Around Annapurna – Tilicho Lake

Tilicho base camp

Yak Kharka and Thorong high camp

15th October

Alarm went off earlier than other days as we planned to head out earlier. As advised by other travelers, we planned to start in the dark hours to make as much progress as possible before the sun rose to take advantage of frozen snow which would provide more grip on the surface. We tried to convince our guide Brian to start at 4 AM, but he was reluctant and we settled for 5 AM, much to our dislike. But there’s no point forcing them against their wishes in these altitudes as they’re supposed to act as our custodians on such stretches. We put on additional warm wears to deal with the cold which was expected to be several notches higher than what we’ve faced so far. Deep in my mind, I was nervous about the snow and the fact that we weren’t wearing crampons or spikes. I shook my head heavily, as if to shove away such thoughts out of my mind. After completing our morning duties, we headed for the dining room to have breakfast. My appetite was almost absent. It could either have been because of altitude (which is known to have such an impact) or the thoughts about the trail up the slopes. Actually, going up was relatively easier. But the more we go up, greater would be the distance to cover while coming down with melting snow under our feet. After filling ourselves with breakfast, we headed out of the lodge. The plan for the day was to hike up to Tilicho lake, come down to the base camp, have lunch and head back to Shree Kharka for night stay. It was supposed to be a long day.

While having our breakfast, we saw moving streams of head torches already heading up the slopes. Other groups have already hit the trail. After breakfast, we strapped on our head torches and headed out. As we stepped out of the warmth of the dining space, we were greeted by waves of cold wind which pierced the uncovered sections of our bodies (which anyways, were minimal, given the clothing we put on). But that was enough to indicate what was awaiting us in the upper reaches. The trail meandered through the by lanes between other tea houses before crossing a small wooden pool above a flowing stream. After which, it started moving up gradually. It was a considerably long stretch up before the first switchback. The trail was still over rock and soil with snow lying by the side. After reaching that point, we sipped a few gulps of warm water and resumed our hike. The trail was rendered muddy with narrow streams of water flowing through it, but we were still walking over soil, nevertheless. It was still dark and we could see trails of head torches moving up the slopes in front of us. It was a long trail with distant lights that could be seen as far as we could see. The trail of rock and soil started to get thin as we moved up as snow started closing in from both sides. We had to cross multiple places where patches of snow lay on the trail itself. Such patches interspersed the trail and had to be negotiated carefully. There were places where we would sink knee deep into the snow. Such patches increased in frequency as we moved up till the entire trail got covered by snow and no trace of rock or soil was visible from thereon. We paused at places to turn around and darkness was gradually subsiding. A glimpse of light started to spread across the sky. The dark silhouettes of the high mountains became visible. After sometime, the sky became clear and wore a shade of azure but the Sun was yet to make its appearance.

En-route Tilicho lake, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

As light became available, we could see the trail in clarity and switched off our head torches. Giving a good look at the trail revealed holes dug into the snow by previous travelers. Some were deep and wore a light blue appearance. They had to be avoided. The idea was to place our feet on boot marks left by earlier travelers. Those were solid grounds with some purchase available for our feet. I became more conscious and gradually my entire attention got drawn into the trail. It was only when I stopped, I could enjoy the beauty around. On one such occasion, I saw the first rays of sun gracing some of the peaks, lining them with gold.

En-route Tilicho lake, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

The trail was just wide enough for one person to tread up or down. If one met another coming the opposite way, it needed to be negotiated carefully by leaning against the slope. Giving passages like this on a narrow trail covered with snow, was very tricky. Groups which moved faster, caught up with us and we had to make way for them. The snow under our feet was still hard.

En-route Tilicho lake

Gradually, the sun came out and bathed the entire trail with its rays. It was all monochrome around with snow playing the dominant part. It was a beautiful sight to watch, but my mind was caught in the thoughts of getting down the same trail with the sun in its full power over the snow. We reached a place where suddenly, it struck our guide Brian, to climb up the slope on our right to some extent and pose for a photograph leaning against the snow. While it might have been a maverick idea, but climbing proved difficult, especially, with his weight. While making attempts, he slid multiple times which prompted us to refrain him from doing such antics at these slopes. Looking down the other side, just beyond the edge, gave us horrors.

Route to Tilicho lake, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

We kept moving up the slopes and I slipped a few times during that, but these were minor as compared to the ones faced during our way down. As the sun increased its power, the effect became increasingly visible under our feet. We were reminded of a familiar statement from Physics from our school days – “Friction is a necessary evil”. The necessity part of it was quite evident. Thoughts increased in my mind as I kept looking at my mobile phone for time. It was already 9 AM, when we reached a place which had a small wooden shelter by the trail. People took rest and had sips of warm water at that place before resuming their hike. I looked at the trail above and ascertained from our guide, it would take at least two hours to reach the lake from there with the speed that I was moving with. A quick calculation of time made me rethink my priorities. I didn’t want to increase the length of the trail to cover on the way down and after going through some tough trade offs between safety and the missed opportunity of visiting the lake, the very purpose of this trek, I chose to side with safety and decided to wait for the group to come down and rejoin them on their way back. Others tried to cajole me otherwise, but I decided against it. While they moved ahead, I stayed on, taking turns to stand or sit.

Note: The remaining part of the hike to Tilicho lake is not sourced from my own experience, but from those of my fellow travelers.

Remaining journey to Tilicho lake

Dhananjoy and Niladri resumed their journey bidding goodbye to me, along with our guide Brian. The trail increased its gradient after the wooden shelter and they negotiated their way through the snow. After another hour or so, the gradient decreased, giving an indication, that destination was nearing. There were still a series of switchbacks ahead.

En-route Tilicho lake, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

Mt Tilicho looked as if it was at a stone’s throw distance. It’s slopes were entirely covered with snow, unlike other mountain peaks which had stripes and patches of black rocky surfaces amidst the snow. The trail, however, was nearly level now. With reduced gradient, walking was easier. Dhananjoy was ecstatic in his expressions with expectations increasing with every bend. After trolling along for some more time, they crossed a bend and came across some frozen water bodies.

Nearing Tilicho lake, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

The entire landscape was covered with snow with Mt Tilicho standing guard at the background. These water bodies were a prelude to the main lake and after a few turns, they came across the vast expanse of pristine azure water surface bordered on all of its sides by mountain peaks. They had finally reached the coveted Tilicho Lake. Some christen the lake as the highest lake in the world, though its not confirmed. It lies at 4919m (placing it higher than Gokyo system of lakes lying in eastern Nepal’s Solu Khumbu district).

Tilicho lake, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

Snow bordered on all sides of the lake, but the lake itself was devoid of it, makig it look even more beautiful. The lake is considered holy and pristine by both the Hindus as well as Buddhists. There are metallic statues of both Shiva and Lord Budhha on the shores of the lake. Dhananjoy and Niladri took their turns to have pictures with both the deities.

Tilicho lake, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

They spent time to take pictures of the surroundings. Shutters rolled on endlessly as pictures always seem not enough to capture the beauty placed at their disposal by nature. They’ve visited Gokyo lake earlier, way back in 2016, but it seemed, the backdrop and surroundings of this high altitude lake had no match. One could see the glaciers coming down the slopes of Mt Tilicho which lay on the left banks of the lake.

Tilicho lake, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

One wants to spend more time with this glorious display of nature, but time was ticking and at sometime, they had to turn back. The entire route that they hiked up, now lay ahead on their way down with the full power of sun playing its tricks on the snow beneath their feet. They tread along the path till the point above the wooden shed where they left Indranil on their way up. Was he still around, awaiting their return? Dhananjoy tried a different trick to negotiate the slope. He glissaded over the slope and almost in no time, landed near the wooden shelter. But towards the end of his slide, he had to anchor using his walking pole. Without that trick, chances were ripe, he could have slid over the trail, down the slopes on the other side into the abys!

The way down for Indranil

The wait for Dhananjoy and Niladri seemed eternal. I kept thinking, had they started on their way down? They started early and were now heading down. While I awaited the return of them, many groups started coming down. One of the guides stopped by me and informed that he was instructed by Brian to guide me down the slopes. I followed him with nervous steps. He advised me to walk side ways. According to him, it provided better grip on the snow, but I somehow never felt comfortable with it. He asked me to move faster as the more I delayed, chances were ripe for me to skid on the snow. He helped me tread the slopes but at times, he was literally dragging me down and I had a couple of falls on my way. After sometime, he said he needed move down faster as his clients were waiting for him and I let him go. Fortunately enough, by that time, I had covered significant stretches and reached a point, beyond which, the trail of rocks and mud was visible. On his way down, Dhananjoy caught up with me and we moved down to base camp and on reaching the tea house, spread our legs in the warm sun. We also spread our clothes over the bushes to allow them to dry up in the sun. After having our staple “Dal bhat” menu, we resumed our journey back towards Shree Kharka. As we headed out of base camp, the land slide area greeted us again with its barren slopes. What starts, ends too and so did the stretch of the landslide area.

Landslide area, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

While crossing it, Dhananjoy and Niladri had another close shave. A cricket ball sized rock came streaming down the slopes and missed them by a whisker before tumbling down the other side! After crossing the landslide area, we started climbing up the slopes to reach the hanging bridge and I was delighted to watch from above, the broken end of it was fixed temporarily by the locals and we didn’t have to circumvent down the slopes! I heaped a lot of blessings to whoever did that act. After crossing over to the other side, the walk towards Shree Kharka was pleasant amidst the afternoon sun as snow reduced to a great extent. We walked, relaxed in our minds and reached the tea house at Shree Kharka, but our legs were very tired and it pained to climb the stairs up or down. The evening was pleasant and after dinner, we headed to our room. We were sleeping at 4045m.

Tilicho base camp

Yak Kharka and Thorong high camp

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