Annapurna South Base Camp – October 19 thru the 26th.

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At the conclusion of the bicycle portion of our Nepal trip on October 16th, we still had 12 days before needing to fly back to Kathmandu, box up our bikes and fly home. Bridget and I had discussed this before we left for Nepal and agreed to add this time since we both had noted that quite often following the ending of a trip things come up that you wish you had time to do but tickets home dictated that you couldn’t. We had talked about going down to Chitwan National Park where one can see elephants, rhinos, and many other animals plus a chance on a tiger, but the hot steamy weather there this time of year put us both off on the idea. We settled on a trek – staying in higher cooler climate since mountains are really what Nepal is all about for both of us. Since we finished at Pokhara, the easiest add-on trip logistically was a trek up to Annapurna South Base Camp since it was a relatively short bus or jeep ride from the city to the start of the trek. So a phone call to Nima during the last part of our bike trip brought him now to Pokhara with our permits in hand and a guide and porter set up to meet us on the 19th to start our new adventure.

After a big night out on the 16th, the rest of the group had left for their various homes, leaving JR, Bridget and myself in Pokhara with a couple of days before JR had to leave for home and we off trekking to ABC. We fed ourselves well at different restaurants throughout town, caught up on our internet needs, hiked up to the Peace Pagoda above town and just plain lounged around. On the evening before our trek, our guide Aital and porter Dawa appeared at the hotel lounge to meet us. The jeep would be at the hotel next morning around 10 to take us all to the trailhead above Ghandruk where we would begin on foot. We were both excited to be off moving again. We said goodbye to JR after breakfast, climbed into the jeep with Aital and Dawa and were off.

This trekking trail left the jeep tracks behind. Walking and mule trains only. All towns above Ghandruk on the way up and until Landruk on the way down were roadless. It really changes everything. The jeep trails on the Annapurna Circuit, while really primitive and limited, still add a lot of people, make goods much more available, and definitely change the culture. They are the wild west version of the more serviceable roadways of the future which will lead to development and more commercialization of the area. It is already happening there. Of course, these changes are in many ways great for local peoples economy, education and health care into the future. They do, however, change the experience for those looking for a romantic, quiet, pollution free trek into old world Tibetan Buddhist culture. We still found that on our stay in the Upper Mustang during our biking trip but not always on the rest of the Circuit. Bridget and I were looking for that experience here on the trail to Annapurna Base Camp.

We also had originally decided to really pare down what we took along so we could carry our own backpacks, however, when Nima lined up our two people we decided to “go with the flow” and combine our things into one duffle which Dawa would carry for us. That left us both with just day bags to deal with. I was fine with that since it meant we could employ two people and Dawa’s bag was quite light so I didn’t have to feel very guilty. Aital, our guide, would prove to be very helpful all along the way.

We learned early on what we really already knew – everything in Nepal is either really steep up……..or really steep down. One of our standing jokes here is when a Nepali describes some terrain as being flat. It’s really Nepali flat – / – which is certainly not to be confused with Minnesota flat – . As we worked our way down through villages along the river valley bottoms and up along the ridge tops we followed slate lined steps shaped beautifully over the centuries to help transport goods and people. Load ladened mules with bells jangling also trod along the same elevations – they were so well trained to their role that they expertly stepped around people, sheep and dogs. At one point we were adopted by one of these Buddhist dogs. She followed us along the trail for so long we were getting quite worried that she may never go home. At a couple of villages she had to fight her way around other dogs snarling to protect their territories but always appeared back with us undamaged by her encounters. Now, there weren’t many dogs here, but what dogs we found in Nepal were all very similar. Broad-shouldered, long haired black and tan with a shaggy tail curled up over the back described the canines we found on the Circuit and Upper Mustang. The dogs found on this trek were colored the same but the tails no longer curled up and over and they were not as large as those found above. One thing that was the same with all was their Buddhist temperament. We had no encounters with them on the whole trip. They merely watched us bike by if they noticed us at all. Most would lay along the side of the trails and often would sleep in the middle of everything moving, seemingly unperturbed by any danger. As bikers we have been chased, bitten and snarled at on every continent since most dogs find us fair game. I have dubbed these dogs Buddhist Dogs for obvious reasons and am sure I’m not the first to do so.

We were told an entertaining story by a Buddhist Head Llama named Kunga up in the Upper Mustang. He was giving us an impromptu tour of his Monastery and came to an abysmal looking carcass hanging from the low ceiling by old cord. It was a snow leopard which over a century or two ago had been roaming the monastery grounds at night, frightening everyone there. The village dog was unleashed and in the ensuing battle both animals died. The leopard’s remains are still hanging here in the monastery. A very large dog is chained outside in the middle of the monastery grounds. Maybe they expect another snow leopard some time soon.

On this trek we were staying in guesthouses along the way. It is an eight day trek up to Base Camp and back down to Phedi where the Jeep would bring us back to Pokhara. Unbeknown to us when we planned this additional adventure, this was a week-long Festival for all Nepalese. The government here has been promoting domestic travel to places like the ABC so we found that along with the normal amount of foreign trekkers, the addition of locals made this time very very busy. So busy that rooms were getting very hard to find. Our guide, Aital, did a great job in planning our days and securing places to stay as we moved closer to Annapurna. Many people were traveling with no reservations and ending up sleeping in dining areas and porter dormitories. One American’s reservation was taken when a group of 40 South Koreans descended on a small village and took all available beds. He ended up sleeping in a barn. Twice we found ourselves sharing a room with other foreigners whom we didn’t know. Two young Australians joined us in a tightly cramped four-bed room with little space for any of our belongings. It worked well tho with a combined spirit of cooperation necessary in small spaces. Another night we shared with an older gentleman from South Korea whom Bridget and I both enjoyed. He had a gentle disposition and was very intelligent. He was trekking here alone after an earlier trip in the Khumbu. He had retired from his job as an engineering firms group leader in the shipping industry in South Korea. Our last guesthouse on the way up was the Machhapuchhre Base Camp. This Base Camp consists of five guesthouses (none that big) which were all more than full of trekkers. Machhapurchhre is a sacred mountain which is more commonly called Fishtail for its unique forked top resembling just what the name infers. We found it to be our favorite mountain on this trip (along with Daulagiri). Since the area around the mountain was also considered sacred we started seeing signs as we got near Fishtail for no open defacation. We learned in the guesthouse menus that no pork, buffalo or beef was to be consumed within the sacred bounds. It is illegal to climb Fishtail despite a Base Camp located near its base.

We arose early and left MBC for a hour and a half trek up to Annapurna Base Camp. ABC is 450m higher than our treks starting point but since there is nothing really steep on the way, the walk seemed easy. This feeling was aided by the increasingly big bold mountain views as we got closer to our destination. Annapurna South (7219m) is an immense mountain face from our new vantage point. Although a number of large mountains are prominent in one’s field of view, Annapurna South towers over all else. Even Annapurna 1, despite its great height (8091m), is secondary from our view here. It is located much further away and generally approached by a different, more northernly base camp. Machhapuchhre and Hien Chuli are now behind us so their positions relative to the big mountain have changed. All of the big mountains on the Annapurna Massif, including Annapurnas 1,2,3 and 4, South, Gangapurna and others, are located within a huge glacier river system that averages about 22,000 feet of elevation and makes it hard to place each mountain geographically in one’s mind. Bridget and I both read (re-read in my case) the classic book Annapurna of the first 8000 meter peak ever climbed (1950) following our trek. One of the most difficult things for these climbers to conquer was actually to find the mountain itself. Maps of the day were wrong and the huge glacier fields masked the drainage systems needed as approach vehicles. It is truly an amazing book.

We spent several hours here at ABC, having breakfast and marveling at the great beauty in every direction on a blue bird day here in the mountains. Many photos. Too often clouds obscure mountain views but today there was none of that. They would come in later in the day and views be essentially gone. The pattern here was clear in the morning and gone in the afternoon mists. We both felt very lucky.

After the perfect weather we had at ABC, we discussed just how lucky we had been this whole trip weather-wise. In five weeks we never had a day we had to peddle or trek in the rain. Although cold at times, the late monsoon season left us with warmer than usual conditions and no snow on the Thorung La Pass (5416m or 17,800 ft) when we climbed up and over our biggest hurdle. We learned later from a group of young American cyclists that it snowed just a few days after we went over the Pass and they had to deal with the snow on their climb. One could spend a lot of time in the mountains and not have one day as perfect as so many of our days have been. As we moved along on our two trips, I kept referring to that big horseshoe we were carrying. It stayed with us the entire time there.

On our trek down, Bridget decided to count the steps leading up to one of the villages along our route. At 2000 she told me what she was doing and that she was tired of counting. I counted the remaining 308 steps. We only counted the vertical steps. Steep. It was not our longest step climb or our largest descent, but the total was telling as a barometer for just how much work it is to move along on these Himalayan treks and also how much work it is for people and mules to get goods up to the remote villages. Not too many washing machines are going to be found there. Essentials are the luxuries. Life is simple.

In Chomrong we got a room with a private bathroom and hot water. Wow, One certainly doesn’t appreciate these things until they haven’t been there. Also WiFi. It was heaven.

Nepal is now behind us but the experiences will stay with us. Each day there felt like it lasted so long and each week passed seemed like so long ago. A sign of a trip well taken and packed with the stories that make life interesting.

Descending Down to Pokhara

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Oct 12 – 15

We began our descent from the beautiful high altitude country of the Upper Mustang to Pokhara with three days that seemed to contain almost as much climbing as descent. Several big passes and warmer temps tested our stamina. The travel was also very technical on the bike. The last thing we wanted now was any injuries and these types of steep drops were tailor-made for accidents. Slowly, slowly was our mantra. Bridget did take a spill on the 3rd day down and luckily not badly hurt but did hit hard and she was having trouble taking any deep breaths. Combined with her bad cold, it was tough riding for her. Of course she persevered and was up to the task.

The ride into Tatapani was 50K’s of the craziest descents any of us will ever experience. Over 2000m of drop. I cannot adequately describe to anyone just what this “road”was like. Bedrock, rock piles, washouts, creeks flowing down the track, deep mud, dust, steep climbs and steeper descents – all this with a constant flow of massive-tired four wheel drive diesel powered buses spewing black clouds, diesel jeeps, and dirt bikes vying for space on a track barely allowing for even one lane. We weaved our way through all on a very tiring hot day. Actually, we were able to move more efficiently on our mountain bikes than any of the others. The bus rides had to be miserable. These jeep trails will eventually evolve into something drive able – they are just a Wild West fore-runner of what will someday open this area to people other than locals and adventurers.

The countryside had become heavily forested with huge mountains rising high over the forests. It reminded one of the Alps of Switzerland. Dhaulagiri was especially impressive at 8100m and looming just above the small villages that we peddled our way through. As we dropped further in elevation, the forests turned to jungle and the sides rose steeply from steamy ravines, blocking out the mountains above.

After a night in Tatopani, we cycled down to Beni where we were picked up by a van and taken to our hotel in Pokhara. Our bikes traveled with the staff by bus to Kathmandu. We met back up with JR here in this pleasant lake-side city and enjoyed our last dinner together with a big splurge at a local restaurant, spending the last of our group money. Farewells happened the following morning with all but two of us flying back to Kathmandu en-route to different homes around the globe. Two of us are staying here and headed trekking to Annapurna Base Camp.

One year ago I dreamed of this mountain bike adventure alongside the massive of Annapurna, inspired by Herzog’s mountaineering masterpiece, “Annapurna”, the first 8000m peak ever climbed (1950). It has been widely proclaimed throughout the years as the most beautiful trek in the world. The views are the same but the rough jeep trails have changed the experience compared to the roadless trekking areas of the Khumbu. I had trekked there last year with Lonnie Dupre and others. Taking the bikes here was a big challenge for all of us but also so rich in its rewards. It was tough having JR leave early due to elevation sickness and Rien departing after flying over his handlebars onto the rocks. We all hope his shoulder heals well. We’ll see him again on another ride somewhere.

It’s hard to believe this biking adventure is behind me. The two biggest highlights for me had to be our time in the Upper Mustang and our success in crossing the Thorung La pass at 5416m (17,800 ft). The pass was a great achievement for me by bike and the time in Mustang was an incredible experience. I feel very lucky. My bike, a Rocky Mountain Sherpa, built in Vancouver, was perfect. No mechanical problems, not even a flat tire on this whole trip. Amazing. I had read a review of the Sherpa in Adventure Cyclist magazine last spring and knew it was the bike for this trip. For those of you who are bikers, it is a 27.5 plus with 2×10 drive, full suspension and 2.8 inch tires. Eliminating my clip less pedals early on for platform pedals gave me a measure of confidence and safety that was hard to be sure of when clipped in. Our group became close, forming a tight bunch who helped each other out all along the way. We were relaxed and easy-going, having all traveled extensively in third-world countries on previous trips. No whiners.

Simply a great experience that has now become a part of me.

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Lo Manthang

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Oct 9 – 11

We finally arrived in Lo Manthang, the Walled City which was originally inhabited in the 700’s and other than a few years of occupation by invaders, has been presided by its own King as an independent kingdom. The present King is now 92 years old and is in care on Kathmandu. Nepal has now absorbed the whole area including Lo Manthang into its realm so this may be the last
King. None of these towns are very big – the whole area of the lost Kingdom only has 6000 people. They live mainly by herding animals including goats, yaks, cattle and horses. Life is very simple here. Lo Manthang is the largest and most important town in the Upper Mustang. It is dominated by its 3 Gompas though only one is presently used. We visited all three plus a very interesting Monastic Museum. The oldest one is from the 14th Century and the interior walls of two of them have been restored by the American Himalayan Society. There are no lights in these important Buddhist sites but one can use a camping headlight when touring. All three and the museum are located inside the walls of Lo Manthang. There is also a Winter Palace inside the Walls and a Summer Palace high on a hill outside of the town. The Summer Palace is in ruins and only part of the Winter Palace is now usable.

The museum was small but had a great collection of old artifacts including hideous masks used in festivals, drums, and old tools. There is also a million year old Wooly Mammoth tooth displayed here openly as though they are found everywhere. Everything is full of dust and displayed haphazardly but really cool to see. This whole area including Lo Manthang has been used as a refuge for Tibetans since the Chinese invasion. The culture is definitely singular to Tibetans. We are really enjoying this visit to an area seen by relatively few in this world. A friendly pastoral landscape preserved by its remoteness.

The following day Bridget and I hiked up 8K to the small village of Choser which is only 13k from Chinese Tibet. Just outside of Choser we found the incredible caves of Jampa where the Tibetans hid from the Nepali army during a conflict here. It was an amazing maze of caves climbing higher and higher into the steep cliffs. It also offered a great view of anyone coming so all could hide. After touring this honeycomb of caves we went to a Gompa in the village itself. The monks were playing music with 3 cymbals , two small horns, two long large horns and a couple of drums. It was great. Bridget got a video of them playing – usually they don’t allow cameras. We hiked 16K and we were happy to get back onto Lo for the evening.

Tomorrow we start biking three days down to Jomsom where our porters leave us, then on to Pokhara. We leave our bikes in Beni for the bus trip back to Kathmandu. We will fly from Pokhara.

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Into the Upper Mustang

Oct 5 – 7

We had to wait for our permits to enter the Upper Mustang (Lost Kingdomimg_4110

) to become valid as we were a day early so we only rode as far as Kagbeni. I’m sure the porters needed the rest as well. These permits cost between $500US and $750US depending on the size of the group. Nepalis can pass freely. This fairly large area is the last enclave of Tibetan culture not controlled by the Chinese or absorbed into Nepali culture. It includes Lo Manthang, a walled town where the King of Lo resides.

We rode from Kagbeni to Samar, a trip of 26k with about 1300m of climbing. It starting out with rolling but mostly uphill cycling on what is good surface by Nepal standards then ended with a big climb into Samar. We are now in highly eroded deep canyon country with beautiful varied rock colors and formations. Nilgiri presents a big mountain backdrop with Annapurna 1 obscured by clouds. We stopped for lunch at a pleasant little village with rock lined pathways and short small rock tunnels moving you through the enclave. The tea houses now are more traditional in their interior structure and the Tibetan culture shines through in tidiness and dust-free cleanliness. The owner has a daughter in the US and a son in Korea. He is waiting for his son to return, marry, and give him some grandchildren.

It was my Birthday here in Samar. Bridget had brought along a bottle of Amarula from South Africa for all to enjoy. The cook made a big chocolate cake replete with candles that wouldn’t blow out. Much laughter followed then songs and clapping ensued which were improved by the Amarula. Kami, our Head Sherpa, then presented me with blessing ribbons and we shared the cake and liqueur with out support crew. Really a Birthday I will remember.

Our next day brought blue skies and a couple of passes to climb. We stopped a village early as the porters were tired from the long previous day. Annapurna 1 finally showed its face amount the rest of the huge peaks around us. It was the first 8000m peak ever climbed and the basis of a classic mountaineering book by Herzog. He was the leader of the French team that was successful. Reading that book was the inspiration for this trip.
Since we arrived early today, we spent a pleasant afternoon drinking lemon ginger tea and sitting in the sun. Life is good. Sent from my iPad

On to Sarang, then Lo Manthang

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img_4182Two passes which were quite bike able led us into the town of Sarang. The terrain is more green due to irrigation practices bringing water down from the mountains from the north. Also a lot of cattle living in small corrals in people’s backyards. Rock corrals on the outskirts house great looking horses. The smell of manure pervades the air and dust in town. Difficult.

After getting organized with tent placement and some basic cleaning, Bridget, Paul and I hiked up to the Gompa. We heard the drumming of a llama. The main doorway was closed so I crept up a stairway to the right. Reaching a meditation room, I was greeted by a monk’s hearty welcome. He had just finished 4 hours of drumming. We soon discovered that he was the Head Llama and had 105 monks in training living here. The Buddha statue behind curtains in this room had much power and was not to be seen by anyone except for a monk spending six months in solo meditation in this room.
The Llama introduced himself as Kunga and proceeded to give us a private tour of the inner chamber of the Gompa. Along with the Buddha statues and various ornate pieces, Kunga showed us the collection of 154 books all written in gold. One book weighed 47 kilos. Gold is heavy. The inner chambers painted walls had been restored by the American Himalayan Society. There was also a high chair (like a padded throne) which the High Llama used to sit on. It had been carried out of Tibet in 1959 during the Chinese invasion. There is also a former King’s Palace here in ruins. Thimg_4184e original architect had had his hand cut off so he couldn’t build another similar building.

I invited Kunga to join us for dinner and he graciously accepted. He also exchanged emails with me. We all enjoyed his presence and had a great time listening to his stories. I felt very lucky.

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High Country Riding – One Rider Down

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October 3 and 4

The ride to Phredi from Manang is about 80 percent rideable in lower altitude but the thin air and hard work of riding single track here left us pushing our bikes more than we would like. We have left the Jeep trail behind. I start pedaling up short rugged hills and find the effort too draining. Our bikes have been holding up well. JR has had a raspy cough the last few days but the rest of us are all healthy.

We had Gangapurna and a host of other white glaciered mountains to view over the hills and valleys along our route.

We arrived in Phredi tired and sweaty but found a restaurant to drink tea in while we waited for our bags. JR was not in yet and Michelle reported that he was in a bad way, struggling mightily with that wheezy productive cough, big work day, and lack of oxygen. When he arrived he looked and sounded terrible. I am very worried. I tried to direct him to a warm comfortable position but in typical JR fashion he was having none of it. He’s tough.
As I had passed by the stone courtyard outside of the restaurant earlier after our arrival I had said hello to a forty something short-bearded intelligent looking man who then asked if I was part of the cycling group. I, of course, still had my cycling clothes on. We engaged in a conversation about high altitude edemas and other altitude problems. It turned out that I was speaking to a Doctor with two months experience at the High Altitude Rescue Center for altitude sickness here in Nepal (I’ve forgotten the official name). He is also an emergency doc in Ireland, his home. He and his wife are here trekking. I saw him again now in the restaurant and explained JR’s symptoms. He asked if he could see him. JR was now in his tent. After a brief exam and discussion the doctor laid out what he saw and his recommendations. He must go down. Immediately. JR spent his career as an emergency nurse and saw that he was in self-denial. He agreed to go down. We made arrangements for him to go with a porter as far as Manang, catch a Jeep back to Besishar and then a bus to Pokhara. His bike trip is over.

We will miss JR tremendously – he has, as always, been a big part of the lifeblood of this group.

There are very few flat tenting places in this high country. The one we did find was too small for four tents plus a cooking tent so two of us took a room. We were in the low rent area of this high camp primitive guest house since we were not eating in the restaurant. The owner makes his money on food. There was at least one Himalayan rat scurrying around making various noises and late in the night the whisp of bat wings overhead. Ah, the delights of adventure traveling. We will be up at 4am for our huge day over the pass.

Buck

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Thorung La

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Oct 4 and 5

We arose at 4,breakfasted and we’re off by a little after 5 in the dark. It was cool but not the bitter cold we expected at this elevation. Bridget and I had hooked up our bikes upside down on our backpacks for the climb, James followed suit. Most ended up pushing and carrying. We faced a very steep climb coming out of camp, then a series of false summits followed at long last by the top. I was really happy with my backpack setup. It also freed up my hands for using trekking poles. It was quite a slog. If you go too fast you quickly lose your breath so it’s important to stay within yourself. Several times I found rocks to rest my bike on and relieve my shoulders. We walked past a small group of mountain goats early on and later a large Nepalese bird like a type of grouse. The series of false passes seemed to go on forever. Bridget mentioned that it seemed to be difficult to draw water out of her hydro pack. She would discover afterwards that the nozzle was partially clogged and that she had actually drank very little water. Amazing she did so well and and avoided real dehydration. Everyone really did great on a very tough climb with bike which was by far the highest elevation ever for most of them. After a few photos at the top (5416m) we screamed down the other side on an amazing descent. The late monsoon here had kept the weather warmer and the pass snow free so all of our concerns were for naught. Wow, what a success for our group.
Only a short distance from our day’s destination, Muktinath, my buddy Rien took a fall. Over the handlebars and onto the rocky path he landed hard on his shoulder. Something was either broken or very much out of place. It was tough. Bridget and I were riding with him and fixed his flat tire. Kami, our trekking Sherpa, pushed his bike and Rien walked the last 2K. A really bad ending to a great day. We have arranged a Jeep ride for Rien to Jomsom where there is a hospital and he can be X-rayed. He may hook up with JR in Pokhara.

I will badly miss my two good friends and feel badly for them. There will be other adventures.

My previous blog post is on my IPad and not yet sent. I will do so as soon as I can. So this post is out of order.