Nepal, Day 17:
Chhomrong - Machhapuchhare Base Camp
Total distance: 380.22km
Total Ascent: 19656m
Total Descent: 16890m
Blue skies! Snowy peaks! The Himalayas were back in full force and looked just as incredible as ever.
I set off at 7am for a long day. I broke a few records: largest altitude gain (2020m); combining three Lonely Planet days into one; and feeling the most exhausted I've felt so far. I really wondered if I would make it up the last hill.
Guess what the day started with? Stairs. Twenty minutes down, followed by over an hour up. My mind automatically counts the steps now as soon as I start the ascent. After the never-ending stairs did finally end, the trail flattened out slightly to gentle undulations, which still involved steps but at least it allowed me to see some semblance of flat ground.
What surprised me was how busy the trail was. I didn't go five minutes without passing another group, which sort of ruined the serenity of the trek. It was also frustrating trying to pass so many people on the narrow track or getting stuck behind large groups. As well as tourists and their porters there were also local men carrying supplies up to villages in large wicker baskets on their backs. I can't imagine doing that for a living.
At one point a woman had stopped on the side of the trail and was staring intently into the forest. I asked her what she could see. She pulled me over to where she was and pointed through the dense trees. A monkey, with a black face framed in white, was sitting calmly on a branch. I wasn't even on the lookout for monkeys but apparently they are popular here.
At a fork in the path I decided to take the more main looking trail straight ahead of me rather than the thin, barely existent path leading directly up the hill. A few seconds later I heard a whistle above me. Looking up I see a boy, maybe 10 years old, pointing back the way I came. "This is the path," he said, directing his hand along the track he was on. "Won't this one go around and meet up?" I asked. "I don't know where that one goes. Only this one." I decided to trust him. A few seconds later I saw two porters coming down this correct path, confirming the boy's statement. Who knows where I'd be without that kid.
The boy ended up walking with me for a while. He had his own load in a basket, attached to his back by a strap over the forehead as is typical of all porters. He stayed with me for about 15 minutes, asking me all sorts of questions. It was nice to have the company for a while. That was until he pulled out his slingshot and started slinging rocks towards birds in the trees. I told him off as politely as I could, but I don't think he cared what I thought.
Right before my lunch break there was a water crossing over a fast flowing river, with only a few rocks to stand. I watched others doing it with no problems so I wasn't worried. As I stepped onto the first rock I looked down to see both my feet submerged in the icy water. The rocks weren't as high as I thought, apparently. I crossed safely but my socks and shoes were soaked for the rest of the day.
After lunch I only had one more steep section to climb to reach my destination (after climbing tons of steep sections today already). That's when the snow-walking started. Large patches of snow, starting from the long waterfalls that dropped down the sides of the cliffs, crossed my path numerous times. The snow had mixed with mud to turn it a brown-grey colour, so I didn't even recognize that it was snow until I stepped on it. By this stage my legs were screaming at me to stop, and having to navigate the slushy, muddy snow didn't help matters. I slowed down considerably, trying not to get my feet any wetter while also trying not to fall over. I was successful on both counts, but my muscles were paying for it.
Most of the day's hike was through forest, barely giving me any opportunity to witness the visible peaks I had missed for the last few days. By the time I had emerged from forest and was walking up through the open valley the clouds had come over. The higher I ascended, the more clouds there were. For the last half hour I was walking through thick fog, my visibility reduced to a point where I couldn't see more than 20m in front of me. I'm praying that the views are clearer on the way down.
Machhapuchhare Base Camp is a collection of five lodges and that's it. Actually all the villages I passed through today only consisted of a handful of lodges. The first guesthouse I tried said they had no rooms but I was able to sleep in the dining room if needed (porters and guides generally sleep in the dining room, on benches lined with thin foam cushions). The next guesthouse said they were completely booked. The third said there was only a shared room available. I accepted. In my room were a British woman and a Filipino woman, also both solo hikers in their 20s. The Filipino was heading down tomorrow but the Brit and I planned to head up to Annapurna Base Camp for sunrise together in the morning.
Other than my roommates and I, all the other guests (about 15 of them) were Russian. Several of them could play guitar, and there happened to be a guitar at the guesthouse (I have no idea who it belonged to). For half the night there was a huge Russian singalong, playing what appeared to be Russian ballads that both young and old were joining in on. It was great to hear music again but I wished they had been more familiar tunes.