Boudhanath Prayer Flags - On Halloween Night...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Around Annapurna #6 – “The Pass” - Crossing Thorung La!

The next 3 days would be the crux of our trek… The long (and spectacular) push over 17,500’ high Thorung La! We’ve been anticipating this section with both excitement and caution for months. How would the kids handle the altitude? How would we parents manage coaxing them up and over such a challenging hike? Would the weather hold out? Did we have adequate clothing and gear? Would we all be healthy?

We felt that we’d planned well for the challenge; ascending slowly and steadily, spending extra acclimatization days in Manang, being prepared to turn back if AMS kicked in, and, most importantly, raising our girls from the start to be strong hikers who earn their views! We hired a great porter, Prem, to carry the kids backpacks, so they could better enjoy these toughest days. And we planned for a 3 day crossing, with overnights in Yak Kharka and Thorung Phedi… We’d already met several trekkers who had to turn back. These were all young, very fit, male hikers who had hiked double our pace, covering in 3 or 4 days what had taken us a week and a half. They fortunately recognized the AMS signs of severe headache, dizziness, fatigue and appetite loss, and didn’t try to ascend any higher. There were 2 great Dutch guys who had been at Thorung Phedi for 3 days, and 2 tries at the Pass, but their symptoms never diminished…. The bummer (for them) is that they might have been just fine if they had ascended slower from the start. Everyone has the same guidebook with all the AMS warnings, but some ignore, or choose not to take seriously, the recommendations on rate of ascent!

We headed up from Manang with stellar weather, and luscious views all around… Tea breaks at Gunsang, and photo breaks everywhere, were a welcome pause from the climbing. Lots of folks passing us on the trail today… We’ve heard estimates of 250 trekkers per day trudging up the trail here in the peak season of Oct./Nov. Our great porter Prem pushed ahead to score us beds in Yak Kharka, otherwise we’d have been out in the cold… or on a floor somewhere! This day was only 4 or 5 hours of trail-time, but we only wanted to ascend 500-600m per night, so we stopped in YK. Kharka was a highlight for the girls, as the owner of our lodge saddled up his pony with Tibetan blankets to give them rides around the pasture! The next day was another “half” day of walking, but another 500m or so of altitude, up to Thorung Phedi. We spent the afternoon hunting for, and finding, amazing ammonite fossils down in the riverbed. We went to bed early to prep for the big day tomorrow…. Pretty fun to think that tonight we are sleeping a few hundred feet higher than the summit of Mt.Whitney, and tomorrow we’ll gain 3,000 more feet crossing Thorung La!

As the Pass was such an accomplishment for our daughters, I’ll post their descriptions of the experience:

Sylvie asks... “Why do we have to get up so early,” It was 4 in the morning, and was barely light. I was so tired. It’s hard to wake up so early, but we had to go over the Pass! “Let’s go have some tea,” my Dad whispered. “Yum, it’s so good,” we all said… That’s pretty much all we had for breakfast, then we started out! It was still dark, but just barely see enough not to use our headlamps. The mountain was sooo steep, and my fingers and toes were sooo cold! But the mountains were so pretty with a tiny bit of sun on them. “It’s glowing orange and pink,” said Lupin. After a long hard climb my Dad said, “we’re almost to base camp, where some people sleep instead of Phedi.” We took a rest there, and then went on… It was still steep, but not as bad as the first hour. Up and up and up we went. Finally I said, “Yea! The sun is up!!!” Eliza said, “I can walk much faster now that I’m warmer!” Mom said we were almost half way up to the top, but we had already climbed about 2,500 feet and still had far to go. Every few minutes we stopped for a water break, or for potatoes with salt, or another snack, or to see the view. When we started going again, it was harder and harder to breath, because of the altitude change. After another hard hour or 2, we got to the pass! Right when we turned a corner, I saw all the prayer flags… so many of them it seemed like a huge spider web. I waited for my Dad and sisters, who were behind us, so we could all cross the pass together. I was SOOO happy to have made it to the top! It was windy, so we went into a little tea shack , and had cups of hot lemon. The tea house was really small with a long table inside and a little kitchen. Trekkers were crushed in there to stay warm and have tea. Finally we started down, down down the other side. “My knees hurt,” I said… “That’s why I use these poles,” said my Dad. He let me use one sometimes. Suddenly Eliza said, “I can see the town way below,” but it was still such a long way to go. We finally got to the town of Muktinath and slept there. The Pass was the longest & hardest day of the trek by far for me… But I am so glad that we did it!

Eliza adds… "I was freezing and tired as we hiked up the long winding switchbacks in the dark. I finally caught sight of the High Camp, which was just a few hotels. We took a long rest, and I ate a delicious Snickers Bar! (Kumar, the nice guy who runs the hotel at Phedi, gave us the chocolate in the dark this morning!) It wasn’t as steep now, and the sun finally came up. Then we crossed a bridge which stretched over a creek that was mostly frozen and barely running. From the top of the next hill we could see just about where the Pass should be, but we had no idea how much further it was. I was still really tired, and my stomach started hurting… I also had to stop and rest every 5 or 10 minutes. The problem was that we were getting up to almost 17,000 feet, and it was really hard to breathe! After a few hours, we finally made it to the Pass, which was extremely windy but extremely beautiful. It seemed like we could almost see into Tibet! There were tons of prayer flags, and in one place it was like a huge web. So many prayer flags were piled up, it was as thick as a mattress. I laid down there and looked at the view of glaciers and snowy peaks. Thorung Pass was AWESOME!!!"

I’d have to agree with Eliza, Thorung La was awesome! But more awesome than the hike itself were our kids’ attitudes & effort today… We prepped them well & pushed them pretty hard, but they were fabulously motivated to succeed! Karen, Marcin & I all took turns coaxing, encouraging, feeding, and chatting with the kids… But maintaining the continuous chatter of stories, questions & observations, was challenging at this altitude! I was the most winded and wheezing of the group, bringing up the rear with Eliza… But at every turn, and every false summit, the landscape offered up yet another exquisite view. In addition to the sweet views, the girls received countless compliments and words of encouragement from other impressed trekkers, some of whom were blown away to be passed by a smiling 6-year old singing cute little songs! This sure stoked the girls confidence!

Seeing their pure joy at the first sunlight on the Annapurnas, or when we crossed the frozen creek, or when we first spotted the prayer flags at the pass, was the “all day highlight” for me! We were blessed with perfectly clear weather… blue skies, a bit of wind, and endless visibility. Astounding views paired with the sweet sense of accomplishment made for a perfect & memorable family day in the mountains! Then, of course, we had to descend… a knee-banging 5,500 foot drop down the steep slopes into Mustang district. But the marvelous views of nearby glaciers, distant peaks, and lovely villages in full Fall colors far below, helped to alleviate the joint pain… The ibuprofen helped a bit too!


  1. You girls are AMAZING! when I was your age, I know I couldn't have done this. You are ROCK STARS! Wait, are you in a band? No? But your father is! What a gift your parents gave you for providing such an experience - not once in a lifetime for you guys, though! Can't wait to hear more stories! LOVE LOVE,Joanna and family

  2. Wow, just wow! You guys really did it. The thought of a bunch of huffin and puffin veteran trekkers being passed by a smiling 6-year old singing cute little songs is just too funny. I guess this really meets the definition of the expression "What a trip!" Didn't know Marcin was there with you, please say hey. Love you all!