It is 6.30 in the morning and we are fuelled with porridge and masala tea. We swing our backpacks over our shoulders, bury our faces under hoods and buffs, and pull our gloves onto our hands. As I grip my walking poles I nod at my sisters, ‘ready?’, I say beneath layers of down and wool. They nod, their eyes fearful but determined. And so we walk.
We walk for only five minutes before finding thick snow covering a terrifying crossing. A vague path cut with footprints crosses a steep slope, dropping down to an icy ravine that seems to disappear into an abyss. “This can’t be it”, Anna says, “this is fucking mountaineering”. None of us have crampons, just walking poles to stop us from plummeting downwards. But there’s no other way to go. We have to cross here. I begin first, having some experience of trekking in snow, I know I have to push my feet hard into the path. But my body is shaking with fear. I attempt to control my breathing and block myself from looking down the slope. I keep thinking that one slight movement and the snow could collapse, sending me spiralling down the cliff. Pole pole boot boot, pole pole boot boot. This is the pattern I follow. Amira is close behind me, but she senses my fear and she goes ahead, fearlessly walking straight over the snow as quickly as possible while Anna and I take baby steps to complete the crossing. “I bloody hope that’s the worst of it”, I say exasperatedly when all three of us are safely at the other side.
When we turn a corner away from the crossing, a sharp gust of arctic wind blasts at our faces. Looking out onto a vast otherworldly landscape of snow rock and blue sky, the sun peaks above the mountains and we can see the wind twisting, turning and torpedoing, creating a snowstorm that we must battled through for the next four hours. I am so out of breath from the altitude, my pace is unbearably slow; while Anna and Amira are freezing and whiz ahead, waiting for me anywhere they can find shelter. It is a strange feeling, not being able to breath. My heart was hammering out of my chest and my body was hot buried under the seven layers I had wrapped myself in.
Every step is a considered effort, and every corner seems to show another path, an unending path. We climb up and down, round corners and arrive at false summit after false summit. The whole landscape is just blue and white, with the golden morning sun streaking the landscape, creating a striking glittering effect on the snow. It is so beyond beautiful that I would cry if my tear ducts weren't probably frozen, and I had to retain every ounce of energy just to breathe in this thin air. I am battling with an inner desire to be away from these mountains, yet to devour every inch of them at the same time - they terrify yet enthral me. I can hardly breathe.
Beyond some peaks, I see a small refuge nestled amidst the snow. When I reach it, Anna and Amira are huddled inside waiting for me. I clamber in from the biting wind, dropping my bag to the ground - even if just for a minute, it feels good to be free from it. "You okay?", I say to my sisters, looking at their white faces and chapped lips. I don't know why I ask really. None of us are really "okay". By now we all just want this to be over, shivering with cold but glad to be out of the howling gusts of wind which haven't subsided since we began. I have no idea how long we have been trekking, at a guess I'd say 2 or 3 hours. All I know is that we have to be nearly there.
Amira half smiles, I am sure she is the bravest and boldest of the three of us. As a cyclist, she rides through freezing temperatures regularly; numb hands and tired legs are all but common for her. But she admits she is feeling unwell, her head is banging as she swallows an altitude sickness tablet with a gulp of iced water. My brain is too foggy to think, but I would know if she was really unwell, and at this stage it would be quicker to go up than down. So we continue onwards, our feet crunching in the snow. Anna then Amira then me; a congregation of blonde-haired sisters battling through arctic wind at 5,000m in the Himalayas.
I can hardly breathe, while Anna is frozen, and Amira starts deliriously singing Taylor Swift to distract her from the nauseating headache that is creeping up on her. My eyes scan the surrounding peaks, desperately willing to see the familiar sight of those colourful prayer flags waving somewhere on the horizon. And then, all of a sudden, they appear on the crest of the hill before our eyes. "Is that it?!", I call ahead through the wind. I don't have to explain myself, all three of us have seen it. "It has to be", Anna calls back, not saying much else as she lifts her head and stomps her feet harder and faster. Somehow all three of us find a wave of energy in our legs and bodies. Heads up, eyes glued to those waving flags, we battle through the last few hundred metres of snow until we reach the summit of Thorong La Pass, collapsing in a heap at the prayer flags: 5,460m high.
Getting here was an intense culmination of battles, fears and struggles; learning to cope alone and work together. There were times when I really didn’t know if we could do it - each of us, individually, nor all of us together. I can’t really explain how important it is to me that we did though; the three of us, as a unit. Yes we argued, yes we cried, and no it wasn’t easy, but bloody hell it was brilliant.
Of course, after that we had to manoeuvre our way down steep icy slopes in intense heat before we reached Muktinath, where I had an incredible hot shower, ate an average burrito, and we found our trail angel, Alfie, waiting at the Buddhist temple on the hill. A bell hung from his neck as a sign that he had been blessed by the monks there. Somehow he had also made the crossing and was now to live out his days as a holy dog in Muktinath. And then the further we walked on the Circuit, the more distant the mountains became and those long, cold days were but a distant but intense memory. Pole boot pole boot, we trekked onwards into the low, tropical valleys and waved goodbye to the Himalayas. But they will always be there, ready to take us back in their arms when we’re ready to let them again.