From Thorong Phedi Base Camp to Pokhara in 36 hours
What to do when you have to return from the Annapurna Circuit Trail because of altitude sickness.
This ended up being a very long blogpost. But then it also was a very interesting 36 hours, full of unexpected twists and turns! I don’t think it is possible to go from Thorong Phedi Base Camp to Pokhara any faster, and given all the hiccups we encountered, I’m sure we set some kind of speed record!
Monday December tenth 2018. 8u00. Thorong Phedi Base Camp, 4450m, Annapurna Circuit, Nepal.
When we got back down to Thorong Phedi Base camp, I didn’t instantly feel better. Although we had just descended 350 meters. But it must be said that I didn’t feel good starting the ascend to Thorong La Pass either. Minus stubbornness, anticipation and plus some extra exhaustion, I felt way worse than when we started hiking almost 3 hours earlier.
Because they only lit the fires in the evening, I got some feeling back in my feet by putting my sleeping bag over my legs together with a water bottle filled with some boiled water. That still left me with the other symptoms, a splitting headage, nausea and being incredibly feeble and out of breath.
We had several options here.
Option 1: Stay another night at Base Camp and cross the pass the day after.
Option 2: Rest for a while, try to walk up to High Camp at 4900 meters, sleep there and cross the pass the day after.
Option 3: Stay another night at Base Camp, sleep the next night at High Camp and cross the pass on the third day.
Option 4: Don’t cross the pass and descend on the same side of the Circuit trail.
Now our travel schedule didn’t really allow us to stay a few extra days at the top of the trail. And also, was it really worth it to be sick for a few more days, just to stand 900 meters higher? We already had the best possible views and experiences. So, we decided (ok, Koen decided, I was still having flares of stubbornness) to go back down. It would be best to go all the way to Manang, from where it would be possible to take the jeep down to the foot of the trail and from there the bus back to Pokhara.
Giving my state of extreme nausea (and it still being dark outside), I wasn’t quite ready yet to buckle my heavy backpack and happily walk the 11 kilometres back down to Manang. At this point Koen, not being familiar with dealing with altitude sickness, was desperate for some advice. Now this proved to be our second struggle of the day. At that point, Base Camp was being guarded by two younger Nepalese men, who had a bit of a ‘hands-off’ mentality since they didn’t speak a word of English and the boss was not home. Thus, he decided to try and reach someone else. Our Nepalese travel agency, our family doctor, our parents, our insurance company, all seemed like good options. The problem was, this high in the Himalaya, there is obviously no cell phone connection. But since Thorong Phedi Base Camp displays the option of a satellite phone, we shouldn’t worry right? Well apparently, the battery of this phone was empty and sadly the only charger was completely broken. Koen even tried to personate a screwdriver to fix the thing himself, but was lost in translation. The only option that remained was through the internet. The day before we had noticed that the communal space had a fairy good connection. Unfortunately, we ran into one more problem there. In a way we can’t quite explain, we had to wait for the sunshine to touch the building. The internet would literally freeze (like literally) through lack of warmth. In the end, an increasingly nervous Koen waited for the sun to creep to the building. We ended up waiting until a bit before 10 o’clock.
Since it was not even 5 o’clock in the morning in our home country, there were struggles to reach the right people. This is when karma saved the day! No seriously, Karma was the boss of the Thorong Phedi Base Camp buildings. He had just returned from Thorong La Pass on his horse. This appeared to be an option as well, to let him bring you to right before the pass on his horse, if you’re too sick and weak to walk, but not so sick you have to return. The girl he brought over had been lingering around Base and High Camp for 2 days. By just looking at me, he could tell Koen that it was indeed better to go further down. The sooner the better. He could help out with his horse, either 6 kilometres back to Yak Kharka or 11 to Manang. From there we could choose to resume the trail further down or up again on our own the day after. On account of our travel schedule, having our trail-expectations already fully met and our dedication of having fun, we asked his help to escort us to Manang that day.
Monday December tenth 2018. 10u00. Thorong Phedi Base Camp, 4450m, Annapurna Circuit, Nepal.
After all was decided, everything went super-fast. Karma put me on his horse without ado, buckled on my backpack and started walking. Not often does an animal impress me, but boy this horse was a badass. I was told only to hold myself on the saddle, on hand in front and one hand in the back. Because obviously the horse knew the way and was very smart in listening to Karma’s sounds in when to wait and when to go. Oh, and there weren’t any stirrups. Being not much of a horse-girl, it took some time getting used to navigate this way of travelling.
The first part back down was on a very narrow path on a steep slope full of loose rock. It was also general Himalayas courtesy that animals would pass on outer edges of paths and humans on the inner edges. On top of that I was still nauseous. So here I was, sitting on a horse higher above the ground that I would like, with no real means of holding myself, on the absolute outer edge of a very steep mountain slope with loose rocks rattling under this horses’ hooves, going downhill. I don’t have to tell you how steep up and down on rock slopes the trail can go. But this horse did it all with me extravagantly leaning forward when going up and backwards when going down. In the meantime, Karma was walking peacefully behind us while talking to Koen, who found himself walking a lot faster than he was used to. In the dust of the horse.
After 7 or 8 kilometres, we stopped for lunch. It was then that I noticed my stomach being enough at ease again to actually feel hunger. So, I ate. A big filling meal. Finally, I felt normal again. I felt good. My mind was clear and I wasn’t feeling so empty anymore. During this meal, Karma casually called to his wife in Manang, saying he was coming home tonight. And that he was bringing guests. We did try to reason with Karma, about being capable of finding a guesthouse, but he didn’t want to hear it. Nepalese hospitality, the very best.
Around 4 o’clock in the afternoon we arrived in Manang. Karma let the horse free to wander around the village as he pleased. He knew this place. Karma’s home was built above a small stable, toilet and a very small courtyard. We entered the living floor with a small wooden ladder. There were 2 small rooms. One room had a small dresser and a bed. On its walls and on the ceiling hung layers of colourful carpets and sheets. The other room was built around a central cooking stove on the floor. Above the fire, on the ceiling, hung a grating, on which thin straps of meat were drying. Lastly, to room included 2 narrow matrasses for their sons, when they were home from boarding school.
I had never entered such a humble home before. No heating, no running water, tiny. Thin wooden walls, minimal furniture. Still, during the time of our stay, they never gave me the impression of needing anything more. These people were perfectly content with their way of living. And we were their guests! Without hesitation they let 2 complete strangers, of another ethnicity even, into their home. I can’t imagine that that would happen in our homeland. Never in my life have I met such sweet, hospitable people.
While we enjoyed some tea around the fire, 2 hours of cooking took place. Another aspect of Nepalese culture that was so different from our own. So many hours of cooking from scratch, every morning and every evening. In our hectic way of living, there just isn’t time for that anymore. We ate the best Dal Bhat that evening.
Tuesday December eleventh 2018. 7u00. Manang, 3500m, Annapurna Circuit, Nepal.
The next morning, we woke up early, to find freshly cooked breakfast already waiting for us. Delicious fresh chapati with honey and hot tea. After saying goodbye and as many thankful phrases we could think of, we hurried towards the front of the village, where all the jeeps were parked.
Plan was to be there early enough for the first jeep owners to show up and buy a ride to Besisahar, the lowest mountain village. And we were not alone. A German couple was already waiting there. Not much later another German arrived. A travel photographer and his personal Nepalese Guide. As Karma saved the day before, these people saved this day. It was one of these moments where you were just on the same level. Being in such weird circumstances made it also very easy to talk and have fun. If they should ever read this: Thank you for being the best travel companionship we could have wished for in that moment!
Around nine o’clock, the Nepalese jeep drivers finally decided to show up. Some negotiations later, we decided upon a jeep. And then we had to wait another 30 minutes before the engine was heated up enough to start the car. What followed next, was the strangest car ride in our lives. Our driver was a very worked up person, to describe him politely. We were not sure with how many wrong legs he had come out of his bed this morning. More than physically possible, that is for sure. The first 2 hours, he stopped the jeep every 15 minutes to throw hot water over the protesting car engine. All while conversing excessively loudly to the photographer’s guide.
Once the engine was convinced, we encountered another problem. The old circuit walking path was being converted into a jeep road over the recent years. It was a very work intensive project that progressed slowly. Since that morning we had heard rumours that it was very much possible that we shouldn’t be able to continue the road at some point because of the road works. Looking at what lied now directly in front of the jeep, meant that we encountered problems much sooner than expected.
The road ahead of us was filled with roadworkers and lots and lots of big rocks. Our driver, now being angry with passion, left the car and started shouting to the roadworkers. All while starting to clear the big rocks of the road himself. It took the roadworkers a few minutes before they realized that the sooner they helped him, the sooner he would stop shouting at them. After 15 minutes of rock throwing, the road was clear enough to pass with the jeep.
A couple hours later we faced the real end of the road. Here the roadwork was of such a calibre that no traffic could pass in any way. This was also the moment we realised that the photographers’ personal guide had made arrangements so that another jeep was waiting for us on the other side of the village. Without extra charge! It proves to be extremely helpful to have a Nepalese person speaking on your behalf. We had feared that we might have to sleep in this village and buy another jeep ride the next morning! But none of that! We followed the guide through the village and into the other jeep. The whole switch only took us 15 minutes!
Now straight to Besisahar right? Well basically. Just a tiny delay with the police force. There must have been a problem with the driver, because he wasn’t allowed to drive us any further. After some loud minutes of discussion, another guy climbed out of the jeep’s open truck (which had gradually filled up with random people waiting alongside the road) and took his place behind the wheel. Apparently, he was allowed to drive.
Somewhere between 18 and 19 o’clock, we did arrive in Besisahar, fully prepared to spend the night there and travel to Pokhara the next day. The photographer’s guide however, had no desire for that. We happily trailed along while he made phone calls and not much later, let us straight to the very last bus of the day. Direction Pokhara, departure: once we were boarded.
Tuesday December eleventh 2018. 21u00. Pokhara, 800m, Nepal.
If the last 2 days didn’t wreck us, this last bus ride certainly did. Whoever took a public bus in Nepal before will certainly understand. But most of all, we were extremely tired and very, very dirty. Straight to a hotel it was. And how much I admire the people of Nepal and their way of living, I can’t describe how relieving it felt to see a western bathroom once again. I had two hot showers in a row. Hello comfort zone. But the best ending, was the restaurant meal we shared with our German travel friends that evening.
Because we arrived in Pokhara that evening already, we now had 3 more days to spend around this area of Nepal. We couldn’t wait to get the most out of it. But first things first. Sleeping 12 hours straight in a fluffy bed, with fluffy blankets, without the need of thermal underwear and a sleeping bag.
The thing with altitude sickness is, you feel bad, but you don’t know how bad until you are at an altitude again where you feel good. I suspect because, at least for me, it had crept on me very gradually over the course of the days. Until your mind is so clouded that you literally can’t think straight for yourself anymore. Let alone make any accurate assumptions about separating the effects of height from those of tiredness, the cold or calorie deprivation.
So, when a Nepalese mountain guide tells you to go down, or even a worried friend. You listen. I know it sucks, not being able to ascend and put the cherry on top of your hike. But here is the truth, for one, your judgement probably can’t be trusted. And second, you didn’t just come all the way to Nepal for those 5 minutes at the top of the trail, didn’t you? At least I hope you didn’t, for all those views of the Himalaya, meeting the people, experiencing the atmosphere of the little villages, the culture shock, the feeling of being so little, the smells and the colours, are the real Annapurna trail. It can’t get any better than that.
And if it should make you any better, you are never alone in having to return on the same side of the circuit trail. We had been seeing groups return, all hike long. And there are a lot of people who take their sweet time, like multiple days, trying to get over the pass because of altitude sickness!
I want to take this opportunity to give a big shout out to my husband Koen. Not even for a second did he complain that he couldn’t cross the pass. Although I know he very much wanted to. Instead he tried to get me down as soon as possible and ultimately, we made the best of the whole situation. I hope, should you ever be in my shoes, you will have an equally sweet hiking companionship.
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