If there’s one thing a long trek is not, it’s sexy; all sweat-rank clothes, swollen feet, and rudimentary toilets. But at a deeper level, it tends to be a highly relaxing experience. You have one job to do every day; to keep putting one foot in front of the other behind your guide until you get there. There is no phone service and no e-mail. Food is simple, delicious, and prepared for you, and by 9pm every night you’re sleeping the sleep of the righteously justified. After a few days, your muscles and feet cease whining, and a deep sense of general wellbeing begins to be produced.Your only worries are blisters, staying hydrated, and altitude sickness.
At the moment, everything in our trek is leading up to Day 12 – a sharp ascent and descent over the freezing Thorong La pass, which will take us to 5,400m and last up to 12 hours. The trek is structured so as to acclimatise us and minimise the risk; we started a mere 500 metres above sea level – well below Kathmandu – and have gradually climbed. During the day, we go as high as possible, then descend slightly to sleep. Steep slopes, or standing up too quickly, tend to induce dizziness and lightheadedness. Exhaustion, nausea, and lack of appetite have also begun to kick in. At 2,700m, Gum banned alcohol and instructed us to cut down on tea. Our ascent is now therefore powered primarily by ‘hot lemon’, which tastes like someone liquefied sherbet lemons and then decided the sugar content wasn’t amped quite high enough. Alongside this is water; bottles and bottles of it. To avoid sickness at this altitude, it is necessary to drink a minimum of four litres of water a day.
Travelling with experienced trekkers means sharing war stories and tips: rats in the toilets, avoiding compression rash, hallucinating on Macchu Picchu from altitude and coca tea. After our first few boiling, humid days, I took to showering in my clothes as a rapid method of rinsing them out, which quickly got picked up by others. Now that we’re above 3,500m, the sun remains strong, but the wind is bitter, the air has become dusty and bone-dry, and the nights are chilly. Lower down, the trekkers are more frequent and the Nepali children come running, shouting, “Namaste! Photo? Chocolate?”. Sometimes they form a rudimentary roadblock in the hopes you’ll pay to pass. Higher up, closer to Tibet, the ethnic groups are different, the Nepalis quieter and more reserved. Gum, the tour lead, acts as interpreter and guide, often talking about his own early life growing up in the mountains, and the seven hours he once walked to go to secondary school. Rounding out our crew are Ganesh, a quiet, wiry Nepali who leads each day and rarely speaks except to say “Jhum, jhum” – let’s go! – and Saroj, younger and more mischievous than the others, who brings up the rear with his eternal grin.
As you might have heard, the scenery here is also rather attractive. Forget that; it’s breathtaking. Low down, it is lush and green, full of waterfalls tumbling down bare rock. Further up, there are pine forests and apple orchards, and wild mint grows everywhere, releasing its smell as you brush past. Yesterday we watched vultures and eagles soar below us, catching the thermals rising from the valley and spreading their enormous wings. The huge shoulders of rock we climb are covered with green lower down, graduating to bare peaks as we ascend. Behind them, more and more, rise the massive, snow-capped bulks of the mighty Annapurnas.