Day 19: Chhomrong - High Camp
Total distance: 426.59km
Total Ascent: 22988m
Total Descent: 20424m
Today was definitely not an easy day.
As I had been trekking faster than expected, I had a few days spare. Rather than kick back and relax, I decided to add on an extra trek at the last minute. The Mardi Himal trek is fairly new (it's not even in Lonely Planet yet) but I had heard a couple of people talking about it. A quick Google search convinced me that it would be worth the extra effort. The simple out and back route was on my map and easy to get to from Annapurna Sanctuary. The two treks followed a similar course, but the Mardi Himal was set high up in the mountains, compared to the valley of the Sanctuary.
There were several routes leading out of Chhomrong, which was great as the paths were much less crowded. On the downside I took the wrong path. A little 500m detour put me back on track again.
From Chhomrong I headed down to Landruk. When I say down, I really mean down. I spent one hour and forty minutes descending, the majority of the time on those giant stone steps I'm not a fan of. I couldn't believe how many there were. I was extremely glad I wasn't going the other way.
Landruk kept up the theme, but changed direction - the steps went up. The entire town was split over dozens of levels, connected by hundreds (if not thousands) of steps. The people in that town must have had leg muscles of steel. The steep ascent set the tone for the rest of the day.
Landruk was the crossover point from Annapurna Sanctuary to Mardi Himal, and I didn't fully commit to the latter until I reached this town. As soon as I left Landruk I questioned my decision. The route from Landruk to the first village, Forest Camp, was less than 4km long, yet it gained almost 1000m in elevation. Basically it meant the track was vertical. It was easily the steepest hike I had undertaken so far, and there wasn't a step in sight. I was at a low altitude but I was puffing and sweating more than when I crossed the pass. Every few steps I needed another break to lessen the burning in my legs. More times than I could count I needed to use my hands to pull me up. Not surprisingly, I only saw two other trekkers on this section - no one else was stupid enough to enter Mardi Himal via Landruk. It was not my favourite part of the trip.
Just to add to the fun, here is where I saw my first snake. Thankfully he was more scared of me than I was of him, and he slithered off down the mountain.
The entire way up I swore I would stop at Forest Camp for the night and continue the rest of the way tomorrow, as any sensible person would do. My legs were in agony, and I knew the hills would continue after Forest Camp. I didn't stop. I gave my muscles a break, ate lunch then pushed on through to Low Camp followed by High Camp. While it definitely wasn't as steep it was still entirely uphill. My legs had never been so tired, forcing me to constantly stop so the pain would dissipate. I really wondered whether I would be able to move tomorrow.
On a positive note almost the entire way was through a beautiful forest, more green, wet and mossy than the forests of the previous treks. Most of the time I was walking through thick fog, preventing me from seeing much except the trees directly in front of me. Near the top the forest gave way to an open ridge line, where all I could see were clouds. Suddenly I looked up and a huge white peak appeared in front of me, the clouds parting just enough for me to glimpse what lay beyond them. My view was then obscured by a small hill, and by the time I had walked around the other side the mountain had been swallowed up by the clouds again. Why do the clouds have to ruin everything?
At one point I passed a woman who said, "Keep going, only 30 minutes to the top". Thirty minutes sounded like forever, but I knew I could hold on for that long. Five minutes later I passed another woman, who told me, "You're almost there, only 40 minutes to go". I didn't want anyone else to come walking down the track.
By the time I reached High Camp I was ready to collapse. I had climbed over 2000m in only 12km and I was completely drained. The only room available was a four bed dorm, all beds lined up next to each other wall to wall. I didn't care, I just wanted to stop. In the end I was the only person in the room. Being a new and fairly unknown trek, finding a bed isn't usually a problem anywhere on the route, even though there are only two lodges at High Camp. I hardly passed any other trekkers the entire day, which was much nicer than the crowded Sanctuary trek.
The lodge manager asked where I had come from this morning. I told him Chhomrong. "Chhomrong? Today? In one day? No porter? No guide? Up the hill from Landruk? By yourself? Chhomrong?" He almost didn't believe me. For the rest of the day I had every local porter and guide come up to me and ask if I was the person who had hiked from Chhomrong in one day. I guess my insane hiking turned me into a local celebrity.
The views from High Camp were incredible. The clouds were constantly shifting, periodically exposing parts of the surrounding mountains. Three peaks glared over us, so close I felt that I could walk over to them in no time. I was amazed that it wasn't cold, allowing everyone to sit outside in the sun and gaze at the landscape. Other than moving inside the dining hall for dinner, I basically didn't/couldn't move for the entire night.