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