24.10.2013 - 26.10.2013
And after that night, we started out again from Yak Kharka to Thorung Phedi – Phedi meaning 'foot of the mountain', and as the name implies, traditionally the last stop before the pass. (There is one other possible stop beyond, Thorung High Camp, which is actually after what the guidebooks rightly describe as the toughest part of the climb to the pass. It's too high for comfort and whilst some trekkers opt to sleep there it sounds mad to me). I began the day with a lot of scepticism and worried the same problem would happen again, but the need for closure was so great!
We reached Thorung Phedi much quicker than expected, passing the place where we'd turned back the day before and pausing just after at a tiny, solitary restaurant – a hut with a wall and some logs outside, where people huddled before the wind and chill drove them on. The path climbed gradually through a blasted landscape where the evidence of landslides was more common than vegetation. The sight provoked a kind of nervous amusement – only birds and hardy scrub survived here; this wasn't a 'human habitat', and only people are mad enough to search out such harshness.
Thorung Phedi... a unique, bizarre place: two large hostels clinging to life in the fold of a shallow valley formed by surrounding cliffs, at the foot of the scree slope the guidebooks had promised. As I looked at it, some of my fear drained away – Thorung La became more real, less mythic. The sun dipped early behind those cliffs, and during the bitter night the dark was absolute, and the silence almost. Trekkers crowded in the warm dining room of our lodge, spreading their shoes around the heater and eating elbow-to-elbow on long benches.
We met David, a German who'd relocated to Sweden to start a business, and his girlfriend Lena. Both had been WOOFing in Nepal and knew an enviable amount of the language. We also met an excitable Slovakian who talked enthusiastically about Camden Town, of all things. All smiled reassuringly at my fear. I spent a lot of the evening feeling queasy and light-headed. We also found two Americans we'd encountered before somewhere earlier in the trek, who were willing to join us to attempt the pass at 6am, rather than the ungodly and unsafe 3am that some were planning (it's apparently inadvisable to attempt the pass in groups of fewer than four). We ate our dhal bhat (and for the first time had to ask for a second helping – what is Thorung Phedi coming to?) before turning in early. I lay awake for a while, and my thoughts changed.
I thought that there was no need to apologise for knowing one's own limits, that I had the power to choose, and that to choose not to do it was no shame, simply that my own view of the universe did not require me to do it to prove anything to myself. Rich still said he didn't care, didn't want me to push myself to do something I didn't want to. This is part of my routine, I realised, remembering how I'd panicked about my degree and then done it. I'd needed others to say that they didn't care before I could overcome how much I did. These thoughts went on for a long time, and are beyond my recall.
In the morning we began the scree slope in cruel, bone-shuddering cold as the sun had not yet risen over the cliffs. We'd got only a third of the way up the slope before one of our companions felt ill, and they both descended. We looked at each other and shrugged, fine but freezing. Then, climbing slower than the sun, we zigzagged up in near silence, caught in the shadow of huge crags wrinkled by strata of snow. Every now and then a single stone would slide down that slope, and the hackles would rise: such a dangerous, precarious sound.
Toes burning, lungs heaving and bladder continually full, I made it with painful slowness, rounding the spur of rock at the crest of that awful hill to see a ram skull on a boulder and, later, a scrap of paper, moist with melting ice in my hand, that seemed to be a page from some Nepali child's English exercise book. I gasped suddenly, the air crackling in my throat, at first just out of fear, and then as we reached the icy, bitter – whatever synonyms there are for 'cold' – High Camp, the headaches and nausea struck. We will have to turn around, I thought.
With High Camp we had entered a strange world – the lodges gaped emptily, exposed at the top of that slope, and behind us the Annapurna peaks had begun to open out with an unearthly, crisp beauty. I apologised for the nth time, hugged Rich, and ate cereal bars on a low wall. We decided: we would go on as far as the box-bridge over a frozen stream that the guide had promised, and then see. As we continued upwards (and every way there was 'up'), a Nepali woman emerged from a doorway, and a blast of cheerful Hindi music erupted from behind her. Laden pack donkeys could be seen milling outside a lodge; behind, mountains soared into the brilliant sky.
The snaking path rounded a corner. Tiny icicles cupped the boulders by my feet. Every step altered the view: an endless clash - to the left, dome-like hills coated with snow showed their dark bodies in coy patches; to the right, a vast beige hillside rippled with sand, reminiscent of Frank Herbert's Dune. We found the box-bridge, and took photos of the crystalline stream below, before toiling onwards, buoyed by the theory we'd reached 5000m, to a teashop. Behind the wooden hut a horse pawed the ground restlessly. To our amazement the lodge had two rooms... I imagined the rugged madmen who would stay.
As we sat outside purifying water, we heard a rumbling sound. Two avalanches, one after another, like the foaming mouths of successive waves, crashed into the blue shade of a nearby mountain. I wondered, felt encouraged. 5000m... Maybe we could try, maybe we could do it.
We continued, huffing and puffing, into a paradoxically monotonous and fantastic nightmare. The land was desolate, except for the odd pile of stones with prayer flags tied to the top, and once, in a gully, the corpse of a horse (headless, and otherwise an oddly clinical and clean-looking mixture of bone, meat and hooves – as though the cold, dry air had alone performed a dissection). We moved through that dead place like the dying, heads pounding, out of breath at the least effort, and increasingly dehydrated as our water supplies ran low. Yet the sky was alive with panoramas of such splendour that it felt absurd, sublime to the point of comedy. Multiple peaks with cloaks of snow, their rocky sides gnarled and textured with age, their tips shining, opened more, lotus-like, whenever we looked back.
The ache in our heads grew worse, and I forgot to care about mountains – only where was the pass, where was the teashop at the pass with water, where was the pass? Around this corner, just over that summit... Never-ending, except that it ended. I had to stop, sit down feeling sick, whispering “scary” pathetically into Rich's ear, terrified we'd run out of water, that we'd have trouble even getting back. Rich put down his bag and went to look around the next bend, to see whether the line of prayer flags he could see led to anything more. He came back with a thumbs-up. Suddenly we were passing snow where people had scratched initials, slogans, messages... and there was the pass! A teashop and, beside a cairn festooned with prayer flags, a small but gleaming stupa with a 'congratulations' sign at its foot. A blast of exhilaration swept through me, and all I could say was, “we made it!”
“Hey,” one of the figures at the teashop called, and it turned out to be the German couple we'd met at Phedi, David and Lena, who had set off half an hour before us. They were in the process of organising a porter to carry their stuff down. The pass froze us, buffeted us with wind. We took photos, bought boiled water from the teashop and then immediately started the long, wearisome way down. The experience of reaching the pass felt untouchable – through the headache and thirst it appeared more like a vision, or a film of someone else's achievement. But as we began down, my thoughts tapped it and leapt, as though I had won some strength by doing something I'd been scared of, that I'd chosen to do it, that if I wanted the experience to be transformative, it could be.
What a long journey down... a long, strange afternoon spent down an endless zigzagging path, in a brown dry land, windswept, and presenting us with yet another dead horse – more recently deceased, its eyes pecked out and its legs and neck folded in unnatural positions under the cloudless sky and yet more spectacular mountains. Whereas the approach to the pass had become barren in only the last few short days, and even then unforgiving rock would be enlivened by a splash of vibrant plants, here everything below us spoke of lifelessness – a palette of greys and browns, unrelieved except for the blue provided by distance. A harsh, dream-like beauty that now makes me remember Stephen King's The Dark Tower... travelling through such a landscape can't be physical alone.
To add to this impression, as the hills turned slowly around us in the descent, we saw the path ahead, the flattened top of a forked ridge – and at the fork, a figure sat, cross-legged, meditating on the bleakness around him. Or so I thought, until he stood up and put a mobile to his ear.
It was the porter the Germans had hired! We eventually caught up with them, and they seemed impressed we'd continued carrying our own packs on the way down. So was I. My toes burned anew from hitting the front of my boots, and my leg muscles whimpered at every pace. Too late to reach the fabled 'over the pass' town of Muktinath, we stopped in the temporary settlement before , exhausted. In the rudimentary electricity-free lodge the four of us sat and drank fiery 'Mustang Coffee', coffee laced with the local rice brandy, rakshi, and got quite drunk, and ate dhal bhat in candlelight, futilely trying to warm ourselves around a fire-bucket until the copious amount of smoke made us plead to have it outside. It seems increasingly strange!
After a freezing night we went down to Ranipauwa, the living, profane town beside the Muktinath temple complex. At The Path of Dreams hotel we luxuriated in everything we'd lacked for days... hot showers, WiFi, tasty if surprising international food (the 'burrito' was great, but not what I'd call a burrito), large rooms... including a warm dining room filled with at first classic English rock (Led Zepp, Deep Purple) and then psytrance (Infected Mushroom), and decorated with stoner-esque paintings of shamans.
Rich and I wandered around the temple complex in the afternoon... A quiet, lovely, mysterious garden of orange and yellow trees, railings hung with bells to alert the gods to worship, a gushing stream, and stone shrines, all unexplained. Even the dampening effect of a pair of 'sadhus' who demanded a donation - one orange robed and turbaned, and the other sporting a very seventies blazer and glasses - failed to douse the sense of peace there.
On the other side of Thorung La, I drank rum coffee. The four of us shared dinner, rakshi, and dubious but strong cocktails until late. I am so, so happy to have done this, and to have been lucky enough to travel through such crazy places, seeing such mad things.