The Metamorphosis of Hetal, Hemal, Neel, and Sita on Himlung Himal

Those who travel to mountain-tops are half in love with themselves, and half in love with oblivion.

Before the world went numb and cold from COVID 19, Hetal Shah and her friends had big plans. They wanted to do Himlung Himal Expedition 7126m in Nepal. But before they could set off, COVID 19 got the entire continent to a halt. Two years later, they got to do it.

Mountaineering is a lot like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer, you’re damn glad when its over, but its an interesting story.

Himlung Himal is situated at Peri Himal ranges (Nar phu) in Nepal. It in one of the remotest areas of the Nepal-Tibet border. Himlung Expedition follows round Annapurna route to Koto toward Nar-phu Goan, passing through high peaks, glaciers, remote villages, narrow gullies, forests, rocks, springs, Monasteries, and settlements with distinctive culture. It is one of the best destination in Peri Himal range for anyone looking for 7000m – 8000m peak in Nepal Himalaya.

Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.

Before they metamorphosed into hikers who could successfully climb Himlung, enjoy the meticulous journey to the summit, and travel back to the country without any complications arising from the expedition, they all started somewhere. While some of us started hiking in our adult years, Hetal did her first hike in primary school. Mt. Longonot. She later joined high school and was in the presidential awards scheme, where she discovered that she had the strength to hike through some random places without knowing where she was going. After completing the President’s award scheme, the school organized a trip to Mt. Kenya. She was turning 18. She told her parents she wanted to make the trip, and as an 18 birthday gift, she got to do Mt.Kenya. Years later, she went back and successfully climbed to point Batian. She joined campus after, and on her 21st birthday, she decided to do Mt.Kilimanjaro with some of her friends from USIU. Her parents again organized it for her as a birthday gift, and just like that, at 21, she’d done the highest peak in Kenya and Tanzania.
After university, after getting a job and gaining independence, she randomly joined some hiking groups on Facebook as she didn’t really have friends who were into hiking at the time.

Only if you’ve been in the deepest valley, can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.

Hemal Haria’s first hike was Mt. Kenya. It was a private school trip, and I got to point Lenana in his first attempt without proper gear. He later joined the President’s Award Scheme, where he learned much about being outdoors. After which, hiking became sort of an addiction. He eventually started taking groups to Mt. Kenya and other day hikes in the country. He then did Kilimanjaro and Ruwenzori, at which point there was no stopping him.

Neel Savla did his first on mt. Longonot when he was in primary school. He later went on holiday to India, where he did a spiritual hike about 3000 meters above sea level. He also joined the scheme and metamorphosed through bronze, silver, and gold. His first experience on mt. Kenya was warranted by the Presidential scheme as well. He reckons the snow levels were pretty high then, making him desire to keep hiking.

“But the objective, the people ask, the meaning, the goal? There is no meaning, there is no goal. Mountaineering is as meaningless as life itself – and thus its magic will never die.” – Peter Wessel Zapffe

Hetal and Hemal did Island Peak in the Himalayas years later. At the time, it stood at 6,189m above sea level. They reckon that since then, the height has sort of dropped. It was a long trip. 18 days on the mountain. They crossed five high points. This was their first real exposure in terms of high-altitude hikes. Neel’s most prolonged exposure was also in Nepal, 23 days on the mountain. After these expeditions, it took Hetal and Neel roughly five years before they were back at high altitude.

On this day, I’m meeting them at Village Market. It’s my first time at the mall and meeting these brilliant hikers. There is a fascinating aura and honesty to them that grips me throughout the night. It literary felt like I was interviewing mountain celebs because damn! They had done much of what I aspired to and did it without limitations to prep hikes. They attest to how important it is to have an active lifestyle.

“Beyond the mountains, more mountains.” – a Haitian proverb

The three of them and another friend from England, Sita Shah, set out to follow through on the 23-day trek on Himlung when it became safe to travel again. Himlung Himal, aka Cold Mountain, was the 7000m peak they felt was within their grip at the time. It was the most accessible one and slightly affordable at the time. For the trek, they paid $4650. However, that was in 2020. The prices have gone up since. However, they were lucky to do it this year at the exact cost as they had sorted the logistics before travel restrictions, cessations, and lockdowns. The current market rates for Himlung are $7000-$8000.

They were in Nepal for about a month for this hike. Inclusive of the preparations and travel. They credit getting the right equipment to their lovely Sherpa, who showed them where to hire the right gear. They hired crampons, ropes, harnesses, helmets, jumar, and -40 degrees sleeping bags and bought down suits in Kathmandu. Since you can’t hire down suits, the idea is you buy and then resell them if it’s still in good condition. Their Sherpa took them shopping for specific gear like socks, mittens, gloves, etc. As the lead Sherpa, he knew the best gear for the expedition and took it upon himself to help them source the best gear. It took them the entire day. Hemal insists on how crucial it is to get the right gear for high-altitude mountains as your life relies on it. Hetal notes that at 4000m on mt. Kenya and 4000m in the Himalayas, the feel of the air are entirely different. The latter is harsher, so it’s naïve to assume that you’ll be fine just because you’ve done Kenya, Kili, and Ruwenzori. 4000m on mt. Kenya is pleasant. After shopping in Kathmandu, the next day, Hemal, the team leader, had to go to the tourism office to sort the permits to start their expedition. It’s a long process as companies register for expeditions every day.

“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”― Edward Whymper,

They started their trek at 2500m. They could have opted to drive to the base camp, but rather than suffer the bumpy ride, they decided to just trek. It later proved essential as they took time to acclimatize before starting the climb. They were the only expedition at the time, but they were merged with another group, plus two Sherpas and two porters. The other group drove to Koto. When they started hiking, they were covering about 20km a day. The trek at the time was pretty hot because they were still low. However, they experienced less human traffic as it was a holiday festival, and they were the only guys doing the expedition at the time.

The views on the trek were stunning. They came across so many waterfalls and hill peaks they witnessed landslides that had happened the previous year. Had they opted for the ride, they’d never have seen all that. It was pleasant. Every day at around 10-11am, they’d stop for some tea, and at about 1pm, they’d get to another tea house to have lunch, then at about 3-4pm, they get to another tea house to have tea, play cards, and chatting getting to know each other. They were pretty spoilt.

At Koto, they took acclimatization medication, Diamox. You should take 125mg in the morning and evening to help your body acclimatize, so you don’t get sick. It’s a single tablet that you split in half. The side effects include frequent bathroom breaks and tingling in the fingers, toes, and lips. They all experienced different sensations and side effects. Hemal notes that it’s essential to take Diamox early enough and not after you start feeling symptoms of high altitude as it won’t work.

“The last word always belongs to the mountain.” – Everest movie

From Koto, they proceeded to Meta. Meta was where they started to spot all the big mountains. There was a considerable jump in altitude and change in weather. They spotted a couple of monasteries and an army base in remote mountain areas. It got colder. They had the most peaceful trek. Their decision to go early worked in their favor as they experienced less traffic and could interact with the Sherpas.

From Meta, they proceeded to Phu, an ancient village. It’s a 14th-century Tibetan village standing at 4100m. Here the village was empty. They were the only people there. The entire village had shut down as a result of COVID 19. They also witnessed the effects of global warming on the village, which forced the settlers to move to another place. It was colder and windy.

“Everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while you’re climbing it.”

They were in Phu for two days. Their Sherpas had called the tea houses in advance to cater to them. They needed to be there for two days to acclimate and allow the rest of the team to go to Himlung Basecamp to set it up for them. The rest of the team needed to set up the kitchen tent, the dining tent, the personal tents, and the toilet tents. They decided to walk around the village and walked up to a vacated monastery. The monks had literally left everything they had there and just left. The haystacks and monuments were intact, but they couldn’t survive due to the weather. They attest that it was a fusion of feelings being in the village. It was peaceful yet haunting. Spiritual yet detrimental. Here they could see the snow-capped mountains despite the village being a desert. But they still couldn’t see the Himlung peak. They spotted the peak an hour to Basecamp.

They had no idea what to expect at Basecamp. They were very impressed by how organized it was. It was on grassland and not on rocks. Along the way to Basecamp, they were met by the team for tea and biscuits. They’d cooked everything and brought it to them before they arrived. They were taken to the dining tent when they got to the camp. They had mats, proper seats, assortments of teas, sauces, and snacks. They had lunch and took in the views. Hetal attest that the view of Himlung Himal, which she says looked like a perfect ice-cream cone, was purely breathtaking.

“There’s no glory in climbing a mountain if all you want to do is to get to the top. It’s experiencing the climb itself – in all its moments of revelation, heartbreak, and fatigue – that has to be the goal.”

At Basecamp, at night, they’d just hear rocks falling and avalanches which were scary at first, but then they got used to it. It had snowed the entire night, and the following day they woke up to a snow-capped surrounding.

The following day, an Oldman – the Lama. The Lama is a priest from the village. He came to the Basecamp on a pony, looking like a knight in shining armor, ready to perform the Puja ceremony for the expedition. He set up his scriptures and prayers around a Buddha stupa. They were amazed by the fact that a lot of the offerings were composed of beer and alcohol. They also included food, snack, and their climbing gear. When everything was placed around the stupa, the Lama started his prayers. Two Sherpas in their group were also priests, so they also said the prayers with the Lama. The Puja lasted for about an hour and a half. They were offered beer after that, and the Lama blessed them by tying red strings around them. They’re never to remove the strings as they’re holy. Hetal and Neel still wear the strings. They were also given scarves which is a culture in Nepal. The experience at Basecamp was very spiritual.
Here, another team from England joined them. Two of them had spinal injuries. It was inspiring that they were here for the expedition as well. They never got to the summit, but they got to about 6800m which was mind-blowing. Their Puja was after theirs, and they were offered rum. Incredibly, drinking is a culture in the Himalayas. Their cultural alcohol is rice wine which they make at home.

“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.” – Emerson

After the Puja afternoon, they went nearby to try out their crampons, ropes, and jumar. The Sherpas trained them on how to use the safety ropes. Since the mountain hadn’t been climbed in two years, there was no direct path. The Sherpas had to recreate the paths and dig footsteps into the snow as it was like they were climbing for the first time. Three Sherpas who were part of the rope fixing team went ahead and designed the safest paths for them. They had to do rotations. On the first day, they went to camp 1 and then back to Basecamp for a day. On the third day, they went to camp 1, spent the night there, then went towards camp 2, descended all the way to Basecamp, where they rested for two days, and then the final push to the summit started. The final push included going to Basecamp, then camp 1, sleeping at camp 2, and pushing for the summit.

As they went higher, they couldn’t take the entire team like the chefs, so they had to carry lots of dry foods. Luckily they had a vast stock of dry foods, which they placed on the mat and asked them to pick what they’d consume and put in their bags. These included energy-giving foods like protein bars.
Hetal was particularly fascinated by how they harvested water from snow. They’d get clean snow in a duffle bag and boil it in little bits. Water from the snow was used for cooking, tea, drinking water, and showers.

“You never climb the same mountain twice, not even in memory. Memory rebuilds the mountain, changes the weather, retells the jokes, remakes all the moves.”

At this point, none of them had gone through any effects of altitude. They attribute that to starting slow, eating right, drinking water, and being obsessed with the views. They had witnessed a few avalanches on their trekk; they attest that there was something nice yet unnerving about it because it reminded them that they shouldn’t be too comfortable on the mountain.

On their way to camp 2 on the second rotation, their lead guide noticed a huge crevasse along their path. They were stuck there for about 45 minutes which deterred them from getting to camp 2 on time. The sun was out, and the ice was melting rapidly. Due to global warming, the rate at which crevasses are formed is much higher in the Himalayas. Because of time, they all had to come down tied to a rope as they were coming down. They got to Basecamp at around 8pm. They attest it was nicer to hike down at night because they didn’t know where they were going, making it easier for them. The trek back to camp 1 felt different. The three times they did camp 1, they experienced different views.
Every time they got to camp, everything was set up.

“Within alpinism’s narrow framework we seek transcendence and relentlessly pursue what remains hidden from us on flat ground: our true selves.” – Steve House

The snow was deep. And the summit push was tasking. They all had different summit experiences. Neel was the first to summit, followed by Hetal. Hemal and Sita experienced more difficulties. Sita got lost at some point, and Hemal experienced delays. Despite the challenges, Hemal still summited, but Sita didn’t make it to the summit. However, it’s impressive because, despite a tough summit push, she still got to 7000+m. At the end of it all, at about 3am, they were laughing about their experience. Neel did this without proper experience with ropes. None of them used supplemental oxygen despite it being available. 23 days it had taken. 23 days of spiritual bliss. 23 days of pushing beyond their limits. 23 days of setting a precedent for us.

“So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.” ― George Leigh Mallory

While mountains may make us feel small….they make us feel alive. They help us sort out what is important in life. That’s why I like telling these stories because they not only about the climb, but what you garnered from the climb. Mountains are earth’s undecaying monuments waiting for you to tap into their ancient wisdom. Listening to Hetal, Hemal, and Neel narrate this story was divine. I could tell that this expedition was gonna stick with them forever.

Hetal and Hemal run an outdoor company, Bootstrap. They do hikes and Northern trips. With the experience they have garnered over the years, I personally look forward to doing a hike with them. Check them out on their website and social media platforms.

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