Thank you Sara Mcgeough for this incredible blog. You can find out more about her adventures on Instagram or HareDance!
Rather than writing a blog chronicling my day-to-day experience and meandering thoughts while trekking, a task I leave to my fellow team members, I’ve opted instead to share some of my observations or learnings from the Annapurna Circuit.
Man and Nature
In the early days of trekking the Annapurna circuit, you had to start from Pokhara— Nepal's second largest city. It used to take around 24 days, double the time our route took us. Nowadays, however, a dusty road winds its way around a significant portion of the circuit extending higher and higher into the mountains with each passing year. Supposedly one of the most dangerous roads in the world, sections of it have been literally carved out of the mountainside. One side is hewed from the rock by controlled dynamite explosions while the other is a sheer drop into the roaring white-water below. On day one, we entered the valley in a 4x4 jeep.
Our starting point was the ruined village of Taal, which only a few months before, had fallen victim to the rage of the Nepali monsoon season. Backed up dams along the Marsyangdi river had flooded the village inch by inch as its inhabitants could only watch helplessly. We passed by the hulking bodies of destroyed trucks left upturned by the force of the water and abandoned on the roadside. As we approached Taal, the road suddenly ended and we could go no further by vehicle. The shells of what were once homes were filled with debris and flotsam. Even though several months had passed since the flooding had subsided, diggers were still working to recover buildings and reclaim the road. In a way it felt wrong to be there, to be trekking there for leisure, when these people's lives and homes had been destroyed. They smiled and waved at us as we walked to our campsite out the back of the village, but that night as I lay awake in my tent I couldn't shake the feeling of guilt. Here, high up in the mountains these people were contending with the rawest forces of nature. On the one hand, they were benefiting from the improved infrastructure, the road facilitated farming and trade in the valley, while on the other, the construction of dams to generate hydraulic power for the neighboring powerhouses of China and India had created a unnatural barrier to monsoon floods. The farther we advanced through the valley, the more we saw how nature sought to reclaim its hold. Chame faced a similar situation to Taal, almost completely destroyed by flooding. Bridges had been washed away, and new ones built in their place. Sections of the road disappeared completely at times, forcing us to find alternative routes. Compared to Langtang, the terrain in Annapurna was much easier. Except for the odd diversion along a forest trail or across a suspension bridge we followed the dust road. It was as if we were witnessing a battle, between man and nature, both experiencing small victories and defeats. The road, itself a monument to the might of man and machinery, yet constantly fighting Nature's will to reclaim it. I say battle because of the destruction but you could also see the harmony between Man and Nature. By day four I began to notice the change in infrastructure as we climbed higher. Gone were the brightly painted wooden lodges, replaced with small stone structures with thick walls and small windows to retain the heat. The locals who lived up there subsisted off the land and the raw materials they had available. With fewer trees they turned to stone from the mountain. Too high for rice paddies like we saw in Kathmandu valley, instead they grew grain. Yaks and mountain sheep built for high altitude grazed alongside the trail. As we walked through Pisang village we spotted a lady carrying yak dung, that she would either use as fuel or fertilizer. There was a harmony there, a co-existence built upon giving and taking from the land around them.
I shouldn’t forget some of the hard skills I learned; this was an Adventure Guide training program after all, and some of us were hoping to use the skills we gained in the field someday. Day six on the trail brought unforeseen challenges in the form of snow and rain. We had planned to do a 4km day hike from our camp in Manang Valley to the Ice Lake 1000m higher up. The objective was to gain altitude so as to acclimatize before we camped even higher the following day. However that morning we awoke to the patter of rain bouncing off our tents and when conditions still hadn't improved by 10am we gathered to discuss our options. There were two choices on the table. Option 1: we could forge on and see how far we could go. Option 2: hunker down and wait out the weather. This would allow us to keep our gear dry and preserve our energy. Opinions flew backwards and forwards across the tent, with some people raring to go and others pointing out the increased risk of injury due to poor visibility and slippery conditions. It was a tough decision because so many of us wanted to see the lake, it's part of what we came for after all, but at the same time the cons seemed to outweigh the pros.
Already, some of our group, me included, had sore throats, coughs and headaches. In the end, we reached a compromise—we would rest today to let those feeling under the weather recover and to keep our gear dry for the ascent the following day and then the day after we would aim to arrive at camp early so that we could do a small day hike to gain more altitude before we hit the pass. This was one of the bigger instances of risk management where we had to decide as group what to do. On a smaller, personal level, my risk-assessment skills were tested on our rest day in Manang village—the last large settlement before we attempted to cross Thorang La Pass. My dilemma: was washing my hair worth the risk of having wet hair that might make my cold worse to feel somewhat human again? Factoring in the warm stoves in the hotels in Manang, I reckoned it was and washed my hair bent over a tap outside. Yes, I did get brain-freeze but it turned out to be the right call as it dried while we tucked into hot coffee and apple pie in the lodge and chatted to some fellow trekkers and mountain bikers. A calculated risk that looking back seems trivial but believe it or not at the time it felt like life or death.
The most moving moment of the trek for me hit me on day four. We had just ascended a steep climb of 400m over 1km, slowly shuffling uphill step by step until we reached a small settlement named Ghyaru. Perched at the top of this hill, sat a gleaming white stupa adorned with the traditional bright prayer flags. We had planned a lunch break here, and everyone was more than ready to dig into our favorite lunch—stuffed roti or Naan breads and beans. While everyone else threw down their packs and tucked in, I wandered round the stupa. In front of us, the impressive Annapurna rose over 8,000m into the sky. This would be one of our last glimpses of it before we entered Manang Valley. Overcome by something that took me completely by surprise, I stood motionless staring at it as tears welled up and slipped down my cheeks. I didn't bother to wipe them away. Even now as I write this weeks later, and as I recounted it at our de- brief that evening, I feel it again. I don't quite know what it was, I'd guess a mixture of awe and gratitude to be lucky enough to stand there in the sacred place of another culture under the gaze of one of the world's highest peaks. Too soon, we had to continue our trekking but the memory of that feeling still lives fresh in my mind. I felt so painfully present that it took my breath away. Trying to remain present, to stay in the moment while we trekked, was a constant challenge for me. It's hard when you're shivering in the dark and starving waiting for dinner to remain fully present. My mind was calculating how many days of walking we had left and hallucinating about the food I would eat when I got home. Even our conversations swung to the future, what would our elevation be tomorrow? What are our plans for after the program? Maybe that's just how our minds work, always grasping for the next thing, especially when the present is uncomfortable, as it so often is when trekking. Yoga and journaling helped, when I connected to my breath and penned my ever-changing emotions, it forced me to consider the present, but still it was always a challenge.
In Buddhist culture, dhukka (suffering) is part of existence, and boy did we suffer. Where the rain tested me most on Langtang, on Annapurna it was the cold. The toughest day was of course day eight, the day we ascended to 5,416m and crossed Thorong La Pass. It was the day we'd been building up for and our guides had surprised us by letting us stay in a tea house at Phedi the night before. Of course, the first night we were actually sleeping on a mattress in over 5 weeks I couldn't sleep for the life of me. I'm not sure whether it was the effects of some mild altitude sickness I'd felt earlier or simply the anticipation of the 2am alarm or a combination of the two. After forcing down some cereal for fuel, by 3.30am we were trudging our way uphill with our head torches. The hardest part for me, wasn't the exertion of the climb but rather the cold. It had been cold at night in our tents but I had a good sleeping bag and liner to soften its icy bite. Once we passed the last tea house at High Camp however, we were exposed to cutting winds from all sides. Forced to go slow as we shuffled across icy snow, I remember gripping my trekking poles between my numb hands with only one thing on my mind—just keep going. At about 4am, when my fingers and toes were completely numb, my mind started to do everything it could to distract myself from the suffering. I bounced from one irrational thought to the next. What would happen if I just stopped here? What if I just sat down and waited to be rescued? I wonder how long it would take for a helicopter to evacuate me out of here? How long can your extremities remain numb before they turn black with frostbite and fall off? Luckily, somewhere amidst that muddled labyrinth of thoughts I reasoned that I would be worse off waiting here than if I just accepted the fact that at that moment there was nothing to do but embrace the suffering and keep walking. Once my mind had exhausted every possibility of avoiding the suffering, I eventually leaned into it and just kept putting one foot in front of the other and struggled on. I've never been as grateful for the sunrise as I was that morning. Slowly but surely the sun rose but there still wasn't enough heat in it to thaw my frozen extremities. By the time we made it to the top of the pass my suffering was at its peak. I went straight into the little tea house that sits at the top, and crawled onto the bench. KP got me a hot cup of black tea, maybe the best cup of tea of my life, that I wrapped my hands round, still unable to feel anything. We sat grinning, or grimacing on my part as the blood slowly burned its way back into my veins, sipping our tea. I don't know where it came from but someone whipped out a little blue-tooth speaker. It was a surreal moment, to be sitting sipping tea with friends and strangers rocking backwards and forwards to the beat at 5,400m. As my fellow team members can attest, I was slightly delirious at this point. I was so cold I could barely face the mandatory photoshoot beside the official marker before we headed down. The descent took us about 4 hours by which stage the sun was high in the sky and beating down on us. If you'd told me at 3am that I'd be shedding layers a few hours later, I'd never have believed you but that's how it went. While I much preferred the ascent of Suriya Peak in Langtang, I have more of a sense of achievement crossing the Pass because the suffering was so much greater.
A sadness settled over me as we set up camp for our final night of the trek in the ancient village of Kagbeni. I knew it wasn't our last night camping together, we still had a few more lined up in Bandipur, but there's something different about camping together when you're trekking. There's a camaraderie, a unity, that shatters the moment we re-enter civilisation. On the trek, we are a unit. We have to rely on each other and even the weakest link is still a link we need. The moment we arrived in Pokhara however, the small fissures in some relationships began to crack open. We split into smaller sub-groups and while our nights out or afternoon's on the lake together were a lot of fun the sense of togetherness and purpose that we’d shared while trekking had dissipated somewhat. It was fun, but different. In my final few hours in Kathmandu, before I flew home to the West of Ireland, I got a single word in Sanskrit tattooed on my ribcage—अनित्य—meaning impermanence. Of all the things I learned on Annapurna perhaps the most enduring was a deeper understanding of the concept of impermanence. Heraclitus called it panta rhei (everything flows), Buddhists know it as one of the three marks of existence but to put it bluntly in my own words it means that nothing lasts forever, be it material or mental everything changes. I tried (not always successfully) to apply this rationale to trekking. I knew that the weariness I felt trudging up yet another hill would dissolve when we stopped. The cold that gripped me as I got ready for bed each night would pass when the sun rose again the next day. Of course, I was also trying to be present, to watch the feelings arise and come into being, and not focus on the future circumstance that would see them end, but it was hard not to when the suffering got too much. There was something comforting about knowing that it would end, and I felt stronger for it. No matter what each day brought, be it the discomfort of chafing or the lack of personal space that group- trekking entails, the emotions I felt in those moments would pass, and hours, minutes or days later what seemed unbearable at the time would seem less so. Of course it works both ways, just as the moments of suffering pass so too do the moments of joy. From the very beginning Annapurna was stationed as the finish line, and even though three months seemed like an endless stretch of time when we first arrived, we all knew that the program would have to come to an end at some stage. Eventually that day would come when we wouldn't be waking up to a morning de-brief together and we would have to return to our own busy lives. On Annapurna I was painfully aware that the circumstance in which we had gotten to know each other and the situation in which we had learned to trust each other was slipping away. And though I hoped that maybe we could all reunite someday and it would be just as if we had never left the de-brief circle, I knew deep down that it’s just not the way it works. When we left the mountains and said our final goodbyes I knew that if we all met again it wouldn’t be quite the same. It doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be better, just that it would be different. And so while I learned a lot on Annapurna, on this whole program, perhaps the most important of all is a deeper understanding of the bittersweet double-edged sword that is impermanence.