ACT Day 10 - Tilicho Lake

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The Ridge

The mist that was interspersed with bouts of drizzle permeated the morning air. We had a lot of time to play around with that day and so decided to wait until the drizzle ceased before beginning the hike to Tilicho Lake (elevation : 4920m). As such, we leisurely ate breakfast, which was jam (NPR105/2) and pancake (NPR280/2) that had been deep fried for some reason. We also ordered tibetan bread (NPR305/2) to take-away for lunch later on. By the time we set foot on the trail that began just behind our guesthouse, 'Hotel Kangsar Kang', it was already past 09:00.

The trail from Tilicho Base Camp (elevation : 4150m) was quite wide and was very easy to follow. It first led up to a river that was spanned by a small wooden bridge and then zig-zagged up the slopes via a series of four switchbacks. The flower theme for the day seemed to be yellow: conventional flora such as the stalks of the sunflower-like Cremanthodium ellisii and bushes of cinquefoils (Potentilla cuneata) were scattered around the sides of the trail, but so too were atypical flora like woolly saw-worts (Saussurea spp.) and Scully's louseworts (Pedicularis scullyana).

The pyramid peak

The pyramid peak

Phases of Scully's lousewort (Pedicularis scullyana)

A huge pyramid peak that seemed to block the way to the lake appeared to the west just as we rounded the ridge. From that point, turning left in the opposite direction from the lake and walking just ahead brought us to a little rise on the edge of the ridge. There was quite a view here and we were able to see down into the crumbly pinnacles that were located just below us. Over the pinnacles and on the other side of the valley to the east, a switch-backing route could also clearly be seen that cut through the volcanic-like sand, and its direction meant that it could only lead to the top of the col, which was almost 5000 metres in elevation.

On top of the pinnacles

On top of the pinnacles on the ridge above Tilicho Base Camp

After a while, we turned back around and began our approach to the pyramid peak. The trail dropped down the slopes slightly in order to pass under the base of the pyramid, but then continued to climb gently from there. Bumblebees (Bombus sp.) buzzed around between the plentiful stalks of Pterocephalus hookeri and birds flitted around from bush to bush--every single one of them issuing warning chirps as we approached. We passed a large lateral moraine on our left that had been heaped up by the tongue of the Khangsar Glacier long ago, the terminus of which had since receded further up the valley and had left a river that channeled the melt-water of the Khangsar Glacier down to the Marsyangdi Nadi in its place. The mist had been clearing fairly steadily since we started walking, and as it wafted above the desolate terrain to our right, it seemed almost as if it were seeping up from below the ground.

Meandering meltwater

Meandering meltwater

Next (Day 10) : Tilicho Lake (Part 2)

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The Cirque

We entered a landslide-prone area after two kilometres of walking. The mist had creeped in from behind us and had left almost everything obscured by a whiteout. The scree ended a few hundred metres later and a series of sixteen switchbacks that zig-zagged up the steep slopes of the mountain began. They were covered with grassy terrain at first but the grass quickly gave way to stones and boulders. By the time we reached the last switchback, we had made an elevation gain of about a hundred metres. The trail continued to climb the slopes till an elevation of at least 4900m, and then levelled off as it entered a cirque of sorts--what I can only describe as a 'bowl'. The cirque gave us very good shelter because as soon as we entered, the wind completely died down and all sounds of the river disappeared--leaving us in complete and utter silence.

Descending mist

The descending mist

We were not too far from the lake at that point as there was a sign that stated "Lake 35 minutes away", and despite the large amount of rock pollution--unnecessary cairns that were 'pointless reminders of the human ego'--the shelter that the cirque offered us made us decide to stop for lunch, which ended up being tibetan bread that was soaked in steaming hot chicken soup. As we ate, we kept on hearing sounds of avalanches to the south-west; little did we know then that the avalanches from the multiple icefalls that we were to encounter later would continue on for the rest of our stay at the lake. We also spotted several Himalayan blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur), also known as bharals, grazing on the sparse alpine grass in the distance.

Himalayan blue sheep

A Himalayan blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur)


Edelweiss (Leontopodium sp.)

The mist began to part just as Raleigh, the only nice United Statian that we had met on the trip, came back towards us on her way back to the lodge. We then spotted sections of the icefall to our left, which was both a precursor for what was to come as well as something that spurred us forwards. As we rounded the sides of the cirque, at least seven icefalls that plummeted down the steep eastern slopes of Tilicho Peak (elevation : 7134m) could be seen and three smaller tarns came into view soon after. I thought it interesting then that Annapurna Base Camp was located only 15 kilometres directly south from there--a distance that I could run in just over an hour on flat terrain, but was impossible here because of the presence of the 'Grande Barriere'.

A common red Apollo

A common red Apollo (Parnassius epaphus); alpine gentians (Gentiana nubigena)

Next (Day 10) : Tilicho Lake (Part 3)

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Tilicho Tal

As we ascended the small rise towards the festooned prayer flags above, the massive turquoise body of water that was Tilicho Lake (elevation : 4920m) revealed itself slowly with each and every step that we took. It had taken us four hours to cover the five kilometres to the lake at a very relaxed pace, and we realised that we had the entire lake completely to ourselves as we reached the top of the rise. The four-kilometre-long glacial lake was absolutely breathtaking in every way and exuded a beauty that could only be rivaled by the lakes of Gokyo. We stood there and looked out to the lake in silence for a long while, completely and utterly mesmerised.

Prayer flags atop Tilicho Lake

Prayer flags atop Tilicho Lake

Tilicho Lake is a tarn--a mountain lake that has been created by glacial activity--that was formed by the meltwater and icefall from the eastern slopes of Tilicho Peak (elevation : 7134m), and is guarded to its south by the imposing and impassable 7000 metre-high mountain range known as Annapurna's Grande Barriere. The lake may be located at a very high elevation, but despite the multitude of websites that state matter-of-factly that Tilicho Lake is the highest lake in the world, it is not the highest by far--simply looking at satellite imagery of the Tibetan plateau 150 kilometres or so directly north will reveal dozens of lakes that are located at higher elevations (the title of the highest lake in the world is held by the Nevado Ojos del Salado Lake in Argentina at 6390m).

Tilicho Lake does however hold both scientific and religious significance. The lake was not only the site of one of the highest scuba dives in history but it has also been the site of several scientific expeditions, some of which tested maximum safe depths and decompression stops (using 'Cross Corrections') for scuba diving at high-altitudes. This lake is also believed to be the location where the Hindu epic Ramayana was first told to Garuda, the king of birds.

5000 metres

Exactly 5000 metres--breathtaking in every way!

After we emerged from our reveries, we decided to go explore the lake's vicinity. We began by making our way south along the ridge towards the multiple icefalls. We sat there for a while, and listened to the avalanches that rumbled down from high above; and watched huge blocks of ice calve off the edge of the icefall and fall into the lake tumultuously, sending huge waves rippling off in every direction. We were in awe at the sheer power that we observed just in-front of our very eyes.


The 70-metre high icefall terminus. Enormous blocks of ice would occasionally calve off and fall into the lake below

After a while, we turned around and made our way northwards. The well-defined trail began to arch west after passing the seasonal tea house that was opened in 2014, and followed the contour around the hill. Different views of the lake with the icefalls now as a backdrop began to be revealed. Directly ahead of us lay a small hill, and directly behind it, the green eastern shore of Tilicho Lake. The trail continued around the eastern side of the hill and just as we passed in-between two mounds, the path diverged--with the main path continuing straight down to the shore, and the smaller path leading towards the high-altitude passes.

The trail to the high altitude passes does not follow the eastern shore as some older maps tend to show. This is because further north of the shore is an area that is very prone to rockfall that is very dangerous, and perhaps now even impassable. Instead, the smaller path deviates 45-degrees to the right and circumvents the huge crumbly 5550m wall directly north of that point. The path ascends the slopes before swinging westward to what is referred to as the 'Eastern Pass' (elevation : 5340m), and from there on to either the classic 'Mesokanto La Pass' (elevation : 5245m), which lies further west just before the fang-like peak, or up to the pass that is sometimes called 'Mesokanto North Pass' and sometimes 'Tourist Pass'.

Looking towards Mesokanto La pass

Looking north-west towards Mesokanto La pass. The trail traces the ridge to the left and then crosses over to the other side just
before it reaches the fang-like peak on the far left of the image. The precarious rockfall area can be seen on the right of the image

The mist descended upon us not too long after and we were forced to abandoned our plans to head down to the shore of the lake, and to instead make our way back. The temperature began to plummet shortly after we turned around, so we decided to stop at the teashop to take shelter from the ever intensifying wind and to prepare something quick--muesli and hot milk--to help keep us warm. We made our way back to Tilicho Base Camp (elevation : 4150m) not too long after, and the descent turned out to be a much quicker journey than the ascent, taking us just an hour and a half. As we dropped down below the mist, the visibility improved significantly and we were greeted once again by magnificent views of the valley below.

As we walked into the guesthouse, hoards of porters, easily numbering twenty or so, began to arrive. These porters were all there to accommodate the huge group of eighty-five people that had been flown in to Tilicho Base Camp by helicopter for a yoga retreat. We found out later that three of the participants were immediately evacuated due to altitude sickness from their rapid ascent. Foolish, no?

* The dhal bhat dinner cost NPR630 and the accommodation NPR100/2.

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Next (Day 11) : Tilicho Base Camp to Yak Kharka

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