This article was originally published by VICE, and can be viewed in its original form here. The expanded version you’re about to read includes a no-holds barred recounting of events, more photos, and a video for the full frozen-foot experience. Note for international readers: ‘Jandals’ are what New Zealanders call flip-flops.
A freezing blast of wind howls up the valley and sends me staggering. Grit and dust sandpapers every exposed inch of flesh, clawing at my eyes beneath my sunglasses.
My broken jandals are dangling by a thread; one solitary scrap of medical tape holding them to my filthy and blackened feet. They’ve carried me for 150km, over ice and snow and scree, across the highest pass in the world. For every gauntlet the Himalayas has thrown down – insomnia, gastro, altitude headaches, frozen toes – they’ve provided a constant rubbery reassurance. Now it’s all falling apart at the seams.
The arch of my right foot screams with every shuffling step, while the throbbing pain in my hip forces me to swing my left leg in awkward half-circles. The Tramadol is wearing off, and I’m getting nervous.
I’ve got no more painkillers, no water. My trekking partner long since disappeared into the haze blanketing the vast and featureless river plain, and I haven’t seen another soul in hours. Maybe I’m going the wrong way. The imposing spine of the Annapurnas – the world’s deadliest mountain range, my constant companion – is almost entirely blotted out by the gathering black clouds.
Rain begins to fall. I try breaking into a pathetic little jog, but the stabbing lances of pain are too much to bear. I lean into the wind, resume my sad shuffle, and think back to better times.
Optimism and overconfidence
From the comfort of a Kathmandu guesthouse, hiking the Annapurna Circuit in jandals had seemed like a hilarious jape. I’d just been reunited with my good mate Ed, and the whiskey was flowing freely. Having completed a tipsy outfitting expedition earlier in the evening, we started spitballing ideas for making our hike really memorable. Why not do the whole thing in our jandals, I suggested? Haha. Classic gag. Real thigh-slapper.
The omens were bad from the beginning. Ed had a fever so intense he soaked the bed in sweat, then spent the three-hour ride to the trailhead jammed into the tray of a jeep with six Nepali blokes, enduring a nightmarish clamouring of knees and elbows with every bump and jolt. When we finally set off on foot, one of Ed’s jandals blew out within minutes. Rather than switch to the boots in his pack, he resolutely clenched the nub between his weirdly dexterous toes and kept walking to the next village, which just-so-happened to stock jandals for a very reasonable 350 rupees.
Back in action, thanks to the fine residents of this pastel-coloured Wes Anderson set.
The relief of an early crisis averted gave us the mojo to hike 25km in five or six hours, smoking the geriatric pace recommended on the map. The trail followed a winding river of blue glacier melt through gorgeous bands of multi-coloured forest, enormous rock formations, and a spot on the map intriguingly marked ‘Fields of Marijuana’. Sure enough, beds of the devil’s lettuce sprouted all along the side of the trail, although the buds had been carefully cropped; probably by the smiling Nepali grandmas who kept trying to sell us hash.
The jandals performed beautifully in the early days. After a sleep-in and a leisurely breakfast, we’d hit the trail and waltz past all the Harry Hardcores furiously pumping their dual hiking poles, heavily outfitted in thousands of dollars of gear, with a string of porters in tow carrying the rest of their shit for them. Our savage jandals/singlet/speedies combo attracted constant stares, and we took great delight in yelling cheerful salutations as we left each bewildered group in our dust.
Pride and ego
Sitting around the teahouse stove each evening, we met with a sea of amused, bemused and confused faces. Everyone had the same question: Why?
Jandals are our national footwear, we explained. It’s a matter of pride. We have a National Jandal Day and everything. No, we’re not taking the piss. Your culture has thousands of years of rich history, so you can’t understand how desperate we are to lay claim to anything—be it meringue-based desserts, long-dead racehorses, or tacky rubber casualwear. We don’t have much of a heritage outside the indigenous Māori culture—forgive us for appropriating anything we can wriggle our hairy hobbit feet into.
While New Zealanders love jandals, it turns out jandals don’t love us back. At the commencement of our sacred pilgrimage, my cousin Bronwyn said I was “a podiatrist’s nightmare”. Neither of us took the other seriously. I thought she was kidding about how bad it’d be; she thought I was joking about actually doing the whole thing in jandals:
“Jandals are one of the worst shoes you could spend a prolonged amount of time in, especially if you’re walking any kind of distance.”
Whoops. They must have some advantages though?
“Basic protection to the bottom of your feet.”
The cons are, well, literally everything else: No arch or ankle support, flimsier than a politician’s promise, too flexible, and a lack of straps – all of which is Very Bad News for the arch, forefoot, toes, and achilles. Wearing jandals for too long can change the entire way you walk, which has a flow-on effect through your legs and back.
I found this out the hard way.
Regret and infirmity
An old injury in my right knee returned out of nowhere, like a vengeful ex on a mission to make my life miserable, and I discovered a new and exciting pain in my left hip. My only salvation was prescription opioids. We’d tried to procure Valium before we set off, but for some reason the pharmacist offered us a blister pack of Tramadol instead. This ended up being the best 100 rupees I’d ever spent: I popped a painkiller with my coffee each morning, and floated up the mountain in a state of trance-like serenity.
My podiatry problems paled in comparison with poor Ed’s predicament: The fever had developed into full-blown gastro. What little food he managed to get down exploded out the other end completely intact, as if his insides had turned into a game of Kerplunk, while the colour and viscosity of his urine was indistinguishable from Chelsea Golden Syrup.
Fortunately, we’d just arrived in Chame, one of the only villages with a hospital. Unfortunately, said hospital was located atop an endless set of staircases; presumably some sort of Darwinian triage for weeding out patients too weak to save. We heaved ourselves to the top, where a flock of doctors descended upon Ed. After much poking and prodding, they decided he was dangerously dehydrated – his body hadn’t been able to recover because it was constantly under the strain of physical exertion. One full day of rest and foul-tasting electrolytes were prescribed.
We both woke up feeling invincible. My pain was gone, and Ed ate his first complete meal in three days. The morning’s hike took us to Heaven’s Door, an other-worldly rock formation with a sheer, smooth slope like some sort of celestial skate ramp.
As we rounded another corner, Annapurna 2 and 4 loomed before us. We’d been chatting with a guide, Rai-dai, who showed us to a guesthouse. New Zealanders have a special affinity with the Nepalese dating back to 1953, when one of our blokes and one of their blokes became the first blokes to conquer Everest. Rai-dai informed us it was Nepali New Year, so it was only fitting that we celebrated our bond of brotherhood with a bottle of the local rum, Khukri. We politely pretended to enjoy the sickly-sweet drink, unaware that by the end of the trip we’d develop an insatiable thirst for it.
Hubris and heartbreak
That night there was much banter about overtaking our mates from the guesthouse. We were the last to leave the next morning, as per usual, toddling off around 9 for what I thought would be an easy day. Of course, such hubris would not go unpunished.
Ed lent me his good right foot, taking the el cheapo pair he’d bought earlier upon himself. We zig-zagged up a hill in a series of sharp switchbacks, took a well-earned samosa break at the top, then followed the trail around a cliff, opening up stunning new vistas with every kilometer. The sky was a perfect azure blue, the sun was shining, and it all felt a bit surreal.
At the crossroads we chose the longer and more exposed ‘high path’, winding upwards before dropping back in a series of steep, gravelly hairpin bends which really put the jandals through their paces. My arches were starting to ache like crazy, but I comforted myself with the knowledge we were only an hour away. An interminable length of time passed, and we were still in the middle of nowhere. Ed gently informed me we were still hours away – the trammy had completely warped my perception of time.
As the afternoon wore on, the weather started to reflect my darkening mood. A gray pall descended over everything, and avalanches rumbled away in the distance. The breathtaking mountain views gave way to harsh plains studded with shrubby, desert-like foliage, mires of reflective standing water, and craggy stone walls.
We finally limped into Manang with a squall of rain at our backs. A roaring fire fuelled by lumps of dried shit soaked in kerosene helped lift my mood, as did a couple of stiff Khukri-and-cokes. As it started snowing outside and I warmed my bones, I soon felt very cheerful indeed.
Gluttony and sloth
When we woke the next morning, one of the Aussies had disappeared back down the mountain – her heart wasn’t in it. An Irish guy and his friend had both munted their knees so much they couldn’t continue either. I felt a little guilty: Ed and I were actively tempting fate, but somehow still standing.
We were conscious that getting too gung-ho with the altitude was a big mistake, so we stopped for an acclimatisation day. While replenishing our supplies—a giant hunk of yak cheese, vast quantities of digestive biscuits—Ed’s twisted mind devised the secret weapon which would later save our lives. With the shopping done, we watched Seven Years in Tibet at the local cinema; a projector room which looked and smelled like a cave, complete with yak pelts to sit on.
The next day we were blessed with crisp blue skies, gorgeous sun, and a breeze that set the ever-present rainbow bunting a-flutter. Flocks of birds wheeled over the valley in constantly shifting kaleidoscopic patterns, and the occasional Himalayan vulture cast huge shadows on the land below, full of silent menace.
Despite the rest day, the arch of my right foot was sorer than ever before. My broken jandals were slightly more contoured than the ones I’d borrowed off Ed, so I strapped them back on with medical tape.
We arrived at our next stop in the early afternoon, where I had the unique experience of sunbathing amidst mounds of ice and snow. At 4000m, we were starting to feel the altitude. Ed had headaches, while I experienced my worst insomnia yet, exacerbated by the yak cheese doing strange and unspeakable things to my gut.
Fear and malice
I felt like death the next morning, but a bellyful of potatoes and coffee perked me up enough to make the ascent to base camp at the foot of Thorong La pass. This was the first section of the trail to feel dangerous; a single-file path cut into the scree slopes angling down to the river far below. One false step, and we’d be history.
Ed got into a stand-off with a yak, no doubt sent to punish us for indulging in the delicious cheese of its brethren. While he forced it to yield before the stick of authority, this tribe of smelly walking rugs was not done with us yet. A few minutes later we narrowly avoided walking into a mini-landslide, with fist-sized rocks bouncing down the slopes towards us. We took cover behind a wall, moving quickly through the danger zone at the urgent motioning of a Nepali man on the other side. One of his fellow guides had been killed by falling rocks only last year, he said. The cause? Yaks, wandering around higher up the mountain.
Thorong Pedi base camp was humming with excitement for the assault on the pass. Everyone was planning to set off before sunrise, some as early as 2.30am, which Ed and I couldn’t understand. Sure, it was a pretty tough nine hour hike, but why not leave at a more civilised hour and finish by the late afternoon? The locals we chatted to were sort of vague, but said the weather was better early in the morning. We made a special concession to get going by 6, and hit the sack.
Here’s what we didn’t know: A few years ago, a storm dropped 1.8 metres of snow on the pass within the space of 12 hours. One group of trekkers huddled in a hut at the summit, slowly succumbing to hypothermia and frostbite as they waited out the storm, while others desperately tried to make it down. When the survivors in the hut walked out, the snow was littered with the bodies of their friends and companions. 43 people died, and hundreds more were severely injured.
If I’d known this, I wouldn’t have slept a wink. As it was, the combination of altitude and excitement ensured I only got about three hours. We were the last to break camp, and started our climb just as the sun was rising.
It was colder than a witch’s tit so I bundled myself up in two merino shirts under my jacket, a beanie, gloves, scarf and fleece pants. While I’d also padded my aching arches with thick wool socks, Ed went al fresco, and soon lost all feeling in his toes. We gained 500m of altitude in less than an hour, and encountered our first section of ice. It was time to deploy the secret weapon.
The Jampons (a jandals + crampon hybrid) worked an absolute treat. Two bumbling Kiwis disappeared; in their place stood a pair of sure-footed mountain goats. Combined with the lack of oxygen, this had a strangely euphoric effect. My pack felt like it weighed nothing at all, and I was bursting with enthusiasm and awe at the sheer majesty of the vistas surrounding us.
The feeling persisted all morning, peaking at the top of the pass. We’d made it to 5416 meters, and our jandals had carried us the whole way! I stripped down to my boardies and singlet and leaned my pack against the stone tea shack, oblivious to the macabre memories trapped within its walls.
We ditched the crampons and soggy socks for the soft snow of the descent, and proceeded to enact an impromptu performance of Bambi on Ice for the amusement of our fellow hikers, abandoning any pretenses of dignity to slither and slide down as best we could.
The start of a four hour slip’n’slide back to civilisation.
The snow finally started giving way to patches of gravel, but we were still hours away from the nearest village. I’d given half my water to a couple of Nepali porters up the mountain, and Ed had misplaced his bottle at a rest stop. A maze of sharply descending gravel paths lay between us and hydration, but a ray of sun fell upon a pair of gleaming blue buildings that presumably held our salvation.
On closer inspection, the only thing they held was human shit and rubbish. There was nothing to do but keep pushing. My quads were uncomfortably engorged from the downhills, some of which were so steep I resorted to scuttling down on my back. Finally we reached a township, and guzzled litres of precious water. My first proper shower in six days was a borderline religious experience, cleansing a thick film of filth from every part of me until the water ran black. We cracked beers, ordered a feast, and toasted what was presumably the first (and last) crossing of the world’s highest pass in jandals.
We woke late the next morning, but decided to push on around the circuit to the next major town. This proved to be my undoing. The sandstorm began in earnest in the early afternoon, which is when Ed and I got separated. After 20km, the merciless wind and constant pain had long since stripped away the jubilation of crossing the pass. The passage of time warped, and my thoughts danced in strange directions. A town came into sight across the river plain, wavering in the haze, but never seemed to get any closer.
Finally I lurched into Jomsom, a broken man. This was without doubt the end of the road. I was done. Ed organised a jeep down the mountain for the morning, and bless his heart, came back bearing Khukri, coke and cigarettes. Our pilgrimage was officially over.
Brad Pitt’s hilariously bad Austrian accent made it difficult to take Seven Years in Tibet seriously, but there was one line that stayed with me for the whole trip: “The more difficult the journey, the greater the depth of purification.” The Tibetan people cleanse their sins by walking long distances across unforgiving terrain, while enduring numerous hardships. The more painful the pilgrimage, the more rewarding it is.
The great psychologist Danny Kahneman was the first to formalise this strange divide between our experiencing-self and our remembering-self. A task which we assess as awful while we’re doing it can somehow crystallise into a thing of beauty over time. Much of child-rearing is banal and frustrating, but the experience satisfies us far more than the sum of its parts. Suffering might not be a crucial ingredient for creating meaning in our lives, but it certainly helps.
Of course, the field of psychology has also shown us that we humans are excellent at rationalising our terrible decisions – say, a couple of idiotic Kiwis pulling a stunt they dreamed up on the turps, then solemnly pretending it had some higher purpose after the fact. Hiking the Himalayas wearing jandals was incredibly stupid. We were lucky it didn’t go horribly wrong. It was excruciatingly painful. But by the matted side-curtains of the Great White Yak herself, it was one hell of a rewarding experience.