By now, Ben and I had, more or less, completed the Annapurna Circuit Trek. We were in Ghorepani, which is a one day (all downhill) hike down to a town with buses running back to Pokhara (from which we’d started out on a bus to begin the trek 18 days ago). However, there was another side trek that I wanted to add on that was going to take a couple of more days… the Annapurna Base Camp trek. If you look at a bird’s eye view of the Annapurna Circuit trek, it’s just a loop around the Annapurna Range. The Annapurna Base Camp trek goes from the bottom of that circle right into the center, which is the middle of the Annapurna Range. The trek, as you may have guessed from the name, takes one to the site of Annapurna Base Camp, which is the staging point for climbing Annapurna I (8,091 meters / 26,538 feet, the 10th highest mountain in the world). In addition, Annapurna Base Camp is also, more or less, surrounded by high mountains on all sides (imagine being at the bottom of a crater, but the walls of the crater are the mountains of the Annapurna Range), so the views are supposed to be spectacular… and since I’m all the way out here, and have the time, I figured I should go and see it. Unfortunately, Ben wasn’t going to be coming with me… he’d hurt his foot here (crossing the bridge shown here actually). His hurt foot had led to him walking with a bit of a limp, which led to some massive blister-action, which led to more limping, which hurt his already hurt foot even more and caused more blisters. He’d been walking nearly the whole way in pain (Ben’s pretty tough… dude’s got gumption), but felt he needed to head back to Pokhara to heal as we we’re going to head to the other side of Nepal for the Everest Base Camp trek after this (another three weeks of trekking). So Ben and I were going to part ways after lunch (sad face).
Interestingly enough, the trek leaving Ghorepani to Tadopani (where we were going to have lunch) was the nicest scenery of the whole trek. The first couple of hours wound though a rhododendron forest, which was still in bloom (when I hear the word rhododendron, I picture older English ladies working in the garden… but these suckers were full-sized trees, lots of them… and there weren’t any English ladies around), then the path dropped into a canyon with a small stream that looked like it could have been transplanted from upstate New York or Virginia… it was almost hard to walk, as I’d keep looking up and around and would invariably trip on a rock… just beautiful. Ben and I parted ways after lunch… I had a long afternoon of descending way down to a river at the bottom of a canyon and climbing all the way back up the other side again. I spent the night in a village named Chomrong, where a Tibetan woman put the full court-press of hotel pimping on me to get to stay at her place (the thing that sealed the deal was her chocolate cake being praised in a Life Magazine article in 2010… done and done). It turned out to be one of the best nights of sleep I had on the entire trek (and the chocolate cake was good, but not as good as the cake at the Braga Bakery way back around Day 6). The following day I was out the door later than everybody else as usual (I’d ended up sleeping in until about 7:30, which was about an hour and half later than usual, and way late in trekking terms) for what I knew would be a long day (starting right off the bat with another huge descent down to a river followed by an ascent all the way back up the other side).
Much like the circuit trek, the route for this trek followed along the sides of a river canyon all the way to Annapurna Base Camp… and this day, I’d walk nearly the whole thing (I stopped at a village named Duerali, which is the second to the last place to stay prior to Annapurna Base Camp). Although the scenery was nice, there wasn’t that much to see along the way, as the route went through forest most of the time… a couple of minor stream crossings, the river in the canyon down below, the same forest and mountains on the other side of the canyon… all nice, but nothing jaw-dropping. Early in the afternoon I sat down to take a break, and while I was sitting down a pretty large dude and what looked like his little brother came upon me (it turned out to be his little cousin). This guy had on a certain hat (hard to describe, but it looked a bit like a military-style beret) with a red star on it, so that hat, plus the way he looked, just screamed Russian (although not 100%, when you travel a bit, you can often tell where a person is from just by looking at them). I said privet (hello), which is one of the limited amount of Russian words I know (I picked up a couple words just being around so many Russians in Goa). He asked me if I spoke Russian (in Russian of course), to which I got to respond with one of the other Russian words I knew… nyet (no). He then asked me where I was from (in English… not that many Russians speak English), I said the US, and then we got to talking. He said that over the last two days, the only other trekkers he’d met were Chinese, so he couldn’t talk with anybody and was glad to have someone he could have a conversation with… so we ended up chatting for a bit as we walked onto the next village. He was a big dude (taller than me by an inch or two), so I asked him if he played any sports, and he responded that he played ice hockey (ha ha… of course the big Russian dude plays ice hockey). We both stopped at the next village… I was taking my usual mid-afternoon coffee break and he was waiting for the rest of his group to catch up (about 8 guys, including his dad and his younger brother, an uncle and some cousins, one of which was carrying a giant Russian flag attached to his backpack). They broke out some “Russian Berry Tea…from Siberia” that they’d brought with them in empty plastic water bottles and offered me some… I, of course, accepted. The tea was damn good (I’ve got to look for this stuff sometime… it was that good) and they even gave me a small bottle of it… very nice. They were staying there for the night, but I had one more village to go, so I was off after thanking them for the tea and wishing them well.
After ascending a bit more, the trail broke through the tree line and the views up and down the river canyon opened up. I made it to Duerali relatively late in the afternoon (around 4:15ish, which is late for trekking). I generally like to get to places a bit earlier as I like to clean up and wash my clothes every day… and if you get to a place late in the day your clothes don’t get much sun for drying. The lodge was a bit basic, so I had to clean up with an ice cold bucket shower, which is not fun when the air is already pretty cold (some people just elect not to clean up or shower when it’s cold like this, but I’d rather be cold than dirty). The lodge was relatively full, and I got to chatting with two couples, one French and one from the UK (Wales and England)… they were very nice, which was a good thing as I was going to be running into them every day and night for the next three days/nights. The next day I was out of the lodge around 8:30 AM, the last one out again, but I wasn’t worried as it was going to be a short morning as it was only 8 or so kilometers to Annapurna Base Camp. The walk up through the canyon was pretty spectacular scenery-wise. At the end of the canyon, the trail takes a left and heads up a much wider canyon towards Annapurna Base Camp… and as it was a clear morning, the views of the snow-covered mountains were also spectacular. I met a Canadian guy on the trail (he had a three-inch or so long beard, so I asked him where in North America he was from as only North Americans have extra-long beards like that). We ended up splitting a room at base camp as the lodge owners will not let singles have their own room (they make most of their money selling food, so they’d rather no let a person have a room to himself as that’s one or two less people not eating meals). The hike up wasn’t all that hard, it definitely wasn’t as steep as many parts of the Annapurna Circuit trek… the two couples, the Canadian and myself all ended up at the same lodge, and we were pretty much all safely ensconced in there by 11 AM.
As I mentioned above, the whole area around base camp is more or less like a crater. Base camp itself is up on a little ridge that looks down into the center of that crater… the center of which looks like a completely different world… all rocks and rock piles, interspersed with some small lakes / ponds. I decided to take a walk along the ridge at around noon (by this time, as it did every afternoon, it had clouded up so the views of the mountains were all obscured). Despite the lack of views, the place was really, really cool… standing up on the ridge all you could here was the wind and the sound of rocks falling and ground shifting down in the crater… I was up there all by myself and I swear it felt like the mountain was talking (you could easily see why people thought gods lived up on the mountains in a place like that). I enjoyed the moment a bit more and then made my way back to the lodge for lunch. I have to thank my impeccable timing at this point, as right when I sat down for lunch it started snowing… a lot (in May mind you). Everyone I had met was in the lunch area so we just sat there and watched it snow… and snow… and snow. All of us, literally, sat in the lodge area through dinner and into the evening… and it snowed the whole time. I think we all said a small prayer for a clear morning a we went to bed. After my experience here, I did not have high hopes (I noticed it was still snowing at midnight as I had to go outside to use the bathroom).
I woke up at 5:15 the next morning… I was not, unfortunately, waking up early to see the views… I was woken up by a bit of… how shall we say… GI distress. I made a mad dash to the toilet, which, luckily (there were only two for the whole lodge) wasn’t in use. However, on my way, I noticed that it had stopped snowing. After I was finished I made my way outside and noticed that the clouds in the sky were starting to clear and you could see bits and pieces of the surrounding mountains. I changed clothes and made my way out to the ridge where I had been yesterday (and where everybody had gathered) only to have to immediately rush/run back to the lodge to use the toilet again (there’s only one trail from all the lodges over to the ridge, with no cover anywhere nearby I might add, and I was praying that I wouldn’t have to drop trow right in the middle of it… I, barely, made it back). Now I have no idea what happened to me, but this was not good… I couldn’t make it more than ten minutes without having to hit the head (all the while having to use a squat toilet with no running water… in the cold… as it was basically an attached outhouse). However, in between my trips to the bathroom, the clouds burned off and we all got a beautifully clear view of the surrounding mountains… a view which I didn’t have to walk far to see either. While the view was lovely and all, I know found myself with a little dilemma… I couldn’t seem to make it more than 10-15 minutes without running to the toilet, but as the sun had crested the mountains, every moment longer I spent at base camp would make the descent that much more dangerous (as I only had tennis shoes to walk in, and tennis shoes, plus slurpee-like melted snow equals lots of falling down on a descent… a lesson learned here). I took some immodium and some cipro, drank some hot water and ordered breakfast (plain porridge and toast) while I pondered my dilemma. Thoughts running through my head, I didn’t want to be stuck sick up here… the conditions were pretty basic and plus I was at altitude (4,130 meters / 13,550 feet), I knew I wanted to get down past the snow before it melted much more (especially the part down in the canyon as that trail would be pretty treacherous with no grip), but I hadn’t been able to last more than about 15 minutes before needing to go to the bathroom (plus the accompanying pain and cramps that didn’t feel so good). I was kind of a mess, but decided that I should at least go down to the next camp rather than stay up here… hoping I could make it at least there without having to make an emergency field dump. Thankfully, after breakfast and packing, I did start feeling a bit better.
So, with my bag packed, some trash bags on my feet (over my socks and in my shoes, to prevent my feet from freezing when they would inevitably get wet in the snow) I started off. I think the medicine the easily digestible breakfast and some hot water were working as I almost felt fine innards-wise. Given that, I decided I’d try and head down as far as possible (provided everything kept feeling alright). The descent from Annapurna Base Camp, at least until the trail turned into the canyon, is relatively flat… however, the sun had been up and on this part of the trail for a bit by the time I left, so it was kind of slushy. I ended up kind of doing a kind of shuffle that I saw the Nepali porters doing (most of them only have tennis shoes as well)… lots of little steps, not too much pressure on any one step, but moving a bit fast for my own comfort… I definitely fell about 4 times, mostly on the steeper parts… all on my butt though, so no damage. I made it down to where I had to turn into the canyon, and, luckily, the sun had not come up far enough to get on the snow in the canyon (so it was still pretty solid). Still feeling fine by this point, so I just concentrated on getting down a quickly as possible (again, falling about 4 to 5 times). About three-quarters of the way down the canyon, I passed the snow line and began to relax a bit… I hit the lodge I stayed at two nights before and stopped for a tea break (now the sun was up, and it was pretty hot, so I took a couple of layers off as well as the garbage bags around my feet). I ran into the Canadian guy and we descended most of the way back down the trail. He decided to leave the river descent/ascent until the next morning, but I made my way back up to Chomrong. In a nice coincidence, the UK couple stayed at the same lodge I did (I had recommended the lady and the chocolate cake). The next morning, both the Canadian guy and the French couple passed by our lodge just as all of us were about to leave, so we had a nice little walk together before going our separate ways. I ended up staying one more night on the trail before making my way back down and catching the bus back down to Pokhara. So… finally, 24 days later… I was done walking, and very much looking forward to just relaxing in Pokhara a couple of days to rest before heading over for some more trekking in the Everest region.
The final tally:
Day 1-18: 243 kms, +8,990 mts ascent.
Day 19: Ghorepani to Chomrong – 15 kms. +520 mts ascent, -1,120 mts descent.
Day 20: Chomrong to Duerali – 14 kms. -300 mts descent, +1,400 mts ascent.
Day 21: Duerali to Annapurna Base Camp – 7 kms. +930 mts ascent.
Day 22: ABC to Chomrong – 21 kms. -2,330 mts descent, +300 mts ascent.
Day 23: Chomrong to Ghandruk – 9 kms. -680 mts descent, +480 mts ascent.
Day 24: Ghandruk to Birethani (bus to Pokhara) – 10 kms. -910 mts descent.
Total: 24 days, 309 kilometers (192 miles) and about 12,620 meters of ascending (that’s about 41,400 feet, or 7.8 miles of climbing).
More trekking to come.