NOLS Himalaya, Part 3: The Descent

See the November 5th, 2016 post for Part 1 and the November 27th post for Part 2 of NOLS Himalaya.

It was October 2nd, 2016 and we were at 18,500 feet on top of the Dhana Dura pass in the Uttarakhand region of India.  We all hugged and shared in each other’s excitement and reflected on our accomplishment.  This was a new destination for everyone.  Not even our instructors had made the Dhana Dura pass before.  We all breathed a sigh of relief.  The hard stuff was over.  Or so I thought.

I should’ve known better.  Going down is not always easier than going up.  Many times it’s harder.

Felipe, Mingma, and I led the way down the back of Dhana Dura.  It was steep and icy.  Felipe placed a picket in the snow for protection.  As we descended, I lost my footing.  Then I began to fall.

Heading down after summiting the Dhana Dura pass.
Heading down after summiting the Dhana Dura pass.

I threw my hiking pole to the side and turned over on my stomach to self-arrest with my ice axe.  I couldn’t get in position.  I was still sliding down the slope, my heavy pack felt awkward and made it difficult to stop.  It felt like I was falling in slow motion, but I wasn’t stopping.  I started kicking my feet into the mountain, and finally, I stopped.  Surprisingly, I wasn’t shaken up.  I was just tired and ready to keep moving so I picked myself up and kept walking.

I slipped and fell about 10 feet walking down this slope.

Eventually, we made it to the moraine.  While I was happy to be off the glacier, I gazed out over endless miles of scree.  And yes, you guessed it…it was STEEP!  I tried to stay positive as the clouds rolled in and we began to hike down.  But honestly, my morale was declining.

We walked until we couldn’t walk anymore.  Not because we were tired (we were), but because it was too technical to walk down with our heavy packs.  We stopped while Felipe and Prani set up an anchor to haul our packs down about 10 to 15 feet.

Prani and Felipe built an anchor to lower our packs.

After we scrambled down the technical path, we set up an assembly line to haul our packs from the bottom of the 10 – 15 foot cliff to a safe spot to continue hiking.  When my pack was hauled, one of the guys said, “Damn. I can’t complain about my pack weight anymore.  This is heavy!”  Instead of feeling like a badass, I felt down and a little defeated for some reason.  I was cold.  I was tired.  I was hungry.  I was dirty.  I just wanted to get to camp, and we were running out of daylight.

We continued hiking.  I lost my balance and fell down several times.  It took tremendous effort to get back up.  My legs hurt and my feet were unsteady.  We stopped so Felipe and Prani could scout the route.  There were miles of moraine ahead and not a place to camp in sight.  It was getting darker.  Then it started to hail.

Are you kidding me?!?!

I still had my glacier glasses on and fought back tears.  I didn’t want to break down in front of everyone.  It was a really long day and I wanted to be done.  I wanted to clean up and go to sleep.  I was just about to get my emotions under control, when Mike asked me, “What’s wrong, Haley?”  And then I lost it.  I began to cry.

Everyone sprung into action.  Tom removed gear to lighten my pack, Hayden gave me a Jolly Rancher, Mingma and Reese gave me a hug.  All the guys took weight from me even though their packs were stupidly heavy as well.  My pack was lighter but I stood there shivering.  Mingma asked where my puffy jacket was.  At the very bottom of my 100 L pack, of course.  Without asking, she immediately opened my pack, took everything out, grabbed my puffy jacket and put everything else back in…in less than 10 minutes.  It took me a good 45 minutes to pack my pack on a good day!  Mingma was a superhero.  To me, everyone was a hero in that moment.

Felipe and Prani came back.  Good news.  We found a place to camp….we’re going back on the glacier.  What?!?! I thought I was done with the snow and ice.  The flattest place to camp was on the glacier, not the moraine.  It was nearly dark when we reached the campsite and established another perimeter.  I cannot tell you how relieved I was to be in my sleeping bag that night.

Camping on the glacier to the left of the terminal moraine.
Camping on the glacier to the left of the terminal moraine.

It was another spectacular, clear morning on October 3rd, 2016.  I was rested, felt stronger, and in better spirits because we were bound to reach the easy stuff soon.  Then we came to the edge of a 25 foot cliff.  There was no way to walk down.

The terminal moraine went on forever!
The terminal moraine went on forever!

Prani and Felipe evaluated the situation and decided they would set up another anchor and lower everyone down one by one.  For a minute, we joked we’d have to turn around and go back the way we came.  I did not find that amusing.

Being lowered down the 25 foot cliff.
Being lowered down the 25 foot cliff.

After lowering ourselves down the cliff and hiking for another eternity, it was time to find our campsite.  Our options were moraine and more moraine.  However, our leaders of the day, Tom and Max, found (with a little help from Prani) a grassy campground.  With running water.  Hallelujah!  It was like Christmas morning!

Grassy campground with a stream nearby!
Grassy campground with a stream nearby!

Grass and running water were SUCH treats compared to where we’d been living for the past 10 days.  Everyone was in good spirits.  I just knew this was the last hard day.  I was wrong again.

I woke early on October 4th with stomach issues.  Fabulous.  I took some Imodium (don’t tell Prani) and made it through the day fine.

October 4th was also Mingma’s birthday!  I made cinnamon, raisin, chocolate pancakes for Mingma and our tent group that morning.  But the water had run dry, so I had to ration what we had.

Before leaving camp, we all took a minute and enjoyed the glacier one last time.  One last look to reflect and acknowledge the beauty, serenity, challenges, and accomplishments the mountains allowed us to experience.

One last look at the Solong Glacier.
One last look at the Solong Glacier.

Our goal was to hike about 5 miles, which would put us in good position to reach Martoli the following day.  The day was harder than expected, of course.  Our instructors hung back and let us navigate.  There was debate on which was the best way over the moraine.  It all looked pretty crappy.  Finally, we let Mingma (the girl who lives 12 miles from the base camp of Everest) lead the way.

Headed towards Martoli.
Headed towards Martoli.

After another eternity, we climbed over the last bit of the terminal moraine (again on a steep scree field with sketchy footing, trying not to look at the drop-off)!  The grass really was greener on the other side.  Well, just the fact there WAS grass made it so much better.

The clouds rolled in and it started raining.  Visibility declined.  It was around 4 pm when we realized we were not going to make our destination.  We camped behind a huge boulder with lots of sheep poo.  Aside from the poo, it was a very nice spot.  Lots of green grass and running water.  We celebrated Mingma’s birthday with brownies and looked forward to reaching Martoli the following day.

Finally off the endless moraine, we were completely exhausted.
Finally off the endless moraine, we were completely exhausted.

It was overcast and damp on October 5th when we left the boulder camp for Martoli.  The sun came out for most of the rest of the day.  The hike to Martoli, while easier than previous days, was still a fairly difficult trek.  One in which we had to backtrack after coming upon a cliff.  After hours of walking around bends in the mountain, it seemed we would never reach Martoli.  It was only supposed to be about 4 miles, but felt longer.

And. Then. We. Saw. It.  Martoli!!!!!

Martoli in the distance!
Martoli in the distance!

Martoli meant fresh chai, dinners we didn’t have to cook, and most importantly, porters!  We were desperately hoping there would be porters we could hire to carry our technical gear down the final stretch of the expedition.  This would mean light packs.

Words cannot describe how happy I was to reach Martoli!  Martoli is an old abandoned town that was once part of the Silk Road.  Only a few people live in Martoli year round, including Raju.  Raju operated the only “hotel” in town.

Mingma and me in front of Raju's hotel.
Mingma and me in front of Raju’s hotel.

Martoli was situated in between three major valleys, including the Gori Ganga Valley, which was our way back to Ranikhet.

We camped in Martoli for 3 nights.  In Martoli, we ate fresh rice and veggies, treated ourselves to biscuits (cheap cookies that were SO good), and slaughtered a lamb (who we named Larry) for dinner.  Not me personally, but I watched it.  I viewed it as part of my “cultural” experience.  I’ll just say it was rough to watch.

Poor Larry.
Poor Larry the lamb.

We also ran into another NOLS course in Martoli.  It was the semester course.  It was exciting to meet another NOLS group out in the field.  We sized the other students up.  They hiked in shorts with a 60 liter pack.  Wimps.  Our packs were 100 liters.  They had spent the last week going from chai shop to chai shop eating biscuits and omelets and wandering around with their light packs. We, on the other hand, were freaking BEASTS after what we had just accomplished.  Nevertheless, it was a cool moment to share stories from each of our trips while enjoying Larry the Lamb for dinner.


On October 8th, we left Martoli down the Gori Ganga Valley on our student led expedition.  Our instructors, while not too far behind, were not hiking with us.  We were on our own for the next 2 days.  We stayed in Nahar Devi, then Lansing Top, and finally reached our pick up point, Dapa.

Temple in Martoli.
Temple in Martoli.

The Gori Ganga Valley was spectacular.  I enjoyed this valley more than the Pindari Valley.  We enjoyed interacting with the locals and eating all the biscuits in each town along the way.  We saw monkeys at Lansing Top and parrots in Dapa.

Trekking in the Gori Ghanga Valley.
Trekking in the Gori Ganga Valley.

It felt so good to reach Dapa.  One last night of pitching a tent and making camp.  The next morning, we were headed back to Ranikhet. The last night was not a peaceful one. I could barely sleep with my tent mate snoring and the packs of dogs barking.  All. Night. Long.  But I didn’t care.  I was one step closer to home.

We woke at 5 am the following morning to break down the tent, eat breakfast, and drive 8 to 10 hours on rough, windy roads back to Ranikhet.  It was October 12th, 2016 when we arrived in Ranikhet around 4:30 pm.  Thirty-four days in the field.

Temple on the way to Dapa.
Temple on the way to Dapa.

I cannot tell you how ready I was for my bucket shower in Ranikhet.  My bucket shower on October 12th was the best shower I’ve ever had.  Nothing else compares.

X marks the spot - We made it to Dapa, our pick up point!
X marks the spot – We made it to Dapa, our pick up point!

The next few days were spent cleaning gear, riding the train back to New Delhi, eating authentic Indian cuisine, visiting the Taj Mahal in Agra, and experiencing Indian culture.  As I reflect on this experience, I will remember a few things:

  1. The world really is a big place.  It’s one thing to say it, but another to experience it.  It’s helped me gain some perspective.  I didn’t realize I live in a bubble.
  2. Slow down.  Despite the literal chaos surrounding everyone in Delhi, everyone was surprisingly serene.  I was impressed with the calmness in the midst of all the madness.
  3. I’ve gained confidence to live a life true to my authentic self, despite what everyone else thinks I should or shouldn’t do.  In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
  4. Felipe, Prani, and Uma have difficult jobs.  Awesome ones, but very difficult.  I cannot say enough positive things about NOLS and our instructors.
  5. Mingma, Reese, Hayden, Max, Camillo, Tom, and Mike were awesome.  Despite our differences and doubts, we banded together during the difficult times and completed our goal.  I’m especially impressed with the folks who had never done anything like this before.

Was this a life changing experience?  Yes, I think it was.  Not in the way that I plan to quit my current life and travel all over the world in a camper van.  But in the way that I don’t want to be on autopilot.  I want to experience new cultures, hike hard mountains, push myself, but also be more present during the ordinary times.  While I was in the extraordinary Himalayas, I sometimes longed for ordinary.

India was a whirlwind.  It was chaotic.  It was serene.  It was awful.  It was amazing.  India, I will not soon forget you.

Taj Mahal!
Taj Mahal!


In Delhi, riding in an auto rickshaw and experiencing market life.





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