The Climb Begins: Part 1 of our Himalayas Trek
Only a handful of people have scaled Mount Everest in winter, and for good reason. Hurricane-force winds lash the world’s highest peak, while freezing temperatures blanket anything above 10,000 feet. Weather in the Himalayas changes mercilessly during the coldest months, often shifting from bad to good to bad again within minutes. So remind me again why we were up here?
Our goal was Annapurna Base Camp, about 250 miles northwest of Everest. At 13,500 feet, ABC as it’s commonly known isn’t nearly as high as the tallest mountain on earth. But for a lowlander like me who grew up at sea level spending summers at the Jersey Shore, it was far outside of my comfort zone.
We set out Wednesday morning from our guest house in Pokhara, Nepal’s outdoor haven. Tourists come here from all over the world for paragliding, rafting, biking, and, most importantly, trekking in the Himalayas. Shops line the streets selling outdoor equipment for those on their way up or drinks for those on their way down. Our taxi picked us up after breakfast, then picked up our guide, Laxmi, and our porter, Tulasi.
THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE TREK
Laxmi was in his early 20’s, an independent trekking guide who had hiked to all the nearby sites many times. He was confident, both in his trekking skills and in his English. He had led trekkers from all over the world to ABC, and he already had a plan for us. He wore a gray North Face jacket and a backpack that looked like it had a few books instead of the necessary equipment for a week of hiking.
Tulasi was around the same age, and he would shoulder the weight of our main pack. He was half my size yet carried twice my weight. Two sleeping bags, two small bags of clothing, our toiletries, and his own bag. I thought the combined weight of our gear might break his back. He proved me wrong very quickly, walking faster than us downhill and nearly as fast uphill.
A 45-minute drive brought us to Naya Pool, the starting point of the ABC trek and a handful of other routes. We snapped a quick picture of the four of us, took a final bathroom break, and began our trek.
INTO THE HIMALAYAS
That first day was hot, the rays of the mid-afternoon sun adding just a little more weight to our packs. We stopped often for short water breaks, but we were moving well. Laxmi announced that we would eat lunch at Birethanti, one of many small towns along the hike that cater to backpackers.
We made our way steadily uphill, from our initial elevation of about 3,000 feet. Over the course of the hike, we would gain more than 10,000 feet, and each step up brought us a few inches higher into the Himalayas.
After two hours of hiking, we saw Birethanti and hiked the final few minutes to our restaurant. Within 20 feet of my table, my left calf cramped, forcing me to stretch before I grabbed my seat. I told Cassie that I’d be fine, not even remotely aware of how difficult our hike would be after lunch.
BRING ON THE TEA!
Every meal we ate always started with some sort of tea. Black tea, ginger tea, lemon tea, masala tea. Your choice. But always tea. I become somewhat addicted to tea during the hike. Most nights I ordered a big pot of tea, partly to keep warm and partly because I couldn’t stop drinking it. I paid for my gluttony in the worst way possible, having to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night in the Himalayas. None of our rooms had toilets, so we had to climb out of our sleeping bags, put on some clothing, find our headlamp, and brave the freezing cold nighttime temperatures to go to the bathroom. In my half-awake state, I would have to use a Nepali toilet – little more than a glorified hole in the ground – without slipping on the wet floor.
I ordered some vegetable momo for lunch, which are little Nepali dumplings, steamed or fried. We ate our meals and rested a bit. Laxmi smiled at me. “Now we begin the steep part,” he grinned, pointing at the stairs.
NOW THE REAL PAIN BEGINS…
The cramps hit almost immediately, paralyzing first my left leg, then my right leg. My calves, my quads, and all sorts of muscles I didn’t know I had locked up. I tried to make all sorts of excuses. I was dehydrated. I was tired. I was trying to be a vegetarian in Nepal and didn’t have enough protein.
The true explanation was of course the simplest. I was out of shape for this sort of trekking. Cassie and I had walked all around Europe, but nothing prepared us for this.
I stopped as often as I could, stretching the cramps out of my legs, only for them to come back with a vengeance when we started walking again. When Laxmi declared we were nearing our stop for the night in Ghandruk, I tried to move faster, hoping to reach our guest house before I couldn’t walk anymore.
Big mistake. My entire left leg locked, cramping all the way from my hip to my foot. I could barely take a step without falling over. With only a few feet to go, I suddenly couldn’t walk. In sight of our guest house, I had to take another break.
When I was finally able to relax with a cup of tea that night, I kept thinking the same thing over and over.
This is only Day 1.
This is Part 1 of a 3 part series on our trek to Annapurna Base Camp and back. Stay tuned for Part 2: Into Thin(ner) Air.