Sugar has been getting a bad press from me recently. As I have tried to stress, it’s not a solitary bad guy; it’s no Blofeld, squatting in a mountain lair plotting your downfall. If anything, it’s more a part of a bad guy team; alongside fat and salt it forms a Suicide Squad-like team-up of bad guys, that can also do good if they want to.
Sugar, at the right time, can be just the tonic we need. In the spirit of fairness, let us today celebrate the greatness of sugar and remind ourselves why, sometimes, it is exactly what we need.
Welcome to Samagaon in the Nepal Himalaya, beneath the awesome Manaslu, the eighth-highest peak in the world. We are not far from the epicentre of this year’s devastating earthquake, but this is 2010, so we are a few years away from that horrendous disaster. Mrs Running Buffet and I have spent the previous ten days climbing slowly upwards, following the path alongside the Budhi Gandaki river. Our shuffling but steady pace is routinely put to shame by our porters, who keep up a rollicking rate of progress even when laden with monumental loads.
The last few days have brought us into the high mountain zone where the air begins to thin and there is a chance of falling foul of acute mountain sickness. AMS is not my worry, however. The team with us is doing an amazing job of keeping us fed and watered but, even then, there have been moments during the last few days where the energy levels have dropped and weariness has set in. And the toughest climb was yet to come.
From Sama we would ascend to Samdo (about 3,700m above sea level, and the last village in the valley) and then turn away from the river to climb higher, up to the Larkya La: a Himalayan mountain pass 5,213m above sea level. That’s nearly four times the height of Ben Nevis; the summit of Mt Blanc is 4,810m. It is high. That climb was going to be a challenge and a well-timed energy boost might be just what we would need to get us to the top. But from where would we purchase such a snack here, high in the Himalaya?
From the shop of course.
Sama’s shop has capricious opening times and is little more than a big window into a store room beside one of the “guesthouses”. We are on a trading route here, but not one that you would recognise from the UK. Tibet is a few miles to the north; Nepal’s main east-west road is many more miles to the south. But there are no roads here; the last motorised vehicle was seen about a week ago, far down in the valley. Even our donkeys had turned back yesterday; everything here had to be brought in on foot. Everything in the shop came in this way. Someone carried it here, ready to be sold to passing tourists like us. The effort involved is staggering.
So when I did the mental calculations and realised that the Snickers bars I was buying came to £6 then it came as no surprise. Not only were they the most expensive chocolate bars I had ever bought, they were also the best-value. No one could begrudge that price tag, considering the enormous effort involved in getting those chocolate bars all the way up to the high Himalaya. Especially when us tourists can clearly afford to pay it.
Three days later, we were woken at three in the morning to begin the trek over the Larkya La. Wearing every piece of clothing I could lay my hands on, my headtorch strapped to my head, I waited for the signal to start the ascent. At this altitude breathing is a doddle, when you’re not moving. Take a step or two uphill and you are soon huffing like you have a 50-a-day habit and have just run a 10k. As such, our ascent was slow. It was also cold. The cloud cover raced away across the mountain tops, taking with it any slight protection from the freezing conditions. In the pre-dawn the temperature dropped and ice formed on the outside of my rucksack as I walked. When the first glint of sunlight crested the mountain tops at around seven, it was a very welcome sight.
The clouds rolled back in to hide us from the sun as we climbed higher, following our guides across the rock-strewn top of a glacier. As expected, at some point in the morning, my energy drained away. The world’s most expensive chocolate bar did its trick and my flagging enthusiasm was revived. Thanks to that Samagaon Snickers, I was back on my feet and on my way again. As we climbed higher and higher it became harder and harder to suck in enough oxygen and the whole group was panting hard as we climbed.
We eventually broke out of the cloud to be presented with a panorama of snowy peaks and, at around a quarter past nine, we reached the Larkya La pass. This was the highest I had ever been. If I wasn’t, technically, quite on top of the world, it still felt like it to me.
As happy as my memories are of this truly stunning part of the world, it is impossible not to feel a huge sadness at the terrible events that happened across Nepal earlier this year. Seeing the destruction of so much of Kathmandu was utterly heart wrenching, but there was some small consolation in knowing that it had an airport and some help could get to the people there. Knowing just how desperately remote the villages around Manaslu are, and how close to the epicentre of the earthquake they were, there was no way of knowing how quickly help could get to those villagers.
Today, the emergency relief work continues in Nepal, with villagers around Samagaon being paid to repair bridges and paths and porters being paid to carry food and to repair the tracks to the Larkya La. A landslide from Manaslu caused a glacial lake to burst, sweeping away bridges between Sama and Samdo; bridges we would have crossed a few years before; bridges that are essential to the movement of people and goods up and down the valley. As this report – from May of this year – shows, the Gorkha region of Nepal (where Samagaon and Manaslu are found) is inaccessible by road, housing stock is “extremely damaged”, health services are inaccessible, food stocks have been destroyed and there is only limited drinking water available.
It may not be in the headlines anymore, but the need for help is still extremely strong in Nepal; the Disaster Emergency Committee continues to appeal for donations to help support the rebuilding effort.
The Nepalis are resilient, but they could still use a helping hand.