You Can't Go Around the Pass

Tourist Adventures and Misadventures on the Annapurna Circuit
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Stone climbing path on the Annapurna Circuit.
Stone climbing path on the Annapurna Circuit.

Annapurna Himalaya, Kingdom of Nepal
Shivering in the icy cradle of the Thorung La pass, I stood higher than Mt. Blanc, the Matterhorn and Mt. Rainier. For me, a non-mountaineer, this is as high as it would probably get.

At 17,769 feet, Nepal is a bleak, unfriendly, snow-swept place. The effort I expended to get there left me feeling physically weak and somewhat breathless, as if I'd been huffing through a cocktail straw while running on a treadmill.

Yet as I stomped about, warming my feet, my head reeled not from the thin air but a euphoria I never felt before. There was something about being that high, able to see so far across the frosty skyline of the Kali Gandaki Valley and back again to the dominant peaks and glaciated ridges of the Annapurnas. I was rich with satisfaction and pride of accomplishment that I'll never forget.

But the feeling was short-lived. As the rest of the day unfolded, the darker side of the Himalayas confronted me. Descending from that high mountain pass, Seattle native Randy Freebie and I ran headlong into a sudden storm roiling up the valley, which had been clear only an hour before.

As we plodded blindly along, anxious feelings began to well up—at this altitude, circumstance and carelessness can lead to death. The one thing keeping me calm was that I'd been caught in a Himalayan storm a few months earlier. This one was proving to be worse, though, with 75 feet or less of visibility, a quickly disappearing trail, deep drifts, and the nerve-wracking sounds of avalanches all around.

I began to feel utterly exhausted, and my pack was like a Volkswagen. Finally, after three or four hours and 5,000 vertical feet of descent, we pulled into a small village, sore but safe. We had started at 6 a.m. and finished at 4 p.m., spending less than 30 minutes in the place we had spent 15 days trying to reach.

The experience left me with little doubt: The Himalayas are no place to fool around.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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