Alright. I went trekking. Let’s get into it.
The day before our adventure began, my new little gang of Colombian Samy, Aussie Alex, Israeli Jonathon and Swedish Pontus spent a long, lazy afternoon smoking hash and drinking beer in the lakeside sunshine that drenches Pokhara, hippy paradise. I smoked a bit too much and drank way too much, and ended the day hurling my guts up into a hostel sink, clogging it, and having to scoop out handfuls of vomit to clean the drain. It was not glamorous.
It was supposed to be me, Colombian Samy and Aussie Alex, but at 6am three alarms went off and only two bodies heaved themselves upright. Samy decided to stay behind because there was a rave he wanted to go to in a couple of days somewhere in the jungle. Alex and I ate breakfast and set off; Alex full of cold, me sleep deprived and sickly from loudly vomiting for hours the previous evening.
We got a taxi to the mountains; we planned to start the trek to Annapurna Base Camp from a town called New Bridge – Alex had done her homework far more than I, who had no gear and even less of an idea. I realised in the taxi that I’d even forgotten to buy sodding trousers. I’m that half-wit that you see in sub-zero temperatures in a pair of board shorts, apparently. I had some hiking boots Jonathon gave me for a tenner, a rented coat with a hood, and a single hiking pole. Beyond that, my backpack contained shampoo, toothbrush, one pair of boxers and maybe a spare t shirt or something. My wallet had 7000 rupees inside – about 45 quid. Suffice to say, I was ill prepared.
As our taxi wound out of Pokhara the clouds parted and above the encircling green hills we saw snowy peaks for the first time, miles and miles away, yet enormous enough that they still towered over us. For the first time since planning the trip, I felt nervous.
We arrived in Nayapul, and had a short row with the taxi driver because we agreed he would take us to New Bridge, a stop further along the trek, but the driver kept insisting that was where he had taken us – though the map said differently (it turns out that Nayapul literally means ‘new bridge’, so we were both kind of right). We hopped in a jeep that took us a couple of kilometres along the trek to a hamlet called Siwai, and our journey began proper.
We were in good spirits at the start, amazed to be so isolated in nature. My boots were snug and my body felt strong, and hiking through little Tibetan-style villages was a joy. I remarked to Alex that I’d always hoped somewhere like this truly existed, but never really believed it. But no, it’s all true: scattered mountain villages, stone huts with wooden doorframes, mules tethered in the yard and roosters wandering freely, high up the slopes of the Himalayan valleys.
We walked for miles and found New Bridge – our intended start point. We grabbed lunch, amiable in the afternoon sunshine, and gawped at the humid green mountains surrounding us, with the caramel river sloshing far below. I remember thinking at the time that it didn’t look too much like the Himalayas I was expecting; our journey so far had been much more vibrant and luscious. And so, in good spirits and making excellent time, we set off for Chhomrong, our destination for the evening. We were happy. And then everything went very fucking Chhom-wrong.
The village is some 2100 metres above sea level. We were already at a height of around 1500 at New Bridge – so we would have to ascend 600 metres, which is quite a lot. However, what we didn’t realise is that Chhomfuckingrong was situated on a different hill to us, which meant we had to first descend several hundred metres, and then bloody claw our way back up again. We’d smashed several kilometres in no time at all, and then we found ourselves at the foot of the longest, most crooked, steepest, most perilous staircase I’ve ever seen in my entire life.
Stairway to heaven is a cool song but a useless phrase. Heaven wouldn’t have a fucking staircase leading up to it; it’d have an escalator or possibly a gilded lift, like the one Donald Trump has, although the elevator to the pearly gates wouldn’t smell like stale cigars and old man fart, which the ones in Trump Tower definitely do. What I’m getting at is this: the stairs went into the fucking clouds. This was going to be crap, but there was nothing else for it. I bought us a couple of horrible energy drinks in the last village, and with a joint groan we started up the mountain.
In case you think I’m just lazy and bullshitting, let it be known that the steps number somewhere in the thousands. THOUSANDS. Do you know what a hundred steps looks like? A hundred steps gets you maybe from the bottom to the top of a football stadium. Now imagine fucking THOUSANDS, you bastards. THOUSANDS. Do you know how many steps there are in the sodding Empire State Building? 1860. THOUSANDS.
[I am swearing a lot today aren’t I? Goodness me. I’m ever so sorry, old sport.]
Alex was having a hell of a job getting up the stairs. I was too, quietly hating life, but I had mentally prepared for the challenge and I’m fairly used to being in extreme discomfort due to a lifetime of gargantuan misjudgements and monstrous decisions. Alex, however, was ill before the trek, and still had a cough and cold, and her lungs were given her a rough time. I kept stopping at the top of each flight to wait for her as she wheezed and heaved herself up. The only help I could offer was the occasional joke or reassuring sentiment, but it did no good. We simply had to grind on.
Other countries really are not like the UK. Health and safety in the Himalayas just isn’t a thing. You don’t get a handrail on the death stairs; there is no safety net. You have a cruel incline before you, and a nightmarish empty expanse immediately behind you, cold stone slabs dropping away eagerly into the mist thousands of feet below. The river at this point is no longer visible; you have climbed too high. If you fall, there is nothing, and you will have a long time to ponder your mistake on the way down. And still the peak of the mountain eludes you.
If the first 10km of our journey took us three hours, the last 2km took about the same. I read the map to Alex when she asked how much further we had to go: 750 metres distance. 500 metres height. We passed a rabble of white mountain goats on the way up, balanced impossibly on grass verges and tree roots, yelling at each other and staring at us with their alien pupils. I was still chipper – at least outwardly – lying incessantly to Alex that the next flight was surely the last.
After setting off from Siwai at 10am, we made it to Chhomrong around 5 in the evening. We were barely speaking at that point; everything I said to Alex was met with aggressive silence. We got a couple of beds in the first mountainside lodge we passed, and found the dorm room to be Spartan and cold. I bought a victory beer and we sat to eat rice in the small communal area, surrounded by other, equally flush-faced trekkers, most of whom were far older.
As I sipped my beer and enjoyed the post-exercise endorphins, Alex looked at me with watery eyes. She told me she had made a mistake, bitten off more than she could chew, and she was going home the next morning. I had a heart attack of course, terrified of trekking the mountains alone, but gave her a hug and a smile, and slowly tried to calm her. I told her she’d done amazingly well, and I promised the next day would be easier, that the worst was done, and that we wouldn’t have to struggle as much as we had that day again on the trail. I believed it myself too at the time – I’d checked the elevation of the other hamlets we’d be stopping in and found them to be far gentler.
I told Alex to sleep on it, and went up alone onto the terrace to sit and look at the mountains. I sat in a plastic garden chair with my bare feet propped up on a railing, and sighed contentedly as I drank my beer. Perhaps the worst truly was over, and from here on out it would be okay. And then, as if the mountains had read my mind, the low-hanging clouds that had all day obscured their peaks dissipated, mists drifting away on the wind.
Unveiled before me were the furious black cliffs of Annapurna, the deadliest mountain on the planet. To the east was the fang-like monstrosity that is Machhapuchhre, a sheer screaming spear into the clouds that has never been summited. They were at least 10 kilometres in the distance as the crow flies, but still their soaring spires loomed higher than the evening moon.
For every 100 safe returns, there are 34 deaths on the slopes of Annapurna. If you are going to try to summit, you have a one in three chance of dying. One in three. Your odds of survival are better playing Russian Roulette. Fortunately I wasn’t going to be attempting the peak, only base camp – but even then, there are 4 or 5 deaths a year just on the base camp trail. Earlier in the day, we passed a missing person poster for a woman who had disappeared on the mountain in February. I read the paper with my mouth agape.
The ferocity of those misty black cliffs is burned into my retinas forever. The sheer physicality, the weight, the mute, solemn threat of violence – in fact no, not a threat. A promise. The mountain allows no room for debate, no more than an ant can beg a wanton child not to stamp their foot. It is absolute, inhospitable, impossible; it will kill you. I’ve never felt so utterly, utterly powerless as I did looking up at those snow-swept peaks. The thought that there are humans out there who gaze upon such a horrifying sight and see a challenge chills me to the bone. There are some places on this earth that humans were never, ever supposed to set foot, and Annapurna is one of them. And, next morning, that’s exactly where we were headed.