The Annapurnas are a mountain range in the Himalayas, central Nepal. The Annapurna circuit is a world famous trek that circles the Annapurna massif following trails and roads. This trek begins in the Marshyangdi valley at Besisahar, peaks at the high pass crossing of Thorung La, and ends near Pokhara at Nayapul. There are many villages and lodges throughout the circuit making it possible to trek without the need to bring a tent and cooking gear. Some people still opt to do the trek in this way… not us. We did the classic tea-house trek, walking till we couldn’t and then crashing at the closest lodge for the night. Out of the possible 240km of this circuit, my partner and I estimate that we did around 130km, ending our trek in Jomsom. In this section of the circuit, road construction and crazy winds up the Kali Gandaki Gorge made trekking beyond 11 a.m. a complete and losing battle.
A little perspective
The highest mountain in the world is Mount Everest with a peak of 8848 meters. Average cruising altitude for passenger jets is around 10,000-12,000 meters. Jets are only traveling about 3 kilometers higher than Everest.
Both Everest and the Annapurnas are in the Himalayas. In fact, the top 50 highest mountain peaks all lie in the Himalayas. There are 4 peaks to the Annapurnas, named I, II, III and IV. Annapurna I is the 10th highest peak in the world. The Annapurna circuit is not a mountain climbing trek, but it does climb to very high elevations. When you arrive at Thorong Pedhi, you are essentially at a dead end surrounded by mountains and the only way to continue is to ascend between 2 peaks of Khatung Kang each at around 6400 meters. The Thorong La pass itself brings the trekker to an elevation of 5400 meters.
To compare this to mountains we are familiar with back home in Canada, the Thorong La pass is higher than all the mountains in Canada except for 2 in the Yukon, Mount Logan (5956 meters) and Mount Elias (5489 meters). The mountains we are accustomed to in British Columbia are mostly in the 4000 meter range.
The Many Days
I can’t complain about anything about Canada after visiting Nepal. The other night I was dreaming of test driving an all-wheel drive Subaru during an ice storm in some Canadian city and then going to a shopping mall to pick up something I needed. Then I woke up in the middle of the night in our high end room in the stone age village of Kagbeni somewhere in the northern Himalayas close to the Tibet border. I had to make water.. great.
The room was a frigid 3-4 degrees.. Sylvie was passed out hard. I knew I’d have to be fast about this to avoid freezing and furthering myself into a waking state. I fumbled around for my hiking shoes under my bed and put them on. I tied my laces so they wouldn’t touch any floor inside that “bathroom” just a few feet away. I psyched myself up with a couple deep breaths and got up. I walked over to the door and loosened the old creaking Asian dead bolt waking Sylvie.. sorry.. I felt around the cold plaster wall for the dirty light switch and hoped that the power was on. I was relieved to see the light flowing into the room from the 2 inch crack under the door. I opened the door and did a full inspection for anything living that might be visiting this washroom through the many entry points along the ceiling, corners and window. I was mostly looking for large bugs. None.. phew. I walked to the toilet, still in a drowsy state, and did what I came for. Then I walked to the complicated set of taps and hoses on the wall and crossed my fingers that the water was running at this time. It was. The deadly water flowed out loudly into the red plastic bucket on the floor further waking me (and Sylvie). I needed lots of water if I wanted to completely flush and avoid any scent that might attract critters… I picked up the bucket and up ended it in the toilet. Done.. checked my laces … good. Exited the room.. dead bolted it shut.. hit the light.. Undid my laces and placed my shoes back out of the way under my bed and slipped under the now freezing covers that would finish the process of rendering me completely conscious at 2 am.. joy. At this moment I miss the simplicity and technology of home… we have it VERY good. And this was the highest quality room we could find at an expensive 6 bucks per night.
The mornings around here start with the very different sounding mooing of cows to each other from miles away.. dogs barking .. birds chirping and a very loud chorus of hawking and spitting as the entire village, actually all of Nepal, does this together for about 15-20 minutes.. men, women, children .. all join in for the lung cleaning. We have determined that it is their version of blowing their noses… A perfect way to enjoy breakfast, which usually consists of a bowl of apple porridge, a piece of Nepalese bread and a boiled egg.
The days are long marches through completely unknown and foreign territory .. mountain territory. We have a map of the entire circuit which helps somewhat and we have our Blackberries with offline maps that show most details of the land. We also ask a lot of questions when we see locals or fellow trekkers.
We walked till we drop basically .. some days our ankles ached .. other days it was our calves .. a few days our shoulder blades were on fire .. and we even had some lightning pain on the soles of our feet. Our days were all about pain ..
Our nights were short. We would arrive at our destination anywhere between 2 pm and 6 pm. We were usually too tired to properly vet the lodges, so we often ended up with lesser accommodations .. we would meet friends later on telling us all about the great place they found 20 meters up the road … grrrr .. We would arrive, do the “hot” shower, if it was available, order our supper in advance and then lay down for some much needed rest. After an hour of rest, we would head down to the dinning area with our tablet, map, deck of cards and 2 books .. same routine every night. We would eat our meal and look at the time .. 7:00 pm .. Bedtime! It never failed.
Our trek began in Besisahar where the bus dropped us off. We had a light lunch, pulled out the map and started walking. We walked all afternoon through fields, hills and then a newly built hydro damn until we reached Bhulbhule, our first stop of the trek. Out of confusion and fatigue, we took the first accommodations we found which ended up being very primitive. We froze that night because we failed to ask for blankets. Our room was like something we built as kids in the woods .. it was brutal. I was getting very worried that maybe we had bitten off more than we could chew .. that maybe I had gotten us into some trouble with my idea of “trekking”. We were so out of tune with the whole situation .. we didn’t really talk to anyone either. The toilet was communal, dark and dirty …a moldy smelly hole in the ground.. the shower was was the same.. I skipped both.
The next day was beautiful as we walked along the road following the river. We actually stopped and cleaned a couple articles of clothing in the river and then attached the clothes to our backpacks to dry in the sun. Excellent idea.
After a bit of road, we found the trail that led into the hillside of the large valley that follows the Marshyangdi river. Today was our first real climb of the trek .. a climb through the jungle no less. The constant sound of the gray blue river below was a great mind massage .. very peaceful.. Until we reached our first real challenge.
After crossing a waterfall’s stream that crossed our trail, we encountered our first landslide. The trail was already thin along this steep hill, but at this particular area it was completely washed out. Approaching it, we could see that others had started breaking new trail. But this was hardly a relief. The new trail, a few footprints, was the width of our feet, 4 meters long and on a steep grade of maybe 50 – 60 degrees .. on fine gravel. Below the washout were piles of large stones and tree trunks straight down the ravine of the waterfall we had just crossed. We were staring at broken legs and arms for sure and maybe a concussion. It was this or turn back, beaten. We were wearing our Merrel sandals at the time .. freshly wet from the waterfall.. our feet sliding inside of them.. stupid. We should have made a better decision at this point, but we didn’t.. before I knew it, Sylvie was across waiting for me. I can’t describe the fear, the tension and the danger involved in those 30 seconds of crossing that washout.. I could see so clearly the Merrel sandal giving out and me sliding down into the gorge.. Of course, this didn’t happen. We made it across .. but things would change right away. I was so upset at myself for being so irresponsible. We had to respect this trek. As a starting point, we stowed the Merrel’s permanently and donned the socks and hiking shoes. What a difference .. grip, stability and comfort. Lesson learned.
Later on up the trail I would be challenged again. This time my fear of heights would be put to it’s strongest test ever. The trail climbed to a dark gray cliff face. The path turned to stone .. slippery stone, slightly on an angle .. maybe 2 meters wide. To the left was the cliff face going down perhaps 800 meters .. death. Up was 90 degrees for another 800 meters or so. I was crying inside .. I was whimpering outside .. I was utterly terrified and wanting to turn around and give up. I felt like a child .. Sylvie strong as can be, not worried at all marching along the trail .. and me trying to Buddha this fear away .. trying not to let tears out… tears for fear.. wanting to shout, shout, and let it all out but afraid my sound waves would dislodge a pebble and cause a landslide. I clung to the cliff face, stared at my feet and walked very slowly, regretting this whole idea. The trail curved around the mountain for about 5-10 minutes of terror and then led back to a more jungle style trail. There was a very poor broken railing for a very short section of that stretch and the story goes that a man fell off the cliff during a rainy day. He somehow survived the fall with many broken bones and was trapped far below for days. Monkeys kept him company and threw bananas at him to keep him alive until help finally found him. The man who found and rescued him is responsible for building the dilapidated railing. True or not .. Mountain stories..
That night I went to sleep seriously fearing what other challenges might present themselves .. I had made it through the washout and the cliff, but I wasn’t sure I had much more in me .. and this was only the second day.. a very restless night.
The next day was mostly road for Sylvie and I. We climbed so much road, along another incredible cliff face, this one over a kilometer high. The good news was that it was as wide as a vehicle. I just stayed flush with the cliff face and never looked in the bad direction… until we encountered a large puddle … the size of the road. The only dry spot to walk by was of course right at the ledge.. a ledge that led immediately down .. no little grass shoulder .. no stones and shrubs first .. road to 90 degree drop. My eyes welled up once again and I wanted to scream…
It was a long hard day but we finally made it to the very cool village of Tal. Tal was located in a gorgeous part of the valley. How did we find ourselves in a valley after climbing all day? You see, you climb for hours yes .. but then in true mountain trekking mockery, you almost always have to descend at least half of what you climbed .. very frustrating. Thus the valley.
At this point, Sylvie and I were amazed at ourselves. Amazed that we had made it this far. Oddly enough, that night we met up with an Australian man who had given us a pep talk not two nights ago. He had told us about our confidence growing as the days go on .. he had told us about 80 year olds doing this trek .. he had told us we could do it! Well, the poor Australian man’s trek was over today… he had the most hideous blisters on his ankles from under worked boots he had purchased for the trip. They were nasty, and he could not continue. So our inspirational guru was done like dinner. Hmmm.. We were trapped anyhow .. no choice now but to press on.
We had made a few friends so far, but it was impossible to spend any time socializing other than meeting up at the end of the day. Everyone treks at different rates, and no one wants to take the chance on anyone not progressive at the same rate. I wouldn’t want to hold anyone back, nor would I want to wait on anyone. And as the trek went on, people dropped out because of fatigue, injury or side trips, while others zoomed ahead with sheer strength and endurance or by hiring a vehicle to take them further into the circuit. By the end of the trip, there was only 1 couple we would see again.. the rest are but a memory.
A Change in Scenery
The next couple of days we noticed our first real climate and vegetation changes. The landscape changed from Jungle to broad leaf trees and some conifers.. The air got dryer and the air cooler. The nights were becoming pretty cold and we were always making sure to wear thermals to bed with socks.
We had a nice walk through these forests to the village of Danaque. The place we stayed at was very cozy but the bathrooms were something out of a horror movie. The two communal bathrooms were built one above the other. The one of the bottom floor had sh*t running down the beams in the ceiling.. clearly coming from a bad seal of the upper floor toilet. Gross.. I believe we paid $2.00 for the night here. I should point out that in these mountains, there are no options .. we couldn’t have forked out $200 for a first class suit if we wanted to. What we had in Danaque, was the best it had to offer.. sh*t beams and all.
From Danaque we climbed some more on our way to the milestone village of Chame. On this day we had our first view of Manaslu, the 8th highest mountain in the world at 8163 meters. Amazing. Chame is a milestone because it’s one of the places that some trekkers choose to begin the trek at instead of Besisahar. We had decided that we would need the physical conditioning and so we started the trek from the very beginning. Things changed at Chame.. there were now many more people on the trail.. all the people on a schedule .. all the people who didn’t want to do the complete trek .. walkers!! I thought we were done with them in Europe .. Nope, they showed up a quarter of the way into a classic circuit.. with their “porters” .. or as I like call them, slaves.
There is a serious culture of slavery going on in these mountains. I’m sure no one wants to talk about it, but it’s happening up here. You can hire a guide to walk with you and show you which trails to take and so on. You can also hire a “porter” to carry your bags during this trek. These “porters” go for around $16-20 per day. The loads these men carry is insane. Huge 80 liter backpacks tied up with a couple of day packs .. sometimes 2 or even 3 of these backpacks tied together sideways and slung around the porters forehead to carry it. And they are always alone … either up ahead of their master or way behind. Often wearing really ratty clothing, sometimes in bad footwear like sandals. And then you see these entitled people who hired them .. sauntering along the “trek” with a small 20 liter day pack, a sun hat, a camera and a bottle of water. While their slave carries the load like a donkey.. unreal … I started really disliking the people with porters. I couldn’t even look at them.
At the lodges, the porters don’t sit with the rest of us .. oh no, they stand .. usually outside in the cold.. or they sit on the ground or in the corner or on the window sill.. waiting for orders. They serve their masters food .. they wait till all the white people have eaten, and then they are served the cheapest food available up here. You couldn’t pay anyone in Canada $20 per day to do this extreme physically intensive work for so many hours in a day.. impossible.. People will argue with me that this is perfectly fine and that the porters agree to this arrangement themselves. Desperation and poverty will make you do almost anything. These porters are killing themselves. If I can afford the plane ticket, time off and equipment to do this trek, then I can afford to pay someone to carry my load at a proper rate.. Or better yet, if I can’t carry my own load, then perhaps this trek is not the right activity for me. Or maybe I should join an organized tour group that takes care of all these things with pack animals or vehicles. It just stinks of legal slavery to me.
The Trail to Manang
After Chame, we ascended 600 meters to Upper Pisang, which was a pretty good accomplishment for us. The trail was now really starting to climb as we headed to our next milestone of Manang. The landscape here resembled Canadian autumn. I had the feeling of partridge hunting with my father and good times at Halloween. We stopped in at a shack in the forest where a woman was cooking samosas from scratch .. right there .. on her knees rolling dough.. deep frying them in a pan over a small cooking fire .. at .25 cents per samosa, we loaded up. We continued on past yaks and horses and many marijuana plants.. mountain weed! Which we stayed away from of course .. we drank no alcohol and used no wifi for the duration of this trek. A detox of sorts..
By now, my fears had been challenged many times with cliffs and washed out trails, and I could feel my fear of heights diminishing… somewhat. I was still afraid, but my panic threshold was definitely higher now. Our new fear was whether or not we would be able to cross Thorong La pass. It was all that people talked about. Whether or not you had enough stamina for the climb .. whether or not there would be snow on the day of the climb … whether or not you had acclimatized to the altitude .. whether or not you had the right clothing for the extreme cold and rapid changing weather up there. This new fear was setting in something fierce. This was supposed to be a holiday, but it was “Fear Factor” everyday around here.
Sylvie and I are not the most “in shape” people.. we are couch potatoes that eat healthy is how I would describe us. Healthy food, but zero exercise. This concerned us.. We figured that all the walking through Europe and the hike up to that point would bring us into shape enough to handle the pass. We also figured we had 1 advantage for this hike… our resistance to the cold. Living up north in Canada, we are used to the bitter cold and should be able to handle a little Thorong La. We were right so far about this as most people around us were trekking with winter coats, hats and gloves by now .. I was still in my shorts and neither of us was wearing a hat, gloves or jacket yet. In fact, the jacket we bought never made it out of our backpacks. Still the fear was setting in ..
The next 2 days were complete pain and anguish. The guide book failed to accurately describe this part of the journey. We had a choice to take a lower faster route to Manang or the higher, more “strenuous”, route which offered better views and scenery. We chose the upper route. These 2 days were the most strenuous days of our lives.. without a doubt. Never has my body been challenged and pushed so hard. We climbed over a kilometer twice or three times those 2 days. You would climb 600 meters only to return back down 600 meters and have to do it all over again. Take 10 steps up .. stop and breath for 30 seconds to a minute, then another 10 steps .. all day.. and the air was getting thin above 3000 meters. Sweating, heart racing, legs aching, unable to catch your breath …for 6 -7 hours each day.. unbelievable.
After the first day of this, we settled into the village of Ngawal. We had a very difficult time here.. the winds were really picking up and giving us our first taste of very cold weather. Our “hot shower” was complete hell in one of those aforementioned dank dark rooms .. freezing .. nowhere to place your towel, clothes or soap .. taking turns holding things, shivering while the other gets wet and lathers .. horrible. We went through a real morale downer that night waiting for our supper to arrive.. shivering .. the isolation setting in. On the up side (no pun intended), like hard history, walkers aren’t fans of the high road either..
The second day was more of the same, but with a bit more strength and experience than the day before. Up 400 meters, down 400 meters .. a few times. But by the end of the second day of this painful ascent, our confidence was shooting through the roof. We can do this.
Reaching Manang was another great milestone. This is where the trail leaves the Marshyangdi river valley and enters the Thorong Khola valley for the final approach to the Thorung Phedi dead end. Manang was full of shops so you could pick up any last minute trekking gear you may have discovered you needed. Sylvie and I each bought a double fleece jacket for the cold nights ahead. The menus in Manang included meat items of yak and chicken. Up to this point, we had been mostly vegetarian.
Final Approach to Thorong La
After Manang the landscape changed once again. The trees started disappearing and the land became more tundra like. It was a relatively easy couple of days with gradual climbs to reach Phedi. We played leap frog with an old man and his adopted slaves .. errr .. Nepali son and grandson. They were pretty nice and offered some good conversation. We would pass them as the old man needed rest .. and they would catch up and pass us when we stopped for food and water. We had also been playing the same game with a group of about 8 Israelis for the last 3-4 days. They were a very young group, clearly just out from their military training and yet they had porters.. We passed a few of them in a group consoling a crying member at about 3500 meters.. The altitude was getting to her.
Israelis had a very bad rap in the mountains. They were a disliked group by the lodge and shop owners. It was the topic of conversation more than a few times along the way. Shop owners complained that they always haggled and complained when buying the simplest of items. Lodge owners complained that they didn’t honor the requirements of cheap accommodations. The general rule is that the rooms are almost free, as long as you purchase your meals with the lodge restaurant. Apparently, many Israelis agree to this but then end up cooking in the rooms leaving a large mess when they leave. We had asked a lodge owner for a room moments before an Israeli group had done the same and been turned away.. we got our room. We also overheard an argument between an Israeli and lodge owner. He was trying to book a room and was being questioned hard by the lodge owner about eating meals in his restaurant. It got pretty heated but the lodge owner granted him the room in the end. I found it very interesting how a particular nationality can share certain behaviors that will render their lives difficult in this region.
A couple days later we arrived at Thorong Phedi. We were overjoyed having made it this far. Completely surrounded by mountains, we could see the path up to the pass clearly. We did a test run that afternoon up about 500 meters with just our day packs. During the ascent we had our first taste of altitude sickness .. just mild symptoms of dizziness and slight headache.. not bad. Some people aren’t able to climb the same day like this .. some people have to stay at lower altitudes to acclimatize before even coming to Phedi. Sylvie and I had taken the high road from Pisang to Manang and had followed all the guidelines to avoiding mountain sickness and it paid off.. it was never an issue for us.
The night before the climb was the coldest yet. It must have been minus 10 or so in our room … none of these rooms have heat .. just wood or brick structures straight out of Castle Black. The morning of the climb, Sylvie and I were the absolute last people to leave camp. Everyone had woken up between 3 am and 4 am and the last group of people left at 5:00 am .. in the very cold dark. We left at 6:00 am .. and we were a bit nervous that we had made some kind of mistake. Within the hour, Sylvie and I had caught up to people and were passing them. We climbed to Thorong La, 1000 meters, in 5 hours .. not bad for a couple of couch potato rookies.. in our thermal and long sleeve shirts. People were decked out in high tech snow suits and goggles.. hats and space age neck warmers .. hoses attached to their water packs within reach of their mouths. Gloves from the future with their hiking poles attached. Stream line snow pants and boots made for polar expeditions.. and of course, a poorly dressed porter carrying all their gear not far behind. During our ascent, we passed 3 separate people who had given up and hired a horse to carry them to the pass.. One was the crying girl we had passed days before, and the 2 others were her friends. Their porters waited for them at the pass. Sylvie and I felt pretty good about ourselves.
The feeling up there was pure joy.. we had tears in our eyes, still not believing we had made it. The sky was very dark blue because of the thin air close to the upper atmosphere. People don’t linger up there on the pass. The wind was already starting and we were so far removed from civilization, essentially trapped on a mountain. The weather can change in a heartbeat up there. In 2014, 43 people died on the pass during a freak snow storm that hit the region dropping 2-3 meters of snow in a matter of hours… yikes… We snapped a few photos and started the descent.
On the other side of the pass, it’s a long 1600 meter descent .. easy stuff !! We’re going down !! oh my gawd .. Everyone we had passed, eventually passed us. Sylvie and I had the worst time going down. We’d practiced so much climbing that our legs were not muscled for the descent. Pain and anguish all over again after about an hour of this. Only 4 hours more of this relentless descent .. using our poles to absorb the step downs. Sylvie had knee issues and had to don the cloth knee braces we had picked up in Kathmandu. The soles of my feet were the most hurt .. so much unexplainable pain. I was a dead man walking going forward out of shear necessity.. Life or death.. I could see the hate in Sylvie’s eyes at about hour 3 …
We made it to the town of Muktinath by 4:00. A 10 hour day and what a relief. We had our first shower in 4 days and enjoyed the comforts of a sealed room.
Muktinath houses a very special temple for Buddhist and Hindus alike .. Hindus from India make the pilgrimage to this place .. some of them walking .. We could see the Indian tourists everywhere here. Up in the temple, there were cold pools of water that people would wade and splash though for some religious purpose.. it was the equivalent of our polar bear dip. There was also a giant Buddha statue to admire, with great views of the desert like landscape of this new region.
The trek was rolling to a close … we were exhausted and on the other side of the Thorong La in a whole different world. The new valley that we now followed had a vengefully strong wind that came rushing through starting at around 11:00 am every day. The dry mountains had swirl patterns in the rock from the millions of years of this daily wind grinding away at them. We walked to the stone age village of Kagbeni and took an extra day of rest there. The walk there was horrible as road construction had devoured most of the trail.. so we walked a very dusty road being passed by buses, jeeps and motorbikes. The 11:00 wind was also a real problem. It meant you had to get your hiking done before it started which lessened your daily progress.
We made one more leap and walked along the Kali Gandaki river to the next town of Jomsom where we made the decision to stop the trek. We had walked for 15 days, over 130 kilometers .. we had crossed the Thorong La pass .. we had seen Annapurna I,II,II,IV, Manaslu and Gangapurna peaks ..we had carried our own belongings and we had found our own way…we had reached the Jomsom milestone where many people call the trek done anyhow. It was sad to stop, but all good things must come to an end.. Everything below the belt was killing us.
The bus ride from Jomsom to Pokarha was an another exercise in hell .. those terrifying cliff faces were suddenly in my face once again as a passenger in a vehicle. I was leaning over on top of Sylvie trying to keep the bouncing 5 kilometer per hour crawler from tipping over the wrong side… like riding a snow machine through fresh deep powder. A bit of comic relief at one point, as an English speaker said clearly and loudly “Do not look on the left side”. With all my leaning, I wasn’t exaggerating, as we actually encountered a bus blocking the road. It had tipped over on it’s side.. on the good side thankfully. A group of passengers righted the bus themselves, but it had seen it’s last ride. Our TaTa bus was on it’s last leg as well, the chassis separating from the cabin in a few spots .. the suspension non existent .. 12 hours of bouncing around and hanging on for dear life. Sylvie said it best .. the scariest and worst bus ride ever.. a bad combination.
In the end
This was the greatest challenge of our lives .. both mentally and physically. I am not sure I will ever do anything more difficult. Mountain climbing is not on our list of things to do. We went at this a bit blind, having only watched Youtube videos, examined some maps and read some guide books. The fear we felt was so real and intense .. and the fear could have stopped us had we not been literally trapped on the trail between rocks and hard places. This trek was a complete exercise in facing your fears and taming your mind.
The People of Nepal were amazing. We had no negative interactions with them .. so helpful .. so kind .. so willing to help. As we wandered around Thamel during our last few days, we were sad to be leaving this place behind, seeing just how hard their lives are here. It’s such a primitive place and the recent earthquake only added salt to their many wounds. Despite the difficult life in Nepal, these people work hard, they welcome tourists with great hospitality and demonstrate such resilience in such a difficult environment. Tourism is their Buddha send, and I encourage everyone to visit this amazing country. Perhaps in the future, we will return and try another, easier, trek in the Himalayan mountains.