The Annapurna Diaries: The Best Skies ever & the very cool lodge of Thorung Phedi

Contd. from The Annapurna III summit by Lt. Cdr. M S Kohli and The Kristiansens.

When you are in the mountains, there are moments when the blood doesn’t stop rushing through the body, and the emptiness of the insides is overwhelming. These generally occur together and with the stark surroundings in which you find yourself, they only get amplified. It’s only then you realise that the body is gearing up for the task at hand and steeling itself against expectations set by the mind, and the environment it finds itself in. You feel the rush and then you just want to go and not stop till you finish what you actually set out to do in the first place. For me these moments surfaced the morning when I resumed the journey towards Thorung Phedi, the launch pad for Thorung La, the highest point in the itinerary. And it didn’t stop till we had descended to the hindu pilgrimage town of Muktinath the next evening. It was one continuous surge of adrenalin.

By Day 8, we were on high ground and going even higher. No longer could I see flat plains and expansive valleys. It was just rocky terrain over multiple mountain tops all around us. Faces which were covered in thorny green shrubs and grazing patches. These were the highlands we were walking through. The highlanders had let their yaks loose and they lazily ambled along, chewing and munching the greens around them. Some of them had also decided to rest and take in the cold mountain air. They seemed oblivious to the humans who walked through their lair. They couldn’t care less.

The expansive landscape of Manang

The expansive landscape of Manang

A walk into the highlands and the grazing pastures

A walk into the highlands and the grazing pastures

The numerous teams with whom we had shared trail over the last few days had also thinned out. The Germans would walk west towards Lake Tilicho from Manang. The Kristiansens were not to be seen. The Brits were conspicuous by their absence too. The methodical French however had marched on and we kept overlapping them as we continued our push. Ever since I had seen them at Lower Pisang, they had continued walking in a single file maintaining a steady pace led by their phlegm spitting guide. The boys from Sweden were strong, keeping a rapid pace ahead of us. Their attitude and approach was infectious to say the least.

Within the first 30 minutes of the morning we had reached a big mani wall which was decorated with prayer flags and the Buddhist incantation of Om Mani Padme Hum. Local beliefs centred around the fact that as the flags fluttered, the wind god would carry the incantations high above creating safe passage for every traveller. This was some sort of reassurance and comfort for those who climbed these mountainous terrains. But I wondered aloud, if things had to go wrong they would. That old adage flashed through for that brief second. I wondered if Murphy could be kept at bay with these holy writings? In any case, we had to remain positive and avoid any amount of negativity which would prove harmful.

Our first view point of the day was at Ghyanchang. It was 9.30 am. The ice gods loomed high and gigantic behind us. Annapurna III, Gangapurna and now another peak Glacier Dome (7069 mtrs/ 23186 ft). It was a panorama alright and I documented it audio visually. We left the swedes behind us who continued chatting and walked on. As per the map we would soon reach Yak Kharka (4050 mtrs/ 13284 ft), another high altitude settlement. This was the point which some guides had recommended we stop at to acclimatise further before we headed to Thorung Phedi (4450 mtrs/ 14596 ft). But we didn’t see the need to do so and the point to reach was Phedi. We were due to ascend 910 mtrs/ 2985 ft in the 5.5 hours of scheduled walking from Manang.

The sound of my breathing resonated within even as I looked to generate and build rhythm as I walked. I glanced up. And continued looking. I couldn’t stop. The skies were the bluest I had ever seen. This deep shade covered the entire horizon. And within this blue canvas were streaks of white from one end to another. It was as if an artist had delicately used his brush and in one flourish, one stroke, one mad moment of magic had left his mark. I slowed down to admire the skies and eventually ground to a dead halt. All around me was the brilliant palette of deep blue and white. I couldn’t help but click away.

Deep blue & white pallette

Deep blue & white pallette

A wider expanse of the flourish

A wider expanse of the flourish

White sunrise

White sunrise

Surrounded by gorgeous skies

Surrounded by gorgeous skies

And majestic shapes

And majestic shapes

A Chorten

A Chorten

By the time I was done, I realised I was alone. There was no one in front and no one behind. I could hear silence all around. Nothing but complete silence. We had become so used to auditory invasions every waking minute of our lives, that to hear nothing was, well something extraordinary. The only other that I felt, was the beating of my heart. I stood still, closed my eyes and tried to focus inwards towards my core. Would I discover the all elusive inner peace? Is this how I would be one with the universe? Life’s images flashed through the screen which was the mind in rapid succession. I saw my mum smiling at me, whom I had lost the year before. She had loved and always encouraged my adventurous streak. I felt closer to her now, more than ever. Dad, my brother, wife and son, my close friends amongst others. If someone were to have seen me then, they would have seen a figure, standing alone, with eyes closed and arms gently outstretched surrounded by mountains. Imagine a 360 degree camera pan with long shots and close ups combined. When I opened my eyes again, nothing had changed. I didn’t feel any different. The questions still remained. The answers stayed elusive. But in those minutes, I had felt transported into space. My world had gotten ever closer even though I was so far away from everyone.

I hurried on to Yak Kharka. This was a brief halt. We stopped to refresh ourselves with hot lemon but didn’t stop long enough for the body to cool down. The wind felt cold and the sweat within, made me shiver. It wasn’t a great feeling at all. I had to keep going. We would soon stop at a place called Ledar (4200 mtrs/ 13776 ft) for lunch which was another hours walk from where we were. We kept going.

Ledar

Ledar

The path ahead post lunch was a long one which after sometime snaked downwards towards one of those dangling suspension bridges. This one we crossed was mighty long, in excess of 150 steps. That it was Swiss made was interesting to know. After every descent, there’s an ascent you necessarily have to go through and I chugged along. The body having generated the internal heat once again post lunch made it easier to keep going. We were deep into high mountain territory now. The peaks had closed in from all directions together with the wind having gotten sharper too. The dark and grey clouds had moved in thick and fast and the rumblings had commenced. These weren’t great signs. Up and up we went.

The trail which would soon drop down to the bridge and then rise again

The trail which would soon drop down to the bridge and then rise again

Strategically positioned at the end of the ascent was a ramshackle of a tea hut. I liked the fact that there was always some thought behind the availability of necessities on trail. Varun and KB stopped for tea while I kept going. Lakhpa was ofcourse much ahead. “How much longer KB?”. “1.5 hours, Saheb. It’s at the end of this line. Up until the point you can’t see the path. That’s where Phedi is”. This could mean anything and everything I thought. How much longer was still the question! The trail didn’t seem that long, however.

The trail at the end of which is Thorung Phedi. Only I couldn't see the end.

The trail at the end of which is Thorung Phedi. Only I couldn’t see the end.

Somewhere down this path, I saw a wooden bridge deep down into the narrow valley floor in the gaping expanse on my right. It looked tiny. On my left, as I casually turned my gaze, was a ‘hill’. It stood at a strange 60 degree angle almost bending over in my direction. She was a gigantic mass of landslide. Loose chunks of rocks, rubble and slate covered the immediate exposed face. It was hypnotic and I couldn’t take my eyes of her. The more I stared, the more I felt drawn towards her, and imagined the entire face toppling over at me. Evil, I thought. And somewhere on the face was a crooked smile. “Deb, keep moving. Don’t stop. Not here. You are dead centre in a landslide prone zone.” That was Varun from behind asking me to show urgency. It took me some more time to gather my senses and move on. The sprint across its face was a long one. Varun and KB followed immediately after.

The valley floor on my right

The valley floor on my right

The extraordinary face which was bending over

The extraordinary face which was bending over

The first drops of cold rain welcomed us as we were 10 minutes away from the entrance of Phedi. We had made it to the lodge cover just in time. It was 3.30 in the afternoon. A Sunday. But the conditions were frightfully overcast, grey, windy and cold. The room was bare boned. Just two basic cots to sleep the few hours we would, prior to our push very early next morning. The proprietors didn’t expect anyone to take a shower. This was reflected in the wash area. It just had a pot for our morning ritual.

We knew as the evening overlapped into night the temperature would dip further. It was time to use our thermals. But unpacking the backpacks again was a task and we groaned in unison. And laughed as well since it seemed orchestrated. I left Varun to figure what he wanted to do and walked into the grey and wet outside towards the main dining area of the Phedi lodge.

Pushing the door ajar I stepped into the bright orange interiors. As the door creaked and shut behind me, I grinned wide and long. It was the folk singer-songwriter from Minnesota, Robert Allan Zimmerman! He was busy singing Like a Rolling Stone! What a welcome this was at 14596 ft! A Woodstock like setting in the Himalayas. All my tiredness vanished magically. The young proprietor at the counter had Bob Marley locks. In the midst of placing kitchen orders and keeping track of bills and payments, he kept changing tracks on his iPod. Every table was packed. Over mugs of coffee, apple pies, chocolate and cinnamon rolls, muffins an international all star cast kept themselves busy with playing cards, working on laptops, accessing and updating the social network and singing, humming and tapping away together. The setting was fabulous and unexpected. Colourful insides v/s an ominous outside. The contrast just couldn’t have been any better!

Kumar, the young proprietor-rock band lead singer and lead guitarist, Varun and I entertained the audience late into the evening with our collection of classic rock songs. We had turned rock DJs high in the Himalayas at 14596 ft and loved every minute of our new found profession.

Kumar

Kumar

To be contd.

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