Around Annapurna Part 2
Sacred Peaks of the Annapurna
Some of the peaks on the Annapurna range are considered so sacred they have never been summited. Other peaks have claimed many lives in man’s pursuit to put himself further and higher in his constant quest to test himself in one of this planets most spectacular and unforgiving domains.
The massif contains 13 peaks over 7000m and Annapurna I at 8091m has claimed more lives per attempts than any other mountain. This is mainly due to the unpredictable weather in this part of the Himalayas that can never be underestimated.
Although we weren’t attempting to scale one of the worlds highest mountains, the hazards associated with trekking in this region were forefront in our minds after hearing the harrowing stories of bravery and loss that had occurred here in just the last two weeks.
On top of the risks of snowstorms you could also be struck by lightning or a rock slide where steep walls are preceded by ‘Beware of Falling Rock’ signs.
These risks are only really evident as you approach the sparsely populated upper reaches of the trek beyond the village of Menang (3540m).
In Menang itself there is a medical clinic run by volunteers who can assess your blood oxygen saturation after a fascinating lecture on AMS, HAPE and HACE, the three different levels of Altitude Sickness. You are told that rapid ascent into areas of low oxygen can be fatal if not addressed quickly. It’s advised to hike up to high altitudes and then come back down to acclimatize. Do not ascend more than 500m in a day when above 3000m and to descend as soon as possible if serious symptoms begin to emerge.
Fitness is not a factor in determining whether you are susceptible to AMS or not as even the esteemed Sir Edmund Hillary was hit with it.
I was confident I had taken the best precautions because we had taken so long to get to Menang with plenty of rest days in between.
To aid with acclimatization we did a short hike up to Gangapurna Glacier with its spectacular views back through the valley and otherworldly aquamarine lake.
The sheer walls that cradle the village of Menang conceal a trail that climbs steeply, turning back on itself frequently before emerging at Praken Gompa (3945m) a tiny Buddhist temple that reportedly houses an enlightened monk. I had stopped often on the way up to rest my rapid heart rate and there was no one home to bless me, but it appeared as though the Mountain gods we’re going to be kind enough to bestow us with good weather over the coming days so it was time to tackle the most arduous section of the trail.
Menang (3540m) to Ledar (4200m) is a fairly steady 10 kilometres with a stop in the village of Gunsang . Its above the tree line and the vegetation is sparse and stunted. Still you will find industrious locals carrying piles of sticks for kindling in big baskets upon their backs with a smile imprinted upon their dark brown faces.
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Thorung High Camp – 4850m is the last place you can sleep before attempting to cross the worlds highest pass. Most people choose to stay 400m lower at Thorong Phedi / Base Camp (4450m) but by pushing ourselves an extra hour late on the previous day we saved ourselves an extra hour of punishment in the morning.
The fast flowing Marshayndi river that we had loosely followed for most of the trek was now just a trickle fed by melting snow and the temperatures this deep into the mountains are very cold.
Last night at high camp
Chatting to a spritely 43 year old Nepalese guide who runs his own porter business, he gleefully informs me that in this glorious weather its possible to reach the pass by 9:00am if you leave by 5:30am. It’s advisable as well because by lunchtime bitterly cold winds can whip across the exposed hilltop.
From the pinacle it’s more than 10kms and over 1600m in descent to the village of Muktinath with the incentive of a heated room, hot showers and all the other luxurious amenities that I can’t remember the last time that I had. My new friends words inspired me with confidence.
During dinner at high camp a couple of boys walked up from basecamp and there was a bit of commotion outside. Guides gathered the yaks together and began to saddle them up and I was informed they were taking the beasts down to basecamp to pick up four French tourists. They would feed them well and in the morning ,bring the party up to here and eventually up to the pass.
At about 9:30 I went to bed in my sparse and unheated room at the highest altitude I’d ever slept at. Not accustomed to the air at almost 5000m it was a monumental effort just to get into my sleeping bag. I lay there very cold with my heart racing, continuously trying to take a deeper breath than the one before to fill up my lungs that felt like they just couldn’t quite take in enough air.
At about 4:30am the guides returned from base camp with the yaks, bells clanging in the pre-dawn darkness, carrying their cargo of middle aged tourists. Headlamps buzzed around like fireflies as preparations were made. I had a quick breakfast of rice and vegetables and by the time we joined the parade of pilgrims the sun had began to tint the sky a brilliant pink and orange.
Headed for the pass
Almost immediately after starting out though I felt as if something wasn’t right. During the previous days I had felt the lack of oxygen but after a short rest I was ready to go again. But now I was stopping every 20 metres to try and regain my breath and it just wasn’t happening.
The single file of people in front of me eventually disappeared over the horizon and all I could think was to keep my feet warm by trying to put one in front of the other.
I stopped at a tea house for a snickers and hot lemon tea that did little to revive me. Everything seemed surreal but so clear at the same time. Nobody in the teahouse offered words of encouragement or even looked one another in the eye. We all sat warming our hands on our hot tin mugs, everyone contemplating in their own quiet way what I was beginning to feel would be an insurmountable task.
After another couple of hours of painstakingly slow progress I encountered the yaks and their Sherpas coming back down the mountain. They had safely delivered their haul and I had been overtaken by numerous other trekkers who had started after me.
Rest stops did not return my breathing to normal and although I could see perfectly well I felt as though I was drunk. My body just would not respond to the commands I was giving it. Still I pressed on. I knew that the top had to be close.
To Ascend or Descend?
By now it was clear that I had symptoms of AMS. Descent would bring relief and that would either be back down to base camp or over the pass and down the other side.
Three hours from the first teahouse and five hours after starting out I took another rest. This time involuntarily. I inexplicably found myself on my knees in the snow still holding tightly onto my walking stick, but wondering how I’d got here. I was beginning to wish I’d hitched a ride back down the hill with my furry bell clanging friends.
The thought of trying to do this again tomorrow deterred me from turning back. One more final push and rounding a small hill we see a multitude of prayer flags draped over a rock formation outside a small stone hut.
The sign read Thorung La Pass – 5450 metres.
Not only is there a teahouse at the top but the one young and one older man who run it also sleep here for the duration of the season. As the younger shopkeeper carries in a big bucket of fresh water the older man cheerily puts on the gas burner to heat the pot for us.
It feels like it takes an eternity to boil but in reality I think I had broken the physical and psychological barrier of reaching the pass and now I just wanted to get down.
I went and stood outside not feeling any sense of achievement but rather just a vague sense of relief.
As I looked up at the smudges of white cloud gliding across the sky, an eagle dipped his wing towards me and flew serenely in a wide arc through my vision.
And I felt honoured to be sharing this space with him in this most auspicious place and time.
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