Monday, October 20, 2014

The deadliest trek

If you like long country walks, this is the ultimate. 

The Annapurna Circuit in Nepal has always been called the world’s greatest trek. Last week a massive snowstorm wiped out the route and hundreds of trekkers had to be rescued, many with frostbite so severe they’ve had limbs amputated. More than 39 people have died, and bodies are still being recovered from the 18,000 feet high Thorung La pass. It’s a terrible tragedy, and particularly for Nepal, an impoverished country that relies on tourism. 

I actually know this mountain pass. That’s because one of my few claims to any form of athletic achievement in life was when I became one of the first members of the public to walk the entire Annapurna Circuit without an official guide. It sounds very unlike me, I know, but then, I was young and in love.

It was back in the 1970s, on my year-long trip around India and Nepal, when my girlfriend and I found ourselves with a month to spare in Pokhara. The lower reaches of this trek had been popular for years – you could even take a flight on a rickety plane into Jomson, the largest village, where there were teashops and hotels, and a permanent smell of marijuana from hundreds of hippy travellers. But up above, beyond the temples of Muktinath, was the fearsome Thorung La, off limits to foreigners because of its inaccessibility and bandits. Finally, in the late 1970s, the Nepalese army sorted out the guerillas and the pass was opened. 

At first there were only official treks, organised by tour companies for rich international tourists. They travelled in large groups, with bell tents, blowup beds, tables, cooks and kitchens, carried by trains of mules up the steep, winding, dusty tracks. Sometimes the poor mules had to carry the tourists up the paths too. But then they relaxed the rules and we decided to do the three-week trek on our own. 

We had a two-person tent from Blacks and a few basic provisions, including catering packs of Batchelors dried beef stroganoff that we’d brought in our campervan all the way from England. And we had Bim. 

Bim was a small, cheerful Sherpa. At least he was cheerful at first. We’d hired him to show us the way and maybe help us with finding food. Except there wasn’t any. Because the official treks brought their own provisions, there were no cafés, shops or guest houses, roadside stalls or souvenir vendors. After the last remnant of civilisation, a village called Dharapani, set in a stunning valley gorge, we had to make do with what we could scrounge from locals. Once an old woman sold us two tiny eggs from her spindly chickens and we hugged her in gratitude. 

After days of sweating up the boiling hot valley, across swaying rope bridges high above ravines, and scrambling up mountain paths, the trail got steeper, the air colder, and I strapped my girlfriend’s rucksack on top of my own. One night Bim persuaded a Tibetan family in a little mountain hut to share their meal and yak blankets. We drank Tibetan tea, made with rancid yak butter. It was utterly disgusting. 

Most nights we lived on beef stroganoff. However a Sherpa’s stomach isn’t used to this kind of Western culinary sophistication. Camping for the obligatory two nights at 14,000 feet to enable our bodies to acclimatize to the altitude, Bim started to turn green. 

As we set off before dawn for the pass, the poor chap, by now suffering acute altitude sickness, was in no position to carry anything, so I added his rucksack to my pile and we stumbled up 3,000 snow-covered feet into the most amazing dawn. 

The view is, literally, breathtaking – that is, it forces your lungs to gasp in surprise, like at the top of a very scary rollercoaster. There were snowcovered mountains everywhere, wrapped in cloud. Then, above the clouds, were soaring peaks – Annapurna 2 and Dhaulagiri, gleaming in the sunshine. I have never seen anything as beautiful. But suddenly the clouds started to descend towards us. Alarmed, Bim sharply ordered us down the steep mountainside through mist and snow to Muktinath and safety. Yes, this trek is certainly beautiful, but, even then, it could be deadly. 

It's extraordinary that it's taken 25 years and an appalling tragedy that's killed so many, for Nepal to finally decide to introduce the most basic safety rules for their trekking tourists.  Today, the government announced restrictions so that tourists must travel with official guides when traversing the Thorung La route.  Let's hope they don't feed them beef stroganoff.

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