Month: January 2015

Up and Over: Annapurna Day 12

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This was the moment. Thorung La pass, the highest point of the Annapurna Circuit at 5416 metres. Everything before this was essentially a dress rehearsal for la grande spectacle: a 10 hr day of trekking that would take us to the very height of where humans can survive without oxygen.

We had done everything we could to prepare. Eaten bowls and bowls of garlic soup, disregarding they all looked like the entire kitchen staff had cleared their nose into them (garlic was meant to help with altitude acclimatization. At least that’s what we were told. It could have been a practical joke Nepalese played on tourists: “Guys. Look. He’s eating the soup!), Avoided alcohol (dehydrating), Avoided meat (didn’t want the chance of escorting raw chicken uphill), Went to bed early (not that we had much choice, after 6hrs of walking, it happens pretty naturally), And weren’t racing (we know, because when we asked Thakur he said: “Yes. You are the slowest people I’ve ever had” An honour?).

Yet for all this preparation, the night before our trek I was laying awake with a headache. This led to the thought I usually have when faced with a problem: Well, I’m FUCKED.

My positive approach to problem solving takes me to all kinds of places in my mind, which in descending order in this instance were: 1. Death – surely this pounding were the stirrings of an aneurysm. 2. Severe injury – if I don’t go down in altitude right now, I’m going to have a stroke. 3. Turning back – I’ve got to go down now to a lower altitude and hope I acclimatize then come back up. Ugh that’ll be horrible. What if I get a headache again? Then I’ll have to pull out. And we’ve come all this way – and I’ll be letting everyone down.

On and on I lay in bed, lengthening the string of calamities in my mind, as Rose, wonderfully oblivious for the time being, provided a beat to each thought with a well placed snore.

Unfortunately, I also tend to pair my anxious mental whirrings with physical movements that I  often don’t notice. These include: hand wringing, deep exhalations, sleeping on my left side then right, then back, then front. If I were a personal trainer, I would market this as PANIC GYMNASTICS, and convince people it’s the wave of the future.

Rose, however, seemed pretty shortsighted on its prospects. She woke up as I was midway through an arm flop, which signified my resignation to my firm belief that I wasn’t going to live through the night, something I found all the more depressing, because it meant I would never get the chance to watch kids throw snowballs at delivery drones or see how two driverless cars parked directly across from each other, back-to-back in a parking lot, figure out who goes first when they want to leave at the same time.

“What’s the matter?”, she said, with an unsubtle tone of frustration.

“I’ve got a headache.”, I said in as earnest and sombre a voice as I could, with enough appropriate gravitas to imply I was about to die, and this was, in effect, my goodbye.

“Just take a pill”, she replied tired, and flipped over.

Before climbing up this far, we’d been advised, like all trekkers, to take emergency medication with us in the event we got a headache that wouldn’t go away.

If there ever was a time to pop one, now was it – yet I still hesitated, because the side effects included having to pee a lot, and constantly going outside, again and again in the freezing cold, wasn’t really something I wanted to do.

Oddly, however, the urge of not wanting to die was stronger – so I took the pill, and then sat awake for the majority of the night sizing up its progress: 12am – “yep. still a headache”, 1am “dammit, still there, it’s not going away”. 2am: ……..zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

I woke up and was amazed I did. I was sure I was done for, which gave me the unanticipated benefit of reducing my concern for the day’s trek, because I felt I’d already averted the worst of the day (as it turned out, I think death would have been a lot easier).

We got up for breakfast about 430, and set out in the right direction at about 5am in the pitch black with headlamps our only light. Of course, we weren’t alone. As we climbed a little higher I looked back and saw a trail of lights following us up from below, looking like a pack of very orderly fireflies, one after the next, in a line.

One of our lights didn’t work, which made it tricky to navigate, forcing me to focus on the movements of the person ahead of me, hoping that they were awake enough not to walk over the side of the trail and slide down into a crater.

Immediately, as we set out, we all noticed how much harder it was to capture our breath. Even after a minor exertion of a few steps, it felt like I was sucking in air from the opening of a balloon, and took twice as long to recover.

It became clear right away, from the reduced oxygen and our sore muscles from the previous day’s big push that we were going to take a long time. What also became clear was that we were following a long line of slowpokes, since this guy showed up:

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Ready and waiting, the guy above and a few other horsemen sat waiting at different points along the way, inviting trekkers who were gasping for breath to pay for a horse ride to the top. We’d come this far, and thankfully weren’t entirely incapacitated, so decided to carry on, on foot.

But, if our last day was a crawl, this was a shuffle.

Trekker after trekker passed us, including a 60 year old Lama, who was on a pilgrimage from Kathmandu (gaining on us there in the bottom right foreground):

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The landscape rolled up and down as we passed between two mountains, and Rose and I kept asking Thakur and other guides (who were busy walking by us) how close we were to the top. Everyone had the same answer: “Oh. It’s just over the next ridge”.

A clever answer, because while wholly untrue, it gave us hope that we were close and summoned enough strength to keep shuffling, longer, just a little bit longer.

Unfortunately the ruse finally ran its course after three times asking and getting the same answer, I snarled: “No. How long is it? Tell us!”, and at that moment Rose, exhausted, frustrated, and empty of energy and will: expressed her anger in tears.

As she was regaining her will to carry on, and I was offering whatever encouragement I could, despite feeling on the verge of my own meltdown – another trekker took a rest on a nearby stone, and turned on his MP3 player.

DA-NANA-NA. MMM-TSSS. DA-NANA-NA. MMM-TSSS.

The opening chords to Ac/Dc’sHighway to Hell rang out. I looked at Rose, and we both started laughing.

The timing couldn’t have been better. At very least it allowed us to take our minds off feeling frustrated. So, we plodded on – shuffling as if in a chain gain:

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And, after maybe another 10 minutes that felt like 60, there it was: the top, the peak, the flags we saw in all the photos that meant we were here:

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5416 metres. The very top of the Annapurna Circuit. I asked Thakur to take a photo of all four of us: Rose, me, Michaela and Shari as a souvenir:

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I’d bought chocolate bars for everyone when we reached the top – and it was the best Snickers bar, I think I’ve ever had – this includes, a deep fried Mars bar. It remains untouchable.

We’d taken five hours to get to this point – and, unfortunately, there was a lot more to go. The only difference was that it was downhill.

As much as I wanted to take a moment to hang out at the top, it was really cold, and we all agreed we wanted to breathe normal amounts of oxygen again, and have the peace of mind that our mind wasn’t about to blow up from pressure (my headache was reduced to a small throbbing at this point, huge improvement from the night before).

In five days from this photograph below, the scene would be much different. An avalanche would hem in a group of trekkers in a hut (positioned directly behind me as I took this photo), while some of those trekkers who ventured out would lose their lives. They would have, undoubtedly, passed where Rose was standing.

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Our timing was lucky.

As we headed downhill, it felt great. We could now use different muscles, and didn’t feel like we had to work as hard. Sadly, this newfound euphoria lasted only an hour. It was then the reality of what we were undertaking began to settle in: dropping from 5416 metres to 3700 metres. Specifically, it began to settle in to our knees, the main spot that was absorbing the drop in altitude.

A few times one of my legs would give out, having no more energy to support my weight downhill. But, we had no choice – and the views were again pretty amazing:

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However, the thought of what awaited us when we got onto flat ground was even greater- i.e. flat ground itself.

We did our best hustle down, stopping to rest every half hour, while passing horses along the way:

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We finally had the town in our sites: Muktinath, which I think because we wanted to get there so badly, felt like it receded the closer we got.

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We did make it. And I’ve never enjoyed a shower as much since.

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Race to get high: Annapurna Day 10 -11

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Matching outfits. It was inevitable.

At home in Toronto, we’re pretty good about checking we’re not leaving the house looking like we’re in the same theater group. To date, we’ve averted more than a few versions of our own acts of terror where, both arriving at the door to leave for a dinner party in blue, black or red, one of us grudgingly accepts it’s their turn to change, and runs upstairs to reassert his/her own identity to avoid showing up, smiling, wearing the same colours, like two lunatics: “Do you want some wine, Marc?”, our host would ask. “I’ll have whatever Rose has. We drink whatever the other one drinks.”, I reply smiling, with eyes a little too wide.

And, truth be told, we maintained pretty good standards while backpacking – even though we only had five different shirts to help differentiate ourselves. On the mountain, however, the higher we climbed the lower our standards fell. Until, after missing laundry for a day, in a bid to smell okay enough to invite someone into conversation, (which in and of itself is a delusion, since we had all reached a smell where I’m sure, at a distance, a blind person could easily confuse us as a mountain goat) I threw on this shirt in the photo, and didn’t care if people thought we were lunatics – because, really, we were unseasoned trekkers, never having walked up anything much higher than stairs to an airplane, and were convinced we could do this hike? The truth was: we kind of were crazy.

Photo on 1-21-2015 at 1.40 PM

Leaving as twins from Manang, Rose and I soon separated, because with all of the other trekkers hanging around at Manang – there was a risk that we wouldn’t be able to find a room in the next village, Yak Kharka. So, our plan was that when we reached Yak Kharka, Rose would rest with Michaela and Shari and Thakur and I would push ahead to the next village, Ledar, which was only 150 metres higher in elevation. Not only might this improve our shot at rooms, but shave off some climbing for the following day.

Off we race walked. Thakur, the seasoned veteran, marching ahead with the lightness of a crane, sweeping his feet along the ground as if in a ballet- while I pulled up the rear huffing and smacking the ground heavily like a pregnant yak. We stopped halfway through for a quick drink of water and noticed a couple of trekkers pulling ahead, on their way to the next guesthouse. Thankfully, we got it in our sights, and tied up rooms for everyone:

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We settled into a Nepalese card game called Dhumpal (DUMB-ULL) – whose rules I won’t explain, because I’ll end up sounding Dhumpal, and ate the last edible momos for a few days. After chatting a bit, Michaela said she had a bad headache – which, of course, is not a good sign. She and Shari went to bed early, hoping it would help and they wouldn’t have to turn back. Rose and I packed it in shortly after, now not matching in the slightest. Because of the cold at night, we put on all the clothes we had, including two jackets, and slept in our sleeping bags. What we did have in common was trying to will our bladders to stay in check through the night to save us from having to unwrap from our only source of heat.

I lost and was promptly molested by the cold. Rose, however, stayed snug and warm, snoring away. Whoop-dee-doo. (Yeah, I was jealous)

Day 10 – Thorung High Camp

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Morning time there was good news. Michaela felt better, and would carry on – and that led to the bad news. We would be carrying on up the steepest pitch we’d faced since well before Manang. That on its own would be difficult, but it was only half the problem. The other half was that we’d be doing it 1000+ meters higher at 4300meters where the air was a lot thinner and might take a little longer.

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We didn’t disappoint. Rose, feeling worn out and tired, had now instituted her own rigid methodology to ensure, in her head, that she was making progress. 10 steps. Stop. Wait. 10 steps. Stop. Wait.

I’m not sure what steps she’s on here (the one in the red), maybe 2, since she seems on a tear:

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I was closer to a 20 step ratio. Also exhausted. This didn’t help our situation, since we were in a scrum of trekkers who were all competing for rooms at the top of this incline. If we didn’t speed up, we’d risk having to sleep on the ground, huddled next to each other in the overpacked lodge (probably not entirely bad for the extra body heat – but would be a pain in the ass, sorting out our gear). Thakur, seeing we were minutes away from crawling, saved the day and bounded up the pitch, trying to secure us all rooms. This may have inspired us to stay on our feet, though it didn’t get us to move any faster. Time stretched. We’d been walking straight up for an hour – and were only three quarters of the way there.

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Then a beam of hope. Thakur came rushing back down the mountain to tell us he’d got us all rooms. While this could have been a motivation to spur us on – what really did it, was that Thakur insisted on taking my daypack, which probably weighed 8kilos, but at this point felt like I was carrying a car. We eventually gasped our way up to the top – stopping at various points on the walk to commiserate with other trekkers panting, communicating with them through eye contact by saying: “This is ridiculous” to which they’d reply with their eyes: “I’m going to kill someone when I have energy”.

We finally made it, the last stop before the pivotal climb the next day- Thorung High Camp:

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Inside that place behind the horses was the restaurant where I snacked on a plate of boiled potatoes while listening to Thakur suggest we walk up a ridge behind this spot that reaches 5000metres. This, he reasoned, would help us acclimatize to the even higher altitude the following day. Rose laughed. She wasn’t moving. Nor was Michaela.

I still felt like I could do it. I don’t know why – well, I do know why: anxiety. I’d listened to the doctor’s explain the symptoms of altitude sickness, and paid special attention to the moment when they talked about a swollen brain, and all kinds of horrific talk about internal bleeding. The visual was enough motivation for me.

So, I climbed with Shari. And, the view was really amazing:

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And, the other way: that little path in the distance is where the trek started the next day. But first, we’d have a largely sleepless night where I wasn’t sure if I’d be headed in that direction or the way we just came from.

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