Waking up to falling snow sounds romantic, but it’s the last thing you want while trekking.
Particularly when you’re going to attempt a dangerous crossing over an unstable scree field, and the risk of rockfall increases when it’s snowing. No matter how experienced you are at trekking, a rock to the head is game over.
This was the scenario that greeted me as I left Manang for Tilicho Base Camp. There’d been a nervous atmosphere in the lodge’s common room that morning as different tables debated whether it was safe to go.
My party had decided that it was, so I set out up the valley with Brendan and Ali. Yesterday, the Annapurna Massif’s lower slopes had been rocky — today they were pure white. Thick clouds blanketed the mountains, the grand landscape felt claustrophobic with the sky so near.
Devoid of trees, there was no protection from the freezing wind as we walked towards Khangsar. The trail was covered by ice, a constant menace when combined with the drop into the gorge.
As we crossed a swaying bridge I spotted some blue sheep drinking from the river below. It was a thrill to see wild animals in their natural habitat. But there was more to come.
We arrived in Khangsar, a lovely village with large Buddhist gates that led onto its cobbled main street. We stopped in a teahouse, and chatted to a local about the weather conditions. “Don’t worry, the trail to Tilicho Lake will be safe,” he said. And so began the game of misinformation that dominates trekking in Nepal.
In our modern age, it’s hard to imagine a time when the weather dictated your chances of survival. But not up here. All decisions were made with the weather in mind.
But conditions changed so fast in the Himalayas that weather reports were useless. That’s if we could even get them in the first place. There was no radio or internet coverage. Instead, we relied on the opinions of guides and other trekkers, with everyone having conflicting views.
“We’ve given up, there’s a massive snowstorm forecast for this afternoon!” exclaimed a German group we’d met after Khangsar. Ten minutes later, a Mexican couple coming down the trail foretold, “it was safe at Lake Tilicho this morning, but tomorrow, who knows.” The final word came from a Nepali trekking guide, “I don’t risk it,” he said, “remember what happened in 2014.”
A snowstorm had struck the region in October 2014 and killed 43 trekkers. It was a terrible reminder that the stakes were high up here. We stopped for lunch and discussed whether to continue. Fed up with the hearsay and incomplete information, we decided to risk it. We would push on to Tilicho Base Camp, staying the night there before climbing to Tilicho Lake the next morning. Hopefully.
After finishing our hot meals we stepped out into the snow. The trail became steeper and much more exposed. A slip would be punished by a long fall to the valley’s bottom.
I then heard rocks clattering above me. A large blue sheep was staring at us, his harem following closely behind. I could sense how anxious he was to protect them. We all stopped and watched the herd run with astonishing agility across the treacherous slopes.
This marked the start of the most dangerous part of the trail. A sign warned that we were now entering a landslide area. A vast scree field spread out before us, large boulders were balanced precariously above the trail. We spread out, moving quickly and keeping our eyes peeled for any falling rocks.
The landscape was wonderfully alien, a rocky desert that looked more like the moon than the Himalayas. The rocky formations held so much mystery, shrouded in the damp clouds. Without any drama we were soon across the scree field, it had not been as dangerous as I’d been led to believe. Or maybe we’d got lucky.
The trail rounded a corner and looming down on us was a giant glacier, the trench it had gouged fenced in by sharp peaks. At the bottom was Tilicho Base Camp, a tiny settlement of cold lodges. The trail to Tilicho Lake started from here and then disappeared into the mist.
We found a lodge to stay in and then huddled around the fire in the common room. I shivered as snow fell inside through gaps in the roof. We all hoped it would stop soon, so that we could safely reach the lake tomorrow.
But it didn’t. As I went to bed that night, the snowfall became even heavier — with near disastrous consequences.
After trekking from Manang to Tilicho Base Camp, I continued on to Tilicho Lake which you can read about here.
You can find more about my trek around the Annapurna Circuit at the links below: