Annapurna February 2017

The following text will recount my experience of a six day round-trip trek to Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal. The document is lengthy and full of text, videos, and many photos. You have been warned.

PRELUDE

TREK PREP | HARD STARTS | CHANCE MEETINGS

Trek Preparation: Nepal. Himalayas. Annapurna. All of these words have held a sort of mystical allure in my mind for as long as I can remember. I always thought a trip to this area of the world would be sometime in the hazy, undefined future when I needed a respite from the stresses of non-school "real" life, or when I was touched by some spiritual awakening [both options consisted of running away to a remote monastery and living in silence, reading through an always growing queue of books]. Instead, having a week and a half between the end of my North India tour and my flight out of Mumbai, I perused Google Maps and decided, oh hey I've got an extra week and Nepal's close by; why the hell not? A hundred new open tabs later, I discovered the Annapurna sanctuary area and the associated Base Camp Trek - the companies advertising it suggested 8-10 days, but I found a couple blogs that said it could be done in 6-7 days, and on top of that totally solo sans guide or porter aka save dat $. I'm relatively fit/active - how hard could it be? A few clicks and my flight from Delhi to Kathmandu was booked, my hostel in Pokhara reserved, and a lengthy gear list took shape; I was Himalaya ready.

The view from a puny propeller plane from Kathmandu to Pokhara.
Following the Orange: Pokhara --> Phedi --> Landruk --> Sinuwa --> Deurali --> ABC --> Sinuwa --> Siwai --> Pokhara

It’s about 10, 10:30AM and there’s a small wooden upwards pointing sign with "ABC" painted in yellow lettering. On the opposite side of the road is a canteen selling water, chai, and other simple eats. I stop to get my bearings and double check I’m where I’m supposed to be [Phedi]. While I’m fiddling with my poles and smashing things down into the pack so my balance is centered, an old Tibetan woman waddles over my way holding a variety of beads, braided bracelets, and other handmade items she’s trying to sell. “You my first customer of the day, I give you good deal, look at these bracelet” she says to me while pulling more and more items from under her yak-haired shawl. “You hike Annapurna Base Camp? This one good luck!” She directs my attention to a dual draw-string bracelet made of the familiar maroon colored beads I’d been “scammed” with earlier by a Chinese monk in Kathmandu. Except these are smaller in size and have “jade” and some yellow stone strung in with the sandalwood beads as well. Honestly, they’re pretty cool and I’m jiving with ‘em - I negotiate her down to 150 rupees down from 300. Apparently the cost of good fortune is $1.50 - with her and the Chinese monk's "blessings" I’ve got all sorts of good vibes going for less than the price of a happy meal. Sold.

Glamorous beginnings.

Hard Starts: I start my climb with vigor - armed with two adjusted trekking poles and my tightly laced hiking boots I’m ready to tackle this first section. Damn, it feels good to be a trekker. First stop on the route is the village of Dhampus, time to destination approximately 1.5 hours. No big. I’m moving along fine, but after about 15-20 minutes of stair-climbing I start to break a major sweat. I had thrown off my fleece maybe 5 minutes in, but I’m just pouring sweat from everywhere now. My neckline is soaked, my brow is dripping onto the ground in front of me, and I can walk maybe 10-15 minutes at a time, maximum, without stopping to lean on my poles, panting, heaving my chest up and down. “What the flying fuck, who is hiking this shit in 1.5 hours? It’s been almost 45 minutes and I don’t see any remote sign of a village” I think to myself. It’s embarrassing, but I legitimately contemplate turning around and returning to Pokhara and just hiding at some other hostel so I don’t have to face the people at the Kiwi who had cheered me off in encouragement maybe 1.5 hours before. I decide that if the whole damn hike is like this, after this full day of trekking I’ll turn back. I continue onwards in my piecemeal fashion, plodding along occasionally awkwardly leaning against some rocks so my pack is supported and the weight taken off my shoulders for a few moments. Vegetation/scenery wise it all looks the same and resembles what I’ve seen in Colorado on mini-hikes. The major exception, however, are the tall, rounded hills with in-cut combed ridges that sweep down the face. From what I can tell, this is the best they can till the ground and plant their crops, some of which include corn, spinach, and cabbage.

The view from misery.
A cabbage patch, kids.

I get to Dhampus after about another hour and plop down in the first cafe I find. “Uh, can I get food here?” I ask in Hindi to the oldest looking person in a gang of four people relaxing on an outdoor patio. “Yes, you can get food here”, he responds gently mocking and mimicking my grammatically poorly constructed Hindi sentence. I settle down on said patio table that all four have now evacuated into a plastic blue arm chair. The table has a brightly floral patterned print and there are hens, roosters, and puppies running around the stone-paved path I just detoured from and a brave rooster starts getting peckish with my pack. Denied of any morsels of satisfaction, he turns back to the grassy patch, head cockily bobbing forward and back. I browse through the menu and decide I’m suddenly not in the mood to eat chicken - eggs won’t require murder though. I order two boiled eggs and a chapatti and wolf it down as soon as its put down in front of me. While I'm eating the son and daughter of the store owner [a cute Nepali family] are wandering in an out of the restaurant carrying eggs and cleaning [fils] and surveilling personal hairstyles and making duck faces [fille]. I finish up, thank and pay the man. I swing my pack around and start heading towards my next destination, Pothana.

Trail-side dining, Dhampus.
Trek nomz - doesn't look like much, but after 5 hours of walking it may as well be eating at Alinea. These are the only meals I was cognizant enough [and had phone juice] to take a photo of before scarfing down like I'd never seen food before.

The road to Pothana is not remotely as arduous as that section from Phedi to Dhampus was. I walk along, occasionally stopping to take in the sights around me when there’s a break in the slight fog thats buggered my view thus far. I still haven’t seen any one heading the same direction I am - a few that are headed the other way [not from ABC though] and we exchange head nods and namastes. [A brief segue: all along the way up exchanging namastes with fellow trekkers and locals is the norm. However, in the exhausting vertical climbs of steep staircases, when you meet downward going trekkers usually my out-of-breath namaste is a half growl yeah-namaste-to-you-too-asshole-leave-me-alone in response to their merrily glib oh-look-how-easy-going-downhill-is namaste. Nonetheless, the Texan in me has to return a friendly greeting]. The trail is paved with rocks and the air is silent except for the resonating cling-clangs of my poles scouting out the stability of rocks my feet will land on; every few hundred meters is a painted pair of horizontal stripes, the top white the bottom red. Is that the flag of Poland? I don’t know, all I know is each one I pass re-assures me I'm on the right path and I give each a gentle tap with my trekking pole as I pass it. The path to Pothana was pretty “open air”; basically I was walking along what looked like plains, sticking to the side of a mountain slowly increasing in elevation [Dhampus 1650 → Pothana 1890].

At seemingly every man-made construction [homes, bridges, monuments] there hangs a banner with multi-colored pages [blue, white, red, green, and yellow in a repeating fashion] each with script on them. My tour guide in India told me about these before - they represent well-wishing prayers and as they flutter in the wind they disperse good fortune. For this reason, they’re only hung in open, outdoor spaces; I’d seen pictures of them before in Nepal tour books, but I had no idea they’d be as ubiquitous as they are here. I bought some for a future balcony because who doesn't need a little good fortune or an extra spritz of color in their lives?

Time for a mea culpa. As I'm going along this rock-strewn uneven path, I realize that what I'm doing is really freaking stupid. I'm walking totally alone in the Himalayan mountain countryside, I have no mobile/GPS service, no one knows who/where I am, and I'm one misstep + twisted ankle away from having to find a nice rock cave to cower in while hoping for someone to come my way. Yeah, those other bloggers did the trek alone and blah blah blah but this is just unsafe, Ronil, why you so silly? I tell myself that if I don't meet any one at the next town, Pitham Deurali, I have to head back because it's too unsafe to do this for 6-7 days if the path will be this sparsely populated. I'm pissed at myself because by all indications thus far it's looking like I'm going to have to head back, but the gamble of continuing alone and risking injury just isn't worth it.

Chance Meetings: It's early afternoon when I get to Pitham Deurali, my intended stopping point for that day. I turn the corner into the main area where there are multiple tea houses, their large signs advertising food and drink tempting trekkers to make a pit stop. Just as I'm entering I see a couple take the last sips of their masala chai, push in their chairs, and start making for the trail in the TO ABC direction. In tow is their porter who's exchanging some parting words in Nepali with the shopkeeper and he starts along too, his bright green pack bouncing along after the other two. These are the first people I've seen going my way - maybe I can walk in proximity and keep pushing on. At least this way I won't be terrified for my safety. I quicken my pace to catch up to them and ask the guy in Hindi if he would be bothered by me walking along since the path is a little unclear. He gives me a big smile and says "of course not! You're most welcome to join!" Ecstatic that I'm no longer confined to inner monologue between my ears, I run ahead to introduce myself to the couple as well. Turns out they're French: Laurent and Alexandra, from Dijon, mes nouveaux amis français! The rest of the day along with getting a physical workout from the trek, I get to have fun switching between English, French and Hindi communicating to both parties and translating back and forth. I was hoping for walking companions so I could have safety-in-numbers peace of mind, but we ended up spending the entire trek together - who knows, maybe the next Adobe Spark will be from Dijon, France!

#natureviewz
(L) My new Nepali friend Hemant and me, pre-stairs (R) Post-stairs fml-why-am-doing-this-namaste-your-GD-self

DAY ONE: LANDRUK

Blood-red rhododendrons blossoming trail-side

DAY TWO: UPPER SINUWA

After sunset, around a make-shift fire from a tall metal trash can, one of the tea house employees brought out his guitar and started strumming and singing Waiting on the World to Change; "John Mayer is a genius".

Went to pee in the morning. This was the view.

DAY THREE: DEURALI

DAY FOUR: MACHAPUCHARE BASE CAMP

An OK view for our tea break

ANNAPURNA BASE CAMP

ASCENT | SNOWSTORM | SUNRISE

The Annapurna Base Camp sign [elevation 4130 m | 13550 ft] with the wooden poles framing the looming peak of Annapurna South [elevation 7219 m | 23684 ft]

Ascent: It was late morning when we left the comfortable oasis of the MBC for the final portion of the trek, the climb to ABC. The night before, in my room in Deurali, I had fallen asleep to the steady drizzle of rainfall, so I knew the conditions higher up would be more severe. On the way to MBC we came across some snow, but it was mostly limited to the peaks and our path was more or less unobstructed. Leaving MBC though, the snow which at first filled the space between boulders creating chocolate bumps in white icing now grew to knee level in some places. As we walked further up the steep path, my trek poles slid further and further down with each stab of the ground. Instead of the sticky flakes that flitted lazily down from the sky, the snow was in small round balls, vanilla Dip 'n Dots gently rustling under our footfalls and rolling away from our path with a gentle trickle whoooosh in their wake. We were walking on Hoth, totally surrounded by blinding white, mechanically shuffling through the snow until at last in the distance we saw the famous stickered sign welcoming us to our destination.

I raise my gaze with a clenched jaw and stern countenance to stare up at the mountain. This is what stares down at me. Yeah, uh, the mountain wins - I haul ass and try to get inside as quickly as my jelly legs carry me.
Arrival to ABC Guest House

Snowstorm: I stumbled inside, threw off my pack, and collapsed into a seat, almost tearing up from happiness at finally reaching base camp after three and a half days of laborious trekking [see above photo of exasperation]. Only one room at ABC was heated - the dining room. Inside, fellow trekkers congregated in their groups, huddled together under layers of jackets and blankets attempting to keep warm. About an hour after our arrival, the visibility outside the window, which had only been about 50-100 meters at best before, turns into a sheet of grey and around us we hear chiclets of ice start slamming against the glass window panes and corrugated metal roof above our heads. The snow starts and doesn't stop for nine hours. Marooned inside, little islands of language groups form: the Koreans in one corner, the Aussies against the far wall, the Nepali loiter around the kitchen, and the French on the closer wall. I'm sitting kind of halfway between the Aussie and French colonies, alternating between both trying to improve my second-language skills and relishing the first chance in days of Englishing with native speakers. New friendships form catalyzed by the calamitous weather; travelers united under piles of tacky blankets and over mugs of steaming tea.

Salvation from the cold comes in the form of hot lemon honey ginger tea with new friends James & Jo

Sunrise: I'll keep this uncharacteristically short. There's no use trying to describe the overwhelming surreal sensation of being encircled by gargantuan towers of rock in the early morning darkness, watching the sunlight bend around and over Machapuchare behind us to slowly brush the peaks in front with a pastel pink that morphs to a silky yellow that then glides silently in an unbroken line down the cragged façades as we mere mortals hold our breath, too afraid to even blink lest we miss a moment. It was the most naturally beautiful and moving thing I've ever had the privilege of observing.

Pre-dawn at ABC
Brizzy Aussie fam, the French crew, Laurent & Alex & Hemant
Annapurna Squad.
Created By
Ronil Shah
Appreciate

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