This is the second part of a three-part series
Into the Clouds – Onward to Thorung La and Beyond
Lower Pisang sits at the bottom of a sweeping valley surrounded by both forested and rocky mountains, steep cliffs, and terraced agricultural land. The town stretches quite far, and venturing into the main area from our guesthouse on the outskirts we discovered cobble-stoned walkways busy with merchants and tourists bundled up in scarves and warm hats to defend against the blustery wind and quickly dropping
temperatures. When we arrived in Lower Pisang, the penultimate rays of sun were battling dark storm clouds quickly choking up the valley. The receding light cast its setting lumens upon the enormous convex rock face that Rakesh referred to simply as ‘Heaven’s Gate.’ Passing this magnificent sight earlier in the day we strained to take in its unique form and overwhelming size, but from the vantage of town it was clear that this was an aptly-named feature. As the temperature continued to fall, we settled into the dining room for the evening and sipped on hot lemon tea while waiting for another dal bhat feast.
The next morning greeted us with low hanging and thick dark grey clouds pouring out a steady and strong rain shower. The inclement weather partnered with the picturesque scenery of Lower Pisang in pleading us to extend our stay. Indeed the cold rain was not in the least bit inviting for the long trek to Manang. Realizing we were not on a strict schedule, we elected to spend the day in Pisang and venture to Upper Pisang where a perched Buddhist monastery offered cups of hot black tea and wider views of the rain-soaked valley. From our lookout in the guesthouse dining room later in the afternoon we drank hot tea, read, played cards, and watched the passing storm, soaking Pisang with rain and at higher elevations producing heavy snow.
The following morning, we packed up and pushed onward to Manang, a ‘major’ town where we would rest another full day to acclimate before making the final push to Thorung La Pass. Climbing about 1,000 feet from Pisang to Manang along the valley floor, our views were limited, so once again we diverted our attention to that which we could see – the rocks, plants, and low-flying birds. Chilled without the warmth of the
sun, we broke for freshly-baked bread and cinnamon rolls near midday, a real treat on the roadless Annapurna Circuit. Manang had held the promise of panoramic views of 23,000 foot mountains and glaciers, but we were met with wind and cloudy skies. Not allowing the adverse conditions to hinder our excitement, we set our packs down, took a brief rest, and headed back out for a short acclimation hike. Climbing a sharp and exposed granite ridge just outside of town, we soon had gained several hundred feet in elevation and were looking down on Manang to one side, and up at a Himalayan-sized glacier to the other, rising into the thick clouds and beyond. Looking down the valley and then up the sloping grassy fields and loose-rock cliffs, into the alpine meadows and beyond our views slowly disappeared into the clouds. Towering above, peaks capped in snowfields and glaciers enjoyed sunbathing in the early evening alpenglow. At first I didn’t think twice, I simply thought these were clouds illuminated a rich tiger orange. Looking more closely, I was left speechless as I gazed at a small clump of the tallest mountains in the world, stretching into the clouds, touching the sky, and reaching beyond.
Manang is certainly a ‘major town’ by the standards of the Circuit itself, this fact clearly illustrated by the larger guesthouses, more polished restaurant-like buildings, and of course, the movie theatre, complete with yak-wool lined wooden benches. We met a couple here that was coming from the other side of Thorung La and just passing through Manang. Having done the Annapurna Circuit many years before, they wanted to complete it once more before the road is completed. Having walked all the way from Kathmandu, they explained their preference for perambulation over automated locomotion, describing six-month journeys through India and Southeast Asia. Their vivid description of the Mustang region on the other side of Thorung La and the climb up the pass invigorated us. It would be two more nights between Manang and our morning ascent of the nearly 18,000 foot pass.
Leaving Manang we climbed steadily and quickly above the town under blue skies and clear views of the Annapurnas, Gangapurna, and Glacier Dome, all comfortably taller than 20,000 feet. The stepped agricultural fields painted a colorful scene of varying tones that became more visible as we climbed higher. When hiking it is often quite easy to put your head down and place one foot in front of the other. I often fall into this trap, accompanying the pattern of footsteps with a randomly chosen song that I will play out in my head. On the way to Leder, it behooved us to rid ourselves of this habit for nearly every step taken belied a more sweeping, panoramic, magnificent view of the Annapurna massif at our backs, or the neighboring mountain range straight ahead. Above treeline and no longer under the shadow of dense rain clouds, it was most difficult to in fact pay any attention at all to where our feet were landing. Prayer flag arrangements framed steep ascents of snow-laden peaks. Stone huts and canvas tents housed goat farmers traveling along the Circuit and reminded us of the economic importance of this throughway. Clad in thickly layered fur, wooly yaks meandered through the thick low-lying brush. Climbing higher, Rakesh insisted he walk ahead of us. The painfully slow pace he set would protect us from the perils of the altitude as we were now entering uncharted territory. Leder was not really a town, more the location of a couple homes and one stone building offering a few rooms and a dining area for trekkers passing through. Feeling the onset of the effects of altitude (now around 14,500 feet), I struggled to fall asleep only to wake up in the morning to the uninterrupted views of Gangapurna and its shoulders from my bed. Blue sheep dotted the distant grassy slopes, and we pushed on toward Thorung Pedi and High Camp, where at 16,500 feet we would sleep and stage our final push for Thorung La.
The Marshyangdi was now no more than a stream, a trickle compared to the lion’s roar at lower elevations. It seemed that nearly every slow step of the way I had to turn around to admire Gangapurna and the Annapurnas, and the alpine meadows that we had passed through. From our vantage, the ridge leading from the Marshyangdi valley to the summit of Gangapurna appeared as a dinosaur spine, sinuous and sharp, yet massive; I found that I could barely cast my gaze anywhere else. The sun grew more intense as we climbed higher and the silence of our natural surroundings was only interrupted by the occasional helicopter overhead transporting another careless trekker down from the trail ahead. Nearing the head of the Marshyangdi valley, a steep bowl signaled the headwaters of the tremendous river. At Thorung Pedi we broke for lunch (dal bhat, of course), and rested before climbing a steep pitch up to High Camp. Along the trail cut into the loose talus field we stepped aside for a team of donkeys descending the path from Muktinath on the other side of the pass. High Camp was merely a few one-floor stone buildings erected on a site about 1,500 vertical feet from Thorung La pass. Having been constructed by materials from the immediate area, the buildings blended in quite well. From our room, provided for the lofty price of 2 US dollars, we had uninterrupted and panoramic views of the Annapurna massif. Despite a pounding headache from the altitude, I couldn’t have been more blissful. Rakesh informed us that for dinner that evening we would need to eat a healthy serving of garlic soup to counteract the effects of the altitude. Going to sleep that evening was incredibly difficult, but the promise of the next day and the starlit mountains under clear skies made the pounding headache a manageable aftertaste of the delicious main course that was High Camp.
Rising at 3 A.M, we put down a warm breakfast of oats and hot tea, and hit the trail under the aid of headlamps and moonlight. By 5:30 the sun had cast enough light to switch off our headlamps and walk by natural light. Again, it was most important to remember to stop and turn around as nearly every step opened new doors to views of the mountain ranges at our backs. These views were even more dramatic in the early morning as the rising sun cast new light on the ridges, gullies, and snowfields. Turning back each time, it was as if a whole new perspective came to light, reminding me of sun rises in the Grand Canyon. A deep blue sky soon filled the air above as we carried on, one slow step at a time. A pile of prayer flags marked the top of Thorung La. We celebrated and feasted on crackers, cookies, and black tea and celebrated with our fellow trekkers. From the pass we could see Dhaulagiri, one of the world’s tallest mountains at 26,795 feet, towering above the Kaligandaki river basin and the desert-like landscape of the Mustang region. In the rain shadow of the Annapurna massif, this area receives far less precipitation than the area that we had just passed through. On the steep 6,000 foot descent from Thorung La to Muktinath, this aridity was quite evident as the scenery showcased a dramatic shift. My excitement battled a worsening headache and sharp aching pains in both knees, but gazing upon this new landscape silenced the effects of these minor nuisances. Beyond the Mustang region was the Tibetan plateau and beyond that, the Gobi Desert. Reaching Muktinath in the late afternoon, we were exhausted, tired, and devoid of all energy. After devouring a massive portion of dal bhat, I rested for the day’s remaining hours, hoping to recharge for the next day.
Over the next two days we traveled through the Kaligandaki river gorge to Jomsom, and beyond. We decided that we would take a bus along the road (on this side of the pass the road construction stretched beyond Muktinath toward the summit of Thorung La) to cut out two days of trekking so that we could continue on for another week to ten days to reach the famed Annapurna sanctuary. Passing through the river gorge amidst powerfully dust-laden winds, snow-capped peaks were still visible, paradoxically juxtaposed against the harsh arid conditions. The abrupt shift in landscape offered stunning views of desert features, unexpected for our visit to the Himalayas, but not in the least bit unwanted. Jomsom clearly was a town that had seen the effects of the road; the first ATM we had seen in days, an airport, and a shop with beauty and hygiene products. Boarding the bus after a deep and restful sleep brought about bittersweet feelings only partially assuaged by the roadside stop for freshly picked apples. We had been walking for nearly two weeks, and now were barreling along treacherous winding mountain roads, down the Kaligandaki valley at breakneck speed on terrain wholly unfit for a bus, especially one with passengers sitting atop its roof. Nonetheless the ride was beautiful and before long we were again in the lowlands, verdant and lush with waterfalls around every corner pouring into the river below, much like the Marshyangdi valley on the other side of Thorung La. After several hours in the tight confines of two buses carrying a few tourists and many Nepalis traveling to nearby towns, we arrived at Tatopani, meaning ‘hot water.’ This outpost along the Kaligandaki offered a guesthouse with a tropical feel and hot spring pools just down the road. We supplanted the much needed and well deserved hot-water soak with some ‘Nepali Ice’ beer and began to look ahead to the next leg of our journey into the heart of the Annapurna massif.