The Valley of the Shadow of Death


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Asia » Nepal » Annapurna
March 27th 2011
Published: January 3rd 2012
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First up, I’ve got a bit of a confession to make.

Truth is, God and I have never been all that tight.

I suppose if relationships are built on trust, the fact that neither of us appears to believe in the other probably doesn’t help much.

I’m not sure I can be entirely blamed for my lack of conviction, though. Fact is, out of all the pre-school imaginary characters, God did the least to prove he was the real-deal. Both Santa and the Tooth Fairy actually entered my room while I slept and tried to buy my faith with gifts, which you have to admit is a pretty neat trick for the non-existent. Some have since hinted that it was my parents all along, a more likely scenario I have to admit, but what I’m thinking is, what if Santa told them to do it? Makes him a damn site holier than God in my book, whose voice only ever seems to send nutters on their next killing spree. Okay, so I know most are just playing the insanity card, but frankly I’d be more convinced if they said the Tooth Fairy told ‘em to do it. That way you’d have a killer who was not only mental, but also a little bit dental.

The Truth is, throughout my childhood I can’t recall God visiting my room once, possibly because most of the time it was such a God-awful mess. If cleanliness is next to Godliness he must have spent alot more time in my brother’s room next-door. What’s more, despite my father’s claims that it would be the Devil’s own job to clear that lot up, Satan never set foot in the place either, the Slacker, ensuring my journey through adolescence was mostly one hell of a mess.

Since he knew my faith was for sale by Chocolate Coin donation in my Christmas stocking, you have to wonder why the Big Man never once dropped by. It might explain why I’ve spent a good portion of my adult life taunting him to reveal himself by indulging in ever-more risky pursuits. If he does turn out to be real, God knows what questions I’ll have for him when we finally meet, which is a bummer, as it kind-of wipes out any chance of catching him by surprise. One imagines my first enquiry might well be along the lines of

“So what are you looking so bloody smug about?”

For my latest attempted rendezvous we brazenly returned to Nepal, a land which had already served up near-death experiences on my previous trip. Thing is, once the pesky Nepalese trekking bug sinks its teeth into you, the bite never heals, and after two years away, this most enduring of itches was badly in need of a scratch.

Last time round my immaculate pre-trek training consisted of flushing so much of myself down the toilet that I ended up in hospital on a drip a mere 48 hours pre-departure. To avoid a repeat, the plan was to spend as little time as possible actually in Nepal beforehand, so all our training took place at home in Queensland in the stifling heat of the wettest Wet ever. Three-quarters of the state was underwater, but luckily Far North Queensland was part of the quarter that wasn’t. Not-so luckily we then got slugged by the worst cyclone to hit Australia in a hundred years. As a result the one proper climb we squeezed-in was transformed into a five-hour military assault course over, under and through fallen trees, trying to avoid the worst of the spiders and snakes while constantly pursued by the zombie-like advance of a million hungry leeches. Still, at least you can outrun a leech, unlike the sort of bug you normally pick up in Kathmandu.

On arrival the plan was to head to Pokhara, pick up a trekking pass and hit the trail straight-away before our bowels had the chance to double-cross us, and just for once the whole thing turned out smoothly. Before we knew it we were striding out confidently towards the Annapurna Sanctuary, plodding our way along the steep banks of the Modi Khola river up what is reputed to be the deepest valley in the world, 7000 metre peaks towering on either side. I say reputed to be as the valley next-door also makes the self-same claim, lying as it does between two undoubtedly higher peaks, but ones so far apart that you’re stretching the concept of what could reasonably be described as a valley, while the Modi Khola is most definitley a valley with a capital V.

I find this duplicity of claims all too common in the tourist scene; I swear I’ve personally visited at least 25 of the Top Ten Beaches in the World, and dived way more than a handful of the Top 3 Dive-sites. Until very recently there were no less than 28 contenders for the Seven New Wonders of the World: that’s population growth for you! I suppose in part it’s to make up for the disappointment of the Seven Ancient Wonders, of which only one remains (well okay, maybe two if you're counting Dolly Parton).

In any case we hadn’t come to break records or tick off boxes, but to appreciate the magnificent scenery on the six-day hike up to Annapurna Base Camp, or ABC as it’s lazily referred to round here. It was time to remind ourselves what we had loved so much about Nepal last time round, life’s worries melting away as we reduced the hectic speed of our frantic Western lifestyles down to a snail’s pace step-by-step. Six hours a day were spent on nothing but a slow, steady, and sometimes strenuous climb, with breaks at the local eateries for lemon-tea and Gurung bread, taking in the gobsmacking views of the valley below from the basic comfort of your wooden seat. Ten serene minutes later it’s back-pack on and you’re ready to rock-n-roll once more, trudging up another 1000 odd steps to your next stop on the old stone-staircase rollercoaster. Frankly we just love it and can’t think of anything better, though if you’re more into the idea of lounging round a pool sipping cocktails, it might not be your own cup of (long-island iced) tea. As one of my work-colleagues put it, ‘That doesn’t sound like my idea of a holiday at all!’ And I have to say, partly due to our lack of training, as I hauled my aching limbs towards noon on the first few days, her words would annoyingly circle my skull in a never-ending loop. Gee, thanks Frances!

Luckily somewhere just past lunchtime you reach your daily target whereupon there’s nothing left to do but recuperate for the rest of the day over a hefty meal, with possibly the odd game of Scrabble thrown in before dessert. Annapurna is the Hindu goddess of sustenance, and the locals have clearly taken this to heart, happily serving up what could be described as the very opposite of Nouvelle Cuisine; here you’ll get plentiful quantities of good, cheap, filling grub, without an entrée fork or swirl of strawberry coulis in sight, and it has to be said, for someone for whom epitome of culinary delights is beans on toast, that suits me just fine. I don’t think they do Michelin Stars round these parts, probably in good part down to the lack of cars or roads. That’s just as well as the no-frills approach extends to the accommodation; I don’t ever recall being charged extra for heating, showers, or, indeed, a toilet on my frequent stays at The Ritz. The only thing left on your pillow come turn-down is a light coating of frost. That having been said, these no-star hotels more-than make up for it with six-star scenery, together with a genuinely warm welcome, far preferable to the fawning sycophantic toadying of your average snooty concierge.

As we wended our way up the valley God was clearly smiling on us (in a non-existent sort of a way) as every morning the valley was bathed in sunshine, the gorgeous peaks in the distance bereft of cloud. At least this was true right up until somewhere just after you’d got settled into your next lodgings, whereupon the heavens would open and soak the late-starters. They’d be left to trudge miserably past the steamy warmth of the guesthouse windows, discovering too late that they’d all booked out mere seconds after the deluge began.

And it turned out our early starts were doubly important these days, as in the couple of years since our last trip Mother Nature had started to catch up with me, casting her wicked spells on my physique: in short, I’d turned into something of a plodder. The hare of yesteryear had been replaced by a wise-old tortoise, who’d come to realize that slow and steady was often the better way round here. For the confused Americans among you, I am of course referring to a turtle, although personally I’ve always been a little confused about the fable of the turtle and the hare, as surely the hare would quickly drown.

Even so, the far-from-teenage mutant ninjas among us still had a powerful reason to get on with the program, for death awaits the tardy. Those warming rays God was so generously throwing our way were heating more than our little reptilian shells. Thousands of metres above, way out of sight over the lip of the valley, they were also melting the huge sheets of compacted snow. Anywhere after ten in the dodgier sections of the track the risk of avalanche becomes severe, which it has to be said is not exactly an enticing prospect, even for those able to pull their neck in between their shoulders.

Should you run late and the worst come to the worst, avalanches are survivable if you follow the experts’ basic safety tips.

Firstly, as soon as the snow hits, you should start swimming.

Yeah, that’s right, swimming!

No honestly, it says so right here. Don’t blame me; I’m just following instructions, mate!

Once you’ve swum a few lengths (probably including some impressive tumble-turns), and just before the snow-slide stops you should roll into a ball, and then, a second before it freezes solid, spread out as wide as you can to create a nice void.

This done it’s a simple matter of spitting to see which way is up (!) and then climbing the opposite way out.

Easy!

So basically everything will be fine as long as you’ve remembered your Speedos and a hanky.

I wonder how much they actually paid these experts for their advice, and what exactly they’d been smoking before-hand? To my mind a full set of Scuba gear and a blow-torch would seem a more logical solution, though admittedly much more difficult to carry uphill than the swimwear/snot-rag combo. In any case, having packed precisely none of these things we stuck to our early starts and rapid plodding as our sole form of contraception, roughly the equivalent of the rhythm method, I suppose, which at least will have kept the Pope happy, and seemed equally effective in avoiding the Wrath of God.

Besides, as it says in the psalm,

“Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death I will fear no Evil, for thou art with me.”

So God, it turns out, was Debbie all along!

Who knew?

Admittedly she’s been claiming as much for years, but up to now I’ve been waiting for some parting the Red Sea type shenanigans as proof. What with this and my parents turning out to be Santa, I reckon I must be from a pretty lucky family! I suppose that leaves my brother and sister to fight it out for the roles of The Devil and The Tooth Fairy. I’ve got a pretty good idea who is who in my own mind, but for the sake of family unity, it’s perhaps best if I keep my opinions to myself for a change!

Back in the real world the weird thing is that the worst of the death zones occur before you’ve actually reached any snow at all. It’s only on Day 5 you finally start clambering over the alarming remains of avalanches past, and within an hour of that, and by now finally surrounded by snow-clad slopes, you’re out of danger altogether and in the clear, suddenly free to relax and take it all in. God moves in mysterious ways, so they say, though as far as I could see she was simply strolling along just like usual.

It was me who by now was moving mysteriously, slowing to a crawl, eternally breathless as the energy-sapping effects of altitude began to kick-in. Once again, God abandoned me, forging off ahead to secure a spot in the best place at Machhapuchhre Base Camp, where heaven is a hot-shower, while hell is freezing your bits off over a squat toilet at the grotty dump next-door.

Up at this height the daily rain-shower was a more enchanting prospect, as it came in a white powdery form blanketing the landscape as far as the eye could see. It was early to bed that night as we would be up at five to see the golden rays of sunrise blaze their way across the hilltops. The final ascent to ABC didn’t disappoint, backing up your hunch that the Valley of the Shadow of Death gets more beautiful the further you get out of the shadows. Initially progress was a little slow, as the heavy overnight falls had completely obliterated any sign of just where the path might lay, but as we got our bearings and snaked our way ever upward the beauty was breathtaking, and our progress was much slowed by frequent stops just to take it all in. These are needed as at 4000m the altitude really starts to hurt, and you find that, despite the name, this is one walk that’s not as easy as ABC. The dreaded mantra reared its head again with every footfall…

“…THAT… DOESN’T… SOUND… LIKE… MY…I…DEA…OF A …HO…LI…DAY…AT…ALL…”

Still, so jaw-droppingly gorgeous were the views that I found my vision blurred, tears welling up in my eyes, but I'm going to blame that squarely on the snow-glare rather than any hint of sentimentality on my part.

The real God gave his only indication of being around right at the very top, not only with the heavenly views but by sharing his perverse sense of humour, turning the final ten yards of the climb up to Base Camp (which I can only presume on a clearer, sunnier day would have been up a flight of steps) into a 45 degree ice-slide resembling a very cold, wet, slippery version of the Travelator from Gladiators. Getting through the Pearly Gates, it seems, involves eating more than one or two mouthfuls of snow.

Reach heaven we did, though, slumping down into an outside chair and ordering one last lemon-tea to toast the views. These vistas were heavily embellished by traditional Tibetan prayer-flags, which festoon every building and much of the hillside behind them, ultimately adding to the scenery exactly the same way that sprawling Coke signs don’t.

For most the lemon-tea was as good as it got, just a quick break before traipsing back down on the long descent. Fortunately we’d factored in enough slack in our schedule for a full 24hrs up here, staving off the altitude sickness with one of the most intensely garlicky days of my entire life, ensuring that, unlike on our leechy training run, we wouldn’t be losing any high-altitude blood this time, as Annapurna Base Camp must surely be a totally vampire-free zone. Just as well as I was fresh-out of wooden stakes.

Our stopover did lead to the need for a blistering pace on descent the next day, which unsurprisingly led to some cracking blisters. God also dropped another hint, pointing out that “Thou art mortal, and mortals shalt get bloody sore knees once they hit forty.” The lingering sense of accomplishment kept you going though, that and the knowledge that down at the bottom of the valley lay the Devil’s own little playground at Jinnudanda Hot Springs, where the fires of hell heat three heavenly pools of bliss, just what the doctor ordered after seven days of heavy exercise.

Seventy-two wobbly hours later we limped back into Pokhara for a final day’s R&R at the excellent Maya Pub & Steakhouse, before the return day-long bus-ride to Kathmandu. In one last throw of the dice we took the public rather than tourist bus, providing us a baptism in the finer points of Nepalese hip-hop, which blared from tinny speakers for the duration. For the most part this proved utterly intolerable, though as the trip wore on I started to get more into it: admittedly the quality of the audio made it hard to be sure, but as far as I could tell my favourite two ditties were called ‘Korma is Back Again!’ and the intriguingly titled ‘I Don’t Wanna Be Your Cassowary’. And at the end of the day, who would? A good point well made, I thought.

Suffice it to say after 10 ear-splitting hours spent largely in a long, hot and very hilly traffic-jam (and after selflessly donating my last 2 litres of life-giving water to the bus’s steaming radiator) we made it back to Kathmandu to reflect on our survival.

A couple of thirst-quenching Everest beers later the verdict was in:

Bloody Fantastic.

Again.

(for more on last time round check out The Anti-Clockwise Rat)

The itch had been well and truly scratched, though I feel we’ll be back one day to try Everest in more than just liquid form.

In the words of that most celebrated of God’s children, Richard Nixon, from his resignation speech

“Only if you have been in the deepest valley can you appreciate how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.”

Good point, Dick!

And always remember, God is watching!

See you on the other side…

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3rd January 2012

We are not climbers but thoroughly enjoyed your account.
I was on pins and needles as I read this blog. A fantastic adventure....and I'm sure your siblings will be laughing and have a few comments. Thanks for sharing!
4th January 2012

Great story!
Your story made me laugh, your photos made me want to go to Nepal even more than I already did. Great work!
4th January 2012

Hilarious!
I read your blog last night and cracked up laughing - thank you so much for a fantastic blog and letting us all enjoy your journey with god/debbie :)
4th January 2012

Quotes from the Psalms
I enjoy your style of writing. I understand how God became the theme of this blog, although in an irreverent sort of way. You quoted from Psalm 23. Here's another, Psalm 19:1 "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmaments showeth his handiwork." I always felt closer to God when skiing in fresh powder in the Swiss Alps.
5th January 2012

Hello fellow traveller
Hello Andy and Debbie! I enjoyed reading your blog and fell in love with your pictures. I will definitely have to see this place someday with my own eyes! Thanks for sharing
1st February 2012

Ah! I still remember my first view of Annapurna. Coming up in a truck from Raxaul. Jungle, jungle, jungle and then you come over a rise in the road and POW! the Himalaya are laid out before you in all their glory with Annapurna towering high and Everest in the distance. Breathtaking!

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