Day 9: Thorung Phedi - Ranipauwa
over Thorung La, 5416m
Total distance: 188.96km
Total Ascent: 10024m
Total Descent: 7381m
Today was the big one - crossing Thorung La, the highest point on the circuit and the highest pass in the world. Reaching 5416m above sea level, it's even higher than Everest Base Camp. It's also not one that everyone can reach - the daily helicopter sightings are a strong reminder of how dangerous this climb can be if not properly acclimatised.
The alarm was set for 3.15am, and I fell asleep at a respectable 9pm. I awoke to the sound of voices outside. Thinking it must have been others who were also getting up early, I lay awake and waited for my alarm to go off. And waited. And waited. I finally reached over to look at the clock to discover it was only just after midnight. Do you think I could get back to sleep? Not a chance.
When the alarm did go off three hours later, I put on every piece of clothing I had with me and headed outside to go to the dining room for breakfast. As soon as I opened my door I discovered it was snowing again, and a thin layer had covered the ground. This didn't bode well for my trek - how was I supposed to see the incredible views from the top if I was surrounded by snow and clouds? I cursed myself for choosing the the worst day to be on this part of the circuit, and wondered if I should stay an extra day and try again tomorrow. The thought of spending another 24 hours in the freezing cold, stone room quickly pushed that thought from my mind.
I ate my hot oats, packed by bag, fitted the headtorch and set out for the long climb. Except that I had no idea where the path was. I walked around in circles for five minutes, desperately searching for something resembling a path, but found nothing. In the end I went back to the lodge and asked for directions. It turned out I was nowhere near where I was supposed to be.
I located the correct route and started uphill, following other headtorches in a long line. It was still snowing but the ground wasn't slippery. Soon after leaving I passed a yak, its hair layered with thick frost. I wondered if he was actually warm or he was just used to the cold.
The pace was frustratingly slow at first, but I didn't want to take the lead. After a while a Russian girl pulled away from the main group and I set in behind her, knowing there was less chance of me getting lost that way. She had soothing music coming from her backpack (think 'Songs of the ocean' or something along those lines). It must have worked because she was powering up those steep gradients.
We reached high camp almost an hour later, where the Russian decided she wanted to stop for a hot cup of tea. I waited with her, drinking half of her ginger tea. Although this is a teahouse trek I hadn't yet tasted a single mouthful of the drink (mainly because I strongly dislike the beverage and think it tastes like exactly what it is - rotten leaves). It turned out that ginger tea wasn't so bad, and nothing at all like regular tea.
I left the Russian here, as she was in no hurry to go on, and continued my ascent. By this stage light had started to come into the sky. There were plenty of people ahead of me and their footprints, as well as the poles sticking out of the ground, were easy to follow. No longer was there a thin, crunchy covering of snow on the ground; now it was a thick blanket we were walking through. I tried to stand in the shallow footprints left by others but sometimes my leg sank deep into the snow, reaching mid-calf. Somehow my feet never became wet.
To say it was a difficult climb is an understatement. Every step was an effort, and the will to push on diminished as the trek continued. I had to stop to catch my breath every few steps. My legs wanted to go but my lungs were saying 'nope'. My nose ran like a tap the entire time. If I could have bottled my snot and sold it, I'd be a millionaire. I told myself repeatedly that I was never ever doing this trek again, knowing that if I made it over the other side I'd probably go around again in a heartbeat.
Seeing the mountains around me take shape as the sun rose was fantastic. Then realising that the clouds had cleared and there was blue sky above blew me away. I was glad I hadn't delayed the ascent due to the earlier snow. It gave me the motivation I needed to power on and get myself up that mountain.
The top was never in sight until I reached it. Suddenly up ahead was a huge collection of prayer flags, forming a rainbow welcome wall. Amazingly there was a tea shop up here, serving a variety of hot drinks and food (who would want that job?). I didn't care about the tea, I was just ecstatic to have made it. Clouds had started to come across about 30 minutes before I arrived, so the views weren't perfect, but at that point it didn't matter. I achieved what I had set out to achieve, and I couldn't have been happier.
At the top I ran into a French woman, Cecile, who I had met yesterday, also hiking solo. We agreed that 20 freezing minutes was enough time to spend staring at prayer flags and obstructed mountain views and we started heading down together. The winds picked up at this stage, occasionally blowing snow into our faces. Unlike the hike up, there was relatively little snow on the other side, only a few slippery patches here and there that finished within 30 minutes of starting the descent. After that it was all loose scree and a clear gravel path, making for an easy (although sometimes skid-ridden) walk down. The Cecile's backpack was half the size of mine and her pace was twice as fast. At times it looked like she was flying down the mountain. There was no way I could keep up, so I let her go ahead and we met up at a cafe near the bottom for rhubarb juice and momos.
On the way to the top I passed a guy pushing his mountain bike up through the snow. I thought he was crazy. As I was walking down he whizzed past on his bike, easily gliding over the rocks and stones. Then I thought he was a genius.
The views of the valley before us became clearer as we descended. It was unbelievable how dry the entire area was, except for the snowy peaks of the surrounding mountains. It looked like a scene from a movie set in the Middle East, where everything (land, towns, vegetation) was one colour - greyish brown. Small villages were dotted here and there, consisting of low stone buildings with flat roofs. It didn't look like the Himalayas I was used to seeing.
It wasn't until we had reached the bottom that we could see Muktinath, a large temple complex full of brightly coloured buildings and prayer flags. It contrasted sharply with its surroundings. Hundreds of pilgrims were visiting the site, participating in various rituals. I hadn't seen a place this busy since leaving Kathmandu. We hurriedly walked through, feeling extremely out of place with our large packs and dirty clothes, before making our way down the road to the neighbouring village, Ranipauwa.
Ranipauwa was another busy place. Pilgrims and hikers everywhere, locals selling yak hair souvenirs on the street, people standing around outside chatting because it was sort of warm enough to stand around outside. It took us a few attempts to find a room each, mostly because the hotels wanted to charge a fortune to stay in separate rooms. In the end we split up and found different hotels within our price range. Mine contained bedrooms and bathrooms within the main building, a first for me on the trek. No running through the cold to go between my bed and the toilet or the dining room - I probably would have paid more for this privilege. There was even a sink with a mirror, also a first (not that I wanted to see myself after so long without a shower). On the downside every town in the valley was without power, with no timeframe for when it would return (this is a common situation apparently).
I arrived just after lunchtime and the first thing I did was go to sleep. I crawled out of bed a couple of hours later, planning on going for a walk around town. Seeing the snow coming in horizontally across the village put an end to that idea, although it didn't stop the kids playing out in the street. Definitely glad I decided to start the hike early this morning. The snow fell for the rest of day, but wasn't heavy enough to cover the ground. I was happy to curl up in my sleeping bag and plan the next couple of days of my trek.
I ended up being the only person in my hotel. As well as no power there was also no gas for the heater in the dining room. I felt like I should have been celebrating but instead I sat alone, shivering, eating my average dinner. As soon as I finished I jumped straight back into bed again.