Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Trip Notes - Yala Peak attempt with kids... Langtang Valley, Nepal - March, 2015

This is a story of an attempt on Yala Peak in Langtang Valley, myself and my two sons gave this an effort only to be thwarted by unexpected snowfall, or should I say normal mountain weather!

The Langtang Valley suffered doubly during the earthquake of April 2015 in Nepal. The quake itself caused many buildings homes, trekking lodges, restaurants to collapse in this very popular trekking and climbing region. Langtang is a short drive from Kathmandu and in recent years its popularity has raised it up to a close third for trekking tourists behind Everest and the Annapurna regions creating prosperity but also a dependency on tourism for a previously very impoverished local population. The earthquake shook loose an enormous piece of Langtang Lirung a beautiful triangular shaped peak, visible from Kathmandu. This piece of rock and glacier fell from directly above Langtang Village with devastating consequences. 

Photo taken looking directly upwards from the former site of Langtang Village.

In March, 2015 my sons, ages 9 and 11 and I ventured to Langtang with the idea to climb Yala Peak, above and beyond Kyanjin Gompa, known as a Trekking peak for its non-technical and comparatively lower summit; at 5500m we considered it an attainable challenge. Knowing of the tragedy in the region and knowing they were struggling to recover I wanted to see for myself how things were going and in doing so support the people simply by being there, and proving that it was safe to return to Langtang and possible to trek there as many had before.

In these Trip Notes, not only our trip... but our journey is described.

Day 0 
Drive from Kathmandu to Syabru Besi... not for the faint of heart in the early stages if your driver decides to go via Kalanki and the main East/West highway (due to the insane traffic) and later as the road gets narrower and windier. Requires a competent driver, a 4X4 (especially if wet) and patience. Private car takes 4-6hrs, Bus 8hrs+

Arrival in Syabru Besi is a bit of a blessing. We spent the night here although if you are keen and arrive early enough then you can probably hit the trail right away.

Day 1 
Syabru besi to Riverside (Lama Hotel) 2480m 9hrs (upper route)

There are two routes to Riverside, the lower one is just re-opened having been rehabilitated since the earthquake. It follows the river from old Syabru Besi on the northern shore through the jungle thus is in the shade and is said to shave 3hours off the time of the upper route.

We had to use the alternate upper trail that takes you up through terraced fields, into the pine forest and over the shoulder of the mountain. It is an 800m altitude gain to reach lunch in Khangjim (2235m) and then a further 250m before you start a long contour that weaves its way precariously along the southern side of the valley until it meets the river way down past Sherapgaon at Riverside. For a first day's walk I'll coin the phrase arduously beautiful. 

It is easy to see how the region was cut off after the earthquake with the lower trail closed due to multiple landslides, the upper one must have seemed impossible. We hear that survivors were trying to find a way out of the valley and it took some weeks before the trail to Riverside was rehabilitated. It is as beautiful as it is dangerous. Brave trail crew have made a way across very dicey landslides and the trail is high and narrow with amazing exposure. In one landslide, about 40m across, a huge tree hangs along the fall-line over a huge boulder under-cut by the trail itself looms. Steps have been built at great risk to the builders to make the way passable. Another particularly bad spot is where a 4m X 1m concrete slab is connected to a huge rock by re-bar. The slab is cracked along its length and there is no hand rail bolted to the rock. Used since the earthquake by all traffic including construction material laden ponies it will not last for long. The trail is high and a great adventurous moment early in the trip.

If you are starting from Syabru Besi and taking the high trail (which is no longer necessary) it is advised to stay the night in Sherpagaon to avoid an obscenely long and difficult first day of trekking trying to make it to Riverside. On the lower trail Riverside is easily reachable on Day 1. Riverside is a welcome stop, the lodge at the top (the original Lama Hotel) has a nice warm dining room and a really good hot shower. This was the last place we had the chance to eat chicken. The rest of the trip was vegetarian.

Day 2
Lama hotel to Thyangsyap 3200m 5hrs

The traditional walk from Lama Hotel calls for a stop in Langtang Village which is no longer possible. Eventually a lodge will be rebuilt above the village site but for now the choice is to stop in Thangsyap or continue to Mundu which is a full 1100m higher and beyond the recommended single-day altitude gain.

This is a lovely walk meandering up the left bank of the river. Huge primeval forest moss covered boulders and rhododendron ready to blossom. Many landslide crossings, some quite rough, and then again forest at times steeply upward always following the tumbling river on your right hand side. We had several sightings of equally curious langur monkey.

Ghoratabela 3030m is a traditional stopping place for lunch but has been totally destroyed by the earthquake and then the earthquake triggered rockfall. It is hard to see how anyone here survived and clearly it must have been a terrifying few minutes as the earth shook and then rocks and boulders rained down from a broken piece of the ridge visible high above, destroying everything.

We walked on to a small rebuilt hut near the abandoned National Park Check-post where a young woman was making lunch for passers-by. The tin roof of the hut needed securing and with strong wind gusts it banged up and down making everyone jump as they imagined what that fateful day must have been like with rocks raining down.

Up away from the river we came to Thyangsyap. It is a small comfortable location and three lodges are being rebuilt. After a 700m altitude gain we decided this would be our stopping place. To continue would be to gain more altitude and while most people continued to Mundu well beyond the Langtang landslide we decided to stay.

This little place was also destroyed not by rockfall but by first the earthquake and then the devastating wind blast from the Langtang slide. The force of this blast flattened huge trees and blasted others with black dust on the forested other side of the valley for 2km down stream and scattered debris (and body parts) 100's of metres up the valley side. Remember the photo below is from 1 year later.

In the absence of enough rooms we spent the night in the tent, comfortable cosy and warm, the boys first night in the mountains in a tent and highest so far at 3100m. 

Day 3
Thyangsyap to Kyanjin 3830m 6 hrs

The trail continues up the left side of the river the forest giving way to scrub and mounds of mossy peat on the benchlands high above the river itself. I am approaching the site of Langtang village with trepidation, already the reality of the enormity of the tragedy is apparent but now the non physical sense of it is coming. The physical is visible in the scar rising up the south face of Langtang Lirung scarred last April 25th by 1000's of tonnes of rock and ice as it fell from 3000m above. The earthquake shook hard and a huge piece of the mountain and glacier broke off directly above Langtang village. It strikes me that in English we don't have a word to describe an event of this size, it is indescribable... avalanche, rock fall, landslide..all totally inadequate describers...

The debris of homes and tea  houses destroyed or damaged on the western edge of the falling mountain starts an hour before the village area. People have salvaged valuable wood from family homes and you pass neatly piled timbers to one day be used for rebuilding. Everyone you meet on the trail talks about that day, about the family members they lost or their own near miss. There was a funeral that day in Langtang Village and people from up and down the valley had come to pay their last respects. Tourists excepted, people are engaged in restarting businesses or rebuilding. A few erstwhile foreigners are working on projects, a school (for what children?), homes (for which people), today building materials for 116 homes are to begin arriving by helicopter at enormous expense but there is no development plan and no people to rebuild, they are asking for more money to hire laborers. It appears they are mostly putting the cart before the horse which is the  beginning of a long discussion.

The majority of the village is completely buried in a white yellow rubble composed of rock and ice. It appears to be a huge terminal moraine with wood beams, broken concrete pillars, rebar and all sorts of debris sticking out in places. We tied Tibetan prayer flags between two rocks and the boys built some balancing rock towers, moments to reflect and remember the 260+ who perished... many of whom remain unfound. The village site is essentially a graveyard and all who pass through, at least the several trekkers and the locals I spoke with, sense the disturbing disquiet of wandering souls yet to find their final peace.

Except for our building of memorials we passed through in silent respect, Zaki and I chanting the mantra Aum Mani Padme hum, Nima our Sherpa guide singing a Buddhist prayer for the Dead. It is a very moving experience and one, by their questions later in the day, the boys  were processing in a positive way.

The upper part of the village is damaged badly but not buried and it is here where there are some efforts at rebuilding underway. Last week, as if some unseen force is objecting to these efforts happening at this time, a helicopter delivering construction material crashed on take off, tipping over mysteriously. The pilot pulled out and no fatalities but the hull remains as a reminder.

Leaving the village site to the west the climb continues now affording glimpses of dorje lapka rising at the eastern end of the valley. The boys were keen to meet up with their school friends who were a day ahead of us and so we had a quick lunch in Mundu and continued.

The northern side of the valley is bench land and perfect for grazing yaks and dzos and highland ponies. Now at over 3500m Kasem strode off ahead on the clear trail and didn't stop for one and a half hours expecting Kyanjin gompa to appear over the next rise. When it didn't appear after two or three 'next rises' he collapsed in tears, quite spent. Finally, passing through boulder fields and over a new unscarred suspension bridge, the next rise revealed Kyanjin gompa!

Or next task to find where our friends were staying was achieved quickly and after an agonizing two hours they were reunited.

Day 4
Kyanjin gompa

Spent the day taking it easy. The boys played for hours in the tent or bounding around the boulders below the village with Alex and Nick, friends from Patan. I did all the laundry in freezing cold water. In the mid morning sun we all 3 had a wash in a single bucket of stove top warmed water. I read, wrote notes and passed the morning despite Marvyn's chomping at the bit to do something.

Great to sit in the high altitude Himalayan sunshine and back in its warmth. Kyanjin is rebuilding, lodges bring re-roofed and a sense of normality returning... except there are few tourists. In recent years Langtang had become a hugely popular trekking region and Kyanjin the jewel. Easy to access from Kathmandu and within 2 days waking you are in stunning mountain grandeur, 2 more days and will have climbed to 4500m had some glorious views and 3 days after that you'll be back in Kathmandu.

In a few weeks it will have been a year since the earthquake and while Kyanjin may recover, Langtang village  will take longer and the fear remains of more trouble to come. What hasn't helped at all has been the lethargy in Kathmandu and the preposterous time the government has taken to move through the reconstruction bill.

Day 5
Rest Day - Kyanjin

A day off, our friends left with a clatter at 7am. We headed up the mountain behind the village to acclimatise. Wasn't quite the day I had planned, to get us up high and stay out for a while.  We headed up towards the summit visible from the town and it did become steep as we zig zagged up hummocks of grazed grassland. The steepness started to freak out first Zaki and then Kasem as they realised one slip and it was quite a tumble, quite exposed but we were going uphill and it wasn't particularly tricky. Anyway we stopped short of the Summit and decided to head down ending up back in town only 2 hours since we left. To debrief we all wrote a paragraph each on our feelings before during and after the walk and then read them outloud and discussed a bit. Below is what i wrote. The rest of the day we did nothing. Later though we started the arrangements to help in a memorial marble slab prepared for placing in Langtang somewhere. So the day ended on a high note.

At the beginning I felt strong and ready for a good climb. For the first time my legs felt strong and it felt like I was adjusting nicely.

When Zaki started to complain my displeasure at what he was doing turned to anger as I looked at his face and his attitude which was all wrong. He was defiant and unpleasant seeming to have completely forgotten where he was and why he was here. I felt worried too that he would resent being 'made to come' and that he might not like me even though my intentions are to give him a great adventure.

As we climbed higher and it got steeper we could see the top not very far away and the boys started worrying about coming down and how 'one little slip' would be a bad fall. Again I felt worried that they would feel pushed into something they didn't want to do. Perhaps I am second guessing myself.

We came down having 'nearly made it' and if course the descent wasn't as bad as they thought it would be... and it was very fast.

As we turned for home I again was unhappy because it was still early, we hadn't gone very high, and I just didn't feel any sense of what adventure means coming. I don't think the boys have any idea how fortunate they are not to be in the sick pollution of Kathmandu with every day of the holiday the same, playing mindlessly on screens and writing about which friend they can play with. Instead their father has taken then on a great trip into the Himalaya to listen to nature reveal who the really are.

Kasem had knee cramps in the night but we all ended up with a pretty good rest before our trek to base camp tomorrow.

Day 6
Kyanjin to Yala Peak base camp 5hrs

Great walk, no complaints as the trail heads West up the valley and trends upwards only occasionally with steep switchbacks. Contouring along grazed hillsides the clear altitude gain is most noticeable on the snowy forested north side of the valley as we pass above the snowline but on the sunny south side there is no snow at all.

We stopped sheltering under some rocks for our first packed lunch and soon the trail turns North up a steep gulley opening up into rocky moraine. We all failed in fact to read a telling sign portending of what was to come; a massive herd of Himalayan Blue sheep were descending the hillside that mid-afternoon. Had we stopped to think why... we would have guessed at what awaited us. A last push up a ridge to find base camp unusually located on the ridge rather than in a more sheltered location. To the east rises Tsergo Ri and to the west the unclimbed Kansas Ri massif, to the north our objective Yala Peak!

The weather has been unsettled all day, high cloud which could bring snow would scuttle our aspirations. Otherwise the plan is to bed early then up in the wee hours to try and knock it off and be back in camp by 1pm so we can have dinner in Kyanjin. Let's see what comes.

Day 7
Snowed in, descent to Kyanjin

Today started at bedtime the night before... when it started snowing around 7pm. Us boys were snug in our sleeping bags in my faithful MEC tent, the last gift my mother bought me 16 years ago. Pellets of snow pelted the tent with varying frequency accumulating rapidly. And then a flash of light followed by a peal of thunder that geeky like it was directly above our heads and we knew we were in for a storm. We were not to be disappointed as the thunder and lightening continued abating and returning, the calms between storms gave opportunity to knock the tent free of snow.

Kasem slept almost immediately, Zaki after an hour or so. I slept fitfully worrying about a lightning strike, already our Summit bid abandoned with thoughts turning now to the descent. Concerns ranged from route finding amidst the blowing and drifting snow to avalanche hazard on the steep traverses.

Sleep came hourly and morning too quickly, the zip had also broken on my my sleeping bag so was hard to tell what woke me, the lightening, the snow on the tent or the cold seam along my back and legs.

Nima our guide passed by at 5:30 to knock snow off the tent to wake us and we conferenced briefly. Given the continued snowfall and accumulation which could only have been greater higher up, poor visibility and the biting cold we decided the best course of action was to descend.... fast, before the was more accumulation.

The lads brought us tea in bed and then began the necessarily meticulous dressing process so that the boys were dressed for the weather and all possibilities; double socks with plastic bag foot liners, double trousers wind proof, heat tech under shirt, turtle neck, fleece, down vest, wind breaker, neck warmer, toque and gloves, sunglasses.... and boots. Backpacks only contained water and fibre fill jacket, spare gloves and dry socks.

I had to stuff the sleeping bags and get the hardware (crampons, harness, carabineers) separated in case of need. And dress myself. Finally we were done, the lads brought us noodle soup in the middle of it all and they packed up the rest of the gear. It took an hour and we were ready to go.

Just before leaving I spotted some figures about 300m on the trail below and both Nima and I saw them moving. Perhaps a group coming up or rescuers? Hard to know but we know we saw them at that time.. But then we never saw them again leading us to speculate perhaps it had been a family of yetis! What else?

Our two porters were laden, one with a dokho (basket) seemingly precariously top heavy, both loads at least 25kg. They had good runners on but any footwear would quickly become snow bound. It was going to be a slow careful descent. Nima positioned himself between the porters leading the way, close enough to grab the dhoko of one if he fell and  shepherding Zaki. Kasem was ahead of me following close enough to grab his back-pack strap should he stumble. 

In good weather the time to descend 500m should take 2.5 hours. We left at 8am with strong winds, blowing snow and visibility at about 30m. Despite the concerns mentioned I wasn't worried, Nima inspired confidence and I was no stranger to back country predicaments...the main difference was instead of having clients to care for I had my two brave young sons in my care. The boys were in good form, a bit scared in a sort of healthy way, I mean the plans had changed rapidly with the weather and we were in a 'bit of a spot' so to not have been scared would have been unnatural. Had we thought about those sheep the day before, heading down to safety... we might not have gone up in the first place!

We began the descent, steeply down from base camp, picking out the path first through invisible switchbacks covered in snow and then a jumbled boulder field. The wind at first was coming down the mountain slopes, blowing snow on top of us, this shifted as we got lower so that it was coming out of the west and so every time we rounded a corner of the east sloping side of a hill we would be blasted by snow. On one of these, where the wind had built up the snow into a 1m snow drift, Kasem said ‘Daddy this is getting pretty extreme!’.

We stopped after an hour and a half at the lunch rocks which were our target and we almost missed them in the driving snow, at one point not sure whether to take the higher route or the lower. But our porter Sonam got it right, he was in the lead most of the time and like a yak seemed to be able to smell the trail. Fortunately the lads had been up to Base Camp the day before to pre-position supplies so this trip back was their 4th time on the same trail in 36hrs. We had a short break now relieved with the knowledge that we were nearly 1/2 way back although with some of the trickier terrain still ahead it was getting warmer and the wind was less threatening. With two lightweight little boys along… it was a bit of a question at times whether they would stay on the hillside!

Down, down, down… we crossed a section with flowing water that was already melting, we had expected it to be glassy with ice so that was a relief, and then lower still, now out of the clouds and snow we were able to cross two small rivers without incident, also a relief since they could have been swollen with melt-water…. The sun came out for the last 40mins of the walk into Kyanjin and with the snow cover the temperature soared as we peeled off the layers. It was very nice to arrive back in Kyanjin, we had only left 28hrs before and it looked completely different covered in a white blanket of snow.

Grateful for our uneventful return, hot chocolate at the Dorje Bakery and a hot rum toddy for Daddyoh were highly called for… and a snowball fight and snow man building competition in the afternoon rounded off the day! 

Therein ends the tale. We were very lucky to be able to heli out of Kyanjin, the boy's mother had chartered a chopper also to support the transport of a memorial stone which is now installed in the Valley. Helicoptering out of a Himalayan valley is a short and very sweet way to exit (especially to avoid hammering the knees!) with amazing views and to gain a serious realization of where you have been and what you have done but also of how amazing it is that people live where they do.

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