Nepal avalanche

Chennai – Good bye

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This was our only photo in Chennai (CHUH – NYE) – our last dinner on the roof our hotel.

We only had two days in the city. The last two days of our 10 month long trip, and we chose to spend it at a buffet table and a shopping mall. We were tired, and wanted a couple of days to gather our stuff and relax before our next leg of travel back to our home and native land.

Suffice it to say, we didn’t have any grand tales to share from our time in Chennai.

Instead maybe some advice:

1. Go to more breakfast buffets.

2. Take your time there: don’t blow your appetite on an overfilled, first plate of waffles and pancakes.

3. Aim for four plates. For example, start slow with salad. Move over to the omelette station next, and pay service to some sausage and bacon. Then for your third plate, you could bring in some insulation like pancakes, waffles, or french toast. This means you can finish on a light note. As your reliever, go with some fruit.

4. Get the fresh stuff: is there one piece of french toast left in the container? do another couple of laps, or distract yourself with the colours at the salad bar then double back to get the new batch.

5. Treat it as your own food museum: people spend hours touring museums, taking history in slowly, one piece at a time. There’s no reason you can’t do the same. Consider a buffet, your own edible museum or art gallery that you can enjoy, bit by bit, digesting it all slowly.

Enjoy.

We’ve now been back in Canada for a couple of months, and I can confidently say that the first impression of life here is cold. Not groundbreaking news for winter in Canada – but we’d been living under sun for the past 10 months, and hadn’t been below zero in a long time. Our East Coast is having it rough, getting hammered with one snow storm after the next, which I think, is well summed up in this ditty:

Toronto is just cold. I know, in comparison to other parts of Canada like Saskatchewan, Alberta, Northern B.C, and Quebec we’re living in a paradise. My eyelids aren’t freezing shut, my nose hairs aren’t growing icicles, and it doesn’t hurt to breathe outside. And yet, I still feel cold. Maybe the sun has made me soft.

There’s a lot of good things to being back:
– fast WiFi
– good coffee
– personal laundry
– maple syrup

And some bad:
– The Toronto Maple Leafs

It was an amazing trip overall – with a ton of different experiences along the way, which I’m sure we’ll return to again and again as our memories are randomly triggered.

” Do you remember that drunk guy singing in a microphone on that Indonesian ferry?”

” Remember those mountain goats we saw off the trail in Nepal”.

” Remember that Chinese trekker who had a teddy bear on his bag to remember his wife”.

Blah, blah, blah. We can go on forever – and think it enormously interesting, while boring the shit out of everyone around us. However, in place of our subjective impressions, here’s something we can include people on: our trip by the numbers.

Months spent travelling: 10

Countries visited: 10

Planes taken: 32

Longest single flight: 14 hrs 35 mins. (Vancouver to Auckland)

Trains taken: 5 (overnight) + 2 (day)

Longest single train ride: 14 hrs (Delhi to Varanasi)

Buses taken: 2 (overnight) + 19 (day)

Longest single bus ride: 13 hrs (Mumbai to Goa)

Tuk-tuk/rickshaws taken: 100+ (at least)

Cars/Taxis taken: 40-ish

Cars we rented and drove ourselves: 2

Mopeds we rented and drove ourselves: 5

Boats/Ferries: 7

Longest continuous day of travel: 26 hrs (Phuket to Sukothai)

Guesthouses stayed: 84

Nights sleeping in airports: 2

Bouts of food poisoning: 2 – Marc 0 – Rose

Countries where one or more nationals mistook Rose as a fellow citizen : 8

Scuba dives: 12

Highest altitude climbed: 5416 metres (16, 878 feet)

Lowest depth swum below sea level: 30 metres (98 feet)

Trail hikes: 4

Longest hike: 20 days (Annapurna Circuit)

Major news stories of our disappearance: 5 (Google search: Marc + Rose + Nepal)

Strangers who asked me to pose in a photo with them: 4

Temples visited: beaucoup

How many times we changed time zones: 10

Most times zone crossed in a single day: 10

Total distance travelled: 98, 885.4 kms (two times around the earth + 18k leftover)

I may fill in a few spots here and there, add some more travel books and odds and ends. But otherwise, that was our trip.

Merci bien. Thanks for reading.

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The day before last: Annapurna Day 19

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This had been completely invisible. Hidden behind a wall of rain and cloud the day before.

It was as if a window blind had been lifted. The extra heat was also welcome, not least to warm up from the last 26hrs of cold, but to dry the path, much of which had turned to mud.

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On this morning we first heard rumours about an avalanche. Thakur had been in touch with his sister in another part of Nepal who had explained there were hundreds of people missing at the top of the Circuit. Rose and I were both shocked: we’d been there five days earlier, and the conditions were amazing. Now we worried someone we knew might be among the missing. (Little did we know.)

It hung over our walk for the day, and many of the trekkers we passed or ran into would ask:

“Did you hear about the avalanche”,  followed by questions about whether we knew any more details.

Hearing of the avalanche higher up, I began to worry about landslides for us. It was known to happen from time to time in this area: two days before, Thakur had pointed out a scar on a big hill where a massive chunk of land had separated from a mountain and slid down hill.

We soon walked past evidence of the storm with branches broken all over the path plus mudslides, of which this was probably the biggest:

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The walk was also difficult for its own reasons: namely, heading 700meters higher in altitude to a village, Ghorepani, that was at 2860metres. After a day’s rest of dancing, popcorn and what felt like bottomless bowls of dhal bhat, we expected to be primed for a climb.

In reality, we had more in common with this dog:

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As before on past climbs, we entered into a shuffle step approach where we rested 2 minutes for every 20 steps we took. Unfortunately, as the day endured the sun didn’t – making it an overcast slog that alternated between humid and cold.

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Regardless, it was a pretty walk, strolling through forests before eventually making it up the last climb that took us into Ghorepani, where, incredibly we seemed to be some of the first trekkers who’d arrived.

It was really not that amazing, since we had left from a village that was only four hours away, but it felt like an enormous victory, given that we were walking uphill as gingerly as if we’d had hip replacements.

Having first dibs on accomodation, Rose and I hustled around the various guesthouses until landing on one that was hard to believe: en suite bathroom (which – though that’s what it was – seems weird to refer a place where plywood acts as both wall and insulation and a thin, dank mattress rests on top of a two-by four bedframe as a suite) but it did the trick, because all was forgiven for the big benefit: ladies and gentlemen, please welcome hot, scalding mother’fukin water!

Yes, I know I previously said the best shower of my life was after the Pass. And that’s true. I won’t go back on that. But this thing lost by a blackhead on a nose tip.

For the next seven minutes, 2 minutes longer than is normally recommended for conservation, I tossed my head around in the water with the rapture of a long haired woman in a shampoo commercial.

Dear the Environment,

I’m very sorry for those extra two minutes – despite going overtime, I feel like I used them as wisely as I could, restoring myself back to a positive mindset that was able to refrain from repeatedly asking the question: What the fuck am I doing here?    

Sincerely,

Marc

PS.  I’ve since cut a shower short in Canada by two minutes to make up for it. I hope you understand.

After we dipped back into sanity, Rose and I went to the restaurant where we chatted with other trekkers who soon began to look at us with wide eyes, after we explained how long we’d been going. Most were just starting a trek, one or two days in of maybe a 6 day total trek, so inadvertently, Rose and I held court as wizened veterans: speaking with people who from our standpoint, still had energy.

Knowing the end was nigh, I went to bed that night feeling a bit wistful, reviewing how far we’d come, and all the difficulties we’d faced.

I drifted off to sleep, feeling pretty proud of ourselves – temporarily forgetting about the next day.

A day that would start early, and feel like it would never end.

Next: the finale.

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.