Solo trek to Mardi Himal

While hiking up then back down the deep Mardi Kola valley to the Annapurna Base Camp (see earlier blog entries) I noted on the map that there was another trail/trek perched high up on the ridge on the east side of the valley.  It was hard to believe that a second trail could be running parallel, so much higher than our trail.  This trail apparently snaked along the ridge climbing abave 2000m, 3000m, then up to 4100m at the Mt Mardi Himal viewpoint.  A rough route rose further to the Mardi Himal base camp, but this was clearly well above the snow line. 

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You get the sense here how fast the Himalayas rise towards the north. Both the Mardi Himal and ABC treks start in the lower green region and rise to the white snow. The photo is about 50km top to bottom.

The more I thought about it, the more I was intrigued.  Our route out of the ABC valley took us over this ridge much lower down, so I tried to convince the rest of my family to do this extra side route.  They had loved the ABC trek but were thinking more about a rest than climbing back up another 2500 vertical meters for an additional 4 days of trekking.  So that answer was “no”.  Fast forward a few days.  We planned to spend our last few days around Pokhara at the Annapurna Eco Village which is more or less near the bottom of the ridge that snakes up to Mardi Himal.  I then schemed a plan to depart from the eco village (and my family) for a solo trek up to and back from Mardi Himal.  I had only 3 days altogether, so I’d have to move quickly.  But I like walking.  And when alone tend to walk quite quickly, so it looked possible.  I chose to go without a guide, mostly because I wanted the solitude, but also because I knew that once I reached the ridge, it was pretty hard to get lost following the ridge line up.
We had a lovely 1st night at the Eco Village (Yvonne will describe this in a final Nepal entry) and then after a tour of the village’s “eco” features (very impressive!) I set off.  I was really excited to be returning to the Annapurna area for more trekking, and was quite enjoying the very modest day pack on my back (sleeping bag, water and some warm clothes).  For the ABC trek we chose not to hire porters so I had quite a considerable pack (kids were traveling pretty light) all the way.

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The morning was clear as I left, and I could again see Annapurna south and Hiun Chuli mountains. We trekked around these mountains on our way into the Annapurna Base Camp.

We had hiked up about 600 vertical meters the day before in order to get to the Eco Village.  So I was a bit disappointed that I had to drop all the way back down into the valley before starting the climb to Mardi Himal.

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Farms I passed on my way back down to valley bottom.
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I walked with these 3 boys for a while. They were on their way to school, but it was not just another day for them. They had a few weeks earlier finished their grade 10 exams. In Nepal, you have to pass these exams to proceed to higher education, so their was so much riding on these results. Within an hour's time they would be getting their results. I wished them luck, then headed my own way.

Not long after reaching the valley bottom, a fellow on motorcycle stopped to offer me a ride, which I accepted.  Turns out, my trail turn-off was only 500m ahead, but it was nice to chat a bit and he carried me across a river that would likely have meant wet feet if I was walking.  I found my trail turnoff, and the climb began.

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They don't fool around with trails going up hill. No time for switchbacks - just build stairs going straight up!
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Small scale sawmills abound in Nepal. All furniture is hand made from this lumber.

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Almost all tilling is still done with beasts.

I had what I thought was a pretty good map.  The route looked pretty simple.  Follow the valley to the town of Lwang turn-off.  Climb to Lwang.  Then from Lwang take the very long and uphill trail to the ridge, then follow the ridge to “Forest Camp” to spend the 1st night.

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Approaching Lwang. From here I would try to find the trail heading up through the forest.

When I reached Lwang, my plan started to come a bit undone.  A guy who spoke English told me that the trail I was thinking about had many many unsigned junctions, and there was little chance I would choose the correct branches to find the ridge top.  I should instead traverse along the hillside until I reached the town of Gahlel, from where it would be “easy” to hike to the town of Kalimati and up to Forest Camp.  I heeded his advice, but none of his route was on my map, so I was a bit apprehensive.  But he made it seem very easy to find Ghalel – just pointed and said “don’t go up, don’t go down … just straight”.  How hard could that be?
I was quite happy at first – a nice trail followed the valley at a constant elevation as it passed fields, terraces and homesteads.  But the trail gradually become more and more faint, and I could not find anyone to ask for confirmation.  I could see no sign of a village ahead.  This fading trail trend continued, and 30 minutes later I found myself scrambling across steep terraces and bushwhacking through the forest.  I had a very long way to go today and this is not what I had in mind.

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These "sort of" trails would just peter out.
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Eventually I found this trail that continued in the right direction.
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What my direction-offering friend had either forgotton to tell me or perhaps didn't know the words in English to describe, was that there were some deep cut valleys that had to be dealt with on the way to Ghalel. I mean REALLY deep cut valleys! When I reached this point and saw a gaping drop between me and what I now figured out was Ghalel (look high up to the right) I was very much at a loss about how to proceed.
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I few minutes later I encountered a woman at this house and called out to her "Ghalal?" She pointed across the valley. I shrugged to say I didn't know how to get there. She pointed that I could descend about 500 vertical meters to valley floor and climb back up, or hike WAY back into the river valley and come around the other side. I shrugged again, and she pointed up the river valley, so away I went. I was at this point very much reconsidering my choice to hike without a guide!

The trail was tiny.  I didn’t really know where I was going.  And I was quite concerned that I would run out of light before reaching Forest Camp.  But I have to say I quite relished this portion of the trek.  The trek to Poon Hill and ABC had been quite a trekker super highway. I was now in a valley virtually devoid of trekkers, high up on the hill, hiking past terraced field, forest and stone homesteads, heading deep into a side valley.  I felt like I was in the “real” Nepal.  

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The other side of the valley that connected to Ghalel was a huge cliff face but I kept my trust in the woman’s directions and kept to the path.  Sure enough, it crossed the river then climbed above the cliff and eventually emerged in Ghalel.  I was (naively) relieved and figured I had a nice trail to follow the rest of the way.
The route from there to Kalimati followed a new road that had been recently carved from the mountain side.  I caught up to a woman who was hauling an unbelievably heavy sack of manure on her back (I know this because I asked her if I could try to pick it up.  Barely.).  She assured me that forest camp was within 2 hrs reach.

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Another 45 minutes put me in Kalimati.  I inquired twice here about the trail up to Forest Camp and got the same answer – it was 3 hours away (so much for those earlier assertions …), and there were many junctions.   At this point it was 3PM … and it gets dark around 6:30.  As you can see, the weather all day was pretty marginal, and wavered between cloud, mist and rain.  So I did not relish the idea of getting caught out in the forest for the night.  Hmmmm…..   So I asked if there was anyone I could hire to guide me up to the camp, and after some loud hollering around the village an older guy Chinta showed up a few minutes later ready to go.  I was so relieved.

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My 1 hr guide Chinta from Kalimati

We moved quickly up through the steep, wet and very muddy forest – me with my nice hiking boots and Chinta with his flip flops 🙂   I was not sure what his plan was to get back down to his village before dark.  I asked him, and he said “no problem”.  This meant that either he would stay overnight at the camp or would come back down in the complete darkness (how could this be possible?).  But if he said “no problem” …. who was I to argue?

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It turns out that a guide was very necessary.  So often trail reached a little grassy area, with no departing trail in sight.  Several times there were junctions that I would have been just guessing at.  And it was so foggy that I, in the lead, lost the trail a few times.  After an hour and half of walking, he asked to see my watch.  Only then did it dawn on him his predicament about getting down in the daytime.  He then said he would walk another 15 minutes with me then I would need to finish on my own.  I was apprehensive, but he gave me very detailed instructions about what to do with several upcoming junctions, then I paid him and said goodbye.  His directions were spot-on and by 5PM I happily wandered into Forest Camp.  I had been walking since 9:30 in the morning and not stopped for lunch.

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Mine was one of 3 guest houses at Forest Camp on the Mardi Himal ridge. Dining room is on the right. It is very modest and run by a lovely family. Breakfast was prepared and served by the 14 yr old daughter, because mom had headed down to Kalimati in the pitch black ...after serving us dinner. She arrived (after climbing the crazy trail I had come up on the day before) by 7:30 AM with a huge mattress on her back. Wow.

It was very cool at that point but I had been sweating so went for a very cold shower (they simply divert the camp water supply so it pours into the little shower room).  When I entered the dining hall I was met by five guys in their 30s speaking German.  Turns out, one of them (Lucien) moved to Pokhara 3 years ago.  His friend Henys followed him 2 years later.  Then 3 more friends came to visit for a few weeks, and they were on this trek together.  They are fantastic guys and the conversation that night was lively.  I especially appreciated after spending the day trekking alone.
Next morning we had breakfast together then set out for High Camp.

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Break for garlic soup at Low Camp with my new German friends.
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Lucien and a little "Low Camp" puppy. Lucien was fascinating guy. As an almost pro soccer player in Germany he was injured and rather lost his way in life for many years. He finally got himself together, sold all his possessions and bought land to farm on Sarencot just outside of Pokhara. He and his new Australian wife grow their own crops and gardens, keep chicken and other livestock and haul their water every morning. They live just like local Nepalis. Henys and his girlfriend liked the lifestyle and moved in last year. Lucien was a natural leader within the group and "mothered" this friends as we made our way up the ridge and to the high viewpoint the next morning.

Not too far above Low Camp we broke out above the trees and WOW … it was just the trail I imagined it to be while hiking way below towards ABC.

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Chomrong can be seen up high on the left (we stayed overnight on way to ABC) and the ABC trail can be seen left to right.
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Yes, still Rhododendron season!

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The rate of development on this trail was quite remarkable. Apparently this trek didn't really even exist 5 years ago. Now there is Forest Camp, Low Camp and High Camp. Halfway to High Camp I found this almost complete new guest house. And a second guest house is just being completed at High Camp. Keep in mind that all consumables and much of the building materials have to be hauled by porters 3 vertical km from the valley below. Yes, tourism is a huge part of the Nepali economy. But I can't help but wonder how the experience will change ... maybe the Mardi Himal 10 years out will be like ABC is today?

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The last hour of walking to High Camp was like this .... different breathtaking views around every corner. Of course, I wouldn't have complained if the clouds had moved on ...

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High Camp. 3800m. You can see my room door - the view out from my room was pretty fantastic!
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Inside the very rustic dining area at High Camp. Guests included a retired Brit, 4 Nepali teachers, a New Zealand family that used to live in Pokhara and a solo 19yr old woman from Germany on a Buddhist pilgrimage in Nepal and India. My German buddies stayed in the other (new) guesthouse.

It was cold and cloudy so we mostly hung out inside reading, chatting and drinking lemon ginger tea.  Then all of sudden the New Zealand doctor shouted that the clouds had cleared so we rushed out to this view:

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Fishtail (Machhapuchhre) mountain (7000m) never gets old on me. It is a sacred mountain to Nepalis and as such is not climbed, nor are foreigners welcome to do so.
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Henys (left), Lucien (C) and Falko (R). We will meet up with Falko in Cologne, Germany in a few weeks' time.
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They were still finishing the guesthouse that I stayed at. Trees had been felled below Forest Camp by axe then squared by cross-cut saw (that is, two guys with a hand saw). The huge timbers were then hauled up about 1500 vertical meters on porters' backs to High Camp. These guys were then sawing the timbers into small lumber for furniture. I was cold so offered to help saw for a while. I was surprised how fast we made it through the wood.
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Some other guys were building this beautful rock wall. All the stones had been dug out from the ridge, and these guys were tirelessly (and tediously?) chipping the rock to create perfect rectangles before putting the rocks into the walls.

I had planned with my German friends to head further up the ridge to Mardi Himal viewpoint early in the morning.  We met in the dark at 4:50AM dressed very warmly with headlamps going.

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1st light ....

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Henys always had a grin on his face.
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The final 30 minutes were through the snow.
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It felt pretty fabulous to be up there. We of course wished we'd had a perfectly clear morning (like all the mornings on our ABC trek) but were still happy to have the view we did.
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A couple of Americans Hailey and Isaiah caught up to us on our climb. Here is Hailey.
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We made it to the Mardi Himal viewpoint (4100m) and were greeted by the prayer flags. The Nepali name for prayer flags ("Lung ta") translates to "wind horse". There are either Buddhist prayers or horse images on the flags. The horses speed the prayers to the sky.
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Me, Sergei, Henys, Stephan, Lucien, Falko and Lucien. This one enlarges nicely - give it a "click".
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I had a really long walk ahead of me so I said good bye to my friends and took off ahead to return down to the guesthouse. I was sorry to leave them - they had been so open, engaging, and really brought my journey to life.
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Weather changes so fast up here. Within minutes almost all visibility was lost. Fortunately the trail followed the ridge so I did not get lost.
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That's Mt. Mardi Himal above the German guys.
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Arriving back to High Camp. An omelette and some coffee later, I was on my way.
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About an hour down the trail from High Camp I ran into this porter, and inquired as to what was in his basket. "Wine", he answers. I asked if I could try to lift it, but could barely - it was soooo heavy! And he left from Sidhing (where I was headed) 2.8 vertical km below, earlier that morning. With that load. Unbelievable what these people can do.

I moved quickly down low camp and headed down the very steep trail towards Sidhing.

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Here is a quarry where rock is dug out then delaminated. In this case, they were rebuilding many of the steps on the trail, so these would be hauled up goodness knows how far before being put in place.
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My destination at this point was the far end of this valley. I would normally not push so hard but we were leaving for Kathmandu the next morning so needed to get back to Pokhara to meet up with the rest of the family.
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Just can't get enough of these Nepali terraces! In this case they were used just for grazing.
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There are an increasing number of roads like this being punched into villages. I think there must be some government priority to connect villages by "road". But can so easily see here how vulnerable they would be to earthquake-induced landslides.
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Only moments later I came around a corner and saw this across the valley. Road construction right through the terraces. I wonder if the people who worked so hard to create the terraces are compensated?
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The bottom of the valley is finally in reach. I had descended 3.1 vertical km over the past 7 hrs and my knees and thighs were complaining.
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I could not trust the planks in this bridge - they were all rotted out. So I slid my hands along the steel cables just in case. Likely nothing to worry about though ... locals come and go across all the time.
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Road-side wheat. I really came to love the rustic look of the stone homes.

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I was getting near the highway I had planned to catch a bus from when a fellow sitting next to the road called out to me and pointed to an empty chair and insisted I sit down to rest.  I had at this point been walking for 11 hours without a stop for lunch.  I sat.  He was quite an engaging chap and within a few minutes told me that he was fundraising for his church.  A church!  My eyes expresed my surprise.  I’d met so many Hindus and Buddhists, and a few Muslims.  But no Christians.  Said he had been moved by reading the bible.  After a while he got around to asking me if I could perhaps chip in to purchase a few bags of concrete.  He left for a few moments so I asked the fellow sitting next to him “how big is the congregation?”  He smiled, and said “just his family”.  The pastor graciously came to realize that I would not be one of his benefactors.  Soon after a local bus came by in my direction headed to Pokhara so I jumped on.

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It took a rather interesting route down the valley. The smoothest gravel was that in the river. So .... the bus drove down the rather wide river, crossing side to side for about 5km.

One fellow got on with his bike.  Intermodal transportation is always a welcome sight.  But I have to say I was surprised by what form of transportation was awkwardly loaded onto the bus next.

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Fortunately they thought to anchor this massive wheel before it went careening down the aisle!

I was quite happy to reach Pokhara, meet up with the family and settle into some great food.  I had really missed them – this was the longest that any of us had been apart since we left in September.  But I really enjoyed the time alone.  I have always noted that you see and hear more when you hike alone.  And you are much more likely to connect with others along the way when you don’t have an easy conversation awaiting with your friends/family.  I would highly recommend this trek to those who might be considering.  It experiences only a tiny fraction of the traffic of the better known treks and gets you up into some fantastic mountain views.  If you choose to access the ridge via the Mardi river valley like I did, you will get even more of an authentic rural experience.  But best go sooner than later … this trek may get the better of itself.

Cam

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