Thursday, 29 April 2010

Annapurna - To The Pass Of Throng La

My bus limped into Kathmandu just as the sun turned gold and the sky a delicate shade of blue. A wheel was lost during the night and the heart of the bus had given up all hope a hundred times over, somehow it bravely struggled into the dusty station, puffed a final sigh of relief and died there and then. Farewell sweet prince. Still, it got me here and will be eternally grateful for that.

Kathmandu is a dusty old dog, its a chaos quite unique unto itself. An ancient city inhabited by an ancient people, the roots of the ancestry run deep in this town. So much history and culture makes for an incredible time spent here, the smiling faces and leathery skin of the locals can be your only source of refuge or they can be your portal to unbelievably bizarre situations. I'm choosing not to elaborate for 'legal' purposes, maybe one day, but for now its buried. The architecture is a mix of greasy blackened glass and mediaeval wood, the homes precariously holding one another up whilst always slanted at very alarming angles. Everywhere is the inescapable dust and pollution, so thick you can actually scrape it from your skin after just a insignificant period in the open. Even so, nothing could stop me loving this place with a passion.

My original plan for a jaunt to Everest had to be altered due to dangerous weather, so the decision was made to start the long trek to the pass of Throng La and the Round Annapurna Circuit. A 300km trail that would mean seventeen days of pure bliss and agony, heartbreak and joy, at times panic and despair, but always intense awe. Never have I taken on such a monstrous adventure and never have I been more suitably unprepared. People come to Nepal in search of adventure, spending hundreds on the latest clothing and equipment, the 'Sunday Trekkers' I call them. I am immensely proud of the fact I completed this exceptional challenge using no guide or porter and nothing but my trusty Levis, a t-shirt, hooded jumper and a pair of trekking shoes repaired with super glue and gaffer tape. "Gore-Tex? Pffft, sorry precious you're just not cut out for this shit!".

It all started sitting with a ride on the roof of a bus, trundling for almost two hours over rocks and sand, sounds comfy? It wasn't. Grasping with all my might onto whatever I could reach I succeeded in stopping myself being flung off and into the raging white torrents of the river below the road. With much relief the exhausting ride finally came an end in the village of Beshisaha, Permits stamped and in hand we shouldered our bags and set out into the wild.

The first few days took us through bright and brilliant green hills, stepped with millet fields that shimmered like water in the wind. Sandy paths led us through opal rivers, giant deciduous forests, dusty open plains and a number of ever shrinking villages. The trails wound their way over bulbous comic like hills, up and down in seemingly endless repetition. Just as you reach what you believe to be the end, having climbed hours over boulders and precarious canyon passes your hopes are smashed as you see the path descend into yet another astonishingly beautiful valley, bitter sweet to say the least. The climate is hot, steamy and tropical. This makes life especially tough, the heat saps all but the minutest amount of energy from your body with unrelenting efficiency. Birds sing in perfect unison, goats bleat their pathetic pleas for freedom and the smell of the never ending donkey trains make for a wonderful sensory experience. They say the slower you go the more shades of green you see, there has never existed a more suited location to realise this than the that of the emerald marijuana fields in the valley of Bagarchhap.

As the days passed and our ascent to the snow gathered pace I noticed, almost daily, how the landscape changed in just epic proportions. From Tropical to Mediterranean, European to Scandinavian, plants growing steadily hardier, taller and browner. The palms turned to oak and pine, the red sands to dusty grey soil, it was as if I were walking through countless countries, each melting into the other hour by hour. Things began to cool down and life became increasingly more bearable, by 2000m it was possible to make pace and cover serious ground without the need to rest at such regular intervals. Much of each day was spent in breathless silence, the concentration required physically and mentally is immense, each step must be carefully placed as an injury could result in disastrous consequences. Being so far from help and significant medical support really changes ones perceptions of certain, otherwise trivial, everyday activities. Everything has the potential to end your journey, force you to turn right around and back the way you came, a tough concept to remember when total exhaustion slaps you down.

Himalayan village life is really something special, a small community that is at all times reliant on one another for support. Everyone has their place in the workings of the village from builders to bakers, all equal and as important as the other. Homes made from lumps of deep grey stone ingrained with luminous yellow lichen and enormous beams of blackened timber. Prayer flags flutter in the breeze, hanging loose in shallow loops between roof tops, and in the distance the ever present snow capped peaks of the Annapurna ominously looming, bright and brilliant. Steaming Thukpas and Masala tea provide the only real comfort in these spartan little pockets of civilization.

After around nine days, I came face to face with my first Himalayan mountain and its epic proportions. A canyon ground smooth by a long gone glacier, bare rock carved into a perfect crescent half-pipe, each side crowned with a pure white frosting. Its difficult to gauge the size of mountains when your so close but I was told by a Sherpa that each side of that canyon was over a mile high. Humbling. Our path led us to a vast plateau peppered with the last of the hardiest trees, and this, I believe, is when the Vultures arrived. They circled us for mile upon mile, eyes fixed on the weary travellers. This didn't do wonders for the self confidence and dark thoughts began to materialise, "maybe a lesser 'Gore-texer' could be kind enough to be mauled by a wild beast and become bird feed, but please God, please, anyone but me!". One can only hope in situations like that, I'm still here so I guess an exceptionally angry Yak answered my prayers.

By 4000m altitude had become a serious factor, time was required to acclimatise and let my body adjust to the new pressures and variations. Altitude does odd things to the body, flatulence becomes an issue, socially speaking. Altitude sickness can be fatal I am told, a combination of lower oxygen intake and increased breathing causes the lungs to fill with fluids and you gradually drown in your own juices, nice. It was so serious in fact we had to actually consider taking advice from a doctor on the matter, madness. To really adjust, an ascent and descent of 1000m in a day is recommended, so an insane climb ensued to the Ice lake of Manang. Three hours of fast climbing on sixty degree slopes found us at the lake, bereft of all energy and in -3C temperatures. But my god it was beautiful. I touched my first snow on that desolate peak, I was in a truly special place and I felt it with every bone in my body. A turquoise lake encircled by a impenetrable wall of white snow and red rock, I sat and marvelled at my own insignificance in the history and future of this planet. With blue hands and red faces we rapidly descended, three hours up and twenty minutes down. I will thank the doctor for that day.

The penultimate climb consisted of a trail through what can only be described as a moonscape, rock and nothing but. Endless expanses of nothingness on all sides, until red rock meets white and the ice covered summits pierce the very fabric of the sky. Miles from anywhere we met a lone Sadu adorned in burning orange robes. I sat with him for some time in the ruins of a long abandoned cattle shed and couldn't help but feel a little unlearned in life, there was complete content in those sapphire eyes. He had been walking for three months, leaving his village in Ayyodhya, India on a pilgrimage to find exactly whatever it was he was looking for.

That night we stayed in High Camp, 4600m, -10 degrees and I am overjoyed when they tell me they have no blankets. This is the start. I finally find an old cover in the cattle shed and try my best to settle for the night but it is not to be. There has been so much talk of sickness hitting in the night and several people being sent down because of it that I lay awake for hours, my mind in a spiral of worried thought. Then, of course, the symptoms start, shortness of breath, headache and sickness, I was told the only thing to do is head down immediately. Going down meant a outrageously steep 600m decent in absolute darkness with a 15kg bag, with freezing conditions and completely alone. I figured I was far more likely to die doing this than to stay and take my chances, so I stuck it out and genuinely prayed I would last the night without any real danger. I lay in that icy room, on the roof of the world, clutching the only things I had that gave me hope, Tibetan prayer beads and a Buddhist amulet. I'm not a religious man or superstitious but I was deeply scared and sometimes I think you can find comfort in things that have strong meaning to you, to have come so far and fall at the final hurdle, not a chance my friend.

The sun rose on a sleepless night and before me lay the biggest challenge yet. Instead of going down I began the long and arduous climb to the end, 5880m and my ultimate goal. One painful, sickening step at a time for four straight hours I walked, pushing myself far beyond my means and my body's capacity of endurance. The air came to be so thin I was in a constant battle for breath, my pace gradually slowed and I became further and further away from my companions. Struggling with every element thrown at me and yet another heart-breakingly steep climb presenting itself I had, for the first time, the thought that maybe I would have to give in and go back. Ten steps more and I saw them, the beautiful flurry of coloured flags against the perfect blue sky being whipped back and forth by the ferocious icy winds that are said to constantly rage through the Pass of Throng La.

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