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Article by Ann Luck in the June 2010 edition of TGO (The Great Outdoors Magazine)

In early May 2010 I received an email from Ann Luck who was one of my fellow trekkers on the Nar, Phu Tilicho Lake trek in the Annapurnas, Nepal. She told me that an illustrated article she had written would be published in the TGO (The Great Outdoors) Magazine in the June 2010 edition. For anyone who's missed it I thought I'd put it her so all can read it. The text is too small on the photos so I've put a transcript below.
It's such a well written article that you must read it. The photos are amazing as sell.
Ann, I hope you don't mind me putting it on-line like this.

Below is a transcript of the text in the above article.

My introduction to the Annapurna region was through the pages of Maurice Herzog’s account of his epic conquest of the first of the 8,000m peaks. The discovery of the 1954 edition of ‘Annapurna’ on the shelves of my great uncle’s book case led to what has become an addiction to the high altitude zones of the Himalaya.

I began trekking in 1994 with a relatively gentle sortie along Kopra Ridge to the holy waters of Kaire Tal at a modest 4,725m (15,500ft). From there the South Face of Annapurna loomed above me. I marvelled at the immense challenge that had faced Chris Bonington’s team a quarter of a century earlier as they made the first ascent of this huge wall of rock and ice. I personally have no aspirations to climb, drawing pleasure from simply trekking within reach of those lofty summits and wondering at the remarkable achievements of those who, perhaps, have a greater spirit of adventure. However, the curiosity of ‘what lies beyond’ leaves me with a sense of frustration — and an excuse to return.
The traditional Annapurna Circuit has had increasingly bad press since the extension of roads along the Kali Gandaki gorge and Marsyangdi valley which now shadow a major part of the route. Despite this, the circuit justifiably remains one of the world’s great walks. If your aim is to wander far from the maddening crowd while still enjoying the magnificence and variety of the Annapurna range, then the Nar/Phu/Tilicho trek around the massif must be at the top of your wish list. For many years the wildest and most beautiful sections of this route were considered politically sensitive and out of bounds to trekkers. Only a few climbing expeditions were granted permission to use the route along the Nar Phu Kola which leads over high passes to Tibet. The slopes between Lake Tilicho and Jomsom had been out of bounds for many years, used as a military training area for the army. However, the Nepalese government will now issue permits to organised groups to venture through these magnificent regions.

Our trek followed the traditional circuit for three days from the road-head before heading towards Phu from the village of Koto. Away from the Coca Cola trail, with the exception of a few backpackers making the day return trip to Lake Tilicho from base camp, the only westerners we met were climbers returning from, Tibet via Phu. The landscapes were stunningly beautiful as our guides revealed to us the routes into hidden valleys guarded by waterfalls and rocky sentinels. The terrain was challenging, the temperatures ranged from 30 C to -17C and the altitude taunted us with headaches and depleted appetites as we acclimatised. Despite this, camping and exploring above 5,000m overshadowed by the ice-fluted walls of Herzog’s Great Barrier of 7000m peaks was an exhilarating experience.

The cobalt blue high altitude skies and deep turquoise glacial waters of the highest lake in the world were more beautiful than I could have imagined. However, it was the contact with the people of the remote village of Nar that provided the most unexpected experience of this journey.

As I walked away from the ‘medieval’ village of Nar my mind was on the exertions required on the 5,300m Kang La pass that separated us from the Manang valley. Any anxieties I might have about the journey were forgotten as an interpreter relayed a plea that had just been made to him by a shopkeeper. She had pointed out to him the unusually low numbers of men in the village, and then in distraught tones had disclosed the cause. Only four months previously the villagers had bludgeoned to death five youths from Gorkha and two others had died when they fell from a cliff into the icy glacial waters of the Nar River during their attempt to flee. Due to the remoteness of the area it
took three weeks before the outside world became aware of the tragedy. Police had then rounded up and imprisoned 40 men from Nar, including the shopkeeper’s husband. Some of them admitted to their involvement in the murders, four of the others had been released, leaving 36 retained in jail in Manang possibly facing life sentences. The women of Nar had been left with the crisis of gathering in the harvest, tending to the animals and raising the children without their men in this remote and extreme environment. Their only plea to us was that we helped support their children by providing pencils and exercise books for their school work.

What had driven the men of an isolated Buddhist community to community to commit murder? It transpired that the cause of the violence was a turf war over the lucrative caterpillar fungus, known locally as Yarchagumba, which is believed to be a cure for sexual impotency - a natural Viagra! Yarchagumba, a combination of a rare fungus and a yellow caterpillar, is found in Himalayan meadows at altitudes between 3,300-4,000 meters. After the rainy season the fungus infects caterpillars living in the soil. During the winter the parasitic fungus (Cordyceps sinensis) gradually takes over the entire body cavity of the caterpillar draining its energy and eventually killing it. The caterpillar dies near the top of its burrow and the fruiting body of the fungus grows out of the caterpillar’s head, emerging as a mushroom above the soil to release its spores. As the snows melt the locals collect the yarchagumba before it in washed away by the monsoon rains.

While it has been used in traditional Chinese Medicine since the 17th century, it was only after the extraordinary performance of a group of Chinese athletes in the 1993 World Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Stuttgart that the western world showed interest in the medicinal properties of Yarchagumba. The runners had also broken five world records at the National games in Beijing that year. They were suspected of using anabolic steroids but tested negative for illegal drugs; however, their coach revealed that they were taking Cordyceps. As well as its use in fighting fatigue and as an aphrodisiac it is also claimed to have anti-ageing properties and to be effective against a variety of ailments including fatigue, cancer, depression and diabetes. More recently biotechnology companies in the USA have competed to produce commercial quantities of the more potent varieties of the caterpillar fungus under laboratory conditions. With increased demand the value of Yarchagumba, now also known as ‘Himalayan Gold’, has rocketed. Collection was illegal in Nepal until 2001 when the government lifted the ban and imposed a royalty rate of $280 per kilo. Currently the Yarchagumba trade runs into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Perhaps when the men from Gurkha descended on the high meadows of Nar in search of the life-enhancing mushrooms they triggered one of the episodes of greed and slaughter which, throughout history, has accompanied the quest for the chance of immortality. When James Hilton penned ‘Lost Horizon’ I wonder if he knew of this Chinese medicine. Was Yarchagumha the inspiration behind the eternal youth of the inhabitants of the mysterious Lamasery in his hidden valley, his Shangri-La?

While this amazing trek might be considered an attractive alternative to the traditional Annapurna circuit some sections are truly demanding. In places the path is very exposed and prone to sudden rock falls. We witnessed avalanches and listened to the ice creaking and groaning around us. Greater acclimatisation is required prior to crossing the Tilicho Pass than for the Thorung La, as the route stays higher for longer with no opportunity for a quick escape to lower altitude. Acclimatisation is built into the route by visiting and camping high at Nar and Phu prior to climbing to lake Tilicho. The theory is that by using a new Tilicho pass trekkers can cross the Muktinath Himal without the technical skills and equipment advised for the lower but very steep Mesokanto La. However, guides are not always familiar with the path to this pass and we found ourselves being led via a different route straight into the military restricted area below. Fortunately there was no visible activity in the area at the time and we were not turned back over the pass. In-step crampons enabled us to safely negotiate the snow-covered slopes. While obviously challenging I would consider this to be a trek well within the limitations of anyone who has previously trekked at high altitude.

At the end of every trek I return refreshed, and like giving birth, the pain and fear are quickly forgotten. Once home I indulge in reflection on the highs and lows. Two regrets remain in my mind from this journey. One was that the elusive snow leopards once again revealed only their footprints in the snow. The second was that I was not allowed to swim in one of the world’s most spectacular pools. Ten years earlier 1 had spent a day in Jomsom on my return from Mustang and had discovered the then brand new Jomsom Mountain Resort, which stands high behind the village. It still strikes me as totally bizarre that anyone would think to build a 100room, international five star hotel at 2,800m (8,800ft) in such a place. However, the thought of once again being able to swim in natural spring water looking straight out at the magnificent snow-covered peak of Nilgiri had been one of the incentives keeping me moving forward over the high passes. Unfortunately this time my climb up the steep, dusty, windblown slope to the resort was in vain. The ‘Heated’ pool was still unheated, as it had been on my previous visit but this time a very sensible could not understand why anyone would want to immerse themselves in this pool and could not be persuaded to let me take the risk of hypothermia. Both disappointments provide excuses to return to the remote backwaters of the high Himalaya. Perhaps next time I will be lucky?

Not all of the highs of the journey were confined to the trek - the mountain flight from Jomsom to Pokhara and then back to Kathmandu, on this occasion provided by Yeti Airlines, was an unforgettable experience. Kathmandu had witnessed a threefold increase in its population since my first visit to Nepal all those years ago. I found that it was still possible to find calm in the chaos that had accompanied this explosion. While I love the crazy turmoil of Thamel I found great pleasure in escaping behind the wall to the recently restored Garden of Dreams. There I finished reading ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ accompanied by a soothing pot of Jasmine tea and the music of Gabriel Yared on my MP3 player.

My last afternoon in the Kathmandu valley was spent sipping gin and tonic on a sunroof in Sunakothi. As I gazed across to the panorama of the Himalayan ranges, from Annapurna in the West to Everest in the East, they reflected the apricot glow of the setting sun. In Nepal I can always rind my Shangi La, my hope is that it will keep me young for many years to come.

Ann Luck