The Time a Snickers Bar Saved My Life

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.

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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.

Looking back toward where the blizzard hit after traversing out of the mountains. The avalanche is the solid patch of snow you see on the face of the half-hidden mountain on the far left.

Looking back toward where the blizzard hit after traversing out of the mountains. The avalanche is the solid patch of snow you see on the face of the half-hidden mountain on the far left.

My Top 10 Must-Do's in Nepal

I've been asked to begin doing my Top Highlights for some of my favorite spots in the world; so I'm beginning with Nepal, where I spent three months and consider one of my favorite places in the world. While it's pretty impossible to narrow down the top splendors to just 10, here's a solid list for your upcoming adventure.

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1. Trek in the Everest and Annapurna regions. If you go to Nepal and don’t go backpacking from teahouse to teahouse, you will miss out on something so special and extraordinary and unique to Nepal and Nepal alone. You get up close and personal with the most famous mountains in the world. You spend your days in the wilderness, around waterfalls and wildlife and glaciers and hidden hot springs, and you spend your nights with steaming cups of hot chocolate and chai and you exchange stories with travelers from around the globe. Stay at teahouses where your bed will cost anywhere from $.50 cents to $5 a night, and eat at small houses where locals will boast menus featuring anything from fried noodles to apple pie. It’s a quirky and beautiful backcountry experience unlike anywhere else in the world that I've ever been. Some of the top treks in these regions are the Everest Base Camp Trek, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Annapurna Circuit, and Poon Hill Trek. (Any of those last three can be combined for a mega-trek, too).

2. Get your fill of the local cuisine: stuff yourself with momos (dumplings filled with anything from meat to cheese to veggies to chocolate), dal bhat (a meal consisting of steamed rice, lentil soup, vegetables, pickles, and a small yogurt or curry sauce), tongba (warm millet beer), apple pie in a teahouse (well, an attempt at apple pie), spicy chai (my favorite chai in all of Nepal is at David's Restaurant in Lakeside, Pokhara; find it on the street that the North Face Inn is on), fruit sold from the street-side vendors, mango and banana lassi, heaps fried noodles and black tea at chaat houses, and a massive post-trekking celebratory breakfast of croissants and donuts at any bakery in Kathmandu. 

3. Go paragliding over Pokhara. Enough said.

4. Spend at least one night/two days on a whitewater rafting/kayaking trip, though I recommend at least 3 nights to really feel remote and enjoy the wildlife and remote campsites. The rivers are surprisingly warm year round, and nothing beats how good freshly popped popcorn tastes when cooked over a campfire on a sandy shore of a Himalayan river, then falling asleep in your tent listening to the rapids and the wind. I mean, really.

5. Visit Boudhanath, the world’s largest Buddhist stupa. Located in Kathmandu and relatively untouched by the earthquake earlier this year, monks continue to make their walk around the spectacular holy site as they spin the prayer wheels underneath a canopy of prayer flags. The site in and of itself is overwhelming moving, with a mix of incense smoke and flocks of pigeons and the chanting and humming of drums and the monks.

6. See the sunrise from Sarangkot, the highest point in Pokhara. Leave your hostel at 3 AM to head to the base of the hill. There’s a viewing platform at the top, but because it is often pack with tourists (especially during the high season), I recommend making a detour on any small trail from the main path to go sit by yourself on a flower terrace away from the crowds. When I did this, it was dead quiet; just me, a thermos of black tea I carried from my hostel, a couple other people who had the same idea, and the sun’s light reflecting off the glacier massifs of Macchapucchre and the staggering peaks of Annapurna range. (Plus, Sarangkot is dotted with charming villages with a spectacular mountain backdrop that you can only see if you make the climb up).

7. Rent a motorcycle or motor-scooter in Pokhara. Use it to explore, just carry a map with you. Drive around the fields of wildflowers, hidden lakes, bat caves, and Tibetan refugee camps. It’s something like $7 per day. Just be warned that Nepal is notorious for its awful road conditions and reckless drivers; while I didn't have a problem and neither did any of my friends who did the same, just be extremely careful and diligent and avoid steep roads with switchbacks.

8. Spend a solid day or two in Bhaktapur, Kathmandu’s ancient city. Bhaktapur was one of the most damaged areas of Kathmandu, yet as of June 15 this year, the town is open for visitors and is begging for tourism. Apparently, today it resembles how it was before tourism began booming in the area, and its inhabitants have flocked back to revitalize the area. Let yourself get lost in the medieval town (it’s pretty easy to, actually, thanks to its winding streets and curved alleyways). The squares are breathtaking, and every ancient brick street is alive with buffalo and markets and shaded by towering monasteries and temples, slowly being rebuilt to their splendor. And nearby there’s Nagarkot, a small village which is famous for its sunrise views of Everest, which is now open again for visitors and could use any tourism it can get.

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9. Explore Chitwan in the south in all its humid jungle glory. Buses arrive and depart daily in Chitwan from Kathmandu, Pokhara, and Lumbini. The most popular attraction in Chitwan is the two hour elephant ride, and while I do not condone that (as it’s extremely controversial regarding their abuse, and you can play with the elephants in the river for free without exploiting/harming them), the jungle Jeep safari is a must do (I saw a leopard, rhinos, and many people see tigers!). Plus, it doesn’t hurt to end the day with an ice cold beer at sunset on the banks of the Chitwan river.

10. Look out for festivals, and align your trip with them. Holi (the festival of color) is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so if you can aim to be in Nepal during that time, it's an opportunity you should jump on. I will never forget how special of an experience it was to participate in such a beautiful holiday with so much history, joy, and, of course, color.