Contd. from Annapurna 2, Paungda Danda & The Peaceful Forest
The dinner mess was snug and warm as the fireplace crackled away with much gusto. All it’s inhabitants crowded around the central heating unit, to soak in the heat generated. There were various teams who filled this large dining area on the second level of the wooden lodge. The French, the Brits, the Dutch and us Indians were easily identifiable. There were a sprinkling of few others. It was only 4 in the evening and there wasn’t much to do really. Dinner would be served by 7 and we had to bide our time. Some were busy reading books they had while the others, esp. the French gathered in one corner, chatting away (in French) in high decibels. They were a large group again, almost 15 of them. Their guide was a character who spoke fluent French in a hybrid accent, wore a cowboy hat and kept throwing out phlegm at regular intervals much to my annoyance. So many French on the trail wasn’t surprising. Annapurna was their mountain, ever since Herzog had staked claim to it in 1950. Guess they all wanted to visit it and take home a part of the Herzog experience. At the far end was the television area with couches and wooden benches. The enterprising proprietor decided to keep his guests entertained by playing the DVD of Into Thin Air, the cinematic version of that modern mountaineering classic written by Jon Krakauer. Those gathered around the idiot box happily consumed the film’s content. Rob Hall and Scott Fischer were household names by now. The film was a box office disaster however when it was released, due to its shoddy production.
Seated somewhere in the centre of the room, by the window, munching pop corn, I tried to resume reading Annapurna by Maurice Herzog. I was constantly distracted by the movement in and out of the dinner mess, my own hunger, the sound of the tube and the loud French behind me. Varun sat across the table reading Eric Newby’s A Short Walk In The Hindukush. Soon a loud thunder clap and developing deep grey overtones in the skies outside added to the auditory and visual distractions which already existed. It started off with a single hit and then rapidly progressed into a dozen and then countless hits. We were under attack, from the skies. The tin roofs rattled away with frenetic and rhythmic bursts of heavenly percussion. Our first hailstorm which was soon followed by continuous snowfall. The surrounding hills, the walkways of Lower Pisang, the roofs of the lodges, the slopes of Upper Pisang were covered in a sheet of white within seconds.
Next morning when I looked out of the dining mess once again, everything was strikingly beautiful. The clouds had descended to say hello, mr. orange ball was trying to break through and greet us as well, the wind god streaked through, making multiple passes of the settlement and engaged the flags in a conversation. Their continuous flutter seemed like an engaging reply. And us mortals tried to participate in this early morning gathering of the elements with our SLRs in hand.
Pretty soon we had commenced our journey for the day. Leaving Lower Pisang behind us, the next stop was the airport! The Ongre airport at Humde (3280 mtrs/ 10758 ft) was something I was keen on seeing. An airport in the mountains was always interesting. The only other that I had seen and experienced was the one at Lukla, the starting point of the trail to Everest. That topped my charts of mountain airports. (see the video on the homepage). Varun and I had joked the previous day that if things got too rough, we could fly out of Humde.
The mountain ranges in the west and south west, on my left, continued in a sweeping spectacle far in the horizon. Peak after peak covered in snow and ice dwarfed everything in the immediate vicinity, including us. These peaks I guessed were part of the massive Annapurna massif which occupied a large region, about 80-85 kms as per some reports and estimates between the Marasyandi River in the east, the Kali Gandaki River in the west and the Mustang district in the north. One prominent one however outshone the others. Annapurna II was in my view finder again. A lot bigger and clearer than what I had seen of her from Chame. She seemed fantastic all over. All around me the hills and smaller mountain faces were covered in white. It hadn’t just snowed in Pisang.
The alpine trail rose gently and led us through snow lined paths decked in morning sunlight. It was simple and yet pretty to the eye. Through the branches of the tall trees on my right, I spotted another mountain towards the east. The peak resembled a soft mound of snow. I looked at KB. It’s Pisang he replied. She was 2000 mtrs short of Annapurna I, but yet stood tall at 6091 mtrs/ 19979 ft. The romantic interplay between the her peak and the clouds was a visual feast. This was why I had the Canon 70-300 telephoto with me. To zoom in tight and close and experience the magic of the numerous peaks I would see. To have felt satisfied would have meant understating my emotions. Pisang was also a popular trekking peak in this region.
A five minute walk later and we had reached the viewpoint of Deuralidanda (3486 mtrs/ 11434 ft). Before us was the surreal canvas of the Manang Valley. This day was turning out to be the best of the trip so far I mumbled to myself for the stunning natural imagery, all over. And the fact that it was completely unexpected only added to the experience. The craggy hills in the distance encircled the valley. On the floor were tiny settlements which resembled army barracks. Somewhere there would also lie the airport at Humde (3280 mtrs/ 10758 ft). So it would be a flat strip and not like the one at Lukla. The grey clouds, the ochre coloured hills in contrast and the sprinkling of green made it worthwhile to just stand, see and sigh. Any other palette would just not have worked. How was this possible I wondered?
I continued walking after a while. The sole scrunched soft on the snow as we descended. The flora around us was draped in melting ice, dripping away into small snow slushes on the ground. The sometime dry trail, sometime laced with snow trail curved ahead and dead centre in the horizon was another peak with a clear demarcated rising ridge. This I thought was Annapurna IV, but I couldn’t be sure. All the Annapurna peaks had to be in the west and south west, on my left. This was north facing however. KB and Varun were far behind and I didn’t want to stop to wait and ask. I moved on, capturing gorgeous close ups of the peak and the clouds in short intervals.
Sometime later as I continued walking, I heard voices which soon crossed me. Dudes from Sweden, I observed, having recognised their blue and yellow national colours on their bags. Blond hair, big backpacks, huge wooden sticks to aid walking and very vintage mountaineering glares, like the ones worn by the climbers in the ’50s! Classic. I smiled. And were they fast! Faster than me. Finally some guys to test my speed against. By the time I had reached Ongre airport at Humde, the dudes were reclining, resting and chatting away. I walked past and waved at them. They responded likewise and asked me where I was from. India, I shouted. We agreed to meet again, on the trail if possible. I looked around me and realised I was deep into Manang Valley. The ochre coloured craggy hills encircled all directions I cast my gaze upon. This is what I had seen from the viewpoint up above.
The altitude gain for the day was again minimal. Just a pleasant 340 mtrs/ 1115 ft from point to point. We had commenced our walk at the usual time of 7.45 and we were expected to reach Manang by 12.45. Lunch would be at Manang. We were in the flat valley now and I maintained a fast pace over the terrain. Varun and KB tried to keep pace behind. On the way I passed the Manang Mountaineering School at a place called Mugje (3330 mtrs/ 10992 ft). The noon bell had just sounded and what seemed like young children ran out of the school premises to play a game of volleyball. This was a stunning setting for everyday school. Could I enroll, I wondered? Maybe it would be here that I’d I finally get time to brush up my basics in climbing and then later look to receive my advanced degree. My attempts at enrolling for these courses in India hadn’t worked out. Lack of time had plagued me too. The craggy hills by now had turned brown and had started showcasing odd fluted formations from the base. They had to be hollow. They looked it.
I wish the mountain bug had bitten me in my teens. I would have had ample time to do everything I wanted to, train myself in all courses possible, go out on multiple treks and expeditions in a year and maybe even be a successful outdoor professional. The potential of things were enormous. But this hadn’t happened and I was where I was today. Chasing life, moments within it, multi tasking corporate, family and my passion points. I wasn’t getting any younger either. The rope was getting shorter and I was fast running out of time. I had to hurry if I had to finish visiting my mountains and also stand atop a Himalayan peak. That epic adventure also had to materialise.
The thoughts left me half worn out, half dejected and yet I knew if I kept pushing now, maybe I’d achieve some of it. Even a fraction would suffice. I had meantime reached a signpost which seemed a gateway to another side adventure. There was an ice lake approximately 3.5 hours from here at an altitude of 4600 mtrs/ 15088 ft. Should we make a dash for it? Would we have the time? I guess not. It would easily mean a 6-7 hour stretch both ways included. The Ice Lake was famous. Word had it, you could also spot reindeers. Though I found it difficult to believe, the possibility of this happening was bloody attractive to make a push up the trail. But better sense prevailed. And we let it be. If not for our schedule, we would have returned the next day to attempt it.
The gates of Brakha/ Braga (3439 mtrs/ 11280 ft), a remote Tibetan settlement with a monastery waited for us to cross it no longer than 20 minutes away after we crossed the signpost. The Tibetan houses of Braga were perilously perched atop the steep rising hill side. And then there were those huge fluted formations rising up from the base, yet again. A common feature I would continue seeing I realised. I had never seen these strange formations before. The highest point amongst the settlements was the monastery of Braga, the oldest Tibetan one in the region. This was another 20 minute hike up the rocky trail. There were numerous catacombs within, few of which housed the Buddha. We didn’t explore however, so intent were we on reaching Manang. The photographs sufficed instead.
Across the rocky river bed up ahead, and the gently rising steps, was the gate of Manang. Oh! we had reached! I hadn’t expected it so soon, ‘coz the day just had so much on offer, it seemed it would continue forever. But yet, it had decided to keep the best for last and suck the wind out of me. So not expecting the sights I’d see when I would walk through the entrance of Manang (3540 mtrs/ 11611 ft), the trail led me up numerous steps before I walked through her narrow pathways. Small breakfast hotels and lodges flanked the path. Fellow trekkers had already gained access to the various vantage points and were perched atop rooftops and other outdoor decks. Everyone kept staring in one direction.
I followed their gaze and halted. Gulp! For before me was an absolute stunner of an icy panorama. Annapurna III (7579 mtrs/ 24859 ft) and Gangapurna (7454 mtrs/ 24449 ft) rose majestically, seering into the blue, flanking each other! KB, I shouted. “The change. Now!”. KB and I shielded ourselves from the blazing sun and quickly swapped the Tokina 12-24 with the Canon 70-300. With trembling hands, I changed the lens and then stabilised the telephoto on my extended left hand and wrist. I focused, zoomed in on the Gangapurna peak and its massive glacial tongue and clicked away rapidly. Annapurna III followed immediately after. We had truly arrived into the realm of the Himalayan ice gods.
To be contd.