Day 13: Kalopani
Side Trip: Dhaulagiri Icefall
Total distance: 285.5km
Total Ascent: 13610m
Total Descent: 11936m
Staying in the same hotel for two nights in a row means not having to pack the backpack and not having to carry the backpack. It was going to be a great day.
I left early with the plan to hike up to the Dhaulagiri Icefall. I knew the route was not going to be clear and I didn't have a detailed map. I was set for a long day, with some reports saying it could take up to 10 hours. Maybe my day wasn't going to be so great after all.
I walked back along the track to Kokhethanti, crossed the river and found the start of the path. It immediately started uphill, and that set the tone for the day. Not long later I found a small lake that wasn't frozen over, and provided crystal clear reflections of the surrounding mountains.
The first half hour or so was relatively straightforward, following the narrow path through a pine forest, looking out for the blue and white painted stripes on rocks and trees. After that, nothing was straightforward.
The markers obviously had been painted a while ago, and desperately needed to be updated. I often couldn't see them until I was standing on top of them, due to their faded colour. Several times thought I was following the correct trail, but then found several other trails that intersected, with no marker in sight. I constantly walked back and forth to see if I could the next sign down one of the paths, and in the end just take a wild guess.
I eventually made it to a clearing, about a third of the way up. I had now left the forest behind, so the trail should be easier to see. And it was, for about 30 minutes up a steep, grassy mountain, until I lost the trail again. I walked up, down, left, right - there was no marker in sight. I kept climbing straight up, sure that I would cross over the zigzagging trail at some point. I came to a point where all I could see above me was a vertical cliff face, and there was definitely no path up there. I scoured the area for about half an hour but to no avail - there were no more markers and no more path. At least there were no trees; I could see the clearing below me so I knew exactly which direction I had to head to go back down. I cut my losses and started the descent.
Ten minutes later I found the marker. I was back on track.
The path led over to another ridge, up to a small stone ruin, and from there I could see actual signposts sticking out of the ground. From one sign I could clearly see the next one, so I followed these up the mountain. At this stage I'm fairly positive there was no path, I just had to make my way up any way I could. With no loose gravel or slippery mud, getting a grip with my shoes was easy. The climb itself was a killer, but at least I knew I was going the right way.
After the signs finished there were a couple more painted markers leading me up to a mini-summit with a few huts on it. My legs were dying but I pushed myself up that last hill, and was rewarded with views directly in front of the icefall and its frozen runoff. It wasn't the most picturesque glacier going around, but I didn't care at that point - I was just happy to see it. The views opposite the glacier towards nearby mountains were some of the best I have seen, justifying the effort (barely).
I walked down the valley to the base of the icefall, where it was mostly snow. I found a couple more blue markers but then they stopped. I had a feeling the trail might have continued to a closer vantage point, but I was done looking for markers. I was at the glacier, standing on the snow, after many hours of almost vertical climbing - I wasn't going any further.
I stayed there for a while, eating lunch and enjoying the view, dreading the return trip. Finally, I forced myself to leave and hoped it wouldn't be as bad as the trek up.
As I climbed back up to the mini-summit, I encountered my first problem: I couldn't see the signposts. A quick walk around revealed the first one down one of the hills, so I headed straight for it. From there I hiked from signpost to signpost, down to the small ruin and followed the markers around to the neighbouring ridge. That's where I again lost my way, in exactly the same spot I lost it coming up. I knew vaguely which direction I had to go, so I continued on and hoped I would find the path again.
I did find it, the lost it, then found it, the lost it again. I gave up looking for paint stripes and forged my own path back down to the clearing, where a yak herder watched on. No doubt he was highly amused by my antics. I came down to the level of his herd of yaks, feasting on the grass of the hill I was descending. He told me to take a wide berth around the yaks, off the path (was I even on the path?), then I could continue on to the pine forest.
The forest was the section I was most worried about, but I only lost the trail three times. The route was clearly more visible when heading downhill, as I had a better vantage point looking down over the area and the markers were easier to spot. A couple of hours after I started I broke through the trees and ended up back on the road, glad to be back safe and sound on visible, flat terrain.
It took me over 12.5km to reach the icefall from my lodge, and only 10km to return. That difference is how long I spent looking for the correct course. I'm tempted to start up a trail-marking campaign in Nepal.