Annapurna Sanctuary trek

Annapurna Sanctuary trek October2011

Day1 (Phedi – Dhampus – Pothana, 4.5hrs)

Woke up this morning to the glorious view of Machhapuchhre or Fish Tail mountain rising above the surrounding peaks and rooftops of Pokhara town. Unexpected as its snow capped triangular peak was not visible through a light haze yesterday. After a hearty breakfast we acquired some last minute provisions and then we were off with our porter to the start of the trail at Phedi village. So began a 10 day undulating hike through the Himalaya which will eventually lead us to Annapurna sanctuary and back again. The start of the trail was certainly a reality check and wake up call for unwary leg muscles and sweat glands! It was hot, very steep and a tad unforgiving. As it should be really. Predictably, the reality and scope of the undertaking began to sink in after just 10 minutes. Or at least it tried to until I said no, we are here in the now and to form a segmented mental time scape of the entire route at this stage would be a waste of time and most likely debilitating. No no, got to find my hiking legs, be patient when it’s tough going and appreciate the privilege of being able to do something as arguably yet wonderfully pointless as this in the here and now! We hiked through steep woodland on stone steps which gave way to agricultural rice terraces linking the myriad unlikely settlements which dot these slopes. Slightly idyllic. The people who call this home are clearly cast from a vertiginous toughness I can only begin to imagine! In between streams of sweat stinging my eyes I could see the expansive views below unfold as we ascended from the valley floor. Our porter was ever affable, the weight on his back belying his diminutive size. For all our panting and struggling it was most humbling to observe elderly local ladies plying the same paths, carrying loads of sticks or crops often bigger than themselves in a basket strapped around their head. The red tika thumbed on their forehead, or sometimes elaborately decorated using patterns of what looked like dyed rice, complemented their long flowing shawls. After about 90 minutes we stopped for a delicious soup and bread lunch in Dhampus, at one of the many teahouses which add character and definition to these Himalayan trails. With food in our bellies and renewed energy the path eased off somewhat and we were able to enjoy the scenes of birds of prey circling overhead, hoping for a free range take away chicken meal, and the human intensive scene of high altitude agriculture. The main impression of every local we met was of hard working contentedness and a mildly jaded amusement of us daft foreigners trampling through their neighborhoods bringing commerce and foreignness. We eventually wound our way to the little stoney hamlet of Pothana where we called it quits for the day, content and full of the requisite joys of being alive in such a place! For just 200 rupees or about 2 euro we got a cozy twin room and then ate a delicious meal of vegetable curry, lentil dahl and Tibetan bread. I’m feeling pretty good, both mentally and physically, though we are just 1 day into a 10 day trek with the steepest, coldest and most challenging parts yet to come. Still though, in the here and now, life is good!

Day2 (Pothana – Tolka – Landruk – New Bridge, 6hrs)

My first glorious Himalayan sunrise although we nearly missed it due to boarded windows and misjudging how long the sun would take to climb above the 6000+ meter peaks. Once again the snow capped peaks of the various Annapurna summits revealed themselves, layer by sun stroked hazy layer. After a brisk shower, packing and a cup of mint tea we were off. We hiked for about an hour to Tolka building a healthy appetite along the way. The ascent was fairly gentle but the legs were still overcoming reluctance. Some sublime views presented themselves of Machhapuchhre and other snowy summits against a perfectly complementary blue sky, though I expect the adjectives will wear thin and no longer suffice the farther into the range we trek. We had a hearty potato rosti and egg breakfast which as usual seemed to take an age to prepare. All the better for taking in the panoramic views then. The path next took a dramatic downward turn, steep and somewhat slippery. As always the promise of an easier time walking with gravity acting from behind proved a false hope as the knees suddenly had to awake from there smug slumber and take the brunt of the force. We crossed a few nice rickety suspension bridges, dodged a few small herds of cows and donkeys and eventually found ourselves on a drier and more compliant path which transversed a panoramic valley below. Once again we found ourselves in agricultural land with rice terraces clinging to and defining almost impossible slopes. Even more impressive always was the site of local people working the land from their cottages, often thatched, dotted along the mountainside. After a few hours we arrived at Landruk where i enjoyed a lunch of garlic soup and apple pie after another protracted but much appreciated wait. At this stage I was becoming aware of the cumulative effects of mountain trekking on my leg muscles and joints, a not entirely comfortable realization on only the 2nd day of ten, before reaching the higher altitudes and the day before a tough uphill section. Ok, away with those thoughts, and off we go again for the final section of the day. We crossed some more fine bridges, impressive in their human scale and fun to cross owing to the rhythmic swaying and bouncing as footsteps build a harmony. We stopped at two very pretty and characterful waterfalls, one of which made my wanton soaking a mandatory event. Nothing like a pounding, cold, natural shower to reawaken the senses and give a new lease of energy. One more short but steep ascent later we arrived at our lodgings for the night at New Bridge, deep in a valley punctuated on one end by the dramatic and almost over powering presence of South Annapurna peak. When it’s visible that is. Once the clouds rise by about midday most summits become concealed and leave only occasional hints of the magic that awaits at sunrise. A delicious vegetarian meal, a few drinks and some pleasant conversation with new friends later and it’s bedtime again, trying not to think too much about tomorrows trials! As if to put an exclamation mark on things to come we spoke with a pleasant Lebanese trekker who told us of her unpleasant experience with sudden extreme altitude sickness close to Annapurna base camp and having to be carried down in a basket to a lower altitude until the symptoms subsided. The random effects of altitude sickness are not to be under estimated.

Day3 (New Bridge – Jhinu (hot springs) – Chomrong, 4hrs)

Awoke with an unexpected lease of energy, buoyed by the crowning and gradual top down dressing of Annapurna South by the golden rays of sunrise. Photographs, breakfast and we were off. Contrary to expectations the start of the path was actually quite pleasurable, the landscape giving itself more over to forest and ever more dramatic views fleetingly presenting themselves. It was becoming increasingly necessary to practice the skill of avoiding precipitous drops while making way for herds of animals and load bearing porters on a narrow path. We crossed another bridge over a narrow but raging torrent, with a large chock stone perfectly balanced, as if levitated above the water, between the sides of the gorge. Who can even begin to wonder of the geological forces and timescales involved in setting it there. After this the path inclined sharply, though not quite to the vertical description eagerly gesticulated by our porter all along! After perhaps half an hour we arrived at the village of Jhinu where we took a detour down to some hot springs. We seemed to be cheating ourselves entirely of gained elevation as we would have to drag ourselves back up the path again, but the dip in the hot fresh springs next to some frothing rapids was absolutely worth it. I was amazed how well they relaxed sore muscles. Back up in Jhinu 30 sweaty minutes later we settled down for lunch and some rest. Reluctance to face a slightly grueling 90 minute ascent made the eventual continuation of todays walk a tad harder to bear as leg muscles once again reverted to a state of complacency. Slowly slowly was the mantra for the ascent as the river gradually began to fade into the distance below. The occasional vulture flew overhead surveying their expansive territory. As we gained elevation the reward was a grand panorama of impossibly steep slopes, covered respectively by impenetrable forests where large vertiginous waterfalls peaked out and were dwarfed in the distance, and manicured rice terraces dotted with small houses at locations so isolated and seemingly impossible that they begged fascination with the lifestyles of those who maintained and lived on these gradients. We trudged away achingly until we finally arrived at the outpost of Chomrong. There could hardly have been a better reward for the slog up. A terraced view with a 300 degree sweeping panorama of the snow capped peaks above, the valley below and the waterfalls, forest and farmlands in between. We could see in each direction to the village we stayed in last night to the next village we will pass through during the extended trek tomorrow. It was also the first time I’ve ever seen an animal killed. Someone had some very fresh chicken that night! As night crept in we ate yet another delicious dahl lentil meal with extra everything, then watched the ever changing configuration of shy 8000m snowy mountain summits above, playful cloud layers above & below and the moon proudly illuminating all it surveyed from the valley below to the upper reaches.

Day4 (Chomrong – Sinuwa – Bamboo – Dovan – Himalaya hotel, 7.5hrs)

Sunrise from our promontory was about as spectacular as expected. Multiple peaks penetrated and gradually dressed in the warmth of the rising sun. The view was bewitching but we had to get moving. We left at 7 o’clock and started heading back down the slope using another path which would eventually rise steeply again. Care had to be taken bounding down the hundreds of stone steps as the surrounding views could be treacherous if one diverted too much attention from the steep decline. We passed many farm buildings, rest houses and occasional herds of reluctant sheep or donkeys. The trail was billed as long but easy but after breakfast in an adjacent panoramic village called Sinuwa we began to realize this description was only half true. It WAS long! The trail undulated, passing more and more through damp forest, the progress of every second incline robbed from us by frustratingly inevitable declines. We stopped for lunch at the rest house of Dovan, ahead of schedule apparently, before making the final push towards Himalayan Hotel. Legs ached, muscles strained and breathers were required more regularly. We arrived earlier than planned at about 3 o’clock, the reason for our haste becoming clear when we were informed they had no rooms left! Unfortunately we had already passed the last permanent settlement of this trek so there was no other option (even the next rest house 2 hours walk away was booked up apparently) but we were relatively lucky enough to secure some sleeping space in the dining area. The altitude is 2900m and the climate has changed. The heavy sky is chilly in this elevated valley but as always a delicious vegetarian meal sorted us out. Tomorrows hike is thankfully shorter and a room at the end of it will be even more appreciated than usual. However, we will be rising a further 800m and need to consider the risk of altitude sickness more seriously. Garlic soup and slowly slowly!

Day5 (Himalaya hotel – Deurali – Machhapuchhre base camp, 4hrs)

Woke up very reluctantly this morning. I had a good night sleep but the combination of cold pre dawn mountain air and the cumulative effects of 4 days trekking were mounting. A cold shower for 150 rupees (e1.50) held no appeal. A few cold splashes of water on the face, a few stretches, a drink of hot lemon, packed and it was time to wake up reluctant limbs for real. We were off. The path was roughly following the lower contours of a valley at this stage, it’s inclines far outweighing its declines and crossing various cascading streams. Once we got moving we warmed up and to my surprise I found a hidden 2nd wind. The psychological twists and turns of an extended trek are quite intriguing and we at least for now had found our rhythm. Expectations were clear. We were in the zone. Yes we would suffer but the rewards at the end were always worthwhile. Pushing on was the only option and there is a zen like acceptance and appreciation of breaking this barrier. Walking time had become compressed as we were now counting it in terms of the days behind us as well as the days ahead. Hours somehow seemed shorter. Muscles which groaned going downhill appreciated the uphill sections and vice versa. After about 90minutes we stopped in Deurali for breakfast, pleased with our progress so far. We pushed on beyond the tree line and as the sun started warming the air and splashing myriad colours into the adjacent valley slopes I fell victim to a most unexpected and delightful happy attack on two occasions! Standing on a rickety bridge in glorious morning sunshine, watching a distant vertical stream mature to a raging white water torrent beneath my feet, with the blue sky punctuated by the snowy peaks of the Annapurna range and cushioned by wispy clouds, the aching of various limbs became simply irrelevant. It was such a privilege to be in such a place. The rising sun made its presence felt beyond our vision by casting a shadow puppet style theater of the surrounding peaks into the morning mist, its penetrating rays illuminating the valley interior in a graduated linear fashion. The final section took a bit longer than expected, no doubt a consequence of the previous four days walking and the arresting lush mountain scapes which commanded our humble awe. We arrived at Machhapuchhre base camp at midday just as the rolling mists were beginning their daily peek a boo cloaking of the surrounding peaks. The warmth of the sun was rapidly drained away by the mist and altitude (3700m), but it was nice to have an afternoon to relax in our spartan resthouse with the usual cup of hot lemon and delicious food, except this time wrapped up in many layers trying in vain to stay warm!

Day6 (Machhapuchhre base camp – Annapurna base camp – MBC – Deurali – Himalayan hotel – Dovan – Bamboo, 10.hrs)

What a day! I didn’t get much sleep last night and only for the occasional odd dream fragments I may have easily believed that I got no sleep at all. Altitude playing tricks with my mind no doubt. That and the heavy oxygen deprived breathing and occasional snoring of my roommates! I was not eagerly anticipating the day ahead. We rose at 4 o’clock in the morning and hit the trail within minutes, the joy of finally reaching ABC (Annapurna Base Camp) completely subverted by the cold, dark, fatigue and lack of shower in nearly 3 days. We trudged on, torch light playing games with the myriad shadows along the path. The walk would take nearly 2 hours and gradually rise another 400m to 4130m. At all times the commanding presence of the surrounding peaks whispered in the cold night air. At one stage the moonlight reflected off the shiny surface of a distant mountain face with such illumination that I thought for a moment it must be the base camp. Arriving just before sunrise I joined the gathering crowd overlooking a prayer flag laden bluff looking into a large glacial trench. Then magic happened. The breeze and temperature changes of sunrise ushered in low lying clouds and patches of fog along the bottom of the trench, while those overhead danced to a different tune, together playing a game of conceal and reveal of the majestic Annapurna peaks. One minute all would be hidden in a dense fog, the next minute the suns penetrating rays would burn away large swathes of fog to reveal the multi-hued textures of snow capped peaks, glacial run off and the red earthen sides of the trench we were standing on. All the time prayer flags fluttered, people photographed and the most stunning scenery I have ever had the privilege to witness continuously changed its attire. Only a couple of hours previously I could not have imagined regaining my joi de vivre. It seemed farcical that we would have to leave in somewhat of a rush. But such was our itinerary. I photographed as much of this inspiring scenery as I could while trying to appreciate being in these magic fleeting moments and then I had to hurry back to MBC (Machhapuchhre Base Camp). The hour long trek back through the ‘sanctuary’ was all downhill, but utterly distracting as the scenery in every direction continuously responded to the sunlight spilling over the white ridge edges of Machhapuchhre. What a stunning landscape. Back at MBC we had a quick breakfast, packed and we were off again. The next 5 hours would see us back through Deurali, Himalayan Hotel, Dovan and finally to Bamboo where we had a room booked in a guesthouse. There are still 4 days of trekking ahead of us but now that we have crossed the halfway point, reached the highest elevation and started the return journey it feels great to be homeward bound. While passing incoming trekkers still breathless on the gradual ascent to the base camps, there is a strange sense of satisfaction, even possibly smugness to have made it there and now be departing with the requisite experiences and memories. However, one assured way to wipe away that latent smugness and firmly re-establish humbleness is to observe the tremendous weight the porters so stoically carry over such large and challenging distances. We met one guy taking a rest who was carrying a large load of bedding materials to the tune of approximately 55kg to ABC! How is this even humanly possible, let alone with people of such generally diminutive size?! He allowed me to try it for myself by slipping my forehead under a strap as a means of levering, balancing and carrying this tremendous load. Needless to say I was not equipped to get the method right and rather than risk dropping the lot I simply shook his hand out of respect. Most of the return journey today was downhill, which was great on the lungs but less so on the knees after a few hours. We marveled at how much of an ascent we had made in the preceding 2 days, now plainly clear as we descended the same paths.  We retraced the river and re-crossed the various tumbling tributaries by the same rickety bridges as over the last 2 days before re-entering the forested zone, dropping more than 1500m in the process. We stopped in Dovan for a well earned lunch, and arrived in Bamboo at about 14:30, having been out and about for over 10.5 hours. I’m exhausted, my muscles ache and now my left knee is also beginning to moan, but feeling great to be at this pivotal stage in the trek.

Day7 (Bamboo – Sinuwa – Chomrong – Ghurjung, 7hrs)

A much needed shower, a full night sleep and a breakfast of omelette and apple and we were off just after 8 o’clock. Luckily the wear and tear of the previous day subsided a bit overnight and my knee was ready to go. The start of todays trek was the first sizeable uphill stretch since arriving at ABC. We made it and continued with good pace to Sinuwa within 90 minutes, pleased with our pace while enjoying the sun dappled valley scenery we had passed through in the opposite direction a few days before. We stopped for a refreshing lemon drink then started the sharp descent to the bottom of the valley, again maintaining a surprisingly good pace considering how rough the path was and how worn out our knees were. Of course for every downside there’s an upside and the ascent back to Chomrong was steeper, longer and more taxing than the way down had been. We heaved, puffed and panted our way back up buoyed by the fact that we would soon be on a new trail. We stopped for a surprisingly good pizza and vegetable momo (stuffed Tibetan dumpling) lunch at Chomrong guesthouse before completing the haul back to the top of the hill. From here we finally got off the main trail and started heading on our chosen 2 day detour which will eventually lead us to Ghorepani and Poon hill. It felt good to be in new territory and the panoramic valley views yielded time honoured agricultural methods so easily romanticized by the western eye. The crop terraces seemed to stretch forever and the hillsides were dotted with rustic houses and outhouses. However, the reality is that these interconnected communities and isolated hamlets are many kilometers from the nearest road and all the raw materials must be carried in, usually by hand but occasionally by donkey or horse, along these myriad mountain paths which form the lifeline for everyone living here. We greeted uniformed school children who were happily skipping and laughing their way home along a 2 hour stretch of precipitous mountain path which they plied to and from school every day. For supplementary income many homes establish rest houses which depend on random trekkers passing by in need of food, drink or somewhere to sleep. The menus are pretty much fixed to make things fair for all locals in the region, though it is suggested that trekkers should order the same food when possible in order to cut down on the fuels required in these necessarily largely self-sustaining communities. Nepali daal baht (lentil soup with rice and vegetables) is a favourite as it is cheap, filling, tasty and comes with free refills. We arrived in Ghurjung at 3 o’clock and secured a room and dinner for the night. It is a beautiful quiet place, overlooking the valley, with expansive views of crop terraces and the mountains beyond. There are many crops grown in the cascading terraces and chickens and rabbits are kept free range. Tomorrow is another long day with some intimidating slopes ahead, but having successfully completed a number of such days already we are ready to face it with a growing feeling of accomplishment.

Day8 (Ghurjung – Tadipani – Ghorepani, 8hrs)

Wow, what a day! The words punishing and relentless come to mind. We started the day relaxed in our cozy little lodge overlooking crop terraces and the valley below. It was a difficult place to leave so soon. The first 40mins of the path were equally idyllic, passing through various farmhouse courtyards and admiring the rural surroundings. School children skipped to school, animals grazed and friendly locals passed by carrying impressive loads of sheaves on their back as though their lower body had been genetically grafted to the basket in which they carried their load! The path then descended steeply to another torrent in the valley below. This is where the fun began! We looked up at the slope ahead of us. Along with the usual spread of terraces and cottages dotting the hillside there were ant like trekkers meandering down the endless path from far above. The same path that we would spend the next 2.5 hrs heaving and grunting upwards. It was hard work with the expectable number of false summits, though it was satisfying to watch the valley and waterfalls below fade into obscurity. When we thought the path was about to even out, it didn’t, instead it continued stubbornly through a steep forest until eventually giving way to the village of Tadapani. This alone felt like an accomplishment, though it was arguably just the beginning. After a refreshing drink we continued along the path which now descended steeply downwards at a gradient which offered little reprieve, instead delivering repeated blows to aching knees. And then it was up again, at the same relentless pace as before until eventually it evened out and led us to a pleasant rest house in Banthanti, located in a smaller elevated valley. We stopped for a much needed lunch of delicious momos and entertained illusions that we were now finally nearing our goal. We were heading for Ghorepani, which it turned out would require another 2hrs of relentless uphill winding forest path and scaling another 500+ meters before finally descending for another hour to the 2860 meter altitude of this relative trekker hub. We finally made it. Exhausted. Hot shower. Delicious dinner. Lick the wounds. Cozy lodgings. It feels like the finish line even though we have another day and a half left. However, this is mostly downhill and it seems safe now to start mentally celebrating!

Day9 (Pun hill & Ghorepani – Ulleri – Hille, 6.5hrs)

After a very peaceful and much needed sleep we arose at 5AM for our final Himalayan sunrise. Pun hill is a 350meter ascent from the slightly more touristic village of Ghorepani. After a brisk 45minute trudge up the hill in the dark my body heat was too much for my fleece and jacket despite the cold mountain air. As it is at a crossroads of a number of trails and the most accessible panorama view point for the Annapurna range there was a sizeable crowd gathered at the summit. However, the noise and numbers didn’t distract me from the beauty and majesty of the gradual illumination of the Annapurna range, from Annapurna1 to Machhapuchhre, as once again the rays crept over the surrounding massif. I dallied until the crowd dwindled, delighted to be in such a place but also relieved that it would be all downhill from here. We headed back to Ghorepani for breakfast and packing, then started our final descent. The trail to Ulleri was mostly gradual downhill, passing the usual farming communities, patches of forest, lines of goods laden horses, chicken laden donkeys (!) and of course steep valley slopes. We stopped briefly to visit a local school where we were shown the quaint but functional library while the kids played outside in a play area somewhere between the valley floor and peaks of the foothills of the worlds greatest mountains. After Ulleri the trail took a steep knee jarring downward turn with narrow irregular steps to the bottom of the valley. We sympathized with the majority of the trekkers who were starting their journey from this side, however we had certainly paid our dues the day before! At the end of the valley we crossed two more suspension bridges over a series of cascades and before we knew it we arrived at our lovely little guesthouse in Hille. Come evening time the sheer hillsides on the opposing side of the valley are lit up like fireflies by the numerous and seemingly impossibly located dwellings. Considering the proliferation of people who eek out a living in this vast rolling mountain scape it is easy to forget that we are and have been throughout this entire trek a considerable distance from the nearest road. On more than one occasion we were pointed to locations of past landslides where the death tolls were considerable. But this is a fact of life in such an environment, especially when the accumulated effects of deforestation and seasonal rainfall are taken into account. The people who have adapted to this vertiginous way of life have done so with grit, stoicism, warmness and a physical and mental strength which is not given away by their slight build.

Day10 (Hille – Naya Pul, 2.5hrs)

Made it! We finished the trek in one piece! The final section was almost all downhill following alongside an increasingly confident white water river. At some unspecific point the path sneakily took on the form of an unpaved road. We only fully noticed this when, alongside some school girls trying to make their way to school, our passage was suddenly blocked by a large digger. After 10 days of bipedal power this hulking metallic beast came as a bit of a shock! After a few minutes of clearing and leveling it stopped to allow us all through. The girls playfully skipped through as mini earthen cascades erupted spontaneously in its wake, the giggles of the girls belying the huge potential danger in an area not unfamiliar with deadly landslides. We also chuckled nervously. When the excitement subsided I considered the implications of this very gradual road building. I suppose it is just a matter of time before roads encroach on these mountainous pedestrian networks, bringing commerce, increased trade, improved standards of living, noise, pollution and the eventual loss of a hard but precious way of life. Good for the locals, not so much for misty eyed trekkers. Arriving in the small village of Naya Pul was a disproportionate shock to the system, being confronted with screeching buses, belching Toyotas and taxi touts after 10 days off the grid. Back in Pokhara it was time for laundry, rest, menus, bustle, shopping, shaving and reflecting over these remarkable 10 days in the Annapurna Conservation Area. All walks of life complete this trek every year, but the sense of accomplishment is entirely measured on a personal level.

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