I woke up grumpy at 5.30am because it had been somehow freezing cold yet sweaty in the foisty cabin, and also because Alex had decided the night before that she wanted to alter our plan and sleep at Annapurna Base Camp itself (ABC) rather than our intended spot, Machhapuchhre Base Camp (MBC). ABC is some 300 metres higher, and my fear of altitude sickness and general death was making me quite moody.
I ate two slices of toast because I was skint, and we began our climb – now with James in tow as well. James’s presence gave me a boost, because now I was trekking with somebody who would actually reply to me when I asked a question. My vertigo from the previous evening had disappeared; I’d spent an hour the night before forcing myself to stare at the mountains in order to fight away the feeling of discomfort and nausea they brewed in my bones.
In reasonable spirits then, we set off, passing a nearby cave on our craggy ascent, eventually leaving the treeline far behind. It is shocking how quickly you rise up – you look forward and climb a higgledy-piggledy staircase, then you glance back and see the hamlet you passed through moments before is now a speck far below. At each stage of the trek, hikers walking back the other direction promised us that there weren’t many more sections of steep path left – oh, how we were lied to. We wound higher and higher up into the valley; up into the clouds.
We crested the brow of a small hill after a couple of hours, and suddenly the valley opened up to us. Gone was the claustrophobia that had rattled me in the hamlet of Himalaya; in a heartbeat the valley became a kilometre wide; yawning, stretching like a waking snow leopard, flexing muscles and showing off the nonchalance with which it could murder you. We passed the sources of the river, tumbling waterfalls that cascaded down from the heavens on all sides, forming what would become the frothing milky rapids we passed two days before.
There had been an avalanche in the night – a section of the path was blocked. It doesn’t change a thing up in the mountains though. There’s nobody around to ask for permission; the only thing to do is keep going. I gingerly took the first step onto the bank of crushed ice and teetered over it to re-join the trail. We crossed bamboo bridges over streams, and wobbled from rock to rock along the top of slippery waterfalls. We slogged up to MBC, meeting two English brothers along the way who were taking photos of every hiker attempting to reach the Base Camp that day. They took our photos, and the five of us sat to eat lunch at Machhapuchhre Base Camp, at an altitude of 3700 metres.
I wasn’t sure if I could feel the altitude yet. A couple of the guys were complaining of feeling weird or having headaches. When it comes to my health I never give my body the benefit of the doubt – seems the safest thing to do – and so of course I was convinced that I was going to collapse at the top, gasping for air. I’ve never been at altitude before, and you don’t know how it’s going to affect you until you go there. But I seemed to be fine, which arguably made me more worried.
We ate a huge lunch of dal bhat beneath the horrifying mountain Machhapuchhre, or Fish Tail, which has never been summited due to the locals believing it to be sacred. The unbeaten mountain looks like a dagger aimed at the sky, every slope ragged and jagged and hostile and grim. It rose so far into the sky that it seemed to be curling over us, the peak dangling above our heads like the sword of Damocles. Photographs don’t do it justice, words don’t do it justice. If you want to see it, you have to earn it. You have to go there and stand before it and allow yourself to be humbled into dust.
We finished our lunch and began the final two kilometres. Despite all the hostile adjectives I’ve been using to describe the mountains, I was in an optimistic and determined mood. One of the English brothers was struggling for breath as we began our walk; atonement for a youth spent smoking cigarettes. We kept stopping for him and taking breaks as we struggled up the hill, and it was a difficult final march but one thing that kept us going was the ever expanding mountain range that we were crawling up into the centre of.
The Annapurna range is nine mountains, all conjoined, all seven or eight thousand metres high, that reside in a natural amphitheatre at the end of the valley. The path curls around and brings you up into the centre, and every step towards Annapurna Base Camp brings ever more beauty into view as you rise above the boulders and hills. One kilometre away from our destination, I found myself surrounded in every direction by the highest mountains on the planet, and it stunned me into quiet laughter. As we climbed and our group made ever-slower progress, I told them I was going to walk ahead alone.
I don’t want to seem uncaring, but at some point you have to look after yourself first. I didn’t know these people, I was trekking for myself and myself alone, and I wanted to experience the mountains in isolation for a time. So I stopped taking breaks and pushed on up the path, enjoying the feeling of powerlessness and humility, feeling like a slave thrown into a coliseum of glaring ancient gods.
I could see the Base Camp now, a small collection of buildings a kilometre ahead now the path had levelled out. No more climbing; all that was necessary was to move one blistered foot in front of the other. My pace quickened and I stripped down to a t-shirt as my body heat rose despite the single-digit temperatures. I put my headphones in and played music to motivate myself. I chucked on a few gym-like tunes, Fuckin’ in the Bushes by Oasis, that sort of thing, and then for some reason I played the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack, which made me laugh because the whole thing suddenly seemed absolutely absurd and whimsical.
I was practically running to the Base Camp, leaving everybody else behind to the point where the boulders obscured them, and I felt fucking amazing; it hit me that my fears never came to fruition – I was not short on breath at all! My lungs worked perfectly and for the first time in so long I remembered how young and healthy I really am, and I was coping the best out of everyone after being the most afraid, and I chuckled aloud as I jumped rock to rock over clear water creeks. I felt like the most vital and fit and youthful soul in the world – of course I can hike the Himalayas, what a silly thing to fear! I no longer felt like an alien in a hostile environment; I felt happy to be on that mountainside surrounded by snow and thin air and the strange guinea pig creatures that scurried around in the undergrowth.
In short… I liked myself, man. As I drew into the Annapurna Base Camp and the sign with yellow writing greeted me ‘NAMASTE!’, I found something in myself to be really, truly proud of. It’s been a long time since I felt that way.
That night James and Alex and I slept in a rickety little shitpiece of a cabin which was tacked onto the kitchen, meaning we had to walk through the pots and pans to reach it, and when lying in bed in our windswept cabin at night I had no choice but to stare straight out at the staff frying onions and rolling dough. I took an altitude sickness pill before bed, as I felt wrong. It’s hard to explain exactly how it felt, because it’s not an issue you normally come across, is it, not having enough air to breathe? I had a mild headache and my stomach felt weird, and I got out of breath from merely standing up or putting my socks on or eating a biscuit, and I just really didn’t want to hang around at that height a second longer than necessary.
The next morning we got up around 6am for the third day running and ate a meagre breakfast, because it costs the earth up there. And then we began the descent. And for this section of the diary entry I’d like to break with the format I’ve been using so far and do a big massive Wes Anderson style title card:
There we go. Well, here’s the thing about the descent down Annapurna: it was fucking easy and fantastic. I loved every second of the first four hours, so joyful and rejuvenated was I. There’s a brilliant scene in Jack Kerouac’s book Dharma Bums when, having scrambled up to the top of Matterhorn Peak in California with Gary Snyder, Jack fails to make it the last hundred metres to the top – it’s too high, the air is too thin, and he panics and freezes while Gary summits. And as Jack lies there panting, he sees Gary running back down the slope towards him – running – and Jack grows giddy and energised as he joins Gary in sprinting back down, yelling all the way ‘You can’t fall off a mountain! You can’t fall off a mountain!’
I never really knew what that meant, but having made the descent down some 2000 metres in a few hours, I completely understand the euphoria and elation that comes from knowing that the climb is over. No more heights, no more uncertainty awaits you. You know the route back home, you can visualise every step of the way, and as you wind lower and lower the air gets thicker and fills your lungs, your headache passes away, and you can finally talk and laugh and sing as you walk again. And it was going to be my birthday in two days! We had begun the previous evening to talk of changing the plan; of being home on the 13th rather than the day after. That suited me perfectly – I’d have a day to relax before I turned 25! Oh, everything looked so wonderful and rosy that morning.
I flew down ahead of Alex and James as they hobbled along at a snail’s pace and told them we’d meet up at Bamboo, a village some 10km ahead. I saluted goodbye to the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever seen in my life, and left the snow-clad sky theatre behind. And as James and Alex disappeared behind the hills and boulders I hopped over, I was completely alone once more, and the feeling hit me like a chubby line of Pablo’s finest. I whipped off my top, sweating already in the morning sun, and put my headphones in. Every song sounded incredible set against the backdrop of the planet’s most revered mountain range, and the feeling of total isolation made me feel dizzyingly free.
I cranked up my music – Cowboy Song by Thin Lizzy, Welcome to the Pleasuredome by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and of course That’s Where You’re Wrong by my darling Arctic Monkeys – everything sounded fantastic, and I was going down, down, at a rate of knots. I was dancing and singing my way, chest out to the sun, encouraging every climber I passed that although the trial is hard the beauty at the top is worth it. The waterfalls that I tiptoed over only 24 hours earlier I now skipped across like a mountain goat, not a care in the world. I was going down! Take me down to the paradise city, where the air is thick and the food’s not shitty! My birthday lay at the bottom, and beer and dancing and delicious food! Down was Shangri La; down was everything I wanted in the whole wide world, and I was dancing towards it gibbering mad with elation.
We covered 25km that day, jolly throughout, all the way back to Chhomrong – which meant we had to scale 1700 stone steps – a vertical kilometre – after trekking for 8 hours already. It busted my knees up pretty good and nearly exploded my heart, but no matter. We stayed over at a little old lady’s guest house – her name was Sugar Mama – and she gave us delicious vegetable curry and chocolate cake, and we took showers for the first time since setting off.
That night at Sugar Mama’s place we made a new friend, Claire, from Glasgow, and the next morning the four of us set out together. I got my comeuppance for all my giddy running ahead when, having arrived before the others at a hamlet called New Bridge, I waited for over an hour and found that nobody was arriving. I asked a few trekkers if they’d seen my friends. All said no. Then, with a monstrous sigh, I realised that my fellow trekkers had taken a wrong turn, and I was alone on the mountain.
I checked my wallet and found 150 rupees left – about one pound. I asked a local man which way to the buses, and he told me they were all striking, as were the jeeps. It was at this point that I had to try not to cry, finding myself alone in the sodding Himalayas with a single quid on me, only a few hours of daylight left, no friends, no working phone, and no idea in which direction to head. But I got a grip of myself. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy rule number one: Don’t Panic.
I waited around, cursing the names of my friends, and eventually joined a couple of hikers that passed through New Bridge, Ash from India and Egly from Brazil. We walked another 10km together, which pretty much ripped the muscle on my right knee in half, and found a dirt road. We trekked along it for hours with a friendly stray dog we named Pokhara, until we finally we managed to hitch a lift back to Pokhara from a jeep full of drunken Nepali bankers thanks to Elgy leaping in front of the car and planting her hiking pole in the ground like Gandalf before the Balrog.
The drunken bankers took us all the way back to Pokhara for free, and we stopped off for drinks and snacks with them on the way. I was wreathed with ecstasy to be free of the sodding mountains which had oscillated for the past five days between awe-inspiring mentors and, to be frank, massive wankers.
I did learn one thing on my trek, though. At the end of the second day, when my legs were hurting and Alex was short of breath again and we admitted to each other that we would much rather be back in Pokhara than slogging up Annapurna in the mid-afternoon drizzle, it hit me that there was nothing else we could do but press on. Going back would mean a two day trek anyway, with no achievement to speak of at the end of it. There was no shortcut to take, no smart-alec tactic to employ to make things easier, no cheating possible. The only thing that we could do on that mountain, when things were tooth-grindingly difficult, was push on. Sometimes in our lives and the choices we make, there is no easy road at all. Sometimes we go through shit, and we realise we’re not as tough or as smart as we thought we were, and there’s not a single thing we can do to ease the pain.
Sometimes the only thing to do is set your jaw, roll up your sleeves, and crack on.