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On the Annapurna Circuit Trek | Hiking in the Himalayas, Nepal (Part 1)

December 13, 2017

By Louise Coghill

I haven’t slept properly in days. It’s 3:30 in the morning and i’m 3500m above sea level. I’m sitting on the roof of my guesthouse shivering in my yak wool jumper, gloves and thermals, wishing i’d bought more layers. I have a perfect view of the milky way stretching up from behind the mountain range in front of me, spanning across the sky to the mountains behind me.

It’s been my dream for years to be in Nepal, trekking through the Himalayas. Today it’s the 10th day of my trek on the Annapurna circuit.

The cold stings my face, my feet are numb from sitting in the same position for so long. I’m so tired my eyes are itchy and every time I blink I have to shake myself awake. There’s a pain in my stomach that won’t go away.
I’ve been up since 1am running back and forth from the toilet. I hear a familiar gurgle telling me I might need to make a quick exit soon.

Every 30 seconds I press the shutter on my camera, capturing a time-lapse.

It’s not so much that I WANT to be up here in the cold taking photos. It’s an innate need.

The sun starts to rise and I force myself back to bed before I freeze. I lay shivering beneath a cocoon of blankets, watching my breath frost the air in front of me.

It takes me forever to warm up, my fingers are still numb and I lay there for what feels like an hour before I finally feel human again. The pain in my stomach lingers, warning me; but right now, in this moment, I feel better about life than I have all year.

To begin the Annapurna circuit you spend 3 – 4 hours on a bus, getting bounced around the potholed roads of Nepal. I got on the bus alone, but by the time I arrived I had 4 new trekking buddies. Erica (America), Tomas (Norway), Bob (England) and Marijn (Holland).

Solo travelers from across the globe. Together we set off, full of energy, mentally preparing ourselves for the 200km’s we were about to walk together, up to 5416m to cross the Thorong La Pass.

We walked through adorable town after adorable town, tropical jungle, rice fields, children yelling ‘Namaste,’ cows and buffalo chewing grass.

Finally we reached destination 1, Ngardi. Nestled beneath the mountains, broken up by a river rushing through, the icy water flowing directly from the snowy peaks above.

I enjoyed my first stargazing adventure of the trip, I decided to leave the camera behind as I knew the stars were just going to get better the higher we climbed.

I was perched on a rock next to the river, listening to the water rush past, watching the fireflies light up around me and the night sky light up above me.

All I could do was breathe. Breathe in the beautiful life I’m so privileged to lead. Breathe out all the worries that had been clouding my judgement and weighing me down in my home life.

It was a lovely moment that was only slightly ruined by the discovery of 2 leeches in my pants.

Day 3 and we hit our first snag. I got all the really important trekking items in Australia to make sure they were good quality. I sourced some cheap second hand boots. They were a bit older but seemed to be in good nick.

Alas the glue holding the shoes together was not in such good nick. The entire sole was coming off both of my boots. Exactly what you want to occur on day 3 of an intense mountainous hike which is going to send you up into the snow. I ran around trying to find some superglue to hold it on until I could make it to the next major town. 4 packets and a roll of duct tape later and my soles seemed to be holding on. We FINALLY set off for another day of trekking.

It was just going to be a short day. A 3 hour hike to Chame to fix my shoes, but the Annapurna’s had other plans. We arrived at 12pm, my shoes were going to take an hour to fix so I wandered around town in a sexy socks and sandals combo. There was nothing to do but sit down and enjoy an afternoon of chai masala. Sitting in a tiny Indian take away shop with children running around everywhere, watching the owner crouching down in front of the fire cooking Tibetan bread. Before we knew it 2 hours had passed. We were all low on energy, so we thought ‘lets just cruise along to Bhratang, the next town, another 2 hours of walking and we can call it a day.’ We set off just as the rain began.

We plodded along through pine forests, next to rivers, past locals huddled under overhanging rocks warming themselves by little camp fires. Staring at us as we trudged along in the cold rain. Berating ourselves for our decision to keep going, we saw more and more snowy peaks, our breath was frosting up.

Finally the next town was in sight and a sigh of relief filled my soul. As we got closer we saw Tomas and Marijn sitting and waiting for us. We’d lost them on the route so it was a double relief. The feeling didn’t last long. They were shaking their heads, “Don’t get your hopes up, there are no rooms.” My back screamed in protest. “The next town is 2 hours away” I didn’t believe them. I can handle a long trek but not when I don’t expect it. I’d mentally prepared myself for a 3 – 4 hour hike, and here I was 5 hours later preparing for another 2. My mind wasn’t ready. We were stopping in Bhratang. I still couldn’t comprehend that it wasn’t true. My feet were in agony, my fingers once again were being stabbed by the cold. Putting my pack back on will remain one of the most demoralising things I’ve ever had to do. My shoulder blades were in agony. We weren’t sure if there were rooms in the next town but we were hoping with everything we had. If there wasn’t a room, it was another 2 hours to Upper Pisang. I knew I could physically manage, but mentally?

After what felt like decades of trekking we crested the hill and suddenly there it was. The first thing I noticed were the hotel signs. There were enough around that I knew we’d have a place to sleep. I was dog tired but the view was overwhelming, I didn’t know what to photograph first. Everywhere I looked snowy mountains, so close I could see the wind blowing snow off the peak. We were above the clouds, the trees were frosted over and the mist was roaming through. The cold crisp air was cleansing my body of its aches and pains and the view made me forget the hours of pain.

To Upper Pisang

Today the Nepalese stomach kicked in in force. It also happened to be the day of a gruelling ascent to Upper Pisang. 420m steep incline. There are two options to get to Manang, the upper or lower Pisang. The Upper path is a demanding adventure which takes several hours longer. You hike up and then have to hike back down several hundred meters to get to Manang.

Why hike it? You may ask. BECAUSE IT’S SO GODDAMN BEAUTIFUL.

We arrive at the base and look up, you can’t see the top. My stomach feels like someone is continuously stabbing me with a rusty knife. It hurts with every step. You can do this Louise. I need the toilet, so I start first. 2 hours of hiking and I’ll have a toilet. The thought keeps me going. The whole way up I was questioning my decisions. Will I be able to keep going? Why did I think I could manage this? Why did I do this to myself? Everyone else stopped for water and snacks along the way. Gave their back a quick rest from the pack. I considered it, but as soon as I stopped the feeling in my stomach got worse. Someone was twisting the knife now.

We were on a bare hill, hardly any bush around so the only option was to keep going, or endure the most embarrassing thing to ever happen to me. I chose to keep going. Another lifetime of torture later and I finally crested the hill. I was face to face with a small tea house which HAD A TOILET. I dropped my pack and ran. You can all rest easy, I made it.

As I was sipping my tea and looking out at the valley I understood why people raved about this hike. The entire mountain range spanning as far as your eye can see. A river snaking through, past small towns nestled in the valley below. As we climbed the snow touched peaks grew closer, filling up our amazed eyes. For those travellers who take the challenge you will be rewarded with views of the tallest mountains in the world. The Annapurna is a massif in the Himalayas, that includes one peak over 8,000 metres, thirteen peaks over 7,000 metres, and sixteen more over 6,000 metres. As we walked my stomach was forgotten and I was positively giddy. My camera constantly clicking until we reach Manang.

Rest days in Manang

When you’re hiking to higher altitudes your body needs a rest day to acclimatize, otherwise you’ll get altitude sickness and join the many who have to get flown off the mountain. You can never forget the altitude while you’re in Manang. We were staying in a three-storied guesthouse and the dining hall was on the third level. Every single time we had to climb the stairs we had to laugh at how breathless we were, unable to pull enough oxygen into my contracted lungs.

Yak Kharka

I woke up at 5am to a snow covered wonderland. Still amazed by natures abilities to create such magnificent vista’s. The mountain peaks caressed by soft billowy clouds, kissed with the soft pink of dawn.

After hiking through a snow storm we made it to Thorong Phedi. Our last stop before the Thorong La Pass. 4500m high. Freezing. Wood is so finite, it has to be bought up on horses, or even people’s backs. So they only light the fire at night. It felt like we’d never be warm again, the cold had seeped into my bones.

The day of the pass. 5416m.

At 4am we awoke. We were physically ready to begin, but still mentally preparing ourselves for the 1000m ascent to the summit at altitude. We were standing under another mountain looking up at switchback after switchback. A 500m sharp ascent. Breathless I shuffled along. Each step is a struggle. The air so thin you constantly feel out of breath. Each corner leaning on my trusty walking stick, Wallace, sucking air into my lungs trying to get enough in to continue the shuffle. The cold air and altitude added a dry hacking cough to my arsenal of challenges. The air is so dry that our lips are cracking and the walkway is covered in ice so you can’t switch off and climb mindlessly.

We finally reach high camp, 500 metres higher than Thorong Phedi (our sleeping quarters). Marijn, my fellow hiker assures us the difficult part is over. The next part of the hike is a much flatter, a slow steady incline. How wrong he was. We departed for the next step of the journey, fresh faced, giddy, giggling, joking. Just much more innocent, naive versions of ourselves really.

Hiking to the pass.

Step 1: Scale the side of a snowy mountain, using a very thin snowy/icy walkway.

Misstep a few times and face your own possible demise as your leg sinks into a foot of snow and you topple over, luckily falling BACK onto the pathway, rather than down the side of the mountain.

Step 2: Cross a landslide area.

A small path is carved into a sheer wall of rock, ice and snow. This is the main reason you have to start so early. As the sun hits it and the day warms up the ice melts and the rocks begin falling. As we wandered up to it we could hear the wall creaking and groaning as the ice was melting, followed by the terrifying sound of rocks clattering down the wall, across the path and onto the floor below. As we get closer and closer the rocks are falling faster and faster. Some can’t even be classed as rocks, we’ll call them boulders. We look nervously at each other but the rocks don’t look too big yet (we’re ignoring the boulders) and they’re easy enough to dodge and the thought of going back to high camp to sleep another night doesn’t appeal to anyone. So on we hike. Erica and Tomas go first. I watch with a sick and heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach (this time unrelated to a parasite) as a large rock comes crashing down the mountain. People are shouting ‘ROCK’ and Erica looks up deciding whether to run forward or backwards. She steps forward and narrowly avoids a rock to the head. I follow them up, my breathing is ragged. My lungs are screaming for me to stop and catch my breath but the fear I feel as each small rock scatters past keeps me going.

Step 3: Go insane and lose faith that your life is even real and you are actually stuck in a strange time loop where you will never reach the pass.

Now the long walk up and down and up and down small snowy hills begins. You can only see the hill in front of you. Each time you get there you hope this is the one. When I get to the top I’ll see the flags and the ‘Thorong La’ sign post. But each time you get severely disappointed. With each incline the shuffle gets slower and slower. My breathing gets more and more difficult and the hacking cough worsens. I have to stop and catch my breath every 10 steps or so.
FINALLY, after a few hours I crest a hill and not even 100m away is the pass. The colourful flags fluttering in the wind. It doesn’t feel real. I’d prepared to never reach the pass. 13 days of trekking and several hours of false summits it no longer existed in my current reality, but lo and behold here it was.

Luckily in Nepal there are tea houses everywhere, even at 5416m. I sat down with a cup of chai that costs triple what it would at normal altitude. But as I took a sip it was the sweetest most satisfying thing I’d ever tasted. As I sat and sipped the energy returned to my spent body. With the much needed sugar filling my veins, my mind was able to finally appreciate what it had achieved. We couldn’t stop for too long, we’d ascended over 1000m and the headache from lacking oxygen was setting in. I drained my cup and sat for a moment longer, the sense of accomplishment washing over me. I’d made it.

Louise Coghill is a self taught photographer based in Perth. She is a storyteller, a world traveller and a general lover of all things beautiful. Her photography story began in 2005 when her father let her borrow his camera. Her first few photos were atrocious and she quickly put it aside and thought 'I won't be doing that again!'. Instead she chose to study Film and Television at Curtin Unversity, with the dream of becoming the next Quentin Tarantino and possibly meeting and marrying Johnny Depp. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts and a passion for visual storytelling, she slowly began to pick up cameras again and realised photography was fast becoming her number one passion. Now her only focus is photography although she still enjoys working in film, taking on set stills. Studying film is what Louise believes shapes her style, she enjoys telling stories through her images, whether that be through a fine art portrait, or simply capturing a moment.
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