Trekking the Langtang Circuit in Nepal - Sara Mcgeough

Thank you Sara for this incredible blog. You can find out more about her adventures on Instagram or HareDance! Photos by Amrit Ale (Our incredible Pure Exploration lead instructor!)

Day 1: Mulharka & Chisapani


For me, like many of the group here, the trekking aspect of the program was what drew me to Nepal. After a week of quarantine in Kathmandu, our Advanced Wilderness First Aid course, and an introduction to rock climbing in Hattiban—I was ready to get into the mountains. The three days we spent in Kathmandu preparing for the trek were fuelled by nervous excitement. I had never done a multi-day trek before, let alone one that would see us reach over 5,000m in arguably the most legendary mountain range of them all— the Himalayas.


My biggest worry was that my pack was too heavy. Amrit, our guide, had briefed us on packing lightly but as my backpack was hefted down our human conveyor belt and up onto the roof of the bus it felt like one of the heaviest. I was already regretting the bag of salted peanuts I stuffed down the side and was trying to figure out if I should throw out the bar of soap I’d packed.


Our bus dropped us off at Mulharka where after a final meal, re-cap of the route, and distribution of gear to our team of Nepali porters, we set off. Talk about a baptism of fire—day one was TOUGH. The first hour or two was a relentless uphill climb under the blazing midday sun. At almost every house we passed by we were greeted by shouts of Namaste. As some of the first visitors since COVID-19 had paralyzed Nepal’s trekking industry, many of the Nepali people seemed happy to see us as it signaled that perhaps things were slowly returning to normalcy. The sudden realization that hiking in the heat with a 15-20kg pack is a whole different ball game hit hard. For an Irish girl not used to the heat, I marched upwards in my wide-brimmed sun-hat constantly fighting to keep the sweat from running into my eyes. It became apparent very quickly that some of our team were struggling. A few people had picked up a nasty tummy bug in Kathmandu and with already depleted energy the early climb had them reeling. They soldiered on however and we made it to our first campsite in the little village of Chisapani on schedule. It took us a while to get the hang of putting up our new tents but it would soon become a seamless routine over the next few days. I felt a strange sense of disappointment that first night. We were in the mountains but we hadn't really left civilization behind just yet. As I lay awake that night, our tent was illuminated by nearby lights in Chisapani and I could hear music pumping out of a nearby bar. I went to sleep hoping that tomorrow would bring the snow-capped peaks I’d imagined.

 

Stupa Camp - Camping


Day 2:  Chispani & Thotundada


My first night in the tent was....rough enough. I made a rookie mistake—drinking too much water before bed.  Not once but twice, I had to scramble out of the tent half-naked, fumble for my head torch to find the toilet tent, and pee as quickly as possible to minimize the chance of getting leeched mid-squat. Again, another routine that I would have down to a fine art by the end of the trek. And yes, Nepal has land leeches, an unwelcome discovery we made back in Hattiban.

Erecting the toilet tent was a task we had to complete every time we got to camp. It was relatively simple—dig a hole and put up the tent around it. It wasn’t the most pleasant job, especially if you were taking it down the morning after people were struggling with dodgy tummies but it was all part of the experience and we came to refer to it fondly as the shit tent. Day two was a steep learning curve for the group. Each day we assigned two leaders to study the maps, plot our route, and pace the group with one leading from the front and the other from behind. In a group, so large our paces were obviously different and so the group split naturally into one faster and one slower party. Being in the first group I walked on enjoying the burn that comes with physical exertion, chatting away, and taking in the changing scenery as we climbed higher. As a triathlete, I'm used to the grind of endurance sports and love the feeling of keeping my heart rate high and pushing myself. Unbeknownst to us in the first group, one of our team members in the slower group was really struggling and needed help with his heavy pack. Completely oblivious to this, we were caught off guard when the second group arrived at our lunch spot furious that we hadn’t all been there to help. Tensions were high as we hashed it out that evening at a very long team de-brief, but we eventually concluded that tomorrow we would try and stick together as one big group and keep the pace slow and steady. This would become our system for the rest of the trek. It marked the first of many instances where we had to learn how to work effectively as a team.


Our campsite centered around a beautiful Stupa with its bright prayer flags fluttering in the wind and overlooked a valley below. We were still near a village but having studied Indo-Tibetan Buddhism at university and spent time working at Dzogchen Beara Buddhist center in Ireland, I felt privileged to be allowed to camp in such a sacred site. 

 

Yoga on the Mountain


Day 3: Thotundada & Kutumsan


Our first THUNDERSTORM hit us during the night. As lightning lit up the tent I couldn't help but worry about the fact that we were high up on an exposed hill surrounded by giant metal prayer flags. I tried to recall our Wilderness First Aid training for what to do in a lightning storm—something about squatting in a low-tree area and avoiding high points? I took my chances and snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag. Thankfully we all made it through the night unscathed.


Today's hike was short even with the frequent stops to forage for berries along the way. Our campsite was in another village which was promised to be the last one before we really entered the wild. At this point, I was getting used to our new routine. Up at 6 am to sort out gear and break down camp, tea, and breaky at 7am followed by a briefing from our leaders. We were on our way by 8 or 8.30am depending on the day's route. If we made it to our next camp before 3pm the leaders each took a lesson. Today's lesson was on triangulation—how to find your bearings using three points—and how to pace out 100m using your own stride length. Our evenings consisted of 4pm tea, 6pm dinner, and de-brief. At the end of the debrief someone always had to lead us in song. We played a game to select the person—whoever’s backpack had the pink clothes peg when we arrived at camp had to sing. I was lucky enough to dodge it the entire time but the song choice ranged from Blink 182 to Britney Spears. You could see each person steeling themselves for the embarrassing moment they’d have to start the song but if you knew the song you could immediately come to their aid, so it turned out to be a great way to boost our team spirit. On our final night, we all simultaneously sang our own national anthems at the top of our lungs creating a cacophonous symphony of nine different songs in six different languages.

Day 4 : Kutumsan & Magangoth


Myself and another team member led on day four. I was nervous to lead not only because public speaking makes me quake in my boots but it also was set to be the toughest day so far with a big ascent of 900m over 7km. We also had an official army checkpoint to clear as we passed across into Langtang National Park. I lead from the front marching us through the damp morning mist and rain.

Keeping my pace in check was definitely a challenge for me. When I'm at the front, my natural tendency is to keep pushing the pace on so I had to constantly remind myself to reign it in. Realizing I was still going too fast even then, I made the decision to swap with my co-leader at the back to make sure everyone stayed at a comfortable pace. We knew we would have to be flexible with our timings based on how the day was progressing so after a big climb I gauged the group's energy levels and called for lunch earlier than our initial plan. It wasn't to everyone's liking but it was up to us as leaders to make the call and we made it decisively. The misty drizzle from the morning evolved into heavy rain by the afternoon. At the top of the steepest climb of the day, we happened across a teahouse. Drenched and chilled to the bone we rushed inside for hot tea and snacks. The warm, dry teahouse boosted everyone's mood before our final descent to camp. Our camp was in a clearing surrounded by tall trees, the first real wild camp spot we’d had so far. The rain never stopped forcing us to put up our tents regardless and dig trenches around the bottom to try and divert the water. We scarfed down our dinner huddled under an elevated tarp and retreated to our tents for an early night.

Hiking in Nepal


Day 5: Magangoth Teahouse


I awoke at 6am to the sound of rain with a heavy heart. It seemed like it would never end. Reaching down I felt the bottom of my sleeping bag and my heart sank even lower. It was soggy and the underside of my sleeping mat was slick with rainwater. To add to our woes, the condition of one of our team members who had struggled with illness the day before had worsened during the night. Amrit gathered us in a nearby teahouse and informed us of the change of plan for the day. We would wait out the rain in the teahouse and give our ill teammate a chance to recover. I wasn’t upset that we couldn’t hike today because by this point most of my clothes were wet so I welcomed the chance to dry them.


We spent the day huddled around the stove drying our clothes, chatting, and playing cards. Some of our team are talented musicians so we even got a mini-concert with an old guitar they'd found.


The buzz of a warm, cozy day wore off by mid-afternoon for me at least. I was restless staring out at the rain gushing down the paths outside. The puddle I’d seen yesterday when we arrived now resembled a small lake. Dinner was miserable—a quick sprint to the tarp to inhale some pasta, rice, and potatoes before retreating back to the tent again for another long night.

Day 6: Magangoth & Thadepati


Mercifully the rain stopped by the time we were having our pancakes and eggs for breakfast. Everyone was eager to go but we first had to say a sad goodbye to our teammate, whose deteriorating condition forced him to remain in the teahouse another night before making his way back to Kathmandu with Chandra to recover. It was an emotional final huddle together and even though we were only leaving behind two of our team it felt like our group was so much smaller as we wound our way down the trail that morning.


The hike was promised to be short but the return of the rain did nothing to lift my spirits. Our fearless leaders marched us onwards knowing that the best thing we could do was to just keep going until we reached our camp. The rain was so heavy it was like taking a cold shower—it ran in rivulets down my jacket, dripping off my backpack straps and streaming down my face. For me, this was probably my lowest point. We could see nothing of our surroundings and it just seemed like the rain would never stop. The thought of peeling off my wet layers and hopping into a soggy sleeping bag later weighed heavy on my mind. 


The sight of the teahouse beside our campsite did a lot to boost my spirits, however. We all piled in to dry our wet gear and have a hot lunch. Given the short duration of the morning hike, we headed out again after lunch for a four-hour up-and-back hike to try and hit 4000m. Our aim was to gain as much altitude as we could so that our bodies could adjust. Thankfully the torrential rain had mellowed to a fine mist making our ascent into the clouds less painful than I had feared when I pulled on my wet hiking boots after lunch. It was supposed to be a stunning ridge walk but sadly we could see none of it. After two hours of climbing, we stopped so that Pasang Sherpa could burn an offering of the sacred Rhododendron plant. That night as we brushed our teeth before bed we caught a glimpse of some snowy mountains peaking through the darkness for the first time! I went to sleep excited for the next day.


Day 7: Thadepati & Phedi


Alas, there were no snowy peaks on view this morning, just the familiar thick cloud and rainy drizzle. Despite this, our morning huddle was lively as we all belted out different songs at the top of our voices to boost our spirits.


Today's hike was a lot of down followed by a lot of up. It was a little bit disheartening mentally to descend so much having made the rather grueling ascent the day before and knowing that we would ultimately have to go up again at the end of the day. The clouds parted as we did descend, however, giving us glimpses of the snowy peaks above and boosting morale. I was delighted to find that many of the team are also Lord of the Rings fans. We spent the morning nerding out discussing the films and books accompanied by a downloaded Return of the King soundtrack. Hearing the music and peering up at the snowy peaks as we walked made my spine tingle although by hour three the effect has worn off somewhat and some of our party who weren't big fans couldn't take it anymore. 

The further we walked the thicker the clouds got and for most of the afternoon we could see diddly-squat. It was one of the longer days and after our lunchtime energy had worn off the group began to slow. I got a second wind a few kilometers from camp and ended up being one of the first to arrive. I'll admit, my first reaction was something along the lines of—you've got to be kidding me? At first glance, there didn't look to be a patch of flat ground but it was another moment that I would have to put my trust in our guides. It was definitely the coolest place we’d camped so far—nestled into the mountainside and flanked either side by steep towers of rock.

On the way to the peak

Day 8: Phedi & Surya Kund


Day 8 was another big ascent but this time over the shorter distance of 4km. We knew when the leaders briefed us that this could mean only one thing—steps, steps, and more steps. I was surprised to find that there were actual stair-like steps built with rocks hewn from the mountainside. It was a simple day of navigation for the leaders—the only way was up. We trudged upwards with small, slow steps, and those of us who weren't yet feeling the effects of altitude sickness carrying gear for those who were. Up, up and up we climbed with the odd glimpse of the snowy summit of Surya Peak emerging from the clouds boosting our morale. Eventually, after a particularly punishing section of steps, we crested the saddle and came across a sight that stopped everyone in their tracks. On the right, the towering Surya peak, in front of the jaw-dropping vista of 7,000m high snowy peaks and below to our left our eyes followed the fluttering prayer flags to the glassy waters of Surya Kunda lake. Not that we'd been able for chatter as we sucked in all the oxygen we could find on our climb up, but an awed silence took over the group as we stared at the view unable to believe our eyes. With the sun shining and the obligatory photo shoot that comes with such views, it was probably our slowest time yet in terms of putting up our tents and setting up camp.

Having not showered for so long, myself and four others decided we'd make the most of the weather and go for a quick dip. With a lot of squealing and hollering, we plunged into Surya
Kunda's icy waters, scrubbing the dirt and sweat off our bodies with numb hands. We bolted straight back to camp as fast as our heavy legs and de-oxygenated lungs could manage for hot tea and dinner. We all hit the hay early in anticipation of an early start for summiting Surya Peak the next morning.

Day 9: Surya Peak Summit 


Maybe it was the excitement of summit day, or maybe it was finally the effects of camping at an altitude of 4,600m hitting me like a ton of bricks but I slept terribly.  I had gone to bed wearing every layer including all my thermals, two fleeces, and my puffer jacket. Even with all the layers, it took at least thirty minutes for the shivering, but it was more like full-body tremors, to stop. I awoke at 1am with a blocked nose and struggling to breathe properly.  Looking down at m Garmin heart-rate monitor I saw that my resting rate was around 120 bpm, a serious jump from my usual average of 40bpm. I flipped onto my back to try and open up my chest to get more oxygen in. 

Finally, after what felt like a lifetime our alarms went off at 4am. It was time to summit. We braced ourselves for the cold we knew would hit us the moment we left our tents and gathered down by the kitchen tent for a quick breakfast of porridge and tea. We huddled together for shelter, our head torches lighting up each other’s faces as we scarfed down the fuel we knew we would need for the climb. There wasn't much chatter but the excitement was palpable. It was at this point that frostbite crossed my mind. Despite my woolen socks and gloves, I couldn't feel my fingers or my toes.  My mind wandered back to our Wilderness First Aid training for how to treat a frostbite victim—something about putting the blackened and detached limb in a moist, plastic bag? Before I could dwell on it too much we were on the move, one long train of headtorches snaking our way up the mountain.

 
The initial ascent was handy enough as we moved steadily over grass and rock but very soon the rock turned to snow and ice and we found ourselves slipping and sliding. Not even our instructors were fully prepared for the icy conditions but capable as ever, they grabbed trekking poles and carved footholds into the snow and ice that would allow us each to follow single file, digging our boots in as we climbed. 


At some points, we had to make use of our recently acquired rock-climbing skills and hoist ourselves up and over large boulders. Some people found the ascent very challenging, with some of the steeper parts with sheer drops on one side inducing anxiety. I however found it exhilarating. I'd never hiked a mountain in snow like that never mind in the dark. it was also my first proper sunrise hike so watching the small orange ball rise up against the silhouettes of the Langtang range behind us as we climbed made it even more special. 


After several hours of cutting a trail upwards, much slipping, sliding, laughing, and even a few tears here and there we made it to the summit—5,145m. This was by far the highest I've ever climbed. At home in Ireland, the tallest mountain stands at 1,032m. It's hard to describe how it felt to be up there. A huge sense of achievement to be sure, but also just pure elation. There were snowy peaks in every direction and the clouds were floating below us. It was like a scene plucked straight from the Lord of the Rings where the Fellowship are taking the mountain pass (if you know you know). This was what I'd come for. It was as if time stood still up there. Suddenly there was nothing but the present moment standing up there above the clouds. I recalled my studies of nature and the sublime from my time at Trinity College Dublin.


The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully,  is astonishment: and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended,  with some degree of horror. In this case, the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. - Edmund Burke 

We hugged each other taken over by a mix of relief and disbelief at where we were. We spent an hour at the summit enjoying the view and taking so many photos that we should all have enough Instagram content for years to come. I hadn't been able to force my numb hands to brush my teeth at 4am but the wait was worth it. Floating above the clouds in the Himalayas is hands down the best view I've ever had for brushing my teeth. A part of me didn't want to go down, didn't want it to end but eventually, we had to begin our descent.

From top to bottom the hike took seven hours. By the time we clambered down and crossed the icy boulder field again my legs felt like jelly. Red-faced from exposure to the bright sun and cold air we returned to camp exhausted but in high spirits. 

Surya Summit


Day 10 : Surya Kunda & BaLuwa 


Day 10 marked the beginning of our descent. It was a long day—14km over 8 hours. It took us a lot longer than the leaders had predicted as they hadn't quite accounted for the undulating trail where every time we descended we had to ascend again. I can't remember how many times I heard, "This has to be the last uphill, right?". Despite our grumbling, the trail itself was spectacular. We wove past numerous sacred lakes, the largest a popular pilgrimage site—Gosai Kunda. Fed by a stream running down from Surya Peak, it looked like one of those fancy infinity pools that you might find in a hotel in Dubai but ten times better. It seemed to stretch on forever and drop off into the clouds.  The energy in the group was a little low today, perhaps it was the effects of altitude sickness after yesterday's climb or maybe just the realization that we were now at the tail end of our trek. While we took a break at a teahouse I sat outside on a large rock to meditate. I find it so easy to get caught up in my thoughts while we're trekking. I start thinking about group dynamics, about what I'm going to do when I get back home. I get frustrated by the pace we're going at or the frequency of the breaks. Meditating brought me back to the present moment and made me recall exactly where I was and what I was doing. I reminded myself how lucky I was. Even just those few brief moments of contemplation changed my mindset for the rest of the trek. 

For the last few kilometers we walked through a thick fog unable to see any of the scenery. By the time we finally glimpsed the blue kitchen tent that marked where our camp would be for the night (the porters always got there ahead of us) the only emotion I could manage was relief. We were just settling down to hot tea in a stone shelter by our campsite when out of nowhere it started hail stoning. They rattled off the top of the tin roof of the shelter as we all sat huddled in the semi-darkness dunking our biscuits in tea. We crunched our way back to our tents after dinner banging our tents to dislodge the icy shell that made our camp look like a little settlement of igloos. As I lay on my back in the tent I spotted a thin layer of ice on the inside of our tent. It was another chilly night for us all.

Trekking in the Snow

 

Day 11: BaLuwa & Lokil


The morning of Day 11 was another highlight of the trek. Yesterday we'd arrived in thick fog just as darkness set in so we had no idea what scenery surrounded us when we went to bed. The next morning, we zipped open our tents to a white carpet of hail and the most jaw-dropping view of the Langtang range. One of the first up as I was leading again, I watched as each person emerged from their tent. They displayed one of two reactions; staring speechless and open-mouthed or expelling a string of profanities in disbelief at what greeted them.  Not only would we be descending a massive 2,000m but the distance would be the longest yet—just over 17km. My co-leader and I made sure the gear was divvied up before we set off, and did our best to keep everyone to a strict timeline of a 5-minute break after every 45 minutes of walking. It was the last day, the trail was treacherously steep at times so we were all on our last legs by the time we finally made it to camp near the village of Lokil. 

We celebrated that night with all the guides, kitchen staff, porters, and the team feasting together. It was certainly a feast as for the first time EVER, the chefs cooked us chicken. Meat makes up only a small part of the Nepali diet so having it made the meal feel extra special. That night we thanked the porters, who sang a traditional song before leaving us. We ended the night sharing our highs and lows of the trip underneath the stars—a fitting end to an epic journey.


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