Cautionary signs warning against the symptoms of Acute Mountain Illness stand like sentries at the gates of every village along the Sabche Khole river valley. We couldn’t help but be well-versed in the altitude protocols by the time we climbed up out of the valley onto a dry, crisp, windswept plateau in the early afternoon on day seven of our trek. We had reached the relatively populous village of Manang – a place that offers luxuries such as mini-bakeries and a “boutique” cinema consisting of a stone-walled room with a dozen wooden seats and a cathode-ray television. The cinema was running a nightly showing of ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ and I was impressed that such false irony found its way this deep into the mountains. Manang is also home to the Himalaya Rescue Association’s medical base and school, where volunteer doctors give daily lectures on safe trekking at high altitudes. We saw their red medical helicopters cruising down the valley at least once every day, reminding us that although we were on a well-groomed trail the mountains could still take their toll on the hasty or unprepared.
Most trekkers spend two days in Manang acclimating to the altitude, gorging on freshly baked apple tarts and taking dutiful afternoon hikes up the nearby hillsides. We chose to visit dwelling of the hundred-rupee monk (so named for his habit of collecting alms of 100 rupees per blessing) and were rewarded by top-down view of the valley that rivaled any eagle’s perspective. The days were warm enough but in the evenings the mountain chill would keep us captive under yak-wool blankets. Let me tell you that it requires a certain amount of desperation to leave the warmth of a yak-wool blanket for a pre-dawn trip to the toilet in the dark. Worse still to discover that the toilet bowl is a frozen into a solid block of ice and completely dysfunctional until the morning thaw…
We trekked in slow-motion for the next few days in state of semi-consciousness brought on by a chronic lack of sleep and headaches that sometimes ebbed but never went away entirely. On the night before our big ascent we stayed at the frigid encampment of Thorang Phedi, taking our meals in a crowded shack around a long table under which a hissing kerosene heater threatened to burn the tablecloth. A knock on the door at 3:30 a.m. the following morning let us know that it was time to pack and join the voices gathering outside near the kitchen. We fell into place among the peculiar procession of headlamps that snaked up the mountain, taking cautious crunchy footsteps in the dark.
The light of dawn crept up the valley towards us until as we tried to maintain a thermal equilibrium between freezing and sweating – a delicate balance known all-too-well by anyone who has worked outdoors in the cold. As we stopped to rest between every 6 or 7 grueling steps I considered the great wisdom of the trekkers who had opted to ride a yak up to the pass instead. We reached the pass around 10 a.m. but with a harsh wind and a long descent before us we stopped only for a few frost-bitten photographs. Filled with a sense of elation that burst our weary trance like a piñata, we plunged down the other side towards the sun-filled valley, laughing and skiing on our boots.
– The Annapurna Circuit part II of III –