I rolled out of bed a little before 4 a.m., feeling kind of woozy after a short night with very little sleep in a Nepali tea house in Thorung Phedi, better known as High Camp, at 4,746 metres (15,572 feet). It was Halloween, Oct. 31, 2008, but I was not thinking about tricks or treats, or wearing a goofy costume. I slapped some cold water on my face, was careful not to wake my temporary roommate, got dressed, hefted my backpack, grabbed my flashlight and headed out into the darkness, looking for my wonderful porter-guide, Gelu Sherpa, and some of the young international trekking pals I had met on the trail in the past few days. I was excited because I had some major walking to do.
This was an experience I had long anticipated. We had reached the crucial day of our 220 km hike of the Annapurna Circuit, a world-famous three-week walk that circles the great Annapurna massif in western Nepal, showcasing some of the most spectacular mountain views on earth. Today’s challenge was the big one. The steep climb up to the Thorung La at 5,416 metres (17,769 feet), one of the highest and definitely the most famous mountain pass in the Himalayas, was followed by the long, steep, knee-pounding 5,600-foot descent to Muktinah, a grueling day by any standard. The pass marked the half-way mark of the trek. It’s simple. If you can’t cross this pass, and some can’t, you cannot complete the second half of the circuit. That’s what makes it dangerous. Too many people who desperately want to finish the trek shrug off the symptoms of mountain sickness and a small number develop pulmonary or cerebral edema and are either rescued by helicopters or die each trekking season. In 2014 many trekkers recklessly attempted to climb up to the high pass despite a raging blizzard and approximately 30 people, including trekkers, porters and guides, died as a result in the worst trekking disaster in Nepal’s history.
I found Gelu and our group of about five trekkers and their porters and we prepared for the climb. Quite a few of the 200 to 300 walkers had already set off and it was too cold to wait around any longer. Almost all hikers start at 3 and 4 a.m. to allow for the maximum amount of time to get over the pass and down to the comparatively oxygen-rich atmosphere of Muktinah at 3,710 metres (12,171 feet). Everyone agreed that I should lead the way, despite the fact that I was 60 years old and the other trekkers were all in their twenties. I was very fit for someone my age, but surely not as fit as my young companions. I had an advantage, however. About two weeks earlier I had completed the 25-day, brutally challenging, high-altitude Snowman Trek in Bhutan, widely regarded as the toughest long trek in the world. Less than half of the hikers who make the attempt manage to complete it due to a combination of major physical challenges, uncertain weather and the demands of acclimatization. I had crossed over three 17,000 foot passes on the Snowman, so I knew I could handle the Thorung La.
For whatever reason, I have always acclimatized well, meaning my body efficiently makes the necessary internal adjustments to cope with a reduced amount of oxygen at high altitude. Once the body makes the needed adjustments to handle 17,000 and 18,000-foot passes and sleep at 15,000 or 16,000 feet without symptoms of altitude sickness, that acclimatization will remain in effect for a few weeks or more and I was still carrying mine from the Snowman Trek. My new hiking buddies were adjusting well enough, but understandably not to the level I was at, which my pals Simon and Anthony noted the day before when we walked about a third of the way up to the pass and back to High Camp as an acclimatization exercise. Many months of running a brisk eight miles every other night, plus three-and-a-half tough weeks walking the Snowman and becoming exceptionally acclimatized gave me a temporary but noticeable edge on these very fit young men.
I led the way as we began the long, arduous climb to the pass. I felt very comfortable and set a brisk pace as we walked up the trail in the darkness. The sight of many twinkling flashlights ahead of us created a mysterious atmosphere, as if we were members of a grim search party or an army planning to surprise a dangerous adversary. I had done so much trekking in the past six weeks that nothing felt more natural than settling into a smooth walking rhythm. I was lost in my own happy dream, but finally turned around to speak to whoever was behind me and was shocked to find there was no one there, or as far back as I could see with my flashlight. I had just assumed they were following directly behind me and wondered why they hadn’t asked me to stop for a break or to slow down.
Had I failed to realize that I was unintentionally setting too fast a pace for the group? I guess so. I knew it wasn’t a race, but I felt so comfortable it didn’t occur to me how fast I must have been going. I realized I could either wait for my companions to catch up or carry on to the pass on my own. It was cold and just standing around wasn’t pleasant, and besides, they must have stopped for a rest break, so it could be a long wait. I decided to continue, comfortable in the knowledge that the Nepali porter-guides would shepherd my friends to the top, not that it was possible to get lost on such a well-marked trail with a few hundred people carrying flashlights. I was on my own and it was still dark, so there was nothing to see but flashlights and no one to talk to. I am, by nature, a fast trail walker, and with nothing to distract me I began passing groups of people and solo walkers moving slowly or taking rest breaks.
As I walked on I thought about the Annapurna Circuit and how much I loved it. Like most other walkers, Gelu and I took the rough seven-hour bus ride from Kathmandu west to the Hindu village of Besisahar, at 820 metres (2,690 feet) and began the eight-or-nine-day village-to-village climb through various tribal areas before eventually reaching the large Buddhist town of Manang, three days from the pass. Gelu originally tried to slow me down because of my age but after a long climb on our second day on the trail he smiled, squeezed one of my calves, and said, “old man, hard man. You are strong.”
That day was my 60th birthday and that compliment was the best present I received. Gelu also bought me a Mars bar, my favourite candy treat. At dinner that evening, as I devoured my delicious steamed vegetable momos, a kind of Tibetan dumpling, a nearby table of Germans who must have been tipped off suddenly broke into song. “Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday dear…’’ “Tom!” I called out. “Happy birthday to you.” We all had a good laugh, as I finished my momos and downed a huge bottle of Tuborg beer, feeling happy and content. I can think of no better way to celebrate my 60th. Great views, great climbs, wonderful villagers and hardy companions. I got really excited the following day when I saw there was an internet café at the next village and my heart swelled when I saw I had received e-mails from two of my three children. They hadn’t forgotten their dad’s big day! I opened the messages to discover that both were writing to tell me that my cat Betty had been missing all night long, caught up in a tree, but was now safe and sound. No mention of my 60th birthday. Such is the life of a parent.
I felt a burst of energy as I surged ahead towards the Thorung La, and kept passing clumps of people. The higher I got the colder it became, with a bitter wind blowing down from the pass and painfully stinging my face. My only desire at that point, as the sun began to rise, was to reach the small tea house at the pass, so I shifted into top gear, blowing past other walkers. Over every rise I expected to see the prayer flags that festoon every high pass in Buddhist country, but again and again there were none in sight. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and a few minutes later I finally sighted that beautiful wall of prayer flags. Hallelujah! I hadn’t had much to drink since I started walking, so I headed straight for the little tea house. I entered the door and was stunned when everyone in the place rose to their feet, clapping and cheering. I was totally puzzled and turned in confusion to ask one of the Nepalis what was going on. “It’s a tradition,” he explained. “We always give a standing ovation to the first foreign trekker to reach the tea house each morning.” I had never heard of that but a quick look around the place confirmed I was the only foreign trekker there. I couldn’t help but laugh. I wasn’t in a race and just walked at my normal brisk pace, only speeding up when the powerful, icy winds scalded my face, and taking no rest breaks as I wasn’t tired. But what the hell. I don’t remember receiving any standing ovations before or since, so I savoured this one.
I ordered a jumbo cup of Nepali tea and slowly downed it. Then another. And another. Nothing like some serious hydration to spike your energy level. At that point my young Israeli friend, Eyal, who was doing the trek with his warm and wise 68-year-old father, Rafi, walked in and joined me for some tea. I was in no hurry to begin the descent to Muktinah, which would be long but relatively easy, as I had no knee issues. Then Simon and Anthony arrived and joined us. A little later Gelu walked in and I gave my camera to Simon to take a few pictures of us celebrating at the pass. Then Rafi strolled in. Better companions would be very hard to find.
After chatting with his father, Eyal suggested the two of us head off for Muktinah. He was the fastest and strongest hiker I met on the trek and we often walked together. So we started out. Eyal eventually raced ahead, while I took some pictures, and he grabbed a spot at Hotel Bob Marley, Rasta Restaurant and Reggae Bar, surely the coolest place to stay on the entire Annapurna Circuit. I arrived well before noon but had trouble finding a room because busy Nepali tea houses will often not accept solo travellers. I offered to pay for two people, but was turned down at Hotel Bob Marley and a few other places. The owners make their money on the meals they serve you, not on the very slight room charge, so they want two people in each room. There is also a massive surcharge if you eat anywhere other than the tea house you are staying at, so no one does.
I finally got a room in the guest house next to the Bob Marley by offering to share a room with the next lone trekker to come along, who turned out to be a nice young Chinese man who spoke very little English. Later I went over to Hotel Bob Marley for a beer with my friend, Simon, and together we sang the virtues of the Annapurna Circuit and looked forward to our remaining days together, trekking down the west side of the magnificent mountain range.
Feature image: At Thorong La, with Tom and Gelu Sherpa and all other photos: Tom Barrett