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.
The morning of the ascent, pre-dawn, freezing, we forced down our trekker’s breakfast of porridge and mint tea, meant to fuel us for the next eight to ten hours until we reached amenities on the other side of Thorong La Pass.
It had been snowing through the night – since the previous afternoon, in fact, just after we arrived at Thorong Phedi, the final port of call before the real test. We’d spent the night shivering in our rented sleeping bags, the clapboard walls of the hut a thin insulator against the bitter wind.
Awakening in the darkest hours of the night to a pressing urge (increased urination being a side-effect of the high altitude pills), I’d fumbled outside, arms outstretched, groping for the door handle to the bathroom shack in the icy darkness whistling with snow flurries, our headlamp’s battery malfunctioning in the sub-zero temperatures.
No WiFi meant there was no way to check the weather forecast, but the snow stopped sometime while we slept.
By 3:30am, we awoke to a night sky awash with crystal stars in the snow globe world.
After breakfast, we had boiling water poured into our lime green, 1-liter bottle we’d bought in Kathmandu. We didn’t yet know how grateful we would be to the clerk at the trekking gear store who had convinced us that in addition to our hydration bladders it would be wise to bring a bottle which could better store boiling-hot water.
Settling the bill and adjusting our hats, gloves, and gear, we stepped outdoors and set off with our porter, Buddhi, on the steep trail.
At 4:30am, we were leaving earlier than most, allowing us to maintain the steady pace we knew we needed to if we were to conserve our energy for the task ahead.
Those first couple of hours were the steepest uphill climb.
Halfway to the high camp, a couple of hardy, middle-aged French women whom we’d spoken with at dinner the evening before breezed past. They had only just sat down to breakfast an hour earlier, at the time when we were already starting up the trail.
That morning, I found in myself an unexpected drive.
Where days before, I had nearly collapsed from exhaustion after a moderate climb in the thin air, that morning my lungs welcomed each icy breath as my boots made steady purchase with the slippery snow.
Just before reaching the crest of the climb to the high camp, we turned back to see dawn: a soft, pink glow illuminating wisps of clouds frosted atop the peaks.
It was a cinematic moment, and although we still had another several hours of steady climbing before reaching the top of the pass, a rush of adrenaline instilled elated confidence.
But then the cloud rolled in.
Coming from the other side of the mountain, we were blindsided by the sudden change in weather.
Enveloped in thick gray, the sunrise vanished as quickly as it had appeared, and with it, the impressive mountain backdrop.
A wall of white surrounded us on all sides and flakes began dizzily fluttering down in the new colorless world.
We had been ascending for two and-a-half hours and were nearly halfway to the highest point. Although visibility was reduced, the thought of turning back only to do it all over and face unknown conditions the following day was not an option we considered for long.
We reasoned that as long as we pressed onward and made it to the pass before 10am (when winds would pick up, making conditions far more dangerous), the worst would be over. Plus, despite the whiteout, the snow seemed little more than a flurry at that point, so we continued the upward climb.
Occasionally travelers passed us, doubling back down the trail. A couple of them may have decided to postpone crossing due to weather concerns, but there were others who were obviously ill from altitude sickness and who needed to descend to clear the symptoms.
Most of those who were ill, Buddhi advised, had likely spent the night at the high camp. Sleeping at that much higher elevation (4,880 meters versus the 4,540 meters where we had spent the night) posed greater problems, he explained.
The effects of the altitude were not entirely lost on us.
The higher we climbed, the more I could feel myself wheezing for air. We wore sunglasses to protect ourselves from eye burn, but while Ferry and Buddhi also covered their mouths against the icy air, whenever I did so, I felt almost entirely cut off from the thin oxygen supply and became panicky and dizzy. I resolved to keep my face open to the elements, although the snow stung my skin and the bitter breaths threatened to crystallize my lungs.
Key to motivation was maintaining a rhythm, never stopping for more than a few seconds. Each steady, trudging step provided enough momentum to plant the next foot forward.
The mind goes to some interesting places when in a state of monotonous, dull-buzzing agony, all senses tuned in to the numbing cold and the pain of each sharp breath, nothing but white emptiness ahead, behind, and around.
During much of the climb, my mind repeated a muted kinesthetic mantra: “one, step, two, step, O-K, go…breathe, up, breathe, down, up and go.”
When I felt myself gasping, inner pep talks, reminding myself how I had remarkably “won” a health contest after an altitude talk in Manang for having the highest O2 levels, reassured me that I was getting enough air.
We had also started watching Game of Thrones while on the first leg of our journey in SE Asia; envisioning a mundane evening spent in our hotel room back in Kathmandu, finding out what happened next to the characters in their own wintry world, kept my frantic thoughts grounded.
At one point, the three of us teamed up with another two travelers and their guide. They were maintaining a similar pace to ours but were struggling because their entire supply of drinking water was frozen solid. The water in our hydration bladders had long since frozen, too, but the boiled water we had set off with, while now frigid, was still drinkable.
Infusing our muscles with a shot of the chilled H2O was enough to power us ahead for the final one-hour uphill stretch.
There must have been a dozen times we thought we were close, only to cross an invisible ridgeline to see another stretch of white expanse to climb.
Around 9:30am, when we were finally able to make out a tea hut next to some colored flags marking the sign at the top of the pass, we released a weak cry of victory.
Our phones, frozen cold, were temporarily unusable, and the thought of digging out the DSLR from our snow-encrusted bags was nearly unthinkable at that point, so we sufficed ourselves with a few quick shots on the GoPro, hoping they would turn out.
Immediately thereafter, we took refuge in the tea house, bumping shoulders in the jostle for space amongst the other tourists huddled around the small stove.
After a brief break, refilling our water bottle with a $6 liter of boiled snow, we knew it was time to start getting down the mountain before the dangerous winds picked up.
Despite the physical challenge of the ascent, I had remained optimistic throughout and had even felt a sense of pride from the power of that positive thinking.
Part of what had driven me forward was the thought that we only had to make it to the top in time and that the downhill portion would be a welcome relief.
The profound naïveté of that belief was about to be exposed.
This is part two in a three-part series on Nepal's Annapurna Circuit. Return for the third and final installment: "Crossing Thorong La Pass: The Descent."
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