Saturday, November 23, 2013

Finding Hidden Valley

Greetings All,
Our prayers were answered when we awoke to clear skies the next morning.  French Pass here we come!  Our route climbed 2000 feet along the edge of a gradual ridge with spectacular views of the north face of Dhaulagiri towering 11,000 feet above us as we looked back.

Marc Climbing the Ridge to the French Pass, Dhaulagiri I is Behind

Looking ahead we could just make out the V-shaped depression of the French Pass on the skyline.

Approaching the French Pass

The ridge ended in a shallow bowl below the summit.  Another 400-foot climb to the top of the pass lay before us.  We put on our crampons and took out our ice axes for the final push to the pass.  Looking back we could see the rest of our group making their way up.  The massive bulk of Dhaulagiri I (right) and Tukuche (left) towered behind them.  

The rest of our group on their way up to the French Pass

We reached the top of the French Pass at 17,585 feet!  The icy wind could not cool our elation at meeting this objective which took us 4 years to complete. 

Us on the French Pass

We headed down the other side into Hidden Valley, a broad mountain enclave that remained undiscovered behind the Dhaulagiri Massif until the last few decades.  The snow conditions were optimal and with our crampons the decent was enjoyable.

Descending into Hidden Valley

We spent a frigid night in Hidden Valley.  When we awoke the next morning the thermometer inside our tent read 10 degrees F!  Frost had formed on the interior walls of our tent.

Us inside our Frosty Tent in Hidden Valley

We still had one more pass to tackle before reaching the end of the trek in the Kali Gandaki Valley.  Since we had camped so high we only had to climb 600 feet to the top  Dhampus Pass at 17,225 feet.  Our route took us up a gradual snow field to the summit of our 13th and final pass of our trip!

Us on Dhampus Pass

Yippee!!  Now all we have to do is to descend 4500 feet to our camp at Yak Kharka.  We had to cross a series of bowls before making the final descent.  We finally reached the place I had been dreading, the point at which we were forced to turn around 4 years ago when we attempted to do the Dhaulagiri Circuit in reverse.  It looked as daunting going up as it did going down on our first attempt.  A narrow path led up a steep slope when one slip could mean a long 2000-foot fall.  This time we had crampons to secure our footing and going up was much easier than going down. When I reached the top, I let out a huge sigh of relief, "I'm glad that's over!"  Kancha told us that this section of trail is known as Badasi Dari.  Marc replied "more like Bad Ass Pass!"

Us on Badasi Dari

We soon dropped below snowline and the Annapurna and Nilgiri Ranges finally came into view.

Descending to Yak Kharka, w/the Annapurna & Nilgiri Ranges

The next day we had to descend another 4700 feet to reach trek's end at the village of Marpha.  My knees and toes were happy to see the village below.

The village of Marpha

As we entered the main street, the same sign was there to greet us.  This time we had made it to Dhaulagiri Basecamp and beyond.  The circuit was now complete!

Us at Trek's End in Marpha

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Friday, November 22, 2013

Dhaulagiri Here We Come!

Greetings All,
The first four days of our trek we meandered through small villages with terraced millet fields and farmland.  We stayed at a relatively low elevation, between 5000 and 7000 feet.  There were lots of ups and downs as we had to descend to a river crossing then climb back up another ridge.  We stopped at the village of Dharapani for lunch.  People living here were preparing for the long winter.  Straw and fodder for livestock had been gathered and stored on the roofs of their stone houses.

Typical house in the Village of Dharapani

Women were in the fields harvesting millet by hand.  They would cut the seed cluster from the stem of the plant with a sickle and toss it into a basket carried on their heads.

Nepali Woman Harvesting Millet

The next day we had our first views of the Dhaulagiri Range looming at the head of the valley.

Dhaulagiri Range from the Village of Muri

We stopped for lunch at the village of Muri.  Music was blaring from the ridge above.  We were told that a festival was going on.  We climbed up after lunch to check it out.  The festival was a cross between a fair and a casino.  The women were cooking, the men were gambling and the kids were getting a ride on a wooden Ferris wheel!

Wooden Ferris Wheel in the Village of Muri

Some of the villages had set up tiny shops for trekkers where you could stop for a refreshing coke or a bottle of beer.  A friendly sign reminded us that you had to be a patron to sit in the chairs and tables provided.

Coke Stop in the Village of Bagar

We left the villages and farmland behind and entered pine and bamboo forest.  We arrived at the campsite of Sallaghari to find that a massive avalanche had taken place during the monsoon earlier this year.  It obliterated the forest leaving behind an immense pile of rubble and dead tree stumps.  It stopped just short of Sallaghari.  We carefully picked our way through, mindful not to dislodge rocks onto the trekkers below.

Making our way through the Avalanche Debris

That afternoon we arrived at the Italian Basecamp at 12,000 feet.  Two other large trekking groups, one from France and one from Russia were already camped there.  Once a remote trek, off the beaten path, the word must be out the Dhaulagiri Circuit is a great trek.  The camp had been transformed into a tent city!

Tent City at Italian Basecamp
We spent two nights here acclimatizing and resting for our push further up the valley.  We were now
approaching the crux of our trek.  Leaving Italian Basecamp we had to descend an icy, narrow path to a glacier below.  Fortunately, Kancha, one of our Sherpas was there to offer me a hand across one of the trickier sections.  A rope had been fixed to aid our descent down a steep gully and onto the glacier.

Marc Descending the Gully

We crossed the glacier and climbed a series of zigzags up the ridge on the other side.  A narrow path led us around a cliff face where one misstep could spell disaster.  I didn't stop to take a photo.  We descended the other side to the Swiss Basecamp which was deserted.  The following photo taken the day before during a reconnaissance trip shows our route.

Our Route Shown in Red

From the Swiss Basecamp we descended onto the glacier and the going became much easier.  We were now on our way to the Japanese Basecamp.  When we arrived, our tents along with the Russians had been set up.  It was a cramped camp and we had to sleep on snow.  At least our tent was further away from the Russian mess tent.  They had a habit of drinking and singing after dinner.

Japanese Basecamp (our tent is the lower right one)

The following day we continued up the Chhobardan Glacier with spectacular views of the Dhaulagiri Massif looming above. 

Our group on the Chhobardan Glacier 

We were on our way to Dhaulagiri Basecamp where climbing expeditions launch their attempt to climb Dhaulagiri I in the spring.  At 26,796 feet, it is the 7th highest mountain in the world.  We arrived at Basecamp with impressive views of Dhaulagiri I and the West Icefall.  Somehow climbers make their way up this treacherous jumble of ice to reach the summit of Dhaulagiri.

West Icefall on Dhaulagiri I

We spent another day at Basecamp to rest and acclimatize.  The Sherpas and porters preformed a puja ceremony to pray for good weather and to bless us and our equipment.

Galden Preforming a Puja Ceremony at Basecamp

We hope our prayers will be answered and that the clear weather would hold for our attempt to cross  the French Pass tomorrow!

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Farewell Bhutan, Namaste Nepal

Greetings All,
After completing The Snowman Trek we visited the Phobjikha Valley, home of the Black-necked Cranes.  Every November cranes migrate from Tibet to spend the winter here.  The last crane species to be discovered due to the remoteness of their range, Black-necked Crane numbers are declining and the species is considered to be vulnerable.  We spotted 4 in the valley but they were too far away to get a good photo.

The next day we had a long drive to Paro, making a few stops along the way.  The first stop was at Punakha Dzong, the most majestic structure in Bhutan.  Built in the 17th century by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the Tibetan Buddhist lama responsible for unifying Bhutan, the Punakha Dzong is strategically located at the confluence of the Pho (father) Chu and Mo (mother) Chu Rivers.

Punakha Dzong

It was here that Shabdrung successfully held off invaders from Tibet who sought to retrieve a sacred relic that Shabdrung had stolen from Tibet.  Shabdrung had constructed two entrances to the Dzong and his army kept going around through them convincing the Tibetan army that they were out-numbered.  He also threw oranges in the river which the Tibetans thought were precious relics.   For these two reasons, the Tibetans retreated never to invade Bhutan again.

Our second stop was at the capital city of Thimpu.  Above the city is a reserve for the Takin, Bhutan's national animal.  The takin is a curious beast, a cross between a wildebeest, cow and goat.  A stocky body is supported on short legs with large two-toed hooves.  A large head with a distinctive long arched nose is crowned with stout horns that are ridged at the base.  Some of the takin were grazing on their knees, very similar to the way warthogs feed.


The Bhutanese believe that the Takin was created by Lama Drukpa Kuenlay also known as the 'Mad Monk".  One day his followers asked that he preform a miracle.  Before he compiled he demanded that they bring him a whole cow and goat to eat.  After devouring both leaving only the bones, he stuck the head of the goat on the bones of the cow.  The "Mad Monk" uttered a command and the beast came to life and began grazing in the nearby meadow.  The animal became known as the Takin and can still be seen today grazing in high mountain meadows.

The next day we left Bhutan and and as a parting gift Marc learned in the Paro Airport that the Red Sox had won the World Series!

The Red Sox win the World Series!

We flew along the spine of the Himalayas to Kathmandu, Nepal.  Everest, the highest mountain in the world, was clearly visible with a cloud plume outside the plane window.

Everest (back & center) from our plane window

Aahh, to be back in Kathmandu!  Somehow the chaos of the city only adds to it's unique character.

Kathmandu, Nepal

We spent 3 days here doing laundry, cleaning equipment and preparing for our next trek.  We flew to Pokhara on November 3 and spent a relaxing 3 days at Tiger Mountain Lodge.  We spent the mornings bird watching around the lodge.  Our favorite birds were the Blue-throated Barbet and the Black-lored Tit.

Blue-throated Barbet
Black-lored Tit

We met our next trek group at the Pokhara Airport on November 7.  We were another multinational group consisting of 7 men and a woman from the UK, 3 Americans (us and a man from CA), a woman from Switzerland and a man from France.   The trek started with a crammed, bumpy bus ride to the village of Darbang.

We camped in the school yard where the Nepali army was training civilians riot control tactics in preparation for the upcoming national election on November 19.

Riot Control Training outside our Tent

The following day we would begin our second trek, a challenging 13-day circuit of Dhaulagiri, the 7th tallest mountain in the World via the French Pass and Hidden Valley.  Here is a map showing our trek route.

Trek Route in Red

I hope the knees and bruised toes hold out!
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Jazzercising all the way to Sephu

Greetings All,
Clear skies greeting us the next morning and Namgay made the decision to keep to our orginal route and cross the Jaze La!  The French group we had met up with in Laya had already decided to go this route so we would not be the first to go over since the cyclone.

Throughout our trek we noticed that the villages were undergoing a housing boom.  Where was the money coming from to finance all these new houses?  The answer is surprising and totally unexpected, caterpillars, that's right caterpillars!  Every June/July, the people of the highlands harvest a caterpillar that has been parasitized by a fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis).  The fungus eats the caterpillar from the inside out and the corpse is prized by Chinese and Tibetan herbalists.    It is used as an aphrodisiac and treatment for fatigue and cancer.  A kilo of caterpillars is worth about $1200!

Namgay holding a Caterpillar Fungus

We headed up the Lunana valley towards the village of Thanza.  Just shy of Thanza we crossed the river on a wooden bridge and entered Thanza's sister village Thoencha.  A group of women were taking a break from threshing barley and were enjoying a cup of tea.  One woman was wearing the traditional black wool hat of the upper Lunana valley.

Thoencha Woman

We climbed steeply out of the valley with a stupendous view of Table Mountain.  After the Queen of Bhutan visited the area she renamed the peak Singye Kang after her husband, the fourth king of Bhutan.

Table Mountain Looms over the Lunana Valley

We encountered two women returning to Lunana with their yaks, a good sign as it meant that the Jaze La was passable.

Women Herding Yaks, Jejegangphu is in the Background

Further up the valley it appeared that the number 101 was etched on the hillside.  Namgay confirmed that indeed it was the number 101, our address and surely an auspicious sign.

101, Our Address etched on the Hillside

The following day we reached the top of the Jaze La, our 8th pass crossing.  Surely, nothing would stand in our way of reaching the end of the trek at Sephu now!

Us on the Jaze La, our 8th Pass Crossing 

We spent a cold night at 16,600 feet.  The staff started to clear snow in order to pitch our tents but we insisted that we could camp on snow.  We each had two sleeping pads and a ground sheet to insulate us from the cold.

Tsochena, the only Camp we had to Sleep on Snow

The next day we crossed another pass and a high plateau now covered in snow on our way to the Rinchen Zoe La, the highest pass of the trek.

Crossing the glacial Valley 

On day 23 of our trek, we reached the highest point, the Rinchen Zoe La at 17,400 feet.

Us on the Rinchen Zoe La, the 10th and highest Pass

We thought it would be smooth sailing from here but we still had one more pass to go over.  The night before our final pass crossing it snowed and snowed.  When we awoke there was 6 inches of new snow!

Marc peering out of our tent at Tampe Tsho
We would have to break trail over our final pass the Tampe La.  Namgay led the way but near the top lost the trail.  The wind was howling at 30-40 mph covering all tracks with the fresh snow.  We pressed on discovering that we were only 5 minutes from the summit.  It was too cold and windy to stop on the top for very long.  Graham snapped a quick photo of us and we headed down.

Us on the Tampe La, our 11th and Final Pass

On the way down we encountered a yak train coming up.  They packed the snow making the descent much easier.

Yaks to the rescue, clearing a path on the  Tampe La

This time of year the people from Lunana have to make the arduous 5-day journey to Sephu to pick up supplies for the long winter.  The yaks were laden with rice, powdered milk, distilled water for solar panels, kerosene, gas stoves, corrugated metal for roofs, wood for altars and some even carried wood stoves.  We were trekking for fun but for the people of Lunana it was a matter of life or death.  It certainly gave new meaning to "honey can you go to the store and get me some chocolate?"

The last day of our trek was long and challenging.  We had to negotiate 9 miles of dumpers, a mix of mud, yak and pony poo.  I was too tired to avoid the dumpers and ended up just plowing through them.

Peggy plowing through a Dumper

Finally, the village of Sephu came into view.  Hooray, we made it!!  We were greeted by reps of the local tour company and adorned with white scarfs, a sign of respect in Bhutan.

Group Photo at Trek's End 

A celebratory lunch followed with plenty of Druk 11000, a strong local beer, to go around.

A Toast to Completing the Snowman Trek

Now for some R&R before our next trek.

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Lunana or Bust

Greetings All,
The following morning the yaks had still not shown up.  Where on earth were they?  We decided to press on to the next village of Woche hoping they would catch up to us by the time we arrived.  As we were leaving camp, a flock of Blood Pheasants were feeding in the forest just beyond.  Marc was able to get a decent photo.

Male Blood Pheasant
We hiked along the valley past numerous rock slides and waterfalls cascading from the cliffs above, then climbed steeply to the tiny village of Woche.  The local kids came to check us out, their shyness outweighing their curiosity.

Kids in Woche

We had lunch in Woche and waited around for the yaks to show up.  They didn't.  We didn't have a choice, we had to camp in Woche tonight and hope that the yaks would finally arrive.  We were having afternoon tea in the mess tent when our assistant guide Ngawang bursts in announcing that the yaks had arrived.  Hooray, it was on to Lunana at last!!

AWOL Yaks turn up in Woche

Namgay told us that the yaks had left the high camp two nights before and had gone all the way back to our lunch spot after we had left Laya!  The yak men had finally caught up to them and drove them back to high camp arriving well after dark.  They spent a very cold night at 16,000 feet without many supplies.  They left early the next morning and finally caught up to us at Woche.

Two days and one pass later we finally entered the Lunana Valley.  Namgay chose to camp at the village of Chozo instead of Thanza to give us more options.  "Options, what options, why do we need options?", I enquired.  Namgay explained that there was still a lot of snow on the high passes and that no trek group or locals for that matter had gone over the Jaze La since the cyclone hit.  We may be forced to use an alternate, slightly shorter route.  I was disappointed but understood his reasoning.

We set out to visit the Dzong in Chozo, the only one in Lunana.

Chozo Dzong

The Dzong was deserted and most of the rooms vacant.  We climbed steep stairs to the second floor where there was a locked door.  "What's inside?', I wondered.  There was a tiny window and I stuck my camera through and took a photo.  The flash revealed the secrets inside.

Altar inside Chozo Dzong

Later Namgay told us a malevolent female deity lives in the Dzong.  I hope I didn't offend her by taking a photo.  Curious locals stopped by camp to check us out.  Not many outsiders make in to their remote valley home.  One man led his young daughter by the hand to visit the Chilips, as foreigners are called in Bhutan.  I got a kick out of her sweatshirt.

Angry Birds in Lunana!

We had a rest day in Chozo so decided to climb the ridge above camp.  From the top there were spectacular views of Table Mountain and of the mountains to the East including Gangkar Punsum, the highest unclimbed peak in the World.

Gangkar Punsum is the pointy peak on the far right

Our dinners were served each evening around 6:30 in the mess tent.  The meal was preceded by a hot cup of soup served by our camp staff.

Ngawang serving Soup

Following soup a hearty meal of meat, rice and vegetables was served by our ever so helpful guide Namgay. 

Namgay serving Dinner

Meat was either beef, chicken, mutton or pork.  Vegetables consisted of green beans, carrots, cabbage, turnips, or pumpkin served in a chili cheese sauce.  The Bhutanese love their chilies, the hotter the better.  Early in the trek fresh fruit was served for desert.  Later our deserts were Indian Gulab jamun or sweet balls sort of like Dunkin Donut munchkins.  We came to refer to them as yak balls.  That night we went to bed not knowing if we could complete the Snowman Trek as planned or if we would be forced to take the alternate route.

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc