Thursday, March 26, 2015

Trekking the Langtang Range Solo





When Annie told me she was on her way to Langtang by foot from Changunarayan it was all I could do to not lecture her. As I wrote in my eBook, Nepal: A Tourist's Manual, it is important to support the local economy when trekking. There have actually been incidents of muggings due to trekkers not using local guides. Not only that, but I think it's like swimming. Just as you should never swim alone, trekking alone can be just as dangerous. But Annie has done her share to support Nepal by volunteering and embraces the culture so graciously. She seems to have something surrounding her that keeps her safe, too, but don't we all? So, off she went on her adventure that could be called, "110 Pounds Against the Mountain."


Trekking the Langtang Range Solo

Written by guest blogger: Annie McLaughlin, Canada



The constant dreaded response I received after telling the casual passerby that I intended on hiking the Gosaikunda trek up to the Langtang range alone without a guide was "Noo! It is dangerous for a woman, you need someone with you." By the time I was finally ready to depart I have to admit that all the comments had me a bit worried about what awaited me in the mysterious Himalayas. In order to avoid more rebuttals about how I should really have someone with me, I left out the fact that I intended on doing some wild camping until it got too cold.

To get the most of Kathmandu Valley experience and culture I made my starting point Changu Narayan, a beautiful village to the east of Kathmandu, home to the oldest active Hindu temple in Nepal-still in use. From Changu the walk to the Shivapuri National Park is a pleasant journey through Tamang farm land and villages, as well as through jungle scattered with huge waterfalls and patches of extremely floral smelling flowers. My first day brought me an hour before Chisapani, a popular rest spot for the first day of the Helambu trek. Equipped with a -20 sleeping bag and a bag full of food, I made my first camp in an abandoned village. Making my bed out of pine nettles and making a bonfire with surrounding fire wood I spent my first night safe and warm.


However with words of warning about the dangers of the wild in my mind, I spooked myself after hearing the subtle sounds of growling I imagined being a ferocious beast. It was only on day three of hearing this haunting sound that I identified it as the growling of my hungry stomach wanting something more than cheese and crackers.

The next day I intended on reaching the village of Khutumsang after a brief stop in Chipling. However, I took the wrong trail at a fork in the road and headed down the other side of the steep mountain I had just climbed. (Note: Turn right at the intersection near the church. Do not turn left!)

To my luck a kind elderly lady invited me into her home in the Tamang village that I stumbled upon around 5:30 pm. Tired and discouraged that my 5 hour decent now required a 6 hour return uphill, I was grateful to have a hot cup of tea, a tasty dhal baht and a bed to lay my head.



Waking up to the mountain peaks of Gosaikunda revealing their snowy peaks over the interfering hills, it gave me the motivation to conquer the long journey I had ahead of me. Wandering through hillside, farmland and small village, I finally found my way back to the main path. Once I finally got to Khutumsang I began my search for where to make camp for the night. Climbing 300 meters above the village I found a pasture overlooking the majestic Langtang range; I gathered firewood for the evening. Lying underneath a 180 degree bubble of the dark starry sky, I identified the obvious Milky Way overhead. Warm in my sleeping bag, I was surprised to wake up to a thick layer of frost that covered the ground. Two minutes after I began walking from my camping spot there I saw large patches of snow covering the ground. Within 3 hours I was descending slippery snow covered valleys.



The next few days were spent acclimatizing in preparation to do the mighty Laurabina Pass, from which there were mixed comments about its extremity. I met a fellow solo traveler from Luxembourg and we agreed that it would be safer to cross with a friend. We were first informed that it would be impossible to do because of recent snowfall. We were later warned that, "There has only been 8 people who have crossed the pass from this direction this year.” We mustered up the couraged to make the ascent. The climb up began at 6:30 to avoid afternoon winds and melted snow from the hot sun. By noon we were sitting at 4500 meters eating Snickers and ice coffee staring at Mt. Everest peaking through the Langtang range.
 

We were met with severe winds and freezing temperatures for our last 170 meters of ascent. Waist deep snow and warming conditions made the cross difficult, but the breathtaking view of the Himalayas and the snow covered frozen scared lakes of Gosaikunda made the adventure unforgettable. That night we stayed in Laurabina and were gifted with a beautiful sunset reflecting off Tibet’s mountain range.

 


Waking up the next morning and setting off in a snow blizzard that covered the winding path through the forest, extended a 30 minute hike into a 2 hour blind wander through dormant rhododendron-dense bush. Once finally reaching the comforts of a warm fire in a nearby village we set off once again into a winter wonderland. Trees covered with a thick layer of snow made them droop and sway in the northern winds. A day spent playing in  the snow was in order and an epic 7 ft Terex was constructed next to the known Sing Ghomba.

Day 8 brought us through the 4 typical seasons of a Canadian year. We began walking through a foot and a half of snow in below zero temperatures which then quickly turned into a light dusting resembling an early spring afternoon. The rhododendrons were in full bloom and some laggard trees were still shedding last year’s leaves. At the bottom of our 1000 m. decent in Langtang Valley we enter temperatures above 25 degrees Celsius. We even got to take a warm bath in the natural sulfur hot-springs.

The next day I did the 9 hour hike up to Langtang and then the day after headed up to Kyanjen Gumba in a seemingly harmless snow fall. Two days and 1 1/2 meters of snow later the villagers and other trekkers realized that we were 3850 m. high in the midst of a huge, snow storm. The same storm in the Monaslu region claimed the lives of 3 youth and a family as their roof caved in on them at night. One can only fully understand the extreme conditions of these mighty mountains when faced with their violence and destruction. Even the most well equipment and prepared cling to the fragile strings of life when the mountains want it to be so. Death is the ultimate sacrifice that we as humble humans unwillingly offer to the mountain gods. An offering that acts as a reminder of the raw forces of nature and the vulnerability we assume while wanting to explore it.



Once the storm had subsided and the blue sky revealed a postcard picture view of the snow-covered peaks, a group of 20 of us set out in the deep snow to find refuge at lower altitudes. A hike that would have normally taken 2 hours took us 6 hours to get through. The blinding conditions of the bright snow and sun left the unlucky few of us with snow blindness.




Snow blindness, or photokeratitis, can be simply avoided with a normal pair of sunglasses. However without any kind of eye protection we fall victim to the burning of the corneas as well as the face and body. The burning sensation in my eyes stayed with me for 3 days and without the aid of newly purchased sunglasses, going outside was unbearable. The decent of the valley left me with a sense of pride about the adventure I had just experienced, but also the sad reality that the rest of my exploration of the Langtang range would have to wait until my next visit.


Once in the village of Syabrubesi, connected by road to Kathmandu we began a desperate search for a bus or jeep that would bring us back to the city in time for Holi festival the next day. Local buses all stopped working the day of a national holiday and we were lucky to find a driver who was willing to do the drive so late in the day. The crazy bumpy roads of the lower hills allowed the adventures to continue as we drove over landslides and waterfalls, careful to not go over the edge of the 1000 meter cliffs.

With a burnt face and happy heart I took comfort in the back seat of the jeep, driving through landscape similar to that of a Lord of the Rings set, the beauty of Nepal never ceasing to amaze me. The otherwise naked peaks of high mountains were covered with the days before snow and as we returned back into civilization from the deep wild all I could think about was "when can I return".



Tips of the trails:
1- Bring snacks. The higher you go in elevation the more expensive food prices get. Fill your bag with nuts and bars so you can avoid needing to grab an afternoon meal. Fruits are also extremely difficult to get in villages away from roads. Also a package of Nescafe will substantially reduce your food bills as a 130NR coffee will be reduced to a 40NR cup of hot water.

2- Pack warm clothes and good shoes. Although I was trekking during the tail end of winter, at high altitudes temperatures drop below freezing even in peak season. A down jacket and warm hat are essential and a 4 seasons sleeping bag eliminates the search for blankets at the local guesthouses. Extra socks and two plastic bags, one for each foot, will help keep your feet dry when walking through snow. Very useful.

3- Wear sunglasses and sunscreen. The sun is extremely strong high in the mountains and the reflection from the snow makes it even worse. Wear strong sunscreen and polarized sunglasses in order to avoid any physical damage. If you experience sun damage take a day’s rest and cover your eyes with a cold compress. Avoid sunlight to speed up the healing process. Lubricating eye drops are always a great help.

4- Bring water purification tablets. To avoid unnecessary plastic bottle waste, purifying your water rather than buying bottles is an environmental and economic advantage. If the taste of chlorine bothers you then mixing in some instant fruit mixes get rid of the taste. At high altitudes the water is relatively safe to drink, but being overly cautious rather than getting sick is always in the best interest.

5- Bring extra batteries. Almost all the guesthouses use solar power for their lights and power. Therefore after a few cloudy days there is no means of charging electronic devices. Power is too precious and you are sometimes charged 200NR per power up. Extra batteries will save you money and ensure you don't miss the perfect shot due to lack of juice. 

Note: Please keep your old batteries and take them back with you to your home country if you are going back after Nepal. Otherwise, bring them back to Kathmandu. Amanda's guest house, Starview Nepal, is collecting old batteries and is looking for someone to take a bag back.

Trekking alone gave me the opportunity to immerse myself in Nepal’s diverse landscape without the distractions of a trekking partner. My curiosity in the mountains' nature and in social culture was satisfied as many opportunities presented themselves to me in my solo travels. The perfect moments that this adventure offered were both spent in solitude as well as shared with new friends. Langtang's Mountains are magical places and is a perfect way to train the body and mind for the extremities of the Himalayas. Treks varying in time from 4 days to two weeks allow for trekkers of all abilities to enjoy the views. Respect and consciousness for the power and strength of this landscape is the only way to responsibly explore these mountains. Whether alone or among friends you are guaranteed to have your heart lifted and your mind blown in this part of the Himalayas.