The Longest Day – Annapurna Circuit

February 16, 2010 22 Comments »

Dad going to Thorung La Pass

Tiger Balm Tales vol. 13

The Longest Day

The sounds of hiking boots on the 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 footsteps 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 5:30 AM 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 unnerving 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 heavily 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 be 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 started 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 accomplishments, little did we know what lay 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 imagining my heavy hiking boots were light, wide snow shoes. At times I could walk on top of the snow and sometimes I would sink into my upper calf. I generally ran wildly down the mountainside (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 pointed 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 on 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 will 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

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