The idea to embark on a 21-day journey to the world's eighth highest peak was sparked two years ago when I was dreaming of the cold and snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas in Nepal. I've never been one to take the easiest route, and of course, an expedition into the mountains would have to be the same. In a true Woman vs. Wild fashion, I wanted to take on the elements and push my body and mind beyond anything I had attempted before. I researched the great mountains of the world and came across Mount Manaslu, which stands at 8,160 meters as the eighth tallest mountain in the world. It offers a prominent peak and very intimate access to its base. As opposed to the routes around Everest and Annapurna, this route was appealing to me because it remains relatively untouched and sees just a small percentage of the trekkers that frequent more popular treks. The general lack of information online meant that there was still much to be discovered and documented. The elements of adventure were very much alive for this off-the-beaten-track trek. As a first timer to high-altitude trekking and also this part of the world, Tsum Valley and the Manaslu Circuit were awesomely impressive and the one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever taken on.
Two years of hard work, saving, and anticipation led to my long-awaited arrival in Kathmandu. By happenstance I met Rajat, the owner of Rustic Himalayan Adventures, on the first day I arrived. He was as ecstatic as I was to organize a 21-day expedition to this rarely sought after trek and special area of the country. We started to create a long list of prerequisites and to find some additional trekkers who might be up for this grand adventure. A guide is currently required to lead through this restricted area of Nepal, along with three conservation area permits: Manaslu Conservation Area Project, Annapurna Conservation Area Project, and Tsum Valley (a restricted area). I elected to hire a porter so that I could cut the weight of all of my camera gear along with the gear that I had to bring for the high-altitude and late November weather. We assembled a team of three foreign trekkers, Rajat, our guide, a porter, and two videographers to document our adventure. We sorted all of the supplies and logistics in Kathmandu and set off for the mountains on a sunny morning in early November.
After a tasty breakfast in Thamel, the main tourist and commercial district of Kathmandu, the eight of us piled into a couple of jeeps with all of our gear and began our five-hour drive to our starting point, a town called Soti Khola in the Gorkha region just northwest of Kathmandu. After two hours we exited the highway onto an off-road and rather bumpy track. The roads flood and cause many landslides in the region during the pre-monsoon and monsoon seasons, but we were fortunate to have arrived after many of the roads had been repaired and were passable through the first potential trekking point, Aarughat, and onto the second town, Soti Khola. Though there are local buses that ply this route, we were grateful to be riding in luxury with good tunes to amp us up for the adventure. Spirits were high and excitement abounded. We spent the night in a small teahouse in Soti Khola just beside the roaring Buri Gandaki River. The treks to Tsum Valley and Manaslu Circuit overlap for the first few days along this river route heading northward. We sat down for our first of many meals of dal baht (a mixed plate comprised of rice, lentils, mixed vegetables, pickle, and curry) to look over the massive map and itinerary we had set forth for the next 21 days. Despite nerves and excitement mounting, we went to bed early to prepare for our first 6 a.m. wake-up call the following morning.
6.5 hours | 19.2-kilometer trekking distance |169-meter net elevation gain
In the early hours on November 2 the group assembled and got ready to begin our 21-day adventure. We received word that morning that there had been landslides just ahead on the normal route from Soti Khola to Macchakhola, so there was a detour arranged to take us to the opposite side of the Buri Gandaki River. We crossed our first massive suspension bridge and climbed many, many stairs to the top of the other hilltop. We trekked for three and a half hours in the morning to Lapubesi and stopped for a tasty lunch for an hour or so. After basking in the warm sun, we continued on for another three hours in the afternoon through winding hills and forested terrain, sharing the trail with donkeys ornamented with elaborate headpieces and transporting supplies up and down from the higher mountain towns. We reached our destination for that day in the early afternoon, a town called Macchakhola that was rather similar to Soti Khola. As we reflected on our day, I was in awe of the slowly rising mountains that flanked the river on both sides and of all of the fauna we encountered, and I was told that the best was definitely yet to come.
6.5 hours | 22-kilometer trekking distance | 471-meter net elevation gain
Stretching our tired legs, we left just after daybreak with the light of day just creeping into the valley as we climbed up and down along the river. I was joined by two adorable baby goats for a little while in the morning, which set my spirits high for the day. The mountains grew taller and taller on either side of the river as we trekked throughout the morning. We sat down for lunch in Dobhan and marveled at all of the waterfalls coming down from the tops of the mountains. It was three more hours to Jagat, where the group relaxed, played some Jenga, and started to plan our ascent into the Tsum Valley for the next day.
6.25 hours | 17.8-kilometer trekking distance | 900-meter net elevation gain
We crossed over many bridges and passed several waterfalls as we climbed higher and higher through the mountains. We stopped for lunch in a scenic town called Philim, which overlooked the river from high above. We then made the climb up past the junction of two rivers that split the route: the left trek lead to the Manaslu Circuit, and right lead toward Tsum Valley, where we would venture first. Remarkable landscapes surrounded us as we climbed toward the mountaintop town of Lokpa and the snow-capped mountains of Ganesh Himal came into view. That evening an absolutely massive full moon rose above the glaciers, illuminating an ethereal mist that crawled down to us from the peaks above through the chilly mountain air.
9 hours | 25.4-kilometer trekking distance | 791-meter net elevation gain
Day after day I would mutter "wow" as we climbed through the changing landscapes. I didn't believe Rajat when he told me that the best was yet to come. This day assured that. We climbed low in the valley in the shadow of snow-capped mountains and then up toward the enchanting village of Chumling. We pushed on to Gho, populated with pleasant Tibetan villagers, and to delicious dal baht to enjoy.
I struggled through the nine hours of climbing over difficult terrain on this most physically demanding day of the entire trip. The final 5 kilometers to Chhokang Paro were through a treacherous landslide zone on a narrow path with nothing protecting us from falling rocks overhead. When we finally reached our destination, the sun set over the route we had climbed and ignited the green pines along the valley with an orange glow that made me feel a sense of awe and accomplishment despite my aching bones and waning motivation.
5 hours | 9.7-kilometers trekking distance | 330-meters net elevation gain
After the extreme physical demand of the previous day, I was ecstatic to find the route relatively flat and expansive through many villages and fields. Along the route was an exceptional side trip just up the valley wall to Milarepa Cave (Piren Phu), built into the rock face itself. Tucked into a cave were many Buddhist shrines and elaborate paintings. Prayer flags swung in the wind as we looked on at the snow-capped mountain range.
We stopped in Pangdun for the best dal baht so far and some cheerful laughs. Afterward, it was only one hour to Nile, a village positioned in a perfect location to see all the way down the valley. I scrambled up the side of the valley close to a monastery perched on high and watched what would become my favorite sunset of the whole trip. The sun set down through the valley as the clouds rolling over the tips of the snow-topped mountains turned yellow and orange and pink. Tears rolled down my face as I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude to get to experience the Himalayas in their grandeur like this.
3 hours | 7.9-kilometers trekking distance | 339-meter net elevation gain
We woke in the morning to the chilly mountain air and began what would be our shortest day up to the terminus of our Tsum Valley Trek: Mu Gompa. Along the way the tree line subsided, yielding an unobstructed view of the desolate mountain peaks ahead. After three hours we reached Mu Gompa, a monastery situated at 3,700 meters high in the mountains very close to the Tibetan border. Within the last 100 years, Tibetans have migrated down from the border to establish a trading route with people within the valley and into Tibet. A major industry in the area is the trade of yarsagumba, which sells for $10,000 per kilogram and is among the most expensive natural medicines in the world. It is used primarily in China as an alleged aphrodisiac and cancer cure; it's made from ghost moth caterpillars that have been parasitized by the Cordyceps sinensis fungus, and it is collected by hand at altitudes of over 5,000 meters. The hazards of the environment along with the lucrative market for yarsagumba have led to several incidents of violence and human fatalities in this area and elsewhere along the Tibetan Plateau.
Atop Mu Gompa, the only sound that existed was that of the wind rushing through the valley and the prayer flags flapping in the breeze. It was peaceful in its purity. The sheer grandeur of the mountains and rivers behind us left my mind quiet. I'd never seen anything quite like it. Being so close to Tibet and with its pervasive culture running through the Tsumba people of this valley, I felt that we were getting a sneak peek into Tibet. As if the monks in the monastery and the sound of a conch being blown into the wind weren't enough, a huge white horse appeared like an apparition to stand at the edge of the monastery for hours looking off into the thin mountain air. I named her Majesty, and we stood together, humbled, for hours.
5.25 hours | 18.4-kilometers trekking distance | 669-meter net elevation loss
The morning was cool, and we had one last walk around the monastery before making our way out of Tsum Valley. Unfortunately, a small tear in my quad muscle a couple days earlier started to give me pain on the way down, and that made the going very slow. We made it to a small town called Lamagaon for lunch, and then we continued our way out back to Chhokang Paro.
5 hours | 14.9-kilometer trekking distance | 169-meter net elevation gain
With an extra day on our Tsum Valley permits, our group decided to take a short detour up to see some of the Ganesh Himal Range. It was a steep climb up from Domje crossing over an icy blue river and then up to the top of the neighboring mountains. The view from the top was just incredible. We climbed back along a ridgeline and headed east overlooking more and more of the range. Mass devastation from the April 2015 earthquakes left the nunnery in Gumba Lungdang in shambles, and there was only a modest tent camp while they were rebuilding. This was our first truly cold night's sleep because most of the tents wouldn't close fully, so I spent the majority of the evening huddled up in the kitchen with the friendly nuns before retreating to the tent to attempt to sleep.
5 hours | 17.8-kilometers trekking distance | 814-meter net elevation loss
We made the climb back down the mountain from Gumba Lungdang to once again cross the incredible icy blue river. We reached Chumling in the late afternoon and enjoyed its location in the icy mountains, and we were treated to proper facilities, which meant much-needed showers, good food, and a comfortable bed to sleep in. This was especially appreciated after a harsh and cold night in the tent camp the previous night. I was in much better spirits, too, with my leg finally starting to heal up.
Venturing on for another 11 days around Mount Manaslu, the eighth highest mountain on the planet, we encountered even more awe-inspiring mountainscapes, alpine animals, and locals with stories to share.
To read more, be sure to check out Nepal Undiscovered, Part 2: Manaslu Circuit Trek.