On day 135 we found ourselves walking through the streets of Thamel, shopping for gear. Going from Bangkok to Nepal meant that we were definitely short on cold weather clothing. We were consistently approached by vendors and salesmen, for everything from ganja to guides. We found what we needed (less the ganja), and by the end of the day we had a guide, gear, transport to Pokhara and a trekking plan. The hardest part was trying to decide if we were being taken advantage of (which I have decided that we always are), and coming up with cash to pay for it all. This was the day that my credit cards decided that surely they had been stolen, based on the need to spend so much in one day in one of the cheapest and least developed countries we had ever visited. 24 hours and a crazy bus ride later we met again with our guide in Pokhara, ready to start our trek into the Annapurna Himalaya range.
The typical trek to Annapurna Base Camp (or ABC) takes 9 days. You can go faster and risk acute mountain sickness, or slower because you can’t make the 9 day pace. We allotted ourselves 12 days to account for anything from speed to snow trying to slow us down. Dawn was around 07:00 and sundown at 18:00, so we would have almost 12 hours available each day if we needed rest or to wait out some weather. Even though it was winter, we had confidence that we would make it to ABC as it is very dry this time of year in Nepal. If the snow wasn’t too deep at the pass, we could manage the cold.
I am going to detail the trek a bit so you can re-live it with us. Also, if you are seriously considering a trek in Nepal, you might otherwise have a hard time finding trip reports that outline exactly what to expect. I would get a few maps of the Annapurna region and follow along if you are really interested. Bear in mind that we are slow, and travelers from 20-35 with better knees and lungs could go much faster. Who am I kidding? Travelers from 20-75 with better knees and lungs could probably go faster than we did. Concerning cost, booking in Nepal instead of online saved us about 75%. The upfront costs (not counting gear) for roundtrip bus tickets, all lodging, 2 porters, and 1 guide for 11 days was $1250. I have read that I could do better than this, but this was roughly the price for one person pre-booking online, so I chalked up any overage to helping the post-earthquake economy. They also told us that one porter could carry up to 30 kilos of gear (66 pounds). Call me a sissy, but after we filled the first bag and it was around 15 kilos, I refused to have one man carry two of them and insisted on another porter. For the days listed am also showing the cost for the entire family to eat (in Nepalese Rupees) in each leg. The conversion rate was roughly 100:1. Slow or not, we were ready to go:
Day 1) Jeep from Pokhara to Nayapul – 07:30-09:00. We might have been off sooner, but I still needed cash to finish paying for the trek. 2 ATMs had no power, a third one was broken, and the last only gave me a few rupees (20,000 or so). Everything in the villages is cash only. We would be pinching pennies to make it through. Walk from 9:30-2:30 to Tikhedunga mostly via dirt road and around 60 degrees. Brunch at Birenthani overlooking the river. 900 NPR. Late lunch at Tikhedunga, then we balked at continuing. From the eating area of our lodge we could see what was just ahead… about 3500 stairs straight up to Ulleri. Lunch, dinner, and breakfast – 4006 NPR. A little math told us that we could not maintain this rate of spend with the little cash we were able to get before the trek. Looks like Dal Baht for everyone! Time to tighten the belt!
2) The Ulleri stairs were waiting on us when we awoke. We were chilled but comfortable as we started our trudge up the stairs. They were hellish, but we stopped often enough to make it in 2.5 hours, and we were rewarded with our first views of Annapurna South. We then walked 1 hour more to Banthanti for lunch. 1000 NPR. After lunch, it was around 3.5 hours to Nangethani (tiny) village. We were told that it would be dark before we could make it to Gorepani. Without the desire to walk by torch-light, we stayed the night. Dinner, breakfast – 2660 NPR.
3) Turned out it was only 1:10 to lower Gorepani, and 35 min to upper Gorepani. This is the site of Poon Hill, a lookout point that in itself is a trek destination for many. As luck would have it, there were too many clouds to see even the nearest peaks. Holding out hope to see the Annapurna range laid out before us, we decided that we would stop and stay, planning for a sunrise view on day 4. We had time to spare. Lunch, dinner, breakfast, WiFi – 4020 NPR.
4) Unfortunately, clear skies were not in the cards. We awoke to heavy snowfall. Sad but not discouraged, we scrapped Poon Hill since our target destination was the Annapurna Sanctuary itself (also called Annapurna Base Camp, or ABC). We would trade the long view for one close up. We left Ghorepani at 08:15 and trudged through the snow for 2 hours and 45 minutes, arriving at Deurali at 11:00. It was still snowing, so we settled in for lunch. With the Indian blockade and the difficulties to get any luxuries to the villages, there was not such thing as fast food. Everything was cooked on a wood stove – 1380 NPR. We left at 12:25 toward Tadapani. Something weird happened here. Our guide tried to pull up at a small village at around 14:10, saying we could not make Tadapani before sundown even though the snow had stopped. I didn’t like the looks of the lodge and insisted that we try to make it, and we arrived at 15:25, with over 2 hours of daylight remaining. It did snow again from 17:00-20:30, but we were well settled in the lodge at that point. Dinner, breakfast, 1 shower, 1 power charge – 2760 NPR. Thankfully, they took 2060 and $7.
5 ) From Tadapani we left around 09:00. Wet/snow/mud made our downhill route a challenge until 11:30. After a quick break, it was steadily uphill 11:45 to 12:20 to arrive at Ghurjung for lunch. 1200 NPR. We did decide to splurge on one item here: Toilet Paper – 180 NPR for one roll. Full and prepared to potty when necessary, we left at 13:30. It was mostly uphill after lunch. We arrived at Chhomrong at 15:35. Heavy clouds all day made it cool while walking but quite cold when we were still. We were told by our guide that trekkers coming down the other way were discouraged due to snow above Deurali (another Deurali, one much higher and close to our destination). He said that there was now an avalanche possibility up at the final pass. It rained later in the day, but again we went no where after 15:35. Dinner, breakfast – 3080 NPR.
6) We awoke in Chhomrong with snow on the ground, but it was the first clear day since the snow began. We were rewarded with incredible morning views of Annapurna South, Hiunchuli and Machapuchare (Fish Tail Mountain). Fish Tail is easily identifiable because of its shape, and it has a very interesting history. Few, if any, have summited it, but not for the reasons that normally come to mind. It was believed that some of the deities of ancient Nepalese culture resided on the mountain. Climbing in Nepal was not actually opened to westerners until relatively recently, and the first summits in Annapurna did not occur until the 1950’s. As the climbers started flooding in, it was only a matter of time before Fishtail was conquered. So in deference to the gods, climbing Fishtail was outlawed.
This is where our plans totally changed. Our next lunchtime destination (Bamboo) was in plain sight, and weather was as clear as a bell. However, our guide kept insisting that he had called ahead, and people in higher Deurali (about 3 hours around the mountain and up from Bamboo) said that the pass was closed. After talks of of avalanches, closed passes, and potential family peril, we turned away and headed down instead of up. We left our great view around 09:20. We took only a short walk down, down, down to arrive at Jinhu at 10:45. Here I tried to wash my disappointment away in Jinhu’s amazing hot springs after lunch. They were awesome and not to be missed, but they should have been our reward on the way down from Annapurna Base Camp, not instead of it. Also, interestingly, other bathers we talking about coming down from ABC within the last 2 days and that the weather was perfect. Huh. Lunch, Dinner, WiFi – 4000 NPR.
7) We left Jinhu at 09:10 on a very bright morning. Every step down the stairs from Chhomrong seemed to raise the temperature. Down to the river, then up, then down again to Upper New Bridge. Opportunity presented itself, so we bought more TP – 200 NPR. We stopped for 15 minutes while the guide rested at 10:30, leaving at 10:45. We stopped again at 11:10 for lunch in Lower New Bridge – 735 NPR. Full and ready at 12:30, we marched steady uphill to Landruk. The monkeys in the trees made quite a ruckus. Waterfalls and wooden bridges punctuated the landscape as we shed layers while the temperature rose. We tried not to step on caterpillars by the millions. We arrived at the upper part of Landruk at 14:15 and again, we were stopped early. Late rain came down (19:00). Dinner, breakfast, mobile charge – 2675 NPR.
8) We had clear skies and crisp cold on day 8. Around sunrise there were nice views of Annapurna South and Hiunchuli. After breakfast we left around 9:10. We followed a slight incline upward along a dirt/rock road, not a trail. We stopped at Tolka around 11:25, but somehow didn’t have lunch until noon, leaving at 13:15. We made it to the TIMS checkpoint at Pothana at 15:05. TIMS is a system to make sure that the authorities know your trekking plan and to make sure you check in at intervals. It is often just called a tax, but I think it proved its worth during the earthquake and some other recent events on the mountain. Again I felt heartache as I saw our guide turn over our new travel plans – ones that excluded Sanctuary. No more road. Climb to arrive at Australian Camp at 15:35. It was mild during the day but very cold at night. We played soccer with the locals and experienced a torturous hot-water-bucket-shower. Anna burned her hands in the lodge. Dinner, breakfast- 2650 NPR.
9) Again the weather thwarted us, as there was morning fog over the view at Australian Camp in the morning. We caught peeks of Annapurna South, Fishtail, Annapurna IV, and Pokara to the lake. There were others at the overlook and I asked several about their treks. Again, many said that they had just comedown from ABC, with no snow or weather issues. I was starting to reflect on the whole trek, centering on the decision not to head up to ABC and how many hours we squandered at the end of each day, and to be honest I kept coming to the same conclusion. We left at 9:30 and hiked 1 hour to tiny Kade Village. We visited a small temple, and a local family offered to cook lunch for us. Caleb spent time talking with the oldest boy (in college), who was studying engineering. Turns out he was the 25th highest scorer in all of Nepal on their version of the ACT. He talked of dreams to study in the US for his Masters Degree. While there, a group of travelling Tibetan refugees stopped in with their wares and tried to sell us their items. We picked up a few. Lunch – 1200 NPR. We headed out around 13:00, arriving at 15:20 at Bhadaure Deurali village via dirt/stone road and path. Snacks & TP- 360 NPR. Stopped for the night. Dinner, breakfast, lunch – 3400 NPR.
10) Out “early” at 08:15 with packed lunches, as we were told that there would be no place to stop before lunch. No worries. We rose steadily up stairs in forest/jungle. Oddly, we stopped from 09:40-09:55. At 10:30 we stopped again and were told to go ahead and eat our packed lunches. After 45 minutes, we departed again at 11:25, only to reach our destination of Panchase Bhanjyang at 12:25. My frustration at the turn of events in the trekking plan, stopping daily very early in the afternoon, and deliberate breaks and long lunches (I discovered), and – at the least – exaggerations about the weather had reached a boiling point. I resolved that we would stop our trek a day early. My family would be more comfortable in Pokhara, and I frankly didn’t want to be lied to anymore. Bored, at 1:45 we left for a roundtrip to a nearby temple. The terraces and scenery were beautiful as always, but my mind was elsewhere. An interesting note about the temple that made it through my haze was the reason for its location. A local king was killed in battle, his last dying efforts were stretching across a large stone on the battlefield. The temple was built around the stone. Arrive 15:00 temple. Back at 17:10. Dinner, breakfast – 2400 NPR.
11) Hoping for one last look at the now far away mountains, we rose at 05:40, arriving at the top of Panchase at 06:45. I was cloudy again at Panchase Peak. We returned for breakfast, ate, packed, and left at 10:20. We walked steeply down, then finally hit a dirt road. At 12:25 we reached a very tiny village, Makwanpur. It was very poor and very rural. The porters helped a local family prepare lunch. A toddler, a calf, and a buffalo were our lunch-mates. No matter my thoughts about what could/should have been, the village families showed again their kindness and generosity. Most of the food had to be picked from the garden and prepared on their small wood stove. I hope the $10 we gave them will go a long way. Lunch 1000 NPR. We said goodbye at 14:30, and arrived at the road in Ghahti Chhina at 16:00. Phokara was only an hour away by Jeep, and we arrived at our hotel around 17:00.
I really did appreciate our porters, and they were really a great part of the trek. They were happy and always nice, shared their knowledge, and played cards with us often, teaching us new games. We thanked them and tipped them per what I had read (1 day’s pay per week of trekking, so I gave them each 2 full days’ pay as a tip for our 11 days). My suggestions and “tips” for the guide were different. While the trek was beautiful, often challenging, a amazing bonding experience for my family (especially the two kids with one another), and truly unforgettable, I wonder sometimes about what could have been. The only real difference was not getting to ABC, so I guess I just missed out on a view, but it feels like more than that. We were ready to push ourselves. We hiked through heavy snow, hiked and slept in sub-freezing temperatures, cleaned and sterilized every drop of water, and really kind of had to let hygiene go for 11 days. We included Nepal on the itinerary for one reason – because I wanted to see ABC. I agreed to turn away because I was told that my family would be in jeopardy if we tried, but it turns out that this was entirely false. It probably was my once-in-a-lifetime shot at being surrounded in a 360-degree panorama of Himalayan peaks. I will savor the experience forever, but it will always be accompanied by the bittersweet taste of what could have been. – ALaff
Oh yeah, if I had to do it again (and if you are interested in a trek from Pokhara) here are my suggestions:
- Wait until you get to Nepal to plan the trek. You will save loads and there are companies everywhere (probably including your hotel) that can make the arrangements.
- Actually, wait until you are in Pokhara. The bus ride is $8 each way, and the hotel can set it up. Then link with your hotel or a local agency.
- Pick up gear in Pokhara as well. You can rent a 20-degree sleeping bag for $1/day. Gloves – $3. Gore-Tex waterproof pants were $25.
- Get the right gear. It was warm for 7 of our 11 days. We were fine in below-freezing weather with a short and a long-sleeved shirt (non-cotton), fleece, and rain shell. Add a hat and gloves and you are good, especially while walking. The cold part is in the lodge later, but the fire is warm and so is your sleeping bag.
- Take water treatment materials. We had to treat all of our water, and you should, too. Tablets, filters, UV or a combination – just don’t drink what the locals do. We used Sawyer Mini’s and a Steri-Pen. We met an Austrian girl who got very ill. She suspected it was from eating off of the not-quite-dry dinner plates.
- Take plenty of rupees (see above). Start collecting early, as the bank options are limited.
- Take at least one trekking pole, even if you think you never use them. $5
- Make sure you read enough about AMS (acute mountain sickness) to make a plan that meets all of the recommendations. These will include a second night the first time you cross 3000 meters, and slower going from that point on.
- Listen to your guide, but trust your eyes as well while you listen to other trekkers coming the other way. My greatest regret is not pushing on until the weather was actually bad for us. I would have been fine turning back if the snow was deep, or the even if the pass had warning signs and markings. We turned away on a clear, 60-degree day based on what we were told, not what we saw/felt. Every trekker I spoke to later confirmed that I should have made my guide show me instead of just believing.