(Photos are up for this post now, click on the photos tab at the top)

It was late for us, closing in on 8pm. We’d just agreed on a time to meet for breakfast the next morning. Four. The snow had been falling all day, and would probably keep on into the night. The guides and porters had us convinced: The snow, maybe getting worse, yes? The wind strong later in morning, we get over pass by nine. Leaving four, four thirty is best. If the snow and cold were bad here, how much worse would it be a thousand meters up, at 18,000 ft? People looked worried, scared even. Many of them had next to no experience in snow or real cold. I was woefully unprepared, with my warmest layer a hoodie and no waterproof gear at all. But it wasn’t until right as we were all saying our goodnights, with final words of encouragement for each other, that someone let it slip. Tomorrow is Friday the Thirteenth.

The Annapurna Circuit is one of the most popular treks in Nepal. (No, it has nothing to do with Spock or Picard, a ‘trek’ is the word the Lonely Planet (and therefore everyone else) uses for multi-day hikes in the mountains). The route loops around the Annapurna Massif; an enormous cluster of mountains vaguely in the center of the country. With a peak of 8091m, about 750m shorter than Everest, Annapurna is the eighth tallest mountain in the world. Needless to say, the views are a big reason the path proves to be so well trodden.

Yes, there is no shortage of gore-tex on The Circuit. Tourists from all over the world flock here for some strenuous walking mixed liberally with relatively luxurious living conditions. Instead of camping in flapping tents and huddling around fires, the entire trail is lined by lodges with walls, toilets, beds, blankets, wood stoves and solar-heated water (hot showers!). I had a (half-decent) pizza at 4400m. The tour groups can be a little much, sure, but I enjoyed the comforts as much as anyone.

We began in a steep sided valley at around 1000m. At first I was with three Americans, but the young couple from Washington State were keeping a very slow pace so a Chicagoan and I pressed on alone. Through forest and village we walked uphill and along the east side of the massif for several days. The further we got from the road, the more expensive food and drinks became, as everything is carried in by porter or pony train. The people were of Tibetan heritage so Hindu temples gave way to Buddhist gompas (monasteries) and bamboo pole mounted prayer flags sprouted from every rooftop.

There were also many signs of Nepal’s ongoing political struggle. Maoist flags – red with the hammer and sickle – flew prominently in a few villages. Spray paint scarred cliff walls, demanding an independent Himali state or trumpeting support for the Maoists. Two years ago the rebellion ended (for the most part) when the Maoists were granted amnesty and allowed to form a democratic party. They shocked everyone by winning the election last year.

And yet the mood of the people was refreshingly light. Locals were either outgoingly friendly or pleasantly indifferent to our presence. Even up here, isolated from so much of the world by the difficult terrain, interest in our culture dominates. I think I saw two men in Avril Lavigne t-shirts on the mountain (bringing my total in Nepal to five). Two youngsters approached me in one village and began showing me stickers of wrestlers from the WWE. They loved that I knew the names of some of them (Yes! John Cena, yes! Yes! Shawn Michaels!) and rewarded me by finding me a bamboo walking stick that some foolish soul had cast off. This stick would later prove very useful.

The further we climbed, the more impressive the scenery became. The forest turned from broad-leaved to needled, the mountains grew taller and more wonderfully snow-capped. Rounding a bend on day four we were confronted by an epic curving slab of rock, arcing 1500m (about three CN Towers) above the riverbank. It looked like one side of the halfpipe in a skatepark for the gods. Owing to the pre-Buddhist animist traditions of the area, locals refer to it as the Swarga Dwar – the Gateway to Heaven – based on the belief that the postmortem soul must ascend it after leaving the body.

That night we slept in yet another little family run lodge. We were in the upper part of Pisang, perched above the main part of the riverside village. Directly above us was Pisang’s gompa, gleaming thanks to a recent restoration and home to a handful of monks. We sat down for a quiet dinner of dhal baat (Nepal’s national dish and some damn fine hiking food: lentil soup, vegetable curry, rice, papadum, and spicy chutney are all brought until you can eat no more). Right as we were mopping up the last drops of dhal with our third helping of rice, the horns began to blow. It was the evening puja, an offering of sound and light made by the monks.

They blew eight foot long Himalayan horns, as well as smaller horns, and banged on gongs, cymbals and drums. I sat on the flagstones in the cold wind, watching them play the ancient music out over the village and the river valley below. The awesome Himalaya, drenched in snow, lined up on the other side of the valley to listen. Prayer flags whipped in the wind. The next morning the puja was repeated, and so I scaled the few steps behind my lodge to watch and soak up the atmosphere. That morning I struggled with the idea of leaving.

But leave we did. We arrived in Manang, a veritable hub town with an airport and cinemas and internet access. There we spent an extra day to acclimatize to the altitude (we were a little over 3500m) before climbing toward the pass. Dinners of spaghetti and enchiladas, games of yaniv (an Israeli card game) and chess all ensued. We climbed 400m up the valley wall to a small cave cum gompa, where a 93 year old monk blessed our impending attempt at crossing the pass. We left rested and ready to head uphill.

Two shorter days followed, allowing our systems to adjust to rapidly thinning air. Yaks grazed lazily above the path. On day eight we were in Thorung Pedi, which means The Foot of Thorung. A thousand meters above us was the Thorung La, the 5416m pass we were to cross the next day. We had woken to snow that morning, and it had gotten progressively heavier as the day wore on. People were suffering early signs of altitude sickness – headaches, nausea, fatigue. Hikers from warmer climes were frightened of the very idea of walking in snow, and my assurances that it wasn’t a big deal didn’t seem to have much effect. I guess the fact that I hadn’t brought anything waterproof or windproof didn’t lend to my credibility. Two Californians decided to head back. When this news came out I saw several others waver. The whole Friday the Thirteenth thing didn’t help.

But the next morning we set out. The snow was still falling, though lightly now, and the low clouds added an imposing closeness to the darkness. Lines of bobbing headlamps zig-zagged their way up the steep mountainside ahead of us. Apparently 4:15am was too late for some people. We had amalgamated our smaller groups of young backpackers into an international conglomerate of four Aussies, two Kiwis, three Americans, two Germans, and singles from Northern Ireland, Holland and Canada (me). Between us we had three guides and two porters. Almost immediately we were separated.

The Chicagoan I had been with since day one was sick. An Aussie couple, a girl from South Cali (who had originally been walking with the two who turned around) and I stayed with her as the rest of our fellowship pressed on. We arrived at a base camp of sorts, four hundred vertical meters above our starting point, and she told us to go on without her. I objected, but she insisted, so only ninety minutes in we were already one down. The other four of us climbed slowly through the snow, the only sound the crunching of snow beneath our feet.

Ascending further and further, I found it increasingly difficult to breathe. This manifest itself in two ways, neither of which was particular pleasant. The first was an inability to order my body parts around with the reckless impunity I usually enjoy. Unzipping my camera case for photos of huddled hikers or entirely white landscapes became a battle. Even convincing one foot to fall in front of the other was difficult. The other was a lightheaded dizziness that was, eventually, frightening. Closer to the top I would have to stop every five or ten steps and lean on my bamboo stick to catch my breath. More than a few times I thought I was going to pass out.

Yet on we went. A false top presented itself with a few lonely prayer flags and I cursed my gullibility when I saw a line of people climbing even higher beyond it. Some people were doing terribly at this point. A few ponies went by with breathless or puking foreigners bouncing in the saddle. I don’t want to know how much they paid for the ride. One of the Aussies was suffering immensely from nausea and headaches. There was a moment of inspiration, however, when the sun came out.

It was difficult to call anything ‘perfect’ at this point, but the clouds parting to reveal two immense peaks separated by the prayer flag clad pass was as beautiful a sight as I have ever seen. One peak was brown and rocky and rugged, while the other domed in ice and snow. The sun warmed my back and encouraged me on (but only five steps at a time) toward the windy pass with it’s celebratory sign (CONGRATULATION FOR THE SUCCESS!!!). A few foreigners were doing handstands and posing for endless team photos, but we snapped a few shots with each other or with the sign then quickly began the descent.

The way down was much, much more dangerous than the ascent. With the fresh snow the path was slippery and, lower down, muddy. It was steep and often traipsed precariously along sharp drop-offs. At one point it was a tight-rope walk along the edge of a cliff, with the snow packed down into ice by previous boots. My Aussie friend, still feeling like he’d drank ten times too much Nepal Ice beer the night before, gladly accepted my bamboo stick for the rest of the day. Now without my prop, I just let gravity take over and basically ran down the side of the mountain.

That night we were all gathered around a fireplace eating pizzas and drinking beers. It had seemed out of place at first, but now the Bob Marley Hotel and Rasta Restaurant was home. Around nightfall, our Chicago amigo, lost to us so early in the day, strolled in. She had crossed the pass three hours after us, after a drastic improvement in her condition. Celebrations were now even more called for. The next day we simply hung out in the town for a rest day, exploring some nearby Hindu and Buddhist holy sites.

From there, our walk was over. Many people chose to spend another week walking back down the other side of the massif, but there are roads on the west side and so we chose the four wheel option. We spent a night in Tatopani, which translates directly to ‘hot water’. There we sat in the natural hot springs drinking locally made apple brandy and beer (and listening to some sweet Nepali pop).

It was, all told, a wonderful experience. The fact that it was far more difficult than I had anticipated just added to the sense of accomplishment. It also renewed my patriotism somewhat, as even though I had far less gear than pretty much everyone else up there, I handled the temperature better than most. There are some moments, I guess, where it pays to be Canadian.

Stay tuned for some upcoming posts, where I’ll discuss sleeping in a bank and crashing my beautiful motorbike into a man and his wife on their bike. At over 50km/h. Wheee.