Scaling Nepal’s Mammoth Mountain

A traveller embraces meditative sights and heights on her hike to the Mardi Himal Base Camp. | By Alicia Erickson  
Mardi Trek 1
In terms of difficulty, the Mardi Himal trek is an easier hike than Annapurna and Everest Base Camp treks. Photo by: SAUGATJOSHI/shutterstock

As I set out on a late November morning, the sky is heavy with the promise of rain. For the next five days, Babu, my Nepali guide and I, will be walking across the cultivated valleys and glacial terrain of the Himalayas in pursuit of Mardi Himal Base Camp, a lesser known peak in Nepal’s Annapurna Range. After a 40-minute taxi ride from Pokhara, we reach the small town of Kande, the trek’s starting point. Mardi Himal is a peak in the Annapurna region sitting at 5,587 metres. While diminished in stature by taller peaks in the Nepali Himalayas, Mardi Himal is still quite a workout for non-expert climbers. The mountain was first summited in 1951 though the trek itself has remained off the radar until it was reopened in 2012.

 

Rhythm of the hike

Tired from a poor night of sleep, I find the first day of hiking arduous. We hike past farms and houses with grazing cows. The initial adrenaline from the morning has worn off and my backpack’s pull weighs me down. We climb up and down through a forest thick with fog. I walk through corridors of trees and under twisted branches draped in moss before entering a bamboo forest. By early evening, after about eight hours of hiking, we reach Forest Camp, our resting grounds for the night.

At Forest Camp, I am pleasantly surprised to find a private room with a bed and thick blankets. I join other tired hikers in the common room for dinner, gathered around the only source of heat: a small wood-burning stove. At the end of dinner, Babu presents me with a plate of ornately arranged apples, bananas, and pomegranate seeds. The menu is the same at every tea house: potatoes, pasta, noodle soup, momos. Many variations of carbs, decreasing in quality the higher we climb. The fresh fruit is a welcome sight. Departing the common room, I realise how cold it is outside and bundle myself in another pair of pants, socks, scarf, sweater, and gloves before crawling into my sleeping bag.

Mardi Trek

Mardi Himal trek follows a quieter trail, that is only occasionally interrupted by locals going about their daily work. Photo by: Alicia Erickson

The next couple of days follow the same blurred pattern. We typically hike 10-15 kilometres a day, the elevation a challenge the higher we get. There are a handful of tea houses along the way where we rest for a lunch or chai break. The fatigue of the first day has dissipated and I fall into a rhythm, enjoying the simplicity of walking. Aside from meeting the occasional fellow trekker or passing a local, the trails are quiet.

I find a meditation in the pattern—the echoes of birdsong; the damp smell of the soggy, forest floor thick with fallen leaves. I listen to Babu’s stories of growing up in rural Nepal, of coming to Pokhara for work, of his years spent working as a guide, his love for the Nepalese Himalayas, and his passion to protect the environment.

Late in the afternoon of the second day, the shaded forest opens up into an expansive view where jagged, snowy peaks rise up from the sky. We are approaching High Camp, where we will rest before making the climb to Base Camp the next morning.

The higher we are, the sparser and more expensive the accommodation and food. For the remainder of the evening, I huddle around the fire inside the simple teahouse and dig into yet another bowl of noodle soup. At 3,580 metres, fatigue and fuzziness of the mind are real factors.

 

Base camp beckons

After a few hours of sleep interrupted by vivid altitude-induced dreams, we set out in the middle of the night. Beneath the liquid black sky, the rocky and precarious route is invisible to the human eye. I am bundled up in multiple layers of fleece and wind gear. Babu leads the way up the side of a cliff. Only nine kilometres and a 1,000 metre-elevation gain to go until Base Camp, which sits at a soaring 4,500 metres. Perhaps it is best I can hardly see the precipitous path ahead.

The sun rises suddenly and swiftly, revealing the ridges surrounding us, draped in gold-washed hues of dawn. With each step, I draw closer to the Annapurna range, coming face-to-face with dozens of peaks over 6,000 and 7,000 metres-high. There is scarcely a space between the ground and the sky. I am walking on top of the world, standing on a golden grassy plateau wrapped in a tangle of sky and clouds, hugging the snowy hips of the Himalayas.

Mardi Trek 3

Trekkers regularly load up on hearty carbs and steaming cups of chai at small teahouses and guesthouses along the way. Photo by: NavinTar/shutterstock

As we reach the resting point between High Camp and Base Camp, the morning sun beats down upon us. Even so, piercing wind numbs my hands and face. I huddle inside an open-air shack, where two workers cook popcorn over the fire. I clutch a hot cup of milk chai, allowing the steam to thaw my face as the liquid warms my insides one satisfying sip at a time.

Just a few miles to go but each step is more gruelling than the last as the air becomes thinner. “We are almost there!” Babu encourages me. I stop every few steps to sharply inhale, breathless from the high altitude. We walk along the spine of the Himalayas, down into grassy gorges and up steep trails to the backdrop of pale blue silhouettes stacked into the horizon. We are now face-to-face with white peaks thick with layers of ice and snow, accumulated over many seasons gone by.

The wind is astonishingly cold, the force of it not to be underestimated. Only a few other trekkers are at the top, leaving me in solitude to soak up the serenity and momentarily memorise each detail. The silence echoes across the sloped plateau. I walk towards the edge, as close as I can get to Mardi Himal and the Annapurna range. From the clouds, rise up statuesque peaks of sculpted slate-grey contours. It feels anti-climactic to turn around and leave so suddenly, undoing all the distance we have travelled.

Now we largely just retrace our steps. By evening we have to make it to Rest Camp, a teahouse at 6,500 feet. I walk slowly to absorb each detail of the trek, of the mountains falling further into the distance.

 

Downward in a daze

Mardi Trek 2

Starting from the town of Pokhara in Nepal, the route dips through scenic forest clearings and golden grassy stretches. Photo by: Niti Thanomsri/shutterstock

The next day and a half blur together after we descend below the ridgeline and back into the forest. On the morning of our last full day, we head to Ghachack, a village at 6,000 feet. Hearing a not-so-distant ringing of bells, I run through the forest and into sun-soaked fields where I find yaks grazing, their shaggy coats of chestnut and ebony fur hanging heavy and bells around their necks clanking away.

Before too long, we reach Mardi Himal Ecovillage, a simple and clean tea house, where we are the only guests for the night. The facilities are a significant upgrade from previous nights. I head straight for the shower—my first one on the trek. Feeling like a new person, I sit on the expansive cement veranda overlooking valleys of farmland below, with views of Mardi Himal behind us. I slowly stretch my sore muscles, delighting in the sunshine.

That night, I tuck into a tasty meal of homemade dal bhat, a Nepalese staple of rice, dal, and various other curries and pickled vegetables. In the morning we will be walking our final few miles before heading back to Pokhara. Rather than being exhausted from the previous five days of hiking, I am energised. I am eager to roam more land dotted with Mongolian villages and scale even grander peaks. I linger just a bit longer under the bed of stars adorning the mountain sky, feeling the rush of the cool wind and the vast nothingness only found in the Himalayas.

 

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Essentials

Depending on your pace and your route, you can choose from a three night to a six-night duration for the trek. Extending the trek will slow down the ascent and add more stops on the way down. The writer travelled with Eastern Light Trek (easternlighttrek.com; cost $250/Rs18,824 onwards for 4 night/5 days), which secured all necessary permits, arranged a guide, medical supplies, rides to and from the starting and ending points. April, May, and October are prime trekking months. Shoulder seasons like March and November are also a good time to consider going, with less crowds and a chance for favourable weather.

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