Mera Peak – Amphu Lapsta – Imja Tse: Update

Even the best laid plans sometimes go awry….

Being my usual super organised self, I sorted out flights for November’s four week extravaganza way back in January. We got a fantastic price with Jet Airways (£430), flying out via Mumbai and back via Delhi.

In early April, a chance chat at work flagged up that Jet were experiencing financial problems…. and I’d booked direct, and on my debit card. Uh-oh.

Then, on my birthday I got a cryptic email from Steffi: Flight cancellation?

A quick Google and email check revealed all – Jet Airways had suspended operations, “temporarily”, as of 17 April. Here’s the first couple of paras of the BBC’s article:

Troubled Indian airline Jet Airways has temporarily suspended all its domestic and international flights after failing to find fresh funding.

The airline said its last flight would operate on Wednesday as it was not able to pay for fuel and other critical services.

So I spent a good hour or so working through the Jet Airways Flight Cancellation emails and refund claim process – a separate claim per flight, per person. That made 8 in total.

Since then, I’ve had various confirmation emails, all automated, but as yet no refund.  I’ve got the CAA’s Advice to UK consumers impacted by Jet Airways suspending operations tucked away, just in case.

Once I’d recovered from that little “Birthday treat”, I dug out my dusty credit card and scoured Kayak for replacement flights. The algorithms must have been in overdrive, factoring in all the Jet passengers suddenly swamping the flight search. Hey ho.

We’ve ended up with a not-too-bad option flying out with Emirates / FlyDubai and back with Qatar. Handily, given that we’re flying out at the end of a work day for me, our outbound flight leaves from Stansted so we’ll be getting the Stansted Express from Liverpool Street, which is (a) 5 mins walk from work, (b) a more reliable journey than the Piccadilly line out to LHR, and (c) much, much easier for those wielding heavy luggage. VIP that last point as we have 30kg baggage allowance both ways.

I’ve been in to “manage my booking” for the new flights today, primarily to check that we do actually have tickets (paranoia!), and was able to book seats, set meal preferences, provide emergency contacts and print e-tickets. So that’s a good job done.

Let’s just hope that Jet Airways refund does eventually materialise….

In other news, it’s the LED Fundraising Challenge up in the Lake District next weekend, which will provide an opportunity for Steffi and I to meet Nicola, who’s doing the Mera Peak section. We’ve already emailed a bit, mainly about boot hire and training. Now I’m worried I’m not doing as much as Val seems to think I am!  We’ll also be able to talk through the 6000m gear list Val sent through, working out what we might be able to borrow or hire either from Bim’s in KTM or the UK in the case of insulated boots.

Five months to go. Better get working on those weedy arms…..


13 May 2019 – Update

Jet Airways refund came through today.

Phew.

Manaslu & Tsum: We’re back

(And yes, we’ve been back for some time….)

Here’s Charles’ schematic map of what we did:

Manaslu Trek Schematic Map 2018

Over the past few years / trips, I’ve found I often don’t want to write a “we’re back” blogpost immediately on my return, particularly after a big trip. I suspect there’s a bit about being worn out, and a bit about the need to process everything that happens on a 4 week trek. I’m often quite grumpy by the end – tiredness again and my reserves of bonhomie reduced to near zero. It’s quite telling that the last big trip where I did want email / blog about the trip straight away was Ladakh. Shorter trips – like Walking in Northern Albania – are easier; all the more so when they’re doing something novel, like snow shoeing.

The delay is’t entirely due to emotional fatigue though – we did a huge amount in Manaslu and Tsum, not just trekking but LED* solar light distribution, and – a first for me – running eye clinics to distribute glasses courtesy of Pat Booth’s super guide and two shoe boxes of donated spectacles. Chhering’s experience of doing eye tests, both with Pat and without her, in remote communities where older people in particular can’t always read, and aren’t familiar with the Roman alphabet, was invaluable.

Steffi and Anchering.  L.E.D eye glass clinic at Chule

Chhering and Steffi. L.E.D. eye glass clinic at Chhule. Photo courtesy of Charles Ng

But more than that, the first 10 days were a return to Tsum for the first time since April 2015 when Hazel, Anthony and I trekked to Mu Gompa and back with Val. (Hard to believe that it was our first Nepal trek with Val and Sirdar Chhering.) The April 2015 Nepal earthquake struck a couple of weeks after we’d left, the Gorkha epicentre only miles away, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would villages we’d passed through and stayed in still be there? What about the homes we’d visited and the families we’d met? Who’d died? Who’d been injured? Who’d lost their homes and their livelihoods? Who’d left? Who’d be left?

It turned out that the biggest changes in Tsum and indeed all along the trail from Sotikhola weren’t earthquake related, they were changes wrought by government economic policies on tourism, development and infrastructure – lodge and tea house accommodation had been approved for Tsum just before we’d gone there in 2015, but we were too early to see much evidence of building although we did see some in Chhokang Paro. Three and a half years later there were lodges galore, and the tourists to match. We still camped, dining in a mixture of homes of folks Val knows (always a highlight), in school rooms and in the dining tent.

The bigger, more dramatic and less happy changes were in infrastructure – the road has been blasted past lovely Laxshmi’s lodge in Lapubesi in anticipation of flooding the valley for the Budi Gandaki HEP scheme. The road building reaches far into Tsum, and this was the hardest to see. The trail that Hazel and I had taken to Mu Gompa, crossing old wooden bridges, scrambling over glacially tumbled rocks and boulders, passing (aways keeping to the left) lines of stone chortens and long, long mani walls…. Obliterated. In its place, a blasted road, reaching far beyond Mu Gompa up to the Tibetan border. The magical morning walk Val, Chhering and I did north of Mu, high above the river ravine, over pristine crisp white snow …. It’s gone forever. Now the same chortens perch precariously at the roadside edges, Chinese JCBs parked in rough camps nearby. Devastating.

The spirituality has gone – not that I am a religious person at all, but Mu was special.

But, if you’d never been there before, you just wouldn’t realise how different the place was.

Thankfully, Dhephu Doma, the small Ani Gompa that perches in a side valley a few hundred metres above Mu, and the path up to it, were unscathed. As you climb the new road falls out of sight leaving you with almost the same, beautiful view of Shringi, Ganesh, the Upper Tsum valley and the twin villages of Chhule and Nile. And this time I did it under gorgeous blue skies.

At the end of the whole trek, after crossing the Larkya La, the Manaslu Circuit joins the Annapurna, and the final two days were retracing in reverse the route Hazel and I had done as our first long trek – the Annapurna Circuit in 2009. I was ready for this to be changed by the road building, I’d read enough about how the road reaches all the way up to Manang and beyond and I’d seen how much Jomsom had changed between 2009 and my return there in 2017 at the end of our Dolpo trek.

The changes are wholesale – I struggled to recognise anywhere. Walking down the gravelled road from Dharapani, waterfalls on our left and right, water coursing across the road to reach the river down below, I suddenly realised that we were on the section where the Mountain Kingdoms crew had manhandled us across rain swollen steams after we’d holed up for the previous half a day in Tal after an exceedingly wet few days. Later that same day 2018 time, we were on the east side of the Marshyangdi Khola, walking on a path cut into the rock and over the sandy flats down at the river side. The mud/scree landslide we scurried over in 2009 has been absorbed back into the landscape, and the village of Tal now stretches further north and south along the trail.

Amazingly for lunch we stopped at the same place that the MK group had taken refuge in back in 2009. The basic one-large-shared-bed-platform rooms we’d stayed in then, and the outside loo with the head-whackingly low roof beam, were no more however. In their place a 2 storey lodge houses twin rooms with en suites. The dining room was still there though, and the outside picnic tables set in the garden.

The following day brought us to the end of the trek, and our final night farewell to the crew took place in another familiar lodge – Chamje’s Hotel Tibet Lhasa. The village itself transformed by the road that’s replaced the gentle trail. Tractors, lorries and jeeps now pass beneath the low wooden balustrades of the lodge’s first floor rooms. One of the charms of the Hotel Tibet Lhasa is that everything is still wood – the walls, floors, ceilings. Even the kitchen sink.

S0, the new bit – Manaslu. First few days, from Gampul to Prok were gloomy and overcast, and the narrow valley made for enclosed views. But once past Ghap the weather and the views improved. Our early morning arrival at Hinang Gompa and the walk up the valley to the glacier were magical, as was the trail through Lihi, Sho and Lho. Samagoan was a veritable metropolis (but in a good way), and the day trip from there up to Phuyang / Pung Gyen Gompa was stunning. The tiny gompa is nestled amidst the foothills of mighty Manaslu ( मनास्लु) (8163 m), set in the vast glacial valley that is surrounded on three sides by mountain ranges and more high peaks including Ngadi Chuli (Peak 29) (7871 m – the 20th highest peak in the world) and Himalchuli (7893 m – the 18th). We picnicked with local ladies and anis, sharing boiled eggs, chapatis and cheese, and being treated to a small glass or two of local rakshi.

Val’s Yak Kharka above Samdo was a treat too, with Gori leading Doug, Steffi and I up to the top of what we called “Samdo Ri” for stunning panoramic views of Ngadi Chuli, Manaslu, Naike Peak, Larkya Peak and Larkya North to the west; Nyasin Himal and the valley to the pass at Lajyung Bhanjyang, and Tibet, to the east.

The Larkya La was a bit of a let down after that – well, an anticlimax, let’s say – in the sense that the pass itself doesn’t come with much of a view. The day of the crossing does have fabulous vistas though and ever changing terrain: starting off in the predawn dark on the trail tracking below the glacial moraine ridge, dawn rays hitting Manaslu, getting yet another perspective to add to those from Lho, Shyala and Phuyang, Sama, Samdo and Dharamsala. Yes, I guess that’s why it’s called the Manaslu Circuit. We’d see another side of Manaslu at Bimthang and a few final, fleeting glimpses through the trees on the trail down to the twin tea houses at Yak Kharka / Chauli Kharka.

Gradually you leave the grass and soil behind, moving onto stony stretches that grow to become bouldered. You pick out the route by the poles set up to guide winter traders through the deep, deep snow. A last tea house provides welcome hot lemon. And great views. As you approach the pass you skirt shallow lakes frozen solid, and catch sight of the prayer flags at the pass. Once there, we celebrated with “Bombay” mix and Green & Blacks mini bars of chocolate – YUM. A breather.

And then the descent. Gentle to start – which is good because the views are stupendous: Lamjung Himal, Annapurna II, Kang Guru, Kechakyu Himal, Gyaji Kang, Nemjung, Himjung, Himlung, Panbari peaks, with the Thoche / Ponkar Glacier and Ponkar Lake below.

View west from Larkya Pass (5106m).  High Point of Trek

Larkya La descent. Charles’ panorama of the westward view. 

But soon the path steepens, and you’re zig zagging down into the valley, the weird solid blue waters of Ponkar Tal disappearing as you near the moraine walls. Grass reappears. Shrubs and bushes. Birds. Things you didn’t realise had gone. And then you see Bimthang. The surreal sunshine yellow chalets, the blue roofs, the wooden fenced corrals, the people. You’re back to the mainstream.

Other memories – wind chimes at Chokkang Paro. Hairy walkways, some metal, some natural, high above the river in Tsum. Watching lammergeier, himalayan griffon vultures, hawks and choughs on a quiet afternoon above the Yak Kharka. Our first glasses clinic in the courtyard of a house in Chhule, another at Hinang Gompa – inside this time, with a Welsh Whisky Chaser. The side trip to Gumba Lungdang and the stately sunrise over Himal Chuli and Ngadi Chuli, and clear, clear views of Ganesh I, which had stayed resolutely hidden in cloud during the previous day’s 1200m ascent through the forest. Cheeky nuns. VTOs! Old ladies back chatting one another. Distributing lights in Leru in another family house courtyard. Trail runners at Mu and Hinang.

Mary.  View of Himal Chuli

Charles’ photo of me on the trail to Sama

Being in Nepal in November – for the first time since 2011’s Three High Passes trek – seeing the harvest in full swing, literally, hand scything and sickle-ing the barley and amaranth was lovely. The colours of the Autumn berries and leaves. The harvest festival at Dzong with everyone coming from the surrounding villages of Upper Tsum to watch the dancing and ceremony, all in their best festival-going outfits. Fabulous fresh food every day courtesy of autumn crops from market gardens and summer stores, another world from the Dolpo menu. Rakshi rakshi rakshi – in Pung Gyen and Chhokang Paro, Samdo and Bimthang, and elsewhere.

Charles and his drone. Steffi and the spider in Chamje. Doug’s dawn call at Gumba Lungdung. The Girls getting to know one another, chilling out in Chhule as we shared a tent and waited for Gori, the mules and our kit to arrive, chatting about life, sharing reading recommendations, laughing. Chhering, Gori, Pemba. Dali and his lovely smile and super food. Learning that smiley Mossum had died, falling 300m to his death on a client-demanded descent from Dhaulagiri.

Steffi, Anne and Mary.  Tea House Lunch stop.  On trail to Dyang

Charles’ photo of Steffi, Anne and me at Nyak Phedi. A favourite.

Four cards from Phil. Twenty one nights under canvas. One more in a small tea house in Lihi to dry out after our only day with rain. Our favourite tent. Disliking – intensely, but irrationally (perhaps) – Tilche and our final campsite at the Apple Garden Lodge. Seeing that the rooms Hazel and I stayed in at Jagat had been washed away by the river (after the earthquake? I don’t know).

The group we met at Dharamsala with the girl with severe AMS and the British gent who was trying to find someone with more expertise/confidence than their guide. Soaking up the sun at Chhule Gompa, gazing at the views back down the valley and watching a big group of birds circling something high above. Five little monkeys jumping on the bed, sung by Sama’s liveliest little monkey. First time frisbee in a field at Domje – who knew it would be such a novelty in Nepal?

Relaxing, showered, hair washed, with a beer, at Siddhartha Garden Hotel in Pokhara – serenity with super views and great hosts.

Finding the best falafel in KTM (thanks Charles!).

But most of all, a big thank you to Val.

Chhering, Val and Manaslu. On the trail to Dharamsala.
Chhering, Val and Manaslu. On the trail to Dharamsala.

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So, what did prompt this write up? Getting photos from Doug, Steffi and Charles.

If you’ve made it this far, watch Charles’ trek montage:

Manaslu and Tsum Valley Trek 2018

Charles’ montage: Manaslu and Tsum Valley Trek 2018

Plus this November’s Nepal trek is going to need some more blogposts soon. I’m going up a step, to tackle two Trekking Peaks with a very high pass in between. I hope I’ve not bitten off more than I can chew. Or, more accurately, more than my weedy arms can manage in terms of jumar-ing up, abseiling down. I take comfort in Val’s confidence in me. Mera Peak, Amphu Lapsta, Imja Tse – here I come.

I feel ready now to look through my 2210 photos and videos and to get selected ones up onto Flickr. And to make a start on Photos and Notes.

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* You can read more about Light Education Development (aka LED) on their website – it’s Val’s charity, I’m a trustee.

Where next: Mera Peak – Amphu Lapsta – Imja Tse

I’ve been talking to Val about my main 2019 trek since the summer and settled the dates shortly after getting back from Manaslu & Tsum*. It’s always a question of juggling my LW working pattern and vacation days to “optimise the optics”, but Val’s managed to schedule the 29 days to fit into four weeks off.

I need to come up with a good name for the trip. “Two Trekking Peaks and a Tricky Pass” doesn’t tell you where it is or what the peaks and pass are. For now, let’s make do with the relevant names…

As is so often the case, it’s not “next”, but it is the main trip for 2019.

Destination: Mera Peak – Amphu Lapsta Pass – Imja Tse / Island Peak, Nepal.

When: November 2019.

What: Back to Nepal for another November trip, this time tackling two 6000 m trekking peaks with a 5800 m pass in between. It will be my first time going that high, and will be more technical than anything I’ve done before requiring ropes, jumar and ice axe, insulated boots and crampons. There will be glacier walking and abseiling. It’ll be cold. And we’ll need to do some winter skills training before we go.

Steffi is coming, Charles is a possible (probable?). Hazel is pondering joining for the first section together with two other ladies Val’s talking to. Plus there are Three Chaps Unknown for the full route.

How: With Val Pitkethly and Sirdar Chhiring. So we will be in safe hands.

Why: The usual – to do more high altitude trekking in the Himalaya – but with a step up from a straightforward trek, in terms of both altitude and technical difficulty. Don’t be misled by the term “trekking peak“.

Itinerary: Waiting for details, but the outline plan is to drive to Phaplu, then gradual acclimatisation in Solukhumbu en route to Mera Peak (6476 m / 21250 ft) followed by 5 nights over 5000 m in the Hongu Valley to reach the Amphu Lapsta Pass (5845 m / 19177 ft). From there I think we drop into the Imja Khola valley en route to Imja Tse / Island Peak (6189 m / 20310 ft). There is the inevitable flight back from horrible Lukla.

* And I know I’ve not written my “We’re back!” post for Manaslu & Tsum yet!

Manaslu & Tsum: Mini Update

Two months before I go to Nepal, this story blows up and major travel insurers threaten to pull their cover unless Nepal puts a stop to helicopter rescue insurance fraud.

First on twitter:

(Excellent summary from Alan Arnette there)

Then in the wider press:

Here’s the original story, by Annabel Symington, AFP’s Nepal Bureau Chief:

and some of follow up coverage:

 

All of  which brings back memories of our enforced helicopter ride from unlovely Lukla to KTM back in 2011 which marred the end of the otherwise wonderful Three High Passes to Everest trek. A different scam, but still a scam involving trekking tourists and helicopters.

It looks like a scene from Apocalypse Now. It felt like one.
It looks like a scene from Apocalypse Now. It felt like one.

In the meantime (and looking ahead!) I’m starting on my kitlist spreadsheet, checking Air India’s baggage allowance (2 x 23kg – should be plenty!!) and gradually getting my USD from Thomas Exchange Global. Turns out they can provide Nepalese Rupees too.

Oh, and starting to plan next year’s Nepal trek with Val: Mera Peak 6,476 metres (21,247 ft) – Amphu Labsta Pass 5,845 metres (19,177 ft) – Island Peak / Imja Tse 6,189 m (20,305 ft).


Update – 18 September 2018

Annabel Symington’s blogpost on her investigation into helicopter rescue fraud in Nepal:

Yr.No’s Wonderful Weather Forecasts

Having  umm-ed and ahh-ed over adding this into my Manaslu & Tsum: Update blogpost, I decided that Yr’s Wonderful Weather Forecasts merit a blogpost all of their own.

Yr – Yr.no – has been my go to website for trek and trip weather for a while now. It describes itself as “a joint service by the Norwegian Meteorological Institute and the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation”.

I am absolutely amazed by Yr’s coverage – I’ve found dedicated forecasts for all these places on our November trek to Tsum and then on around the Manaslu Circuit:

Initial section into Tsum and back

Arughat
Lapubesi
Dobhan
Philim
Lokpa
Chumling
Chumchet
Chhule
Ripche (Ripchet)

Manaslu Circuit on from Tsum

Prok
Hinanggaun (Hinang / Hinang Gaun)
Lho
Samagaun (Samagaon / Sama Gaon)
Samdo
Chamje / Chyamche (back on the Annapurna Circuit)
Syange

As well as the less surprising…

Pokhara
Kathmandu

and the more unexpected

West Nepal
Manaslu (8156 m) – “Other” as in “Mountain”, prompting me to look for…
Himalchuli (7893 m)
Ngadi Chuli (7871 m)

It’s not just the geographical coverage that impresses, the graphics, features and functionality do too.

Now that I’ve added these locations as “My Places”, I can see a super summary forecast for the next 3 days, and click throughs to the hour by hour and long range forecasts, all on one page:

Yr.No screenshot - My Places - Manaslu & Tsum
Yr.No screenshot – My Places – Manaslu & Tsum

As well as three flavours of forecast – showing summary icon and hover over narrative eg “partly cloudy”, temperature (including “feels like”), precipitation and wind speed & direction – and sunrise and sunset times, the Overview page has a map plus, at the bottom, latitude and longitude (degrees and decimal) and altitude, and a link through to Google Maps. And information about the place name including how it’s represented in other languages. AND a link to free weather forecast data (Javascript- or XML-forecasts):

Yr.No screenshot - Weather Forecast for Chumchet, Nepal
Yr.No screenshot – Weather Forecast for Chumchet, Nepal

Just to underline how amazing this all is, that screenshot is the Overview weather forecast for Chumchet, West (Nepal), which I visited during my Tsum Valley Trek in April 2015.

This is Chumchet:

Chumchet
Chumchet – Tsum Valley Trek – April 2015

Here it is on Google Maps:

And for completeness, here’s what you get when you click through to some of the other data sets  Yr has to offer for Chumchet:

Hour by hour weather forecast for Chumchet – includes a Meteogram:

Yr.No screenshot - Hourly forecast for Chumchet, Nepal
Yr.No screenshot – Hourly forecast for Chumchet, Nepal

Detailed hourly weather forecast for Chumchet – adds in pressure, humidity, dew point and cloud cover:

Yr.No screenshot - Detailed hourly forecast for Chumchet, Nepal
Yr.No screenshot – Detailed hourly forecast for Chumchet, Nepal

Long term weather forecast for Chumchet – gives you a summary and detailed forecast for the next 9-10 days:

Yr.No screenshot - Long term forecast for Chumchet, Nepal
Yr.No screenshot – Long term forecast for Chumchet, Nepal

Why look anywhere else?