Surviving Annapurna

Trip Start Jun 19, 2005
Trip End Jun 19, 2006

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Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Dubai was a pretty cool transition between Africa and Asia. Nairobi is a cosmopolitan metropolis to be sure, and it dwarfed every other African city we'd seen in the last four months, but it seemed like a quaint village compared to Dubai, where we were whisked from the space-aged airport in an air-conditioned luxury coach (there are no old cars in Dubai) through streets glittering with money and modernity. Magnificent tiled mosques provided a dramatic contrast to all that steel and glass, and the architectural mosaic was a stunning backdrop for the contemplative quiet of Ramadan. We wandered deserted streets during the day, gazing longingly into the innumerable eateries whose empty displays and sidewalk tables mocked our unholy hunger. H demonstrated profound cultural sensitivity when she gulped a cold Pepsi in full view of dismayed locals too pious to quench their own thirst despite the blinding midday sun. Our intentions to take full advantage of our most opulent accommodation to date, the Dubai Holiday Inn, hit an obstacle when we learned that the well-appointed gym was only open to women for about 15 minutes in the middle of the day, and the cornucopic breakfast buffet would have set us back close to $100. We settled for extended soaks in the rooftop pool and a couple $10 cups of real coffee before we headed for the airport en route to the more familiar backpacker's scene of Kathmandu.
We landed in Nepal's capital after a four-hour delay in Bombay (more than enough time for H to decide she doesn't need to return to India on this trip, if ever), and scammed a free ride in a jam-packed jalopy to a cheap hotel in Thamel, Kathmandu's tourist Mecca. We reunited with our friend David, who we'd met in Mozambique, and within a day were gearing up for our first trek, around the Annapurna circuit.
During our farewell dinner the night before a day-long bus ride to the trailhead in Besisahar, a light rain danced atop the tarp covering our candlelit restaurant, creating a cozy atmosphere and somehow failing to inspire any of us to consider the potential implications of this unseasonable precipitation. Three days later, having trekked in fits and starts through the lowlands, frequently seeking shelter in trailside tea houses as the rains continued to fall, we began to hear whispers of the much more dramatic weather that awaited us farther up the trail. Rumors of lost climbers rode the cold winds that sliced through the steep valley, and in bits and pieces we learned that we were in the midst of a historic storm, the likes of which even the most ancient village elders had never seen. One evening, as we joined other trekkers huddled around a pot-bellied stove, the lodge owner announced that a close friend of his had perished in the storm when an avalanche decimated the basecamp that sheltered a group of 18 French climbers and their Sherpas. The Thorong La, a pass that stands over 18,000 feet above sea level, and the only route to complete the circuit, was buried in 10 feet of snow and would remain closed indefinitely. Helicopters began shuttling the injured and affluent out of their snowy predicaments, and the tea-house conversation quickly shifted from food fantasy and bowel function to storm-related gossip and conjecture. How many were killed? When would the pass open? Should we abort our intended route and return the way we came? H, having rented a cheap Chinese immitation down jacket that was spewing feathers faster than trekkers could disseminate unsubstantiated rumors, decided as we waited out the weather to spread some gossip of her own. Soon, trekkers began to discuss the recent outbreak of high mountain avian flu, transmitted throughout the region by free-floating feathers, reportedly originating from an unidentified trekker's jacket. H's occasional clucking as she pecked at her dal baht pushed a coupled particularly nervous souls over the edge, providing some quality entertainment for our evil-minded trekking posse.
Over the next few days, the hot sun began to transform the snow-covered trail to mud, and the doom-and-gloom to cautious optimism, insinuating that we might soon be able to make an attempt on the pass. We spent a few more days acclimatizing in the shadows of Annapurna II, III and IV, enjoying sun-splashed day hikes into ancient villages carved into the hillside below faded prayer flags fluttering in the breeze. By the time we had reached the mid-elevation villages of Pisang and Manang, we had joined forces with a UK/NZ couple, and en masse decided to make a bid for the pass. As we filled our bellies with fresh bakery goods and chai in Thorong Phedi (the final tea house at the foot of the pass, where food prep has come a long was since Mike was last here over a decade ago), a brief snow flurry gave rise to fears of another storm. But when we awoke before dawn the next day, a starry sky announced an auspicious beginning to the much-anticipated hike. We climbed slowly through the thin air as the sun crept over the peaks to our east and despite the record-breaking snow that had converted the trail from steep switchbacks into a post-holed staircase, we reached the summit in no time. After snapping some pics of what we would soon recognize to be a premature celebration, we began the descent. Then we continued the descent, and continued some more, and five hours later we were still slipping and sliding our way down the treacherous mountainside. Our group was splintered by the every-man-for himself reality of the icy trail. Ill-prepared porters and trekkers alike struggled through the waist-deep snow, and Mike joined the multilingual chorus of foreigners longing for a snowboard to enlist the aid of gravity in this 5000-foot plus descent. We finally arrived in Muktinath and, realizing it was October 31st, expended our last bit of energy dressing up as exhausted, filthy trekkers and gulping ice-cold Everest beers, shouting "Happy Halloween" to a room full of confused trekkers and locals who had no idea what we were talking about.
Four days later we limped out of the low-land forests on the other side of the pass, suffering from a host of weather-related injuries: festering blisters, severe sun burns and skin rashes, swollen and twisted joints and inflamed upper respiratory tracts. Needless to say, we were ready to return to the flats and lick our wounds before heading off for the next adventure.
After 14 days and more than 300 kilometers of sub-zero degree, high altitude hiking, we happily basked in Pokhara's laid-back lakeside ambience, eating, drinking, and generally chilling out. One evening, over happy-hour bevies, our UK/NZ buddies talked us into sampling the region's unparalleled paragliding, and before we knew it we were signed up for a tandem flight. Like our very British scuba instructor in Mozambique, H's Russian pilot was a man of few words. In response to her nervous request to clarify the monosyllabic pre-flight instructions, the man she dubbed "Vladimir" grunted as he shoved her down the grassy slope and into the blue sky over Pokhara. We shared the wind with majestic hawks who led us into gentle thermals, soaring above the green foothills, with Machupacharie's picturesque snow-capped peak looming in the distance - another amazing, spontaneous travel experience.
We're now back in Kathmandu, and while some of our trekking friends are making a b-line for Thailand's beaches, and others will brave India's unique intensity, we are planing to defy all logic and head back into the mountains, this time Everest-bound. If the Moaists, altitude sickness or surprise snow storm don't get us, we'll write again in a few weeks. Until then...
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