November 19th, 2017
We woke early and had a quick breakfast before leaving Manang. Seeing as our group of five slimmed down to three, Seve and Noah leaving for a side trek, and that the next few days would be very high altitude, we each wore an air of caution over us. No symptom of Acute Mountain Sickness, no pain, not even a small ache should be ignored at high altitude. We would be going from 11,600 feet up to 17,800 and we would only walking way from accessible roads which end in Manang.
After presenting our trekking documents at the checkpoint, we began the hike up through ancient Nepali villages. The sun was shining and the winds weren’t blowing too hard as we made our way up switchbacks away from Annapurna III. We hiked slower than usual to compensate for the thinner air, and were sure to drink water consistently. The vegetation around us became more and more scarce as we went up. There weren’t many trees anymore and far fewer bushes compared to Manang. Vultures and an eagle were our lone skyward companions the first hour of the hike up – no more birds of the lower forest. We ended up on a plateau after a steady climb where a couple Annapurna peaks and Tilicho rose over us, allowing a closer look at the fantastic formations of snow and ice atop their peaks. We stopped for a cup of ginger lemon tea at a teahouse whose porch overlooked the great mountains. I wanted to ask the lady who owned the teashop if she ever grew tired of the view, but her deep smile rendered that question unnecessary.
A suspension bridge over a river awaited us as the plateau rose into hills again. Throughout the trek we had crossed dozens of suspension bridges and besides losing their novelty, the effort to cross the bridges began to get wear on us as well. While their existence is necessary and there’s no great substitution, crossing a bouncy bridge with a thirty pound pack takes a toll on the legs, especially when there is an incline near the end. It almost feels like you’re walking uphill in sand. As we continued past the bridge, the winds began to blow harder and harder as the valley narrowed and wind gusts followed the same path as us. While hiking through a cold air was comfortable, getting pummeled by its winds was the exact opposite.
We stopped for lunch in Yak Karka at around 13,200 feet to find shelter from the winds. I ordered a local rice and yak dish with potatoes and chili. Right after ordering, a strong wind gust blew the restaurant sign away as plastic chairs and small sticks took to the air. We looked at eachother in question – did we want to continue the day’s hike? The plan was to hike an hour further to Ledar, spend the night, and then leave to Thorang Phedi where we would spend the following night before ascending Thorang La. If we stayed in Yak Karka, we would only have an extra hour to hike the following day, and it was only a few hours to Thorang Phedi anyhow. After a quick discussion and continued storm gusts we decided it was best to stay in Yak Karka for the night.
The winds continued to howl as other trekkers, who planned on reaching Ledar or Thorang Phedi that day, decided to stop in Yak Karka as well. The winds never blew too hard before noon so it made sense to stop for the night and hike early the following day before the winds picked up again. Yak Karka was as beautiful as any other village but in a far more rugged sense. Its dirty stone houses and dry treeless hills showed Yak Karka had weathered thousands of windstorms and was prepared for thousands more. Not too many living things could sustain those gusts at such an altitude, but the stocky yaks and wind crusted Nepali faces were as resilient as the windswept hills.
Dark clouds moved above us as the sun began to fall. A couple dozen trekkers sat in the dining hall besides the wood stove but hardly a word was spoken. We were tired, cold, and anxious for the next couple days of high altitude hiking. We had tested our bones and our backs to get this far, but the real test was just beginning and our collective silence showed our nerves. 17,800 feet is, to anybody besides an alpine mountain climber, about as high as a person could go in their lifetime. It was clear by the looks in our faces that nobody in that room was a mountain climber. Everybody tamed their nerves in different ways. A few groups played card games but most people tried to silence their minds in solitary ways – reading, writing, or listening to music; alone with their thoughts.
Why the hell were each of us in Nepal, thousands of dollars down the drain, all so we could be cold, tired, and sore 13,200 feet above some beach where we could relax? My answer to that question is easy. There is no better meditation on life than to spend hours walking on a path literally thousands of feet above guaranteed death; no feeling more liberating than to be somewhere between the earth and the sky where nothing makes logical sense but everything feels just right; and no greater beauty than the pink morning sun shedding first light on the world’s largest mountains. Here we washed our own clothes, carried our own weight, and fixed up our blistered feet to continue walking, searching, or drifting the next day. We were creating our own definition of what it means to be human or relishing in the idea that it means nothing at all. And beyond our tired eyes, dirty clothes, rotten smelling feet, aching shoulders, and matted hair, we remained sure that we were just where we wanted to be.