Mountain of the spirit, Manaslu

Part 2

During the concluding phases of our visit to the Annapurna Base Camp, we were thinking about what could be our next venture. The target was obviously Nepal as it houses half of the highest mountains in the world. Though we are not a group of climbers, so the rankings of mountains by their heights shouldn’t mean much to us, but there’s no doubting the fact that they add to the aura. More often than not, it’s likely that they’d have a route to their base camps and they normally go through a wide range of altitudes and varying landscapes. The name of the mountain that came up this time was Manaslu, the eighth highest mountain of the world. The name Manaslu translates to the meaning “mountain of the spirit“. It is derived from the Sanskrit word manasa which means soul or spirit. Firstly, it belongs to the famed 8000-ers (the mountain peaks that reach 8000 m or more) and secondly, this trail is not about going to the base camp and returning via the same route. It is about encircling the Manaslu massif with the route likely to take us through the varied landscapes, flora, fauna and the culture of the people inhabiting the villages that are sprinkled densely (at the lower levels) and sparsely (at the higher levels) along the route. For the first time, we’d be taking a route that will not be the same on our way back. That is to say, one our way up and down, we’d be traversing “different” places.

The region

Mt Manaslu is the eighth highest mountain in the world with a height of 8163 m. It is a part of the Mansiri Himal (Himal: Sections or ranges of The Himalayas typically including many mountain peaks) lying in the Gorkha district of West-central Nepal. It lies about 64 km east of the Annapurna range of Central Nepal. Starting from Arughat to Larkya La (the highest point in the trek), the Manaslu region covers different climatic zones ranging from tropical & sub-tropical zones in the lower reaches, to temperate, sub-alpine and alpine zones. The flora and fauna varies accordingly. The valleys in the lower reaches are covered with lush green forests, which gradually pave the way for arid trans-Himalayan pastures finally reaching the snow line at its highest elevation at Larkya La, which is the passage from the Gorkha district to the Manang district or in other words, from the Manaslu Conservation area to the Annapurna Conservation area. The Manaslu Conservation Area Project was started in 1997 with the aim of conservation of natural resources and culture of the region.

There are many ethnic groups inhabiting the area, Nubri and Tsum being the primary two divides. The Gurungs inhabit the hills of the central area, while the Bhotias of Tibetan ethnicity can be found in the higher reaches dotted with serene monasteries, stupas and mani walls.

Climbing history

They say Mt Everest is the mountain of the British, but Mt Manaslu belongs to the Japanese. This is mainly derived from the fact that the majority of the initiatives to climb the former was driven by the British and ultimately, the expedition that tasted success for the first time, was also organized by them. Similarly, for the latter, the same applies to the Japanese (be it the majority of failed attempts, the first successful climb and even the first successful team of women on the mountain).

In 1950, H. W. Tilman led an expedition that trekked from the Kathmandu valley to Manang, which they used as a base camp to explore the valleys and mountains in and around the Annapurna massif. It was the same time when a French expedition team led by Maurice Herzog was exploring the regions between the Annapurna massif and the Dhaulagiri massif looking for options to climb any of the two who would lower their defenses first. While Maurice’s team tasted success on Annapurna Main, Tilman’s team made an unsuccessful attempt on Annapurna IV. During these efforts, when Tilman’s team was exploring the higher reaches of the river Dudhkhola, they were able to get a clear view of Mt Manaslu from Bimthang (now used as a stopover on the way down from Larkya La in the Manaslu Circuit Trek). Three months after that aborted attempt, Tilman, along with J. O. M. Roberts trekked to Larkya La and from there, had a clear view of Manaslu and its slopes. They concluded that there is a direct route to the summit, but they didn’t attempt it.

Between 1950-54, there were as many as four Japanese expeditions to the mountain. In 1952, a Japanese reconnaissance  team visited the area after monsoons. The following year saw a Japanese team of fifteen attempting to climb the mountain via the east side by setting their base camp at Samagaun. But the expedition failed with four members of the team having to turn back after reaching 7750 m. The 1954 team had to face a group of hostile villagers at Samagaun who thought that the Japanese expeditions of the previous years have displeased the God, resulting in avalanches that destroyed the Pung-gyen monastery, killing 18 people in the process (now a side trek destination from Samagaun that gives exquisite views of Himalayan peaks including Manaslu). The team had to make a hasty retreat Ganesh Himal. They made generous donations towards rebuilding the monastery, but that failed to please the local inhabitants. Finally, in the year 1956, on May, the 9th, Toshio Imanishi of Japan and Sherpa Gyaltsen Norbu made the first successful ascent of Manaslu. This team too, had to face the wrath of local population (a leftover of previous expeditions). The next successful climb was only in 1971, again by a Japanese team, lending weight behind the term “Japanese mountain”. The next year, 1972, saw the first climb via the South-West face by Reinhold Messner. The same year saw one of the deadliest accidents on the slopes of Manaslu. Fifteen members of a Korean expedition were killed when an avalanche buried their camp at the height of 6500 m. In this topsy turvy history, if there were some lows, certainly there were some highs too. The year 1974 saw the first team of women succeed on the mountain. An expedition led by by Kyoko Sato, a team comprising of the climbers Naoko Nakaseko, Masako Uchida and Mieko Mori successfully climbed Manaslu on 4th May along with Jambu Sherpa. They were also the first team of women to climb any 8000 m peak.

The trek

A trek that now spans for 163 km, starts from Sotikhola and ends at Dharapani, on the Annapurna circuit route. The trek follows an ancient salt-trading route along the gorges of the Budhi Gandaki river. The slopes are steep in the lower regions till one reaches the village of Deng. The lower reaches go through dense forests amidst the river gorges and offers ample views of gorgeous waterfalls.

The slopes start becoming more gradual after Deng, after which, views of snow-capped Himalayan peaks start to appear. The village of Lho offers the first view of the double edged summit of Mt Manaslu.

After that, the route travels through the forests of the Syala village (that offers a 360 degree view of Himalayan peaks) to a slight descent to Samagaun, lying on the eastern base of Manaslu. After Samagaun, a flat trail with a steep rise at the end takes one to Samdo, the highest village in the Budhi Gandaki valley. The trail after that is along another valley bordering Tibet taking one to Dharamsala, the base for night halt before attempting to cross Larkya La, the next day. After crossing the pass, the trail enters the Annapurna Conservation area to descend to BimThang and then moving further down to Dharapani following the banks of Dudhkhola. From Dharapani, one can take a jeep ride to Besisahar. The trek takes you from an altitude of 600 m to a maximum height of 5106 m (Larkya La).

The trip

We returned from Nepal after completing the Annapurna Base Camp trek making a pledge to return to the Manaslu region next year. At the turn of 2019, I reached out to my regular companions Dhananjoy De, Niladri Sekhar Guha and Ranjan da (Ranjan Ghosh). They are the ones who have accompanied me in all my earlier ventures to Nepal. This time around, we were cautious about reaching out to others. We did reach out to other members of the erstwhile Annapurna team, but they were not able to make it for different reasons. But, unlike on last occasion, we didn’t try to convince many people and were content to limit ourselves to the “core four”. Our usual queries started flowing in different directions. Some to the tour operator, others to internet. People started watching videos about the trek. The views on the offering made us exited even more and plans were drawn out. Initially, we wanted to include Tsum valley, but had to drop the idea because of time constraints. According to the final plan, Niladri was to start from Kolkata on 1st November (a Friday) on a train to reach Raxaul on 2nd. He was to reach Kathmandu, the same day in the evening. The rest of us were to take a morning flight to Kathmandu on 2nd November. One the 3rd, we were to travel by a jeep to Sotikhola. The trek was to start on 4th. Successive days were to see us scaling heights and 13th was supposed to be the D-Day, i.e. the day to cross Larkya La. The bugle calls were on and so was our journey to the Himalayan nation Nepal for a third time on a trekking adventure! In my upcoming posts, I intend to take you through the journey through the gorges of Budhi Gandaki and Dudhkhola.

Part 2

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