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Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Road Trip Adventures: The Mountains of Pokhara

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3 June, 1950. Both men are spent, their breathing hoarse and every step  now a battle against the conditions. The snow scatters as the ice axe strikes the earth again. The temperature is well below freezing point, and visibility is low. There will be a storm soon. It is but a regular day in the life of a mountain 8000 metres above sea level.

Moments later, the first man lets out a cry. Maurice Herzog has become the first man in the world to climb Annapurna. Louis Lachenal scambles up the last few metres and both men raise their hands in triumph.

At 8091 metres, Annapurna is the first mountain over 8000 metres that man conquers.

22nd October 2013: We are ready for our second day’s drive. The Mahindra Tri Nation Adventure Car Rally day 2 schedule reads – Shivpatinagar to Pokhara (200 kms).  Shivpatnagar is a small UP town near the Nepal border. Actually, I like the place where we are staying – the Royal Retreat. Once upon a time the hunting lodge of Raja Shivpati Singh, it is now a heritage hotel.  We reached here the previous night after driving 850 kilometres from Delhi on day one. The property has huge gardens, a lake in a wooden glade, and mango orchards.

The convoy rolls out as per schedule and we cross the Nepal border at Sunauli. We stop briefly at the Mahindra showroom where we are welcomed warmly. The cars move again soon and we cover an easy 24 km straight stretch before stepping into the mountains.  We drive up the Terai region and here begins a 35 km long brake-testing ascent to Butwal. This relentlessly turning and twisting road to Pokhara is the Siddhartha Highway. After leaving behind the landslide prone stretch near Butwal , the convoy passes through the highest point on the highway. Soon we are crossing over the Kali Gandaki river at Ramdi Ghat - a site for many caves. The road descends by the steep gorge and we are almost parallel to the river floor.

Sixty three years ago, the French Alpine Club puts together a mountaineering team. Louis Lachenal, Lionel Terray and Rebuffat, three skilled professional mountain guides form the nucleus of this team. Maurice Herzog, the lone amateur, is made the leader of the group as per the amateur ideals of mountaineering. Together, they go up the Kali Gandak valley in April 1950, probably on the same mud where today road stands and our convoy is driving through. They try to examine the Dhaulagiri (another 8000 plus metres mountain) from the north and eastern face, and after Herzog declares it “fiendishly difficult”, the expedition turns its attention towards Annapurna, previously unknown.

The highway starts to go up the mountain again and once we near Syanja village, the hills rear up spectacularly and the scenery is dramatically beautiful. By late evening, we reach the Pokhara Grande Hotel and retire to our rooms. Our room is nice and spacious, and after covering  1100 kms in two days, I am glad to lie in the hot bath tub.

I come face to face with Annapurna early next morning. 

It is by chance that I wake up around 6 am, and walk out groggily to the reception. A few members of our group are standing outside looking at something and I join them. I stagger when I look at what stands in front of me. Straight ahead, the Annapurna range looms high in the sky.  Five peaks, Annapurna I,II,III,IV and Machu Puchre (Fish Tail) stand out from the rest.

While climbing Annapurna, Terray and Herzog are the strongest and acclimatise to it best but when the supply chain stalls, Terray gives up his shot at the peak in favour of pushing supplies. From camp IV, Lachenal and Herzog are the two who will attempt conquering the  summit.  As they plod on, without supplementary oxygen, Lachena is terrified as his leather boots don’t offer sufficient insulation. Afraid that he might get frostbitten, he asks Herzog what the latter would do if he chose to turn back. A disgusted Herzog replies that he would continue come what may. “Then, I’ll follow you” replies Lachenal. On June 3, they conquer the summit. An ecstatic Herzog stand there blithely while Lachenal prepares to come down. As they descend, Herzog takes off his gloves to open his rucksack and watches in horror as the gloves fall down the mountain. He will pay for the mistake dearly.

The descent turns out to be a terror. In freezing conditions, Herzog and Lachenal try to find their way. Terray and Rebuffat climb up to help them. Terray finds Lachenal lying in the snow, desperately trying to get to the doctor at a lower camp. As afternoon turns to night, a storm takes over the entire mountain and they spend an agonizing night in a crevasse, lost and weak. When the storm loses its vigour, Terray and Rebuffat try to find a route in the blanket of white and suffer from snow blindness.

Both men, Lachenal and Herzog, suffer from frostbite and their toes are amputated once they reach lower altitudes. As Herzog lost his gloves, all his fingers too are amputated. How much more can a man pay for a mistake.

We have a rest day in Pokhara. Everybody has their own plans on how to spend the day. We form a group of ten and take two cars to Sarangkot, which is supposed to have spectacular views of the Himalayas. We pass Pokhara Taxi stand and go up the hill. When we reach the view point, we see the road still continuing forward, so we decide to pursue it. The road worsens ahead, it is all mud and rock now with huge depressions.  As our Scorpios bounce up and down the uneven terrain, I stare at the gorge plunging hundreds of metres down,  just a foot or two away from our car.  Although not planned, this is our first offroading experience in this trip and I like this new flavour. The Tri Nation road trip is not just about driving for long hours, it is also about driving through every possible variety of terrain, and about testing our skills.

Finally after a horrendous three four kilometre stretch, we reach the outskirts of a village. A pond, a small school, and a few small houses dot the road. We stop near a large patch of grass and get out of our cars. One can see the whole valley below from here. The Phewa lake glimmers below in the morning sunlight.

As we walk back to the cars, I look fascinatedly at two women. One is a European girl of twenty, the other is a sixty year old Nepalese local. One is in harem pants and a tee that doesn’t look washed in days, the other is in the traditional dress of the community.  One has messy hair that somehow add personality to her appearance, the other has neatly tied her dark hair ina bun. The girl sits on the outside wall of a house rolling a joint, and the old lady stands next to her. Together, they smoke it turn by turn and I can’t help but smile.

Sarangkot, or the village yonder still lives in a slow world, a world very different from ours’ in the cities.

We drive back to the view point. The guide books were right, the view is spectacular. In silence, we all sit, and look at the five main peaks of the Annapurna range. Fish Tail, or Machu Puchre as the locals call it, is lovely, jutting out and looking very different from the rest.

When Herzog returned to France, he became a national hero in a country struggling with the after effects of World War 2. As he lay in hospital for months, plunged in depression, he dictated what would eventually become the most bestselling mountaineering book in history. The title? Annapurna. When The Paris Match magazine shared the picture of him on the summit, it broke all sales records for them. They went on to call Herzog France’s “number one national hero” while Lachenal did not get a single mention. Herzog went on to become minister of sport and youth while Lachenal died an unknown figure five years later in a skiing accident.

The sky is full of paragliders. They are like big colourful blobs, flying with the thermals, soaring with the birds. A number of our group members try it and tell us later that it is a fantastic experience, to be flying like that, with the mightiest Himalayan peaks right in front, and a lush valley below.

I love Sarangkot, it's slow life, the little pond where everyone gathers in the evening. The men smoke after a hard day's work, the women discuss what they did the whole day. Boys throw stones in the water to see who can throw the furthest and hence is strongest. They want to catch the eye of the girls their age, it is their biggest reward. Everywhere in the world, we have our own ways of wanting affection. There is no hurry in Sarangkot.

We click a lot of pictures of the mountain range, and then have a late lunch in the restaurant below the view point. It is 430 now and we plan to drive down to Phewa lake to catch the sunset.

In the sixties, Nepal, and consequently Pokhara, was one of the main destinations of the Himalayan Hippies Trail. Hippies from Europe would come over land to India and Nepal via Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan. They used the cheapest travel means available, hitchhiking, bus rides to cut costs and extend as much time away from home as possible. In Nepal and India, they found solace, they found innocence and they found lands which were still away from the tourist glare. They also found a lot of weed. Pokhara was no different.

However, as we drive down to Phewa Lake, a lot has changed from then. There are bright cafes, hundreds of shops selling mountain gear, and dance bars. Tourists walk everywhere. Nepal, much like India, has changed a lot. I like this little town, but I wonder how much more prettier it would have been forty years back.

At the lake, there are multi coloured boats ready to take tourists to a small temple island lying just ahead. There is a large evening crowd, so we just walk by the river. In the falling sunlight, we bond and laugh.

We spend some part of the night by the pool talking and getting to know each other. It is still early days in this trip and as is obvious in any large group, here too people are finding their way with new friends. The Tri Nation road trip is also about the relationships that get formed along the way.

The next day, our convoy leaves for Kathmandu. I look out of the window as we see the Annapurna for the last time. I want to return next year to do the base camp trek and some day I want to climb to the very top, just like two men did in 1950.

Three years after Herzog and Lachenal became the first men to summit an 8000 plus metres peak, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climbed Mount Everest and became living legends. In the ten years of the fifties, thirteen of the fourteen highest mountains in the world were summited, and the fourteenth was summited soon after in 1964. Just how much impact did a French alpine team make in that summer of 1950, on mountaineering, on the world itself.

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Now Read:

1) About Neeraj Narayanan
2) The Road Trip Adventures: A Prologue
3) Climbing up to Tiger's Nest