After the gorgeous Langtang trek, I kept thinking about a face to face with Himalayan summits again. A few days later I give a call to a new friend I just met, Dan: “What a coincidence, I planned to leave for the same place the exact same day!”. That’s how I am about to begin a whole new adventure, the Annapurna Circuit. And the adventure starts quick enough with a young lady particularly sensitive to the vibrations of the bus. She will spend the next 6 hours sleeping on my shoulder when she is not vomiting in small plastic bags that she then throws through the window – Hmmm, Nepal…
The First Days
The first days are not really fascinating. We are driven on a seesaw track by a bus to Chamchye, spend the night here, then walk something like 20 km before getting stuck because of an over-active waterfall. We are about to go back to the previous village in order to find out a solution to this problem when we luckily find a way to bypass the fall. Here we are lucky enough to hitch hike in a truck — or what’s left of it — that drives us to Chame, the “true” start of the mountain trek, where things become interesting.
Kilometer after kilometer, we walk through Alpine landscapes and typical villages. Stunned to experience such a beauty, walking becomes easy despite heat, sunburns and the difficulty of some passages. The presence of chörtens and prayer wheels is a reminder of the Buddhist influence in these high and remote places where provoking mountains dominate. Annapurna II, Annapurna IV, … Their name resonate in our mind and drives us wild with desire. But they make light of us, continually hiding behind a chaste finery of clouds before gently unveiling to our eyes, as nocturnal queens teasing our senses without ever showing everything.
Every single day, from a village to the next, we climb to better go down before climbing again. The sun is at its highest when we walk through a surprising landscape making us think about Sierra Nevada, without the cowboys. We are literally burning and the liters of water we carry are flowing with an extraordinary speed. Until now, we have always gone further than the objective we set before, but this time might be different. A totally unexpected village appears to our tired eyes. Bathed in dust, surrounded by horses and yaks, it is lazily hiding behind a dried grass bump in a North African look — Bragha. Temptation is too strong and makes us forget about today’s target. We will sleep here tonight.
Despite our wounded feet we keep on, always further, always higher. Our eyes cast an envious glance at a specific spot on the map: one of the highest lakes in the world, Tilicho lake, 4919 m high. Discovered by Herzog and his team during the famous 1950s expedition aimed to reach the top of Annapurna I – the first 8000 m climb in human history — it has become the next target. But this time walking like we did so far will not be enough. That would be too easy. You have to deserve a lake like this and we will have to cross an important zone of landslides. We however do not really worry about it, ignorant as we are, but quickly understand what we’re in for when we walk on an unstable sand and gravel path, barely large enough for our feet, which inclination sends shivers down your spine…
Now we are a team of three, a new recruit under the name of Fabrice joined us. We already met him a few days ago but got separated. He has been traveling alone so far, however he has been awaiting for some company to cross this risky zone. We will then walk through it together.
At the beginning everything goes well. We do not especially feel secure but the hostile and arid landscape bewitches us. On one side, the steep slope separates us from the sky, on the other from the river, maybe more than a hundred meters downhill; falling here would probably be fatal, this is an evidence. The path becomes thinner, then nonexistent when Fabrice suddenly hesitates. “We can’t cross here! Look, there is no track anymore and gravel is crumbling!”. He is right. The thin layer of gravels left make this part of the path unstable, slowly disintegrating under our steps and dragging us down little by little towards the chasm. I remain however confident and give it a try. It’s a success! Fabrice follows me, still hesitating. As he is leaning on the slope — an illusion of security — the ground crumbles under his weight and he finds himself stuck, laying on the slope, clinging to it as much as he can…
“Hold on!” I say, as I am unfolding one of my walking poles to give him. “Quick! I’m slipping!” he answers, worried. It is becoming urgent. I try not to give in to panic, hold him out the unfolded pole to pull him and give the other pole to hold on to. “You need to stand up in order for your feet to stabilize the ground!” I retort. Phew! He successfully finds his balance and walks on a solid ground again. Dan, having seen all of this is totally discomfited. “I don’t know if I will be able to pass” he says to me, “if I fail, I will die!”. A bit further, two local porters having enjoyed the show come to help us. They cross the path with an incredible ease, pack the remaining gravel and show to Dan that now he can pass without any risk. We are stunned. Suddenly one of them points out another man, running … in the landslide — are we dreaming?
More shaken than hurt, surrounded with the martial rhythm of rock avalanches, we continue the trek and quickly reach Tilicho base camp which cold welcome is only matched by this of the wind whipping our faces. Thanks to a whole day of raining we forge new friendships with people from all around the world and meet those which we will continue the adventure with: Nicolas, Roark, Matteo and Alvar. Together we decided to leave the camp tomorrow before sunrise.
Out of Breath
I will remember this climb for a long time! At this altitude, breathing becomes more difficult because of the lack of air. That, the 15/20kg of my backpack and the week of trek behind me begin to have consequences on my stamina. By consequence it is not a surprise that I reach the summit with some difficulty, sweating and with a short breath.
Surrounded by snowy mountains, enchanted by glaciers and ponds, it is a strange feeling to see such an intense blue sky as everything around gives me the impression that I am seeing the world in black and white. On the other side, the periodic sound of avalanches makes me quite uncomfortable. I decide nonetheless to get close to this beautiful little pond a bit further down.
My feet sink deep in the fresh snow filling my drenched shoes and as I am slowly getting closer to my target, a strong noise surprises me. I stare at the mountain in front of me. It is moving. Fast! A titanic mass of white snow is collapsing at a stupefying speed, attracted by gravity — an avalanche! Am I far enough to survive it? I find it difficult to estimate distance here, everything seems so close. No time to think, my life is far more valuable than the mediocre photograph I was willing to take and I start running to a higher point, without any hope.
After a few meters I fall to the ground, my heart pounding wildly, my lungs needing air. There is no chance I can go any further. Resigned, convincing myself of the low probability of being reached by the avalanche, I immortalize the moment. It is unfortunately a bit late for that as the avalanche just ‘broke’ on the first glacier. I eventually join my friends enjoying the gigantic mirror-looking lake covered in ice, safe and sound.
D-Day is Coming
Next step: cross the 5416 m high Thorong-La pass. In order to do that, we planned to reach the 4850 m high camp for an altitude night we dread a little bit. “Will we have to go down in the middle of the night because of monstrous headaches and blood coughing?”. This is the kind of anxiety that will secretly be tormenting us for the next few days.
Landscapes are still breathtaking. Shapes and textures of surrounding mountains make me think about Iceland, even more impressive. We are surrounded by titans made of rock, mistreated by the elements they are ceaselessly fighting without any hope of victory. Little by little, the invincible giants disintegrate, confronting against the immeasurable strength of wind and ice covering them, breaking them. For us simple humans, walking — even moving! — is already a struggle. The simplest move requires twice as much the efforts we would need at sea level and every step asks for a considerable quantity of energy. This is however something we learn to manage with time by walking calmly and following our own rhythm. Body and soul in harmony, we walk slowly but surely towards the last target before D-Day.
Last Climb: the Thorung Pass
Night is passing without a hitch. We have a quick breakfast and a paracetamol tablet around 4AM then leave the camp in total darkness. Today is The Day and excitement is felt. Everybody is tired but thinking that in a few hours we will be Up There gives us wings. The climb is tough and carried out in absolute silence. I am cradled by the feeling of my quick but regular heartbeat and try to remain focused on my breath. In effort, we tend to shut ourselves into an inner world, a sort of bubble isolating the mind from all the harmful sensations. And right now, this is happening to every one of us.
As day is rising, we are astonished by the show happening behind. Mountains wearing glaciers, each more impressive than the next, are soothed by an intense blue light, a kind of light I did not know about the sole existence. It is like in a dream and as the sun shyly pierces through the clouds, the snowy summit upstream unfolds in a golden dress. This show only lasts for a short and precious instant before the clouds cover everything. At this moment I keep on thinking that as short as it was, the 200 km walk and all the sufferings endured so far represent such a low cost for an incredible experience like this. The short distance separating us from the top of the pass is quickly forgotten as our minds are still hypnotized by what they just lived. Here we are, on the top of the pass. We succeeded!
We stay for quite a while on the top before walking down in a thick fog giving a mystical atmosphere to the morbid and silent landscape. As the sky unveils little by little on Muktinath valley, the magical vision of a desert coming out of nowhere shows up. This day has been truly blessed!
The Muktinath Shock
The city in itself is a shock. After having destroyed our knees on the 1700 m height difference, we are once again immersed in civilization, in sickness and in health: Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries but also horns, motorbikes noises and souvenir shops… It is a place I would like to leave as soon as possible but my mates, as well as all the trekkers we met on the trek, want to stay here overnight and celebrate. I must admit that I am not against a hot shower and a few liters of beer, even if it goes beyond my vision of a trek — by the way far from being finished. Too bad, I yield. Tomorrow I will leave in the morning to enjoy the surrounding villages with my friend Nicolas, also not very enthusiastic about the idea of staying here.
We then cross the typical villages of Mustang with their Tibetan style. Here, no tourist can be seen (except from us). Life is a bit like it used to be during middle-age, except that a few electric wires line the cobble-stoned paths we are walking on. Enthralled, we walk among goats and their kids, snaking in houses, frightened by the tall white men carrying big bags.
This is a sweet sensation to get lost in these little sunny streets, surrounded by whitewashed walls and houses and smiling inhabitants. I want this moment to last forever, even if we have to cross rivers over makeshift bridges and are lucky enough to avoid being dampened by the content of a toilet, flushed above our heads. We have spent a day in the past before separating: I decided I wanted to sleep in one of those villages.
Ending the adventure?
Tomorrow, after a walk through the desert, we will meet again and decide what to do next. There will be no way to stop us as we want to continue this trek, walk towards Annapurna base camp to complete this 400 km trek of about 1 month. But this one is another adventure…