Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Nepal, Annapurna Circuit....The Thorung La Pass

I woke up a couple of times during the night we spent at Thorung Phedi. At some point I realised that I couldn't hear the sound of the rain falling onto the roof any more. It also seemed strangely bright, as if there was a light on somewhere or - much more unlikely given the weather the day before - the moon had decided to show itself. I was too warm inside my sleeping bag and under the quilt to even consider getting out of bed to investigate. In any case, we were supposed to get up at 4 a.m. to get the early start for ascending up to the Thorung La pass. When our guide came to wake us up I discovered the real reason why the noise of the rain had died away. It was also the cause of the strange light.

I don't know how many hours it had been snowing, but there was quite a layer on the ground outside and it was clearly not about to stop. We entered the hotel restaurant for our breakfast, and it was already full of people. Some were already setting off. The reason for starting so early on the pass is because the winds at the top can get very strong as the day progresses. It must also be to get the views in the early morning, but that just seemed like a bad joke on the morning we were there. I live with a Spanish woman who doesn't do doubt, so I didn't say anything out loud but I'm sure there was a little inner voice wondering whether it wouldn't be a better idea just to leave the climb for tomorrow? Looking around I could see that nobody was about to suggest that idea. It seems this is what they call a holiday. So after breakfast I put on just about every item of warm clothing that I had with me, head torch on and off we set into the snow.

Even in darkness it wasn't very hard to follow the path, which ascends quite steeply from Thorung Phedi. Everybody followed the same tracks in the snow and the path was already quite well trodden. I adapted my slow, altitude influenced, mantra from the day before to set a walking rhythm I could maintain. Thorung Phedi...plod....Thorung La....plod. Despite the conditions the walking wasn't so difficult, the fresh snow was relatively easy to walk on not least because of those who had already helped to create the path. I became a leader of trekkers as we got higher. Not because of any special skills I'd developed, it was really just a result of people getting stuck behind me as I maintained my slow but steady pace. Occasionally someone would get fed up and go through the deeper snow to get round me, but most of my followers didn't seem to mind.

Soon after it started to get light we arrived at some buildings. This was the Thorung Phedi Base Camp, another 500 metres above where we had stayed and an alternative accommodation option for those who really want to be first over the top in the morning. I was a bit shocked to be here so soon, this was a little over half the climb we had to do and suddenly life didn't seem so hard. What I didn't realise was that the next part of the ascent is much longer, even if the climb is not so steep. Still, it felt encouraging to have got that first part of the walk out of the way.

On we went. The light of the early morning meant that everything seemed to be more or less the same colour, apart from the occasional outcrop of black rock. It was cloudy, misty and still snowing a bit so there was no visible line between land and sky. Although the light wasn't bright it had an effect on the eyes from constantly seeking the path in what seemed like never ending greyness. At times I found it a bit hard to focus on the prints left by those ahead of me. I had a sense of responsibility, my band of loyal followers was still there behind me. Thorung Phedi...plod....Thorung La....plod.

It seemed to take a long time to get to the pass, I've no idea now exactly how much time it took. But I managed to keep walking without stops as we got closer to the 5400 metre high point. Now of course this, as I have pointed out before, is a "tea house" trek so it seemed only right that high up there on the windy, freezing Thorung La Pass there should be a little hut with someone serving tea! It was already almost full when I got there, too much to be comfortable as more walkers pressed in from behind. I gave up on the idea of having tea and as there was nowhere to sit comfortably I just wanted to start the descent down the other side. The wind was already quite strong and bitterly cold, and taking my gloves off meant that I felt it on my hands in a matter of seconds. I had to take the gloves off off because I needed my commemorative photo of the sign marking the highest point of the Annapurna Circuit at 5416 metres. From here, it is (mostly) downhill.

I didn't know at the time that the descent was going to be much harder in many ways than the walk up had been. As we left the refuge at the top I soon managed to stray into some fairly deep snow and life got hard; there seemed to be significantly more snow on the other side of the pass. A couple of times I went in deep and had to pull myself out. Ahead everything still seemed to have the same colour, apart from the darker shapes of other walkers. After a while I managed to get back on the "path", which may or may not be the path that walkers normally take; it was simply the place where more people had obviously passed through the snow.

I fell over going down. Not once, or twice, probably I fell around 15-20 times on that descent; sometimes painfully. The number of times I almost fell is countless, at times every step seemed to carry the risk. I remembered the woman in the agency in Madrid where we had booked the trip. I asked her what kind of boots to take for the trek and she told us that we would not be walking on snow at any point! It's not her fault, our crossing of Thorung La coincided with the worst part of a weather front and it was just one of those things. But I had brought my lighter pair of boots that were just not good enough to get a grip on the mixture of snow and ice. They were great for the rest of the trek, and far more comfortable than my tougher winter boots, but at this moment and in this place they did me no good. The number of people that had already passed the same way meant that the path was slippery and treacherous, and there were times when I just waded through any deeper snow beside it so that I could stay on my feet for more than a minute.

The weather improved a bit as we got further down, we had to descend a total of 1700 metres from the pass down to our final destination for the night; the village of Muktinath. We even got a few faint rays of sun. Now I know that everyone with experience in higher altitude walking understands the need to use plenty of sun cream, even when the sun is not bright and especially when there is snow. It's just that at 4 o'clock in the morning in the snow I didn't think about it. Then as I skidded my way down the hillside I was hardly even aware of the sun breaking through, even though I felt warm again. Virtually all of my face peeled over the next few days as a result of that slight exposure to what seemed to be a very feeble sun.

Eventually I got down to where the snow had started to turn to slush, and my boots started to grip again and the ordeal was over. We still had quite a way to go, but at least I could walk normally again. We arrived at a point where there are a couple of restaurants, and I was grateful for the break and a drink. The hardest bit was well and truly over. We decided against having lunch here and carried on walking, the path was no longer steep and it was quite a pleasant walk now that we had left the snow behind us. The landscape even had a bit of colour again.

Down below us everything still seemed very barren as we got nearer to Muktinath, although there were a few brighter patches of green around the tiny villages.

Our first sight of Muktinath was of the temples that make this place a destination for pilgrims, both Hindus and Buddhists. The row of souvenir shops as we entered the village told us that this was not just a place for trekkers or locals. It seemed to me that round stones were one of the main offers in these shops, it shows that there is a market for almost everything. It was a relief to get to the hotel in the village after what had been a long and occasionally difficult day. Arrival was made even sweeter by the discovery that our hotel had a genuinely hot, butane gas powered, shower. Luxury.

We had another rest day programmed for Muktinath, largely I think to guard against any possible delays in crossing Thorung La. As we walked around that evening we didn't feel too enthusiastic about staying here, the village didn't seem to be as nice as Manang or other places we had passed through and the continuing presence of the clouds hanging over the mountains around us certainly didn't make the surroundings any more attractive. Anyway, we accepted the schedule as it was, had a couple of really well deserved beers and the best chicken curry we'd eaten on the whole route. Competition had not been too strong on that count. Then a very good sleep, without the sound of rain pouring onto the roof above us.

View Nepal - The Annapurna Circuit in a larger map


Pueblo girl said...

After reading this, I wondered if the British "time to apply suntam cream" gene or brain cell has atrophied from lack of use. I know it took me years of getting burnt "unexpectedly" to learn simply to put sun tan cream on in the morning, whatever I was going to be doing. I still forget to take it out with me on walks.

Graeme said...

I thought I'd activated that brain cell, having had a small, but fortunately not yet cancerous, growth removed from my forehead. Hats and sun cream have become a standard part of my mountain excursions in Spain. I've even taken to wearing one sometimes in Madrid despite my belief that the city's pollution cloud is more or less equivalent to a hat. But it was dark, very cold, and snowing after 4-5 days of bad weather. And I was hearing a hat, but I took it off on the way down because my unsteady slide down the mountainside made me feel too hot.

Graeme said...

wearing, not hearing - it's not even close on the keyboard!