The Thorong La Pass, the highest point on the Annapurna Circuit at 5,416 metres: expectations were literally high. Beginning in blackness, we had left behind the teahouse where we’d snatched a few hours sleep, while our porters stayed up playing cards. This simple wooden dwelling was buzzing with a shared goal: to make the pass. It was 3am, several hours before the sunrise. Trekking in darkness has a surreal beauty to it.
My fellow trekker Caroline, who’d done Kilimanjaro some years before, promised me I’d love the thin line of head torches trailing across the mountainside like strange fairy lights. Through the blackness we made our way slowly and surely upwards at a steady pace, eyes flickering between the diminishing sparks of head torches bobbing below and the diamond-studded firmament above. It was hard. My kidneys ached dully from altitude adjustment; I struggled to catch my breath in the thin air.
But there was something reassuring in the sturdy, unchanging pace our guides set. Passang moved with the steady stride of a man who has summited Mera Peak – Nepal’s highest trekking peak at nearly 6,500 metres – twelve times. Nothing fazed him. The only sounds were our own footfalls, our rasping breath and the melodic tinkle of horses’ bells, led by their owners in an attempt to seduce us away from the switchbacks and earn a wad of rupees.
They tried to tantalise us into giving in, getting a lift. None of our little band succumbed, but we did pass those who had, slumped and defeated as they swayed atop the animals.
I didn’t notice the sun beginning to rise until our lead guide, Dawa, leaned over and turned off my head torch with a smile. “Drink.” he instructed firmly. I peered into the grey half-light and saw a perfect jagged crown of dagger-like mountains, tinged pink in the predawn glow. It registered faintly that this was the most beautiful place I’d ever stopped for a breather. As the sun climbed so did we, cursing each false summit as we crested it.
The ache in my legs had muscled its way in early, settling in for the long haul, drilling down to my bones and eventually dimming down to a constant background noise I almost forgot to notice. Distractions were easy to find: luminous golden snow set afire by the sun settling on the highest peaks, and the simple, unadulterated joy of realising my Snickers had warmed up enough for me to eat.
Setting off in below zero temperatures had reduced it to a frozen finger of disappointment. Dawa lightly touched my shoulder. “That’s it, up there.” He pointed. I could just make out a slight dip between two raggedy outcrops. Knowing it would be deceptively far off, I simply nodded stoically. It was the prayer flags which indicated that I’d made it.
This unmistakable rainbow, rippling in the wind, was a colourful dawn chorus as I managed the last few metres to the short plateau. The slapping sound of the flags seemed to be applauding my arrival as I trudged those final, triumphant steps.
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