By Louis Trup (Geography 3rd Year)
There is something intangible which hits you when you are half way up a 10 inch wide donkey path at 5000m above sea level, cut into a landslide on the side of a beautiful mountain, hours away from the nearest civilisation or helicopter landing pad. Somewhere between fear, astonishment, awe, and inspiration, I couldn't help but let the feelings force a boyish grin on my tired and dirty face.
I was trekking from South to North through the Annapurna region of the Nepal Himalayas with two friends - Pablo from St Catherine's College and Edward from St Edmund's Hall. We started our trek in Syange, at 1100m above sea level, following a long jeep drive on winding, dirt roads which on more than one occasion was so close to the edge (and a drop of many hundreds of meters into a raging river) that only three wheels remained on the road. The first four days of our trek followed the Marshayangadi River north, through rich forests and steep gorges which the raging river continues to carve as the rock rises from the earth's core. Hawks and other birds of all shapes and sizes make their homes in the diverse trees and many caves in the area, and kept our heads constantly looking up, inspired by these creatures' power and grace.
With the monsoon just finishing, the weather for the first week of the trek was characterised by overcast skies and intermittent rain. Whilst causing issues with the path and preventing any views of the peaks of the mountains, the low cloud in the valley built an intense atmosphere and increased our excitement for when we would eventually see the great Himals.
By the 4th day, we had reached Manang, the district headquarters of Manang province. At 3700m, we were afraid that altitude sickness could start to kick in, but as we had been living and volunteering at around 1700m for the 6 weeks prior to the trek, we had helped our acclimatisation and so managed to avoid any serious issues.
The next few days of the trek took us to Tilicho Lake, the highest lake in the world, at 4920m above sea level. As we climbed, the flora transformed from dense forest to alpine woodland, to sparse shrubs. Rhododendrons, Cannabis, and Banyan lined the route. To reach the lake, we had to wake early from the base camp, and plough through a snowstorm for hours, not being able to see anything but bright white. As snow blindness was a large hazard, continually foggy sunglasses made navigation infinitely more difficult. The only thing that broke the pure white was a wolf chasing a flock of blue sheep. We reached the Lake with a team which included the three of us from Oxford, a Singaporean, a German, two Israelis and two Ukrainians. As we stood 100m above the Lake shore, we shared food, drink, and song, before heading back to below 5000m.
We returned to Manang before starting the climb up to Thorung La - the pass which at 5416m above sea level allows passage over the Himals into the Tibetan plateau on the other side. The days walking up to Thorung high camp at 4850m were short, but strenuous, and required us all to maintain good teamwork, as the altitude makes arguments all the more likely as any mountaineer will testify.
The night before the pass I was very restless - sleeping above the altitude of the Mont Blanc was a tough experience as the cold permeated through to my bones, despite the fact I was wearing all my clothes. However, promise of incredible views the next day kept us all motivated.
The 600m climb up to the pass would take very little time if it was at sea level. The altitude, however, made everything including breathing, walking and drinking seem close to impossible, and the false summits on the way up were demoralising. However, determination and encouragement from one another got us to the pass and we stood in awe for two hours. Behind us, the great Himals. Ahead, the desert landscape of Mustang and the Tibetan plateau. To our left and right, mountaintops with glaciers and séracs which cracked and broke, filling the otherwise silent, snowy expanse with heart stopping sounds.
Whilst the trek is most easily conveyed by describing what we did, the feel of the place was completely defined by the wonderful people of the region. We trekked from mainly Hindu areas through to areas which are predominantly Tibetan Buddhist. All along the way, the warm welcome we received, regardless of the time of day, the weather, or how much we smelt, was inspiring. The people were always so keen to share their culture, inviting us in for chiya (tea) to talk to us about their lives and to find out about ours. Many people talk about the wonders of trekking in the Himalayas, but I feel, out of thanks to its wonderful people, it is far more appropriate to describe it as the wonders of trekking in Nepal.
I would like to thank Brasenose College and the Michael Woods travel grant for giving me the support to do this trek.