Annapurna, Tilicho

So, I just finished a couple of books:

Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions, Clinton Heylin. This is only cool if you’re into Bob and want to know how each of his albums came about (not including the most recent few albums). Condescending and insulting at times, but I found those parts amusing. It was good to read through it once, but I ordered it from Amazon now (I read a copy borrowed from my favorite Dylan-playing bartender, who makes good drinks but also plays a lot of Dylan from his iPod). It’s too many facts to absorb at once and is the kind of book you want to have around when you listen to a full album straight through, maybe dig out some of the bootleg outtakes and read the chapter about that album.

Annapurna, Maurice Herzog. From the perspective of the leader of the expedition, an account of the first summit of an 8000-meter peak, Annapurna I in Nepal. Very apparently reflective of one person’s account only, and that of the leader no less, but still thrilling.

I’m planning to read a little more about the different perspectives of the climb soon. Though the actual climb went quickly in the book, both people to summit lost fingers and toes and the rest of the party then turned back. Annapurna I has a pretty bad survival rate, according to Wikipedia, and it hasn’t been climbed all that much. In fact, the second and third successful summit attempts came 20 years after this first one.

Anyway, the part of the book that interested me more than the summit attempt was the exploration of the area betweeen Annapurna and Dhaulagiri (two 8000-meter peaks that face each other across the Kali Gandaki river gorge, the deepest in the world because of the two peaks). Their base for the exploration was the village of Tukuche, which sits along the Gandaki. The route they took up the Gandaki to Tukuche partially overlaps the Annapurna Circuit route, which our group followed, in that direction, during my one trip to Nepal in 1999. Some members of the French expedition also went as far as Muktinath to see the sacred temples there — Muktinath was the far point of our trek.

Even more interesting to me was their initial search for Annapurna (after giving up on Dhaulagiri) took them on a quest for the pass they knew as Tilicho. Earlier expeditions in the area had incorrectly sited this pass that lies to the north of Annapurna. Instead of a route through the Annapurna massif and directly at the foot of the mountain itself as noted on the existing map, the route actually lays to the north of the massif. But they eventually found it, and they went over one pass, found Tilicho Lake (their Great Ice Lake), then went over another pass and down to the villages of Khangsar and Manang on the northeastern side of the Annapurna Circuit.

This is a trip I convinced some of my fellow trekkers to attempt on a day when we were stranded in Jomsom waiting for clear weather so we could get a flight back to civilization. Obviously we weren’t going to make it all the way across the mountain range in a day (we started at around 8:00 AM and gave ourselves until 2:00 PM before turning back), but my map showed a dotted-line running east out of Jomsom to a high pass and a huge lake. We were traveling light, and our group was usually pretty quick on the trail. Disappointed to not reach Thorang La (“pass”) two days previous in the time we had allotted at Muktinath, we decided to spend our free day getting as close as possible to Mesokanto La (not as high as Thorang La but still over 5000 meters and higher than all but three peaks in the US, all of them in Alaska) and Tilicho Lake. None of us had any idea of the problems people have had finding the pass or that the lake was one of the most beautiful places in the world with snow-covered peaks towering right over it (Tilicho Peak and the Grande Barriere of the French expedition). We were just bored, and after a couple weeks carrying our full packs at 12,000 to 14,000 feet we were feeling pretty good about a day trip with light packs.

Now here’s the problem: fifty years after Herzog in Annapurna detailed just such a trip, no available map accurately describes the route. We’re indebted to Per Löwdin for putting some effort into detailing the route from east to west, and Andrées de Ruiter for finding a second western pass and giving more details including maps, but our group didn’t have access to any of those. So we wandered in the general direction of the pass. The map seemed to show the route following very closely the Longpoghyun Khola, but higher and to the north, so we started to traverse the ridge that stretches toward Jomsom from the east. Somehow we ended up off-route, surrounded by scree with no way up the ridge or forward to the east. The valley floor was wide open on both sides of the Longpoghyun, so we slid down the scree (quite fearfully, as I recall) and made our way to the bottom.

It was a wide open valley at first. Then we took the first tributary to branch off on the left, and we soon ended up bouldering our way along the side of a cliff. The trail wasn’t that way, so we headed back to the confluence and took another turn. Eventually we found a trail leading straight up the ridge between two forks of the Longpoghyun. It was on the south side of the drainage rather than the north side as the map indicated, but it was clearly a trail with switchbacks and everything. We climbed a bit and followed the trail.

We saw Kaisang from a little distance. Then we came to a sign announcing that we had come to a closed Nepali Army area. Everyone in the world seems to know about this area now, but we didn’t at the time. It was way too late in the day to go back and try to find our way to the trail on the opposite ridge. The sad thing was that we could see the contour of the trail on that ridge. We were watching it for quite a while before we got to the closed area. But it was beyond our reach at that point. The next day the weather was clear and we flew back to Pokhara early.

Someday I want to go back there. Fuck the Annapurna Circuit and Thorang La. I just want to make it to Tilicho Lake and walk among the massive mountains of the Annapurna Himal.

(Hmm…pulled out my journal entry from that day and added some facts to the above. Like seeing Kaisang… I didn’t remember that and still can’t picture it. I was pretty adamant in the journal about seeing the trail on the opposite ridge, whereas I had doubted that in initially writing this. The journal also says I got sunburned but was not disappointed at all about getting lost, because we had a good time anyway — that was before I saw pictures of Tilicho and heard of its near-mythic status as a hard-to-find destination from the western approach.

I went through my pictures again looking for any from that day — besides the one of the five of us in our underwear, which is in the Nepal gallery. I guess I had my camera with me, but didn’t take any others.)

EDIT: Actually, we had decided in Jomsom before we went to Muktinath to forget about trying to make the Thorung La. My journal doesn’t say why, but we decided at that time to try for Mesokanto on the way back. Then our group leaders decided to fly to Pokhara from Jomsom, and gave up on the Mesokanto side trip. I didn’t come up with the idea from looking at my map during the flight-delay day — I just revived it. And now I see that the whole episode with the scree slope actually happened the day before our attempt to reach the pass. The reason we ended up on the valley floor looking for the trail was because Jeremy and I saw people walking down there the day before. I remember incorrectly until reading some earlier journal entries.

One thought on “Annapurna, Tilicho

  1. Well before I read this entry I had no desire whatsoever to follow your example and trek Nepal, but that sounds fascinating! I dont really remember hearing too many stories from that trip, I just remember the picture of you with the Nepali kids that was on Grams’ fridge.

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