One week into our trek, we were at the bottom of the valley, on a road, with buses. We could have gotten ourselves out of there via motorised transport, but we’re more masochistic than that. It was only natural that we decided to go back up,on foot, to a lesser travelled to ridge, higher than we’d been so far. I thought we were crazy for following a trail that was little more than a red dotted line on our map, but this turned out to be my favourite part of the trek overall. We worked hard for it – very hard. But the trail showed us landscapes, views and courage we hadn’t had had to tap into yet, and the payoff was nothing short of amazing.
Day 7: Tatopani to Paudwar – 5 hours, 900m elevation gain)
A four hour walk up a giant hill on steep switchbacks, shortcuts along goat trails, and a lunch and rest break at a village on the edge of a cliff. That was today. Austin was completely mutinous from the outset, and didn’t make it easy on us. He was not having any more of the trekking, and wanted desperately to go back to the hot springs. Nobody could blame him. The hot springs were nice, but it was time to move on.
After he insisted on rest breaks every six and a half minutes, the nice coaching mama jumped off the mountain, and barky sweary mama came out. Mark sensibly sent me up ahead as the pacer, and to scout for shortcuts – little trails going up the sides of long steep switchbacks, that certainly shaved at least four minutes off our day.
We had gotten lazy in our 36 hours of rest, and managed to stretch a 2.5 hour trek up a hill in the sun into a 4 hour ordeal, and it’s always awesome when that happens. Not.
The trail itself was easy enough – undulating hills around the side of the mountain and through more Rhodedendron forests, up a newly cut steep road with long, long, long switchbacks that were practically vertical all the way. That then turned into more stone steps, ending in a nice long incline up to the village of Paduwar.
Across the valley, we could see the trail we had taken in to Tatopani, two days earlier, and could name the villages that we had passed through. This messed with our heads a bit, and Mark and I both thought we had somehow overshot Paudwar, and were above it.
Nope. We had farther to go.
We finally reached our stopping point for the day — the only village on this stretch of the trail, and directly across the valley from the village where we stayed with the family a few nights ago. Even though we had arrived at the town, we quickly found out we had even more climbing to do once we got to civilisation, as the village clings to the side of a cliff, going up very high.
Naturally, the two guest houses in town are both pretty far up, so we had more steep stone steps to navigate. A kind man showed us the way up to the main guest house – pretty sure he didn’t understand how three people averaging 40 years younger than him could be so very slow!
In the midst of the Diwali holidays, everything was closed up tight, but we managed to find the proprietor of one of the two lodges in town, and parked ourselves for the night. Everything and everyone were decorated in marigold garlands. The marigolds have always been a symbol of Diwali and Hinduism, and I can see why…at least in this part of the world they are in full bloom right now, and are a staple of every cottage garden. It’s gorgeous.
After a well-earned nap and a cold shower, we watched a fierce game of volleyball in the schoolyard below our lodge. These girls had skills – overhand serves, skilled setters and some nasty spikes. I would put them up against any high school volleyball team and watch them wipe the floor with them. There was not a knee pad or missed dig in the entire game. My high school coach would have been proud.
Austin also brought out his Lego to make friends, and was instantly swarmed by children coming from every corner of the village. That was a bit much for him, so the public Lego session didn’t last very long. Instead, he drained my ipad battery watching Cars for about the 7,841st time with fantastic mountain and valley views all around him. Later, I found him in the family’s home watching television with the grandfather, the two of them sitting there as though they had done so every day of their life.
Day 8: Paudwar to Khopra – We are officially mountain goats (8 hours, 7 km, 1660m elevation gain)
We left Paudwar early in the morning to get a head start on a long hard climb. After loading up on supplies and a pancake breakfast, we started the trek up the mountain by climbing more stone steps up and out of Paudwar – we were basically escorted out of the village by the locals, and were pointed the way by everyone we met. I’m just going to read that as helpfulness, and not as please get out of our village you crazy tourists!
This trail wasn’t one of the more popular tourist trails, and we didn’t meet many other trekkers along the way. In fact, we had travelled three hours before meeting a French couple coming down the other way.
We’d later see that same Frenchman huffing his way back up the mountain from Paudwar because they had left their camera in Khopra. That means he came down 1600 vertical metres over 7 miles, went back up 1600 vertical metres over 7 miles, and then went back down 1600 metres over 7 miles. By the time we saw him for the third time (we don’t even want to calculate how many times he would have lapped us), he had lost all of his English and was only capable of communicating in gasps of French. That. Poor. Man.
We climbed up through more forests full of big gnarly twisted rhodedendron trees and giant boulders jutting out from the mountain under the trees. It was absolutely other-worldly and would have been an ideal setting for a Tolkien novel. The stone steps continued up and up through the forest. We thought the steps up to Ghorepani were tough — these were unevenly spaced, and in some places barely big enough for a toe hold. In one long push, I counted 1500 steps with no flat bit for a rest.
We finally emerged from the eerie gloom of the forest to the trail clinging to the edge of a very high, very steep, very exposed rise. We were higher than most of the mountains around us, and still had to climb up to the ridge and beyond where Khopra is located.
To my left was a steep incline up the mountain. To my right was nothing but thinning air, land that fell away so quickly you couldn’t even see it in your peripheral vision, and wind that was whipping up the mountain. This is the time when I had a proper anxiety attack about the height and tried to hide it from my son so he wouldn’t freak out too. This was one of those motherhood moments when you just have to pick up your pieces and hold your falling apart self together for the benefit of your offspring.
Mark let me go on ahead, and he and Austin followed about 50m behind. This allowed me to do all the talking to myself I needed to do, and take all of the trembling pauses I needed without revealing my mental state to my child.
Once we climbed up to the actual ridge of the actual mountain, the clouds started rolling up and surrounding us on all sides. Being socked in like that helped my mental state tremendously, and all I had to do was concentrate on the trail and not what was and what wasn’t surrounding me.
We walked through the cloud for over an hour. It was honestly one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had — especially when we started hearing the tinkling of bells signalling that livestock were nearby. We thought it might be another herd of goats or sheep like we had passed a dozen times. But looking up, we found ourselves in the middle of a herd of yaks. Yes, high altitude yaks.
Their shadowy forms appeared as if out of thin air (or cloud), and suddenly were above us, below us, behind us, in front of us. Walking among these huge horned hairy beasts in the cloud was a little spooky, but for the most part they left us alone, looking up to watch us pass and occasionally letting out a low grunting moo. I’m assuming they were telling us to watch out for the yak poo, which was everywhere.
After another short climb, we came around a corner and first heard voices, then saw the edge of the lodge. We had arrived at Khopra, and no kidding, in just that moment, the clouds parted to reveal shimmering views of the white peaks of the Annapurnas so close it felt like we could reach out and touch them. It was as though the welcoming committee opened up to say “you did it! Great work, now here’s your reward.”
After 8 hard hours of climbing and a proper freak out, we got to see what we came for: spectacular views in every direction. And then, just as soon as they had appeared, the clouds covered them up again.
Those moments are why we’re doing this. Why we trudged ourselves up that mountain, ate ramen softened with cold water right out of the bag, and peanut butter straight out of the jar. It’s why we counted steps just to get us up a mountain, and helped one another when things got tough. My cousin Beth had a phrase that has stuck in my mind ever since, “Faster alone, farther together.” It was a true family effort and real teamwork to get ourselves up to that mountain peak — to the highest elevation we’ll climb on this trip. The reward was breathtaking, and the sense of accomplishment unmatchable.