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IT WAS cold, far too cold. Today was the day. I snuggled down into my sleeping bag and willed the night to last forever; I didn’t feel ready for what lay ahead.
I was at a height of nearly 4400 meters and in just a couple of hours would be ascending a further 1016m. Cold, Himalayan air swirled around the tiny shack clinging to the mountainside. I could hear the wind, howling like a panicked animal, tearing at the icy door.
Yesterday, Nepalese army helicopters had flown in three times to take trekkers suffering from altitude sickness off the mountain.
I had spent large chunks of the past 48 hours kneeling in the snow; almost blind, cold and awfully sick. I knew already that I could not afford the helicopter so only two options remained; either I crossed Thorong La Pass, the highest navigable pass in the world, or I turned around and spent at least 10 days walking back the way I had come.
I vowed to cross the path, even if I had to crawl.
I looked around the room. My friends, an eclectic bunch of travellers I had met in a Kathmandu bar, were still. They appeared almost frozen, the only sign of life being the telltale wisps of icy breath emerging from their sleeping bags.
The past couple of weeks had been hard. I was an experienced trekker but an old leg injury was slowing me down and I was simply not well adapted to breathing this high up. Even now, in the confines of the room, safe in my sleeping bag, I breathed rapidly, harshly, the very effort of staying alive was enough to exert me.
I was scared. Scared for the first time in years. Fear gripped me like a ragdoll and shook me, jumbled thoughts of failure tumbling through my head. I pushed the thoughts to the back of my mind and reminded myself that the alternative to crossing the pass was to turn around.
I made another promise to myself; I would cross Thorong La, even if it killed me.
I closed my eyes and slept for another hour before the shrill beeping of my alarm dragged me from a fitful sleep.
Glancing at the others, I threw on my down jacket and started to roll up my sleeping bag. I had slept in my clothes to maintain body heat and was ready to go almost straight away. After a hurried breakfast of porridge laden with sugar and raisins, we switched on our headlamps and marched into the darkness.
From the collection of ramshackle wooden buildings that served as the final refuge before the climb, a path snaked steeply upwards and immediately began to switch back.
The cold had sucked the energy from my batteries and my head-torch was already dying. My world was reduced to a couple of meters in each direction.
My trek-mates were above and below me. We didn’t speak, each of us in our own private world. It was just me and the mountains. Breathing hard I placed my foot another couple of centimetres up the trail and dared to look back. We had covered less than 100 vertical meters.
The weight upon my chest was building, as if some cruel God was stacking stone after stone upon me. My lungs were crushed in a vice-like grip, an unimaginable, unrelenting pressure. I couldn’t breathe. I gulped at the air, feeling as though I were a swimmer surfacing for air. It didn’t help.
Tears threatened to spill down my face. Blinking hard, I forced them back and swore at myself. I spoke to myself, quietly, consistently. I could barely breathe but somehow I could still talk. I could only manage one or two words at a time but I forced myself on with promises of success and threats of regret. Slowly, surely, I continued upwards.
I continued for what seemed like hours. We passed a dejected group of trekkers, they were turning around, the altitude was too much for them. We could do little but offer a frozen smile and a few small words of condolences.
A wave of coughing forced me to my knees. I spat goblets of yellow phlegm into the snow and struggled to my feet. Weaving like a drunk, I continued up the path.
Deep down, I knew I was showing every sign of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) in which the lungs slowly fill with fluid. We had been warned about this at the ramshackle medical base we had passed nearly four days ago.
“If you suffer from altitude sickness, you should turn around and descend. If you suffer from HAPE, get your arse off the mountain.”
That was pretty much all I could remember of the advice given to us on HAPE. If you got it, you should turn around. If you didn’t and your lungs continued to fill with fluid, you could drown. It was too late to turn around — I had to keep going.
My mind swirled. For two more hours I struggled up icy paths, stumbling often but falling less. My knee was bloody and my gloves soaked. A friend grasped my elbow and steered me over a patch of ice.
I could no longer focus on where I was going and bulldozed forwards over ice, sharp rocks and through deep snow drifts rather than trying to follow the path. I figured that as long as I continued to go ‘up’ it didn’t really matter.
I didn’t actually dare to look up, I focused on my feet. I ignored my body’s attempts to turn me around and shuffled onward with tiny steps, those of an infant or an old man. I could barely keep my eyes open, I was exhausted.
I slipped, fell to my knees and coloured the snow with another fit of retching. I gulped down air greedily but my lungs would not be satisfied. I knew I was severely dehydrated but the water in my bottle was frozen solid and my hands too cold to open the lid. There was nothing to do but continue.
Two more hours of climbing and we still hadn’t reached the top, the sun was rising fast and sketching the mountain tops pink, red and gold. Screaming wind tore at me and stung my sunburnt face. My lips, cracked and bloody, craved water and even though I knew I shouldn’t I sucked on a handful of snow.
We passed a herd of shaggy yaks sheltering behind a rocky outcrop and finally reached a narrow, extremely icy trail that snaked upwards another 200m. The altimeter on my watch suggested I was less than an hour from the top.
This was the point of no return — this part of the trail would be extremely dangerous to do in reverse.
My hands were frozen and stung painfully as I shook them to keep the blood flowing. I began to shuffle forwards, onto the trail, a sheer wall of rock, ice and stone on one side, a near-vertical drop upon the other.
I willed my eyes to remain open. My mind was blank, unable to comprehend what was happening. I shuffled forwards with grim determination, vaguely aware there was a sheer drop about 30 centimetres to my right. My foot slipped out from beneath me and my eyes snapped open. I was falling.
Instinctively I smashed my hand into the path and kicked out with my other foot, trying to get it back on the path. I hung there precariously, my pack weighing me down, an extremely cold Spider-Man clinging to the path. Slipping slowly, I scrabbled desperately at the snow, too tired to summon the energy I need to get back on the path.
A hand entered my field of vision and pulled me upwards, back onto the path. I smashed my head into the path, using it as a crude anchor. I was inched back onto the path. I lay there, exhausted and clinging to the path as if I were a castaway just washed up on an island.
Seconds turned into minutes, and I decided to get back up and look for my shoe. My feet were wrapped in numerous plastic bags but these offer no protection from the cold of the ice. I found my shoe and laughed. We are close to the top, this is doable.
The fall excited me, pumped adrenaline into my body. I coughed, spitting more horrible looking stuff onto the snow and continuing upwards. I knew I had to be close to the top.
Prayer flags flapped fiercely in the wind. Mountains spilt away from me on all sides, snow-capped tops glinting in the rising sun. A thick carpet of fresh white snow covered everything, huge slabs of ice clung to the few exposed faces of rock. We had made it, we had succeeded where so many others had failed. For the first time in my life, I felt unequivocally proud of myself.
I was exhausted but enthralled; the mountains breathing gently in the early morning sun. Shimmering patterns played upon the edges of my vision, it was not hard to imagine that this is the kind of place where one might have a spiritual experience.
A tiny shack inhabited by an ancient Nepalese man with bowlegs and a friendly smile offered a moment’s respite and the opportunity to buy the most expensive glass of Chai in all of Nepal. It was worth every penny.
I turned, soaking up the view one more time. I have seen many truly stunning sites on my travels yet to this day the Annapurna Mountains in Nepal are the most special, primal place I have ever been.
This trek changed my life forever. I had pushed myself further than I knew possible, and nothing could stop me now. I shouldered my pack, said a silent prayer and began the long descent down the other side of the pass.
While not as gruelling as climbing nearby Everest, death does visit Thorong La at times — last October a snowstorm claimed at least 43 lives in the Annapurna Circuit, of which Thorong La is the highest point. There were 518 people who had to be rescued. And last February, a trekker died after becoming stranded on Thorong La.