Hima – snow
Alaya – abode, or home
18 Days. 230 Kms. ^5410m Heights. 402,392 Steps. Temperature lows -20c…
This is one hell of a walk.
A few years ago I did the Lares trek in Peru, top height 4550 meters. It didn’t go that well. I really struggled. These days I’m a lot fitter and more prepared (and I have an appropriate weather sleeping bag) so it is with a hopeful heart that I set out on the Annapurna Circuit of the western Himalayas. I know it’s going to be a challenge. I just don’t know how much of a challenge it’ll be.
Day 1: Kathmandu. We meet our guide Hari and porter Gopal early in the morning. We leave most of our stuff at the trekking office in Thamel. The limit for the porter to carry is 25kgs but our rucksack is nowhere near that. We have got everything I can think of, and nothing non-essential, but once on the local bus out of town I remember at least 5 things I wish I’d packed. The journey takes about 7 hours. Local buses are pretty mental: extremely bumpy (standard), constantly stopping for passengers (understandable), and with Nepali music videos blaring over-loud from a broken stereo mini tv (psychosis inducing). Bhulebhule stands ^800m above sea level. We stay at a wooden boarded tea house. We were warned (thanks Ryan) about the utter lack of insulation in these places… I bought 5 blankets along with my sleeping bag and I’ll need every single one of them.
We are staying in tea houses around the circuit along with other trekkers. There aren’t many of us in Bhulebhule – this is the off season and the weather will be unpredictable at best, and you can bet your bottom dollar it’s going to get cold… already people are talking about heavy snow falls at the pass, which could hold us up or, if bad enough, turn us back. It’s fun to speculate but it’s just too soon to tell. There are various different ways to get around the mountain range. Ours is one of the longest and hardest, anti clockwise in a circle. Picture a clock: Bhulebhule is at 4 o’clock, and we trek around the circuit gradually ascending to the Thorong La Pass (11 o’clock), at a nerve wracking ^5410 meters, then descending around the clock until we arrive at the lake side town of Pokhara (6 o’clock) 18 days later, tired and sore but hopefully in one piece.
Day 2: Destination: Jagat, 23kms walk ^1300m
We begin our journey at 8am, excited and nervous, daypacks full of water, protein bars, blister plasters, sunglasses, gloves and warm yak blankets. It’s lovely and sunny and we are walking alongside the rushing Marsyangdi river, through rural farmland. This is land from another time: oxen pull wooden ploughs, and the simple villages and terraced fields are like nothing we have in England. We ascend up crooked stone steps and I wonder again if I am up to this! By the end of the day my shoulder is killing me from wielding my trekking stick, my legs are sore, I’m cold and tired and it’s only our first day. 8pm: Time for bed.
The days stack up. We wake early with the sun or cockerels, warm in our sleeping bags (I take to lying my trekking clothes out under blankets and sleeping on them so they’re warm in the morning. Best. Trick. Ever). We dress fast as it’s frosty cold once out of bed (thank the heavens for the layering of thick socks and thermals), have porridge and hot coffee for breakfast and get going. We are averaging about 18kms, 600-800m ascents per day.
We walk from 8 to 12, we admire the incredible scenery, we begin to shed layers in the sun, and then we stop for lunch, which is always Dal Bhat – a local staple of rice, dal soup, veg curry, greens and pickle. The people here have it for lunch and dinner without fail, and no two places make it the same. After lunch we reapply clothing and walk on for a few more hours, reaching our tea house before it gets dark. We have dinner at 6:30ish, usually soup and a thermos of hot tea, wrap up in blankets, huddle around a fire for a bit and then fall into bed around 8.
The second day I take the chance of a hot shower, and it’s a good thing I do because after that the pipes freeze and hot showers, and indeed running water, become pretty much a thing of the past. The days are, for the moment, warm and sunny, though as the mountains begin to loom in front of us the wind chill picks up, and the temperature at night drops considerably. Life becomes about keeping warm.
Hari is a terrific guide. He shows us the cool off road tracks, tells stories about the mountains, pretends to be as tired as us when we are climbing (he’s not fooling anyone). He is an excellent animal noise mimic, and he says “beeee-yooooo-teee-fullll” at the scenery (or when we ask him to take a picture of us – bless him). He brings us a plate of fruit each night for dessert, and only eats when he knows we are ok. Just the sweetest man on the planet. Gopal is an unusual fellow. Not much English, but an awesome array of expressive noises and the sweetest smile. His honourable nickname is the ‘chicken-tiger’ because he is small and scrappy, but can carry huge weights without trouble.
Day 5 and we are heading to Lower Pisang (^3200m). The clouds descend and the sun disappears. It is now getting tough. No sun seems to mean no electricity, so the basic standards we had come accustomed to have to be adjusted again. And on top of that Tasha is feeling rotten. Her stomach hurts and we don’t think it’s food poisoning, as we have eaten the same things and I’m fine. It saps her energy and good spirits, she is always in pain, and we are now at a point that medical assistance is not easy to come by. We try different tactics to combat it, some work ok, but it never goes away completely and I’m getting very worried, though I try not to let her see how much.
The towns that we come through are like ghost towns. The buildings are locked up until the season begins in a few weeks, the streets are silent and empty. Then a huge black crow will swoop down and caw at you menacingly and a sleeping dog will raise its head to stare at you. Swap my stick and backpack for a horse and cowboy hat and we’re in the Wild West.
The snow falls. We wake on Day 6 to a beautiful white world. It is lovely enough for us to forget our woes, wrap up warm in our down jackets and trample through the sparkling powder, taking many a daft snow-selfie.
Our destination is Manang (^3440m) where we will have a rest day to acclimatise. Another ghost town. The hotel has a handful of trekkers staying. We sit around a half-hearted fire in the dining room, trying to dry our socks and tops as the winds throw frosty snow around outside. Our room is icy. The pipes are frozen so no running water to wash hands or brush teeth. Don’t even get me started on the state of the toilets. All in all not a place you want to be stuck.
Tasha still feels awful. I find crackers, peanut butter and a pack of playing cards in a dusty store/living room down the road. We camp out in front of the fire with a thermos of hot water (which costs us $5) and play cards (great way to make friends – we have shared our route thus far with two guys from Japan, T and Jin, awesome laughers and eternal optimists… we become firm friends over these card games).
The next day, our rest day, Hari finds a medic who works in a clinic and we finally get Tasha some medicine. It’s not altitude sickness thank goodness. Hari says if she isn’t feeling 100% she shouldn’t attempt the pass. She says she’s at about 60… yikes. We have a few days to decide.
We press on anyway, very glad to say goodbye to Manang. We are bound for Yak Kharka (the yak’s resting place), ^4350m. The snow makes the walk even more stunning and the dramatic white mountains fill us with wonder. Today we hear-then-see the ominous red rescue helicopter fly overhead to the pass. Someone is having a very bad day ahead. I say a quick prayer to whatever ancient mountain god might be around to not let that be our fate. At the tea house we find some Australians who are waiting out their altitude sickness, they make us look like the picture of health! Poor guys. We all cheer each other up with some tea, sympathy and fierce rounds of Shithead and Texas Hold ‘Em and then try to get some sleep.
Day 9: Thorong Pedi, ^4420m, last stop before the pass. It’s a gentle ascent up and we take our time.
The tea house has a good fire so we arrive to a warm room and some lunch. After eating we practice the climb that we will be doing tomorrow morning at a bone chilling 4am. The mountains are high around us now. Hard and ancient. The air is cold and crisp and thin. Hari explains that we need to cross the pass as early as possible because the winds on the other side will pick up dramatically in the afternoon. We will have breakfast at 3:30, leave at 4, and we hope to get to the pass by 12, at which point we have a 17km descent to Muktinath, the town we are staying in. Fuuuuuuuuck.
T, Jin and the Aussies are trekking with us, so there’s safety in numbers. That night we sit around the fire and wonder what on earth we have let ourselves in for.
Day 10: Thorong La Pass.
I actually wake up at 1:30am. I’m warm and cosy in my sleeping bag and blankets. I’m so wide awake. Thinking thinking. It’s going to be fine. It’s got to be fine. Don’t panic. What’s the worst that can happen? We are not going to die. Of course we’re not. We won’t need the rescue helicopter. Don’t be ridiculous. This gets boring pretty quick so I get up and start stretching. Our water bottles have frozen. Fabulous. I’m dressed and packed when the alarm rings and I chivvy Tasha. We eat warm cinnamon rolls and drink hot coffee with the guys. We set out.
The snow glows in the moonlight as we follow the trail up, up, up. The stars are brighter than any stars I’ve ever seen, the constellations unrecognisable from here. I keep stopping to stare out at them, but we must keep climbing. The temperature is about -10c. Ice forms on my eyelashes, on the yak blanket that is wrapped around my neck. Hands can’t be exposed or frostbite will take over in minutes. Jesus Christ. I am not at all ready for this type of freezing. Doesn’t matter. Keep climbing. The sun rises. The colours change from ice blue and silver to hard bright blue and diamond. Sunglasses on quick. Don’t get snow blindness. It’s like grains of sand in your eyes apparently. My heart is hammering. I’m sweating inside all my layers. I can’t breathe. Every breath is a gasp. But this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever done. I’m stunned that I’m here. That this is a thing that I’m doing. That I’m able to do it. Keep climbing. One foot in front of the other. We have to stop more often to pull air into our lungs and drink our icy water. Tasha is sticking with me. Total legend that she is. We pull ahead from the others. Us and Hari. Like we are the only people on the roof of the world. It’s gloriously sunny and the sky is an impossible blue. The last hour of climbing feels insurmountable. How can you keep climbing? How can you not? I don’t think I can go any further. I keep going. I know that Tasha is running on fumes. Focus on the footsteps in front of you. Don’t look up. You’re surely nearly there….
And then we are. We are at the pass. And it’s only 11:30!
A blanket of snow and a big wooden sign. Bedizened with hundreds of prayer flags. They are the most colourful thing I’ve seen all day. I stop walking. Jubilation! I start laughing and whooping. Then I have to sit down. We drop next to a boarded up wooden tea hut. Hari jumps and cheers and hands us a snickers bar each. Snickers!! I haven’t had one of these in at least 15 years. Don’t care. I’ve earned it…. bloody hell it’s delicious. The guys arrive. We high-five. Take some pics. And then it’s time to head down.
Descending is intense. Every step is steep and carefully taken. Still we slip a lot. It’s hard on the knees. I don’t mind. I feel the oxygen richening with every step. About half way down we hear thunder and to our left is a snow avalanche!!! 2 hours and 1200 meters later we reach a plateau and stop for lunch. It’s sunny and warm and I immediately strip off most of the layers to dry off and free my feet!! I’m utterly exhausted and we still have a long way to go, but right now I’m sun bathing and happy. Can’t quite process what we’ve just done.
Unfortunately what comes off has to go back on again and we are off and walking way too soon. By the end of the day I’m cold and cross and exhausted. I long for a shower. I want sleep. I want a massage. I want to throw a temper tantrum. Grrrrrrrrrrr.
The next few days we walk across mostly flat and extremely strange lunar-esque landscapes. This is post apocalyptic territory. Grey dust grey pebbles grey boulders grey water. The winds are strong. We wear sunglasses and cover our faces with scarves. Our clothes turn dusty grey. We look like bandits. It’s like being in Mad Max world. Every so often a masked motorcyclist will thunder into view and complete the impression. I hunker down and retreat into myself. I develop a loping stride and a repeating mantra. Plod plod plod. Just. Get. Through. This. One day we walk 29kms, 40,511 steps. That was the worst day.
But Day 13 is Tatopani, and at Tatopani are the hot springs, and the thought of being immersed in hot water motivates me like nothing else. All that is in my head is to get there and get soaking.
That is not to say we don’t pass through some interesting places on the way. Marpha for example (Day 11) is a town with a unique irrigation system running under the streets, with verdant vegetable patches and old hidden courtyard houses off cobbled streets. They grow apples and apricots. Our guesthouse, Rita’s, has not had electricity all day, so no lights or WiFi (ha! As if) but they have soft beds, thick blankets and a western toilet (gift from the gods). We eat our pumpkin soup and drink apricot brandy by candlelight with the under-the-table coal fire warming our legs and it’s one of my favourite places of the whole trek.
Finally we reach Tatopani, and my entire being melts into the rock pool hot springs. I swear, Tasha and I are in there 5 minutes after we arrive and we don’t leave until we are kicked out, hours later. I wash my hair (OMG HOT SHOWER) and half the bloody dust-desert rinses out. Soon I’m clean and warm and incredibly happy.
We drink Everest beer and play cards with T and Jin, it’s our last night together so it feels like a celebration. They’ve been such amazing trekking buddies. Tomorrow we have a gruelling 1800m climb to Ghorepani, so I say enjoy the good times while they last.
Day 14: They don’t last. Climbing 1800 meters in one day after what we’ve just been through is utterly insane. My recently relaxed muscles clench and shriek in protest. And I come very close to being surly towards Hari, which is a total no-no.
We stay one night in Ghorepani and wake up at 5am to climb Poon Hill (Day 16) for fantastic views across the Himalayas. I almost bail, but somehow I make it and the views are, of course, worth it. It’s so beautiful up here but I feel so done with trekking. I can feel myself reaching my limits, then passing them, then having to redefine them. What I am learning is that I have no idea where my limits actually are. But I haven’t reached them yet. Which is pretty good news.
Poon Hill Day was the last of the big climbs. Now we start heading down to the finish line: Pokhara, though it’ll be a few days before we get there. We walk down through peaceful traditional villages. The hard dusty dry landscape has given way to jungle-like vegetation and pebble-y streams and abundant colourful flowers. We eat green vegetables again. We don’t need our sleeping bags anymore. Breathing is not at all difficult. We walk on root-y labyrinthine paths through ancient moss covered woods with babbling brooks and strange creatures just out of sight. England used to have old woods just like these I think, but our Kings cut them down to build the Navy.
Abruptly the litter gets to me. Pretty much all the way through our trek I’ve seen the brightly coloured crinkled silver of endless sweet wrappers, the insidious Coke and Fanta bottles nestled in the ground, the sharp gold Red Bull cans scattered among the trees. But here in these woods we say, Enough!!… What should be a 3 hour hike turns into a 6 hour rubbish collection project, with Tasha Hari and me scouting the land around the path and collecting bags and bags worth of other peoples trash. It’s laborious, but I feel like we have somehow said thank you to this wonderful place, for showing us so much. In my heart I know we’ve done nothing permanent, but the notion that we took some small action against such callous shortsightedness makes me feel a little better. Gopal thinks we’re nuts, but Hari loved it.
Our last days trekking are covered in clouds. The sun has once again disappeared. Everything, ourselves included, needs a thorough scrubbing. Our clothes passed filthy days ago. Our hair is beyond description. Our nails are dirty tatters. I dream of my jeans and clean white t-shirts, waiting for me with the rest of our stuff. And yet… Our skin has turned sun-brown and clear. Our legs feel strong and lean. I can walk up hills for an hour now without tiring. Life has been pared down. I sleep deeply. I eat healthily. My metabolism burns it’s fuel efficiently. I am peaceful in my surroundings.
Arriving in Pokhara via incredibly bumpy local bus is a bit of an eye opener. It’s a bustling vibey tourist holiday town, and we are very much out of step with it. But I love it here. We have a final dal bhat lunch with Hari and Gopal and wave them off with heartfelt gratitude as they go on their ways. (Hari needs to head home to fix a ruined wall of his house, before taking another trek up to Everest Base Camp in a week.) I’m really not sure if tasha and I are capable of walking down a street without him now, but time will tell.
Reflection will come in time I suppose but right now I’ll say this: I don’t know if this experience will fundamentally change us. The challenge was way more than I thought. It was always going to be. The highs were higher, the lows were lower. I feel lighter. And tougher. And yet more vulnerable.
If you’re lucky these mountains will speak to you. They’ll tell you things about yourself that you didn’t know and maybe didn’t want to hear. They make you face yourself. They make you feel small, and very very temporary.
Would I do it again? Absolutely. But not right now. Right now there’s a hammock in our hostel Pokhara. It’s calling me. I’m getting in it (after an epic shower) and I’ll not be moving for the foreseeable future.
Om mani padme hum