Kev Reynolds, Cicerone author and veteran of some 20+ Himalayan expeditions, writes on what the Thorong La is like and his experience of trekking in bad weather in the Himalaya.
Over 30 people are confirmed dead so far in the Annapurna region when trekkers and porters were hit by serious snowfall on Wednesday this week. Reports of the disaster are still coming in, and it looks likely that more will have died.
People are still being rescued in the area around the Thorong La, the high col on the Annapurna Circuit, and the first priority is the rescue and care of survivors, the comfort of the bereaved. Our thoughts are with them, and the rescuers.
This note is only to give some background on the area, not a comment on the situation. I have asked Kev Reynolds, Cicerone author and veteran of some 20+ Himalayan expeditions, to write on what the Thorong La is like and his experience of trekking in bad weather in the Himalaya.
The Annapurna region is one of the most popular trekking regions in Nepal, with many thousands of trekkers each year. The Circuit is the granddaddy of treks in the area, taking 2-3 weeks to complete.
Although trekking is usually a safe activity, serious risks can emerge suddenly as this large-scale disaster shows. Investigations will follow, trekker guidance and understanding needs to be carefully assessed.
But trekking in a high mountain environment is mountaineering and is always accompanied by some level of risk and the trekker must develop the ability to understand and handle risks to keep themselves, their trekking parties and especially their porters, for whom they are responsible, safe.
The appeal of crossing a high Himalayan pass as part of a multi-day trek is often kept in check by concerns about the possibility of altitude sickness, difficulty in route finding, intense cold, deep snow or the onset of bad weather, any one of which could have serious consequences. Such potential dangers are faced not only by the inexperienced trekker or inadequately equipped porter, but by all who are drawn to the highest mountains on Earth.
As the high point of the classic Annapurna Circuit, the 5416m Thorong La is crossed every year by several thousand trekkers – including novice first-time visitors to Nepal, and highly experienced professional guides with decades of experience. So far as Himalayan passes are concerned, this is a comparatively ‘easy’ crossing, and under good settled conditions, in the main trekking seasons of springtime and autumn, the main difficulty for most will be coping with the altitude.
But a ‘comparatively easy crossing’ does not mean the Thorong La should ever be taken lightly.— Kev Reynolds
Both sides of the pass are featureless. In poor visibility or when fresh snow is lying, the way is not obvious and concentration is essential to avoid getting lost. Ferocious winds can suddenly batter the upper slopes with little or no warning; snowfall can turn it into a death trap. The hillsides above and below the pass are also prone to avalanche; and ice can be an additional hazard on snow that has been compressed by countless pairs of boots and then frozen.
My first experience of the Thorong La followed a serious two-day snowstorm that kept me in Manang. My trekking partner and I were lucky; we’d given ourselves plenty of time and were prepared to sit and wait until conditions improved. Not so lucky were those trekkers on a tight schedule who debated whether or not to risk setting out in bad conditions, but (wisely) chose to put safety first, and eventually headed back to Kathmandu, dejected but determined to return another year. The mountains will always be there…
When the snow stopped falling we gave it another day or two, then made our way slowly upvalley, testing conditions as we went, and two days later arrived at the then very spartan Thorong Phedi Lodge. (Simple as it was, that lodge was considerably better than the one we’d stayed in the previous night, which had no roof to its dining room!)
Our crossing of the Thorong La turned out to be a dazzle of sun on crisp snow; it was bitterly cold but inexpressibly beautiful. It was desperately hard work ploughing a furrow up to the pass, and on the descent to Muktinath, about ten minutes below the summit we came across a German trekker who’d slipped on ice and broken her leg – at over 5000 metres!
That year the Thorong La was a major challenge, but on subsequent crossings I’ve been blessed with good weather and practically no snow. But knowing how conditions can be very different, on this and all Himalayan treks, I always prepare for the worst, and allow lots of time in order to avoid tempting fate should the weather be less than promising.
I repeat – the mountains will always be there next year. I hope to be too.
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