My wife, Lisa, and I spent 10 days trekking the Annapurna circuit from Besi Sahar to the High Camp just below the 5400 meter Thurong La pass. The evening before we planned to cross, it began to snow. Unbeknownst to us, there was the terrible storm, Hudhud, that had recently ravaged part of the Indian coastline and we were experiencing a bit of it as it moved inland and north. Without any phones or internet for over a week, we didn't know that what began as a light snowfall would turn into a devastating blizzard with deadly consequences.
The next morning there was half a meter of snow on the ground outside our room. Although the thought crossed my mind that perhaps the snow would prevent some of the groups from crossing the pass for a day, we didn't see any of the guides hesitate. Despite the snow and the darkness, the hundreds of trekkers and their guides and porters began leaving the High Camp (4800m) at 4:30 am. We didn't leave until a little after dawn, about 6:20am. Although we were way behind, we were well acclimatized to the high altitude and felt very strong. We soon began passing long lines of slow moving trekkers as they trudged up the narrow path stamped out in the increasingly deep snow.
We reached the pass in about the estimated amount of time- around 9am. About 20 minutes below the pass the wind began to kick up to tremendous speeds. Tiny bits of ice whipped sideways by the wind stung your face if you lifted your head or turned to look at the person you were passing. I watched as Lisa's bright orange pack cover was ripped from her bag and went flying away into the foggy morning. We didn't have time to worry about it. It disappeared within seconds.
At the pass, as we tried to snap a couple of pictures, all the warmth our bodies were generating climbing the steep hill was lost. I helped Lisa take off her outside jacket, put on her down jacket, and zip her shell layer over it, all while shivering uncontrollably as the winds continued to blow snow and ice into our faces and up our clothes. I was too cold to take off my jacket to add my down jacket layer and I yelled over the raucous wind that we had to get off the mountain.
As we began to descend the other side of the pass, however, I abruptly stopped us. We were walking downhill into a white wall. It was difficult to tell where the snow on the ground ended and the snowy fog began. Deadly scenes of books I'd read about mountain climbing as a teenager played out in my mind's eye. I remembered what I'd learned from those books, and from many trips into the Cascade Mountains west of Seattle, Washington with my climbing-enthuisast father: Descending is usually more dangerous than an ascent of a mountain. By the time you are heading down, you're already tired from the climb up.
Having achieved your goal, you are often comforted by a false sense of security and are more prone to ignore warning signs of changing weather and fatigue or exposure. Its easier to slip stepping down than up, and the inertia of a slip downhill can send you careening down a steep slope. Plus, we couldn't even see the trail. Whatever vague path that had been cleared by previous groups had been covered by the drifting snow, and it would have been extremely easy to start our descent on the wrong angle or slope and we'd have little hope of every finding the right path again. I allowed myself to consider the potentially disastrous consequences only briefly before I told Lisa we had to go back and wait for another of the many groups of trekkers behind us to lead the way down the mountain. While we waited again at the top of the pass, Lisa helped me put on my down jacket below my waterproof shell. My numbed hands, covered by two layers of extra socks, could barely grip the zippers, but I immediately felt the warmth of the extra thick layer of down. Soon a guided group started down the trail and we followed them down, beginning a descent that would take us 7 hours, almost twice as long as the normal estimate on an average day.
Lisa and I stayed together for nearly the entire walk down, sometimes through waist high drifts of snow. We kept our hands in pockets to protect them from the wind and snow and kept squeezing them to keep blood circulating. We stopped only twice, for about a minute apiece, to drink a little of the water half frozen in our water bottles. Warm under all of our layers of fleece, down and Goretex, we concentrated on our steps, careful to not slide off of the narrow path and down the seemingly endless slope below us.
An hour below the pass there was an Asian lady stuck in the snow. She was crossing an area where the snow was thigh high and she wouldn't move; she just sat half buried in the snow wailing mutely over the wind. A line of 5 or 6 trekkers formed behind her and eventually someone broke a trail around her and the line began to move again. When I reached her, a Spanish lady implored me to help. A German trekker and I each grabbed and arm and hauled the despairing woman out of the snow and began to half aid, half drag her down the hill. I kept yelling at her over the roar of the wind that she had to keep moving, she couldn't stop. Keep going! Step! Step! Go! 100 meters down the slope, her husband was waiting for her and took her into his arms as he thanked us. I told him to keep her moving. I wanted to help more, but I didn't know what I could do for her. No one on that mountain had time to stop and rest and I felt responsible mostly just for my wife and my own self. I can't imagine having liability for an entire trekking group of people with varying ability. I'm not even sure what I would have done if my wife had begun to despair herself. Survival depended on us staying physically and mentally strong and continuing to descend until we reached shelter- in our case until we reached the town of Muktinath, 1700 m below the pass.
Except for another incident- when a young Israeli trekker cut in between Lisa and I and then slowed down the line behind her, separating Lisa and I for 20 minutes until I awkwardly pushed past her and basically tumbled down the mountain shouting for Lisa to wait for me- Lisa and I stayed together, kept moving, and safely finished our descent a little before sunset. In all we had walked nearly nonstop for almost 10 hours. It was a long, epic day for us, but I probably wouldn't include it as one of my three hardest days in the mountains. Our packs were light, and our minds were strong. We never felt we were in too much danger- or maybe we just banished the perfectly rational thought from our minds. Worry and fatigue could have led to despair. And despair is dangerous.
In a hotel in Muktinath we found our two friends who had gotten separated from us early in the hike. The French friend had been swept 10 meters off of the trail in a small avalanche on his descent. Although he wasn't hurt (nor were, he thinks, the other 14 people who joined him in his tumble) he was profoundly disturbed by the experience evidenced by the fact that within 36 hours he was on a plane back to France!
We didn't realize the magnitude of the impending disaster until the next morning when a group of Israeli trekkers were looking for their friends and had tallied that the number of Israeli trekkers alone who never made it to Muktinath the previous day was in the double digits. The weather had cleared, the sun shone and the sight and sound of rescue helicopters filled the morning. At first they brought down live trekkers found stranded but alive on the trail or who had spent the night at the teahouse at the very top of the pass. Then they started to bring down the bodies.
In all, I believe over 40 people died in night. I assume most of them succumbed to exposure, being stranded in the blizzard overnight, exhausted and without the physical or psychological means to continue. One man's body was found in a sleeping bag on the trail. Many of the fallen were Nepali porters who often don't have the experience of the guides nor the equipment and clothing of the trekkers. How much harder would our day have been with at 30kg pack on our backs, wearing Chuck Taylor sneakers and without our myriad layers of down and waterproof jackets.
For the next couple of days, the beauty of the valley around Muktinath was overshadowed by the sobering scenes of groups of friends wandering aimlessly around town awaiting the arrival of news, or the remains, of their still missing friends.
Although we've discussed the day dozens of times now, I still don't know exactly why we survived and others did not. Maybe my experience and Lisa's strength and confidence kept us safe. Maybe it was our warm clothes and the time we took to acclimatize. Maybe it was because we only had to look out for each other and we kept each other sane and safe. Probably all three with a healthy dose of luck as well. I know that the next time I trek in Nepal, and there will assuredly be a next time, I will again rent a seemingly unnecessarily thick down jacket. I'll also insist on another ridiculously heavy and warm (-20 degree) down sleeping bag- which I believe would have kept us alive in the night if it came to that. A lot of trekkers have porters who carry their sleeping bags and so were caught in the blizzard without them. If I employ a trekker I will make sure his load isn't more than recommended (I think less than 30 kgs is normal in Nepal) and that he has good boots and warm jackets himself. I'll do my best to get up to date info on the weather and be open to delaying our trip instead of pushing on in bad weather. I would again read up carefully on the trek and arm myself with the important knowledge of the route description and estimated time and distance so I could make educated decisions in a pinch.
We feel really fortunate to have come through the experience without incident but we'd also advise other trekkers to take the same precautions we listed above- and more! There are many great websites and books dedicated to trekking in Nepal, all of them written by people with much more experience than I have. Consult them and know what you are getting yourself into before you set out. Hire a reputable company. Insist that the porters you employ are well outfitted. Or if you are like me and prefer the independent trek, make sure you are ready for the most extreme weather you can think of, both physically and mentally. And enjoy, because trekking in the Himalaya is a highlight of anyone's life of travel!
I'd like to say 'thank you' to Evan and Lisa for this amazing blog post and also to my friend, Kamal Shakya for the great pictures.