Home from Home – Manaslu Dispatch #3

Seeing the “Mountain of the Spirit” definitely lifted everyone’s spirits, and so the excitement at the prospect of moving to base camp was definitely heightened. Well, maybe for everyone except me. I’d woken up that morning feeling rough – a dull but persistent headache at the base of my skull pounding away, and some nausea roiling my stomach. The prospect of a long slog to base camp wasn’t exactly appealing. The symptoms weren’t surprising – we’d jumped about 2000m in a day and gone even higher on our hike. But no one else seemed to be suffering so I was also feeling a bit sorry for myself.

Food seemed like the last thing I wanted, but surprisingly I ate my chapati breakfast with vigour and felt a lot better afterwards. It seemed like all we’d done on this expedition so far was eat, but a good appetite is a good thing!

So, thankfully, by the time we came to leave (and a couple of ibuprofen later), I was feeling strong again. Which was good, because I had 1400m of ascent to get up! The walk followed somewhat the same route as the day before, but then meandered upwards. We crossed several gushing rivers and the track for the most part was well worn – I guess that’s the impact 400 climbers will have! There was a sort of temporary tea house at half way, so we stopped for some tea and potato momos for extra energy. Yum.

I suppose I only really have Aconcagua base camp to compare to, but on arriving at Manaslu base camp I was amazed at the sprawl of tents and camps in front of me. They seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see across the rocky moraine, some fenced off, some with huge banners indicating either the team or the company that was climbing. Incredible. Even after arriving at base camp, we had a fifteen minute walk to get to the Elite Himalayan Adventures camp (their motto: always a little higher), and we were all tired and eager to stop at that point.

But what a welcome to the Elite base camp! The dining tent was lavish and warm, with a “faux grass” carpet, comfortable chairs, and of course plenty of tea and juice waiting for us. There was a charging station in the vestibule, a giant communications tent, a cooking tent, two toilets and – of course – our individual tent homes. I was surprised and delighted to see the tent decked out with a foam base, mattress and pillow – no need for the thermarest yet. It was also so comforting to have my own space. I spent the next few hours sorting through my bags, arranging the tent “just so”, and changed into some new clothes since I hadn’t had access to my main bag in three days. Joy! It’s also a lot warmer here than when I was on Aconcagua, which makes it a lot more comfortable too. No need to wear a summit suit right off the bat.

I’m sure these are the details that you’re looking for, but I know people are curious so I will describe the toilet situation! Essentially… it’s a bucket in a hole in the ground, surrounded by rocks. Yes, you still need to squat. But it’s concealed within a windproof tent for privacy so I promise it’s not so bad! Just no looking down… Also, as it poured with rain in the middle of the night, I decided to make use of my sheewee and pee bottle set up. Um – I won’t go into details here but it was a bit of a disaster! Hopefully practice makes perfect? Got a month to find out.

Dinner was roast chicken and veggies, really delicious. After dinner we were treated to welcome cake and introduced to all the climbing Sherpas. I don’t know yet who will be “my” Sherpa, but they’re all incredibly accomplished and experienced guys so I’m not worried at all.

Apparently there is a shower tent also somewhere in camp, and my plan is to check that out later today! We’re having a rest and catch up on personal admin today, double checking all our climbing gear, remembering knots before our training on the mountain. Tomorrow will also be the puja ceremony – the blessing that will wish us good luck on the mountain. I’m also remembering that base camp life is a lot of rest, patience, and down time. Sometimes I’ll jog a few steps – like when I took a self timing photo! – and remember how high we are and how difficult catching your breath can be. Mountain life!

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There’s a Mountain at My Gate – Manaslu Dispatch #2

September 6, 2019

I am feeling thankful for small blessings at the moment, especially an unexpected extra rest day in Kathmandu. Our planned chopper was grounded due to inclement weather, so we got to relax and enjoy another day in the fancy Fairfield by Marriott hotel. The extra time also meant I could meet with the Himalayan Database, who noted down my details so my climb could be recorded for posterity. I’ve spent a lot of time researching and reading about Himalayan mountaineering history, so I felt a jolt of excitement at having my name entered into the database. It’s been recording climbs in the Nepalese Himalaya since 1903, so truly a rite of passage for mountaineers.

The hotel was on the edge of Thamel, so I went for a little explore in the afternoon. Thamel is the tourist district of Kathmandu – think the Khao San Road of Bangkok or Piccadilly Circus in London. Its winding network of streets is crammed with souvenir stalls, bars, restaurants and Internet cafes; pedestrians and scooters and taxis all vie for space on the narrow roads. Amazing how quickly you get used to having cars brush past your elbow, or jumping out of the way of rickshaws. It’s chaotic but it works – tangled-but-somehow-still-functioning, not unlike the myriad wires that twist their way around the telegraph poles on every corner. Colourful prayer flags are strung across the roads, and at night there’s a dazzling array of neon lights, plus music blaring from every corner. It’s not for everyone – I certainly wouldn’t want to spend more than a couple of nights there – but the food options are plentiful and delicious, inexpensive, and I was able to find a cafe to write in for a few hours – with great coffee. Bonus.

September 7, 2019

But, let’s face it, I’m not here for the coffee! The next morning was an early start and we were all praying that the helicopter would fly this time. I was itching to get to the mountains. Thankfully, we weren’t disappointed, and by 9:30am we took off from the airport and flew low over the sprawling city of Kathmandu. The jumble of houses soon gave way to rippling green terraces and dense jungle as we followed the meandering river below, dodging clouds and rain. Every now and then, the green was punctuated by the sky blue tin roofs of dwellings – even though it wasn’t exactly clear from the air how people accessed those remote homes! After a brief pitstop to change helicopters, the scenery shifted again: this time to stunning pine forests and mountain ridges as we headed higher in altitude, waterfalls cascading from the rock on either side of us. Honestly, I think the views from that helicopter alone were worth the price of admission!

Our destination was Samagaun (approx 3500m), the main village at the base of Manaslu. It’s a village that’s growing rapidly with the popularity of the mountain, so there is lots of construction going on. There were quite a few teams already getting acclimatised, so we settled into our busy teahouse Mt Manaslu Hotel, and I had my first meal of garlic soup and dahl bat – of course! Acclimatising is also all about staying hydrated, so taking in lots of water and tea. Thankfully there is a bit of WiFi so I could get out this dispatch! Apparently there is internet at basecamp too, but it is likely to be very slow.

Deeya and I took a short walk up to a convent, and watched some painters painstakingly add decoration to the inside of a newly built monastery. They’re planning on finishing by 2020 – and according to the monk it’s been a process already six years in the making!

It doesn’t yet feel quite real that we will be mountaineering in a few days. We haven’t even seen the mountain, as it hides stubbornly behind a bank of cloud, this being the tail end of monsoon season. But the anticipation is building. Lines are already fixed to Camp 3 on the mountain – good progress this early in the season.

September 8, 2019

This morning being an early bird paid off again, as I had an incredible view of the mountain at 6am! Wow – it’s a great feeling to have the target in sight. After breakfast we set off on an acclimatisation hike up to just over 4000m, following the path up to base camp but turning off to follow a steep woodland path to the top of a lookout. The walk was astonishingly green, punctuated with bright indigo flowers and startlingly red berries. As we reached the top, the forest thinned to a meadow of baby pink wildflowers. So delightful and unexpected. We rested about an hour at the top, generating those red blood cells. Himalayan vultures soared overhead, but Manaslu remained hidden behind a cloud. We did have a great view of a glacial lake – Biendra Tal – and the glacier itself, active and gushing water.

We’ll be trucking all the way up to base camp tomorrow and then the hard work will really begin!

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Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (Manaslu Dispatch #1)

After a bit of a whirlwind week, which has included a wedding in British Columbia, white water canoeing, and some last minute shopping at Cotswold Outdoors in London, I’ve finally arrived in Kathmandu. It’s as chaotic and busy as last time I was here, less than two years ago. Is it really so short as that? It’s hard to believe how deeply a place can burrow into your heart after only a single visit. But Kathmandu, and Nepal, always called to me. It was inevitable I’d be back.

I just could never have imagined in 2017, that when I returned it’d be to attempt an 8,000m+ summit. Manaslu, the mountain of the spirit, 8163m, and the first big mountain I ever laid eyes on.

It’s hard to explain the profound impact this mountain has had on my life. In 2017, I’d chosen Nepal as a destination for some solo trekking as a way of processing some monumental events in my life. Nepal gave me an opportunity to consolidate my feelings and contemplate what the future might hold, while putting one foot in front of the other in a place of extreme and other-worldly beauty. It was a trip all about facing forward, turning to the positive, and going alone proved to the only person that was sceptical (ie, me) that I was capable of moving on. I blogged while I was there, writing proving my most valuable outlet, as always. One of my most vivid memories of that time was recorded on my November 21, 2017 blog:

I did creep out at 2am to look at the stars though, and I was met with an almost overwhelming sight: as vast a glittering sky as I’ve ever seen! And there, too, was the enormous Manaslu, blocking out a portion of the sky with its bulk and its peak wearing the stars like a crown.

Nepal had me hooked on mountains, and I wanted to see how far I could go. Was I capable of more than I could ever have imagined? Going on to summit Aconcagua late last year showed me I was. So when Nims Dai (legendary mountaineer and our Aconcagua leader) suggested back in January that Manaslu might be a good follow-on peak from Aconcagua (especially as I still entertained Everest dreams at that point), it felt a bit like fate. I knew exactly what mountain he was talking about. Not many people outside the high altitude mountaineering world do. But that is changing. The eighth highest mountain in the world, and one of the most striking, the Manaslu Circuit trek is becoming an ever more popular alternative to the more traditional Annapurna Circuit that I did. And, according to mountain expert Alan Arnette, over 400 people will be attempting its summit this September, along with me. Not a small number by any means.

But despite the fact that climbing Manaslu had a sort of mythic appeal to me, I wasn’t sure I felt ready to tackle another mountain after Aconcagua. That was a monumental challenge in itself, physically and mentally, one that I hadn’t quite recovered from at the start of the year. Despite that, I talked the idea of Manaslu over with lots of people – notably with my friend and fellow author Amie Kaufman in Australia, and even with Rebecca Stephens, the first British woman to summit Everest and complete the seven summits! She told me back in April that it seemed like way too good an opportunity to pass up, and that I had to do it. Her words stuck with me – even though I wasn’t yet ready to commit.

What opportunity was she talking about exactly? Well – by choosing to do this expedition now, I had the chance to join my friend Nims Dai on a leg of his mission BREMONT PROJECT POSSIBLE. His aim is to summit all 14 8000m+ peaks in seven months (smashing the previous record of nearly eight years). Follow him on Instagram for videos of his wild adventures! Back in April, before he’d set foot on Annapurna, it felt like an impossible goal… but only if you didn’t know Nims. His drive, determination and relentlessly positive attitude filled me with confidence, and I knew I wanted to throw my support behind him in anyway I could. Annapurna, Everest, K2… he topped them all (and 8 others!), despite incredible hardships and even some high altitude rescues. Manaslu will likely be 12/14, the start of phase 3. What better way for me to support than to join his expedition, and watch mountaineering history in the making first hand. It’s no secret that I love the stories of those great explorers of the early twentieth century – Scott and Shackleton and Hillary. Or even of more modern mountaineering legends like Messner and Anker. I like to believe that if I had seen that ad in the paper asking for volunteers for Shackleton’s Voyage (and, let’s face it, had I been a young white man at the time), I’d have joined. Now was the chance to put my (err) money where my beliefs were. Not that this is a pioneering mission for me by any means – I’ll be using oxygen and having Sherpa support and all the comfortable equipment offered to me! But Nims is pushing the boundaries of what is possible in mountaineering, and I couldn’t pass up a front row seat to the action.

Amy with Nims Dai

Still, none of those things I mentioned above were quite enough to make me press “go” on the expedition. It took another change in life circumstance for that. In May, I once again found myself facing the future alone, unsure of where life was leading me.

If you love someone, let them go, right? I cut the line, feeling as ruthless as Yates in Touching the Void, but didn’t realise that by doing so, I’d left myself at the loose end, staring into the abyss. Now I was untethered to anything but my own grip on the rock. Free soloing, as Alex Honnold might call it. But now that I was free and solo, what was I going to do with myself?

I decided the best thing for me to do was to return to where I’d felt bright and optimistic about the future. And along with that, I had a new mantra, inspired by Nims: Aim High.

So I did. Pretty much as high as you can go. Well, the eighth highest place you can go, in this whole big beautiful world. I booked the trip and threw myself into training hard, climbing mountains in Snowdonia and Scotland, doing laps of Box Hill in London, running, swimming, training and lifting weights and generally getting myself into the best physical shape I could.

Manaslu, here I come. I think I’m in for the biggest challenge of my life – but I hope that I am ready. We’re about to find out!

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End of the Annapurna Circuit

Day 9.5: Thorong-La Pass to Muktinath

After the great excitement of the avalanche, it was a knee-crunching three hours of downhill to Muktinath, with a stop at a small teahouse on the way down for some fresh apple juice and a breakfast bar. It was 10:30am, and I’d already been up for 7 hours. We didn’t linger for lunch, since we were less than an hour from our stop in Muktinath, and I was keen to get to the bottom to rest my legs.

Muktinath is an interesting place; a holy site for both Buddhists and Hindus, some of whom make a long pilgrimage to the village barefoot (although not over the pass!). Buddhist prayer wheels sit next to statues of the Hindu god Vishnu, the two religions side-by-side in this mountainous town. As it turned out, we were the first people to arrive in Muktinath who had done the Thorong-La crossing that day. I think my slightly unwell state had led to us powering over the pass in record time. Number one! We had shots of local apple brandy to celebrate which, after a couple of weeks of no alcohol and no meat, went straight to my head. I think I slept for a few hours before emerging again in the afternoon to explore the village.

Later in the evening, as more trekkers arrived at the hotel, the celebratory atmosphere continued. A couple of people, however, were worryingly sick from altitude – and a few had stories of being carried over the pass on horseback, another reminder that trekking at 5,416m is not to be underestimated. I felt grateful to be feeling much better – both stomach and altitude-wise! 

Day 10: Muktinath to Jomsom

When I woke up the next morning, my mood was strangely bittersweet – my final day of trekking had arrived! This was listed on my itinerary as “the easiest walking day by far” but I’m not sure I would agree with that. Nine days of hard trekking – especially the effort of the previous day – had caught up with me, my hips and knees aching and my enthusiasm slightly waning. Still, I wasn’t going to opt for the Jeep option and cheat myself out of a final day’s experience. I’m glad I didn’t, because although this was a dusty day, made more challenging by an ever-present and slightly tedious head wind, the views were completely different to anything else we’d experienced in our circuit so far. 

For one thing, by crossing Thorong-La, we’d left the “Manang” region of Nepal and entered “Mustang”. This is divided again into lower and upper Mustang, and we were walking in the lower part. To access Upper Mustang you need an expensive permit – it was formerly the independent “Kingdom of Lo” and is still one of the most remote and inaccessible parts of Nepal, where Tibetan culture is remarkably well preserved. We walked through the arid, desert-like landscape of lower Mustang, spotting a sand fox creeping up the hillside, following the path of the mighty Kali Gandaki River, which cuts through the mountains creating (apparently) the world’s deepest ravine. I questioned this because I’ve been to a few places in the world that claim to be the “deepest” ravine – there’s no real standard of measurement here. The claim for Kali Gandaki comes from the fact that if you measure from the top of the world’s seventh tallest mountain on one side of the river (Dhaulagiri) to the bottom and then to the top of the world’s tenth tallest mountain (Annapurna I) on the other, then the depth is the deepest in the world. Fair enough!

I particularly enjoyed this walk because I felt as if I was trekking through the sand-scoured landscape of my first novel, The Oathbreaker’s Shadow, and in my head I was following in Raim and Khareh’s footsteps. The trail travelled along an old caravan trading route and we stopped for lunch in the medieval village of Old Kagbeni. This was also the home of the Thakali people, who originated dhal bat – and frankly, it was far superior here than anywhere else I ate it – with an array of different chutneys to try, fresh stir-fried vegetables, the best curry and lentil soup. Delicious! 

After another couple of hours walking along the Kali Gandaki riverbed, we arrived in Jomsom, a windy and slightly soulless place, and the largest town since Besisahar. One cool thing we passed was the “mountain warfare training academy” for the Nepalese military, which was really interesting to see. When we reached our hotel, it was time for hugs and high fives all around – this signalled the end of my time with Gyan and Madi, not just my guide and porter, but my companions for the past ten days. I booked this whole trip through Trek Nepal Int’l and I can’t fault them for their professionalism and helpfulness throughout the entire experience – from the initial booking through to making sure I had the right ticket for my flight from Jomsom to Pokhara (not as simple as you would think!). Gyan was knowledgeable and thoughtful, while Madi was always ready with a helping hand (sometimes quite literally, as on the ice lake trek!) I thoroughly recommend their services if these blogs have inspired anyone to give it a go themselves!

The Annapurna Circuit is definitely something special – challenging but achievable, with hard sections offering brilliant rewards, showcasing some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever seen. Truly the roof of the world. It’s a well maintained trail, with plenty of welcoming accommodation and friendly locals. November was the perfect time of year – I had bright blue skies and sunshine every day. Just remember to pack lots of warm clothing!

Namaste!

The Annapurna Range

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Annapurna Circuit, days 7-9: the big pass and a small avalanche

 

Day 7: Manang-Yak Kharka

 

The previous night I’d been showing classic signs of AMS (acute mountain sickness), including headache, nausea, fatigue and loss of appetite – I couldn’t eat more than a bite of my dhal bat. Gyan warned me that if I wasn’t feeling better then we would rest in Manang another day rather than continuing on, and if I continued to get worse then we wouldn’t make the pass at all. I was disappointed. But I also felt so grim that I knew he was right to keep an eye on me and help me face up to the potential reality. I chatted bleakly with a couple of people who had (wisely) decided to chill out in town, take in a movie and visit the AMS clinic, which offered daily talks about the dangers of altitude and how to overcome them. Since I had some diamox (medication to help with AMS) tablets with me, they recommended I take half a pill that night and see how I felt. I’m glad I listened to their advice because I woke up in the morning feeling like a new woman – no headache or nausea, appetite returned – and Gyan was satisfied and happy for us to continue our journey. Yay for western medicine! The fact that they had sent me to bed with a hot water bottle to snuggle helped immensely too – I spent my first night properly warm and cosy in my bed, and despite my sickness I slept well.

It was only a relatively short three hour jaunt to Yak Kharka (4000m) – again, we’d had such a long day previously, there was no need to overdo it – and the suggestion is that you only ascend for sleeping purposes by 500m max at a time to avoid worsening AMS. Thankfully the path out of Manang is gloriously motorised vehicle-free – not even motorbikes charge their way along the path here, only long trains of donkeys, their backs laden with supplies. I imagine this was what the entire Annapurna Circuit was like at one time. Progress, in some ways – a road (dodgy as it may be) enables a lot more commerce in the region, and helps to support the growing local population. But it is to the detriment of the famous trail – so much so that a lot of trekkers I’ve met are opting for more off-the-beaten path routes, thereby leading to less tourism in the region. Kind of a catch-22 I guess.

At any rate, this section of the trek was pleasant, with only low-lying shrubs (and those infamous thorn bushes) growing at this altitude. We stopped a few times for hot sugary tea and veggie samosas, admiring the views of Cholu West peak and waving goodbye to Tilicho peak and the Annapurna range for a little while. We finished our climb to 4000m by midday and the difference compared to Manang is a world away. Yak Kharka is a tiny village; with no motorised transport, it has the feel of an old West outpost, a frontier land – especially with enormous shaggy yaks grazing the hillside and horses tied up outside. Manang was hustle and bustle – this is peace and quiet. And alas – no WiFi, so I haven’t been able to blog or update Instagram as much as I would have liked, but I did manage to finish La Belle Sauvage while lying in the glorious sunshine, drinking a cup of steaming hot ginger lemon tea, feeling so much better than the night before that I could hardly complain about not being able to check Facebook. And hadn’t I come on a trek like this to get away from it all, at least for a bit? Still, my fingertips tingled with the inability to connect to the outside world… or maybe that was just a Diamox side effect. Time to break out another book, at any rate, because it seemed for another night we’d found a guesthouse with no one else around. My guide knows me too well already!

Day 8: Yak Kharka to Thorong Pedi

 

Dinner last night was garlic soup so fiery with raw garlic, it almost burnt my mouth! Garlic is supposed to help with altitude as well, although I don’t remember hearing much about that in South America. Still – it definitely would keep any vampires from my door.

After a filling breakfast of apple porridge and hot, black coffee, we started the trek to Thorong Pedi/base camp, our last stop before the BIG pass crossing day. The sun didn’t quite reach the depths of the valley we were walking in, so it was bitterly cold for the first half an hour. A warning of things to come! I cursed my stupid Under Armour mittens, which for some reason leave my thumbs totally exposed. What’s the point in that? Instead I dug my hands deep into the pockets of my (well, my friend Tania’s) down jacket and prayed for us to reach the sunshine. Once we did, the layers quickly came off and it was back to comfortable trekking as usual.

None of the tea houses on the way to Pedi were open, because today was Election Day. No sugary black tea for me! Boo. There was almost no vegetation en route, but a strange, Martian landscape of rock and broken shale – the Marsyangdi River way down at the bottom of the valley, the only constant. The trail dipped up and down in elevation, and the waterfalls we passed now were almost totally frozen.

We reached Thorong Pedi (4520m – still not quite as high as the ice lakes) at 10:30am. It’s a weird, hippy place – the first I’ve seen staffed by Westerners as opposed to locals – with reggae music blaring over loud speakers and incense burning (probably to cover the stench of trekkers who haven’t had access to a decent shower in days). I ate the world’s biggest and most satisfying cinnamon roll and eavesdropped as my fellow trekkers discussed the plan for the following day: stay in Pedi or head to High Camp? Leave at 4am in the dark or wait until 5 and risk the wind? Our plan is to stay the night in Pedi, where there are better facilities (and therefore we are more likely to have a better night’s sleep) and then wake up at 4am for the pass crossing. It apparently gets extremely windy across the pass after 9/10am, which is why everyone attempts to get up and over in the early morning. My plan is also to sleep in all my clothes, ready to just roll out of bed early doors. Apparently though, the ice lake trek is much harder than the crossing so I should be well prepared!

After lunch (dhal bat again), Gyan and I climbed to High Camp to keep in sync with the old acclimatisation adage of “hike high, sleep low”. I reached a new record height (4800m!) but as we came back down it was cruel knowing I was going to have to do the exact same (tough) hike in the early hours of the morning. I also was starting to feel unwell again – not AMS this time, but my stomach was churning uncomfortably. It would be just my luck to get food poisoning right before the biggest day of the trek! Maybe it was just nerves?

Day 9: Thorong-La Pass Crossing

 

Alas, no, it wasn’t just nerves… and of course it had to be in the place with the worst facilities! As I dashed out of bed at 1:30am (it really is hard to “dash” out of a mummy sleeping bag), throwing a down jacket over my thermals for the third time that night, I discovered a new peril of pit toilets – namely that if some intelligent individual before me decided to wash down the entire concrete floor with water after using the facilities then I’d end up with the additional challenge of going to the bathroom on an ice rink. This is about as fun as it sounds! I mean why don’t they write about this sort of thing in the Lonely Planet?

By the time my alarm went off at 3:30am, I was already exhausted and in no real mood for an 8 hour hike. Thankfully the worst of my stomach woes seemed to have passed and, as I dragged my sorry form into the dining room, I saw Madi sitting there looking equally sorry for himself. Turned out anyone who had consumed the dhal bat (so mostly the porters and the guides) had been as ill throughout the night as I was, and had complained bitterly to the owner. At least I felt better that I wasn’t the only one. Revenge of the dhal bat! And there I was thinking I’d been so clever eating only what the locals eat! I guess locals get sick too.

I couldn’t stomach any breakfast, so there was just about time for tea and to share nervous chitchat with the other trekkers. Turns out, even without stomach problems, most people had had trouble sleeping, so it was going to be a fun day for everyone. Procrastination over, there was nothing else for it but to start the long hike up… so off we went!

It was pitch black apart from the tiny bobbing lights of head torches heading steadily up the steep slope towards High Camp, and the stars. It was also bitterly cold, hovering at -20C before the wind chill. I’d layered up in almost all my clothes and yet still wished I’d worn more. For anyone who wants to do this trek as comfortably as possible, I’d suggest getting the warmest gloves possible – my mittens were useless, my fingers freezing inside my pockets. But maybe there is no real way to do this part of the trek comfortably. It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s windy, it’s relentlessly uphill, and it’s 3-4 hours’ worth of that state of affairs… it’s going to be uncomfortable. Maybe a bit of suffering and doubt is the price you pay for such a sense of accomplishment? (Hmm… I think this probably applies to lots of things, novel writing included!)

After High Camp, the hike was brutally monotonous. Even as the sky lightened, there wasn’t much to see except the trail snaking its way up (always up) the rocky landscape. It was also still absolutely freezing cold. My mantra became “every step forward is a victory” as we headed on with the end still nowhere in sight. Then, suddenly, I felt warmth on my back and my shadow extended long out in front of me. The sun had broken past the mountains and had come to join us on the walk! I honestly jumped for joy; I was so deliriously happy that the sun was up and I might finally have a shot at getting warm. I even whipped around to take a picture and Gyan laughed at me – but I could tell he was happy about it too.

With the sun on our backs, things were easier. I mean there was no hope for my fingers, but the rest of me warmed up nicely. And then, we turned a corner and saw the vast, bright collection of Buddhist prayer flags that marked the top of the pass. We had done it! I practically skipped up to the sign, my frozen fingers fumbling with my backpack zips as I took out the copy of The Potion Diaries: Going Viral I’d dragged all the way up there. Woohoo! We posed for lots of photos, grinning from ear to ear. Even though there must have been hundreds of trekkers planning to do the crossing that morning, we had the place to ourselves for a little stretch of time, and it was great. The sky was still that incredible blue I’d been blessed with the whole trip and – food poisoning, AMS and frozen fingers aside – I couldn’t have been luckier.

Photo shoot over, we dashed into a little tea hut to warm our hands. The atmosphere inside was a mixture of exhaustion and triumph. It was nice to see some familiar faces from along the route and feel like we could celebrate the accomplishment together.

 

But what goes up must come down! And we’d only really completed half our day’s journey. Eager to get to Muktinath as quickly as possible, we didn’t hang around – and more groups were arriving for their pictures by the minute. I trailed behind a group of Chinese trekkers when all of a sudden we heard a thunderous crash from above our heads. We spun around to see a great cascade of snow and ice tumbling from opposite Thorong Peak; an avalanche! Camera at the ready, I started filming, standing shell-shocked and stunned with my Chinese companions. That was, until Madi came barrelling down the hill from behind me, running for his actual life, followed by the local porters. The guide for the Chinese turned and yelled at them to run, and Madi did the same to me. I mean… to me, the danger looked miles away – but then the possibility that the snow fall could trigger a rock/landslide much closer to where we were standing hit me as very real, and who was I to stand there like a dope with my camera while the locals were running? They had more experience than me! So, yup, I ran down the hill after the Chinese trekkers and my porter. As it turned out, the snow settled not long after that and there was no more damage done – but with that hit of adrenaline and cardio, I was definitely nice and warm, fingertips and all!

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