Day 9

 

Yak Kharka to Thorung Phedi and High Camp

I awoke refreshed with no altitude headache and a renewed appetite for the ‘French toast’ I’d ordered for breakfast. We headed out in bright sunshine for Thorung Phedi – and High Camp if we remained in good form.

The trail followed the contours of the steep valley, a gradual but steady climb. The slopes were gravelly and the path narrow; signs were posted cautioning of the danger of landslides. The landscape was a little bleak – not much vegetation, but enough to sustain the flocks of Himalayan blue sheep the guides pointed out to us. It was the busiest day on the route so far. We all looked like we were moving in slow motion – the altitude effect was pronounced. I remembered something I had read and tried to follow my breath as I walked, matching it to my pace. Whenever I felt winded, I stopped for as long as it took to normalize my breathing. This worked, but by the time we reached Phedi I’d nearly run out of steam. Neil, Ria and I brought up the rear, but three of the porters who were crossing the pass for their first time – Jaluna, Primila and Kalpana – kept pace with us.

The door to the  dining hall at Phedi opened onto a warm, noisy room filled with buzz. It was so like a ski resort that I was momentarily disoriented. We enjoyed a hearty lunch and recovery period. Patrick (characteristically) discovered a musical connection with the proprietor. Bhagawati pronounced us ready for the climb to High Camp for the night, assuring us that she’d be monitoring everyone carefully. There were some misgivings, but we knew that continuing would shave off considerable time and effort for crossing the Pass in the morning.

High Camp was almost visible from Phedi; we were only on route briefly when we caught a glimpse of the flags waving at the crest. Gazing up the 45° slope as we set out looked a little silly – a scattering of brightly coloured figures wandered (seemingly) aimlessly back and forth across the face of the hill. What one couldn’t see because of the incline was that the track switchbacked constantly, turning the steep climb into a gentler trail. I recalled reading a description of this section: it’s only 45 minutes – but you will remember every one of them!

I was the last to arrive as light flurries began to swirl and found the others huddled around a table in the dining hall. The only heat came from the press of bodies – and the room was filled. After hot drinks, we dispersed to our rooms to – supposedly – warm up. The snow was now falling in earnest and the toilets were across the courtyard from sleeping quarters. I suited up in my thermal layer for the night – determined not to be naked one single time more in this cold!!

I’d enjoyed some lovely conversations with Kathleen over those past days. This day we had touched on identity and our perceptions of self. I’d come to view myself as strong and independent, so being sick had taken a bite out of that. I was, as yet, the only one remaining in our party who had no symptoms of altitude sickness – and the only one not on Diamox – and that had become inordinately important to me. Fingers crossed for a restful night.

Midnight. Dinner was a little dismal – the antibiotics were making things taste strange so I had chosen something fairly bland and disappointing and choked it down. I needed the calories. I’m huddled now in my sleeping bag, cradling a tin cup of hot mint tea. The warmth is a pleasure, but I’ve drunk only enough to ease my pills down my throat. I’ve just returned from my third foray to the far-too-distant facilities (another side-effect of altitude is frequent urination) and I don’t want to make another!! Trudging through the newly fallen snow, I’m grateful that I splurged on the purchase of a new sleeping bag. Sandwiched between two Nepali quilts, it still retains a trace of warmth upon my return. The stars are peeping through here and there. Hoping for a clear morning!

Note: I’ve been back nearly three months and creating this record is taking far longer than I imagined. Meanwhile I’m trying to get a house ready for selling and down-sizing for a move, so my time has been occupied elsewhere. Heartiest of apologies for making you wait for the instalments! I’ll keep plugging away…

Advertisements

Day 8

Manang to Yak Kharka

Our second morning in Manang dawned bright and clear – a hopeful sign for the road ahead. We were only two days from crossing the Throrong La pass; snow would be a potentially serious setback now. No worries – the day was soon warm and the layers were peeled away.

At 3,519 metres, Manang sits at twice the elevation of the Lake Louise, Alberta, the highest settlement in Canada. While our bodies were definitely acclimatizing, altitude decidedly affects athletic performance. The feeling is something like perpetually slogging through deep water; this would only grow more pronounced. Our first day’s goal was to reach Yak Kharka – a half day’s hiking and a gain of more than 500 metres. Bhagawati would decide over the next day whether we were managing well enough to push on to High Camp the next day, or remain overnight at Throrong Phedi for a bit more adjustment. The second scenario would mean a more gruelling climb to the pass, but perhaps a safer alternative.

wp_2_5a

Looking back toward Manang

The trail swung away from the Marsyangdi River that had been our companion for so long, turning up the Jarsang Khola valley – so we still had a chattering, watery accompaniment below. Above, our journey was punctuated periodically by rumblings from the Gangapurna glacier as avalanches thundered down the distant slopes. We walked now in arid sub-alpine terrain, the slopes cloaked in autumn-coloured barberry shrubs, low spreading junipers and sparse alpine grasses. The climb was gentle but unrelenting and continually up.

We took our morning tea break on a roof top with an unobstructed view back toward Annapurna III and Gangapurna stretching across the mouth of the valley, splendid in the full sun. Time to catch our breath and soak in the light then back on the path, past a chorten stacked with exquisitely carved mani stones and on to our destination.

Until now, we’d seen relatively few other trekkers, considering we were traveling in peak season. Manang had been something of a gathering point, and we were definitely encountering more traffic. Fighting the altitude seemed to have levelled our own group’s disparate speeds and our porters, too, were slowing. On previous days we’d have ended up strung out over a fair distance; now we were traveling as more of a pack, resting together in little clumps and more frequently. I had more opportunity to chat with our ‘girls’ and learned that for several of them this was also their first time over the pass – and also the highest altitude that they had experienced. Bhagawati was not only monitoring our adjustment, but theirs as well – and the porters were carrying our baggage as an additional challenge.

wp_2_5f

Our intrepid porters

We reached the Himalayan View Hotel at Yak Kharka in time for lunch. The tea house offered an ambitious menu, and although Nepali pizza was credible, the moussaka was something of a stretch.

The recommended afternoon action was a short hike to a higher altitude, then back down for the night, but we staged a minor mutiny. Neil and I made personal health decisions to rest and nurse our virus. Ria very kindly offered me an Indonesian massage – a welcome addition to my recovery regimen, but sadly not as relaxing as we hoped because I coughed through the entire process. Then, blessedly, I slept – curled up in the afternoon sunshine streaming through my window. Nightfall brought us all together in the toasty warm dining hall. The porters gathered around a melodrama on the television; the rest of us huddled near the fireplace, variously occupied with journaling, reading, charging devices, treating water, drying socks and staying warm. Much of our conversation circled around our itinerary for the next days. None of us were having serious difficulty but there was an even distribution of early symptoms of AMS – mild headache, loss of appetite, nausea, sleeplessness – although it was hard to tell if these were also cold symptoms. No one was experiencing all of them, but nearly everyone had elected to take Diamox as a precaution. Ironically, while I was still recovering, I seemed mostly unaffected by altitude. Bhagawati was encouraging us to consider reaching for High Camp the next day and I think we were all anxious about gaining the extra altitude, which maybe accounted for our sleeplessness? In the end, we were in her hands; she would make the decision as our lead guide.

As pleasant as the day had been, nights were growing increasingly colder; the expanding thickness of the quilts at successive establishments testified to this. We left the warmth of the dining hall early to burrow under those ample quilts and await the next day’s decisions. Tucked up in my room with the requisite thermos of mint tea, I huddled by the window, tenting my sleeping bag around the steamy warmth. The stars – and later the moon – were spectacular. So many! So bright!

Day 7

Manang

I’ve often found that the surest way to overcome a minor ailment is to make a doctor’s appointment. I’m not claiming that miraculous cures result from the ambiance of medical waiting rooms – but rather that my tolerance for being ill usually falls just a little short of the time needed for my immune system to kick in. It would follow then that after several days of feeling quite miserable on the trail, the very morning I was about to visit an actual clinic I would awake feeling considerably better.

Sunshine was streaming through my window, warming the floor and giving a spicy wood-scent to the white-washed room. Drawing aside the curtains, I was treated to the glorious view of snow-crested Gangapurna filling my window. Just around the corner from my door, the courtyard opened into a sizeable garden and rows of frost dusted cabbages. I hung my laundry on the rail fence to dry in the sun and headed off for a hearty breakfast. My sense of taste – and my appetite – were returning!

Despite my nascent recovery, Neil convinced me to go along to the clinic. My cough persisted and by this point others in our party were also showing symptoms; it might prove valuable to us all if I sought out medical advice. So, after breakfast he accompanied me down the street to the international travel clinic run by the Himalayan Rescue Association. 

The HRA operates in three popular trekking areas of Nepal. Along with educating visitors about Acute Mountain Sickness, they also run a medical clinic in trekking season. Trekkers are charged a fee for consultation, funding the staff to provide free health care to local Nepalis. The doctors work on a strictly volunteer basis. In Manang at the time of our visit there were three doctors on staff: two from Britain, one from Nepal and a Nepali assistant.

Dr. Emma Forsyth greeted us barefoot. She was engaging and casual and generous with her time. Like most patients arriving from Kathmandu, I had a virus, likely exacerbated by the dry, cold air. She affirmed that I also likely had the beginnings of a respiratory infection, but the amoxicillin I was taking would target that effectively. Mostly, she reinforced the common sense advice that Khim and Bhagawati had been offering:  hot, soothing drinks of mint, lemon and ginger; staying well hydrated and ‘cough sweets’ to soothe the throat. To that regimen she added twice daily ‘steam baths’ with Tiger Balm (I am a total convert now!) and regular doses of both ibuprofen and acetaminophen. Chances are the virus would play out in a couple of weeks (!) Meanwhile my lungs were clear, my oxygen saturation was normal and there was no reason not to continue over the pass.

Reassured (except for that bit about the virus lasting two weeks or more!) Neil and I rejoined the others at the hotel. I grabbed my day pack and we headed out for a short morning hike. Manang was larger than any of the communities we’d been in so far and had a frontier sort of ambiance, sitting high on a plateau. We hiked down through the gated and across the valley. The terrain was dry and eroded, reminiscent of the badlands of Alberta, re-inforcing the ‘wild-west’ feeling of the town. Our path followed a narrow crest overlooking a small lake and then continued up the side of the mountain. Somewhere above us was the glacier-fed Lake Gangapurna and we were on our way to have a closer look. Unfortunately, in my haste to join the group I had come out wearing my casual, indoor shoes: sturdy enough for walking, but as we reached a height where there was snow on the trail I didn’t have enough traction to continue. Khim supported me, slipping and laughing, back to the dry trail and I headed back alone along the smaller lake to await the others.

The path back was the narrowest I’d followed up until then – a thin, flattened track along a crest of loose scree. It wasn’t far, but I took it cautiously. I’d only just reached a problematic section when Ria and one of the porters, Subash, caught up with me. We parked ourselves at the lip overlooking the lake; I was regretting that I’d relinquished my pack earlier when I started slipping. Here I was with ample opportunity to draw and no sketchbook! Instead, I soaked up the sun and the scenery and it wasn’t too long before the rest of the party re-appeared on the slope above us and we headed back to town.

Lunch, more laundry and later in the afternoon we attended the lecture at the Himalayan Rescue Association on Acute Mountain Sickness. Less than 1 in 1000 trekkers experience serious consequences from this, but that is due to being prepared and being able to recognize symptoms. It can be fatal and the HRA evacuates several serious cases each season. We’re warned to control our ascent, taking time to acclimatize to the altitude and to pay attention to symptoms that don’t resolve. We were heartened to learn that we had one thing that made AMS less likely to affect us – we’re all over 50! Who knew that age would actually be an advantage? At the conclusion of the lecture, our oxygen saturation was checked; we were all at healthy levels. Onward and upward!

The broad main street seemed quite busy as we headed back, people lining the road. I browsed a few of the shops and bought a string of prayer flags for the Throrong La pass, then opted to join some of the others at the bakery for a cappucccino and chocolate brioche. We came out onto the street just as a rush of brightly decked ponies went barreling by, bells jangling. There were horse races in progress! I may have gone without my sketchbook earlier, but my camera was ready this time! Wild west indeed!

Evening found me in the warmth of the dining hall, head under a towel, inhaling steam and Tiger Balm. Into this enforced meditative state seeped the voices of my companions: Patrick at a nearby table deciphering a Nepali folk song with some of the porters, Kathleen describing a meaningful purchase she’d made, Neil discussing a visit to the monastery at Braga. We share another meal of international cuisine and our Nepali companions once again round out the evening with music. Basking in the warmth, I realize I’ve felt like myself today, as though all this really is possible… even if the virus does hold on for two more weeks.wp_1_26

Day 6

Lower Pisang – Manang

Morning dawned clear but somewhat colder than previously – the socks I’d left to dry on the railing were frozen stiff. We warmed up somewhat before breakfast, hovering near the juniper scented fire in the dining hall.

There are two routes from Lower Pisang to Manang, Bhagawati explained to us over breakfast. One follows the river, gently ascending toward Manang. The other climbs higher for the view. Some of our porters would take the lower, faster route to go ahead and make arrangements for our accommodations. We would take the higher, longer route. It would be hard, she admitted, but it would be worth it.

I was at my lowest ebb at that point and would gladly have accompanied the porters. Miserable with cold symptoms, I was tired, achey and coughing continually. Ria, our Dutch recruit, had slipped me a course of amoxicillin the day before – out of pity, no doubt – but I wasn’t showing any improvement as yet. I could spend this entire entry telling you how miserable I was.

Misery is not what I remember of Day 6 and the high route to Manang.

The trail started out relatively gently through town and past an elaborately carved and decorated prayer wheel wall. The trail wound through soft needled pines and along the edge of a tranquil, turquoise lake.

And then we began to climb – two and a half hours of zig-zagging up the face of the hill, a gain of 500 metres in elevation. There was no chance of my keeping up in my state; I had to rest each time the trail offered a place to perch. Bhagawati relieved me of my day pack, but I still struggled – partly from illness but, as we were approaching 3700 metres in elevation, likely some of the fatigue was due to the thin air. My thoughts kept circling around the presence of a clinic at Manang. If I really was seriously ill, would I be allowed to continue over the pass? What would it mean for everyone else if I were sent back? What would it mean for me? Would I have to travel back along the road in transport of some kind? That was terrifying to contemplate. I slogged along, step-by-step, keeping my own pace but well behind the others. All my training and strength seemed to have deserted me.

At last, the trail brought us to the town of Ghyaru and tea-time – and it was worth every hard-fought, fatiguing, hacking, aching moment. Facing us across the valley Annapurna II blazed brilliantly in full sun – so close you felt that you might lean out and touch the mountain face. The sunshine was warm and luxurious on our faces as we rested and soaked in the wondrous beauty of the view. The day continued clear and warm, despite the snow that lingered here and there on the trail. The Annapurna massif accompanied our every step, looming over the day. (I don’t think I had a proper understanding of the word ‘looming” before this; there is just no other word for that weight of presence!) That view – that’s what I remember. That’s what I will always remember.wp_1_13c

The path continued up from Ghyaru; I continued to struggle. My companions encouraged me, tussling with Bhagawati for their turn shouldering my pack. Michael and Juliet reassured me that before the trek was done we’d all have had similar low points – this from the experience of their previous trek. Patrick and Kathleen made much of stopping for frequent photos, something that allowed them to slow down legitimately and keep pace with me. We lunched at Ngawal, a leisurely stop that allowed me to catch my breath. From there the trail began to descend towards Manang and I found my energy returning somewhat, but I was still the last traipsing into Manang – or I would have been had Janet not hung back to keep me company.

 

Day’s end found us in the Yak Hotel on the main street of Manang. Imagine a scene out of a western movie, if they filmed westerns in Nepal. The building was multi-storied and rambling with a confusing array of balconies and staircases. I was guided to my room, bundled into my sleeping bag and left to sleep until Bhagawati came to fetch me for dinner. Up the dimly lit stairs to the uppermost level, my legs barely lifting me, the door opened into a wonder of warmth and light, delicious odours and the bustle of kitchen staff and roar of conversation. The fire was crackling, the dining hall was filled to bursting with trekkers and the menu was an international hodge podge: pizza, burritos, rosti, dhal baat….in my memory the evening remains surreally magical.

Warm, fed, restored, I stumbled down through the labyrinthine levels to my cosy suite. I snuggled back into my sleeping bag, a thermos of steaming mint tea to see me through the night, awaiting a visit to the clinic in the morning.

And more photos…

A few more images from days 4 & 5:

Day 2-3

Ngadi-Srichaur-Dharapani

It rained during the night – a gentle noise that softened the roar of the river below our ramshackle little inn and also put an end to the regular small animal expeditions across my ceiling. We downed a hearty breakfast and then set off in a light drizzle.

wp_12_13m

The day was spent mostly climbing. The way was rocky, steep at times and slippery with the rain, but we exceeded our guide Bhagawati’s expectations, taking our late morning tea perched above the terraced rice fields surrounding Bahundanda which had been our projected lunch stop. Instead, we later lunched beside a lovely waterfall after climbing further on. Our previous jaunty pace allowed for a leisurely meal and extended tea break, so I took the opportunity to begin a short sketch. Perched on the steps overlooking the trail, taking in the view and the myriad passersby – trekkers and lines of ponies carrying goods to neighbouring villages – strains of music washed over me. Although I was wrapped up in my drawing and missed the lead-in, I recall it began with singing and then Vishnu, a porter, brought out his flute. Someone else – Patrick? – tried the flute too, I think. In any case, there was a great exchange of laughter and song and the beginnings of how music was to knit our disparate group together. The next day would find Vishnu engaged in a Nepali ‘dance-off’ with a young traveler during one of our rest stops.

We had entered the predominantly Buddhist area of Nepal, and from here the architecture became increasingly Tibetan in influence. We passed through the first of many stone gateways housing prayer wheels.

wp_12_13j

Our afternoon hike was a gentle rise and fall ending with a rickety suspension bridge which took us directly onto the flag-stoned main street of Syange and then on to Srichaur and the Hiker’s Guest House: a tiny enclave painted in a jumble of unlikely hues. We were barely settled in before the rain began in earnest. We huddled in the dining hall over hot drinks and spent the afternoon pouring over the map, catching up on journals, showers and laundry.

The next day dawned overcast but was soon gloriously sunny. The Marsyangdi valley had closed to a narrow canyon from the sides of which our route was carved. Another day of climbing; I was surprised how quickly we gained height, leaving the valley floor and soon hiking near the crest of the surrounding hills. We’d start each day dressed for the early morning weather and by the time we’d warmed up and stopped to take our jackets off, our previous night’s lodging would already seem far below.

wp_12_13f

We passed through numerous villages, walking sometimes on the road, sometimes on the trail, although the two were hard to tell apart at times. We criss-crossed the gorge on the now familiar suspension bridges, at one point stopping in disbelief to watch a bus and a transport truck pass each other on the alarmingly narrow road across from us. Not surprisingly, all the passengers got off the bus before the maneuver.

wp_12_13c

Look closely…yes, that is a road winding around that outcrop! The tiny orange spot to right of centre is a vehicle and there’s a white one coming around the curve at the left…

Lunchtime found us at Tal and another gaily painted establishment. Here the valley opened and the river snaked through a gravelly flat plain. We were again ahead of schedule and Bhagawati decided we would carry on to Dharapani for the night. The clouds closed over once more and we walked in a light drizzle, but the afternoon’s trail was easier and we were soon at our night’s accommodation at the Heaven Guest Hotel. That laryngitis I’d started out with had developed into a full-on cold, so it was heaven indeed when the promised hot shower actually hit the lovely temperature of 42C!

wp_12_13a

A last thought to ponder: throughout the day we occasionally glimpsed snow-covered peaks above us. Each time the clouds parted to reveal a snowy face we would eagerly enquire: which mountain were we seeing? Our guides patiently explained that the clouds were still concealing the mountains, and that we were only seeing “hills.” At 3000 metres a Himalayan hill earns status as a “peak.” At 5000 metres, it is considered a “mountain.” The Annapurna mountains are between 6000 and 8000 metres high. Everest tops out at 8,848.

For perspective: the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies is Mount Robson at 3,954 metres and the highest in the Alps, Mont Blanc, is 4,808: mere “peaks” by Himalayan standards.

And they’re off!

Pokhara and Day 1

Our original plan had been to take a bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara and the start of the hike, but the fuel shortage had seriously reduced ground transport, so we flew instead. Looking back, I’m grateful. One: because it gave me my first sight of the Himalayas; aside from a view of the Annapurna panorama on first landing in Pokhara, the weather quickly grew hazy and it would be several days before we’d catch another glimpse. And two: the more I saw of Nepali roads, the less I wanted to drive on them!wp_12_3aPokhara is the second largest city in Nepal and the assembly point for most trekking. It’s a busy, colourful, commercial centre with a “hippie” vibe, but far from busy – tourism is down by 40% post-earthquake. As we toodled about town hunting down various needed items, I began to wonder just what it was that I was missing…the conversations would go something like this:

Shopkeeper: Ah, welcome – so glad you have come to Nepal! Are you trekking?

Yes, we’re doing the Annapurna Circuit.

Shopkeeper: Ah, Annapurna. Just a short trek then?

No, we’re doing the Circuit.

Shopkeeper: You are here for how long? Seven days? Ten days?

No, for twenty-one days. We’re doing the whole Circuit.

Shopkeeper: Really? The whole Annapurna Circuit?

Hmmm.

We were traveling with 3 Sisters Trekking company – an outfit that is owned and run by – you guessed it! – three Nepali sisters. Years ago they found it nearly impossible for women to enter the trekking business, so they started their own company. Nearly all their porters and guides are young women – and as we went along, we found that the company – and our girls – were highly respected and well known in the trade.

We settled in at the 3 Sisters guesthouse and then set off to the office for a short orientation. I squeezed past a group of kids in the reception area, wondering if it was ‘take your kid to work day’ or something? We were introduced to Bhagawati – our lead guide. Michael and Juliet had trekked with her previously and requested her specifically; her easy, throaty laugh was something that would become addictive, I was sure. Khim, our assistant guide, constantly beaming, seemed equally delightful. Of course, the young women who trooped into the room to be introduced as our porters were the “kids” I’d pushed past earlier. As fit and strong as these girls were, they were all tiny – and even the two male porters were slight by North American standards. We all immediately went back to our rooms to pare down the extra weight in our packs!wp_12_3bNext morning we were off in the van to Besisahar, joined by a Dutch woman, Ria, who was to accompany us as far as the pass. So now we were eight. We rendezvoused with the porters, had lunch – and then we were off. No fanfare, no official photo, no fuss – we just started walking down the road. We hiked through woods and villages, along roads and paths, following the course of the Marsyangdi River through a deep valley with the rich green hills close around us, hiding the mountains from sight. The sub-tropical greenery was lush and exotic, yet many of the plants were familiar – poinsettia, lantana, coleus – only grown to an unfamiliar height. Most houses had gardens – vegetables certainly, but also flowers: roses, hibiscus, bougainvillea and everywhere – marigolds. The pace seemed easy, with time for chatting, getting acquainted and taking advantage of the bamboo swings that had been erected in the villages for the Dashain festival just past.
wp_12_3dIn spite of the remoteness and the forbidding heights, the landscape struck me as a very human one, an engineered environment – terraced and sculpted rice fields, criss-crossed with ancient drystone walls and flagstone paths. Each time we reached what felt like an impossible height there was always a farm precariously perched on the hillside further up or a village higher still.wp_12_3eThe trail also crossed from one side of the valley to the other – via bridges. Suspension bridges. Long ones. For which I have always had a profound…distaste, shall we say? I made it across the first one; learning very quickly how far ahead to focus to give the illusion that I was crossing something solid. (Just walk…breathe…you’re good…) I also learned who not to follow onto the bridge – as in: the avid photographers. As in: the ones who stop in the middle for the best shots. (Breathe…you’re…good.)wp_12_3cOn that first day, and many days after, I reflected that hiking Ontario’s Bruce Trail had been better preparation than I imagined. Not in elevation gain, certainly, but the terrain underfoot was familiar – rocky paths, gravelly slopes, uneven stone stairs and interlaced tree roots. So, the first day I felt strong and prepared and even the steeper climbs left me feeling undaunted and rather, well, triumphant. Yes, I had a little bit of a sore throat – well, full-blown laryngitis actually. But who needed to talk? Let’s just say I was speechless.

We finished up the day just as it began to get drizzly, at the Holliday Trekker’s Guesthouse in Ngadi – rustic but cosy and dry. Bhagawati figured we’d covered about 17k. Dinner, then, tucked up under the mosquito net, I was lulled to sleep by the rush of the river below.wp_12_3gwp_12_3f.jpg