|Our Really Big Adventure|
Annapurna Base Camp
| For every two climbers
that have summitted Annapurna one has died in the attempt. In total over
fifty people have lost their lives on what is arguably the most dangerous
mountain in the world. It wasnt the grisly statistics that attracted
us to the Annapurna region; it was our guidebooks promise of Perhaps
the most intensely scenic trek in Nepal. However, the Himalayas do
not just lie down for the hard currency tourist, and we were soon to discover
that a sudden and thunderous death isnt restricted to those pushing
physical and vertical limits.
The Annapurna Sanctuary trek takes you right into the heart of the Himalayas. Five days hard walk from the nearest road are the base camps of Annapurna and Machapuchhare, known as ABC and MBC respectively. While we felt adventurous aiming for these base camps we knew that our high point (4200m) was just the starting point for a climbing expedition.
Trekking in Nepal isnt true wilderness walking. In fact, Nepal is so populated that only the extreme high attitude areas remain totally wild. This removes a lot of the ordinance and logistical problems that you have to deal with. While everything we would use and eat would have to be carried in, it wouldnt have to be carried in by us. Guesthouses (teahouses) line the roughly stoned trail offering local food, interesting variations on western cuisine and basic accommodation.
Bags packed and enthusiasm levels set for 10 days, our guide, Madhav, and we hit the trail. We didnt know quite what to expect, but we were pretty sure that we were ready for anything that Annapurna had to throw at us. We hadnt counted on avalanches.
Almost immediately we encountered a group coming the other way, farmer tans and tired but smiling faces signalled that this was the end rather than the start of their journey.
How was it? I asked.
Worth every step a beaming face reassured.
The beaming face stopped beaming and lips thinned to a straight line, Oh yeah, big problems, really big. I thought nothing of it, presuming a touch of altitude sickness or a lack of fitness. As we waved goodbye to them our guide conducted a private (Nepali) conversation with their guide.
Four people died two days ago, 3 Germans and a Nepali, our guide said as he caught up with us, but now no problem. One Israeli died last year his body just found
Four people died on this route? I questioned, unsure that my ear was in tune with his accent. Trekking on trails isnt meant to be dangerous, it is not as if you could get lost and there was always shelter available. Tripping on steps and walking backwards over a cliff as you set up the perfect photograph was meant to be the extent of the risks, but somehow I didnt think that four people could have all been setting up a fateful shot.
Avalanche killed them, just near MBC, Madhav explained.
I walked on in silence letting the news sink in. There was no point making any snap decisions, after all we were 5 days away from the avalanche zone. There is an immediate gut reaction when hearing this kind of news; it is to get the hell out of there. No one gets on a roller coaster just after someone has plummeted from it to a concrete staining death.
This is just a gut reaction and doesnt necessarily stand up to the scrutiny of cold logic. The route was now no more dangerous than it had ever been. The recent expiry of four unfortunate souls in no way increased the risk. In fact, in the case of avalanches it should decrease the risk: some of the potential avalanche snow and ice had already released its destructive energy and now lay still and benign.
Logic isnt always right, and logic based upon a minimum of facts less so. I decided that I would delay any decision until I was in grasp of all of the facts, something that was to be more difficult than I anticipated. Quickly glancing at Barbara, not taking my eyes from where I was placing my feet for more than was needed, I could see that she had come to the same conclusion, and the tragedy was put to the back of our minds.
The morning was beautiful and even the clouds that came in after lunch were welcome as we encountered our first serious uphill thrust. The rough stone steps seemed endless unlike our reserves of strength. Then came the rain. Breathable fabric is all well and good, but one thing Gore Tex dont tell you is: if it is wet inside and out then it breathes just as much in as out. We were no better off in our expensive outdoor gear than our denim-clad guide.
We arrived at the Annapurna Lodge wet and starting to get a chill. The temperature had plummeted in the last hour along with the fading light. We quickly changed; glad to be out of the wet, but our bodies shivering unused to either the days exertion or exposure. Beer and carbohydrate-heavy food soon solved all, the pain, exhaustion and wetness of the day soon forgotten
It seems to be amazing just how quickly we forget pain. Every time Barbara goes hill walking or indeed does anything strenuous she moans about it. However, soon she is enthusiastic again - all the pain forgotten. During the course of the day, as my thighs burned and yet another rivulet of water ran down my spine I found myself asking if I really wanted to do 10 days of this. Later, dry with a pint of beer inside of me I was ready to go for a month if necessary.
The days got easier, our bodies hardening to the exertion. Everyday we would awake to the most incredible mountain views, huge peaks filtering and reflecting first lights golden rays. Already friendly locals smiled more widely and puppies got cuter, however all was not well. The almost total absence of other Westerners going our way and the continuing trickle of aborted treks coming the other way told a tale. While we werent worrying about avalanche problems, it was obvious that other people were.
When we passed a check post in Chomrong, I asked the official how many tourists had come in that day.
Very slow today, no more than ten so far and maybe no more after you. Normally up to 150.
We certainly were not getting the typical Annapurna experience. We could walk for up to an hour without seeing another trekker. I really hadnt thought too much about it until that moment. With 150 people on a days stretch of trail there would be trekker jams. Even the proliferation of teahouses looked like they would have trouble catering and accommodating for those kinds of numbers. I asked Madhav what it was like in peak season.
I explain to you, he answered tomorrow we go to Himalaya, there three lodges in Himalaya, if busy we must leave early and walk fast otherwise no room for us, we sleep in dinning room or kitchen. For lunch I would run ahead by one maybe two hour and order food, otherwise we wait to long.
Guiltily I was pleased, we were seeing it in near isolation, otherwise I felt it could be like walking down a particularly scenic stretch of Grafton Street. Although it wasnt yet high season in Nepal, tourism was well down. The Katmandu Post quotes it as being down by 45%; however everyone we have talked to in the tourism trade is adamant that it is down by two thirds. While this provides a more scenic trek for us we really feel for these welcoming and friendly people that depend so much on tourism.
On day four I started to feel the altitude: no symptoms of altitude sickness, but finding that I was trying to suck every last bit of oxygen out of every breath. You hear so much about the devastating effects of altitude sickness that once above 3000 meters you tend to overanalyse yourself, listening to your body for anything that is out of the ordinary. You notice things that you would never normally notice and a good few things that dont exist at all is that the start of a headache or just my imagination?
We were forced to stop early that day, any further and we would have to run the avalanche gauntlet, not something we wanted to do once the sun was up. Every night the snow freezes solid and the pass is relatively safe, until the run rises and starts its slow process of melting the ice that holds the layers of snow together. This results in massive unannounced torrents of semi-solid ice blocks pouring down the sheer slides of the cliffs we had gloomily dubbed Suicide Gully.
Our minds were in no way made up whether we would go up or down. Our guide and the locals reassured us it was safe as long as we went first thing in the morning and took the winter pass. Here we were in the middle of spectacular scenery and we had nothing to do but contemplate a sudden and violent end. Staying at our guesthouse were two Israeli girls beside themselves with worry, awaiting the return of their boyfriends from above. They had left that morning for ABC with an uncertain return time they might return today or tomorrow. The thunderous sound of avalanches that afternoon had the girls virtually mourning in our communal dinning area. This made objective rationalisation of the risk impossible.
That night we assessed all available information
and decided we would go.