Hiking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal

Conversation is almost non-existent, each breath of the thin air leaving an immediate want for more……..like I’m breathing through a straw full of holes………want to give up and lay down in the snow.

ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT DAY 1

 

For the next 19 days I will be accompanied by Tomi from Finland, and KB our Nepalese guide.  Our inaugural day on the Annapurna Circuit actually involves no hiking.

Taking a mini-bus from Pokhara to Dumre, a local bus awaits for the two and a half hours to the trail starting point near Besisahar.  Temperatures are in excess of 30 degrees C and the bus is both crowded and lacking air-con.  I refuse KB’s offer of a seat inside and instead climb aboard the roof and find a spot to sit amongst the local Nepalese.  It was far more comfortable and certainly more enjoyable; although important to duck under any branches or power cables.

Between avoiding decapitation and chatting with my roof companions, I note the presence of cloud and rain in the valley.  The monsoon season has been a particularly good one and appears to be lingering longer than normal.

 

ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT DAY 2

 

The day starts with a rough and plodding jeep ride along a 4wd track.  I contemplate getting out and walking, but it remains only a thought with the arrival of precipitation.

The walking is predominately without any undulation, until a slight climb at day’s end.  KB is carrying some of my gear; my pack is approx 9-10 kg.  I note the irony of how much cold weather gear I am carrying, given the hot, humid conditions here in the valley.

This section of the Annapurna Circuit in the Kathmandu valley is dominated with both forest and rice paddies; through which the Marsyangdi River –  our companion for the next week or more – flows freely.

 

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Annapurna Circuit

Suspension bridge over the Marsyangdi River

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our guesthouse for the night sits atop a ridge with outstanding 270 degree views.  As darkness descends I look further up the valley; like a stage curtain, the clouds hide what awaits us.

 

ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT DAY 3

 

I awake to a sore body – which at this early stage is a concern – after a night of heavy rain and little sleep.

Teams of donkeys loaded with goods are surprisingly frequent on the Annapurna Circuit and when confronted on a narrow track hugging a cliff face, quite daunting.  I note KB’s advice and take the cliff side of the track to avoid being shunted over the edge.

Not to be outdone, the loads carried by the local Nepalese are scarcely believable, even more so given they wear sandals and stop for cigarette at each break.  One guy was carrying a load of mattresses to Manang, still five days away.

 

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Wide load!

 

 

 Annapurna Circuit

After eight hours hiking, the brand new guesthouse at Chamje  – 1400 metres – offers a million dollar view.  From the front door we look directly at a spectacular waterfall – as lofty as a highrise building –  tumbling over a cliff covered in lush vivid green vegetation.  I’m yet to sight the Himalaya’s proper, but am already stunned at the scenery.

The path today was often wet and slippery with considerable undulation, yet we did not gain any altitude.  My right thigh feels like it’s been corked, yet today is considered less demanding than tomorrow’s 700 metre elevation gain.  I’m concerned about my overall fitness.

 

ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT DAY 4

 

The morning greets with clear skies and I secretly pray that the monsoon season has bid farewell.  As I struggle to walk down the stairs to the dining room, I rue ignoring my girlfriend’s advice to stretch each morning; an activity I will now strictly adhere too.

I’m continually distracted at the incredibly steep, lush, green cliffs towering over us as the trail crisscrossed the river via steel suspension bridges.

 

 Annapurna Circuit

Marsyangdi Valley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I quizzed KB with regards to the Sherpas in Nepal.  He stated that any Nepalese person can gain a trekking licence – up to 6000 metres.  Above this altitude, only the Sherpas – an ethnic group from central/eastern Nepal – can gain access to a climbing licence.

We arrive at Dharapani -1900 metres – around 5.00 pm.

 

ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT DAY 5

 

My prayer for clear weather has gone unanswered; the day begins with light drizzle which desists by mid morning.  Soon after, my eyes witness snow for the first time.  It may have been on a distant peak, but when you wait your whole life to behold, naturally it’s a thrill.

Through a gap in the clouds we glimpse our first 8000 metre peak on the Annuapurna Circuit.  Largely obscured by clouds and offering limited opportunities to scrutinize, only seems to enhance its imposing presence.  It occurs to me that I am currently at an altitude not possible in Australia, yet this peak is still nearly four times higher!

A large part of the trail today is on a road under construction to link Manang – a further two days up the valley –  with the rest of Nepal.  Given the significant benefits for the villagers along its intended route, it would be selfish for me to criticize its existence and lament the loss of ‘atmosphere’ of the original Annapurna Trail.  However new sections are already blocked by landslides and in some places, totally collapsed; it’s longevity would seem unlikely.

I arrive in Chame – 2710 metres – tired, however the soreness seems to be abating.  On hearing there is no snow on Thorung La Pass, I’m left feeling a little deflated.

ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT DAY 6

 

Slept well and any leg soreness appears to have dissipated.  Cooler temperatures are making life a little easier on the trail.

With the trail at times less than two metres wide and carved out of a cliff face; vertigo is my constant companion.  Today we walk through a small pine forest.  I’m astonished at the change in vegetation and landscapes as we gain altitude, one can be forgiven for not watching where they’re walking.

As we round a bend in the trail, a spectacular sight confronts us.  The magnificent and behemoth glacial carved Paungda Danda cliff face forms an incredible curved wave shape.  Some 1500 metres high and kilometres in length, it’s one of the most incredible geological features I’ve seen.

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Paungda Danda

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We reach Upper Pisang – 3300 metres – perched on the side of the valley directly opposite the start of the Annapurna Range.  The views of the Annapurna monoliths from my bedroom window are obscured by clouds.  My room costs AUD$2 a night – can’t imagine what a room with these views would cost in Europe.  It’s getting cold – finally get to wear my cold weather gear.

 

ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT DAY 7

 

I awake eagerly and with muted hope I peek a glimpse from the window – not a cloud in sight!  The snow-covered Annapurna 2 peak stands proudly, unobscured and demanding attention.  Even the local villagers are admiring – it’s the first clear view of the peak since the start of the monsoon season, some months earlier.  We have breakfast and I watch hypnotised as the sunlight moves down the mountain, reflecting off the snow and ice.

 

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There are two routes to Manang.  The longer option offers superior views, but by 8.00 am clouds start obscuring the peaks; so we opt for the shorter route.  I’m grateful we did, by lunchtime my left shoulder is becoming very painful.  A little concerned such discomfort is happening so early on the trail.

Manang – 3540 metres – is a planned rest/acclimatization day.  Annapurna 3, directly across the valley is again obscured by cloud, so I succumb to a hot shower.

ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT DAY 8

 

An unexpected bonus over the course of the week, has been the friends made with other hikers along the trail.  With the peak season for the Annapurna Circuit still another couple of weeks away, tourist numbers remain low, so no rush to reach a village at day’s end to secure accommodation.   The weather also appears to be improving with each passing day.

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Gangapurna peak and icefall – Manang

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To assist with acclimatization, and adhering to the proven formula – walk high, sleep low – KB takes us to a vantage point across the valley, an hours walk some 300 metres higher than the village.  A lazy afternoon taking advantage of clear skies and admiring at least 5 snow-covered peaks from my rooftop balcony, completes a much-needed rest day.

ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT DAY 9

 

Seems I’ve jinxed the weather – its raining.  Slept so well, didn’t hear the avalanche across the valley that everyone is discussing over breakfast.  The local Nepalese are suggesting that this rain will bring snow to the pass.  This is a concern to others, but I can’t hide my excitement at the possibility of finally touching snow.

With light drizzling rain all day, thankful for the short four-hour hike to Letdar – 4250 metres.  At this altitude, the landscape is now devoid of trees and large shrubs.

We meet up with the others and spend the afternoon in a guesthouse common room around a fireplace burning dried yak dung to keep warm.

ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT DAY 10

 

Previous nights sleep was intermittent at best – apparently a common scenario at high altitudes  – and I can still hear rain on the roof.

The precipitation and sleep deprivation has me reluctant to face the day ahead, until I behold a sight that seems almost magical – snow!  The snow line would only be 200 metres above us.  It’s dropped over 1000 metres through the night.

Ignoring the biting cold and light but persistent rain, I’m the first one ready to hit the trail.

Mid-morning a dream becomes reality.  A photo records the historic moment.  The wet/icy texture is unlike the soft/fluffy feel I was anticipating.

A short but exhausting  3 1/2 hour hike to Thorung Phedi – 4450 metres.  Snow continues throughout the afternoon – a sea of white, it’s everything I imagined – beautiful.

 

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Thorung Phedi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is only one topic of conversation today – Thorung La Pass.  Tomorrow is the day of reckoning.  Thorung La Pass – 5416 metres – is one of the world’s highest trekking passes.  The combination of AMS (Altitude Mountain Sickness) and the severe cold, result in deaths here each and every season.

5.00pm – The snowfall seems to be increasing with each passing hour.  Both trekkers and guides are deep in discussion re the implications for tomorrow if the snow continues.  I’m ecstatic and a little mesmerized by it all.  My only concern is the discovery that my shoes are not waterproof.

8.00pm – The snow is now over a foot deep, and will be twice that depth on the pass.  KB is showing reluctance to attempt a crossing tomorrow; and after some discussion, decision is made to wait another day.  Despite the real possibility that we may not be able to continue, I am secretly thrilled to have seen the snow.

The local Nepalese cannot recall having seen snow to this extent in September.  Quite incredible it should occur the day before we arrive at the pass.

ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT DAY 11

 

The day greets with clear skies, but the snow is still deep, justifying our decision to wait another day.  I’ve woken with a painful headache – a classic symptom of AMS.

There have been several avalanches in the vicinity – a small one during the night only 100 metres from where we slept!  A group of Australians arrived in Thorung Phedi today, ‘missing’ a porter.  Two weeks later, back in Pokhara, we learn that the porter was killed in an avalanche.

I’m the only person here who has not seen snow before and my friends have granted me a special request, a childhood wish –  building my first snowman and my first snowball fight.  Special thanks to Andy, Sarah, Mike, Adam, Bjorn, Tomi and Paul.

Took some AMS medication and spent most of the day dozing in bed.  I’m concerned that if my condition does not improve, I will have to return back.  KB is also perturbed at whether I can recover in time.

ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT DAY 12

 

4.00 AM  KB knocks on the door, as I rise out of bed, we exchange looks of expectation.  I stand and look around the room before looking back at KB; I smile and nod, he does the same – the headache has vanished.

4.50 AM  The trail starts directly behind the guesthouse, rising steeply up the mountain face.  The air is still, no-one talks, only the sound of our footsteps.  The full moon light reflecting off the snow.  The serene and peaceful setting a stark contrast to the physical exertion we were about to experience.

6.00 AM  High Camp – 4850 metres – the steepest section behind us.

7.30 AM  At 5000 metres a lone teahouse beside the trail – which is beginning to ice up – is a welcome sight.

Having no experience in these conditions, I’m blissfully ignorant of the avalanche risk, which I discover later is on the minds of those around me.

Conversation is almost non-existent, each breath of the thin air leaving an immediate want for more.  The mercury seems to be falling, making life a little more difficult.

8.30 AM  My only thought is – one in front of the other – I barely have the energy to daydream.  Feel’s like I’m breathing through a straw full of holes.

9.00 AM  The trail is only a foot wide, the snow either side now two foot high.  The false ridgetops are heart breaking.  I’ve reached a place both physically and mentally I have never before visited.  I just want to give up and lay down in the snow.

9.30 AM  As we round a corner, I look up to see a small timber hut and prayer flags.  I glance at KB who smiles back – we made it!

Throng La Pass – 5416 metres.  As luck would have it, our extended ‘group’ has arrived at the pass within minutes of each other and we savour the moment, shaking hands and congratulating each others efforts and the friendships forged over the previous 12 days.  The look of elation yet relief evident in all.

With minimal visibility, the incredible views and mountain peaks visible from the pass will never be evidenced in the photos and video recorded that day.  What mattered was that we had conquered Throng La.

 

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Throng La Pass – 5416 metres

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After only 20 minutes, the cold becomes acute, fingers freezing despite the gloves.  In mutual acknowledgement, we begin the long torturous descent.

The snow and ice quickly disappears on this side of the pass, the bare rock exposed.  Feels good to descend after so many days of trudging skywards.  A little over an hour down and the knee pain has me wanting to retract the previous thought.

1.30 PM  I walk into Muktinath – 3800 metres – knees shaking, scarcely providing support.  To give ourselves every chance to cross the pass – we have all abstained from alcohol for the previous 12 days.  The ban is now lifted and tonight we celebrate our achievement.

 

ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT DAY 13

 

KB insists we visit the Hindu temple on the outskirts of the village.  Initially reluctant given the light drizzle, subsequent cold, and my legs are hurting.  This Hindu temple is one of the most sacred in Nepal, followers wash from each of the 108 water spouts lined along a long curved wall.  Many Hindus, or more accurately, the Sadhus – Hindu holy men – make pilgrimages here, even from India, often travelling on foot for weeks or months.

We descend over 1000 metres today, legs are so sore I can’t even do my regular morning stretch.  The valley on this side of the Pass is virtually devoid of vegetation, a moonscape appearance almost.

Lunch in the 700 year old village of Kagbeni – 2810 metres.  Despite the lack of vegetation, still quite picturesque with the river running through the centre of town.  Disappointed we didn’t spend a day/night here, one of my favourite villages on the trail.

Often the buildings are made with the same construction technique used for centuries.  Walls consisting of rock, which fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, sometimes hit with a hammer to get the right shape.  Mortar consists of mud and yakshit.

Descending down to the river at Kagbeni, we notice ammonite fossils on the ground.  Hard to believe an ancient seabed dwelling organism could be found over 3000 metres above sea level.  Evidence of the Sub Continent plate colliding with the Asian Continent to form the Himalayan Range we know today.

The two and a half hour walk along the wide rocky river bed to Jonsom is accompanied with a cold stiff wind, common in this part of the valley.  Walking past a Gurkha military compound on the outskirts of Jonsom, I’m reminded of their fearsome reputation fighting alongside the British.  Jonsom – 2720 metres – is a welcome sight, my legs are giving me considerable discomfort.

 

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ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT DAY 14

 

With its own airport, Jonsom is the predominate settlement in this valley.  The airport has been closed for some days due to low cloud cover, which is also restricting our views of the mountain panorama.

Little has changed today, steady rain delays our 7.30 AM intended start to 9.00 AM, upon which we set off anyway.  Within fifteen minutes I’m soaked, and at this still high altitude, very cold.

We stop at a teahouse for lunch after only two hours and wait another two hours, before again setting off in the rain.  I’ve had enough, I’m cold, wet – especially shoes and socks – and visibility is non-existent.  We’ve stumbled over several landslides, possibly only hours old and even witnessed rocks tumbling down the cliff.

 

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So when I find Andy and Sarah, with Mike and Adam sitting around a fireplace in a guesthouse in Tukuche, I immediately eliminate any thoughts of continuing for the afternoon and join them.

KB and Tomi are limited for time and consequently keen to return to Pokhara.  If this weather continues – which seems likely – I would rather wait until it clears, as I have no timetable constraints.  I see little purpose in trudging through the rain and cold, when I don’t need too.

At the last permit check point, I saw a graph indicating tourist numbers to the Annapurna region for the last twenty years.  2006 showed the same number as 1989 – 37,000.  Yet 2000 was 74,000!  In 2001, Maoist rebels started their civil war; didn’t realise it had such an impact.  An election in seven weeks will determine whether Nepal remains a monarch or becomes a Republic.

ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT DAY 15

 

As I rise, sunlight entering the room, I note that my legs are still recovering.  Initially I didn’t register the morning light, upon realisation I open the curtain.  I grab the camera and run outside, where Andy and Sarah are already standing in the street, smiling at my look of disbelief.

With the cloud lifted, the village reveals its beautiful secret, surrounded by three huge mountain peaks including Dhaulagiri – 8167 metres.  With views not seen since leaving Manang nearly a week prior, I soak up the magnificence before us, bird songs giving the perfect background.

After leaving Tukuche the valley widens, vegetated with pine forest and sandwiched between two massive peaks, this area is considered the worlds deepest valley. It must also surely be the prettiest – superb scenery.

Soon after lunch the valley narrows, and we briefly witness the road to Jonsom being constructed; waiting nearly an hour while rock is blasted from a cliff face with dynamite.  Enthralling as it is, the environmental impact is obvious.

After nine hours of walking and darkness descending, Tomi collapses with a sore ankle.  With my own energy levels all but depleted, I carry his pack the remaining distance to the next village of Dana – 1400 metres.  I accompany KB and seven other Nepalese guides in a few beers for the evening.

ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT DAY 16

 

Gratefully, another clear sky and from our guesthouse, our first look at Annapurna 1 – 8091 metres, the highest of the Annapurna Range.

I’m grateful for the ‘rest’ day.  A two-hour walk to Tatopani – 1200 metres – for a lazy afternoon.  The heat and humidity of the lower altitudes keeps us out of the hot springs until early evening.

 

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The river that dissects the valley is considered holy.  Today we witness a funeral, the body being burned on the river’s edge.  Mental note not to drink from the river.

Andy and Sarah are heading to the Annapurna Sanctuary tomorrow and have enquired as to whether I would like to accompany them.  I would dearly love to tag along, but I will need to carry the extra gear that KB currently has – another 5 kg – and their fitness is considerably better than mine.

ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT DAY 17

 

9.00 AM – late start – humidity already evident.  I meet and talk briefly with an Indian Sadhus, he is en route to the temple at Muktinath, a round trip over 5000 klm’s in length.

We ascend over 700 metres to Sikha – 1935 metres – and the incredible views it affords back down the valley, snow-covered peaks providing the perfect backdrop.  This is KB’s hometown, he heads off to catch up with family and friends.

Spend the night with two humorous older Dutch guys.  Butchers by trade, they arrange a chicken to be killed and prepared Nepalese style.  We wash it down with Apple Brandy and hot water.

 

ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT DAY 18

 

For the fourth day running, the skies remain clear.  Today is a long day climbing back out of the valley to Ghorapani – 2870 metres.

There are a lot more tourists this side of Thorung La Pass and given the picture perfect vistas of the previous few days, stands to reason.  As we climb higher, pine forest gives way to rainforest.

ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT DAY 19

 

5.00 AM  We set off in the pre-dawn darkness for the hour-long climb to nearby Poon Hill – 3210 metres.  Poon Hill is regarded as one of the prime vantage points in the Annapurna region.  This appears to be endorsed by the astounding number of tourists – especially Asians – who have made the trip out from Pokhara.  Will see more tourists today than the whole trek combined.

The tallest peak has the first glimpse of the dawn light, before the sun gradually lights up the remaining summits of the Annapurna Range; cameras clicking hoping to catch that perfect image.

 

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Sunrise at Poon Hill

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We return to Ghorapani for breakfast and discuss the day’s itinerary.  KB has just received an email from an English guy who is wanting to start the Annapurna circuit the following day.  It’s possible to return to Pokhara tonight – but would be a long and demanding day.  I’m reluctant to take this option, however if we don’t, KB may miss out on remuneration that is difficult to come by.

We start the long descent on what will be our penultimate day.  The first hour is through an unusual rainforest, in that the tree trunks and branches are all blanketed with moss, lichens and ferns, truly beautiful.

After the rainforest, we start down an uneven and seemingly endless rocky staircase.  Mid to late morning, my left knee is beginning to ache; we stop to rest at a teahouse.  I enquire of KB how many more steps we might encounter, his reply is not encouraging.  There are in total some 3,400 steps – we have done about 1,000.

Early to mid afternoon and I’ve long resorted to painkillers, every step an agonizing grimace.

5.30 PM  I limp behind the others into the village that marks the end of the Annapurna Circuit.  Incredibly we have descended over 2000 metres since leaving Poon Hill this morning.  Balancing relief and regret that the trek is over, the hour taxi ride back to Pokhara gives me a chance to reflect on the previous nineteen days.

The Annapurna circuit is said to be one of the worlds most diverse treks.  With landscapes that include grasslands, pine and rain forests, snow, rocky desert, 8,000+ metre peaks, rivers and waterfalls – I completely concur.  Even on the last day, I left Poon Hill in near freezing conditions wearing several layers, beanie and gloves to sweating in 30C temperatures – that was before lunch!

In terms of scenery and landscapes, I came with high expectations.  Yet even with over a week of minimal visibility, it still far exceeded what I could ever have envisaged.

 

Link to my photo site:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/danthewanderer/sets/

 

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