THE STORY BEHIND THE PHOTO EVERYONE KEEPS ASKING ME ABOUT
A lot of people have been asking me where this photograph was taken.
As many of you know, I’m a big fan of Nepal having travelled there at least seven times. Some have been relatively short trips of between two to three weeks, but the majority have been for at least three months. I’ve always trekked whilst on a visit. A trip to Nepal without going into the mountains is the equivalent of not having chips with your deep-fried fish.
This photograph was taken on the Annapurna Circuit by my friend and guide, Bibek Pandey. It was my second time on the circuit and the conditions were in complete contrast to the first.
The Annapurna Circuit is a magnificent trek that traverses the Annapurna mountain range in central Nepal. It takes on average 16 to 21 days to complete the circuit, which is between 160 – 230 kilometres, depending on where motor transportation is used and where the trek ends.
The trek starts in the warmer lowlands, through farmland and across rich pastures, before ascending into forestry with prayer walls scattered along the route and with the magnificent Annapurna range towering in the distance.
The most challenging part of the trek is spending a very long day crossing the Thorong La Pass (5416 metres). The night before is spent at Thorong Phedi (4450 metres) or high camp as it is known, an outpost perched on the mountainside, where a solitary, basic but adequate, guest house stands.
When this photograph was taken the guest house was managed by a Tibetan man who, on arrival, fed us yak butter tea and dal bhat (Nepal’s national dish). In the small yard was a Tibetan Mastiff dog tied to a chain. With big teeth, more hair than an Yeti and a body to match, it was the perfect creature to guard the place.
The sun seems to go down rapidly when you are in the mountains, and by 8 pm I was tucked up in my sleeping bag, trying to resist the need to go to the toilet in the stone outbuilding outside and instead willing myself to go to sleep (two of the disadvantages of acclimatising at high altitude!) knowing that I would have to be up and dressed by 5 am.
Bibek and I were the only guests that night. It was the height of winter and there was heavy snowfall during the night. After a quick breakfast and packing our belongings, we began the steep ascent to the top of the Thorong La in the darkness.
Depending on fitness and weather conditions, it normally takes four to five hours to get to the summit. On this occasion, the snow was so deep (mid-thigh level in places), it was inevitable it was going to take longer.
Using our head torches, we steadily made our way from the guest house across a slippery slope. I remember slamming my walking sticks into the deep snow to stabilise myself and wishing I had had more tea to wake myself up. It takes an enormous amount of energy to move your legs at high altitude, never mind snow above your knees and it being dark.
“Don’t stop,” Bibek said firmly.
We didn’t speak for another fifteen minutes. Later on, I found out why.
The route – used by traders and local herder – snaked up the mountainside. As the sun started to rise, I could see the outline of glacial moraine, rocky ridges and false summits. The snow glowed and the air was so cold, it made my lungs feel like they were bursting. After an hour we stopped.
“Is that where we came from?” I said to Bibek, pointing down the valley to a steep ravine running parallel to the guest house. It was almost a vertical drop, running hundreds of metres down the mountainside. Along it was a fresh set of human tracks.
“Yes,” Bibek said smiling. “That why I told you not to stop.”
I didn’t respond. There’s something about being at high altitude that forces you to live in the moment. The thought of loosing my balance and plummetting down the ravine had never been an issue, and standing there now with Bibek certainly wasn’t going to become one.
We carried on traversing for what seemed like hours up the mountainside, gasping in the cold air, feeling disappointed after reaching the umpteenth false summit, until Bibek proclaimed, “Almost there!”
It was at this point I needed to rest. I also wanted to take photos. The conditions were ideal. The snow-covered rocks and moraine created miniature mountain ranges all around me, and the snow sparkled, untouched by human or animal.
At just under 5400 metres, this is one of the highest points I have ever had a photograph taken of me, and this time the smile wasn’t forced. The snow was only ankle deep by this stage and it was a relief to know I was almost at the top of the pass where I would be greeted by a traditional chorlton and a cascade of fluttering prayer flags, the magnificent Yakgawa Kang peak (6481 metres) and below us the vast Kali Gandaki Valley. If I was lucky too, the café (a tiny hut serving tea) would be open.
The first time I had summited the pass, there had been little snow but the wind had been so strong that my guide and I had to crawl the last few metres to the summit and sit down amongst groups of trekkers clinging desperately onto each other as the wind battered them into submission. My guide had held my camera like it was stuck to him and I had grimaced at the camera when he tried to take a photo.
Half an hour later after my photoshoot with Bibek, we summited, took more photos, drank tea and laughed as the prayer flags fluttered in the gentle breeze rather than tossed around like ships on a stormy sea.
As we started our long and arduous 1600m descent towards Muktinath village which takes five to six hours, I was reminded of my last time here where an avalanche of ice and rock had buried part of the trail and one of the trekkers became disorientated and violent from high altitude sickness. Along with a few other trekkers, we ambushed him and dragged him screaming down the pass. Within a few hundred metres, his condition stabilised and he could continue unaided.
This time Bibek and I were alone. There is a beauty to being up in mountains on your own, but also danger. The conditions were ripe for an avalanche to cross our path and we would stand no chance if one struck us.
With the glorious Dhaulagiri mountain (8167m) and Tukuche Peak (6920m) in the distance, it was the impetus to ignore the pains in my toes as they slammed against the front of my boots and instead slip and slide as fast we could down the snowy pass towards the safety of the valley below.
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