Crossing Thorong La- the worlds highest navigable mountain pass

Despite getting into my sleeping bag at 7pm, my Fitbit registered that when the alarm sounded at 3.30am, I had slept for a total of 1.5 hours. Liam and I had heard that you don’t sleep very well at high camp because of the lack of oxygen, the cold and the excitement, but I had always hoped that I wouldn’t be affected. No such luck! Even Liam who usually sleeps like a log only slept for the same as me.

I had spent most of the night intermittently worrying about the first 30 minute dangerous section, tossing and turning because I was too warm wearing all my clothes (so I could avoid getting dressed in -10!) wrestling with light nausea and worrying about whether it was altitude sickness. My fear was that if I set off and ascended past the dangerous section, if I got poorly, I would have to descend the section in the unideal melty conditions. I pushed fear to the back of my brain and told myself that I would be OK. I was going to do it!

I leapt out my bag, dressed for action, and packed the room in the dark. The stars were twinkling in the sky which reassured me we wouldn’t be walking into a cloud- the conditions looked great. Ski gloves, gaiters, plastic bags over my socks (my boots aren’t waterproof), cheap plastic crampons bought in Manang, thermal leggings under my trousers, polar buff… check! Buzzing with excitement, we were ready!

Liam and I had bought some Tibetan breads the night before to eat before setting off, but they were frozen and too hard to eat. We forced a little into our mouths, and then made a discovery regarding a rookie error. The camel backs (hydration bladders) we had filled with water had frozen. Just the tubes- but it meant we couldn’t drink. Not ideal for a huge walk. There was nothing we could do, it was 4am, it was time to go.

The camp was buzzing with energy, head torches flashing and twinkling with the stars, each star a person setting off on their journey to the pass. We located the footprint path cut into the snow, and set off, headtorches fixed on the ground.

You needed all your energy and determination for the first section- it was a narrow path with one foot in front of the other. I was flanked between a menacing black void to the right, and an unforgiving steep snow slope to the left. It was safe enough if you placed each foot right, but one mistake could force you to discover how steep the ominous drop was. I was grateful I couldn’t see and I certainly didn’t reflect on it at the time (or it may have been game over!) but the snow line was over safety rails. Usually this part of the path has safety rails- and it’s rare any Nepali path has safety rails. We moved quickly past the section.

The stars continued to shine, and we followed the train of headtorches. On certain parts of the path, probably where the sun hits hard, there was no snow and it was lovely to feel the reassuring crunch of gravel. We trudged upwards, as the sun began to rise, until we reached a teashop (can’t believe they have them at 5250m!) Desperately thirsty, we stopped for a tea, along with about 15 people who were already there.

When we stopped for tea, I suddenly noticed how incredibly sick I felt. It was impossible to identify the root cause- it could have been exhaustion, nerves, hunger, something I ate, hormones, lack of hygiene… but I was worried it was the altitude. Liam kindly got me a tea, queuing in -10 didn’t look fun or even possible for me, and we sat inside. I asked the owner of the shop if I should descend because I felt sick. He asked me if I had a headache, and I said no, and then asked if I had been sick, which I hadn’t. He motioned if I could breath properly, and I was actually breathing really well (relatively!), so he said “no problem”. Feeling sick is normal at this altitude, it seems. Relieved, we decided to continue. Just 300 more metres!

After the break, we were able to cast aside the head-torches as the sun rose, and trudge onwards to the path. Completely surrounded by snow capped mountains, walking through a snow field, I was in awe of this once in a lifetime experience. Not being a mountaineer, and having no interest in being a mountaineer (I’m realistic about the limiting consequences of my fear threshold!) this was probably the only time in my life I would experience what it felt like to be in the snow line, closer to the roof of the world than to the ground. The mountain tops glowed red, and in the next valley, we could see a lightening storm illuminating snow capped peaks in the distance.

At this point, we joined a line of merry porters carrying bags and supplies over Thorong La. Whilst some porters are adequately dressed, many are not. These guys were in their teens or early twenties, carrying huge loads, and wearing trainers with crampons on, or just trainers, and the friendliest of the bunch was wearing fashion jeans with rips in them (he was wearing leggings underneath fortunately!). We had heavy bags also, so we were about the same pace as the porters- we had already been overtaken by some people with lighter packs – presumably the porters we were walking with had their bags.

The walk to the top was long and exhausting, although not steep. Even a 1km walk feels unachievable at 5350m. We managed to hydrate ourselves by removing the hydration bladders from our bags, and pouring water from the reservoir, to bypass the frozen tubes. In this manner, taking regular breaks, commiserating with the porters, and eating snickers bars, we eventually realised the pass was around the corner. I was overcome with emotion, utterly exhausted, breathless, nauseated, relieved, blissful, proud, humbled, in disbelief. I had doubted myself so much, and been so afraid, and yet, here we were.

We tuned the corner, and up one more “up”, we could see the Thorong La sign and Nepali prayer flags, a teashop and crowds of people already celebrating their achievement. I tried to suppress tears to avoid steaming up my sunglasses! On arriving at the pass, we broke our rule about no affection in public (Nepali culture) to share a big hug. Then, we posed for the obligatory photos with Spiker.

It was so lovely to see so many happy smiling people, many of whom we had seen or chatted to over the previous few days. The prayer flags flapped in the breeze, the sun was now out in full force. We had made it. I couldn’t take it all in… and then I realised how sick I felt.

Liam got me some tea, and I sat down to try and combat the nausea. I forced another snickers down me, my third of the morning, but it didn’t help. Although we had taken three weeks to get there, I wanted to get down immediately. Everything in my mind and body was screaming, get down, get down, get down. Liam was fine, and I’m so grateful for him looking after me! We quickly prepared ourselves for the 1700metre descent.

The first half an hour was horrible as I battled with nausea and felt like I was going to throw up any moment. To help me, Liam took my sleeping bag onto his bag and he was probably carrying as much as one of the porters! When we reached about 5300m, the nausea subsided and I felt normal again.

The rest of the descent was one of the highlights for me. The snow, which had made our trek so hard in places, was actually in our favour for this one occasion! Usually the path is steep, rocky and icy- a nightmare to descend. However, today it was covered in frozen snow, easy to race down in crampons. The views were stunning, of a totally new landscape, the other side of the mountains we had been staring at for three weeks. We looked hungrily at the snowless ground a 1000 metres below and trudged on.

After an exhausting four hours we made it down to Muktinath, a religious site of pilgrimage for Hindus and Buddhists. Unbeknown to us, it was Nepali new year and a religious festival. Consequently, there were crowds hundreds thick of Nepali and Indian people streaming up the path towards us, on foot and pony, blocking our way to the hot shower, food and rest in the village below. Beyond fatigued, dehydrated, delirious, we were consumed by a culture shock, the only westerners in a sea of religious festivities, it was definitely the most people we had seen since Kathmandu!

We somehow made friends with a local Nepali teenager, who helped us find our way through the maze of paths and people to the town. On the way, we made conversation about Prince Harry and Megan Markle, family planning in Nepal (?!!) and England. The first hotel that said hot shower and WiFi, we took a room, and collapsed.

We had done Thorong La Pass!

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