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Melissa Arnot Summits Mustang Himal in Nepal
Posted on April 6, 2015

Melissa Arnot paying her respects the summit of 20,600-foot Mustang Himal, Nepal.

After the tragic events on Everest last season and her peacemaker role the season before, Melissa Arnot was clearly feeling disillusioned about high-altitude climbing, which is not only her passion but her profession. Yet her love for Nepal, its people, and its mountains remained strong and unwavering. So she changed course last fall, traveling far north and far west to the largely unclimbed Upper Mustang region on a stripped-down expedition with mountain guide Ben Jones.

Their mission was a self-supported first ascent of Mustang Himal, a 20,600-foot, newly permitted, and previously unclimbed peak with extremely challenging access and almost no beta. What she rediscovered was the purity of high-altitude climbing and a different personal perspective on the Himalayas. We will be tracking the steps of her journey on the Live your Adventure blog this week in our Mustang Mystery series, but first, this is Melissa’s long-anticipated story of her climb and her reawakening, deep in one of the most mysterious regions of the Himalayas. —LYA Editor

Arnot and Jones making the final push to the first ascent of 20,600-foot Mustang Himal via the six hammers route.

Words by Melissa Arnot, Images by Jon Mancuso

The unknown has always captivated me. I like discoveries where you have to endeavor off the map and challenge yourself to go forward, looking around with only what has been given to you in that moment. “Off the map” is a good way to describe the Mustang region of Nepal, leading to an expedition that we began to call “Mustang Mystery.”

After the tragic Everest season in the spring of 2014, I was feeling quite beaten down, even a little disillusioned about climbing in Nepal, a place I love and have spent so much of my life. I started talking with Ben Jones, another guide and friend with whom I’ve worked, about doing an expedition to some newly opened peaks when the fall season rolled around. Our only criterion for the peaks was to go somewhere no one else would be and we could do all the work alone. We got our wish.

I arrived in Kathmandu in September and began guiding some treks while poring over lists and maps of the newly opened peaks. It seemed reasonable to pick an area with a few peaks close to one another, get permits for them all, and then see what was climbable. I have heard stories about the Mustang area, and everyone swore it was magical, so it was easy to select that as our destination. Ben finished his guiding season on Cho Oyu, and our friend and photographer Jon Mancuso flew over from the U.S. to join us. We hired a cook to come to base camp and help as an interpreter. We packed all our rock and ice climbing gear, glacier walking gear, and jumped into the first element of the adventure—the jeep ride.

 

Now, I don’t mind a rustic road. I enjoy them. But the road that took us from Pokhara to the village of Jomsom was a little too rustic even for my taste. Ben, Jon and I were squished together, sore from crashing into each other on the very bumpy road. We arrived 10 hours later—tired and thirsty, but happy to have that behind us. Now we could start this thing . . . or so I thought.

The next three days were filled with jeep rides, walking through the dusty desert terrain of the Mustang valley, and eventually horses. Each corner held a surprise, and I was amazed by the diversity and beauty of the valley. We arrived at our last “big” village, Lo Manthang. Big might have been a slight misrepresentation for this particular village. Just a short jaunt from the China/Nepal border, it had about 800 residents. Also open-air homes with dirt floors, and a culture that felt untouched. I didn’t mind that it wasn’t big. I could tell this was a special place.

Cultural moment, capturing a selfie, or answering emails, in Jomsom.

We tried and tried to get information about the peaks where we were heading. No one seemed to know. We heard of a guy who knew a guy who maybe had been there, so we set out to find the guy. When we found him, he drew us a little map and said he had been to a little lake that would make a good base camp, and we asked if he could take us. Eight horses, a few porters and two days later, we arrived. It was beautiful, near the border and remote. I felt like we were very close to finding our objective.

“Very close” is a funny thing. Very close is sometimes the furthest distance you have ever gone. Our sat phone barely worked; our cell service had stopped days ago. We had some old paper maps and the great wide-open all around us. So we packed our bags (our really, really, really heavy bags) and headed up the old glacier bed, looking for the glaciers from which these rocks came.

After 10 hours of walking through a foot of new snow, we called it a day. We set up our tent in the wind and snow and crawled in, disappointed to still be cradled by the valley with no view of the peaks yet. My body felt tired. My mind was still excited, but that little seed of doubt had also arrived.

 

The next morning we continued through the new snow, breaking trail and looking around. After what seemed like an unreasonable amount of time, we made a second camp, with hopes to ditch our heavy packs and find those peaks in the morning. How could we have walked so far and still seen nothing? It was starting to feel like a mirage.

In the morning, with tired bodies, we slowly made coffee and crawled out, thankful for the light packs. After a few hours of glacier walking, we got our first glimpse of three of our destination peaks. Two were broken granite, one was glaciated. The rock was gorgeous and we headed in for a closer look.

Mansail peak provided us with a beautiful, broken-granite ridge that led to a giant triangle face on top. We climbed all day and found ourselves under a 20-foot overhang, unable to get around it. I didn’t care. It was some of the most fun climbing and exploring that I’d ever experienced. We headed back down to our camp, arriving in the dark, happy and still curious.

Ben Jones and Melissa Arnot taking the very high route on the broken granite summit of Mustang Himal.

After a few days of rest at our base camp, we headed back up to our high camp. Mustang Himal was the glaciated peak and we wanted to head over to check it out. We started out on the same path, but then found our way to a huge and beautiful snowy headwall. The snow conditions were quite variable, but once we got on the face, it was perfect. Jon went to the ridge while Ben I and stayed on the magical face. For 800 feet we climbed, and when we reached the top, the winds calmed and the sun warmed our faces. This is what we came for. We tied our lama’s blessings onto a rock on the summit, staying long enough to give gratitude before heading back to our camp.

After a few days of packing and preparing, we worked our way back down valley. Everyone in the village was curious if we had made it. We told them we had, and they asked that we please bring others back to see this magical area. We promised that we would. It was a gift. It was everything we had set out for, and after a particularly hard spring, it was just the clarifying expedition we all needed to reset ourselves and remember why we do this.

Melissa Arnot, alternate approach to the newly permitted Upper Mustang.

Epilogue: If the trip had ended in Lo Manthang, I would have given it a 6 on the 1-10 scale of difficulty. But it didn’t. The road that we accessed the village by had become rougher in the weeks we spent climbing, and jeeps could no longer access it. The only way out was to walk (for 10 days!) or to take a tractor. Those words don’t do justice to what the tractor ride was like, but suffice to say it was the most physically strenuous part of the journey, and surely another story for another time.

End of the road, or at least civilization, at Chung Chung.

Later this month, Eddie Bauer guide and Juniper Fund co-founder Melissa Arnot will return to Everest base camp with her sights on the summit of the world’s tallest peak once again. Follow along on blog.eddiebauer.com and on the Eddie Bauer twitter, Instagram and Facebook feeds.

Author: - Monday, April 6th, 2015
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  1. Deepak KC Khatri

    Dear Melissa
    Namaste
    I run a travel Magazine in Nepal for our tourism promotion. I like your MELISSA ARNOT SUMMITS MUSTANG HIMAL IN NEPAL and I want to publish it in my February issue. I am waiting for your “YES”.
    Thanks
    Deepak KC

  2. Eddie Bauer Social

    Sorry, we don’t have that information.


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