Even though the snow may be falling here in Canada, it’s trekking season in Nepal. October through to mid December is usually considered peak time for trekking because you can avoid the monsoon rains of the summer and leeches that literally fall from the sky (well the trees above you but it’s horrible either way). Trekking at this time of year also helps you avoid the bitter cold of the winter months, although don’t get me wrong, you will still be cold while trekking. Another Earthbeats Pro Tip: layers are the best friends you’ve ever had.
So in honour of trekking season, we’re going to start a little series for the rest of the month on climbing and hiking in Nepal. First off, the Annapurna circuit. Co-founder Paige trekked the circuit in May of 2016, and being a writer with a penchant for dry sarcasm, decided to write a collection of short stories about her experience. We’re reprinting them here for your enjoyment.
It’s beyond difficult to condense 12 days in the Himalayas into a single blog post so I’m not going to try. There is no way to write about everything that goes through your head when you spend 10 days pushing your physical and mental limits in one of the most beautiful places on earth. So instead of trying to reduce my experience into a single post that would inevitably end up as a simple and unfulfilling schedule recap of where we started, where we hiked and where we stayed, I’m going to try something different. I’m going to post my favourite photos from the trip and each one is going to be accompanied by a short story. This is hopefully more interesting to read than “we went there, then hiked for six hours, then slept here, then woke up and walked there.”
I’m sitting in a brown plastic chair, shoulders shuddering with every heaving breath. I’m staring at all the colours around me. Two minutes ago I started seeing stars like I was about to pass out and now that I’m sitting, everything is extremely vivid. I’m sure that those prayer flags are made with a brighter dye and there’s is no way that my jacket has been so blue this whole time. That pony has a million and one shades of grey in its mane and here I was thinking there were only 50.
A 70-year-old woman we’ve been playing trek tag with since day one come up to me. She shakes my hand and says with so much ease it’s infuriating, “I huffed and puffed my way up here too.” She gives me a smile and a motherly pat on the arm and I can’t decide whether to slump further into the cold plastic in defeat or jump up and whip out some jumping jacks to show her that I’m a fit 22-year-old with the heart and lungs of a lion. I slump. And smile and nod in her general direction.
Shay catches up a few minutes later and we start taking all the touristy photos we can. Arms up in triumph. Thumbs up for the comic shot. Arms around each other for the “friends who trek together stay together” shot. Smile with the teeth but the wind’s too cold so smile without. I consider jumping but toss the idea right away. Raby whips out his selfie stick and now we’re really talking. We snap a few more shots, enjoy the fact it took us 9 days of trekking to get to this point for a few minutes and then let the other trekkers take over our spot beside the mini-mountain of prayer flags and scarves.
We summited late because of a combination of not ever exercising enough for our whole lives and really bad altitude sickness so we had to hustle our asses down the other side to avoid getting caught in the storm. If you don’t manage to summit by 10 am, then you are in trouble. The climb up to the pass is tough, sure. Probably the toughest thing I’ve ever done. But then you have to drop 1.5km in altitude before the next village. That’s a lot of clenched thighs and popping knee caps. And having to do it in the middle of a rain/hail/snow/sleet storm would be even worse. Sheer rock faces tend to get slippery when wet.
So after allowing ourselves a few moments of rest and celebration, it’s back down again.
“I can’t chito,” gasps Shayenda, “if I can’t breathe!”
The first of many times I would hear that sentence over the next two days. Our guide Raby grabs the end of her trekking pole, throws it over his shoulder like a continental soldier and starts pulling. Shay hustles as fast as you can at almost 5000 meters above sea level to keep up with him while she sticks out a hand for my trekking pole behind her. Using every ounce of strength I’ve got in that second, I lunge at her, pole outstretched. She grabs on and suddenly we’re a train of trekkers being pulled into Thorung High Camp while our friends (who arrived hours earlier) watch from the top of the hill. This train lasts for all of five seconds before we need to stop for air again.
“Chito, chito! We’re almost there.” Faster, faster, he says. Like that’s an option at this point.
We’re on day eight of the trek and we’re literally 50 meters from our stop for the day. I’ve been looking at that damn tea house for 15 minutes trying to make my way up there but just can’t seem to get enough oxygen into my lungs to go more than 10-15 steps at a time. Literally. I’m counting. One step per breath and one pole plant per step and slowly, slowly, I’m getting there. The difficult part isn’t only the altitude, or the fact we’ve been trekking for a week already, or that I’ve got such bad altitude sickness I haven’t eaten anything in 24 hours. It’s also that we just spent the last 2 hours gaining 500 meters of elevation, straight up.
The funny thing is that after the day hike from Yak Kharka to the village below High Camp, Thorung Phedi, you’re actually feeling alright about your life. You started the day above 4000 meters and haven’t died yet and that’s great. There’s crazy great mountain views and a hot bowl of noodle soup waiting for you. You catch up with your trail friends and everyone’s laughing and joking and seriously, life’s good. Until you look up. Straight up. 500 meters of winding cliff-side trail up. Suddenly life doesn’t look so rosy.
So when you get to the top (after being pulled by your guide, who seriously deserves an award for being able to tell the difference between Shay’s cries of “I’m dyiiiiiiiiing” and actually dying) and turn around, this is the view. Shay and I collapse into each other in a sort of quasi-hug of jubilation and exhaustion and Raby manages to make it look cute in a photo (for which he deserves another award). We spend the night here at High Camp before heading out to conquer the Thorung La pass the next morning.
I’m blaming my altitude sickness on two things.
One. Accidentally turning a whole row of prayer wheels in the wrong direction on day two and seriously messing up my karma.
Two. Ice Lake.
For people looking to do the Annapurna Circuit in the future there is a commonly held belief that when you arrive in Manang you will spend an extra day in the village as a rest day. This is wrong. You will spend an extra night in the village but during the day you will hike in order to acclimatize to the higher altitude. You will not rest. Climb high, sleep low as the old adage says.
Or in our case, climb very high, don’t sleep at all.
Considering the fact that Shayenda and I are two not extremely in shape people, deciding to gain 1.2km in altitude on our “rest” day was probably a little ambitious. In retrospect, it was extremely ambitious. But by the time I realized what I had gotten myself into with the trek to Ice Lake, it was either too late or I was too stubborn to turn back.
We started the morning out in Braka at an elevation of 3,400 meters. We hit 4,600 meters a few hours later at Ice Lake, a side trek that has been gaining more popularity in the past couple years with visitors to the Annapurna region. The trek is straight up for 3.5-4 hours for fit people and 5-6 hours for people like me and Shay. Since the trek isn’t on a loop, it’s another 2-3 hours down the same way. That is… straight, knee-jarringly down. Our longest trekking day up until this point had been six hours. We obliterated that record today.
At about hour two, my longer legs started carrying me higher and higher above Shay. My trekking bro Nabin (our porter) and I surged ahead and didn’t see Shay and Raby for the next few hours other than as bright little specs on the trail below. We met a few people along the way and always asked how much longer it might me. A Nepali man working on the construction of a new tea house told me I was only an hour away. An hour and a half later, a trio of French men on their way back down told me I could do it in 45 minutes. An hour and ten minutes later I hit Ice Lake. Only there wasn’t any ice. And it was a pond.
So now I’m exhausted, freezing, and huddled behind a pile of rocks trying to escape the wind while I wait for Shayenda and Raby to catch up, something we aren’t even sure is going to happen at this point. Struggling to breathe and not catch hypothermia, I settle into my rock pile and look up. What I see is incredible. It makes the 5 hours panting and cursing myself for letting that old man in the red jacket beat me up the hill totally worth it. I’m above the clouds and there’s mountains all around me. My sleep-deprived and sarcasm fuelled brain angrily notes it should be called “Damn Good View Pond” instead of “Ice Lake”. I’m frantically snapping photos with my camera, but I’m shaking so bad and my mitts are so big I’m not sure any of them are going to turn out. I give up, put the camera away and send a quick prayer to the Nepali mountain gods that my photos aren’t all blurry and full of fuzz. I spend the next hour watching the clouds roll by beneath me and the sun glittering off the glaciers across the valley in constant awe of the fact I’m sitting in the middle of the Himalayas, higher than I’ve ever been before in my life. So high that the air is actually thinner. And that’s kind of cool when you stop to think about it, right?
“I hope I get a window seat so I can take photos,” a bruised, battered, and barely awake me says. I also hope I don’t die, I add to myself.
The final day of our Himalayan journey consists of flying out of Jomsom airport to Pokhara, where we’ll then catch a bus back home to Kathmandu. Sounds simple, safe, secure, right? What if I told you that this past February, a flight coming into Jomsom airport crashed, instantly killing the 23 on board? What if I told you that the EU has since banned Nepali pilots from flying in or through its airspace because of the high number of crashes and low amount of training they receive? What if I told you that there is a good chunk of the flight path where the plane has no contact with radio towers in either Jomsom or Pokhara? What if I told you that around 10 am every day, the valley that Jomsom is situated in becomes a wind tunnel with gale force winds blowing back towards the mountains?
Not that I was freaking out or anything while waiting on the tarmac. I was calm. Calm, cool, and collected in fact. Like a cucumber. We saw our plane land on the incredibly short runway and I was like, I’m good with this. No fear! We boarded the plane and “oh, everybody gets a window seat,” I say, panic (not) slowly creeping into my voice. I sit down and tighten the seat belt tighter than I have ever tightened a seat belt before. It was so tight I could barely breath but I had just climbed Thorung La and knew a thing or two about not breathing at this point.
They weigh everyone before getting on the plane to make sure the itty bitty aircrafts aren’t overweight for their trip through the Annapurna massif so I’m sitting there really wishing I hadn’t eaten that last Snickers bar after security because what if that throws off the calibration and we die because of nougaty chocolate and stress eating?
The plane takes off. The views are incredible. The mountains are really, really close. Why are we swerving? Is it normal to serve midair? I can see Pokhara. I can see people on the ground. Touch down. Holy shit, I lived. I jump out of that plane and into the warm, humid air of Pokhara city with a massive grin on my face. My best bro and ultimate trekking buddy Nabin seems to be just as happy to be out of the tiny metal death trap as I am so we pose for one last selfie before rushing to the bus station.
“No, no, it’s like this. Meeeeeeeeeeeeh! I used to live on a sheep farm. I know these things. You need to work on your animal noises.”
“Like this? Maaaaaaaaaaah!”
“Sure. Let’s go with that”
Raby has a tendency to make animals noises at every animal we see along the way. Which is a lot of animals. Near the bottom it’s mostly goats with a few cows thrown in and as we gain altitude, it’s more yaks, ponies, and mountain sheep. There’s also the occasional dog and a few friendly cats along the way and without fail he tries to emulate them or goad them into responding. He even whistles at the birds sometimes. The only problem is that his goat call sounds the same as his kitten call and his bark sounds the same as his moo. As a diligent farm girl, I try to help him out with his barnyard noises along the way.
It’s day 8 and we’re on the only flat patch of ground we’ve seen in four hours when we spot mountain sheep clinging to the cliffside. That’s when the unearthly “GAAAAAAAAAAH!” sounds from behind me. The flat ground has given me the confidence to turn around and scold him on his poor technique. We then spend the next couple minutes comparing sheep “baaaahs”, all without a single response from the cliffside chillers above.
I’m not a gambler. I’ve never stuck a quarter in a slot machine or placed money on a game and I haven’t made a habit of making bets. Today I learned why. Let me set the scene.
It’s day five. We set out early from Upper Pisang and I’m pleased to see the trail is fairly straight and even. We’re strolling through forests and valleys and the whole time Shay and I are hanging back talking. Talking about her move back to Canada and what she’s going to do next. Talking about my career or lack thereof and where we want to live in the next couple years. Hashing out life’s big mysteries and whatnot. Raby and Nabin have meandered ahead of us and we’re so engrossed in our conversation we forget they’re even there. Suddenly though, I see Nabin resting up ahead. I’m confused because I’m not even out of breath and Nabin doesn’t rest. Like, ever. Not even for water. Raby is resting beside him and his backpack is off. Now, for a single split second I commend myself on being so in shape that I don’t even need a rest when the guides do. And then I remember that’s dumb.
“You guys are chatty this morning,” he says. “But you’re not allowed to talk any more.”
Shay starts rattling off a smart-ass response because this is the relationship her and Raby have. He jokes, she jokes, we all laugh. He teases her, she teases him, we all laugh. She asks for one good reason why we can’t talk in her signature sassy way.
“There’s one,” I say, pointing up at the twisting, winding goat trail that starts at the very base and ends at the very peak of the mountain in front of us.
Raby explains he’s serious. We’re not allowed to talk to each other, to other trekkers, even to ourselves. No muttering about how much you’d like to blow the damn mountain up with dynamite and celebrate on top of the rubble under your breath. Nothing. There’s some wisdom to his request. I mean, that’s a big hill and we’re starting to feel the oxygen deprivation and he seems to know our physical limitations better than we do at this point. To make things more interesting, he insists on a bet. First one to talk buys the other a beer when we get into Braka. Now, although I’m not a gambler, I am hugely competitive and so is Shay so we agree and the game is on.
I lose 30 minutes in. I mutter a brief “namaste” to the first Nepali didi I pass and then after that, the jig is up and I’m handing out hellos left, right, and center. And muttering about blowing up the mountain under my breath. That part was true. We reach the summit, celebrate with a chocolate bar and a few cutesy park bench photos and I admit to Raby I talked. Nabin was right by my side the whole way up and he didn’t tell on me but I felt honour bound to confess.
Luckily, by the time we rolled into camp that night, Shay and I were both too tired to stand, much less enjoy a beer so the bet fell flat.
What’s the brightest colour you can think of? The blazing blue of a cloudless sky? The hot pink lipstick of an Italian super model? The vivid red of a summer sunset? The phosphorescent glow of jellyfish under black light?
How about the iridescent yellow of a dandelion hidden in a pine forest? Day three was like hiking in my backyard Rockies at home. And do you know why? Damn dandelions. Maybe it’s because for the past two summers I’ve been away from Canada and haven’t had to deal with their invasive persistence but when I saw that two-inch tall dandelion sitting in a bed of pine needles today, I felt home. I’d never seen a place that so closely resembled all the things I love about Canada and it hit me all at once in a rush of emotion. We spent the day strolling through old-growth pine forests with beds of dandelions littered across the forest floor and birds chirping in the air. All the while, we were in sight of the crystal clear rushing water of a mountain-fed river that wound lazily, yet purposefully through the surrounding hills.
I thought, I should call my dad. I can’t wait to hug my mom. If my sisters were here, we would be singing, competing with the birds. My friends and I did a hike just like this a couple years ago. I wonder if you could ski this in the winter.
I was instantly transported back home to the people and places I love by a colour. Yellow. The brilliant, sun-struck yellow of a dandelion against the rust red of a forest floor.
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Thoroughly enjoyed the read and forward to more
Thanks Gwen! Glad you liked it.
This was so well written! I felt like I was on the journey with you 🙂
I’m looking forward to reading more of your work!