Annapurna Adventure - Part 2

After four days of glorious sunny weather, it unseasonally began to rain. And rain. And rain. For seven days. This meant that we completely missed out on the glorious views that we had been enjoying and that were supposed to be getting better as we climbed higher. Sigh.

Our daily walking soon turned into trudging along in the constant wetness. We quickly found out that our supplied raincoats did not provide much protection and these were soaked through after an hour or two.

The first night after walking in the rain we stopped at a guest house which had an indoor wood fire. Trekkers used the opportunity to string up lines and dry everything near the fire, to the point where the dining room looked more like a laundry!

As we would be climbing to a height of 5,416 metres, where potentially fatal altitude sickness (AMS) is a real concern, we had always planned on spending a day in Manang (at 3,500 metres) to allow our bodies to get used to the high altitudes. On the day we arrived, it snowed for many hours. Even the locals were surprised at this, since this area is supposed to be shielded from the rains by the huge Annapurnas and snow was unheard of at this time of year here.

After seeing the snow, there was much talk of calling off the attempt at crossing the high pass. We met a trekker who had turned around and told us rumours of snow that was a metre and a half high at the top of the trail. We decided to wait it out as we were not keen on turning around and walking back the way we came for six days.

The next day the snow turned back to rain and we climbed up a hill to see a glacier that flows into a pretty blue lake. We also spent much time indoors, playing cards with fellow trekkers. As we usually found ourselves sharing a guest house with the same group of trekkers each night, we became a little bit like a family.

On the day we were scheduled to leave Manang the rain became lighter, and we even had some small patches of sunshine, so we headed forward and up. Breathing became more difficult in the very thin air, even after only a little exertion. Plant life faded away into rockiness and animals became few and far between.

After Manang, each day's trek was only 3-5 hours but we were ascending 500 metres each day. To climb higher would be dangerous due to the possibility of altitude sickness. This gave us more time at the guest houses to drink thermoses of tea and philosophise on the possible differences between lemon tea and hot lemon.

The solar hot water offered by the guest houses became useless in the very overcast weather (we saw solar panels completely covered by snow in Manang!), and the freezing rain made the idea of stripping down for a cold shower highly unappealing. After too many days of not showering and being unable to wash clothes properly, we splashed out and bought a small bucket of hot water, which was eagerly used.

The most anticipated and feared day of trekking the Annapurna Circuit is definitely the day from Thorung Pedi to Muktinath. This involves a grueling ascent of 1000 vertical metres to the high pass, followed by a knee-crunching descent of 1600 metres. Because the area is so remote, there are no guesthouses and the walk must be done in one day. This day became the topic of much discussion as we got closer to the top and the weather refused to improve.

On the day we reached Thorung Pedi, we walked through snow for the first time. This was in fact the first time Marty had ever seen snow up close. We quickly discovered that the ice is very slippery and dangerous, especially when walking through a landslide area on the side of a mountain in the rain. The guest house at Thorung Pedi was the highest place we slept on the trek, at 4500 metres. Sleeping at this altitude is a little difficult because of breathing problems, and is conducive to strange dreams!

That afternoon we made a brief excursion to climb up a hundred metres or so to help battle altitude sickness (it can help to climb above the altitude at which you are going to sleep that night). We were surprised to find ourselves being followed by a big black labrador, which was the healthiest dog we had seen in Nepal. It followed us up the snowy mountain side and then back down again. Little did we know that this wasn't the last time we would see it.

The day of the pass at Thorong La

At 4am the next morning we began the ascent to Thorong La just as it started snowing. The path was lit by the full moon, which was fortunate as the globe in our torch broke after 5 minutes! It was very eerie seeing the line of softly glowing trekkers' headlights snaking their way along the path below us. The path was completely covered by fresh snow and the trail was being stamped in by the porter in sneakers at the front.

After an hour or so of steep climbing (400 metres) through the increasingly deep snow, we reached Thorong La High Camp, the last guest house before the pass. It is possible to sleep here to make the day of the pass a bit easier, but sleeping at 4,900 metres is not comfortable. We had a quick cuppa before heading back outside, where sunlight was beginning to light up the thick cover of cloud and snow. Unfortunately there was nothing to see except for intense whiteness. Snow covered the ground in all directions and we couldn't tell where the snow turned to cloud. The trail at this point was nothing more than a series of footprints a foot or more deep. Sometimes when we stepped into a footprint it would collapse and we would sink deeper into the snow. This, combined with the altitude, made every step really tough work. We had to be careful to stick to the footsteps of the people ahead of us since we couldn't see where the ground might be sharply falling away.

Amazingly, in such hostile surroundings, we were able to stop at a lone tea house about two hours after the High Camp. Marty took the opportunity of fulfilling his dream of signing his name in the snow! We again returned to the trail, battling the last hour towards the top. I began to feel a little sick from the altitude but at last the incline flattened and we could sense that we were near the top as the wind started to howl very painfully.

Suddenly, to our great surprise, we were passed by the dog we met the day before! We couldn't believe that it had followed us the entire way up the mountain. Who it belonged to or what it was doing crossing the pass remained a puzzling mystery.

After 5 long hours and a thousand vertical metres we reached the top of the pass, which sits at 5,416 metres above sea level. Of course there was a small shack set up to serve tea and many people were crammed in to escape the howling wind and snow. Near the shack was the famous sign stating that we had reached Thorong La, one of the highest passes in the world. We were keen to get a photo of ourselves in front of the sign but with the hip-deep snow to wade through, it wasn't an easy process. The wind was so icy that we only stayed outside for the amount of time required to take two hurried photos, our only ones of the entire day.

It is not healthy to stay long at this extreme altitude so we soon began the descent. The first few hundred metres after the top of the pass was extremely exposed to the chilling wind and the snowflakes felt like they could pierce skin. After only a minute Georgia felt her fingers starting to get frost-bitten. When she heard that the trail leaders had begun the descent in the wrong direction, she started to panic and hyperventilated in the thin air. Our guide grabbed her and rushed her down the mountain at almost a running pace. The slope was very steep and her feet slid forwards on every step. Luckily Ganesh had a tight hold of her and held her up as we slid down the mountain.

Going down the mountain side was very difficult and Marty fell waist deep into the snow whilst helping our porter who had just done the same thing! It was impresive how the porters descended at great speed carrying heavy weights. The snow gradually became less deep and then the trail turned to a thin sheet of slippery ice on rocky ground. This made the walk quite perilous as there was often a nasty drop-off to the side of the trail. Eventually we walked out of the snow but the winding path still continued downwards as far as the eye could see.

After what felt like an enternity but was in fact nine hours, we reached the glorious sight of a village, Muktinath. We trudged through the long main street with heavy water-laden feet (the rain had not stopped during the whole day), thinking only of getting warm and dry. We finally reached our guest house but discovered to our great disappointment that the showers were cold. So, we just got out of our wet clothes, dried ourselves, and jumped immediately into our sleeping bags, where we napped for a few hours of glorious warm sleep.

The next day the weather turned and suddenly we could see the beautiful mountain tops that had remained hidden for the previous week. Who should we see moving on towards the next village but the Superdog who crossed the pass with us the day before!

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