Here you go, a nice video summary of what has transpired…
I was a very bad traveller in Nepal. I saw Kathmandu and Pokhara and did a 5 day trek in the Himalayas and that’s… that’s it. The rest of the time was spent eating and drinking, socialising and relaxing. But that’s not to say I didn’t have an adventure or two.
[This is quite a long one. But you’re gunna fuckin’ love it.]
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.
That first night was rough. After the tears-and-hugs chat with Alex over dinner, I finished my beer staring at the black-cliffed behemoth looming above us, and climbed into bed. I didn’t sleep well; I kept having nightmares that I was sliding off the mountain and down into the eternal valley below. At 2am I woke up, fresh out of a bad dream, and lay awake staring around me at the wooden ceiling and white plaster walls, thinking about how odd it felt to be halfway up the Himalayas without anybody guiding me. Totally alone, nobody in charge telling what to do. I barely had to tell anybody I was going – you buy a permit and you’re off. Things here are not like at home. Continue reading
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.
Well, India is but a memory now. A weird, sweaty memory. And now I’m in Nepal! Whaaaaa! Booked it on a whim because it was a cheap flight and I wasn’t sure where else to go. But I’m here now! And it’s really lovely! And, in case you’re unaware of how a diary works: I’m going to tell you all about it right now! Continue reading