High Camp is a strange place, a collection of stone-built buildings on a shelf at 4800m, run by two guys who want to play Karam all day. The menu is surprisingly extensive with costs to match, many people could have described my 'spaghetti bolognaise' as 'instant noodles in tomato sauce' but it was fairly tasty and nutritious and at this altitude you don't get maggots in your food (nor rats in the room). The Kiwis developed headaches earlier in the day so elected to spend the night down in Thorung Phedi leaving the Dutch and myself in High Camp to share out all the blankets. I think I caused a bit of dissent in the Dutch camp when I told them that I would be leaving at 7am in the morning, their guide wanted them to leave at 4:30, they compromised on 5:30.
For anyone who hasn't spent any time at altitude, one of the biggest effects if you acclimatise well is the need to urinate often (I think Pisang got it's name from Germans as it's the place where you start to 'Piss gan' all the time). Anyway, the chances of spending a whole night close to 5000m without going are pretty slim, my call came about midnight. After crawling out of my sleeping bag and the pile of blankets I opened the door to a fog worthy of an early Ealing film, my torch-beam was swallowed up in a few feet and I only had a vague idea of the way to the toilet. I found it but when I came out again I had the same problem finding my room again and had to take a compass bearing, I should have taken my GPS with me.
I heard the Dutch leaving during the night but went back to sleep until daylight and my alarm woke me. I was quite shocked to see an inch of snow on the ground and hoped it hadn't snowed heavily on the pass. I had breakfast including an unconfused couple of boiled eggs for the walk before leaving bang on schedule at 7am. I hoped to get to the pass in 2 hours and wanted to catch up with the Dutch if I could, I think I took about 3 hours last time. My first catch was a Catalonian, I worked this out from the fact that he had been writing "Catalonia" in the snow on his way up. After a brief chat, he started from Phedi, I carried on and got my timing pretty much spot on passing the Dutch 10 minutes before the pass ensuring that there was someone to take the "Pass photo". I hadn't realised just how much good the previous trek and the time at high altitude in Tibet had done, I'd reached the pass in one hour twenty minutes. It was literally freezing up there so after the traditional high altitude smoke and photographs I started a rapid decent down the other side to get back to some sunlight and warmth. The drop from the top of the pass to Muktinath is 1600m and my knees were killing me by the time I got down to the valley.
Muktinath is one of the really great places on the circuit, good food and accommodation options and very picturesque, my only disappointment was that the temple was closed when I tried to visit. I treated myself to a beer that evening with my mixed bean burrito, another one that stretched the trade description, I could have had 'chicken', 'tuna' or 'vegetable' bean burrito and expected the 'mixed' to be a combination of all three, it turned out to be a mixture of different beans.
Another day, another walk, I've told many people that the best one day walk I've ever done is the walk from Muktinath to Kagbeni and having done it again I haven't changed my mind. What I don't always tell people is that it is instantly followed by an awful walk from Kagbeni through Jomsom to Marpha. This time I walked from Muktinath directly to Marpha so had both walks in the same day. Down to the start of the Mustang valley at Kagbeni the scenery is breathtaking, the photos just can't do it justice, most of my shots are parts of panoramas that I will stitch together when I get home, the views are just too big for single photographs to capture. One thing that was different this time was that because of the recent rains the whole valley floor area was full of greens and unknown pink crops whereas usually only the oases and strips along the few streams are green with the rest being virtual desert. I took the slight shortcut over the corner bypassing Kagbeni itself but still having some good views of the town from a different perspective than last time. As you round a corner into the main Kali Gandaki valley just beyond the small settlement of Eklai Bhatti (Lone Hotel) the wind hits you with a force. The Kali Gandaki is the deepest valley in the world, a statistic I actually agree with, and the wind generated between the mountains of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna I are famously strong and build up throughout the day. The valley at this point is wide and dry and the sand and dust constantly blow into your face. By the time I got to Jomsom I was ready for a break from the wind so stopped there for lunch. I filled my water bottle up at a Safe Drinking Water Station that had mileage chart with estimated times between the various towns of the valley, it was a surprise to see that I'd already walked 21km before lunch and had another 8km to go to Marpha. [What is the metric equivalent of mileage? Do we have a word in English? Kilometreage? Metric Mileage? (is that an oxymoron?)] Lunch was a fantastic chicken curry, first meat for over a week. I was half expecting tumbleweed to follow the rubbish through the streets outside the restaurant. The last leg was a real fight with the now gale force wind and it was a relief to get into the shelter of Marpha's streets. Marpha is the "Apple Capital of Nepal" and they do apple everything here, most menus include Apple Pie, Apple Fritters, Apple Soup, Apple Porridge, Apple Pancake, Apple Omelette, Apple Juice, Apple Cider and Apple Brandy. (OK, I made up the soup and omelette but only because they haven't thought of them yet). All the buildings in Marpha look the same and I have no idea if I'd stayed at the same place before or not but it's rooms were set around a lovely garden. I took the risk of washing some clothes there knowing that the wind would dry everything quickly, it did but it was a close-run thing as the sun quickly disappeared behind clouds and when it sets the wind stops. The English couple who arrived just after me (Dan and Beth, they introduced themselves) weren't so lucky as they washed everything including heavy items.
For once I left relatively early (for me) from Marpha to try to get out of the main valley before the wind blew up again. It was a very dull morning with the whole valley in cloud and no signs of blue sky but fortunately little wind so I made rapid progress passing the town I was going to have lunch in very early. I can't remember the name of the town but at one point I came across a junction and asked an old man which way the town I wanted was, each direction I pointed he said yes! I was walking on the path I hoped was correct mumbling to myself about him when I realised that I was there and he was right, the town was in all directions. Just out of that town there is an option of routes, the safe route around the side of the valley but involving some climbs around spurs and outcrops (and now involving another section of blasting and digging to make a motorable road) and a direct "summer route" over the gravel banks occasionally having to ford sections of river. In warm weather with a lower river I went the short way before, now I took the long way. It started raining on and off as I slowly followed a train of donkeys that I couldn't pass on the narrow track. Even on the long way there was a decision point, another stream comes into the valley from that side and the bridge to cross it is a long walk upstream but the stream if fordable. I decided to ford the river (it was as cold as a fjord), it was less than knee high but still quite powerful. I think it took the next few kilometers to rewarm my feet. Just after here it started raining again this time it was heavy enough to make me put my waterproofs on. I passed through another small town just after this and should have stopped for lunch but stupidly carried on. Leaving the waterproof cover for my pack in Kathmandu to save a bit of weight was starting to look like a truly inspired decision as my pack started to weigh more than me. I managed to rig up a sort-of rainproof cover over it using my waterproof trousers. By now the rain was full monsoon rain and I reached a point halfway through Lete where I just ran into a random guesthouse dumped my bag on the floor took off my waterproofs and asked for lunch. A short while later a man in a long plastic poncho hurried in followed by two others, it was the Dutch and their guide who had given up at exactly the same point. They had completely had enough for the day and were going to stay there but didn't like the rooms and found another place nearby. I was confused that they were so close behind me but it turns out that they had left Marpha two hours earlier than me that morning, I've no idea how I'd passed them without seeing them, maybe when I crossed the river. I'd decided that I was already so wet that I might as well carry on to the point we'd all been aiming for that day, Ghasa another hour and a half away. It was a fun walk in those conditions with very slippery muddy sections and a number of landslides to cross. I also had to negotiate my way past a number of mule caravans and discovered that wet asses smell worse than wet dogs, goes without saying really. I made it to Ghasa just as the rain stopped. My makeshift pack cover had worked as although the pack itself was very wet and heavy the contents were all dry.
I'd been looking forward to the next day almost from the start of the trek - Tatopani (Hot Water), the third traveller centre of Nepal after Thamel and Pokhara's lakeside. I walked there in one hit in my remarkably dry clothes getting there just before lunch. As soon as I'd eaten I headed down to the hot springs at the edge of the river. At first I thought they were closed as the only people there were a few guys cleaning and repairing the empty (of water) main pool however the smaller pool behind was steaming away and very inviting. I paid my NRp15 and dived in, actually got in very slowly as it truly was hot water 39°C. For an hour or so I had the pool to myself then a few more people started to drift in including Hero (the Dutch guy) and then Dan who had also called it a day in Lete during the previous day's downpour. The springs are great and I certainly got my moneys worth, I could feel the 2 weeks of walking seeping from my calf muscles. I celebrated the virtual end of the trek that night with some delicious steak an a few beers. I'd already decided to take the easy route out of the trek via Beni as I didn't see much chance of good views from Poon Hill, which involves climbing back up to over 3500m and then travelling through one of the high risk areas for robbery and a Maoist area where you can expect to be "taxed". I was justified, I met the Catalonian again on the bus to Kathmandu and the views were completely obscured.
So that's my trekking finished for a while, this trek was just over 300km or 200 miles climbing and descending over 6000 vertical metres. That's nearly 8 full marathons in 11 days! Added to the Everest Base Camp Trek it's a total of about 500km with 9500m up and down, London to Newcastle crossing Ben Nevis 7 times. I've developed the legs of a donkey but unfortunately it doesn't work on the whole body, I'd quite like a long, thick mane. And my final statistic - I drank 26 pots of tea on the trek, 13 big and 13 small although in some places the small pots were bigger than the big pots in others and vice versa.