Day 8 – Yak Karta to Thorong Phedi
I shot out of bed at 3:30 in the morning, restless and claustrophobic in my sleeping bag sarcophagus. It must have been about 20 degrees inside our room, and I tossed and turned like a petulant child as I desperately tried and failed to go back to sleep. I was sick of the cold, sick of the nausea, and sick of scanning my eyes back and forth for hours across the dim, blue glow of my Kindle screen. The electric buzz of my skin longed to touch the air without cringing again.
My only respite was hiking. When the sun edged its way over the walls of the river canyon each morning, suddenly, the world was filled with life, and the air became a bearable 33 degrees. Birds chirped and hikers I’d been leap-frogging for days would come out of the woodwork and onto the trail. The repetitive motion of walking warmed my creaky bones for hours on end, and I finally felt something in the realm of normalcy. When I was moving, I was happy.
The only problem was that here, at this elevation, it would be unsafe to ascend higher than 1500 feet per day, which meant that after about 3 or 4 blissful hours of sun-drenched Himalayan trail time, I needed to stop, locate a guesthouse room, and keep myself occupied until 6 or 7am the next morning.
Did I mention the fires only run from 5-9pm in the common area?
Needless to say, I was thrilled to leave Yak Karta after a cup of tea and a bowl of apple porridge. I was still fighting a fever, some sort of digestive problem, and a spectacular set of period cramps that had just joined the party, but at least the sun was shining.
The trail from Yak Karta to Thorong Phedi traverses the steep banks of the Marsyangdi River, jumping from an elevation of 13,287 to 14,600 feet in just under 5 miles. Brian and I both found ourselves breathless and dizzy in the late morning sun as we ascended into a desolate landscape of shrubs and stone huts.
We were in landslide territory now, with no tree roots or underlying structure to hold the ground together beneath our feet, so we gingerly stepped one boot in front of the other as we carefully traversed the side of the mountain. The lapis snake of the river was a few hundred feet below us, a faint lace of ice cutting into its curves. One wrong move would be a costly mistake.
I had heard rumors that lodging was in short supply the higher one ascended along the Annapurna Circuit, so when lunchtime came around, Brian and I pushed onward past droves of English tourists sipping tea as they overlooked Gangapurna and the valley below. We moved swiftly and carefully, creeping past locals with horses on the delicate gravel path.
My heart leapt when we rounded a corner and saw the final straightaway that would take us to our home for the night, Thorong Phedi, and we were quickly rewarded for our tenacity on the trail. We splurged on a big room with a private toilet at the uber-hip Thorong View Lodge and Windhorse Restaurant.
For a freeing cold base camp before a rugged morning climb, this place had its vibe on point. The owner was a thirty-something Asian man with dreadlocks, there were guitars on the walls, and the dining hall played sultry yoga beats and sitar music while weary hikers stuffed their faces with burgers and soups and pasta.
Outside, hundreds of black birds crisscrossed overhead, carving the sky into a speckled Rorschach inkblot. I watched them for a moment, mesmerized by their effortless flow, wondering how my own body would fair the following day on our big climb. If I looked at the birds and found strength and hope, did I pass the test?
That night, I shoveled macaroni into my mouth and continued devouring my novel. I began regimenting my intake of Advil, and I carefully packed a Ziploc full of tampons and wet wipes for easy access as we ascended the pass. Finally, aching and exhausted after two sleepless nights, I collapsed into my sleeping bag and rolled my body against Brian’s for the comfort and body heat I so desperately desired. For the first time in what felt like forever, I got a full night’s sleep.
It was fucking marvelous.
Day 9 – Thorong Phedi to Muktinath to Jomsom
I awoke to darkness all around me. It was 4:45am and the power must have gone out in the night. After a quick pee in our completely frozen squat toilet, I shimmied into a set of bottom thermals, hiking pants, expedition weight wool socks, top thermals, an insulated mid-layer jacket, a down coat, my thickest gloves, and my beloved mowhawk hat. I was ready for battle.
Brian and I packed up our things in the black limbo of the early morning, guiding our frigid fingers with headlamps and iPhone lanterns as we readied our packs. We ate in a dimly lit dining hall, a few fluorescent spotlights scattered around the place as I warmed my insides with a bowl of apple porridge. At the next table over, a guide was praying to baby Jesus and all the gods that came before him, summoning their mystical powers to shepherd us safely across the Thorong La Pass. Now, I’ve never been a religious person, but I was grateful for the aid of any good magic willing to come my way.
It was time to move. We began walking slowly and carefully up the steep, rocky trail towards high camp, roughly 300 meters above our guesthouse in Thorong Phedi. As we ascended, breathless groups of trekkers seemed to quickly split into two groups: those who came prepared and those who were in over their heads. Even though I hiked at what felt like an impossibly slow speed, Brian and I soon began passing fellow travelers we had kept pace with for the majority of the trail.
The cold was surreal. I have a fair amount of high altitude and mountain climbing experience, but it was all no match for the extremities of nearly 18,000 feet above sea level. Though I was wearing my thickest wool socks and a pair of waterproof mountaineering boots, the cold dug into my veins and made bricks out of my feet. It spun icicles into my cheeks and left my face so numb that I slurred my speech. My frozen fingers ached and tingled, as though the slightest touch might fracture them like broken glass. I took deep breaths and reminded myself to keep moving and simply give in. This suffering was only temporary.
By the time we reached High Camp, I could not move a single muscle in my toes; they felt like two frozen meatloaves someone had vindictively strapped to the bottoms of my legs. So, I skittered inside the kitchen area and force-fed myself a snack, happy to get out of the wind and into a room with ambitions of warmth. The man tending the fire yelled at me for trying to warm myself too near its coals, and I was quickly shooed away to the dining room with the other hikers, anxious about what lay ahead.
At that exact moment, something like a small miracle happened. Brian peeked his head out the front door and noticed a brilliant stream of sunlight pouring over the hilltops just above High Camp like luminescent honey, thick and sweet against the arid landscape. We both practically jumped for joy, and I shoved the remaining pieces of a cheese stick and Clif Bar into my mouth. “Finally!” I thought, “The temperature might warm to 20 degrees instead of 10 degrees!”
It was still amazingly cold, but the sunlight seemed to create a world in which there was hope. The sun brought life to an otherwise desolate landscape and warmed my skin just enough to allow optimism into my frostbitten little heart. We continued up along the trail, breathing deeply as we ascended at a sloth’s pace, inhaling and exhaling like a moving meditation. There was simply nowhere else to go but up.
I was walking slower than I have ever walked in my entire life, taking one full, deep breath in and out for every step I made on the way to the pass. My lungs heaved as the lack of oxygen wrestled with my organs, and I gasped for air like a fish plucked from the ocean. My movements were slow and deliberate like a monk or an insect. The mountain was testing my patience and my ability to move forward calmly and consciously without losing my mind.
And then, there was nothing.
No hikers, no teahouses, no pass or horses in sight, just an endless field of glacial rocks and a trail that continued forever onward. The wind was intensifying; great gusts of 40 miles per hour stung my face like needles and left my cheeks raw. It was all too much.
My anxiety shattered. I had too many what ifs and too many bizarre, imaginary disaster scenarios bouncing around in my head. I needed a break from the clamor of constant wind and the cold that was ripping the sanity from my body. I ducked into an abandoned, roofless shack to talk to Brian, finally able to hear his voice in the welcome windbreak.
“I don’t know how much more tank I’ve got in the gas!” I yelled to Brian, my mouth numb and sticky from the cold.
“What??” He stammered back.
“I don’t know how much gas I’ve got in the tank! I’m pretty fucking wiped, dude.” I was shoving my fear as far down my throat as I could to get the words out, but it was true. I was exhausted, scared, and colder than I’d ever been in my life, and I had no idea how close we were to the pass. Brian wiped the tears from my eyes and watched as I got some food into my belly. I felt so incredibly small.
I reminded myself to just breathe. Panic would not save me. I repeated these words in my mind, “Inhale. Exhale. Eat calories. And trust that you are strong enough. Don’t worry about anything other than walking mindfully forward.”
And, as luck would have it, we passed a group of Israeli hikers not five minutes later. Their eyes were wide and their smiles were huge as they told us that we were a mere 100 meters from the pass. I rounded one final curve of the trail, and, poof! Thorong La Pass was there in all her frigid, glacial glory, prayer flags fluttering furiously in the biting November wind. It was as though they were reminding me, once again, of Nepal’s ancient lessons that I needed to carry with me. “Peace. Compassion. Strength. Wisdom.” I marveled at their rainbow glow as they grew near.
Tears of joy began pouring out of my eye sockets as I huffed and puffed my way up the remaining few feet to the pass. I couldn’t believe it! So much intensity and planning all went into crossing this small patch of earth. The hard part was behind me.
After a severely overpriced cup of masala tea from the lonely tea master in a hut at the summit, my body went into fight or flight mode, and I flew down the next dozen switchbacks without even thinking, desperate to get out of the maddening wind and mind-numbing high altitude. The sun was out, and now that we were going downhill, it was time to move.
I zipped down the first 2,000 feet of descent with Brian struggling to keep up, my fear sewing wings to the backs of my heels as I leapt over boulders and skidded down gravel walkways. We ate a quick lunch in the sun next to a gaggle of fellow trekkers, just outside of two cerulean blue shelters made from corrugated steel panels. When I wandered around to the doorway of one to try to find a bathroom, I was immediately struck by the immense stench of the place. The floor was easily 20 by 30 feet, and the entirety of it was lined in human feces and toilet paper. I covered my nose and tried to pee as quickly as I could, feeling sorry for whatever poor souls might actually have to take refuge here during a storm.
The rest of the descent passed before my eyes like a blur. We were deep in the rain shadow of the Annapurna massif now, a vast expanse of towering peaks and very little vegetation or animals. I stomped my way quickly down the trail, my knees taking a beating as I hiked down, down, down. We needed to descend over 5,000 vertical feet, and to finish before dark meant we had to hustle.
The sacred city of Muktinath first appeared as a striking beacon perched delicately on the edge of the mountain itself, sunlight streaming through yellow guesthouses and historic temples. I was starving for food and the comforts of civilization, and we had arrived just in time for an early dinner.
There was one small problem, though. Brian and I were nearly out of cash. We were told in Yak Karta that a bigger town like Muktinath would surely have an ATM or at least a hotel that took credit cards, but, as we walked along the streets lined with jewelry vendors and momo stalls, we quickly found that no one was able to take our plastic computer money. It was embarrassing. A room and a good dinner would have been less than twenty dollars, and we just didn’t have it.
So, we did what all improvisationally-skilled travelers do. We scampered quickly through town and to the bus station to jump onto the last bus to Jomsom so that we could finally rest and eat some delectable food.
The bus ride ended up being the scariest part of the entire trip.
First of all, the bus sputtered and threatened to not even start when the driver turned the key in the ignition several times before it lurched into action. Then, we spent an hour speeding around hairpin turns, descending from Muktinath to Jomsom with the fury of a Valkyrie. As we swerved, we passed Gurung horseback riders and yak farmers, maneuvering over “road” washouts on a motorway that more resembled a riverbed than a path made for vehicles. All the while, people were practically flying out of their seats as the sun began to set, while manic Bollywood music blared enthusiastically from the speakers.
I am happy to report that I did not die and that Brian and I arrived shaken yet safely within the city limits of Jomsom. It was a thrill to finally be amongst the things of man once again, though I did wish our day going over the pass had been more celebratory. We checked into the first hotel we saw and rushed away immediately to find a restaurant and a ticket counter to grab two morning plane tickets out of this freezing mountain town. I took my first shower in three days and fogged up the room with steam so thick that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my own face. It was the most luscious shower of my life.
I nestled into a bed that was ever so slightly softer than plywood and snuggled up to Brian properly and without sleeping bags for the first time in what felt like a month. Yawning like a tiny kitten pressed firmly against his ribs, I fell asleep almost instantly.
Day 10 – Jomsom to Pokhara
I awoke early to the chirping of an alarm and ate a quick breakfast before meandering my way down the main street of Jomsom to the tiny airport that was barely larger than most American homes. Our flight was delayed three hours, so we wandered the streets, buying great sacks of apple chips and drinking coffee in an artsy café nearby.
When the time came to board the plane, my jaw dropped. In front of me stood a tiny hunk of metal not quite the size of an ordinary bus that was intended to hurtle myself and a dozen other passengers over the high Himalayas and land us safely down in Pokhara. I crossed my heart and hoped to not die.
I tried not to let my nerves get the best of me as I boarded the small aircraft, reminding myself that the tiny propeller plane of death that was about to shuttle me up and over the Himalayas was not actually a tiny propeller plane of death, but essentially a metal sky bus with rules and laws and safety precautions that made it more like a roller coaster than a game of Russian roulette.
As the plane soared through the sky, I instinctually clenched my stomach tight and tried to breath deeply, reminding myself to let go and try to enjoy the experience while it lasted. After all, I was already sitting there. I might as well try to have fun if things got sketchy.
Twenty minutes later, we were on the ground in Pokhara and grabbing our bags from the friendly clerk. A taxi whisked us away to the posh, lakeside hotels that thousands of bustling tourists stay at each year, and the tropical air was everything my tired bones needed.
We had arrived. The trek was officially finished, and I promptly located an Indian restaurant with gigantic lunch platters for us to celebrate over. After a week of hard physical exertion in subfreezing temperatures, we had made it to the end of the line. This was the cherry on top of the sundae. The yoga center, massage parlor, sunset boat tour cherry that crowned our adventure complete.
I thought back to the first prayer flags I had seen so long ago and the hidden messages scrawled out on each: peace, compassion, strength, wisdom. I had needed them all to stand safely where I was at this exact moment.
My next two days were filled with massages, lakeside walks, and oodles of good food. I rented a rowboat with Brian at sunset and floated out far from the shore, listening to the commotion of the city fade as we bobbed along in the water. It was blissfully silent, and I felt my mind truly relax for the first time in a long time. I never knew how far I had to push myself to accept the salve of stillness.
As I gazed out at the enormous Himalayan peaks enveloped in smog just beyond the city limits, I closed my eyes and thought to myself, “To clear my mind, like my pack, of every unnecessary object. And to sit with it. And travel with it. And be ok. That was the whole point.”
Surrender to all that is. That was the whole point.