Or, at least, made being trapped in the Himalayas after an avalanche
a bit more tolerable.
Somehow a Snickers bar is most satisfying when it’s been accidentally frozen long enough to chip a tooth when it’s finally bitten into after being chiseled with a broken blade in a log hut during a blizzard.
I’d been carrying that particular candy bar at the bottom of my backpack for twenty-seven days. When I finally pulled it from the trenches of my 85-liter pack (which was essentially the equivalent of carrying a small caravan on my back), it was dented, poked, and prodded from the weight of ice axes, misshapen shoes, safety ropes, tent poles, half-filled water bottles, rocks I found on the path that seemed interesting enough to keep, and bags of clothes still damp and heavy from being haphazardly washed in the Kali Gandaki river.
When I had first tucked that chocolate bar away into the depths of the backpack, I was standing in my warm hostel room in Kathmandu in my freshly-washed jeans and boots that had yet to be introduced to mud or ice or quicksand, and was giddy with the idea of myself peeling off the Snicker’s tantalizing wrapper once I reached the hardest point of the 35-day trek in the Himalayas that I was about to attempt.
Most trekkers in Nepal tend to stick to three main routes: the twelve-day walk to Everest Base Camp, the fifteen-day walk to Annapurna Base Camp, or the twenty-day walk through the entire Annapurna region called the Annapurna Circuit. I found, though, that because of the frequency of small villages throughout the Himalayas where it’s possible to gather food supplies and gas — which is essentially all you need to keep going in the backcountry — I could stay out in the mountains for as long as I wanted, just as long as I could have access to a refueling village when I was running low on supplies. So I decided to link together the climb to Annapurna’s Base Camp (which peaked at the base camp at 13,600 feet) along with the entire Annapurna Circuit (which peaked at the top of a pass called Thorung La at 17,700 feet), which seemed like an exciting and challenging trek. Except, that left me with the pressing issue of which trail summit was monumental enough to have my Snickers.
On my comfortable flight from New York to Kathmandu, and then on the eleven hour bus ride to the city of Pokhara with a chicken and a random child sitting on my lap, and then on the back of a motorcycle-taxi that took me to the trailhead nestled at the foothills of the Annapurna region of the Himalayas, I contemplated at which point in the coming six weeks I would fish out the chocolate.
When I finally bit into the candy bar, however, I wasn’t watching the mauve alpenglow of sunrise illuminate the icy massifs and glaciers surrounding me at Annapurna’s Base Camp.
I also wasn’t standing just shy of 18,000 feet at one of the highest walkable mountain passes in Nepal, in a flurry of whipping snow and blue sky and sun-bleached prayer flags fluttering so fast in the icy wind that they sound a cacophony of helicopters in the middle of mountain wilderness.
Instead, it was in a cramped log hut with enough spacing between its panel walls that the snow from a blizzard outside consistently collected in the crooks of my arms if I stayed still long enough, and accompanied by the weak flames of a dying fire (we had to save kindling, who knew how long the storm would last), and two men who were too deep into a conversation about the existence of God to notice that I was busy attempting to thaw out the frozen caramel of my trekking reward on a lukewarm log.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Up until that day, everything had gone without incident.
In fact, each day in the mountains began to blend into the next, defined only by changes of scenery; one day follows the length of the river as it snakes through meadows of purple alpine wildflowers. Another day traverses suspension bridges missing boards where there certainly should be boards but are too tangled with prayer flags and fraying ropes to really give any trekker enough time to fully analyze the safety specs of these ancient contraptions. Another day climbs steeply through cloud forests, around narrow bends in the muddy path that sinks down into valleys and up again into the foggy cliffs, where both local children and mules and red-furred monkeys watch from canopies and flowering rhododendron bushes until, all at once, I’m alone again.
There are small consistencies in these days, though, despite the changing terrains and watchful eyes from those who are passed. Going to sleep at sunset, waking just before sunrise. The rich woodsmoke and ginger scent of a cup of milky, sugary chai brewing at a teahouse as Iccrouch outside, attempting to dry out my boots in the last rays of sunlight from an accidental step in a stream. The countless times I almost tripped on a rock or a patch of ice because I was too busy focusing my eyes on the impossibly foreboding view of a peak looming on the horizon.
You think mountains are big, you think clouds are high.
But then you see the Himalayas.
There’s also a certain amount of camaraderie on the trail — after all, because most trekkers do one of three main trails, there’s a good chance a backpacker will consistently run into another backpacker they’ve ran into before, so even the solo trekker, like myself, ends the day sharing a thermos of hot chocolate with someone they’ve seen before — but for a good deal of the time in the Himalayas, I was alone. In fact, I was so transfixed on the fact that I even made it to the summit of Thorung La Pass and Annapurna Base Camp that, when I did, I sat in silence, alone, and completely forgot about my Snickers bar. Usually it was only the loss of feeling in my fingers and toes, the shallowness of my breath, and the impending sinking sun behind the jagged horizon that reminded me to keep walking.
I had completely forgotten about that precious chocolate bar until it was day thirty-one on the trail, and we had just hit the twenty-five hour mark of sitting in that hut by the fire when Klaus asked through his thick, guttural accent if we were sure that we didn’t have anymore food, and I remembered the candy bar.
It was not the most ideal situation. As I used Klaus’s pocket knife to whittle the frozen chocolate into three pieces to split among us, I thought about myself on the flight descending into Kathmandu when I was deciding when I should eat the Snickers.
It’s safe to say that at the time, I did not anticipate it happening like this.
But I guess that’s what I deserved for thinking I could make it out of six weeks in the Himalayas unscathed. About three hours after I descended from Annapurna’s Base Camp, I found a group of Sherpas standing on the side of the trail talking into radios with worry fixed on their faces, which is never a good sign, especially not at 13,000 feet. Quickly they informed me that a low-altitude blizzard had swept into the valley beneath us — a valley that we needed to traverse as there was no other way to get back to a town or road — and took down an avalanche with it, covering the only route in and out of the section of mountain I was in.
As they trudged through the snow past me to go check for other climbers up at the base camp to inform them, I asked what I should do.
“Find shelter, sit tight.”
I continued down the path as the storm clouds grew heavier and the path became increasingly heavy with snow for a few minutes until I was met the familiar smell of woodsmoke, and then the sight of flickering orange light through a cracked door of a little hut down a hill.
As I stepped inside, I was met with a few sights you don’t normally find a traditional log cabin. First, there was no actual floor — just a layer of straw dusted with the snow blowing in through the cracks of the walls — and two white men, about my father’s age and my grandfather’s age, crouched by the fire, sharing a plastic bag of trail mix. The grandfather-looking one seemed to be fishing out the M&M’s.
Immediately I was welcomed to join them, and somewhere in between being offered a handful of the trail mix and a joke that went something like “Well, who knew it could snow in the Himalayas!”, I attempted to put together some pieces about the people I was suddenly sitting between in a small Nepalese hut. The younger of the two introduced himself as Klaus, an Austrian mountaineer who was visiting Annapurna’s Base Camp for the seventh time that season to acclimatize himself before attempting a summit push later that year. He wore a red bandana tightly around his neck in lieu of a scarf, which didn’t quite draw attention away from the olderman whose jacket and backpack were sewn with so many rainbow peace & love patches that I felt like I was looking at a picture my dad had once shown me of himself in the 70’s. He introduced himself as John, who was 75 years old and hailed from Seattle, and had been going to Nepal every year for the past thirty years of his life. Then, without asking anything about who I was aside from my name (which they both never got right but after three attempts to correct them I just accepted my fate as “Kate” and “Tay”), they continued their conversation where it was before I appeared. I settled in.
For fifty hours, it continued.
Though the snow outside steadied, it never seemed to slow. And neither did John and Klaus’s debates. As if I was just a fly on the wall, I sat cross-legged on the frozen straw floor, listening to the two of them discuss their purposes in Nepal, whether God exists, whether they had randomly ended up here or if there was a greater energy who put them there, or if they themselves had subconsciously willed this into existence. I was mostly concerned that I was running out of things in the room to count to entertain myself (seven peanuts in my section of the Snickers bar, for example).
A few times, it seemed that the snow had slowed enough for us to descend and make a new path around where the avalanche had wiped out the trail, but ultimately it was too risky. So we waited. And waited. I walked a few laps around the cabin, but would come back in to find more bickering around the inevitability of the dire fate of the human race. During this particular debate, I counted thirty-three log panels on the roof of the hut, and nine chocolate chips in the last Cliff Bar we each had. Half of the bar was lunch, the other half was dinner. I was asleep by 4:00 both nights.
On the third morning, all it took was a peak through the panels of the wall to see the green light of the backcountry: blue sky.
I quickly rolled up my sleeping bag, stuffed it into the bottom of my backpack where the Snickers bar used to be, and left the cabin before the two others could finish their yawns and another joke, “So, at what point do we resort to cannibalism, or does one of us have to die first?”
As I began walking down the trail, using my trekking poles to steady myself on the black ice underneath the fresh powder, I thought that maybe once I’d get back to Kathmandu, I deserved one more chocolate bar. But I was really sick of Snickers.