Annapurna III: Choking Point
Bitter air we cannot breathe, frozen water we cannot drink
22nd April, 2004
The following is a transcription of my diary, written as I walked round the Annapurna Circuit Trek in Nepal.
Day 10. Yak Karka (4018m) to Manang (3540m)
Day of disasters. Everyone had a bad night last night - I have a cold, Nigel has a cold, Heiko
has a cold. Suzanne is suffering total fluid retention. Everyone is tired. Noone slept.
Pascale has AMS. Pounding headache, nausea, loss of appetite. She wants to go back down to Manang to recover. The others want to press on, though inwardly I feel Suzanne and Nigel should wait a while to stabilize their own troubles.
We cannot allow Pascale to go down the track alone. Someone must make sure she makes it back.
I volunteer. We are sick at heart, as we must say goodbye to all our friends - not just our original team, but all of comrades for the last week - all the other trekkers that have kept pace with us, that have become so familiar - the Israelis, the Matching Hair-braids, English Couples, Aging Australians. Babu. We will not go over the pass at the same time. Disappointment.
But I am the right choice to take Pascale down. I have more time, I am the most experienced, and the easy day will be good for my cold. So we go down, the two of us. I pack the heavier part of Pascale's gear into my rucksack and we start the descent. The imporrtant thing with AMS is descent. Even 300m can make a huge difference.
Clear, beautiful morning. At least in this direction we march in full view of the Annapurnas. To our right, a new set of mountains: Chulu and Chulu West. We apply our sunblock carefully. Pascale improves rapidly as we go down. I wonder if the charcoal burner last night tipped her over the edge. We pass the weaselly French I stomped past two days ago. They're on the way up. C'est le meme gen! They recognise me, triumphant. I grit my teeth.
In Manang the doctor suggests she try ascending tomorrow at a slower rate - sleeping at 3900m, then at 4200m before Thorung Phedi at 4500m and the assault on the pass. She also starts diamox tablets. This means we cannot catch the others, who will have a 4 day lead. I will stay with Pascale, though. Noone should hike alone.
New disaster! Pascale has lost over USD100. She has about Rp2000 left. I will divide my own money with her, but even so we will barely have enough. If she had come to Manang alone, and then found all her money gone, she would have been in serious trouble. No credit up here.
Manang is full of Frenchmen, here for a mountain marathon. That's too much. An Englishman, travelling Hong Kong to London on a bicycle, happened to pop in today, and has joined the marathon "just for fun." That is way to much.
The Maoists! I had almost forgotten these mis-guided mountain thieves. We met an English family. The Maoists had charged them Rp4000 each in Jagat (day 3). Then gave them a receipt for the "donation".
The wind whips snow off Gangapurna like fine hair from the head of a beautiful woman. Round one to the mountains. We did not show enough respect.
Day 11. Manang (3540m) to Gunsang (3900m)
Two hour walk back up to arrive for morning tea. Nothing to do for the rest of day but stare at view. This teahouse built at apex of valley, humbling in immensity. However, we've been staring at these mountains for days now, and want to get on. But we must wait, and acclimatize.
What to do in ten hours till bedtime (8pm)? I teach Pascale how to play gin rummy, and must eat my chagrin as she proceeds to beat me. And remind me of it. And remind me of it.
We read. Events in the day we can look forward to: ordering lunch; eating lunch; ordering dinner; eating dinner. Can't afford more than one pot of tea. But we must try to drink four litres of fluid a day. That's a lot of cold water.
The Chulu West Hotel is a lovely new guesthouse - stripped pine and a clean, open kitchen. And just four guests. There is noone on the trail today. The Maoists have scared away all the tourists. And all to help the poor. They're helping them to bankruptcy here.
We wash (i.e. rinse) our clothes at the standpipe. Our hands go numb in a minute. No body washing now. Local children come to shout and laugh to see us.
What can they live on? This is a bleak, windswept, desert, at a 45 degree angle to a cliff. There is nothing at all to support life but raggedy thorn scrub and glacier water. The rice terraces of days 1 and 2 are a paradise in comparison.
Day 12. Gunsang (3900m) to Letdar (4200m)
This is tiresome. Our forward motion is now limited by altitude rather than time or distance.
Hence we can only walk for two hours and then stop for another long, dull day. Fortunately Pascale has shown no more signs of AMS, so I am increasingly hopeful that she can cross the high pass. So, after another two hour hike, we cross the thin moors to Letdar, a village consisting of two guesthouses. The sun is very strong now. We wear full body cover.
Barren, bare rocks, thin covering of grass.
It is not pleasant at altitude. It is cold when the short day is over, and everyone feels slightly unwell all the time. Not altitude sickness. Simply a general malaise caused by the thin air, the lack of sleep, the lack of anything to do. We urinate like horses.
We make new friends in Letdar - Frank and Danny from England, Kieran from Limerick. It is good to have a new team again. I teach everyone how to play Hearts, and cards pass our time away.
Day 13. Letdar (4200m) to Thorung Phedi (4500m)
Another two hour march, but this to be the last, thank God! Hard work now, breathing fast and heavy even on the smallest climbs. Rest stops frequent. We claw at the thin air. 35% less oxygen.
Thorung Phedi. Two big guesthouses at the end of a steep walled valley. The end. The watershed. Huge landslides wash away the path every year, falling down almost vertical valley sides. Above, the mountain tops. Snowline almost in reach. Sun very strong. Air very cold.
Guesthouses among the best. All mod cons - every trekker must stay here. No washing, of course, unthinkable now. Good kitchen, and the dining hall even has heaters. All we want to do is eat 'like a depressed girl'.
Prices here are sky high. Pascale and I must budget, but we must also be strong for tomorrow's climb. The last climb. We are excited by the thought, eager to get going, and order breakfast for 530am.
We want to get out of here. Everyone feels like shit. Altitude is shit. Can't exercise properly - feel sick all the time. Nothing to do but sit around feeling like shit.
Our bodies were not designed for this. They just want to go down, breathe normal air again.
We look forward to Muktinath tomorrow night. Surely then we will be warm. I hope to exchange money soon.
If not we have only enough for three days.
It's very clear here, mountains and mirror-white ice in sharp relief. Hardly care. We don't have the strength to lift our heads. Thoughts sluggish. Speech slow.
Day 14. Thorung Phedi (4500m) to Thorung La (5450m)
The big day at last. Climb to the highest trekkable mountain pass in the world. We rise at 5am,
porridge and eggs and ready to go by 6am. The mountains glow blue in the pre-dawn. The valley air is freezing.
The first stage is a straight 200m ascent up a scree slope to Thorung High Camp.
Every step is an effort. Every breath is a victory. Concentrate on placing one foot in front of another as lungs scream for oxygen that the air can no longer provide. 40% less oxygen in the air now.
There is no moisture in the air. The coarse dry air burns my throat as I try to suck it in. But when
I try to sip water from my bottle my body goes into convulsions. My lungs are hyperventilating, trying to make up for the half second breath loss from drinking.
One foot in front of the other. We move our tired bodies on. Up.
Pushing with each leg. Never so weak before. My whole body screams against this unnatural
thin air. We suck at air that cannot quench our need.
We are cripples, staggering crutchless in this blasted land of frozen stones. We are ants, crawling across the face of a giant.
Mind slow. Speech comes in gasps, if at all. At 5000m we find a tea shop. The Nepali smiles at the cripples. He lives here. We try to drink - and choke, coughing up our lungs. Our throats are sour ashes. Our throats are dust. We move on. Up.
One foot in front of the other. We are specks, coughing and choking to no purpose.
Every step hurts. Every breath, hurts. Ants.
A series of ridges to
traverse. Glaical moraines. We cough and cough. Everyone is in a slow state of decay.
This is not an endurance test, no fitness rally. It is a race against sickness,
against the onset of sickness. Against AMS. It must not strike till the far side,
the way down. We must cross the pass and go down.
An Israeli girl is collapsing, is carried by her boyfriend. Foolish pride.
I can't think any more. This is shit. This is fucking shit. An agony of trudging forward.
We are clods of sickness. A series of false peaks now. Every crest is fought for.
Every crest is a disappointment. One more. Always one more. We plod on.
Now - prayer flags - a cairn? The top - no - false summit. It is the grave of a trekker. He
died of AMS five minutes from the top.
Now - we heave ourselves to the top - the true top! Prayer flags, the chorten, the tea hut - but the wind! The wind! Only 9.10am and already gusting to 100mph! It rips through us, through our Gortex and our fleeces. It is a cold dry knife paring the warm life from our bones.
There is no air, there is no good in the air, and the wind rips the useless air from our
lungs as we gasp and suck at a vacuum. We fight the wind to take our pictures,
to record our moment, our mountains. We have done it! We have conquered the Thorung La and
it is killing us. We are standing higher than the highest mountain in Europe, we are standing
higher than we will probably ever stand again, we are standing more than five kilometres above the sea!
And the windchill rips us apart. Enough. I can see the way down. A clear path down.
I run, all caution gone. I run towards the warmth. I run towards the shelter. I run towards
the thick air, the oceans of oxygen I can almost see straight below me. I drop 500m in ten
minutes. I have crossed the high pass. I have crossed the high Himilaya.
Now I run towards the valley.