Words by Minna Riihimaki
Images by Minna R and Philippe Batoux
I have been paragliding for two and half years, so when my companion, Philippe Batoux, suggested that one day we will go paragliding in the world-famous flying site in Pokhara, Nepal, I nodded my head, thinking yes, sure, one day, but certainly not so soon.
That was about a year ago and the suggestion triggered a reason to practice flying even more. During the summer and autumn 2021, I spent as much time as possible combining high alpine climbing and paragliding in my home valley, Chamonix, and elsewhere, doing safety courses and a lot of ground handling in different wind conditions. I gained in experience and started to feel more comfortable about travelling far away.
So here we were, planning an expedition, combining mountaineering and paragliding, in Nepal for November 2021. A true cultural change and discovering Himalayas felt appealing after these times of uncertainty.
As Pokhara was on the list and the closest mountain range just behind, is the Annapurna Sanctuary, it was the logical choice for mountaineering. This was Philippe’s 4th trip to Nepal, but he hadn’t been in this part of the country, I was pleased with the idea that there was something new for both of us.
We were greeted by our travel agency contact, after landing and sorting out the health and visa formalities. Rajan explained us that we arrived just for the first day of celebration of Tihar, a festival that will go on for 5 days with music, dancing and sacred offerings. The traffic in Kathmandu was going to get worse, so it was preferable to leave straight away to exit the city. The agency would take care of our climbing permits and deliver them to our hotel. We did as Rajan suggested and could observe the festival preparations in every village, on the 7-hour bus ride to Pokhara.
Pokhara is a very popular and touristic city, by the Phewa lake that reflects, like a mirror some of the highest mountains in the world, Annapurna I, Dhaulagiri and Manaslu, on its surface. It is the starting point for trekkers doing the Annapurna circuit and offers a bird eye’s view for paragliders taking off 600 meters above the lake, at Sarangkot.
After meeting other paragliders, some Nepali and Europeans, for information about the local rules and habits, we were excited to discover the flying site and hiked up through the jungle, from town to the hilltop of Sarangkot. The air was pristine in the morning and the hilltop revealed the Annapurna mountain range with the Macchapucchare, the Buddhist holy and forbidden mountain, dominating the view on the first plan.
As November is already late for the mountaineering season, we preferred prioritizing the expedition part of the trip and leave as soon as everything was organised. It was time to pack the 90 kg of technical gear in 4 backpacks that the porters would carry to the base camp. We were about to walk 4 days, making our way up to the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) at 4150m altitude, acclimatising gradually.
We left the big double surface paragliders in the storage at the Big Pillow hotel in Pokhara but packed the light single skin wings in the backpacks to go with us. Paragliding in Himalayas is a controversial topic, and after trying to obtain flying permits besides the climbing permits, we had to admit that the process was too complicated and decided to let the nature determine if we would have a chance to fly in the Annapurnas.
Nepal has suffered significantly from the earthquake in 2015 and 2 years of Covid restrictions, meaning that we had no recent information about the conditions and accesses, concerning anything above the base camp. This was also confirmed by JB Gurung, the owner of the Annapurna Sanctuary Lodge, there hadn’t been any alpinists since years and the erosion and strong monsoons had washed away the former trails across the moraine and above the lodge. It was up to us 2 to explore the terrain and improvise the approach routes.
The regular wake-up call at the ABC is set by the sunrise on the south face of Annapurna I, at 8091 meters. It is a breath-taking morning show of changing colours and a reason for trekkers from all over the world to spend a night up at 4150 meters. This year 90% of the rare trekkers are Nepali people, the international tourists haven’t found their way back yet, but are much awaited by the locals.
The Annapurna Sanctuary is formed by a ridge line culminating between 7400 and 8000 meters, in shape of a horseshoe. Our plan was to acclimatise on a permit-free trek summit, Tharpu Chuli at 5600 meters, and then continue towards more technical Singu Chuli at 6501 meters. These 2 mountains are like an islet in the middle of the horseshoe that were reached by an easy and marked trail across the moraine. We realised that getting across had become a suicide mission, as the moraine is partly overhanging and deep, with loose rocks size of a car. The climate change has left a strong print here and is doing considerable and fast damage in high altitude. The only safe access we could imagine was the approach route towards Annapurna I South face, about 2 or 3 days’ walk away, too much for what it was.
We decided to turn our efforts towards the second summit, Hiunchuli, at 6441 meters.
The ABC is located on the south side of this horseshoe, just underneath the North face of Hiunchuli. From the base camp, we could observe an esthetical ice line in the middle of the N face, starting at 4800 meters and continuing up to about 5600 meters, with 4 sections of steep ice, intersected by inclined snow ramps. A mixed buttress then leads to the snowy ridge line at 6100 meters, before the summit at 6441 m. Other than this line, everything else on the N face is guarded by massive hanging seracs, banning any ascent.
Our choice was to go set advanced camp at the base of this ice line.
We had made a choice of being as light as possible for the bivouacs and spend nights in a small but robust 2-person tent. Having little space requires organisation; It’s a team work to melt snow, cook, dry gear, arrange and being comfortable to sleep well.
On the first attempt, the plan was to have a go on the bottom section of the ice fall, getting used to the altitude and the ice and rock quality. The weather was good, but the consistent strong wind was blowing from Southwest above 6000 meters, as every day, making the mountains look like they were smoking with white columns of snow pushed in the air.
As Philippe starts on the first pitch, I belay him on a snow ledge. The ice is thin and Philippe navigates to find the best placements for the few screws. Half-way up the pitch, spindrifts start crawling down the line. Climbing in the middle of a spindrift is like fighting blindfolded against a frozen spray of snow and ice pushed by a gale wind; it is dangerous and uncomfortable, sudden and unpredictable. After long minutes of patient waiting and being still on the front points of the crampons, fully covered in snow and our heads tucked in the hoods, Philippe decides to downclimb; spindrifts are ice climbers’ nightmare.
Thermos of tea keeps us warm as we wait and watch the spindrifts step up in force; further climbing will not be possible that day. Walking back to the tent, we agree that climbing this line will only be possible and safe if there is no accumulated or blowing fresh snow.
The next day, wind remains the same and we decide to leave the tent and gear behind and go back to base camp to rest and observe for few days. The way through rocky moraine feels easier being light and we mark the way by building cairns for the return.
2 days later, we are back at the tent. Batteries are charged, we feel physically strong, and the weather forecast is dry, even though Annapurna I is partly covered in clouds. We believe that it takes at least 4 days of climbing to reach the summit, or 2 days of climbing being light, without bivi gear, to do the ice line. The forecast is stable for the next 3 days.
We leave for the 2nd attempt. The first ice section is about 75m high and we split it in 2 pitches with belays on solid pitons that Philippe hammers into the rock fissures on the right bank of the line. The first snow ramp requires a belay in the middle, making the descent safer, snow is knee deep but stable. The second ice section is the most technical and esthetical of the line. Climbing is stunning with the Macchapucchare on the background. We are happy, making the way higher, working as a team, there is very little talking, we know what we need to do. Building the belays take time, the rock is compact and cracks are rare, which doesn’t help Philippe, but his experience is an advantage and I am often amazed by his capacity of anticipation, avoiding unnecessary difficulties or dangers.
Night falls early in November and we had fixed a time limit to abseil down the line. 6 belays were equipped, and we think that we can climb back here fast and equip the second part the next day. Abseiling is fluent but as we reach the right bank on the top of the first ice section, spindrifts surprise us again. They sweep the line on the left and as we reach the bottom, the whole N face is covered under a veil of snow. The darkness falls and we enjoy dinner in the tent, discussing the plan for the next day.
A crackling noise of snow falling on the tent wakes us up at 23h and goes on for the whole night. Snow was not predicted, it is freezing cold, and we unzip the tent door in the morning to discover the change of the season. At midday, the fresh snow keeps on accumulating and the only reasonable way for us is down. For the second time, we leave the camp but this time we take the technical gear with us, as we had spotted small ice lines to climb on both sides of the base camp when prospecting for accesses.
The next day, blue sky is back, and we enjoy from distance some impressive avalanches raging down the faces of surrounding mountains. Everything seems stable on our ice line on Hiunchuli, we scout it with binoculars, hoping to see the excess fresh snow cleared down by an avalanche, but no, it even seems to be accumulating again as the SW wind is back…
Little bit of sun allows us to dry and check the gear outside, in company of the young lodge managers who are impressed by the thickness of the Norrona -18,5 sleeping bags that we roll out of the compression bags!
2 more days of stable and good weather were forecasted, so we decided to return to the advanced camp. Summiting was not an option anymore, as there was too much snow over 6000 meters, and we were running out of time. But 2 days of ice climbing to finish the line still seemed like a satisfying and thrilling goal.
We found the camp paint in white and higher we got, deeper and more windblown became the snowpack. We reminded ourselves of the rule of thumb that we had fixed the first day, no climbing if fresh snow. It was time to make the hard decision of wrapping up, without finalizing the project. We packed the camp and as we walked down the moraine, we couldn’t help turning around towards Hiunchuli once in a while, as if it made the au revoir less painful…
The porters were back at the base camp waiting for us, and we left for a 2-day trek through the jungle, in 100% humidity, and the snow was replaced by the rain. Our favourite entertainment on the way up, the monkey spotting, was not on, they were sheltering somewhere out of sight.
We still had a week left to enjoy the summer temperatures by the Phewa lake, doing hike&fly’s on the surrounding hilltops, improvising landings on harvested rice fields with memorable encounters with locals who were amused to see us visit them by the airs.
Packing list for the trek:
- Bitihorn light weight merino socks, 2 pairs
- Norrona tights
- Svalbard Flex1 pant
- /29 tech singlet, x2
- Wool top crop, x2
- Falketind Alpha120 zip hood
- Trollveggen superlight down 850
- Lyngen down 850 knickers
- Trollveggen 40L dri Pack
- Scarpa Mescalito shoes
Packing list for above the base camp:
- Trollveggen heavy weight merino socks, x2
- Norrona winter tights
- Bitihorn wool top, x2
- Wool top crop
- Falketind Alpha120 zip hood
- Trollveggen superlight down 850 jacket
- Falketind 750 down jacket
- Trollveggen 850 down jacket
- Lyngen down 850 knickers
- Falketing packlite Gore-Tex pant and jacket
- Norrona beanie
- Falketind dri short gloves
- Trollveggen Gore-Tex gloves
- Falketind down800 -18,5C sleeping bag
- Trollveggen 40L dri Pack
- Scarpa Phantom 6000 shoes