Day 5: Nunthala to Paiya
Pikey Peak, Nepal
Ascent: 1578 m
descent: 1068 m
Distance: 20.2 km
Elevation at Destination: 2730 m
It was a pleasant surprise not to be freezing cold when we hopped out of bed. This was the lowest altitude we would be staying at, and we appreciated the brief respite from the sub-zero temps.
True to form we commenced on a sharp hill, this one heading down. The terrain was mostly loose, gravely rocks, but the rivulets of water running down the middle of the path created muddy patches that tested my balance repeatedly. At the bottom, we crossed an extra long suspension bridge over a milky blue river before beginning the ascent up the other side.
I would love to say we didn't go off course today, but I can't. One extra kilometre added.
While climbing the hill, a couple of dozen trail runners, wearing official race bibs, passed us going in the opposite direction. A Nepali man and woman were well ahead of the pack; every other runner behind them was a foreigner. I stopped to chat to a runner while he was taking a break at an aid station. He told me the event was a 300 km stage race over two weeks (Danny heard slightly different figures from another athlete), and they were on their second last leg. Clearly the scenery would be incredible for a trail race, but there is no way I could handle the unstable terrain or the sharp rocks that shredded my feet each day.
Clouds appeared by mid-morning, obstructing any views that hid behind them. Who knows what beautiful scenery we missed on the way. We saw monasteries, rice terraces, fruit and vegetable crops and sprawling villages, but none of them were noteworthy. The hills continued, and I just gazed at my feet most of the time.
Lunch, the world's largest fried rice, powered us up for the rest of the trek. Uphill we went, some on easy roads, some on arduous stairs, the rest on a trail that meandered in and out of wet and dry forests. Through here we traversed over several landslide areas, having to clamber over gigantic jumbles of rocks that had tumbled down the mountain. On one of these jumbles, I tried to follow a Nepali woman carrying a small child on her back as she zigzagged her way up to the path on the other side. Of course she was much faster than I was and I soon lost her. Not being able to see the route she took, I ended up climbing straight up the boulders using my hands and knees, which wasn’t easy with the large pack on my back. I hoped no one was watching because I probably looked ridiculous. Danny, a few minutes behind, later told me the path up the rocks was obvious.
Another landslide area further on proved the most difficult of the day, but not physically. The trail was made of loose, sandy soil, was maybe 30 cm across at its widest point and dropped away almost vertically on one side. Our hearts were pounding, knowing we could easily slip to our deaths at any moment. Thankfully it was only a short section, and if you didn’t stop to think about it you could make it across without chickening out. (Even though it was terrifying, for me it didn't compare to the landslide areas of Tilicho Lake in the Annapurna region. Danny was traumatised by today’s experience for weeks.)
Escaping the obstacle course we hit a muddy section, where the slick rocks were made especially slippery by the addition of animal poop. It was a sign of things to come, as not long later the mule and yak trains began. On each occasion we pulled over to the side to let them pass, sometimes for up to five minutes as several dozen animals slowly ambled by. It didn't take long for our bodies to cool down while we waited, and we silently urged them on so we could warm up again.
Just before sunset we arrived in Paiya, exhausted. We stopped at the first decent guesthouse we came across, threw off the packs and didn't move for a while. Our legs immediately seized up, still feeling the effects of the descent off Pikey Peak two days ago. Happily, the heater was already on in the dining room by the time we entered, and we spent the night exchanging stories with two other couples who were clearly fitter and faster than us. It ended up being a relatively late night for us (9 p.m.) but we both slept very well.