I awoke in Yak Kharka refreshed after a good night's sleep, if a bit ruffled from the previous day's long trip, the shortness of breath which was starting the become more frequent and the, I'll admit, funny injury I'd given myself the night before by stupidly swinging my head nose-first into the surprisingly rigid clothes line. The sun was already shining brightly, thawing the water that had frozen overnight around the spring outside, and I took a few moments enjoying the warm sunlight before breakfast.
|Pigeons seemed to rise and shine a bit earlier than the sparrows in Ngawal|
|The way up from Yak Kharka|
We once again had a somewhat challenging day ahead of us, aiming the reach and sleep at the Thorong High Camp, the closest settlement to the Pass, before attempting to cross it the next day. After a full breakfast we left Yak Kharka behind us, namesake bovides busily grazing on the hills around. The path went up a reasonably gentle climb for a good while and, although we'd pretty much got used to the weight of the backpacks by now, the altitude did make things more difficult and we were forced to take breaks a lot more frequently than we'd been used to. Which, to be honest, wasn't the worst thing, as the scenery was as breathtaking as you'd expect. Annapurna III and Gangapurna were still in sight, probably for the last time for the foreseeable future. One might imagine it would get repetitive, even boring, to walk for more than a week with what might be considered to be the same thing around, but one would be wrong - those (or any, for that matter) mountains have a timeless majesty that I doubt I'd get tired of seeing after months of walking though them.
|Adriana pushing on, Annapurna III and Gangapurna behind her.|
At a certain point we came to another halt on the winding path and our attention was drawn (by Dawa's keen eye) to some movement on the other side of the deep, wide ravine through which the river flowed. Peering curiously, we saw one, then two, then more birds of prey flying low near the hill's surface before eventually landing in the thick grass. There were at least two difference species, as well as a couple of crows or ravens circling around, which I assume meant there must have been an animal carcass lying there, hidden by the vegetation from our sight.
|Soft landing. Potential rivals to the left?|
|The vultures (?) seem undisturbed by the newcomers to the feast - numeric superiority?|
|Their wingspan is quite impressive.|
|This is the last bird photo of the entry, I promise!|
As imperial as those awe-inspiring birds were, knowing that they fed on carrion did somehow detract slightly from their grandeur.
Catching our breaths with this break, as with all the others before, we trudged on upwards, pushing through the pain and sweat and breathlessness (I'm being a bit overdramatic perhaps) as the climb steepened and the steps became harder. We passed a large group of tourists who, much to my satisfaction, seemed to be going slower than us, despite being helped by porters; as I've mentioned in a previous post, much of that satisfaction evaporated upon noticing many of them were probably twice my age. Will I be able to trek through the Himalayas when I'm 60 years old, given how I was gasping for air doing it when I wasn't even 30?
|Though are plenty of animals other than birds to show!|
|A small, partially frozen waterfall.|
The path continued up with fairly large variations in inclination, making for a pretty inconstant, if overall slower pace, compared to previous days. We also passed through another landslide area with a steep slope going down towards a widened river valley.
|Birds and butterflies weren't the only animals living this high!|
|A final look down the valley towards Gangapurna|
Eventually, and much to our relief, we saw the distant walls of Thorong Phedi closing in.
|And how great it felt knowing we were nearly there!|
Our expectations for this place were already high, as Nicu, who'd been through there two years earlier, told us how quaint and nice he found the establishment. Of course, tired as we were, we'd have settled for anything that provided walls against the wind, something to sit on and any sort of warm food and tea to fill us up. The place ended up meeting and exceeding expectations - not only did they serve delicious Nepali food, they also had freshly baked cinnamon rolls and, my favourite - apple pie. In addition to the great food, the general feel of the place was great, a sort of east meets west hippie atmosphere, with classic rock playing softly in the background as a mishmash of languages could be heard, interrupted by occasional bouts of laughter. We decided to enjoy the place for a while longer, even contemplated staying there for the night and adding the extra 1-1:30 hour climb to the High Camp to the next day's ordeal, or - even more audaciously - relax there for one or two more days before continuing on the rest of the circuit; the purpose of the whole trip was, after all, enjoying ourselves, and if staying there felt enjoyable, what was the rush? In the end though, after sharing some pleasantries with a group of Americans/Canadians/one German, nudged onwards by Dawa, who noticed the weather taking a turn for the worse, we decided to stick with the original plan and left the comfort and enjoyment of Thorong Phedi for the arduous climb to the High Camp.
|Baby yak protectively sheltered by the mother|
|The entrance to Thorong Phedi. Apple pie advertisement was well deserved.|
|It may not look as glorious as I described it, but it certainly felt so.|
I don't use that term lightly - we'd had difficult, steep climbs before, either with our backpacks on, at lower altitudes, or without the backpacks, going on side trips, as was the case with Tilicho, at higher altitudes, but this was the first steep, sustained climb burdened by both the weight on our shoulders and the paucity of oxygen in the atmosphere - Thorong Phedi lay at 4538 m, while the High Camp was at 4880 m, making neither the altitude nor the difference between the two negligible obstacles to overcome. But we persevered, pushed on, stopped when we needed to and, a bit more than an hour after leaving the comfort of the base camp, stepped into the decidedly more austere dormitories of the high camp.
|I didn't take any photos on the actual climb to high camp, this is what we saw once we got there.|
The weather had, predictably, worsened, though only to the point that clouds covered the sky entirely - apart from a few flakes of snow that followed us at the beginning from the climb, it seemed it would remain dry for the rest of the evening. Very close to camp was a nameless (I think) peak half an hour climb's away that served for both acclimatisation and enjoying a last view of the Marshyangdi valley, so Nicu, Adriana and myself took advantage of the slowly fading daylight to follow Dawa up there, while Adrian, coming down with a bit of a cold himself, stayed back at camp to rest and try to reach his daughter over the phone/Internet. The climb up was certainly more bearable without the packs, and there were many groups going up and down, both from the high and low camp (a common practice was to stop at Thorong Phedi, climb up to this peak for acclimatisation then back down to sleep there before continuing towards the pass the next day), and while the clouds prevented us from having a truly amazing view of the surroundings, it was still just great sitting up there at roughly 5000 m altitude (first time going that high for Adriana and myself!), so we took our time contemplating the landscape in silence before turning back to camp.
|View from the peak, Thorong Phedi down in the middle.|
|Upon a voyeuristic closer view, it seemed people were playing badminton down there!|
|Another, this time larger, but still partially frozen, waterfall.|
|The actual nameless peak, with Annapurna III and Gangapurna (I think) behind it.|
|A look down from the peak to the high camp.|
As dusk fell over, people crowded into the main hall for warmth and dinner, with seats around the stove naturally being the first to be filled. While the place didn't have the same comfort, hippie vibe or great music as Thorong Phedi, it made up for it with good food and the feeling you got, looking at the many strange faces (it was certainly the most crowded place we'd been to so far), a feeling of unity and fraternity between all the people in there, because we were all equally ambitious in our desire to cross the pass the next day and equally vulnerable in the face of the elements that might hamper our attempt. And that sense of camaraderie transcended, I think (or rather, I hope), cultural and linguistic borders, making us all, as I might have said before, brothers on the same path.
|It was a rather small stove for so many people, but it did the job.|
That night was the first one I'd take my sleeping back out in quite a while, and seeing as how breakfast was scheduled for 04:30 and presumably the most difficult day of the entire circuit lay ahead, I tucked myself in not long after dinner, hoping for a restful night.