Greeted with snow and with the finish line in sight, the Nepal group continues their challenging but rewarding descent in the Himalayas.
Langtang National Park: Part 4 (By Michael Watt)
Frozen landscapes blanked with the powder of fresh snow have always evoked within me a sense of childhood innocence. They take me back to the days of winter's past, watching the names of the schools marching along the TV banner, hoping my school would come up with the word “Closed” next to it signaling a snow day, freedom. While today’s trek would certainly not be cancelled, nor would I want it to be, we were given a parting gift in seeing Gosaikunda draped in fresh snow as the morning light, not yet over the horizon, added a blueish, mystical glow to the scene. The harmony of it all captivated my soul, instilling back into it the wonder of my youth.
A Frosty Morning
I’d be mistaken not to mention the realities of such a frozen scene, my own physical ailment of what I believe to be a case of Raynaud's Phenomenon. With equal layers as the person next to me, the cold sets into my hands and feet exponentially worse than for my neighbor. Perhaps it’s my love for the cold which makes my hands and feet freeze in ice numbing pain. But I can tell you the feeling, or lack of feeling, can be excruciating. To that end, movement and breathwork are the keys to fueling my little internal furnace until the daylight hits me. Moments after I stared wildly at the icy scene before me, I was doing breathwork and jumping jacks to keep the pain to a minimum…with every pause in my routine resulting in the frozen painful grip returning into my extremities.
Helping others has always been a cornerstone of what makes me tick. I don’t know how it started but it just is something that gives me personal joy. With that said, for me to ask for help is not something I am used to doing. However, as I tried to fold my sleeping bag, the icy feeling in my fingers prevented my hands from moving enough to complete the simple task. Frustrated at my inability, I threw the bag down, gave a grunt of pain and sprinted to our shelter to put my hands essentially as close to the fire as possible. I had to ask my roommate Sean to help me fold my sleeping bag, and I am forever grateful for his simple service. It’s not what I wanted to do, but what I had to do. Acceptance.
Moments later, the sunlight finally hit our camp. Like Lazarus being raised from the dead so that my body’s full strength returned as the daylight of the dawn ignited the physical fire within me. My layers flew off and I became anew, able to return to my tasks of breaking camp and packing my ruck. When daylight is the only means of light and warmth, understanding its nature becomes a necessity. Never had I depended so much on it for the life of me. We know daylight as the catalyst to the creation of life and so it was also the catalyst to thawing my frozen body. In those icy mornings in the high Himalayas, daylight was as essential to me as the air I breathed.
The Descent To The Finish
After 10 days with overall ascent in our trek through the Himalayas, today marked the start of our descent. With crisp blue skies and beautiful snowy landscapes ahead, the mood of the group couldn’t have been better. After days of inconsistent pacing, we had finally learned our lesson that the most effective way to trek in a large group is by going slow to go fast. This prevents overworking, taking many little breaks and an exhausted and highly emotional group by day's end. Our leaders Lori and Muriel observed well and knew how to lead the day.
When I look at my journal entry for this day, it is surprisingly one of the shortest entries, at only two paragraphs. However, this day is written on many pages within the chapter of my favorite memories whilst in Nepal. Our leaders split with Lori leading at the front and Muriel sweeping at the back. I placed myself alongside Lori where 80% of our conversation would be about our shared love for Taylor Swift, sharing stories of our past and how we connected them to her song writing. Long story short, we found our own little wonderland navigating the snowy trails on our descent of the mountain.
As we walked the ridge line for most of our trek down and the views were nothing short of the most spectacular of the entire journey. The Langtang Range with its quintessential pointed peaks came out of its cloudy sheath to bid us a mighty farewell acting as a jaw dropping backdrop to our journey. We took delicate steps down steep stone staircases which reminded me ever so much of the stairs to Mordor above Minas Morgul that Frodo and Sam took in Return Of The King. The challenge going down these fickle stairs was balancing focus on careful foot placement while also enjoying the magical scene ahead.
As had happened before, our trek was extended due to our target campsite not having a viable water source. However, unlike previous times, our spirits were stronger due to the beautiful sky above and that all steps forward were descending. As opposed to going 8k, we ended up going 13k for 5hrs30m to land at a little campsite where the nearest water was still a walk away, but it was the best we could do. With the additional 6k under our belt, we made the team decision to make the next day’s trek just a little longer in order to cut two days' trekking into one and get us to the finish point by the day's end and thus a day early.
What sounded good on paper turned out to be one of the most difficult days, physically and mentally for the entire group. The final day's trek was a true trial of endurance, patience, empathy, acceptance, and teamwork. To set the tone, we started off making a wrong turn after a few short steps into the walk. From there, the challenges only mounted. Some of these were bound to happen as the trails of the mountain changed over years and our maps were slightly outdated. But, at the end of the day, communication is key and when that begins to break down so too does anything beyond that.
We had multiple injured teammates which resulted in the weight of their bags being shifted into those uninjured. While it is essential and does help the injured walk much easier and faster, the additional weight nonetheless does take a gradual and eventual toll on the body of those carrying it. While you would think that we would be mainly descending like the previous day, for whatever reason we were ascending which certainly was not a mood booster. There were arguments on the pace of the group as well. Some wanted to go fast and take many quick breaks while others valued slower with fewer breaks. Unfortunately, the theme set from the previous day was not carried into the final day.
Not easy, but worth it
The trek was communicated to us to be around 12k. However, when we got to lunch and had already gone 8k with no significant descent, I began to find it hard to believe. I never minded the weight in my bag but on this day, at the heaviest it ever was, I began to feel my own endurance breaking under the pressure. While finally descending, I slipped and fell back on my hands and scraped my thumb a bit. I thought nothing of it until it wouldn’t stop bleeding to the point where we had to stop. A true master of wilderness first aid, I couldn’t have been luckier to have had Chandra taking care of me. He bandaged my thumb flawlessly and I gave the group a nice laugh with my high-pitched yelp as Chandra put betadine on what he called my little laceration.
The protocol was that the injured should stay to the front to help set the group pace to avoid the group moving like an accordion, with the front constantly waiting for those slower to catch up. However, when one of the injured fell back with me, already in the back, I decided to hold their pace but soon after the group fell out of sight. I tried yelling to get attention, but no response was heard. Alone, we did our best to track them through footprints and assumptions. Chandra had caught up with us, so we were not entirely alone. As we toiled down the trail, I began to hear their echo shouts, but I was too defeated to respond, they’d have to wait. With every step tweaking the minor curvature of my back with pain, Chandra stopped me and insisted I give up some weight. While I didn’t want to, I accepted the helping hand offered to me.
With the finish line in sight
As we winded down our trail, we came up behind the group sitting alongside their trail. Shocked at where we came from, they told us that we were on the wrong trail. Defeated. Someone had instructed them to only look back on fellow team members at certain junction points and that when they looked back for me, I was well out of sight and earshot. Physically and emotionally drained, I simply reminded and asked that the injured stay in the front going forward. Unfortunately, that didn’t work and the injured kept falling back only dampening the mood of those of us observing. When asked how I was doing, it took everything in me not to not tear up out of exhaustion. Muriel, a master of knowing the correct words to say no matter what, took to singing “What A Wonderful World” which was the exact elixir I needed to soothe my beaten down heart, I immediately smiled.
As the forest dissipated and opened into little farmsteads, I knew the finish line was close. Down and down, we went through the little villages, passing villagers and baby goats, until we came upon a patch of lush grass where our blue cook tent was standing proudly, we had made it. We travelled 15k for 6hr30m arriving at beer and water ready to be given to us by the local villagers. I fell to my knees in euphoria and out of sheer physical enervation. My shoulders were indented from my bag and the act of receiving a hug from Muriel was painful, but I’d be wrong to say it wasn’t exactly what I wanted. From Day 1, we had come 80k with a total ascent of 5,800m and descent 5,100m. The feeling I had at the finish felt as if I had combined all the ultramarathons I had ran into one, from the feelings of pure jubilance to absolute physical and mental exasperation.
Looking back on my Himalayan journey
Looking back on the 12-day adventure in Langtang, I can say I had no clue what I was getting myself into when I set foot on the trail in Mulkharka. I sit here in a comfortable chair with air-conditioning writing and reflecting how Langtang’s lessons will endure within me forever. This was one of the hardest trials I have ever done, but I have nothing but gratitude for the experience. Gratitude to have had the opportunity to walk atop the roof of the world for 12 freeing days. Gratitude in strengthening the values of communication, acceptance, respect, and empathy. Certainly, understanding team dynamics whilst trekking with a large group was a pivotal skill learnt. As the old adage goes; “You catch more flies with honey than you do vinegar”.
At the start of this writing, I had said that to walk with and on the mountain is an act of humbling humility, a metaphorical head bowing to Mother Earth. Certainly, at the end of it all, falling to my knees, physically and mentally shattered yet also more whole than ever, was my humbled head bowing. I wrote that I sought the thrill of adventure set by Tolkien in Middle-Earth and Percy Fawcett in his journals seeking the Lost City Of Z in the Amazon, and I got it. Merriam-Webster defines “Adventure” as “an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks” but also “an exciting or remarkable experience”. To me, Langtang was nothing short of a true adventure.
"There’s no sense in going further - it's the edge of cultivation,"
So they said, and I believed it - broke my land and sowed my crop -
Built my barns and strung my fences in the little border station
Tucked away below the foothills where the trails run out and stop:
Till a voice, as bad as Conscience, rang interminable changes
On one everlasting Whisper day and night repeated - so:
"Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges -
"Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!"
- Rudyard Kipling, "The Explorer" (1898)