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Annapurna Days 7-10: 17,000+ Feet and Acute Mountain Sickness

The last few days have really been the cliche “emotional roller coaster” in so many different ways – from the acute highs of parkour on scree slopes at 4500 meters and the euphoria of reaching the Thorong La Pass at 5400+ meters (nearly 18,000 feet) to the brutal lows of nearly crippling Acute Mountain Sickness and effectively running out of cash in a remote mountain valley with no way to obtain more…  In the end the instant trail friendships with other trekkers that share the same goal continues to be the ultimate story, an amazing experience like no other.

Day 7: Acclimatization Hike to Milarepa Cave (15km, 6.5hrs, peak of 4500meters)

Today was the Sabbath and the entire Israeli group was stuck fast for the day as a result of their religious (most are Orthodox) proscription against work (which apparently includes walking up mountains with backpacks on, go figure).  This worked out well because the recommendation is two nights in Manang to help acclimatize at altitude with day hikes to speed things up, so in spite of doing nothing on my birthday the day before I knew I had to get a real hike on today.

P1100235 (2) After reviewing the options, I had decided on visiting the Milarepa Cave – it seemed like one of the best medium duration day hikes (4 hours round trip) from Manang and one of the highest.  I went up for breakfast around 7AM and found Katrin and two guys who I referred to as The British Boys when they arrived last night finishing up their breakfast and just about to go off towards Milarepa themselves.  They were really cool and were willing to put it off an hour so I could join them and before long we were all off down the trail in the snow.

P1100214 (2) The day hike started off nice and easy downhill for awhile, a welcome change – most days start off uphill and the body immediately cries out against it.  Soon enough we had crossed the river and gone through a farmer’s field (where a farmer wearing jeans and a polo shirt was pushing a yak with a plow through his field while talking on a cell phone – strange juxtaposition of rustic and modern), then the grueling climb began.  From 3500 to 4000 meters in a couple hours up a muddy, snow covered slope through a forest with spectacular views of the valley and mountains opposite at times…   We all felt so light and free with our half-weight packs carrying only water and rain gear for the day.

P1100238 (2) Upon reaching the milestone of a shrine we could see from the valley floor, we took a long break for photos and frisbee and I even did some cartwheels because it felt so good.  Soon enough we continued up the mountain towards the supposed cave and the famous “100 rupee monk.”  We arrived at the monastery a bit winded but feeling quite happy about the climb and the beautiful views and all got a blessed necklace for luck through the Thorong La Pass – unfortunately, mine came off somewhere during the day and was lost, perhaps the reason I had so many problems later…

P1100255 (2) After tea with the monk we were directed up a scree slope towards the supposed famous cave (which we found out later doesn’t actually exist, it’s a legend).  From below this looked like an easy quick climb and the monk told us it was about twenty minutes…  Over an hour later we had climbed to 4300 meters with no cave in sight.  Exhausted by the experience we all sat down to relax, but at the sight of the beautiful glacier above us I felt strangely energized, thereby beginning possibly the most surreal action of my entire trek to date.

P1100257 (2) At 4300 meters, I determined that I wanted to get closer to the glacier and get high enough to see around the bend of the mountain and determine if there was a cave there or not.  I took off my pack and started to run nearly full speed (in sandals mind you) up a rock strewn scree slope.  Every step placed perfectly, rocks tumbling behind me as my momentum carried me over them before they could fall loose, air coming into my lungs with great huge gasps…  At around 4400 meters a huge boulder was directly in front of me and it never even occurred to me to slow down or go around it, my only thought was how to approach it.  In a nearly unconscious decision I found myself flying over it in a perfect safety vault and back on the scree up the slope, finally to pull up feeling like all the air was gone from the world.  As simple as the moment was, I will remember it for a long time.

P1100258 (2) At 4500 meters there was no cave, but I was close enough to hear the glacier cracking from a few hundred yards away.  I always thought this was a bit unrealistic when heard on Discovery Channel and the like, but they apparently really do make loud horrible cracking sounds!  It was quite epic.

The day ended with a long slow hike back to Manang and my first shower of the trek (cold and wonderful – yes, I had not showered for seven days).  Tomorrow would bring an easy hike up the road only a few hours to 4000m, so everyone slept well knowing we would enjoy an easy day.

Day 8: Manang to Yak Yorkha (10km, 3.5hrs, end at 4000m)

P1100262 (2) A strange day today – we expected it to be a simple two hour hike of not much effort, but somehow it turned into much longer.  The Israeli group left around 8AM but I was lazy and didn’t see the point, what with it being such a short day.  I stuck around in town for the morning and had a good breakfast and uploaded the previous blog entry (for a low low price of $10) as well as picked up some final supplies in the major metropolitan city of Manang.  Unfortunately, I also realized I was quite low on rupees – with only 2000 rupees cash and a few days until the next place to get cash (Jomsom) I suddenly went from lazy extravagant spender to miser.

P1100264 (2) I ended up leaving town around 10AM and caught up to the Israeli group an hour or so out of town, where they had stopped for breakfast and tea.  We trekked the rest of the day in loose formation, sometimes chatting, sometimes strung out and in our own worlds as our whims dictated.  While it was a short hike overall, it was interspersed with very steep climbs and many downhill sections merely leading to steep climbs again, a frustrating situation.  The day seemed to stretch on forever, but eventually we stumbled our way into Yak Yorkha in the early afternoon.

P1100267 (2) The rest of the day was passed in typical trekking style – relaxing in the sun, chatting about life, and meeting other trekkers.  It’s hard to go into detail about this without waxing nostalgic, but suffice it to say that again I was surprised to find that I valued these moments of conversation and company far more than the epic mountains and nature, something very unusual for me.  I expect it’s simply a core manifestation of my homesickness, but combining the epic nature with the simple conversation certainly makes for an amazing experience.

Tomorrow my plan was to head to Thorung Pedi at 4500m, following all the advice I’ve read about Acute Mountain Sickness to avoid sleeping more than 300-500m higher than the previous night.  The Israeli group had this absolutely nuts (IMO) notion of heading directly to High Camp at 4950m, which went against all sane advice and I was a little sad at the idea of parting company. 

Day 9: Yak Yorkha to Thorung Pedi (9km, 3.5hrs, end at 4550m)

P1100285 (2) For the first time, I woke up around the same time as the Israeli group and joined them for breakfast.  Unfortunately my limited budget dictated that I could not afford a proper breakfast today in order to make it to Jomsom and ended up eating a few spoonfuls of peanut butter – epic mistake.  They were ready to leave before me so once again they hit the trail while I was packing but I caught up quickly enough when they stopped for a break.

The rest of the day was a bit of a blur of climbing and walking along exposed trails with amazing views.  Even though it may sound like these views get old, they really don’t – it’s just hard to continue describing how mind boggling they are and the inspiration you feel when you stop for a moment and look around you.  It really is incredible that you can be struggling with the effort of moving and take a short break and become so full of energy again.

P1100284 (2) Except today, that wasn’t happening.  Instead I felt horrible, I had absolutely no energy and it was a tough mental struggle to climb any hills.  A couple hours along the road a pounding headache started and I was concerned I may be getting a migraine, but it eased up as sort of a dull thud and I left it alone.  Finally after a long climb I suppose my condition was obvious to everyone as the entire group started to foist candy bars, granola bars, etc. off on me.  After a bunch of trail mix, peanut butter, and a few granola bars I felt good enough to make it the rest of the way to Thorung Pedi, the final bit of which was across an exposed scree slope that is apparently a dangerous landslide area.

P1100286 (2) Upon arrival in town we were greeted by the rest of the Israeli group, the British Boys, another British Group, the Yoga Group, the Russian Group, and some new people.  Quite an epic gathering!  After much haranguing and discussion the Israeli group finally decided to spend the night here instead of going to High Camp, a decision I was glad to hear.

After around thirty minutes at 4500m my headache had gotten quite bad and it was very painful.  Everyone went to take a quick nap around 1PM and before I knew it, it was 4PM and I was feeling even worse – nauseous, incredible pain in my head, tingling in my fingers and toes…  all signs of Acute Mountain Sickness (as well as typical for the migraines I have).  I went into the dining room to see if I could relax around other people and prevent it from getting worse and this seemed to work – it got no worse, but no better.

Everyone in the dining room noticed my condition and took pity on me.  I was barraged with suggestions, questions, comments, etc.  Yes, I’ve taken diamox.  Yes, I’ve been drinking water.  No, it’s not so bad I’m ready to go back down.  No, I hadn’t really eaten well today – after that, I ended up sharing a pizza and getting some soup and felt considerably better, but still no good.  Everyone made plans for the next morning – since the day after next was a Jewish holiday, the Israeli group wanted to leave at 3-4AM and try to get to Jomsom in one day (jeep from Muktinath), an ambitious plan to put it mildly.  Everyone else wanted to be on the trail by 5AM but I saw no reason to leave before 6AM, leaving me to face the most daunting climb of the entire trek by myself.

Thankfully Katrin also felt that leaving so early was pointless and decided to leave with me a bit later, which meant a lot to me especially considering how I felt at the time (in retrospect I imagine she was concerned  more for my plight and expected me to die halfway up the mountain alone or some such).  So, off to bed at 8PM for some fitful sleep.

Day 10: The Thorong La Pass (18km, 9hrs, peak of 5420m, end at 3700m)

P1100289 (2) The theoretical highlight of the Annapurna Circuit – a grueling climb to nearly 18,000 feet followed by an insane descent to the next town.  I woke up shortly after midnight and my headache was gone and I felt quite good!  The rest of the night passed in fitful sleep but around 4:40AM I climbed out of bed and began packing up.  I felt about 90% and was ready and willing to give the pass a shot instead of waiting in Thorung Pedi another day.  I ate a huge breakfast today to avoid the previous day’s mistake and was ready to go by 5:30AM.  Katrin and I headed out of town trying to find the trail only to quickly realize we were lost as we walked a goat trail up the side of the mountain.

P1100295 (2) A quick trip back to town had us on the right trail and we were out of town and beginning the horrible climb by 6AM.  It’s hard to describe this other than painful, endless, and beautiful.  The mental and physical struggle was intense, and we carefully metered our stops for water and to look around and admire the mountains.  As we continued to climb we eventually climbed higher than the mountainsides which had towered over us the night before, then higher than the clouds which scattered across the valley we had trekked the previous day. 

After reaching High Camp at nearly 5000m my head started to pound again, but it was under control and I was determined to go on, knowing that once we reached the pass we would have a quick descent back to sane altitudes.  It’s actually hard to talk about this climb because it was genuinely tough and recalling it in detail brings back a lot of emotion, so instead I will state that I really enjoyed Katrin’s company and I cannot imagine doing this climb alone – and I’m very glad I didn’t have to.  Eventually, we reached the pass.

P1100337 (2) The joy and sense of completion here was incredibly intense – it’s not just knowing you got to the highest point, but knowing you conquered the mental and physical fatigue as well as the sure knowledge that the rest of the trail would be constantly downhill.  As we walked into the pass we ran into the trailing members of the Israeli group and were shocked to realize they had just made it here in spite of leaving nearly two hours before us.

We spent around thirty minutes at the pass taking pictures and snarfing snacks and chocolate bars for energy.  Two of the Israeli guys celebrated by making mushroom soup with the burner they had carried so far, but before long Guy started talking about following “pink ponies” off the mountain and between his and my pounding heads we decided it was time to get lower.

P1100338 (2)

P1100343 (2)

P1100342 (2)

P1100347 (2) P1100346 (2)

P1100353 (2) At first the trek down from the pass was crazy – an easy slow descent that stretched out for what seemed like miles in front of us, taunting us with views of a town far far away in the valley below.  After half an hour we had only descended a couple hundred meters and my AMS started to explode.  My head felt like one of the worst migraines I’ve ever had, with huge spikes of pain any time I expended extra effort.  Worse, I became horribly nauseous and was convinced I was going to throw up at any given moment.  I had to stop and rest continuously and again Katrin made an awesome traveling companion, staying with me instead of going on ahead in order to keep an eye on me.

P1100359 (2) Soon enough the trail changed and an intensely brutal descent began, some of the steepest downhill trails yet and they continued on for hours.  I was thrilled at the idea of getting to lower altitude but my knees began to hurt desperately.  I started to do anything I could to take the pressure off my knees, including sliding down a 100+ foot scree slope on my ass at one point in order to avoid a pretty wicked series of switchbacks (it was actually quite fun).  Finally the trail widened out and I was able to walk the last few minutes backwards to reach a high hotel where many groups of people had stopped.

P1100362 (2) We hung out for awhile and unwound, I drunk a few cokes to settle my stomach, then we continued onwards towards Muktinath!  As we finally descended past 4000m I felt my AMS begin to fade and by the time we walked into town at 3700m the headache and nausea were completely gone.  We began looking for the others and before long I heard people calling my name and looked up to see the British Boys, the British Group, and the Russian Group calling to me from a balcony waving beers and rum.  Done deal.

P1100376 (2) The rest of the evening passed in a blur of drinking, horrible trivia games, and Yak Steak Fajitas which were more like Yak Hamburger Enchiladas but quite good nonetheless.  The plan is unsure at this point, but today is a Jewish holiday where the Israeli group cannot spend money or travel, so they are stuck here for the day.  I think perhaps our little group will be splitting up as I head up to Muktinath to visit the temple than am off to Jomsom and eventually towards Tatopani via jeep to soak in the hot springs.

Hard choices.


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