This is my Annapurna Circuit trek narrative. I provide details that include maps, costs, logistical requirements and facts as well as links to additional details, photos and videos on the associated how-to post. This is a self-guided adventure on a shoestring.
The Simple Life on the Apple Pie Trek
The departure morning in Kathmandu I was up early, grabbed my gear and was out the door in record time. The streets were dark and devoid of the usual flow of western tourists, beggars, street urchins, and scoundrels (salesmen). The group assembled slowly as the sun rose and the streets turned blue with the previous day’s diesel fumes. Around 6 am the boy’s guide (Suresh Derkota) appeared. I quizzed the guide and discovered that we were taking a local bus to Besisahar (8-10 hours). I estimated at least an additional hour as we cruised around the area of the bus station and small town centers hunting for extra passengers, even though all the seats were already assigned. There was no way to sleep in the compressed space of the tiny seats so I simply inhaled the diesel fumes (exhaust pipes never extend past the rear of the bus) and stared out the side window while we zigzagged from valley to valley. At a rest stop I climbed up onto the roof to curl up on the packs and nap.
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Click to watch Part 1 Video
Day 1 to Bhulbule
At long last we stopped in the tiny village of Khudi that appeared to be the actual end of the ride. We tumbled off and I was surprised to see that the interior of the bus was even more packed than the roof area. We happily set off on foot down to a cable bridge to cross the river and start the trek at the village on the other bank. On the exit side of the village we were stopped by a congested group of trekkers huddled around an open-sided shack containing two officials checking passes.
We worked our way into the group of trekkers in order to find out how the process worked. When it was our turn the guide showed the boy’s TRC permits and then moved on. The inspector then looked at me, so I showed him our (mine and the girl’s) Conservation Area passes and explained that we had hired a guide (pointing to Suresh) but didn’t have time to get the actual TRC permit issued. The official didn’t bat an eyelid, but simply said that we should continue on our way, but not tell anyone that we didn’t have TRC permits because it would get him in trouble and further more, there were no more TRC checkpoints until Jomson (a village two thirds of way around the Circuit) and clearly outside of his jurisdiction.
The trail at this point was quite wide and clear, resembling a wide farming road. I found this unsettling, but wrote it off to being so close to the beginning of the trek. Very quickly we came upon a group of guesthouses next to the river. Our guide ushered us into the Everest Guest House and told us that this would be our day’s destination. Guides always recommend (insist) on the night’s guesthouse since they have previous experience with their recommendations (and probably get some form of kick-back). We all agreed that the bus ride was tiring and were eager to call it a day.
The evening was comfortable as we congregated in the dorm room to talk about the day, compare notes and generally get better acquainted. We shared a simple dinner of Dal Bhot and then watched as a group of local men and women clustered in the courtyard to sing traditional songs and dance. The girls joined in dancing as I filmed and I could tell that they would be ‘naturals’ on this trip. They were not intimated by the video camera and adlibbed easily.
Day 2 to Jagat
The next day started late and then got progressively later as we had a breakfast by committee. The selection, delivery, eating, and paying process was muddled and staggered as different members came and went from the table. We also met Dustin (USA) and Yvette (Holland) whose breakfast order got mixed up with ours, which dragged matters out even further.
Finally around 9 am we all set off across the suspension bridge to follow the trail thru golden cultivated fields and tiny villages (following the Marsyangdi River upstream). The group’s pace was an immediate concern because Al and Casey were fast walkers (both had completed the US 1,000 + mile Appellation Trail the previous year and were accomplished walkers). They were keeping the girls engaged in conversation as they walked and I had to constantly double my pace to get ahead of them to film and then dropped back as I continued to film. This process got old quite quickly and within a few hours I gave up and focused on filming the scenery and locals while the group disappeared over the horizon.
Around lunchtime I picked up my pace and kept them in view as they began a long steep ascent to the town of Bahundanda. Once again I spotted them briefly as they continued to climb to the top of the town’s ridge and the highest guesthouse restaurant. Eventually I reached them and settled down for lunch.
Well over an hour later, and after a short power nap, the group assembled to set off again. It had been a hot and sunny morning and the afternoon promised to be a scorcher as the sun reached it’s zenith in a clear blue sky. We refilled our water bottles and set off down a winding ridge trail quickly giving up our morning’s gained altitude. The boys picked up speed and the girls fell back with me. We settled into an easy walk with numerous stops to film and observe the stunning scenery, wildlife (monkeys or donkeys mostly), and insects (butterflies and giant spiders). The girls quickly became accustomed to their roles and followed direction superbly as I continued to film them in various backdrops and scenarios.
As the day progressed the trail turned into a lovely narrow dirt track that wound up and down hills and through bamboo sub-tropical forests, terraced agricultural fields and small villages. We met a number of other trekkers that we would pass and then be passed by while we rested or stopped to take photos or film.
The last hour of walking to Jagat turned out to be very steep and quite difficult. We reached Jagat just as twilight ended and it was difficult to see in the streets of the dark town that was experiencing a power outage (which seems to happen almost every evening in every town in Nepal). Using my headlamp I came across two trekkers that we met during the day (Mike (USA) and Carl (Irish) with a fat guild and a skinny porter). I opted to stay at their guesthouse because it would give the girls someone to play cards with and relieve me of babysitting duties.
I had already determined that the girls were easy principles for filming purposes and that they followed direction without question. I had been pushing them hard thru the day and felt that my demands would continue to increase as the days progressed, and that it would be best if I maintained a level of professional distance. To maintain this separation I would literally hand them off each evening to play with fellow trekkers while I projected a distant attitude (employer- employee, director – actor, or master – slave approach), especially since we would be in close quarters and even have to share dorm rooms from time to time.
The girls joined the boys for dinner and played cards while waiting for their orders (which naturally took forever to prepare on the single gas burner). I ordered vegetable fried rice and a glass of local rice beer. The rice was unusually bland for a meal prepared in an agricultural valley literally surrounded by vegetables, and the rice beer tasted more like the water left over from boiling rice, with chunks of dairy curd and grains of rice floating around in it (strike one and two).
The night was cold and getting up to use the outside toilet (hole in the floor variety) was a process that took considerable effort, mental prompting and finally bladder pressure.
Day 3 to Dhurapani
We all slept late the next morning preferring the warmth of our sleeping bags to the frigid air. As the sun climbed the outside temperature rose quickly, but not inside our cold and damp room. We eventually crawled out to begin our morning maintenance rituals and settle down to breakfast.
As slow as we were to leave, the new boys were even slower, except for their skinny porter who pilled a remarkable quantity of gear triple-stacked on his back and then set off while I was examining the girl’s feet. The previous day had resulted in a small blister on one of Irena’s feet and one large, badly located, blister on Sina’s heal. We applied bandages and I introduced them to the secret of Johnson’s baby powder.
The trekking book that I was using (Trekking in Nepal, by A D’Abbundo) indicated that it would take approximately five and a half hours to walk to our target, Dharapani, which I equated to about eight hours given our slow pace and our constant stops to film. We set off around 9am in sunshine and within half an hour we started up a steep and wet trail that seemed more like a fast running creek than a trail. We continue to film and take photos and stop to drink the cold mountain water as the sun continued to climb and turn the valley into a hot and sticky tropical cooker.
Shortly before the town of Chamje we spied a spectacular waterfall on the opposite bank with multiple drops and gossimar rainbows. While our attention was distracted to the opposite bank we rounded a bend and found a terrace teahouse and a congestion of trekkers. I immediately knew trouble was ahead and tried to keep the girls focused on me as I talked them thru the group. We reached the other side and almost made it out onto the trail when I was stopped by a young man in army fatigues who claimed to be a Maoist. He told me I had to go back to a table I’d passed and pay a 1,200 rs voluntary fee. The girls sat down as quite as lambs while I took out my video camera, stuck it in the Maoist’s face and began to aggressively question him. He was quickly joined by other Maoists who insisted that I stop filming, return to the checkpoint and have a discussion with their leader. I refused and the yelling and gesticulating session continued until all the other tourists had paid their voluntary fees and continued past us. Then I spotted Al and Casey sitting quietly back at the teahouse watching the proceedings. Clearly they weren’t going to approach the checkpoint until they had an idea of the proceedings. Reluctantly I returned to the checkpoint and continue to film over the objections of the seated leaders. We bantered back and forth while I kept asking political questions and claimed to be a US TV news reporter from Miami’s WPLG network. They asked me to produce my press pass so I flashed my laminated Unique Casting business card a few times (they either didn’t know what a press pass looked like, or simply didn’t know how to read English). In time we settled down to a question and answer session, while I continued to shoot. After a while I conceded that I would pay them since they had provided me with a respectable interview. However, I demanded that I receive a press discount (the entire country runs on a negotiable pricing structure). We settled on a price of 1,000 rs ($13), which I said I’d accept if they extend the discount to my assistants (at which point I introduced Irena and Sina). I suddenly saw respect and smirks on the faces of all the Maoists. Clearly they were impressed that a Miami reporter should have two lovely young assistants in tow. We paid our “voluntary” fee and set off while the Maoists glowered at the girls.
We stopped at the agreed lunch spot (Tal) after 2 pm and were soon joined by the boys (and Dustin & Yvette who essentially became part of the group since they were starting and stopping at all the same places we were).
The afternoon was uneventful, hot and filled with filming and easy conversation. We reached Dharapani just as the sun was setting, checked into the same guesthouse as the boys and Dustin and Yvette. The girls and the now bigger group clustered at a table as I set up the camera on a tripod to film a dinner session. The meal was a great deal of fun, filled with laughs and we even came up with a plan to try and find a Nepalese wife for Casey. After dinner the group played cards and other games while I wrote in my journal and then retired to read. This would become our regular nightly routine for the remainder of the trek and I was comfortable that the girls were getting enough free evening time so that I could keep the filming pressure on during the days.
Day 4 to Chame
The following day started slow like the others and I could see that this group was definitely not an early morning crowd. By 9 am we were out the door and within 45 minutes the trail followed the curve of the river valley to the northwest. As we made the turn the surroundings changed abruptly from sub-tropical to a mixed coniferous-deciduous forest. Up until this point the valley ran in a generally north-south direction, which enabled the annual north-bound monsoons to penetrate deep into the mountain region. However, the curve of the valley created a steep backstop to further monsoon progress. The land became drier as a result and now supported a drier forest of pine, oak, maple, and spruce. It was dramatic to see the environment change so swiftly and in such a short distance.
As we progressed the forest became denser and deep in shadows and rich color. Fall was starting to affect the leafy trees and the deep green was now offset with poignant yellows and gold’s, with white-caped mountain backdrops. It was truly a magical place and I slowly fell back from the girls to walk alone, savoring the setting.
I caught up with the group again around Timang, a small village on a ridge above the forest where we found Mike and Carl lounging on a blanket in the sun, drinking tea, playing cards, and living an idealistic hippie style. No matter how many times they passed us each day it seemed we would always find them at a teahouse lounging and chatting with the locals. There was an air of leisure about them and a constant flow of tea or beer. We took a long lunch together as the sun slowly became obscured by fluffy clouds that came down from the mountains. When we left the guesthouse the temperature had dropped and it felt much cooler. Again we broke up into our three distinct parts (Dustin and Yvette, the boys, and I with the girls). We picked up our pace in order to stay warm, but continued to fall behind due to the constant filming opportunities. The highlight of which was when we spotted woodcutters using a large hand drawn blade to saw logs into construction timber. The process was long and manual, requiring patience and skill. It would take the two men most of a day to simply create one standard 2×10 length of construction lumber. Naturally I had the girls approach the men and work their charm. Before long the men were laughing and let them try their hands at sawing wood the Nepalese way. It was a lot of fun and made for video footage that reminded me of the TV show called, the Simple Life, with Paris and Nikki. Later that evening while describing the scene to the group the phrase, “the Simple Life” began to stick and we jokingly agreed that it would be our working name for the trek and that we would continue to put the girls into local scenarios.
In the town of Koto, about 45 minutes before our evening stop of Chame, we cleared another conservation/police checkpoint. Here they simply wanted to stamp our Conservation passes and register us in there large paper journals. I asked why the presence of so many armed police in cammo and was told that Koto was at the opening of a valley that lead to a pass leading into Tibet and that many refugees and smugglers used this route to cross between Nepal and Chinese Tibet. We cleared the checkpoint and made Chame easily. Chame turned out to be a major market town (you could buy almost any commodity at a reasonable price, even 1.5 liter bottles of Fanta for 150 rs ($2). Chame’s other notable features are hot spring (that we never found) and a volleyball court, which Irene found irresistible, to the delight of the Nepalese men since it appeared that the game was only played by the men. My impression was that the women were too busy doing most of the chores and don’t have the time to spare for playing games.
The route for most of that day’s trek had followed a dirt road, rather than an actual trail and I was starting to see a pattern developing. More and more of the trail was being excavated by manual laborers (coolies) and soon vehicles would be making their way around the Circuit rather than trekkers on foot.
We had reached Chame with a half hour of daylight left but it was already quite cold and the evening became very cold as soon as the sun set. We all asked for extra blankets (dirty quits in reality) and huddled in our sleeping bags like cocoon bound insects.
Day 5 to Pisang
The next morning was frigid and our start was taxing. I even had to shave outside using a pail of cold water containing ice crystals. It certainly was smart of me to be using the same dull blade that I’d been using for the past month. The tug-of-war between my skin and the blade reminded me of the time I had to shave using a snowy mountain stream in the Alty Mountains of Mongolia. Perhaps in the future I’d remember to replace the razor blade before I set out into cold environments.
The girls and I set off late and well after the others had left. The village stretched out along both sides of the river and when we crossed the bridge we passed Dustin who was moving very slowly and looking grim. Clearly he was sick and his day was going to be hell unless he modified his plans. At the edge of the village we passed a young Nepalese man playing a guitar in front of his house. I stopped the girls and directed them to join the fellow. Within a few minutes his friends and the entire family joined us as he taught the girls a traditional song and they all sang along together. We filmed, took photos, shared tea, exchanged addresses (they gave me the address of the local high school since homes don’t actually have addresses in most remote villages) and we all shared a sunny and fun hour together.
We left reluctantly and walked along the east side of the river, on a new gravel/dirt road for the next two hours as the forest slowly became more densely dominated by pine trees and rocky slopes. Just before reaching the town of Britang we came across a small apple orchard next to the trail. Sina found an easy way over the wall and started picking apples without prompting. We were all hungry and thirsty and the apples tasted wonderful.
After the town the trail began to climb and turned into a narrow ledge along the face of cliffs that dropped precariously into the fast moving river below. After an hour we crossed a suspension bridge into a pine forest with a blanket of pine needles beneath them. It felt like waking in a Canadian forest and was wonderfully peaceful. After another hour of walking we entered a narrow clearing that held two teahouses where we found the group (minus Dustin). After a short nap I agreed to continue on to our day’s target of Lower Pisang.
Pisang is actually two distinct towns, one on the lower riverbank and the other on the other side, up on a high ridgeline. We opted for the easier lower town, but did walk to the upper town, to visit the monastery, after checking into a guesthouse and dumping our packs. Considering that it was steadily growing colder each day and that hot water showers were now dependant on solar heaters (and a gnawing itchiness in my armpit from a bug bite I acquired back in the sub-tropical forests), I figured I had better take a shower. You can check out EcoGen America : for quality and affordable solar installations and related services. It turned out that practically everyone else in the guesthouse had had the same idea, because saying that my shower was hot would be a serious stretch of the imagination. Given the water pressure and temperature, it was more like a cold sponge bath in a refrigerator. I returned to my dorm bed cold, wet and shivering as I curled up in my sleeping bag and felt my old cracked rib injury reassert itself (I’d re-cracked the rib the previous month on the Everest trek and the two weeks since had not provided much in the way of heeling time). That night’s cracked rib sensations were simply foreshadowing for a great deal of additional pain that would follow.
That evening we discovered that Dustin and his guide had not been seen since Chame. I was the last to see him when I passed him near the end of Chame that morning. Given his pace and the way he looked, we speculated that he was ill and must have stopped along the way with the guide. It was agreed that Yvette would now officially be part of the boy’s group (at least until Dustin and the other guide turned up). That evening we also met Norma (German) who was traveling independently, but with a Nepalese guide due to TRC rules. She joined the table playing cards and would ultimately join our group for the next few days (her pace was so quick and she would set off so early that within a few days she opted to ditch our slow moving group and become independent again).
We were now at an altitude of 3,165 meters (the height of many of the highest Alps) and the nights were officially freezing cold and the days cold enough (even in sunshine) to wear long sleeves and layers.
Day 6 to Manang
The next morning I slept extra late because I had gotten up twice in the night with stomach cramps that forced me to visit the outside facilities. I was concerned that this might be the beginning of a prolonged case of digestive problems, but at breakfast everyone confessed that their “calls of nature” were not normal and that appetites were diminishing. Both are mild altitude symptoms so I wasn’t overly concerned. I would simply try to eat foods less prone to problems such as rice. At breakfast Dustin’s guide appeared. He told us in very broken English that Dustin was sick and that they had stayed in Chame the previous day and that Yvette would stay with our group until he and Dustin caught up with us in Manag. The guide had set out at 4am that morning to catch us and would be returning to Chame after breakfast.
Given the cold, Dustin’s condition and our mild altitude symptoms, we were glad that the walk to the major town of Manang (the capital of the Manag region) would be a short half day. That morning’s trail wound through pine forests and then wide open glens with scattered spruce. The tail then lead thru the tiny village of Hongde, which surrounds a tiny airport. We stopped there for lunch and then cleared another check post at the town exit. The wide trail continued thru open fields, passed an abandoned ghost town called Mongji with cloud obscured mountain backdrops (Annapurna III, IV, and II). We reached our destination of Manang (altitude 3,530m) as snow flurries and high winds descended from the surrounding mountains.
Manang is a small piece of shopping civilization attached to a stilt town on a cliff. We restocked on supplies (I even found a stock of Pepsi and additional miniDV film tapes), and ate fresh baked pastries. We had clearly arrived at the cold high altitude portion of the trek. Dinner was a scramble to claim a spot around the single wood-burning stove and to defend that small warm spot from all takers (at least half the guests were a group of trekkers from Israel who chain-smoked and vied for space aggressively).
It was decided that the next day would be an acclimatization day. We would stay in Manang an extra night and spend the next day doing a “walk high, sleep low” outing (the recommended method for acclimatization). I didn’t object because there was a massive blue ice glacier within a short distance from the town (which the guides said could not be reached) and I intended to take the girls there for filming and photos. They agreed readily and Al and Norma also agreed to join us.
Day 7 Side trip to Glacier
I was awakened early the next morning by the sound of the departing Israeli party and the coughing, honking, and spitting guides and porters in the courtyard. The sky was overcast which was ideal for out planned outing. I joined the boys for breakfast and was told that Casey planned to visit the Gompa known as the home of the 100 rupee Lama (he provided blessings for a 100 rs fee). The girls skipped breakfast and we moved on to meet Norma at her guesthouse, and then set off thru the town, to find the trail down to the river. We crossed the river and then spent an hour walking up a steep winding trail to a ridge on the south side of the river. The ridge had a tiny teahouse (shack) and an impressive view of the valley. The glacier was at the source of a tiny tributary (dammed to create a blue lake) that emptied into the Marsyangdi River. From the teahouse we continued up a forest path to a gompa located near the base of the steep and strange stone cliffs. The cliffs are made of a lose sandstone that looks solid, but easily crumbles when rubbed. Melting snow and rain had carved out long narrow crevices with a surreal affect.
From the gompa, we followed a very faint animal track that led over a ledge and down through a mixed forest to the bank of the tributary. Eventually we reached the riverbank, but much further downstream from where we had crossed the ledge up above.
There was no trail by the river but the exposed riverbed way was manageable because we were in the pre-winter low water season. We took a short break and then started the long upstream track that was composed of jumping from bolder to boulder or crossing steep skree slopes. The glacier looked deceptively close, but as we continued to make our way upstream we realized that it was huge and much further away than we had estimated. With time on our hands we continued to jump and wind our way towards its base. In just over an hour we made our way around a cluster of very large boulders and stumbled into a gravel bowl with some standing water and a solid wall of dirty blue glacier ice stretching upwards in a broken and strange moonscape. We had abruptly reached the foot of the glacier and the start of the tributary.
We rested, took photos and video footage and then turned around and repeated the boulder jumping exercise, but in the opposite direction. I had had trouble keeping up with Nora on the upstream leg and the downstream leg was much of the same, but more difficult because my previously injured rib had been giving me trouble over the past two days, and the constant jumping and impacts (as well as the cold) were aggravating the injury. By the time we returned to the village of Manang I was in a great deal of pain and having trouble taking deep breaths. I got back to my room by 2pm and immediately fell into a deep and exhausted sleep.
The boys woke me at 5pm to inform me that Dustin had caught up with us and that it was time to watch the movie, “Into Thin Air” at one of the three DVD screening rooms (a projection TV, wood benches, and a large collection of pirate DVDs). When we exited the screening around 7pm it was pitch black out and fat white snowflakes were drifting down in lazy arcs. We were all wearing our headlamps and the dark town was filled with moving and pitching bright cones of light attached to black figures punctuated by blurry white dots. Due to the cold and the hour we all hustled back to the guesthouse to place our dinner orders and to claim warm spots around the small wood stove. Naturally the girls managed to squeeze in around the stove while the boys and I ended up at a cold and vacant table on the extreme other end of the frigid dinning room.
I ate quickly, said my goodnight, and dashed off to my room to crawl into my sleeping bag fully dressed. I had been shivering off and on for the past hour and these small fast body movements caused me extreme chest pain that remained intense even after I had stopped shivering. My left armpit had also become inflamed and very tender. Simply touching it caused a sharp pain and moving my arm or lying on my left side would cause a pain that would wake me from my sleep. At the same time, rolling onto my right side would cause the injured rib to hurt and wake me as well. I spent that long night trying not to shiver or roll onto my left or right side.
Day 8 to Thorung Pheti
I woke early and found that my inflamed left armpit was now also leaking puss. I pressed gently but painfully on the inflamed areas and a rich green thick fluid flowed out. I continued pressing until the fluid turned from a rich green to a mixture of watery and bloody liquids. I then cleaned the wound as best as I could (cleaning an armpit wound is difficult since it limits you to the use of one hand and it is impossible to actually see what is going on in that dark and hairy cavity). My left arm’s mobility was further restricted so my next stage of morning maintenance was also painful. Again with one arm I wrapped an Ace bandage around my chest to bind the cracked rib and tightly restrict my chest’s ability to over-expand (and further aggravate the rib). Then I dress in layers, putting on all my cold weather clothes in a long squirming process. When I finally emerged from the room I was exhausted and hungry.
The courtyard, mountains and valley were cloaked in a few inches of new damp snow that stopped me in my tracks. I returned to the room to grab my video camera and spend a few cold minutes outside filming the clean white world.
At breakfast we agreed on a short day and setoff as it began to snow again. Thankfully we were walking with the wind as we watched tightly bound donkey herders and the occasional trekker crossed our path going in the opposite direction. The trail stayed fairly horizontal as it followed the curve of the steep slopes that rose from the narrow, but fast running, river below. Our visibility became limited as the valley got narrower and the snowfall became heavier. We each fell into a walking rhythm and became quite and contemplative as the world closed in around us and our sense of progress diminished. When we reached our lunch destination (Yak Khara, 4,030 meters) the pretty snowfall had officially become an ugly blizzard. We all pilled into an already full guesthouse dinning hall and ordered lunch while huddled around the wood burners.
I was feeling so ill that I could only eat a small amount of boiled potatoes. My head hurt, I was having trouble breathing, felt nauseous and knew that I was feeling the first effects of serious altitude sickness. The boys asked me if I was all right and told me that I didn’t look too well. I admitted that I wasn’t feeling well, but insisted that it was minor and that I could proceed after lunch.
After a long lunch we all reluctantly returned to the cold tempest that was whistling up the narrow valley. Late in the afternoon we reached the village of Laddar (maybe). We had trouble determining if we had actually reached the target of Laddar because Dustin’s National Geographic map showed that two small villages were located in the area, while my trekking book and cheap map showed one. I accepted the National Geographic map as the more likely to be correct and set off to find the next town, while the rest of the checked into the first guesthouse. They were all cold and tired and didn’t mind stopping short of the objective. For some stubborn reason I decided that I needed to reach the correct village (perhaps due to the affects of thin air).
I rounded a bend and no other guesthouses appeared so I figured that the second village was around the next bend. I lowered my head and pushed on. The same thing happened at the next curve of the valley and the next. It was slowly dawning on me that the National Geographic map was wrong and that my map and book were correct (as they had always been in places of confusion or times of contradictory advice). I stopped, turned around and looked at the ground and elevation that I had gained since passing Laddar. I had to make a difficult choice. My options were to turn around and return (descend) or continue on to the next village (a slow uphill ascent). In practically every previous case villages were never separated by more than an hour’s walking distance, so I opted to continue, even though it was still snowing, it was late in the day, I was exhausted, feeling the early symptoms of altitude sickness, and it was getting colder.
After another hour of following the slowly climbing mid-ridge trail, without sighting any signs of a village (or even trekkers) I stopped and pull out my map to see where the next village was located. I was stunned when I found that this stretch of the trail was the most remotely settled part of the entire Circuit. Furthermore, the day’s walk from Manang to Ladder was an increase in 750 meters (from 3,530m to 4,250m). That rise in elevation was a considerable day’s increase in this high altitude region, but my self-initiated push from Laddar to Thorung Phedi would require an additional 2.5 hours and a net increase of another 200 meters (after a steep drop down to the river which needed to be crossed, then a steep climb up the opposite bank and then an hour of a winding climb through skree slopes).
The additional 2.5 hours would be hard enough under normal conditions, but adding it to the end of a long, cold, snowy day was simply asking for trouble. If this self-inflicted exhaustion wasn’t enough, I also had to contend with one of my backpack straps breaking on a narrow ledge as a sting of donkeys were making their way towards me. I threw the pack onto a boulder and then squeezed myself against the skree slope as they brushed and jostled past me. Cold, exhausted, and frustrated, I climbed back to the trail and became focused on my health. I considered calling back to fleeing donkey driver and asking if he would turn around and transport my pack up to Thorong Phedi, but he was already disappearing into the distant curves and snow.
So I spied the trail ahead and noticed that a small stone building sat precariously on a high ledge on the opposite bank of the river. Shivering and with numb fingers I repaired the pack by tying the strap in a makeshift fashion. I hoped it would hold for the next few hours and then set off to cross the river and begin the long climb to the high stone building. I was hoping desperately that it was a guesthouse, but it became clear in time that it was simply a very small, simple stone one-room structure. I made my way to the courtyard and found that it was a teahouse. A middle-aged woman asked me if I wanted a cup of tea and I agreed with an exhausted nod as I dropped my pack unceremoniously.
I stuck my head into the building and saw a very small, but attractive fire but no place to sit. I was not invited inside so I sat on the old courtyard bench and examined my map. The woman’s husband brought me a large tin mug full of presweetened black tea so I took the opportunity to ask him (in simple English and hand signs) if the shack offered sleeping arrangements. He indicated it did not and pointed at the trail leading to Thorung Phedi. I sighed and then asked if he was a porter. Again he said no and pointed towards Thorung Phedi. I was so tired and cold at this point that I would have hired a porter at any price to help me reach the village. I asked him the time and he showed me his watch, it was almost 4 pm, so I had approximately one hour of daylight left. I knew that I had to move on quickly but continued to linger and sip my tea as fat snowflakes drifted down to land in my tea.
Reluctantly I got up, paid the exorbitant price of 50 rs for the tea, and then set off. The first 15 minutes were horizontal and relatively easy compared to the next 45 minutes. As the trail wound its way towards a distant wide curve in the river it became increasing narrower and rockier. The last half hour of trail was simply a skree slope with a faint indication of trail and occasional rocks piled or laid in a pattern to indicate a shadow of a trail. This entire hour of trail would probably not have be too daunting if I were doing a short day trek from Ladder, as the group would do the next day. However, my day had already consisted of 7 hard hours of trekking in a snow storm (well beyond acceptable at an altitude over 4,000 meters), so I could not walk for more than a few minutes without stopping, leaning on my walking stick and then panting. No mater how long I stopped to rest, I could not catch my breath. The air was too thin and I was too tired. The best I could do was count 20 deep breaths and then continue on for at least 20 slow steps before repeating the process. This was the technique I’d used on a number of high altitude treks in the past and knew from experience that eventually I would have to increase the number of resting breaths simply to maintain the forward progress of 20 steps. My progress was extremely slow by the time I rounded the bend in the valley, which followed the now tiny Marsyangdi Khola River, and spotted a stone wall, prayer flags and the outline of buildings. I had to stop an additional three times to simply cover the last 100 meter stretch.
The sun had disappeared behind the steep valley wall long ago, so that the indirect daylight was quickly fading as I entered a courtyard boxed in by building of various styles. I was greeted by an older Nepalese man who wore a large Mongolian hat and lamb vest. He must have spotted me coming around the bend from within the glass dining room and come out to greet me. He asked how many people were in my party and I told him that I was alone and that my party would join me the next day.
We negotiated a price of 150 rs for a bed and then he had one of his staff lead me to a remote out-building that was clearly one of the original structures on the site. It was designed like a four-sided stone fort, dug into the rocky ground, with a narrow entrance and an open courtyard in the middle. The doors and windows were a collection of mismatched old lumber and panes of glass that provided limited protection from the elements due to the large gaps, warps or crooked cuts.
The roof was made of crude logs, a rough layer of moldy planks, a layer of peat, and topped with flat rocks. Based on the visible mold, I assumed that the purpose of the roof was not so much to prevent rain from leaking in, as to keep snow and wind out, which was also the reason that the buildings were half submerged into the hard earth. Located before the notoriously cold and windy high Thorong Le pass, it was clear that this isolated guesthouse was really a remote base camp.
I dropped my pack in the corner of the provided three-bed dorm room. I pulled out my sleeping bag, unrolled it and crawled in fully dressed. My rib was throbbing due the strain of the day’s walk and the constant rattle created by my shivering. I knew that my infected armpit was in even worse shape. I had been feeling a growing wet and sticky sensation in and around my armpit as the day progressed and the simple effort of undressing and lifting my left arm for the daily cleaning ritual was excruciating. I sat in the sub-zero dark room with my headlamp on and tried to assess the damage and clean the wound quickly as the cold penetrated my naked torso and started me shivering again.
Once the wound was dressed I went outside and retraced my steps, in the dark, to the dinning structure, which consisted of one long room with glass walls. I was struck by the loud din of voices as I entered the room. It was full to capacity and very cold. I looked around to find the wood stove to no evil. As I was searching I heard my name called out. It was Nora, in a far corner, strategically located in front of one of two tiny electric space heaters. She waved me over and had me squeeze myself into the non-existent space next to her. I had lucked out with a place to sit and a small amount of heat in the otherwise frigid room.
Even with all the generated body warmth, I could see your breath mist as you exhaled. I was grateful for the warmth and companionship, but my energy reserves had been expended. I was feeling the effects of altitude sickness, my appetite was non-existent, and my rib and arm hurt badly. I ordered a plate of fried rice (knowing that I had to force myself to eat) and tried to look attentive while waiting for the meal to arrive. When it arrived I ate a small amount of the bland rice and then felt even more nauseous. I gave up my coveted spot by the heater, returned to the cold room, crawled into my sleeping bag, and shivered my way into a restless sleep.
Day 9 Acclimatization Day
I got up early the next morning to cold blue skies, no wind, and the caw of circling crows. It was around 7 am and yet the dining room was empty. I ordered a small breakfast and asked the dreadlock Nepalese kid (who was playing very good MP3 tunes on a small boom box) where everyone was. He informed me that trekkers leave the guesthouse between 4-6 am in order to reach the pass around sunrise because that the winds can be very fierce later in the day. I ate and then took a nap in a sunny corner of the dining room while listening to the bootleg music selection. I woke around 11 am feeling warmer, but still weak. I went to my room, packed my gear, paid my bill, and then left my pack in the dining room while I doubled back down the trail to see if I could spot the group making their way from Laddar. I estimated that they would reach this area around noon, given their tendency for late starts and the nature of the trail. I spotted them within five minutes of sitting down on a rock within the skree field. As they got closer I noticed that the boys (Al and Casey) and their guide were missing. When they reached me Yvette told me that Casey had awoke that morning feeling the first affects of altitude sickness so he and Al, at the direction of their guide, were going to return to a lower altitude for the day and then try to catch up with us over the next few days. This was discouraging news, but not unusual when trekking at altitudes around 4,000 meters (12,000 feet). We all returned to the Thorung Phedi guesthouse and discussed our prospects. Casey’s bout with altitude sickness had made an impact on the group and they felt we should spend a day at the current location in order to acclimate in preparation for the next day’s four hour and 1,000 meters crossing of the Thorong La Pass (5,416 meters or 17,870 feet). I was not pleased with the decision because I didn’t want to spend another cold day and night at this altitude, but had to agree on the basis of logic. Rather than sit around cold all day we would hike up the steep trail to a teahouse located one quarter of the way to the pass. This circuit to the teahouse and back would help the acclimatization process considerably (adhering to the mountain proverb, ‘walk high, sleep low).
The day hike up to the teahouse was steep, long, windy, cold, and tiring. I continued to have trouble breathing and my rib hurt considerably. My armpit was inflamed, seeping puss and arm immobile. I reached the teahouse last and dizzy. We had tea and then started the return trip back to the guesthouse. I wondered how on earth I would manage this section in pitch dark of 4 am and in much colder conditions. After which I would have to continue on for another three hours in snowy conditions and up twenty inclines. At that moment I determined that I would somehow hire a porter or even a pony to carry my pack to the pass.
When I returned to the guesthouse (last naturally) I started making inquires and was informed that a porter to the pass would cost 2,000 rs ($28). I bargained for a while and told the porter that my final offer was 1,000 rs ($14) and that he could give me an answer in the morning. Once again the dinning room was full to capacity, but this time with a different set of trekkers. The guesthouse was the only listed accommodation before the pass, even though a new small teahouse/guesthouse now existed closer to the pass. However, the new guesthouse was not listed on any maps or in guidebooks, so the majority of people stopped here. Business was obviously brisk with the place full to capacity every day of the trekking season.
After dinner I asked Irena to visit my room to examine my armpit wound. Everyone was aware of the problem, but up until this point I had been treating the problem myself, even though I couldn’t actually see the wound. Back in the room I undressed while Dustin helped me administer first aid materials as I set up and gathered. I setted up and gathered all my first aid materials by reading the post that explains about first aid qualification. Irena and Sina had spent time as volunteers in a Nepalese hospital in October and were both planning on starting university in the medical field during the following year, and were eager to practice informally.
I slowly, and painfully, managed to raise my arm half way in order to expose the area of examination to the glare of headlamps (it was night out and the rooms’ didn’t have electricity). Irena started the examination by poking around my inflamed armpit painfully. She then started cleaning the area and informed me that a lot puss was leaking out of a tiny hole, a lot blood and puss had dried in my armpit hair, and that the area looked unclean. That much I already knew since it had been many days since any of us had had showers and each evening I had been forced to wipe gobs of puss out of my tee-shirt. She then told me she would need to shave the armpit, which I agreed to reluctantly (both because I knew it would hurt and because I had resisted the Metro-sexual trend to shave my armpits the prior year). The dried puss and blood, combined with the use of my old razor blade, cold water, and sensitivity, all contributed to my constant screams and yelps as she had her first experience at shaving a man’s armpit.
After the painful shave things got considerably worse. She slowly counted to three and then squeezed the inflamed area as thick green puss flowed from the wound. At the count of three I would clench and try not to move until she stopped squeezing, at which time I would howl in pain (both from the squeeze and from the pain in my rib caused by my body being tightly clenched). She used toilet paper to wipe away the puss and then repeated the procedure. This cycle of fear, pain, and screaming went on for what seemed like hours as the pile of puss and blood soaked toilet paper grew.
Dustin couldn’t believe how much puss had been squeezed out and kept saying, “That has got to hurt,” much to my irritation. I figured that all my screaming and my begging Irena to stop made his observation redundant. At some point the wound started to seep only a watery blood and Irena concluded that she had squeezed enough for that evening. She then cleaned and bandaged the wound. I was so grateful when she stopped. I thanked her, re-dressed and crawled into my sleeping bag exhausted and cold. Sleep came quickly that evening.
Day 10 Thorung Lee Pass & Muktinath
I got up the next morning at 4 am, as planned I quickly packed my sleeping bag and remaining items before heading to the dining room. I ate a pastry and drank a cup of hot tea while negotiating for a porter again. At 4:30, as the group entered to start their breakfast, I gave up on the porter, grabbed my pack and headed out the door (we had agreed that I would set off before the group due to my poor state). As I was walking through the courtyard the owner approached me and told me that he had rented a horse to carry a sick trekker to the pass and that his son would be riding with the fellow in order to return the horses. He offered to have his son carry my pack for my stated 1,000 rs. I readily accepted his offer, gave him my pack and agreed to meet his son at the teahouse located at the pass.
I then set off up the steep trail at a brisk pace. It was cold but there was no wind as I quickly settled into a steady pace. If I kept my pace steady my body heat and layers of clothing would keep me comfortable. The world was pitch-black and I couldn’t see the ground outside the bluish cone of my headlamp. The cold and moonless night provided a perfect venue for the millions of sparkling stars that carpeted the heavens. I lost myself in the effort of walking and breathing and mentally felt as though I was outside of my limited physical body, turning to watch the mesmerizing white headlamps of other trekkers weaving their way up the dark mountain trail from time to time.
I reached the first teahouse an hour later, after stopping only three times. I decided to drink a cup of hot tea in order to rest and more importantly warm up a little. As the tea arrived, so did the group. They had set off impatiently twenty minutes after I had, rather than at the agreed one hour interval. I waited for them to finish their tea and then we all set off as a group.
We had completed the first leg in one hour and now had three more to go (and another 700 meters or twenty hills/rises). We rounded an outcrop above the teahouse and were assaulted by a cold strong headwind. The calm was over. I adjusted my scarf around my face, pulled my goofy yak wool hat over my ears, and kept my face tucked down. We trudged on without any conversation or banter. We were each in our own worlds, focused and determined to make the pass.
After another hour we came across another unmarked small stone building serving tea. The group entered to adjust their gear, drink tea, or simply warm up. I was in a trance and never even saw them enter. I simply kept on walking in a slow and deceptively lethargic state. Soon I crested another rise and realized that the sun must have risen because the sky was clear, the stars had disappeared, yet I was still in the shadow of the surrounding mountains. I turned off my headlamp and continued my old-man’s shuffle up the trail as I concentrated on my body temperature. It was still cold and the wind continued to howl, but I didn’t want to over-heat and start to sweat, which would then cause me to grow even colder. I opened my jacket a little to let the cold wind vent the excess heat caused by the exertion. It was a constant effort to maintain the balance between cold and hot.
After another hour the sun crested the surrounding mountains and I was struck by blazing direct sunshine. I stopped and sat on a convenient bolder feeling tired but confident. I looked back down the trail at the snowbound world, impressive mountains, and surreal landscape. I noticed a familiar group of trekkers approaching. It was my group (the girls, Yvette and Dustin). I had totally forgot about them and assumed that they were ahead of me. They in turn were surprised to find me ahead of them since they thought I had fallen behind. We laughed at our confusion and continued towards the pass as a single group.
Near the pass a boy on a horse approached us and told me that he had left my pack was at the pass teahouse as agreed. I happily paid him the agreed 1,000 rs. My arm was starting to hurt more and I had continued to cough from time to time, which caused me to buckle at the waist from the sharp stabbing pain in my rib. In spite of the persistent cold and the pain, I was happy at the thought of my pack waiting for me at the pass. I still had one hard hour to trekking before I could feel total relief, but I knew that I would not have made it this far if I had had to carry that pack. I was now two thirds of the way to the pass and after that point it would be down hill all the way (so to speak).
Around 9 am we finally reached the Thorong La Pass as a group.
We hugged each other, danced, took photos, smiled broadly, congratulated each other and then each drifted into our own thoughts to rest and absorb the impact of the last four hours and nine days of trekking. We were at 5,414 meters (17,870); we had just trudged 1,000 meters in four hours of cold and windy conditions, (with an absolute increase of 4,600 meters over the nine-day duration). We deserved a half hour rest before having to continue on for an additional five hours (and a descent of 1,400 meters) to our day’s objective, the village of Muktinath.
Days 11-16 Marpha, Ghasa, Tatppani, Ghorapani, Poon Hill, Birethanti, Pokhora
The remaining seven days of the trek from Muktinath were all downhill. The weather would continue to be dry, the days sunny, the temperature warmer (and even back to swelteringly hot after another three days), and the scenery remained stunning as the valley setting returned to sub-tropical and our perspective of the mountains changed.
From this point on we would encounter many more trekkers, large groups, and even horse guided tourists. The trail would turn into a continuous dirt road, motorcycles and motorized traffic appeared. Administration and checkpoints became more frequent, consumer goods were in abundance, and open and empty spaces along the route scarcer. The Thorong La Pass was more than an objective, it is the dividing point between the extremely well traveled Jomson Trek and the well traveled Circuit Trek. I couldn’t help feeling melancholy as watched few remaining parts of the trail being converted to a wide road and the inevitable modernization of this once idealized part of the world. It was also clear that the Circuit Trek beyond the pass was also being modernized, albeit at a slower pace.
Seven days later I reached a paved road and caught a small bus to the town of Pokhora. I stared out the window and recalled the events of the past two weeks, the happy moments, the painful moments, the trials, the amazing sights, and the new friends made along the way. The Annapurna Circuit trek was behind me. It had taken 15 days and provided me with more that I’d planned and I was returning to the world in one piece, even though battered, sore and infected. I had come to Nepal with visions of grand mountains, isolation, simplicity, inspiration and lost hippies. What I found instead was an abundance of humanity, commercial tourism, complexity and administration, greed, graft, extortion, and most importantly the grand mountains. In spite of the activities of the noisy humans, the mountains do remain inspiring.
Some of the grand ladies viewed on the trek include, Putali Hymnal (Butterfly Mtn) 7,246 m, Mukut Hymnal, Manapathi Hymnal 6,380 m, Dhaulagiri IV 7,661 m, Dhaulagiri I 8,167 m, Mt Tukuche 6,920 m, and Mt Dhampus 6,012 m) and the range to the west (S. Nilgiri 6839 m, Baraha Shikkar (12 peaks) 7,649 m, Annapurna I 8,091 m, Annapurna South 7,210 m, Hiunchuli 6,441 m, Machhapuchhhare 6,993 m, Annapurna IV 7,525 m, and Lamjung 6,988 m). Note that the mountains within the ranges are listed from west to east.
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