The rain fell in Bragha for the second day and snow continued to accumulate on the pass. Information was scarce. We awaited word from the pass, but nobody had been able to get close enough to send a report. Rumors had spread that the snow was waist-deep, and that there was no end to the storm in sight. The situation had become grim; a trekker had died on the pass a week before, and the present storm had only served to drive the point that these mountains were the real deal.
Our original plan had been to make a three-day diversion to Tilicho Lake, the highest lake in the world at over 16,000 feet. The mountain shelf, on which Tilicho sits just below Thorong La pass, was visible from the dining room of our lodge, and it was cloaked in white. Word soon trickled down that the trail had been closed due to avalanche danger, and the thunderous sounds of heavy slides rumbled down from the pass like the wicked gongs of a grandfather clock.
It was Kendra’s turn to deal. Hearts again. I had gotten good at Hearts and Gin Rummy over the past days, and by then our new Portland friends had come to consider me a young Ted Kaczynski when it came to card playing; cute and cuddly on the outside, but merciless and unpredictable under the hood.
“I’ve always liked Portland,” I said. “The people are weird.” Everybody
nodded in agreement, studying their cards. I had been dealt a fearsome hand and had to keep talking to keep myself from laughing out loud at how much I was about to slaughter everybody.
“But I must say, the last time I was in Portland the hipster thing kind of
got on my nerves. I once ordered coffee there from an androgynous girl so
indifferent to my existence that she almost fell asleep behind those big ugly
glasses.” I made a face and pretended to second-guess my hand so as to cultivate a false sense of security in my opponents. “The man who served me the coffee was dressed like a leprechaun. When that happened, I thought, well okay now, this has gone too far.”
“The hipsters, they’re an alien race,” Kendra agreed. The rainy afternoon
dragged on while we consumed thermos after thermos of milk tea. As it turned out, my good luck streak had been but a fluke, and by late afternoon my Ted Kaczynski’s façade had all but crumbled. I couldn’t concentrate. It may have been mild carbon monoxide poisoning from the wood fire. Jake and Kendra entertained us with stories of Portland life “There’s definitely a learning curve for new people who move to Portland. Take, for example, mushroom hunting. We take our wild mushroom hunting very seriously.
Now, a while ago a new guy moved to town and asked me where my mushroom hunting spot was. Everyone just looked at him, and I was like, ‘what the fuck did you just ask me?’” Soon the other people in the room began exhibiting signs of stir craziness from being cooped up indoors. At around four in the afternoon, we witnessed the very instant when a whole group of young adults went insane.
One minute they were performing card tricks and telling tales of one-upmanship, and then suddenly silence befell the group. They wordlessly huddled around one young man with an iPhone, and with the seriousness of the Dead Poets’ Society, the man began reading Snow White from a file on his phone. It was terrifying.
He read the whole fairy tale aloud to his friends over the course of forty-five minutes, while the rest of us shifted in our chairs and wondered just what in the hell was going on. I’m not going pretend that it couldn’t have been carbon monoxide poisoning, seeing as how my ability to dominate at Hearts never did return.
“We have to get out of here,” Sheena said, a hint of fear in her voice.
“Agreed. Here’s what we do.” Jake began. “Brad, you and I will hike to
Manang on a supply mission tomorrow. We’ll need more cold weather gear. The
next morning we’ll set out for the pass. When the snow gets deep we can take
turns breaking trail.” We all nodded gravely. It was a suicide mission.
That night brought a cold and fitful sleep, interrupted by bouts of wind
and pelting rain on the roof. At 11,300 feet it had become difficult to fall asleep.
In the morning we ate an inventive breakfast that the Nepali cooks had concocted using the meager ingredients available at these altitudes. It seemed to be some kind of pancake made of tubers. Jake and Kendra moaned with ecstasy as they ate their tubers, and it occurred to me that alternative pancakes were probably very Portlandesque indeed.
At first light, Jake and I set off in the rain toward Manang, the district capital. The term “district capital” gives a false grandeur to the place; there are no roads leading there, meaning that supplies have to be walked for several days along a trail to reach its 1,300 inhabitants. In fact, it looked more like a collection of Indian ruins from the American West than a district capital, but for it to be any other way would be a shame. Its rugged remoteness, like that of many of the other villages along the route, made it seem as if we were arriving at some far-flung outpost in the distant past.
I quizzed Jake some more about Portland as we walked, partly because Sheena and I had been considering moving there when we returned home, but mostly because the truth about Portland is far more entertaining than any other topic I could imagine.
“Sure, Portland has a huge cycling culture, but would you believe I’ve
been run over by cars three times while riding my bike? But all that time spent in the ER is really what made me want to become a male nurse.”
We reached Manang and set off on a scavenger hunt. Although Manang
looks very much like an inhabited prehistoric ruin, the influx of trekkers has given rise to a great number of shops selling knock-off trekking gear.
“All right, we’re going to need some ponchos and some gaiters,” Jake
said as we reached the first shop.
“Gaiters? Jesus.” This was serious.
“It’s a necessary evil, man.”
“I know, I know, it’s just hard to believe it’s come to this.”
We entered the first shop, but they had sold out of everything useful. The
second and third shops, too. Things weren’t looking good. The storm had caused everyone to sell out. Pretty soon we found four sets of gaiters, but it was worse than I had ever imagined.
“Excuse me, sir, but do you have any gaiters that aren’t neon?”
“Gaiter. One size fit all! Also have batteries. Chocolate bar?”
“We’ll take them. Better throw in these neon gloves too.”
If we were going to get over the pass, we were going to look completely idiotic doing it. “Look at the bright side,” Jake said. “If we go down in an avalanche it’ll be easy for rescuers to find us.” He had a valid point.
We raced from shop to shop looking for rain ponchos to drape over our
bodies and packs, but everybody had sold out that very morning. One shop had a
few left, but they were sized for children, so we continued on. When we reached
the very last shop they had two ponchos left—exactly what we needed! But to
our dismay, an older European couple was trying them on as we entered. We
squeezed around them to speak to the shop owner.
“Excuse me, but are there any more of those?”
“Sorry, these are last two.”
We backed into the corner of the store and gave the shop owner the
eyebrow furrow and steely gaze that meant, I will pay you anything you want for those
ponchos . He nodded in acknowledgement and waited for the two to make their
decision. I wondered if it was bad form to start a bidding war, but decided
against it. Our breathing became heavy and we tried to will the couple to put
down the ponchos.
Put down the ponchos … put down the ponchos …
“We’ll take them,” the woman said. We cursed and hurried to the door,
and then ran as fast as we could back to the first store that had the children’s
ponchos and bought two.
When we arrived back in Bragha the sun had nearly set, and the ladies
were at first very excited to see us. Their joy waned as we began unpacking our
bounty, and then evaporated altogether when they held up their new neon
“You’ll be easily identifiable in an avalanche,” we assured them, as if this
would make it more palatable. They reluctantly nodded in agreement.
The trail from Bragha passes through Manang and then climbs steadily
upward toward Thorong La pass. We planned to make the approach in three
stages. First we would climb to the village of Yak Kharka (literally “Yak
Corral,” and consisting of little else) at 13,235 feet. The next day we would
climb to the lonely high-mountain outpost of Thorong Phedi, perched on the side
of the steep chute below the pass at an elevation of 14,500 feet. From there we
would make our attempt at the pass the following day. But there was a problem:
with the pass covered in snow, we didn’t know if there would be any space at the
lodges. No trekkers had come from the other direction in days, so we hadn’t
heard anything of the conditions up the canyon. If the pass was indeed closed,
then the high camps would surely be full and we’d have to retreat. Our plan was
to start early and try to be among the first to arrive at Yak Kharka to snatch up a
room – if there was one.
We walked though the valley and up the ridge at its far end to Manang,
where the incessant rains had caused parts of the village to collapse, blocking the
trail. We wound through the debris and past some small landslides, leaving the
village behind and making our way into the cold, wet canyon toward Thorong La
The trail was steep, and we weren’t making good time. Several other
parties had the same idea about getting to Yak Kharka early. Knowing that it
was nothing more than a small collection of stone huts with very limited space,
we had to formulate a plan.
“I think we should send someone up the trail to secure a room,” Kendra
suggested. We looked around our group. Sheena and I had the heaviest packs
and were both recovering from debilitating heel blisters. Kendra smiled sweetly
and looked around the group, her red cheeks showing off their dimples. That
would never do. We needed someone cutthroat who would be willing to scratch
someone’s eyes out if push came to shove. Then there was Jake.
“I say we send Jake. He has trekking poles, so he’ll be the fastest.” I
silently noted that these trekking poles could be used as weapons. Jake agreed
and quickly set off in hasty pursuit of Yak Kharka. We watched him disappear
around a bend, a two-legged man made fast and four-legged by his trusty
trekking sticks. The brave Portlander. Our Great White Hope.
The trek to Yak Kharka was only a couple of hours, and when we
arrived, Jake was sitting on a rock wall looking happy.
“I got us two rooms!” We cheered and I glanced at his trekking poles for
any sign of a struggle, but saw no indication. After checking into our rooms, the
Nepali man who ran the place announced that all of the rooms had just filled up.
It was ten-thirty in the morning. From our warm perch in the dining area we
watched exhausted, frozen trekkers being turned away and sent back into the
freezing rain. I had no idea where they went.
We spent the evening bundled up, alternating between reading and
playing Hearts, and listening to anecdotes about Portland life.
“…It all started when I offered to help my buddy build a teepee on his
property, and we had to find some small trees to use as poles…”
We hit the trail early for the second day in a row, walking out of camp
just as the sky began to shed its blackness. I don’t think I need to mention just
how cold it was in the wee hours of the morning at 14,000 feet, but I will
anyway. The nippy wind swept down the canyon like a frozen waterfall, and my
icy nipples stabbed at my jacket like twin laser beams.
The trail left Yak Kharka and followed a narrow glacial cut in the
mountains toward an amphitheater of cliff bands. Below us a ribbon of teal water
snaked its way downward, carrying glacial flour to the valleys below. I scanned
the mountains and ridges trying to pick out the pass, but couldn’t discern a clear
path anywhere. It must be a pretty steep approach, I thought. We traversed the
river on suspension bridges, crossed a landslide, and then finally, around
midday, caught sight of Thorong Phedi perched below a cliff band.
Thorong Phedi would not exist if not for need of a staging area before the
pass. It consisted of several rows of rock barracks where trekkers could put in
one final night of acclimation before attempting the pass. About two trekkers die
each year crossing the pass, mostly due to pulmonary or cerebral edema. The
man who had died the previous week had experienced the onset of cerebral
edema, sort of a flooding of the brain, and his porters had put him on a mule in
an attempt to cross the pass more quickly. But he had perished before they
reached the top. Climbing too fast was ill advised, and we’d already climbed a lot
for one day. We had left early in hopes of finding beds; failure to do so would
have meant climbing on to High Camp at an elevation of 15,700 feet.
The good news was that the snow had inexplicably failed to materialize.
The weather had been very cold and we’d had bouts of rain, but there was no
accumulation at Thorong Phedi. The rumors had been exaggerated. We played
Hearts and Jake told us more about Portland.
“…It’s next to impossible to get paint to stick to a bamboo bicycle frame.
They are very strong though. I’ve only broken one, and that was because I got hit
by a car…”
Before long it began to snow, and as we ate our dinner, it started to
accumulate. The dicey situation had been upgraded to perilous. The ladies
looked admiringly at Jake and me for having secured gaiters and ponchos for
everyone. It was time to mentally prepare for crossing Thorong La in waist-deep
powder after all.
People seem to approach the crossing of Thorong La much in the way
that they would approach the summit of Mount Everest. The 3,300-foot ascent
from Thorong Phedi to the top of the pass takes just over three hours. From there
it’s a 5,600-foot, four-hour descent to Muktinath, where plenty of warm beds
await. But for some reason, people get all Ed Viesturs about it, and set out for
the pass at three o’clock in the morning. And so it came to be that we were
awoken from our restless sleep at two-thirty in the damned morning by
testosterone-fuelled, self-motivational yells and whoops in various languages.
“Ja! Ich bin ready! Ich go auf der pass!”
“Schmeinden bounden goegenhiking!”
“Yar bruh! Shriggity shred muh fuh!”
By the time we deliriously rolled out of bed and met Jake and Kendra for
breakfast at 6:00, all two hundred of our fellow trekkers had long since departed.
We shared the dining room with one solitary rotund Russian man.
“So, how about these other jokers leaving at three in the morning, eh?”
“Yis. Zey leef veddy uhly.” He was bundled up in what appeared to be
nine layers of ill-fitting clothing, giving him the appearance of a sausage link.
He waited nervously by the front door while we ate.
“Well, if there is waist deep snow up there, at least there’ll be lots of
people out in front of us to pack it down.” Kendra looked relieved that she
wouldn’t have to wear her neon gaiters.
We paid our meager bill and hoisted our packs onto our shoulders, and as
we did, a porter came to retrieve the Russian man. They walked out the door in
front of us and made their way over to a miniature donkey.
“Oh please, don’t tell me—” I knew what was coming. The porter
intertwined his fingers to make a stirrup and the roly-poly Russian man thrust
himself onto the poor, tiny animal. It was a horrible sight. The Russian man
tilted uncomfortably to one side, hunched over with his knees bent, clearly
struggling not to topple off the tiny saddle. He certainly weighed more than the
donkey, and the little animal, led by the porter, struggled with each step to walk
up the impossibly steep incline.
We breathed a gulp of thin, freezing air, buckled our straps, and began
trudging up the pass.
The trail started off in a long set of switchbacks up the steep wall of a
glacial amphitheater. A thin layer of snow had survived the night, and it became
steadily thicker as we climbed. We trudged on slowly, breathing heavily. When
we reached the top of the amphitheater, the pitch eased and the trail wound its
way through a frozen moonscape of interwoven rocky gullies. The ground
became frozen and slick, and it was hard to keep our footing.
As we crept slowly along an off-camber section of trail, the porter in
front of me slipped and dropped his enormous basket of packs, pots, and pans. I
hurried over to help him and noticed that he was wearing tennis shoes. I bent
down to help him hoist his load onto a boulder, and the effort of doing so nearly
caused me to pass out. These boys were tough.
When we passed High Camp we could see the places on the bare ground
where several tents had been erected overnight, and I was reminded that things
could have been much worse. As we made our way toward the pass, crossing
one false summit after another, we overtook some of the early risers who could
have perhaps benefited from more sleep.
The earth around us was black and white in the absence of any living
matter. At around 9:00, thinking that we were approaching another false summit,
the earth sloped away in front of us and we realized that we had made it. I
checked my watch and found that we were at nearly 18,000 feet. The clouds
parted as they raced past the summits of the peaks surrounding the pass. An
imposing summit stood to our left, while a massive red cliff jutted out to the
right—once a part of the Tibetan Plateau, far below us. The clouds shifted and
we could see down the valley to the dry desert ridges and rocks that made up the
edge of the Tibetan Plateau, a place I never imagined I would see with my own
It was otherworldly; one of the most amazing places I had ever stood, not
only because of what I could see, but also because of where I was, and what I
had been through to get there. It was freezing, but my face felt hot.
We dropped our packs and walked weightlessly around the pass for
fifteen minutes. Several other trekkers congregated there, ducking in and out of a
rock hut for shelter from the wind. After the obligatory photographs, we again
donned our packs and began the long slog down the other side.
The far side of the pass was another world altogether. Within a few
hundred feet we had dropped below the snow line; we were now in the
rainshadow of the Himalayas. The land ahead of us was parched and rocky all
the way to Tibet, which spread out far below us. Nepal’s northern border is
defined by the edge of the Himalayan range, but we were now in the one small
appendage of the country that lies beyond the Himalayas. Straight ahead was the
former Kingdom of Lo, now a part of the restricted Mustang district, and beyond
it the Chinese border.
We descended for hours, testing our knees as the trail wound down
narrow ridges and through valleys in endless squiggles and switchbacks. By
lunchtime we reached the first settlements and stopped at a yak corral for a bite
to eat. We ate with Jake and Kendra, a guy named Stuss (who had by strange
coincidence gone to school in my hometown and long ago worked with Kendra),
and Lowell from California, who had made his own gaiters out of a grain sack
and some string—a man who would have benefited our team about three days
earlier back in Manang. We ate gluttonously, for we had earned it, and when we
were done we donned our packs and strolled the final mile to Muktinath, the
ancient Buddhist pilgrimage site. As we navigated through shrubs and boulders,
our bellies full of Tibetan macaroni and cheese, I could hear Jake’s voice.
“Yes, wild mushroom hunting can be a wet endeavor. I do very much
enjoy it, but in the offseason it’s easier to harvest my own by inoculating oak
logs with fungal spores.”
We stood on a rooftop on the edge of Muktinath and hung our laundry
from the lines, glad to have put the grueling Thorong La behind us. A frosty
wind cascaded down the canyon from the direction of the pass, stirred our
hanging socks, and then swept into the canyon below. Behind us the Himalayas
towered, miles high, and on the other side of the canyon in front of us was a
different world altogether: the old Kingdom of Lo.
Crossing the pass had put us in Mustang, the isolated district of Nepal
sandwiched between the imposing Himalayas to the south and a closed-off Tibet
to the north. The people of Upper Mustang live a secluded life that has changed
very little since the 15th century. Culturally, they are Tibetan, and the language,
architecture, and customs are a reflection of this. Until 1992, the area was
completely sealed to outside visitors. Upper Mustang was once an independent
kingdom, the Kingdom of Lo, and was ruled by a monarch. This all came to an
end in 2008 when Nepal became a republic, but access to Upper Mustang
remained tightly controlled. The former King of Lo still lived out there, just
twenty-five miles north of Muktinath, where life still went on just as it had for
the last six hundred years, regardless of what was happening in world politics.
A rough jeep track weaved its way through the Himalayas to Upper
Mustang, and I’d had my eye on it for months. It would have been the greatest
driving triumph of our trip to drive this road, emerging five hundred years in the
past on the Tibetan Plateau in a wild, shuttered Himalayan kingdom. But when
the time came, we had been foiled by the cost of permits, which were $1,000,
and would have only been good for ten days. Exploration of Tibet, like our
desire to drive through China, was not to be. But by a stroke of luck the
Nepalese government had very recently lifted restrictions on a small slice of
Upper Mustang, and we were thus allowed to trek through it and witness what
was considered by many to be the best-preserved example of traditional Tibetan
life in the world on account of it being the only piece of Tibet not to have been
adulterated by Chinese invaders in the 20th century.
When we left Muktinath, we didn’t head east along the jeep road, as was
the normal route. Instead we turned north, crossing several streams on log
bridges, and within a half an hour we entered the formerly restricted portion of
As soon as we crossed the boundary, we were in a different world.
Muktinath, having long been accessible to the outside world, was similar to
many of the other villages we’d passed through on the trek. But the half-hour
walk to Chhongkhar made it seem as though we had been transported to a far off
land. Buildings were constructed in a completely different manner, tall and
smoothed-over with plaster, flat-roofed, and painted with colorful vertical
stripes. In places, people had formed balls of yak dung and thrown them at the
walls to create a collage of manure discs, which when dried would be used as
fuel. The people in Chhongkhar acted differently than other villagers we’d seen.
They hadn’t jumped on the entrepreneurial bandwagon yet, and simply went on
with their lives while we walked through, gazing wide-eyed as if discovering
Himalayan life for the first time.
We left Chhongkhar and soon arrived at the village of Jhong, which was
dominated by an imposing but crumbling mud tower fort, built in the 14th
century for the founding king of Lo. We climbed to the base of the tower and
watched red-robed monks scurry about on the dirt paths below. Beyond the
cracked and crumbling fortress, we descended through orchards where, not
having found anything to eat in the villages, we scavenged a couple of famous
Mustang apples from an overhanging branch, pairing them with a couple of
packs of cranberry-flavored electrolyte chews for an impromptu picnic lunch.
As the hours passed, the weather soon began to turn, and by mid-
afternoon a strong, freezing wind had set in. We topped a rise and were met by a
shepherd with a herd of goats. The shepherd’s face was withdrawn into the
protection of his jacket hood, but he flashed a big smile at us as he passed.
Before long, the wind brought pellets of cold rain. We donned our rain gear from
head to toe and resumed a slow but determined march across the eerily damp and
cold steppe, slowly descending into the bottom of a river valley, past clumps of
dead grass and scattered pebbles and brown-sugar dirt.
At the bottom of the valley the rain let up just in time for us to down-
climb through a chute carved in a dry mud cliff, but the wind continued to blow,
whipping dust upward through the cleft in the rock. A half mile farther on we
came to Kagbeni, the village marking our emergence from restricted Upper
Mustang. We planted our weary selves at a guesthouse overlooking the river,
where I sat in the sun-soaked dining room listening to the wind howl through the
cracks in the walls. I gazed up the river, wondering what lay beyond the next
bend where we were not allowed to go.
In the morning we proclaimed it a rest day. We had been on the trail for
To the south the river valley snaked toward Jomsom under towering,
white mountains, and beyond it, modern civilization. Behind us sat the secluded
pocket of Upper Mustang, a region very unlike any other place on Earth; a place
sandwiched between the world’s most imposing natural barrier and one of the
world’s most politically guarded regions. It is one of the few places left where
people still live as they have for centuries, cut off from the modern world. In a
few years Upper Mustang will have changed forever; plans were already
underway to run a highway right through Kagbeni and into the restricted area to
provide another link between Kathmandu and China.
This weighed profoundly on my mind, and it was with heavy feet and
heart that we departed to the south, promising ourselves to return in the not-too-
distant future to explore the untainted Upper Mustang before it is too late.
Jomsom is situated eight kilometers downstream from Kagbeni, and is a
popular termination point for less ambitious trekkers on the Annapurna circuit
because of its accessibility by jeep, and the fact that it has a small airstrip. The
stretch between Kagbeni and Jomsom was a pleasant jaunt along a wide and
rocky riverbed, and as we approached the town, we could feel a marked
difference between it and other villages as a result of its road access. There were
buildings constructed of concrete, and the edge of town was demarcated by a
thick line of parked jeeps in various states of disrepair. When we reached
Jomsom it felt as though we’d been thrust back into civilization; mechanics
rolled in the dust replacing wheel bearings and broken leaf springs, day-trippers
and trekking tourists scurried between stores and restaurants. It was lunchtime,
so we quickly grabbed a bite to eat and got out as fast as we could.
As we made our way down the dirt road out of town, we shielded our
faces against dust kicked into the wind by jeeps and buses. We paused on
occasion to watch the small prop planes jump shakily into the sky and perilously
thread their way between snow-capped peaks, transporting trekkers back to
By late afternoon we had found our way off of the road and into the
forest on a side trail. After leaving Kagbeni, the towns seemed more capitalist
and commercial, and we already missed the wildness and desolation of Manang
For days on end we had been lugging around our camping gear, and
every day Sheena reminded me, and everyone we met, just how big a moron I
was for insisting we bring the tent along. Seeing the opportunity to escape the
commercial towns and the road, and desperately wanting to prove myself not a
moron, I seized the opportunity to swoop in and save the day. We sought out a
clearing next to a small stream and happily built our own camp. After dinner we
bundled up in our down sleeping bags as darkness and a stiff chill settled into the
valley, and fell asleep to the sound of a light breeze rustling our tent.
After trading the jeep-riddled road for the alternate trail on the other side
of the valley, we were very reluctant to trade sides again, a reluctance that saw
us fluctuating wildly in elevation as we traversed the steep mountainside that
hugged the edge of the river. After two days of climbing and descending pine
mountainsides, we finally emerged at the busy hub of Tatopani.
Tatopani, as it turns out, is a popular jumping off point for myriad one-
to-five day hikes, and as one can imagine, we found it full to the brim with
people. We checked into a bustling guesthouse composed of a couple dozen
shoddy bungalows and a busy restaurant.
In the evening I walked down to the river where I had heard about a hot
spring, but was disappointed to find a concrete pool filled hip-to-hip with
overweight Russian men. I stood there watching for a few minutes, angry for
having allowed myself to get my hopes up. Some excitement trickled back as I
noticed that the crowded pool was in fact not itself a hot spring, but that a hose
lead down to a natural pool nearer the river from which the hot water was
pumped. I carefully clambered down to the steaming pool amid the rocks and
dipped my toe into it. To my surprise, the temperature of the pool had somehow
been allowed to exceed the limits imposed upon liquid water by the laws of
physics, and my toe very nearly caught on fire and burned off. I shrieked and
limped over to the river to sit on a boulder and cry it out.
We awoke early for the final test of our trek, and headed for the hills. We
began on the dirt road, but soon turned off to climb through a leafy forest toward
Poonhill, whose summit, it was said, had the region’s very best panoramic views
of the Himalayan range. Since leaving Kagbeni on the northern fringe of the
Himalayas, we had picked our way between peaks along valley floors toward the
south. But to get back to Pokhara we would have to cross a high mountain ridge,
regaining much of the elevation we’d lost since Thorong La, all in a single day.
The trail quickly assumed the form of a steep stone staircase, and for
hours we climbed on. By midmorning we had caught up to two small Nepali
girls dressed in school uniforms, so I rattled off some of the Nepali greetings I
had been learning in order to impress Auntie Durga upon our return to
“Kasto cha timilai?”
“Chikaicha. Kasto cha tapailai?”
“Ekdam ramro, dhanyabat.”
Seeing that I was able to make and return a simple greeting, they
assumed that I would be able to engage in a deeper conversation, but their
squeaky banter—probably about string theory or molecular physics—went right
over my head. I returned their attempt at conversation with a defensive statement
I’d put in my lingual briefcase just for such situations, and which I had found
myself using many times daily. As a result, I began to sound rather fluent as I
rattled it off in Nepali.
“I’m learning Nepali, but so far my language skills are like those of a
This explanation of my handicap satisfied them, so they helped us out by
switching to English.
“So where are you girls going?”
“We go to school,” one of them squeaked. They strode with such energy,
devouring the stairs like they were nothing.
“How far is school?”
“And you walk there every day?”
The pair went on to tell us the Nepali names for everything they could
think of: donkeys, bananas, rocks, trees, and various types of food. Suddenly one
of them stopped, looked into the trees, and then raised both arms and started
yelling and running toward the forest. A small family of monkeys saw her
coming and scurried back into the undergrowth. She picked up a few rocks and
threw them, although it must be noted that her aim was poor, clearly having to
do with the fact that Nepal has no baseball culture. I decided to show her a little
bit of American baseball prowess, so I picked up a rock, threw it, and very
nearly fell flat on my ass and down the stairs on account of my two hundred
pound backpack. The rock flew off in a direction approximately perpendicular to
the direction of the monkeys, and the expression on the girls’ face was one of
We eventually made the call to complete the whole climb before lunch.
We were back in the jungle, and it was no secret that jungle trekking did not
rank high on the list of activities on which we liked to dawdle. Still, we later
conceded that completing the whole climb before lunch may have been a
mistake. At one o’clock we dragged our battered bodies into the ridge-top village
of Ghorepani, having ascended 5,500 vertical feet of uneven stone stairs in a
period of just six hours. We were the first trekkers of the day to reach the top,
but we certainly didn’t feel like we’d won anything. We settled into a guesthouse
with a stunning view of 26,795-foot Dhaulagiri, the world’s seventh tallest
mountain. With a view like that, a soggy excuse for pizza never tasted so good.
The hike from Ghorepani to the Poonhill summit is an easy one-hour
jaunt up a stone walkway, but there is something about it that brings out the
inner Edmund Hillary in many a hiker. In a repeat of Thorong Phedi, dozens of
our fellow trekking comrades awoke us at three o’clock the following morning
by slamming their fists into the walls of the guesthouse hallway and yelling to
nobody in particular about how psyched they were to bag this summit. I
whimpered softly, mumbled a string of incoherent, half-asleep profanities into
my pillow, and tried to reverse my unsolicited departure from the candy-cane-
dreamland I’d just left behind. Two hours later we forcefully removed our
zombie-like bodies from our beds and walked out into the darkness.
It was pitch black on the way to the summit, and we could trace the line
of headlamps up the stone staircase before us all the way to the top. We emerged
at the lookout a half an hour before sunrise and found a comfortable place to
watch, taking note of those poor uncomfortable bastards who had so explosively
departed at three in the morning, only to sit up there in the freezing cold
darkness for two extra hours.
As people gathered around the summit, we reconnected with friends we’d
made along the trek. There were the four Canadians we’d met shortly after
Jomsom, and who we had come to refer to as Team Canada. Then there was
Lance, who had quit his job in California, and then built himself a house in
Nebraska, only to realize that he’d just built himself a house in Nebraska, so he
flew to Nepal to escape reality. There were Andriy and Olga, the charming
Ukrainian photographers we’d met in Thorong Phedi while preparing for our
shot at the pass. And finally, there were our ever-interesting, always-smiling,
wild-mushroom-scavenging friends from Portland, Jake and Kendra.
On the day that we crossed the Mexican border at the very onset of our
around the world drive, I noted a very memorable sunset. On that day, and
perhaps it was made more beautiful by the fact that we were drunk with joy, the
sky had exploded into flames like a cheap polyester suit. On this morning at
Poonhill it happened again, only in the form of a sunrise. The sky slowly
transformed from black to deep blue, the horizon began to glow, and then in
slow motion Annapurna, Machhapuchhre, Dhaulagiri, and the rest of the
Annapurna range was set alight by the crisp sphere of yellow rising from the
It was a perfect end to the trek. We retreated to the guesthouse for
breakfast, and then descended the untold millions of stone steps down the far
side of the mile-high ridge. We grabbed a local bus back to Pokhara, arriving
after dark, and then hailed a taxi for the final six miles back to our campground
where Nacho awaited. It is needless to say that after 150 miles of high altitude
trekking over the course of eighteen days, we slept like dead people.
When at long last we awoke, we found ourselves next to a clear pond in
the middle of a golden field of rice.