January 30th, 2011: Annapurna Circuit, Nepal
This will be a big post. Here is 110 miles through the Himalayas in January cut down to 4 minutes of video.
Like all great mountain romances, this is mostly a story of blisters, avalanche anxiety, playing chicken with frostbite, and squat toilet diarrhea.
January is the coldest month in the Annapurna region and arguably the worst time to escape into the Himalayan mountains to trek over 100 miles by yourself. The debilitating cold shuts off the flow of trekkers and brings desolation and isolation in its place. In short, it would be pretty easy to call this whole endeavor stupid. But stupidity should never get in the way of an awesome idea. And because of that, with my 45 pound bag packed full of thermal clothing, a down sleeping bag, medicine, maps, and other gear cinched to my shoulders, I stepped off an uncomfortable bus into Besi Sahar. It’s a beat up town that seems to primarily trade in dust and potholes. It stretches along one long road and feels like the old American West, waiting for a gunfight. Or maybe I’m just anxious. Anyway, what it lacks in gunfights it makes up for in trailheads, and it’s here that I begin.
One foot in front of the other, I burrowed into the rice paddied agricultural mud heaps that cling to the rivers and foothills of the Annapurna Range. Suspension bridges zigzag between the banks of the Marsyangdi River, slingshotting you back and forth as you make your way deeper into the Himalayas. The first few days of the trek were warm, the altitude not significant, and comfortable. I passed in and out of small villages, witnessing rural Nepalese farmers in their element. We exchanged “Nameste’s” and smiles before I’d follow the trail farther up to another village a few hours away. Aside from the few concessions modern times have made to the villages, it feels medeval. I almost expect a knight and squire to gallop by on their way to slay a dragon. 500 years ago this place probably didn’t look much different. I really like that feeling.
The weight of my gear would take its toll on my shoulders after hours on the trail and I’d take a break to drink tea in a small village. I’d watch women beat laundry clean and children run around in fields or make their way back from school. I’d continue and climb higher into the atmosphere as I watched the landscape gradually change around me. Despite the occasional view of a snow capped peak off in the distance, I mostly witnessed large terraced farming dug into bowls of earth or perched on sharp hills. At night, it would get cold and I’d retreat into a tea house in the nearest village to get a room. Nepal is already a cheap country to travel in so the rural areas in low season charge miniscule prices. For a dollar, I’d have a home for the night, and for a few more I could eat 20 pounds of Dal Bhat, a traditional Nepalese rice and lentil meal.
My whole time in Asia hasn’t been all that physically active. I haven’t been running or rock climbing and I don’t have a bike that I rely on to get everywhere. So this trek is the first legitimate exercise I’ve done in months and I can feel it in my legs and back. It’s great to be off of buses and relying on my own calories as fuel to move forward. Each morning I repack my bag, put on my shoes, and step back onto the trail. I follow along sheer cliff faces that wind around mountains with their edges abruptly dropping hundreds of feet to the valley below. I descend down into the valley alongside the river and skirt the edges of the water. It’s a freedom I don’t experience often enough.
Eventually, I come across a settlement built on a dried up lake bed called Tal. It’s a pretty unattractive town with some concrete lodges and a couple of shops. At this point, the illness I’d been fighting finally caught up to me. I overnighted in Tal and found what a generous person would call a hospital. Amazingly, I was able to get medicine, two types of antibiotics and rehydration salts, with advice from a doctor (I think) to get healthy. I asked how much I owed him for the visit and medicine but he waved me off after some confusion. It’s free, compliments of the Nepali government. I asked if there was a donation I could make, but he refused (or didn’t understand). This concept is just as foreign to me as the country around me. Dear American insurance companies, please take note, curing people, caring for them, and saving their lives is an obligation to humans, not a profit driven business that determines the relative value of a life based on compensation. They may not be able to perform open heart surgery here, but what they have, they give.
After getting patched up, so to speak, I moved on. It was now cold enough to snow and start freezing the edges of small streams. I added another layer of clothing and moved on. The trail is straightforward and easy to follow most of the time. It gets confusing when it intersects with multiple paths used by traders and villagers and sometimes I stop to read through a guide or map. I pick my way over landslides that have blocked the trail and hurry forward before the sun goes down and the cold sets in more firmly. At another village I gorge on rice and lentils then sit around a kitchen stove to warm up before crawling to bed in a barren room with no heat.
The farther in you go, the more removed from the rest of the world you become. No cars or jeeps can penetrate this deeply. Everything that can’t be obtained locally is heaved for days on the backs of mule trains. Short of an emergency life flight (if the weather permits), your legs are your only way out. It’s here, in this seclusion from the world, where Tibetan culture and architecture becomes dominant. The buildings are primarily made of stacked stones, their wooden beams sticking out like broken bones dangling prayer flags. Stupas, small Buddhist worship structures, sit in the middle of villages or up on the mountainsides. Along the trail, mani walls and prayer stones crop up like fire hydrants in a city street. It’s other worldly and beautiful against the back drop of gargantuan mountains.
At some point in my trek I crossed paths with an Australian brother and sister (Ben and Sophie) who were attempting the circuit. With the opportunity for some company, I ditched the solitude and we went on together. They were really great to trek with and fun to be around. Also, Sophie had some of the most grotesque blisters on her feet I’ve ever seen. I was impressed that they could get that bad and that she could even walk on them but she didn’t really have much of a choice other than to deal with the pain.
For days we walked on the valley floor and along the edges of mountains, ascending into colder and colder territory. We were closing in on Thorung La. The biggest danger and greatest challenge of the circuit is crossing it. The Thorung La is a mountain pass, the highest point on the circuit and the lowest possible crossing through the range. It’s the only way to get out without turning around. At 17,769 feet (5416 meters), it’s extremely cold in January, presents avalanche conditions and can be blocked by snow that piles up to 6 feet high.
We were still days away from it but could feel it looming. We kept imagining how much colder it could possibly get. Everything freezes up here. The squat toilets are frozen over solid, making for awkward waste disposal. The floors in the bathrooms are sheets of ice. Most water pipes are rubber so that they can expand when the water freezes because everything else would burst. Electricity is a rarity because the region relies on small hydro electric generators and, at these altitudes, the streams and small rivers that power them freeze in the winter. The use of firewood for cooking and heating is limited. The sparse growth because of the altitude (we’re in alpine terrain) and deforestation have made the practice irresponsible. I ask the Nepali who is starting a fire for us what he’s using. “Yak shit! Very good!” There’s a big cardboard box overflowing with clumps of it near a bottle of kerosene. Up here, there’s more yak shit than trees.
The nights at altitude can get awful. Headaches and the difficulty in breathing can make for restless sleeping. Beyond that, it’s the mind numbing, torturous cold that seeps into every part of you and never leaves. Full liters of water freeze solid in your room if you don’t keep them under you blanket. Blankets pulled up to my face at night become frozen from my breath. I sleep in long underwear (top and bottom), jeans, two pair of socks, three thermal shirts, a scarf, a wool hat, a down jacket, and gloves. Two heavy blankets are draped over me and I curl into a ball, hoarding my body heat. Eventually, I get warm. The mornings are the worst. It’s like waking up to find you’re confined in a prison, invisible walls of deadening cold lock you into a tomb of blankets. Even if there were enough water, a cold shower in this environment would invite hypothermia before you even step outside. Thankfully, when the sun is out and you’re working to carry yourself and bag for miles on end, you can warm up.
We heard stories of a group that crossed the pass a few days before, traveling with porters and guides. There were maybe 3 girls and a couple guys in this group and they had epic trouble on the pass. Altitude sickness was severely affecting one of the girls who could barely go on, so she paid a trader 125 dollars to strap her to a mule and take her across. The mule apparently had problems on the pass too and collapsed before it even made it halfway. Some of the guys were rumored to have been frost bitten pretty severely and were showing signs of black digits where their tissue had died from the exposure. There were also stories of the typical exhaustion that comes from trying to ascend 1000 meters in hours and then safely descend down the other side another 1600 m. Days before the group that was assisted by professionals and donkeys, a helicopter airlifted a man out of the mountains who had broken his leg in a fall. Thorung La in the winter is no joke.
After 65 miles of cutting through the mountains, we came to Thorung Phedi, our last stop before the pass and a miserable place to spend the night. The altitude is just shy of 14,900 ft (4540 m) and it feels like you’re at the end of the world. We went to bed early with everything packed and ready to go for our 6 AM start time. My damp shoes froze overnight and in the morning, it was painful to work blistered feet into rigid leather ice blocks. It was totally dark outside so we operated under the aid of head lamps in the beginning. From the start, it was a steep climb on snow straight up a 50 degree slope for a couple of hours. It was so cold that the water I carry on the outside of my pack froze solid. We got to a small grouping of structures called High Camp where we could get some hot tea. This would be the only liquid that Ben and I would have until we made it over the pass because our fluids were now frozen.
Before coming to the apex of the pass, we had to cross through some valleys with steep snow covered sides. I was ahead of Ben and Sophie and hugged the slope as I traversed it. I could see small rocks and pieces of ice and snow falling down along it every couple of minutes. It was eerily silent, the scraping of the rocks sounded amplified once I noticed them. Already halfway through the traverse and I was fearing an avalanche. I know nothing about assessing these risks but I reasoned that getting out of the area was my best course of action. No avalanche ever materialized, but I won’t forget the fear of that situation.
The whole ordeal over the pass was 10 or more hours of physical exertion with little oxygen and biting cold. I began keeping my hands in my pockets because my gloves weren’t doing enough. I wrapped my scarf 3 times around my face to protect my mouth and nose from frostbite and wind burn. The moisture in my breath freezes it to my beard and it rips out hair when I reposition it. By the time we make it to the pass, it’s a relief because that means that it’s literally all downhill from there. Ben is having a lot of trouble with the altitude and dehydration. The wind is scraping over the mountains and making it unbearable to face it. I think Sophie was worried she’d get blown over at one point. When I take my hands out of my pockets to get some photos, it’s so painful that I’m strangely furious. We spend about 2 minutes at the pass and hurry down the other side. Even with the bitter cold and wind, we had a beautifully clear day. There was a lot of snow everywhere except on the pass itself (most of it blown away by the constant gale). Our benefit was that the top layer was frozen solidly enough that we rarely broke through and were able to walk over it without too much trouble.
We came down from the pass to Ranipauwa after a knee breaking descent. The hardest part completed, we were happy and exhausted. The following day, we visited Muktinath, an important and sacred site worshiped by Buddhists and Hindus alike. Numerous pilgrimages are made to this site by the devout and tourists alike. Because of this, among other reasons, a road was built to link the area to the outside world. It’s a pathetic road, mostly dirt, but it’s still a connection. From here on, we saw many more people and the isolation was gone. We continued for days, following river beds and jeep tracks, descending more and more into tolerable weather. After going over 100 miles through the mountains, I was sadly coming back to the outside world.
I took a bus out of the Annapurna Conservation Area, happily playing the contortionist to squeeze into my seat after the last 18 days. We bounced along for 7 hours, stopping briefly to navigate craters and boulders on the road. First gear was a struggle, the gears grinding painfully like broken teeth as they try to engage before we roll backwards off a cliff. The bus spurts ahead finally, 10 mph feels like the speed of sound on this road. Where the road is partially washed out, we bounce through it, jack-hammering the ground; passengers launch off the seats like human cannonballs and our death trap swivels back and forth. Landslides have rendered the road impassable in areas and we drive down onto the dry riverbed we’ve been following. I have no idea how this bus would make it during the monsoon when the river comes alive.
The ride is uncomfortable to put it mildly. The middle aisle is packed 4 feet high with sacks of rice and vegetables, baggage and people. It’s okay, I’m defrosting. It smells like bologna, chicken noodle soup, and all sorts of food that has went bad in all sorts of ways. It could be me, I haven’t showered in a long time and the Nepalese women next to me has a look in her eye that tells me I’m not helping the situation.
I eventually got back to Pokhara and enjoyed a hot shower and clean clothes. Ben and Sophie met me a little later and we enjoyed the luxury of not moving around too much. My visa was about to expire so I had to hurry back to Kathmandu and catch a flight out of the country. I got on a plane to Thailand to trade in frostbite for lady boys. On the flight out, I got a clear view of Mt. Everest from the sky. That is one big mountain.