the conditions underfoot. A young lad, solo walking, is struggling for breath, coughing and not looking too clever. We stop to give him water, some paracetamol for his headache and tell him to descend immediately. The effects of altitude are playing out in front of me and I feel so sorry for this guy. What we put ourselves through for the freedom, the views, the escapism that the mountains can offer. We reach the ridge brow, finally, and there in front of us stretches snow plain after snow plain, nothing in this harsh white light giving away scale or depth – which in hindsight I can tell you is vast and deep.
It took Nima and I another hour or so to cross this frozen ocean, wading in snow up to our thighs to reach Tilicho Lake, allegedly the world’s highest lake of this size at 4919m/16,138ft (despite, strangely, there being bigger and higher lakes in Nepal and Tibet). It has taken 6 hours of heavy exertion to get here and what a sight to behold… or at least it must be when it’s not frozen and snow covered. The blank whiteness in front of me is a bit of an anti-climax to be honest. But sitting lakeside, sharing Tibetan bread with Nima, the place is windless and silent except for the creaking and cracking of the ice in the glacier above. It shows it’s true beauty.
We stay for an hour soaking up the sun and the silence before realising that we have everybody’s food with us and that they may also be hungry. So we begin the long slog across the snow plains. At which point Tom makes an appearance on the horizon, accompanied by Gyalzen and the young lad from earlier, who seems to have perked up (in likelihood this could well be down to the paracetamol, but he really should have descended) and we stay at the lake for a while longer. This, as it would turn out, would be another dick move on my part – but more about that in a later post. Susan, apparently, descended a while back with Dilli and is now sitting freezing her arse off at base camp waiting for us.
It’s 2pm and no one is moving so I suggest a turnaround immediately. In reality the two hour descent will probably be more like four in this snow and I don’t fancy those scree slopes in the dark. So we set off wading and sliding all our way back to BC, Dilli meeting us close to base camp with hot lemon tea and a steaming pile of chow mein wrapped in foil. This could be the greatest meal I’ve eaten. Boots soaked, tired, dirty and feeling very pleased with myself, we roll into BC as night falls. We may have to spend another night battling the cold in this rank establishment but I’ve proven to myself that I am stronger, physically and mentally, than I’ve ever given myself credit for. I just don’t know how the mice survive up here.
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