Annapurna Circuit, days 7-9: the big pass and a small avalanche

 

Day 7: Manang-Yak Kharka

 

The previous night I’d been showing classic signs of AMS (acute mountain sickness), including headache, nausea, fatigue and loss of appetite – I couldn’t eat more than a bite of my dhal bat. Gyan warned me that if I wasn’t feeling better then we would rest in Manang another day rather than continuing on, and if I continued to get worse then we wouldn’t make the pass at all. I was disappointed. But I also felt so grim that I knew he was right to keep an eye on me and help me face up to the potential reality. I chatted bleakly with a couple of people who had (wisely) decided to chill out in town, take in a movie and visit the AMS clinic, which offered daily talks about the dangers of altitude and how to overcome them. Since I had some diamox (medication to help with AMS) tablets with me, they recommended I take half a pill that night and see how I felt. I’m glad I listened to their advice because I woke up in the morning feeling like a new woman – no headache or nausea, appetite returned – and Gyan was satisfied and happy for us to continue our journey. Yay for western medicine! The fact that they had sent me to bed with a hot water bottle to snuggle helped immensely too – I spent my first night properly warm and cosy in my bed, and despite my sickness I slept well.

It was only a relatively short three hour jaunt to Yak Kharka (4000m) – again, we’d had such a long day previously, there was no need to overdo it – and the suggestion is that you only ascend for sleeping purposes by 500m max at a time to avoid worsening AMS. Thankfully the path out of Manang is gloriously motorised vehicle-free – not even motorbikes charge their way along the path here, only long trains of donkeys, their backs laden with supplies. I imagine this was what the entire Annapurna Circuit was like at one time. Progress, in some ways – a road (dodgy as it may be) enables a lot more commerce in the region, and helps to support the growing local population. But it is to the detriment of the famous trail – so much so that a lot of trekkers I’ve met are opting for more off-the-beaten path routes, thereby leading to less tourism in the region. Kind of a catch-22 I guess.

At any rate, this section of the trek was pleasant, with only low-lying shrubs (and those infamous thorn bushes) growing at this altitude. We stopped a few times for hot sugary tea and veggie samosas, admiring the views of Cholu West peak and waving goodbye to Tilicho peak and the Annapurna range for a little while. We finished our climb to 4000m by midday and the difference compared to Manang is a world away. Yak Kharka is a tiny village; with no motorised transport, it has the feel of an old West outpost, a frontier land – especially with enormous shaggy yaks grazing the hillside and horses tied up outside. Manang was hustle and bustle – this is peace and quiet. And alas – no WiFi, so I haven’t been able to blog or update Instagram as much as I would have liked, but I did manage to finish La Belle Sauvage while lying in the glorious sunshine, drinking a cup of steaming hot ginger lemon tea, feeling so much better than the night before that I could hardly complain about not being able to check Facebook. And hadn’t I come on a trek like this to get away from it all, at least for a bit? Still, my fingertips tingled with the inability to connect to the outside world… or maybe that was just a Diamox side effect. Time to break out another book, at any rate, because it seemed for another night we’d found a guesthouse with no one else around. My guide knows me too well already!

Day 8: Yak Kharka to Thorong Pedi

 

Dinner last night was garlic soup so fiery with raw garlic, it almost burnt my mouth! Garlic is supposed to help with altitude as well, although I don’t remember hearing much about that in South America. Still – it definitely would keep any vampires from my door.

After a filling breakfast of apple porridge and hot, black coffee, we started the trek to Thorong Pedi/base camp, our last stop before the BIG pass crossing day. The sun didn’t quite reach the depths of the valley we were walking in, so it was bitterly cold for the first half an hour. A warning of things to come! I cursed my stupid Under Armour mittens, which for some reason leave my thumbs totally exposed. What’s the point in that? Instead I dug my hands deep into the pockets of my (well, my friend Tania’s) down jacket and prayed for us to reach the sunshine. Once we did, the layers quickly came off and it was back to comfortable trekking as usual.

None of the tea houses on the way to Pedi were open, because today was Election Day. No sugary black tea for me! Boo. There was almost no vegetation en route, but a strange, Martian landscape of rock and broken shale – the Marsyangdi River way down at the bottom of the valley, the only constant. The trail dipped up and down in elevation, and the waterfalls we passed now were almost totally frozen.

We reached Thorong Pedi (4520m – still not quite as high as the ice lakes) at 10:30am. It’s a weird, hippy place – the first I’ve seen staffed by Westerners as opposed to locals – with reggae music blaring over loud speakers and incense burning (probably to cover the stench of trekkers who haven’t had access to a decent shower in days). I ate the world’s biggest and most satisfying cinnamon roll and eavesdropped as my fellow trekkers discussed the plan for the following day: stay in Pedi or head to High Camp? Leave at 4am in the dark or wait until 5 and risk the wind? Our plan is to stay the night in Pedi, where there are better facilities (and therefore we are more likely to have a better night’s sleep) and then wake up at 4am for the pass crossing. It apparently gets extremely windy across the pass after 9/10am, which is why everyone attempts to get up and over in the early morning. My plan is also to sleep in all my clothes, ready to just roll out of bed early doors. Apparently though, the ice lake trek is much harder than the crossing so I should be well prepared!

After lunch (dhal bat again), Gyan and I climbed to High Camp to keep in sync with the old acclimatisation adage of “hike high, sleep low”. I reached a new record height (4800m!) but as we came back down it was cruel knowing I was going to have to do the exact same (tough) hike in the early hours of the morning. I also was starting to feel unwell again – not AMS this time, but my stomach was churning uncomfortably. It would be just my luck to get food poisoning right before the biggest day of the trek! Maybe it was just nerves?

Day 9: Thorong-La Pass Crossing

 

Alas, no, it wasn’t just nerves… and of course it had to be in the place with the worst facilities! As I dashed out of bed at 1:30am (it really is hard to “dash” out of a mummy sleeping bag), throwing a down jacket over my thermals for the third time that night, I discovered a new peril of pit toilets – namely that if some intelligent individual before me decided to wash down the entire concrete floor with water after using the facilities then I’d end up with the additional challenge of going to the bathroom on an ice rink. This is about as fun as it sounds! I mean why don’t they write about this sort of thing in the Lonely Planet?

By the time my alarm went off at 3:30am, I was already exhausted and in no real mood for an 8 hour hike. Thankfully the worst of my stomach woes seemed to have passed and, as I dragged my sorry form into the dining room, I saw Madi sitting there looking equally sorry for himself. Turned out anyone who had consumed the dhal bat (so mostly the porters and the guides) had been as ill throughout the night as I was, and had complained bitterly to the owner. At least I felt better that I wasn’t the only one. Revenge of the dhal bat! And there I was thinking I’d been so clever eating only what the locals eat! I guess locals get sick too.

I couldn’t stomach any breakfast, so there was just about time for tea and to share nervous chitchat with the other trekkers. Turns out, even without stomach problems, most people had had trouble sleeping, so it was going to be a fun day for everyone. Procrastination over, there was nothing else for it but to start the long hike up… so off we went!

It was pitch black apart from the tiny bobbing lights of head torches heading steadily up the steep slope towards High Camp, and the stars. It was also bitterly cold, hovering at -20C before the wind chill. I’d layered up in almost all my clothes and yet still wished I’d worn more. For anyone who wants to do this trek as comfortably as possible, I’d suggest getting the warmest gloves possible – my mittens were useless, my fingers freezing inside my pockets. But maybe there is no real way to do this part of the trek comfortably. It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s windy, it’s relentlessly uphill, and it’s 3-4 hours’ worth of that state of affairs… it’s going to be uncomfortable. Maybe a bit of suffering and doubt is the price you pay for such a sense of accomplishment? (Hmm… I think this probably applies to lots of things, novel writing included!)

After High Camp, the hike was brutally monotonous. Even as the sky lightened, there wasn’t much to see except the trail snaking its way up (always up) the rocky landscape. It was also still absolutely freezing cold. My mantra became “every step forward is a victory” as we headed on with the end still nowhere in sight. Then, suddenly, I felt warmth on my back and my shadow extended long out in front of me. The sun had broken past the mountains and had come to join us on the walk! I honestly jumped for joy; I was so deliriously happy that the sun was up and I might finally have a shot at getting warm. I even whipped around to take a picture and Gyan laughed at me – but I could tell he was happy about it too.

With the sun on our backs, things were easier. I mean there was no hope for my fingers, but the rest of me warmed up nicely. And then, we turned a corner and saw the vast, bright collection of Buddhist prayer flags that marked the top of the pass. We had done it! I practically skipped up to the sign, my frozen fingers fumbling with my backpack zips as I took out the copy of The Potion Diaries: Going Viral I’d dragged all the way up there. Woohoo! We posed for lots of photos, grinning from ear to ear. Even though there must have been hundreds of trekkers planning to do the crossing that morning, we had the place to ourselves for a little stretch of time, and it was great. The sky was still that incredible blue I’d been blessed with the whole trip and – food poisoning, AMS and frozen fingers aside – I couldn’t have been luckier.

Photo shoot over, we dashed into a little tea hut to warm our hands. The atmosphere inside was a mixture of exhaustion and triumph. It was nice to see some familiar faces from along the route and feel like we could celebrate the accomplishment together.

 

But what goes up must come down! And we’d only really completed half our day’s journey. Eager to get to Muktinath as quickly as possible, we didn’t hang around – and more groups were arriving for their pictures by the minute. I trailed behind a group of Chinese trekkers when all of a sudden we heard a thunderous crash from above our heads. We spun around to see a great cascade of snow and ice tumbling from opposite Thorong Peak; an avalanche! Camera at the ready, I started filming, standing shell-shocked and stunned with my Chinese companions. That was, until Madi came barrelling down the hill from behind me, running for his actual life, followed by the local porters. The guide for the Chinese turned and yelled at them to run, and Madi did the same to me. I mean… to me, the danger looked miles away – but then the possibility that the snow fall could trigger a rock/landslide much closer to where we were standing hit me as very real, and who was I to stand there like a dope with my camera while the locals were running? They had more experience than me! So, yup, I ran down the hill after the Chinese trekkers and my porter. As it turned out, the snow settled not long after that and there was no more damage done – but with that hit of adrenaline and cardio, I was definitely nice and warm, fingertips and all!

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