In Betweens: Reflections from Annapurna. Chapter 1: Avalanche Field. April 26, 2019.
A waterfall cascades over wet rocks from imperceptible heights above, removing the spring glacial melt from the south side of Patal Hiunchuli mountain. I walk in a cloud, only able to see a few hundred metres all around. Across the valley, similar waterfalls flow from Machhapuchhre, the peak that has guided my way for over a week through the Annapurna region of the Himalaya mountains in Nepal. Their presence only makes them known through sound, though I saw them before the fog ascended. The snow beneath my feet is wet and melting with the spring heat, my boots and gators sinking a few centimetres with every step. Dirt, rocks and debris scattered across the voluminous heap arrived here within the last few months from landscapes up to three vertical kilometres above my head.
I have been rapidly descending from Machhapuchhre Base Camp (MBC) on day nine of my first trek to the Himalayan mountains. A half-hour ago, my path crossed into the melting snow of an avalanche field. I traversed a few of these on the way up yesterday, and I consider how it looks vaguely familiar as I begin to navigate my way across the now indiscernible path. At first, there were signs of previous human travel, but now all footsteps have disappeared. I gave my crampons away to a struggling French couple a few hours ago, so my traction is reduced. But, I’ve walked through enough snow in Canada that I’m not overly concerned about it. What’s the worst that could happen?
I quickly find a large rock just a few metres beyond the trail, and from this solid ground attempt to discern the best way forward through the fog and snow. The waterfall that was ahead of me to my right is now behind me, though I never crossed a stream. I may have already gone over the flow beneath the snow and debris, or it could be carving out a cavity beneath me in this very location. The slope is a relatively steep pitch, and below me, to the left, the sacred Modi Khola river is also rushing under the snow somewhere in the valley beneath. I don’t want to meander too low, or I could inadvertently fall through the melting snow into the river. But above me, the waterfall is draining into and under the snowfield.
I do my best to choose a wise path and decide to ere on the side of caution by going higher toward the waterfall. The snowpack is much taller in the middle, and I cannot see beyond twenty metres ahead of me as I climb. I walk slowly and carefully, taking great care with every step, gradually ascending the hill of ice without falling into the valley to my left by firmly planting my trekking poles with each step. It is slick, and I am regretting the loss of my crampons.
Eventually, I ascend the centre of the avalanche field to find another 200 metres of melting snow in front of me. I don’t recall anything like this on the way up, but perhaps I was simply too tired to notice. Today had been a tough slog from MBC at 3:00 am this morning to above Annapurna Base Camp (ABC), where I watched the sunrise from a rock perched high above the gathering pilgrims in what is called the Annapurna Sanctuary. I’ve trekked over a hundred kilometres in just a few days, which is a lot for a middle-aged chubby West Virginia born Canadian. I find myself to be very tired as I try to press forward.
At the crest, I continue one step after another, and I soon notice to my right what appears to be a crevasse just above me. As this is not a glacier but a seasonal avalanche field, I am cognizant that as the hill of snow is melting, it is cracking, and it could easily fall in chunks to the river below. Gravity and the heat of spring will likely defeat this temporary formation in several weeks – if not today. I don’t want to be here for the more dramatic moments of this devolution. There is no snow on the cliffs above me, so I am not concerned about getting washed away in an avalanche, but perhaps I should be as the snowfall from the glacier of the 6441-metre mountain is also melting. But now my more significant concern lies to my left as falling into the valley sounds just as deadly and likely more painful. I’ve been walking solo for over an hour and have not seen anyone coming or going for most of that time. If I fall, I’m on my own. Perhaps I should have packed an ice axe as well?
As I continue, I pound my poles into the ground in front of me to ensure the snow is solid enough to hold. For twenty metres this works just fine, but then I hit a point where one pole sinks and I expose new mini crevasses in front of me. They are less than a metre deep, but it is not worth the risk to try to cross, so I double back and go a little lower on the hill, nearly slipping quite a few times. I make it past the crevasses, but again substantial melt is evident both above and below me, and cracks appear to be getting more significant as I get closer to the other side. The stream formed by the waterfall could be anywhere beneath me. In the summer, there is probably a clear path with a bridge crossing the creek, but predicting where that might lie is impossible. I’m 20 metres higher than either side of this tributary’s steep valley, and it is likely quite deep. The bridge may or may not exist under 50 metres of snow.
I take another step, and my probing pole breaks through. I listen as the snow that had been on the surface cascades down into a dark abyss at least a metre or two deep. I cannot go forward, so I backtrack again and try going even lower, continuing to test the path as I travel at a turtle’s pace. I lose track of time, unsure of how long I’ve been on the avalanche field. Step by step, I move up and down the slope more than I move laterally, but I make progress and find myself nearing the solid ground.
I can see where the path continues along a rising stone staircase, which is also mostly covered by avalanche debris and snow. It appears to me like a stairway to heaven, capable of carrying me away from my increasingly dangerous situation. But then I see the full extent of my predicament. As I continue to descend toward the edge, I note a gap at the end of the slope. Fifteen metres in front of the staircase, the avalanche field has collapsed, and there is no way to proceed without falling off a snow cliff of hidden depth. I could approach it to see if it is navigable, but likely it is undercut, and I would discover its height the hard way. The cliff spans up toward the waterfall behind me, but lower near the river, it appears to end. So, I sluggishly begin moving down the slope toward the river, imagining in my mind how it is likely rushing underneath the snow.
With only a few metres left, I begin to hear rushing water ahead and above to my right, and in a few more careful steps, I see the edge of a melt hole with a circumference of at least a metre. I’m only a few steps from it when I realize what it is, and I hold my camera out and take a picture to get a sense of its depth. When I look at my screen, my heart begins to race. It is at least 15 metres straight down to the cold, dark bottom. Another crevasse is to my left below me nearer to the river. I don’t see a way forward. But I am so close that backtracking is as unappetizing as proceeding.
I’m baffled that I have not seen anyone else since I started this crossing, and just as I am thinking this, two backpackers come from the other side down the stairs. They look across the avalanche field, see me stuck only 20 metres from them, assess their situation, and immediately turn around without saying a word.
I’m mystified that they might give up their trek to the base camps so easily. But then I realize they are not giving up. They are turning around to take a different route. The avalanche fields we crossed the day before were further downstream below the tea houses in Deurali. When I walked with my guide yesterday, he led us around this one, and suddenly the fog of my fatigue dissipates, and I remember seeing it from far above on the other side of the valley. I look across the river and up the mountain to see various coloured backpacks crossing either way on the winter trail that was created to avoid this very dilemma. I should have stuck with my guide today, I think to myself, as the full reality of my peril sets in with gravity. I’m stuck in between the melting crevasses behind me and the cliffs and melt holes before me.
My current predicament is illustrative of how I have been feeling in my life before this trek – lost and alone in the betwixt and betweens of my professional and personal journey. This trek to the Himalayas has been a kind of accidental pilgrimage, but one that has birthed insights to help find paths out of the challenges beleaguering me. Hopefully, the lessons I’ve learned will get me to the other side of this avalanche field, as well as into a more peaceful and present way of being back home.