Highest elevation: 5,160 meters (16,929 feet)
Lowest elevation: 2,700 meters (8,858 feet)
When we returned to Lokpa on the Tsum Valley trek, our guide learned that Manaslu Conservation Area officials had been there to spread the word about a key hotel on the route closing on December 3rd. There is only one hotel at Dharmasala, the last stopover for acclimatization before the 5,000 meter Larkye Pass. The three of us made a plan that we would put in some big days to see if we could make on the night of the 2nd. If we failed, then we'd still continue over the pass, but with the bonus of all three of us having a very cold and yet cozy night in our two-person tent together.
Luckily, after forty days of trekking, it didn't seem so painful to get up before the sun and be packed and ready to go before breakfast. Our bedtime had gradually crept earlier and earlier to the point that we would be in bed by 8:30pm and still get our nine or ten hours of sleep. We undertook two arduous days of hiking up the river valley with sporadic pine forest that reminded us of Colorado. By the end of the second day, my legs were not responding to my brain urging them to go faster, so I begged our guide, "Dawa, carry me!" He didn't, but his Everest-climbing Sherpa stamina probably would have allowed him to without too much difficulty. It didn't help that our hunger levels were high, thus making our energy levels low, due to an unusually horrible lunch stop.
Having had delicious pumpkin soup earlier in the trek, I had become fixated on a repeat experience, but every place either didn't have pumpkin or claimed to not know how to make it, despite it always being on the menu. Finally, a cook agreed to make it, but what came out was a watery broth with microscopic shreds of pumpkin, truly a major letdown, but if only that was the only issue... I spied something black and oval with a little pointy tip floating in the spoon headed towards my mouth. I exclaimed, "That looks like mouse poop!" and Matt responded, "Maybe it is a seed." I was hopeful, but I could not think of any type of seeds that looked like that while I fished it out of the soup. Sadly, it squished on the table, confirming my fear. The old saying "if you don't laugh, you'll cry" definitely applied to this moment and I simply blurted out, "Wait a minute, we ordered pumpkin soup, not poop soup!" We then told Dawa, who yelled to the cook. He came out and meekly said sorry, but that was all that was offered as he cleared my half-eaten bowl and Matt's empty one. When it came time to settle the bill, we had to inform him that we would not be paying for the soup. He said, "Ok, one bowl free discount." So then we had to explain that since both bowls came from the same pot, they had both been contaminated, so actually it would be "two bowls free discount." Incredible!
We reached the town of Lho just in time to see the truly majestic Mount Manaslu bathed in golden sunset light. Then we promptly settled in to a brand new place, aptly named Majestic Manaslu, with adorable little cottages and more importantly, Wifi. It had been a few weeks since we had made contact with our families. We had also caught up with the fabled "Group of Six" as we dubbed them, significant because there was a rumor running up and down the trail that the key hotel might stay open an extra day for a larger group. Feeling pretty beat, we decided to take our chances and slow the pace of our remaining days before the pass to match the Group of Six's plan.
Since we no longer had to run up the trail, we had the opportunity to sleep in and take a leisurely morning. Inevitably, this resulted in us being awake to watch the sunrise, but one that was so stunning that it confirmed Manaslu as my favorite mountain on the trek thus far. After breakfast, we walked up to a monastery on a hill overlooking the town, then ambled for just three hours to Samagaon, shocked at its substantial size compared to the other villages on the trek thus far. The logical, though not intuitive, explanation is that the valley widens in its upper reaches, so there is more physical space to build houses and plant crops that sustain a larger population. Once inside our well-constructed lodging for the night, we enjoyed comparatively advanced development such as luxuriously thick mattresses. We were informed that the nicer amenities can be attributed to proximity to the Tibetan border. It is easier for these higher elevation communities to import goods from China than it is for the lower communities to access products from Kathmandu. Another contributing factor is that Samagaon is the base village for expeditions heading up Manaslu, with the base camp location visible from our hotel's rooftop lounging area.
We extended another short day by taking a detour to a gorgeous glacial lake en route to the next village of Samdo. First we climbed to yet another seasonally-deserted gompa (monastery), then Dawa led us on a thorny bushwhack to intersect the trail to Birendra Tal, where a collection of cairns crowded the rocky shore. We could hear the glacier above us rumbling, but saw no evidence of its movement. Once in Samdo, we joined the other trekking parties who had also adjusted their itineraries to pace with the Group of Six. There was indeed power in numbers, since apparently the manager of the hotel had left the key hotel that very morning, was intercepted in Samdo and informed that fifteen tourists plus all of their guides and porters would patronize his business if he stayed open just one more night. He immediately turned around and walked the several hours back up the incline he had just come down.
Samdo is a purely Tibetan village, founded by refugees who crossed the border in the early years of China's invasion. The first residents established the village and claimed land rights based on a set of 600-year-old copper plates, so reports our guidebook. Apparently, the Nepali king supported their claim, but other local people contested the validity of it all so relations are not so warm between Samdo and nearby villages. In addition to the typical Tibetan layout of narrow stone passages lined with densely-constructed two-story homes, we noticed banks of icy snow in the shadows of buildings. A month and a half later, the remnants of the unseasonal heavy snowfall from the freak storm that hit Nepal's western regions in mid-October still persist.
It was a treat to have three easy days in a row leading up to our push over the pass. The now expanded Group of Fifteen made their way up to Dharmasala, each climbing at their sub-group's preferred pace. Upon arrival at the very basic lodge with an "open toilet," meaning go wherever you like except not in the locked up bathroom, it became instantly apparent why the manager was willing to stay open one more day. We understand the principle that prices go up with increasing elevation, but here was a monopoly that could get away with charging rates that did not correspond with our measly 1,600-foot gain from Samdo. To top it off, we then learned that we would be kicked out at 4:30am the next morning, since the three remaining staff would be departing shortly thereafter to catch a helicopter ride from a village far down the valley. Had we wanted to start hiking in the middle of the cold dark night, we could of left from the comfort of Samdo instead! Our move up to here was intended to allow for a daylight departure, in addition to a little more acclimatization.
On a brighter note, we had our first sighting of blue sheep, somewhat like a more slender bighorn, although on a darker note, they were sniffing around the garbage that was dumped downhill from the lodge. Like so many lodges, they either burn their plastic waste or have an "open disposal" strategy, where the nearest stream, river, or steep hillside suffices for the concept of "away" in throwing it away. While it is easy to be upset by these practices, it is much harder to think of a viable alternative for the waste. Paying for porters or pack animals to take it out is simply not cost effective; they would have to voluntarily carry it out and without a vested interest in doing so, that doesn't seem to happen. The other solution is prevention by not hauling in plastic-packaged foods in the first place, but the tragedy of the commons prevails again. If one business refused to sell Coke, Snickers, and cookies, then they would simply lose out on sales while tourists and locals alike shopped elsewhere. As for us, we still ate our fair share of cookies, but we carried our wrappers back to Kathmandu and delivered them to Beni Handicraft to hopefully incorporate in to handbags, coasters, Christmas ornaments and bracelets.
After a mostly sleepless half of a night for me at least (thanks a lot, elevation!), three Norwegians, two Kiwis, a German couple, a Finnish couple, a French guy, a Spanish guy, a British guy, a fellow Californian, all of their guides and porters, and ourselves all set out between 3:00 and 4:30am. We were the last to leave just as a bright moon set behind the mountains, but we benefited from the eminent closing of the lodge as extra pancakes, hard boiled eggs, and even packs of cookies were offered up free of charge. It was a great boon to have some extra calories on this day in particular, for which we had been unwilling to make the financial investment.
We were wearing all of the clothes we had brought on the trek, but just barely maintained warmth as we steadily plodded uphill. The one time that we really needed both of our headlamps, one of them was dead, so we three walked closely together with Matt dimly sandwiched between the beams of Dawa and myself. Before too long, the first hints of daylight crept over the black silhouettes of mountains behind us. As numbing as it was, I could not resist pulling off my gloves to take some photos. We were exhilarated to be among the mountains and glaciers as they gradually woke up with light, now feeling quite pleased to have left so early without a trace of our initial grumpy grogginess.
We reached the summit of the pass shortly after the other groups, some of whom were suffering a bit from the altitude at just under 17,000 feet (5,160 meters). We rested and ate as long as the chilly wind would allow, snapped some celebratory photos, and watched Dawa add his khata from the lama at Mu Gompa to a collection of them on a rock cairn marking the high point.
For us, going down proved to be much harder than going up. When we were not picking our way through scree fields and loose ball-bearing shaped pebbles, we were tediously inching along an icy slope with just enough previous footsteps to allow our own to hold. Dawa's mountaineering expertise kicked into action as he thoroughly tested each step with his trekking pole and instructed us exactly where to place our feet. We made it past the seemingly endless section where a slip and fall would have really serious consequences, took a breather, ate a third breakfast (or was it a second lunch?), did a costume change for the much warmer weather, and actually paid attention for the first time to the new mountains surrounding us.
Meanwhile, the Three Norwegians and the Group of Six had cruised down the 5,000-foot descent to the flatter ground of Bimthang, their crampons leaving telltale marks of their confident sure-footedness behind. On the other extreme, we worried about the single British guy with an inattentive guide until they showed up at our lodge around 6pm. At one point, Dawa even ran back up the trail until he could see them as tiny dots coming down the ridge line, worried that distance was only increasing between them and assistance if it was needed. It was moments like these that made us so grateful for having a caring and competent guide, not only for our safety but to enjoy the company of a truly "good soul." It had been an overly strenuous walk of 15 hours for him, but he was in better humor than I would have been. Upon arrival, he poked his head into the dining room and simply stated, "Well, I figured that if I started in the dark, I might as well finish in the dark!"
Our super-group of fifteen had mostly dispersed to different lodges based on each guide's preference, but our bond was strong enough that we all visited each other to say goodbye the next morning as some took a rest day and others continued on. We were in the moving-along camp, but did not make it as far as the others down the beautifully forested trail. It turned out that our legs were more tired than we realized when we decided to keep going.
We were the only guests at the isolated lodge in a forest clearing where a momentous occasion occurred: Matt took a shower, his first one in 18 days! For over two weeks, there was either no electric/gas/solar hot shower, or the air temperature was deemed too cold for a bucket shower, a bucket of hot water was too expensive, or the hot water would have been heated with firewood, which is supposedly a big no-no for low-impact trekking, even though the majority of our meals have been prepared over wood fire. I had survived two frigid showers since Matt's last one, with the only comparable experience being the polar bear plunge into Flathead Lake on New Year's Day back in my wild and crazy youth. After one of the cold showers, my toes were numb for at least an hour afterward, despite padding around with two pairs of socks and my mittens on my feet.
At first we couldn't see what the all the buzz about Manaslu was about. We were a bit put off by the higher prices than other regions with proprietors that were generally unwilling to bargain. The local folks seemed pretty ambivalent about our existence. With a mandatory guide that adopts the go-between role between trekkers and lodge staff, there was little opportunity to get to know them, so our stays felt much more impersonal. We now had to make intentional efforts to chat with the people running the hotels, which had happened so naturally before. With the increased reliance on mule trains for transporting goods, the trail was also much dustier and poopier than any other we had hiked in Nepal. The river gorge and forests were beautiful, but not particularly unique to Manaslu.
However, our experience only improved as we continued around the circuit and our perspective gradually changed for the better. The lodges got more intimate and friendly and less crowded with other tourists. The landscape became more dramatic the further up the route we hiked. The trail was forever dusty and poopy, but we got used to it. The prices remained high and higher, but we mostly adjusted our expectations. In the end, we became two more members of the Manaslu fan club, even if we weren't initially won over quite so easily.
Manaslu has exploded in popularity in the last ten years, with the number of trekkers increasing substantially each year. According to a graph in a MCAP checkpoint office, there were 344 permits issued in 1995 and 4,978 permits in 2013! This may be due to trekkers seeking an alternative to the famous Annapurna Circuit as roads almost entirely encircle it now, and in fact Manaslu has been promoted as the AC of twenty years ago. Locals are banking on that numbers graph to continue its exponential curve upward too. Each town seemed to have more new hotels under construction than finished ones, and many were of a scale we had not yet seen while trekking. While Manaslu's character will continue to change as it gets busier and busier, I believe it has potential to be regarded as a world-class trek, like Annapurna Circuit once was, if and only if it remains roadless. However, here in Nepal, that is a big if...