The harder I try to fall asleep, the more sleep eludes me. So dead for today's trek.
The sound of the singing bowls slices through my troubled slumber. I sit up groggily, fumbling around for my trekking pants. I slide them on over my thermals and they're cold as ice. Just the shock I needed to my system. Fully awake now.
I brace myself before opening the door of the teahouse for the blast of frigid morning air to hit my face. Unsurprisingly, it's completely dark outdoors. I haven't brought a headlight or a torch hehehe. Luckily my night vision isn't too bad, and I manage to get by with the ambient light from Zoha's torch (she's right behind me).
The light illuminates only the two steps immediately ahead of me so I have no idea how much more we have left to climb. It's silent all around save for the sounds of trekking poles hitting the ground and the crunch our boots are making as we step on snow and fallen leaves.
The flight of stairs seems neverending. I grit my teeth and up my pace to get it over and done with, which just tires me out more quickly. We're about 3000 metres above sea level and oxygen is thin. In half an hour I've stopped thrice to catch my breath, standing on rest platforms by the side of the stone staircase.
The downside to taking these breaks is that passing climbers keep beaming their torches at my face to see if I'm someone they know. I try to be polite to strangers (I get progressively ruder the better you know me, it's my special way of showing affection) but after the nth flashlight I can no longer be bothered to contort this face - (-_-) - into a smile.
Legs are jelly but I've made it to the top of Poon Hill! At 3,280 metres above sea level this is the highest I've ever been. Already there's a crowd waiting for the sun to rise.
I take my place on the ledge, accepting gratefully from Sumit, our guide, a cup of hot ginger tea and a hobnob biscuit. The sun is still slightly below the horizon but it's bright enough to make out several peaks, including Dhaulagiri (8,167m), Annapurna I (8,091m) and Annapurna South (7,220m). The sight of these giants is spectacular.
There's really nothing quite like sipping on tea and watching the sun cast its first rays on the Annapurna massif. This is how every single day begins, with the mountains gradually reclaiming the majesty that darkness has stolen from them.
There's a fleeting, gorgeous moment during sunrise when everything is tinged with hues of pink and gold. It lasts for less than a minute, and then the rest of daylight seems to arrive all at once.
'Cuz it ain't official till I gets a picture with the sign.
We begin our 400 metre descent to Ghorepani. I'm impressed by how many steps I'd managed to climb up at dawn.
The descent is slow because there's ice on the steps so we have to tread carefully. Going up I hadn't noticed the ice, but now that we're descending I nearly slip a couple of times. Shortly after the picture below is taken the guy in red (not part of our group) falls where there happens to be a rock and hits his head on it. Loudly.
All I do when I see him fall is to say "OH, F***." I'm ill-equipped to help - can barely keep my own balance and have no first aid knowledge - so I have to keep moving because the staircase is a narrow one and there's a line of climbers making their way down. The guy's wound is not a pretty sight, but thankfully Mahesh is by the guy's side in seconds, holding a towel to his wound, with his own guide nowhere to be seen.
It's a sobering reminder to be extra cautious when heading downslope. At this height there're no clinics, much less hospitals, so if anything happens you either bear with it till you complete the entire trek or be airlifted off the mountains for the foreigner price of USD5,000 (though in legit cases insurance should cover this).
Back at Hotel Snowland for breakfast and to pack our stuff, and then it's time to say goodbye to the village of Ghorepani.
The morning's adrenaline from summiting Poon Hill is ebbing and is slowly being replaced by fatigue. We're walking through a forest patchworked with white where snow has fallen, but all I feel is dread in the pit of my stomach as more stairs appear. I've never been more in need of bubble tea than right now.
From Ghorepani (2874m) we ascend again to a height of 3100 metres. Poon Hill is visible in the distance, nestled comfortably amongst its taller neighbours, its observatory tower resembling a toy. Hard to believe that we've come so far since the start of the day.
Today we're blessed with a clear and incredibly blue sky.
I thought I would take an entry to talk about Mahesh, who's been an incredible guide/yoga teacher to us. This guy radiates calmness - he's got such a gentle and comforting aura. Even when he's hiking uphill his steps are measured and unhurried, his breathing even, his footing sure. He spent two years in Singapore teaching yoga back in 2006 and 2007, so we talk about that a lot as we climb. Well, whenever I'm not gasping and wheezing.
"It's like he floats up mountains," said the trekkers on the previous trek he led to Annapurna base camp, at our welcome dinner on Christmas eve. I believe them now.
The only type of shopping you'll be able to do on the mountains will be for colorful hats and mittens or Tibetan style trinkets and souvenirs. It's obviously cheaper to get these at Thamel in Kathmandu, but if you're a first world bugger who's itching for some form of retail therapy then you'd be pleased to know that they won't cost more than a couple of USD each anyway.
We suddenly find ourselves in a forest where everything is white. It's so beautiful it's surreal, and I don't think I've ever inhaled air this clean. Got a lot of thinking done here, but watch out for the ice on the ground.
Now that we're on the downhill part of the trek I'd expected to be bounding down the steps. Turns out I'm even slower going down than I am climbing up.
The ice covering the rocky steps compounds my anxiety about possibly falling and smashing my face into a rock. Before we take each step we have to assess the rocks or slope ahead to look for a non-icy part to step on. Sometimes there are none, and my stomach clenches in fear as I ready myself for the feeling of slippery ice beneath my sole, preparing to break a fall if it happens. The DSLR camera slung round my neck is actually affecting my balance at this point (and to be honest I would protect it with my body in a fall haha), so Sumit kindly offers to hold it for me.
Not fun at all, but the combined charm of snow and nature did make the experience a little better.
Further down the trail we see stones stacked into structures resembling pagodas. These are known as prayer mounds. In Buddhist tradition, each stone, blessed with a prayer by a passing traveler and added to a prayer mound, merges with the prayers of bygone travelers and enhances the spirituality of the area.
Finally reached our lunch spot. Exhausted by this point, but our porters are as upbeat as ever despite carrying loads of 25 to 40 kg each. Me? I'm just glad I had the foresight to order a double fried egg to go with my dal bhat.
It's common to see children helping out at teahouses owned by their families, and this one is no exception. This little boy was a sweetheart.
I see this just as I hit the lowest point of the trek for me, when I'm really starting to feel the effects of an old ankle injury and the exertion of the past few days.
A few rhododendrons are stubbornly blooming against the winter chill. Come April and May, according to Mahesh, the entire valley will be covered in them. What a sight that would be to behold.
3 more hours till the end of the day's trek! If these flowers can do it, so can I.
Machhapuchhre - it's a peak also known as "Fish Tail" for the distinctive shape of its double summits. Regarded as sacred by locals, it's off-limits to climbers.
We see it over and over (I mix it up with all the other peaks we've seen, calling every mountain "Machhapuchhre" oooops), but it remains a welcome sight.
After heading downslope for two hours we arrive at our accommodation in Chuile, Mountain Discovery Lodge.
It's sundown and a drove of donkeys are in front of the guesthouse overlooking a gorge, their bells jingling softly as they lower their heads to graze.