Posted by: Tommy | April 21, 2011

Annapurna III – Pass Day

At elevations above 3,000 meters, it is not recommended that you sleep more than 500 meters higher than you did the night before.  Because the mountain trails were fairly steep, that meant we had a series of very short days leading up to Pass Day.  Pass Day had already built up in our minds (and the minds of everyone else on the trails) as a sort of Herculean feat.

Alex and I left Braga on the 8th day of the trek, heading for Yak Kharka (affectionately dubbed Yak Town by me, since I could never remember Kharka).  I had been talking about seeing a yak for several days – Jay and Alex had done a trek together before I arrived in Nepal and seen a ton, so they weren’t as excited.  Jay went alone to do a tough, 6 hour side trail to an ice lake, but Alex and I opted out for the sake of our blisters.  I would say 90% of our mental focus and our conversations centered around either our stomachs (food) or our feet (we were all experiencing some level of pain).

We arrived, after a quick 2.5 hour walk, in Yak Town and found a place with free beds.  We were actually turned down for a free room (the first time that had happened) but were quickly accepted at the second hotel.  We settled in with a deck of cards and our books, sitting in a warm room out of the wind and the cold.

The short days got a bit monotonous.  We’d hike for 3 hours, then have another 9 hours before bedtime.  It was too cold to really do anything outside.  All the people were the same – we’d been seeing the same 30 or so hikers for the entire trek – so there weren’t any new people to meet.  We did meet one guy, also named Alex (and shockingly, French – but not a jerk) who would join us occasionally for cards or dinner.  Without Jay, Alex and I were reduced to two-player games.  She doesn’t play much cards, so we played Go Fish and 2-player Casino.  I took a nap and read some. Mostly we discussed the climb to the pass, what time we’d wake up, etc.

In the evening, I put on my down jacket and went out to take some pictures of the twilight.  And there they were – a whole herd of yaks!

Yak!

That night, I tried to order a yak steak, but they were out.  I pointed out that a whole herd was living right outside, but to no avail.  I had a terrible pizza instead.

The next day, we ascended to Thorung Phedi – the highest real settlement before the pass.  We’d be sleeping at just under 4500 meters…and it would be cold.

There are only 2 hotels in Thorung Phedi – and one of them is widely regarded as terrible.  That’s why we ended up paying for our room for the first time – the shocking sum of $2 for 3 people, with a private bathroom.  Again, it was a really short walk and we ended up playing cards (French Alex was there again, so we could play 4 player games) for 10 hours that day.  Nearly every single person we’d met along the trail was staying at the same hotel that day – and everyone arrived early.  There was kind of a party atmosphere, tempered by everyone’s tension about the coming challenge.

We’d met an Australian couple in Yak Town who sat with us for dinner in Thorung Phedi.  They’d been on the trail for over 20 days – the wife had gotten terrible headaches trying to cross the pass the first time and they were forced to give up.  They tried descending a day’s walk (the normal cure) but with no success.  She kept having headaches; they kept descending.  Added to the headaches, she’d picked up a stomach bug and was sick too.  They ended up waiting for 8 days and going all the way down to Braga before she felt better.  As they told their story, everyone was feeling a little worse about the crossing.

We went to bed early, setting our alarms for 3:50 am.  Jay and Alex changed the batteries in their headlamps (I guess there’s one thing I wished I’d brought – spare batteries).  Common knowledge is that no one sleeps before Pass Day – the air is to thin and you can’t breathe properly.  Jay and Alex had that problem – I slept fine.

Alex woke us all up just before 4.  We’d made peanut butter and honey sandwiches for breakfast so we could eat and walk at the same time.  It took us about 30 minutes to pack up.  Our bags were noticeably lighter – we were wearing all of our clothes.  I had my t-shirt, a fleece, my rain jacket and my down coat on, plus the fleece pants and the zip-off pants.  Gloves and the neck warmer, plus both hats and my sunglasses.  Putting on the frozen sunscreen was probably the hardest thing we did that morning, but necessary.

We started for the trail in the pitch dark at 4:30.  Alex led the way with her bright headlamp with Jay bringing up the rear.  I could barely see my light, but theirs were plenty for the three of us.  Up the steep trail, we could see the headlamps of about 2 dozen other hikers trudging ahead of us.  We’d heard that the previous day someone had to be helicoptered out and we passed several people struggling to ascend, even at the bottom of the pass trail.

As dawn slowly broke, we paused every few moments to stare at our amazing surroundings.

Early morning on Pass Day

Climbing on Pass Day

Dawn on Pass Day

After an hour, we arrived at High Camp.  This camp exists just for trekkers.  To safely stay here, you have to spend a night at Thorung Phedi.  We’d heard it’s miserably cold and actually hinders your chances of completing the pass.  So we skipped it.  We rested for 10 minutes and continued on.

After another hour or so, we ran into most of the 2 dozen lights that had been ahead of us.  In the deep snow, a single-file trail had emerged.  The yak trains had packed the snow and the going was much easier following in their path.  The problem was the people ahead of us – the rude French group.  They stopped frequently, but refused to move to the side.  They’d been plaguing us for 6 days at this point – always having the same “this is our trail” behavior. We were able to pass a few of the stragglers, but remained frustratingly blocked by the main group of them.  The 8 -10 originals had met another French group and spent a ton of time leisurely talking in the trail.

90 minutes after High Camp, we reached the last tea house before the pass.  Thankfully, all the French folks stopped in to rest and have a tea.  Alex, Jay and I were in agreement – although we were cold and tired, we wanted to press on and put some distance between us and them.

We crossed the 5,000 meter elevation mark just after the tea house.  At this point, I started getting dizzy.  They were short spells at first, but as we kept climbing they got more intense.  Jay was having short headaches and his heart was racing a bit, but I was the main concern.  (Alex is a beast and was showing no signs of being affected) I was sitting down every 2-3 minutes.  I wasn’t alone – a 19 year old British guy was sitting right along with me most of the time.  But we were still moving quicker than most, outdistancing the French (sometimes with chants of USA quietly to ourselves) and most of the other groups of 2 or 3 we’d come across.

Jay, near the pass.

Alex was well ahead, but would periodically shout encouragement back to us and let us know that we were close.  And then, around 9am, we could see it.  All dizziness left and we practically ran across the snow to the tower of prayer flags marking the pass.  We’d beaten the French group.  It was just us and the 19 year old guys (a friend of the guy who was sitting with me had been walking with Alex) at the top.  We posed for silly, triumphant photos.  I bought a round of hot chocolate ($2 each – robbery!) and we basked in our own glory.

Success! Thorung La - 5,416 meters above sea level

We’d climbed one of the highest passes in the world reachable without special gear.  But we were a long way from done on that day.

The descent, something we’d barely thought about, would turn out to be almost as tough as the ascent.  There were no more problems with altitude – you could actually feel the air getting thicker and more breathable as we went along.  But the spots on my feet that had blistered climbing up were apparently not the same as the ones that would blister on the way down.

As I did everyday, I had studiously applied a ton of moleskin and bandaids to my feet that morning.  But the steep, scree-covered descent used different parts of my feet that were unprotected.  The town of Muktinath, the first village after the pass and our destination for the night, lies a full mile of elevation below the pass and covers about 8 lateral miles, all downhill.

By the time we arrived, I was limping badly and in need of a new blister party.   But we’d arrived! We’d conquered the Thorung La!  We each bought a giant beer and a yak burger to celebrate our success.  All of our trail friends made it as well.  We were one of the first groups down and we sat outside our hotel, drinking our beers and congratulating each group that came through.  We ended up convincing almost everyone we liked to stay at our hotel and that night we sat at one giant table, heated by small fire pits kept under the table.  The Australian couple finally made it over.  French Alex made it and joined us for cards and several other groups we were friendly with were with us as well.  We ate, drank and celebrated.

I had no idea that the next day would be my last on the trail.

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Responses

  1. My first reaction was WOW – what wonderful views and accomplishment, and then you left it with a cliffhanger! Are you becoming a TV show writer?

  2. Tommy – I am so proud of you. That is an incredible accomplishment and scenery that I sure will be with you the rest of your life. Amazing!!

  3. Seriously Tommy…I have to wait until tomorrow to read the rest of this story. What you accomplished is amazing! Way to go! I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE reading about all of your & Anna’s experiences on this journey. Can’t wait to see what is next.

  4. Congratulations, Tommy!! But I may not be able to sleep tonight waiting for the reason of your last day on the trail. I can only be led to believe it has something to do with the blisters, but maybe I’ll be surprised. I can only hope that Courtney and I don’t have the blister problem in November when we walk our 60 miles in 3 days.

  5. I am SO glad that I didn’t have a clue about the vastness of the mountains you were climbing! I was thinking;” Oh, what a great idea…a 10 day trek in India…an accomplishment most people don’t have the chance (or the guts!) to do. A wonderful life experience to always remember.” OH MY GOSH…that was a BIG ASS ICE-COVERED RANGE of MOUNTAINS!!!! Your photography is outstanding, Tommy. XOXO, Kita


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