Read all about our Nepal group's magical experience trekking through the Himalayas on a 12-day hike in Langtang National Park.
Langtang National Park: Part 1 (By Michael Watt)
The Himalayas. The mountains of legend. Everyone knows of The Himalayas, but not everyone sees them, nor do they walk them. To walk with and on the mountain is an act of humbling humility, a metaphorical head bowing to Mother Earth. When I set out for Nepal, I set out to go on a real adventure, like the stories I’d fantasied being in as a kid and as an adult. As a kid I grew up wanting to adventure with The Fellowship of The Ring through Middle- Earth. As an adult I wondered where I could remotely feel anything to the thrill and excitement felt by Percy Fawcett as he crossed the Andes Mountains seeking the Lost City of Z. All my wonders were about to be realized in Langtang National Park, home to the Langtang Range of the High Himalayas.
We were embarking on a two-week self-supported trek through Langtang National Park. We would carry our tents, food, gear, and supplies on our backs, equating to about 22-32kg (50-70lbs) every day going an average of 8k (5mi) each day with an average elevation gain of 610m (2,000ft). Thankfully, we’d be privileged to have a team of local porters who’d show us the true meaning of strength as they helped carry the larger group gear and some food essentials. My camping experience up until now was summed up in the prior two weeks camping that we did in Hattiban. However, the Langtang experience would prove far more challenging as we’d no longer be at one camping location, rather we’d be moving nearly everyday making and breaking camp as we moved from one location to the next as we endured all forms of weather trekking through The Himalayas.
For some, the body was ready, and the mind was not and others the opposite. My spirit of endurance had known the trials of running 50k (35mi) races on the east coast of Northeast America. However, the Himalayas will try anyone’s spirit of endurance in ways you’d never dream possible, no matter your background or length of preparation. There were times in Langtang when I would feel my spirit on the verge of breaking down with each step I took up the mountain with the heavy load on my back. However, the elation my spirit felt with each spectacular view we saw everyday kept the fire burning, fueling me to the finish line some many miles away from our starting point.
Starting a 12-day hike
We entered at an elevation of 1,685m (5,560ft) at the village of Mulkharka and were targeting our highest campsite to be at the holy waters of Gosaikunda 4,440m (14,435ft), all we had to do was go up. The trek began with a 3-hour climb up winding stairs over our first saddle from Mulkharka to Chisapani. A town still paralyzed by the 2015 earthquake with misshapen buildings and more livestock than people for residents, Chisapani would certainly give me a night to remember. The rain began as soon as we got to our campsite which began to affirm what I had been told by Amrit that the weather in the Himalayas builds all day and will give to us its gathered precipitation as soon as the sun begins to set. All the more reason that we began our hikes around 8am with a goal of finishing no later than 3pm.
That evening I awoke to what sounded like someone incessantly tossing and turning in their sleeping bag. The sound was ceaseless, so I decided to investigate. I got out of my tent, turned my headlamp on, looked around and upon lighting up a storage tent, I noticed four hooves! A team had left out their cooking food to which a cow was now enjoying as a very late-night snack! I clapped my hands and shooshed the cow away and then took all the food I could recover to our main sealed storage tent. I went to sleep, dreaming I was breaking the news of the cow to our team, only to be awakened by the cow again who had broken through another bag of food! As I said, Chisapani certainly gave me a night to remember.
Higher and higher!
The next day’s hike took us off our plotted course as we felt more comfortable following one of our porters only to discover they took a much more direct route which also yielded more greater descents and thus a lot more ascent as all our campsites until Gosaikunda would be at higher and higher elevations. The visibility wasn’t great due to stagnant air that was the result of sand from India, smog, far away forest fires and, most importantly, one of the driest March’s in the past decade. With the day’s future elevation gains yet to be revealed, I enjoyed the first half as we wandered down the dirt roads with the hazy Himalayas ahead of us. What I could make out clearly were the vegetation paddies sewed all over the mountains creating rhythmic rivets as they cascaded down their slopes awaiting the much-needed rain to fill their dry beds.
It was this day’s trek that gave me my first test in willpower. As we were off the plotted course, we were constantly in the dark in terms of distance and that weighed heavy on my endurance and back. My expectations versus the realities of trekking were not far off overall. However, I didn’t anticipate how I’d struggle when I was without knowledge of where exactly I was going, and for how much longer. I found myself in headspaces clinching on to any hope given that our walking would be nearing its end and the pain in my back and shoulders would be alleviated. As I could feel tears of pain and useless frustration begin to well up in my eyes we finally got to our next campsite and thus they subsided. We were camped beside Thodong Lama Stupa which made my inner spirit sigh with relief at sleeping by a holy place. However, when we finally arrived in camp, as if scripted, it began to rain.
Passing through Himalayan villages
We awoke to a beautiful sunrise with the deep red dot of the sun trying hard to press its light through the clouds which entranced us as it bathed our Stupa with a pink aura as we made our breakfasts. Today’s trek was planned much shorter which was a relief to us all and we made the short 5k easily getting us to our next location around noontime. The little village of Kutumsang was the quintessential Himalayan Village. It had a few homes, a stupa, a guesthouse, and a teahouse. Our campsite was on the grounds of the guesthouse and we enjoyed the luxury of free cold showers and the ability to wash, and hang dry our clothes. Afterwards we enjoyed tea at the teahouse before having our first student lead class on all things maps and compasses.
I remember Kutumsang being the place where I first witnessed the intrinsic beauty of the Himalayan clouds and weather as a pure observer. From living most of my life at essentially sea level, the clouds to me are kind of these slow-moving things in the sky that, occasionally, turn radiant colors during sunset making for a nice Instagram story photograph. But always they are mainly still and slow. Here in the mountains, they move and flow just like the precipitation they give us in the evening. They magnetize your eyes as they become a blue and white kaleidoscope display dancing and merging with each other over the mountains below. It is a special sight that I was mesmerized by during the rest of my time in the mountain.
Leading the hike
The next day we were to ascend into high altitude, above 3,050m (10,00ft), for the first time which is the zone where altitude sickness can begin. With what looked to be a challenging day ahead, I elected to be the team leader along with my teammate, Matt. With the tents and rucksacks all packed up, Matt and I gathered the team for the treks briefing. We walked the team through what each kilometer would bring from terrain to elevation in order to set their expectations accurately. Before we departed, Matt and I shared some words of encouragement. Knowing this could be a challenging day with many of us pushing harder than we had ever before, I shared a quote from Zig Ziglar. “FEAR: has two meanings: ‘Forget Everything And Run’ or ‘Face Everything And Rise.’” As we set off, we were graced with our first glimpses of the snow-capped Himalayas peeking behind the mountains ahead, the ultimate motivation.
The weather was as perfect as you could ask for as we trudged along up through the high alpine forests over the mountains. Two hours into our climb, the effects of the altitude began to take effect. Our pace began to slow down as team members began feeling faint and lightheaded. We’d stop, take water and allow everyone to literally catch their thinly oxygenated breath before continuing. The breaks became less effective and the next remedy was by having those struggling to empty their bags and give the weight to those of us able to carry it. I didn’t realize this then, but this tactic would become a daily ritual every day until the last as our bodies succumbed more and more to the merciless power of altitude in the high Himalayas.
As we crested the trail to our highest point at a quintessential teahouse, we were welcomed fluttering Tibetan prayer flags and a fuller view of the once hidden snow caps now towering in front of us, the end was near. Our campsite was nestled in a green grove surrounded by mountains and evergreens, a picture-perfect alpine setting. We pitched our tents, enjoyed the remaining sunlight, cooked dinner on our little stoves and as the sun set it took with it all the warmth of the day. It was only minutes after the sun was fully set that everyone had a wardrobe transformation from long sleeves and shorts to pants, down jackets, hats, and gloves. The evening brought us below freezing temperatures freezing the ground in a frosty vice grip all the way until the sunrise the next morning.
Walking to Thadepati
As we awoke to a frozen campsite, all eyes were on the mountains to the west which acted as a sundial to which we anxiously awaited the morning sun's thawing warmth. As the sun began to hit us, our movements became swifter, and our clothing layers became less. Our next destination was higher up further sitting on the mountain ridge at Thadepati. While it was only 5k (3mi) from our starting point, we were already at high altitude and needing to climb another 450m (1,500ft). Furthermore, the trail took us along our first ridgeline which is always daunting at first step, knowing that one wrong foot placement on the slope would certainly require the full training of our wilderness first-aid to come out.
With everyone moving at a slow and steady pace, we passed the ridgeline surefooted and found our way to the campground of Sumcho Top Lodge at Thadepati. As with a few days ago, we arrived during the early afternoon which allowed us to make camp well before any possibility of rainfall could threaten us. As the evening was turning ice cold with the winds whipping the ridge, we were granted hospitality by the guesthouse to use their common room which featured a wood burning stove making it the perfect escape. Here was the first location I saw the stars so clear that my headtorch was almost not needed. During the day I was captivated by the clouds and during the evening the stars shined brighter and clearer than I had seen in a very long time. My only wish while staring at them was that all the world could see the night sky as clear as here, removed from all the light pollution of the urban centers. It’s no wonder to me that generations before could navigate by them and outlined their deities by their light.
Written by Michael Watt