Around Annapurna – Yak Kharka and Thorong High camp

Tilicho lake

Thorong la

16th October

The previous day was tiring and I had my body aching, especially after reaching the tea house and after allowing time to relax, the entire upper section of my limbs ached as and when I had to climb up or down the stair cases to reach the dining room or move to our allotted rooms (something that’s normal in these tea houses). The dinner was refreshing and so was the chit chats in the dining area. We got chance to recharge our cameras, mobile phones once again. 16th October was once again, a bright morning. Since our start from upper Pissang, weather forecast has been spot on. With Tilicho lake behind us (though I didn’t reach there personally, my companions did), the only high point that remained in the trek was Thorong La. We were to cross it on the 18th. There was a tad nervousness in my mind about the way down from Thorong la, especially about the amount of snow to be expected on our way down to Muktinath from Thorong La. I asked different people en-route and got varied answers to that. Some said, the amount of snow on the other side was less as the Mustang district (the other side of Thorong La) is expected to be much drier than Manang. However, others had contrarian views. Nevertheless, we kept those thoughts at bay and went for the breakfast.

Shree Kharka

Once again we were treated with a lavish display of mountains through the glass windows of the dining room. We wished we could spend an extra day relaxing at this place, but we had to move ahead. Luggage was reshuffled once again as we merged with the left overs on our way up to Tilicho base camp. After that, we hit the trail. After going downhill for some distance, we tread on flat ground. Initially, we headed down the same trail we took on our way up, but after sometime, we left the trail towards Manang and diverted left towards Yak Kharka. It was still flat but was muddy as a stream of water flowed right through the middle of it. After sometime, we had to go through some bushes and walking was a bit difficult negotiating the bushes which were thorny and the ground was muddy too.

En-route Yak Kharna, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

Looking down the valley, we could see the flow of the river though the middle of it, heading towards Manang. In fact, we could see its houses on the left banks of it. When we started from Shree Kharka, we felt like putting on our jackets, but we resisted that temptation as we knew, after walking in the sun for sometime, we had to peel off. After walking for sometime, we reached a bend, beyond which, the trail started moving up. It was devoid of mud and we enjoyed the gradual hike. The top was visible and there were a few houses adoring the it. We stopped there for sometime to enjoy the surrounding views. Annapurna IV and Gangapurna bathed in bright sunshine.

En-route Yak Kharka, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De
En-route Yak Kharka, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

From thereon, the trail moved down quite steeply and we could see it was covered with snow. It was evident, that the trail from Shree Kharka to the top was exposed to the sun and hence, was devoid of snow, but on the other side, the sun was yet to exercise its power and hence, snow ruled the roost. The initial section had a clear track amidst the snow on both sides, but after that, it was almost fully covered. The trail headed downwards to reach a stream, beyond which, lay a tea house. After that, it moved up again to merge with the main track to Thorong La coming from Manang (used by trekkers who skipped Tilicho lake). We could see it entirely. The trail after the tea house was devoid of snow.

En-route Yak Kharka, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

I started moving down carefully through the stretches of snow, but fared much better than earlier stretches of Tilicho base camp or lake. The key again, was to tread upon footsteps of previous travelers, which was an indication of solid ground. There were slippery grounds, as expected while walking over melting snow, but things were much better, also probably because, may be, I was finally getting used to it. Niladri and Dhananjoy strode ahead. After traversing through multiple switch backs, we finally reached the stream that separated the two tracks (the one coming from Tilicho lake from the one coming from Manang). We stopped at the bridge to take some photographs of the gushing stream and then headed towards the tea house to rest there and have some tea.

En-route Yak Kharka, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

We ordered lemon tea and relaxed around. We had time at our hand and were likely to reach Yak Kharka before lunch. That should leave the entire second half at our disposal to lurk around and hopefully, gain some acclimatization before our hike to Thorong La. We kept pushing our guide to advance our halt to Thorong high camp (for the next day), instead of Thorong Phedi (the option opted by most of the travelers). He kept deferring the decision to later. The obvious advantage of staying at high camp is to gain distance and having to traverse much less on the day of crossing the pass. However, it also increases the chances of high altitude sickness and understandably, the guide opted to take that decision later, after observing our fitness. As we sipped our tea, other groups came along. We knew many of them as most of them have been hiking with us right from Dharapani.

En-route Yak Kharka, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

After tea, we resumed our hike. It was difficult at the start because of the pain and fatigue in the upper sections of my limbs. However, after walking a while, it became easier. The trail moved up, as expected, to merge with the main trail from Manang. The hike was gradual and wasn’t difficult. We took ample time to cross the stretch, enjoying the views and taking photographs on our way up. After sometime, we regained the main track from Manang, which was relatively flat and walking became much easier. Yak Kharka wasn’t far and we reached there before lunch. The place had a few tea houses and we entered into one of them. Our allotted room was on the first floor and we went up the stairs and settled in it. After changing to room wears (which wasn’t much different from our trekking wears, given the altitude), we came down again and reached the dining space. Lunch was ordered and we lurked around in the sun, sitting on the benches. Utilizing the bright sunshine, we dried up some of our wet clothes. After lunch, we sat around chatting with members of other groups. There were quite a few locals (many of them were also coming on their way down from Tilicho lake). It came through one of the discussions, there are two Phedis on both sides of Thorong La and snow was to be expected on the track between both the Phedis. After the sun went down, cold increased drastically and we headed to the dining room. Ludo gave us company till dinner got served. We stuck to the staple “Dal Bhaat” meal. After reaching our room, we spent some more time gossiping with each other and then slid under the blankets. We were sleeping at 4100 m.

17th October

After the alarm went off, we completed the morning duties, packed our bags and headed to the dining room for breakfast. We clearly communicated to our guide and he agreed, that our halt would be at Thorong high camp. We hit the trail at around 7.30 AM . Though the distance wasn’t long, but we wanted to reach as early as possible to give ourselves enough time to rest and acclimatize at the high camp. We also knew that walking would be slower, especially after Thorong Phedi, on our way to the high camp. Given that we already crossed the tree line, sources of oxygen would be scarce amidst boulders and snow. When we hit the trail, the sun was behind the mountains and we felt the biting cold. We had to put on our jackets and gloves to keep ourselves warm. The surrounding slopes of the mountains were dotted with bushes and brown grass. After walking a while, the sun came out from behind and walking was comfortable, though we had to peel off some of our warm wears. The trail still moved along flat tracks.

En-route Thorong Phedi

After sometime, some movements caught our attention along the slopes of the mountains. After giving a careful glimpse, we finally recognized that they were a flock of mountain sheep, the same species, notorious for their act of sending down streams of stones along the route to Tilicho base camp. Here though, in the bright sunshine, they appeared quite innocent and quiet, grazing around in the bright sun. While they were having their merry time, we took our chances to get as close as possible to get better snaps. They didn’t disappoint. A giant Himalayan Griffon was doing its rounds in the clear sky and I trained the lens of my camera to try for a moving shot.

En-route Thorong Phedi

Flocks of these birds also dotted the surrounding slopes. They keep reminding us of the fact that this is their habitat and we’re intruders. Is it that what caused them to do their rounds in the sky to keep an eye on us?

Himalayan Griffons – en-route Thorong Phedi

These are scavenger birds which are very common at higher altitude regions across the Himalayas. We kept treading ahead till we reached a junction where two trails headed in different directions. One of them, moved forward, while the other headed down towards the river that flowed through the valley. We waited for our guide who was following us and going by his advice, we took the trail going down. We learnt later, both the trails merged at Thorong Phedi, but went along different sides of the mountain. The one that was relatively flat, went through higher altitudes and as we found later, was entirely covered with snow in its later sections. It was also the route towards Nar Phu valley, which diverted from another junction, a little ahead.

En-route Thorong Phedi, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

We could see the route on the other side of the mountain, climbing up from the river bed. Members of other groups were visible as little creatures, appearing like actors of a silent film that was being played out on the slopes. Silent, because the roaring stream silenced everything else. That trail, though devoid of snow, was barren and exposed and went through patches of landslides. We moved downwards and reached the stream and started hiking up the slopes on the other side of it. There were patches of snow here and there. At the start of the landslide area, a guide from another group kept strict vigil by looking upwards. He kept insisting us to cross the area as quickly as possible. The meaning and reason behind his constant gaze at the top was clear. After crossing the zone, the trail was good once again and we could see the tea houses of Thorong Phedi.

Thorong Phedi, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

As usual, having a glimpse of the distant tea houses, added to our energy and we moved ahead steadily towards them and finally settled in one of them for lunch. The lodge was big and so was its dining space. With glass windows all around, it was a marvelous place to dine at this high altitude. After giving our orders, we sat leisurely, awaiting our lunch to arrive. The owner of the lodge was an interesting character. His appearance resembled that of a Texas cowboy with a typical hat and long hair. Western rhythmic music was playing in the background and he was swaying his body in sync. He kept doing so all along while taking orders from us, serving the lunch and after completion, even while taking the payments.

Thorong Phedi, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

After lunch and some much needed rest, we hit the trail again, which, from hereon, only went up steeply. We could see the flags that adorned the Thorong high camp.

Thorong Phedi, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

The trail moved up steeply and we plied along it. We could see, it moved via a series of switchbacks, finally, disappearing behind a set of rocks, beyond which, lay the Thorong high camp. It seemed quite near, but it would take us at least a couple of hours (if not more), to reach there. That’s primarily because of the altitude and the steepness of the trail.

En-route Thorong high camp, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

I split the trail into smaller milestones, effectively, every switchback turned into one. I’d cross each of them, halt for sometime, at times gulp down a few sips of water, and then move ahead. My thirst was increasing and so were my halts. Obviously, altitude was playing its part, but it was manageable. After spending an arduous two hours, I finally reached that gully, which went straight up among the snow and at the end of it, we could see the tea houses of Thorong high camp.

Thorong high camp, picture courtesy, Dhananjoy De

It was a delightful sight, though we still had some height to gain, but it seemed within reach. After plodding along for some more time, we finally reached the place. Initially, we were assigned a room (exclusively to us), but for that we had to traverse down the slopes again. Hence, we rejected that option in favor of a room at a higher altitude, closer to the actual trail towards Thorong La. The room had double births and we occupied three of the lower ones. Space was crammed, but it was more than welcome at these high altitudes.

Thorong high camp, picture courtesy, Niladri Sekhar Guha

Every rooftop, toilet huts, kitchen, all of them wore a blanket of snow. The sun was shining bright and the afternoon was warm and enjoyable. As we lurked around the place in the afternoon sun, I kept thinking about the hike for the morrow. It was going to be long, but at the end of it, it would take us down to Muktinath, well beyond the reach of snow. It was a mixed feeling – a tad disappointment of ending the trek, along with relief of reaching the place where we could ply on a vehicle to take us down to Pokhra. While we had our evening tea, we saw a traveler limping towards the tea house, hinging on the support of two porters. He had a fracture and after sometime, was rescued by a helicopter which took him to Manang and from thereon, to Pokhra. Seeing that, a few elderly travelers contemplated skipping Thorong La to go down the same route they ascended, but we persuaded them against doing so. After dinner, we completed our payments as it was slated to leave the place at 3.45 AM to give us ample time to reach the Thorong La early enough. We were sleeping at 4800 m.

Tilicho lake

Thorong la

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