Friday, March 30, 2018

Manang to Thorong La Pass: The top of the world is breathtaking 

Manang to Yak Kharka:

We left Manang after a hearty breakfast at our usual start time of 08:00am. Last night we enjoyed the social aspect of the trail and had loads of fun chatting with a Polish couple who have been our neighbors twice in cabins, once in Upper Pisang and now again in Manang.

A couple from Colorado were also staying at the cabins and we really enjoyed their company and a young solo Russian hiker joined our table. He had been traveling in India for 3 months prior to doing the Annapurna Circuit and had only started learning English in India, and he is already pretty good at speaking it.

The trek today was spectacular and there was no more road after Manang, only mountain trail.

We were treated to magnificent vistas of Annapurna 4, 3 and Gangapurna. The branches of the low lying scrub and junipers along the way we’re laden with snow. Yaks roamed the steep mountain slopes in a very sure footed manner and eagles swooped gracefully overhead, plunging down into the valleys. 

Rescue helicopters were buzzing back and forth along the trail in an unbelievably high volume. It seemed crazy that so many people needed to get rescued. 

The distance we traveled today was only 9km but we had 500m of elevation gain. The halfway point was at the village of Gunsang where we stopped for refreshments. It was here that we sampled some yak cheese which was delicious! 

Standing at the entrance to the teahouse was Tomas from Slovakia, whom we had met on the first night. We were all so delighted to see each other again. Since we started the hike we have also been passing back and forth with a large British group who have a guide and porters and we enjoy exchanging pleasantries with them. (Trekking company

On arrival at our destination in Yak Kharka we found a pleasant enough teahouse, Hotel Thorang Peak where we met the German couple we had encountered on Day 2 and pretty soon all our international trail friends arrived including Ola and Cyprian from Poland, Tomas, Ziko and we met a whole new crew of people too, most notably a group of awesome Bulgarians!

Then we were exposed to the very scary reality of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). A young woman with classic symptoms of HACE ( high altitude cerebral edema) was being escorted down the mountain trail by her friends. She could not walk on her own and loped like a zombie. A rescue helicopter was called to evacuate her and landed in a yak pasture. We watched as her two friends escorted her to the rescue helicopter and were amazed that as the pilot took off, he barely gained elevation, then plunged straight off the mountainside into the river valley. We thought that he probably used this tactic so as to bring her down to a lower elevation immediately. 

It was a huge wake up call for everyone who was acclimatizing here for the day. The dining hall of the teahouse was extremely festive that night with trekkers from all over the world. 

We slept at 4000m/13,120 ft

Yak Kharka to Thorong Pedi:

Today was tough as we ascended slowly into the heavens. I developed an all over head pressure headache during the night and was very concerned that it was a symptom of AMS. At 04:00 am I took 125mg Diamox and 800mg ibuprofen and decided that I would re-evaluate my condition after breakfast. On top of this potential predicament, I am now suffering from the same horrible cold that Josh had and it is extremely difficult to hike and climb at such extreme elevation in a healthy state, never mind sick!

Our host at Yak Kharka recognized my accent and gave me the card for his brother Kumar’s teahouse at Thorong Pedi Base Camp. His girlfriend Kate who helps him run the tea house is from South Africa. I couldn’t wait to meet her!

We are up in the wild, wild high parts of the Himalayan Mountains now.

It was a tough 7km hike today gaining 500 m elevation to 4540m/ 14,891ft. We took it easy and slow and my headache did not appear to get worse.

It was great meeting Kate and Kumar at Thorong Base Camp Lodge. They also run the Windhorse Restaurant here which has a great vibe and great trekking food. Mid afternoon we did an acclimatization hike up to high camp without our backpacks. That way we could go high and sleep lower. We reached 15,809ft/4824m in preparation for going back up there the next day. It was tough and I moved like a snail, 400m straight up!

The rescue helicopters were in full force again today, which made me wonder what type of mistakes these hikers were making.

That night my illness took a turn for the worst and I shivered and shook in my sleeping bag and told Josh that I thought we would have to stay in place for another day as I was too ill and weak to continue the next morning.

Thorong Pedi Base Camp to High Camp:

I awoke feeling able to do a small advance to High Camp at 16,154ft/4925m.

After breakfast and a long chat with Kumar we inched our way up the 1 km climb gaining 400m/1312ft to High Camp. It felt so good arriving there and we hunkered down for the afternoon. I needed to rest to overcome my horrible cold symptoms.

That evening was very festive once again in the dining room. We reconnected with Rachel from California and got to know the group of awesome Bulgarians from Sofia a little more. Bran, Nicola and Anna sat at our table and we talked story until it was tome to go to bed. As the evening rolled by, the weather changed and it started snowing. Soon everything was covered by a thick layer of snow and it was extremely cold up there.... our water froze in our drinking bottles. I was feeling miserably ill with upper respiratory tract infection symptoms but thought I had it in me to push over the pass, get down the monstrous mountain and potentially see a doctor. I am carrying broad spectrum antibiotics but don’t want to take them for a viral infection.

Early to bed for a predawn rise to make it over Thorong La Pass and then down the mountain for another 10 km to Muktinath.

Crossing Thorong La Pass:

It was dark and cold when we awoke at 04:30 and difficult to slither out of our sleeping bags. We could hear the other hikers outside getting ready to commence their long and difficult day. Breakfast wasn’t too appetizing, the pancake and potatoes were burnt and I must also mention here that everything costs more the higher up you go.

I felt awful from the the get go and was struggling to breathe due to my infection. I had to take numerous breaks just to catch my breath and I started feeling disoriented , hot and claustrophobic even though it was freezing cold. The hike to the pass was 5 km long and 500 m elevation gain. About halfway through I was sitting on a rock in the frigid wind in a wretched state with Dreadknot trying to help me feel better when a Nepalese horse guide with a train of four horses passed by us. He asked me whether I was okay, and I replied that I was struggling as I was ill. Three of the four horses had a rider on them and he offered the fourth horse to me to get through the next 2-3km and make it to the pass. I protested stubbornly as I had planned to go on foot, but Dreadknot and the Nepalese horseman made the decision for me and heaved me backpack and all atop the small, stout mountain horse. I won’t deny that I was relieved. It felt like the cold I had was developing in pneumonia. My lungs hurt, I had a productive cough and I had been experiencing chills the night before. 

Dreadknot hooked up with the fabulous Bulgarians for the final push to the top. He described that section as the gnarliest, most intense and difficult hike of his life, stopping to catch his breath every 30-40 steps in the well below freezing cold and deep snow. We all celebrated on reaching it the pass! Rachel from California was up there too, as were many of the other international friends we had made along the way.

Now was the heavy slog down, a 1600m/ 5248ft drop on an icy, slippery slope of steep switchbacks, to Muktinath , where we would stay that night. On one of the slippery slopes I slipped and landed hard on my behind, landing with a searing pain in my sacrum.... It is so painful that it feels fractured. 

We had now arrived in the dry, arid desert region of lower Mustang and we made our way into the town of Muktinath hoping, in vain to find a doctor. We did however find the Bob Marley Hotel which had a wonderful ambiance and got a room overlooking the Main Street and all of its activities. Horses are the main source of transport here and we watched people trottlng past on their way to the temple.

My condition was worsening and so I made the decision to start taking the emergency antibiotics in my pack.

Goodnight from a warm and snug Bob Marley hotel in Muktinath, Mustang.... as sick as I am, I mean really.... who gets to say that? 

I have guardian angels in the form of a Nepalese mountain man and his horse.


Sunday, March 25, 2018

A day in Manang: Thin air and Snow Flurries 

As soon as we could we checked out of last night’s teahouse and found a collection of pretty, brightly colored cabins called Alpine Home. The first thing I did was check the WiFi and it happens to be  the best service we’ve had on the entire trip!

We happily settled into the green cabin and we love our hosts who have a gorgeous German Shepard dog named Dundu. 

We have one day to explore Manang and the first stop was the Manang culture museum: Here we learned a bit more about the Himalayan Vulture:

Family: Accipitridae. Adults grow to 103-130cm( 41-51 inches) wingspan reaches 260-310cm (102-122 inches). Adults weigh 8-12 kg (18-26.4 lbs). It is the second largest “Old World Vulture”. It breeds on crags in the mountains of the Himalayas and Tibet, laying a single egg. They form loose colonies and are scavengers feeding on carcasses. It is a typical Vulture with a bald white head, very broad wings and short tail feathers.

Amongst the many items on display were ethnic dress for different occasions, old school farming implements and tools, a typical ethnic kitchen from back in the day as well as bedroom and prayer room all geared up towards daily practice of Tibetan Buddhism.

Around midday we strolled up to the monastery on top of a nearby hill ( without our backpacks, which felt great).

Butshok Gonpa is one of the oldest monasteries in Manang District. Manang is one of the closest neighbors of Tibet and its entire culture and spiritual practice were strongly influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. In Manang everyone has deep devotion to Buddhism and their daily life is very much linked to monastic activities.

People often see the temple as a place they can get in touch with their inner spirit, seeking temporal and ultimate happiness. On this peaceful environment, the elders of the community impart to the younger generation the understanding and practice of the Buddhist tradition.

Historically, the third born son would be sent to become a monk at the age of twelve with much fanfare, but this is no longer the case and becoming a monk is an individual choice now.

The Himalayan Mountain Rescue Association gave a free lecture at 3 pm on recognizing and preventing Acute Mountain Sickness. Following the information we received from the presenting doctor from New Zealand we have decided not to take the Diamox prophylactically but we will certainly use it if even mild symptoms occur. The key is to ascend slowly and no more than 500m per day. Both our oxygen satuations were 91% which is evidently normal for this altitude.

We’d like to thank everyone who is supporting and encouraging us by joining us on the journey from afar via social media and this blog. We appreciate all your comments. A special greeting to young Snake Legs and Mamma Llama and clan: were so happy to be a part of your bedtime stories!

It started snowing this afternoon, little flurries and the weather forecast predicts more snow..... should make for an interesting hike tomorrow!

Hunkering down tonight in our little bungalow and gearing up for the steep ascent ahead.....where the air is thin. 

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Upper Pisang to Manang: Climbing into the Sky

Josh awoke feeling able to continue the trek towards Manang (11,500 ft/3500m) where we have to stay for 2 days to acclimatize before our push to Thorang La Pass.

The staff at Hotel Manang Marshyangdi were extremely kind and didn’t mind me ferrying food and hot ginger tea to the bungalow for my patient,

Our hike ensued at 08:30am through pine forests followed by arid sections with primitive dry stack rock dwellings dotted along the way. 

Looking back towards Upper Pisang and it’s backdrop of Swargadwari aka the Great Wall of Nepal, we could not help but feel a sense of awe at the magnificence of our surroundings and the fact that we were even there at all. The rewards of getting out of your comfort zone are huge!

Humde was the halfway point of today’s walk, a tiny little village with an Airport situated at an elevation of 11,145 ft.

A cup of lemon, ginger honey tea and an apple pie made from scratch while we waited were enjoyed at Hotel Gandaki Guesthouse and Restaurant, while we chatted to our host and her 4 year old daughter who is fluent in English as her second language. She learns it at the tiny school up here on the roof of the world.... amazing!

There was evidence of the recent snowfall as here and there lay patches of ice on all the north facing sides of the track. We heard via another hiker that Thorang La Pass is currently closed due to heavy snowfall and we hope that conditions will change by the time we get there.

From here on out, it’s straight uphill all the way to the pass. I decided not to take any diamox ( altitude sickness pills) today as I am feeling fine at this elevation and will reassess in Manang.

I pondered on some of the reasons why, in my opinion these epic long distance hikes can enhance one’s life and came up with the following:

It’s a walking meditation.

You are completely in the present moment: What happened yesterday is gone, tomorrow doesn’t matter yet, your focus is getting through today.

Seeing how other people in the far flung regions of the world live, makes you re-evaluate what is important in life.

You experience gratitude about many aspects of your life in general and about life and encounters on the trail.

You experience sincere kindness of others.

You realize how little you need to survive ( in fact only as much as you can carry in a backpack).

You realize that you can always go further than you think you can go, and therefore you allow yourself to Dream bigger.

Past Mugje we hiked on to the absolutely stunning medieval terraced village of Braka, whose awe inspiring Gompa ( monastery ) sits high above the ancient dwellings facing the impressive view of Annapurna 3.

The oldest bakery on the Annapurna Circuit is situated in Braka and we stopped to enjoy a slice of apple pie and a cinnamon roll. It’s great doing these types of treks as carbo loading is a requirement!

The original baker of this establishment now owns it and we met him over tea, what a wonderful and friendly man! He mentioned that his parents and grandparents could always forecast the weather but now it is impossible as the climate has undergone a change and it is no longer predictable.

Annapurna 3 constantly loomed above us as we continued to Manang. It is bitterly cold and windy up here and we checked into a teahouse which promised a hot shower and WiFi.... none of these materialized. We had an icy cold shower, later to find out the water is only warm from 1-3 pm as it is solar heated and the WiFi doesn’t work well. Tomorrow we plan to check in somewhere else.

Dinner comprised of a veggie burger for Two Feathers and a yak burger and finger chips for Dreadknot who is feeling slightly improved from his cold.

Early to bed to stay warm. Tomorrow we shall explore Manang during our “day off”, while our lungs get used to the thin air.

Goodnight from the rooftop of the world.