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Thursday 2 Nov 2006
Annapurna Trek, Nepal

Preparing for The Thorung La Pass

One of the appeals of doing the Annapurna trek in Nepal for me is that it has everything, combining spectacular scenery with culture and personal challenge. In the three weeks it took us to complete the trek we'd hiked through every type of scenery from jungle and alpine forests right in to the heart of the highest mountain range in the world. We'd seen remote villages with distinct cultures and traditions, cut off from roads and western amenities, but we'd also tested ourselves both physically and mentally. At an elevation of 5416 metres 'The Thorung La' pass is the central and pivotal point of the trek. It's one of the highest places on earth hikers can climb to without the help of ropes.

We started making our preparations to go over 'The Pass' in Mustang, a village where all hikers on the trek converge for a couple of days to acclimatise at 3800 metres before they head up to more 'serious' altitudes. It's a very pretty village nestled in a spectacular setting, against the backdrop of the full Annapurna range and 'Grand Barrier' that divides Nepal from China. It's a rich trading post and a haven of trekkers delights with a multitude of bakeries, restaurants and even a couple of makeshift cinemas. It was our first taste of civilisation after 10 days hiking and we gorged ourselves on Yak steak and pastries. There's a nervous energy about the place as everyone buzzes around sharing their excitement and apprehensions about ''The Pass' with each other. At 3pm we all gathered together in a small hut for the lecture on the dangers and prevention of altitude sickness, given by a charismatic Austrian climber and doctor, which added to the sense of occasion.

It was at the lecture that we bumped in to Joost (Belgium), Lawry (Aussie), Kornelia (German) and Cyril (Swiss). You tend to meet the same faces again and again on the trek and our paths had crossed regularly over the past few days. Together with Fabienne, a Swiss nurse we'd been hiking with almost since the start, we decided to come together to make a formidable team of seven. The next morning we all decided to make a side trip up to Icy Lake. It would be a long day with a 1200 metre climb, but the views were supposed to be amazing and at an elevation of 4800 metres it would be good acclimatisation for 'The Pass.' The view from Icy Lake turned out to be one of the most memorable and breathtaking views of the whole trek. Another was our first sight of Annapurna II only two days earlier in Upper Pisang. The clouds cleared and we had an isolated and unobstructed view as a powder snow avalanche crashed down just below its triangular peak.

The morning we climbed up to Icy Lake there wasn't a cloud in the sky. The sun warmed our backs, and we watched in awe as the mountains that make up the great Grand Barrier divide between Nepal and China stretched in to the distance and disappeared in to the horizon. Dwarfing us directly opposite towered the snow laden peaks of Machhapuchare and Annapurna's II, III and IV. All of them over 7000 metres. It was an awe-inspiring spot. It's futile to try and explain the beauty of the Himalayas, they have an almost mystic quality that exudes infinite peace, size and power. Looking at them at that moment in the blistering morning sun, sat down on a slope in the dust and shrubs at 4500 metres stirred my emotions in a way I could never describe. None of us really spoke, content to soak in the views and breath in the thin but clear mountain air. I felt very lucky that Rob and I could share the moment together.

We reached the lake early afternoon, and already the clouds had rolled in and the wind picked up. It turned bitterly cold. Our clothes damp with sweat from the morning sun quickly became chilled, my fingers and toes turned numb and we raced back down. How quickly the weather changes up here. That night it was freezing and I woke with a sore throat, a dry tickling cough and an attack of the runs. I shrugged it off as a minor inconvenience and set off with the others to Letdar - the first stage of the climb to The Pass.

Despite unloading my sleeping bag on Rob, I was struggling to keep up. I'd felt great on the climb up to Icy Lake yesterday, fully acclimatised and hardly noticed the altitude but today was a different story. I had no strength and seemed unable to control my breathing. We caught up with the others for lunch at Yokanda. My throat was painfully raw and I had a hacking cough. I desperately wanted to go on with everyone else but logic told me I needed to rest. We discussed it with the group, it seemed likely that I'd picked up a chest cold on the hike up to Icy Lake, but even a cold at altitude can be a bit dicey and we didn't want to take any chances. Rob and I decided to stay put whilst the others went on to Letdar. It was really sad, especially leaving Fabienne who we'd hiked with from the start, even if I improved and we didn't have to go down we might never catch up with the others. Fabienne showered me with drugs, pills and potions from her 'Sac Magic,' and we hugged amidst coughs and tears. Everyone told me to down as many strepsals as I could, and assured me they'd see us tomorrow. I went to bed feeling very sorry for myself, hoping my luck would change the next day.

By some miracle the next morning I felt better so we decided to push on to Thorung Pedi and reassess my condition there. The strepsals and 18 hour sleep seemed to have done the trick. I still had a cough but my sore throat and diarrhea had gone. Altitude is a funny thing, standing still I felt fine but as soon as I donned my backpack put my body in to motion I felt like I'd been hit by a brick wall. It wasn't so much a feeling of breathlessness as complete lethargy. My body seemed to have gone on strike. I kept telling myself it was all in the mind and willing myself to put one foot in front of the other. Unlike yesterday I felt in control of my body and breathing but we were going painfully slowly. At one point Rob exasperated me by saying: 'You're making it very difficult for yourself you know. Take shorter steps and get in to a rhythm. It's all about the rhythm.' He then started shouting 'one, two, one, two' like some Sergeant Major. I knew he was only trying to help and what he said was true, but he seemed fully acclimatised and barely out of breath whilst I was heavy lunged and struggling for each step. It was all I could do to refrain from wanting to punch him.

Despite our slowness we made it to Thorung Phedi in good time. I was personally spurred on the last few steps by a jubilant Fabienne who had just set off for High Camp at 4600 metres, but turned back when she spotted us and came running down to greet me with a big hug. It was still early so we agreed to try and make it to High Camp if I was strong enough, and Fabienne said she'd reserve us a bed just in case. One cinnamon roll and a pot of masala tea later and we decided to give it a go. It was tough going but we made steady progress up the switch backs to High Camp. It was fine until we actually caught sight of the place, and my body decided it wanted a rest every two steps. We couldn't have been more than 50 metres away, and I must have stopped about 20 times. It was lovely to see Joost, Kornelia, Lawry and Cyril again. They were all so pleased to see us. Fabienne exclaimed 'God it's so hard, so hard!' and we both laughed.

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