Dhiman Mandal has just turned 13. He lives in Manchester, UK. He is a diehard Manchester United fan and plays football himself. A lover of the natural world, he wants to be a marine biologist when he grows up. He has been on short hikes since the age of 4. In April 2023, he completed his first trek in the high Himalayas over Easter break.
When I embarked on the Mardi Himal trek, I had no idea what sort of peace and tranquillity I was about to experience. I left the hotel ruminating in the car, casting one last look at reality as I unknowingly prepared to enter the world of dreams and joy.
As it turned out, people here were completely one with nature — catching and storing rainwater, making their own fires instead of using gas and enjoying the simple pleasures of life such as food, dance and music – the business world of taxes, rent and mortgage entirely unknown to them.
The Annapurna Massif, at sunrise from one of the lower camps
We soon entered the majestic territory of the mountains. The snowy peaks of the mountains caught fire as the sun peaked around the mountain, casting them in an angelic glow. The twisted, snake-like route led us to steep slopes that overlooked a deep drop to certain death. We finally reached the point from where the trek started. I had my dad and three uncles from my mum’s side with me, and we had Lakkpa-ji (assistant sherpa) and Saktah-ji (head sherpa), who would lead us to the viewing point (5500m).
Our team, on Day 1 at Australian Camp
When we first got out of the car, I felt a sudden itchiness as the blistering sun beamed down on us. I took off some layers and hoisted my trusty camel pack onto my back. In the first few minutes of the trek, I could feel the energy already draining out of me as I sluggishly climbed the stairs. My family did not notice this and focused on themselves. Suddenly, the thought of me not being able to climb Mardi Himal flashed across my mind along with the disappointed/angry faces of my uncles and especially my dad. That somehow fueled my energy and from that point, I decided I was going to out-climb everyone.
On the first day, I remember climbing the never ending stairs, feeling fit and fine. My friend Lakkpa-ji even told me to slow down, but I had no intention of slowing down. On the first day, I arrived at the first tea house with a face covered in an oily layer of sweat. I sat down. I could feel my legs aching but I promised myself that the next day, and the day after that too, I would be the first to reach every single tea house. I did this a little out of competitiveness. However, I mostly did it to make sure that I would never fall behind and let everyone down. On the first day, I went to bed with dal and bhat in my tummy.
Nepali Thali, a simple but tasty meal of daal-bhat and vegetables – staple on the trek
On the second day, it was mainly a forested area, where rhododendron trees stretched for miles and miles on either side. The enchanted rhododendron forest with its entwining twigs laden with lush green moss looked like they were hiding a secret. But it was a secret that was not supposed to be found - hidden away, and I was content with that. With flat terrain, it was a moderately easy hike. At lunch, I even had a little nap. At first, I was sleeping on a collection of my family’s bags, but later, Lakkpa-ji brought out a blanket and pillow, and I had a solid nap thanks to him. There were never-ending waves of flies on the hike and they continuously pestered me. But, I remained calm, as one slip could be fatal. We finally arrived at the tea camp house at around 4:30 and didn’t go to sleep until 10:00. That night, I had chicken, mutton, sabji (vegetables) and dal with bhat. With a warm feeling, and a full stomach, I went to sleep as I finally started to understand what sort of world these people lived in.
Walking through the enchanted forest of rhododendrons
The next morning, I woke up with cramps that rippled down my body. All my limbs ached but I still could feel my heart lurching out of excitement at the journey today. Lots of people were already up, and the air was filled with a sense of urgency as many people prepared themselves for the hike ahead. My dad was already up and I saw him having breakfast with the rest of my family. I quickly shoved down my breakfast and drank a surprisingly delicious cup of hot chocolate that soothed my rumbling belly. Even 3000m above sea level, you could get decent phone connectivity and piping hot delicious food and drink.
Our farewell lunch with the sherpas; Lakkpa-ji is right beside me, just like the complete trek!
The hike on the third day was mostly uphill, with slopes instead of stairs. As we climbed and climbed, I pulled further and further away from the rest of the party, with my friend Lakkpa-ji leading me alone. Before lunch, I told Lakkpa-ji that the pink rhododendron blossoms were looking beautiful on the trees, and without even saying anything, Lakkpa-ji hoisted himself onto the tree and not only brought down flowers for me but for other hikers as well. That day, me and Lakkpa-ji got to lunch 10 minutes ahead of the rest of my family. At lunch, I had papad and dal bhat.
By the time we reached the next tea house where we would be staying, it was around three o’clock. Because of the exertion that day, and the building altitude, as soon as I sat down, my head started to spin, and I couldn’t focus my vision well. I controlled my breathing when this happened and closed my eyes. When I opened them I was feeling better, but, up to that point I had had no altitude sickness whatsoever. I had to be careful going up now, I made a mental note.
Annapurna and Hiunchulli peaks
The tea house we were staying the night in was called Badal Danda. Only five minutes after reaching the tea house, the weather turned into a spitting snake with its icy fangs of rain. We quickly hurried under the shelter of the corrugated sheet roofs. Thunder growled ominously and lightning split open the sky. We had reached barely in time. It would have been extremely dangerous being out in a lightning storm.
I still remember the dog at the tea house – a big, black friendly dog called Kali. I spent a good 10 minutes stroking Kali, completely forgetting about the storm raging on. During the night, another storm rolled in, but I managed to have a good sleep; although I could not say the same thing about my dad. At sunrise the next morning, we had magnificent views of Annapurna, its hard grey rock suddenly turned a golden brown in the morning light. My family and I were extremely lucky that morning to witness such beauty – most tourists don’t, or at least not from there. For me, that moment was the best out of the whole trip. We then had breakfast and set off for the next tea house.
Me petting Kali at the Badal Danda camp
We reached the next tea house relatively easily as the terrain was mainly flat except from the last stretch of land which was stairs. Once we reached the tea house, my family and I had an early dinner as the next morning would be our final day climbing uphill. We would have to wake up at three o’clock at night to see Machapuchere in all its morning glory at the top. After dinner, we played a quick game of cards, in which we teamed up on my dad and then sat next to the fire until we all went to sleep at around 10 o’clock.
Sunrise at the final viewpoint, with Fishtail Mountain
The next morning, I woke up to a harsh, blaring, yellow light illuminating my eyelids. I could barely open my eyes. Finally, through squinted eyes and blurred vision, I saw my dad already getting ready for the trip. It was 2:45 am on the clock, which meant there was only 15 minutes to get ready. Without a moment’s thought, I flung on my clothes, brushed my teeth and had a protein bar for energy. Flicking off a few pieces of dust and debris from my clothes, I was nearly ready for the arduous hike ahead as my dad adjusted the angle of my headlight, which was needed to see any snakes that were known to be lurking at this time of night. With that, we set off for the viewpoint at exactly 3:06 in the morning.
Returning from the final viewpoint
The whole way to the peak was a maze of one thousand feet dunes of rock and soil stacked on top of each other like building blocks. My lungs gasped for air. As soon as we climbed a hill, there seemed to be an endless trail of them that led into the horizon where the distant peak of the viewpoint lay patiently waiting for us. The higher we climbed, the colder it got and more snow started falling from the sky, landing in patches. Eventually, we were following a narrow ridge that was laid with a slippery trail of ice. I had to then put on my spikes on my shoes that would stop me from slipping. I didn’t dare look down, as I viciously and tenaciously dug my spikes into the ice, out of fear.
The viewpoint peak was drawing nearer and nearer in the horizon until finally, I asked Saktah-ji if this was the peak. He said yes and together, me and Saktah-ji climbed the frozen peak with my uncle Partha mama not far behind. Once we reached the last stretch, there was a slippery slope that was about 20 m in width but it was at a steep angle. Once again digging my trekking poles and spikes into the ground, I scaled my way up the slope, using the footprints of other hikers’ trails as grip until I successfully got to the top.
Our route map, on a sign on the way
From there onwards, it was a 10 minute flat trek to the top where there was a little version of the massive slope I scaled. Grasping a rock, I hauled myself up to the summit and took in the view. On my left was the Annapurna Base Camp, on my right was a sheer drop, with other mountains in the distance, behind me was the trek I just completed, and in the front, Fishtail Mountain stared at me proudly, raising its head defiantly against the roaming clouds. My shoes were muddy, my hair messy and my shirt soaked in sweat, but I had never felt so calm and tranquil before. I had completed the trek, after 4 days of climbing, I had done it!