April 4th – Thorong La Pass
My Garmin watch alarm went off at 3:30am and I was surprised I actually slept. Erin and I went to bed around 8:30pm, but sleep was light as it felt like the kind of sleep I get before a big race…which is very little and usually full of multiple awakenings terrified I missed the alarm. I was awake though, filled with energy and excitement (thankful considering my state the day before… haha).
It was so cold, but I have this routine now where as soon as the alarm goes off I throw my clothes for the day in my sleeping bag in attempt to warm them up. (Erin and I are very good about prepping for the next day of hiking, so our clothes are always laid out by our beds before we go to sleep).
I had all the layers for this morning’s hike, including my massive 850 fill Mountain Hardware puffy that honestly makes it look like I weigh about 300lbs, but it really is the best thing ever, especially in this weather. I am pretty sure it was negative 20 degrees outside (I might be exaggerating a little, however it was cold enough to freeze Erin’s entire camelback).
We got dressed and Erin and I laughed because everything we do leaves us out of breath, even tying our boots. Life at 15,000 ft will do that, and Erin and I can’t remember what it feels like to not need a least 5 minutes to recover after walking outside to the bathroom and back to the room.
Kumar and Sujan knocked on the door at 4:00am and we are packed up and ready to go. I stepped outside and the stars were surreal. I stood there looking up in awe and saw two shooting stars wisp across the sky. The mountains stood silent yet massive and powerful in the stillness of the early morning. Am I really here? In the middle of Nepal in the middle of the Himalayas? Gratitude seems too small of a word to convey the deep sense of appreciation, thankfulness and humbleness I felt.
Layered up and headlamps on, we set out after breakfast for the pass. The hustle at High Camp was starting to simmer as many already were en route. We hit the trail a little later than the others (5:00am as opposed to 4:30am). I think Kumar did this intentionally. He knew that we tend to move fast, and if we got to the pass too early, we would freeze waiting for the sun to come up.
I love hiking at night (or early morning in this case). I went on a few night hikes with my friends Cassie and Scarlett leading up to the trip, and there is something about not seeing what’s ahead and the quiet crispness of the air that is invigorating to me. This experience was even better. Everyone had their headlamps on, and looking ahead I could see little lights of the hikers speckled up on the hill.
We started on the trail and almost immediately there was a bottleneck. This hasn’t happened too often on this trek, but anytime there is someone ahead of me on the trail, I can’t help but pick up my pace and move quickly past them. This was a little different because there was a long steady line of hikers going much slower than I am accustomed too. These types of bottlenecks also make me very anxious. I tried to just settle in and be patient, but I was quickly becoming cold and decided to move past them, boot packing my own path around. I was a little concerned doing this, because I knew it would separate me from Erin and Kumar. Typically, if I pull ahead of them on the trails, I always wait at the top of the hill or the stretch, or wander around for a bit. I knew I wouldn’t be able to wait in this case, so it was a little risky. I decided to move ahead and trusted that it would work out okay.
After pulling ahead of the two main packs, I felt relieved to not have anyone immediately in front of me. I saw two headlights further up the trail and I figured it was likely Sebastian and Thomas. They got a head start on the trail and they were keeping a good pace.
After about 15 minutes, I realized I was likely going to be by myself pushing towards the pass for the duration of the hike (roughly 2 hours). I really enjoy hiking solo, and I have enjoyed several hours of quiet time hiking on this trek, but this was different. I have not hiked at this elevation, and I was really feeling it. Every step became more challenging and it was an interesting mental battle trying to decide if I was really fatigued, if this was the elevation, or if this was just a good challenge and I needed to keep pushing through. My default is to keep pushing, but I also knew in this case it might not be wise because of the elevation. My eyes started throbbing and my eyelids were literally pulsing, which at that point, I knew wasn’t normal. I slowed down, and tried not to get frustrated with myself. I know it wasn’t a race. I know there was not a prize for getting to the pass the fastest, but my brain is a little bit of a slave driver sometimes, so it was hard to be okay with slowing down. When the air seemed to be thinning and I started feeling discouraged, I felt like God would say “HEY! Look around! Get out of your head for a minute. Isn’t this amazing?! I wanted you to see this… so please, stop for a moment and soak it in. This is why I brought you here.” So I did. Those were cherished moments when I would stop, take a few pictures, and thank God for the air in my lungs and the strength in my legs. I don’t have the right words to adequately describe the view that surrounded me.
I found myself tapping into some mantras, some positive self-talk jingles I made up, and random songs of course. The play list in my head is rather eclectic and in moments like these I am thankful for my ADD to keep things fresh and motivating. I needed it, because 1000 meters of elevation gain at 16,000 feet was harder than I anticipated.
The higher I climbed, the more challenging it was and the more isolated I started to feel. I was gaining a little ground on the Germans, but I knew I wouldn’t catch them before sunrise. I passed Sam from Amsterdam as we neared the top, and he too was feeling a little tired. The trail is marked by these large bamboo sticks that shoot out from the snow every 100 meters or so. Sam said “I think the pass is just past that pole up there!” I responded, “Really? Fantastic! I was hoping so!”
But it wasn’t. There were about 5 more sticks beyond that stick… and with each one we hoped that would be the last. I stopped at the top of a hill and let Sam and the French hiker gal move past me while I tried to catch my breath for a minute. I knew we were close, so I just wanted to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
It was about another 10 minutes, and then I heard a loud cheer from ahead. I could see the back of French gal and Sam and they started running (or trotting… or whatever you do at 18,000 feet when you are exhausted). I can’t even describe the feeling and the hope and relief that shot through my body. I immediately picked up my pace and pushed ahead. As I came up to the top of the hill, Sabastian, Thomas, Sam from Amsterdam and the French Gal were all celebrating and cheering. They had just arrived moments before and as I came up they ran over to me and we all high-fived and hugged and cheered.
We snapped all the photos, and then Sam took our order because there was a man in a shack at the summit selling hot drinks for us. “You’re American right? You want the big coffee then, don’t you.” Boy was he ever right.
We celebrated and took photos and huddled together in the shack with our hot drinks. We were all freezing, and even in my giant puffy I started to get cold, but we were not ready to leave just yet. We were sharing stories of our experiences and relishing in the moment. Not too long after, I saw Kumar peak in the hut and I rushed out to give Erin a huge hug and celebrate with her. We hugged and laughed and took alllll the awkward photos. (Not that it matters, and it’s not a competition, but we were among the first 6 people to cross that pass that morning 😉)
Shortly after, Sujan came up to the top of the hill followed by the sweet French couple and we celebrated with them as well.
It was such a special moment. All these people from all over the world, all in different places in their lives, accomplishing something together and celebrating.
Erin, Kumar and I lead the descent down the other side of the pass. It was steep and hard not to run…or fall. I think something that is missed when reading the details about the circuit (or maybe I just missed), is the steep decent coming off the top of the pass. From High Camp to the Pass, we climbed approximately 900 meters (about 2,900 feet). On our decent, we went from 5450 meters to 3760 meters. That’s 1,690 meters of elevation loss – or roughly 5,577 feet. I have never been so thankful for healthy knees and strong legs!
In all honesty, I underestimated the challenge of crossing the pass. I did not think it would be so physically and mentally tough. I am thankful for the challenge though and how it humbled me – it truly was one of the best experiences of my life.
After a 16 mile day of crazy climbs and steep descents, we arrived to the town of Muktinath feeling tired but accomplished and content.
Later that day, we saw Sam and the French girl (they just met on this trek), planning out their next few weeks. We bumped into Sabastian and Thomas and talked about where they were headed next. The sweet French couple actually stayed in the room next to us at the next tea house. I am not sure if our paths will ever cross again, but I love our little community that we formed and the experience we shared. This is what life is about.