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[TR] Himlung Himal, Nepal - Northwest Ridge 10/28/2009

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Trip: Himlung Himal, Nepal - Northwest Ridge


Date: 10/28/2009


Trip Report:

**trip date was 2008 - not available from the drop-down**



Sunset over Besisahar


After several years of scheming, planning, training and preparation, we arrived at long last in Kathmandu by dark of night, tired and oblivious to the experience awaiting us. We soon found ourselves in the dirty, frenetic, fascinating jungle of this third world city. Final preparations were made - procurement of Yak cheese, orange juice (lost my Gatorade bottle at airport security), prayer flags and whiskey. Our sherpas slept through the half-day bus ride to Besisahar. We were riveted by the white knuckle ride, motorized masses of humanity weaving up and down precarious roads, along steep, terraced hillsides of corn and rice. The initial, most shocking impression is the ubiquity of green. Even coming from Portland, the lush, verdant landscape was overwhelming. Soon our pace was dictated by that of the donkeys. Leaving the clatter and fumes of diesel behind, we made our way deeper and deeper into the mid mountain region of Nepal, farther and farther away from the sequacious, tedious concerns of our comfortable western lives.



Coming to the Himalaya, we had every expectation of majestic vistas, steep relief and fascinating people, but no concept of this lush, sub-tropical landscape. Immediately we were impressed with the relative poverty – and transcendent happiness – of the Nepali people. Thoughts of home were soon supplanted by the richness of the experience. Hiking through this country brought me back to my agrarian roots - agriculture still makes up something like 40% of the Nepali economy, and it is hard, manual work in this country. Day after day we pushed higher and higher – into familiar, temperate, coniferous forest...with bamboo and cannabis. The depth of the valleys, the extent of the river systems was hard to fathom - the absence of roads (for now) - refreshing.



Endless rice paddies early on in the approach


At Chame we turned North off the busy Annapurna trekking circuit, towards ancient, dry, dusty, inhospitable country. We reached the village of Phu by mid October, at thirteen thousand feet the last permanent civilization we would see before our grassy base camp at fifteen thousand feet. The monastery at Phu has been there for one thousand years, and the village looks as it would have that long ago, save for some solar panels, plastic buckets and western tourists. This small corner of Western Nepal was opened to tourism in the last five years. This is one of the things that drew us to this objective. We were surprised and a little disappointed to find a small crowd at base camp: two German teams, one Swiss group, Belgians and a dutch couple plussherpas and tamang porters. But base camp is on a broad, grassy, low angle slope and was plenty spacious for all these people and the local Yak herders. We found it great forhacky sack - the dearth of flat spots and the abundance of dung notwithstanding. We ate better than back home, three square meals a day: hot, fresh food, gallons of tea, ever smiling service.



Ubiquitous prayer flags and mani stones



Himlung is a relatively straightforward, non-technical climb. The route ascends a long, winding, snow covered and glaciated ridge flanked by broken, impassable glaciers. The summit is obscured from below base camp until over twenty thousand feet - where most parties establish camp three after several weeks of acclimatization. The challenge in climbing this mountain is simply its remoteness, the cold and the altitude. We enjoyed predictable post-monsoon weather, clear calm skies in the morning with varying degrees of wind and high clouds developing every afternoon. Above base camp we could see Annapurna to our West - generally with clouds raking off the summit from the winds.



Yak herder just below base camp


After our first carry to camp one and a rest day, Keith was coming down with HAPE. He informed us that he'd be walking back down to Chame. Twenty minutes into this hike, he was coughing up blood. Phurba, our sirdar (head sherpa) turned the progression around and called for a helicopter evac on the sat phone. By this time it was after noon and the winds had picked up. The helo would not arrive until the next morning. One of the Swiss climbers coming down from camp one is an ER doctor. Suddenly we were not so bummed to have neighbors at base camp. The ensuing hours passed uneasily. With treatment, descent and rest, Keith made a full recovery and traveled around Kathmandu before returning to the Annapurna trekking circuit. We took another rest day under perfectly clear skies - to regain our wits and catch up on sleep.




Sunrise over the Annapurna range


We established camps one and two at seventeen and twenty thousand feet, respectively. The comfort of base camp drew us back down again and again after trips to elevation. Finally we left the leisure life and committed to the high mountain, fighting brutally strong winds up to camp three where we took another rest and acclimatization day. 'Rest' above twenty thousand feet is a misnomer. We couldn't relax much, crammed in our cocoon of nylon and down, patiently melting snow to stay hydrated, trying to sleep. On October 28th we headed for the summit:


We embark sometime after five in the morning, wearing pretty much everything we have – puffy pants, puffy coats, overboots. The sun is just beginning to light the eastern sky. I am stumbling at first, hadn’t slept well, not feeling strong. We traverse up and down the ridge to reach the climb proper – 30-45 degree slopes with steeper slopes, ice and crevasses below – not a good place to fall. The snow is dry, crystalline, firm, giving excellent crampon purchase and a loud crunch underfoot.


The summit seems hopelessly far away. I settle in to a rhythm of twenty steps, then a stop to catch my breath. The ratio is easily 2 breaths for every step. We are gaining on the one section of rock & ice exposed by glacial action. We ascend the broad slope between the corniced ridge (left) and large crevasses (right). We see some avy crownwalls but the slides look pretty old.


The sun reaches us around 9:30. Calm turns to a light breeze. We weave through slabs of sastrugi, sculpted into wings, airfoils and all manner of delicate shapes.


We reach the fixed lines, tangible evidence of progress. The day wears on. I think about all the routes I haven’t climbed on Hood, yet. I think about how nice it is to climb in the relatively rich atmosphere below 10-12k ft. I think about Pizza – not the kind we’ve been eating here, but Pizza Scholls or Pizzicatto. I think about sitting on my couch and watching Old School. I think about the incredible experience of climbing in the Himalaya, more and more of it visible with each set of steps. Breeze turns to wind. Fingers and toes are just barely warm enough.


One, two, three, four…the climbing is slow, methodical, not super technical – maybe 35 or 40 degrees. We enjoy good climbing conditions – the snow stays firm, we get some high clouds but nothing too serious. The sky is a deep blue, unnatural, more of the blue of a lake or an ocean, not the sky. We see Tibet. All around are mountains of brown and grey rock, covered with snow and glacier higher up.


The final corniced ridge and small rock bands don’t seem to be getting any closer. I now do three steps before stopping to breath. I think about Keith and Andy Basque, which makes it harder to breath. Big mountains seem to have this effect on me. Finally cresting the summit, the first view is a precipitous drop off, a big flat glacial valley and Makalu. The views are overwhelming. The experience is overwhelming. I’ve seen amazing mountain vistas back home, after only 1 or 2 days climbing. The 15 or 20 minutes of views here are disproportionate to the effort. The experience is not.


Older mountaineering literature describes climbing in belligerent language: war, attack, conquest, retreat. Perhaps this was the allegory that allowed them to understand the danger of injury and death. No mountain has ever been conquered by man. We stand on the top for a few minutes, in good conditions, and congratulate ourselves on the accomplishment. The mountains couldn’t care less. Can’t care at all, in fact. They are passive, inanimate objects.


So far as we know, ours is the first American ascent of this unfeeling, nonthinking, (large) pile of rock, snow and ice. A significant accomplishment for American mountaineering? Doubtful. An amazing experience for each of us as individuals? Absolutely. There are ascents which are both personal achievements and major breakthroughs for mountaineering at the same time. Ours is not one of those.


The process of reaching any summit has always rewarded me with powerful perspectives, introspection, cathartic cleansing of the trivial every-day. Arriving here, half a world away from home, in a wild, remote corner of the world brought new insights, tranquility, humility. I thought a lot about Andy Basque, about the ribbon from her memorial service that Keith asked me to carry to the summit. On this trip, leading up to this trip, I thought at great length about my own mortality, risk, and about living good days - free of regret, with passionate (not reckless) abandon. In those fleeting moments on the summit, I am fulfilled, at peace, changed.



Before three in the afternoon we were making our way down the still firm slopes - back down towards our high camps, base camp, the Annapurna trekking circuit, Kathmandu, Portland and our boring, affluent lives. Above nineteen or twenty thousand feet, the wear and tear of altitude exceeds the benefits of acclimatization. We had spent four nights at that elevation. The next afternoon we arrived in base camp, physically exhausted and emotionally, spiritually rejuvenated. After some rest and a final trip to retrieve camp one, we celebrated Halloween with our Swiss friends. A fifth of whiskey goes a long ways at this elevation. We were already talking about future climbing plans - the love of life being the most universal of languages.



While we had realized our climbing objective, we still had a good deal of trekking in front of us. This had always been a big part of our agenda. We retraced our steps back toChame and turned West. A few days later we were happy to be reunited with Keith in Manang. Our path lay to the Northwest, over Thorung La (pass) at seventeen thousand feet and down to Pokhara . Day after melancholy day we made our way back down from high, barren desert to temperate forest, through subtropical lowlands and towards civilization. Days spent on the trail or slogging up some glacier afford one good time for clear thinking - as my friend Gabrielle describes it "recalibrating the brain to calm the business of our minds." The trip in was filled with thoughts of the climb and why we expose ourselves to the hazards of climbing. On the way out thoughts of leaving Nepal weighed on our minds. What at first struck us as the shocking, chaotic, smoky, colorful craziness of Kathmandu now seemed familiar and comfortable. We were no longer surprised to see more motorcycles than cars, monkeys running around thegompas, the cattle guard at the Kathmandu international airport.


It is impossible to travel in Nepal and not be impressed with how happy the people are in spite of their apparent poverty. Per capita GDP in Nepal is something like $270, as compared to around $45,000 in the United States. Coming back to the developed world in the middle of November - to contracting GDP and rising unemployment - I can only conclude that we are still really well off compared to the majority of the six billion people on this planet.



This is not your typical post - not about sharing route or conditions beta, shameless self promotion or cool photos. This is about the happiness we get out of these experiences. It is an invitation to come hear some of the stories and give back a little to people living in these distant mountains, who don't enjoy the luxury of climbing as an avocation. We are putting on a slide show Thursday, April 30th at the Bagdad Theater in Portland (doors at 6pm, show at 7; tickets $8 in advance and $10 at the door). All proceeds will benefit the dZi foundation, which supports twenty-two health, education, and community development programs throughout the Himalayan region of India and Nepal - primarily in communities not on the radar of other International Non-Governmental Organizations due to caste make-up and remote location. There are many, many such remote regions in Nepal and the Himalaya - we saw just one.






Gear Notes:

Conquistadors of the Useless - Terray

Annapurna - Herzog

Breakfast of Champions - Vonnegut

The Rock Warriors Way - Ilgner

The Monkey Wrench Gang - Abbey

Three Cups of Tea - Mortensen

Notebook and paper

Hacky sacks


Approach Notes:

The approach was the climb

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