Thorong La, at 5416m, is the highest point in the Annapurna Circuit and one of the steepest passes in the world. If you want to get round the circuit, you go over Thorong La or go home.
The night before the ascent, we stayed at Thorong Phedi, a.k.a Thorong Base Camp, at 4500m. It’s a single guesthouse, the only place to stay before you make the ascent unless you choose Thorong High Camp, at 4800m. Thus, even this early in the trekking season, it’s stuffed to the gills. We spent the evening before the climb huddled in the dining room, awkwardly shoulder to shoulder in our puffy coats and hats, playing cards, reading, under the dim swinging lights. A fierce wind blows through the pass which increases in intensity throughout the morning, such that by 11am the pass is dangerous or impassable. All ascents, therefore, start at 4:30am. It’s worth noting also that both Thorong Phedi and Yak Kharka, the stop before it, are remote spots consisting only of a few lodges for climbers and with no running water. All supplies have to be delivered over the pass using the latest in mountain technology: mules. Another consequence of this is that when we began the ascent, none of us had showered in two days. (I did say trekking wasn’t sexy.)
We ate porridge at 4am, nervously. It’s no exaggeration to say that Thorong La day hangs over the Annapurna trekker for the entire first half of the circuit. The climb begins with a steep 300m section up to Thorong High Camp, and strings of tiny lights from other trekkers precede you up the hill. But there was one immediate benefit of being forced to get up at 3:30am; it was a clear night, and the sky was full of sharp and brilliant stars framed in the bowl of the mountains. As we climbed, the moon rose above them until we barely needed our head torches. We made it to High Camp in a brilliant, frosty dawn of barren but beautiful peaks.
By this point, we had all become minor experts in the symptoms of altitude sickness. These include: dizziness, headaches, nausea, loss of appetite, hallucinations, breathlessness, muscle weakness, tingling fingers, increased flatulence, and the constant need to pee. (Trekking: sexy.) It’s still not completely understood, and being young and fit is no barrier to getting it; in fact, young people suffer it so much more frequently that being under 50 is considered a risk factor. I had been doing pretty well at altitude up until this point; getting a little lightheaded on ascents to new heights, but generally settling quickly overnight. I felt fine at 4500m, and at 4800m. At five kilometres above sea level, eating my cereal bar and drinking my hot lemon, I felt fantastic. In the last twenty minutes of the climb, the altitude came down on me like the hand of God. An iron band developed around my head; my stomach churned. Loz became so dizzy he could barely walk in a straight line. At least one other of our trekking party vomited. But we made it.
We spent fifteen largely miserable minutes at the summit, being photographed with the sign and exchanging congratulatory hugs, but I was experiencing an intense desire to begin descending. Mercifully, the path down into the Mustang valley is steep, and as we lost height, the symptoms eased off, although they lingered in minor form for the rest of the day. Sadly, the Mustang side clouded over quickly, depriving us of the views of the peaks that had kept us going. All in all, we climbed just over 900m to achieve the pass in five hours, then dropped 1700m in the next five, pushing doggedly on towards the chance to lie down. We stumbled into Muktinath village at 2:30pm, after ten hours; exhausted, queasy, but victorious.