From Polluted Air to Thin Air: Thorong La Pass Nepal

by Ananda Vardhana

Traveling from Portland, we landed at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, Nepal on September 24, 2018. Ten of our group headed off to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC), but the remaining three of us had set our sights on Everest Base Camp (EBC) at 17,598 ft. Our team was comprised of Deepa, an ultra-marathon runner, Anil, an intermediate hiker, and me, Ananda, a 62-year old veteran hiker and Mazama member.

Stepping off the plane in Kathmandu, we were engulfed in the pollution, dust, and chaos of a typical Nepali traffic jam. Only the promise of thin, clean, Himalayan air kept our spirits high. When our flight out of Lukla was canceled due to bad weather, forcing us to abandon our goal of reaching Everest Base Camp, our consolation was to hike even higher than EBC over Thorong La Pass (17,769 ft. ) along the Annapurna Circuit.

Our guide, Mr. Khim Raj (KC), proposed a new trekking plan that started in the town of Besisahar at 2,493 ft. and slowly wound its way up to the pass. Starting at a lower elevation would allow us to acclimatize as we passed through other villages along the route, including Chame at 8,694 ft., and Manang at 11,545 ft. However, we were familiar with hiking at lower elevations in Oregon, and insisted on starting in Manang.

Once we’d determined our starting point, we took off on the 12-hour, 107-mile drive to Besisahar. Kathmandu is famous for its traffic jams, which dwarf those in LA, and these roads were bad! The following day, we had to take multiple 4-wheelers and drive another 12 hours between Besisahar and Manang along some of the world’s most dangerous highways. Due to frequent landslides, our two porters had to carry our luggage across the debris and hire another jeep on the far side before we could continue. I would not recommend going without a guide—they know these roads and allow for safe passage.

From what I saw, Nepal is very community-oriented. The people are friendly and help each other survive. Since the three of us know Hindi, we made good friends during our multiple jeep rides. The jokes, bantering, and singing inside the vehicle combined with the astounding views and narrow roads outside helped us forget the dust that enveloped us.

Thus, after multiple landslides we reached the thin and pristine air of Manang. This meant we’d essentially gone from Beaverton at 120 ft. to Manang at 11,500 ft. in one go. We’d been swallowing Diamox (altitude pills) since arriving in Nepal, 125mg twice a day. At Manang we could feel the effect of the thin air, but this was what we wanted. Just walking 10 steps let us know we were at high altitude. Our appetites shrunk greatly, but we nonetheless pushed ourselves to have a grand dinner followed by a fitful sleep.

A long time ago, when trekking was not a fad, people lived their lives in all parts of Nepal and the surrounding region. As trekking became popular, the local people realized the potential tourism could have and converted their homes to teahouses. Now villages, including Manang, have 2-3 star hotels with hot showers and comfortable beds. You order from a menu and can even get pizza at 16,000 feet! And Wi-Fi is available all over Nepal.

The next day, KC advised us to roam round Manang and get acclimatized. Manang valley is like a dreamland. In Nepal, many of the mountaintops have a Buddhist shrine. It is amazing what faith can do. People have built massive structures on the tops of mountains where every stone and beam had to be carried up manually or by horse. Our hotel in the valley looked up at the Annapurna Massif on one side followed by Gangapurna. In the distance towered Manaslu, Chandragiri, Dhaulgiri, and Chluha. We saw these titanic mountains for the next ten days; they astounded us with their unbelievable massiveness. In Oregon, looking down from Mt. Hood or Mt. Defiance, the rolling mountains fascinate us—so just imagine mountains twice the size of Mt. Hood! All of them over 20,000 feet, with live avalanches happening as you watch... such was the grand spellbound beauty that beheld us daily.

Early in the morning with high spirits, we took off from Manang. Our plan was to hike to Ice Lake at 15,256 ft. the first day, followed by a hike to Tilicho Lake at 16,138 ft. the second day, then continuing on to Thorong La Pass. The route to Ice Lake has no designated switchback trail, so we simply had to climb straight up a crumbling mountainside. Being the oldest, the altitude and strain from hiking hit me fast. Deepa and Anil encouraged me, slowing to my pace so we could crawl up together. Deepa and I were going steady, but Anil, who had a slight residual cough when we left Portland, began to slow down. Anil’s occasional cough became persistent and much stronger as his lungs tried to keep up in the thin, high altitude air. We were three-quarters of the way to the lake, at around 14,800 ft., when Anil started getting breathless and feeling slight lung pain. He decided not to push it any further, fearing AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) or worse, HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema). I decided to escort Anil back down to the hotel along with a porter. Deepa continued to Ice Lake with the guide, and joined us back in Manang a few hours later.

That night, Anil could not sleep well due to breathlessness and coughing. I intently kept an eye on him, hoping the night would be uneventful. We consulted a couple of doctors by phone, spent some time researching on the Internet, and finally decided that he needed to head back to lower altitudes. That broke our spirits—it was sad to see our partner off, but we would meet him at the end of the trip.
Deepa and I re-strategized, deciding to abandon our hike to Tilicho Lake and instead just do Thorong La Pass. The pass was three days away and should give us ample time to acclimatize. The next day, we trekked from Manang to the village of Thorong Phedi at 14,895 ft. No one measures the distance of a trek in Nepal. If you ask, they will look at you, then make a judgment and give you an estimate in hours. This trail was gradually uphill and took us 5-6 hours. It was quite busy with people from all parts of the world. Germans by large dominated, followed by Australia, China, New Zealand, and the UK. Much to our disappointment, we didn’t encounter a single hiker from the US, our adopted country, or from India, our country of origin.

Hundreds of yaks dotted the mountainsides. Nomad yak herders live at these great heights sleeping out in the open. They drink yak milk, eat yak meat, and warm themselves with coats made of yak hair. Right in the middle of the trail, we were surprised to see a roadside trinket trader. The old man claimed all his goods were authentic Tibetan. The yak herders, trinket traders, and brave people who tend the tea houses make it possible for us from the polluted air to survive up in the thin air.
By the time we reached Thorong Phedi, Deepa had lost her appetite, and we both had splitting headaches. However, we had increased our Diamox dosage to 250mg twice a day. We didn’t want to take any pain medication because our stomachs were empty, so we just applied a strong topical ointment called Tiger Balm onto our foreheads and bore the pain. I am a strong advocate for fewer pills and more will to fight altitude sickness.

The next day, we made the grueling climb from Thorong Phedi to Thorong High Camp at 16,010 ft. Deepa, who had little appetite, started to feel weak and nauseated. At Thorong High Camp, we realized the real scarcity of oxygen. We had hiked in India at 15-16,000 ft. without much trouble, because the forest abounds everywhere. Manang valley is totally arid, a dry high-altitude desert with no trees for generating oxygen.

The moment Deepa entered the dining hall she began to feel nauseated. Two hundred or so lungs and five open-flame kitchen stoves all competed for the oxygen. So our choice was to stay warm and suffocate, or go outside and freeze! Sitting here in Beaverton, these things cannot even be imagined. Our guide said we had three options; head back to the city, stay where we were at Thorong High Camp, or continue on but take a horse as insurance. We went for the third option without even considering the first two, and hired a horse for $150. At that point, we didn’t know who would need the horse—Deepa or me.

Since the winds pick up by noon and can practically pluck you off the mountain, we had to leave before 5am to cross Thorong La Pass by noon. Thorong High Camp has minimal accommodations—five common toilets for two hundred or more people. So, with splitting headaches and anxiety about using the toilets, we hardly slept, got up at 3am, and were ready by 4am. With the horse following dutifully behind, we put our heads down and started the final phase of our climb. Every 100 feet KC would ask “Deepa-ji, would you like to take the horse?” to which she would answer “no.” He was afraid she would fall off and increase his responsibility. At 60+, I go very slowly but steadily, and kept up a steady stream of encouraging accolades. Deepa’s only job was not to lose the sight of my heels.

Neither the words I’m writing nor the camera on my phone can capture the dry beauty that surrounded us. The trail disappearing into thin air was what we had hoped to conquer. On any hike, there are always people well ahead of you and others far below. The people ahead represent the goal yet to be achieved, and those below are the challenges conquered. In the end, it all depends on the mind to push the mechanical devices we call legs to move one step up at a time, up and up.
Finally, in the distance, we could see the colorful streamers that decorate the pass. With a fresh surge of energy and enthusiasm, we chugged on. Deepa, the ultra-marathon runner, crossed the finish line at a full sprint, as I slowly crawled up to the top of the pass. From there, it was a rollover hike, down and more down, to Muktinath Temple at 12,171 ft.

We stayed in Muktinath that night, and drove the next day to TatoPani (6,010 ft.), which is famous for its hot springs. After an overnight at TatoPani and a refreshing bath in the hot springs, we trekked up to the village of Chitre at 6,988 ft., were we stayed one night before making it up to the village of Ghorepani at 9,429 ft. the next day. The Ghorepani Poon Hill overlook is a famous scenic spot, and is flooded with trekkers. Since we’d been immersed in Annapurna I, II, III, Dhaulgiri, and many other mountains, we skipped Poon Hill. The final day, we trekked to Naipaul, where the ten Annapurna Base Camp folks joined us. We all drove back to Pokhara, met up with Anil, and flew back to Kathmandu—back into the polluted air! We ended our trip by flying back to Portland on October 8.

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