The fourth day began at 3:30 AM. The night before, I had arranged my gear so I’d be able to grab it in the dark without waking the stranger with whom I was sharing a room. I slept in most of my gear, so all that was left to grab was water, my tripod, rain shell, and gloves. My camera remained uncharged in the lodge where I met my group and we received our Tibetan bread and chapati.
Once we were all present, we left the lodge and shuffled single-file onto the dark path. It was 4:00 AM and already there was a line of headlamps illuminating the path up the mountain. The faint light that had helped illuminate Machhapuchchhre no longer did so, and the mountain was a dark shadow under the stars. Somehow, the stars were even more pronounced than when I went to bed. They extended further and felt deeper than before, giving the illusion of being inside a gigantic auditorium.
As we began the ascent, the wind steadily picked up, tearing right through most of my clothes. My jacket was a lifesaver; it would’ve been significantly less fun without it. Frost and ice crunched with every step over the frozen grass and dirt. Bells could faintly be heard on the wind from yaks loitering just off the path. The horizon was already glowing faint orange and purple from the imminent sunrise, silhouetting the mountains.
The ascent to the viewpoint was not a long one. It would’ve been almost four hours to Base Camp, but not a single person recommended we go there unless we were heading for the climbing routes. The consensus was that Upper Viewpoint had the best views, and as the sun began to illuminate more of the area, it became clear that the consensus was correct.
Just like in my previous post where I couldn’t really describe Machhapuchchhre in the dark, I don’t have the adequate words for it in the morning light either. This makes for bad writing, so it’s a good thing this is also a photo blog. I don’t have to describe this place! So here’s why the last few posts have had so few photos — I was saving my camera with no backup battery for this sunrise.
I stood on the exposed ledge for a few hours, taking as many pictures as I could. I’ve posted something like 50, but it’s narrowed down from close to 600. The thing about places like this is it’s almost impossible to take a bad picture. But it’s also almost impossible to take a picture that captures even a sliver of the actual scale, depth, or insanity of the landscape.
It’s just not possible to fully comprehend the scale of some places. There’s just no frame of reference. Back in Mr. Meyer’s science class in middle school, we watched a video that showed Earth relative to the Sun, then the Sun relative to a bigger star, and so on and so on. There came a point where our Sun was just a pixel on the screen compared to the next star, which in turn was dwarfed by the next one. Watching that video and standing on the side of the mountain invoked similar feelings. Your brain just can’t grasp it and turns it all into a giant vertigo-inducing optical illusion.
When we arrived at the viewpoint, I immediately got a steel cup of black tea from a tent that sat on the ridge. It helped stave off the cold for a few minutes, but eventually the frigid air won. I couldn’t stop moving for more than a few moments before I’d be shivering uncontrollably. The best solace I got was the few minutes I spent inside the tent around the fire with a guide and one of the proprietors of the teahouse.
From the outside, it was a very unassuming and low-profile structure. Woven reeds supported with bamboo, tattered canvas tarps, clusters of prayer flags, and a ragged flag of Nepal flying overhead. There was a stone courtyard with benches in between the two tents. Inside was an iron kettle over a small fire, supplying the trekkers with hot tea. A child no older than 12 shuffled in and out, collecting money and distributing tea.
It was exactly the kind of ragged-yet-cozy setup I hoped to find at 4,200m. Everything about the scene felt so quintessentially Himalayan that, for a moment, I forgot we were at Mardi Himal Upper Viewpoint and not Everest Base Camp. Prayer flags whipping in the wind, guides singing folk songs inside the tent, and barren, icy rock under Machhapuchchhre made exactly the sort of scene I’ve always imagined.
After several hours in the biting wind, I decided it was time to head down. It was 7:30 AM, which meant that I had been at the viewpoint for close to three hours. All I had eaten was a piece of Tibetan bread and a cup of tea at 5:00 when we arrived at the teahouse. I was ready to get down and get food.
With the sun up, I was able to see the path that we had just ascended. It’s a good thing that we made the ascent in the dark. The path wound down in all directions, following the spine of this ridge of mountains. Sometimes, the clouds would part and grant a view of High Camp from 400m above it — a few blue tin roofs perched on the ridge. I mostly focused on my feet as I walked, slid, and slipped down the path. The ice and frost had all melted in the sun, making the rocky path precarious. The few moments I tried watching my surroundings while descending led to falls and near-misses. Nonetheless, I took the time to snap a few photos on the way down to High Camp.
Once we were together again in the lodge at High Camp, we made our plan for the day. Maybe we’d descend to Low Camp and spend the night. No, let’s try for Forest Camp. After much deliberation, we came to a new plan: “Why not just go all the way for Pokhara?”
Thus began a six-hour steep descent down rocky switchbacks and eroded gullies. We stopped for food in Low Camp, then set off down the path to Sidhing as quickly as we could. There was enthusiasm in the air as we tore down the path at an entirely unsustainable pace. Our guesses at the descent time were wildly inaccurate and optimistic — three hours to Sidhing, maybe two because we’ve been moving fast.
Fast forward four hours and I’m perched on a ledge, preparing to lower myself another two feet to the next one. It’s been hours since we had anything that resembled flat ground. Every time there was a part in the trees, we could still plainly see that we were above the clouds. The path eventually came to a lone tea house, whose owner guessed that we had several more hours until Sidhing. We were committed to Pokhara, so we kept descending.
When I finally arrived in Sidhing, about half my group had arrived ahead of me and were laying in a pile next to the jeep they hired. There was just one more steep slope between me and the end of my trek, which was bittersweet. On one hand, it was the end of my trek and who knows when I’ll do another one. On the other hand, my legs fucking hurt. Once I dropped my pack and laid next to my group, I decided I was okay with finishing the trek.
The Jeep Ride and Return to Pokhara
The bus to Pokhara was the second-bumpiest ride of my life. The jeep from Sidhing through the valley back to Pokhara was the clear winner. More time was spent in the air than was spent actually in contact with the seat. We drove through mountain streams and through deep mud. Driving over the biggest rocks would tilt us towards the unguarded edge. I looked to the Nepali guys we were sharing the jeep with. They seemed relaxed and unfazed. I figured that they’re used to roads like this, and if they seem calm, then there’s no cause for alarm. Then one of them turned to me.
“You know, we use roads like this often. We are always afraid.”
I noticed his white-knuckled grip on the back of the seat and felt a little more on edge. Nonetheless, we made it back in one piece. The jeep dropped us at the halfway point between our hostel and the Nepali guys’ hostel. This left us with several kilometers to walk in the pouring rain — the final leg of the trek.
Once we had time at the hostel to dry our gear and shower, we reconvened. The rain had died down, and it was time for the all-important post-trek beer. We went to a place called Rest Stop, a ramshackle little cafe that’s been part of the Pokhara backpacking culture for decades. Looking out over the lake, we had our beers and curry and, for the first time, acknowledged that we’d just done something incredibly awesome.