October 19th, 2014
I’ve been reading accounts of the freak blizzard and avalanche at the Thorong La (Pass) on the Annapurna Circuit a few days ago and feeling deep sadness for those who perished sotragically. It also reminded me of my own crossing of Thorong La on October 17, 1984, exactly thirty years ago.
Looking at my photo album of the Annapurna circuit trek brought back numerous memories. Our group – three trekkers, a guide and a porter – reached Manang, the point of departure for crossing the pass from east to west. It turned rainy in Manang, so we spent an extra day waiting for the skies to clear. The town was over-crowded with several hundred other trekkers also waiting. The weather improved and we made it to Thorong High Camp, where we spent a very cold night preparing to cross. We were up before dawn, walking step by step in the thin cold air.
We reached the pass fairly early in the morning, as evidenced by pictures of me in a parka, woolen hat, and heavy gloves at the two cairns that marked the pass. Beside the second picture I had written “made it, but cold!” I have pictures of our first views of the breathtaking Dhaulagiri Range on the other side of the pass. The sky was deep blue, with a cloud floating off in the distance, the mountains visible both above and below it.
The trail down from the pass was steep and dusty. It took several hours to get to Muktinath, the first town on the other side, and I remember my calves burning. The air, however, became warmer and easier to breathe. I have no pictures of this part of the trek, the exertion requiring my full attention. Not surprisingly, it was here where the trekkers perished last week; this trail would have been impassible when covered in several feet of snow.
In Muktinah we visited an ancient temple sacred to Hindus and Buddhists. I woke early and took a photography of Dhaulagiri I, the highest peak in that range, gleaming in the sun above a line of shadowed hills, as the valley below was still in darkness. This photo in blue, black, and white is, I believe, the best I ever took. When we left Muktinath, I took a photo looking back at Thorong La, showing the mountains on both sides of the pass, and the steepness of the descent from the pass itself into Muktinath.
In the mid 1980s Nepal was much more isolated than today. There were no lines of communication with the outside world except at Manang, on the east side of the pass, and Jomson, a four hour walk down the Khali Gandaki valley from Muktinath. At that time, the loss of life from an avalanche and blizzard on the Thorong La would have been much worse than today.
Trekking the Annapurna Circuit trek was a wonderful experience for me, with dramatic vistas, moments of connection with and understanding of civilizations entirely different than my own, and the intrinsic reward of three weeks of arduous walking. A decade later, I did the Everest Base Camp trek, and found it equally rewarding.
My heart goes out for the families of those who perished due to a freak misfortune. Nothing in life is riskless, but the risks of the Annapurna Circuit trek are not great. The world is sometimes inexplicable, cruel, and unjust.