Into Annapurna – Part 2

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. Read Part 1 Here When I opened my eyes and looked out of the window on the morning of the 14th October I knew two things. I knew that overnight I had turned 24 years old, and I knew that Youn and I weren’t going anywhere. Outside the window heavy snow was falling and the world was already under a blanket almost two feet deep. Youn woke up, swore as he glanced out of the window and started to prepare his morning medicine. He also surprised me with a birthday preset, a newspaper wrapped bottle of rum which perfectly accompanied the bottle of whiskey that I had lugged from the start of the trek to toast my still being alive 24 years after birth. DSCF5994 Before too long we had reason to open them as we were joined by the Portuguese and a few cyclists I had met in Kathmandu, including Dr. Steve Fabes, an inspiration who is in the fifth year of an adventure spanning six years and as many continents (www.cyclingthe6.com). The party went on all night, drinks flowing and games of Mafia making it easy to forget that outside, the snow was still falling, heavier now than before. DSCF5986 The next morning the snow had stopped, but around town it lay meters deep and it was rumors and stories that were now filling the air. No one was sure exactly what was happening and what had happened the day before in the heavy snows further up the route and around Thorung La Pass (5450m), the most difficult and dangerous section of the trek. The only thing everyone could agree on was that a number of people had died and many were missing. The situation caused many to turn back straight away, but others decided to wait it out and see what happened. We were so close, just two or three days from the summit, and the thought of turning back didn’t really occur to us at that point. In our heads this was a tragic but minor delay to our own journey. But every day we waited, the things we heard made it look less and less likely that we would reach the pass. Over two meters of snow were said to cover the pass and the dangerous decent beyond it. It was also believed that the police and military were turning back those who had decided to push for the top. We discovered after three days that the incident was international news and that the world was looking towards Annapurna,  BBC reports were quoted like scripture by anyone who could access them. Phone signal and internet are all but non-existent in Manang and I was relying on my SPOT GPS Tracker to send messages to my friends and family to tell them I was alright. DSCF6043 We ended up spending five nights in Manang before deciding that it was time to attempt the next stage of the trek towards the summit. We packed up, checked out and met the Portuguese, deciding there was safety in numbers. We didn’t even make it halfway out of the village. As we were leaving a column of trekkers were returning from Yak Halka, the next stop about four hours north of Manang. Nothing they said was very encouraging and usually featured words like ‘avalanche’, ‘military’ and ‘impassable’. Less than twenty minutes after leaving we found ourselves back in the guesthouse. DSCF6027 Youn and I were still determined to reach the summit, even if we had to wait another day or two, however, after over an hour of intense discussion, the Portuguese made the tough decision to turn back and head down the way we had come. We chose to spend one more night in Manang and make a final attempt the next morning and decide for ourselves if the rumors were true. DSCF6030 Once again our morning attempt was a false start. We made it one hour outside Manang when we met a Nepali guide who strongly advised against continuing up to the pass. His words broke our last hope and, finally defeated, we turned back. We weren’t happy and over a chocolate bun in Manang we discussed just how unhappy we were to get so close and still turn back. I often have these conversations, and I’ve found that nine times out of ten it’s enough to convince the parties involved to make one more attempt, no matter how much is stacked against their success. This was one such time. DSCF6036 The trek to Yak Halka was, in a word, stunning. But one word does it no justice. Never before have I been part of such a landscape, deserted but for myself and Youn. We walked on the right side of a mountainous valley. Our side was a steep slope, the sparse trees stooped under a blanket of snow that was both an alien blue and perfect white. The path was a narrow line snaking into the distance, regular bends obscuring our destination from sight. To step off the path was to lose a leg into snow more than a meter deep. The river at the base of the valley had been clear blue, but since the snows it had turned to a churning brown mess, too far below to be heard. And then, on the opposite side of the valley were the giants that took my breath away every time I looked at them. The Annapurna range is made up of many peaks, and as we trudged through the snow the faces of three of the great mountains watched us, white and grey and breathtakingly beautiful. DSCF6040 Not long before Yak Halka we came across the wake of a large avalanche. Halfway up, along the path we were following, the snow was stained red and brown and men could be seen working in the snow. As we approached we were shocked to see a few severed heads by the side of the path and the men were busy butchering the Yaks they had belonged to. One man told us that he had lost all six of his yaks in the snowfall and they were doing all they could to find them before the meat was lost. They were probably his only means of living in this isolated place, and they had only found two. Soon after, we reached Yak Halka and found that new specials had been added to the menu, all featuring the yak we had just passed. DSCF6065 Only 15 Trekkers were in the village that night and discussion over dinner told us that all of them were planning on turning back the next morning. The steep sides of the valley further up meant that avalanches were common even under normal conditions and there was more talk of the military. By the next morning Youn had decided he was going back and I agreed that it was probably the right decision. With a heavy heart we turned our backs on our ambition and followed our better judgement. We walked for two days before lack of motivation, coupled with Youn’s rapidly deteriorating knee made us jump on a jeep for the final decent out of the Annapurna Conservation Area where we had spent the last 13 days. DSCF6080 Finally back in the world I found there had been lots of people at home trying to track me down. My dad had posted a picture of me on an Annapurna Emergency Facebook group with a message asking for information and my family had been posting my SPOT Tracker reports online. I got my first chance to check the news and found out what had been happening while we were up there. 43 people had lost their lives on Annapurna since the morning of the 14th October and even a week later there are more than eight people known to be missing. The prospect of reaching a 5450m pass in the Himalaya had been an exciting one. We hasn’t realised or taken into account that wherever in the world you are and however established a route is, exposing yourself to mountainous terrain and that kind of altitude can never be taken lightly. Youn and I were lucky. Had I not been suffering from the effects of altitude who knows how different our story could have been. DSCF6046 Final note: As I’ve said, we were lucky, but really we and all those who died over those days should never have been allowed that far in the first place. The storm system that caused the snowstorm had already wreaked havoc across India and anyone who knows anything about weather systems should have been able to see that there was going to be trouble in Annapurna. Why did no one raise a warning? Is weather not something the Nepali authority are taking into account as they permit thousands of tourists and guides to trek these routes? Every death could have been prevented had someone connected the dots and closed the trek, and the dots weren’t hard to find. I can only hope the Nepali authorities, who make staggering sums of money through trekking, learn from this, the greatest tragedy in its history, and take simple steps to prevent a repeat in the future. 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. JamesVsWorld

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2 thoughts on “Into Annapurna – Part 2

  1. Hello! I’ve been following your web site ffor a long time now and finally
    got the courage to go ahead and give yyou a shout out from Porter Texas!
    Just wanted to mention keep upp the fantastic job!

    • Hey Elma,

      Thanks! I loved cycling through Texas. I was particularly impressed with the wildlife. I was mesmerized by the vultures along the road and circling above.

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