The Hardest Journey

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Hulking, imposing behemoths stood confidently before me. Asserting themselves over the landscape, they occupied my field of vision from end to end. Bulbous clouds made haughty yet futile attempts to blow past, but were forced to split, contour, and yield to walls of sharp ridges.

A wave of guilt washed over me as I held my awestruck gaze. Every time before I’d ever said “mountain” was a lie. These were real mountains–five-mile-high heavens-scraping monuments of rock and ice. The Annapurna clan guarded by their Himalayan brethren put all other vertiginous families to shame.

To truly appreciate their power, we soft, mortal humans can only walk beneath, across, and (for those who dare) atop them… and then keep walking some more. So, that’s exactly what my friends and I did for 19 straight days on Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit Trek this October and November.

To be fair, I alone never would’ve proposed undertaking the mission of trekking for four to eight hours per day to an elevation of nearly 18,000 feet. I enjoy the outdoors, but only as a brief escape from cities. Maybe Boy Scout camp quashed any potential affinity I ever harbored for existing in unbridled nature, in all its shower-less and insect-plagued glory.

Far in advance of visiting Nepal, my friends diligently planned our trek, sharing gear lists, references on trail guides, and warnings about altitude sickness. However, having worn the same pair of flip flops daily over many months in tropical Southeast Asia, I was daunted by the impending necessity of buying a down jacket, long underwear, and a water filtration system. Then, learning that an out-of-season blizzard in 2014 killed over 20 trekkers on our chosen route didn’t brighten my outlook. Moreover, Nepal had hardly recovered from this April’s catastrophic earthquake.

After flights were booked and our guide arranged, our prospects quickly worsened in the weeks preceding our trip. In September Nepal’s fragile post-Civil-War democracy passed a new constitution, some parts of which angered a prominent ethnic minority with strong ties to India. Shortly thereafter, this led to an unofficial blockade on fuel imports from India into Nepal, which has crippled Nepal given the landlocked country’s dependence on India for virtually all its fuel.

Closely following the dire news developments, we feared the fuel crisis would cancel flights, constrict bus circulation, and limit everything from food availability to emergency helicopter rescue services. We debated canceling our trip while the US Embassy and Nepali contacts warned us it was dangerous to travel, especially for mountain treks.

We went anyways.

And it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

It sounds foolhardy, but we determined there was little risk in at least flying to the capital Kathmandu, assessing first-hand the situation on the ground, and leaving immediately if necessary. Fortunately, upon landing, I didn’t perceive a country in crisis. Sure, taxis had doubled their fares, and menus were pared down as cooking gas supplies dwindled, but it would’ve been a shame to halt our expedition due to those inconveniences.

Meeting our beaming guide Krishna for the first time impressed me with the calm resilience of Nepali people. As the breadwinner for his wife, two young children, and extended family, it was tragic enough that the earthquake razed their home and forced them into temporary shelter. Worse was that the blockade further threatened his livelihood from tourism, which he had built starting as a teenage porter hauling back-bending loads of supplies for trekkers. Having experienced such enduring hardship, he later encapsulated his nation’s ethos when he told me, “Even when I’m suffering, I’m happy.”

Each day on the trail delivered new superlatives for me. There was the highest lake, the greenest valley, the widest rock face, and the fastest river, not to mention the greatest exhaustion, the thinnest air, and the most blistered feet.

It’s true that there was no particular section in and of itself that any reasonably fit person couldn’t handle. Nevertheless, lugging my pack (We opted not to hire porters.) up and down steep, uneven, and sometimes slippery inclines for 19 straight days without ever a full day of rest was challenging. Then, there were days on end when I could never warm up my entire body, even inside my sleeping bag, because the temperature indoors at night probably dipped as low as 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Beyond that, climbing above 12,000 feet, I felt as if I were breathing through a straw that kept getting thinner and thinner. Of course, it didn’t help that we often had to awake before sunrise and forced ourselves to stay up later because it’s dangerous to oversleep amid the low oxygen levels of high altitudes.

All the factors together meant the Annapurna Circuit was by far the most consistently physically demanding experience of my life. Thus, the trek forced me to build the mental endurance needed to conquer the tedium of thousands upon thousands of steps when I most longed for a warm shower and 15 hours of deep sleep. Ultimately, I felt deeply rewarded by the mental stamina that let me witness some of the most spectacular natural wonders of my life.

A day-by-day log of what we did and what we saw wouldn’t do justice to the see-it-to-believe-it beauty of the over 100 miles of trail we walked, but two highlights I’ll always remember.

First, during a three-day side trip to 16,000-foot-high Tilicho Lake, we descended from the lake to base camp just as snowflakes began to trickle down in the afternoon. The snow continued heavily and steadily, nearing a foot deep by the morning. So, we were forced to decide whether to stay at the isolated base camp and wait out what the forecast predicted could be another couple days of snow or hike for six hours to the nearest major town before the snow could intensify.

We weighed the risks and chose to hike out to avoid being trapped at base camp. The path was harrowing as the ground alternated between hard ice and dark slush, forcing us to judiciously choose our steps and dig our trekking poles. To avoid further danger, we left considerable space between ourselves along the mountainsides with ominous “DANGER! ROCK SLIDE ZONE” placards. Still, we all slipped again and again, but luckily never far enough to slide off the trail and down the ravine into the pulsing river 1,000 feet below.

To save time, instead of eating lunch while the snow could get worse, we depleted the emergency stores of Snickers we’d packed. Wet, hungry, and drained, we arrived in the small piece of civilization called Manang and indulged in slice after slice of what tasted like the best apple pie we’d ever eaten.

A few days later, we prepared to cross Thorung La, the world’s highest mountain pass. Actually, we’d been mentally preparing ourselves to summit the pass since we elected the Annapurna Circuit as our trek months before. As the highest and riskiest point on the trail, our route required waking up at 3:00 am, climbing 3,000 feet to the summit before the winds could start and then descending 5,000 feet on the other side, all over eight hours of hiking.

In the moonlight as determined caravans of mules forced us to the trail’s edge, I struggled to suck in enough air even when standing still. Concentrating on our ascent through mounds of frigid powder, belabored huffing replaced our normal conversation.

At around 8:00 am, we triumphantly reached the prayer-flag-adorned summit marker at 5,416 meters (17,769 feet). Maximizing our 15 minutes on the pass, we formed a diamond shape between our bodies to conduct history’s highest ever game of Frisbee toss, pending approval by the Guinness Book of World Records, of course. Then, emboldened by our accomplishment, I gleefully skipped and slid down thousands of feet of soft snow alongside Krishna who was genuinely shouting a “weeeeee!” with each leap forward.

At our destination for the night below the snow line, we basked in the warmth of the lower elevation and consumed a day’s worth of meals in one sitting. I hadn’t felt such a sense of victory and relief in a long time. We had scaled the world’s highest mountain pass and lived to dine on a feast on the other end.

Overall, this exceptional adventure wouldn’t have been possible without my travel partners Caelan, Brian, and Ted. I’m grateful to them for handling the lion’s share of the trip’s logistics and for tolerating my gruffness through the cold, pain, and fatigue.

Most of all, thanks to our superb guide Krishna Adhikari who made sure we never came close to dying, and managed to do so while laughing with a grin permanently fixed on his face. Furthermore, Krishna’s selection of comfortable lodging, filling meals, and fun activities allowed us to focus on moving one foot after the other and relish in the unparalleled landscape. I highly recommend you contact Krishna if you ever want to visit Nepal.

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