Guest Post by Mary McIntyre
News of the closed pass to Jomsom rippled through our trekking group. “9 people missing, thigh deep snow, avalanches…” I could feel the tension building as we realized that our long-anticipated, well-crafted plans might be ruined. The source of our trail gossip, an elderly monk in maroon robes, stood next to a wall of carved prayer stones marking the entrance to Tsarka village. “Namaste!” I greeted him with the weary happiness that comes with reaching camp after a 9-hour day trekking in ankle-deep mud and snow. Multicolored prayer flags waved in the evening light. We stopped to hear his snippets of news, but weren’t quite willing to believe that the end of our planned route was truly impassable.
A few weeks earlier and at 5,000 feet lower elevation; we were eating freshly harvested squash and greens from towns along the Suligad River. Massive old-growth cedars and lush temperate rainforest shadowed the trail, while moss and purple trumpet flowers blanketed the ground. Four-foot tall, brightly painted shamanistic figurines guarded the route from evil spirits, and the local people appeared well fed by gardens filled with tomatoes, corn, squash, and beans. After a week of steady climbing, we left the rainforest and tumbling blue river behind for high alpine views of glacial-capped mountains.
In the town of Ringmo, the official departure point from Lower Dolpo into Upper Dolpo in north central Nepal, we took a much-needed rest day. Those of us with lingering respiratory infections from Kathmandhu enjoyed sleeping in, and I took advantage of the warm, bright sunshine to spend the day washing clothes and re-charging batteries with my Goal Zero Guide 10. The town of Ringmo is set back from the shorelines of famed Phoksumdo Lake, but our campsite was a stone’s throw from the rippling water. Coming over a pass and down into town the day before, I couldn’t believe my eyes as this turquoise spot of a lake grew larger and larger on the horizon. The color was so bright it seemed artificial. Coupled with the yellow leaves of birch trees in autumn, the whole scene was surreal.
Another early morning departure the next day began along the Devil’s Trail, a precipitous route traversing the cliffs above the lake and switch-backing up rocky spines. As the lake opened out below us, I stopped at nearly every corner on the trail to take redundant, yet breathtaking pictures. By noon the next day, we left the golden yellow birch forest behind as we ascended above tree-line to reach high camp in preparation for crossing 17,500 foot Ngongda La.
The trail wound up through a narrow, boulder-lined gorge with crystal clear pools and waterfalls. It was a steep, unrelenting climb. Huffing and puffing, I stopped to catch my breath and take in the enormous mountains enveloped by hanging glaciers. I grew up with the Wasatch Mountains in my backyard, and as a result I am happiest when the horizon is nothing but snowy peaks –I seek out the serenity and liberation that only comes with being out in untamable mountains.
We watched as the sunset lit up a thin cloud layer hanging over the surrounding peaks and then dug into a delicious dinner prepared by our cook crew – yak cheese and potatoes baked with herbs to carbo-load for the next day’s climb. A light snow fell overnight, blanketing our pack mules in white. Morning light painted the valley orange and red as the new snow highlighted the multicolored rock. With the altitude making oxygen more scarce with every step, I slowly gained on the pass, stopping to breathe every ten steps before continuing on. Time slowed as each movement became more labored, but eventually the pass’s vibrant prayer flags came into view and the sacred Crystal Mountain Massif was visible through the saddle.
A few days later, while spending the afternoon at a horse race in the small town of Koma, we started hearing murmurings about an approaching storm. The wind gusted around the dusty town and the temperature dropped from t-shirt weather to near freezing. The fall dry season is prime mountain-climbing time in Nepal, and it would be especially unusual to get a storm in this arid region along the Tibetan border. We hoped it would pass us by.
I awoke to a fervid rustling and shaking and saw light coming through my tent – I was exhausted.. could it be morning already?! “It snowed a foot, I’m just shaking you off so you’re not buried in the morning!” our guide Kim Bannister, owner of Kamzang Journeys, called out as she heard me moving around. Oh, not morning! Just a headlamp shining through the orange tent walls. I awoke sporadically for the remainder of the night to smack the inside of my tent, creating small avalanches so that I wouldn’t wake up to a flattened tent.
Although the storm threw off our schedule by a day, it was impossible to feel frustrated as the sparkling brightness lit up every peak and valley as far as the eye could see. Brown hillsides that stretched east towards the Tibetan border were transformed into a gleaming white wonderland. The trails quickly became pitted with mud as the sun shined down, but I was too busy gazing around with awe to be bothered by my clay-saturated shoes. After a long day slipping and sliding over 16,500 foot Tsarka La, we arrive in the town of Tsarka to rest up for our last climb over Jungben La to Jomsom – starting our journey back to Kathmandhu.
During dinner, Kim relayed the information she’d gathered in the short time we’d been in town. Six trekking groups had already been helicopter evacuated from Tsarka, and four more were planned for the next day. The situation was even worse in the Annapurna region, with over fifty people missing and huge amounts of snow making rescue difficult. On our projected route, nine people were missing and helicopter pilots reported several avalanches. We could go for it and potentially be the first group to make it through, but it could also mean being evacuated ourselves. After lengthy discussion, we settled on walking a circuitous route flanking the Dhaulagiri massif, ending up in Juphal, the same town we started in 3 weeks before.
We struck out down the valley, and spent the next three days wading across the icy river and traversing steep ravines, edging closer and closer to the Dhaulagiri massif. As the sun sank towards the horizon on our one of longest days on the trail, we came around the corner to a Kane, a Buddhist arch built over the trail to purify those passing through it before entering town. Once purified, I hurried to camp for a mug of chai and stripped off my dust-crusted socks while watching the daylight fade over Dhaulagiri, the seventh highest mountain in the world. The past un-scheduled days were the best part of the trip for me. The scenery grew more spectacular with every turn in the trail, and the culture seemed relatively un-impacted by the outside world. We were the only trekkers in the area, and the townspeople were intrigued to inquire about our route and hear news of surrounding towns.
We made it back to Juphal, and with a bit of money under the table and expert sweet talking by our Sherpa guide Lhakpa, we managed to get seats on the first (and only) flight out the next morning. As the plane droned off the end of the tiny dirt runway, I sadly watched the peaks of Dolpo fade into the distance.