Are you ready to circle and climb the world’s eighth highest peak – Nepal’s Mount Manaslu aka the spirit mountain (8,163m)? You’ll hear people say it’s like Annapurna (to the west) but 30 years ago – that is, without the crowds and commercialization. Just say you’re kicking yourself about missing Annapurna’s golden age, then this trek’s for you. Feast your mind on this vista: a wall of snow-capped mountain peaks – Cheo Himal, Himlung Himal, Nemjung, Gyaji Kang and Kang Guru – with Annapurna piercing the sky in the background. Photographer Jonathan has a pacey vid, which really captures the panoramas, village life, slim rocky tracks cut in to the side of a mountains and the occasional wild cannabis plants flapping in the breeze.
Get your bearings: Manaslu (here’s how it’s pronounced) is in the Gorkha district, between the Annapurna Mountains and the Langtang valley. Since opening to foreign climbers in the early 1990s, Manaslu, with its low-level start and initial path through rain forests and tropical veg, has become superb training for tackling Everest. Actually, it wasn’t until 1997 before the first American climbed Manaslu – Charlie Mace. It’s Nepal but it feels like is geographically like Tibet. You’ll get an insight into not only Nepalese Hindu, but Tibetan Buddhist cultures and traipse past prayer flag adorned villages, exquisite Buddhist art, monasteries plus ethnic groups such as Chhetri, Brahmin, Tamang, Tibetan, Magar and Gurung. Cost wise, you could pay $US700 for a 17-day package (covering permits, accommo, food, guide, sherpa) organised by a Nepalese company, or around $US2,500 if you veer towards an international company.
How crowded is uncrowded?
The number of trekkers has been restricted to just 400 per year. Do a deep dive into Alan Arnette’s mountaineering blogs on Manaslu here. He actually tallies the numbers of walkers and estimates 250 people tackled the summit, based on info from the Nepal Ministry of Tourism and the Himalayan database. This page on his site actually lists the tour companies involved to give you an insight into who’s operating there and to what degree. (Here’s another list of travel companies from the Nepal Tourism site). Actually, the number of successful climbers can be a bone of contention as blogger Mark Horrell explains – may be the climbers mistakenly only reached one of the two foresummits. Add to that Arnette’s figure could be doubled as walkers are now successfully making the ascent in Autumn. This year (2017) was the first time that happened. However, about 2,000 people do the Manaslu Circuit Trek each year without doing the summit.
Focus on Nepal
Nepal, population 31 million, is among the world’s poorest countries and has only been open to tourists en masse since 1949. Check out more statistics from this Government of Nepal site. The 2015 earthquakes really shook up trek routes, so to speak, but the country’s open for business now. Your trek will be a physical, aesthetic and cultural journey. Manaslu circuit has a Beyul, which in Tibetan Buddhism means the secret lands found among Himalayan mountains, which Guru Padmashambhava declared sacred ‘n safe. It’s a kind of Shangri-La in Nepal, where one can achieve nirvana. Buddhist monks seek seclusion near a Beyul to raise their spirituality.
Routes on offer for your trek
So, how to get there from Kathmandu? Because Manaslu is remote trekking, there isn’t a public tourist bus service. You can take the off-road local bus ($US10) to Arughat or Sotikhola for the start of your trek, which takes about six hours. Other quicker options including hiring a private jeep to/from the start or the end of the trek (cough up $US150 to $US200 each way). Speaking of spluttering, if your tourist bus conks out on the way where the roads can be muddy ditches, you’ll be expected to help push it back into service. Just the done thing.
There are six well-established route options for your trek: Manaslu Circuit (177km), Rupinala Pass, Tsum Valley to name a few. Manaslu Circuit Trek will generally take fit folks about 15 days to nail. Starting at Arughat and finishing at Beshi Sahar, this challenging walk will take you as high as 5,167m. Most days you’ll be working between four and 10 hours. Serious stuff and that doesn’t even include the Manaslu summit, which requires ropes, crampons, that kind of gear as you trudge up walls of snow and ice.
Trekkers often do Manaslu Circuit and Tsum Valley, which you’d want to carve out in 18 to 22 or so days. This route could take you as high as 3,700m and this valley has only been open for trekkers since 2008 – we’re talking remote so plenty of bragging rights back home if you nail this one. Something quirky about this valley is that it’s been under Tibetan control, so the culture and people will differ from other parts of Nepal. For example, Tsum Valley women can have several husbands – polyandry is the term. More than four out of ten marriages in north-western Nepal tick this box. It’s practiced to help them “adapt well in the harsh ecological climatic condition as well as bind the family intact and hold the family properties together”, says local non-profit organisation for volunteers, Third Eye Foundation. Basically women are unlikely to be widowed in this system. If volunteering is your thing, check out another organisation, too, Save Rural Nepal, which focuses on sustainable educational and environmental programs.
A newer route starts at Gorka and Arughat, follows the Buddhi Gandaki Gorge/River, you’ll see the gorge that slices Ganesh (7,429m) from Himalchuli (7,892m) then downhill to catch your first glimpse of Manaslu. You’ll be going through Larkya La Pass (5,106m), which is decorated with Tibetan prayer flags, then to Marshayandgdi, with the trek ending in Besishar. This 19-20 day trip would include acclimatizing time. Check out Rose Gamble’s blog about the trek which took her through the epicentre of Nepal’s devastating 2015 earthquake. It’s an ancient salt-trading route and has been mostly reconstructed after the quake enough for basic teahouses to be available throughout the route, but some trekkers say there’s not as frequent as they’re expecting. Plus you’d need to make bookings or be stuck out in the cold. (Here’s a vid of what the trek was like in 2014).
To do this region and this trek justice and not spoil your investment with altitude sickness, give yourself a couple of weeks at least for your trek. We’ve heard of some tours cramming it into 12 days, but really, you’ve got to give yourself a bit of wriggle room. Short of time? You could shorten your trip back if you ski down from Camp III zapping down 7,500m as three Nepali mountaineers did in October 2016. It took them just three days, says The Himalayan. If racing rather than tramping the trail is for you, sounds like this Facebook group is up your alley.
Map your quest
Sure you can go online for a suite of maps, but when you get to Manaslu, rely on hard copy versions rather than mobile phone reception (although some teahouses offer WiFi). Himalayan Map House has a range of print maps. Here’s a topo map. What you won’t see on the maps are the Hani Gates, a welcome sign when you’re doing the trek to let you know that a teahouse, for example, is nearby.
Things you’d want to know
The weather and its impacts are a biggie. Rain’s common and means even base camp can get uncomfy while higher up there’ll be snow dumps in the metres, nudging the situation into avalanche territory. An avalanche killed 15 in 1972 and 11 more in 2012. Mountaineer Mike Marolt doesn’t recommend Manaslu to others, calling it ‘avalanche central’. He says the peak trek itself is short and under ideal conditions you can climb it easily – it’s the fifth most climbed mountain in the 8,000m range. “You have no idea what Manaslu will throw at you. Historically, it has been an avalanche chute”. He says there’s no safe zone from Manaslu base camp to high camp. His is a sobering blog post. Spend five minutes of your life checking out this recovery effort after a 2012 avalanche. Reality check time. Not to mention landslips, slides and falls, too, so keep an eye on the rocks underfoot and around you. For more on mountain weather, visit here.
Another icky factor is altitude sickness, which generally kicks in above 2,200m above sea level and on this trek will take you more than double that. Altitude sickness can strike the young and the fit, it doesn’t discriminate and you can’t predict who’ll suffer from it. Here’s how one seasoned mountaineer deals with altitude sickness, and she suggests trying the local remedy, sea buckthorne.
Another issue to tackle. Are snow leopards and pandas your thing? Well, they’re about and protected species in the Manaslu Conservation Area. More pedestrian species are the Himalayan Thar and Blue Sheep (Bharal). The locals follow Tibetan Buddhist principles, which means they don’t hunt or kill wild animals. Yep, you’re going to meet those herds and horses/donkeys on the trail – just keep to the wall not ‘edge’ side for safety when passing them.
WiFi and mobile reception are limited in this remote area. Expect to fork out a few dollars to recharge your electronic gadgets. A portable solar battery charger would be a good investment. Costly power also means you’re unlikely to get a western-style shower. With time you’ll be a pro at washing using only a bucket of warm water. You’ll get woofy, but that’s trekking life, hey?
Have we said ‘remote’ enough times? A nasty fact is that two out of 10 children in the upper Nubri Valley won’t make it to one year old. High rates of infection, open sanitation systems, cholera, poor access to medicine and clean water are factors. Few children are named before their fifth birthday. Your tourism dollars help lift their families out of poverty.
And just to throw a few more in the mix, other problems for travellers include money exchange issues, the biting chill and dense forests at some points.
Food and drink are your fuel
So, it’s remote like we said, so you’d expect food to be more expensive and less varied than you’d get in Kathmandu. To be safe, budget for up to $US20 a day for food. You might even develop a palate for butter tea and start adding butter and salt to your brew at home. Or maybe not. Could be a cold-climate thing.
These permits will get you in
Once you’ve sorted out your visas (your nearest Nepalese consulate/embassy can set you straight there), you’re up for three permits: a Restricted Area Permit (about $US70 per week, plus another $10 each day from your trekking agent); a Manaslu Conservation Area Project Permit ($US30 from the Nepal Tourism Board Office in Kathmandu or from your agent); and an Annapurna Conservation Area Project permit (same deal on price and source). You’d be hard-pressed to find a company sell you a permit without a guide, but given the toughness of this trek, you’d want one. Legally, you can must trek with at least one other person plus a registered guide. A guide costs from $US15 to $US20 per day (which covers their meals, accommo and insurance) and if you need a porter, add $US15+ to that. Meals and accommo will cost anywhere from $US20 to $30-ish a day. A side trip to Tsum Valley means you’ll need the restricted permit for there, too, which costs about $US35 per week. All these prices are per person and tend to be higher then those needed to trek Langtang and Everest, for example, but with Manaslu, it’s quite a different trip.
Mark your diary
March to mid-December is your window of opportunity, with October usually the busiest month for this trek, which is when most people do it. If you’ve got your sights on summiting, your travel window will be shorter.
What to take
You are so going to need walking poles for this one. A 60L to 80L backpack should do you as you’ll want extra clothing such as socks and pants, a first aid kit, for example. If you’re trekking in the colder months, pack a sleeping bag that will keep you toasty to -10 degrees, your usual thermal gear, including a scarf, gloves and woollen hat. Tap or stream waters aren’t drinkable so BYO water purifier, SteriPen or if you’re cashed up, bottled mineral water on the trail. Consider prescription medications to help with altitude sickness.
Check out the sky
Sure, the awesome vistas you’ll soak up in this trek will linger in your memories for decades (check out Aussie vlogger Mark’s 27min video of his 16-day, 170km trek – a constant utterance is “it’s pretty hard”. Few vloggers capture the night sky, though. Get your head around zero light pollution and what you’ll see in the night sky. Ain’t nothing here on the ground or above that will remind you of home.