Travel writing can be embarrassingly overdramatic. Mundane events are turned into full blown epics of tedious conceit — “… but the hotel was fully booked!”
That’s why I write the next sentence with a large amount of trepidation. On the trek to Tilicho Lake, I truly thought I was going to die. I still shudder when I think about the foolish risks I took that day.
I’d woken at 5 AM that morning and looked out the window. The stars shone in the dawn sky, not a cloud in sight. This was good news after yesterday’s bad weather. The walk to Tilicho Lake was on.
I left my room and crossed the ground to the lodge’s kitchen area. As I stepped outside my boots were swallowed whole by the snow. Last night’s snowfall had been relentless.
Inside the lodge I found Ali and Brendan ready to leave. We set out together up the trail, unaware of what awaited us.
Nothing was left untouched by the snow. It saturated the ground, drowning the plants and rocks that had dominated the valley. Crunch, crunch, crunch was the only sound I heard as we climbed the first hill. There was no rustling wind, no water running, the streams were petrified.
But at least the clouds had been banished. Finally I could see the mountains, looking flawless in the blue light.
Soon the sun had awoken, tinting the Great Barrier with a golden glow. The snow’s delicate beauty hid the mountain’s deadly power, luring men to their doom. As we entered the first avalanche area, I hoped that no sacrifice would be demanded today.
I was damn nervous. One of trekking’s unbreakable rules is to wait after heavy snowfall to reduce the avalanche risk. This gives the snow time to settle.
But we were marching right into the danger zone. Up ahead I spotted the only colour in this white world, another group of trekkers. Instead of hurrying through the avalanche area, they had stopped to take selfies. The fucking cretins.
By now the sun was beaming onto the upper slopes, tiny lines of water streamed down the snowface. This was no place to stand still. We pushed past the photoshoot, not even wasting our breath to say sorry.
We were now in front of everybody and had to break the trail ourselves. This was physically exhausting work. Brendan and I took turns, bashing through the snow, which just got deeper and deeper.
Soon the path disappeared entirely. We now had to guess where the level ground was hiding. The snow teetering above us made me anxious.
Eventually, Brendan and Ali slowed down, leaving me to go ahead of them. I sped off on my own, cutting the path. The trail twisted up the mountainside to a point where I could no longer see anyone else behind me.
Trekking has two other unbreakable rules: don’t trek alone, and if you’re unfamiliar with the terrain, take a guide. This was all being violated as I walked solo along a trail that I couldn’t even see due to the intense snowfall.
I had to rely on my trekking pole, plunging it into the snow ahead of me to find the solid ground. When it disappeared up to my gloves, I knew not to stand there — that was the cliff edge, not the trail.
I continued like this for the next hour. Although my body was tired, the mental strain was worse. With each footstep I’d plunge into snow up to my hips. My heart raced each time, was this the moment that I’d missed the trail and was about to plummet down the mountain?
Sweating with fear, I stopped taking photos, acutely aware that I could become the next trekker who died because he went off alone despite all the warning signs. It started to seem inevitable.
So when the slope flattened out and I realised that I’d reached the top, I felt an elation that’s hard to describe here. I looked triumphantly back down the valley at the terrifying path I’d made.
But this wasn’t the end. A sign said 35 minutes to Tilicho Lake. I crested a small hill and my heart sank. Stretching before me was a pure white landscape, the perspective distorted by the lack of any features. It was a minimalist’s fantasy; but my nightmare.
I started walking and instantly sank to my waist in the snow. I had no choice but to continue, snow getting in my trousers and an ominous chill forming in my left boot. The snow was so deep that I might as well have been swimming.
It was also impossible to navigate on this empty surface. There were no landmarks to guide me. I had no idea whether I was on the path or about to step into a hidden crevasse. Fear crept back in.
Suddenly, the ground turned solid and I fell, sliding down an icy slope and slamming into a snowbank. Instead of getting up I lay there and processed my thoughts. That’s when I noticed that there was no noise. It was completely silent, not even a whisper of wind. The deep blue sky contrasted with the impeccable white landscape; so bright it almost seared my retinas.
But I couldn’t continue, feeling like I was at my wits end. I stayed sitting, and after some time two German lads caught up to me. I followed in their footsteps, letting them do the hard work.
Half an hour later we reached an abandoned teahouse, sitting above a perfectly flat field. It took us a moment to realise that this was Tilicho Lake. It had frozen and snowed over, completely indistinguishable from the surrounding land.
We sat and enjoyed the view, but I was distracted. I now noticed that my left boot had frozen solid. I found a rock and smashed the ice to free my foot. It had turned purple and completely numb. I tried to warm my foot in the sun, but it was too cold.
The thought of frostbite entered my mind. There was no time to lose. I headed back along the trail, hoping that movement would get the blood flowing in my foot again.
The snow-field was no easier on the way back, but I was energised by my new mission. Even so, when I reached the start of the trail back down I had to stop for a moment, the vista was that incredible.
And what a difference a few hours had made. The trail up from Tilicho Base Camp was finally visible, the snow has surrendered to the sun and melted away. I limped down the track and rejoiced when I felt a pang of intense pain in my left foot. It was one of the most wonderful sensations I’ve ever had.
By lunchtime I was back at Tilicho Base Camp, alive and in one piece. It’d been a real adventure up to Lake Tilicho. Terrifying and exhilarating in equal portions. I was damn lucky to have done it safely.
Ali and Brendan were in the lodge, having turned back earlier. They’d decided to stay another night here. I was sad to say goodbye, but I wanted to get away from Tilicho Base Camp as soon as possible.
I crossed back over the scree field alone, happy to be trekking in the sun through this magnificent landscape. It had completely transformed from the haunted world of yesterday.
I stayed that night in Shree Kharka, taking a room with mountain views. I read inside while the sun streamed through the windows. Snow fell again that night and a cruel wind howled through the valley. I cuddled up tight in my sleeping bag, glad I was indoors, and wondered what tomorrow had in store.
After trekking to Tilicho Lake, I continued on to Thorung Phedi, which you can read about here.
You can find more about my trek around the Annapurna Circuit at the links below:
- Annapurna Circuit: Besi Sahar to Bahundanda
- Annapurna Circuit: Bahundanda to Upper Pisang
- Annapurna Circuit: Upper Pisang to Manang
- Annapurna Circuit: Manang to Tilicho Base Camp
- Annapurna Circuit: Trek to Tilicho Lake
- Annapurna Circuit: Shree Kharka to Thorung Phedi
- Annapurna Circuit: Crossing the Thorung La
- Annapurna Circuit: Muktinath to Kagbeni
- Annapurna Circuit: Kagbeni to Larjung
- Annapurna Circuit: Larjung to Ghorepani
- Annapurna Base Camp: Ghorepani to Machapuchare Base Camp
- Annapurna Base Camp: ABC to Ghandruk