Day 3: Past the Tree Line

The Mardi Himal Trek covers almost every vegetation zone in Nepal. Phedi, at an elevation of 1,130m, is in the subtropical zone. It’s still basically tropical, but there’s some more cold-tolerant vegetation mixed in as well, such as pines and chestnuts. Think upper Midwest American forests.

Forest Camp is at 2,550m, which is at the upper ranges of the lower temperate zone. The deciduous forests of lower elevations start to fade into coniferous forests with pines, evergreens, and oaks. It’s also perpetually under cloud cover during the day. At night, the clouds sink deeper into the valley and make the camp feel like a higher elevation than it is.

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Low Camp sits at 2,990m. This brought us into the very upper edge of the upper temperate zone. By this point, we were completely out of the deciduous zones and fully immersed in a rhododendron forest. We left Forest Camp at 8:00 AM and were in Low Camp by 9:30. Not content to stop our day so early, we left for High Camp.

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High Camp is at 3,580m. As we made the continual ascent through the rhododendron forest, the trees began to thin and vegetation became smaller and hardier. More and more sunlight shone on the path as the canopy thinned above us. For one of the first times, a soft breeze made it through the trees in a chorus of rustles and creaks. It was a far cry from the deafening cicadas and other bugs in the subtropical zone of the trek. Eventually, we stood on a ledge and saw the tree line — a distinct border between the upper temperate zone and the subalpine zone. It’s in the subalpine zone that the rhododendrons grow to the size of small shrubs and the bamboo is a shadow of what dominates the tropical areas of Nepal.

Once we were above the treeline, the wind tore through us and howled across the exposed ridgeline trail. The massive mountains that we saw from Australian Camp loomed somewhere behind the clouds, which were parted only by the peaks piercing through. It was exactly what we expected from Mardi Himal’s tantalizing buildup. The snow-capped peaks floating above the clouds made the scale of the place hard to grasp. Still, it was enough encouragement to keep ascending to High Camp in the alpine wind.

Once we arrived in High Camp, there was just one vegetation zone to go — the alpine zone. A nearly-barren tundra devoid of almost all vegetation save only the hardiest of wildflowers, mosses, and the most intrepid rhododendrons and junipers. Our departure for the highest point in the Mardi Himal Trek was to be 4:00 AM the next morning. For now, it was time for our nightly ritual: knock back several servings of tea and rice, and rest by the wood stove.

As the night continued, we got acquainted with the other trekkers in the tea house. A Ukrainian woman who’d lived in Nepal 20 years, a group of guys from Kathmandu taking their friend on his first trek, the Nepali couple from Forest Camp, and all manner of guides and locals who were bringing supplies to the camp. Almost every person in the room had the same plan — leave for the Mardi Himal Viewpoint (4,200m and well inside the alpine zone) no later than 4:00 AM. Most were leaving by 3:30. A few brave souls wanted to leave at 3:00 and meander up the mountain at a leisurely pace. I convinced the group to plan for a 3:45 AM departure so we’d be sure to catch the sunrise from the viewpoint.

By 8:00 PM, almost everyone had cleared out for an early bedtime. The fire in the stove had died out. We poked our heads in the kitchen and arranged for a stack of Tibetan bread and chapati to be waiting for us when we left for the viewpoint in the morning. I left my camera with one of the proprietors of the tea house, who had offered to charge it for me overnight and leave it on the desk for me to grab in the morning (when I returned to pick it up, I found that it had never been plugged in).

Once we took care of the morning’s logistics, we left for our rooms. When I stepped out of the lodge, I saw for the first time exactly what was waiting for us. At night, the cold air coming off the mountains pushes the clouds down into the valleys. Looming over me was Machhapuchchhre and the rest of the Annapurna Massif. In Nepali Hinduism, Machhapuchchhre is the home of Shiva, one of the most prominent figures in the Hindu pantheon. Because of its sacred status, the mountain has never been summitted. The only team to ever climb the mountain never tried for the summit out of respect for local customs.

The snow on its peak and ridges was illuminated by stars that extended from horizon to horizon. Small wisps of snow blew off the peak and spiraled away. I don’t use the word ‘beautiful’ lightly. But Machhapuchchhre backlit by hundreds of thousands of stars was a truly beautiful sight. It was also the first time I’ve looked at a landscape and been totally unable to describe it. The wind whipping through High Camp was already frigid. When I looked up at the mountain, it was an inexpressible feeling. I felt like I was looking at the physical embodiment of cold. I spent days after with that image in my head, trying to find the right words to capture that feeling. It’s a problem, I think, that all those who see the Himalayas (or any truly beautiful place) can relate to.

When I couldn’t bear to stand in the wind anymore, I went to assemble my gear for the morning. Base layer, fleece, wind breaker, head lamp, wool hat, gloves, and water that was already close to frozen. I put on all my warm clothes, set my alarm for 3:30 AM, and got in bed.


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