The A/C in my train car is a welcome relief from the oppressive heat of early summer in Kerala and will finally allow me to write in comfort. It’s hard to believe, but two weeks ago we were shivering under blankets high in the Himalayas; now I can barely remember the sensation. I do, however, remember the excitement we felt walking away from a terrible nights’ sleep in the mosquitos of Gorakpur and crossing into the Nepali border town of Sunauli.
With only loose plans to attempt the Annapurna Circuit and some winter gear left over from Kashmir, we hired a car to drive us up the new twisting road to Pokhara. After a late arrival and sleep in, we opened our eyes to an incredible vista of distant snow-covered peaks reflected off a beautiful green lake. This is the Annapurna range, and we start to get excited. We quickly realized that we had neither the time or the resources to attempt the full circumnavigation of the Annapurna Massif and its’ 5420m high Thorung-la pass, but had heard a great many things about the hike into Annapurna Base Camp (ABC), or, more appropriately, the Annapurna Sanctuary.
Day 1 – Phedi to Pothana
As beautiful as Pokhara is, we couldn’t wait to leave. We did some last-minute provisioning and paid some hefty “park” fees, and hired a car to take us out to Phedi, and the beginning of 9 days of relentless hiking. The paths are steep, and solidly built with fitted slate stones quarried during the construction of the trail. The workmanship is clean and smooth, allowing for a confident stride up the thousands of steps. Soon our ambitious stride slows to a lumbering step and we started to take in our surroundings. Green terraces are cut into both sides of the valley and strive to turn steep hillsides into food for the villagers that work them. The Rhododendron forest we hike through provides welcome shade, as the valley bottom we’re climbing from was easily 25-30 deg C in mid-March (interesting fact: Nepal is at roughly the same latitude as Egypt or Florida, yet Himalaya means “home of snow”). Local villages are strung along the paths at regular intervals – usually 2 or 3 kilometres up or down, never across, and our first day rises over 1000m to Dhampus and Pothana, but overcast skies hide the snow-capped mega-peaks that allegedly surround us.
Day 2 – Pothana to Jhinu Danda
After having the tea and porridge breakfast that will become our staple, we hiked up and over a pass leading to Tokla and a string of small terrace villages filled with smiling, happy faces. With the sun punching occasionally through the cloud, I start to notice a wavering shine to the stones in the path and realize that I’m walking on plates of mica, a beautifully reflective silver mineral. We then drop down into the valley and cross the Modi Khola – the mighty river that drains the heart of the Annapurna Massif. Up another steep wall of stairs and we stagger into Jhinu Danda, devour dinner and decent back down to an amazing natural hot spring complex stuck into the rocks at the rivers edge. We’ve only been hiking for 2 days but the muscles are sore and happy to be soaked and stretched.
Day 3 – Jhinu to Bamboo
The hike from Jhinu up to Chhromrong is as steep as the climb that ended yesterday, but longer and harder despite our rejuvenated spirits. The clouds finally part and we get our first taste of the magnitude of the mountains that surround us, they are still many kilometres away but are already imposing themselves on the sky. Chhomrong is the entrance the Annapurna Sanctuary Conservation Area, a paradise of mountains, snow and a complete lack of plastic bottles.
The trail then drops steeply back into the valley and we see it rise again on the other side, shuddering slightly at the thought of having to return back up these steps, but worry is easily forgotten in favour of jaw-dropping mountain scenery and untouched forests of rhododendron, oak and bamboo, the latter of which happens to be the name of our destination. In these protected valleys, birds hurl their songs across rivers, orchids cling to oak trunks and Himalayan Langurs tentatively peer through foliage before vanishing in a leap. While Bamboo is only 500m higher than Jhinu, the path climbs 1300m and descends another 800m, leaving us exhausted. As the sun sets, the evening cloud momentarily parts allowing for a lensful of an bright orange Machhapuchhare, the sacred and unclimbed 7000m fin of rock known as the “fish tail”.
Day 4 – Bamboo to Deurali
The foreboding clouds of the night before were a sign and I wake with a terrible sickness. I would suspect Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) but my stomach doesn’t agree. Breakfast is sips of tea and a few spoonfuls of porridge, unhappily followed by another 1000m of staring at my feet – willing one slowly in front of the other. Deurali is socked in and the lodges are full, but it feels like we’re on the edge of something incredible.
Day 5 – Deurali to ABC
A strict diet of antibiotics and “Gastro-Stop” has apparently cured me, but the illness has drained my energy. Thankfully, the lemon tea and crisp mountain air clear my head and my feet move slowly but confidently. The trail snakes along the narrow valley bottom bounded by Machhupuchhare on the right and a 6441m wall known as Hiun Chuli on the left. As we leave Deurali, we are rewarded with clear views of Gangapurna and Tare Kang (Glacier Dome) with snow blowing from their 7000m peaks off into space. These white monsters look like party crashers in the lush forest but we quickly leave the bamboo behind and climb into a land of snow and rock where the mountains ARE the party.
By midday we reach Machhupuchhare Base Camp (MBC) at 3700m and finally get to see up the dog-leg valley into the heart of the Annapurna Massif. South Annapurna is directly ahead with the mighty 8091m Annapurna I looming over everything. As we leave MBC under the South Annapurna Glacier moraine we marvel at some ski tracks on the north face of Hiun Chuli before the afternoon clouds roll in and the snow starts to fall. We reach Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) and throw our packs down, exhausted at 4130m. We are reunited with our tramping Kiwi friend Miriam at the Snowlands Lodge and are the only three guests booked in for the night. This seems surprising until the lightning storm starts to rage outside and brings with it graupel and shivering porters in garbage-bag rain shells. The low rumble of ice and rock are falling in the mountains around us only stops when we retreat into sleeping bag cocoons and fall asleep.
…part 2 will be up soon!