Annapurna. The Goddess of the Harvest. This mountain is circumnavigated by the 230km Annapurna Circuit trek which crosses the Thorung La: a 5416m pass teetering on the brink of the Tibetan Plateau. Often voted the best long-distance hike in the world, it is trumped only by the base camp of Everest herself. In March 2019, I set myself on this challenge, alone and unguided.
The journey to the start line is somewhat of an initiation. Amidst the chaos of Kathmandu, people, obscure pieces of furniture and baskets of chickens are all piled onto the bus. Just when you think that nothing more could possibly fit, a whole family and their goat get on. Off we trundle along the ‘road’ – a steep, rugged ravine barely deserving of the word. Everyone holds on to everyone else, strangers helping strangers on this buckling roller coaster.
After many squashed hours, I relish the fresh air alongside the Marshyangdi River as it roars through a landscape of terraced barely fields and recently built roads. Whilst these reminders of civilisation are frequent, I marvel at the vastness of the landscapes and how man barely makes his mark. Undoubtedly, these roads harm the natural world, but they provide a lifeline for local communities, a way of navigating the oppressive isolation imposed by the beautiful ridge-lines. How can anyone be denied development in the face of aesthetic sensibilities?
After a few hours of trudging through a thunderstorm, I call it a day and check into one of the many ‘teahouses’ scattered along the trail. My shelter is a simple, colourfully painted room with a small window. For 75p a night I can hardly complain. Though, I am a little perplexed - where are all the people? I've seen no one else all day on this so called ‘gravy trail’. Usually I seek solitude in nature, but in this man-made structure built for 20 I feel eerily awkward, disconnected even.
Luckily, on the following day I make three friends. Christian is a family man from Germany who fulfils all the hyper-rational, uber-efficient stereotypes. Neil radiates a phenomenal degree of kindness and trained for the trek through the Canadian Winter to keep up with his 23-year-old gazelle of a son, Sam. Decked head to toe in black, this mountain ninja is always well ahead of the pack. Slowly, they become my entourage. Our paces sync, our personalities gel and a fellowship is formed. I’m grateful for their company. The number of trekkers we see turning back due to altitude sickness, avalanche risk or just pure exhaustion makes it increasingly clear that tackling this pass alone would be wholly irresponsible.
Our days fall into a rhythm. Woken by first light, we get on the trail before 8am and chew through most of the miles in the cool morning air before slurping noodles in the blazing overhead sun. After lugging through a couple more hours in the post-lunch lull, we call it a day before the thunderstorms roll in. Evenings are spent reading and playing cards over excessively large pots of tea and I am blissfully asleep by 8pm. This is the good life. With each passing day, my worries dwindle; tomorrow is beyond the horizon, beyond the next sunrise and, most importantly, beyond the limits of my grasping mind.
Over the edge of the next ridge the snow-caps peep shyly in the distance, but it is not long before we are stooped in their shadow. Annapurna literally means ‘full of food’: she is the mother that feeds, the bountiful harvest. However, as the tenth highest mountain in the world and the deadliest of them all, she is also a force that takes things away. Of course, the feminist in me thinks she is a total badass, but too many men have paid the price for trying to conquer the unconquerable.
We have now reached the cruising height of the Himalayan griffon and break in our lungs on a relentless climb dubbed ‘the day of the dreaded switchbacks’. I keep everyone well stocked with sweets and cereal bars in an exerted effort to lighten my load. I don't quite know how my bag manages to weigh 15 kg, but my new friends joke that it contains nothing but snacks. My bag, the weight of Annapurna…and me? The mother that feeds.
We reach Manang: the great gateway to the Himalayas, the last touchstone with civilisation before setting forth into the land of snows. The sun rises on a crystal morning, dousing the peaks of Gangapurna and Annapurna III in liquid gold. It’s crunch time. To pass or not to pass? From here, it’s a 3-day hike to Thorung La. After that, the storms close in again. We can hardly believe our luck. We’re doing this thing.
After 2 short exhausting days battling melting snowpack, we reach the final stop before the ascent. Teetering amidst ice cliffs and head-high snow drifts, this miraculous little oasis even has its own bakery boasting chocolate twists and cinnamon swirls. Unfortunately, I left my appetite at 3000m and staring at the same menu everyday becomes a rather hysterical task. It all tastes the same. Going in or coming out, the stench of garlic, spices and cabbage is ever-present. The toilets here have an additional obstacle; a treacherous slab of ice has formed over the stairs creating a slippery slide directly into the squat porcelain. Thank god I bought micro-spikes.
As a kid, I used to love waking up before sunrise. It always meant something exciting was about to happen, like getting on an aeroplane or catching a glimpse of Santa. The early start sprinkles the day with this child-like wonderment. The sky turns an intense hue of black-merging-blue as it coaxes the giants from their night-time slumber, casting their silhouettes across the skyline. Our gallant efforts are rewarded by the magical physics of light refracting around the spinning earth. The sun dashes its crimson glow across the snow-globe we are encased in, and nature’s embrace is complete.
Christian breaks trail in an energetic burst of enthusiasm, but soon wears himself out. It’s tempting to follow his fast footholds, but my knees remind me that after the 5-hour climb, we still have 1800m of descent. The pack congregates behind my slow, consistent steps. It is a plod-a-thon. I am reminded of home and my time spent at the front of the rowing boat, pacing out a steady stretch along the river with the sound of 8 blades slicing the water behind me. I can’t see my team but as we move in collective unison, I can feel their power. I enter a trance-like state. There is nothing but the thud of my legs, the heave of my lungs and a rich, thick silence. We stop for second breakfast at high camp - a good day always begins with 2 breakfasts.
Allegedly there are 14 false summits on Thorung La. Flag poles mark our indistinct passage across the wide and featureless snowpack. We make estimates - 45 minutes to go, 30, 20 – but suddenly, in the distance, a flash of multi-coloured prayer flags springs out of nowhere. Is this it?! We made it! Congratulatory hugs and compulsory pictures ensue. Here we are, four people who have shared dinners, mars bars and blister pain over the space of a week. All distance between strangers is eclipsed by our shared sense of achievement.
Heading down, I repeatedly fall over and seem to lose all connection with the earth. There is a solution: let gravity do its job. In a pioneering act of sensible silliness, we slide down the mountain, leaving behind only bum-shaped grooves. Even Neil, the 63-year-old going on 6, can’t resist. I soon catch him glissading down the mountain in unadulterated, bum-shuffling glee. It's never too late to have a happy childhood. After 11 gruelling hours, we are relieved to reach our destination for the day. I lay in bed with a full belly, a bruised bum and a warm heart.
On the other side of the pass, we meet a crossroad. I must say goodbye to the 3 wonderful men I’ve grown so fond of. We must return to our lives, but when we do, we will return changed. Contrary to William Blake, I don’t believe you can “hold infinity in the palm of your hand”. But then again, in those small moments of quiet splendour, maybe it could rest there a while. As soon as you grasp it, it's gone.