On the 14th October 2014 a snowstorm and series of avalanches occurred on and around Annapurna and the surrounding areas of the Himalayan range in Nepal. Rescue efforts saved the lives of over 400 people from the popular ‘Annapurna Circuit Trek’ and other treks in the area, however, despite these efforts, more than 40 people were killed and many are missing. This post takes place and was written before these events.
Just over two weeks ago FlyDubai flight FZ-155 landed in Kathmandu and, after five weeks in Georgia, I wheeled my poorly boxed bike into Nepal.
An airport pickup had been arranged in advance by a friend from England and in no time at all I found myself at Maiti Guest House. This is owned and operated by MaitiNepal, a charity that rescues women and children from the slavery and sex trade and helps them get their lives back on track. After a good nights sleep and my first Nepali meal they helped me change some money and I was invited to the charity’s headquarters. Unfortunately the cost of the guest house was a little outside my budget so after hastily putting Dora back together I set off or Thamel, the buzzing tourist centre of the city.
Here I met Youn, a Frenchman who’s been travelling for two years with no plans to stop any time soon. Somehow, largely thanks to him, I found myself abandoning Dora at the hostel and hitch-hiking to Pokara. From here we planned to do the Annapurna Circuit Trek. A famous 12-20 day trek into the Himalayas, through rainforest, woodland and stunning mountain terrain, making a loop around the mighty Annapurna mountain range. We stayed a few days in Pokara before setting off. Thankfully it’s much cheaper than Kathmandu, where my ‘room’ was my tent pitched on the hostel roof with flower pots. In this time we arranged permits and failed to extend my visa as the office was closed for the Dishan festival, which seems a bit like Christmas for Hindus.
Then the trek began.
Truth be told, it wasn’t a good start. We got lost once or twice on day one and ended up in a small village well off track. We also took one ‘shortcut’ which involved a very sketchy climb up a scree slope.
The first few days took us through a rainforest that screeched and rustled with life. The track was rocky and it was often difficult to find an easy route as the path would suddenly became a stream or steep climb. We were disappointed to discover on the second day that over five kilometres of the route followed a busy and dusty road. Every few minutes a loaded truck or dust spewing cement mixer would rocket past, forcing us to cover our mouths and eyes. We had heard that part of the trek had been paved, but nothing had prepared us for the huge construction of a hydroelectric project that appeared as a buttress of concrete and twisted metal the further we walked. Cranes and trucks bearing the ‘PowerChina’ logo made it clear that this was the reason the road had been built, and why we were being choked on the dust kicked up by the speeding vehicles.
The next day we began climbing and soon we were out of the rainforest and surrounded by coniferous woodland which smelled like family holidays. The difference between here and home is that here the trees covered the mountainous sides of the valley we were walking through and where there were no trees it was clear that glaciers had carved an smoothed the rock over millennia. We knew, however, that these mountains, which seemed to reach immense heights, were just the children of the Goliath’s we would soon be facing.
Youn and I moved at lightning pace most days. Too lazy to get up at 7am or earlier, as most others seemed I do, we would start around 9am and soon overtake the early risers. In this fashion we managed to do seven days worth of trekking in five days, arriving on the fifth day in Manang. The town is at 3500m and it’s recommended that trekkers rest here for a day or two to adjust to the altitude. Despite this very good advice we decide to stay just one night before attempting the ‘treacherous’ side-trek to Tilicho Lake, the highest lake in the world at a cool 4995m.
This did not happen.
We found ourselves a guest house that was very cheap. Possibly because it was made out of wood, had no shower or hot water and could tumble down the valley to the river below at any time. But it is very cheap. We had dinner early and went to bed, planning a 6am start.
The first hour after lights out was a symphony of coughing and spluttering on all sides. I was coughing, Youn was coughing and two or three others nearby joined in too. Eventually it died down as everyone went to sleep. Everyone except me that is. It didn’t take me long to realise I was suffering the effects of altitude sickness, AMS.
Try as I might I couldn’t get to sleep. My head was pounding, I was coughing and spluttering, constantly thirsty and my eyes felt like they were trying to pop themselves out of my skull.
For over nine hours I stared at the wooden beams above my head and a scribbled heart with an arrow and ‘MEL + J.F 2014’ written in its centre. I wondered for a while who they were before admitting to myself that I really didn’t care and just wanted to sleep. After what felt like an eternity (actually about 4 hours) I looked at my watch and saw it was midnight. Giving up on sleep I pulled on my jacket and silently left the room.
The cold stung my bare feet and the wind easily infiltrated my jacket, but for a while I sat and watched and listened. Animals, maybe cows, maybe wolves, called from the far side of the valley. Birds shrieked occasionally and crows could be seen atop the prayer flag poles, lifting their black beaks to the bright moon and letting loose their screeching cry. These sounds were a little freaky, but I didn’t move. The moonlight lit the peaks surrounding Manang, giants in blue and grey against the midnight sky which seems to throb with stars. I stayed for as long as I could, perhaps twenty minutes, before the cold got too much and I was forced back to my sleeping bag. I didn’t mind, I knew I would be back outside another night, but still I couldn’t sleep. I stared at the ceiling once more.
Finally the sun rose and not long after, Youn woke up too. After telling him about my hellish night of insomnia and the headache that was still fresh behind my temples, we decided to rest one more day before climbing to the lake. I managed to get a few hours sleep but still felt pretty awful. Youn helped, once I woke to find a huge pot of milky tea and biscuits and another time I woke to find a bottle of couch syrup next to the bed. By midday I was ready to go for a walk and so we took a path which climbs to 4800m above Manang and offers close up views to a milky lake fed by Gangapurna glacier. On the way up I started coughing uncontrollably and soon I was fighting for usable breaths. I was panting and soaked in cold sweat as my heart beat an angry tattoo against my chest. I felt no joy at the top of the path and sat with my back to the glacier, doing my best just to keep breathing.
I was a little concerned by my sudden change in health. I would adjust to the altitude, I knew that. And I knew it would just take time. But over the next week we plan to climb to altitudes up to 5500m, and not just once, but twice. First to Tilicho Lake and then to the climax of the circuit, the impressive Thorung La Pass.
We plan to leave tomorrow morning. We’ve come too far to even think about turning back now.
If you would like to support me on this trip then please help me by helping Hope for Children. A charity that works to help orphaned, poor, and exploited children around the world. If you’re in the UK you can text ‘JJVW50 £3/£5/£10′ to 70070 or go to http://www.justgiving.com/jamesvsworld and donate online.