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…

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Celebrating

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.

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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.

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