Beams of light shine through the musty windows at the Seven Sisters Tea House in Tilje, Nepal, illuminating tendrils of smoke wafting about the room. The glowing dust and particulates move like an indoor aurora borealis. I momentarily lose myself in the flickering light until the aroma of masala tea pulls me back to the present. It’s early morning on the dividing line between the Annapurna and Manaslu conservation areas in northern Nepal. Today, we will travel to our basecamp in the seasonal village of Bimthang, where we hope to attempt a 2,750-meter new route on Panbari Himal, a 6,905-meter peak that has only been climbed once.
Outside, our muleteer preps the train of donkeys that will carry hundreds of pounds of our expedition equipment through groves of towering pine trees, across narrow trails cut above ancient gorges and glacier-carved valleys. I step outside into the crisp morning air. Mist hovers throughout the forest canopy and a troop of monkeys stir in the upper branches. Our young guide, Dipak, tells us to be ready to walk in 30 minutes. I savor another mug of hot tea, eager to hit the trail and catch my first glimpse of Manaslu, the world’s eighth-tallest mountain.
Several days earlier, I stared through the plane’s window as we prepared to land in Nepal’s capital city of Kathmandu. Shoddily constructed brick buildings dotted the mountainous landscape as far as I could see, and I understood how the earthquake from several years prior could cause so much devastation. At ground level, the streets of Kathmandu were humid and dusty. With my partners Andres and Leon, I weaved through hordes of people wearing masks to stave off the air pollution. We battled a disorganized scene of loud car horns and gauntlet of street venders hawking Tiger Balm and trinkets. Traffic is lawless, organized chaos that would thwart the most hardened Western driver: cars and severely overcrowded busses zoom around motorbikes, mopeds, and tuk-tuks. No one in Nepal uses turn signals, but instead communicates their intentions or frustrations through cryptic horn-honking that leaves me thoroughly overwhelmed.
On the evening before leaving America, Andres called me to say that a French team was intending to attempt the same unclimbed route on Panbari. I was even more incredulous when he said that they were arriving in Kathmandu and hiking in on the same days. Neither of us could believe that a route that had never been tried would now have two teams competing on the same schedule. On our first night in Kathmandu, we planned to meet for dinner. The French climbers—Damien, Fanny, and Tomas—all seemed very nice. Still, we kept our plans close, careful not to reveal our exact plans to the other team too soon.
Once out of Kathmandu, bumpy highways weave across steep hillsides where red dirt contrasts the vibrant green potato paddies that have existed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Old bridges span gray-brown roaring rivers that slosh violently down polished canyons. No stretch of the road goes straight for more than a few feet before sharply winding to the left or right. After eight hours of driving, we arrive in Besisashar, the large outpost village that marks the beginning of the Annapurna Circuit trek. Tourists from countless countries roam the streets with their giant backpacks. Our trekking guide, Dipak, disappears down a side street to find our driver for the next portion of our trip. I sit atop a colorful mountain of duffel bags until he sprints back, urging us to hurry.
The drive from Besisashar to Dharapani was like being transported to a rock tumbler for six hours. Six men cram into a beat-up old 4X4 and every extra nook and cranny is jammed with our gear and bags of rice for distant villages. If the Jeep ever had any shocks, they blew out long ago. The hours jostling around in that battered vehicle rank among the most unpleasant but masochistically hilarious of my life. A broken axle stops us in a small village, but after 45 minutes and a few hammer blows by a local mechanic, we are miraculously on our way. We arrive in Dharapani as darkness falls. We slink out of the vehicle and rub our backs and necks, feeling as if we have aged 30 years in the span of six hours. We drag our overladen duffels down steep, rocky steps covered in slippery mule dung and collapse in our teahouse for the night.
“Be ready to walk in thirty minutes,” Dipak says. With my partners Andres and Leon, I stretch my aching back with some yoga. Before long, the mules are walking in line down the trail, obviously all too familiar with the itinerary. We briefly spot the French team and make jokes about yesterday’s drive. Suspension bridges—the longest I’ve ever seen—bounce and swing as we walk across. Below our feet, a churning river boils and roars between gigantic, smooth boulders. We spend the first few hours hiking on a swath of road cuts. These will shorten the overall length of the popular Manaslu Circuit trek, but will also better serve the teahouses and tiny villages farther up the valley. The same thing happened to the Annapurna Circuit, just to our west: what once was a 40-day hike can now be completed in roughly a week.
Goa is a small and aged village of narrow corridors and year-round inhabitants. A local man tells me that he lives in the same house his grandfather had been born in. Tourism has been kind to these people and many of them have second homes in the lower regions around Pokhara. Dipak directs us into a teahouse where we enjoy some chapati with jam—a local bread similar to naan—and a Gorkha beer. The mules are restless and soon we are following them on a narrow trail above the river. Eventually we arrive at the Seven Sisters Tea House, perched on the banks of a loud river outside of Tilje (2,300 meters). We drink lemon tea and devour large helpings of dal bhat under the light of a small lantern. The locals say that jaguars roam these high forests. I am overcome with an eerie feeling as I step out into the dark and walk to our room.
The next morning, after a few hours of hiking up steep switchbacks and across a glacial moraine, we arrive in Bimthang. This tiny hamlet of trekking hotels and horse pastures will be our basecamp for the next month. Situated between the Ponkar Glacier and steep, forested hillsides, Bimthang is a lush respite in an otherwise rocky alpine realm. The air at 3,720 meters feels thin and it will take time to acclimatize, but thankfully the Bimtang Hotel & Lodge is bustling with activity to keep us occupied. Hordes of trekkers who have just come over the 5,200-meter Larkya La Pass on the Manaslu Circuit laugh and clink beers as they celebrate. Tomorrow, they will continue south to the thicker air of Dharapani, via the way we approached.
The clouds have parted in the night and stars twinkle in the sky as I catch my first glimpse of the south face of Panbari. I rouse Leon and Andres from bed and we traipse outside. Himalayan ravens hop around the field as we quietly stare at the massive mountain. “It’s freaking huge,” Andres comments. Leon quietly nods in his nonchalant way. I snap a photo, but it doesn’t capture the scale of the massive granite peak towering in the gray sky. Just behind us, Manaslu stands more than 1,200 meters higher than our objective. The entire southern skyline is consumed by the world’s eighth-tallest mountain.
Little by little, we become friends with the competing French team. They are staying at the same hotel, so we spend most of our time together. It would be easy to view them as competitors, which in some ways they are, but ultimately we agree to try to work together. Sometimes, we spend the days and evenings together; other times, we huddle in our own groups and strategize. Both groups want the first ascent of Panbari’s south face.
We spend the next few weeks building our bodies up to the altitude. Slowly but surely, we prepare for our ascent. A few hired mules make the long hike up to the 5,200-meter Larkya La Pass feel slightly easier, but my lungs and legs still burn from oxygen deprivation. We keep hearing rumors of a man selling Coca-Cola on the other side of the pass. At 4,900 meters, we spot a stone building and eagerly shell out $6 apiece for the heavenly drinks.
Eventually, we feel acclimated enough to climb to 6,000 meters. From the top of an insignificant peak, we stare northward into Tibet. Ancient trails zig-zag over distant passes. We figure they must be trade routes that people have utilized for countless generations.
Back in Bimthang, we wait for a sizable weather window that will allow us to embark on our alpine-style attempt on Panbari. Winds and snowfall up high keep us pinned down as we watch our departure date grow closer and closer. None of the Nepali people really speak English, but we learn a little about their culture through non-verbal communication and gestures. The soccer ball we purchased in Besisahar sees constant action from the porters, muleteers, and children of the high village. When the kids learn that we have a large stash of chocolate, we suddenly become even more popular.
One evening, after a long day of hiking, I order food in bulk: French fries, dhal bat, deep fried everything, and a second thermos of tea. I’m surfing the sluggish satellite internet on my iPhone while editing photos on my iPad. I gaze up from my massive plates and catch the gaze of a porter who appears to be in his late forties. He is staring at me and my electronics and sprawling platters as if I am some sort of an enigma. His clothes are tattered and faded. He doesn’t even appear to have a basic headlamp and his tennis shoes are worn well beyond their expected use. His plate of dal bhat is yet to arrive. I briefly match his look before I recoil in a sense of shame. In his eyes, I do not detect any sense of envy, but I realize that I likely resemble the stereotype of an entitled Westerner.
I’m unable to communicate with the porter, but I wonder what he is thinking. The man seems perfectly happy as he talks in Nepali to his fellow porters. I cannot help but feel that it is unfair that I make more in half-an-hour of work than this man likely makes in a day. I grab my $100 headlamp off the table and slink out into the darkness.
Finally, the weather forecast appears promising. We are encouraged to launch on Panbari as a six-day high-pressure system builds in our weather models. This will be our only shot. The two teams meet for dinner and a heart-to-heart discussion. “We’re all friends,” I begin. “Let’s all work together on the ascent for as long as we can. If someone has to turn around, we will change our plans, but until then, let’s help each other out.” Everyone is in agreement. The afternoon is warm as we all sort gear in an open courtyard.
From our little cabins, the bathhouse is only 50 feet away. We rarely shower since warm water seems to be in extremely short supply. As we organize our gear, we pay little mind to the locals milling about the bathroom. The men have been tinkering with the water heater for weeks with little success. Suddenly, one of the men kicks down the door and there is a flurry of troublesome yelling and screaming in Nepali.
The men frantically carry in an unconscious young girl. Her limp body drapes over their arms as they rush around the corner of the building to the kitchen. She is naked, her skin pale and waxy. Andres, Leon, and I run in to help. The French race in as well. Our EMT and Wilderness First Responder training kicks in. Leon performs multiple rounds of chest compressions and I open her airway and breathe for her. The French team takes turns checking for a pulse. Women and children huddle in the back of the kitchen, occasionally grabbing the girl’s hand and whispering what we assume to be prayers. After 30 minutes of CPR, Andres and I exchange dismal glances. Her skin has turned cold and blue. We step away and hang our heads, trying to communicate with gestures that she is gone. The Nepalis continue to stroke her arm and speak to her, as if she will simply wake up.
The six of us walk down the valley. There is nothing for us to do but give the locals some space. A few hours later, the increasing drone of a helicopter echoes louder off of mountain walls. We return to the small hotel as the girl’s body is loaded in. The helicopter lifts off, bound for Pokhara. Grief is our shared language as wails and crying fill the valley.
There is still an ominous aura brooding in the morning as we depart Bimthang in the predawn twilight. We traipse up the valley in silence; spread-out and accompanied only by our thoughts of the event of the previous night and the wonders of the future unknown. Panbari and the other 6,000-meter peaks ignite from a dull purple to pink and orange, but we walk in their chilled shadow. Old yak trails meander across vegetated moraine above Ponkar Lake. After four hours, we arrive at the base of Panbari. Precarious boulders pack a series of gullies that strike up the southern aspect of the massive mountain. From all of our pictures, we had assumed that these would be choked with snow, but unseasonably dry conditions make us question if we will even be able to find water below 6,000 meters.
Down low, grass and moss stitch the boulders together like a conglomerate web. The higher we climb, the more the walls rise and constrict. The air is noticeably thinner and the connective shoots and moss soon dissipate to dry dust and gravel. Boulders unexpectedly shift under our body weight. If one rolls unexpectedly, it could break my leg or—even worse—tumble onto one of my partners. Heavy packs strain leg muscles and in the warm, dry air, my mouth becomes parched. A house-sized rock hangs as a gully-width chockstone. Fifth-class moves with bulky packs and without ropes test the limits of our nerves. Both teams are grouped together when a volley of rocks bombards us. Leon and I cling to one side of the wall as stones crash and explode only several feet away. When the dust settles, we are amazed that no one was seriously injured or killed.
We crest over the col of the gully at 5,200 meters, but there seems to be no end to the chossy granite. We had imagined a mountain of ice and quality rock, but everything above resembles a Jenga tower of shattered stone. Regardless, the weather is perfect—perhaps too perfect—and it doesn’t seem right that we are climbing without gloves or even jackets at this altitude. The climbing is just easy enough that we keep the rope in the pack, but one loose stone or a single misstep could prove fatal.
In the early evening, we erect camp atop a table of granite. If it hadn’t snowed a week ago, we would have never been able to boil water. Even now, we only find handfuls of moss-laden snow hidden under rocks. I wonder if my raging headache is the first onset of acute mountain sickness. Both teams set up our tents on the flattest spots we can find. Conversation is limited and it’s obvious that everyone is disappointed by the conditions. Sleep is fitful as I spend the night coughing. I wonder if my partners and the French are filled with the same doubt that clouds my head. The crash of rockfall above solidifies my decision not to go any farther.
A crucial attribute of any good partnership is unspoken communication: a symbiotic thought process. The sun has yet to fully peak over Manaslu, but Andres and Leon pack their bags in a manner that I know means they’re planning on descending. We stare at the upper aspect of Panbari. I find the dichotomy of the face’s distant beauty peculiar when compared to the closer view of its fractured rock and lack of snow. The French descend ahead of us. I know we are making the right decision. We gently rappel over teetering, vertical scree.
The echoing crescendo of occasional rockfall lower down in the gully keeps us focused on safety and speed. Sudden movement far below captures my attention. A group of 13 Himalayan tahr, a kind of high-altitude mountain goat, clambers across an exposed cirque at over 5,000 meters. Witnessing these seldom-seen creatures flourishing in such a wild environment brings a smile to my face. Their tracks occasionally pockmarked the lower moraine, but seeing them this high is as remarkable as any wildlife sighting I’ve ever experienced. Before I can focus my camera, they have loped over a distant ridge.
An old yak trail weaves between glacier erratics festooned with alpine grass and moss. I’m struck by the lack of frustration I feel in this moment. Normally, when I retreat from a big mountain, I wallow in disappointment. But this time, I feel no regret. I see my two friends strolling down the well-worn trail and relish the sense of gratitude I feel to have shared this experience with them. As I crest a small pass, I turn one last time to stare at Panbari. We have come from halfway around the world with the goal of climbing this lesser-known peak. But oddly enough, despite our failed summit attempt, I cannot help but feel like the trip was a complete success. We never stood anywhere near the top, but we gained a better understanding of other cultures, a new environment, and ourselves.