Into Thin(ner) Air: Part 2 of Our Himalayas Trek
To say that we climbed 10,000 feet to Annapurna Base Camp during our hike is both accurate and misleading. We certainly went from 3,000 to 13,500 feet, but we also crossed three valleys, meaning we had to descend one mountain and ascend another mountain. In the end, we climbed much more than 10,000 feet before we encountered the hardest three hours of my life and one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen.
By the end of Day 1, we were a mile high. The altitude was beginning to affect us now, although very slowly. Each step was a little harder, and each foot we climbed was a bit more strenuous.
Laxmi cheerfully announced that we would be going down two times today, “But then we have to go up. Steep up.”
I thought descending would be a respite from the challenge of climbing. I was wrong. Sure, it’s much easier on the breath, but the descents into the valleys are so steep, you can’t lose your concentration for a second. Every step must be carefully planned, or you risk tumbling forward.
The ascents up the far sides of the valleys were brutal. Hundreds of uneven stairs that seemed neverending attacked my legs, and my legs slowly relented under the pressure. By the end of Day 2, I was once again exhausted, though I was lucky enough to avoid cramps. Stretching at night and in the morning made me feel old, but it became a part of the routine.
We relaxed in the evenings, sharing tea and swapping stories between us. We tossed casual questions back and forth. What’s America like? How do you enjoy being a guide? One question at a time, we became friends and then family, going through the trek together.
On our second night, the guest house in Chomrong that promised electricity and wifi was lacking in both departments. We had a romantic dinner, with a single candle serving as our only source of light and heat. It was too dark to notice the clouds that were creeping into the Annapurna range. In the middle of the night, we didn’t need to see the clouds to hear the rain.
At some point, every piece of waterproof gear gives out when it’s subjected to too much precipitation. We set off on Day 3 in heavy rain that showed no signs of letting up. I hiked with my hood down; the rain on my forehead felt refreshing and kept me cool. Underneath, I knew I was soaked. Water had gotten through my pants, my shoes, my jacket, and my bag. I was warm as long as we kept moving, but when we stopped for lunch, I was freezing.
Guest houses are notoriously poorly insulated, so the temperature outside is the temperature inside. As we drank our tea and ate our lunch, the rain changed to what TV meteorologists would call a wintry mix. Once we started hiking again, it didn’t take long for it to switch to pure snow. It was now officially freezing outside, and the snow was piling up fast. As long as we were moving though, our surroundings were absolutely beautiful. A layer of snow blanketed the ground and the trees. Occasionally, a break in the clouds would let us see the Himalayan peaks around us, soaring skyward.
This was my favorite stretch of the hike. Snow falling, boots crunching on fresh snow, all of us moving quietly. It was hard work, but it was enjoyable work. The air tasted cold and crisp. It was absolutely awesome.
We reached our guest house in Dovan as the sun was setting. No amount of hiking would keep us truly warm with wet gear and no sun. Laxmi promised us a sort of heater at our guest house. The owners set up kerosene heaters in a pit under the table, which gives visitors a chance to get warm and dry clothing, two things we desperately needed to do.
For some reason, the guest house refused to fire up the heaters. At first they claimed that 10 people had to be willing to pay for the heat (which cost 100 Nepali rupees, or almost exactly $1.00), but when it became clear that every single person in the guest house wanted heat, they claimed the heaters were broken, much like the meters in Indian taxis always seem to be broken when foreigners step in.
At least our fourth day of hiking turned out to be beautiful weather. The sun was out, the weather was nice, and the snow along the path was stunning. It felt good to keep moving, even as we crossed the 10,000 foot mark. The altitude was affecting us, but we kept up a steady pace as we ascended ever higher.
A few times an hour, we would pass hikers on their way down or porters carrying supplies from one village to another. They always greeted us with a friendly “Namaste!,” which means a blessing upon you in Nepali. Each time I exchanged a “Namaste!” with a fellow trekker, I felt a bit more invigorated and a bit less tired. Knowing that we shared something in common with others on the path made me feel welcome in the Himalayas.
That day, our goal was Maccha Pucchre Base Camp, the final stop before Annapurna Base Camp. The two camps are separated by 2 hours of hiking and 1,500 feet. More importantly, MBC has electricity. ABC does not. We stayed at MBC, where, this time, they did fire up the under-the-table heaters, for which I am eternally grateful. The night was absolutely freezing, and the 15 or so guests at the lodge huddled together as long as possible in the dining room. Temperatures dropped so low that all the pipes froze in the guest house. They sent a porter down to the river to bring water for food and drink.
Our plan was simple. We would wake up early in the morning to make a push to ABC, where we would relax, celebrate, and have breakfast. Then we would begin our descent.
Cassie and I barely slept that night. We were definitely excited, but that had nothing to do with our fitful rest. At 12,000 feet, our bodies needed more time to adjust to the elevation. The thin air kept us from fully relaxing at night. I woke up more than once with my heart racing, trying to get enough oxygen to pump through my veins. We both slept in our thermals and our sleeping bags, yet we were still bitterly cold all night.
We slept through Cassie’s alarm at 4:45 in the morning (I had set mine for 4:45 PM by accident). Laxmi woke us up at 6:00 and told us to hurry up. We would leave most of our gear in the room, and Tulasi would wait at MBC for us. This was a quick push to the top, and then we come right back down. Unfortunately, there was nothing quick about the next 3 hours for me.
My body had become accustomed to tea and porridge with fruit every morning. Without the benefit of calories to burn, I was gassed. I became the human equivalent of a sloth, inching along with both trekking poles. When I couldn’t move fast enough to warm up my body, my hands started freezing through of my gloves. Laxmi gave me his gloves to put over mine, and the pain of nearly frostbitten hands subsided.
We had filled our water bottles the night before, but in the freezing temperatures of the final push, the water became ice inside the bottles. In these conditions, I learned what it means to suffer from exhaustion.
More than once I thought I wouldn’t make it. Couldn’t make it. Cassie and Laxmi were moving well ahead of me, but I was barely plodding along. Cass thought I wasn’t moving once when she looked back.
I prayed in every language I knew, and when I ran out of prayers, I made up new languages to pray in. I was hiking in snow, and every few steps, I would punch through a layer of snow and find myself standing in 3 feet of icy cold. I had laboriously dried everything the night before, but now everything was wet again. The snow soaked my pants, my socks, and then my shoes. Like I said, I didn’t think I would make it.
Someone had written “1 hour to ABC” on a boulder along the way. I knew I was moving far slower, but a few minutes later I got exactly what I needed. We could see ABC in front of us. I knew it wasn’t close, and I knew it would still be hard to get to, but I had a visual goal. Finally, I began to believe.
About 30 meters short of ABC, there is a sign welcoming you to Annapurna Base Camp. Only a final set of steps separates you from your goal. Cassie and Laxmi waited for me there, eager to take a picture of the three of us.
I was too exhausted to smile and too close to stop. I snapped at Cassie, “We’re not there yet.” She got a picture of my back as I walked under the sign. Laxmi told her we would take pictures on the way down, which I thought was the right idea.
I don’t really remember the final few steps. I know they were hard, and I know I was beyond tired. When I got to the top, I ordered the most expensive can of Coke I’ve ever had, sat down, and sipped it very slowly. The sun was out, and it began to warm everything up a bit.
I understood exactly what Sir Edmund Hillary meant when he became the first person to scale Everest in 1953. He said “My first sensation was one of relief — relief that the long grind was over.”
My accomplishment was in no way significant, and I was at less than half of Hillary’s final altitude, but I was relieved. Annapurna Base Camp sits in the middle of the Annapurna range, and the view while we relaxed for breakfast was like nothing I had ever seen before. Some of the highest mountains in the world arched toward the heavens around me. The snow made everything bright and beautiful. We had reached our incredible destination, and we took our time that morning letting it soak in. The view around us. The climb we had just completed. And the sense of accomplishment we felt.
Every difficult step, every moment of exhaustion, every second of labor was absolutely worth it. We had reached ABC in winter through heavy snow. We had made it.
This is Part 2 of a 3 part series. You can find Part 1 here. We will post Part 3: “Back Down to Earth” in a few days.