Day 5: Bragha - Manang
Side Trips: Ice Lake & Chongkor Viewpoint
Total distance: 123.74km
Total Ascent: 6181m
Total Descent: 3629m
- Total time carrying my backpack: 30 minutes.
- I got lost. Twice.
- I slid halfway down a mountain.
- I fell over. In the mud. In front of people.
Today was not the best day.
The acclimatisation process has started. On the agenda this morning was a half day hike up to the Ice Lake, one of the side trips off the main circuit. Bragha is situated at 3400m above sea level. Ice Lake is at 4600m. Very grateful I could leave my backpack at the hotel.
I was directed to the trail in town and told to follow the signs all the way up. No problem. Except that there was a problem. I started out following the signs up a steep hill, but suddenly the symbol changed and the gradient smoothed out. I thought it was fine, there's nothing else out this way so they must be going to the lake. About an hour into the hike I was worried that I had been walking on flat land for far too long, with no indication that it would start to head uphill. I pulled out my phone to see where I was on the map and sure enough, I was nowhere near where I was supposed to be. I half ran back the way I had come, looking out for the markers I should have been following. At a trail junction I saw another trekker heading directly up the hill, but I still couldn't find a route marker to say that this was the right way. My phone map said turn here, so I turned and continued my ascent. All up, the time spent on the wrong trail was an hour.
I decided to test out the hiking poles, not having felt the need for them so far. I felt ridiculous using them, but as I see them in the hands of at least 90% of the trekkers I pass in the Annapurna region, I fitted right in. It took a while to get into a rhythm but once I got going I started to forget they were there. I have no idea if they helped or not, but at least they gave me a bit of an upper body workout. Plus later on, I'm pretty sure they saved my life, so I'm giving them the big thumbs up.
With such a large elevation gain you know it's going to be a tough slog, but you can't fully comprehend the enormity of the task until you undertake it. I've never walked so slowly in my life. I reached a new high for the longest kilometre: 34 minutes. And that's without my backpack. The air was so thin that I was reduced to walking (if you could call it that - maybe a slow shuffle is better) for about 20 seconds and resting for five. Repeat times infinity. Towards the top snow covered the path, and where it had melted it left a muddy trail, adding to the difficulty. For a while I was certain I wasn't going to reach the top. But I did, in two and a half hours (not including my little detour), which turned out to be a fairly fast time.
The views of the surrounding mountains on the way up were stunning. The lake at the top was not. It was mostly frozen (hence the name), with the edges beginning to melt, but what was most underwhelming was the size. It was tiny, maybe a couple of hundred metres across. I was expecting a grand, gigantic pool of water with a perfect mountain backdrop. Not even close. I wasn't sure why this was such a highlight of the area.
To make matters worse, this was where I fell over. I was trying to stand on the loose rocks around the edge of the lake rather than step in the sinking mud, but I wasn't concentrating (or using my poles) and slipped straight down. My entire left side was covered with thick mud. Straight away an American couple asked if I was okay, and made some comments to make me feel better, but I just wanted to run away as quickly as possible. If course this wasn't possible, but I did my best impersonation of moving hurriedly.
So going up to the lake didn't go to plan, and the top was disappointing, yet my day continued to get worse. I followed the route I came in on, down the steep, winding path, past the snow and mud and onto the dry soil. I made the halfway point without a problem and continued on, eager to get back to the guesthouse as quickly as possible. I passed a couple of other hikers making their way up so I knew I was going the right way, but suddenly the course became flat briefly. At this point there seemed to be half a dozen paths going off in every direction. I could see the town below me so I headed in the direction I thought would take me there. After a while the path became narrower and narrower, more overgrown and leading me in the wrong direction. Suddenly the path stopped and I was faced with loose scree and shrubbery. I had been walking downhill for quite a while, and I couldn't face climbing all the way back up again. I started chastising myself for getting lost going up and going down. My frustration levels boiled over, leading to some irrational decision making. I thought I could see the correct path well below me. What's the quickest way between two points? A straight line. With the aid of my poles, I presumed I could slowly and carefully climb down the mountain until I was back on track.
That plan lasted all of one second. One step off the flat path and I was sliding uncontrollably down the dry, pebbly surface on my back. Digging my feet in didn't work. Grabbing hold of bushes slowed me, but left me with a handful of thorns. I tried to aim for larger rocks or plants with my feet, which would bring me to a halt momentarily. Then I would have to make my next move, which saw my continuing my wild descent. The poles were my saviour. They didn't always work, sometimes just churning through the loose soil, but more than once they stopped my acceleration before it became out of control.
I did eventually find the right path, after roughly 10 minutes of action. Ten minutes may not sound like much, but when your heart is thumping with fear and you have no idea where the end is, 10 minutes is forever. I didn't have to worry about all the mud on me as now I was covered head to toe in grey dust. I also had grazes all along my left arm and leg (despite wearing pants) and my hands were cut up by the thorns. I know I like an adrenaline rush, but that's not the sort of adventure I want to go through again.
I reached the guesthouse in Bragha, tried to laugh off the bewildered looks by the manager, grabbed my backpack and made my way down the road to Manang. I dropped off my bag at the nearest hotel and hit the street, hoping something good would come of this day.
Manang was the most well-stocked village I had come across. It sold everything a hiker could ever need, although I'm sure many of the goods has been there at least a decade. Even to see a shop was a rarity. I resupplied my dwindling snack mix (mostly nuts and dried fruits) as well as sunscreen - it's amazing how quickly you can get burned this far up. The town also advertised several projector halls, all offering the same five films. It was tempting to take a day off to kick back and watch some movies.
Rather than cleaning up and relaxing after this morning's disaster, I took off on another side trek, this time up to Chongkor viewpoint. Given it was listed as only a 30 minute hike, I thought it would be a walk in the park. Nope. It went directly uphill via a series of switchbacks, which was not what my legs needed after the strenuous climb they had already completed today. On the plus side I didn't get lost, but that's mostly because I followed another guy all the way to the top. There were superb views of Gangapurna glacier and the ice blue glacial lake at the bottom. It was definitely worth the effort.
My dinner was probably the best I have eaten so far. I had my first taste of sea buckthorn juice, made from the local berry. It was fairly sweet (no doubt artificially) but I would happily go it again. I ordered two dinners - I've had to up my meal intake to four a day to match my appetite: vegetable curry (full of vegetables, for a change, and delicious) and a Tibetan dish called thukpa. Thukpa is a vegetable noodle soup that didn't taste like much but it was hot and went down a treat. It was the most amount of vegetables I had seen in a dish - it's usually all carbohydrate. I'm lucky that there are heaps of non-meat items on the menu, so my meals have been fairly varied. Unfortunately we are in yak country, so all the specials are centred around yak meat (e.g. yak burgers, yak steak, yak curry). It's sad when I pass them on my travels, knowing that they could end up on someone's dinner plate.