An Adventure Below Makalu—2000

By sheer coincidence, Scotsman Donald Devine and I happened to arrive in Katmandu, Nepal, on November 4, 2000 with the thought of trekking to Makalu! We had trekked to Kangchenjunga two years before, then lost contact with each other. So we joined together again and set out on another 28-day epic, this time to Makalu—the world's fifth highest summit—located east of Everest.

We were not alone. Our organized trek had a crew of 15 to carry all of our food and gear for the long trip. Why so many people for just us two trekkers? That was just the way the Nepalese do things. The agency Nepal Vision www.nepalvisiontreks.com put everything together in just two days and we were on our way. The cost worked out to $44/day for each of us—a good deal as everything was included. It's nice to have someone carry your backpack on the steep and slippery trails, not to mention having a kitchen team fixing three cooked meals every day!

Click on the photos for a larger view!

click for larger image
We start our long walk in the market town of Hile in eastern Nepal. An overnight bus ride had deposited us here, slightly worse for the wear, at sunrise. We cross a ridge, then began a long descent toward the Arun River. A check on the short-wave radio brings in the first U.S. election results.

click for larger image
Ah, day's end! Donald takes a rest while our cooks fix dinner.

 

click for larger image
A gaaine. This wandering minstrel plays a primitive fiddle and sings topical and entertaining songs. Only a few gaaine still wander the hills, now that nearly every family has a radio.

 

click for larger image
The next morning we cross this bridge over the Mangmaya Khola to the village of the same name. Weather is warm, hazy, and partly cloudy. The skies will become increasingly cloudy and cooler over the coming days.

 

click for larger image
Our crew loves singing and dancing to popular Nepalese tunes. Unlike Western pop music with its harsh words, Nepalese music is generally happy. One of the favorites with the young people is actually a Hindu devotional song. Here we are enjoying the sunshine 11 days into the trip. We've entered the high in hills inhabited by the Sherpa people. Ethnic groups of our crew include Sherpa, Rai, Newari, Tamang, and even a Hindu Brahmin. I was amazed that they always got along well together despite differences in religion and ancestry. They are all Nepali!

 

click for larger image
Many orchids and other flowers hang from the moss-clad trees along a faint jungle trail to the Sherpa village of Tashigaon, the last village we would see on the way to Makalu Base Camp.

 

click for larger image
Donald heads up the trail on another glorious sunny day. We've left Tashigaon for the high mountains.

 

click for larger image
Unfortunately, the clouds take over when we reach the ridge at Khongma (3560 meters). Snow arrives during the night.

 

click for larger image
Climbing the ridge from Khongma past Kalo Pokari. We camp in the snow at Dobatak, but the weather continues to get worse and we retreat the next day. Our porters don't have the gear for so much snow.

 

click for larger image
Hoarfrost coats the prayer flags at Shipton La, named after a British mountaineer. I have to use flash at midday because the clouds are so thick. This is the highest at 4429 meters (13,875 feet) of the three passes that we crossed between Khongma and Dobatak.

 

click for larger image
Donald and our guide Subha descend the Shipton La in a snowstorm. Luckily we manage to stay on the trail. The wind is howling at Khongma, so we continue the long descent to Tashigaon through slush and rain. Donald's sleeping bag is soaked, as are his spirits. We stay in a bamboo-roofed lodge that night.

 

click for larger image
Walking through Narbugaon. Gardens envelope this picturesque Sherpa village. Our assistant guide Pemba is from here and his wife had just had just given birth to a baby boy.

 

click for larger image
Houses tend to be smoky because they usually lack chimneys. This weaver is enjoying the fresh air outdoors in Narbugaon. The nearest well-stocked shop is several days away and the mountain people have little cash, so they produce most of their necessities.

 

click for larger image
Kids are curious about us strange Westerners!

 

click for larger image
Donald having a cup of chang, the local beer, inside the smoky house with Pemba (far left). Our guide Subha (on the right in back) is smiling, not knowing of his coming disaster. Pemba, Subha, and our cook (also Pemba) stay behind in Narbugaon, then fail to catch up with us as we trek over precarious trails to our night's camp. Subha, perhaps with too much chang and in too much of a hurry, takes a bad fall coming down a steep hillside. The two Pembas were too far ahead to hear his cries. The battered Subha, dazed and bleeding from a gash below his right eye, spends a frigid night under the stars alone. He is too weak even to get up and find his pack. The next morning he is found and brought to camp, where we clean him up.

 

click for larger image
We wait a day for Subha and the others to catch up at the Sherpa village of Mayum. Snow peaks near Makalu shone in the morning before the clouds built up. I take a short dayhike down the valley to visit another village and see the scenery. Although these villages are very pretty, the people are poor and have to walk many days if they need medical help or other supplies. The government does have primary schools here, though the teacher I talk to finds it a hardship post.

click for larger image
A Sherpa woman with her baby in Yangluwa village, watches people passing by on the trail.

 

click for larger image
The next morning, Subha is able to walk, though porters make a basket to carry him if necessary. Subha goes with four porters down the valley to Tumlingtar in several days, then flies to Katmandu. He'll be ok.

 

click for larger image
Trails are rarely level in Nepal, but that doesn't bother the Nepalese! We continue the trek by climbing a high, jungle-covered ridge to the west. On the other side, we have to cross a raging river on a very flimsy log bridge, some of which is being lapped by the waves.

 

click for larger image
The people make trekking in Nepal especially enjoyable. This boy lives in the Sherpa village of Narbuchaur.

 

click for larger image
Not everyone can smile with a heavy pack and a long jungle trail ahead, but our porters can! They aren't getting rich with a pay of several dollars per day. Many are married and away from their families. For food, our crew is happy with a huge pile of rice, some vegetables, and tea; they prefer to eat just twice a day—late morning and evening.

 

click for larger image
Prem on his double-ended drum. A student in Katmandu, Prem had been hired as an "extra" to carry loads and help serve food. After Subha's accident, Prem took over as our guide, yet continued to carry a heavy load and serve food! He's very talented at Nepali and Hindi dancing.

 

click for larger image
Shrine near the entrance to Khembalung Cave. Trekking companies give no refunds for bad weather. We still had two weeks left after turning back in the snowstorm, so the question was where to go. My guidebook described a little-used route west to the sacred Khembalung Cave. So we took the rugged jungle trails to this site. The cave is sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists. We felt the spiritual power of the spot, set in a beautiful forest above the Sherpa village of Dobatak. Certain rocks, such as this one covered with kata cloth offerings, correspond to gods or important lamas.

 

click for larger image
We climb down the tight passages of Khembalung Cave to a small stream, then exit at another opening.

 

click for larger image
The friendly local lama led us through the cave.

 

click for larger image
The jungle has many botanical and aqueous delights, such as this small pool and waterfall.

 

click for larger image
We descend from the jungle back to warm valleys and rice fields.

 

click for larger image
We finally reach the broad Arun River, one of the Himalaya's largest. Bananas grow in the warm climate here.

 

click for larger image
Our cook Pemba picks up some huge bananas in the market at Kharang. They are very tasty!

 

click for larger image
This man is making a mold for a brass water pot in Chainpur, a district center in the hills of eastern Nepal. He's Newari, a group that believes in both Hindu and Buddhist teachings.

 

click for larger image
Rock slabs pave Chainpur's street. The town has multi-story buildings and electricity, yet is far from the nearest road.

 

click for larger image
The Arun River lies far below as we climb to the Milke Danda ridge. Nights are frosty now. The sun feels great.

 

click for larger image
A view of Kangchenjunga rewards us when we crest the ridge. Now we turn south along the ridge toward trail's end at Basantapur, not far from our starting point of Hile.

 

click for larger image
Blazing blue skies and bracing cold air accompany us on our next-to-last trekking day.

 

click for larger image
A Makalu sunrise on our last trekking day. The mountain that so evaded us now looks so close.

 

click for larger image
The tiny village of Panch Pokari clings to the ridgetop. From here we follow a wide trail to Basantapur and a short, bouncy bus ride to Hile, where we have a belated lunch. Our cook pulls out all the stops for a big dinner with chocolate cake that night. The next day we take the bus back to Katmandu, shaking our bones and freezing our skin on the way. But we survive and will be back for another trek.

 

click for larger image
The Himalaya puts on a grand show on the flight back to Bangkok. The plumed peaks from left to right are Cho Oyu, Everest, Lhotse, and Makalu—all over 8,000 meters.