Crossing the Thorung La (5417 metres)

 

 
 

 


As the two of us stumbled down the icy slope in near whiteout conditions, a forlorn hunched up figure appeared out of the mist. As we got closer I could see it was the slight figure of a Nepali porter sat in the snow. His load was loosely covered in a plastic sheet, which was blowing frantically in the strong wind and this seemed to be preventing him from getting up. We attempted to secure the plastic sheeting around the basket and helped him to his feet. I could see the fear in his eyes as he muttered some words of thanks but these were drowned out by the wind. It was then I noticed the rest of his attire. He was certainly not equipped for crossing a high Himalayan pass in such bad weather. He could hardly walk in the poor quality trainers he was wearing and as the two of us moved on we noticed he was no longer with us……..

It had long been an ambition of mine to go to the Himalayas but being involved in education for many years it was not possible to get holidays at a suitable time to go trekking there. It needed to be pre or post monsoon (Oct-Nov). Now I had taken early retirement that opportunity became available. Trip booked and paid for to go in mid October 2014 with KE Adventure on the famous Annapurna Circuit trek in northern Nepal, KE are based in Keswick, and I can thoroughly recommend them. I set off from Heathrow on Qatar Airlines via Dohar in Qatar to Kathmandu. (Seven hour and five hour flights respectively) Early next morning I met our guide Shami Sherpa and the other four members of the group from UK and we set off on the long drive on the Prithvi Highway. The group included a doctor, a dentist and a vet so all orifices seemed to be covered. This landslide-prone and heavily congested highway connects Kathmandu to Pokhara. On the outskirts of Kathmandu we picked up our four porters

            After five-hour drive with a break for tea we turned off north to Besi Shahar where we stopped for lunch and transfer to four-wheel drive vehicles. After another four hour drive up a rapidly deteriorating track, which we had to get out and repair several times we reached our first lodge for the night at Jagat. The following day involved an early start, up at first light and off walking by 7:45 am. It was a beautiful sunny day, 28 deg C and much to my surprise we were in shorts. We walked for about four hours until lunchtime at a teahouse past spectacular waterfalls in the Marsyangdi valley. Another two hours or so walk in the afternoon saw us reach our next base at Dharipandi (1860m). Leisurely evening meal and bed by 9:30 pm for an early start next morning.

            Inside the teahouse on the Thorung La

This pattern was repeated over the next nine days as we proceeded around the Circuit with ever improving views of the Annapurna Range and Manaslu (8163m). The scenery gradually changed from rain forest at the start up through deciduous woodland in autumn colours through to high alpine scenery above the tree line at about 4000 metres and eventually desert terrain on the edge of the Tibetan plateaux. The crux of the circuit is the crossing of the Thorung La at 5417 metres and it was important to get acclimatised for the ascent of this pass so we had a day off in the regional centre of Manang. Even so this was not really a day off as we had an acclimatisation morning walk up to a viewpoint near a glacier at 4000 metres.

By the time we reached Ledar for the night at 4,200 metres, nine days later it had got a lot colder and the sky had clouded over. The guides assured us that this was often the case in this area. The shorts had been put away and the hats, gloves and duvet jackets were out! Ate our tea fully clothed in a cold dining area followed by early night. Porridge for breakfast and woke early to superb sunrise over Annapurna III.

We continue our trek on the eastern side of the Jarsang Khola valley, with views back to Gangapurna (7454m). Beyond a bridge, a steep trail climbs across scree to the base of the pass at Thorung Phedi (4420m) by 10:30 so too early for lunch. To make the pass crossing easier tomorrow, we hiked up for a further hour and a half to the lodge at Thorung High Camp (4925m). This proved to be hard work up a series of steep zigzags and I felt quite light headed and knackered at the top. We settled into our rooms and had lunch. The dining room was especially busy with a lot of other trekkers. A large group of Israelis were made their presence felt. Some of the Israelis seemed unwell and asked us what they should do. They felt nauseous, dizzy and had no appetite. We told them to drink plenty of water and if they still felt ill to descend to the lower camp at Thorung Phedi. We also suggested they took some Diamox to reduce their symptoms of what was obviously Acute Mountain Sickness. They had no idea what we were talking about and seemed much unprepared for the altitude or the conditions. It then transpired that they had no guide and very few porters. Little did we know what was to become of them. (See press cutting).

After this we went for 100m climb up to viewpoint and the obligatory photos. By now the weather had deteriorated even more, clouds had rolled in over the tops had it had got even colder. None of the guides seemed bothered by this as they said it was quite often like this. By teatime the snow arrived, lightly at first but by mid-evening it was much heavier with a breeze. Little did we know but Cyclone Hudhud had arrived!

We left the crowded dining area and off to bed at just after eight for an early start at four am next morning. The early start is normal from here as it is important to get over top of the Thorung La by mid morning as the wind gets up. As a result of the bad weather but it was decided to start even earlier than normal. It would be up at just before 4 and off by 5 a.m. I had a poor night’s sleep and got out in the night for a pee twice and it was still snowing.

By about 3 a.m. I could not stand listening to my heart pounding away in my chest any longer and got up with the guide and porters for an early morning brew. By now the snow was 6 to 8 inches deep at the camp and it was snowing even heavier. It soon transpired that nobody else in our group had slept well either so I felt better already! Our doctor gave me half a Diamox tablet as I still felt rough and after a breakfast of porridge we set off in the dark in heavy snow just after 5 am, The next four hours passed slowly as we plodded up a series of zigzags through deepening snow with the head torches of other groups seen dimly through the mist below us. These faded away as we went higher into the storm and whiteout. After a while it proved hard for the guides to find the way in the poor visibility and we reached a point where there was considerable indecision by the guides. Fortunately a group of locals appeared with their ponies and seemed to know the way on and we pushed on in their tracks. At just after 7 a.m. we reached a teahouse, which we were told was about half way up. It was still snowing hard and the flakes were the size of ten pence pieces or bigger.

             After a quick brew stood in the snow from the teahouse we pressed on, the wind now started to pick up and the spindrift blew around mixed with the falling snow. I thought back to when I was packing my gear at home and threw out my goggles, thinking, “I won’t need those!” Oh well, too late now. We got slower the higher we climbed and after what seemed like hours the ground levelled out and the summit flags and tea shack loomed up out of the mist. We had reached the top of the pass at 5417 metres. It was just after nine and had taken us four hours, not bad in the conditions. It felt bitterly cold. I looked at my thermometer it was –9 deg Centigrade and with the wind child about equivalent to –35. Some of our party including myself managed to squeeze inside the small teahouse along with a number of other weary looking soles for a hot drink and some of us even found a seat. After a brew and a brief chat I managed to compose myself to take a couple of shots inside the building and a couple more of the summit flags and stupa as we left. Leaving proved difficult as a French party were trying to force their way in to the already over crowded teahouse. At this point I lost it and shouted at them to get out of the way using a well-known Anglo-Saxon phrase. Anyway this seemed to do the trick and we were all able to exit leaving the French in our wake!

   

                       The summit prayer flags                                                           Me at the top

             By now other groups had passed straight through and you could just about make out the route down. The path descends steeply down to the village of Muktinath (3700m). A descent of near 2000 metres and some 5 hours away. By now the wind was even stronger and brief gusts nearly took you off your feet. As we descended we came across several porters from other groups in difficulties, mainly because their loads were not covered properly and the plastic sheets covering it was acting like a sail. Some of us stopped to help secure several loads but you could not stop long as it was too cold and windy.

It was a bit later that I and another in our party came across the hunched up figure of the porter mentioned above. He was unable to walk and I guess he had frostbite. I still think about him and wonder if he made it. We pressed on and in the mist our party got split up as various people stopped off a pee. Most people male and female, just stopped at the side of the path in the snow, which by now was over 30 cm deep and it was still falling. It was too dangerous to wander far from the descent route which was along a ridge in the deep snow and steep slopes on either side. Further on I saw several people who had wandered off or slipped down a steep slope to the left struggling in very deep snow. The whole slope looked avalanche prone to me. After about four hours of continuous descent in poor conditions with very flat light due to the mist and my reactolight glasses a line of buildings appeared out of the mist. This proved to be Champarbuk, a welcome break and the wind had dropped with the snow only falling lightly. As I sat down inside the main teahouse with some of the rest of my group I realised how hungry I was. Foolishly I had left my chocolate bars in my rucksack rather than my pocket and they were frozen solid. After a warming mug of tea and some melted chocolate we set off for a further two hour descent to Muktinath via a suspension bridge with the weather improving all the way. Our lodge for the night was reached without further mishap. Slush in the streets showed that it was getting warmer.

            All our party eventually collected together safe and sound at the lodge for evening meal of yak steak and rice and attempted to dry gear, difficult as the electricity and heating was not working. It was then that we realised that many others were having difficulties on the pass. By dusk people could still be seen coming down the trail with head torches on and our guides had found that numerous porters from other groups had not made it into the village.

          Sunrise alpenglow over Dhaulagiri (8172m)

           As I went to bed I could see a few stragglers wandering into the village. I slept well that night and woke to a beautiful clear morning with a fantastic sunrise alpenglow over Dhaulagiri (8172m) the eighth highest mountain in the world. Over breakfast it soon became clear that a disaster was unfolding. Many trekkers and porters were missing and some already confirmed dead on the Thorung La. By early morning a few helicopters were seen heading up towards the pass. At first twenty or so were missing and the number gradually increased over the next day or so. It transpired that, after one of us managed to see the BBC News website, that the incident had gone global. We all managed to get messages out to our families that we were safe by the end of the following day. Later we found that some of the Israeli group we spoke to ended up being rescued from the top of the pass having sheltered in the teashop overnight. Some had severe altitude sickness and others had severe frostbite with lost fingers and toes. Some others had tried to decent in the afternoon when the teashop owner shut the shop and left and been caught in an avalanche while others had died of exposure. The last we heard was that there were 39 confirmed dead and several people still missing in the snow. We later saw a newspaper in Pokhara with pictures of the same Israeli group who we had advised to descend at Thorung High Camp. It appeared that some had done so but had set off too late from the lower camp and timed their crossing of the pass at the worst part of the storm as they had set off too late. We continued the trek over the next few days and returned to Kathmandu via Pokhara.

             The Israelis got in the papers!

            Looking back I would say that a number of factors contributed to the disaster. Firstly it was a freak weather event, as Cyclone Hudhud was not expected to reach the Himalayas. Some groups were not fully acclimatised. Some people including porters were poorly equipped for high mountains and others set off too late in the morning. It is the responsibility of anyone that hires porters to make sure they are fully equipped for bad weather. Our guides issued all our porters with bad weather gear and this was collected off them at the end of the trek. Various articles in the press tried to blame guides for the disaster but I think that is unfair as some groups did not have suitable guides with them and others were ill prepared for such bad weather and lacked experience. Looking back the trek is a great walk but you do need to take suitable warm gear, although you may only need it for a day or so. I would certainly like to go back to Nepal sometime in the future.

                                                                                                                             Andy Hall

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