Despite previous treks in the varied landscapes of Indonesia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong, I had never proven a champion in the cardiovascular department (my ten-year-old self, magenta-faced after mile run days in P.E. class, could attest to that).
Each self-inflicted climb to reach a mountain pass, jungle ridge, or volcano rim had brought with it a blend of torture and triumph.
Setting off on Nepal’s three-week Annapurna Circuit, I knew it would be no exception.
Each day trekking in the Himalayan Annapurna region built upon the previous.
The first eleven days on the trail were saturated with stunning views capable of entrancing even the most jaded traveler – soaring, craggy peaks, lush evergreen forests, crystal rivers cutting through emerald valleys.
At the lower elevations, there was green in every direction. We passed farmers in rice paddies, small herds of goats, and lines of schoolchildren swallowed in their too-big uniforms.
Alongside the family tea houses catering to tourists, daily life carried on in the villages. Adults and children communed, the former observing youth employed in games of cricket and football.
Conditions evolved as we steadily climbed the circuit: temperatures dropped; our leg muscles stiffened; the air thinned. Vegetation grew sparse, and the once lively villages became smaller communities of hardy families who ran tea houses for the trekkers who pressed onward.
Goats ceded their way to yaks, and rows of Tibetan Buddhist mani prayer wheels marked the entry and exit to each new community.
The peaks of the 55 km-long Annapurna Massif painted a frigid, reverence-inspiring backdrop.
My husband, who grew up in the year-round tropical embrace of Java, Indonesia, stood in his first snowfall in Manang.
This village, perched at 3,519 meters (11,545 feet), marks a customary point where trekkers spend an extra day as part of the high-altitude acclimatization process.
We had awoken from an afternoon sleep to the sound of our porter-become-friend, Buddhi, whose voice rang in the still mountain air.
That first snowfall – powdered sugar illuminated in the pre-dusk haze – fell softly, sprinkling strands of our hair, our lashes, the fibers of our gloves.
We welcomed these benign snowflakes with delight; unbeknownst to us was the greater storm that lay ahead.
Looking back from the vantage point of passed time, we couldn’t have imagined what we were climbing towards.
Just under nine months prior at the end of April 2017, we had been enjoying weather typical of one of the Annapurna Circuit’s prime trekking seasons.
Mornings and early afternoons were sunny almost without exception; if precipitation did occur, it arrived by the time we were already tucked into our lodging for the day, with a bed before us and the promise of a plate of dal bhat and a glass of hot mint tea ahead.
Although thousands of trekkers annually complete the Annapurna Circuit without major incident, each day while we were outside – usually late morning – at least one helicopter would pass overhead, evacuating someone further up the trail from an emergency situation.
While some of these could have been incidences of injury, Buddhi advised that most of them were likely cases of severe high altitude sickness, for which the only recourse is getting down to a lower elevation as quickly as possible.
In many cases, the ill effects of acute mountain sickness can be mitigated through a gradual, deliberate ascent.
We took note and paced ourselves accordingly.
For my husband and many others, descents are often more painful, straining knee ligaments and tender muscles.
For myself, however, I was certain that the arduous 900-meter climb to Thorong La Pass at 5,416 meters (17,769 feet) – the highest point of the circuit (with only 50% of sea-level oxygen pressure available) – would be the most trying physical challenge.
I’d seen photos of the view from the pass: the majestic Annapurna mountain range, snow-capped, spearing a bright blue expanse of sky and cradling a rocky valley draped in a glossy blanket of stark-white.
The images of the pass dispelled my doubts and urged me forward.
Thousands of others had crossed Thorong La before us. Like them, we, too, would be rewarded with an otherworldly view in celebration of our achievement.
That was what I told myself, anyway.
The reality of our ascent was to be quite different.
This is part one in a three-part series on Nepal's Annapurna Circuit, followed by the second installment: "Crossing Thorong La Pass: The Ascent."
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