Trek to Tilicho

Trek to Lake Tilicho – A story of many shades

Beyond words, sounds and images, there’s a real window to see the world called travel. People travel for reasons as different as the spectrum of a rainbow. Some to bask in luxury, some to explore history and geography, some for the rush of adrenaline, some to soak in Nature’s glory, etc. However, I undertook this particular journey to Lake Tilicho to tick “a real trek” off my bucket list. At the same time to test my physical and mental endurance capacity.

In those seven days in Nepal as we hiked up to 16.400 feet and walked a total of 85 kms, my maiden trek turned out to be a constant learning curve, while I collected memories for a lifetime.

Annapurna 2
The majestic Annapurna Circuit, PC: Ashutosh Khetan

Day 1 – Kathmandu to Chame, 4th April 2021

The alarm went off at 4.30 a.m. as we drifted out of slumber to embark on a real adrenaline adventure. Though honestly, at that moment I had only anticipated fun, banter and excitement without really knowing the extent of challenges that I would face in particular. This is the best thing about doing something for the first time, not knowing what to expect you dive into it headlong with an unfettered mind. Our luggage was plopped up on a Bolero as we set off at 5.30 a.m. from Kathmandu to reach Chame via Besisahar in twelve hours. Besisahar is a small stop but important for international tourists who need to get their permits made here for the Annapurna Conservation Circuit.

The seven-hour drive past Besisahar until Chame is practically off roading, banging your head against the windows. But through the same windows you catch magical sights of huge waterfalls whose spray occasionally splits the sunlight into rainbows, against wide expanses of cliffs. We reached Chame exhausted yet excited where bowls of hot garlic soup felt like soul food. The temperature dropped at minus 3 by the time we went to bed in layers.

Day 2 – Chame to Upper Pisang, 5th April 2021

This is the day where the real adventure begins. It was a bright and glorious day and Annapurna 2 was in clear sight with its snow-capped peaks. A hearty breakfast of fresh and fluffy Tibetan breads and peanut butter set us up for the 15 km hike to Upper Pisang. The terrain kept shifting from pine tree lined paths to austere rocky and sandy motorable way. Our spirits were soaking in the gurgling Mashangi river in the most vibrant cyan blue, the blooming wild mushrooms and flitting little butterflies.

Mashangi river
Picturesque setting on the way to Upper Pisang, PC: Ashutosh Khetan

Brathang was our first stop on the way with its barren apple orchards at this time of the year. However, the fizzy apple juice at The Farmhouse” is the best I have ever had. We loaded some more carbs with their apple pies and apple toffees and alighted on the path. The walk wasn’t any stroll in the park but the banter and cheer of our six-member team kept replenishing the energy. We stopped at Dhukur Pokhri for another short break where we even had a Bollywood dance gig right on the road. These are the crazy moments you remember long after you’ve forgotten the trek statistics.

After a 6-hour hike over craggy uphill terrain, we reached Upper Pisang to howling cold winds. Starved that we were, a wholesome Nepali thali was gorged down with their ever-popular Godhbheda achaar, a tangy local tomato chutney that instantly lifts up any food slack. We then visited a local monastery, gathered some zen vibes and settled to chill by the village centre over Nepali folk songs and Gorkha strong. Night came in freezing and dark where sound sleep just doesn’t find you.

Day 3 – Upper Pisang to Manang, 6th April 2021

Waking up early never seemed an issue here even for a non-early riser like me because sleep is not always your ally. Yet, the prospect of numbing your fingers to brush or even wash your face with freezing water is torturous enough to get out of the bed. However, it teaches you to brush with half a glass of warm water because that’s what’s left in the thermos from the previous night. The value of little things in life and the atrocious consumption of our privileged lifestyle stings the conscience without relent.

Nevertheless, we set out with a real spring in our step knowing the day’s hike would be demanding. Though I didn’t know how demanding yet! As we started walking, the trail got narrow and winding and then narrower and more winding until at times there seemed no trail at all. My head got a mild throb as we gained altitude and my stamina started dwindling. The treacherous climb had twenty-two hair-pin bends until we reached Ghyaru which wasn’t even half way there. After a brief break and gathering my wits, I kept my pace slow but steady reminding myself of the tortoise story all the way to Ngawal until lunch.

The thought of hiking another few hours seemed horrendous to me, but I could only remind myself about my purpose to be on this trek – to push my physical and mental limits. I am a firm God believer and there came a point when I literally begged Him to flatten out the terrain or just lift me to the destination. In ten minutes, the trail evened out. I did write in a previous blog that I have come to a state where I do not defend or justify my idea of God. It’s an experience of personal faith. We kept on walking endlessly it seemed without any destination in sight. My physical endurance was way past absolute exhaustion. It was the sheer motivation and support of my very compassionate trek mates and the thought of not letting down my dad, husband and son for different reasons that I managed to lift my legs through my tears.

After a half marathon of 21 kms with a walking time of 8.5 hours, we finally reached Manang, where I almost collapsed out of overwhelming emotions. I realized destinations are made of places but journeys are always made by people. That evening as we were warming by the fire, I was grateful for several things but most importantly for being surrounded by such affectionate and caring souls.

Day 4 – Manang to Khangsar, 7th April 2021

There are few things that hearty food and hearty laughter can’t set right. With both of it in generous dozes, I was fit as a fiddle. Additionally, it was a relatively easy day as we kept the first half for acclimatization and exploring the beautiful town of Manang. After a very English breakfast at the lovely Alpine bakery, which is a poster image of Manang, we proceeded for a short side trek to a glacial lake called the Gangapurna Taal.

Alpine Bakery Manang
Breakfast at Alpine Bakery, PC: Varun Saboo

We geared up for our hike to Khangsar post lunch. This was not a long and stiff one which rather gave the chance to marvel at the changing landscape around us. The pines and butterflies were left far behind. Now, the unimaginable span of raw and savage mountains dwarfed you in smallness. You find yourself in almost solitary existence in the middle of arid grandeur. There’s a certain sense of accomplishment to be standing there in that moment. But a strange fear of being stranded lurks behind because it’s not you and your urbanity that calls the shots here. It is the vast, unending, beastly sculpture of gorges and mountains that dictate your move. Behind this savagery, stood the mighty Annapurna 2 in its pristine white glory.

Upon reaching Khangsar, apart from all the regular food, we tasted a very novel juice of a local fruit called Dallechuk, otherwise known as seabuckthorn. These berries survive at sub-zero temperatures with a piquant flavour that grows on you.

Day 5 – Khangsar to Tilicho Base Camp, 8th April 2021

Well, this is a day I shall remember for a long time to come and so will my mates. I woke up feeling queasy and pukish. Of course, it’s not uncommon at that altitude but it feels worse at that height. A fellow mate was feeling the same but we weren’t to be deterred. Got dressed, managed a few bites of breakfast and set out with all eyes on the target. I was feeling far from good with a nagging headache and nausea but it wasn’t strong enough to stop me yet. I managed to reach Sri Khadka slowly but not lagging too behind. However, beyond Sri Khadka my first symptoms of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) became quite pronounced when I threw up every sip of water that I would take in. I got breathless every few steps. I shortened my strides considerably, took deeper breaths at every step, slowed down frequently but I felt no good. Altitude sickness hit me hard.

All this while, my brother and his friend, being fellow trekkers kept encouraging and cheering me and I tried really hard to stay put on that unforgiving trail. It was ghastly narrow, inclined and barren where the sun comes down on you harshly. Soon enough, dizziness set in where I could actively feel my mind and eyes shutting down. It is the scariest feeling I have known where I couldn’t keep my eyes open for the love of God, and others voices only registered as indistinct sounds. To add to this tumult, I chose a rather unsafe landslide stretch to go into this tizzy. I struggled summoning whatever was left in me but there came a point where I gave up physically. I couldn’t take a step on my own and slumped. The porter carrying my luggage was kind enough to pull me by the hand and literally drag me through a part of the stretch.

However, my legs and breath couldn’t keep pace with his pulling and that was no longer an option. I was pretty much out of all options by then. The only choice I had at 13,700 feet in the middle of nowhere was to gather every shred of my physical and mental strength and push it to another limit. And two people made me do this, @varunsaboo @karanbhimsaria. I cannot forget how they both never let me give up on myself and walked every step beside me till I did make it to the base camp on my own two feet.

I experienced what we’ve read several times, the power of mind over body but I realized something more primal. The mind powers itself on love and positivity which I was lucky to have received in abundance from all my trek mates.

Tilicho Base Camp Trek
Landslide trek to Tilicho Base Camp, PC: Ashutosh Khetan

Day 6 – Tilicho Base Camp to Lake Tilicho Summit, 9th April 2021

Though my AMS had mostly settled the previous evening but we all knew I couldn’t take a chance of it hitting me again on the most arduous hike with an extreme ascent, and time not being our luxury. Also, it had snowed the previous evening dropping at minus 13, making the weather frostier and more gruelling. It was neither advisable nor prudent for me to risk my health and jeopardize others’ summit trek. So, while the others left the base camp at 5.30 a.m. to ascend 2600 feet in 4 hours, I took a pony 2.5 hours later to take me up and reach the summit at around the same time.

Riding a pony on that 10-inch jagged trail puts your heart in your mouth. You pray for the pony to keep its head and feet in the right place. Going up on a pony for the summit trek was not my original plan, but I am not embarrassed to admit that I ended up that way. Pushing yourself is different than risking yourself and others and it’s wise to know the difference. But once at the summit, nothing can rob you of the sense of exhilaration coursing through you. The sense of victory over your fears, challenges and yourself is palpable.

As we approached, the beautiful Lake Tilicho with shimmering blues as expected in April, lay frozen and draped in majestic white. Yet, the splendour and experience of that moment, internally and externally, is hard to capture in words or pictures. All the while as you trek you feel miniscule against the invincibility of Nature, yet every step that you take draws you closer to conquering it. But the adrenaline is not in conquering the summit, it is in conquering your personal challenges and limitations.

Frozen Lake Tilicho
Frozen Lake Tilicho, PC: Ashutosh Khetan

However, as my brother noted that at 5000 meters if forest fires fog your sky, you got to be worried.  So, maybe we have indeed conquered too much, claimed much more than was meant and it’s coming back to bite us in one way or the other as people are literally dying over lack of air as I write this.

After spending 35-40 minutes at the summit, it is ill-advised to stay any longer due to depleted oxygen levels and extreme sun exposure. And so, we began our descent down saying bye to the pony for they can’t carry passengers downhill.

Day 7 – Sri Khadkha to Manang to Kathmandu, 10th April 2021

To summarize the descent, it’s a mixed feeling of relief where you know the hardest parts are behind you but the thrill of the past days is missing. We trekked down until Manang the next day with some adventure enroute. The trail was shut at a point for some mining work and we couldn’t cross over the other side so, we slid down a few metres over rolling stones to reach the river bed and then hiked up somehow scrambling through a clearing. We emerged from this episode covered in unbelievable sand and dust. This point forward we drove back to Kathmandu. The most awaited thing in Kathmandu was a shower after seven days and a hot one at that.

This trip was one of the most wholesome travel experiences of my life. A perfect blend of adventure, excitement and fun. A trip of realizations, of gratitude, of accomplishments, but most importantly experiencing the strength of human connect. At the end of any day, week, year and a lifetime, it’s the people you met who will matter. And I owe this one to the very loving and generous hearts of Ashutosh, Karan, Krishna, Priyanshi and Varun.

~Radhika Mimani