ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT: DAY 10 & 11
Day 10: Thorang Pedi to Muktinath – 7-8hrs approx.
Ascent to Thorang La Pass - 4450m to 5416m - 3.5 hrs approx
Descent to Muktinath – 5416m to 3800m - 3.5 hrs approx
Day 11 - Jomsom to Pokhara
I had a hearty breakfast – as much as I could manage – handed my pack to my porter who was a Nepalese about the same height, weight and state of health as myself, and off we set. Caro wanted to do the climb herself with her pack, my porter and I were a bit faster. The views in the distance were breath-taking – a rosy sunrise just touching the snowcaps. We zigzagged up a steep ascent to Thorang High Camp, rewarding ourselves with a cup of tea. The ascent after this wasn’t so bad, however we had to trudge through about a foot of snow. People had been trudging the path all morning and I could put my feet in their large footprints. It was dangerous and rather frightening, and incredibly exhilarating. A couple of yaks passed us, saddled up, so someone had got sucked into paying the USD$300 for Yak Express – or maybe they were better bargainers than me. Either way, up and up we climbed for about 3.5 hours, stopping to rest occasionally, overtaking quite a few people I knew in the sprint to the top. I’d be lying if I said that it was still fun – as I trudged forever upwards through the snow I rewarded myself with thoughts of warm sunshine and clean clothes.
And then I saw it: The Pass. At 5416m, it is the second-highest climbable pass in the world. My guide and I reached the top, Caro was about 20 mins behind, and my porter and I crawled into the tiny shack to have some tea. I’d lost feeling in my feet and hands, and when I took off my left glove my hand was swollen so badly with the altitude I couldn’t make a fist – it was a balloon hand! Inside the shack were some lovely Polish people that we’d met on Day 2, and I hugged and cried with one of the girls. To have made that accomplishment, the goal of the trip, was an incredible feeling, and I guess that part of me never really thought I’d make it. As more and more climbers made it to the top, we got our photos next to a plaque covered in prayer flags, laughing and smiling. Off in the opposite direction we were rewarded with a clear view of the distant mountains of Tibet. Caro had arrived by then and we got some group shots, draped across the snow as if it was something we did every day. Then off we set for our descent to Muktinath – nearly 2km down a treacherous mountainside.
I swapped porters at this point. My new porter, whom I shall nickname The Groper, grabbed my elbow and manhandled me down the mountain at a rate of knots in a rather alarming manner considering the icy conditions. He would stop to take mobile phone calls, leaving me to continue with the descent, then bouncing down the slope like a kangaroo to catch up to me. In retrospect it was funny – Nepal must have the best bloody networks in the world – to listen to someone screaming into a handset was incongruous with the remote terrain but shows how small the world is becoming thanks to telecommunications. Groper dropped my sleeping back down a ravine twice, and raced down to get it. Occasionally he would put unnecessarily put his arm round my shoulders or waist, and cop a feel. I grumpily trekked on towards Muktinath, blowing my nose and flexing my balloon-hand, and wishing I could throw his mobile down the nearest crevice or hire a yak to stomp on it.
We arrived in Muktinath in the early afternoon. Caro wasn’t far behind but had stopped to have lunch. I wasn’t hungry and wanted to get as low as I could to deflate my mutant paw. We’d passed below the snowline and back onto dusty roads. Muktinath is a pilgrimage centre, and I was ushered through the gates of the temple to be rewarded with the sight of several pot-bellied Indian men in speedos, bathing in the sacred waters. Hundreds of taps in the shape of cow-heads spout the holy water into man-made pools. Bemused, we carried on about another 10 minutes into the town where I paid off the Groper with relief, scowling at the state of my sleeping bag cover, and stopped to have a cup of tea and wait for Carolyn.
We organized a jeep to Jomsom that evening. We’d decided to take the morning flight from Jomsom to Pokhara, considering our wearied condition. Our original plan had been to do some side trips, but the area was so dusty and windblown that it did nothing to help our coughs and we just wanted to reach somewhere we could get clean and recuperate. Best laid plans…
We rocked up at Jomsom airport the next morning, fuelled with the desire to Get Out of There. The flights were delayed due to bad weather in Pokhara. The tiny two-prop planes do round trips out of Pokhara to Jomsom, and the pilots are loathe to fly in windy or cloudy conditions. We waited hours, my gut feeling telling me that we were going nowhere that day, certainly not by plane.
Finally however we were checked through and went through security checks and into the airport lounge. Imagine our utmost disappointment when it was announced the plane was cancelled – it had left Pokhara but turned back due to high winds in Jomsom.
We could have, SHOULD have, stayed overnight and tried to fly again the next day. Instead we decided to brave the long journey by road and got on a bus. So began the Journey from Hell. 3 hours to the first stop, then transfer to a jeep which kept breaking down, on the most bone-jangling road imaginable, packed into the back like sardines in a tin can. The poor Israeli lad opposite me had flu as well, and we were all coated in a thin layer of dust which blew in through the gaps in the windows and doors. After two hours of this and another breakdown we flagged down a bus to continue our journey to Beni – about another hour. From there we had to transfer into a private taxi for the 3 hour drive to Pokhara. Minutes after leaving Beni we encountered a landslide. As we waited for the bulldozer to clear the road, it got dark. Turns out our car didn’t have headlights that worked. A cluster of Nepalese gathered round, popped the hood and eventually someone did something canny with a bit of foil and made it all work. We arrived into a jumping, Friday night in Pokhara at 10pm. I nearly cried when I saw my pack full of clean clothes!
My Annapurna experience was incredible. I’m sure when I finally stop and get time to reflect on those 10 days, I might even consider it life-changing. Whether it’s something I would attempt again, to push myself even further, is still under inner debate :)