Day 3: Ghorepani 2874 meters (9430 feet) to Poon Hill 3240 meters (10,630 feet) to Tadapani 2706 meters (8878 feet)
I stared up through cold blackness at the barely visible ceiling. The darkness was damp and heavy. It was 2:30am and most of the generators in Ghorepani were powered down for the night. Waves of cramping surged through my stomach. Rather than make the trek down two long, unheated concrete hallways to the communal bathroom, I tucked myself deeper into my sleeping bag and hoped that full-blown food poisoning wasn’t looming. Not here, not at 10,000 feet, with 8 more days of extreme terrain and squat toilets yet to navigate. I was already exhausted from yesterday’s climb, but sleep eluded me as my stomach continued its violent protests.
At 4:30am, Mandy joined me in wakefulness. Across the valley, icy Himalayan peaks appeared to be floating in the darkness, their icecaps shimmering in the starlight. We pulled on every layer we had with us, flicked on our headlamps, and stepped out on the day’s first expedition. From our teahouse in Ghorepani, we would ascend another 1000 feet to the top of Poon Hill for an epic sunrise. The route was well maintained and kinder than the day before, but the cumulative effect of yesterday’s climb and the altitude was evident. Our breath came in gasps as we charged onward and upward. Overhead, the sky transitioned from black to deep blue and we raced on in slow motion: two weary trekkers scrambling to reach the summit ahead of the rising sun.
We arrived at the top of Poon Hill shortly after daybreak, gazing out over a land of extremes. Thousands of feet below, in one of the deepest valleys in the world, a thick layer of clouds had begun to rise as the morning rays warmed the air. The imposing snow-capped peak of Dhalaguri, the world’s seventh tallest mountain at 26,795 ft, faced us defiantly with the neighboring Annapurna massif (our eventual destination) standing in immense solidarity just behind it. Prayer flags fluttered, smiles flashed, and cameras whirred as the sun climbed higher, brightening the sky to match the mood.
The view is a destination in and of itself, and for most trekkers it represented the culmination and literal highpoint of a 3 to 4 day hike in the Himalayas. Friends we had met on the trail circled over to share the experience. We lingered in conversation, savoring the view that took our breath away, while suspending all thoughts of the long day ahead. Finally, we descended back to the teahouse. My stomach lurched at the site of breakfast, so I packed the rest of our things while Mandy ate quickly before we struck out again.
The rhododendron forest shone vividly in its beauty, but physically and mentally I was in a bad place. I hadn’t slept and couldn’t eat or drink anything. My mind wandered away from the grueling trek as I sheltered my consciousness deep within my soul, and as far away as possible, from the misery of the present. The hike down to Tadapani was far from leisurely. Or at least that’s my recollection–I’m told it’s actually pretty tame compared to the other days. The hike was ruled by steep descents followed by shorter ascents, as we crept along the ridge line moving slowly, but steadily closer to Annapurna.
I’m thankful that I remember fairly little. Although, I do remember the four of us stepping aside occasionally for runners competing in an Annapurna marathon. Even more surreal was a group of older Chinese women dressed in expensive jeans and shoes who would stop to pick rhododendron flowers and pose for staged pictures of themselves hugging trees or covered in fallen flower petals. They were accompanied by Sherpa porters who literally carried them piggyback, jogging up and down the trails, while their passengers shrieked loudly back and forth to each other.
We continued on until we hit the final ascent, the climb intensified by the preceding lengthy descent down to a swing bridge hanging below the town of Tadapani. As we climbed, I began to notice that something was wrong. My head was spinning and suddenly without warning I tossed off my pack and sat down on a rocky outcropping to keep from falling. I wasn’t thinking clearly and I struggled to find the words I wanted, as Mandy, Dende, and Urchin looked on worriedly. By the time I got the word out, Mandy had realized what I wanted to say, “candy.”
When I was little, my parents kept us from complaining on hikes by carrying a never-ending supply of jolly ranchers. In the same vein, I had purchased a bag of Nepalese hard candy before leaving, just in case Mandy’s spirits suffered on the trail. Now, my legs and arms were shaking uncontrollably, I was severely hypoglycemic from not being able to eat all day. I struggled to open the wrapper and Mandy took it from me, tore it open, and placed it in my mouth, followed quickly by two more pieces. I slumped back against the cold stone, looking over the valley, and wondered if Dende was going to need to use the satellite phone to call in a helicopter to evacuate me. The shaking in my arms and legs slowly subsided and my mind sharpened back into focus. Still, time was distorted, ebbing and flowing past me as I drank tiny sips of water and sucked on candy, repeating the process over and over as I slowly recovered.
Mandy took my bag and we slowly crept up the final climb into town, which was fortunately only another ten minutes on the trail. I collapsed into my sleeping bag before waking up for dinner. I forced down a couple of bites of dal bhat before paying the extra $2 for a hot shower, and then returned to my sleeping bag for the rest of the evening and night. It was Mandy’s turn to shower next, but the shower had broken. One of the locals came to assist her, failed, and more and more help was called, before they gave up and the crowd led her, in her towel, across the courtyard to a working (cold) shower. Fortunately, the Nepali men of the mountains are kind and Mandy returned laughing to tell me the story. She had filled two hot water bottles which we tucked in the bottom of our sleeping bags and I fell immediately back to sleep, exhausted and willfully ignoring the fact that we had 8 more days to go.
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