Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Trekking the Annapurna Range

Nepal has 8 of the worlds ten tallest mountains. It is landlocked between Tibet and India with mountains to make anyone feel slightly intimidated, yet eager to explore them. We did not travel to Nepal for the trekking, unlike many other trekkers, however we did find it an added bonus. Keen to get out of the touristy Pokhara and see the "real Nepal" we decided to embark on one of the world's most popular and famous scenic walks; The Annapurna Circuit. It boasted stunning scenery, yaks, yettis, gompas (buddhist temples), amazing towering mountains, snowy passes, huge green valleys, remote villages and rapid white water rivers. And it certainly delivered.

We endeavoured on the trek knowing that it would be testing and hard, especially as it was the middle of the winter season, but was we discovered and experienced was much more than we had imagined. 

We set out early in the morning to begin what would be a very long walk, however most of the day was spent sitting on an overcrowded local bus. This definition of overcrowded exceeded even Indian "overcrowding" standards. In a bus that was only meant to fit 20 people, they certainly made an effort to double that figure, loading chicken feed by the 10 kilo bag into the isles. Sardining as many people as they could in so that we were even treated as if we were the upholstery of the bus with ladies using your heads as arm rests. 

After one five hour bus and another two hour bus we finally arrived in Bhubhule, the entrance into the Annapurna area. The start of the walk was beautiful, but not at all what we had imagined. It was more like walking through the tropics of Laos, with beautiful green trees, golden fields and amazing sunshine.

We stayed at a beautiful place close to the fierce whitewater of the river. The food had already increased in price from pokhara and continued to do so until the very top, where food prices were five times that of what they are at the bottom of the hill. It is fair enough though as all the goods in the villages have to be carried up by either donkeys or even people! 

It truly is amazing to think that everything from the table you sit at for dinner, chair you sit on, the squat toilet, the pots and pans, beds, blankets, stoves, roof above your head and tiles beneath your feet have all been carried up by either porters (like the ones above) or donkeys.
Our short term goal had been to make it to a town called Chamche by new years eve, giving us three days to reach it. It was only 20 km away but we quickly realized that even though it was a short distance the steep incline and declines along the way still made it difficult.

Our second day walking was considerably slowed when we got caught in traffic. This is not the regular kind of traffic back home, it was in fact donkey traffic. The donkeys use the same small steep track as the trekkers to get all the supplies to the otherwise unaccessable villages. 


The problem was that the track was only wide enough for either the donkeys or us, leaving us most the time giving way and when we tried to overtake it ended up with us almost being bumped off the edge. Not to say the donkeys are rude, just a little daft. I do have, however, a new found respect for these animals, walking up steep hills that are peppered with sharp rocks and slippery mud these donkeys, carrying 100kg on their backs, constantly slog up the hills without rest whilst the donkey herders yell at and whip them. Needless to say we felt a little guilty about complaining about our sore backs. {insert picture of donkeys)

The views on the way up to Chamche were spectacular. At points we were walking on tracks that were 2 meters wide with eroding boulders hanging above us and a straight drop next to us, we walked through Tal which is a beautiful town located in the middle of a valley surrounded by the mountains. The amazing thing about Tal was it’s flatness. It was extremely flat, right next to a beautiful calm part of the clear turquoise river and came complete with a charming little sand beach.

As we left the town of Tal we came across a military man blocking our path who informed us that on the other side of the river they are doing demolition works in order to blast their way through the mountain to make access roads. If we hurry and run we will "probably be ok" he told us. It’s amazing how fast you can walk (or even run), even after an exhausting previous five hours, when you know at any moment dynamite from the other side of the mountain would send debree and small boulders the size of our heads shooting our way.
The road they are constructing with dynamite

After what was almost a sprint up and down hill, we made it to our stop for the night. The next day thankfully was fairly easy and the lack of dynamite definitely made it a more comfortable walk. After a comparatively leisurely four hour stroll, it was new years eve and we had reached our goal. As a little celebration we decided to visit the famous "hot springs"- a supposed attraction in the town Chame. The water was rather cold as it was just a little rock pool section off the cold river, that was frozen over in sections as it flows from the mountains. Only Daniel decided to brave the cold water.

 Daniel enjoying the "hot springs" in Chame 

In pretty high spirits we settled into a cosy little place and got a nice little fire going. At this point we had climbed to 1385m above see level. Although it was nothing compared to the staggering 5400m goal that we were to reach in less than ten days it was still considerably colder.
Defrosting our trekking boots

We spent new years eve sitting around a fire with another Australian couple that we were trekking with. It was a great night, we had a few beers and stared at the beautiful clear sky, with more stars than we had ever seen staring back at us. Due to the tiring few days beforehand, the night didn't last a lot longer than 12 o'clock. 

We had decided that night to stay in the town for new years day as well and have a rest day to let our body recover from the 20km of stairmaster we had done so far. We then woke the next day to find everything covered in a foot snow and to find that our washing had been frozen solid. It certainly was a special start to the new year. 

The snowman we made, that was later destroyed by the boy above

Our washing frozen solid.

It kept snowing that night making the next few days extra hard, trudging through knee deep snow, trying to find the hidden path. 

Even the bridges had knee deep snow to trudge through.

The next day we set out to Manang, the next rest point on the trip. The reason for these rest days are not because we are lazy, but because it helps aid the acclimatization of your body. Because there is less pressure the higher you go your body and brain needs to adjust otherwise it can result in AMS (acute mountain sickness), which can cause headaches, vomiting, loss of coordination and in worst case scenarios; death.

We spent our rest day trying the local cuisine; Yak steak and fries served with grilled vegies and pasta. Yak is a tough meet, but extremely tasty and very enjoyable. We could tell our bodies were craving the protein. We spent the rest of the day going to the local cinema, that’s right a cute little place that let us pic our own movie, gave us popcorn and tea and had a projector all for the low price of $2AUD. 

We also witnessed a bit of drama at the ACAP post. The men working there had discovered an injured musk deer, a small deer that is native to the area and is known for the massive protruding teeth much like that of a sabertooth tiger. Apparently it had been chased by a snow leopard, who is also native to the area, into a freezing river and they would nurse it until it was well enough to be released back into the wild.

After all the excitement we went for a small walk up to a nearby gompa (Buddhist shrine) that was about 100 meters above the town. On the way up we were lucky enough to spot two Egyptian vultures perched on nearby rocks. Although they look small in the photographs they are actually massive with a wingspan that would be wider than the width of a man's arm to arm span. 

The next few days were spent walking, eating and sleeping. We were now in high altitude territory and the effects were definitely showing. A lack of breath and slight headaches in the back of the head were taking place occasionally as well as nausea and sometimes slight deliriousness. We took it easy though all the way to Thorong Phedi.

We were met by a surprising amount of groups of people who had to turn around from the pass. They all had encountered different struggles relating to the cold and windy conditions that unfortunately the "off season" brings with it. One South African couple, who were enthusiastic rock climbers had attempted the pass the day before and had found the conditions unforgiving and had to turn around. They warned us that because it was so cold anything that is not water proof, and therefore wet would freeze straight away. Both our boots were not waterproof- Dan's had a hole in the toe that let in water, and Hannah's were cheap sneakers. We managed to fix Dan's shoes (kind of) with some duck-tape, not ideal, but better than nothing. Hannah needed new shoes altogether. Due to the off season none of the trekking stores were open in Manali. So after frantically asking around we managed to ask a local to open a store, and luckily there was one pair of trekking boots, and they just happened to be Hannah's size! So on we went.

The higher you go, the less vegetation. Everything is saved, recycled and used- even the yak poo. At the high altitudes trees are scarce and it is expensive and hard to get firewood bought up by the sherpas, especially in winter time. Yak or even cow poo is a surprisingly great source of fuel and is used all throughout both Nepal and India in rural and urban areas. You often see them being dried out on fences or on the roofs of houses. 

The views along the way were incredible. Never before have we felt so small and at the mercy of the mountains. When you know the only way out in the case of danger is your own two legs, you definitely feel more vulnerable. On the way we saw all the beautiful animals that survive every day in what we strive to catch a glimpse or day of. Yaks, Musk deer and wild eagles and vultures were all seen up close and personal.

Upon arriving in Thorong Phedi we sat down to a well deserved lunch after which we decided to climb half way to high camp (4900m). We sat and marveled at the views for what must have been the better part of an hour. On one side a sheer rugged rock face that curved around half the valley and on the other the giant majestic Annapurna range of mountains. 

As we sat every time we looked harder through the clouds we noticed more and more mountains that were increasingly higher and mightier. We actually felt like we were shrinking and felt embarrassingly small compared to the might of the range. At this point we hear the most incredible and terrifying sound. A huge booming cracking sound emanates through the valley and slaps us in the face followed by the sound of what sounded like an explosion. It in fact was the distant blue glacier cracking and booming as sheets of ice fell from it to the ground somewhere in the distance. When you are sitting on a steep slope of snow that is surrounded by huge mountains and a ridiculous amount of fresh snow this is not the most comforting sound but it was still amazing to witness.

We headed back down to Thorong and decided to put things in place for making the pass the next day. As we were the only ones up here at this time and we had heard that the weather conditions were far from perfect we decided to hire a guide to just take us over the pass onto the other side of the mountain.

The other Aussie couple had decided they would turn back from here and head back down the mountain so with a guide organized for $20AUD and a having purchased boiled potatoes for breakfast we hit the hay early wearing everything we owned and just as well as it reached -20 degrees in an un-insulated wooden shack. We woke at 3.30am as it is important to make the pass which is five hours away before 9am as a massive wind starts at this time and has the potential to blow you off balance as we heard from two mountaineers earlier.

The walk to the pass consisted of the first hour being the steepest walk so far, followed by two more hard hours uphill, an hour through the literally freezing pass and then four hours downhill to a town called Mutinath.

About an hour in we were both sufferering from headaches, shortness of breath and nausea. Also the cold did not help, although Dan was wearing two pairs of snow gloves his thumb still remains slightly numb two weeks after returning from the pass. Our water bottle froze up, even though we had put three pairs of socks around it to try and keep it safe.

At this point we did what was very very difficult. We turned back. After ten long days AMS got the best of us and we decided it would be in our best interest to turn back with our Aussie friends.

We spent the next five days walking at a nice leisurely rate down the hill, which was a lot easier, stopping in new towns we had not stayed in before, and some of our favourite places from before also. By the time we got two thirds of the way back Hannah was harbouring nasty blisters so we decided to get a jeep from Jagat, a small village on the trail.

This in itself was an adventure. After waiting in Jagat for two hours a jeep rolls up, the only problem is that there are at least 8 people on the inside of it and 6 on the top. Rather than wait another 2 hours for a jeep that will probably be just as crowded we jump up on the roof. The ride is somewhat uncomfy but offers a new perspective on the cliffs we had walked up. When your sitting on top of a jeep and can see nothing but a shear drop as you look down, your heart certainly skips a beat. After a couple more bus rides and a night in Besisahar, we finally made it back to Pokhara. 

Although we did not make the pass and had to turn back, we would not change the experience for anything. The Himalayas are unreal and we were so lucky going there in off season as we had the mountains to ourselves, just four friends walking for 16 days and over 190km up, down and through the beautiful, unreal and unrelenting mountains of the Annapurna range. 

1 comment:

  1. Hello,I love reading your article about trekking I wanted to leave a little comment to support you and wish you a good continuation. Wish you best of luck for all your best efforts.keep updating and provide such a fantastic information.