It’s been more than a year of our travel to Makalu Barun National Park, and even after frequent attempts to write a travel blog, I never actually finished it. Recently, it came across my mind again to write up a few highlights of the trip, at first, I felt that I forgotten details of it, but, as I recall the trip again in my head- I remember it so vividly, so clearly that the trip still brings smiles in my face. So, I couldn’t help myself to draft this travel document.
So, it started in first week of May, when I had just finished my Bachelor’s degree and was looking desperately for an adventure. And, when I got this opportunity through Himalaya Research Expeditions to assist in the National Geographic society grant program to research about Yarsagumpa with expert geologist and botanist, there was just no choice at all- it was only yes and lots of exhilaration.
After discussing and communicating about the research over emails for a week, I met Alton Byers and Elizabeth Byers at a hotel in Kathmandu before the trip next day. It was our first meet and I was kind of nervous. But, after an hour of our meet, I felt utterly comfortable and we went to details on our trip plan.
The next day, we departed from airport in Kathamandu to Tumlingtar- in Sankhuwasabha: getaway to Makalu Barun National Park. It was my first time in a flight and it was so interesting see the alternating villages and forests passing by. After a flight of about 40mins, we reached Tumlingtar- where staff members and porters from Himalayan Research Expeditions joined us. After having lunch at Tumlingtar, we headed towards Khadbari in a jeep amongst Alnus nepalensis forest and Elaeocarpus sphericus plantations. With night halt at Khadbdari, the headquarter of Sankhuwasabha- we headed in jeep towards Num. Located in a hill top- Khadbari was a mid-hill beauty with cool temperature. It was from Num that our trek would actually start the next day. That evening our team unpacked the goods and made them into head loads, we hired local porters, tried the tents and bought local food supplies and started to walk early the next day.
Our destiny for the next day was the hillside in front of Num- which was in actual was separated by Arun River. So, even though it looked at arm’s length- it was a day long journey to go down to the Arun river and then head straight up the hill again. Pheww, that is Nepal in actual. It is small, but the geography really makes it so large and different. So, sticking to our purpose, as we entered Park’s area from Sedhuwa, we interviewed local people informally and gathered information as we could on Yarsagmba harvest, rate and other things. It was raining heavily when we were reaching Sedhuwa and our attempt to use our tents didn’t work and we stayed at the local lodge. And, from Sedhuwa our actual trek started where we used our own kitchen instead that of hotel’s and it was huge surprise for me. It was my first trip to Himalayas and I was prepared for the worst. But, we had our own luxury tents, all the food supplies enough to make it a 5 star meal even in the remotest part and warm and friendly staffs and the guidance from leading scientists. I couldn’t believe my eyes. So, let’s go in detail to our luxury travel. Each morning we would be woken up with bed tea/ coffee/ hot chocolate in the tent. This would then be followed by a bucket of hot water to make ourselves ready. Our morning breakfast would be heavy with porridge, chapatis, eggs, drinks, and all choice of honey/butter/ jam. And, depending upon the day’s work/ travel we would either take hot lunch or pack lunch. The first day, I was given the pack lunch- I couldn’t decide which item to eat first. We had Chapatis, dry fruits, a juice, a bar of chocolate, an egg, a piece of meat and fruits. And, in evenings we would be greeted with hot juice followed by tea time with popcorn at 5 and we used to have dinner of Dal/bhat mostly in the evening. Together with this, there used to be varieties. Umesh dai- he was the best cook and he would timely surprise us with pizzas, dumplings, cakes and everything that you ask.
After the meal description, let’s go on to travel again. We had a day halt at Sedhuwa to collect information from the park office. During 1991/92 Alton had worked a Co-manager for the national park, during its declaration and so, it was very informative for me to know about the geography, conservation history of the park, people and so on. On the rest day, I was trained by Elizabeth on using the equipment that we were going to use during field works. The next day, we had short trek along the Arun River and we reached Tashi gaon. And, in tashi gaon I stayed in my own tent, and it was the very first time. When I mentioned this to the team, Alton told us about the mysterious sounds and a scary incident from his trip few years back in Nepal, and that night I was scared as hell till I fell asleep.
Tashigaon was the last settled Sherpa village in Makalu Barun National Park. After this stop, the settlement that we would come across would be goths (cattle sheds) and tea houses. However, the tea houses would operate as small guest house and there would be one in a day’s length. So, tea house trek is also popular in this park. After Tashigaon, we followed deep confier forest of Abies and rhododendron, looked and collected animal prints and signs and with our inflated lungs we started our trip uphill. This was one of the best days of the trip. The upper temperate forest of Abies were deep and beautiful, the trees were huge and I felt in with the smell of dead wood that lay scattered in the forest. Every now and then, the trees would harbor beautiful orchids hanging in them- and, it would be such a pleasant sight. As we moved upwards, we were also greeted with Rhododendron arboreum flowers. It was a short trek that day and within mid-day we had reached Danda Kharka which had only a very small tea house.
The lodge owner there were brother- Dawa and Lakpa, which later on became our very good friends and our guide as well. The next day, we started early and moved through Betula utilis and Rhododendron forest again and reached Kongma which has two tea houses. In Kongma, I was taken aback by the beautiful Rhododendorn garden and the pikas- the first ones of the trip! With decades of travel experience of Alton and Elizabeth to the mountains, we all knew we were travelling safely. We had a day halt at Kongma to acclimatize ourselves to the altitude. I learned a great deal from both of them about how careful we should be of altitude- drinking lots of fluids, letting others known of even the slightest discomfort. Most of all, gaining 300m altitude everyday after 3000m was advisable and we stayed strict on that- which suited quite well for our team.
In Kongma, we followed up with more interviews, botanized around, enjoyed the rest day and made ourselves ready for the Shipton pass next day.
The next day, we started our day early morning. I clearly remember that I had the last phone call for the trip with my parents that day. After Khadbari, I had completed forgotten about calling them and was enjoying being out of the world entirely. On this day we had to cross three passes before waiting for the night hault. It was because of these passes in Makalu, that the Makalu trek is in general considered a tough one. We climbed the hill and reached to the pass-that had a chorten, decorated with the colorful Buddhist prayer flags known as Tutu La. At this point, we had crossed the treeline and started to come across the bushes of R. anthopogan (sonpati) and R. lepidotum. Once of reached the pass we made our way through the ridgeline, and I was and felt the first snow fall. It was misty and foggy, and at the same time chilling cold. My boots were all wet and the feets started to feel heavy. Even so, I carried on enjoying the company of my seniors and getting wrapped up in the landscapes and vegetation that moved together with this. This ridgeline walk was followed up with descend to the small lake: sano Pokhari, and going up we reached Shipton La- a pass named after Eric Shipton who has claimed to have seen yeti in the same site. We made jokes about yeti and footprints and carried on our journey through snow. We saw clear animal footprints of birds and fox in the snow. That night, we halted at Thulo Pokhari, alongside a deep blue colored lake. And, it was like a real camp- with no settlement nearby. Though we had no problem even in cases as such, our staff would have much to do in days like these. In other days, while they could use hotel’s kitchen and find a warm shelter inside the lodge, camping in the middle of nowhere meant that they would have to take shelter in the kitchen tent and had to put extra efforts for cooking as well.
I was always fascinated of reading- and during my early days, I would read any books that were laid in my hands. Having a bookstore in the gateway of the mountains, my father’s bookstore would have several picture and non-fiction books of travelling, climbing and expeditions. While browsing through the colorful pictures of chortens, prayer flags, the travelers with huge backpacks and the sherpas- with huge headload walking up hill, it would fantasize me and I vividly remember about dreaming of one. Also, reading the climbing books of Jon Karakeur and Maurice Herzog, which described of icefalls, avalanches and the travels, they would mean so little back then. Even though, this trip was nothing as compared to their high mountain expeditions, for me, it was like living a dream. The book often talked about the sherpas- their strength, their fierceness, their hospitality and their smiles, and being friends with the Sherpa people for the first time; I could relate about the descriptions in the book.
Our team members- also called sherpas (I later found that the Sherpa is not actually a caste, it is a title give for the guides) were of diverse ethnicity: mostly of Kulung Rai. They were warm and all smiley. After our lunch hour during breaks or after evening dinner, they would gather and have fun around. At times, I would join them singing/ dancing happily or playing cards. They were like brothers to me, and we managed to have fun amidst the travel hours.
Even so, we managed fine in thulopokhari. Our tent was beside a small outlet of thulo pokhari, and the ground was all wet. In the evenings, I would work under the torch light- write up my diary, find the identification of the birds that I have sighted, identify and remember all the flowers that I photographed. The next morning, waking up- the tent was all covered in the snow- and, I climbed up the hill to feel the moment. And, the view that I observed that morning is all well set in my memories. Even though I captured it in the frames, it doesn’t speak the truth.
That day we started our official field work. We looked after grazing impacts, tourism impact and wildlife signs in the area. I was trained about sampling and setting out plots scientifically by Elizabeth dd, and after lunch hour we made it uphill again to reach Dobato. After crossing the Keke La, we moved downhill again. From above tree line, we moved towards Rohododendron tress and again back to the forest areas. It was almost dark when we reached Dobato. It was beside the Barun River and we could hear the soaring sound of the river.
The next day, we walked along the forest of fir and rhododendron; alongside the Barun River. We looked to the geographies shaped by the Barun river over millions of time from alluvial fans to deposits. Barun River, with its milky colored water clearly originated from the Barun glacier. Following the Barun River alongside, we halted in Phematang and went to Kongma the next day. As per our interviews, Kongma was the place where hundreds of yarsagumba harvesters would shelter. Seated beside the Barun River in a flat land, which looked like a lake in previous days, Yangle was surrounded by the hills on the all side. These hills were the harvesting grounds for yarsagumba, and though the hill tops were a day’s journey for us, collecting yarsagumpa from these vast alpine meadows were a day work for the locals. Even the children were so good and better than all of us. Yangle, at old days was the cattle shed area for the animal herders to take shelter in. But, with time, these huts started to expand themselves and accompany the tourist. And, now there are around 10 cattle sheds and a single lodge in the area.
If it were previous year, Yangle would have been flooded with yarsagumba harvesters, middle mans, sellers, patrols from national parks and so on. But, this year, things were different. The fungi of yarsagumba would start to show up once the snow melts. And, the snow in this year was still prominent with no signs of starting to melt. Our goal was to document the impact of yarsagumba harvesting on local ecology, but without yarsagumba collectors- it was difficult for us to ascertain. But, this is the way field works are! You never exactly get the things that you desire.
We frequently talked with local peoples and interviewed them on the subject of our interest. Within an hour distance of Yangle was famous religious site called Shiva Dhara, which was the huge rock with Shiva eyes in them. From one of the eyes, there was a waterfall generating and it led to the cave. The locals would travel frequently for this holy place and we as well, managed to get to the base of it. In Yangle, we found that yarsagumpa fruiting in the Sorbus forest, and we did our plots and studied in them.
After few days, we moved from Yangle to Riphuk Kharka- a pasture land. This had only a single lodge and it was a short day trip. This also was along the fir-rhododendron forest, and it had the small of decayed trees and algae- the one that you can’t get enough of. Riphuk again, had it own charm. It lied at the base of the huge stony structure that made its eastern wall. With numerous waterfalls over the stony structure, the stony wall had many symbols and signs. Some of these signs were promninent, and often highly regarded by the locals. But, if you would look very enthusiastically, you can find a numerous ones of them- and every other person would try you to identify a new symbol or an animal stature.
The next day, we moved from Rhipuk to Langmale- and it was one of the best walks that I had in the whole trip. We moved across gentle slopes and landscapes and we had escaped the rain. After you cross 4000m, you also leave the rain behind and enjoy the vast alpine meadows and flowers. On the way to langmale, we met a bunch of children happily running upwards. Upon asking, they told me that they were going towards the High camp of Makalu Barun- a place of shelter for the climbers during the ascend. I was all excited and was thinking about the possibilities of joining them as our plans extended only to the Base camp; and high camp was a day long journey from the base camp.
Though I was interested to join them, I knew they would be too fast for me, and had no intention to slow down their speed. We reached Langmale that day together with the children. In Langmale, they ordered boiled potatoes and again started their journey with filled in tummies. Later on, I found that they were in fact travelling to buy the remaining food stuffs from the mountain expeditioners as the climbing season was over. The expedition teams in the high camp would have lots of food left with them which would be too expensive to be carried over by flight and thus they would be selling this to the local peoples. To me, this was so exciting. I proposed this idea to my team, and they agreed to send me over the the high camp in a day hourney. I wanted to do this trip alone, but I was not allowed as climbing upto 5600m alone in a strange land would deemed dangerous for me.
So, I had the company of one of the Rai brothers. Our cook started to cook for us early, and we started our trip around 5. We travelled along the Barun river through sershong and reached base camp around noon. We halted at the lodge in basecamp, and ate some Sherpa tea and cooked noodles. We talked of our plan to reach to high camp and return back to Langmale during the night. All the people advised that it will be difficult to travel upto high camp and return the same day. The travel to high camp would involve walking along the gacier and we were not rightly equipped that day. It was in this day, that I first say glacier. In my imagination, a glacier would be a bunch of ice packed together. But, to my utter surprise, a glacier was rubbles of mud and stone, and had ice beneath them. Even with all the suggestions, we were reluctant to step behind and were determined to go to the high camp. And, thus we moved again our walk to the glacier.
My guide was a fun man- he was talker and was of my age, and we made a good company. He shared his experiences as a kitchen assistant where, he has traveled upto camp II in Mount Everest. It was a tireful day, and though high camp was not that far- it was in real a difficult trek. You would have to find your way through rubbles which didn’t have any single path, and it was all stony that the base of your feet hurt. After reaching to the Japnese camp, which was nothing but the rubbles again- named after a group of Japanese climbers who used the area for camping, we thought is wise to hit back the roads again.
We were already tired and with no logistics at high camp, we had to get back. So, we travelled back again that day to Langmale. It was comparatively short once on our way back and with all the tiredness, went to the bed early.
The next day, we were to study the glacial lake at Langmale- West Barun glacial lake. The lake was huge and it met the Barun River at the end. This glacier lake was fed up from the glaciers from Peak VI and VII. The Lake was long and elongated. The anterior end was at the base of the peak near Shershong. The lateral end of the moraine ran paralllely with Barun river- which posed a great risk for the glacier lake, if the Barun river was even to find its way to the lake through the moraine. As per the locals, the lake few decades back contained , but has started to grow in size ever since, and therefore is considered one the the dangerous glacier lakes in Nepal. We measured the mass of overhanging ices, measured the water flow and other parameters in the lake.
The sahuni at Langmale was one of the most influential person that I met on the trip. She reminded me of my grandmother, and I felt nostalgic. Even so of the age, she was living all by herself at the altitude- bold and fearless! She had tens of yaks and naks and a hotel to run, and a lots of stories to share. She proudly talked about her sons- who were running mountain climbing agencies and/or hotels. And, about her daughter- who is a climber!
Next day, we walked the meadows again- alternating between juniper and rhododendron shrubs, potentilla flowers. I was really enjoying these trips after 4000m now. The climbs were gentle and much easier, unlike in the mid hills where the climbs were steep and a pain on the legs. And, what more- we were fully acclimatized now. Having spent around two weeks in the mountains, I felt like a Sherpa girl- running and hopping here and there and it was easy. From now on, it was easier to find animal tracks and feces. And, with Alton’s expertise in Makalu, identification would come easy by. We managed to come across and collect multiple samples of animals feces for them to analyze later in the lab. Next stop for us was Shershong- just a few hours from Langmale. At the crevassing end of the West Barun glacial Lake. Again in Shershong, there were no any tea houses for shelter. But, it was pleasant as the other places. And, it was here that I saw my first avalanche- they were so frequent. In books and movies, they were described so dangerously, that every sound I hear would give me goosebumps. But, as I got accustomed, it was rather something to enjoy- that you could see and hear the force of the ice masses, and yet know that you are completely safe and sound.
The next day, we moved on to our final destination- the base camp of the Mt. Makalu. It was seated at the foot of the mountain and it was the origin of the Barun River- from Seto Pokhari glacial lake. It was around 5000m and the vegetation were getting smaller and diminished- for to survive in this altitude was harsh.
In the base camp, we met a group of climbers- who had just returned after their Makalu summit. And, it was a living dream- to meet the summiteers. The group of around 10 peoples, with their team had just returned after their attempt in the Makalu. Some of them had reached the peak while other went till the last camp, and had to return-waiting next year to do the climb again! While we were having troubles even in 4500m, I couldn’t even imagine what goes out there in 8000m-pheww!! I wonder what keeps the climbers motivated. Is it just the feeling of being at the top? Or is there something else? Hearing out their discussions, a part of me was already dreaming of climbing the mountains- but then, I realized beauty of few things should be felt on their existence, not just the accomplishment over them. Having said so, I haven’t completely given up the idea of climbing someday, but I would like to do it amateurly- someday- just a small peak or so. A fantasy here!!
The climbers were waiting for a heli to come by and pick them up out of the Makalu, they were too tired to do the Shipton pass again. It took them 3 days of waiting for a heli to finally come by, and in these time I got to hear a lot of their stories. Some of them were very accomplished climbers. After their adventurous stories, I was again hit by the idea of trying high camp again. And, it will be just a day trip this time, and everyone was sure that we could easily do this year. Next day, we started out of three peoples. Me, Mauli dai- our head guide and my previous companion- Hem Rai. On my special request, I got noodles for lunch that day.
Then we started, again the same stony, glaciers, but we were determined this time. The carrying of goods by the expedition team was not over yet- there was frequent movement of peoples. And the happy children that I talked about before- were all carrying head load as heavy as themselves and in that difficult terrain. This was unbelievable to me, I felt weak and spoilt. While I was engaged in personal contentment of the luxurious travel, there were these kids- skipping their schools for such hardships. How unfair the world is, in actual. Even with loads, the kids and the elders were swift and efficient- they managed their pace without complains. With mixed feelings, we moved on- and, I admit it now and ever- it was one of the most difficult journey of my life. Even though I was persistent, it was reaching an extreme. It was my second attempt and there was no way that I give it up. I used to ask the every person we meet about the distance and everything. At the point while I was about to give up, we took up a long rest. And, to my surprise, my team was all well-equipped. They made a warm cup of coffee and a medicine to go with. I felt relived and we continued our uphill journey. As we approached towards the high camp, we could see the remnants of human even in the remotest place of the country.
Climbing permits are in general very very expensive, and while they are issued it is made clear that all the garbages should be carried back. If it were by the individual climbers, the problem would not have been there, but, since climbing is a millions dollar business, operated by the climbing companies- the garbage remain unattended. Speaking the truth, it wasn’t as bad as I had expected- the garbage were stocked in the pits- around 12 of them. But, still the garbage looked so alien in such a pristine land. Had there been effective patrolling by the national park, this wouldn’t have been the case. But, in limited resources that our national parks operate with- climbing to this altitude for monitoring is definiately impractical.
So, after spending around an hour just an inch away from Makalu, we traced out journey back again. My head felt tired with a climb of 800m that day, and gave me a sense of what an altitude sickness, We rushed downhill and I took the medicine again. Finally, we safely arrived at around 5 to the base camp.
Our journey, next day was now a return trip. Our plan was to reach yangle Kharkha with a hope that the yarsa collectors have started coming back again. Return was relatively wasy now, as the places and landscapes were familiar and we had a sense of accompolishment within us. We stayed at Langmale Sahuni guest house that day and back to Yangle Kharkha the next day. Having stayed in Yangle 3 overnights, Yangle was like a home to me. I met girls of my age and after, what seemed like ages, I had friends to share my gigglings and friends to go for baths with. We walked in the forest looking after Yarsagumpa and talking about the life in the mountains. Most of them were younger to me and were already married!
While getting back to our research , the snow was still there. Each day of ours in the mountains was expensive, and thus, there was no way that we could extend it. We had already extended it once, receiving the money from Kathmandu through Heli and having our porters to get to Sedhuwa and bring the food stuffs up again. But, we were in no position to repeat that again. So, we had to come up with alternate. We decided that we can travel to one of the harvesting site and analyze the impacts from last year. And, it made so much sense. If the impact of yarsa harvesting was huge, the ones from last yeat would definiately still be there. And, if there are no any significant impacts, then we could say that the yarsagumba harvesting does anything but good to the local economy.
So, in this quest, we went to one of the harvesting camp, right up of Yangle- at Asamasa. We used our fiends Dawa as a guide, and we hurried upwards. It involved steep up again, and the vegetation changed as we went up and up. Starting from the forest of fir, we slowly moved towards shrub rhododendrons and finally upto bushes only. Even though, we could only see the hill top from Yangle, Asamasa was a heaven. When I watched the film “Bahubali”, I could relate the topography potrayed in the film. Asamasa again had gentle slopes and hills and was vast in size. The most amazing part was the view from Asamasa. In a clear day, you could see Makalu right in the north and the Kanchanjunga range in the north east. Another favourite part was the clouds, they would change within seconds, up and down, up and down. In Asamasa, we did our plots again. As per our local guide- Dawa, this place harboured hundreds of harvesters last year. We looked hard for signs of hundreds of people- and, virtually there were none, apart from rhododendron bushes used as fuelwood. At the end, it made sense to us. Given the fact that the nepali people live and travel simply, it was expected that the disturbance in terms of pollution and extravagance would be none. And, further the yarsa of the east is not as valuable and as widespread as in werst, and thus ecological disturbance were limited.
However, this was not the complete story. We , thorough interviews and field works, documented illegal hunting of wild animals and birds. Having spent another three days in Asamasa, we climbed back down to Yangle. Our trip was almost to an end, and our next team in Everrest was waiting for us to join. However, we were not sure if we could make it. Monsoon season had started , and clouds were unpredictable. We packed up everything morning and waited for heli to arrive. After waiting from 8 to 11 in the after noon, the helicopter finally arrived and started another journey to the base of top of the world!!
After completing the trip, I feel greatly indebted towards Alton Byers and Elizabeth Byers- for helping with all my queries, making me observant and curious, for all the first time experiences that I had and for being wonderful mentors during and after the trip. For making me the part of this trip- my sincere gratitude is extended to Mr. Dhanajay Regmi and the team of Himalyan Research Expeditions: which aims to train and provide experience to Nepali students to work in the high altitude. What HRE is doing to making research in high altitude such an ease is something out of the bucket. Cheers!!