Journey to Thorong La High Camp

Writing this from other other side of Thorong La in Muktinath. We finally crossed the pass yesterday after 23 days on the Annapurna Circuit. Most people seem to be spending between 10-21 days in total trekking and we are about half way through our trek! This is because lots of people shorten the trek, and also we’ve done lots of side trails, have very heavy bags, had rest days and do not want to rush. Having said that, we were so ready to be over the pass and trekking on the other side! This is the first part of our story of making it happen- getting to Thorong La High Camp.

Day 20- Manang (3550m) to Churi Ledar (4200m)

We packed our lovely room in Alpine Homes in Manang, a place which really seems like home after spending five nights in total across two stays, and had a leisurely breakfast. It was time to get back on the road and away from the Manang Valley where we had spent 9 days because of injury, needing to acclimatise, doing side treks and then recover from the side trek. Our excitement at being back on the road was only mildly tapered by the weight of our rucksacks! We hadn’t carried them fully loaded for a while- better get used to them as we had nearly 2000m to climb in three days.

The trepidation that I had been feeling about crossing Thorong La the previous few days seemed to have dissipated. Seeing the injured man after Tilicho Lake, and being so scared for several days had affected me quite severely and I had spent much of the previous day very tearful and afraid, questioning what I was doing trekking in Nepal, and wondering if I was brave enough/had the motivation to push through my heightened anxiety. Liam and I had long conversations about potentially sending some of our stuff over the pass with a porter to reduce the weight of the bags therefore making us faster. Liam initially really did not want to do this, and we had some heated exchanges. We also discussed simply not attempting it, mostly because of my state of mind. I felt very low, but resolved to spend the day sorting out my head, doing washing, resting, talking to family and, eventually, it worked. The cloud lifted and I felt like Ruth again.

So we started walking out of Manang with our heavy bags and immediately encountered a train of trekkers traipsing up the hillside. Despite my protests to Liam the day before about how slow we would be with our heavy bags and the theoretical dangers this may cause, we spent much of the morning overtaking, including large groups who had their bags carried for them! Both this, and seeing just how many people were in their way to Thorong La, boosted my mood and morale. Also, after the sketchy crumbling paths of Tilicho, the nice wide solid path was amazing to walk on.

The sun beat down on us as we made good time, and we chatted to an English woman and an American man along the way. Eventually we stopped in the village of Yak Kharka at 4000m and had a lovely lunch before pushing on to Churi Ledar, at 4200m. Arriving by 1pm, we had made excellent progress and spirits were sky high. Our room was triple aspect with amazing views of mountains on three sides, the food was lovely and we spent all afternoon reading and lazing in the sun lounge. Preparing for the next big day…

Day 22 – Churi Ledar (4200m) to High Camp (4850m)

We woke up really early knowing we had to face another landslide area today and so wanted to reach it before the sun hit the slopes. Everything was frozen and the mountainside was turned into a magical ice paradise, we took great delight in crunching ice puddles with our boots and cracking them with our sticks. We were the first ones on the trail and walked for two hours without seeing a soul, despite how busy this section seems to be!

On the way we saw the sun rise over the mountains illuminating them in a red. We saw icicles forming on the path banks. We were treated to three Himalayan Blue Sheep running directly in front of us. It was a glorious walk, one of my favourite sections, I really enjoyed watching the mountain scenery change suddenly from green and fertile to black, brown, white and barren.

When we reached the landslide area I was very nervous, but, it was absolutely nothing compared to Tilicho Lake. There was no snow loosening rocks, the slopes were on a friendlier incline, there was a path, and there were a lot more rock defences to protect you. As it went, we saw no rocks, and after a tense 20 minutes we arrived in Thorong Pedi at 4450m.

At Thorong Pedi, I developed light nausea and we decided to rest for a few hours and have lunch. I couldn’t work out whether the nausea was from exhaustion (the altitude affects your sleep), hunger, or whether it could be altitude sickness. I desperately didn’t want it to be altitude sickness as the recommended advice is that if you get even mild symptoms you should stay where you are until they go. Going higher could cause serious life threatening problems. I was so desperate to be over Thorong La and into more hospitable altitudes of less than 3000m, I tried to suppress the nausea.

Liam and I enjoyed omelette and chips and amused the teashop owner by having lunch at 9am. We rested for a while watching all the trekkers from where we stayed make their way up and also have a rest in the teahouse. One of the nice things about this part of the trail is that you made friends/acquaintances with so many groups of people as you were all doing the same three day itinerary.

Eventually my nausea subsided and so we decided to make the gruelling 400m steep climb to High Camp at 4850m. The climb was straight up, through snow covered slippy switchbacks, and over crumbling rock paths where you sometimes had to grab onto rocks to haul yourself up the ascent. Gasping for breath due to the altitude, we slogged upwards, pausing for breath every 10 minutes. It took us a painful two hours, but we made it!

High Camp at 4850m was unlike any other place we stayed in- it was built for a sole purpose – people passing through on their way over Thorong La. It was spread over five blocks of brick terraced rooms, around a central hub that contained three dining rooms. The owners organised it like a military operation, catering for the up-to 500 people who can stay there during peak season in Autumn. The rooms were fully booked out by early afternoon, we reckoned there must have been about 150 people. In high season, rooms turn into dormitories and people sleep in the dining rooms! The food service was efficient as the big team delivered a continuous flow of food to hungry trekkers. The rooms were very basic, cleaning not a priority as the -10 degrees temperatures probably staves off any fetidness.

The recent snow meant the whole camp was still dealing with the affects of being buried. I encountered one of the worst toilets I have ever seen. People had just defecated all over the floor around the squat toilets and no one had cleaned it. There were no lights, so that sort of explains it, but it was horrendous. And it was whilst I was in this fetid human excrement chamber that I discovered – I had started my period.

Days early. And I had missed all the signs probably chalking them up to trekking! My emotional, doubting myself, tearful day in Manang suddenly made more sense to me now. I couldn’t believe it. During hormonal times I usually can’t be bothered to get off the sofa, and here I was, doing one of the hardest walks of my life. Brilliant. Dealing with all of that whilst trekking and staying in a very unhygienic place- brilliant. I had to find it funny, which I did. And discussed the horrors with the other female trekkers.

Despite the human factory style to High Camp, Liam and I shared a lovely afternoon appreciating the amazing panoramic mountain views, celebrating our achievement to reach this high. We sat on a veranda watching people climb up to High Camp, birds flying, yaks resting and clouds swirling above the mountain tops, feeling very fortunate to be there. We also made some new friends and caught up with old trekking friends in the crowded, cosy dining rooms, sharing travel stories and menu recommendations. It was a very special feeling, knowing we would all be going over the pass the next day and the atmosphere was electric with excitement and tension.

Liam and I retired to bed at 7pm knowing we would have to get up at 3.30am to be away by 4am. One of guides of the groups we had been keeping the same itinerary as told us that it was important to leave at 4am as the melting snow made the path dangerous. The section of the path he was referring to was the part shortly after high camp where the snow was higher than the safety rails, and there was a sharp drop off the side of a cliff. Fortunately this section would only last 30 minutes until you were on a much easier section crossing snow fields with no steep drops! The snow being frozen would make it much safer, so we resolved to take the guides advice. With nervous anticipation we dove in our sleeping bags to protect ourselves from the -10 temperatures.

To be continued….

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