From 1977 to 1992 I used to go on a Himalayan climbing expedition almost every year. I loved the intensity of reaching previously untrodden summits or, in the case of Everest, pioneering a new route to the top. Then in 1992 it all went horribly wrong when I nearly died in a huge fall after making the first ascent of a 6,000m peak in India.
The accident didn’t stop me climbing but it did make me nervous about extreme climbing at high altitude, particularly as I now had a young family. Some sort of reassessment seemed in order. On the other hand, I couldn’t just give up visiting the greatest mountain range on earth. So, taking a leaf out of the book of Colonel Jimmy Roberts, who virtually invented commercial trekking in Nepal in the late 1960s, I remembered that the best bit of an expedition was often the walk to base camp. The long trek to a mountain – or, even better, around a mountain – can be as rewarding as any climb but without all the danger, fear and discomfort.
The only problem is that Himalayan trekking has become something of a victim of its own success. The famous Everest base camp trek has become an overcrowded sponsored walk and a road now goes a good deal of the way round the hackneyed Annapurna circuit. Not my idea of fun. However, you don’t have to stick to the most obvious brand names: there are mountains other than Everest and Annapurna. Take Manaslu, the world’s eighth highest peak, which rises just to the east of Annapurna.
I had first seen it from high on another mountain, Shishapangma, in 1987 and had read about the Buri Gandaki – one of the longest, deepest and most beautiful of the great river gorges of Nepal, which gouges its way around Manaslu. So I was intrigued to hear a few years ago that the area had been opened to foreigners and I leapt at the chance, more recently, to lead a small group around the mountain. It had all the makings of a perfect trek – an 18-day journey, travelling approximately 180 miles through fantastically varied scenery, around one of the greatest mountains on earth.
I should point out that my role as “leader” was largely ornamental, for we were travelling in style, with a large team of cooks and porters, organised meticulously by a gently inscrutable Tamang man called Ram Krishna and his young assistant Khudambir Tamang, a maths student from Kathmandu earning some cash during his holidays. We stopped each day for long lazy cooked lunches and camped comfortably in the evenings, usually renting a farmer’s terraced field for a few rupees. As the Manaslu circuit becomes better known, more hotels and lodges will appear along the route but to my mind camping independently is far more enjoyable and puts less of a strain on local food and fuel resources.
The trek proper starts at Arughat but from Kathmandu it was a shorter drive – about four hours – to the former royal capital of Gorkha. The advantage of starting here is that you break yourself in gently, descending through a domestic landscape, lush with banana palms and rice paddies, busy with adults working the fields and children walking to and from school. On the third day we reached Arughat, on the Buri Gandaki – the river that would be our constant companion for the next nine days. It was September, the monsoon had only just ended and the river was still in full spate, turbid with mud and sediment.
A cold mist hung over the water but at our camp just beyond the bank, at less than 500m above sea level, it was so hot that I slept without clothes or sleeping bag that night. A couple of days later, climbing through the forest in sweltering sunshine, we were relieved to stop for a scalp-pummelling cold shower under a waterfall.
Ah, the waterfalls! All the way up the Buri Gandaki, they pour down from either side, sometimes solid white columns thundering down side canyons, at other times diaphanous rainbow clouds of vapour wafting from some invisible source high above, nurturing mossy hanging gardens jewelled with pink begonias. Even for a very inexpert floral trainspotter like me, this walk was a journey of delight, progressing gradually through different botanical zones. On the fourth day I saw the first clematis, the next day roses and daphne. By the sixth day we were climbing through a temperate forest of oak, cherry, walnut and rhododendron, carpeted with intensely blue delphiniums.
The people, too, were changing, Hindu culture giving way to Tibetan Buddhism. Until recently the villages of the Buri Gandaki, perched mostly on terraces high above the gorge, were extremely isolated. Now, although the motor road still peters out near Arughat, the ancient foot trail has been improved, with magnificent steel suspension bridges spanning most of the big side streams. But it was good, also, to find some of the old stone staircases, still winding improbably across cliffs high above the river.
At dusk one day, we found ourselves hacking at the undergrowth, pitching tents in a tiny clearing on the only available level ground for miles around. The Buri Gandaki had a feeling of wildness that night, in contrast to the beautifully paved village we had walked through a few hours earlier, and the only way out of the gorge the next morning was up ladders made from notched tree trunks.
Trekkers in the Everest region tend to fly to the airfield at Lukla, starting their journey at more than 3,000m. Here, by contrast, we had started by descending on foot to 500m before climbing in slow stages up the gorge. At a purely practical level, this was perfect for acclimatisation: altitude simply wasn’t an issue on this trek. But there were also aesthetic benefits. I liked the green, confining walls of the gorge, the sense of secrets withheld. Apart from a brief, distant view of Manaslu from our first camp near Gorkha, we didn’t see snowy summits for nine days. Then, at the village of Lho, with due theatricality, Manaslu finally appeared again, now almost directly above us, impossibly high, a white fang shining in a slate sky before vanishing again into the clouds.
Encouraged by that tantalising glimpse, we continued to the next village, Sama. We arrived in driving rain, sloshing through the muddy street of what looked like a cod medieval film set, but were rewarded the next day with a pellucid dawn, as the light flowed down the east face of Manaslu, brightening rapidly from orange to gleaming white. As we ate our breakfast, strident greenshanks flew low over the camp, outshouting the hoopoes, choughs and ravens, while the lammergeiers – those magnificent high-altitude vultures – patrolled the hillside above. After 10 days on the go, today was a rest day, a chance to dawdle and enjoy the autumn light. The valley had now opened out and for the first time we could look back to the peaks of the Ganesh Himal; when we continued the next day to Samdo, the views just got better and better.
Samdo is the last Nepalese village on an old trading route to Tibet. As I watched scores of yaks laden with fresh-cut timber heading towards the pass that accesses the treeless land to the north, I wondered how long the forests of the Buri Gandaki could sustain this harvest. For us tourists, the route bent round to the west, just short of the border, staying in Nepalese territory as it headed over the Larkya La, a 5,135m pass that is the high point of the trek.
The final camp before the pass was in a meadow beside the optimistically named Larkya Guesthouse – a rough stone shack where our wonderful cook Samchuman Rai and his staff prepared hot soup for lunch, followed later by the usual three-course dinner. It had been a grey, drizzly day and at 4,470m the rain was turning to snow when we retired to our tents that night. Concerned about the long trek ahead, I had everyone up for a hideously early breakfast at 2.30am.
After breakfast we dozed in the dark mess tent, procrastinating, as more wet snow pattered on the nylon roof. As trek leader, I was anxious about getting everyone safely over the pass. On the other hand, if we delayed too long, and really heavy snow blocked the pass, the only other way out was all the way back down the Buri Gandaki. In the end it was the enthusiasm of the porters – and a slight clearing in the clouds – that swayed the decision, and at dawn we set out.
Fresh snow made the going hard over bouldery hummocks, particularly for the young Tamang porters, each carrying a load I could barely lift off the ground. Embarrassed by my light rucksack, and determined to do something to justify my “leader” status, I went ahead to break trail in the snow, pleased to find the old body could still perform reasonably well at altitude.
The clouds lifted and by the time we reached the pass, everyone was dazzled by the brightness. We posed for the obligatory photos. Then we had a final look back east and dropped down to the west at twilight. In the widening of this valley sat Bimthang – a meadow fringed by huts where we bought welcome beer to supplement a dinner of eggs, chips, rice and dhal. Pottering among the birches and rhododendrons the next morning, after a wash in the crystal stream, I looked up at Manaslu, the giant monolith we had walked round. From this western side, it looked completely different – broader, bulkier and altogether less elegant, the twin horns we had seen from the east now subsumed in the immensity of its wind-blasted summit plateau where clouds of snow spume scurried malevolently.
How nice to be down here, in this meadow, among the cerulean autumn gentians. And then, after a leisurely lunch, to wander on down through the mossy, ferny forest. That night we enjoyed our final camp before joining the noisy thoroughfare of the famous Annapurna circuit. In an idyllic glade among pine trees, we stayed up late after dinner, playing cards. Tonight, Khudambir or KB watched as we played Hearts, as we had on several evenings, but this time, around midnight, he sat down to join in. He was half our age and still had a full complement of brain cells, and it was soon obvious we were outclassed. Nevertheless, we hung on stubbornly until about 2am, when it became a mathematical certainty that, whatever we did, no one could beat KB.
So, on a note of honourable defeat, the middle-aged bowing to youth, we ended our journey around Manaslu. I say “ended”, because the final section heading south down the Marsyangdi valley to the village of Bhulbhule, walking for two days into the overwhelming northward-bound human traffic of the Annapurna circuiters, felt a little anticlimactic. However, for all the Babel hubbub of international tourism, as ever in Nepal you had to admire the energy, enterprise and sheer joie de vivre of the locals. Best of all, among all the gaudy signs advertising hot showers, wireless internet, bakeries and mountaineering equipment, I loved the bright orange placard proclaiming that the Hotel Superb View, with its 270-degree views and equally splendid Top O’ the Town restaurant, was “not recommended by Lonely Planet guidebook”.
Stephen Venables was the first Briton to climb Everest without supplementary oxygen, and is a former president of the Alpine Club
Photographs: Stephen Venables