The Circuit of Manaslu – Taking It to the Limit

My spirit and strength had been taxed to its limit by the rigours of this difficult trek around Manaslu. Our ultimate objective the Larkya La pass (5160m) was within sight but still seemed like a world away. I slumped down on the snow exhausted beyond measure. My BFF Praveen urged me on like a crazed cowherd, his words of Go Mayo Go and Lal Sitara Zindabad invoking the gods of all our childhood, resonating in my ears but making no sense.  I closed my eyes to shut it all out.  Was this the end?

Manaslu, the “mountain of the spirit”, was the eighth highest mountain in the world at 8163m. The name comes from the Sanskrit word manasa which means intellect or soul. I had been captured by the idea of circumnavigating this great mountain – the  route had become increasingly popular after the degrading of the well-known Annapurna circuit because of the broken hill road that now worked its way up to Dharapani.

That morning we had left at 5 am from Dharamsala (4460m), the last frontier stop before the pass. While appropriate in its translation as a “rest house for pilgrims” in reality it was an awful dump huddling at the edge of the windswept moraine with untiled floors, broken toilets and inedible food. We were glad to leave it behind as we pushed up the moraine under the lightening sky.  All around were the crystal peaks soaring up into the pristine blue vault of heaven. The weather gods were smiling down on us, giving us clear passage over the Larkya La.

But I couldn’t bring my thoughts to focus on the icy beauty around us. The numbing chill seeped through two pairs of gloves, freezing my fingertips. I gave my trekking poles to Shyam, the man who always saved me and thrust my hands deep into the pockets of my jacket.  My throat was dry and parched but the damn water bladder tube was frozen.  Shyam poured some down my throat from his own bottle and I stumbled on through the icy wilderness.

The trail wasn’t particularly difficult but it was long and arduous and wound ever upwards through the moraine following a line of iron staves that acted as beacons showing us pilgrims the way.  I straggled along at the back of the pack, plodding upwards, hour after interminable hour.  The sun came up and the mountains shone with a blinding brightness that engulfed us all. I began to sweat profusely under my down jacket and fatigue crept its way through every limb. For the first time I began to wonder if I could make it over the top.A sprightly older German couple that we had seen many times on the trail now passed me going strong for the top.  Just in front was Divya, the last remaining holdout from Chennai, who had done commendably well for her virgin effort.  They smiled and said something about the father-daughter bond becoming stronger in the outdoors.  Both Divya and I had to stop to laugh.   A moment of much-needed levity that warmed our hearts – who should feel more pleased by this unintentional compliment?

I had to finish but my flesh was weaker than ever before though the spirit remained strong. The guys had been urging me to hand over my daypack to Shyam.  But I had resisted this like holding onto some badge of honour, the true trekker carries his own pack at all times is the unwritten code of conduct As I sat slumped over in the snow, Shyam came and lifted it away from my side.  The decision had been taken away from me and I felt relieved. I struggled to my feet and stared at the spectacular mountain panorama above as the ridges on either side seemed to be converging. Straining my eyes, I could now see a line of prayer flags just above the blue horizon, tiny bright patches of colour in the unrelenting landscape. It was the pass!!Struggling upwards with renewed enthusiasm, I crossed the remaining snow slopes, not daring to look up and counting my steps all the way.  The ground flattened out under me after a last agonising rise and there were my buddies Ashwin and Praveen waiting to welcome me.  Six hours after leaving Dharamsala, I had made it to the top of the Larkya La Pass.  I had reached the limits of my physical endurance but yet somehow had summoned up the reserves to complete the journey.  Maybe I would never do another trek as hard as this one but for now my heart was full of gratitude and my soul was full of relief.

Ranjan Pal

Ranjan Pal is a Gurgaon-based blogger, photographer and world traveller. His travel stories and photographs have appeared in a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveller, National Geographic Traveller, and Outlook Traveller.