(With apologies to the Coasters – check iTunes if you don’t know). We start out of Yak Kharka up a gentle rise, the track treating us easy. And yes, I hope we don’t come back. But we are at a height where I have to mentally prepare myself for the possibility of returning here with any trekkers who come down with altitude sickness. I know I am prepared to do so even if that means I don’t get over Thorung La myself. But it means I have to watch the track more carefully than I usually do and rehearse the back-tracking plan I have in my head if such a thing ever eventuates. Every intersection on the track is examined for what it might look like on the return trip. It’s a juggle to work out what layers I should be wearing since it is a very chilly start but I know I heat up very quickly once I get going and don’t want to be a walking clothes horse as I strip off. I avoid putting on the thermals and stick with a woolen shirt but it is only 45 minutes before that is off. We are climbing today behind our slowest walker, a great discipline for the whole group for our launch for the pass tomorrow when we ascend 3000’ in one hit to cross into the Mustang Valley via the Thorung La pass, the highest such pass on the planet at 17,767 feet. I am hoping it is an encouragement for that walker as well, to have the whole group around them. We stop at Letdar for hot black tea with lots of sugar (it’s the only option on the menu), play with the solitary dog and admire Gangapurna stabbing into the sky behind us. From Manang it was 9km away. From here it is 16km away as the crow flies but still spears into the sky and demands our attention and respect. The cloud drops away and the full splendour of its height and the dramatic architecture of its fractured ice mantle is revealed to us. For an hour or more we turn to glance back at it and the cloud obliges us today on numerous occasions with a good view. And even to the point where they drop away sufficiently from the peak and backbone of Annapurna 2.
As we used to say in Kokoda, whatever goes down, has to go up and we drop down to the river and cross one of the largest suspension bridges so far. In doing so we leave behind not only the scrubby saltbush but also the rhododendrons that have lit up the slopes above us today. Their purple flowers are extremely petite and fallen petals litter the path in sections. Not only is the off peak advantageous for no other trekkers and for warm weather but the wild flowers are a constant pleasure to me.
Having crossed the river (to pass to a safer track) we find ourselves on steep scree country and for the first time we walk through a landscape devoid of vegetation. The track winds a precarious way around stern stone bluffs ever higher over a turbulent, noisy Kone Kola that business itself with its boiling turmoil far below us. The shale is loose under our feet and we are careful how we walk. Every now and then we are forced to cross scree slopes and we space ourselves out against the possibility of rocks taking out the whole group as it passes through. Fortuitously there are no stone movements and we press on into Thoroung Phedi (Fhah-dey), an unusual village in a valley of unusual villages. It’s lodges are laid out in straight lines along the side of a stony hill perched above the river, all looking not unlike rundown 1950s hotel complex you might find somewhere between Dubbo and Goondiwindi. But we are pleased to be here and at 14,600’ it’s a long way from Besisihar at 2700 where we started. I am so very pleased with everyone. Rubbish – I am proud of them all and am very stirred by their performance, especially those who have never trekked before.
There is a hazard in this place. Yaks. A large brown bull with his harem move through the village at will. They were at the village gateway when we arrived. I dropped my pack and grabbed the camera but they have moved on – I am startled at how quickly they move across this steep ground. Grunting for air my pursuit of them was not as nimble or as elegant as I wanted it to be. I was trying to get a photo of white cow but the others moved in on me as I did so. I was not completely sure if it was aggression or curiosity that motivated them. Herefords and the like I can read. These things are inscrutable and unpredictable. The bull is ever watchful. We take our photos and keep our distance. Though I did startle the bull. He had come into the village to forage among some scraps and he was surprised when I walked around a corner and practically onto him. He bolted down the back of our rooms, while I scampered along the front. We met at the other end but he did not loiter for a decent photo.
In ten minutes we have lunch and I am parked on the edge of my bed updating this. Outside my window five men chisel and chip stones into shape from the community repository of granite while two teenage girls courier the finished products to the other end of the village where some renovations are under way. Most of our team are asleep. I will have to really prod them to get them going again.
After lunch and something of a nap we hauled up the track towards Thorung La pass. While we wait for everyone to assemble we watch a couple of teams of mules come clattering down the track from the pass in spearing slides and slips. They find the task as difficult as we do but it’s interesting to see how carefully and intelligently they pick the ground on which they place they feet – and then bring their rear hooves up to ground they have already trodden on. We will come this way tomorrow but its good exercise to help acclimatise. We climb 1000 feet. As we do so the cloud clamps down on the mountain and delivers us some light rain. We return to find the camp at Thorung Thedi wreathed in fog. By dinner the rain has set in and we finish the day with the steady drum beat of water on the tin roof. Everyone is in excellent spirits but I am hoping and praying our crossing tomorrow will be clear. It’s our biggest day. There will be no lunch stop and we are leaving at 0400. Bugs are attracted to my headlamp – the power has gone out in this place. Its only 8.25 pm but I am signing off. To the sound of drumming rain that does not quite drown out the roaring of the river below us. Good night.
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