Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Are We There Yet? - Annapurna Circuit, Nepal

Jen and I started our trek of the Annapurna region in Kathmandu with a 7 hour bus ride to Besisahar. Within an hour we befriended a charming couple from the States, Tracey and Corey. Little did we know that this little counter would lead to 3 week trekking partners and good friends. After a short hike we reached our first town and acquired another trekking partner and a fast friend in Chuck. We went from a duo to a trekking gang within hours.

The Annapurna Circuit is 300km of trail that circles some of the worlds biggest mountains, Annapurna I, II, II, Dhaulagiri, and Gangapurna. All of which tower over 7500m. The trek meanders through lush sub-tropic forest, desert, mountain shrub and high mountain regions with no vegetation and little life. At its apex is Thorong La (Thorong pass) at 5416m. The pass is situated at the edge of the Tibetan plateau and has long been a trading route with Tibet.
The first three full days involved waking up at 6AM, trekking for 7-8 hours, eating dinner and then collapsing into bed exhausted. I was definitely out of shape and unaccustomed to this much trekking, let alone with a 35lb pack on. I was a little worried how my knees were going to hold up. A 5km run usually renders me immobile the next day. Luckily I found some great knee braces and a couple stretches to hold the knee pain at bay.

In the mornings we would see one of the giant mountains slightly peaking up over the foothills but would quickly disappear once we started trekking. On the the 5th day we were greeted by Paunga Danda, a rock face that rises more 1500m from the trail, a mountain that locals believe that the soul must climb to reach heaven. Now the great mountains were a permanent fixture of the landscape as they punched their way through the ground almost touching the sky. I was transfixed to these massive snow capped behemoths. I tripped many times while gazing in awe at these palisades.

On the seventh day we had to rest in Manang for a day to acclimatize to the altitude as we had now reached 3600m. The air is noticeably thinner and we still have 2000m to go! Unfortunately I became ill the previous day and gladly welcomed the rest day to recover. From here to the pass we hiked a maximum of 600m per day. If this mark is exceeded, you risk getting Acute Mountain Sickness. Having acquired this in Tibet I didn't particularly want to get it again so we took our time. Even though our days were reduced to 3-4 hours of trekking, the trails seemed to go straight up and with the air becoming increasingly thin, all of us struggled to catch what little air there was.

At this point in the trek all of the charming tea houses owned by adorable Nepali couples I grew to love vanished and in their stead were lodges without any allure or quaintness. Likewise, the higher one treks the more expensive the food becomes. At 800m, Dal Bhat (lentils and rice) is 60-80 rupees, at 4500m it is 450 rupees! At this elevation there is 1 maybe 2 options to eat at or stay the night. There is no negotiating here, they are firm, unemotional and stoic, like the mountains they live by.

The morning of the final ascent we started the hike at 5:15AM. With lungs gasping for oxygen, legs burning and and extremities freezing we slowly trudged in the snow towards Thorong La by the light of our headlamps. Having the piercing wind swirl around easily made the temperature -20 degrees. After what seemed like endless false summits and 3 hours of hiking, we had reached our goal of 5416m, Thorong La. The day was now clear and the sun was warm as if rewarding us for a difficult morning. A photo session quickly broke out and treats of gummies and cookies where passed around. Our once cold bitter morning moods were now jubilant and playful. With the 600m ascension finished we now had the very long 1890m descent to deal with. Some days it feels like the trekking never ends.

The following days provided us with picturesque towns and a return to the charming tea houses. Even though the climax of Thorong La was under our belts we still had just under 150km left in the circuit. A couple days later the deepest valley in the world with its desert scape welcomed us with 80km gusts of wind that stung our faces and pushed at our bodies as we tried to make progress. Two days further still, the trail stopped and the despised road began. None of us liked trekking on the road. Its dusty, noisy and the constant stream of cars destroys any magic the Himalaya once held. After two days of debating whether to take a jeep or finish the trek, Chuck opted for jeep while the remaining four endured two more days of road until we reached Tatopani and its much anticipated hot springs where we all soaked our strained muscles and joints.

After discovering how good the food was at our guest house we decided to rested an extra day in Tatopani and gorge ourselves on the surprisingly good enchiladas. We absolutely need the extra fuel to conquer our biggest ascent of the circuit, 1700m in one day. Followed by our biggest descent the following day, 2075m. Yikes! I didn't have much left in the tank for that big ascent and it felt like I barely made it to the town of Gorapani. The next day we climbed the 200m to Poon Hill where we were treated to one of the best views of the trek, one might even call it a defining moment. After the cold morning at Poon Hill we made our way down the 2070m to our final destination of Naya Pul. The trail was comprised entirely of tiny stone steps. Half way down my legs were already shaking and pushing my me closer to failure and a broken face. During the descent we noticed that there was a 71km race that took the entrants 2400m up and 2100m back down on the same little stairs. After that I stopped complaining about my legs. The winner of the race finished in 7 hours, just 1.5 hours more than it took me just to go down.

The Annapurna Circuit was a glorious, challenging, rewarding and stunning trek that will stay with me forever. I also had the opportunity to meet and befriend some marvelous people who shared this wonderful journey with me. Both the Himalaya and my new friends will always have a special place with me.

"Our way is not soft grass, it's a mountain with lots of rocks. But it goes upward, forward, toward the sun."
Ruth Westheimer


  1. is it the down? (in refference to one of the last pictures)

  2. It's always the down. Oh the down!