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Barefoot Amid The Himalayas
Text: Hans Ossen Photos: Frank Ossen
Feb. 15, 1977, Kathmandu, Nepal.
We made preparations for a 21-day trek to Gosaikunda, a holy lake 4900 meters up in the middle of the Himalayas, and then on to Helambu, an area populated by Sherpas. Our starting point is Trisuli Bazar, a small town of mixed breed a little northwest of the capital, in a valley only 300 meters up.
My brother Frank and I, both with as little luggage as possible, start hiking on a narrow muddy trail, which leads through the beautiful valley. For a few days we follow the Trisuli river. The view is breathtaking, the locals very friendly, so we eat and sleep in their dwellings. This is Tamang country.
After a couple of days, we leave Dunche, the last village, behind us, carrying the food we brought for the seven-day trip to Helambu, straight through the snow-capped mountains with no villages on the way. In less than a day we have to climb 1800 meters before reaching an empty cheese factory, called Chandanbari or Sing Gompa. Deadly tired after an endless climb, we flop down on the ground of one of the two inhabited farms surrounding the factory. Late for dinner, but tea will do.
After breakfast we continue our uncertain way. It is noon when we leave the last trees behind us and after collecting firewood, needed for the next four days, we enter the land of stones, rocks, ice and snow. Without a stove, a compass, a guide, warm and tough clothes, we are getting aware of the fact that our preparations have been very poor. But we have made up our minds, there is only one direction – forward.
Confused by a number of small sidetrails, we have to face another difficulty – Frank is having problems with his breathing. The higher we go, the worse it gets. After a couple of hours he is crawling up. But the nearest shelter is further up, so I have no choice but to take over his luggage and firewood. Step by step we're struggling through the snow, and at last we cross the first Laurebina Pass. When I happily announce we have reached a shelter after hours of pain and exhaustion, he is not able to utter any sight of relieve; he just stops………The view, however, is unforgettable. We are right beside the largest of the lakes. After climbing a small peak I get a complete view of the entire Himalayan range, from the Annapurna in the west to Mount Everest in the east. When night falls I make a fire. Wearing all our clothes, we crawl into our sleeping bags, but it is too cold to sleep. From under the ice covering the lakes arise really spooky sounds. This goes on the entire night. We have no clue of what it could be, but eery it is. We are 4900 meters up, in the middle of nowhere.
Each year on the full moon in August, during the height of the monsoon, thousands of pilgrims, including hundreds of sadhu's, gather around these lakes to worship Lord Shiva. In the centre of the largest lake are the remains of a shrine dedicated to him. It is believed that water from the lake is channeled through a secret underground system all the way down to the tank of the Kumbeshwar temple in Patan, nearly 60km to the south in the Kathmandu Valley. However, the only things reminding us to this festival are broken clay chillums (conical pipes for smoking ganja) and safi's (pieces of cotton cloth which are wrapped around the chillum when smoking), which lie around everywhere. But it is winter now, all is covered in ice and snow and we are hungry, tired and all alone.
On the fourth day Frank is completely unable to walk – or crawl – and he has serious difficulties with his breathing, even when he does not move an inch. He's got terrible headaches and soon starts throwing up. It looks like a severe case of Mountain Altitude Sickness (MAS). I don't know what to do, we've got only aspirin. We are trapped between two high passes and before we can descend we have to climb the second Laurebina Pass (5144 mtr.). My shoes meanwhile fall apart.
Another surprise; our drinking water is finished. In the previous confusion we had forgotten to fill up our water bottles. The only solution is to eat snow, brightly white, but it ruined our palate. In the evening we have dinner: a tin of warmed-up beans and two packets of Nepali biscuits. After another freezing night, Frank is feeling a bit better. He takes another day’s rest, while I investigate.
I leave at noon. Most of the trail is covered in snow, but some marks, made up of piles of stones, guide me through the pass. Sometimes the snow comes up to my knees. After three hours I reach the top. With frozen feet and socks I flop down on a suitable rock. I warm my toes and listen to the silence. Nothing around but nature. I look down at the frozen lakes. There are twelve, and the mighty snow-covered peaks tower around me.
After a while I wake up from my dreams. It’s getting darker and colder, what will happen if I fail to find my way back? No mercy to be expected in this kind of scenery. A bit panicky, I rush back to the shores of Gosaikunda, where I find Frank, still struggling for a bit of breath, laying motionless in the snow about 50 yards from our roofless shelter. He tells me he can not remember what he has done today. I carry him back inside. Since we have no drinking water, we use our last firewood to heat up an empty tunafish-can filled with snow. All we gain by that are a few drops of water with a nasty fishy taste. Another packet of biscuits makes another very poor dinner. By midnight our fire has died and we face another freezing night ahead.
The morning after we go out together. Though it takes us longer than expected, we make it. Now we are going down again, but is it the end of our problems? We continue walking till after dark without finding a shelter. We have no idea in which direction to go, the simple map we have is useless. It shows the trail as a dotted line, but because of the snow a trail is nowhere to be seen. We just know we have to go eastwards. If we want to get back to civilization, we must continue. Then we find a small cave which helps out another freezing night.
At breakfast the next day, we finished our last bits of food (a few Nepali biscuits). Frank’s condition has worsened while my feet are hardly recognizable. We are getting closer now, the snow gradually disappears, dogs are barking in the far distance. On the way there is rain, and then snowfall. Soaked to the skin, we walk till late in the evening. No village today, but a small cave again on the edge of a very wet and dark pine forest. And nothing to eat…..
That night it snows heavily. We zip our sleeping bags together and try to keep warm. The lower end of our sleeping bag is soon covered in snow. The overhang under the rock is to small for both of us, so Frank decides to move to a nearby hollow tree. In an almost vertical position he manages to get a little sleep, and even has a dream in which we were rescued by a big Saint Bernard dog with a barrel of rum around its neck! When he wakes up he starts shouting for help! His voice echoes through the mountains, but the only reply we get are barking dogs, many miles away. I suddenly realize the seriousness of the situation. It's a really strange awareness that he is shouting for help. Neither of us has ever done so before in our lives! Frank seems vitalized by his dream and amazingly starts climbing a nearby frozen waterfall. He shouts for help once more and this time, to our great surprise, we hear human sounds coming out of the forest in front of us. A bit euphoric and filled with hope we press on.
Later we see two German tourist/mountaineers on their way from Helambu to Gosaikunda which, so they figure, should be reached the same day. But as they see our blue faces and listen to our stories, they decide to continue in the opposite direction - back to Helambu - and we follow them on an invisible trail, after eating half of their weekly ration. After a short walk over slippery trails we encounter five more tourists, among them a Canadian student and a young American doctor and his wife, accompanied by a guide and three Nepali porters carrying many kilos of luggage.
There is nothing they can do for Frank or my half-frozen feet, but the hot lemon tea and chocolate taste excellent. We split into two groups; Frank and I will go to Melemchigaon, together with the Canadian student, who knows the way. He takes off briskly, but when the trail is becoming less and less clear, he admits he has lost the way. Good to have a guide!
After a struggle of three to four hours we reach a dry waterfall. I hang the last remaining bits of my socks in a tree, my feet hurt from the sharp rocks and the pinecones. Sometimes we can see the village of Melemchigaon peacefully lying in the beautiful Helambu valley. But still far away.
Dan, the student, doesn’t wait for us when his brisk pace proves to be too fast for our fatigued bodies. We are alone again and have our doubts if we can make it to the village before dark. But this time we have some luck, we find a small trail just before darkness falls.
Melemchigaon appears to be a 20-minutes walk; after seven days we see houses and pigs again, we have rice and tea and above all, rest for my miserable feet. Also Frank is feeling better since we got to lower altitutes.
We take a three-day rest by the friendly Pharpu Sherpa family, before walking on to Kathmandu – a gentle and unforgettable walk through the beautiful hills and valleys of Nepal.
© Frank and Hans Ossen 2002
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