Writing this back in the safety of Manang in the lovely beach hut cabins. We’ve had quite an experience whilst trekking to Tilicho Lake since the last post, and I warn you now, it hasn’t all been nice. So, without further ado….
The first guests of the season!
We left Manang in high spirits, back on the road again following Liam’s injury. We had been informed by the Annapurna Circuit Office that the Tilicho Lake Side Trek, a three day excursion to the worlds highest lake at 5000m, was now open after being closed due to the unseasonal snow. We felt good and strong so walked for four to five hours to a lovely teahouse at 4200m and were informed that we were the first guests of the year!
The owners were still preparing the teahouse and trying to get their electricity system (car battery/solar panel rig) to work. However, after months of snow and cold, the battery was entirely drained. They asked Liam to help work it all out, and Liam wished he had the phone a friend option to his colleagues at the Electrical firm he works for at home! They also enlisted Liam’s help to board up a window that had been broken by the heavy snow fall. They took great delight in telling us there has been 7ft of snow, and the evidence was all around in gigantic snow piles.
We loved being back in the basic huts again, but saw the difficult life of the owners as they struggled to fix their business after the snow. There was also no running water as all the pipes had frozen, so all the water had to be collected from a a steam by the younger family members in gigantic containers. This meant the place wasn’t exactly clean as they couldn’t clean it. Also it meant you couldn’t really ask for water and had to get it from the stream yourself.
Despite all the technical teething difficulties of being the first guests, we had amazing food, were kept warm by a Yak dung fire, and had lovely company. It also snowed that night and because there was no electricity, it got very dark. The hillsides and mountains were covered with a thin layer of powdery snow, which as the sun went down cast the mountains in thousands of shades of whites, greys and blacks. It was so beautiful Liam and I went out into the freezing cold and looked around in awe and childlike wonder. No photo could capture the magic.
Out of our depth
The following day we set off to Tilicho Lake Base Camp after hearing from a local guide that the trail was “OK”. We were a bit dubious as the porter seemed very scared of the trail and said it was “dangerous”. Initially the porter was going to stay at the teahouse all day and wait for a group to do a day trip to the lake, but when the guide told him to take a client to the base camp and back, he did not look happy. When we left the teahouse, the owner wished us luck. Luck. Reflecting back, maybe we should have read the signs. The road ahead wasn’t going to be easy.
We knew that to get to the base camp we had to cross a landslide area where there was risk of rock fall, especially in the afternoon. We played safe, and left early in the morning, and agreed we would turn back if we didn’t like the look of it. Initially, the path was really beautiful, joyful even. We snaked up high on the snow crisp path. And then we hit the landslide area.
What is a landslide area? Well, it’s basically an enormous landslide with a “path” built into the middle of it. The “path” is sometimes solid, sometimes a bit crumbly and sometimes just missing. For extra adrenaline, the “path” drops ominously into the river below down a vast steep scree slope. It looks mightily intimidating, and is made worse by the occasional rock rolling dramatically and noisily into the river below, triggering off several friends to join it.
Despite our initial impression, the first few sections were not so bad- the path was stable and we saw no rocks. We even stopped to take some photos. However, an hour across the area, we reached our first dangerous section. There were rocks falling down a steep landslip and in the middle of the path was a man made rock shelter. We had to move quickly to the rock shelter, watch for rocks, and then move off again quickly and carefully avoiding any rock fall. Basically dodging the falling rocks.
After we safely passed this section, there was no respite. Instead we came across sections of the “path” which were actually just sand. And sometimes there was a gap in the path that you had to step over. The river far below us peeped up menacingly.
My least favourite part was in a zone that was usually considered safe after the signposted landslide danger area. This part of the path was where the snow had not melted, and you had to walk along a snow path carved into a steep snowy path. An avid reader of mountaineering books, I was terrified it would avalanche. However, in reality, the risk was small. I was just starting to lose the capacity to contain my fear after the landslips.
For some added excitement though, the snow on the slopes above was actually melting and as it did so it brought down some small and some huge rocks. Usually these particular slopes were pretty stable and not even considered dangerous, but they were more treacherous than what we had faced previously. In addition to dodging rocks, you also had to descend along a tiny snow path and not slide down a scree slope into the river. I was so petrified, drained and exhausted I started to cry, and Liam offered that we turn back. However, we could see Tilicho Base Camp in the distance and I wanted to push on to safety. I had no desire to retrace our steps along the landslides which were getting worse in the rising sunshine.
After an eventful three hours we made it to Tilicho Base Camp and collapsed in our room. There was only one hotel open out of the usual three, and it was experiencing some of the same frozen pipes and just opened issues. Many of the other trekkers seemed less bothered by the danger we had perceived, and it made me question myself as to whether I was right to be as scared as I was by the walk I had just done. Liam said he did not find it that scary either.
Later on, we spoke to an English and German couple who were even more scared than me! They had crossed later in the afternoon and had been pelted by rocks. The German man was so scared he even asked the price of a helicopter to get back across! Turns out it was prohibitive!
Despite the fear, Liam and I decided to stay another day and try to reach Tilicho Lake at 5000m. We had spent the day lazing at base camp and watched at least 40 people go there and back and considered it must be safe. So, we made plans at leave at 6am!
The trek to Tilicho Lake was in winter condition. The initial path was basically one enormous steep skiable slope that many people slid down on their bums rather than try to walk down. You then walked along a snowy ridge to a path… which turned into walking along yet another snow covered landslide area. I didn’t like the look of it at all, I hadn’t realised that the path was yet more landslides. However, everyone else seemed to be doing it, so we carried on.
Half way along the landslide area, we saw huge rocks hurtling down. What made it worse was that unlike the rocky slopes, the rocks made no sound on the snow covered slopes. You couldn’t hear them, and had to be constantly vigilant. We made it past the slip and started climbing some extremely steep snow covered switchbacks.
Liam and I soldiered on, exhausted by the steep terrain and altitude, to the top of the switchbacks, and then discussed with each other how dangerous we thought the path was. We had made it to 4850m and the lake was only 100m ascent away. We had done the hardest part… and now the walk was an hour of slow gentle climb. However, we both agreed we wanted to abort the walk and get down quickly before the afternoon sun warmed up the landslips anymore.
The views we had were incredible- panoramic mountain views. However, I realised I just wasn’t appreciating them as I was so anxious about the descent. I knew I wouldn’t enjoy getting to a lake with the knowledge that I had to come down the landslides.
We were the only ones to turn around, and many asked us why on our way down. They seemed to accept our reasons as sensible, but carried on themselves. Again, I was questioning my judgement!! Why was I so afraid? What was I seeing that no one else did?
About 10 minutes after choosing to descend, we came across a couple who told us there had been an accident below and we should avoid the area. There was a lot of blood- a man had been hit on the head by a rock and was awaiting helicopter rescue. I was immediately petrified, and had no desire to wait around on the landslide area for the rescue. I chose to descend even though it meant walking past the injured man, and I walked extremely quickly and carefully, eager to get out of the way before the helicopter arrived. Selfishly I was concerned about the rock fall due to turbine blades. Survival instinct kicked in.
In the end, there was no need to rush as the helicopter took two hours to reach him.
As we passed the man, we passed a huge rock the size of a brick covered in blood, and several items of discarded clothes also bloodied. He was being cared for by a small group of people, and they had moved him slightly off the path, although it was difficult as the path was so crumbly and narrow with a steep drop into a ravine. I did not look at him for long other than to avoid stepping on him, but he was clearly unconscious with a huge head injury. I felt sick, sad and terrified. I knew I couldn’t help the man as people were already with him- but I still felt terrible for walking past the scene.
Liam and I somehow made it down – a long silent scary descent through melting snow. I started to really question myself as to why I had come to this area and attempted this trek. Seeing this man lying on the floor having to wait hours for a helicopter rescue. My worst fear had happened. I usually manage my fear by saying it is not rational, it’s not likely, it’s unlucky, it won’t happen… but it has happened.
I spent the rest of the day trying to deal with what I had seen, by avoiding dealing with it, and reading an entire book. I wanted to deal with it, but I had the knowledge that to get back to safety I had to walk out of base camp and through another landslide area. Dealing with the events of the day would have to be delayed so that I could remain calm, focussed and manage my fear.
The other trekkers, who had carried onto the lake, made it down safely one by one. They had been spared seeing the injured man, and many had no idea what had happened. They all agreed the path was very dangerous and Liam and I had not missed much by turning back when we did. Everyone was emotionally drained by getting down safely.
We sat with the English and German couple for the rest of the afternoon and tried to not talk about our fears for going back across the path, but inevitably it was most of what we talked about. In the end, we agreed to walk together at 5.30am before the sun warmed the slips, and to help keep each other safe.
So. We made it safely back with a mostly uneventful morning other than some goats walking across the landslip and sending rocks down onto us even when the sun couldn’t …. and now we are resting in Manang. Again. A little bit traumatised and a lot exhausted.
What have we learnt?
Liam and I have talked a lot over the past few days. I want to emphasise Liam was not as scared as me, and many many trekkers crossed safely at all times of day. However, the trek was basically playing chicken/fate with falling rocks. It was a risk too far for me to stomach. I didn’t come to Nepal to take such risks.
The night before we crossed the landslide area again for the return, I laid awake battling intrusive thoughts about what would happen if I got hit. How would my family feel. I also couldn’t get the man out of my head, and I thought about him and his family. Out of respect to him, and his family, I won’t share any details I’ve learnt subsequently, but I will say he is currently in a coma in Bangkok hospital. I am sending him all the luck for recovery.
On the way down from Tilicho, we warned everyone about what had happened… but no one turned back. The risks are acceptable to most people, it seems. Many were a lot more experienced than ourselves. Some I considered many be naive. But… I do understand… you come to Nepal once, you want to do the best treks, you are told it’s safe, loads of people go, guided groups go… and you think… it must be safe! Or… maybe… it won’t happen to me!
I’ve learnt that Nepal “safe” is not the same as Europe safe. I know that’s probably obvious, but actually it’s a whole shift in state of mind. In Europe, we are so used to having everything risk assessed for us that we forget how to risk assess ourselves. We are deskilled. We leave decisions about maintaining our safety to government committees. If guided groups are going in Europe, it probably is safe! In Nepal, guides need the money, clients are pushy, and consequently quite large risks may be seen as acceptable.
As a tea house owner told us in the aftermath, always use your eyes, ears and your mind. Something that maybe I’ve never really learnt to do to the degree needed in Nepal. Better start now.
We are recovering emotionally and physically in Manang, and then we are off to have a go at this pass that we have been putting off. However, if we don’t like the look of it, using our eyes, ears and mind, we will turn back. Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean we have to. We’ve had enough adrenaline. So that was Tilicho Lake. Can’t say I would want to go back in the same snow conditions.