See. Walk. Breathe.
Finding Solace On The Annapurna Circuit
I slept on a concrete rooftop that night, and as I stared into the infinite Milky Way and even more distant galaxies, watching shooting stars streak through the black, I came to a decision.
Losing Amanda, my beautiful wife and best friend, to breast cancer was something nobody saw coming. We were seen as a couple so lucky to love one another so much. Spending as much time together as we possibly could – stolen days, long weekends out camping and exploring or brief opportunist snowboarding trips – all was perfect. We spent seven of Amanda’s final 16 months travelling around South-East Asia, and then on to India before a planned visit to Nepal, but cancer had other ideas. Back pains led to a hospital visit in Mysore, then Bangalore. Devastating news that the cancer had made its way in to Amanda’s spine and liver put a halt to any further adventures. We headed home. The six months that followed were crushingly tragic.
For five months after Amanda’s passing I was left flailing around, lost, heartbroken. I’d lost all direction, enthusiasm and passion for life. Christmas came and went without registering. I’d spent almost five months sorting photograph albums marking Amanda’s life and our time together. I’d bought a teak root bench and engraved it with little phrases she loved, placed it by the sea.
Amanda had encouraged me to join her on two silent retreats, one in Thailand and one in India, and they provided me with sufficient self awareness to realise I was rotting in my own depression. I had to do something.
I sorted out an Indian visa and booked a flight to India. Three weeks later I touched down in Cochin, and I spent the next eight weeks zig-zagging my way from the south-west to the north-east provinces of India, finally ending up in Nepal. I wanted to visit some of the less frequented areas of the country.
By the end of March I found myself in the tiny Far-Western Nepalese village of Talo Dungaswor. I slept on a concrete rooftop that night, and as I stared into the infinite Milky Way and even more distant galaxies, watching shooting stars streak through the black, I came to a decision. I would commemorate Amanda’s birthday by completing the Annapurna Circuit, hopefully reaching the Thorung La Pass on the date of her birthday. But with only nine days to play with I wasn’t sure it was possible.
Things fell into place the next morning. A local whiskey-drinking chap I’d befriended was heading back to Surkhet on his motorcycle. I’d wanted adventure and that’s what I was going to get. When we arrived three hours later, he took me to his parents’ home for a spot of local dining. His mother piled rice and delight onto my plate over and over again. Later, my new friend dropped my off at the bus station where he sorted out my bus tickets. I was to experience such incredible kindness throughout my travels.
My Annapurna plan was to travel as light as possible and cover as much ground as I could manage each day, but due to the dangers of altitude sickness I was advised to take my time getting up to Thorung La Pass. It takes most trekkers between seven and ten days depending on their pace, fitness and susceptibility to altitude problems. My day pack weighed a mere 3.5kg, but my photographic equipment which I intended to wear on my chest weighed 6kg. I considered leaving the tripod at the guesthouse but feared I may regret it later.
At noon the following day, with passes and maps in hand, I stepped off the crowded and clapped-out bus and began the Annapurna Circuit. I had lovingly renamed it the Amanda-purna Circuit. After all, I wasn’t doing it for Anna.
By half past two I was in the peaceful tranquillity of the lower highlands – an area that reminded me of a Scottish glen. After hours of walking in soft drizzle, the skies darkened and deep thunderous rumbles reverberated around the mountains. I was passing a quaint little teahouse when the storm began. As the rain hammered down I spotted a group of young trekkers chatting and laughing at a sheltered table outside. When I asked if I could join them, they enquired how far I’d walked. ‘It isn’t a race,’ one of the young men said, but of course he was unaware of my reasons. More importantly, how had I forgotten to pack a waterproof?
The next day, torrential rain forced me to seek shelter under the corrugated iron roof of a local elderly couple. Fluffy baby chickens pecked around my feet as I sat on the stove floor near the fire, smiling back at the old man who chatted to me in Nepalese. The elderly lady could see I was cold and made me hot tea. After an hour of warmth the rain was still falling, but I decided it was time to face the elements – I was overwhelmed by their kindness and didn’t want to outstay my welcome.
On the morning of day three I came across a fork in the trail: left into the undergrowth or right along the road. I arrived at a spectacular tumbling cascade of glacial water 45 minutes later and realised I’d made the wrong choice. A thigh-deep pool of icy water swamped the road, the current pouring through a staggered line of loose stepping stones along the right edge. Immediately beyond it, the torrent dropped 200ft to the raging river below. I stood gazing at the rocks and the drop.
What would Amanda do if she were here with me? I wasn’t actually sure. One thing’s for certain, I would have cautioned her against crossing those slippery rocks for fear of losing her to the boulder-strewn river below. So with that in mind I turned back … at least that’s what I should have done, but it’s not what actually happened. It’s amazing how differently the mind works and what the mind feels after experiencing the deepest of losses. I noticed on the flight to India that my intense fear of flying had all but disappeared, and now here I was embarking on a reckless shortcut.
I slowly crouched down on my hands and knees and stretched out my right arm, placing my hand on the larger rocks, feeling for a secure position. Then knees, then hands. It felt incredibly unstable, which equalled my emotional state – but I’d started clambering forward and reversing was never going to be an option. Before I knew it I was on the other side with a sprinting heartbeat and a great sense of relief. I felt slightly disappointed in myself. There were others who loved and cherished me, and yet my focus was all on Amanda, a person who was no longer here and who would suffer no emotional loss if I fell to my death. Did I no longer treasure my life? It certainly seemed I no longer feared death.
I was in the peaceful tranquillity of the lower highlands – an area that reminded me of a Scottish glen. After hours of walking in soft drizzle, the skies darkened and deep thunderous rumbles reverberated around the mountains.
Every breath was a struggle at this elevation … but I was close. I imagined Amanda crunching in the snow ahead of me. I followed her.
Each day I walked for between 8 and 11 hours and I had now reached an elevation of over 4,000m. Others I passed along the way advised I rest in Manang. I explained that I was against the clock, that I had a date, but that I would also be careful. Amanda had studied yoga, and as we travelled I began to join her in her practice – so I knew how important awareness of breath was. Desperate to keep altitude sickness at bay, I focused on long, slow, deep breaths. When I reached Manang at 12.00pm I felt good and wasn’t ready to stop.
I reached Thorung Pedhi, the main stop before Thorung La, at around noon on the fourth day. I hadn’t showered since beginning the trek, and tomorrow I had a special date. I requested a bucket of hot water. The hosts at the camp were surprised: ‘I don’t think we’ve had anyone take a wash up here for a long, long time!’
I’d arrived early at Thorung Phedi to allow my body to acclimatise, aware that any altitude problems should arise well before bedtime. Symptoms could include nausea, vomiting, and gurgled breathing. I had no trek buddy, so needed to give myself time to assess my altitude state and allow the chance for these symptoms to occur.
In the cafeteria other trekkers spoke of friends and partners who were suffering, some so seriously that even after acclimatising and trying for a second time they remained unable to reach the pass. One group told me of a group they met heading back down whose local guide had died in the night from the affects of altitude sickness. That evening I put all my focus into slow, steady, deep breathing.
It was Amanda’s birthday at last when I woke the next morning. My assault on Thorung La began at 6.30am, providing more than enough time to reach the pass by midday and drop down the other side to decrease the risk of altitude sickness. Many trekkers rested, catching their breath as I toe-to-heeled past them with a continuous gait of baby steps. On several occasions my concentration wavered and I noticed myself breathing shallowly, sometimes hardly breathing at all. It was all too easy to see how one could suffer altitude sickness from simply not breathing enough. Breeeeathe…
My lips were so sun and wind damaged that ‘cracking a smile’ became all too literal.
A thick layer of icy snow made progress difficult in my lightweight trail shoes. I stopped and checked the tread … they were like slippers. I plodded on, doing my utmost to remain in the kicked footsteps of previous trekkers, taking great care to avoid a dangerous fall. Step and breathe, step and breathe. As the pass loomed closer I slowed to an exhausted crawl. Every breath was a struggle at this elevation … but I was close. I imagined Amanda crunching in the snow ahead of me. I followed her.
At 9.30am I reached Thorung La, the highest mountain pass in the world at 5,416m. More importantly, it was Amanda’s birthday.
There was no sense of elation. If anything I was crushed with disappointment, but not because I was on the highest mountain pass in the world, even higher than Everest base camp, surrounded by the incredible mountain vista of the Nepalese Himalayas. Awesome as all this was, the one fact that filled my entire being was the absence of my beautiful, wonderful wife. We weren’t stood atop the Thorung La Pass together, holding one another’s frozen hands, hearts full with exhilaration and pride. It was just me.
The only thing that beats a truly wonderful moment is a truly wonderful moment shared. This was something I’d never even realised.
I ordered hot chocolate from the tiny manned shack at the top of the pass, took shelter behind it and sobbed. I knew Amanda would have been so proud of me. After all, I had managed to trek alone to the Thorung La Pass in only five days, unaffected by altitude sickness and feeling physically strong. But none of that really mattered. One day maybe it would.
That evening in Muktinath I celebrated Amanda’s birthday and the fact that I had trekked over the highest mountain pass in the world: Thorung La on the Amanda-purna Circuit.
It took a total of 10 days to complete the trail. Many of the walkers I descended with took buses to shorten their journey, but I chose to walk. The solitude was needed and the thunder, lightning, rain and hail invigorated me.
With love, courage and determination I believe we can achieve any goal we decide to set ourselves. I never questioned whether I would make the Thorung La Pass. I just assumed I would. And somehow I knew I would be safe.
Life is a series of events. How we perceive and react to those events is what defines us, even when we lose the people we treasure most. Losing the will to carry on is easy, as is losing direction – but if we can muster the will, and continue to walk, eventually we will end up somewhere new. Somewhere that holds our future.
Eight years ago at the age of thirty two Mark decided to leave behind the mysterious world of financial consulting investment and dealing in shares, to dealing in sharing. It was only when Mark’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer that his love of writing and photography became something more solid, something meaningful, something involving the need for answers. His blogs, ‘My Wifes Lump’, ‘Where are the Boyds’ and ‘Completing Our Journey’ inspired Mark to wear his heart on his sleeve in the most complete and heart wrenching of fashions. These early online musings were aimed at family and friends, but they go to show how Mark ticks, what excites him and what almost broke him. Travel and landscape photography are now a mainstays of Mark’s reworked life. He continues to live with passion and gusto for the people and world around him.