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A real Breath Of Fresh Air By Aaron Dickfos

Annapurna Circuit Trek - Oct 2019 - day by day

With fully packed bags and undoubtedly more weight than anticipated, we were up at 5:30am for a full day of minivans, 4wds and plenty of waiting around, all wrapped up with a good dose of confusion around the ways of Nepalese transport.

Making it to our destination and starting point of Syange, everyone was excited for the days to come. Along the road there, viewing the first glimpse of an 8,000m + (26,000ft) snow capped jagged peak we couldn’t wait to get the boots laced up and start hiking towards this magical, daunting land of snow, ice, rocks and altitude. It was the backpacks we were less excited about.

Waterfalls, rivers and first steps

After sleeping to the rushing sound of the waterfall which, I’m pretty sure, flows right under my mattress, we started with our first yoga and breathwork session. Up the stairs and next to the streaming waterfall, the sun shone in through the leaves and Hunter guided us through the first session of ‘Wim Hif’ method breathing and we start with 3 rounds. This technique is going to help us acclimatise and keep calm as we reach the higher altitudes on this trail. Eyes closed on our mats after 3 rounds of breathing and Natasha seamlessly takes over with her instructions to transition us into a gentle yoga practice and short meditation. Needless to say this left us all feeling like we were ready to take on anything!

Chasing waterfalls

Bellies full of breakfast and we set about putting our backpacks on. That powerful feeling we had earlier may have swung more towards uncertainty. The weight of our packs was a big wake up call as to the amount of extra stuff packed that we ‘might need’. With our guide Ganesh at the helm and with the largest smile I’ve seen in years he announces ‘ Please, continue!’.

Endless views and gaining approx 500m of altitude everyday means that the scenery will change slowly around us all the way until the highest mountain pass at 5416mt but 9 more days until that point. With the packs feeling heavier each minute I’m sure a few of us had doubts about even making it that far.

They say the first day is the hardest.

No better place I’ve practiced yoga and Wim Hof breathing in the morning than the first day in Tal. Valley views to faraway mountains on one side, waterfalls to the other and a river flowing by just next to us.

The scenery is mind blowingly beautiful here and with every hour that passes by on the trail things just get better and better. It’s amazing how tropical and warm the first few days are on the trek. With the lower altitude and being close to the equator you start to wonder why you needed to pack a down jacket and big pair of gloves.

With the backpacks feeling a little better in the morning we powered on out of Tal and followed the river again to our next destination of Danaque. Stopping for a Dhal Bhat lunch it felt like someone put bricks in our backpacks when we returned for the afternoon section of the trail.

Arriving at our guesthouse much earlier today which afforded the luxury to relax in the afternoon before another big dinner. Finishing the evening with a bit of stargazing at the moonlit mountains in awe at the sheer scale of it all.

There’s simply no better way to start the morning than with panoramic views, frosty fresh air, deep breaths, and a cup of strong Himalayan coffee. Getting to know our guide Ganesh and our porter Bhupal we feel extremely lucky to be in their care. From the very start they had our best interests at heart and went far and beyond the call of duty to help us in every way possible becoming part of this little family that was beginning to form.

It started to get a little cooler on the trail now we’d gained some altitude. Having climbed 1500m altitude in 3 days we were at 2700m by the end of the day. Only 2700m to go. Rounding one corner of the trail and we get hit with the most impressive mountain view yet (this happened daily from here out).Annapurna 2 - A real Himalayan mountain peak with big vertical rock and ice spines reaching from the very top down behind the trees out of sight. Ascending something like that is serious business. We will be going around that one!

The trail has proved physically demanding so far but our trekking family was getting mentally tougher to compensate. With the backpacks settling in after slight adjustments daily everyone was starting to find a bit of a hiking groove.

We still have a long way to go but with our first glimpse of the breathtaking Annapurna 2 (7900m), freshly picked roadside apples, prayer flag covered bridges and a little soak of our tired muscles in the hot springs of Chame things couldn’t be any better.

Early start on the trail meant a nice early arrival at our guesthouse in Upper Pissang. The views from this place are absolutely incredible!! We couldn’t help but silently stare out from the rooftop balcony as the fresh breeze cleansed our minds as we settled in to get ready for a session of breathwork and meditation.

Before reaching the guesthouse we wandered on past a trailside herd of silly looking goats with one of them being scooped up by the local herder for what we hoped wasn’t lunch.

Stopping for lunch in the Marpha district was possibly the highlight of many highlights for this day. The Marpha district is the peak of Apple growing areas on the Annapurna circuit and the locals are very good at making all kinds of pies, cakes, sweet and savoury dishes from apples grown no more than a few minutes walk from the kitchen. Some of us bought glass bottles of apple juice and later saw the staff pressing the apples and directly filling up the bottles in front of us. it doesn’t get much fresher than that!

We start to gain some more serious altitude the next day so the advice is to eat and drink a lot. And with some of the freshest food available right on the trail and plenty of time to stop and look around it’s not hard to follow that advice.

After an evening visit to the monastery that looks out over the entire world, we head back to the guesthouse for some potatoes, lentils, rice and curry (standard on the trail) followed by some more star gazing and watching the full moon rise.

Awoke to yet another stunning view out of the bedroom window this morning. Possibly my favourite of the entire trip. As the sun rose to light up the mountain tops, I could just see the fierce winds on the surrounding peaks blowing up a cloud of misty snow into the orange light of the morning sun.

All these little towns are so interestingly perched on the sides of mountains in the places of the valley that could be described only as ‘less steep’. Rocks are sourced from close by and placed to create little square buildings that step up and down throughout the village. This is not for show. This is the way the local Nepalese people have lived for a long time here. After a quick stroll around town and a brief encounter with a local street gang comprised of angry looking bulls it was time to get some rest.

This was the first day reaching a proper altitude so we were given the brief on the symptoms of altitude sickness and the rules of the mountains -

Eat lots of food. Stay hydrated. Climb slowly. Walk higher, sleep lower.

Breathe.

An easier day today. But a day where the mountain views were making a serious appearance. Only a short, relatively flat hike to the next town which was located 60m lower in altitude than the previous night. This was our acclimatisation period and a much deserved rest day. This morning was also another favourite view outside of my bedroom window with the moon still hanging in the sky as the sunlight hitting the mountain tops surrounding us.

The views today consisted of rapidly flowing torquise blue river and flat grassy pastures. As we came into Manang it was filled to the brim with Autumn coloured trees, animals of all sorts and local Nepalese farmers. All of this constantly framed by white capped daunting mountains over the horizon.

It was time to relax and rest at the nicest little guesthouse of the trip, sleeping in what looked like beach huts from somewhere close by my home in Australia.

I think everyone felt somewhat ready to tackle the next section of hiking as we started ascending towards our goal for this trip the next morning.

And again. Another stunning morning.

Meeting at 6:40 to be led through our daily round of Wim Hof breathing with Hunter. Hunter has used this breathing technique to overcome many more obstacles than a lot of us will ever have to face in our lives and the feeling after this 20 minute session seems proof enough to me. If you have no clue what the Wim Hof method is, it’s basically taking deep breaths in a certain way so that it oxygenates you’re blood and body. When climbing at altitude there is less oxygen in the air and our blood can be deprived of this essential ingredient of life, causing headaches, nausea and other unpleasant symptoms. Breathing with the Wim Hof method helps immensely with acclimatisation by reintroducing higher levels of oxygen to your blood.

Today’s hiking had some of us feeling faster and stronger but with a few tough climbs involved to remind us to continue to take it easy and not get too ahead of ourselves. Of course, as it goes with these treks, a few people felt the exact opposite of fast and strong but step by step we all made it to Yak Kharka - translated as ‘The Yak Pasture’.

The night before in Manang some of the group went to the tiniest, dustiest , most Tarantinoesque movie theatre and watched ‘Himalayan Caravan’. In the darkness, our Nepalese host brought in small bags of popcorn and hot herbal tea for us all making this one of the best movie experiences I’ve ever had. Nepalese hospitality at it’s finest!

The movie was a Nepalese classic about a some local people from a small mountain village bringing a heard of Yak across the dangerous mountain trails to trade salt for grain to survive the upcoming winter. It was really interesting to see the heard of Yak coming down the mountain in front of our guesthouse to graze for the evening as the weather started to close in and we all headed inside to stay warm and get some rest.

Snow was falling as we left bed to face the cold wet weather out the door. Finally some real Himalayan weather (although temps were pretty mild and snow was light). White jagged mountains, goats, steep trails, yak, lentils and squatty toilets were really feeling like the most normal of things.

Our headaches that had gained momentum during the night soon faded after another filling breakfast of buckwheat apple pancakes, Tibetan bread, wheat porridge and the first steps out of the guesthouse onto the trail.

By now the pace was pretty well set to steady, however, arriving in our final and highest camp some people in our little trekking family were starting to really feel the effect of the thinner air. Lacking the extra oxygen required to lug the heavy packs up to the next guesthouse and a few worrying signs of altitude sickness, things were looking a little rough. A hot cup of tea and a gentle walk around in the fresh air had things looking better for the final ascent the next morning starting at 4am. Better get to bed early.

When the other guys turned the lights out at 7:10pm I felt it was just a little too early for me so I grabbed the camera and headed for the valley in the dark. As soon as I left the lights of the guesthouse the stars lit up the sky like nothing else ever had! Looking up towards the pass where we would be walking in only a few hours, the Milky Way panned across the entire sky overhead and I had this surreal feeling of actually being in the Himalayas that I had only seen in my dreams or in the ‘suggested for you’ section of my Netflix account.

4am breakfast. After the previous afternoons hike with Azfar up to nearly 4900m (we took the walk high, sleep low rule a little further than the rest of the group) we were feeling quite good this morning.

The majority of our team felt dead opposite of good. Cold, dry and a lack of oxygen in the air means it’s hard to sleep and you keep waking feeling pretty drained. If you’re planning to hike to an altitude of 5,416m or 17,770FT then you’ll be wishing for a miracle to get you up there when you feel as heavy as a brick. But what would life be without these challenges?

Starting off in the dark at 4:45am we began the 1km ascent of 400m elevation to the High Camp which takes close to 2 hours for the group to all meet here. Another hour saw us reach the last teahouse on this side of the pass. Ginger tea and chocolate bars are consumed in preparation for our very last push of this journey to reach the Throng La Mountain Pass. We knew this would be the last push.

Up and up we go, keeping our breath timed with our steps, intentionally slowing down to keep the consistent effort of walking, breathing and moving forward. Just a little too fast and the need to stop and catch your breath is overpowering. People start saying to you ‘See those flags on the next hill? That’s it!’

You’re almost there.

Keep walking.

Breath of Fresh Air Family at the top of one of the highest mountain passes in the world

It’s an intensely surreal feeling to be standing somewhere that you’ve seen photos of, heard stories about, planned for over a period of months and months and spent nine days walking towards.

It all comes down to no longer than 30 minutes looking at the views and breathing in the air trying to remember every detail.

You know as soon as you head down the other side it’s going to be a very long time before you’re back here again. If ever.

And then there’s the descent back to the world below…

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Created By
Aaron Dickfos
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Credits:

All photos by @expedimage - Adventure Photography expedimagephotography.com Breath of Fresh Air Retreats hosted by Natasha and Hunter www.itsinyourhead.com