The Old Road to Kalikot

March 18:
Last weekend, Chris, Jamie, and I walked from Dailekh Bazaar over the Mahabua mountain pass to reach Kalikot, where many of the Kopila kids are from. Mahabua is a sacred mountain in the Dailekh/Kalikot area, and almost all the locals have hiked up it for the mountain temple’s annual pilgrimage.

We had been planning the hike for a few weeks, but that certainly didn’t mean we were fully prepared for the final ascent (see below). Seeing as Dailekh is a great source of roofing slate and I am hoping to use slate roofing on our PrePrimary campus, it made sense to travel up to the region and survey the available product.

The slate roofs of Dailekh.

The slate roofs of Dailekh.

After a half day of work last Friday, we took a 3-hour car ride to Dalikeh. The next day, we set out at 7:30 and walked for 9 hours along ridges towards snowy peaks, eventually reaching snow at the end of the day. I had a hand-drawn “map” by Juda, one of my workers, and we consulted it the entire walk. The day was long, but a relatively consistent climb in which we didn’t cross a single river.

A man sharpens a huge saw used for cutting lumber.

A man sharpens a huge saw used for cutting lumber.

These red rhododendron trees increased in density and brightness as we climbed.

These red rhododendron trees increased in density and brightness as we climbed.

These massive gabion walls are part of a recent initiative by the Indian government to build roads through western Nepal. The aim is to increase the accessibility to potential hydroelectric sites.

These massive gabion walls are part of a recent initiative by the Indian government to build roads through western Nepal. The aim is to increase the accessibility to potential hydroelectric sites.

March 15:
It’s just about 7. I slept horribly for much of the night until 3:30, only to realize my body was keeping me awake so I could drink water. I had two beers last night, but they clearly were no substitute.

Unipata, the cold and quiet town just beneath Mahabua.

Unipata, the cold and quiet town just beneath Mahabua.

It is shockingly cold outside, as this adventure intensifies and becomes less of a happy-go-lucky affair. Our map from Juda Malla proved very useful on the way up to last nights town, Unipata. This town is the last inhabited place before the pass over Mahabua (a sacred mountain whose name means “huge father” or perhaps “big daddy”).
Mahabua itself is surrounded in great mystery. Googling it doesn’t give any results, and there was little consensus by the people in Dailekh Bazaar which snow capped peak was the big daddy.
Well, now we know which it is, waking up this morning, soon to set out on the part of the trek that Juda Malla indicated with scribble lines meaning “DHEREI APTARO RA UKALO” (VERY DIFFICULT AND STEEP). Given that last night it rained and sleeted for 30 minutes, it may be tougher than even capital letters can justify.

Juda's Map, from Dailkeh Bazaar to Mahabua Lekh (Peak).

Juda’s Map, from Dailkeh Bazaar to Mahabua Lekh (Peak).

There are three homes in this place, and the upper neighbors were extremely friendly and actually knew Juda Malla. I asked one of them to be our guide up and down the pass, and intend to grab him before we set out.

It boggles my mind that people stay up here in these conditions. No power, up to 3′ of snow, no animals besides goats, almost no farmland, and the nearest town with modern-ish amenities is a 9 hour walk away. No doubt it’s the intermittent traffic on this road that keeps the people here.
Our hosts are a young couple with a 5 year old daughter. The house is made from all stone, including the roof. The bathroom is on the side of a cliff and is a drainage pipe clogged with soil. The highest ceiling in the home is about 5.5′ tall, and the smoke from the kitchen fills the entire house with an eye-stinging fury. At 7:30, a thick fog enveloped the whole mountain and a light rain began to fall. It is freezing cold, and we are unable to escape the smoke of the fire without going out into the cold, wet rain. Kris’ eyes are blood-red and leaking tears.

All day and getting into bed, the entire house is filled with eye-stinging smoke.

All day and getting into bed, the entire house is filled with eye-stinging smoke.

We are about to go talk to our guide and ask about the prospects of leaving today. To stay the whole day would amount to misery, and a big delay in our plans to get to Oda. Plus, there’s no guarantee tomorrow would be suitable weather, either. It’s a 6-hour trip to Oda on a clear day, and surely the climb down the north face of Mahabua will take more than the estimated 2-hours in this weather. We’d need to leave by noon to be sure to get to Dilikot at least.

March 16:
We went yesterday, just the three of us, and ten minutes into the precipitous climb a wind and snowfall picked up around us. 30 minutes in and we were drenched with snow melting on our packs and bodies. 40 minutes in and the trail took a confusing turn and the wind and snow raged furiously around us. I eventually found the trail, but Kris (perhaps wisely) insisted we turn back. By this time, the snow was falling sideways. I felt pulsing with life and adventure, and it was physically and mentally painful to turn around, but I could never insist someone go on against their will for fear of self-blaming in case they had an accident. Jamie was perhaps more understanding, but I could tell he was reluctant as well.
We turned around and arrived back at the house to play a lengthy game of cribbage. At 2:30, a solo trekker went past and we considered going with him, but the wet clothes and shoes were again a solo-party hindrance. And so we ended up staying that night, playing poker in the smokey home until 9 pm and falling fast asleep.

At 6:30 I woke up and peered through the narrow slits of the door. Clear sky! A beautiful sight. Upon opening the door I saw a world freshly covered with six inches of snow! I laughed and rejoiced in the beauty and at the ridiculous turn of events. How could we find the “trail” leading up the mountain?
We recruited a local (there are 3 men, 3 women, and 1 child in this village) to guide us to the top. His wife told us we MUST not go, and he seemed less hesitant, so I jumped on the opportunity to bring someone who knew the path.
We agreed he would come to our house at 8:30, and we returned to the smokey kitchen to eat a small breakfast.

The snowy sunrise on Morning 2 in Unipata.

The snowy sunrise on Morning 2 in Unipata.

Only twenty minutes before our scheduled departure, a huge surprise – 7 travelers, 6 young students and an older uncle, walked by the house traveling up. We were in luck! A big group and no need for a paid guide.
The apparent leader drank two large cups of rice wine before departing, so we knew we were in competent hands.

March 18:
We set out at 8:40. Immediately, it was clear that the way was a different type of challenge than the day earlier. Any stones, slippery or grippy, were hidden between the snow and if not for our Nepali friends, we could never have found the correct trail – all previous footprints were erased.

The path, only recognizable  here because of its existent width.

The path, only recognizable here because of its existent width.

Twenty minutes into the walk, our fearless leader told me we could not continue because of the snow. I told him to follow me and simply provide directions, and I would clear the path through the whiteness. It was exhausting, but I loved being in front. Not to mention I hadn’t seen snow in years! I must have eaten a full gallon of it during those hours.

The snow was cold, but it certainly gave some advantages – it enabled us to kick in steps on particularly steep areas. For me personally, I felt sure that if I fell I’d have a decent chance to stab into the snow with my arms or legs or walking stick. At some points of the path, a slip or a fall would almost certainly be fatal, and in these places extra caution and focus was obviously required.

One of the more freaky and tricky spots on the trail. In the front, I had to go the long way around, which required you to put a foot on a stone dangling above a 50 foot fall. The shorter way (that Kris is taking in this photo) was slippery but presented low risk of falling.

One of the more freaky and tricky spots on the trail. In the front, I had to go the long way around, which required you to put a foot on a stone dangling above a 50 foot fall. The shorter way (that Kris is taking in this photo) was slippery but presented low risk of falling.

About 20 minutes from the top.

About 20 minutes from the top.

Looking down on the path in the previous photo.

Looking down on the path in the previous photo.

I don’t know how to describe the hike without being boring or sounding melodramatic. The snow and views and being in front and sense of danger put me in a wonderful meditative state. Reaching the top felt truly monumental, even though it only took two hours (that day) and our elevation was only around 13,000 feet. With the previous days failure and after weeks of anticipation, it was simply ecstatic relief to finally reach the pass of that holy mountain.

Reaching the top!

Reaching the top!

Beginning our descent.

Beginning our descent.

I’d like to think that I’m talented at walking weightlessly through snow. The north side of the mountain was a truly gentle slope and after an hour of stunning and occasionally hilarious descent (see the photos/videos) with the rest of the group, I took off from the group and ran in great bounds and leaps down the mountain. Of course, every second or third step I found myself with one leg buried up to my waist, but with the weightlessness and my confidence in the snow, the pace of my joyful prance never let up until I reached dry, grassy ground. Here, I removed my wet clothing, donning sandals and shorts instead, and meditated and basked in the sunlight while waiting for the rest of the group.

Jamie arrived 20 minutes later, and Kris shortly thereafter. We never saw the rest of the group after that (except for Sujan, our guide), continuing down to Oda via a long stone staircase and through the valley of Dilikot.

In Oda, we met up with John, a past fellow at Kopila who has started his own NGO to provide medical care around the Kalikot district. His team has just finished up their first clinic, a beautiful stone and cedar building with 4 medical rooms at 6 bedrooms upstairs.

Also in Oda: http://youtu.be/LFkBrOfQ4m0

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8 comments on “The Old Road to Kalikot

  1. Cass says:

    What an amazing adventure! Sounds like a physically draining yet mentally rejuvenating trip. I know how much you like running down hills so that part must have been really fun. Also, im glad you are safe!

  2. Anonymous says:

    What a thrill to read your account, Luke. Definitely a once in a lifetime journey. Thanks for sharing. You are an excellent writer/storyteller.

  3. Jim Reiman says:

    Thanks for bringing your amazing adventure so vividly to life. I’ve “zeroed” in as best I can using satellite google map and sort of (I think) figured out where you trekked.

    I was wondering if you could make a reservation for me at The White House Hotel in Kilikot – it looks charming.

    143

    jimbo

  4. Josh says:

    Aaaahhhhhhhh! I’m glad you didn’t mention this one to your parents until AFTER you went.

    The run down is my favorite part. Just sayin’…

    -d-

  5. Josh says:

    Slate is a sedimentary rock. Pretty amazing to consider therefore that this mountain was once under water for millions of years. Just adds to the sacredness I’d say

  6. Anthony Thacher says:

    Ah to be young, immortal, and fearless! First thing I did after reading your great write-up was to look for your father’s reaction. A sigh of relief. Reminds me of my sister Nancy’s junior college year at the University of Geneva. The one thing my mother ruled out on the parental permission questionnaire was mountain climbing. One of the first photos she sent back was of her and a friend on a mountainside with a guide named Lambert (who later lost a couple of toes trying to climb Everest). You now have wonderful memories that will be with you for a LOOOOng time. Tim

  7. glacialtides says:

    So, Luke _This is so very cool to see your blog and the work and people of the project you are working on. I will read more later, but I got it. It was very nice to meet you on the flight from Boston to Seattle. I enjoyed our conversation. I will be sharing the view and the team that is working to complete the work. Good fortune to All of you. I will return for further reading. It is good to be home on the western side of Mount Rainier National Park in Buckley, WA.. Ciao! Namaste …Ulric Rainard

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