06-May-2008 -- Michaels and Dion Daunted by First Attempt of World’s ‘Highest’ Confluence
Preface: This confluence is likely the highest in the world at an elevation of about 5870 meters (19371 ft). It is a close competitor with the approximately 5826 meter (19226 ft) 33N 80E in Tibet, which Robert Whitfield and I reached in 2005. However, whereas 33N 80E has good elevation data, the elevation over this northwest Nepal region is poor because of glitches in the Space Shuttle’s radar topography instrument. Nevertheless, an apparently respected cartographer named Jonathan de Ferranti in Scotland has made calculations that may be a compelling argument that this is the highest confluence in the world. Gerhard Kaufmann the DCP’s Africa and Middle East coordinator who made elevation annotations of the site also believes that it is likely the highest in the world.
Confluence with an Attitude
Mitch Dion and I approached this one with the conviction that it IS the highest in the world. This was our ‘Journey to the Highest Confluence in the World’.
Meticulously prepared with ropes, climbing equipment, crevasse rescue equipment, fall-arrest jumars, crampons and ice axes, we set off for this very remote point. At the northwest side of 7132 meter (23536 ft) Mount Api, this is a region of Nepal that is very seldom visited. Mountaineers have all but given up on approaching Api from this side because, due to the remoteness of the approach, it is a very long hike in and thus difficult logistically, not to mention the danger of the ascent.
This area of Nepal is so remote that few Nepalis know about it, including Asian Trekking, an expedition agency that has worked with and was recommended to us by Peter Hilary, Sir Edmund’s son and Ed Viesturs. Asian Trekking warned us that we might very well encounter people who had never in their life seen foreigners.
There are no roads anywhere near this confluence. The road barely makes it to Darchula in the central west, on the Indian border. Apparently as recently as last year all roads to Darchula had been destroyed by the Maoists, and had been washed out by monsoons, falling into disrepair.
War scars in the region have also barely healed despite the recent level of detente. Western Nepal saw a huge portion of the fighting and tumult during the Maoist civil war from 1996-2006. Likely many killings and kidnappings occurred here by both the Maoists and Royal Army during the war for control of the country.
This was a region that for us was marked by uncertainty and unpredictability. We couldn’t be sure what to expect.
In Kathmandu, the immigration office, by government directive, gives the official yea or nay about permits. I walked in with Asian Trekking guides, and I called another time with the help of another agency. The official word was that there is a region called Byas near the Tibetan border where no foreigner is allowed without a permit. As long as we weren’t going to Byas, we wouldn’t need a permit. We and the immigration office studied our topo maps over and over. Though no one could be completely certain, from the appearance of the maps, we were all fairly convinced we weren’t going anywhere near Byas. They told us confidently we wouldn’t need a permit where we were going.
To the End of All Roads
So it was May 1st, and we were off - sort of. Because of my hectic last minute preparations and work on my new quest/adventure tour company, Earth Cubed (www.earthcubed.com), we missed our bus. We wandered the dust and trash-laden bus station moping. Surprisingly all was not lost – a taxi driver took us and chased down our bus before it left the outskirts of the city!
The bus ride was hair-raising. Our bus negotiated narrow, curvy roads at dangerous speeds. The brakes sounded like metal scraping metal, and they were often slammed suddenly to avert accidents, jolting us into the seats in front. Passes on blind turns were a common occurrence, as we peered over cliff drops of hundreds of meters. On the ride we saw a minibus with a completely flattened, blood-soaked driver’s seat, and a dump truck with its front cab smashed in that had fallen off the cliff, though it was perched on a knoll with a several hundred meter cliff below.
At first we were relieved to have reached the lowlands – fewer curves, less jolting, and no more cliffs. The trade off was that our problem now was hitting huge bumps and ditches at high speed. Being toward the back of the bus, we would often careen into the ceiling. Having boarded the bus about 2PM, we were abused by jolting until 5AM the next morning. Needless to say, our sleep wasn’t much more than a semi-conscious stupor.
It was in the town of unpleasant, dusty, garbage-strewn Atarya at the muddy light of dawn that we boarded our next bus after only a 5 minute walk. This bus was so bumpy that Mitch injured himself on the ceiling. We traveled on this bus for about 7 hours with a 2 or 3 hour layover in a small village called Siligai before we boarded a 3rd bus for another 5 hours. It was in Siligai that pink alms (tikas) were painted on our foreheads by a sadhu (a local holy man). It was nearly obvious that the tikas were given as a protection from road disaster.
After the approximately 30 hours of travel we spent the night in tiny, dilapidated Golkoliswar. Up to this point we had eaten mainly the snacks we brought with us. We had been trying to be careful with food since we were just starting out. Here in ‘Golkoli’, a local slang term, I had my first dahl baht village food meal, but Mitch abstained because he was dehydrated and his system couldn’t tolerate food.
We had been at a complete loss for finding bottled water since we left the main East-West road. We were leery of the water in Nepal because of countless nightmare stories of travelers getting dysentery or giardia, including me on my second day in Kathmandu. Luckily Mitch came prepared with a Katadyn water filter which we had already started using.
As for food, we were told by Asian Trekking that it would be near impossible to find food in these remote regions, and that we would have to pack-in all of our own food. Though we were planning an 18-day trip, we decided to only bring 7 days of food for only the remotest portion of the trip near and around the glacier. Eighteen days of food would have been too heavy for carrying. We thought we would just try our luck and hope that we would find local food.
The next day we traveled another 6 hours on the road that had been out of commission during the Maoist insurgency. This brought us to the ‘end of all roads’ in much anticipated Darchula, on the Mahakali River dividing Nepal and India. The bus stopped where the road into town narrowed into a footpath and was thus impassible.
That evening, in a surprisingly clean and comfortable hotel by the riverside, two young officials dressed in plain clothes paid us a visit. They asked us for our passports and wanted to know what we were doing. “Trekking around,” we said and showed them the itinerary on our TIMS trekking permits, permits we felt were more show than substance. They left and said they would pay us another visit in the morning. We never saw them again.
One of the ironies of this confluence approach is that, although there are no roads to the northwest of Nepal, and the trek to the region takes a laborious 4 or 5 days, there is a nice road to the region on the India side of the border. The problem is, foreigners can only cross this border in the deep southwest of the country at Mahendranagar. Other border crossings can only be used by Nepalis and Indians. We thought we’d try to cross anyway.
The following morning we successfully crossed the bridge to the Indian side where we were halted by officials. All hope came to an end when, after we drew a considerable crowd, a bigwig official with a graying moustache twirled at the ends and a breath smelling of alcohol gave us a defiant “no,” and briskly bullied us back across the bridge.
Our next visit was to the Darchula police headquarters to get further information about the trail and the possibility of other border crossings, but none of the officials were in. We decided to begin our trek and started out on the trail with our heavy backpacks.
Beyond All Roads
Heading out, we were at an altitude of less than 1000 meters (3300 ft), and it was hot. Very soon three locals walking the trail decided to be our traveling companions. This consisted of a friendly, educated and articulate Nepali man in a skull cap, and a farming woman and her daughter, both in traditional attire. The murky gray Mahakali river churned below as we walked along a trail cut into the cliff face.
After our late start, and hiking through most of the hot afternoon, we came upon a gorge straddling a verdant, gushing tributary with tiny waterwheels, huts, and locals with baskets of grain. Draped high across the tributary was a chain bridge to the other side, a cliff topped with a small dirt pasture and a grungy little field house. Beyond the house the trail climbed straight up the cliff with no end in sight on its steepest ascent so far. Monsoon clouds were encroaching and rumbling.
Our trail friends urged us on, but at 4 or 5 PM we wished them well, and decided to pitch tent. A mule train was making it’s way down the steep trail. We later learned that this tributary junction was called Khaulighat.
It turned out that the small pasture was for the mules – a realization that didn’t stop us from pitching our tent amongst them. Just as we started putting the tent together we were pelted by a torrential downpour.
That evening in the grungy abode we huddled with the mule drivers around a sooty table that was barely visible in the candlelight. Packed in the small room with us were about 5 goats. We warmed our stomachs with rice and dahl baht as one of the goats sneezed snot onto our water bladder.
The next morning we heaved up the steep cliff trail with our packs feeling like blocks of lead.
After 2 or 3 hours and almost 1000 meters (3300 ft) of vertical gain up serpentines of stark, barren cliff faces, we made it to the top.
Just around the corner was a complete contrast of pleasant shady groves, tiny hillside villages, prosperous farm terraces, and trees with hanging boughs of flowers. Almost immediately, we came upon a primary school where we were introduced to the students and given a tour by the fluent-English-speaking headmaster.
Then we passed through several villages: Badighau, a Brahman or highest caste village, Katigau, a Chhetri or second highest caste village, and Huti, a Sudra or lowest caste village. We had a dahl baht lunch in Huti.
Just before Huti a teenage boy named Manesh with over-sized hip-hop jeans, gelled hair and bright white Converse-like sneakers decided to become our hiking companion. He was very talkative and asked lots of questions.
Today was a long day of hiking. We rounded several more cliffs and terraced terrain, all the while climbing uphill. We reached a police station in a hamlet called Dhaulakot where the local officer, a man by the name of Mr. Sunar, wanted to take down our information.
While Mitch was talking to Mr. Sunar I tried to pump some more water with the Katadyn filter from a small stream, because, according to the locals, there were no water sources for the rest of the day. This was to no avail. Mitch and I both tinkered with the filter but couldn’t fix it. Though we gave it several more attempts, it never worked again. We decided we would just have to ration the water we had.
Perhaps we could have seen this as a sign. The trail continued uphill but fate started downhill.
A Turn of Events
By the time we had gotten to a grouping of houses called Naji, the sun was low on the horizon. We had hiked completely uphill with heavy packs from about 7AM to 5PM, and decided to stay here for the night. Even in the late afternoon it was considerably cooler. We were at about 2000 meters (6600 ft).
The trail beyond mystified us. Naji was the first place where we could see the jagged snowy peaks of the Api Himal in the distance.
We heard stories about how there were many people on the trail in search of Yarcha Gumba, a symbiosis between a small grass and a worm. It grows on the fringes of the glaciers where we were headed, and is prized as a great holistic medicine for energy, longevity and libido. I knew the Chinese called it ‘dong cao xia chong’ and were obsessed with it, but I am still not sure if it is equally craved by other nationalities. The Nepalis had informed us that one kilogram of Yarcha Gumba fetches US$300,000!
Our journey was in a relatively unexplored region. According to many of the locals with whom we spoke, the last foreigner who passed through had done so more than 1 ½ years prior.
That foreigner, as the story goes, was weary and walked with a huge bag. When he brought it down and opened it’s contents, the bag, the locals informed us, revealed to be filled with Bibles. Apparently he ran into problems because he didn’t pack anything else – no food, no water, no other gear. Because of his poor planning the local people told us they had no choice but to come to his aid and give him provisions for free.
It had been five years prior, apparently, that any other foreigners had crossed the region. That was an expedition to climb Api from the north side. Apparently all members perished in a fall.
Manesh arranged us an attic in the local house where we could set up our sleeping bags and packs. A local man showed off a meter-and-half-long (5 foot long) poisonous snake he had caught.
As night fell on the front porch, we had another dahl baht dinner arranged by the locals. Our little group fell into an ominous silence as something unknown approached from the dark.
Amidst the dim candlelight four big figures approached Manesh and the owner of the house. They were muscular and quite different from people we had seen. They initiated a conversation that was quite serious in tone.
I thought, ‘local mafia’, but Mitch was more intuitive. “Five-O” he said to my blank stare. I now understand the terminology.
It turned out it was a group of envoys sent by the Dhaulakot police station. They told us we were being ordered to turn back.
Forcing Our Hand
The next morning we backtracked to the Dhaulakot police station, where we sought clarification as to why we were being turned back.
We are of the opinion that Mr. Sunar, the local officer was not an instigator of the problem. Apparently the Mr. Sunar had done a routine reporting of our presence to the Chief District Officer of Darchula. The Darchula officer had then ordered us to turn back.
At the police station we decided to make phone calls to the Darchula officer and to the Kathmandu Immigration Office which we had visited before our trip. The Director-General, the highest rank, of the Kathmandu Immigration Office informed us that there was no reason for us to be stopped, and that we could continue. He called up the Darchula officer and told him to let us go. Finally it seemed we had cleared up misunderstanding.
Not so fast. Mr. Sunar got on the phone to the Darchula officer to confirm that we could continue. We didn’t like what we heard. We heard only yells on the phone, and later found out that the Darchula officer had scolded Mr. Sunar for subverting his authority. He tried calling a second time to no avail.
Our teenage guide, Manesh insisted that Mr. Sunar was not on our side and was out to get us too. Mitch, always almost hyper-sensitive to our impact on the local people, decided we should turn around to avoid any foul play on Mr. Sunar. I also sympathized but felt that primarily we didn’t want to burn any bridges for a re-attempt. We made the very difficult decision not to continue. At only 37km (23 miles) from the confluence, we headed back.
Back in Naji to collect our belongings, it was serendipitous that our friend, the mule-train driver and his mules were just passing through. To our relief, our packs had a ride on the mules backs – and, it was all downhill.
Escape from Insanity
As usual, on the return journey our adventures were not over. By dusk, we had made it to Katygau, the Chhetri or second caste village. The mule driver rested his mules in a small pasture as we were surrounded by many local children. We were given a hay-filled room in a small house. As we were getting settled in, we were greeted by an unexpected guest.
“The doctor is coming,” some of the children in our room said. But the group seemed a bit downtrodden and looked at the floor in an almost shameful way. Mitch was outside on the patio.
“You got a problem?” a man growled at Mitch and nearly spit in his face. He repeated it several times in a threatening way to Mitch. Mitch was poised defensively and ready for confrontation, but he resisted any action.
He left Mitch and walked into the room where I was talking to the children. From his hands he spilled pills and capsules all over the floor. He then took a wad of condoms and stuffed them under the rug. He was disheveled, there was saliva on the corners of his mouth, and his breath smelled of alcohol. He wrapped his arm around me as I writhed.
He looked me straight in the eyes at no more than 15 cm (6 inches) away. I stared into drunken eyes void of any ability to conceive a thought. “You got no problem here,” he blathered.
“You know!?” He violently shook me, “You know?! You got no problem here.”
This continued over and over again: “You know?! You got no problem here,” sometimes with the addition, “We got bread, we got a place. You know?!” And then he looked like he was about to cry.
This man was the local doctor. He later said that he was the son of the Prime Minister. Was that the Prime Minister of the local region?
He yanked me by the arm and pulled me into his room. “You will stay here,” he said. “You got no problem here. You know?!” He almost touched noses with me.
Eventually I saw my opportunity and escaped to look for Mitch. It was dark out. I found him on a rooftop talking to the mule-driver.
“Mitch, we gotta get out of here,” I pleaded. Mitch agreed, but the drunken doctor had already discovered the two of us. We were sitting, but he tried to yank up Mitch by the arm. Mitch firmly took issue and refused.
Wherever we went the annoying drunk would follow us. We went back to our room, packed up everything and planned our escape. Of course the drunk doctor followed us back to our room, dropping more pills all over the place. We sat anxiously waiting for him to leave. Of course, he didn’t …
…until for some reason he stepped out. We grabbed our backpacks and ran out on the patio and down the stairs. Heading down the trail Mitch stopped to chat with someone.
“Mitch, forget it! We gotta go!” I ran off and a Mitch torn in conversation followed. Our escape route was far from obvious.
I ran across some pavement where people were collecting grain from what seemed to be wheat grass. Then there was a tiny path through the wheat field.
“Don’t! You’re destroying their wheat!” Mitch exhorted, the influence of his family’s Winnipeg farming roots bringing him insult by my apparent disrespect to their harvest, “You can’t get out that way”. It was dark - very dark. I hesitated.
I was about to search for my headlamp before I swung around and noticed the drunk doctor was lunging for me. Though I knew Mitch would not approve, I decided to cut through the fields. Then I backtracked toward Mitch in confusion. I followed him into a jungle-like area of banana trees. The path was a dead end.
“Now what?” I asked. We had to go back. As we did the drunken doctor ran after us.
“It’s got to go through,” I yelled to Mitch as I re-attempted the wheat field trail. The drunken doctor lunged to grab Mitch and I, but he was on a lower terrace.
We ran down the suspect dark trail, I, finally finding my headlamp. We jumped off terraces and down cat-track stairs with our huge packs on. Fortunately, we found a way out. We had lost the drunken doctor.
Though there were no places to set up camp, through the dark of night we found a landing at the primary school. After much consideration we decided instead to camp in a nearby pasture, a lucky find for this area.
Once back in Darchula, surprisingly we ran into two Americans, a male and a female. They were the only foreigners we had seen, as we were to them – and they said they had spent years there.
The girl had a University of Oklahoma shirt with the words written once in English, once in Hebrew. They said they were there as part of a university thesis in minority studies. However they also said they knew of the infamous traveler with the sack of Bibles. We were suspicious that their intentions in Nepal’s far west were religious in nature.
We rode buses back for about 24 continuous hours, and this was just to get us to the main East-West road. This took us to Nepal’s south border at a town called Dhangadhi where we stayed the night.
The next morning as we attempted to leave Dhangadhi, we were prevented from doing so by a blockade. As the story goes, a man was killed in a car accident. In order to collect compensation, the man’s family, with the help of thousands of people throughout the community, imposed a blockade. Perhaps this is to force the government or police to force money out of the accused in the accident. Apparently this is a common happening all over Nepal.
Nevertheless, the blockade didn’t stop our bus from heading out. We proceeded down tiny dirt roads through fields and the countryside. Huge piles of dirt blocked even those roads. At one point our bus took a sharp turn onto a farm road to bypass one of these piles. But the turn was too sharp leading the bus’ rear wheels off a cliff into a deep irrigation ditch. I grabbed onto the ceiling, positive the bus would tip onto our side. Surprisingly, it managed the turn without event.
When we returned to Kathmandu, I re-visited the Immigration Office. The Director-General insisted we could have proceeded, and that Darchula’s officer was defying protocol. I filed an inquiry/complaint, which will apparently be taken up to the level of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The result should be known in late July.
We will reattempt this confluence, hopefully next year.
**The last time Mitch Dion and I successfully completed a confluence was at 43N 141E in Hokkaido, Japan with a third member, Rob Davis. Unfortunately, our friend Rob fell to his death climbing Mount Kenya in August, 2006. We would like to dedicate this attempt to Rob. “Rob, you were with us in spirit, and we wish you had been here in person.”