Nepal, Videos

The Longest Day – Annapurna Circuit

19 Comments 16 February 2010

Dad going to Thorung La Pass

Tiger Balm Tales vol. 13

The Longest Day

KLOMP, KLOMP, KLOMP
The sounds of hiking boots on wooden floor echoed outside my door. I poked my nose out of my warm sleeping bag cocoon, breathed in the cold air, and let it out only to see my hot breath evaporate into the darkness.

I’m aware those footseps are a ‘wake-up’ call to begin this worrisome day, but I know the footsteps aren’t for me; they are for my neighbor. I tried to put my head beneath the sleeping bag again like a turtle reverting back into his shell. I didn’t want to think about the coming day; I just wanted to sleep another 20 minutes. Soon my watch alarm went off beckoning us to stand upright and face our challenge. However the reality was we were both already awake thinking and wondering about what lie ahead for us.

Snowy peaks Annapurna

We started at 5:30AM in the complete darkness. I was wearing nearly every piece of clothing I had been carrying for the last 12 days. Well-outfitted Europeans breezed by us in their down jackets and other technical gear covering them from head to toe; they were a walking Northface billboard. On the other end of the spectrum, my dad and I looked like we had raided a garage sale with a hodge-podge of winter type trekking gear. Honestly, we were poorly prepared when it came to technical, winter clothing. I had just spent the last year living at the equator in Vietnam, I didn’t even own a coat, so I had to borrow one. We operated under the idea that as long as we kept moving we would stay warm.

Our little headlamps cut through the darkness giving you the effect of being in a tunnel. It was un-nerving to not be able to see more than a 5 ft. radius of your surroundings. The sun slowly rose in the sky, so close to us I felt I could reach out and touch it. I let the radiating rays hit my body and give me energy. Everything around us seemed to be happening in slow motion, our breathing, our steps, the people moving around us, yet there was a palpable energy in the air propelling us forward.

The march to the top was a surreal experience taking us 4 hours to go from 15,100 ft to the 17,770 ft Thorung La Pass. The 4 hours seemed to be a roller coaster of emotions not to mention a roller coaster of nausea. Trekking in high altitude slows down your pace, and turns your insides as well as your brain into jelly. It’s like some drug induced high; memories and thoughts seemed to float through my brain in slow motion getting stuck for a while and rattling around. Until you actually experience this yourself, you can’t imagine how each step seems to take such an effort that it leaves you breathless. My normal healthy self had eroded away into heavy breathing and legs that felt like they were 60 pounds each.

Video of trail up to the pass:

The sound of silence on the path was eerie; sounds of breathing, and snow crunching below our feet were the only thing I could hear. I don’t even think we talked among ourselves except to ask the occasional question “How are you doing?” My dad was breathing heavy and going slow, but his spirits were high. Bishnu was our eternal cheerleader, greeting us with a smile and encouragement at every rest break; and there were many rest breaks. One thing that fueled us was the local Nepalese who sat perched with their donkeys at the steep switchbacks, waiting for us to give up and use 4 legs instead of 2; I imagined them to be vultures. It was cruel punishment. However, one thing that holds true for my family – we don’t give up.

As any great challenge is achieved, great emotions tend to go along with it. As we neared the pass I turned around and watched my dad come around the last bend. My whole body tensed up, my throat closed, my brow furrowed, and I could feel the tears well up in my eyes. I was overcome with pride and love as I watched him realize that he was at the top. I clumsily tried to video the moment but tears stung my eyes and my narration was wobbly at best as I swallowed my words.

Thorung La Pass Accomplishment

I was relieved that we both had made it up safely and I was happy that we had met the challenge together. As I watched him walk toward me I wondered what I would be doing when I was 73. What adventures would I have, and who in the world would be with me?

Even my dad was overcome with emotions; something I rarely get a glimpse of. In fact, I don’t know if I can ever remember a time when I saw him emotional. Angry – yes; tears of emotions – no. He talked about his mom watching him from above on this day, her birthday. She would’ve thought he was crazy for doing this, and she would have been really mad at me for talking him into it!

Bishnu and Diehl (our porter) smoked a celebratory cigarette. We took pictures by the summit sign and reveled in our massive accomplishment. That feeling of being on a high of utter happiness is one of the best feelings in the world. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, we were at 17,770 ft. and we were ecstatic. In my dad’s elation, he gathered us ( Bishnu, Diehl, and myself) all around and told us he had a question that we had to answer honestly – no bullshit. We all agreed to the terms. He got very serious and asked , “On the first day of our trekking, did you think I would make it here to the pass?” We all broke out in laughter and answered a resounding “NO!” . That’s the honest to God truth. After the first few days Bishnu and I sat down and starting making plan B…we didn’t think dad would be able to make it. I never told my dad this. But in the end he proved us all wrong, which made him glow with pride.

Video at the top!

As we soaked in our accomplishment, little did we know what lie ahead of us. Unfortunately it turned out to be an icy downward slope which would prove to take our elation, chew it up, and spit it out down the other side of the snow covered pass. We next had to go from 17,700 ft. to 12,335 ft at the next town of Muktinath. We sent Deihl ahead so that he could get to Muktinath and secure a room as we knew we’d have a slow descent.

The other side of Thorung La

I looked over the other side of the pass and saw a white expanse of rock and snow. Upon closer look the snow was really a sheet of ice. I decided to embrace the wide open space, avoiding the well traveled/icy trail and go ‘off-road’. I picked my own trail through the deep crunchy snow imaging my heavy hiking boots were light, wide snow shoes. At times I could walk on top of the snow and sometimes I would sink in to my upper calf. I generally ran wildly down the mountain side (think Sound of Music in the snow). My dad however didn’t like the uncertainty of my route. Instead he took the slow, slippery route where hundreds before him had gone a few hours earlier leaving a snow packed ice slide.

Needless to say he fell more than once or twice, but he persevered at a turtle pace; and I could feel his nerves with every step. This set my worrying mind in motion again. Visions of broken hips and ankles dominated my thoughts so much so that I could no longer watch him tediously choose his icy route. So I point myself downhill and tried not to think about him as I knew Bishnu was there to watch him and worry for me.

After a few hours we got through the icy snow path and a steep descent down another mountain lie ahead of us. It felt never ending. While most younger, braver people quickly went down the mountain, Dad and I slowly and cautiously made our way down. The good news is that we made some really great friends along the way. We had already been hiking for 8 hours when we met Roman, a tall solo hiker. He was a breath of fresh air since we were all tired of each other by that time; the excitement of someone new to talk to gave us new energy!

Dad slowing down...

However, my dad was slowly deteriorating. The pounding downhill, the stress of the day, the hours on our feet, and little to no food had all taken its toll. First it was his back, then his feet. After 11 hours of hiking he was walking like he was a 73 year old; limping a bit, a pained look in his face with each slow step. We were still far above our destination of Muktinath. The sun was quickly going down and the moon was already up. We had to end the day as we started 11 hours earlier; with headlamps.

I felt like we were barely moving at times, and it pained me to see my dad struggling so much. The sun was down when Deihl came out on the trail looking for us. He had arrived in Muktinath 4 hours earlier and booked our room expecting us to arrive hours before this. He was worried that we hadn’t arrived yet and had come out looking for us; a touching act for a porter to do. He was so happy when he found us limping down the mountain in one piece.

That’s when the most memorable part of this trip happened for me. Diehl and Bishnu each took Dad’s arms and placed them around their shoulders and helped my dad ‘walk’ the last 40 minutes into town navigating down yet more steps by headlamp. I walked on the side trying to illuminate the way with my headlamp and giving encouragement. But in my mind was this feeling of pride, sadness, and gratitude equally vying for my attention. I was sad that my dad couldn’t walk into town on his own two feet, but so immensely proud of his 13 hour accomplishment today.

Towards Muktinath

Bishnu and Diehl helped dad make it to the guesthouse. We arrived in the ‘lobby/dining hall’ and the 3 Polish women who we had befriended the day before were there eating their dinner and celebrating. When they saw us they let out a gasp and as they saw my dad being helped in, they actually stood up and clapped for us. I love the camaraderie on this trail. This was the welcome we needed; smiles beamed on our faces. We were done for the day, and we survived.

Diehl had reserved us a room with a hot ensuite shower – heaven. I quickly gave dad some Alieve and set up a hot (ok – warm) shower for him. Even though we were both starving, exhaustion set in and we barely ate or celebrated at all at the guesthouse. We would save that for tomorrow.

For the first time in 2 weeks we slept without the cloud of anxiety over us. We had successfully made it over the pass. The next day when we woke up and I started getting up to go to breakfast, Dad sat up slowly and said “What adventure are we going to do next?”

I just laughed. I loved his quest for adventure. I answered, “I don’t know – maybe Antarctica?” He laid back down apparently happy with my answer.

See all the photos of our 13 hour Trek!

Like the Tiger Balm Tales?  Then start from the beginning!

Vol. 1 – The Begining of a Nepal Trekking Plan
Vol. 2 – Preparing the Parents
Vol. 3 – Annapurna Itinerary
Vol. 4 – Travel Back in Time
Vol. 5 – Breathe Through Your Mouth
Vol. 6 – Road Work Ahead
Vol. 7 – Changing Rhythms on the Annapurna Circuit
Vol. 8 – And on the 7th Day We Rested
Vol. 9 – Paralyzed on the Annapurna Circuit
Vol. 10 – No Room at the Inns
Vol. 11 – A Mouse in My House
Vol. 12 – Beware of Falling Rocks

Your Comments

19 Comments so far

  1. Lynn says:

    Sherry,

    This was just a beautiful post! People that haven’t hiked in mountainous terrain don’t realize that the descent can be worse than the ascent for some people. Your dad is amazing, and so are you!

  2. Rhona says:

    So far, this climb is amazing. I have been reading each and every post (and all the others in between of course) but for me, this was the most emotional. I love your fathers attitude. My eyes stinged a bit when he asked what adventure will you guys be doing next. How wonderful to have such a mentor in your life.

  3. What an amazing experience, I felt I was with you every step without ever having to get tired and cold

  4. I cried all the way through this post. What a wonderful adventure – and when your Dad sat up and asked what adventure was next – well, I really lost it then. Thank you for this series – it’s just wonderful.

    • admin says:

      Should have I warned people to read with Kleenex?! Funny thing is that while I was writing the recount of the summit day it brought me to tears again. How silly is that – my own writing makes me cry!

  5. Dad says:

    Every time I think of this longest day and going over Thorong La Pass, I try to remember how I felt going up that trail. Oxygen was so scarce that it was all used up moving my mucles and not much was getting to the brain. It took a couple of minutes at the top for the brain to start working well again. A pilot friend of mine told me that at that altitude your mental process really slows down.

    I really felt good about getting there safely and in good physical condition. Most of all I feel fortunate that my daughter asked me to go with her. She sure could have found a faster treking partner, but I felt honored to be there with her. Most of all we helped each other over the top!

    DAD

    • admin says:

      Ha! Maybe I could have round a faster trekking partner, but they would’ve never chased a mouse off my bed for me…or kept me as entertained as you did! I was lucky to have YOU!

  6. Mark H says:

    Congratulations on making the pass and what a special experience it must be to share it with your father. Beautifully told story filled with humour and emotion and detail.

  7. Anil says:

    It’s going to take one hell of an adventure to top this one but I’m sure you’ll come up with something good :)

  8. Wanderluster says:

    Really inspirational! Thanks for sharing, Sherry!

  9. Jon Ridge says:

    Excellent post, reminded me of when I crossed over the La in 08, unsurprisingly not much has changed since from the sound of it!

    Congratulations, and if you’ve got the trekking bug i’ll assume Everest Base Camp is next on the list? :)

  10. Frank says:

    Sherry,
    I really enjoyed your Tiger Balm Tales. It is just wonderful writing, absolutely first rate and inspirational.
    Thank you so much for taking the time and effort to create such interesting content.

    Did a short post to highlight the series on our blog. Hope it reads OK. http://ourhikingblog.com.au/2010/03/hiking-annapurna-circuit-nepal.html
    Ever in Oz, give us a hoy!

  11. Garfield Saunders says:

    I very much enjoyed your postings of your trek with your father. I did a trek back a number of years ago up to Muktinath then over to Annapurna Base Camp, I celebrated my 60th birthday at ABC. I plan on returning this fall to trek the full Annapurna Circuit and will have my 72nd birthday on the trek

  12. Doss says:

    Well, I’ve been reading many tales in my prep’ for an upcoming first time visit to Nepal – and this is the most inspirational, emotional & evocative so far.
    I admit, I usually bore of the many “me, me, me” type-blogs on the ‘net. After all, I really just want to know about the place & it’s people…but this has made me realise it’s just as much about the personal acheivement of the trekkers who are also there as part of that place and it’s people. Especially those who endure & overcome as you & your Dad have done.
    Thank you for sharing x

    • admin says:

      Doss,
      Thanks so much for leaving that comment – I so happy you could get something out of our story. You are totally right – trekking the Annapurna circuit is def. about the culture and the locals and environment you meet along the way – but it’s also a very personal journey about the hikers. They will become your world for a few days as you all work together to reach the same goal.
      Good luck with your trek – let me know if I can be of any help!

  13. Priyank says:

    Super super narration! I miss the himalayas dearly, its been two years since I went there…

  14. Arindam says:

    Found this page while Googling on Annapurna circuits and really enjoyed reading the article. I am going to visit Thorung La next summer.

  15. Grant says:

    Thanks for writing this. It is really inspiring. I hope to do something like this some day.


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Sherry traveling the world

I'm Sherry, a corporate cube dweller turned nomadic traveler. I travel to off-the-beaten-path destinations to bring you unique travel experiences and photography. But it's not just about travel, it's also about life experiences of a middle age wanderer.
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Where am I and Where am I going?

Ireland -> Belgium

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