It’s 4am. Darkness, fog and cold linger at High Camp. I barely slept the night before despite having gone to bed at 8pm. Prem (my trekking guide) knocks on my door. This is the first morning in ten days of trekking where he’s come looking for me instead of waiting for me in the dinning room.
I’m still packing up. He insistently takes over the sleeping bag even though I am half way through stuffing it. We pick up our packs, do a quick dummy check, making sure I didn’t leave anything behind and head for the dining room. Most of the trekkers are already here and are half way through their breakfast. It appears I am running a bit late. There will be a dozen of us going over Throng-La Pass (5416m) this morning and the first group is ready to go.
Surprisingly, Prem is a bit anxious and in a hurry. He is usually calm, quiet, un-phased by it all, including the injured I’ve been trekking on for these past 10 days. There is a mixture of anxiety and excitement in the air. Everyone can’t swallow their breakfast fast enough, and each drain the last drudge of instant coffee without thought of burning their mouth. The trek has become an expedition.
The Annapurna Circuit is a 211km trek in Nepal around the Annapurna range (50km in length featuring multiple peaks, including Annapurna I at 8091m). Throng-La Pass is the world’s biggest mountain pass, also the hardest part of this trek. I am in Nepal to fulfill a promise I made to myself 10 years ago. I left all my cameras, laptops and every bit of unnecessary this and that in Pokhara. The pack is ultra light and only has essentials. I wanted to be present in a different way, not through a lens but simply, free of clutter and pre-conceived notions.
Except, there is a tiny glitch. My right hip flexors became inflamed on the first day and begin to hurt. By day two, an unhappy dull pain appeared any time I brought my knees to 90º — which means all the inclines hurt — and climbing is all we did. Still not convinced there is something seriously wrong, I categorized the pain as the body getting used to the new demands, Please god, make it go away was the chosen method of pain management. On day three, my thoughts bounced between how much it hurt, and selling off all my outdoor gear as soon as I get home and never go beyond the boarders of major metropolitan cities again. By the end of the day, the hip flexors are so inflamed there is pain through the entire rotation of the leg. The next morning, I struggled for 45 minutes from one town to the next, re-consider the pain to be a serious matter, beyond the casual bit of ibuprofen and magical prayer. It was time to call someone for a consult.
Adrianne and Meghan, two Canadian girls head out first with their Sherpa. Adrianne teaches outdoors educations, lives near Whistler, and the speed of her ascend is enviable. Simon, the handsome reckless Latvian heads out with the group of British kids. John, the American with zero trekking experience, poorly outfitted and towers over us at 6’6″ has left for a head start as well. I still have granola in my mouth and Prem is pacing back and forth. When did this become a race to the top? Why is he all nerves when there is not an ounce of doubt in me? I know my ascend will be a slow one, given the injury and the elevation (Prem estimated a 3.5hr ascend for me while Adrianne’s Sherpa estimated a 2 hr for them), but there is no need to panic, I’ve come this far.
I wash down the last bit of dried oats with black coffee and I look at Prem.
“Don’t worry Prem. We are going be rock stars today!”
There is nothing but doubt in his eyes. He either doesn’t quiet understands my meaning or he is not convinced.
The next 600-meter ascend over 2 hours and 10 minutes are one of the best hours of my life.
My breath matched my pace. Inhale-Step. Exhale-Step. I wasn’t in a hurry — I couldn’t be — slow and steady is the only option I had and slow and steady I climbed. John runs out of breath quickly and he would sit down on the rocks until he is ready to go again. In gray sweats, he melts into the brown gray mountainside like a mythical giant. You don’t notice him until you are too close and he suddenly moves. I pass him 20 minutes into the climb. The British kids stops frequently, and to my surprise, I catch up to them and outpace them. Simon, the fastest trekker amongst us, has long surpassed the kids and is ahead with Adrianne and Meghan. Amongst the clouds with incredible mountain ranges all around — I was present. I was focused. I was certain.
“The mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambitions to achieve. They are my cathedrals, the houses of my religion. Their presence is grand and pure…From their vantage point, I view my past, dream of the future and with unusual acuteness I experience the present.” – Anatoli Boukreev, mountaineer.
I did not come to Nepal with questions. I did not come seeking spirituality, drugs or an updated version of the hippy cliché. I came for a long walk and climbed a few mountain ranges in between. Amongst the giants, day on day living between the empty spaces beneath heaven left its mark. Those days in the mountains changed me.
The Annapurna Circuit and Annapurna Base Camp trek – 20 days – 300 km – is made possible by:
- Prem, my rock star guide (he is in the yellow parka below). Always patient, always kind … he never once condescended into giving me a pep talk; instead he just waited for me to make up my mind and summon the will to keep on going. Knowledgeable, considerate, he is an honest man with keen insight into the region and funny in the most unexpected ways. Had it not been for Prem, I would have fallen off the side of the cliff or given up on day 4.
- Drugs, lots and lots of it. I took a total of 100 doses of painkillers in the course of 17 days (400 mg ibuprofen / 500 acetaminophen per dose).
- Dear Marc, for answering a call from Nepal at 11pm EST and assuring me that it is unlikely my leg would fall off.
- A ridiculous amount of Snickers bars.
My New Identity:
“You know you could just make it up right?”
Prem looks puzzled.
“I know you are bored of telling people that I am Chinese but from America. You could always make up a story.”
With permission, Prem made up a fabulously elaborate story of who I am…
I am Nepalese (easy to believe given how skinny and tan I am from traveling and trekking) and my father was a high-ranking officer in the British Army. I am 26 yrs old (not 35) and was born and raised in the UK (this story works as long as I don’t speak and reveal the California accent). I’ve return to Nepal as father has arranged a marriage for me, a doctor (of course), except I don’t like him. Prem is my brother from another mother. Father returned to Nepal and had a second marriage, leaving me in boarding school abroad. Prem and I are on a trek so I can consider my future prospects.
For your own 5-star trekking guide, message Prem via Facebook or contact Giri at Nepal Tourism. Both Prem and Giri took excellent care of my during my time in Nepal and I could not have wished for a better guide.