The joys of Samagaon, gateway to Manaslu

One of the considerations when hanging around at base camp for days on end waiting for a weather window is to ensure you stay in shape and get enough exercise. This isn’t always easy. Base camp on Gasherbrum in Pakistan sits on a long finger of lateral moraine in the middle of a vast glacier. Short of wandering up and down the finger in and out of other people’s campsites, if you want to do anything interesting then you need to find a companion, rope together and head into an icefall. This involves taking a few more risks than you really should be on a rest day. Base camp exercise therefore tends to be restricted to the occasional short stroll.

Another fine mess: Ian and Mark, aka Laurel and Hardy, relax at the tea house in Samagaon
Another fine mess: Ian and Mark, aka Laurel and Hardy, relax at the tea house in Samagaon

Here on Manaslu though we have a good meaty exercise option that involves no undue risk (actually there are risks, but they seem to be to your liver rather than your life, as will be revealed). 1400 metres below base camp lies the village of Samagaon, where we all spent a few days acclimatising on our way up here.

Not everyone has fond memories of Samagaon. One of the pioneering Japanese expedition teams of the 1950s was met by villagers armed with sticks and stones, and was allegedly forced to retreat in a state of undress. The reason for this less than friendly welcome was because the locals believed the Japanese had annoyed the mountain gods the previous year, who had retaliated by sending an avalanche to destroy the nearby monastery.

These days the locals have long since become reconciled to expedition teams on Manaslu. A number of tea houses have opened catering for trekkers and climbers, the monks earn a reasonable income conducting pujas (blessing ceremonies to appease the mountain deities) for expedition teams prior to their climb, and hundreds of porters get employment throughout the climbing season carrying equipment up to base camp.

It’s a pleasant if muddy two hour descent down to Samagaon from base camp, along a moraine ridge, then down through grassy moorland, juniper-clad hillsides, a short stretch of rhododendron wood, and ending along a flat bouldery river valley into the village. It usually takes me three and a half hours to plod back up again, so with a couple of hours at a tea house in the village it’s pretty much a day trip, but it’s great exercise.

A few times during our rest days our Sherpa crew have gone AWOL from base camp. A radio call down to Samagaon has found them safe if incoherent at a tea house boozing up on chang and rakshi. Prior to our first summit push I went down there with my friends Mark Dickson and Ian Cartwright, two people not known for their temperance. While I was able to have a couple of Tuborg beers and head back up to base camp in time for dinner, Mark and Ian decided to stay for another round. At about 4.30 someone was sober enough to realise there were only a couple of hours’ daylight left. Three drunken Sherpas also had just enough reasoning ability to figure that some of them ought to be looking after their inebriated clients. My two fortunate companions finally staggered into camp at 8.30 with their escort, having completed most of the climb in pitch blackness with just two head torches between the five of them.

Robin and Ian take a breather during the long slog back up to Manaslu base camp from Samagaon
Robin and Ian take a breather during the long slog back up to Manaslu base camp from Samagaon

Yesterday I went down to Samagaon again with Ian and Robin. Without Mark to lead him astray I had little difficulty convincing Ian to return at a sensible hour this time, but getting him back up the hill wasn’t as easy as it might have been. He’s usually much quicker than me, but this time he had difficulty keeping up with my high altitude slow plodding tortoise pace. This was because his pack seemed to be loaded with booze for everyone in camp. I hadn’t offered to get supplies for anyone because I didn’t think employment as a high altitude porter would be the best preparation for our summit push, but Ian was too much of a nice guy to say no.

So much for alcohol – what of the climb itself? Well the good news is the weather has changed for the better. We’ve had a rare day of sun today, and no further precipitation is forecast for a few days. There’s been a lot of snow, and the mountain still isn’t safe until it consolidates. But we think there will be a single solitary summit window before jetstream winds strike Manaslu in the second week of October, effectively closing the mountain again.

We have a couple more rest days here, and if the forecast remains positive it’s likely we’ll be leaving for our final summit push on 1st October.

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