Thirdeyemom

The Gates of Hell

At last, we made it to our final destination Thorung Phedi before the highlight of the trek: The infamous, intimidating Thorung-La Pass at 17,769 feet/5416m). Thorung Phedi is an extremely remote place with only two small “hotels”. There are no shops, no cafes, no trees….just barren, brown landscape. Little did I know it was the place from hell! Well not that bad but it gave you the feeling that you were trapped. It was the point of no return. You either made it over the pass or you had to walk all the way back to the beginning. The worries of not making it over the pass loomed over each trekkers head with the realization that you weren’t exactly sure yet how your body would react to the altitude (severe altitude sickness is not something you can mess around with. If you ignore the signs and don’t descend, you can die). After nine grueling days of trekking and feeling completely unhygienic, you just wanted to get over that damn pass and get back to some sort of civilization (even if it lacked the long coveted western toilet).

As you enter the main teahouse at Thorung Phedi, you are instantly shocked by the stinky, gamey smell of hundreds of trekkers, who like yourself are filthy and haven’t had a hot shower now for a number of days. You are crammed like sardines into the main dining area which is the only place warm enough to pass the time before bed. Most days, there is barely a spot to be had so you end up sitting on the concrete steps, uncomfortably close to an unknown smelly hiker, or standing. We opted to stand and I’m glad we did as we met the owner of the teahouse’s son, who had a lot to say. Apparently his father started the teahouse many years ago and today (of course his son didn’t tell me this….I heard it from our trusted guide Hari) the family is very wealthy in Nepali standards. They spend the short six-month season at the teahouse, working like a dog, and then leave to travel around the world. Even more unbelievable was the news that this young man’s brother lives in the United States, in my hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota (population @ 2 million). It was one of those strange moments when you realize what a small world it truly is!

Unfortunately the lodging situation was less to be desired. There really wasn’t anywhere to go except the jam-packed dining hall because our room was miserable. It was literally a square, refrigerated box lined with stones and an attached bathroom (just a hole but it was luxury to have it in our room and not down the hall or worse yet, outside). It was so ungodly cold in the room that you had to wear everything you had (your Gortex coat, long underwear, hiking pants, wool socks, wool hat, wool sweater, and gloves, which of course were all very dirty by this point), AND you had to lay under your sleeping bag with a yak-wool, heavy duty blanket on top. Being from Minnesota where the winters can easily get to 10-20 below zero F, you would think that I would be ok with the frigid air but it was absolutely miserable. The little sleeping I did accomplish was spent with my head under all the covers trying not to suffocate.

It was a terrible night (thankfully the only bad night we ever had). We ate dinner early, and tried our best to go to bed by 6:30 PM knowing very well that we wouldn’t sleep a wink given the high altitude, the severe cold, and the anxiety of the next day. The knocking on our door began at 3:30 AM and I seriously felt like I had never fallen asleep. The thought of getting out of bed when I was already frozen to the bone wasn’t pleasant but the thought of having to spend another night in hell was worse. So I jumped out of bed, of course already fully clothed (since I slept in them) and joined our small group for breakfast of hot mint tea and Tibetan bread with honey.

We set off in the pitch black dark at 4 AM along with the hundreds of other trekkers slowly stumbling up the mountain, huffing and puffing into the darkness. It was cold, windy and quiet. Each step was slow. You could hardly breathe. It was the highest point I’d ever been in my life and I was quite worried about getting altitude sickness. Yet ironically, the beauty of the starlight trail lined with the twinkling glow of headlamps made me relax and stay focused. One foot in front of the next, breathe slowly, I told myself.

It was slippery and so dark. A few mules almost lost it over the edge. It was incredibly exhausting as well. Like walking up a treadmill with no air. Yet we kept going because the memories of the Gates of Hell obsessed my brain and the visions of a nicer place awaited me.

Hari was my all time savior. He was my cheerleader, motivator, drill sergeant…you name it. He kept me going and took excellent care of me. He wasn’t the least bit concerned about my 68-year-old father who has been climbing much bigger mountains than this pass. Hari was concerned about me: A stay-at-home Mom with two little kids who he’d talked to on his cell phone. We’d become good friends and his focus was on getting me across the pass.

After an hour and a half of endless, baby steps up with my little-kid questions “Are we there yet”? and Hari’s continued response “Only five more minutes”, we were closing in. I was too exhausted to realize he was lying to me but of course it was only in my best interest because he knew I would make it.

Finally, as the sun began to rise and it hit 6:30 AM we could see the pass. I was breathing fine which was such a relief. I surprised myself and realized in that moment, that anything is possible. It almost felt better than finishing a marathon (which I did ten years ago and then couldn’t sit without hurting for an entire year!).

After such a long journey and so much time spent together, we had to get a few celebration shots with Hari and Chrring. We couldn’t have done it without them. Reaching the top was a moment I’ll never forget!

Here are some photos along the way (Note: I included some from the previous post, heading up to the pass because I thought they were good shots. Unfortunately the pictures are in REVERSE order….some kind of technical difficulty here but you get the point. The first ones are at the pass at 6:30 am, climbing up are the next ones).

2 comments

  1. Wow, I almost imagined myself there!! Well-done!! I was really sick (due to food poisoning not altitude) when I walked the Inca Trail (much lower altitude I know) but from almost the beginning, I could barely walk and was vomiting and couldn’t eat anything for two of the three days. There was no way I was going back though!!! All I could do was concentrate on each step and I eventually got there (and got better!). I felt a real sense of achievement on reaching the ruins and it hasn’t put me off trekking but made me realize how much a person can do with the power of the mind when the body says no more.

    • That sounds terrible! When did you do the Inca trail? I did it in 2001 right after 9/11. Was a crazy trip. I got mugged in the taxi ride from the airport going to our hotel, less than an hour after landing into Peru!!!! Scary stuff!

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