We awaken at dawn to a brilliantly fine day and a magnificent vista of surrounding mountains. Having arrived in a downpour it's a delightful change. Our first day's trek takes us through villages, steeply terraced fields and remnant forests to Thulo Syabru, a village located on a steep ridge. While there is no road access to the village it has intermittent electricity and Internet access and a big range of tourist good for sale. Several of the group embark on a shopping frenzy while our chief guide Khaki has kittens over how the porters are going to carry any more. The Dasain festival had made it hard to recruit porters and many are carrying double loads.
From Thulu Syabru we drop into the Langtang valley and then climb steadily over the next few days. The valley is often deep, narrow and wooded, but it opens out into the classic U shape of an ex glacial valley as we approach the village of Langtang. Our pace is limited by maximum safe altitude gain as we acclimatise. This means that some people are walking for less than 4 hours a day and feeling great while others feel quite stretched. I watch and video Allan walking through a rhodedendron forest. Normally one of the strongest and fitest people I know, he is suffering from diarrhea, flu and altitude challenges. He struggles to put one foot in front of the other and looks shattered. Fortunately most people are finding it much easier.
Each day begins about 6am. Breakfast is at 6:30 and people start trekking from soon after 7. With 19 people on the trip people can choose their own pace and quickly become very spread out. Generally we stop at a tea house after a couple of hours for a long, leisurely break and lots of lemon tea with honey. Another two hours of steady walking and its time for lunch at another tea house. Soup, chapatis and fried potatoes are popular choices. A short afternoon walk sees most people at the evening stop before 3pm.
We detour to visit gompas (Buddhist Monasteries) and cheese factories and stop to take numerous photos of mountains, yaks, villages, forests and subsistence farming scenes.
We overnight in tea houses that are more comfortable than New Zealand tramping huts. Twin bedded rooms have foam rubber mattresses and there are solar showers for those who arrive early enough. Dinner is served about 6:30 and most people are heading off to bed before 9.
Fifteen of us managed to camp at Yala Base Camp. It was a new experience for all of us as we had a retinue of about 25 porters, kitchen staff and guides. An elaborate 3 course meal was prepared over four giant roaring kerosene primuses. These are no ordinary backpackers stoves, they are huge burners set in non-folding steel frames the size of the average kitchen sink. These are carried, along with a huge range of pots and pans, insulated serving dishes, 140 liters of kerosene, and miscellaneous cookware in baskets on the backs of the four kitchen porters.
Dinner was served in the dining tent, a large rectangular tent with space for all of us to sit and eat together. After dinner we repaired to our spacious two-man tents while the porters slept huddled together in the dining tent and the kitchen staff slept in the kitchen tent (a slightly smaller version of the dining tent).
The camp is located in a wide,shallow bowl at 4,900m that catches the all-day sun. In the sun and with no wind it was pleasant in shirt sleeves, but within a few minutes of sunset it was -3 degrees and it got colder during the night. In our double skin tents and good sleeping bags and lying on double insulation mats it was quite comfortable and those of us who were acclimatised slept well. A few struggled a bit with the lack of oxygen in air that is little over half normal atmospheric pressure and woke regularly to pant for more air.
We heard the kerosene stoves thrumming at 3am, breakfast appeared at 4am and we headed off across the moraine slopes at 5. Yala peak (5,500m) was similar in many ways to Tapuaenuku – a scramble over shattered rock for much of the way. Our guide, Tsering Sherpa insisted on putting in fixed ropes on the small glacier leading to the summit ridge, but they felt superfluous. There was a short, exposed clamber about 200m along the summit ridge. This was a mix of rock and snow and we all had a sense of discomfort. However there was plenty of space at the summit, there was not a cloud in the sky or breath of wind and we relaxed and soaked in the stunning views for 40 minutes before leaving soon after 9am.
Back at camp in time for an early lunch, we congratulated each other warmly before racing down the 1,000m to Kyanjin Gompa, where the last of the non-climbers were waiting for us. We recognised that it was a very easy climb, but it had been useful for finding faults with equipment(especially some hired crampons) and understanding how the fixed rope system worked. The climbers were: Andrew, Brendan, Gordon, Hazel, Murray, Ross and Russell.
Naya Khanga and the Ganja La
The next day, the seven of us planning to cross the Ganja La started out for Naya Kanga Base Camp with our retinue of 14 porters and guides. This was a 1,000 metre climb and by 2pm when we arrived, the sun had left the basin, which was covered in 30cm of snow. We played Frisbee to keep warm until the porters arrived and we could put up the tents.
Another 4am rise and 5am departure and we were on our way, but Naya Kanga (5,840m) was very different from Yala Peak. We had been looking at Naya Khanga with some trepidation since we had first seen it from Kyanjin Gompa. Snow covered from 4,600m, it looked every bit the classic, steep mountain of legends and way beyond our puny experience. Fluted faces seemed to attest to its toughness and the planned route up the ridge was daunting.
A brisk climb (well as brisk as practical in the thin air) up the snow covered moraine and we were on the large glacier at the base of the main face. To my surprise Tsering led us across this without roping up, despite the numerous crevasses, confident that the trail of footprints we were following had picked a safe route. The sun arrived as we crossed the glacier and we were well warmed up by the time we were ready to don crampons and harnesses and tackle the main ridge.
Tsering again began the fixed ropes on what felt a very easy slope, but the ridge gradually steepened and by the crux pitch we were all feeling a little comforted by the rope. There was a delay sorting out the rope at the bottom of this pitch and we had time to stop and take in the moment. For me it was the highlight of the climb, for again it was calm and clear and we were surrounded by majestic peaks. The fixed ropes were abandoned as the ridge crested and we trudged slowly up the spine. On our right the ridge fell away abruptly down steep fluted slopes. To the left the slope was convex , only gradually falling away to very steep. The top was slightly anti-climatic as there was a short very steep 10m to the last ridge but no room for more than two people and nowhere to stand. It was also obvious that there was a slightly higher point a little to our left, but getting there was way beyond our skills – a heavily corniced, very steep narrow ridge barring the way. We retreated out of the wind and mist to enjoy lunch about 50m below the summit.
The trip down went smoothly although it was slightly disconcerting descending the trench in the powder snow with a constant avalanche of snow from the climbers above. We arrived back at camp at 3 pm to find the sun already disappeared from the valley and temperatures once again well below freezing. We then attempted to retire to our tents for a well earned sleep, but were bombarded with a constant stream of food and drink. Climbers were Andrew, Brendan, Gordon, Ross and Russell.
Crossing the Ganja La the next day in knee deep snow was an easier exercise than imagined. The sun came out just before we reached the pass and a rope handrail set for the porters made the final traverse comfortable. The challenge was more in the distances covered on that day and the following two. There were many highlights, including being invited into a Gompa (Buddhist temple) to join in a noisy meditation/prayer session and drink Tibetan tea (flour, sugar, tea and yak butter).
We finally caught up with the trekking party at Kutumsang where we had a great party in celebration of the climb and our reunion. Until then we had been avoiding alcohol out of respect for the altitude, but we were making up for this with few beers before someone discovered rum at NZ $1.40 a bottle. I hasten to add that we were trekking by 7 am the next morning and there were no complaints about sore heads.