Before I wrote this chapter I read the accounts two other people I walked the pass with. For
some reason our expedition over that pass effected us far more than other people of arguably less physical fitness. There are many things that could have attributed to this; our pace, my previous illness, susceptibility of AMS (acute mountain sickness). In my opinion it
was the weather that really made our accent challenging.
We awoke at 4am, stumbling around in the dark trying to rouse our freezing extremities into action. The dense mist was the first thing I noticed, telling myself that the sun would burn through the precipitation I prepared my gear and walked to the seemingly closed dining hall. The important adjective there is ‘seemingly’, as when I entered, I entered into bread being baked, coffee brewed and cups of tea hurriedly sloshing to their owners. It was a full scale operation to get trekkers fed and watered before the pass. Our team consisted of Sammy and Holly (young Aryan farmers from Wales), the swedes Joel and Annie, Alex the Italian stallion and his (I think girlfriend) the pint-size Colombian beauty Paula.
Breakfast helped to elevate the ever dampening moral as the thick clouds didn’t seem to be lifting. The newly granted light illuminated not a vast expanse of majestic mountains, but dense white fog. The day that it felt like the whole trek had been leading up to was, ironically, the only day with poor visibility. And to call it ‘poor’ would really be an understatement. It was terrible. When we started the first grueling 50 minute assent from Thorong Phedi to High Camp, the low clouds twinned and the lack of oxygen combined to give a truly suffocating effect. I couldn’t see over 10 meters ahead of me and my shortness of breath was making climbing the small rocky paths feel like an impossible task. Telling myself that I was being over dramatic and my physical fitness was good enough, I continued to put one foot in front of the other. ‘That’s all it is’, I told myself. Putting one foot in front of the other… ‘at a steep incline, with 50% oxygen and a crumbling path’ answered another less optimistic voice in my head.
Our group made it to High Camp in good time, but the clouds were still hanging heavy in our eye line, blocking the mountains of Tibet, India and Nepal from sight. We decided to stop for a cup of sweet, hot, black tea to try and wait out the clouds. Alas, the mountains seemed to be playing a cruel trick on us and the veil of white remained. During our pit stop in High Camp we ventured up to a view point leaving our bags in the safe hands of Paula. It was here the first real repercussions of the altitude started to show. Sammy in order to warm up ran up the slope but after only 30 seconds of excursion squatted down with his head in his hands. Running to catch him up he mumbled breathlessly that his vision had gone blurry and he couldn’t catch his breath. I cant say that when I saw him running I thought it was a particularly sensible idea but I had no clue it would end up with the ‘Aryan sherpa’ doubled over gasping for air.
Once Sammy had recovered and we had saddled up, we started up what we thought would be the last hurdle. It felt like everyday had been leading up to this point. Every blister, every bead of sweat, every uphill climb; but the mountains where hiding from us. The clouds lay low blocking the panoramic views we had spent the past two weeks walking towards. It felt like nature was laughing at us foolish humans attempting to climb the great Himalayas.
Trudging along the winding bare path I noticed that I could hear nothing but the sound of my own breath and the foot steps of my peers. No running water, no birds, no wind swaying the branches of a leafy tree, no plants peering through the cracked earth. Nothing. No life. Nothing can survive up here. This realisation and the persistence of the clouds proved too much for my oxygen starved mind. After four hours of walking with over half of the 500m climb under our belts I broke down. I had no idea what I was doing, tears were streaming down my face and sobs retched through my ragged breathing. I felt like I had no control over my body, burying my head into my partners chest I tried to reason with myself. ‘What is wrong with you?’ I told myself, ‘You aren’t even that tired why are you crying?’ ‘This shouldn’t be this hard for you.’ Yusef immediately stripped my pack of my back and took some of the weight out moving it into his own, adding to my feelings of helplessness. The disappointment was over whelming. I tried to tell myself I was being stupid, that I didn’t need to see blue skies and the great mountains of Tibet, India and Nepal in the same expanse. Without them it felt as though we had just subjected ourselves to 8 hours of clomping through desolate landscape to reach a peak which could well have been sea level for all we knew.
Once I had soothed my brain which didn’t seem to belong to me, I plugged in my Ipod for much needed motivation and forced my body to move. But the tears wouldn’t stop, I was silently weeping attempting to hide it from the others by wrapping my scarf tight around my face. I was ashamed and scolded myself for acting like a spoilt brat. I had spent days and days surrounded by views that are so incredible taking pictures of them is an offence. It was so unlike me to be so superficial, in the time we had spent walking the trails of the Annapurna I had seen natural beauty that had quite literally taken my breath away. What did it matter that I couldn’t see it from the highest point? ‘Fuck these clouds and fuck this mountain I am going to get to the top whatever the bloody weather, I have come too god damn far!’ Was the profanity laden conclusion I reached and as it turned out snow was the weather the mountain decided upon.
Delicate crystals started to appear on my flushed skin, melting into the salty tear tracks on my cheeks. Their cooling touch felt as though the mountains were apologising for their absence. The perfect white sky which before felt claustrophobic, was falling on us in exquisite sheets of minute diamonds. The silent beauty was short lived however, when a voice from behind me shouted to quicken the pace. I then remembered the events of the 2014 Annapurna disaster when 40 Trekkers lost their lives on Thorong La Pass in a freak snow storm. It was as if everyone recalled this at the same time as our group moved from a trudge into as brisker walk as the altitude would allow.
I can't accurately describe the feeling when I saw the first of the iconic prayer flags marking our arrival at the highest point of our trek, because honestly I can't really remember. By this point my brain had become a pile of oxygen starved mush and all I could do was throw my arms in the air to signal to the others behind me that we had made it! I can just remember that the relief was overwhelming as was my need for the toilet.
The snow was still falling so after a quick celebration and pictures to preserve the memories we started on what is known as ‘the knee breaker’. 3 hours of unrelenting down hill struggle, where a foot wrong could leave you careering down the mountain at break neck speed. While attempting to get down the mountain alive I started to feel that our summit was for lack of a better term, anticlimactic. When we reached the top there was no fireworks or enlightenment suddenly realised. It was then I was aware how foolish I had been. This trek was never about getting to the top, if all I wanted was to summit a phallic shaped object I would've climbed a tree. It was about the journey. The trails and tribulations of the weeks before and the experiences shared which turned this ‘long walk’ into a truly life changing 14 days.
When we finally dragged our battered bodies and bruised egos into the town Muktinath the world had never looked so vibrant, so green and so alive! It felt as though I had been on a different planet where the birds were forbidden to sing and all colour had been cruelly wiped off the earth. I heard the joyful abandonment in the birds and insects song and thanked God, Shiva, Allah and Mother Earth for the beautiful trees! We may have had frankly awful weather conditions for our summit day, but the world works in mysterious ways, and the joy that I felt when I saw the first signs of life appearing before my eyes was something I will be eternally grateful for.