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THE ADVENTURES OF ANNAPURNA pt 6 - burnt faces, dodgy wiring and washing pants at altitude.

Day 11: Tilicho Base Camp – Sri Karka – Thorung Pedi High Camp

It’s 9.30am and I’m sat in the bright teahouse in Sri Karka we passed two days ago. I’ve just been offered lunch, which just three hours after a huge bowl of porridge is a stretch too far. So I sit and wait for the others, listening to the singing in the kitchen, sipping a scaldingly hot lemon tea and making notes in my sketchbook. I’m so far ahead as I feel I’ve been tested. We were put one-on-one to get through that horrendous rock fall area that treated us so miserably a few days ago. The experience clearly rattled Dilli and co as much as it did us. I joined Nima and we basically ran up the steep unstable area whilst dodging rocks, hypervigilant for every tiny rattle that could indicate a huge chunk of something following behind. But then he just kept going, occasionally pausing for me to catch my breath before “we go”. And so we went. And went. Until we got so far that it seemed silly to ask to wait for the others.

But it’s nice to be sat here at 4000m, enjoying my tea and the view, relaxing and watching laden ponies with their bells ringing, make their way slowly up the track towards Tilicho BC – base camp ran out of eggs, bread, vegetables and ginger days ago. But then neither did they have running water, so I don’t know what’s ‘normal’ for them.

Today I am hoping for a warm teahouse where I can wash my socks, dry my boots and at least have a good wipe down with a damp cloth. This is the third day of living and sleeping in these clothes and I feel as gross as I most likely smell.

At this point, if this was a movie, there would be a loud cackle of fate.

Susan, Tom, Dilli and Gyalzen turned up 40 minutes later, unscathed, and at a much more reasonable hour of 10.30am we enjoyed lunch – more delicious thukpa – before we continue to back track the path towards Yak Kharka, diving off left to keep towards the ridge line. In the glorious sunshine the shrubs around us give off a warm pine & heather scent as we stomp past. The freedom of walking fast has bitten me and I keep having to tell myself to wait, which in turn makes me worry the others are getting a bit annoyed with me racing off ahead like an enthusiastic puppy.

We pass through an abandoned village, the remnants of where Khangsar used to be before it moved downhill to its slightly more sheltered spot some 200 metres below. Clearly this has not been abandoned for the 100 years we are told, corrugated metal roofs still being somewhat intact. But this place does have a certain charm even if the wind howls, chilling down the last of our sun soaked up-hill trundle.

We reach the ridge of the ‘hill’ we are walking round. At over 4000m this shrubbery laden bump is nearly three times the height of Ben Nevis and the view straight down the valley to Manang and beyond reveals around 2500m of this. It’s a breath-taking view, not only for its height, the scale and beauty of the mountains and the villages in the distance, but because we have walked every single inch of the distance we can see. I squint to the horizon, remembering the excitement I felt sat in the teahouse at the other end of the valley. Every tiny wisp of smoke rising from a chimney or stupa I walked past days ago. How far we had all come physically, and certainly for me emotionally.

Then I looked a bit further up towards the sky to be presented with a great slab of grey brown cloud rapidly approaching us. We glance over the ridge to see the path down only to discover there isn’t one. Snow upon snow upon snow has all but disguised where the path once lead through sparse woodland all the way down to the river below in the valley that leads to the Thorung La.

It’s back on with the crampons for an hour of quick descent through this deep snowfield, most of it admittedly on my arse, all the while being chased by the approaching storm.

Reaching a resting point we glance back to congratulate ourselves on getting through yet another snowy abyss to see the hillside give way and cascade into onto the valley floor below, a reminder that we are not in control in this landscape.

Tired, we pile onto the courtyard of a teahouse for refreshments, Dilli offering his prized coconut biscuits as a reward for a long days trek through every imaginable terrain. But we are far from done for the day. Our aim is for Yak Kharka – just over the river and up the valley, around that shoulder then up the valley…

A little dejected at the distance left to travel, squelching in soaked boots and cooling rapidly we set off, pretty much silently. It’s at this point the weather decided to give us that kicking we’d been asking for. From patchy sunshine to blizzard in less than a minute, limbs aching and now freezing – proper freezing – Yak Kharka is just that too far to reach. Or at least it was after we are piled into a quiet teahouse on the outskirts of the village. This place has the most tremendous views – if you could see anything, we’re now well in blizzard cloud. But it has a roaring fire, so we sit, steaming with tea to warm up.

We are shown our room and its GCSE-grade approach to wiring. How we are to balance one wire on another at height in the pitch darkness in an attempt to make the light bulb glimmer is like something out of the Crystal Maze. The shower next door is no better. Promised a hot shower by Dilli we are instead presented with a broken shower pump – turn water on here, and a gas bottle – turn on here. It matters, apparently, that you turn in the correct order and the correct amount or one might blow. This juggling of hygiene over death is performed in twilight darkness behind a door which doesn’t close properly and over the one and only toilet – a neat but slightly gooey looking hole in the concrete floor.

Thankful that I have avoided death by electrocution, explosion, flood, fire, tempest and goo, I surrender any hopes of drying my boots or enjoying clean clothes to another day.

Day 12: Yak Kharka – Letdar

Morning. I wake to bright sunshine. Last night’s spiders that gave me nightmares have scuttled off and it would appear that all will be good except for squeezing into our cold, wet clothing for a day walking in freezing temperatures. Except that all is not good. I have been suffering a blocked and runny nose all the time I’ve been in Nepal and it would seem I got quite sunburnt whilst on Tilicho, although I didn’t feel it before now. In combination it has removed almost all of the skin on my nose and upper lip. My eyes are swollen to slits and I’m in tremendous pain with every movement of my face. I am a gooey mess.

It would also appear that I have left the fexofenadine I’m prescribed for numerous allergies back in Kathmandu. Today has not started well.

We make off in wet boots in the freshly laid snow of last night’s storm, great sheaths of ice shrouding rocks on our path. We’re a day ahead of our itinerary and instead decide to use this time to recharge and sort our kit out before heading up to the pass. Wet boots up there would mean frostbite for sure.

We stop after just an hour’s walk in Letdar at a teahouse that has both a shower and a washing line. These are true commodities right now. We put our boots out to dry in the bright sunshine, brave the flip flops and borrow buckets of warm water to do our washing. The washing line groans under the weight of pants and socks as fellow trekkers pass by, and I feel almost guilty of ‘wasting’ the day. This is not a waste, this is a necessity. My feet and my face are unable to continue today. And so we sit in the ‘sunroom’ of Hotel Churri Lattar trying to amuse ourselves with endless games until it at least gets dark and we can go to bed. I need to feel better by the morning…

Day 13: Letdar – Thorung High Camp

Today starts better. My face, still a gooey mess is red raw and oozing. I keep it layered with MOA balm, which I am beyond glad I made the space to add to my pack. I get up early to shower and find the pipes to the shower frozen, so I creep into the kitchen to ask a shuffling older gent if I could have a bucket of warm water. He begrudgingly fills one, meaning he will need to boil a fresh kettle of water for tea, and I am appreciative. My face and I need to be clean before we start on the next few days that will be the most physically demanding days of the trek.

I am sure the Himalaya haven’t seen the spectacle that is our pants-mobile before. Shortly before all our clothing dried on the line, another storm blew its way up the valley, sending us scuttling out of the warm teahouse to rescue essential underwear and tshirts before all got soaked, frozen or blown away. The only place to dry now was to suspend it Heath Robinson style across our room like budget bunting. I’m so glad you cannot see what we’ve become. Clean and packed and ready to go we enjoy a steep few hours hike up the valley, across bridges bouncing in the wind, more landslips and dodging yet more deep snow (my boots are now dry and I need them to stay this way) all the way up to Thorung Pedi at 4540m. We stop here for a long lunch of noodle soup in the sunshine… the calm before the storm.

The climb from Thorung Pedi to Thorung High Camp is epic. Steep and airless, at many points you can stand up straight with your knees also touching the ground. It is covered in lose rocks, boulders and scree, and in no break from the ordinary whatsoever, also covered in deep slushy snow. As I make my way slowly skyward I am jealous of all those trekkers that have gone before that had weather that suited the season. Not that this hike would be in any way easy. I am super proud of Susan. Tom and I keep pace climbing with each other, and it’s nice to have the company, but both of us are worried that Susan behind will find her blood pressure troublesome. We have only just settled into our cabin when she appears over the edge with Nima, Gyalzen and Dilli. This climb has only been 340m but at these altitudes that’s a lot, we are now at 4880m with a lot more to climb tomorrow.

Thorung High Camp is understandably basic, but given its altitude and location it is positively luxurious compared to Tilicho BC. The room is not soaking wet for a start, and whilst there may not be any way of washing, there is drinking water. The social dining area is where it’s at, the kitchen serving great piles of delicious food, wonderful dal bhat, stone baked pizzas and steaming apple pie, making me wonder at how much yaks, ponies and their herders endure just to bring hungry westerners food on demand all the way up here.

Dilli seems nervous. He is fussing around us reminding us that we must wear layers to keep warm, but not too warm so as to sweat. To make sure we have plenty of high energy snacks, but not to eat too much or too quickly. To be well rested and be prepared early. Glancing out the window I begin to realise why. It has started snowing. Again.

In 2014 unusually severe snowstorms and avalanches struck the Annapurna and Dalugiri region, killing 43 people. 21 of those where trekkers attempting to cross the Thorung La pass. They were caught in a blizzard, losing the way and succumbing to frostbite and exposure. The incident is said to be Nepal’s worst trekking disaster. Dilli was here then.

We are to be packed and ready to go at 3am, Dilli wanting to get a head start before the rest of the trekkers. It will be at least 4 hours to the top, and then an 8 hour decent to Muktinath on the other side. The snow situation will slow us down greatly and apparently the gradient on the other side is severe. I just keep in mind that this time tomorrow we should be luxuriating in the relative comforts and warmth of a teahouse in Muktinath with something to celebrate. And maybe some running water. And maybe a phone signal. It’s not that I am yearning to be in contact with the rest of the world particularly, but it would be nice to get word of my continued existence to hubby. I’ve been out of radio contact for about a week and it makes me worry to think he may be worried.

I’m not even contemplating making any artwork up here. The scenery might demand it, and I have time to kill, but it’s just too cold, too busy and the altitude has ensured the last of my pens have exploded – something I hadn’t anticipated. The entire camp is huddled around a single stove, willing it to pump out warmth into the room. Everyone hangs on for the toilet as, not only is it a dark, cold and deeply unpleasant experience, but to also lose the prized position by the fire is almost too much to entertain. We retire to bed early in preparation for the unearthly start time, freezing in our down bags with every layer of clothing we brought with us. This place is airless and remote. Despite this, there are three push bikes lent up outside the door…

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