3:00 AM – A keening in the night, insistent–it’s the alarm pulling us from the nestled warmth of our sleeping bags into the chilled air at 14,000 feet. Exiting a warm sleeping bag to the cold night is a Herculean task, worthy of praise and adulation. Luckily, we had stuffed our bags with most of the clothes for the day, so they weren’t frozen in odd geometry. We shuffled back and forth, trying to decide one last time what needed to be with us and what we would see at the end of the day…I decided on bringing most of my cold-weather clothes, because it was, well, freezing! Finally, we decided we were ready, and we dreamily stepped over to the teahouse main room.
3:30 AM – We have a thick breakfast of oatmeal and eggs, trying to stock up on reserves for the long day. I downed several cups of coffee–yes, a diuretic, but I needed the wake-up chemicals for the big climb. The porters, who might just be super-human, left to grab our bags and hike up over the mountain, the path illuminated by the lights on their cellphones…which they would be holding with one hand while the other gripped the strip of cloth holding our baggage, all while they walked over a 17,000 foot pass…Kumar again told us to keep calm and steady and not to exert ourselves too hard, just keep putting one foot in front of the other and before we knew it, we would be over the pass. Nervous laughter and those early-morning anticipatory jitters as we drank our last cup of tea, and then got ready to set out into the darkness.
4:00 AM – The first steps up the Thorung La trail, lit in a small cone from a cold headlamp. Stones and dirt and the sense of something large and looming above, but invisible. Shuffling feet, the crunch of boots, sniffling noses, and little talking. The faint lights of Thorung Phedi teahouse slowly disappearing below us. The cold, sharp and cruel and intimately crawling across exposed skin. Slow climbing across a black landscape.
My balaclava was useless, as it simply heated my breath which drifted up to freeze over my glasses. I kept trying different combinations to correct the problem without luck, when we had our first complication. Now complications at sea-level are simple and easily untangled, but at 15,000 feet, they quickly become dangerous. And when you’re tired and its dark and cold, stakes rise.
Katie was having trouble with the climb. Weakened by the stomach virus, coupled with not eating enough, she didn’t have the strength to make it up over the high pass in the freezing temps. She began to cry and kept trying to sit down in the darkness–which is a very dangerous thing to do, as that is what folks on top of big mountains do when they decide to give up. We coaxed her onward, and tried to keep her warm, as she kept saying how cold she was. We got her walking and the movement helped warm her up, as did knowing we were soon to arrive at Thorung High Camp, the last bare-bones teahouse before the pass.
It was at this point that I thought I was losing my mind. Out of the darkness came the jingling sound of bells and a strange heavy trodding. The bells got closer and closer, and like ghosts shimmering into existence, the young French girl atop a giant horse casually rode out of the night into our headlamps’ glow. In my memory (which may or may not be trustworthy) it was all quiet, except the tinkling of the bells as the spectral horse and rider slipped out and back into the shadow. Many epics of mountaineering and adventure literature relate the hallucinations of folks in far-off and far-up places, and were it not for later events, I would have thought myself in the same company.
Following the fading jingle, we continued climbing to Thorung High Camp.
5:00 AM – We arrived at Thorung High Camp, and everyone gratefully crowded inside the teahouse. We had cups of hot tea, which helped keep our bodies warm. Katie seemed much better, and we knew the dawn was swift coming–everyone was excited to have made it this far, though the final part of the pass was still some 2,000 feet of elevation away. Spirits were high as we left the High Camp for the last foray into the dark, which was already starting to lighten around the ragged edges of the Himalaya.
5:30 AM – We were in trouble. Katie collapsed again, and this time was incoherent. She kept repeating how cold she was, and we realized she hadn’t brought her down jacket to wear on the pass. We huddled around her, trying to warm her and tell her positive stories to take her mind of that hideous spiral of fear and doubt. She walked a little, with some of us close by to catch her in case she fell. Dawn fully broke, but the open sky held no heat, and the scene the sun finally lit was frightening. It was faster for her to go over the pass and down the other side, because the loss of elevation to Muktinath was a vertical mile versus the days of walking down to Manang or further. But she wasn’t moving, and her words were nonsensical and mixed with tears. Shane and Kumar carried her a ways, and then myself and Kumar beyond that. It was tough work carrying a half person in that airless cold, climbing with weight and worry…Shane and Nate and I all carried Katie some, but Kumar carried her always–he truly was a lifesaver. He warmed her, carried her, calmed her–he was the epitome of strength. Under that beautiful, cold sky, he turned a potential disaster into a slight
bump in the road.
6:30 AM – I’m carrying Katie, and she is heavy. My shoulders ache from supporting her back, and the thin air isn’t helping. I’m wondering how much farther is the pass and will I be able to make it? Do we have enough reserve to get up and over? God, do we have to get a helicopter? And then, because as I said so many posts ago, the deus-ex-machina trotted into our lives. The rangy Nepali fellow who lead the horses the French girl rode over the pass was coming our way. Kumar had told him, maybe at the High Camp, that he was having some trouble and would he return with the horses to help. He returned, and here were his horses. Kumar negotiated the best price he could for the horses, but the rangy fellow had us by the proverbial short hairs. Katie luckily knew how to ride a horse, and once she got in the saddle, she could just sit there–the rangy fellow would lead the horse, and Kumar would follow to lead her down. I honestly don’t know what would have happened had the horse not shown up…the pass was still miles away, and it was still very, very cold. But the horse did show up, and Katie did get on it, and we knew that she would be okay. Kumar and the horses quickly outpaced our sight, and we were left to climb the pass with Kancha.
7:00 AM – With the main danger behind (or, I guess, in front of?) us, we could trek and observe the stunning beauty around the pass. We were so high that the sky started to change to a darker, bleeding blue overhead, as there was simply less atmosphere between us and space. The spires and rocky peaks starkly outlined themselves against lighter blue at the horizon, and all around was glacial moraine. Lashed together bridges led over frozen streams, and heaps of deposited talus forced the trail to weave. While laborious, the trekking was wonderful–simply walk and enjoy the harshest beauty on the planet. We continued to think over the next hump lay the pass, but the trail simply kept climbing, ignoring our unspoken wishes.
And then…we were there! Thorung La! 5,416 meters! 17,769 feet! The sign proclaiming the pass was draped with prayer flags, covered in stickers, and wished us a charming, “Hope you enjoyed the trek in Manang. See you again!!!” I was delirious with happiness for having reached this culmination of the last 10 days–from our vantage we could see far down into the western valley separating the Annapurna massif from that of Dhaulagiri, another 8,000+ ‘er. To our south, rose Thorung Peak, and we were closed off to the north by the massive cirque of rock that curved back down toward Thorung Phedi. To the east, Chulu rose in layers of snow and ice.
We took our obligatory summit group photos and selfies. We wandered about the decaying teahouse and followed the little climbers’ path the started towards Thorung Peak. This was the roof of the world, and we stood on top. But time is never ours, and the beauty of harsh places lies in their aloofness and our transitory excursions through them. We had to head down. Almost a vertical mile of elevation loss to Muktinath. Our knees would not be happy. However, ever one to think positively, in Muktinath waited for us our first beer!
9:00 AM – 1:00 PM – We descended, and descended, and descended. The air took on weight, and breathing was easier. The full-contact high of crossing the pass began to wear away, and then it was gone, left somewhere in the lofty heights. Dhaulagiri played at the edge of our vision, hinting at further adventures, but then would disappear behind some turn of the path or massive boulder. We came across a platform of a meadow, situated like a tower over the deepening valley below–here we reunited with our lost compatriots. Katie and Kumar sat smiling in the sun, now well below 15,000 feet. After hugs and jokes, we continued down into the much more arid valley. Finally, we reached the easier slope of the valley floor, where we wandered among giant boulders and massive rock walls. Two of our porters came out to meet us with juice and cookies…we relaxed in the sun and let the events of the day sink into our muscles and minds.
Muktinath – We came to the holy temples of Muktinath, a pilgrimage site for Buddhists
and Hindus. 108 holy water spouts disgorged freezing water that one must dunk his head under to make a wish come true. As the ice-cold water poured around my ears and neck, I felt the euphoria that comes with great accomplishments. We had crossed one of the great Himalayan passes in winter. We were all of us safe and sound. We were happy, our guides and porters pleased, and the sun was shining. What more could one wish for?
While this wasn’t the end of our time in Nepal, it was the end of our trek. We still had a jeep ride out of Muktinath, and a low-ceiling-ed plane ride out of the valley to Pokhara, but we were no longer walking, and therefore it seems like an appropriate point to break the story. We had a final dinner with our guides and porters, all of whom except Kumar would head back to Kathmandu (wallets a bit heavier with our generous tips!) Kumar would escort us to Pokhara, and we would meet him and his children for dinner in a week or so. And we would go on to see sloth bears and all manner of strange jungle animals in the Royal Chitwan National Park, but our trek was over.
I loved my time on the Circuit. The act of walking is one of life’s simple pleasures, and we don’t do it as much as we should. To be forced to walk for multiple days helps clear out bad ideas and stresses, and the slowness means one appreciates the beauty around him. New friends are made, old friendships deepen, even romance can blossom! Tourism is certainly going to change the Annapurna Circuit, and the way of life of those who live there–for better or worse remains to be seen. I do know that we, as tourists, can support positive changes, but is that completely negated by the simple fact we flew in a jet plane to Nepal? Does the very act of trekking in Nepal change Nepal? Classic Schrondinger’s cat, huh? What right do I–as an outsider–have to determine what is correct and beneficial for Nepalis? A long walk helps us usher in these deeper questions; the giant sentinels of the Himalaya lead us to question our own beliefs and mere seconds of time on this Earth. What I do know is this–it is healing to be in the mountains, their strength supports you and their echoes silence your white noise. Their lakes and rivers, glaciers and cliffs, snow-capped peaks and shadowed valleys invite all for pilgrimage. Ah, what a playground is this Earth, what discoveries are yet waiting to be made! Nepal was a discovery for me, and I hope you enjoyed reading about it as much as I did in the moment. If you have any questions, let me know in the comments. And until the next time, I’m off to smoke some fine Swedish tobacco and read about distant places.