Like many university students finishing school, the excitement of graduating was matched only by the freedom that came with it. I had always told myself that I would take time to travel after I finished school. So as soon as my exams were done, I booked myself a one-way ticket to Shanghai. There was no real plan, other than I had to get to Nepal and see the Himalayas at some point.
After a few months of bumming around South East Asia, I finally made my way to Nepal in January of 2012. Despite arriving in the country alone, I was determined that I was going to walk the complete Annapurna Circuit. The trek is nearly 300km around the Annapurna mountain range west of Mt. Everest. Trekking in the Himalayas in January can be dicey so I found a partner to do the trek with and (at the strong and very wise insistence of my parents) hired a guide. We were planning on taking twenty-one days to complete the circuit. There are small villages with teahouses along the way so you don’t need to pack a tent or a stove which makes for a nice light pack. You climb steadily for the first ten days and then go over a high mountain pass where you begin your descent for the last nine days.
This pass, Thorong La, tends to be the focal point whenever I talk about my time in Nepal - for good reason. The pass tops out at 5,417 meters above sea level. The weather on the first ten days of the hike was fantastic and the day before we were set to go over the high pass was no exception: clear skies and great views. There were a few other groups of trekkers, guides, and porters who were all planning to go over the pass together. Typically it takes around seven hours to get over the pass, going up 600m to the top and then 1,600m down to the next town. To give ourselves plenty of time we decided to leave at 5:30am.
I woke up in the morning freezing. I wriggled around my sleeping bag for a few minutes trying to get dressed without exposing any skin to the cold air and finally emerged to find it snowing outside. There were a few inches of snow on the ground so I went to find our guide to see if we were still planning on going over the pass. He was already talking with some of the other guides making a plan. He told me that typically what happens is once you start climbing you get above the clouds and out of the weather. We had a quick breakfast and set off into the snow with our headlamps lighting the way. When we left there were fourteen of us going as a big group.
Initially I was too overcome by the excitement of it all to feel any concern about the weather. I was trekking in the dark through the Himalayas in the snow. Ego boost? Check.
After about an hour of hiking the sun started to come out, which was startling because I could now see how much snow was really falling. The wind was picking up and we heard what was the first many avalanches crashing down somewhere near us. I’ll never know how close they were, because I could never see more than ten or twenty feet ahead of me. We came to a small stone hut with no doors for a break.
The trail is marked with posts so that you can follow it even when the path is covered with snow. It’s a great system - until your visibility is compromised. We walked for another few hours as the storm kept blowing harder. We stopped at one point to try and find the next pole. No one could see it, and the guides couldn’t see enough distinguishing land features to really know where we were. We stood there waiting for a break in the storm to try and catch a glimpse of the next pole. That break never came, so we kept going hoping that we had the right direction.
The snow was up past my knees at this point and the knock-off North Face hiking boots I had picked up in Vietnam were not as waterproof nor as warm as they had been marketed. Big surprise. By this point I was getting really nervous. The guides didn’t know where to go. We asked them about going back down, which they said was just as dangerous as going forward so we might as well keep going. I was getting really cold and knew that things were not going according to plan. Being cold is one thing, but knowing that you’re several hours from any shelter (if you can find your way) and in the midst of a whiteout at 17,000 feet in the Himalayas sends a different kind of chill down your spine.
We walked a little further and then stopped again. Our guides told us we were going to wait. We found a few large rocks and huddled behind them. The guides said that we must be close to the top of the pass, but that they didn’t know what direction it was in. A few of them tried to go out and find it but all came back unsuccessful. A few of the French hikers were crying and everyone looked scared, even the guides. As soon as we stopped moving any warmth we had seemed to be carried away by the wind. My toes felt frozen and I couldn’t feel or move them. I was really worried about hypothermia and frostbite.
This was the only time in my life when I sincerely thought that there was a reasonable chance that my life might be in danger. None of us were dressed for this kind of storm, we were lost, and even if we did find the trail again we were not even half way to the next shelter. I have no idea how long we stayed behind that rock, but it felt like hours. We tried a few times to get up and keep walking, but every time we did the wind pushed us right back. I must have looked cold and scared because my guide came up to my trekking partner and I and started bear-hugging us. After a while he broke away and told us we were going. I don’t think he knew where he was going at all, but he recognized that the storm wasn’t getting any better and that we were just getting colder and colder. The other guides and hikers followed suit and we started walking aimlessly into the storm again.
Less than five minutes later we spotted the top. We had been so close the whole time, but had no idea. These guides had been there dozens of times but couldn’t recognize it through all the snow. Finally making it to the top gave me a sense of relief and hope. We snapped a few pictures and celebrated the fact that the way down would be better.
We started down in high spirits. In a few hours we would be in the next village eating a warm meal. This optimism didn’t last. It quickly became clear that the storm was just as bad and the wind was even stronger. A few gusts actually knocked me down. We started running into the same problems again. We couldn’t find the poles and were hearing the ominous sound of avalanches. At one point our guides realized that we weren’t even in the right valley anymore. We had missed a turn and walked down into a steep valley. We retraced our steps until we found a pole again.
We kept going. Finding one pole and then stopping for ten minutes while we tried to find the next one. This seemed to go on and on.
Eventually one of the younger guides told us he knew where we were. This was both good and bad. It was great that we knew where we were, but this came with the realization that there was no way we could make it to the next village before nightfall. We kept walking in complete whiteness, none of us articulating the fear we all felt.
After a long period of silence, one of the guides yelled out that he saw some houses. We started walking towards them and sure enough, there were three old abandoned guesthouses. This sparked a debate. Half the group wanted to break into the guesthouses to spend the night, and half thought it would be better to keep going until we reached the town, even if it meant walking in the dark. We decided it was safest for us to stay put for the night. So just as the sun was disappearing, our headlamps came out for the second time that day and we kicked in the door to one of the guesthouses.
As our luck (or lack thereof) would have it, the roof to this guesthouse had collapsed under the weight of the snow. Our guides told us it was good enough despite the gaping hole in the ceiling and the snow-covered floor. We scrounged what little food we could find, made a fire on the floor and tried to warm up. It was only then that I realized how much ice had built up in my beard over the day.
We eventually dozed off with a light sprinkle of snow falling over us. With everything that had happened, I didn’t sleep very much. The next morning we woke up to the most beautiful morning of the whole trip.
We hiked the last few hours into the town that been our destination the previous day. We walked into town to lots of puzzled looks. People don’t usually walk into town that early in the morning, especially after such a big storm. It was only as we arrived into town that we realized a Russian who that had set out with us the previous morning was unaccounted for. They had been moving slow and told us to go ahead before things got bad. We hadn’t seen any signs of them since and were quite concerned. We went to a teahouse to find a phone to call the previous village to find out if they had gone back or not. It wasn’t until later that night that we finally got word that they had in fact turned around early on and were fine.
We found the owner of the guesthouse we had broken into and paid him for the damaged door. Several people told us afterwards that storms like this one don’t happen regularly, but when they do hit it’s not uncommon for trekkers to lose their way and freeze to death. After the storm the pass was closed due to the amount of snow and increased avalanche risk. We even became the subject of trail folklore, hearing stories from other people of “this group that got lost on the pass”.
In October of 2014 a similar storm hit on the exact same pass and 43 people died.
I don’t tell this story to brag about cheating death or being hard-core. I tell it because it has forever changed my approach to exploration and adventure. I still love it and I hope that never changes. The only difference is that now when I’m in the mountains or in a canoe, I make sure I know exactly why I’m there. In Nepal, I had something to prove. It didn’t matter that I knew January was a bad time to trek; I had to do it. I wouldn’t accept anything else, despite the warnings I had received.
Now when I’m on an adventure, I make sure I’m doing it for the right reasons. I do it because I love it. Coming at it from this mindset makes it a lot easier to see things as they are, and to make decisions that aren’t clouded by my pride or hubris.
All it took was getting lost in a blizzard for fourteen hours. Needless to say I’m a firm believer in experiential learning.
When I look back on what happened in Nepal, I don’t think about what could have happened to me. I think about what could have happened to my guides and their families if we hadn’t eventually found our way. I made the choice to do that trek and thereby accepted any consequences that may have followed. My guides were simply doing their jobs and trying to get a stubborn white guy through the circuit. It’s not fair that I put them in harm’s way just because I had something to prove.
I would love to go back to Nepal someday and do that trek again. It really is quite spectacular. But in September next time.
Contributed by Sam Wilson
Sam currently works in Lakefield at Lakefield College School. Originally from Toronto, Sam's family history is firmly entrenched in Peterborough and the Kawarthas.
More Information about the Annapurna Circuit:
For more information about the Annapurna Circuit, check out the following links: