“A climbers day always starts at the crux: getting out of bed”
Day 8 began with the familiar aching throat and stuffy head that comes with the common cold. Adding to the challenge of climbing mountains at altitude, the inevitability of the sickness became apparent as we climbed higher and higher. Every person on the trail contracted, at a minimum a cough, and at worst altitude sickness which forced some to return to Besi Sahar.
Leaving the warmth and comfort of our sleeping bags became a true test of will each morning, but as soon as we were on the trail and the sun peeked over the golden mountain tops we were charged with an indescribable energy. The thick jungle that we had passed through on the first few days, had given way to pine forests and now little evidence was left of such life on the trail. Tiny shrubs dotted the rocky hillside, barely clinging to any sustenance this barren land could offer.
We were in yak territory now. The giant, woolly beasts roamed the steep ravines with shocking finesse. The lack of trees meant there was little relief from the searing rays of the sun which appeared closer with each laboured step. The sky, completely devoid of all clouds and moisture, took on an incredible, mystique blue. A clarity of the color that one can only witness above 3500 meters.
We crossed a bridge and followed the tiny, crystal clear creek to a small group of trees barely worthy of the word forest. They provided us with enough shade to rest our tired, wheezing bodies and enjoy a picnic beneath the stage of the tremendous cliffs overhead. We continued on to Braga Village where we enjoyed our first glass of Seabuckthorn Juice. A delicious fruit that only grows high in the mountains. The locals harvest and concentrate this delicious, vitamin rich juice and serve it as a healthy, revitalizing drink for weary trekkers passing by. We loved it and had many more throughout the rest of the trek.
This day ended on our arrival to Manang, the mirage-like village that seemed impossible to reach just a few days before. We had heard of Manang at the start of the trek, famous for its yak burgers, baked goods, movie theater and heated eating areas, we felt like we were arriving in “the big city”. Although it really only consisted of a few homes, guesthouses and a clinic, it seemed like civilization. We settled into a nice room and enjoyed our first yak burgers in one of the restaurants. They were delicious and tasted just like beef without the taboo of eating a Hindu God. The views around Manang were breathtaking.
No other village seemed so delicately set amongst the awe-inspiring peaks of the Himalayas. With full views of Gangapurna, and Annapurnas 1, 2 & 3, it truly was like a scene from Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, which we watched in the movie theater with our friends that night.
After attending an informative lecture on the dangers of altitude, put on by Craig, an American doctor at the clinic, we agreed to take an “acclimatization day” in Manang. We desperately needed to allow our bodies to adjust to the altitude before climbing an additional 2000 meters to the Thorang La Pass (The Summit). Although Dariece and I had a positive reading on our Pulse-Ox test at the clinic, it was made clear to us the importance of slowing our ascent and hanging back for a day.
Many people have died at this altitude and Craig had plenty of recent stories involving critically ill trekkers and locals alike. But don’t think that after trekking for 10 days straight we really got to rest. We were urged by the doctors to climb up at least 400 meters to aid the body’s acclimatization. So, the next day we headed up to the beautiful Chongar Viewpoint with our friends, Jordan and Susie. The viewpoint looked down over a postcard photograph of the Chongar Glacier Lake, its reflection perfectly mirroring the ominous, snow painted face of Annapurna 2.
It was a beautiful, sunny day when we climbed up to the lookout, but the altitude and dry air wreaked havoc on my wheezing throat. Every once in a while I had to stop for a coughing fit before continuing; but continuing is always so easy when you are rewarded so generously with the views of Nepal. That night we both had extra seabuckthorn juice to try to combat our stubborn colds and decided to spend an extra day to try to get better in Manang.
We slept in on day 10, as planned, but when we woke up and felt better we decided to press on. The day consisted of a pretty steady incline, but nothing too steep. It felt however, like we were climbing Everest itself. The thin air made it hard to put one foot in front of the other, and we had passed the last permanently inhabited village, meaning that even locals don’t like to sleep this high up. After 6 hours of hiking we stopped in the Village of Yak Karka and bedded down in a cosy, but cold, pink cabin on the edge of a cliff.
The next day was our trek to Low Camp, or Base Camp as we called it for dramatic effect. The sun hadn’t yet penetrated the mountain ridges as we set out on the frozen trail. We slipped and slid over frozen rivers that once snaked down the valley. At over 4000 meters we really felt like we were sneaking onto the front yard of the sky scraping, powder white legends above us. We had to stop every few hundred meters to catch our fleeting breath and relax our oxygen deprived bodies. Each step was laboured and each breath stung our throats, but the tantalizing sight of the finish line amongst those jagged, snowy gods pushed us forward as they lured us in with their beauty.
At one point we passed a sign that read “No Stopping, Rock Slide Zone” and I thought “are you kidding me?!” No stopping seemed insane. We pushed past the danger zone to the beat or our heart thumping in our chest and the sound of our hastened breath. At 4500 meters there is nothing “LOW” about Low Camp. The snow line is just above the valley that the hotel sits in and the hotel itself is the only thing there. Simply a cluster of 100 or so rooms, built there to make the final pass possible for trekkers. We relaxed in the heated eating area and played cards with our friends Jordan & Suzie. The next day was to be an epic one.
Day 12, the big day… the final ascent. We woke up at 5:00am, had a quick breakfast and hit the trail a half hour later. The path was nearly pitch black so we used our headlamps to guide the way. Luckily it hadn’t snowed at this altitude yet, but the familiar white glow was never far from the path. This day was to be, by far, the most gruelling day of the trek, and subsequently our lives.
We were to climb a staggering 1040 meters over the pass and then back down for a knee jarring 1620 meter descent. For the first hour up to High Camp we thought this task to be impossible. The climb was straight up through switchbacks that nearly required us to crawl on all fours in places. All the days of lazing around on beaches, sampling wine in vineyards and blissfully sailing the sea were suddenly being made up for in one exhausting, ice-cold ascent.
We stopped at High Camp, another assortment of rooms for trekkers, for a hot tea and hard-boiled egg, before continuing the rest of the way to the illusive Thorung La Pass. Knowing that the steepest part was over, we figured the hardest part was behind us as well, but it turns out the hardest part was the seemingly endless line of false summits. Every time we reached the crest of a hill we thought we were there.
The wind picked up and angrily whispered words of caution directly from the Himalayas as we neared their summits. Our bodies ignored their haunting warnings and eventually just entered a meditative, machine-like state and each step, although laboured, became strangely easier. It was like we were kicked into overdrive. We took each step with a purposeful stability. When finally the prayer flags of the finish line were in sight, we were given one last charge of energy and we slowly made our way to the top.
Dariece was the first to touch the cluster of flags that marked the end of the most amazing journey of our lives. Our yells echoed down the valley, taunting the path that lay behind us. We laughed and gave each other a congratulatory hug and kiss before retreating into the tiny tea house to enjoy chai and chocolate with our friends. We relaxed for a few minutes before bracing ourselves for the steep climb down.
Compared to the ascent, the descent was a cake walk, although it definitely did a number on my knees. It took us nearly 6 hours of near sprint speed with a few stops to reach the bottom. But on the entire way down, the Annapurna region was not to disappoint us after completing her prize pass. The valley below us was fringed with dozens of massive snow-capped peaks, rewarding us with some of the best views of the entire trek.
When we finally arrived in Muktinath, at the foot of the pass, Dariece, Jordan, Susie and I rewarded ourselves with a delicious meal and a cold beer. We stayed in Muktinath an extra day to do some laundry and relax our aching muscles. The following day we headed to Jomsom and although the views were good, the fact that we followed a slightly busy dirt road the whole way took away from the appeal.
We did pass through another gorgeous village where we stopped for lunch. We walked around the charming, narrow cobblestone alleyways past some interesting shops and restaurants including a “7-11” and a “Yakdonalds”! When the four of us finally reached Jomsom, the sun was setting so we found a room quickly. Jomsom was not a very noteworthy town, but our rooms had a private bathroom and HOT SHOWER!
We all had showers (the 3rd in 13 days) and met in the restaurant completely refreshed. We met two other travellers, Matt and Clare, from England, who were on a remarkably similar world trip. In good company, we all had a great sense of achievement as we sat around the fire and told our stories from the past 2 weeks of trekking in the greatest mountain range on earth.
Total Days of Trekking – 14
Total Kilometers Trekked – 145 km
Maximum Altitude Reached – 5416 m (17764 ft) – Thorong La Pass
Height of Everest Base Camp (Nepal) – 5364 m (17598)
Longest Day (Over The Pass) – 9.5 hours, 17 km, 1040m up, 1620 m down!