Ursus and I talked as we warmed ourselves up in the morning sun. He told me about his ad agency, and I told him about leaving my job to travel for a year. Ursus laughed and gave me a knowing smile. “After a trip like that, you are different,” he said. “You cannot go back into the system.” Later I saw Ursus pick up a piece of trash someone had left on the trail, and I decided he was a genuinely good guy.
It took less than five hours for us to hike from Bsailiksarka to Khopra Ridge, but the slight elevation gain (only about 60 meters) was deceiving – as usual, we seldom saw level ground. We left the forest behind and now walked through grass and scrub brush, sometimes crossing fast-moving streams that rushed down from the surrounding mountains.
Elie Crossing a Stream
Ursus on the Way to Khopra Ridge
Shasu, Our Assistant Guide
The clouds moved in at mid-day, a pattern we now recognized as regular, but when Khopra Ridge came into view we could still see enough to recognize it as special. The ridge occupied a thin area of flat land bordered by steep drop-offs on three sides. To the northwest rose Dhaulagiri and to the northeast, very close to us, towered the western end of the Annapurna range, including Annapurna South, Varaha Shikhar, and Nilgiri South. The views, even when partially blocked by the clouds, were truly incredible.
My First View of Khopra Ridge
Varaha Shikhar and Annapurna South
Two kinds of gray stone buildings occupied the ridge itself – a trekking lodge on the south side and a yak farm on the north side, divided only by a low rock wall. All the yaks were grazing out of sight when we arrived, but that evening we heard the bells around their necks as the herder brought them back to the pen by their barn.
Yak Herder’s House on Khopra Ridge
Dining Hall in Khopra Ridge
That afternoon we gathered around the stove in the dining hall. Our porters fed the fire with a steady supply of wood and yak dung, which, surprisingly, didn’t smell bad at all. Khopra Ridge was cold, and without the stove we would have had to bundle up in our sleeping bags to stay warm. Penny, who at no point ever complained about her feet, had had a tough day, and by the time we reached Khopra Ridge there were tears in her eyes. Only when pressed would she admit that the pain in her feet – when the pain killers wore off – was brutal. We asked Ursus if he could use pure consciousness to heal Penny’s feet. “For it to work, she has to believe,” he said with a laugh.
Penny Toughing It Out
In the late afternoon the clouds backed off a little and I went out for more photos.
Dhaulagiri Above the Clouds
Varaha Shikhar and Annapurna South Near Sunset in B&W
Penny and Shawn on Khopra Ridge
Back in the dining hall Bharat told us that he thinks there are Yetis in Nepal. He said he’s never seen one himself, but he believes a story told to him by a retired Gurkha soldier who lives alone in a house on a mountain. One night, Bharat said, the soldier heard a cry that was “human but not human.” The soldier knew every animal in the area, and the sound he heard couldn’t have been made by any of them. “It is a Yeti, he knows,” Bharat said.
We asked Bharat about snow leopards. He said he’s only seen one, but he was close, no more than 20 meters away. That triggered Bharat to tell a related story that he started by saying, “I was guide for a group of the WWF.”
“The WWF?” I asked. “You guided a group of wrestlers?” My brain caught up with my mouth as I was saying the word “wrestlers,” and – luckily – I managed to spit out, “Oh, the World Wildlife Federation, not the World Wrestling Federation” before the rest of the group could pounce on my stupidity. We had fun picturing Bharat leading Andre the Giant and Randy Macho Man Savage up to Khopra Ridge.
Day 5 – Khopra Ridge (3660m) to Khayer Lake (5050m) back to Khopra Ridge (3660m)
Out of the tent before dawn, wearing almost all the clothes I had with me, I watched the mountains surrounding Khopra Ridge gradually appear in the morning light. Yaks slept on the hillside, their coats covered with a layer of frost.
Khopra Ridge Before Dawn
Frost-Covered Yak Starting a New Day
First Light on Annapurna South from Khopra Ridge
Our Tents at Sunrise on Khopra Ridge
Yak Herding at Sunrise
Breakfast at Khopra Ridge
Owner of the Khopra Ridge Tea House
Our hike today would be our most difficult of the trek, by far. We would gain about 1,400 meters in elevation as we climbed to a lake that sits at an altitude above 5,000 meters, far higher than I’d ever been before. And then we’d hike all the way back down. Bharat said it would probably take us about nine hours. We started, as usual, under sunny skies, and the first few hours passed quickly.
Leaving for Khayer Lake
Tato, Penny and Shawn on the Trail to Khayer Lake
Tato Contemplating the Big Questions
Shasu Taking a Break
Tato, Shawn and Ursus Going Up
Gut Check for Penny
Shawn and Shasu Leading the Way
Shawn Taking a Break
By the time we stopped for lunch we were all struggling. Penny had been crying – not because of her feet, she explained later, but because in the thin air she felt like she was suffocating. Tato seemed to be in worse shape. He couldn’t stay warm. At one point he appeared to check out and wouldn’t respond to us when we asked if he was OK. But hot tea and some shadow-boxing from Elie brought him back around. We all found our second wind and started climbing again.
Just Below Khayer Lake
Closing in on Khayer Lake
Finally we arrived. The lake itself wasn’t especially impressive, but we didn’t care – the fact that we reached it mattered more. Partly for fun and partly to keep warm, Bharat, Shasu (our assistant guide), and the porters started dancing, eventually drawing in Shawn, Penny, and Tato.
Our Group at Khayer Lake
Penny at Khayer Lake
Hermit Hut Overlooking Khayer Lake
Dancing at 5,000 Meters (Video)
We spent less than an hour at the lake, very aware that we needed to make it back down to Khopra Ridge before dark.
Day 6 – Khopra Ridge (3600m) to Swanta (2400m)
Our second dawn on the ridge turned out to be as clear and beautiful as our first.
Clouds Sweeping Khopra Ridge Before Dawn
Ursus Before Dawn
Old Dining Hall at Sunrise
First Sunlight on Annapurna South
Penny Watching the Sunrise
Yak Herder at Dawn
Frost-Covered Baby Yak
Clouds Passing Annapurna South
We were all worn out from our big hike the day before. Tato said he didn’t get any sleep at all. “I forgot to put on my undershirt and I was too cold for sleep,” he told us.
“Once you realized you were cold, why didn’t you just put on your undershirt?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I thought about putting it on, man, but then it was morning.” Tato had his own way of doing things. Earlier he had complained that his camera’s battery was almost dead. Penny said he should charge it the next time we have electricity. “But I didn’t bring the charger,” Tato responded.
Penny followed up with the obvious question: “Why not?”
“I am very emotional in the way I live my life,” Tato explained. “That is the way I am. I wanted to take the risk.”
When Elie woke up he discovered that his eye was red and almost swollen shut. He said he felt fine, but he didn’t look fine. Thankfully we only had four hours of hiking ahead of us that day, so we could start slow.
We spent the morning going steeply downhill, and for the first time I began to feel a little bored. I wondered if yesterday, when we reached the literal high point of the trek, had we also reach the figurative high point? The terrain shifted back to forest again and the clouds moved in earlier than usual.
Shawn and Penny Napping After Lunch
Before long we walked into Swanta, a small town that for some reason had a concrete basketball court – the first I’d seen in Nepal. The town also had two tea houses, but we spent two days there and never saw another tourist. The locals didn’t seem to mind posing for photos, and I finally had a chance to take some portraits.
Man Near Swanta
Swanta Woman in B&W
Hooded Woman in Swanta
Swanta Farmer in B&W
That afternoon Shawn, Penny and I went out to explore the town. We didn’t know where we were going and most of the paths seemed to pass right through private yards. If I was alone I probably would have turned back, but, thankfully, Shawn had no problem powering through, and every time we bumped into locals they seemed happy (or at least amused) to see us. At one point we passed an old man laying face-down in the dirt. “Is he OK?” we asked a woman standing nearby.
“Too much drink,” she said.
Woman and Baby in Swanta
Woman in Swanta
Man Chopping Vegetables
After dinner that night some of the locals gathered in the small kitchen next to the guest house and started singing and dancing. We ordered beers and joined the party. Every time we started a new beer, the locals encouraged us to toast by yelling “Chakmati!”, after which they always burst out laughing. We asked Bharat to translate “Chakmati” for us. “I cannot,” said Bharat, looking embarrassed. We pressed him. “It is like ‘ass,’” he finally told us, “but also something else.” Good enough!
Dancing in Swanta
Singing and Dancing in Swanta (Video)