Chapter 5 - The Grand Push
I close my eyes at 10, hoping to fall asleep quickly and only wake up when the alarm sounds at 4 o'clock. All's quiet around, save for my occasional deep breaths and Adriana's stuffed nose (she's nearing the apex of her cold, which seems appropriate, as we're nearing the apex of our trip, as far as altitude's concerned).
Five minutes. Ten minutes. Can't keep lying down still like that, have to adjust my position, I turn to one side. Better, this will do it, I'll be out in no time.
Another five minutes. Ugh, getting uncomfortable, have to readjust, perhaps turning to the other side. Yes, it feels better, won't be long now. No need to get anxious, it's only been what, half an hour, I still have a good 5 hours and a half of restful sleep to go.
How long has it been? Is this bed getting stiffer? Why's my right side getting numb? Damn sleeping bag, I can't properly lie belly-down, it cuts down my possible sleeping positions by a quarter!
Have I fallen asleep yet? It seems brighter outside, is it bright out? I wish I had access to some sort of device that could help with the tracking of time, perhaps something small, hand-held, the lights up, you know, so you can see it in the dark?
Relax, you're just a little tense because you have a big day tomorrow and because, you know, you're getting nearly half as much oxygen as you're used to back home (actually checked that fact up!). Just take it easy, try counting down, surely you'll fall asleep!
One, two, three, four.. Why are my arms shivering? Come to think about it, my feet are pretty cold too. Did I not take out the sleeping back specifically to avoid being cold?! I'm sure it just takes a while for my body to produce enough heat, the bag will insulate me, once I've warmed myself up properly it'll be fine.
Okay, let's try again. Six, seven, eight.. I wonder how tomorrow'll be? Climbing here wasn't a cakewalk, but I'm sure it won't be too much harder, right? And the stuff posted at Thorong Phedi, about the dangers of altitude sickness, pulmonary or cerebral oedema, emergency evacuations, that's all just to make people extra-cautious, nobody ever gets those, right? Plus, I've properly acclimatised, I'm sure I've nothing to worry about. Still, having to inhale deeply every other breath, even when lying still, that's not great, is it?
What are you doing, don't think about all that! Don't think about anything, just focus on falling asleep, it's what, eleven thirty? Come on, four hours of sleep, that's reasonable, just go to sleep.
All right, let's try again. One, two, three.. What kind of a dumb thing to say is that, just focus on falling asleep? Who the fuck ever voluntarily struggles to fall asleep? There's not a fucking off switch available, you know!
All right, all right, just, you know, try not to think about anything, like they do in the movies, the ones with any sort of eastern spirituality or meditation or, more exciting, martial arts. Clear your mind! Never mind what time it is or how much is left, what'll happen tomorrow or how the entire Nepal experience will be hard to top, just focus on your breaths and you'll fall asleep.
Yeah, I can do that, in, out, in, out.. Nepal experience hard to top, why would you bring that up, it's not even halfway done and there's so much else to do, is this really a top priority thought to keep me up at night? And why am I still shivering?! That's it, time to put some more clothes on. Smart thinking, by the way - go to sleep scantily clad and supplement clothing as I get progressively colder (rather than say, the other way around), brilliantly constructed plan.
All right, you're better (one might say smarter) dressed now, getting warm and comfortable, surely it's only a small matter of time before you fall asleep. It's probably no later than midnight, you have a whole 4 hours of sleep, enjoy!
Have I fallen asleep yet? I don't feel fully rested, is it time to wake up yet? I can't keep staying in the bag any longer! It's too much of a pain forcing myself to fall asleep, maybe it's already been four hours, maybe the alarm's just about to go off.. I could check I guess, haven't opened the phone since I started the trek, it must have a nearly full battery.
Yes, I suppose it's preferable to wondering whether or not it's time to wake up, you could check the time. I'm sure it's nearly 4 though, it seems so bright outside.
How the fuck can it only be 11:45?! God damn it, I am not going through another four hours of this. Come on, fall asleep, fall asleeeeeeep!
Adriana seems to be sleeping. Her breathing's pretty regular at any rate. Yeah, she's probably asleep. I wonder if Nicu and Adrian are. Or any of the other tens of people here for the night. Surely I'm not the only one having trouble sleeping? I wonder if there's anybody outside. Do people smoke this high? Can they? I can't imagine surviving here with a lungfull of smoke.
Stop thinking about useless, stupid shit and fall asleep already! Between dozing in and out and pontificating the feasibility of peoples' smoking habits, you might have got past another half hour. You don't want 4 o'clock to come without a wink of sleep.
Yes, well, not only have the attempts so far failed to yield results, I think I may have put too many clothes on, I'm starting to get too warm. Also, that last tea before bed might have been a bad idea, bladder's starting to feel a bit full.
Nuh-huh, no way, you've only a couple more hours to go, just hold it in. Do you really want to be going out into the freezing cold and the stinking toilet? Morning's almost here, just keep your eyes closed for a while more.
All right, I can do that, just need to take another look at the phone, see exactly how much time's left.
1 o'clock. Are you happy now? Does this make the next three hours more bearable? Do you now rest easily, assured that you're basically halfway through your allotted sleep time?
I can't hold it in anymore, cold and stench be damned, I need to go. Just put a couple of extra layers on, go out quietly and.. whoa, what an amazingly clear sky and bright, full moon! So that's why it felt like morning kept getting closer. This is a perfect photo opportunity, I should really go back inside and get my camera.
It's quite cold though.. and rummaging through the room's sure to wake Adriana up.. Plus you didn't bring your tripod, you'd have to spend way too much time finding a suitable spot to put the camera on.. This isn't the best opportunity, surely there'll be plenty of chances along the road, you need to get some shut eye tonight so stop getting distracted by pointless, if beautiful, sights and thoughts!
Fine, but I'm taking some more clothes off, it's too damn hot in that bag!
Now there isn't enough wiggle room!
Now it's too tight!
Now it's too wide!
It's still too hot, I'm going to open the side!
It's getting cold.. not too cold, but definitely cold!
What time is it?
2:15. 2:45. 3. 3:20. 3:45. 3:50. 3:51. 3:52. 3:53. You get the picture.
Finally, time to get up!
Eager to finally and definitively get out of bed, I rush to put on my down jacket and start stuffing the sleeping bag into the backpack. There's already plenty of activity outside, people hurrying to get breakfast and start their climb before the sun rises. I take a few moments to look around the camp that's quickly becoming an anthill before heading towards the main hall with the rest of the group.
When you get used having meals at relatively regular times, your stomach kind of begrudges you shoving down breakfast 3-4 hours earlier than it's used, so I go for what I figure is a light breakfast: a chocolate pancake - enough carbs to hopefully see me through to lunch, in an easily digestible form, not to mention tasty as hell. I wash it down with an extra large mug of tea - must keep hydrated, no?
After breakfast, we head back to finish packing, whereupon I quickly realise, hastily and, I hope, inconspicuously, walking away from the room to behind a more secluded corner of the building, as I throw up the entirety of the tea I'd had, that hydration's best done gradually. Breathlessness and nausea so far, slowly starting to tick off the whole list. Thankfully the pancake stubbornly stayed in.
We finish packing with the sun already up and trekkers reaching the camp from Thorong Phedi, where they'd spent the night, and we start to trudge our way up the path. It quickly becomes abundantly clear that today's climb would be a struggle, as it takes no more than 10 steps to get me gasping for air.
|Morning view of the high camp, before the sun's risen, and the people starting their way up.|
Overall fitness plays a great role, no doubt, and I see people who look to be in better shape than me (as much as you can tell how good a shape somebody's in beneath a winter jacket) walking past us or taking fewer breaks, but there's also a level of physical strain that you can't very well train for that, predictably, comes from the altitude. However much you train at home, assuming you home's not high in the mountains, you're still training at 21% atmospheric oxygen; it's doubtful you'll reach the same level of performance when you're nearing 10%.
Having said that, you know, to put things into a perhaps slightly overdramatic perspective, back to the climb!
|And another look back, from slightly higher up, as the sun starts to shine upon the distant peaks. Line of people forming down before a frozen portion of the trail.|
Not long after leaving the high camp, we come across a frozen portion of path that's clearly too slippery to cross safely, so we have to deviate slightly to avoid it. The trail goes through various degrees of inclination, but even the most gentle ones are a challenge and I have to constantly remind myself to breathe with each step. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Each step forward, a small battle fought and won, and battle by battle, victory would soon be within reach.
|Makes me feel tiny.|
It's all so well worth the effort, though. I need only raise my eyes slightly and look around to be rewarded with some pretty damn amazing sights. Rocky slopes blending seamlessly with snowy peaks, the constant, jagged mountain line constantly behind us in the distance and the never ending climb always in front of us.
|Adriana, with Dawa right behind her, coming up a slightly steeper portion.|
The trek's highly circulated, we must have gone past or been passed by tens of tourists. For the first time, I envy those who travel lightly with the brunt of their weight carried by porters or, remarkably, horses. Some are even carried themselves by horses. My envy fades away when I imagine reaching the final, high point, knowing I'd done it on my own. Stupid, useless, arrogant pride, but it served as added incentive to push on.
I take few photos, far too few to fully capture the beauty around us. I mainly focus on catching my breath and drinking bits of water whenever we stop. Eventually, the rocky slopes that lead us out of the high camp give more and more way to the snow that's starting to slowly cover the surroundings in their entirety in sparkling white.
The path's thankfully well beaten, so we don't have to add "stepping through meter-deep snow" to the list of obstacles to overcome. One more battle. And then another one.
We hear it before we see it. Climbing from behind a bend, fairly gentle slope, there's celebratory shouting coming from ahead. No doubt people excited about reaching the pass. A few more steps later and we can see the colours - Buddhist prayer flags, just like we'd seen in the photos - we're here!
|The final push.|
We close the distance easily, enheartened by the sight ahead, welled up with unexpected energy from unknown springs. Twenty steps away. Then ten. Then five. We've done it! We have reached the highest point of the Annapurna Circuit, Thorong La. The place is full of people happily taking photos, congratulating themselves and enjoying a justifiably overpriced tea from the tiny cabin selling them.
|Success indeed. Note the couple to the left.|
We, too, savour these moments. We rest our legs and our hearts, we take vanity pictures in front of the large post marking the pass, we take photos of the lovely scenery around or we just sit for a bit and do nothing but enjoy being there. I gather a few tiny rocks to bring back home - surely pebbles brought from 5416 meters make for better gifts than souvenirs bought in tourist traps? We say goodbye to the district of Manang, which we leave behind us, to the east, and look enthusiastically westwards towards new adventures in the district of Mustang. In front of us a grand valley opens, with distant mountain peaks at the horizon.
|I'd be remiss not to add a full group photo, all of us slav squatting it up there. Second photo on the blog not taken by me, thanks kind stranger!|
|Mustang lay ahead. I don't know the two people from above, but if you know a couple who traveled the Annapurna Circuit this spring and crossed the Thorong pass on May 8th 2017, maybe they'd like to have this photo.|
After basking in the glory of our achievement and the warm, late morning sun for about half an hour, we move forward on the trail, beginning our long descent. While tiring in its own way, especially considering the strain it puts on the knees, going down is a bit less taxing on the heart and lungs, so we're able to go down with fewer pauses and make decent time.
|The pass quickly falls from view as we descend.|
At first, the landscape seems unchanged from what we'd seen before the pass, as for the first couple of hundred meters or so everything's pretty much entirely covered in snow. As we progress though, I begin to notice something I can't quite put my finger on that's different to what we left behind, in the Manang district.
|And the Mustang valley opens wide before us.|
It's the colour of the mountains around us, it's somehow different, and looking closely I'm unable to tell what it is, but as I glance in the distance, to the faraway hills bellow us, I realise - everything's brown, where, given how low they were, it should have been green! No trees, no grass, no signs of vegetation anywhere on the slopes ahead of us, only dry, arid, rolling hills as far as the eye can see.
|In all its aridity. The green patches far down are isolated. Many people going down.|
Beautiful, long valley view in front of us notwithstanding, the descent is rather dull. Once again, we pass or get passed by several groups, but nothing noteworthy happens as we make our way down the nearly 1500 m difference in altitude before stopping for lunch at a nice, small teahouse at the base of the climb, probably the last place to sleep for tourists daring enough to attempt the circuit clockwise.
|The place where we stop for lunch is right in front of us.|
On that note, the Annapurna Circuit is traditionally done counter-clockwise, starting in Besishahar in the east and ending in Birethani in the west. There are several reasons for this approach, most important of which it offers more time for acclimatisation and the climb from Thorong Phedi to Thorong La is less demanding than the one from Muktinath. However, for whichever reason (mostly to challenge themselves, I suppose), people sometimes choose to try it clockwise, in which case they cross the pass starting from Muktinath (at 3710 m altitude), or maybe the tea house I've mentioned above, two hundred meters at most higher, putting a 1500+ steep climb between them and the other side of the pass which, as you can easily imagine, can be a bit of a struggle, especially if not properly acclimatised.
Lunch turns out as great as can be expected after a long, hard climb and an even longer descent, but what impresses me (and everybody else too, I think) most is the freshly squeezed rhubarb and sea buckthorn juice, a refreshing drink that completely revitalises me.
|The last bend and small climb before reaching Muktinath.|
From here it's only about an hour more to Muktinath, our destination for the night, and already the trail is becoming more and more crowded, mostly with people who had crossed the path, but also a few tourists going the other way. The aridity of the hills around us becomes even more obvious as we continue going down.
|A hill covered in prayer flags, right before Muktinath|
|The village within sight.|
As we reach the outskirts of Muktinath, I'm surprised, expecting to see a village similar to the ones before, to walk upon a fairly wide, if dusty, road, with several story tall buildings, some even made out of concrete around it and plenty of cars on it. Muktinath is a major touristic and, more importantly, religious centre, with several important Buddhist and Hindu temples visited by both tourists and pilgrims, but more on that tomorrow.
We cross the main village road towards our hotel (yes, a hotel, not a tea house), walking by small stalls with locals selling souvenirs, looking somewhat surprise at unexpectedly tall hotels before eventually reaching our own accommodations for the night.
|View from atop the hotel; the pass, now completely enshrouded in clouds.|
We get there early enough to be able to do some laundry, have an early dinner, enjoy a cold beer (now that we were past the high altitude portion of our trek) and a hot shower and go to bed still looking back with excitement at the wonderful, if demanding road that brought us here.
|Father (I assume) helping child get dressed. Voyeuristically taken from our hotel rooftop.|