This post is totally outside any chronological structure I should be imposing on the tale of my Annapurna adventure, but the reason for that will be clear as you read down. Today I’m taking you to the Thorung La pass – the crown of the climb.
At 5,416 metres, the Throrung La pass is the goal of the Annapurna Circuit. Everything is up until you reach that point and everything is down from there on. The days leading to the pass are all about preparing for the crossing – carefully pacing your altitude gain to allow for acclimatization, monitoring your body’s reaction as you ascend: are you sleeping normally? do you have an appetite? headache? nausea? Regardless of your symptoms (or, in my case, lack thereof) you will still feel as though you are slogging through mud. Putting one foot in front of another will be the best you can manage – you are, after all, operating with half the oxygen that would be available to you at sea level. You can see why reaching the small island of prayer flags surrounding the sign that announces that you’re at the Pass becomes a sort of pilgrimage.
I gave a lot of thought to that in the months leading to our departure. The pass is adorned with strings of Tibetan prayer flags that climbers have carried with them, along with photographs and silk scarves, signs and countless memorial objects tucked into the colourful mass of flapping fabric. I knew what I wanted to leave there early on – but it wasn’t until the last days before our crossing that I understood why.
Tucked into a pocket of my backpack I carried a six-inch square of tie-dyed fabric from one of my late husband’s t-shirts. Craig wore these bright shirts in the dark days of his cancer treatment as a testament of hope, and they remain a symbol of that nearly nine years since his loss. I didn’t exactly understand what a prayer flag was or how they were suspended at the site or if hanging a tie-dyed one was some kind of sacrilege, but I thought I’d figure it out. Along with the fabric, I had an old film canister from Craig’s photo equipment, into which I had tucked a small photo of him. In some vague way I believed that I would leave these objects at the pass, magically end something and be granted permission to start over. In the end, another act entirely took shape.
In the days leading up to the pass, I found myself constantly mentally consulting Craig. If he were here, if we had done this together – how would he have framed this scene? How would he have engaged these people, what would he have seen that I was missing, what would have caught his imagination? And as always throughout the last nine years, I found that trying to see through his eyes stretched me a little bigger, moved me to listen instead of chatter, called me to look a little deeper.
Two days out from the pass we reached the town of Manang. Members of our group went looking for material for their various tributes; I quietly purchased a package of small prayer flags, added my bright fabric to the string and, reflecting on the previous few days, penned an inscription on the square. Two days later, stumbling through the snow, half-blinded in the Himalayan sun, I added my prayers to the mound of remembrances strung across the pass.
When you first endure the loss of someone dear to you the heaviness of it seems unbearable – like struggling to lug a backpack up a mountain pass, gasping for the oxygen that is just not there. In time, the weight becomes something more comfortable, like a stone always in your pocket, something you turn over and over and can never let go of. And finally, one day, you reach into your pocket and find something bright that you bring out to shine in the sun – a celebration of how incredibly blessed you were to have that person in your life, how their memory continues to call you to be so much more than you were, so much bigger, so much better.
Today, November 24th, would have been Craig’s sixty-third birthday. Somewhere high in the Himalayas, a small flag dances in celebration on the chill mountain air.