It’s the day after, but not really. The quake like any other of it’s kind continues with little reminders of our vulnerability, a small aftershock at 5am was missed by us sound asleep but has the town in a buzz. Today we will finally be taking the step away from the road and embarking on the steep ascent to Thorung La which lies still three days hike away into the clouds and behind the jut of land that hides our path from us. Such mystery hangs in the air of the upper reaches, a pathway is hidden from us and the northern mountains have been hidden in cloud since we have been close enough to see them. Breakfast is shared with Tom, a young Aussie guy from Brisbane who’s unrestrained excitement sees him off early, the intoxicating grip of Thorung La has him firmly also as he charges out to beat us to Yak Karka, our next stop on the way up the hill.
First step for us before embarking on the journey into the world of snow and altitude is to take a check in with the tourist information office to double check that the pass is open. A slight wobble in the plans, communication is cut from above and no one knows what’s going on. It’s recommended to stay put in town until more information is known much to our disappointment but we grudgingly acknowledge that it’s good advice. Where yesterday morning the town was a gathering of small groups of hikers any small division between groups has dissolved in the need to find more information, it’s a feeding frenzy with more rumours than facts. Internet has been knocked out, only a few people get small slices of information from phone lines that are as reliable as travel insurance, that is to say basically we’re collectively getting nothing of use.
What seemed so certain this morning slowly gets picked apart; apparently Pokhara is destroyed, then Pokhara is fine, the epicentre was near us, then it was in Chitwan, 20 people died on Thorung La yesterday, then there’s no casualties in Manang province. The flood of info-rumour is akin to the avalanches we saw yesterday and still we are cut off from the world, unsure, stuck, frustrated. But there is life, some Kiwi guys tell us that a guesthouse now has Wifi going, we charge off to make sense of this situation and tell family members at home that we’re safe after forking over an offensively high fee. The only consistent rumour thus far is that Kathmandu and the Everest region has been hit pretty hard with casualties up to 1800 so we fear that people at home might know there has been a quake and might worry.
We’ve never felt so popular in our lives. The faint line to the internet lights up our iPads with messages from home and mothers beside themselves with worry. We have emails from the Red Cross, reporters, Charlie’s mum even had a TV news team on her front doorstep; apparently people at home have heard of this after all. A flurry of emails, messages and posts to whatever we can get our hands on not only calms people at home but also for the first moment in a long time takes our immediate thoughts away from Thorung La. I still have no idea how to spell Thorung La, I’ve seen it spelt so many different ways but however it’s spelt it has now moved from the glorified triumphant perch it once held and now moves into a mystical realm of possible unattainability. We have eyed Annapurna for four years and the pinnacle of that is Thorung La, we refuse to admit that it might be snatched from us, we must get over the pass somehow.
Our world is a whirling throb of uncertainty, the emotional version of the quake itself as we settle down to eat some food and try to make sense of our situation that becomes more and more grave by the moment. It’s in the air as heavy as the nervousness of other hikers but we refuse to look at it, face up to it, give it a name; we might have to turn back. I think we both know that we will have to but ambitions held for so long aren’t wiped away so easily, even an earthquake that has brought a nation to its knees isn’t enough to immediately kill the ideal. Lunch of biryani and vegetable curry presides over a realisation that comes like giving up our own dignity, we have to go back. Some trekkers are holding out hope and many will go over the pass but nearly any Himalayan tragedy has begun with foolhardy placement of ambition over good sense. We breathe deep telling ourselves that it’s just smarter to choose safety over brave romance.
And so we turn our backs on Thorung La, a goal four years in the making. With the interruption of development Annapurna has remained hidden to us apart from relatively small glimpses. The two week odyssey of amazement has been reduced to small slices of it’s breathtaking promise squeezed into too few days and now the greatest jewel in the crown will be more than hidden, for us it won’t exist at all. Concluding that we must turn back we metaphorically tear off the scab and start the walk downhill eager to get out of this pool of uncertainty and take some action. We’re disconsolate but masking this over is the perspective of the greater event; casualty numbers will rise daily like a sporting score, Tom disappeared into nowhere and it will be days before anyone will hear from him. On top of it all is that Nepal is suffering. Possibly the most tough, sincere and helpful people we’ve met so far have yet another challenge they don’t deserve. Safe in Pisang and with a moment spare our disappointment takes on a tinge of guilt, our disappointment is released in the face of the fates of thousands. We don’t feel disappointed anymore, we just feel lucky.