Nepal: What Happens When You Wash Your Hair

Trekking from Samdo to Larkya Phedi

The Girl Who Washed Her Hair

Trekkers pass four frozen lakes before the final steep climb to Larkya La © Kelly Randell
Trekkers pass four frozen lakes before the final steep climb to Larkya La © Kelly Randell

The Irresponsible Traveller is a light but edgy collection of true tales about the stickiest situations in which travel writers and travel celebrities have found themselves over the years. From being chased by a sea lion to being accosted by Brazilian kidnappers, these are the scrapes they’ll never forget – whether entertaining, amusing or downright terrifying. Publishing to coincide with Bradt’s 40th anniversary, this collection of short stories comes from a hand-picked selection of contributors who have had special connections with Bradt over the years. Compiled by Jennifer Barclay.

Excerpt from the book

By Kelly Randell

There’s only so much garlic one person can take. Eleven days of garlic soup, garlic bread and fried garlic with eggs would repel even the most avid fan, and we still had four days to go on our Himalayan trek, circumnavigating the eighth highest peak in the world: Manaslu.

The threat of acute mountain sickness (or AMS) lurked behind our lack of culinary diversity: garlic is often quoted as a natural remedy for it. However, I’d had enough: no more soup for me. Despite this decision, our guides later insisted it wasn’t my aversion to onion’s malodorous cousin that ruined everything. It was my vanity.

Our trip started as most treks do: with a desk-sized foldout map and a longing to escape the travelled road. We heard Everest base camp had become a crowd-control nightmare and found the prospect of teetering at the edge of Lukla’s runway less than appealing.

Annapurna seemed more akin to rambling with apple pie, so instead we chose Manaslu. It was perhaps one of the best travelling decisions ever made. Manaslu has those perfect postcard views, vast expanses of ice and rock with jagged white peaks that could puncture the sky, draped with multi-coloured prayer flags, and a fraction of the people.

It was day eleven and we were still just snatching glimpses of Manaslu’s shrouded, fishtail-shaped summit through stupas and lesser hills. One of the ‘cloud-makers’ – peaks so high they produce enough moisture at altitude to create clouds – Manaslu is also an exceedingly beautiful tease: it’s a rare treat even in October to see the summit in all her finery. But this was it, the trek’s coup de grâce. A tiny pass at 5,160 metres etched into the face of a glacier with a name that sings: Larkya La. Tomorrow afternoon, we would be there. Nothing lay between us but a lazy day of sipping chai and a short restful night. Wake up call: 3 a.m.

Every element of a chorten (stupa) has symbolic meaning: the distinctive all-seeing eyes of Buddha and the Sanskrit character for the number one, symbolizing the absoluteness of Buddha.
Every element of a chorten (stupa) has symbolic meaning: the distinctive all-seeing eyes of Buddha and the Sanskrit character for the number one, symbolizing the absoluteness of Buddha.

On day ten we had hit our stride, so that day’s four-hour trek from Samdo to Larkya Phedi, the final lodge stop before the ascent, took a seemingly effortless three-and-a-half hours. We were jubilant; it was noon at 4,460 metres, the sun was high and warm, and a rushing glacial stream flowed between the rows of wooden huts with roofs just low enough to dry clothes. How perfect for washing.

Pants or a Bra

Only pants: that was my first thought. Maybe a bra. Or perhaps even my hair. A combination shampoo/conditioner Lush bar had lain forgotten and dejected at the bottom of my rucksack for six days – cold-water-only bucket showers and negative-digit nights had not been conducive to hair maintenance. But here was sun and warmth and clean water and hours of nothing to do but twiddle our thumbs… I dunked head first.

Maybe forty-five or fifty seconds of lily-scented bliss: it felt like the best thing since European toilets – and it had been weeks since we’d seen one of those. It was a devil-may-care moment that felt exhilarating until the minute it was over.

Until I flipped back my head Herbal Essences style and saw a line of shocked faces gawping at me. A fellow trekker broke the sudden silence, ‘Wow, that was brave.’ She sounded equally impressed and scandalised, so I towel dried quickly with a smug laugh. Then the guides descended on me.

‘Your hair. You washed it. Here.’

Oh the audacity. ‘Yes, and a few clothes. They’ll dry in the sun – it’swarm!’ Though my head was becoming a bit dizzy from its icy bath.

The name Manaslu derives from the Sanskrit word manasa, 'soul' or 'intellect', which leads to the most common translation of 'Mountain of the Spirit'.
The name Manaslu derives from the Sanskrit word manasa, ‘soul’ or ‘intellect’, which leads to the most common translation of ‘Mountain of the Spirit’.

‘Very bad – very, very bad. Warm now, but not later. You’ll have trouble tomorrow. No sleep tonight. At this altitude, your hair?!’

The smugness faded, replaced with a hint of sheepishness, but I still failed to see the problem. Until my hair began to freeze. In the warm sun. At 12.30 p.m.

After that, I read ‘I told you so’ in every glance and casual comment –from our guides as my damp hair didn’t dry underneath my woolly hat; from the cook as I refused another bowl of hearty garlic soup despite assurances that ‘it would help’; from the unidentified fellow midnight visitor to the loo who I almost knocked into the (now frozen) glacial stream in a fatigued daze.

I endured the curses of my trekking partner as I kept him up all night with altitude-induced nightmares. It was the longest short night of my life. I ate three bites of garlic eggs on toast at breakfast – any more and I knew I’d see it again in an hour. A light headache tapped at my temples. The symptoms were classic. From the moment we set out at 4 a.m.,

Irresponsible Traveller I knew there was a problem, but poor judgment won: I was determined to be fine. I hadn’t just trekked hundreds of kilometres to miss Larkya La; I could wash my hair in arctic temperatures and carry my own absurdly heavy rucksack. I could tough it out and make that upper lip stiff. Everything was completely fine… until we were 100 metres shy of the summit.


Until coping-with-it-and-hiding-it-quite-well stumbled gracelessly into vomiting-up-my-insides-and-garlic-and-egg-breakfast, and the tilting landscape became increasingly disjointed as my sense of vertigo escalated.

There was no hiding now: all of my flippant reassurances to everyone suddenly became pathetically inadequate in the shadow of thousands of metres of angular glacial ice, sans crampons, poles or equilibrium, with hours of treacherous trail before any hope of respite. The irony of having a doctor in your trekking group? There was absolutely nothing he or Diamox could do – I needed to go down, but the only way was up.

One minute and twenty-three seconds: the length of time I spent on the summit of Larkya La. Two hundred and sixty-nine hours: the time it had taken me to get there. Her prayer flags sang, but I couldn’t hear them above the marching band drumming furiously behind my eyes. I trudged across the breadth of the summit and began sliding down the other side, sending our guides into a panic. I have no recollection of the spectacular views from the summit.No pictures of my triumphant conquest. Only vague clouded memories of the tattered windblown flags to prove I had even been there. It took us ten hours in total to reach the cluster of teahouses at Bimthang – painful, stressful, excruciating hours of stumble, vomit, repeat. It was supposed to take eight. I hope my group forgives me – I’m still mortified.

On the last night of the trek, as we exchanged travel stories over local beer, the doctor assured me that it wasn’t washing my hair that caused the bout of altitude sickness. I smiled agreeably until another guide around the table poked my guide in the shoulder and gestured in my general direction. My guide nodded and explained something quickly in Nepali: four faces turned to me in unison, and a murmured mixture of chuckling, tutting and incredulity spread around their end of the room. The first guide whispered in English to his German client, ‘She was the one. Larkya Phedi. The hair.’ Ah, yes. Her.

Their advice for next time? More time? More pills? More common sense?

‘More garlic, more water, less pretty.’

Ladies, take note.

Kelly Rendell

Buy Irresponsible Traveller: Tales of Scrapes and Narrow Escapes on Amazon.

Kelly Randell is a California native who left academia for publishing in 2012 to indulge a passion for travel.  Kelly worked as a project editor for Bradt Travel Guides before moving back to Los Angeles. She is a freelance editor, writer and photographer based in Southern California, and spends her weekends wandering trails where the mountains meet the sea.


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