No Mountain High Enough

"There is more to trekking than just its scenic visuals. There is a greater sense of accomplishment in being determined and ill at ease."
Thorong La Pass, Annapurna Circuit, Nepal

Reproduced below is an article on my recent trek to the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. Its revised and abridged version was published in The Indian Express on July 03, 2016 which can be read online here: http://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/destination-of-the-week/no-mountain-high-enough-2889961/

Full article (needs editing): 

“Why do people trek?” my friend asks me on day one of the Annapurna Circuit trek in Nepal. It is 9 am, the sun is hot and high, and the sights aren’t as promising as they appeared on the Internet. We are trekking on a double-lane dusty road, frequented by jeeps loaded with camping accouterments, necessity goods and people. Each time a vehicle passes us, we step aside and face the hill or the river, covering our mouths till the dust and smell of diesel settle. Masks are ubiquitous in Kathmandu, and, as it turns out, popular with the locals residing along this route too. I consider replying to my friend, who has decided to trek for the first time on my insistence, “It will get better”, but, instead, I rant with defensive platitudes, about nature, solitude, exercise, adventure. I talk about the pleasure in exertion, even leadership and resource management. Perhaps, I want to say that it is obvious; of course people trek, it is awesome. She hears me out and we keep walking, but I begin to wonder what my answer really is. Why am I here? I don’t exactly enjoy the trekking experience. Never have. Yet I choose to subscribe to it whenever I find a window for a vacation. Why?

This trek – which orbits Annapurna Massif, Dhaulagiri, Machhapuchhre, Manaslu, Gangapurna and Tilicho Peaks -- has been voted one of the world’s most beautiful treks. Adding to the lure are the welcoming tea houses, lip-smacking apple pies and trustworthy Nepalese guides and porters. It was once pristine and lengthy – it used to take nearly 25 days to cover the whole base. Now, it is severed and intruded upon. It is estimated that, by 2017, the trek will be fully accessible through motorable roads, except perhaps for the brief interlude of Thorong La Pass (5416m), the highest point in the route. Even in May this year, when we are here, the roads connect the Base Camp – BesiSahar to Manang village, and Muktinath on the other side of the pass to Pokhara. This leaves a total of five days for the trekker to truly step out of the civilization. Although, of course, there is an astoundingly reliable Wi-Fi connection at most stopovers. In October 2014, this route saw one of the worst trekking tragedies of Nepal. More than 400 trekkers got trapped in a snowstorm and 43 people died, including 23 trekkers. Since then, the rescue and travel facilities have been upgraded.

We are aware of many such facts and the trek’s secrets; for instance, the lodges do not charge you for night stay, if you request them, when you have dinner and breakfast at their place. Like most people, we have devoured blogs, government websites, news articles and maps. We are not expecting surprises.

There is a large group of Israeli girls who have finished their obligatory military training this year and are travelling through South Asia. Our schedules match, and we cross them – among other faces - every day. Some Hindi speaking porters have befriended us. As we climb higher, the vegetation changes drastically. Paddy fields have gone, Rhododendrons have arrived. The wind is strong throughout the day. Our minds are occupied by body aches, blisters and constipation. By the end of day 5, we are in for more surprises. A strap of our backpack breaks, a shoe wears out, we don’t have enough woolen clothes, and we are cash-strapped. Nepal is surprisingly exorbitant for those used to trekking in India.

In the dining room of a superbly maintained rest house in Manang, some trekkers have begun to complain of mild headache. Some visitors attend a lecture on Mountain Sickness at a facility nearby. Others relax by playing cards or surfing the Internet on their phones. Four guides and I surround a heater, discussing if we should go back owing to our lack of resources. I haven’t slept well either and my friend is daunted by the climb ahead. The guides encourage us, even offer to lend us money.

Finally, we hire a porter. We have our best day of the trek so far, surrounded on two sides by peaks blanketed with fresh snow, and on the other by a dry and arid plateau. We mostly chat with our new companion, who shares fears of death at the Annapurna Circuit trek. Once the road is pucca, all the stop-over villages will starve for income, he says. The agencies run by rich people in Kathmandu will mint all the money.

The next day, we tread farther, entering landslide-prone areas that resemble cold deserts of Leh. The final climb starts at 4 am. It is unbearably chilly at this hour, the path is steep, breathing is a little difficult, my friend has a swollen ankle and we have not eaten since last evening. We have one bar of Snickers each, and two cups of black tea. In constant worry and anxiety, six hours later we somehow make it to the top. There are hi-fives all around and many pictures are taken, but the two of us do not celebrate. It is an emotional moment for us. Quietly, we share a cup of black tea, and begin the descend.

The weather forecast for the week hasn’t been good, and we see why. Clouds loom large above us, thundering, and, soon, a snow storm follows. We wear our raincoats and slow down. My friend slips, falls, hurts herself. One of the first to start the climb, we finish the last, at around 4 in the evening.

In the town with ATMs, to our dismay, power supply is unreliable. We walk from bank to bank instead. We had assumed that transfer of money from India won’t be difficult once we are in Jomsom - a town with an airport, where travellers officially end or begin their treks. There are others like us, and we empathise by exchanging meek smiles and information. Eventually, in all this mess, my friend breaks down, and we have a fight.

At Pokhara, we eat at a fancy restaurant. In this lake town, trekkers relax for a couple of days, get reiki treatments and massages, and indulge themselves in clubbing and shopping. On the table next to us is an agent, showing pictures of Everest Base Camp trek to a prospective client group and boasting of the views. When we scroll through our phone, we too find the stunning photographs we have taken. Judging by our smiling faces, one may construe that we had a gala time - how we might have spent hours appreciating a scene, like people do at sunset points in hill stations. Accompanied with the photographs, though, are our memories of being preoccupied with the objective of reaching the next stop, of being determined and ill at ease. And there is the pride, the sense of accomplishment and many stories that can sound dramatic even if we don’t fiddle with the facts.

Sipping my second drink, I haven’t found the words to answer my friend’s question, but I might just sign up for a trek for yet another vacation.
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