Saturday, February 21, 2009

Trekking the Himalayas

Sunday Herald Sun

By Allan Thompson

FEAR. It's not something I usually like to associate with my holidays.

But there was no mistaking the feeling churning away in the pit of my stomach. It was genuine fear.

Struggling for each breath at the 4000m altitude, legs feeling like logs from lack of oxygen and aching after days of tough trekking, I was following a narrow, winding and brutally steep yak track on the side of a mountain with what seemed like a sheer vertical drop to the rugged valley thousands of metres below.

And when I thought it couldn't get any worse, suddenly the yak track disappeared.

A landslide had obliterated it. I could see it started up again 10m ahead. But to get back on to it, I would have to scramble over loose rubble on the side of the mountain, with nothing seemingly between me and the abyss below. It did occur to me then that I might die there.

Physical and mental challenges

It was neither the first nor the last time I felt fear on our 12-day trek through the Jugal Himal range in Nepal and perhaps, in retrospect, the Himalayas should not be attempted by those like me who suffer from vertigo.

On the other hand, what we saw and experienced, the physical and mental challenges we overcame, the mind-numbing beauty, the sickness, the wilderness, the danger, the exhilaration and ultimately, the triumph, will live with us forever.

Unlike a lot of tourists to Nepal, we decided to stay clear of the adventure companies, the Annapurna range, the teahouses and crowds that so characterise the Nepal trekking experience for Western tourists.

Instead we booked with a local trekking outfit, More Than Mountain Treks, one of 700 local trekking companies that operate in the country.

Our brief to the company was simple: to trek in an area away from the main trails and tourists where we could meet locals and experience the real Nepal.

True to their word, the company organised just such an experience, a walk to the five sacred lakes at Panch Pokhari.

During the entire 12-day trek we saw only two other westerners – and that was on the first day. In fact, so remote was our route that for seven of the days, it was just our party of five and our dozen porters.

We ate what the porters could carry and camped wherever we could find something resembling flat ground.

We walked through beautiful terraced farms and villages, along spectacular valleys and rugged ridges, past Buddhist shrines and temples, through fir and rhododendron forests, over swing bridges and logs that crossed crashing rivers, past countless spectacular waterfalls, through snow and ice and along tracks that were sometimes wide and gentle, but at other times narrow and demanding great daring. Indeed, on one day we lost the track for a couple of hours, its lack of use, the snow, ice and rugged vegetation all conspiring to conceal it.

Paying the price

We crashed through bush, thistles and thorns, slipped on rocks and ice, froze on some nights and sweated profusely during the heat of the day and either climbed or descended, but never, it seemed, did we walk on flat land.

We were warmly welcomed by the locals we met at the start and end of the trek, marvelled at how they eked out a subsistence existence on the steepest and most hostile of land, negotiated to camp on disused vegetable and rice paddies at the front of their homes, devoured breakfast one morning as we watched a group of men slaughter a sheep and then prepare it for that night's meal and felt slightly embarrassed as we walked past their modest, open homes always followed by loads of curious and laughing children.

However, not all of our interactions with the locals were friendly. On the last day of the trek, only an hour from our finish, we were stopped by a group of opportunistic youths who wouldn't let us pass unless we paid a "toll" to use the track. After a tense stand-off and negotiation, we parted with the equivalent of $30 to continue.

Some of us became sick, we all lost weight and became much fitter. Rarely did we have time to reflect on anything too much. We were totally in the moment and forced to give in to the rhythm of the trek.

And when, after the first five days of climbing we stood at 4500m atop the ridge of Panch Pokhari – with nothing between us and the Jugal Himal range of the mighty Himalayas, with its towering peaks and glaciers spread before us in every direction in all its awe-inspiring majesty, nothing mattered at all. Not fear, tiredness, blisters or sickness.

Just us and the greatest view on earth.

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