Dramatic icy glacial peaks merge into steep rocky slabs straight into the Seti river thousands of feet below. The terrain in Western Nepal’s Bahjang district is some of the most rugged terrain I have ever seen. When Jamie Laidlaw and Kris Erickson began researching remote ranges in the Himalaya, the Saipal Himal fit all their requirements: No Liaison officer is needed because there are plenty of peaks that are under 6,500 meters, not many westerners have every been there and it looked like there should be lots of good skiing, perfect!
Kris, Jamie, Devon O’neil and myself all met in the San Francisco airport where we would spend the next 62 hours headed to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. Over the years I have seen the Himalaya in the north of Nepal so flying in and getting to see the Nepal Himalaya and all the 8,000 meters peaks was amazing, something I have wanted to see for a long time. We arrived two ski bags short in Kathmandu which was OK for now because it was Dashain, the largest festival holiday in Nepal, and no buses or porters would be moving for a few days. This allowed time to wander around and observe some culture. Part of whats makes trips to regions like this so special is the interaction with the local people. We also needed time in Kathmandu to get some more supplies and our permits.
Walking around the area of Kathmandu called Thamel was hectic. Motorcycles whizzing by honking horns, tight streets packed with shops and locals walking around trying to sell you everything from knives to trekking trips, full contact. Loose focus and you will get hit by a motorcycle, I love it! In Durbar square we witnessed goats and buffalo being sacrificed for the holiday and lines everywhere of people wanting to get in to certain areas to prey and offer up goods for the gods.
One memorable day we took a taxi to the Boudha Stoupa, a place where Buddhist worship, friend Pema Sherpa met us and brought us to his house to bless us for our trip. Nepal is a very religious country and there are blessings for almost everything. At Pema’s house where his parents and entire family live we learned that we were actually invited to bless Pema’s new house. Inside there were monks chanting, outside butter candles lit the deck and we were fed local food and offered drinks for hours.
Finally we got our remaining bags and packed up. From Kathmandu we would fly to Dhangadhi, a town in Western Nepal on the boarder of India and then drive to Chainpur. In Dhangadhi we rented a four wheel drive pick up and a TaTa Lorry, a 9 and a half ton truck/tractor. Our plan was to ride in the four wheel drive truck and pack all our gear in the Lorry. This worked while the truck could manage the roads, but after about 10 hours the roads became to gnarly for the truck and the driver refused to go further, OK then! We hopped into the Lorry and plowed through on the most wild road I have ever seen. After doing some research I learned that the World Bank payed for the construction of the road to Chainpur, the Capital of the Bajhang district, to help send supplies there since they felt it was one of the most remote poorest regions in Asia. Driving deeper into the mountains the terrain got steeper and rougher, it was good the truck aborted us when it did, it would not have made it!
Our first night on the road we stayed in a small town where a local man let us stay in his kids room and use his house to cook in. Sounded great until Jamie woke up in the middle of the night complaining of bed bugs. When I shined my headlamp on Jamie’s bed I felt sick as thousands of termite/tic looking bugs crawled around. Jamie’s legs looked like he had a rash, enough said, it was gnarly and I went outside to sleep.
The final drive to Chainpur was stunning, lots of terracing, forests, rivers and steep hills. In the distant we could make out snowy peaks and began to get really excited to start hiking. Our contact in Kathmandu plays tennis with a guy who delivers cigarettes to Chainpur, this contact was to organize some porters for us before we arrived in Chainpur. When we arrived it seemed there was some miscommunication and no porters were there. Festivals are big in Nepal and Chainpur was hosting a festival for two days so no porters wanted to work. This left us in Chainpur with some time to hire mules and finds some help. Luckily the local kids found us entertaining and spent lots of time around our camp. They were very interested in us, the kids had probably never seen white people, and made our time there enjoyable. The cultural component to this trip was amazing. The kids here were beautiful and fun, lots of smiles.
In most regions of the Himalaya where people climb or trek being a porter is a career job, porters have good shoes, blankets and everything they need to head in to the mountains. In Chainpur, not so much. For our hike in we were able to find a group of semi-willing people to help out, people who had never really hauled loads before. So just when we felt good about our situation and started hiking with 18 porters and some mules the clouds unleash a rainstorm that wouldn’t stop for five days, YA! A real trial in patience, but we were moving.
Two days into the hike we really began to understand how remote and deep we were. The maps we had didn’t line up with the smaller villages in the area, bridges were not where we thought and we began to realize that none of the porters had ever been where we were headed. When we had showed porters where we wanted to go on the map in Chainpur we understood that it might take three or four days to base camp, not quite!
We trekked on in the pouring rain, not worrying about staying dry because everything was wet. Typically we would charge ahead to find a place where we could get food for the porters. Finally in the village Dhoulan we decide to take a rest day to dry out and try to energize our frustrated porters. It became clear now that the porters would only go as far as Dhuli, two days short and a few thousand feet lower than our proposed base camp. Oh well! We wanted remote and hard to get to, we now realized we were getting it. Finally after six days of trekking our porters said goodbye and left us with all are gear and food. We found a great meadow on the Seti river below the village and set up camp, enjoyed the sunshine that finally made an appearance and started to formulate a plan.
Instead of having two weeks at a snowy base camp where we planned on skiing and climbing every day we were realizing that we might only get a few days on snow.We loaded our packs up with everything we needed for seven days and walked out of camp hoping for the best.
Two days later we were in the alpine and excited at the possibility that we might get to climb and ski, yea-haw! Tired but excited. An early start found us hiking up a ridge line that allowed for amazing views of some good skiing and a glimpse at a peak we had originally wanted to ski. It was decided then that we would cross the river and go for this peak that was about 5,000 meters high and had a couloir splitting it up the middle. Of course there was no bridge, so we took our pants off and waded through the glacial water, brrr!
Our camp for the night was at the bottom of the peak we planned on skiing. We were up way before the sun and we couldn’t believe we were actually going to climb and ski something on this trip.Hours of skinning and boot packing found us to the top of the couloir. Conditions were firm, good for climbing, and the views were awesome. We could see a few seven thousand meter peaks and look into Tibet, pretty wild. The peaks around us looked amazing and we all agreed that we wished we would have had more time to climb some bigger objectives.
Clicking in felt great as we stared thousands of feet down toward our camp. Crunchy firm conditions forced us to make precise turns down the shot. Not the best snow but the run provided us everything we needed to feel we had succeeded on this challenging trip. The excitement of skiing back into camp lasted only a short while, we knew with our tight schedule we would have to pack up and continue moving back to Dhuli.
On our trek in we had become close with a certain porter, Karim, who agreed to go back to his village and bring family back to help haul all our gear out. With a short window left to get out and back to Kathmandu in time for our flights we left our advanced camp at the base of the couloir we had just skied hoping that Karim, our porter friend, had been able to round up porters to help us. Arriving back to camp in Dhuli two days later there was no sign of porters and we began to wonder, what would we do? True to Karim’s word, a few hours later he showed up with 19 family members that evening ready to porter our gear out, he also told us that the road out closed during the rain and wouldn’t open for another 20 or 30 days, no problem he told us, we could stay with him. Of course things were not about to go smoothly but we were headed to Chainpur in the morning, we would then figure out how to get back to Kathmandu.
The hike out went quickly and was beautiful, we ended up hiking over a 13,000 ft pass and saw a tribe of Baboons, about 70 to 100 I would say, wild! Once in Chainpur it became clear that driving back to Dhangadhi wasn’t going to happen. There is a grass landing strip with one flight a week, Saturday. It was Saturday and we ran to the bombed out airport in Chainpur to see if we could fly out. Of course the flight was full, with the road closed people had been trying to leave for weeks. While there it was understood that we might be able to charter a flight though and within hours rumor that we needed a flight had reached our contact in Kathmandu and it was on. In the morning we would have a chartered flight that could carry us out, we could sell any seats we didn’t use but the whole plane was ours. A feeling of relief fell onto us and we all settled in to our last evening in Chainpur, watching the kids play cricket and talking about how different our lives are to those here in Chainpur.
Back in Kathmandu we enjoyed our final days catching up on eating and sleeping. In three days I was to be in Ushuaia headed for Antarctica, I was sad to be leaving a place that I had always wanted to travel to and excited to begin another adventure. Stay tuned for more.