In two senses, the apogee of the Annapurna Circuit is crossing Thorong La Pass at 5,416 metres. Not only is it the highest point in terms of altitude, it is also the resulting sense of achievement of crossing one of the world’s highest mountain passes. To succeed will most likely depend upon the preceding days acclimatisation to allow your body to adjust to deal with the lower oxygen levels.
The morning we were set to leave the comforts and delicious apple crumble of Tilicho Hotel, Manang I woke with a swollen eye, my hands were trembling, my resting heart rate was high and I felt rather worse for wear. The Tilicho Lake endeavour had certainly taken it’s toll. Fortunately, due to the acclimatisation advice and limitation of ascending no more than 500 metres elevation each day whilst above 3,000 metres, this day was relatively short. I pulled myself together and plodded along at the back of the group. Once I had taken a few lung fulls of fresh mountain air and my heart rate increased I felt almost back to my normal self, as if toxins had been removed from my body.
Above 3,000 metres the landscape changed dramatically, we trekked through wide, desolate valleys where only small bushes and shrubs can survive. The trail wound ever upwards in the shadows of mighty Himalayan mountains, Annapurna III and Gangapurna. We were far from civilization, the few settlements that existed consisted of a small number of buildings, most of which accommodated the circuit trekkers. I have great respect for the families that owned the lodges, life in these mountains must be tough.
Churi Ledar or “Cherry Leather” as it came to be known, as us naive Brits were unable to remember it’s pronunciation, was such a settlement. A handful of stone walled tea house lodges nestled alone in the vast enormity of the valley at 4,290 metres. The sky was a magnificent blue as deep as the deepest ocean. We shared a lodge with a trio of Italians, huddled around the log and yak dung burner to keep warm. Once the sun dipped below the mountainous sky line the temperature plummeted into the minuses, the water in our bottles froze over night and by the morming my wet wipes were an icy block of rock hard tissue.
The new trekking family of five including the latest addition, Aussie Will, was short lived and took it’s first casualty the following morning, the penultimate day before crossing Thorong La Pass. Jemima feeling extremely unwell and fragile had to make the painful but wise decision to turn back and head down to Manang. There is no taking risks at high altitude, you have to listen to your body and make sensible decisions to avoid putting yourself or your companions in jeopardy. As a relatively experienced mountaineer I knew it wasn’t wise to allow her to walk back to Manang in this condition and alone. Knowing my physical capabilities I offered to accompany her 7.5 kilometres back down the trail to Gunsang where she would only be a short walk back to the sanctuary of Manang before I would attempt to catch up and meet the rest of the group at High Camp, the lodge situated at 4,800 metres where we planned to spend the final night before crossing the pass. If I didn’t have the time or energy to make it to High Camp I would spend the night at one of the lower lodges in Thorong Pedi, wake before dawn and begin my ascent to catch them to ensure we would cross as a team of four. I had come this far with these guys, I felt as if I had known them for years, there was no chance that I wouldn’t be joining them.
On the way down Jemima was violently sick, it was jet black, but that was due to the charcoal tablets she had taken in an attempt to neutralise her stomach. At Gunsang we said an emotional goodbye. Jemima hoped to get a lift back to Besi Sarhar in a jeep, we didn’t know when we would be united again. I wished her well and we embraced before heading separate ways. I now had a 14 kilometre trek and just shy of 1,000 metres to ascend to meet back up with Emma, Thomas and Will. I made short work of the hike back to Churi Ledar where I annihilated an omelette, two chapati and a coffee, I needed a boost to see me through, I was determined to reach High Camp before dark. For the first time on the trek I plugged my ear phones and immersed myself into the realm of 90s and 00s punk rock. In high spirits, a spring in my step and bamboo staff in hand I strided up the trail.
I reached Thorong Pedi, 350 metres below High Camp. The trail had been cast into shadow and the temperature dropped. It was 15:30, I had 90 minutes before darkness. I looked up, the path was short but steep, a series of switch backs cutting through a steep slope of loose rock and shale. I felt good and knowing that the others were there, I commited.
The trail was deserted, I was certainly the last to set out to High Camp from Thorong Pedi, my only companions were the musk deer trotting precariously on the slopes. After 30 minutes the stone walled lodges of High Camp came into view, I had made it, I was ecstatic. But the final 300 metres proved to be the hardest. Fatigued and with the lack of oxygen at this elevation I had to stop several times to catch my breath. I felt light headed and had to focus to keep myself balanced. As I neared the only occupied lodge I saw movement through the windows as Emma and Will came out to welcome me to High Camp with big hugs. Once inside I took off my rucksack, sat down and took on-board some water. I felt faint and dizzy, it was an almost out of body experience or as if I had taken some kind of drug, my hands were shaking and as my heart rate slowed my body temperature plummeted. I was unsure whether it was the altitude, oxygen levels or fatigue. Perhaps a concoction of the three. After 30 minutes and a litre of water I came round, the colour and a smile returning to my face, appetite making itself known. My mother had sent out a present along with some treats for Christmas. I had saved most of the chocolate for the trek and as a reward I dug the bright pink bag of treats out of my rucksack and enjoyed a snowman and a few Lindt chocolate balls. Thanks mum.
At High Camp we were accompanied by the Italians from Churi Ledar and two Korean men. Desparately huddled around the log burner, we placed our orders for dinner, as usual I opted for daal bhat. “This is the best daal bhat of the trek so far!“, a phrase that I repeated almost every night with a huge grin as my sate my rapacious appetite. It occurred to me that the higher I had trekked the better the daal bhat. I debated this with Will and we came up with the following theories; A. The further and higher we trekked, the more tired you are and the more tired you are the better the food tasted. B. The altitude at which each restaurant was awarded a star rating relative to the altitude. C. The most recent memory of a daal bhat memory was the best daal bhat because the more prevalent the memory. D. Simply, every daal bhat just got better.
We retreated to our rooms and reluctantly de-clothed to climb into our sleeping bags, inarguably the worst part of the day. The lodge rooms were never very well insulated and at high altitude nights were cold, at High Camp nights were absolutely baltic. Since Manang, our electronics had to be kept under blankets or in sleeping bags to prevent the batteries draining. I never managed to get a satisfactory, fully restorative sleep at altitude, waking through the night at intervals gasping for breath and inevitably needing the toilet and having to brave a trip to the icy long drop in my sexy long johns.
We woke at 05:50 of the tenth day of our Annapurna Circuit adventure for a swift breakfast of champa porridge before layering up to take on the pre-dawn sub zero temperatures. Initially we hiked to a sunrise view point but started to freeze long before the sun would make an appearance over the mountainous skyline so we returned to High Camp.
We started our summit bid at 07:25 and quickly decided to fit crampons as the trail was packed with ice. We trekked as a four, stayed close and took short rests to catch our breath due to the low oxygen level. Between 3,658 – 5,487 metres is classified as ‘High’ on the official altitude scale. The landscape was grey, desolate and devoid of life, only the occasional prayer flags added a flash of colour to the emptiness. The sky was a rich, deep blue and the air was still, the only break in the silence was the crunch of our boots against the hard packed snow and gravel trail.
The path continued ever upwards, after a series of false summits the infamous winds picked up. The skyline gradually dropped lower and lower, we could sense that we were close until suddenly the bright mass of colourful prayer flags appeared. We had made it, Thorong La Pass, 5,416 metres, the Annapurna Circuit zenith, we were elated and overcome with joy, nothing could wipe the grin from my face. We congratulated each other with a big group embrace. I was so happy to have made it with such a great team, it was just a shame that Jemima couldn’t have joined our moment of glory. We sheltered from the brutal winds for a quick rest to take in the moment.
I hadn’t showered for four days, my legs were weary, my sunglasses were broken, I had a headache and a sunburnt nose but I was on top of the world. Life wasn’t good, it was absolutely fantastic and to top it off, against all odds I had miraculously managed to save an entire Terry’s Chocolate Orange of my Christmas stash and shared half of it with the others. What a summit snack. I find it fascinating, the bond and friendships that are formed between individuals who endure an arduous and perhaps dangerous undertaking, whether successful or not. Initially I was prepared to trek the Annapurna Circuit solo but I was now extremely grateful to have been aquainted with such a good-hearted, genuine group of individuals.