Annapurna Diaries (Part Two)

Continuing on from Annapurna Diaries part one

Manang is the great gateway to the Himalayas, the end of the road, the last touchstone with civilisation before heading forth into the land of snows. Before making a decision about whether or not to take on the pass we had a few issues to attend to – the conditions of the trail, our equipment, and the health of our entourage. 

Over the last few days, the number of hikers moving in the opposite direction had dwindled, and whispers from the trail suggest the pass is, in all likelihood, passable. My excitement over the three little sunshines smiling out from Christian’s smartphone is victorious over my sensible scepticism over the accuracy of such predictions in these remote realms. From here it’s a 3-day hike to the pass and after that, the storms close in again. We can hardly believe our luck. 

It would be prudent to take a day’s rest here in Manang to help our bodies acclimatise to the declining oxygen levels. However, we have to balance this off with the risk of being caught on the pass in poor conditions. To make it a trilemma, Neil’s appetite has been failing him for the past few days, a potential sign of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). On recommendation from the wonderful doctors at the Himalayan Rescue he starts taking the treatment dose of medication and we cross our fingers. 

In the afternoon we explore this bustling outdoor bazaar stocked with everything from emergency mars bars to moon cups, and prepare for the wintery conditions ahead; I invest in some microspikes for better grip on the ice, gaiters to keep snow out of my light trail shoes and – having spent too many nights in envy of Sam’s roasty-toasty toes snuggled away in cosy cocoon of goose feathers while mine futility fight off the cold of my soggy socks – a pair of collapsible down slippers. I have no regrets. 

The sun rises on a crystal morning, dousing the peaks of Gangapurna and Annapurna III in liquid gold. It’s crunch time. To go or not to go? Christian the logician is already packed, keen to make the most of the good weather. Neil and Sam place their bets on the breakfast roulette – if it goes down (and stays down), then they will go too. I dither, indecisive. Though it makes sense to push ahead with Christian, I feel incredibly sad about the idea of summiting without these two crazy Canucks I’d grown so fond of. Bite by bite, the breakfast slowly made its way down. I look at Neil, hopeful, expectant. The thumbs-up of approval. We’re doing this thing. 

Donning our backpacks once more, we make our way out of the blue timber lodge, through the winding stone-walled streets of the village, and into the vast open valley once more. We are now well above the snow line and surrounded by Giants on all sides. I feet utterly small yet miraculously magnificent. The paths have been packed into convenient little trenches which we obediently trudge through, sometimes edging precariously into the sloping hillside. As the snowpack yields in the midday sun, as does the ice-welded scree beneath it, making our progress precarious. 

For the purposes of AMS prevention, we are only able to gain a maximum elevation of 500 vertical metres a day, which equates to only about 3-4 hours of hiking. Despite this, these days are the most exhausting of the whole trail as our muscles become increasingly oxygen-starved. I become cat-like, seeking out windows of sunshine to curl up in for a little snooze. One day I actually spend more hours asleep than awake – until I’m told (much to my dismay) that naps aren’t recommended at high altitude. Well, neither is felinism, thank you very much. 

Thorung Phedi is the last stop before the pass. Teetering at nearly 4500m above sea level amidst ice cliffs and head-high snowdrifts, this miraculous little oasis even has its own bakery boasting chocolate twists and cinnamon swirls. Unfortunately, I left my appetite 1000m down the mountainside and staring at the same menu every day becomes a rather hysterical task. All the food tastes the same: going in or coming out, the stench of garlic, spices and cabbage is ever-present. The toilets here have an additional obstacle as a treacherous slab of ice has formed over the stairs creating a slippery slide directly into the squat porcelain at the other end. Thank God for microspikes. 

The atmosphere is focused as we discuss tactics for tomorrow’s ascent to an eclectic soundtrack of Marley, Dylan and fusion funk. We compare notes with the other trekkers: serious-looking middle-aged Germans; strident youths playing drinking games (minus the beer); Steve from Stoke who is on his 6th ascent, a true circuit veteran. A young German girl moves leechlike around the room. Having left her sick friends behind, it’s clear she needs to rely on the help of strangers to make it over the pass. I do not under any circumstances want to be that stranger. I find her presence inexplicably irritating, perhaps because she reminds me that my new ‘accomplished Himalayan mountaineer’ identity stands on incredibly avalanche-prone ground. 

As a kid, I used to love waking up before sunrise. It always meant something exciting was about to happen, like getting on an aeroplane to go chase exotic lizards or catching a glimpse of Santa scoffing the mince pies I’d left out for him the night before. Although the last thing I want to do at 4am when it’s -20oC outside is extricate myself from my iron-tight cocoon of blankets, the early start sprinkles the day with this child-like wonderment, this intrepid sense that something magical is about to happen. And in a way, it is. 

Packed and fed, our little unit head out into the frozen darkness and start up the steep, crystalline climb. The night is still, full of a rich silence broken only by the crunch of crampons on ice. Slowly the sky turns my that intense hue of black-merging-blue as it coaxes the giants from their night-time slumber, casting their silhouettes across the skyline. A blue so rich it feels palpable, like the texture of velvet, or chocolate mousse. Our gallant efforts are rewarded by the magical physics of light refracting around the spinning earth. The sun dashes its crimson glow across the snow-globe we are encased in, and nature’s embrace is complete. 

High Camp at sunrise
High Camp at Sunrise

Christian breaks trail in an energetic burst of enthusiasm. Sam takes an unusual position behind my steady trudge and Neil pants at the rear. It’s tempting to leap forth into Christian’s fast footholes, but I know I need to maintain my pace for the next 5 hours. My dodgy knees don’t fail to remind me to save energy for the gruelling 1800m descent that awaits us on the other side. No, it’s better to play the long game. Before long Christian wears himself out and takes to rounding up the pack, who have now congregated behind my slow, consistent step. It is a plod-a-thon. It reminds me of my short stint at the front of the rowing boat, pacing out a steady stretch along the river, and the sound of 7 blades behind me rhythmically slicing and feathering across the water. I can’t see my teammates, but I can feel their power as we move in collective unison. We stop for second breakfast at high camp. A good day always begins with 2 breakfasts.

Endurance training is a physical endeavour, but on the day of battle, it’s your mental prowess that cinches the divide between victory and defeat. The preceding months spent on the yoga mat and meditation cushion seem to be offering surprising pay-outs on this up-hill struggle. Beneath the layers of bullshit and mental trickery, I unearth a steely determination, a mental staying power that I didn’t know I possessed. I enter this trance-like state, where there is nothing but the thud of my legs, the heave of my lungs and the footsteps chiming out a harmonious symphony behind me. 

Just. Keep. Plodding.

Allegedly there are 14 false summits on Thorung La. Flag poles mark our slow and indistinct passage across the wide and featureless snowpack. We make estimates – 45 minutes to go, 30, 20 – when suddenly a flurry of multi-coloured prayer flags springs out of nowhere. Is this it?! We’re here! We made it! Congratulatory hugs and compulsory pictures ensue. Emily and Mani greet us with open arms and soon the Australians are rugby tackled upon their arrival. Here we all are – all the people we have shared dinners and mars bars and blister stories with – here we all are. All distance between strangers is eclipsed by our shared sense of monumental achievement.

(left to right) Christian, Sam, Neil and I at Thorung La, 5416m

It’s now 10am and the sun is bouncing off the snow like starlight, dazzling it to frictionless pulp as we begin the unrelenting descent. I repeatedly lose all connection with the Earth and clunk unceremoniously on my behind. The Australians – being the logical engineers that they are – see a solution. Let gravity do its job. In a pioneering act of sensible silliness, down the mountain they slide, leaving a bum-shaped trail in the snow behind them. Before long we have all joined them at the bottom of the slope in their soggy-bum smiling-face state. Everyone except Neil who is holding up his ‘serious adult’ act and sticks to the traditional method of foot-based motion. 

I stand at the bottom of the slope cheering on a Christian shaped-blob, only to realise with much joy that the 6-year-old within my 63-year-old friend cannot resist. Neil comes glissading down the mountain in unadulterated, bum-shuffling glee. This makes my day, and on this most epic of days, this is a pretty big statement. Here is living proof that while ageing is inevitable, getting old is definitely a choice. When future and past dissolve into the present moment, we find the freedom of our child-like simplicity once again. As Tom Robbins says, it’s never too late to have a happy childhood. 

After the altitude high, we are hit hard by the come-down like a delayed-onset oxygen hangover. The sun bearing down on our wind-encrusted faces doesn’t help. Christian is reduced to a grunting mass, charging down the mountain on an urgent hunt for air. Sam turns an awful shade of grey and throws-up the remainder of his lunch along the path like a breadcrumb trail. At least a rescue mission would waste no time in finding us. After 11 gruelling hours, we are relieved to reach our final destination for the day. I lay in bed with a full belly, a bruised bum and a warm heart. In this moment, I am utterly content. 

After a positively luxurious lie-in (until 5.45am) we take the morning off to explore this bizarre new world we have slid into. Muktinath is a holy pilgrimage site where the Indian Plains collide with the Tibetan Plateau in a cultural hodgepodge of temples and stupas that mark the place where the earth burps flames from a rock crevasse. Mani is generous with his knowledge, which is deeply rooted in his own ancestry. He sees no contradiction in his mismatch of Hindu, Animist and Buddhist beliefs, and pays homage to the holy rituals indiscriminately. I think he is a wonderful role-model for the practice of patience, tolerance and embracing diversity. 

Now we are back in the urban realities of cars and air-strips, our group meets a crossroads. Many trekkers decide to leave the trail at this point, having accomplished the high-point they came here for. Nate flies on to the warmer climes of Bali, the Australians get the bus back to Pokhara, and Neil and Sam head South for Annapurna Base Camp. I am left feeling a little off-kilter, as something ends but is not yet finished. I am tired, and I want to pause, to rest, to take it all in. But the river moves on, and in our new arrangement – Emily, Christian, Mani and I – we move with it. 

Emily, Mani and Christian in the shadow of Dhaulagiri

The Kaligrandi River is not your fairytale flow of turquoise meltwater. No, in this arid realm of dusty, musty Mustang the black river meanders like a ribbon of sludge across a barren floodplain, hinting at the full extent of her monsoonal black magic. Now, these beds are filled with clunky conveyor belts churning out rocks of de-escalating sizes and spitting dust clouds in our faces. With Dhaulagiri to the West and Annapurna 1 to the East, both towering over 6000m above where we stand, we are technically in the deepest valley on earth. By 11am the wind is hurtling through this great wind-funnel and the only option is to pull up your face mask up, put your head down, and hike. Or, in Emily’s case, scream in anger, straight into the face of it all. I howl with her for moral support, and Christian wonders what sort of feral women he has landed himself with. 

The village of Marpha is a medieval oasis carved into the slopes of this brown wasteland. Irrigation canals flow beneath cobbled walkways filling the narrow, winding streets with a waterfall orchestra. Above the stepped-stone houses is an incongruous orchard flourishes, stocking the store cupboards with apple pie and apricot brandy. My mind has already been made up. I am taking the day off. The others do not need much persuading, and the snow forecast seals the deal. After so many long days on the trail, we can finally sit back and enjoy our achievements. As we sip apple cider in the afternoon rays, Mani declares it a paradise party. Cheers to that! 

After a lazy day and a full-power breakfast of fried eggs, fried potatoes, deep-fried Tibetan bread and bottomless coffee we are recharged and ready for the day ahead. The descent continues back into the land of birds, bees and butterflies, dancing around apple trees interspersed with pine. I’m half expecting a ghost-white woman and her short-fellowed friends to emerge from between the trees. Magical settings such as these are the breeding ground for creativity; ideas spontaneously leap forth into the mental space created by the monotony of walking. 

With the dangers of altitude left lingering high above us, we are now in full holiday mode. Lingering stops at the bakery are followed by the steady flow of beer on tap. Post-pass Christian is a totally new person, like a monk let out of his hermitage. He and Mani become mischievous giggling schoolboys lapping up barely wine like milk. As fun as it is, it’s not the reason I came into the mountains and I find myself craving the silent space of solitude to process all that is unfolding before me. I make the decision to start as I had begun, and wave goodbye to the paradise party, with the hope of re-joining them further up the trail or back in Pokhara. 

The Annapurna Circuit trek has one last cruel trick up its sleeve. Having spent nearly 2 weeks ascending to the heady heights of Thorung La and back, now comes the encore: Poon Hill. The trail takes you gasping all the way back up to 3500m before descending the staircase from hell. I am sat in the banana groves in the humid air, as mosquitoes nibble my ankles when my phone pings. Neil and Sam have abandoned their plans for Base Camp and are heading back to Pokhara to meet up with the Australians. Christian will be there to rendezvous before his flight back to Germany. Pizza, beer and reminiscing with friends, or a zillion flights of stairs? I check the weather forecast. Heavy thunder and snowstorms. The decision is easy. I had just hiked my final day on the Annapurna Circuit. 

Tatopani literally translates as hot water, and I am delighted to finish my trek in one of those rare places where water boils from the geothermic rumble of tectonic plates colliding. The springs hum with activity; men banter as they bathe, big bellies pouring over teeny tiny shorts as they wash their bums unabashedly in the public taps. In contrast, the women skirt around the pool, rolling up their jeans or bathing fully clothed, wringing bubbles of shampoo from their ribbons of jet-black hair onto colourful patterned salwar kameez. I sit on the sidelines in full trekking attire, as custom dictates, and let the lethargy soak out of my tired bones. This is the end. 

In Nepal, it is entirely legal to drive on roads that have not yet been built, and so on the journey back to Pokhara, the bus is periodically stopped behind a line of diggers cleaving rocks from the cliffside to expand the narrow ledge we are teetering on. The flow of the busy highways is then reduced to one way traffic because the rain transforms the road into a deep mud gorge, which multiple lorries get cemented into. Nepalis don’t seem to share my British love of queuing, and so a riot of beeping chaos ensues, and the promise of a 6-hour journey gradually ticks over into 12. 

If I was in England, people would be out of their cars, swearing, or slumped in the backseat scrolling mindlessly through their Twitter feed. Get bored, or get angry. In Nepal, they get fabulous. Pilgrims in their dazzling red sequin saris start clapping and singing folk songs. The flasks of tea come out, someone starts playing a drum, and it’s only a matter of time before the dancing commences. What they are lacking in infrastructure they make up for in stupendous traffic-jamming style. 

The first sip on the cold beer is bliss. We fill each other in on stories since our paths parted, our highlights and lowlights, including Steven’s excellent reenactment of him, nearly falling off a cliff whilst Mike wanders on, lost in his rhythm to Tina Turner. Some confusion over the rules of happy hour somehow leads to a doubling of our intended alcohol consumption, and so naturally the night ends in a Nepali heavy metal rock bar, with the best headbanging lochs I have ever seen. At 3am, I have the honour of being walked all the way home by 4 wonderful gentlemen. We say bitter-sweet goodbyes and hope that our paths will cross again, on a mountain, somewhere. 

Team Trek (minus Nate and Emily)
Team Trek Reunited in Pokhara

Of course, we must return to our lives, to the bustling passage of time. But we return changed: for the mountains are like a mirror, reflecting back to you the depths of your unstoried the self, the self that exists outside of the labels and identities you habitually carry. We are privileged to glimpse this small slice of existence, unpolluted and unhurried. Contrary to Blake, I don’t believe you can really hold infinity in the palm of your hand. Yet in those small moments of quiet splendour – if you remain still, hands outstretched – just maybe, it will rest there a while. As soon as you grasp at it, it’s gone. 

Enjoyed reading this? Watch the video! (featuring cheeky bum slides and aggressive monkeys)

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