How I almost lost my life. A how-not-to hike guide for beginners.
Small interlude, snare-drums please, k-thx-hi! I’m writing in English now, cause the only reason I wrote in Dutch before was so my mom could read my blogs. Now I’m back in the Netherlands, I can actually tell her in person (or not). Maybe in the future I’ll translate an old blog or 2. Anyhow, I felt like writing this down because of my recent experiences as a hiker. One of my new passions. Nature in it’s full glory is so beautiful and most enjoyable during these trips. When I heard of the terrible news that a snowstorm killed 43 hikers, 50 disappeared and maybe still missing and 175 wounded by frostbite and the cold it really got to me. A few months before I was in that same region (and I was also one of those cheap tourists the article mentions). I started to think about all the naive moments I had and how I completely underestimated nature. Perhaps shed a bit of light why the storm was so dangerous and show off my beginner-mistakes and naivety to the world. I guess this could be some sort of a guide:
a “How NOT to hike” guide
So a couple of years ago I did my first hike in China. With 3 others we climbed a part of the Chinese wall called Jiankou. According to the Lonely planet it’s a very slippery and dangerous road. In the car I saw signs next to the road with a warning telling it’s your own risk coming here and there are no authorities blablabla. Of course the effect was the opposite of the intention it had. We only got more excited about conquering this trek. So we decided to pick the longest one — a 6 hour hike in the burning sun. We walked to the entrance of the wall and we met some other tourists. They were returning and one of the boys had an open stomach wound. They were returning and probably racing to get him to a hospital. From that moment on we got a bit nervous and noticed how strong our guide looked in his big climbing boots. I was still recovering from adrenal fatigue at the time and had these shitty Vans sneakers (which I could throw away after a few hours) and was completely unprepared. But the hike went smoothly. I felt I had the energy for another one while running, jumping and bunny-hopping on the Great wall for 6+ hours. Easy peasy.
Forward around 12 months and I was in Nepal. All I knew and all I wanted to do here was to hike in the Himalayas. Nepal has the most beautiful landscapes in the world with hidden tribes almost forgotten by the modern world living at high altitude all year around. With my experience last year in China and a couple of other hikes in Thailand and Myanmar I was quite confident I would be able to handle this. The Annapurna circuit trekking seemed most plausible to my budget and was described as one for beginners, with beautiful views, but also most popular. Which means: a lot of tourists. But hugging up with strangers around a campfire and meeting new people didn’t sound too bad. I read from a some sites that a guide is not required as the path is as straightforward as it can be, but a porter could be helpful. Porters are locals that help carry your luggage. It was recommended for some of the hard parts were, especially if you’re not in a good condition. I thought I was, but damn.. was I wrong.
So I’ll try not to rehearse too much from the stories I already told in other blogs (Dutch) and focus on the mistakes I made which were the most naive and plain dumb. I will also share some things you should do. Anyhow, if you ever plan to do a long hike, avoid what I did. Hopefully you can learn from this.
Do’s and don’ts
I’ll start with something you should do. Although it was pure coincidence: I met a Nepalese girl at the airport, named Ambica and she wanted to hike as well. Which meant I had someone that could speak the language. This was most fortunate because it changed everything. What I expected to be a normal hike holiday. To what I got: a near-death experience. That doesn’t sound fun, but I want to do it again. Also discounts, local busses, illegal jeeps, to improvised plans and hearing translated stories, situations and conversations. There were vocal fights in local busses which were so funny. But I would’ve never understood without translation. Unforgettable! So.. get a local to hike with you if possible.
The first mistake was one in disguise. We were told to skip the first part of the hike. A lot of motorbikes and jeeps use the same road. And this was valuable advice. Many other hikers complained to me and told me they would skip it next time. So we got into our first illegal jeep, which drove us up to Chame. It was a crazy ride and our driver got in a fight with some drunk workers, got a flat tire and a broken steering wheel (YES a broken steering wheel) and instead of 3 hours it took around 6 to 7. Add another 6 hours from the bumpy morning-ride with the local bus, a long bumpy road full of S-turns and you understand I went crazy. Anyhow, the worst mistake we made here: we went too high, too fast. The village was already at 2650m high (altitude can start from 2000m above sea level, which differs from person to person). The day after the thin oxygen slowed me down considerably. Ambica was already acclimated from living here. But my body wasn’t used to the altitude yet. The advice: start lower and climb your way up.
The second mistake was as soon as we reached the next town, Pisang, I fell asleep. Taking a rest is fine, but never fall asleep at the highest elevation of the day. After reaching Pisang we should’ve continued to climb and return. But I was so tired I decided to take a nap. A couple of hours later I woke up with a terrifying headache and I suddenly started puking. It made me so weak that I could hardly walk the stairs and I shivered continuously. I heard a story of a girl, which right before the summit, started puking and was brought back by helicopter. She was so close to the top.. There was no phone in the town I was at, so instead I received a local medicine: I ate garlic and received a spoonful of plain flour and Coca-cola. Garlic thins the blood and the locals told us that the flour combined with the cola adds oxygen to the brain. Somehow. Luckily the next day I woke up without any headache. But hiking was still very, very hard.
In the next village we were told about a cave at the top of a climb with a 1000year old bow from a monk, that according to legend, reached Nirvana. We decided it would be a good training, as we would stay in the same town and sleep at the same elevation. Of course we also wanted to see the cave and bow. All we had to do was follow the big blue and red arrows painted on rocks. But we arrived at a different path and the will for adventure (plus loads of naivety) made us pick this other path. The thought that it was probably not crossed by any other tourist was alluring. And of course we wanted to do it our own way. We went our own alternate route and followed the small cow-made trails. The word danger was non-existent in our minds. We saw on a map that we should be able to connect to the other path somehow. I just wish we knew we were taking a 5 hour detour. We took only 1 bottle of water and a few snacks so we could keep the weight low, as I was still feeling weak. A fine choice concerning the weight, but it wasn’t enough. So we hiked off-road, through pure nature, stood on cliffs and had to jump over streaming water with slippery stones. Ambica touched snow for the first time, which was so funny and interesting to see. But if one of us had slipped and sprained an ankle, I’m not sure how we would’ve gotten back. We probably had viewpoints no other tourists had ever seen — because no other tourist is stupid enough to think you can just take a detour and expect to end on the original path somehow. I had this great timing for getting the runs in the middle of nowhere too. Even though I can’t say for sure nobody has seen those views from there, I can definitely say no-one has ever pooped there before and this was definitely the most beautiful pooping view ever.
But it drained me from my last fluids and I was left completely exhausted. The altitude was killing me, my heartbeat pumped so loud, it was all I could hear. Soon I gave up and we decided to go down. After a few 100 meters we miraculously ended up on the main road! So lucky, but we were out of water, snacks and energy. So I had to choose, as Ambica was more energetic than me, to continue down or try going up anyway. After 5 minutes of rest I decided to go up. I had so little left, that my walking speed probably averaged that of a 90 year old Asian grandpa with a bend back and walking stick.
Somehow we made it up to the Stupas (temples), but we were unable to find the cave. It was getting late and we decided go down. Usually going down is a lot harder, but somehow for me this is easier. I pretty much bunny-hopped going down.
I had to pee. But peeing burned so much, that it really hurt. A bit after that my kidneys started to hurt as well and with every step I felt them. I knew I was completely withered. My eyes were bloodshot and I really needed water. We made it to back somehow and after finishing a fine tasting meal I was good again. Dinner had never tasted that good (sorry, that’s a lie, sushi in Japan is so much better). I am surprised how far one can push his/her body.
There was one more and last grandeur mistake. We were hiking up to Tilicho lake, but the previous day we didn’t reach base camp. So we slept in a lodge 2 hours from base camp, which meant we had to do 4 hours of extra hiking in total. We started early and felt fit, but this still meant we would lose time and more importantly: energy. It was was one of the most beautiful parts of my trip. But nearing the lake, we had to go through the snow. The wind was also picking up. The climate in the mountains is known for being able to change in an instant. Going back, for the first time in my life, I thought I would die. Though no extra mistakes were made, I won’t bore you with this (You can read it in Dutch). Finally after 10+ hours of hiking, we reached base camp again around 17:00. The locals told us it would be dark around 19:00/19:30. So we had more than 2 hours to get back to our lodge, which was enough time and we decided to continue.
The most amazing thing happened. A thick fog appeared. We walked through the fog and everything was hazy. It completely changed the scenery. We both thought we were dreaming and I can only describe that it felt as strange as reading a book from Haruki Murakami or watching a David Lynch movie.
As if we were at the bottom of a sea (which is basically true, because the Himalaya the bottom of the ocean). We were so mesmerised by the scenery we almost forgot we had not much extra time left before it would be completely dark. And that’s where the last mistake was made: when we walked towards base camp in the morning, we didn’t notice there was another trail heading to base camp as well. So when we returned to our lodge, without realising, we took this one. Suddenly something huge rose up from the grass without making any sound, my heart seemed to stop beating. I was afraid some large Yak (YAK ATTACK is inscribed like a graffiti tag on many places) would attack but, but apparently these were friendly cows. This happened 4 more times. I did not get used to it. Luckily this meant there were farmers and we found them. With their flashlight they pointed to the main road. We took the cow-made trails again. “That’s so f**** naive, Lowen!”, I hear you thinking. And you’re right. Half an hour later we were lost again. But this time we had already done 12+ hours of walking and we were in complete darkness. We couldn’t go back anymore and some roads just ended up in bushes, which we had to surpass somehow. Ambica broke down and started crying, thinking we got lost and would die. And all I could think about is that we should keep moving, so I tried not to show any fear and calm her down. Take the lead. Keep moving so we don’t freeze to death. But without any direction and proper light, it seemed like hours of wandering around. Finally a farm boy saw my flashlight and saved us from not just spending the night outside, but also probably hypothermia. He might have saved our lives.
So now imagine any of these situations combined with a freakin’ snowstorm and I would’ve died up there. They say the Annapurna circuit is for beginners, but they should’ve told me naive people were a different class of beginners. Oh and my travel-buddy told me afterwards she had asthma and some other serious health problems. DON’T do that. NOT COOL.
So the most amazing views, pictures and memories were pretty much from all the mistakes we made. I wouldn’t have wanted this adventure any other way, but hell don’t do stupid things and die when there is a snowstorm. Also if there’s no snowstorm, don’t do what I did.
So to summarize:
- don’t go unprepared.
- don’t skip too much and climb up too fast.
- don’t sleep at the highest elevation of the day. Continue to walk and go back.
- don’t go without guide when it’s nearing dark, someone should know if there are more paths.
But do go there, do see the amazing views, support the Nepali people as tourism has been slim to none after the earthquakes. By just going there you support them.
And definitely, most definitely poop up there if you have the chance.
R.I.P. Annapurna snowstorm victims.
original publish date: January 22, 2015