annapurna elevation and elation

thorung la annapurna treknepalFor most of us there comes a time on a trek when you decide enough is enough. But then you think about how far you’ve come and what a let down it would be not to go the distance now. The Nepal challenge proved almost too much for Intrepid Express reader Kirsty Christmas, but suddenly it was all worth it when the summit was in sight…

“I didn’t anticipate that climbing a 5416 metre mountain pass in Nepal would be the highlight of our journey. My captivation for Nepal laid in the vibrant, culture-rich 300 km trek that meanders around the spectacular Annapurna massif. But I was yet to discover the immense feat of surmounting Thorung La…

We wake from a water-bottle-warm sleep at 4am. Our hands furtively reach beyond the cosy confines of our sleeping bag and our fingers almost snap in the icy air. Outside, the gentle murmurs of guides and porters mixes with animated chatter in myriad languages. Eager trekkers lace hiking boots and zip jackets. With our backpacks equipped, we scamper into the dining hall to fuel our bodies with warm apple porridge and instant coffee.

Our 1000 m ascent begins at 5am in bitter wind and a blanket of darkness. The gargantuan mountains are obscured by black. Brilliant stars glow in the sky as we weave snake-like up the mountain, guided by the soft glow from fellow trekkers’ headlamps. Silence hums her peaceful lullaby.

The pace is measured and laborious as each step knocks the wind from our lungs. Multiple layers of thermal clothing clad our bodies: I wear 6 layers under my Gortex jacket, and my face is smothered by a balaclava. It is acrimoniously cold (at 9am the temperature is -10 degrees Celsius, so you can only guess how cold it is at 5am) but I am urged forward by my pulsating adrenalin and the crisp air.

By 6am we reach high camp and light cracks over the day like an egg. I shrink in the might of the freshly defined mountains. Thoughtlessly, I discard my gloves to snap some photos and instantly regret it. My fingers burn so badly I fear frostbite.

The next section of the crossing is arduous. Ice and snow flank both sides of the mountain and without light, a slip down the mountainside is inevitable. Nature miraculously creates a narrow trail of dirt, the width of a foot, to lead us through the whitewash. In some sections, ice closes over the dirt completely. My heart lurches and throbs audibly as I skid across the slick ice.

Over my shoulder I spot 3 marshmallow-pink clouds floating through a fissure between two mountains. The glow of sunrise is heartening: the warmth will thaw our bodies and the sunlight will guide us. With renewed robustness I stride ahead, unprepared for the breakdown that awaits me.

The climb continues steadily for a further hour, when a tea-house materialises. I rub my gloves together, imagining the warm pot of tea in my hands, defrosting my fingers and soothing my throat. I estimate the tea-house is a mere 10 minutes walk away. I begin to count the steps forward, but lose my focus. The slippery ice plays games with my mind and every physical discomfort sucks to the forefront of my thoughts: my fingertips and feet are frozen; my head throbs; nausea makes me dry-reach; my breath is rasping from the high-altitude, an incessant cough, and the suffocating balaclava. I am unable to suck air into my lungs or catch my breath. I lose it: I stand perched on the side of a mountain and cry like a lost child.

Our guide wants to descend. My husband wants to climb the pass. They stand juxtaposed. I can’t speak, but I shake my head vehemently. There is no chance I will turn back after coming so far.

A kind trekker reaches for my hand and presses barley-sugar into my palm. The sugar-hit jolts me back to our position on the mountain. I re-adjust my backpack, straighten my spine and we ascend to the tea-house to rest. We savour the sweet tea and biscuits as the sun heats our bodies through double-glass windows. The view is more magical than Wonderland.

We resume our climb with gusto, trekking steadily to Thorung La pass. Mountains loom over us and I wonder if they are mocking me or spurring me on. I kick at the powdery snow with my feet and walking stick, wanting to cease trekking and make snow-balls. It confounds me to be walking at eye-level with craggy mountain peaks; if I puckered my lips and stood on tip-toe, I could kiss the brilliant blue sky. The water in my drink bottle is frozen in icy clumps; I sip my flavourless slushy.

From white-dusted ground, red-blue-yellow-green-white prayer flags spread across the mountain like children holding hands in a school-yard. My husband pauses ahead and turns to wait for me. Tears prick my eyes as I realise we have reached Thorung La pass. The wind is blowing and I see my husband’s eyes are watering too. As I reach him, I realise that the water is, in fact, fat tears. We embrace each other and cry with relief and elation and achievement at climbing another mountain together.

It is a joyous hour spent atop the pass. We find a spot out of the wind, against a rocky hill littered with fallen prayer flags. Snap-happy strangers hug and kiss, sharing chocolate, biscuits and astronomically-priced pots of tea with new-found friends. The moment is treasured, but the wind soon hurls its icy breath, warning us to descend before altitude sickness kicks in.

We begin a 4-hour descent through ice, rocks and snow, to a more congenial altitude of 3800 m. In Muktinath, we reflect on the day and our conquest: we are exhausted, elated and overwhelmed. Our bodies and spirits have been pushed to the limit and triumphed – the result of seeking the path of an intrepid traveller!”

Tour Nepal with Intrepid on trips like these great small group adventures:
Annapurna Sanctuary – 16 days
Annapurna Circuit – 22 days

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* photo by Gaby Gust – Intrepid Photography Competition

About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll find helpful travel advice and inspiring tales from Sue and other Intrepid travellers.

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