Skirting disaster in the Himalayas

The walk up from High Camp to Thorung La Pass along the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal takes about two-and-a-half hours.
The walk up from High Camp to Thorung La Pass along the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal takes about two-and-a-half hours. The Washington Post

We finally crossed the Thorung La Pass after a grueling week of trekking the rugged terrains of the Annapurna Circuit. We congratulated ourselves, started descending, then stopped for a luncheon mixture of water, Nescafe and local alcohol. We took a small plane and then a large one, and only when we returned to Washington did we hear the news.

Death had missed us by two days.

A heavy blizzard and an avalanche had torn through the pass, killing at least 40 people, in what was one of the deadliest disasters on the Himalayan trail. We’d never even considered that we could be in any real danger. But the challenges of life along the trail in a poor, developing part of the world were never hard to see.

There were three in our party, two of us Washington Post journalists. During our week of trekking, we’d come across people and places in remote villages, where despite decades of tourism, little seemed to have changed in their lives.

Boys as young as 14 worked as cooks and servers in the lodges that served the trekkers, and their one hope for earning a living was learning some English so they could work as guides. If they didn’t speak English, they could work as porters, making far less.

The trail, which passed through some of the highest mountains in the country, was also a reminder of how this remote part of a poverty-stricken nation was grappling with global problems in its backyard. Glaciers that could be heard roaring behind the mountains, something that scientists have warned were melting faster than ever, because of the warming of the earth’s temperature. Scientists say rising sea levels can mean bigger, more frequent storms like the cyclone that has been blamed for causing the avalanche at Thorung La Pass.

Life is growing more complicated along the trail, for residents and trekkers alike.

Our plan to go trekking in Nepal first began almost a year ago over a copious amount of bad wine on the Amtrak. Anup was born in Nepal. Whitney is an avid rock climber, as is the third member of our party, Hugh Blodget Jr. Several people we knew had done the Annapurna Circuit. It is considered one of the best trekking routes in the world, one that involves walking for several weeks and crossing difficult terrains, including the Thorung La Pass, which sits at an altitude of almost 18,000 feet.

Most people who attempt to cross the pass do not require any training, but the potential for acute altitude sickness remains, and it has taken lives of both foreigners and Nepalis in the past. So, like most enthusiastic foreigners who come to the Himalayas, we decided to trek the circuit without any technical preparation.

It couldn’t have been a better season for trekking in Nepal. The monsoons had stopped, the clouds were gone and the mountains could not have looked any clearer.

We hired a jeep to drive us to Besi Sahar, a small town to the east of Pokhara. When we reached Chyamche by the end of the evening, the jeep couldn’t travel further because of a landslide that had walloped part of the road during the monsoon. By the time we spent the evening crossing the landslide, we were forced to spend the evening at a nearby village, Tal, where the owner of the hotel helped to find a jeep that would take us to Chame very early the next morning.

As dawn broke, it was hard to miss the orange-lit mountains along the road, although the rising sun was still hiding somewhere. Our driver, a 23-year old man who had left a construction job in Udaipur, India, was unlike most young drivers on the road, carefully maneuvering the turns as he played local and Bollywood songs on the radio. The bars on the cell phone slowly started falling, and then finally disappeared.

The driver agreed to drop us off a few miles ahead near a bridge in Bhratang. We offloaded our belongings, checked our gear, buckled the backpacks and were ready for the circuit. As we walked across the bridge, our porter said, “Sir, the real trekking begins right here.” We would cross Thorung La in a week.

As we marched forward in the next couple of days, we knew we had slowly entered deep into the Manang valley, surrounded by the Annapurna range, the mountains looming ahead like a painting. A gentle breeze slowly grew stronger and the sounds of the heavy brass bells around the necks of the yaks filled the air. The dirt road that once was filled with horses and donkeys was now home to motorbikes that served as taxis for tired trekkers who wanted to be carried closer to the bases near the pass.

The motorbikes on the road, the metal poles that carried electric wires into the villages were all signs of how the Annapurna region has changed over the last couple of decades. While the idea of trekking in the mountains demands a cut off from the outside world, the need for hikers to stay close to technology cannot be ignored. For a country that relies heavily on tourism and trekking, Nepal does not have a dependable weather system that warns trekkers and mountaineers about impending dangers.

The gravel roads were adorned with Tibetan prayer wheels, some of which stretched nearly for a hundred meters. We obsessively rotated the wheels along the way. We thought we needed all of the luck, as well as strength, to cross the Thorung La Pass.

Until two days before we would cross the pass, our only worry was if we would be able to secure any rooms for the night at the base camp. Hundreds of trekkers were on the circuit and the camp could only accommodate so many. Our porter, Daley, had asked a woman who was traveling across the pass by horse to let the owner know we were coming and that we needed rooms for the night. But uncertain if the message would reach High Camp, Daley said he would walk ahead of us.

When we arrived at the High Camp, Daley had already secured a room for the evening. We were relieved.

High Camp itself is like a small village, with maybe a half dozen houses made from stones and tin roofs. The owner, a short charismatic man from western Nepal, knew how to run a business. Making a phone call cost nearly 20 cents, receiving a phone call cost 10 cents, charging your devices could cost anywhere from 50 cents to a dollar. At the camp, most foreigners were gathered in one room, sitting around tables, looking at maps and playing cards. The porters and guides all gathered in a separate room, one that had scattered mattresses and blankets in a corner, and the other corner with a small television that played Bollywood movies.

If there was one place where you could see the disparity between porters, guides and the trekkers, it was here at High Camp. Along the way, we met hundreds of workers — a few days earlier we met someone as young as 16, who was helping a dozen Italians climb the Pisang peak — most of them in flip flops, some maybe in a locally-made canvas shoes. A few had boots. One of the men was carrying 77 pounds of gear with a rope supported on the front of his head, wearing a light puffy jacket. Daley himself was wearing a fake Mammut jacket with holes all over, one that hardly looked like it shielded him from the cold. We asked him if he needed a different one.

“No, I’m very warm,” he said. “But if you have gloves, I could use them tomorrow.”

Out in the courtyard of the camp, a porter, likely in his late 50s, arrived in a red fleece and a cap, carrying at least 60 pounds on his back, still gasping for air. He said he had a screeching headache and could barely walk, and also chronic asthma, but that not working was not an option for him. At the end of the 15-day trek, he would receive maybe about $120, he said.

In one of the rooms, most of us ordered fried yak cheese, deep-fried Snickers rolls, lasagna and hot chocolates. In the other rooms the porters and guides waited until all the tourists had finished eating. They would all be served a giant lump of plain rice, some of which was left over from the previous night, to go with lentils and a side of potato curry cooked with soy bean nuggets.

When we woke up in the morning, High Camp had turned white with snow.

We left at 5:30 in the morning, slowly stepping uphill, striking the walking pole slightly deeper into the soil as we marched ahead. It was freezing as we tracked the narrow path with headlamps, exhaling heavily. Ten steps would take 20 seconds, and after each 10 steps we would pause, catch our breath and continue to walk.

After a cold, excruciating 21/2 hours, we were at the pass. An obnoxious French trekker did a somersault, the Germans waved their flags, we started posing for selfies. Daley went and stood in a corner at the tea shop and asked us if we wanted tea.

We had made it to the top. All three of us, without any headaches, any injuries. We hugged each other, drank our tea and then realized that what came next was probably even harder. Now we had to come down. In a matter of hours, we would be descending almost 5,000 feet. Our legs would refuse to pause as we walked on a steeply inclined narrow trail. It felt as if gravity was dragging us downhill, faster.

The moment our return flight landed in Washington two days later, we learned of the avalanche.

Our hearts stopped. We paused, thanked the gods, and then the prayer wheels.