We leave the lodge before dawn, soft snow flakes coming down, our breath making great plumes into the night. Snow covers the trail and we lose it quickly, finding ourselves in the middle of a yak field. I mess with the gps and say the track is up to our right. We eventually find it and move for the next hour in silence.
I stop and look up. Sudeep is ahead of me – making his way over the snow covered rocks, one of my trekking poles in his hands. This is how he has chosen to spend part of his college vacation. Our planning was last minute, our attitude before we left Kathmandu over confident. Sudeep is wearing shorts, running tights, and running shoes. I’m not dressed much better. It’s snowing harder now and sometimes we lose the trail, saved when we spot the vague outlines of storm marker – huge poles driven into the ground every 100 meters or so – they are there to help people like us when then visibility goes to shit.
What are we doing? What the fuck are we doing? We need to get over Larkya pass (5,106m/16,456ft) and down the other side before the snow gets worse, before altitude sickness sets in, before a twisted ankle slows us to a hypothermic crawl or worse. It isn’t a desperate situation but it has all the hallmarks of one in the making. The butterflies are here with me, inside me, fluttering around. But they don’t fill me with excitement like before – they only fill me with dread to accompany my dull headache and nauseous, early signs of altitude sickness. We might have been acclimated last month after the Annapurna Trail Race – but time has passed and we are pushing limits now. We pause and talk about our options. Neither of us want to turn back – we have too much invested and getting over the pass is the quickest way down. Neither of us talks about how our desire to finish may be clouding our judgement. Both of us know we should have planned better. We head up.
The Manaslu Circuit stretches ~220 kilometers around the eighth highest mountain in the world. Getting around it will take not just the linear distance I mentioned, but over 12,191 meters (40,000 feet) of cumulative climbing, a similar amount in descent, detours around earthquake damage, rickety bridges, exposed trails, and the crossing of Larkya Pass. Trying to do the circuit in a continuous push has been on my mind for over two years. Last year I had the privilege of trying this on Annapurna and finished in 72 hours – but Manaslu has been elusive. Why hasn’t anyone run it in one go yet? Because it is friggin’ hard I tell myself and the altitude is a killer.
We start in Araghat at 4:20am on Tuesday and work our up the might Budhi Gandhaki – it’s liquid roar often too loud to make easy conversation with each other. We run for the better part of the first 34 hours. When we can’t run we walk. We pass earthquake damage, donkeys with sacks of world food program rice, people living in tarp covered shacks, blown out suspension bridges, and perilous cliff side trails that make my heart stop.
In Jagat the park police officer yells at me, “If something happens to you who will we hold responsible?’ He is jabbing his finger toward my face. Our papers are not in order. In the end we give him what he wants – total submission, looking down at the ground and repeating “Yes sir, sorry sir, no sir, you are right, very sorry, we won’t do this again [repeat]” before he licks the rest of his dinner rice off his fingers and stamps our papers. I am glad he doesn’t recognize me from my encounter last year. We lose two hours between that experience and the next checkpoint. After that we run through the night – past sleeping dogs, chickens, goats, and even sleeping park police.
But after 34 hours things start to happen to you – I can no longer see straight and I feel drunk. Sudeep seems stoned. We are starting to get high on a lot of levels – hell we have been high all day – almost 4,000 meters and the snow flakes are coming down. Darkness is three hours away and we realize we will be dealing with the pass in the middle of the night, maybe in snow and wind. We take shelter in a warm lodge in Samdo, sleeping in a ‘porter’ room on the floor. Our optimistic goal of finishing the circuit in 44 hours is out the window before we wake up.
We finally make the pass the next morning just as the winds start to pick up swirling snow up into our eyes. Few things are easy at high altitude and each step is a hard won effort. We slip and slide down parts of the other side, sometimes stopping to hunt for the trail. Sometimes falling. We have no traction for our feet or ice axes. I remember how friends were scattered all over these slopes in 2013 during the Manaslu Stage Race – it was icy then as well but also bright and sunny, not like today. In 2014 when I walked this pass with John and Kathleen and the trails were bare dirt.
We pass by two porters who are huddled on the leeward side – they are squatting in the snow trying to open a package of crackers, their jeans soaking wet, the wind whipping cracker crumbles into the air. They are less equipped than we are. Their baskets are on still on their backs, lawn chairs peeking out under a flimsy tarp. Three of their trekking clients are further down the mountain and not even carrying so much as a day pack. All of them are young and fit. I get mad. I pass them and I tell them their trekking company has a responsibility to equip their porters with adequate gear but they don’t understand me or else care. They look shell shocked. We thank them for the tracks they left in the snow, tracks that have helped us stay on course. I think they understand us. The lodge is not far below.
Our feet eventually bring us to the warm lodges of Bimtang where the snow has turned to rain and the light is failing us. It has taken us 12 hours, more than twice as long as my other two crossings. Stocking up on food for the night we exit south and immediately get confused with a disconnect between the gps tracks, the map, and my memory. In the fading light – we find the right trail along the river and start dropping through old growth forest. This is one of my favorite trail sections – I remember raving about it to John and Kathleen and they liked it too. Sudeep likes it too and later says it is his favorite section. But by midnight we are dreaming of sleep and in the sleepy town of Tilche we rent a room for three hours for 500 rupees. It is my first experience getting a room by the hour with another man. We only intend to stay one hour but an hour of bliss morphs into three. We muster ourselves at 3am and reach walk most of the way to Dharipani, the junction with the Annapurna Circuit, arriving just before dawn. The park police here are cool and don’t care about us since we are over the pass and on the way out. We have 50k to go on trails we know well. The only problem is that our bodies are broken.
The last 30 kilometers are brutal. We shuffle along like old men. Running is out of the question. I had a bad fall off the trail near the village of Tal and my knee is covered in blood and dirt. I can feel the reproachful eyes of villagers – not directed at me but at Sudeep. Clearly we fit the pattern of guide and trekker and it is his responsibility to make sure I survive my trek in good condition. Trekkers pass by us in their rented jeeps – they have no interest in doing this section on foot. They look at my gait and I can tell they think I haven’t trained hard enough for my trek. For the last hour I repeat ‘Please let this be over in the next ten minutes’ over and over in a broken voice.. Suddenly we are at the last hill – we climb it and do an awkward fist-bump/hug at the top. Warm beds are only a stones throw away. We stagger into the nearest hotel and fall asleep covered in mud, tears, and smiles. We can’t even finish our dinner or beers. The butterflies are gone.
Thank you Sudeep Kandel for joining me on this and picking me up when I was down. Richard Bull of Trail Running Nepal and Michelle Marie Landry for the trail beta, also Taka Otsu and Cosmo Trekking for logistical support. If you want to check this out as a supported trail race we recommend the Manaslu Mountain Trail Race which is every November. Rough estimates for those that care: Distance: 220km (136 miles), Total climbing: 12,200m (40,026ft), Total descending: 12,000m (39,370ft), maximum altitude: 5,106m (16,752ft). We left Araghat Tuesday morning at 4:20am, October 27th and finished in Besisahar on Friday at 7:00pm: 86:40hrs or 3 days 14:40 hours. We had about 2hrs lost at park offices, 14hrs in samdo, and 3hrs in Tilche. Otherwise we were moving as best we could. Our journey was recorded in 10 minute increments (sometimes longer) by Delorme sat transponder from Satellite Rentals – Nepal and also local gps devices for about 75% of the trail. As far as we know this was the funnest/fastest known time on the circuit (especially if you subtrack the misery of the last 30k or so). We are sure others can easily go faster – just make sure you are really well acclimated first and have all the right gear! Follow recommended rates of ascent at all time ok? GPS tracks and technical notes can be found on the www.greathimalayatraverse.org. More pictures below. #TeamWOV #Nepal #Team7Hills #RunaTribe