From Melrose Place to Chala Pass The mountainfreak’s guide to skiing and riding the Himalayas By Peter Chrzanowski Hmmmm, so you want to ski and surf the Himalayas. There have, indeed, been many "serious" expeditions attempting to climb and ski in the Himalayas. Most of these have been very well organized conquests, such as the exploits of famous ski mountaineers like Swiss skieur díimpossible, Sylvain Saudan on Pakistan’s Hidden Peak, or Frenchman Pierre Tardivel’s descent of Mount Everest. I was part of one such grandiose expedition last year, but that’s another story. Let’s get on with the real tale here. Our adventure is one of a makeshift, rag tag expedition, really put together in a charming Kathmandu bar called Melrose Place. The Himalayas of Nepal are truly large and imposing mountains. Their peaks often tower, almost menacingly, high above the deep, tropical valleys. Those eternal snows, when first looked upon by us, really did seem distant and unapproachable from Melrose Place. The mountains project themselves as unattainable, and they certainly seem that way when glancing at them from way down in the valley bottoms. I had spent numerous years climbing and skiing in Peru. There, the Andes too had seemed like such an impenetrable fortresses. The Altiplano of Peru and Bolivia, however, is already at an elevation between 10,000 and 13,000 feet. There is road access fairly close to the Cordilleras themselves. There everything is above treeline and trails to basecamp can be accessed by gear-toting burros. Also, in Peru one can be at a basecamp, ready to acclimatize, within a day’s journey from a town such as Huaraz. What makes the Himalayas different is their higher elevations, more rugged and serrated approaches and an initially lengthy march in from the nearest point of arrival. In Nepal, it is a minimum 4-5 day trek just to get to the base of these giants. Often 4-5 days includes spending around $300US per person on a local return flight. The towns in the areas we were interested in are accessed by local Nepalese airlines. One is Jomson in the Annapurna region. The other being Lukla, a town in the Khumbu or Everest area. Although on our trip we scouted out the Annapurna region very well, we did all our skiing in the Khumbu National Park. In general, the Himalayas simply demand more time from the visitor if he or she wishes to shred their sacred slopes. But time has always been an advantage to the mountainfreak. Since our breed of visitors are usually not as stressed out as the bigger sponsored expeditions, time is on our side. Creatures like us "mountainfreaks" can really make the best of skiing the Himalayas, simply if we take the time to do it. While regular expeditions are driven by sponsors’ deadlines and priorities waiting back home, time is a different element for the freak. The mountainfreak usually spends most of his resources just getting to the exotic location of his or her choice. From here on life is all good. Food and local transport are dirt cheap in Nepal, just as they are in Peru. Local porters run only about $3-$4 a day. Yaks are more expensive. They can carry more gear, but on the other hand are also troublesome. The price of a yak is about as much as two porters. The local porters will also act as your guides and often double up as excellent cooks. As far as food goes, do most of your shopping in Kathmandu as the price goes up drastically and proportionally to carrying time from the nearest road. There are, of course, local specialty items, such as dried apples, available in towns such as Jomson, where they are already packaged and sold dirt cheap. Also, if you require the black combustible type of nourishment, shop for it in Kathmandu’s old Thamal as the villages are not quite ready or prepared for those sorts of mountainfreak supplies. Just remember, Nancy Reagan’s "say no" campaign has made it to Nepal in a big way. The monsoon or rainy season is in full swing in the Khumbu region from June until late September. The best trekking months in Nepal are October and November. However, there are opportunities if you arrive in late July. During that time of year the monsoon rains are not that common in the drier area around the Annapurnas. This is a good time to explore and do some snowboarding or skiing in the Thorong Pass area or venture into the more technical terrain in the Annapurna Massif itself. You can fly as we did to Jomson or take the bumpy bus ride to Pukhara, then continue on until you reach the end of the road. From there, it’s another four-day trek to Jomson. This town is at 9,000 feet. Here one finds the needed porters, horses and/or yaks. Within two days of trekking, you can be in Muktinah, where you should stop and acclimatize at 12,000 feet. Acclimatization is a crucial need, a link which must not be neglected. The longer you acclimatize, the better chances you will have on the mountain. Although I have been at altitude without problems before, it took me three weeks before my body operated at an optimal pace. Once you are in Muktinah you may want to stay a while. It’s a wonderful village of what seems only 1,000 or so people. Around it are great hills to climb while getting used to the altitude. There is a wonderful joint Buddhist/Hindu Monastery. This place really exemplifies the harmony which is ever present in Nepal. Just try to imagine the Baptists and Pentecostals, for example, sharing the same church in our North American culture. Nepal is a land of tolerance and good will. The Nepalese nature is to present good will first then wait, but not necessarily expect reciprocation. This monastery was just another example of that ideology. On clear days in Muktinah there are fabulous views of Dhaulgiri, an impressive 27,000 foot peak. There are also wonders like the Bob Marley Restaurant (and don’t miss the Jimi Hendrix Cafe in Jomson) which caters to the mountainfreak kind of clientele. Guesthouses abound for as low as a $1.50 a night. For longer stays the hotels are used to working out deals with freaks wishing to pitch their tents on the premises. From Muktinah, it is a fairly long and harrowing 4,000 vertical foot climb up to nearly 18,000 feet and Thorong Pass with its approachable glaciers. These are small, not heavily crevassed snowfields, good for a couple hundred turns and easily accessible, without the need of full-on expedition gear. There are notable descents which I hungrily eyed in the Annapurna range but those lines most certainly demanded extensive mountaineering experience. I scouted some impressive steep and very first possible descents, but these were almost always bordered by horrendous seracs and generally very crevassed terrain. From Thorong Pass the trail goes downward to Manang. Here I recommend a side trip up towards Tilicho Lake, one of the highest lakes in the world at 17,000 feet. En route one will pass through the Annapurna basecamp on this side of the range. Around the lake there are several impressive peaks. I would recommend to be very wary of the slopes facing the lake as they are riddled with nasty icefalls. Towering above is Tilicho Peak, accessible by a ridge from the far end of the lake. Around Manang itself there are several impressive mountains which we hungrily eyed with turns in mind. Again these were fairly crevassed but any seasoned ski mountaineer would probably agree there are possible descents in between the cracked ice. From Manang the traveller has the option of continuing downstream and back towards Pukhara and the nearest road with a bus on it. The other alternative is to backtrack to Jomson. Many people book return flights to Jomson and do the Annapurna routine via this fashion. After Annapurna we flew into Lukla, which is certainly a trip in itself. The Canadian made Dash 7 planes used for this trip land uphill on a slant on a short gravel runway. The uphill tilt compensates for the shortness of the runway. Taking off is all downhill. From Lukla within two days of good paced trekking and one can be in Namche Bazaar, where you can pick up climbing equipment, if needed. Our route took us up towards Gokyo. Looking over maps we figured there would be more skier friendly glaciers accessible in that direction, rather then the Everest basecamp area. Within three days and some memorable nights we were standing at Gokyo, elevation 16,000 feet. From here our planned route was towards Everest Basecamp, over the 17,000 foot high Chala pass. But getting to Gokyo was proved hazardous for our new travelling companions Guli and Martin. Pawel and I had been well acclimatized from our reconnaissance trek in the Annapurnas but Guli and Martin were not. From day one I warned Martin to slow down his pace. The best advice I ever received when trekking at altitude was to always be able to carry on a conversation while walking. "That way," one seasoned mentor, told me, "you never get out of breath and develop a pace which your body can’t handle." Sure enough, in reaching Gokyo, Martin was sick. We had him return down to the lower village to sleep for the night. Now having an extra day we pondered something nearby to ski and snowboard. Off in the opposite direction of Chala Pass we scouted a mellow looking glacier. We did some location scouting the eve before and set out for our goal the following day. Within a three hour hike we were strapping on our Mountain Noodle skis and a Nitro Splitboard. The snow was wet and summer-like, due to the recently passed monsoons. It did not matter though, we were doing it — shredding Nepal’s Himalayas! It was awkward and hard work at this altitude. I estimated we had to be somewhere around 18,000 feet. The glacier was perfect with only slightly crevassed areas near the uppermost sections where it met with the snow faces reaching for the higher peaks above. It was a perfect trial run. After playing hard all day, we returned to Gokyo finding Martin had returned feeling much better. Next day we packed up and headed towards Chala Pass. On the way to Chala Pass we discovered a wealth of skiable terrain. We were still a bit early, it being only the first week of September, so it was cat and mouse with the weather. The mornings were usually clear but by afternoon clouds and sometimes rain would hamper any prolonged ski and snowboard excursions. That was all right, however, as we were on an exploratory mission. Real die hard mountainfreaks could always do pre dawn alpine-style starts, but for us, it was just a pleasure being there and getting in the turns when we did. I might also add that our porters were doing some amazing feats themselves. It was here, too, that Guli got sick. We found him wandering in the meadows one day hallucinating and babbling with sure signs of Cerebral Edema. He had felt bad one morning and we advised him to start down earlier by himself. We had gone skiing again that day and were lucky to run into him on the way back to camp. Pawel accompanied him to a lower village and sent him back to Namche and a safer altitude with a local shepherd. Despite our warnings and insistence, our two young 19 year old sherpas had refused to bring adequate clothing or camping gear for themselves. Therefore, each night, our friends would help us set up camp, then scurry down and sleep in the nearest village several hours away. In the morning they would be back with us, usually making tea by 7 a.m. At first we felt bad, but we soon found these guys were perfectly happy running around up and down these valleys without heavy loads, which they had left at our respective campsites. They each had been carrying at least 80 pounds while we struggled to keep up with lighter 40 pound loads. And so we followed this routine all the way over Chala Pass where we camped and skied our most impressive glacier, reaching elevations of nearly 19,000 feet. In a nutshell, folks, that was our trip of 11 days. From Chala Pass we were down in Namche within two short days. Another day and we were praying for a lucky ride as the plane took off, downhill, from Lukla back to Kathmandu. There we retired again to Melrose Place and began organizing Kathmandu’s first ever techno-rave party. It was also at Melrose Place where we met Diana, the Russian Shaman lady who had all us disbelievers walk on sharp, broken glass. But hey, that’s another story too.