Friday, April 23, 2010

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek - The Detailed Edition

Before we get to the actual trek, it’s important to note that trekking groups are somewhat like other “forced” situations I’ve experienced in life, whether it be living in a college dorm, pledging a fraternity, or creating a network of expats in a foreign land; you share a common, unique experience and can become incredibly close in a very compressed timeframe. Throw in the fact that you’re sleeping in tents in close proximity and sharing a toilet that is literally an eighteen inch hole dug in the dirt, and the typical barriers of social decorum fall fairly quickly. While the group members have been mentioned in other posts, here’s a quick introduction to the guests that formed our tidy little 10-day pseudo family:

Glenn (Calgary, AB) – His thought (that I completely agree with) was that it takes a certain type of person to even go on a trip like this so there was a pretty good chance that personalities would mesh within the group. He also wasn’t afraid to have a beer in lieu of tea or coffee during the mid-morning tea stop. Having never had a beer before 5pm in my life, I found this fascinating and even had the good fortune to partake in this newly found joy on occasion.

Judith (Calgary, AB) – Married to Glenn, might be Lindsay’s long-lost sister. By Day 2 Lindsay was already planning our next trip with our new Canadian friends and had invited them to visit India. Judith seemed open to the idea but I kept telling her, “let’s see if you still feel the same way at the end of the trip.” Prior to the trek, my only knowledge of Calgary was that it hosted the 1988 Winter Olympics. After meeting Glenn and Judith, I’m making a commitment to visit the Calgary Stampede (takes place annually in July) at least once in my life. It sounds like Mardi Gras, only if cowboys were in charge.

Erin (Sonoma, CA) – Erin had previously used MT Sobek for a number of trips (Patagonia, Africa, Macchu Piccu, and Everest Base Camp). For her Everest trek two years earlier she had gone with our guide, Sanjeev. I took the fact that she was a repeat customer with both Sobek and Sanjeev as a sign that we were in for a good trip. Erin has been married for 42 years (though she traveled solo as her husband wasn’t able to make the trip). When asked the secret of a long marriage, she quickly replied, “Marriage is tough; just don’t get divorced.” There’s something to be said for that.

Gaby (Panama City, Panama) – Gaby had spent the previous 10 days in and around Kathmandu with family and friends and seemed convinced we’d be lucky to even see the mountains based on the haze that had persisted at lower elevations. Gaby’s previous trekking experience (which was still considerably more than either of the Luth's) consisted of an NOLS or Outward Bound trip into the White Mountains during college where she had had a miserable experience. She was back hoping for a better time.

Trek Day 1 – The day Lindsay offered to carry my daypack
Begins: Nayapul (4000 feet)
Ends: Tikhedunge (5200 feet)
I never really imagined starting my first trek in the Himalayas in a hot, dusty, dirty town that resembled any number o f nameless places one might drive through on the subcontinent, but that’s exactly where the bus stopped after a ninety minute hazy drive from Pokhara. I also envisioned I’d actually be able to see the monster mountains I had come to see from the start of the trek to be able to see where we were headed; but again, I was denied. Add those two things with the fact I hadn’t slept the night before (the A/C wasn’t working in the hotel room so I literally sat on the bed reading with my feet on the cold slate floor much of the night), and it wasn’t quite the triumphant beginning of the trek I had imagined.

After a 20 or 30 minute walk through town, where we passed any number of 1970’s Toyota Corollas, we finally crossed the Modi Khola (“khola” equals river in Nepalese) and started to leave civilization behind. From that point forward everything we saw had been manually transported (or carried by some sort of pack animal). Unfortunately, around this time , I began to feel like complete and utter crap. The combination of heat, lack of sleep, and something I had eaten for breakfast began to brew some not so special feelings. For some reason, I felt like I was burping the taste of popcorn, yet hadn’t eaten popcorn in months (strangely enough, we would have freshly popped popcorn on two different occasions later on the trip; on neither occasion did I have any sort of popcorn burps). The trail gently climbed above a river and within 90 minutes we had reached our first lunch spot.

The rest of the day I was fairly miserable. At one point, I had to take a short personal break and sit down on a stair. It got so bad that Lindsay actually asked if I wanted her to carry my pack. Needless to say, this wasn’t the best first impression to give the group or the guide. After a quick group break, I drank a Sprite and started to feel somewhat better, enabling myself to make it the rest of the way.

We arrived at camp and I was somewhat surprised to find that it was a sort of private campground that the group had procured. There was a flat grassy spot where the guest tents were set (each booking within the group and Sanjeev had 3-person Mountain Hardware tents) and an elevated area area with a small shedlike building that was the kitchen (which was also where the kitchen boys slept, a traditional A-frame tent for the other guides, and the two toilet tents. In front the flat guest tents was another structure that housed a dining/common room. The porters also carried a dining tent but only pitched it on nights where a separate structure was not already provided.

That night at camp prior to dinner, Lindsay unsuccessfully spread the good game of euchre (for being a game that makes so much sense when you’re playing, it’s good entertainment to sit and listen to someone try and describe the rules). The lack of euchre success probably wasn’t the worst thing considering there were six guests for the four person game. Even with this lack of success, she took it upon herself to anoint herself the group’s Social Coordinator. With the group not interested in playing cards, we started a new tradition; going to bed extremely early.

Trek Day 2 – The day we agreed to disagree on the size of the hail
Begins: Tikhedunge (5200 feet)
Ends: Ghorepani (9400 feet)
Thankfully, a little sleep went a long way and I awoke feeling much better, which was a welcome relief. Sanjeev had been warning us about the day, previously mentioning that it contained over 3000 stairs; I found this somewhat intimidating since I had basically flunked the easiest day of the trek. What he had failed to mention was that those stairs were only in the first 90 minutes of the day. After a morning tea stop in Ulleri, the primary highlight before lunch was witnessing some sort of ritual that involved a sacrificed goat. Thankfully, we only witnessed the parade portion of the ritual.

A short while after lunch we found ourselves in a more forested area when the clouds started to roll in. We heard a little thunder but I didn’t think much of it. Gaby, who it turned out was the only smart one in the group, decided it was time to break into the rain gear. Ten minutes later (and soaked), the rest of the group decided to join her. Having just purchased rain pants and not having spent the time to learn to put them on, I’m slightly embarrassed to report that it took me a good five minutes to successfully navigate the art of rain pain application (thankfully, I wised up later in the trip and determined that storing the pants with the side zips fully unzipped so I could easily fit the pants over my books). In addition, I was wearing a rain coat with short sleeves underneath, which isn’t exactly a recipe for good insulation. Add that to the fact that I later realized the vents on my coat were wipe open, and let’s just say I wasn’t the driest trekker the Annapurna region has ever seen.

While I resigned myself to the fact that I’d be wet the rest of the day, I wasn’t necessarily prepared for what happened next. Shortly after the rain began, the precipitation got somewhat more solid. A few seconds later “somewhat more solid” turned into an all-out hailstorm. I’ve never felt as beaten down or pummeled in my life as trekking through that storm. I tried to soften the constant blows on my head by trying to cover up with my arms, only to spread an equal amount of pain over a larger portion of my body. Not so smartly, Lindsay and I took refuge under a tree. Not ten seconds later, a huge bolt of lightning hit somewhere very close. Not surprisingly and (admittedly appropriately), Lindsay screamed. We decided “cover” wasn’t necessarily our best option and started off into the hail again. Thankfully, there was a strategically placed shelter shortly ahead on the trail where we were able to wait out the brunt of the storm. When the precipitation had turned back to simple rain, we hiked another few minutes and stopped at the nearest tea house for a much needed break.

The group spent some time debating the size of the hail. Lindsay and Glenn forged an instantaneous bond by simultaneously describing the hail as “garbanzo bean-sized”; whereas, I felt Cocoa Puffs a more fitting description. Regardless, the storm had basically passed and left a soaked and battered bunch of trekkers that was still in relatively good spirits all things considered. From the tea house, we were around a 45 minute hike (i.e., climb) to Ghorepani. Following the storm, the temperature dropped considerably. As a result, the hail didn’t melt and as we entered our first rhododendron forest, the icy pellets provided a unique contrast to the trees that were blooming in full pink. By the time we hit Ghorepani, I had to admit I wanted nothing more than to get into some dry clothes; however, as we entered the campsite, the clouds lifted just enough and I got a partial view of Hiunchuli standing tall across a valley. After two full days of trekking, I finally felt like I was in the Himalaya. That euphoric feeling lasted all of three minutes.

This campsite had a permanent dining structure, so three minutes after my Hiunchuli sighting I entered that structure to take stock of the soaking. Thankfully, most of the items in my backpack were safely stowed in ziplocks or plastic garbage bags; however, the bag itself was soaked to the point where there was standing water in the bottom. Apparently, there is a hiking accessory called a “backpack rain cover” that was conveniently left of the suggested packing list. I guess some things are better learned through experience. The entire group hung all of the wet rain gear in the dining tent and some of the damper packs found a home in the kitchen next to the fire.

After a quick change in the tent into some dry clothing, I found my way back to the dining structure where we consumed mass quantities of tea and hot chocolate and tried card game number two, Crazy Eights, which I finally realized was just a poor man’s Uno. After a long, difficult hike in adverse conditions and knowing that we had a 4am wake-up call ahead of us for a predawn hike up Poon Hill, it was a predictably early evening. I was beat and slept very well, even though we had gained over 4000 vertical feet of altitude.

Trek Day 3 – The day Lindsay didn't pant too heavy
Begins: Ghorepani (9400 feet)
Morning Climb: Poon Hill (10,500 feet)
Ends: Tadapani (8900 feet)
Waking up at 4am seems a reasonable request when it results in one’s first Himalayan sunrise. Rinzi offered us tea, drank a bit of it, and layered up to start the pre-breakfast hike up Poon Hill in the dark. Using headlamps (and Norbu) to guide, we weaved through a little bit of the village and quickly came to a turnstyle indicating the trailhead. The hike itself seemed fairly tame after the previous day’s steps and storms; it was a fairly consistent and steady 1,100 vertical feet to the top of the hill. There was a fairly steady stream of people up the entire route and I arrived at the top (even though it was 10,500 feet of elevation I guess you can’t call it a “peak” when it’s technically called a “hill”) shortly before the sun rose. The top consisted of (shockingly) a place to buy tea, a lookout structure to climb a couple stories above the people (no one in our group chose this option), and what was considered one of the foulest pit toilets encountered on the trip. In addition, there were a few dozen (maybe even a couple hundred?) hikers all there to witness the first light of day. From the top (west to east) there was a magnificent view of Dhauligiri (the seventh highest peak in the world) which was hit by the first light, then Annapurna South and Hiunchuli (not quite as high but much closer so they seemed just as large), and then finally Machapuchare to the east, which is where the sun tends to rise. While on the top Sanjeev went through the peaks that we could see (there were more than I listed, but I’m just proud of myself for remembering  the four previously mentioned. In addition, we could see planes flying below us through the valley that separated Poon Hill from the Annapurna massif and into the town of Jomson (if I go back to this area of Nepal, I’d like to fly into Jomson, which Sanjeev described as the only airport in the world nestled in a valley of 8000 meter peaks).

Shortly after beginning the descent, we realized that we had hiked up through a rhododendron forest to reach the top and were treated to some fantastic views of the mountains framed by the pink blossoms in the foreground. Upon arrival back at camp, we were able to see that we actually had quite nice views of all the peaks we had seen at sunrise. After a later breakfast, Lindsay paid her dues to the local villagers that would display their wares for purchase within the campsite for the second straight morning, and we were again treated to a couple hour hike through rhododendron forest. Apparently, we hit the prime time for the flowers and were even told by the guides that they only bloom like this every other year. Something tells me that last year’s group may have heard the same line. After the morning tea stop in Deurali, not to be confused with the village of the same name where we’d each lunch a few days later (“deurali” means “pass” and seems to be as common a municipality name as “Springfield”), we encountered our first major descent of the trip.

Throughout the first two days of the trek we had been treated to numerous caravans of pack animals (primarily mules and donkeys but with the occasional yak pak). While the animals’ headdresses and bells added to the mystical allure of the experience, we also had to successfully navigate the fecal evidence that we shared the trail. I must admit that both Lindsay and I were doing an admirable job; that is, until I passed a goat herder on the first descent. I really thought nothing of it, but was somewhat disgusted to hear from Lindsay as we approached lunch (I had moved ahead of her in the group) that one of the goats had decided to poop on her. She astutely pointed out that goats tend to crap like rabbits (i.e., pellets) which seemed to make it less offensive; and yes, these are the thoughts that go through your mind when you know a shower isn’t in your immediate future.

Following lunch, we again donned our rain gear and got hit by a little bit of precipitation, which thankfully stayed in liquid form. After a little bit of up and a little bit of down, we crossed a river and encountered a steep pitch that promised to be the last of the day before we hit camp in Tadapani. Each member of the group was forced to decide what layers to keep. I opted to drop the rain pants (they’re not exactly the most breathable), favoring the reduced temperature and assuming the risk of getting wet. Judith (and most others) opted to keep the rain pants on.
Halfway up the hill with heart rates on the rise and Lindsay closely following her, Judith said to no one in particular,“my pants are getting sweaty.” Unfortunately, what Lindsay thought Judith had said was, “you’re panting too heavy!”

Lindsay (always one to engage in dialogue on the trail) questioned, “Is it bothering you?”

Judith’s (very quick) response, “Hell yeah!”

With the look on her face, you would have thought someone stole Lindsay’s lollipop. Priceless.

Trek Day 4 – The day I learned the value of trekking poles
Start – Tadapani (8900 feet)
End – Chhomrong (6700 feet)
By the end of the entire trek, my body was relatively unscathed and I credit a decision made on morning four in Tadapani as the key reason; that is, the decision to actually utilize the trekking poles I had purchased in Kathmandu. The additional support was a welcome relief, especially on the descents, though I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to also enjoying the additional upper body push on the climbs (plus, , upon returning from the trip I read in a book about climbing fourteeners in Colorado, Halfway to Heaven, that claimed you burn an additional 40% calories using sticks). While the extra calorie burn sounds aggressive, I’ll go with it. With the help of Erin, I quickly learned that people generally lengthen the sticks when going downhill and shorten them when going uphill; however, it’s totally personal preference (I found that I liked to change depending on terrain; however, both Erin and Glenn preferred to keep the poles a consistent length). I found the only detriment to using poles was that my footwork got a little lazy because I had a backup in the event of slipping.

Most of the morning was a descent through what the trip itinerary described as a “cloud forest”. I’m still not sure what a cloud forest is; however, it was an enjoyable time. The pace of the day seemed more leisurely than the others and we actually made two fairly lengthy stops prior to lunch. From the first stop, we had a view to the east of what most of the rest of the day looked like (a little bit up, a little bit down) and I started to notice the evidence of landslides on the valley walls. While it wasn’t landslide season, they typically occur as a result of the monsoon, seeing the after effects was a little sobering.

We crossed the the Kimrong Khola, made a brief climb, and stopped for lunch in the village of Ghurjung, the most notable aspects of which were (1) the cleanest pit toilet of the trip that included a tile floor and (2) a scruffy looking hippie that borrowed our ketchup. After lunch, the trail followed a ridgeline where we passed through the terracing and had distant views across the valley of very similar scenery.

While the day was slower paced, the end of the day promised grand expectations. Sanjeev was treating us to a stay in a lodge in Chhomrong, a larger village, with the likely prospects of our first showers. Personally, I was acclimating well to tent life and would have just as much appreciated a stay in the tent with a short visit to the shower. Chhomrong also promised the potential for internet access and recharged batteries (after Lindsay successfully scoured Gurgaon prior to our departure for extra batteries, it ended up that we much safer than necessary). Hot showers, internet, and battery recharges were highly dependent on the availability of electricity and thankfully the village had electricity that night. The group drew straws for shower order (again, not knowing how much hot water there would be) and as you’d expect, the two men drew positions one and two. As everything is negotiable, Glenn bartered his first position to Gaby (without consulting his wife) for a beer.

After getting cleaned up, portions of the group ventured back uphill in town (Chhomrong is built on terraces) to find the internet to reconnect with family and friends. My decision to abstain from technology was based on (1) the internet café was located up a hill, (2) no one expected to hear from me anyway, and (3) there was beer on the patio of the lodge.

Trek Day 5 – The day those bastards from the other trek stole our lunch spot
Start – Chhromrong (6700 feet)
End – Dovhan (8700 feet)
Sanjeev, always the observant lead trekking guide, had noticed I had taken a keen interest in learning exactly where we were. What can I say, I’ve always been a map guy. As a result, he gave me the opportunity to lead the morning briefing. My description lasted all of thirty seconds before he cut me off. This was the first day where we could see our morning tea stop and where that tea stop looked a long, long way from where we were starting. It was located at about the same elevation as us; however, there was a steep 1200 foot descent on steps, covering only about a half mile, that would kick off the day’s festivities. From the perch of the lodge’s patio, we could see across one valley and then up two parallel valleys. The valley on the left appeared to terminate at the southern base of Annapurna South; whereas, the valley on the right was framed by Hiunchuli on its western wall and Machapuchare on its eastern wall. This second valley was the path to the Annapurna Sanctuary and where we’d spend the next three nights journeying up and back.

The morning tea stop was in a village called Sinuwa which served as an unofficial gateway to the Sanctuary, and both times we passed through it was the most congested section of trail on the trip.

(Quick aside; Chhomrong was the last permanent village before entering the valley; all the “villages” I mention from this point forward were really just a set of lodges that entrepreneurs would lease from the Nepalese government to make a living; to make a very loose American analogy, Chhromrong was like Breckenridge and Sinuwa and the other “villages” were like Copper Mountain.)

Lunch was scheduled in a village called Bamboo, which I presumed was named for the bamboo forest that we’d hike through to get there. Lindsay was, as she would say, “uber-excited” for the bamboo forest, but it was really just a mixed forest with some bamboo trees. While still cool to see such large bamboo trees it wasn’t quite the bamboo wonderland she had envisioned. I attempted to cheer her up by trying to convince her that panda bears were frequently seen along the trail. Unfortunately, she didn’t take the bait, and my little joke was dead in its tracks. Upon arriving in Bamboo, we were surprised to find that our lunch spot (which was clearly marked with our pink tablecloth and condiments) under an open gazebo-like structure had been commandeered by a trekking group that was on the same basic itinerary as us. Not to blame the actual group members, but their lead guide should have known better; easily the most bush league move of the trip. On the  bright side, once we were inside the dining hall at the local lodge, it started to rain. Karma’s a bitch.

The highlight of the evening was the discovery of what could become the official card game of the trip: Canasta. We had tried Euchre, Crazy Eights, and Texas Hold ‘em, and none had taken hold. Finally we had a game that easy to learn, still had the possibility where someone would have a brainfart and you’d be able to make fun of them, and most importantly, could be enjoyed by the entire group at one time. You know a game has potential when it gets a group to extend its bedtime beyond 9pm.

Trek Day 6 – The day we had a warm, sunny siesta followed by a snowstorm
Start – Dovhan (8700 feet)
End – Machapuchare Base Camp (12,300 feet)
The point of Day 6’s trek was to put us in a position from which we could wake up early the next morning and catch the sunrise as we approached Annapurna Base Camp. Sanjeev and the others ultimately succeeded fabulously at that; but it wasn’t quite as simple as we initially planned.

The morning started cold, as you’d expect at 8700 feet at 6am, and gradually warmed even as we gained elevation. The morning’s trail kept us on the west side of the Modi Khola with a beautiful view of Machapuchare and the clouds or contrails streaming from its peak and views of waterfalls making their way down the valley walls. I regret to inform you that the Luth’s had their first (or at least the first that I remember; it’s possible the others on the trip may have differing opinions) little spat. When stopping at a scenic spot that looked north up the valley with the village of Deurali in the distance from the enclave of a small cave, we decided to take pictures. Lindsay was able to force the flash on a picture of me and it turned out so well that we decided to get a picture of the two of us. Unfortunately, neither of us really knew how to consistently force the flash with the camera. Someone took a picture of us (which, of course, actually turned out pretty well) but we were determined to get one with a flash. What followed next was Lindsay trying to get the setting perfect with me letting her try and solve the issue. We both started losing patience (I for her lack of camera knowledge and her for my lack of assistance). She started snapping sample pictures and what we now have is a four shot photo montage that can best be described as “Anatomy of a Fight”. Apologies again to the others on the trip for what you witnessed. Suffice to say, many lessons learned as a result.

An hour or so later when we were once again on speaking terms, we arrived at the village of Deurali (that’s the second Deurali if you’re counting) for lunch. It was our first picnic lunch and the group couldn’t have been happier to stretch out on the ground and enjoy a nice lunch in the warm sun. Even better than the lunch was the short nap we were afforded in the sun after we (or at least “I”) had gorged on the bountiful spread.

Sanjeev had warned that we’d have to cross the Modi Khola at some point and utilize a temporary trail on the east bank due to avalanche risk coming off the slopes of Hiunchuli. About the time we came to the temporary bridge across the river, the weather started to become more overcast. We crossed the river and the weather quickly got worse. I layered up on top by again chose to forego the rain pants, not expecting whatever we were about to experience would last. What I failed to realize was that we had gained a lot of altitude and the temperature was dropping; it first started raining, quickly turned to sleet, and before we knew it we were in a snowstorm. While it was somewhat enjoyable and very memorable to be caught in a Himalayan snow while heading to a camp, it quickly wore off and most parties (or at least Lindsay and I started to tire). By the end of the hike, I could swear Lindsay’s feet weren’t getting more than an inch off the ground with each step forward. Even as we approached Machapuchare Base Camp (MBC), the hike couldn’t end soon enough and everyone was glad to find the welcome and relative warmth of our tents.

Upon arrival, the weather actually got worse and the snow continued to fall. The one benefit to wearing only shorts during the hike was that my rain pants were bone dry for the evening and served as a perfect third layer on my legs while at dinner. Being at 12,300 feet (not to mention the weather), this was the one night where I really wished I had brought a better pair of fleece pants and a light down jacket. There were other nights in camp where those would have been nice touches (I always had enough layers), they would have been a much appreciated luxury at MBC. With the combination of the weather, the tiring climb, and an early morning wake-up call, it was an early night in camp. Based on the basic weather pattern of the trip, I hadn’t even considered the possibility that we’d get shut out of views the next morning; however, it was on the minds of others and when questioned, there was a hint of apprehension from Sanjeev on if it would clear. While it would have been utterly disappointing, there wasn’t much any of us could do about it at that point, and we retired to our tents. I must admit, when I woke up for my customary middle-of-the-night biological break, I was relieved to be surrounded by a sky full of stars.

Trek Day 7 – The day we “summitted” base camp
Start – Machapuchare Base Camp (12,300 feet)
Morning Climb – Annapurna Base Camp (13,500 feet)
End – Himalaya Hotel (9400 feet)
Parts of the group were calling Day 7 “summit day” though other parts of the group (primarily myself and Erin, coincidentally the two members of the group that had read the most climbing books) found it endearing but somewhat inappropriate. In hindsight, with the early morning wake-up, following a line of headlamps, the fresh snow, and my wife’s squeamishness any time I mention I’d like to try an alpine ascent, and it really may be the closest I’ll come to a “summit day”. The snow accumulation could be measured in inches; Glenn gandered a guess in centimeters (I think he said 5), but there was enough snow to make the hiking a little awkward a slippery.

The morning hike was a two hour uphill to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC; though again, I struggle to use this terminology because “ABC” always refers to “Advanced Base Camp” in the Everest climbing books) and immediately upon the start of the hike, I was struck by the beauty that surrounded us. MBC was located in a basin, and as we climbed up the side of the basin, the illuminated Annapurna South directly in front of us, with the lip of the basin in the foreground. Much like on Day 4, this was one of the more impressive sunrises in my life. Speaking of impressive sunrises in life, it’s tough to order them and there haven’t been all that many sunrises (much less memorable one’s) but here’s a quick list in order of recency(and yes, mountains, national parks, and family happen to be some of my favorite things):

  • Annapurna Sanctuary, Day 7 of this trip
  • Poon Hill, Day 4 of this trip
  • Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, October 2008 (watching the sun rise and illuminate the underside of the arch)
  • Summit of Haleakala, Haleakala National Park, July 2002 (watching the sun rise from under the clouds on the top of the volcano)
  • Silvis, Illinois, date unknown (a very vivid memory of a predawn drive to the Silvis Donut Delight with my Mom as a young kid; not sure exactly why I remember seeing the sun rise or why it was just my Mom and I or why I remember that we were going for doughnuts, but the fact that I do earns it a spot on the list)
(There was also a time in Vegas that I tripped and fell as I exited a certain establishment right around the time the sun was rising, but I’m pretty sure it had already risen…..anyway, back to the trek….)

As we climbed out of the initial basin, we found ourselves on a slightly upward sloping plateau and could finally see ABC. From that point, you could literally turn a circle and you were 100 percent surrounded by peaks. I’m not sure the exact boundary of the “Annapurna Sanctuary” of which the trek bore its official name, but I was fairly certain I had arrived. I’m not a terribly religious person, but it seemed an appropriate place to spend Easter Sunday.

We were greeted at the top by the same trekking group that had stolen our lunch spot the day before. I’m fairly certain it was at this point that Sanjeev let that trek’s leader know that he had already sent a runner for a campsite at the spot that gave us the most comfortable afternoon hike while also considering the distance we would have to cover the following day to get back to Chhomrong. The net result was that the “others” had to go an extra two hours at the end of the day when they’d already be tired. Again, it wasn’t mean spirited, but I was certainly glad I had Sanjeev on my side; the man is good.

At the top, Sanjeev provided the 360 degree tour, identifying each peak. Again, the distance we were from the peak had a large impact on the size it appeared. Annapurna I, which is the tenth highest peak in the world, was impressive; however, Annapurna South which is nearly 3000 feet lower appeared more massive. While impressive, you tend to lose a little bit of scale and size when you’re that close to the mountains. Even though there was a 13,000 vertical foot relief between where we were standing and the peaks, the fact that there was only rock, ice, and snow, made them somehow seem less massive than when we had seen them from afar from Poon Hill. Even though they seemed slightly less massive, I’ll never forget the sharp contrast between the deep blue sky and the jagged white peaks.

Surprisingly, ABC wasn’t comprised of a sea of The North Face or Mountain Hardwear Tents but was rather comprised of the same basic setup that the other “villages” were that we had passed in the valley; that is, 12 or so lodge rooms and a couple places to buy some basic provisions (i.e., tea, coffee, Pringles, beer). In addition, there was a memorial for a climber that had been killed slightly above the “village” that streamed Buddhist prayer flags, which helped add some color and perspective to the photographs rather than just taking pictures of big mountains. After an hour or so on top, it was time to start the descent and head back to MBC for a late breakfast (Or an early lunch? This is why I should have written about the trip sooner….). As we descended, the temperature warmed, the fresh snow started to melt,a dn we were treated to multiple small avalanches fire off the slopes around us. The only thing more impressive than the sight was the sound. I got to the point, knowing that we weren’t in danger, of rooting for avalanches to occur.

The rest of the day was basically retracing our steps through yesterday’s snowstorm only with the ability to actually enjoy the scenery. As we approached camp, it came as no surprise that we were again trying to outrun the daily rain (successfully this time). While reading this the rain and weather we experienced might seem like an annoyance, but it really did help lend itself to the feeling of adventure (though don’t get me wrong, it was a nice feeling to arrive in camp dry when possible). Sanjeev had guided the exact same trip last year on the exact same dates and didn’t have a drop of precipitation. I wouldn’t have traded that weather for what we experienced.
One final note on summit day; if you were to look in Lindsay’s journal for this day, you’d find a page titled “Everest Shopping/Packing List.” I took that as a good sign that she was considering the trip a success.

Trek Day 8 – The day John nearly tumbled twenty feet down into a river
Start – Himalaya Hotel (9400 feet)
End – Chhromrong (6700 feet)
I’d be lying if I said that the last three days weren’t a little anticlimactic. We had seen the “best” thing we were going to see and I think we kind of knew it. Mind you, I wasn’t disappointed in this; I think it’s just what happens when you’re headed “back”. In addition, we had been trekking for seven very full days at this point. A few members of the group were starting to experience some physical discomfort (i.e., swollen knees and ankles) but Lindsay and I somehow remained unscathed; I’m guessing we were too inexperienced to know that the swelling would have been a normal reaction. We started to see signs of people that, in my opinion, really shouldn’t have been on the mountain. While the trek wasn’t “you’re doing a lot of scrambling and risking falling off exposed ridges” dangerous, it wasn’t exactly a place I’d take small children. One family may have agreed after the fact; where we saw one small child literally sitting backwards in a basket on the back of a porter – going up! I’m pretty sure if it gets to the point where you’re portering a five year old in a basket, it’s probably either (1) time to turnaround or (2) time to think of a vacation that’s more age appropriate. We also passed some Asian women wearing jeans, who asked, “Is it going to be cold up there?” Might have been something they wanted to look into before starting the trek.

We stopped again at the crowded gateway village of Sinuwa for lunch where I absolutely gorged on samosas. It was the one time on the trip where I actually felt ill from overeating. On the descent from to the river crossing, the group probably got as spread out as it had been on the trip. With Norbu guiding well in front and no one pushing us from behind, it was really the only time on the trek that it seemed like Lindsay and I were hiking alone.  We came to the bridge crossing the Chhomrong Khola and decided to wait for the group there. We weren’t in any specific hurry to the lodge in Chhomrong, even though a shower awaited us there. We crossed the bridge and waited for the others. Once they arrived, the kitchen boys were close behind and we could see them approaching the bridge. We decided to wait because even though they were hiking in flip flops and carrying many multiples in weight than we were, they were going to be faster climbing the 45 minutes of stairs up to the village. An empty bridge with only our kitchen boys crossing presented, in my mind, an excellent photo opportunity. I jumped up, tried to take a quick step (it may have been a run), stubbed a toe, started falling, was awkwardly caught by a trekking pole, tripped again, and continued a momentum-laced hop across the trail – right toward the river bank. I never actually went down and it happened in slow motion enough that I either sort of caught myself or Kuldhoj, who had the time to react, had jumped to my assistance. I was probably one or two more little momentum hops from falling into the river bank, rolling off a boulder, and finding myself ten or twenty feet down in the water; hurt, embarrassed, or both. While some others on the trip actually fell, it was in due course of what we were actually doing. My near river-miss was the trekking equivalent of falling in the ski lift line (I would have said, “or falling while getting off a detachable quad at Vail”, but that’s something only my sisters would do).

After the adrenaline rush passed of thoughts of how bad it could have been, we started the stairs back up to Chhomrong. Judith tried to jump in front the guides and as soon as she did, the trail was instantly blocked by yaks minding their own business. Even though they’re docile animals, there’s something a little imposing about an 800 pound animal with horns. Being the wuss that I am, I was glad that Norbu made his way back to the front and helped clear the animals out of our way.

Once back at at the lodge (the same one from night four), we were able to shower for the second time during the trip and had a nice evening on the patio, exchanging travel ideas and enjoying some cold beverages.

Trek Day 9 – The day we met “Tuck Girl”
Start – Chhromrong (6700 feet)
End – Ghandrung (6300 feet)
During the first hour of so of the trek, we retraced our steps back toward the village of Ghurjung (where we had encountered the scruffy ketchup-stealing hippie) but made a sharp left turn before getting to the village to take a trail that made a steep descent to…you guess it, a river! Across the river, we could see the trail that we’d be taking after our morning tea break. Again, not surprisingly, it was a steep 1000 or so feet up a hill to saddle at crest where we’d eat lunch. The day was actually a fairly short day from a hiking standpoint but since we spent the day at lower altitudes, it quickly became hot again, but that didn’t stop Lindsay. She was a woman on a mission. For some reason, she was still carrying her trekking poles but out of stubbornness (and not being equipped with the knowledge I now have of burning more calories when using poles) she decided she was going without her poles. However, rather than strapping them to her pack, she basically went into an uphill tuck position and charged up the hill. When I mentioned that she might accidentally poke someone, she rambled something like (and I’m paraphrasing here), “it’s what I’m doing…you’ve been warned…last chance workout…deal with it…LAST CHANCE WORKOUT.” I decided to keep my distance.

The afternoon hike was a little bit down and then mostly flat (one of the only times Sanjeev’s trekking codicil “little bit up, little bit down, mostly climbing” didn’t hold true. The scenery was actually quite breathtaking as we approached the village of Ghandrung, which Sanjeev said had a population of around 5000. We crossed a technically advanced bridge and ended up at camp much earlier than other days. It was also one of the only days when we hit camp and didn’t need to hit the tent immediately to either strip wet clothing or to keep out of a fast approaching storm. The group sat on the grass (and then a tarp) and played cards and just relaxed. It was a great way to spend the last late afternoon in camp. Plus, we needed to be rested because we had a party to attend that night.

For dinner, Deepak had prepared an absolute feast which included chop suey and a recently purchased chicken roasted to perfection. There was also wine. Lindsay had about a glass and a half and got a serious case of the stupids, but she giggling, happy, and you know what? We were on vacation. The main event was after dinner. All of the guests had pitched in 1000 Nepalese rupees (about $13) each and the porters had gone to town to buy some provisions. All of the porters, kitchen staff, and sherpas gathered for the final night celebration. Sanjeev had mentioned that they would be preparing some traditional Nepalese singing and dancing for us and that it would be customary for us to do the same. Unfortunately, we were three Americans, two Canadians, and a Panamanian, so we didn’t really have the cultural depth to draw from. While they prepared traditional songs, we decided to go with the Hokey Pokey (the hit of the night)and the Macarena (no one really knew it, even on  our side).  In addition, Glenn did an interpretive dance and solo to the Spider-Man theme song (that had me rolling on the ground) and we all gathered around in a circle and sang the Gilliigan’s Island theme song. You can’t make this stuff up. The rum punch that Rinzi served made it all seem very normal.

Trek Day 10 – The day we came across my new least favorite person in the world
Start – Ghandrung (6300 feet)
End – Nayapul (4000 feet)
I awoke with a little bit of a cloudy head but it quickly passed as I realized it was the final morning on the trek. While it may have been the longest day from a mileage standpoint, the hiking itself was easy; one major downhill and then a fairly flat stretch to take us back to society. In addition, the trail became noticeably more crowded. Sanjeev had mentioned that the guesthouses in Ghandrung were full the night before but I would assume there were a lot of day hikers as well. Regardless, the whole vibe of the trail just seemed to change. Not just the quantity of hikers but also, and I hate to say it, but it just seemed like the children and villagers got a lot more aggressive about looking for handouts. Unfortunately, this may just been a function of the volume of hikers, but it wasn’t something that I had really experienced at any other point in the trip.
Halfway before tea we stopped to make a bathroom break at a tea house. While there, we heard two very loud and extremely obnoxious British women barking orders at a teenager that was wearing a makeshift turban to keep cool. For some reason, it seemed like the women were teachers and it was possible that this was one of their students. Fortunately, the brunette teacher (I’ll always remember her pale face and narrow nose) didn’t give off a Debbie LaFave vibe. Unfortunately, she gave off more of a Carol Burnett in “Annie” vibe. The exchange we heard between teacher and student went something like this:

Carol Burnett’s Understudy said, “Go over there and get me a snack! Go! You have no idea what work is. I’ll show you what work is; you’ll appreciate it more if you work to get it.” (I was actually lost in this logic; I wasn’t sure how his doing work for her would make him appreciate it, but alas….) The student actually went ahead and got the packet of cookies or whatever it was she wanted, but as he handed it to her, the student fired back, “Work is for people that don’t have oil.” Ouch.

In a close runner up for worst person in the world (sorry to semi-steal Keith Olbermann’s bit), we encountered a Swedish women at the morning tea stop who seemed to be interviewing porters for a trip into the hills and was condescendingly asking things like, “So, do you think you can hike for 8 hours a day and keep up?” Um, I’m pretty sure after seeing the porters race up and down the hills in flip flops with heavy packs strapped to their backs that they were going to keep up with any visitor (Judith said she saw the porter going through the interview in a village near the start of the trek later that day; I can only hope he could see what he was in for and that he decided to go another way).

After tea, we descended back to the Modi Khola (the same river we had hiked along to get to Annapurna Base Camp) and followed a trail to lunch. The trail, at this point, was wide enough for cars and there was a huge variety of people walking; day hikers, multi-day hikers like us, locals just walking as a means of transportations, local women dressed in western clothes with designer handbags. It didn’t take knowing we were on the last day to recognize the experience was coming to a close. We had one last lunch on the trail, the entire staff had gathered to see us off (and to collect their tip), and then after lunch we finished off the trek, which was about a 90 minute stroll back to the village of Nayapul.

At that point, a stroll was pretty much what I needed. I didn’t really realize how tired I was and when I climbed the final little hill to get to the road where the bus awaited, it finally started to hit how quickly I had acclimated to life on the trail and how much I’d miss the routine that had been quickly established. After one final Fanta in a teahouse on the side of the road, we boarded the bus for Pokhara.

After the Trek
We were anticipating a lazy afternoon and night in Pokhara followed by a morning flight to Kathmandu; unfortunately, that wasn’t exactly how it happened. There was suspect weather in Kathmandu the morning following the trek’s conclusion and they were having air traffic control issues. I later found a newspaper that “air traffic control issues” really meant the first significant radar repair in 12 years (I found an article in the newspaper highlighting a story about how the Kathmandu radar, which had been donated by the Japan, was undergoing repair for the first time and domestic air travel and possible international air travel could be spotty for as long as 16 days. At this point, I started to fear that we might be stuck in Nepal for some time.
Thankfully, the only thing we really “lost” was the chance to do a little more sightseeing and shopping in Kathmandu that afternoon, and I think everyone was just as happy playing Canasta at the Shangri La Village in Pokhara to wait out the air travel issues. Sanjeev, again the wise guide, kept us at the hotel rather than the airport. By about noon it was obvious that we wouldn’t be flying that day which meant that we’d need to find another option to get to Kathmandu so that we’d all be able to fly out the next day. The other option turned into ground transportation. We hopped into the same bus that has returned us from the trail and 6.5 short hours (instead of a 25 minute flight) we were safely back in Kathmandu. If only the drive were as stress free and easy as that last sentence read. Driving in the country in Nepal is a lot like driving in the country in India; only if you were driving through canyons with the constant risk of running of the road (or being run of the road) and dropping hundreds of feet to your death.

I actually enjoyed the drive for the first three or four hours (this may have been because Lindsay played up her, “I get carsick” routine which scored us seats right behind the driver) because like driving in India, driving through Nepal is like driving through a National Geographic issue. Unfortunately, as we approached Kathmandu from the west, there was a pass that we needed to go over. Since air traffic was basically at a standstill in the country, the road traffic was a little bit heavier. As a result, the land-and-a-half wide road couldn’t handle everything. We saw numerous buses overheated on the side of the road with tourists stranded. Thankfully, our driver was smart enough to turn the A/C off as we climbed and we ran into no such issues. Regardless, the Pokhara to Kathmandu trip via highway H04 isn’t something I need to necessarily experience again.

Upon returning to the Yak & Yeti, the group quickly went back to our rooms and got ready for dinner. Everyone but Judith joined the final night farewell dinner (I think I forgot to mention that she got sick around lunch and she spent the entire drive miserably ill…not good times for Judith, though you would have never known it; had I been sick, the rest of the bus would have been well aware). Sanjeev took us to a climbers/trekkers place called Rum Doodle that was a great place for a finale. We were on a rooftop, eating outside, and had a really nice time. The Rum Doodle has a gimmick where climbing or trekking expeditions write on a cardboard cutout of a foot and place it on the wall (kind of like signing the wall at Gino’s East). In addition, there’s an “Everest summiters” section where people that have summitted can sign, so we saw the signatures of the likes of Edmund Hilary and Rob Hall. We created our footprint and called it a trek.
The only real excitement left was to see whether I’d get caught trying to smuggle my remaining 500 and 1000 Indian rupee notes out of the country (I did not, though after becoming aware of the regulation the signs posted throughout the airport seemed much more visible).

I don’t want to speak in hyperbole about the trip, but it was truly great life experience. I was a little worried that we wouldn’t enjoy the whole trekking/camping thing and that we’d regret making this our first big travel adventure during our work assignment. Rather than that, I’m this experience hass helped shape the trips we will take while in India the next two years and will influence the trips we choose (and are hopefully fortunate enough) to take the rest of our lives.

1 comment:

  1. iebe Reisende,
    Namaste und viele Grüße aus dem Himalayaland Nepal!

    Mein Name ist Sanjib Adhikari. Ich bin ein selbständiger Treckingführer und Reiseleiter und Möchte mich Ihnen Gern Vorstellen.
    Ich bin in Einem felsigen und entlegenen Bezirk des Zentralen Himalayagebietes Geboren und aufgewachsen. Ich Begann Meinen Beruf im Abenteuertourismus ALS ich sehr jung Krieg und nachdem ich meine High-School Beendet had. Ich arbeitete 8 Jahre für Verschiedene Treckingagenturen zuerst ALS Träger (Porter), Dann ALS Assistent für Höhle Treckingführer und jetzt arbeite ich ALS Unabhängigen Treckingführer. Ich Habe bereits Eine Lizenz ALS Treckingführer vom Ministerium für Tourismus der Nepalesischen regierung erworben.
    ICH HABE VIELE Gruppen aus Europa, Den USA, Canada und Australien Durch Die nepalesischen Regionen des Everest, Annapurna, Langtang, Mustang, Dolpo, Kanchenjunga, Makalu, Manaslu, Ganesch Himalaya, Helambu und Durch Die tibetischen Gebiete des Mt. Kailash und Lhasa Sowie Durch Die Regionen Ladakh und Sikkim in Indien geführt. Bei Bau von mir organisierten Treckingtouren Habe ich VIELE Verschiedene erfahrungen Gemacht und mir Ein großes Wissen Über Geografie, Religion, Kultur, Flora und Fauna und Umweltbelange in Diesen Gebieten erworben. Meine erfahrungen aus Höhle Vielen Treckingtouren Haben mich zu Einem Experten für Organisation von einzigartigen Treckingzielen entsprechend Höhle Vorstellungen, Interessen und Dem. Budget meiner Klienten Gemacht.
    Für diejenigen Internationalen Trecker, Die Hohe Passe und Berge besteigen möchten, Kann ich also available of this anspruchsvolle und lohnende Abenteuer Organisieren. Meine Eigenen erfahrungen im Abenteuertourismus umfassen Die Besteigung des Mera und Island Gipfel, des Kalapathar und Gokyo Gipfel, Sowie des Tseryo li Berges.
    Es Sind VIELE Verschiedene ARTEN von Trecks in Nepal Möglich, angefangen vom Einfachen und erholsamen Treck, Auf dem Mann sterben nepalesische Kultur und Das Leben Auf den Dörfern Kennen lernen Kann mit Übernachtungen in örtlichen Lodges (Teehäusern) in bekannten Regionen bis hin zu entlegenen und eingeschränkten Gebieten mit abgelegenen WEGEN und seltenen Besuchen von Ausländern. Auf allen Trecks erlebt man Spektakuläre Szenen und macht gute erfahrungen mit der nepalesischen Kultur. WENN Jemand Éinen persönlich zugeschnittenen Treck wünscht, Kann ich Diesen requirements Gerecht Werden.
    Von Zeit zu Zeit frische ich meine Fähigkeiten und mein Wissen auf, Kostenversi ich ein Kursen zur Sicherheit, Ersten Hilfe, Rettungsmaßnahmen, Hygiene und Kochen teilnehme. Ich spreche fließend Englisch und Chinesisch.
    Meine Klienten Waren sehr zufrieden mit Meinem professionellen Service und wenn Kaufen möchten, Konnen Sie Gern your Kommentare auf meiner Webseite lesen.
    Bitte nehmen Sie Kontakt mit mir Über meine oben angegebenen E-Mail-Adressen auf, wenn Kaufen irgendwelche Fragen Haben Oder mögliche Trecks in Nepal mit mir möchten Besprechen.
    Ich Freue mich von ihnen zu hören.
    Mobil ohne +9779841613822