Virginia Schwartz (right) and her friend Jane Van Criekingen took this “selfie”, in the village of Bhulbhule, Nepal, at the start of their trek of the Annapurna Circuit. This photo was later used by national media when the pair were reported missing, after a freak blizzard caused avalanches higher in the mountains.
SHAWVILLE – December 5 saw more than 20 women at a presentation made by Virginia Schwartz as part of the local Feel Fit program. Feel Fit members meet every six weeks to listen to interesting and inspirational speakers who encourage participants to set fitness goals, and remain active and healthy. Schwartz, originally from the Pontiac, is an avid adventure traveler with many big trips ticked off
her bucket list, including
the climbing of Mount Kilimanjaro, early in 2014.
But, it was a trip she and a friend did in October 2014 that was the focus of her talk; a trip that started as an exciting challenge to trek the famous Annapurna Circuit in Nepal and ended with news of their
disappearance after massive avalanches swept snow and rocks down the
mountains and blocked the
highest point of the pass, killing more than 40 people in its path.
Schwartz, who works for the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, said this trip had its expected challenges but it’s not one that is particularly unsafe for two women travelling alone to do. “When we went to Africa, we made sure we were picked up at the airport and had a guide to help us along the way; that’s just common sense there. But, in Nepal, those concerns weren’t there. There are so many trekkers along the route, commonly known as the Tea House Trek, and it is well supported by the small communities you pass through. In fact, their
economy is based around it. The food and lodging are all regulated by the government; the various villages that trekkers pass through have crude lodgings called Tea Houses where people can get food and a place to sleep. Although it’s pretty rough and basic, you feel safe; it’s a well known trek,” she said.
The full trek is 160 – 230 km in length depending on the route and method of travel chosen and takes at least 21 days to complete; the highest point of the trek is the pass at “Thorung La”, 5,416m above sea level (just 200m lower than the summit of Europe’s highest mountain). There are minimal road signs and most of the time they were alone on the path, only meeting other trekkers at the Tea Houses when they stopped at night.
At the lower elevation, the terrain was “similar to the Pontiac….lots of evergreen trees. But as we got to higher elevations, it became more barren; the mountains appeared as bare rocks
with massive snow covered peaks in the distance,” she told the audience. Lots of rickety suspension bridges, high above creeks and small rivers, and spectacular views of the Himalayan mountains filled their days; rice or pasta with eggs were the staple food served at the Tea Houses (no vegetables) and hard-slatted bed frames were what they slept on
The first eight days’ weather was perfect—with clear skies and temperatures climbing to the
mid-teens during the day and dropping to well below freezing at night. It was on their 9th day, when they were in the village of Bragha that they awoke to an incredible sight; during the night a massive blizzard had descended, making
further travel almost
impossible. They managed to reach the village of Manang, although it took more than double the usual time, and they were soaked and muddy from slogging through thigh high snow that was quickly turning to mud. The cause of the
freak storm was Cyclone Hudhud, which had hit southern India with rain and, by the time it reached the elevation of the mountains, had turned to heavy snow. “It snowed for about 36 hours, and then the sun came out. It was a breathtaking landscape – and
perfect weather to continue trekking. Or so we thought. We didn’t realize that the combination of altitude, hot daytime sun, and below-freezing nights could mean avalanches,” said Schwartz.
They continued on to Gunsang where they spent the night – “we were completely out of cell range and there were only two other trekkers staying at the Tea House; that’s when we first heard reports of an avalanche a kilometre away.” Then on the following day, they met other trekkers on their way down from the Thorung La pass, with tales of huge avalanches and trekkers with their guides swept away. “The avalanches weren’t soft fluffy snow—they were hard packed ice and rocks. There would be no way you could survive if you were caught in one,” said Schwartz.
So, they made the difficult decision to turn around and go back down the same way they had come. They retreated to the village of Manang, where they were able to go online and check Facebook. That’s when they realized they had been reported missing and feared lost; national newspapers had picked up the story and caused great stress for the family while they were waiting to hear from the pair. “This really changed the tone of the trip for me,” said Schwartz. “I just wanted to leave and make sure my family knew I was OK. But, we still had to trek out of the mountains.. facing landslides and washed-out trails at the lower altitudes; plus there were challenges with changing our return flights, so once everyone knew we were OK, we decided to rest and enjoy Kathmandu for several days. After the trek, even a pretty basic hotel seemed luxurious. I returned home on November 2 .”
Would she do it again? “Yes,” she said without any hesitation. “We were lucky and we were also smart. It has been reported that those who were lost may not have been paying close enough attention to the weather and were more interested in their timetable than their safety … but
the avalanches were not
predictable; we just made the right decision at the right time. It was very disappointing for us, but we hope to try again, some day, to complete the trek.”
Some of the women
listening to Schwartz were shaking their heads in amazement at the end of her presentation; clearly this was way beyond their comfort zone. But, others were interested, perhaps not in trekking the Himalayas, but in pursuing other, more personal and attainable goals, for an adventure that will be remembered for a lifetime.
Kayaking and snorkel-ling in Belize, anyone?