The Himalayas, the roof of the world, where the challenge of towering mountains brings us all together. We trekked alongside people from every corner of the globe. We traded stories over steaming cups of tea and gave strangers those much-needed words of encouragement.
For the last twenty days, we gave our bicycles a rest. We left them with most of our luggage on a balcony of a kind Hotel owner in Pokhara. It was obvious to us that we can’t leave Nepal without seeing the world-famous Himalayas.
Two and a half weeks ago, we met up with my best friend Anja and her boyfriend Dimitri. On our bicycle journey, Matt and I are constantly exposed to changes. Every day we see new places, meet new people and taste new food. We felt so lucky to finally spend some time with people we know from back home. How relaxing is it to be able to just talk and be completely yourself because you know that your friends love you exactly how you are? This is defiantly something we have missed in the last nine months.
We met Anja and Dimi in Pokhara. After a few days of catching up and drinking too many beers, we started preparing for our big hike. We had our eyes fixed on the Annapurna Circuit; a 16-days trekking which leads over the 5,416-meter Thorong La Pass.
After hours spent researching the route and shopping in “The North FAKE”-shops, we boarded a little Nepalese bus with brand new walking sticks and shining hiking boots. The bus took us to Besisahar at 800 meters altitude, where we planned to start our round trip. The bus ride was an adventure itself; 2 break downs, 2 different buses, and 8 hours of bumping along gravel roads rubbing shoulders with Nepalis.
The first three days of our hiking adventure, we followed aqua blue glacier water running alongside rain forests and rice fields. We followed the valley as eagles, vultures and falcons soared only meters above our heads. We disturbed goats and blue sheep scrambling up crumbling rock faces as we climbed higher and higher. At every turn of the river we searched the sky in hope of seeing our first towering Himalayan peak.
Then, finally Annapurna II appeared. At 7,937 meters, Annapurna II would tower over us for the next few days. We have never been so excited to see the sun rise. We raced the sun out of bed to watch its light reveal towering peaks that were masked by clouds the night before. It’s hard to make sense of such heights, and the presence and scale of such mountains must be seen to be believed. To stand at 3,000 meters and then look up further through the clouds to shimmering peaks makes you feel quite small.
Every evening we stayed at so-called tea houses, little guest houses that live off the foreign trekkers that pass by every year. As food, gas, blankets, beds and beer must be carried up the mountain, everything from warm showers to that extra slice of apple pie has a carefully calculated price. There is a little trick to fill our bellies after a long day trekking for us budget travelers; when one orders Dal Bhat – an assortment of stewed dishes, lentil soup and rice – you are entitled to free refills. We overate of Dal Bhat every single night for 16 days. They have a saying here: “Dal Bhat-power, 24 hour”. It became the motto of our hike.
Fueled on rice and lentils we hiked up to 3,500 meters altitude and we started to notice the air getting thinner. When we walked up a hill we were all puffing to get enough air in and unexpected headaches began to creep into our daily routines. Physically we were beginning to struggle, but surprisingly also mentally. Altitude can make you short in patience and irritated, we did not know this at the start of our trekking. We all found ourselves being much more sensitive and annoyed at little things that wouldn’t bother us at a lower altitude.
At 3,500 meters, we decided to take a few acclimatization days to get used to the altitude. A trekkers wisdom says: “Hike high, sleep low” to minimize the risk of altitude sickness. So that’s what we did. We hiked up one of the surrounding mountains in the morning and walked down in the afternoon to sleep at a lower altitude. After three days we felt ready for the confronting hike over 4,000 meters.
It wasn’t until 4,200 meters altitude that one of us had symptoms of AMS (acute mountain sickness). Matt couldn’t sleep much in the night, experienced mild hallucinations and had a strong headache in the morning. After electrolytes, the altitude medicine Diamox, a few head massages and some tiger balm on the temples, we slowly continued higher as our respect for the mountain grew. None of us had ever been above 4,000 meters before and with cracked lips, sunburn and the potential of AMS growing, thoughts of our safety and the challenge ahead were present in our tones.
Naturally, the higher we hiked the more exhausting each step became. The air was again thinner, and a sudden excited burst of energy would leave us bent over panting to catch our breath. The last night before the pass, we slept at 4,500 meters. As the mountains cast their enormous shadow over our little tea cottage, the temperature plummeted. We slept with our down jackets on in a sleeping bag under three wool blankets and it was just warm enough to fall asleep. Our alarms were set to 03:30am with the plan to be over the summit before the ice on narrow cliff ledges melted and became slippery. Our exhaustion from the previous days masked our angst for the morning summit.
Cold, freezing air quickly shook our morning tiredness. Headlamps from fellow hikers illuminated the zig-zag path we were to follow. We set off in darkness at an incredibly slow but steady pace. The higher we hiked, the tougher it got. The air thinned and our legs grew sore, heavy and sluggish. Our packs pressed harder against our shoulders and our hands were numb from the cold, but the panoramic view of surrounding mountains was a surreal experience. 360 degrees of snow capped mountains still soaring above us.
During the summit climb, we saw people almost passing out because they were so exhausted, others wining of headaches and some opting to hire a horse to carry themselves over the pass. Luckily the four of us encountered no real difficulties. Anja was the first one who got a glimpse of the prayer flags that mark the top of the pass. All the suffering was forgotten in the moment she told us, and we almost ran the last few meters before we all fell into each other’s arms at the top. After the biggest high five, we ate our celebratory summit Snickers and enjoyed the marvelous view from the top.
As it was ice cold, we did not stay on the pass for longer than 30 minutes. On the way down, we were all filled with a sweet feeling of victory. We have won against the big 5,416!
Reflecting on the climb, I was thinking about two things. Firstly, our world is indeed a perfect creation. Just 5 kilometers into the sky and we struggle to breathe, can not endure the cold and all noticeable life is nonexistent. We should appreciate the perfect balance we have where we live a bit more.
Secondly, climbing a mountain is perhaps the most natural challenge we can set ourselves. We struggle and suffer for the victory, the summit. We understand that the challenge will make us grow. From asking fellow travelers as to why they climb the mountain, their answer always began with: “Because I want…”. I think we all understand that by facing the mountain or that challenge, we will get closer to what we want in life.
So, go climb that mountain of your own, wherever, whatever that mountain might be.
Matt and Jasi