23-Apr-2023 -- Introduction
Confluence 30°N 81°E is located on the east face of Mt. Nampa in the Api-Nampa range, that consists of Mt. Api (7132m), Mt. Nampa (6755m), Nampa-II (6700m), Nampa South (6580m), Nampa Chuli (7110m) and Yoko Pahad (6401m) (Nepal Himal Peak Profile). In 2010 the Government of Nepal declared the Api Nampa Conservation Area (ANCA) to protect the diverse ecology of this area, and maybe attract some tourism to this remote NW corner of Nepal bordering India and China. The estimated altitude of the confluence is around 5880-5915m, which makes it the highest confluence in the world. Hence, we call this confluence point "the Mother of all Points".
We, that is 2 of my colleagues from work, Farhad Keshavarz, Herman de Haan and myself. Ever since 2014, when we first-visited the highest confluence of Africa, 11°N 39°E, the idea stuck with us to try to visit the highest confluence in the world, 30°N 81°E. We scrutinized maps, satellite images and the accounts of the few people who visited the area (our fellow countryman Katja Staartjes in 2011 for her Nepal Traverse, Stanford robotics professor Jean-Claude Latombe in 2016, and of course the hilarious Greg Michaels' account of his incomplete visit in 2008).
Looking at all this, it all seemed quite far away, so instead we first visited something closer, the highest point in Iran, 36°N 52°E.
Then it all seemed quite inaccessible, so instead we visited a more accessible point in Nepal, 30°N 82°E.
Then there was a girlfriend, then there was not enough time, then there was COVID.
Then it all seemed very high, so instead we did a trek to Everest Base Camp to get a taste of high altitude.
And so, then we were 8 years later...
Already in 2015 we had asked Bharat Thapa from Himal Eco Treks, a Kathmandu trekking agency that I knew from previous trekkings, for a quote to organize a trek for us to point 30°N 81°E. At that time he had even sent somebody to the area to check out the trails. It appeared that there were some "scary bits" on the trail, but overall doable. So for this year 2023, finally, we could give him a go to set things in motion for our trek to the Mother of all Points. But then, also this year, China finally opened up the borders again, so Herman could finally go to visit his family-in-law in China for the first time after more than 3 years of lockdowns. Unfortunately for the next year there were also other things planned already, so Farhad and I decided to go through with it this year, even if it meant that Herman, our most experienced confluence hunter, could not go with us :(
Part 1 - Kathmandu-Darchula
And so on april 14th 2023, Farhad and I arrived in Kathmandu, where we were welcomed by Bharat ("Our man in Kathmandu") with the traditional marigold garlands (mala) and driven through the crazy traffic to hotel Vajra, an oasis of cool and calm in the Kathmandu hectic. As it turned out, 4 days before our arrival, Bharat had sent our trekking guide, our cook and 3 other Sherpa's packed with all the tents, cooking gear and some provisions by bus to Darchula, the starting point of our trek. After a day in KTM that we used to rent some down sleeping bags and crampons, we also left for Darchula, accompanied by our climbing guide, Babu Sherpa. First we took a domestic flight to Dhangadhi in the hot western Terai of Nepal, where a Jeep was waiting for us. From Dhangadi to Darchula is about 300 km, but it takes a terrible 12 hours of driving. From the airport the first 10 km is a straight line, until it hits the steep foothills of the Himalayas. After that there's not a single stretch of straight road anymore, and the road serpentines incessantly through forests, terraced fields and small mudbrick and concrete villages. It's a blacktop road, but in many places in need of repair, so there were many potholes and rocks to avoid, not to mention all the cows, goats, sheep, old women with haystacks on their back, and oncoming traffic. For our driver, honking seemed to take care of all that.
Although Farhad, who quickly gets queasy in cars, took the front seat, he pretty soon got really sick. After a while we ran out of plastic bags, so at one shop the driver stopped to get new ones, when it appeared that the last bag he handed to Farhad was leaking! It was a great relieve to stop for the night in Patan Bazar, where we stayed in a noisy little hotel.
Next day we were better prepared and took a travel pill before setting off early morning to Darchula, where we arrived around noon. Our camp, in a sort of public park just outside of town, was already in full swing, with a kitchen tent, a dinner tent, a staff tent, 2 tents for Farhad and me, and a latrine tent. Pretty soon we were served our first lunch in the dinner tent by our trekking guide Tendi Sherpa.
Part 2 - Darchula-Gaga
To get permissions and cooperation in the region, Bharat had been in contact with the chairman of Byas (or Byash, or Byans), the municipality where the point is located, and the local chapter of the Nepal Mountaineering Association. And so we were welcomed (with garlands) by a delegation of the NMA chapter of the Sudurpaschim province.
We also met our team. We thought we'd be trekking with some 5 sherpa's and a couple of mules for the heavy stuff. But as it turned out, mules can't do the trail because it's too steep and there are too many "scary bits". So we also got 5 local porters and a local guide. This completed our team to 12 men, 14 including us! You could say that whereas Greg Michaels in 2008 took the individual American style of approach, we took the British colonial expedition approach. In Nepal, this kind of trek is called camping trek (as opposed to teahouse trek). It has been developed to perfection ever since the country opened up for foreigners in the 1950's and the first mountaineering expeditions in Nepal took place. It's a unique Himalyan experience, both adventurous and (let's face it) luxurious.
And so the next day our whole team set off for the first stage of the trek: 6 days to Gaga, the last village on the way to the confluence. The elevation in Darchula is 1000m, Gaga is at about 3000m. Just 2000 m. in 6 days, that seems like a nice and gradual climb, following the Mahakali river that forms the border between Nepal and India. We hadn't counted on the endless steep up-and-downs we had to do in between!
The first day, up to Huti, the trail was still a motorable road, where even some Jeeps bounced by, loaded with people, bags of rice and building materials. Our porters with their heavy loads happily hitched a ride in the trailer of a tractor. The second day, up to Tuserpani, only a few tractors and an occasional motorcycle managed to navigate the bumpy road. But right after Tuserpani the road had been washed away in a landslide, so from there we saw no more motorized transport. That is, on the Nepali side. Across the river, in India, we saw a perfect road, still being improved. In some places it was a wide 2-lane blacktop road, where cars passed by, merrily honking for each bend in the road. Needless to say that while we were toiling for 6 days on the steep Nepali trail, we were envious looking up to (or down on) the Indian road. The thing is, if you're not a Nepali or Indian citizen you cannot cross the border in this region.
Many Nepali cross the border at Darchula, and take a Jeep in India instead of walking the hard and at some places dangerous trail in Nepal. There are official border crossings (bridges) in Darchula, Sunsera and Gaga, but people get off the Jeeps at several places in between to cross the river over little makeshift bridges or, even more dangerous, by using cables to haul themselves to the other side. Especially now in spring many people were returning to their houses in the high country. Moreover, the season for hunting yarsagumba had begun, the caterpillar-fungus that sells for high prices in China.
Just before Tuserpani, when we entered Sunsera, a somewhat bigger village that serves as the administrative center of the Byas municipality, we were welcomed (with garlands, tea and flowers) by the vice-chairman of Byas, the head of police, and the rest of the Byas administration. When we said we were going to Nampa valley, the vice-chairman smiled and said "Ah yes, dangerous road...".
The first 3 camps, in Huti (1375m), Tuserpani (1855m) and Dumlin (1860m), were on on the school's playground, where the ground was level and there where taps available for water. Also we could use a classroom as a kitchen. In the night we heard the eerie howling of jackals, which in turn set off all the dogs in the village.
After Dumlin there were no more schools and the trail got harder as the Mahakali canyon got narrower. More stretches of the trail were washed away by the river or by landslides, or damaged by the blasting for the road on the Indian side. In some places, where before the trail followed the river around a ridge, taking about an half hour, the trail was now diverted OVER the ridge. After going steep up for 2 hours and then steep down for an hour, we joined the original trail again. Some of these steep stretches could also be categorized under the "scary bits".
The 4th day, from Dumlin (1860m) to Thi (2400m) was the hardest. In the morning we started out with a drizzle, which made the trail more slippery. At one point even the porters, who usually can maneuver with their heavy basket (doko) through the smallest spaces in the bamboo and rhododendron forests, had to take their doko off their head and pass it on before squeezing themselves past the rock blocking the trail, with a vertiginous drop to the river.
Also for Farhad this was a hard day. Going down a steep slope he slipped and hurt his elbow and tailbone pretty bad. Then in the afternoon he started to vomit. It was a long day, and it was getting dark and starting to rain again by the time we came to Thi, where we camped in a meadow full of yak and sheep dung. The higher altitude, the rain and the dark made Thi a cold, muddy and miserable place. Especially when Farhad also couldn't keep his dinner down. As a matter of fact, he couldn't keep any food down until 6 days later in basecamp. Go figure.
After this long and exhausting day, the 5th day to Pola (2460m) was a bit shorter, but no less steep! And next day was the final push to Gaga (3020m). After a scary descent down an enormous rockslide we crossed the Api river, and after steeply climbing and descending yet another ridge, the canyon opened up and we saw the yak meadows of Gaga, the border post and bridge crossing to India, and the village Chhangru just above Gaga.
After 6 days of trekking we had arrived in Gaga, exactly according to the itinerary. But discussing further plans for our expedition, the trekking guide, Tendi Sherpa, was resolute: on the way back to Darchula, even though it's going down, we'll take 7 days.
Interlude - Rest day
The next day was a rest day, that gave everybody some time to rest, to do some washing, and for us to visit Chhangru village, an old Buddhist village (in contrast with the Hindu villages that we passed before) with houses with beautifully carved wooden doors and windows. The village was still empty, waiting for its inhabitants coming home in a few weeks.
It also gives me some time to introduce our team some more: I already mentioned Babu Sherpa, the climbing guide, and Tendi Sherpa, the trekking guide, who took care of organizing and planning time, camp spots and food. The latter always consulting with the cook, Rawin, who was able to cook up incredible meals on 2 petroleum stoves. In the morning e.g. porridge, pancakes, omelettes, for lunch e.g. chapatis or egg rolls, and for dinner anything from French fries, to pizza, to dal bhat (of course). Oh, and dessert: chocolate or strawberry cake! Then there where Sonam and Pimgili, the youngest Sherpas, every morning first thing bringing us "a cup of tea, sir" with a big smile, then a bowl of warm washing water, and then making the "table" on the ground, for breakfast. Then Ngwa, the oldest Sherpa, carrying his doko with a strong, sure and steady pace. Totally humbling us, thinking we were tough doing all this at 61, by revealing he is about the same age! There also was our local guide, Harish, a young kid who had been up Nampa valley before, hunting for yarsagumba. And our local porters, Jhyan Singh, Kaman Singh, Ganesh Singh, Nawraz Bhutt and Jaydun Bhutt, all from the same village of Sunsera. They were carrying the heaviest stuff, like the tents and (I am ashamed to say) our personal duffle bags...
The whole team worked like an amazing clockwork, arriving at a spot, organizing and putting up camp, getting water and preparing food. And in the morning it often so happened after breakfast that by the time Farhad and I finished brushing our teeth, we turned around to see the whole camp was already packed up and our convoy ready to go!
Part 3 - To the Mother of all Points
Washed and rested we moved up the Nampa Valley. Just outside Gaga we first crossed the Tinkar River, then the Nampa River over small wooden bridges. We were following a trail on the south bank of the Nampa River, at some places crossing deep ravines of loose gravel and rocks formed by side streams. The trail wasn't nearly as clear as it had seemed on Google Earth. After a few hours we climbed away from the river and came to wide flat meadows. At a place with a small hut, called Tallo Nampa (3450m), we stopped to make an early camp. Later that afternoon it started to snow a bit.
The morning was bright, with the shiny white peaks of the Api-Nampa range looking down on us. We crossed the wide meadows, and had to cross a few steeply cut ravines, some filled with snow. After a few hours the trail dropped down to the Nampa River again, and we crossed a little bridge to the north bank, where the trail went steeply up the slope. The long steep climb was to pass over an enormous landslide, although not completely. We still had to cross some of it, taking careful steps, looking down the terrifying drop of the gravel slope. After this, the trail dropped down to river once more, where we came to a large meadow with a clear little stream passing beside: Nampa Basecamp (3920m). The meadow is used in summer as a sheep and goat camp, of which there were still a few stone walls standing, that only needed a tarp for a roof to make huts.
The plan was to go from Basecamp up to the glacier and install a High camp, from where we could explore further the route to the Point. But as it turned out, our Man in Kathmandu had not provided our team with a lightweight gas stove. This meant we had to carry up one of the 2 petroleum stoves plus petroleum, which meant an extra Sherpa, which meant an extra tent, which meant... Finally, I went up the glacier with Babu the climbing guide, Pimgili the petroleum stove operator, Rawin the cook and Ngwa for extra force.
Farhad had already been joking back home that he would stay in basecamp while others would risk their lives. But after vomiting for 7 days, he was indeed in no state to continue higher, so he stayed in Basecamp with Tendi, Sonam and the local porters. And in so doing, these rest days in basecamp actually made him regain his health, finally!
To reach the glacier we followed the river, crossing it a few times, until on the south bank we climbed a gravel hill. The glacier is covered with gravel, rocks and stones, so you hardly have the impression of walking on a glacier. It was going up only slowly, but from my breath I noticed the altitude. The higher we came, the more snow there was from the evenings before. Except for Babu and me, the others didn't have good boots, so pretty soon we put up High Camp (4282m) amidst the rocks. After levelling the stoney bottom a bit we put up the the 2 tents that we brought: my tent and the staff tent.
After a quick lunch Babu and I continued up the glacier to explore further, but pretty soon the weather got worse, so we returned to High camp. By the time we got there, it was snowing heavily, so we went into the tents quickly. It was 2 or 3 o'clock, and I was sitting in my tent, doing nothing, while the snow was piling up. After an hour or so I was getting colder and colder, and thinking "what am I doing here?" and feeling generally sad and miserable. Until I heard the Sherpas outside merrily talking and giggling and laughing out loud. I went out, and saw they had put the petroleum stove behind a big rock, and had made 2 little rock walls and put a bright blue tarp over it. They had made a mini kitchen where big Rawin hunched in to cook some water for tea, while the snow was still falling in big flakes. It looked pretty funny, and they were laughing their heads off! It taught me a good lesson about self-pity.
20 minutes later we were drinking hot tea. With cookies.
Early next morning at 4 o'clock, wearing headlights, Babu and I went up the glacier again, to see how close we could get to the point, before the weather would turn bad again (by now, bad weather in the afternoon was a given). The glacier was going up very gradually, but we had to walk over the rocks and stones that were still sticking out of the fresh snow. If we went beside the rocks in the snow, we went in up to our knees or hips. The higher we got, the more snow we encountered. Thus, the going was very slow, and at around 7 o'clock we decided it couldn't get any better. Standing on a small raise on the glacier, we could see the glacier continue up with the same gradient between the steep mountains. We could see the location of confluence 30°N 81°E, halfway the east face of Mt. Nampa with it's peak shining gloriously white in the morning sun. We estimated another 3 to 4 km to continue over the glacier, and then steep up the forbidding icy face of the mountain. The GPS read 5.2 km to the point.
For me, this was the best I could do. I made pictures of the terrain, and left a khata on a rock as a farewell to this confluence, that has been on our minds for so long.
Part 4 - The way back
We returned to High Camp, had some breakfast, and leisurely broke up camp. When we returned at Basecamp around noon, it lay basking in the sun and all the snow of the previous evening had melted away. We spent a nice relaxing sunny afternoon in Basecamp. One of the porters even found 2 yarsagumba up the mountain slope! Next day we went back to Gaga. Just after camp was set, it started to rain. It rained the rest of the afternoon, and the rest of the night. As a matter of fact, it continued raining for 4 days! It appeared the monsoon was about 1.5 month early.
We took 7 days to trek back to Darchula. Luckily the last 2 days were short, easy, dry and sunny, so we arrived washed clean and relaxed back in Darchula. In Sunsera we said our goodbyes to the local porters, who stayed in their hometown, and in Darchula to the Sherpas, who took the bus to Kathmandu. Tendi and Babu travelled with us to KTM. This time we did the 12 hour drive to Dhangadhi, stuffed with travel pills, in 1 day, and stayed there in an hotel. May 8th we arrived already in KTM. Because we had calculated extra days for all kinds of unforseen things (that didn't happen) our tickets home were for May 15th, but at our request Bharat had gone to the airline's office and had managed one way or another to change our flights to May 10th. So that's when we were dropped off at the airport and left Nepal with a white khata around our necks, and a head full of amazing memories.
Maybe someday somebody else will try to reach 30°N 81°E, but this confluence hunter has to be prepared for a long and hard trek, unless by that time it's possible to go to Gaga by the Indian road. This would reduce the time from Darchula to Gaga from 6-7 days hard trekking to 6-7 hours in a Jeep.
Another possibility according to Tendi (in hindsight), if foreigners still are not allowed to cross the border, is to use the Indian road to transport half of the provisions to Gaga, to reduce the porters' loads.
Compared to the Darchula-Gaga trek, the trail up Nampa valley to Basecamp is a walk in the park. Also the approach to the foot of Mt. Nampa over the glacier is easy enough, provided there's not too much fresh snow. What remains is a high, steep and icy climb. According to Babu it would take another higher camp, close to the foot of the mountain, and a few days to explore different climbing routes up the mountain. This way, if you are a good mountaineer, you can be the first, not only to reach the highest confluence in the world, but also to climb Mt. Nampa (only climbed twice before) from the east side.
Anyway, it's not going to be easy. After all, it's the Mother of all Points!