Beauty and danger in the Himalayas

Dhanbader brought a miraculously small day pack containing all that he’d need for our nine day trek to Annapurna Base Camp. He was prepared to carry my backpack, but I’d been sure to pack no more than I could carry myself. Half impressed, half lost in comprehending my independence, he allowed me to carry my own luggage. Dhan was my Nepalese guide. He’d lost sight in his left eye during an exceptionally bright and treacherous snow trek 22 years ago and had survived many a bigger adventure than me.

As we ascended into the mountains, green valleys and small towns surrounded by little vegetable farms welcomed us. People in colorful clothing and the typical Nepalese woolen beanies looked at us by-passers without much interest. Local school children surpassed us swiftly. With his experience and his lack of my luggage, Dhan was having a rather casual stroll up the gigantic mountain range that we call the Himalayas. I felt like I was slowing him down a lot.

Every now and again we stepped aside to allow for a row of donkeys or horses to pass on the narrow path. In the rhododendron forest, its trees distinguished by pink and red flowers, Dhan showed me how to drink nectar from the flowers. “Local medicine”, he explained, “very good for throat”.

After two days we reached Poon Hill. From this point onwards the trek was already worth it. With its 3.200 meters Poon Hill is considered a hill next to the Himalayas, of which many reach up to 8.000 meters. Outstretched before us we could see the Annapurna mountain range.  Our destination. Buddhist prayer flags were playing in the wind. To the Nepalese a beautiful place is a sacred place. Straight ahead we could see the proud tops of Machhapuchchhre Himal: a 7.000 meter two-topped holy mountain that is nicknamed Fishtail. Those who climb it are said to never return. On the left side behind it we could also see Annapurna III, which was the mountain were to hike to and partly climb to reach Base Camp. 

Over the next three days we did not gain any height. Though we hiked up and down many hundreds of meters every day, we always made it back to around 3.200 meters. Every town we seemed to have its own beliefs and superstitions. In one town where we were not allowed to eat meat, another where it was forbidden to play music and yet another town that allowed no fire.

During the evenings Nepalese guides and trekkers mixed for a bit. Stories were shared and laughter was heard. Yet at night we slept in very different dorms. During the freezing nights I could sleep under multiple woolen blankets, which I needed badly, including my woolen hat, socks, gloves and jacket. But I noticed that the guides’ dorms sometimes didn’t have a single blanket It disturbed me, but every time I mentioned it or proposed to divide the blankets between us, Dhan avoided the subject. This was uncharacteristic for his normal enthusiasm and eagerness to answer my questions.

Some time during the fifth day we reached a centimeter of snow. We were excited, but trekkers who were coming down, told us that the snow was “pretty bad up there”. One trekker told us about a group that had lost three of its members in an avalanche. The three trekkers were still missing. Unsure of what we would find, we continued hiking up through the thin layer of snow, until we reached the town of Deurali, again situated at 3.200 meters.

In Deurali, horror stories about avalanches kept reaching us. Time-wise we could make it to Machhapuchchhre Base Camp (MBC) at 3.900 meters that day. This would be a two hour hike from Deurali and then another two hours until we would reach Annapurna Base Camp, our final destination. But because of the worsening snow and the accumulating horror stories, we decided to spend the night in Deurali.

That evening it kept snowing. It was starting to get very cold. A heater was placed under the table in the guest house. With a group of Chinese people and their Nepalese guide, we huddled up around the heater. It was the other guide’s birthday. Apparently food sharing is a traditional birthday thing to do in China and the Chinese spoiled him and us with food. They told us they’d attempted to hike from Deurali to MBC that afternoon, but had been forced to return. A video showed how their sight had suddenly been blocked by a grey cloud coming from the valley at high speed. On another video they showed us an avalanche on the other side of the valley. You could hear people screaming in the background. The group had concluded that it was way too dangerous to hike any further. They’d descend the next day.

Five trekkers were missing by now, a topic causing grave silence whenever it came up. Apparently the track between Deurali and MBC is the biggest avalanche danger zone of Nepal, of which I’d had no idea and neither had my guide book. The guide of the Chinese received a phone call that evening, saying that the people at both Machhapuchchhre and Annapurna base camp were stuck there.

Dhan knows the mountains very well. He was not giving up yet and said we’d see what the path would look like in the morning. At six o’clock the next morning we were ready. Dhan said that walking in an avalanche danger zone is best done before 8 o’clock, when the sun hasn’t sufficiently warmed up the snow in order for it to melt and fall down. I wondered whether we shouldn’t consider not walking in an avalanche danger zone at all. But around the same time the snowfall returned and Dhan had to admit defeat.

One centimeter had become twenty centimeters of snow overnight. I felt no disappointment. I was lucky. Those five people who were missing, was someone even looking for them? No helicopter could fly in this weather. As for us: we could neither proceed nor walk down. We sat around the table again with the Chinese. This time without the heater. There was tension in the room. I read a book and drank hot chocolate to warm myself up.

Fortunately only a few hours later the snowfall decreased. We seized our chance and started a fast descend. Dhan and I jumped through the fresh snow and surpassed people who were walking very carefully. Only once I fell on the slippery path. “Also avalanche danger zone”, Dhan commented worriedly, pointing at the open areas in between the trees up the mountain slope. I started to recognize them now and realized the danger. He wanted us to get out of here as soon as possible. The snow now reached lower altitudes than the day before. Many hours passed before the snow turned to rain. Not taking many breaks, we continued hiking down in the rain all day. Finally we reach the first perceived safe town of Chomrong.

We booked into a guest house to find more trekkers there who’d stranded in Chomrong on their way up or down. Dhan estimated it wouldn’t be possible to hike up for the next three weeks. On our second day in Chomrong the sky cleared up and three helicopers flew in. They managed to rescue the people who’d been stuck in the base camps. Some people were dropped off in Chomrong, others were taken to hospitals in Pokhara and Kathmandu. We learned that the path on which we’d walked down only two days before, had been hit by a few avalanches as well and was no longer accessible. Five people had died in the avalanches. One other person had died from high altitude sickness when she’d reached base camp.

Because the rain had stopped, we decided to pack our wet bags and descended for another eight hours, leaving the sound of helicopters far behind us. Dhan pointed out the difference in rescue operations for tourists and local people. For a tourist a helicopter rescue would always be arranged and is often covered by insurance. But the Nepalese guides, sherpas and inhabitants of the mountain villages had no way of affording a helicopter rescue when being hit by an avalanche or getting stuck because of one. Neighboring towns first had to collect money in order to send a search helicopter. The risk that the Nepalese took in the Himalayas was of a different level than my own. I had not been quite aware of that.

Trekking in the Himalayas was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. Yet I learned how ill prepared we can enter some areas as a tourist. We don’t realize how little we know about potential hazards in an area unfamiliar to us. This was no the last time that I would learn this lesson in Nepal. Increased tourism makes more places easily accessible, which brings both new chances and risks for tourists and local people. It is important to be aware of this while enjoying the many benefits.

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