It’s 5.30 in the morning and I can hear the quiet yet obtrusive sound of my watch alarm beeping next to my pillow. I am cocooned into the comfortable warmth of my sleeping bag, but my cheeks, which have just peeped out from the hood, can feel the bitterness of the freezing air and are telling my body to make as little movement as possible. Though my body is dormant, my eyes and mind are wide awake, darting around the room and attempting to assess the weather conditions outside. Today is probably an ordinary Wednesday for a lot of people, but for my two sisters and I, it is something quite different.
We are in the Annapurna Region of Nepal, waking up at Thorong High Camp, 4800m above sea level. We have trekked for twelve days to get here – undergone illness, injury, exhaustion and euphoria – and today is, in many ways, what it has all been leading up to. Today we will (hopefully) cross the Thorong La Pass, the highest point on the Annapurna Circuit at 5,416m. It is the highest altitude any of us have ever experienced, and while we have done all the necessary preparations for crossing the pass, in reality we have no idea what to expect.
We started trekking the Annapurna Circuit twelve days prior, beginning with the highest of spirits and energies as we passed traditional Nepali villages and trekked through a deep canyon at the foothills of the Himalaya. Each night, we found a teahouse to stay in; eating Dahl Baat for dinner before pulling out our sleeping bags and resting our bodies on creaking mattresses for the night. At first light each morning we would stuff our sleeping bags away and load our rucksacks, consuming porridge and Nepali tea to fuel us for the day’s trekking. It became a ritual, yet no day was quite the same as the last and as each day passed, we edged closer and closer towards the mountains.
In Manang, we spent three days resting and acclimatising at 3,500m before our final three days leading to the Pass. The days were short but hard, as oxygen became sparser and our bags, somehow, felt heavier with every step. By this point, the air was freezing so we would stop for tea whenever we could to warm our hands and allow our lungs to become accustomed to the thinner air. Yet on the day of the pass, this wasn’t an option. We had about 9 hours to walk; gaining 600m of altitude and then descending 1,600m before the next town.
Since we were early in the trekking season deep snow still covered the track, and without crampons we had to trust our walking poles to steady us on some difficult sections where steep ravines seemed to disappeared into the abyss, just one icy inch away from the path we were treading. As we trekked higher and higher, our breath becoming shorter and my eyes remained glued to the white and blue landscape, scanning the distant peaks for any sign of colour as I desperately hoped to spot the familiar sight of prayer flags that would mark our summit.
When we finally reached the pass, it was a moment of utter relief and disbelief that we had made it – and even more so because we had done it as three sisters, something that I’m sure none of us will ever forget. Though Thorong La Pass may be small in comparison to the 8,000m peaks that tower above it, for us it felt like a great victory to reach it. It was my first taste of what the Himalaya can hold, and perhaps the start of even more mountain climbing in the future.