Nepal, Langtang National Park
Rocky Road to Langtang
They say that time slows and that you see your life flash before your eyes when death approaches. I can’t vouch for the abridged version of life flashing by in slideshow fashion, but I can vouch for time slowing down as death began knocking at my door once again. It is strange, but I was even aware of the time lapse as it was happening yet I didn’t to dwell on it for long. I was too busy trying to live just a little longer. Yet in retrospect it all happened rather quickly. Who’s idea was it to motorcycle, trek and summit a mountain in Langtang National Park was it?
I had heard Spike (Herman Vera) yell my name over the howling wind, with a warning in his tone. I was tired, visibility was shit, and I was wedged into a narrow “V” shaped gully that lead to a shear and slippery drop. I needed to work my way down towards the drop and at the same time extricate myself from the gully to find a way across a number of parallel gullies in order to reach a ridge that would take us back to the main trail, yet the tone of Spike’s call forced me to turn my head and look over my shoulder. To my horror I saw a new and immediate problem. Spike had dislodged a large boulder and it was bouncing its way down the narrow gully that I was stuck in. As time slowed, I tried to work my way up the wall of the gully to no avail. The ground was made of stones and dirt that had been washed loose over time, plus a layer of fresh snow didn’t help my footing. As I looked up and saw the boulder gaining speed and height with each bounce I realized that I was not going to make it out in time so with reflexes that felt like molasses, I did what instinct forced me to do. I simply stopped thrashing and waited for the boulder to reach me.
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Total Cost Range of this Activity is: $
I suppose I should start from the beginning in order to put this tale in context. It all started like so many adventures, with an email. Spike had emailed me long ago and asked if I would join him in Nepal around March 2009 for a trek. Naturally I agreed and then forgot about it. Fast forward and I am in Thailand and hunting for a flight back to Kathmandu.
My return to Kathmandu was not the culture shock of past returns. I had joined Spike at the Delhi airport and we flew in together. His timeline was so short that I had no time for reminiscing about the good old days. We exited the airport, got a taxi to the Kathmandu Guesthouse, grabbed the first (and over priced room) and then went out to arrange a TIMS trekking card and a bus ride to Syaphru Besi (the Langtang trek trail head 175 km & 14hrs by bus north of Kathmandu). We were informed that there was a bus strike (naturally), but that it might be over the next day. Given my experience with Nepal, I opted for plan B. We rented two motorcycles for a week, and then I took Spike shopping for some simple trekking gear and a parting steak dinner.
The next day we were up early and confirmed that the bus strike was still on, so went and picked up the motorcycles (250cc Pulsar street bikes). We then purchased some tie-downs to strap down our tiny day packs, and then exited the city to the north. The ride from Kathmandu to Trisuli (about 75km) was on “paved” road. At least paved by Nepal standards that is. The ride was bumpy, dusty, dirty, loud, and a good warm-up for the hard road further on.
From Trisuli to Betrawati (25km) the road was a winding country dirt road. Then from there to Dhunche (50km) it was a winding, rising, dusty, and rocky hell. When we reached Dhunche (at the Langtang National Park check point) Spike was exhausted and in awe of the route. He could not stop repeating how happy he was that we had not taken a bus on that road. I had to agree. The roads had never been comfortable or safe, yet in the past year a number of new wash-outs had occurred that were huge in size. In many places the road was literally two mud tracks of various levels that wound along shear and precipitous drops. It was scary enough crossing them on motorcycles. It would be madness to cross in an old bus with balding tires and top-heavy with passengers sitting on the roof.
We reached the town of Dhunche near sunset and had to push on if we were to reach our objective of Syaphru Besi before dark. We stopped at the north side of the town to secure our tie-downs before starting on the last long winding section. Spike didn’t believe me when I told him that the road would now go from bad to worse. He said that it was impossible for a road to be worse than what we had ridden so far. I laughed as I pulled away and an hour later he shook his head and agreed about the road.
Around 6:30pm and 1,000 rocky meters lower in elevation, we crossed the bridge at the base of Syaphru Besi (1460m) in darkness, and then pulled into the Buddha Guest House for the night. It had only taken us 11 hrs to cover the 175km from Kathmandu. I was happy with our progress, while Spike was in a daze.
We Start the Trek
The next morning we picked up a few sweet emergency supplies (chocolate bars) and set off early. I had done this trek the previous year so was comfortable with the route and was determined to push the pace in order to get Spike to the village of Kyanjin Gompa (3900m) within two days. It was an aggressive plan since Spike had been at zero altitude (Miami) only 48 hours ago, but his limited vacation time left me with few alternatives.
We spent the next two days trekking through one of the best (and fastest) cross-sections of central Himalayan environments. The area below 2000m is mostly sub-tropical (characterized by Sal forest), then from 2000-2600m the area becomes hill forested (chirpine, rhododendron, and Nepalese alder). The area between 2600m and 3000m is then covered mainly by oak forest that gradually transitions into old growth silver fir, hemlock, and larch in the lower sub-alpine zone (3000m – 3600m). Then around 4000m the juniper and rhododendron shrubs give way to the alpine grassland meadows and rolling hills at the base of snow-capped 5000m, 6000m and 7000m mountains. All this diversity occurred over our two-day trek to Kyanjin Gompa.
As with the rapid diversity of the forest, the weather also changed rapidly. The first day started sunny and hot and then ended rainy and cold at the Riverside Guesthouse. The second day started in fog, changed into windy over-cast skies, and then ended in a zero visibility snow storm. When we arrived at Kyanjin Gompa late on the second day, Spike was exhausted and cold. He entered the Super View Guesthouse and immediately crawled into a bed, fully dressed, and curled up under two quilts shivering.
I let him rest while I went out and made small talk with the owner and his guests; a group of Nepalese World Wildlife Fund representatives who clearly had never visited the wilderness before, let alone a remote trekking guesthouse. They were high caste Nepalese engaged in International NGO activities as are so many.
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The next morning I ushered Spike into the kitchen building for a hearty breakfast and pep-talk. The plan was to summit Tsergo Ri (5033m) if Spike was up for it. He bravely agreed to the challenge and by 7am we started the next chapter of the adventure.
The difficult part about the summit attempt the previous year had been finding the trailhead that leaves the valley and heads due north along a ridge line and then to the west slope of the actual mountain. This year we had little trouble finding that trail head. Little is not the same as any trouble though. In this case I turned up a dry river rather than the correct wet river that was an additional 50 meters to the east. I realized my error quickly and tried to cut my loss by crossing the frozen upstream section rather than doubling back to the lower crossing area. Naturally the ice gave way under my weight and I ended up with one boot completely soaked and the other just soggy. I splashed my way through the cold water and then turned to Spike to tell him the way was now clear of ice. He gave me a questioning look and then started down the trail towards the downstream crossing. I shrugged and sat on a rock to ring out my socks and drain my boots while he forded below. That was my first warning from the mountain gods that maybe the day would include some hurdles.
After a long wait and a very long walk by Spike (he had practically walked to the foot of the valley in order to avoid crossing the fast moving river over slippery rocks) we continued up the nearby hill and up onto the northbound ridge. This ridge has steep drops falling away on both sides, but is wide enough on the top to walk comfortably until reaching the remains of old stone Sheppard’s huts. After a snack we started up the more difficult winding trail that climbed up a steep hill beyond the huts. Once at the top of this rise I considered our options. The trail was no longer clear at this elevation. It was now obscured by snow that got deeper as we ascended. I circled to my left to observe the trail that I had followed the previous year and determined that it was not safe. Even in the previous year when it was clear of snow, it had been a bit hazardous. It is only about a foot wide and runs along the side of a steep hill and then drops into a small meadow containing a second set of stone huts. But with the snow the trail was hidden and the side of the hill was simply one steep slope. Rather than risk a sliding free-fall into the rock gully far below, I opted for a straight up approach.
We worked our way up the slope to the top of the hill and then along the top until we reached a large boulder field. At this stage we walked, jumped, hopped, staggered and picked our way from boulder-to-boulder. The footing became more treacherous as the snow got deeper and our options diminished. Finally we reached a spot where I had to make another decision. Spike was panting hard and worried about slipping and breaking his leg in one of the many hidden snow crevices among the boulders and I was concerned by the lack of a trail. We could either try to go straight up the mountain (requiring crampons which I had foolishly left behind at the guesthouse based on the comments from the owner) or I could zigzag my way across the face, through the deep snow, and over to a set off boulders that I knew from experience contained a trail that lead to a pre-summit ridge an hour from the summit. Alternatively we could turn back.
I opted for the direct face option. After only a short time I was completely winded and discreetly changed my plan by cutting horizontally across the face of the mountain towards another boulder field to my left. The going was exhausting as each step had to be kicked into the deep snow. I was doing what all mountain climbers hate to do. I was creating a new trail at altitude and in fresh snow.
After an endless slog we reached and then cleared the boulder field to gain the pre-summit ridgeline. Here we rested and talked about the summit that was visible a deceptively short distance away. I told Spike that it would take us half an hour to reach it (even though I knew it would be at least an hour) and that it was now just after noon, so we had lots of time on our hands. After a short rest we began the ascent. It started easily enough but soon we were struggling up a nearly vertical slope, climbing from boulder to boulder and zigzagging where possible. Once again the snow had made the ascent difficult. I knew there was an easier trail that went up the backside of the mountain, but it would be impossible to find and follow it in this case, so the alternative was to keep an eye on the summit and simply work our way there using the snow both a benefit and a hindrance. Snow is a benefit because it provides good footing on steep slopes when steps are kicked into it but also it is a hindrance because creating the steps is exhausting. Never the less, we worked our way up the face in ever shorter sections until we were simply taking ten steps and then stopping to rest.
A very long hour later we cleared the last boulder and could see that the summit was an easy 50m up a gentle rise. At this stage Spike sat down panting and spent. I took some time to talk with him and reassure him that we were less than a minute away from our objective. He kept panting and told me he was done, that his fingers were tingling, that he was dizzy and exhausted, and finally that it was too hard, as tears slid down his cheeks. I pointed to the summit and said that he could tell me all about it over there. I then got up and moved off towards the summit to wait for him.
Finally, with a staggering push Spike got up and crossed over to join me on the summit. I patted him on the back and let him rest while I took photos and video. As Spike regained his breath he started to become cocky and make jokes about his conquest of the mountain and how easy it was. I felt uncomfortable with the conversation and changed the topic by pointing out that we should save the conquest speech until we were safely back and that the weather was changing quickly and that we needed to get the hell of the mountain quickly. He looked around and realized that we were now enshrouded in clouds. The sunny day had just disappeared and our visibility was down to 50m and the wind was rising. We then set out for what I hoped would be an uneventful and fast descent. Unfortunately, I had also neglected to bring my GPS with me (again based on the reassurances from the guesthouse owner that the day and trail were clear) so knew that back-tracking in poor visibility would not be easy. Rather than trying to retrace our route down the face with so little visibility I opted to make our way around the back of the mountain (a gentler slope) and use my compass for navigation.
Once again I had to kick new snow steps, but it was much easier doing it in a semi-controlled decent (basically slip, sliding my way down) until I reached the pre-summit ridge line. At this stage things got more complicated as it started to snow heavily. Once again it was time to make a decision. The day was shaping out to be a day of choices. We could re-trace our route or try to follow the stone cairns to our right that marked the actual trail. The route I had created up to this stage was a difficult one and would be even more difficult going down, rather than up, plus the reduced visibility was compounding the dangers. I opted to follow the cairns since I knew that route from the prior year and because the falling snow should not affect my ability to spot the cairns.
After an hour of struggling through the large boulder fields I lost sight of the cairns due to ever deeper snow and reduced visibility. I stop to make another decision. I knew that the original trail would lead to the southwest and then turn back to the southeast, cross a slope above the stone huts, and then join the southbound ridge that would lead to the first set of stone huts and then the valley floor. Yet to turn to the southeast too soon would put us up into another boulder field and potentially heading up valley rather than down into the valley. These choices would have been a non-issue if I had even temporary visibility, but it was now snowing like a Christmas fairy tale, the flakes were huge, and my visibility was limited to 20m.
All this time Spike had been keeping quiet and I had been watching him intently. Normally a person regains his stamina very quickly when descending from altitude, yet he still seemed exhausted and a little frightened. I had been talking Spike through all my choices and explaining the reasoning in order to keep him positive and in the game, yet he seemed a little distant and non-responsive. I told him we would go a little further to the west before turning to the southeast.
After a short time I realized that I could hear something over the howling wind. I stopped and listened intently and then realized to my horror what it was. It was the sound of rushing water. We had somehow gone too far the west. I knew that in that direction there was a steep gorge formed by the river we crossed early that morning. The slopes of the gorge where shear and made of loose sand and stone. I was heading in a treacherous direction due to the limited visibility. If I stumbled over the lip of the gorge I would surly fall to my death and Spike would be left out here to freeze over night or live by his wits.
I stopped Spike and told him that we were not to go further west under any circumstances and that we had to turn to the southeast and cross a number of gullies in order to reach the southbound ridge. Going back up into the boulders, the way we had come, was not an option since it was getting late in the day and the increased snowfall would simply make the going harder and more confusing if we started going in circles at this stage. I explained that we needed to keep the sound of the water behind us, that I would walk a small distance ahead of him, and that he should hold and use the compass to guide me to the east. I also explained the general direction he would need to go if he were on his own. As point, I would need to find a way across and down the slippery gullies by trial and error and he would need to wait at each crest until I had established the route and was safely across. In this way one of us would be exposed to the slippery and dangerous gullies while the other could confirm compass direction and then safely follow.
I say safely because to have two of us in the gully at the same time would result in lose stones and boulders raining down on the lead man and that is in fact what happened in the first gully. Here I was stuck in a slippery, snowy, high ditch of sorts, and racing towards me was a boulder. If it hit me in the head I would be dead. If it hit my body I would be damaged and would freeze to death while Spike was left to find his way out of the valley on his own. My only option was to simply stand still and wait until the last second and then carefully time my move. It would be as simple as dodging a ball in that kids game where you throw a ball at each other. The secret was to be patient and watch the object as it approaches and so that is what I attempted to do. Patience and fear is what I felt as time slowed. I watched as the boulder struck the ground, dislodging more stones, and then bounced high. It reached its apogee, and remarkably began to arc down directly at my midsection. At the last possible moment I threw myself to the side and landed on my back against the sloping side of the gully. The momentum and impact caused my legs to lift off the ground and just when I thought I was clear I felt the impact. The boulder had struck my leg just below the inner knee with such force that my body was flung around as my leg was pushed forward and to the side. And then it was gone. I lay there stunned. I could hear Spike calling down to me and I reassured him that I was ok and that he should not try to come down the gully to my rescue since that would simply set more boulders bouncing in my direction.
I sat up and nursed my leg carefully. It hurt like hell, but I could bend the knee so knew it was not broken. I could feel blood under my pant legs and tender areas, but knew that it was not life threatening and that I needed to keep moving (walk it off) in order to prevent the injury from tightening up and impeding my ability to walk.
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I got up, waved reassuringly to Spike and continued down and across the gully. Once on the opposite side Spike crossed over. We repeated this procedure (without the boulder incident) for the next hour as the snow continued to fall and visibility remained at 10-20m. Finally I stopped and considered our location and the compass headings. I then explained to Spike that we could go no further without a better idea of our location. He began to complain about my guiding abilities and our chances of finding our way out of the predicament. I stopped him and explained some basic mountain trekking rules based on my experience. I explained that I was confident that we could find our way out simply by keeping the sounds of the river (now diminished) behind us or to our right. That we should always head down and never uphill since that would eventually put us in the valley where we would turn right (west) and run into the village. And finally and most importantly, that the mountain gods always repay respect and that I had been respectful of the mountain all day, even when Spike made jokes about the difficulty and his cocky conquest of it. He looked at me as though I might have a few loose screws, but I maintained my confidence and vigil. Then as if they had been listening, the light changed briefly and a large mountain appeared for a few seconds to our right. Then just as quickly it disappeared and an opening appeared to our left and I spotted the ridgeline that lead to the stone huts. I pointed these out to Spike and set off quickly, but I don’t think he believed me.
I pushed on confidently in spite of his grumbling and within half an hour we emerged from a cloud and found ourselves in front of the stone huts. We turned right and picked up our pace and exited the valley an hour later to reach the guesthouse by 5pm.
We were soaked, tired, and happy to be back in shelter. Outside it was a wicked and snowy evening while we were safely curled up by a fire and drinking hot tea. Spike finally regained some of his strength and enough warmth to get off the floor and sit next to me in a chair and discuss the day. He admitted that it had been the hardest thing he had ever done, physically and had even feared for his life, and as a result now he understood about the rules of the mountains and would never be disrespectful again. And one more thing, could I bring the GPS the next time we set out to climb a mountain?
Down & Out
As always, the closing of a trek (after the main objective is accomplished) passes quickly and is generally down-hill, so easier. The next day we made it back to Syaphru Besi and our rented bikes and an easy night of story telling and refreshments.
The motorcycle ride back to Kathmandu was almost boring compared with our anticipation. We were planning on visiting the Everest Steak House in Kathmandu for a super-duper protein dinner. Holy Cow here we come.