October 9, 2011 - One Response

 This is my story of the Annapurna Circuit Trek.   Let me begin by saying I’m not your typical trekker.  I was 63 when I completed the trek in November 2010.  This was my first trek ever and my only preparation was a daily 5 mile walk on a bike path in my home town of Buffalo, NY at an elevation of 600 feet. 

There are many excellent internet accounts of the Annapurna Circuit.  You can easily find great photography and day by day journals of the trek.  That is not the purpose of this blog.  I’m writing my story primarily for people who may doubt their ability to tackle this 19 day journey.  Read my story.  I did the Annapurna Circuit Trek….and so can you!

The Circuit

It’s called the Annapurna Circuit Trek because it circles around behind the 26,000 foot high Annapurna range of mountains.  The trek is actually shaped like a horseshoe, with the mountains in the middle, the city of Pokhara at the open end of the shoe and the famous Thorong La Pass at the top of the shoe. 

The starting point is the small village of Besisahar, where the paved road ends and the trail begins.  My guide Tilak Gurung and I arrived there in a passenger van at mid-day after a bone jarring ride from Kathmandu over pot hole strewed mountain roads.  You can also get there by road from Pokhara.  If you imagine a horseshoe, Besisahar is at the bottom right tip of the shoe.  The elevation is 820 meters (2690 feet), which is the lowest point on the trek.

It took us 19 days to trek all the way around the circuit to far end near Birethanti  (1025 meters/3362 feet), where you meet the paved road again and can catch a taxi to Pokhara (1 hour drive).  Most people complete the full circuit in 17 or 18 days.      

In its simplest form, the Annapurna Circuit Trek consists of 4 segments; 7 days upstream to Manang, 3 days over the Thorong La Pass, 4 days downstream to the village of Tatopani, and 3 days up Poon Hill and down the other side to the the end of the circuit.

The second half of the trek is serviced by a busy airport at Jomson as well as a dirt road carrying both trucks and busses.  The first half of the trek has no roads and is supplied exclusively by donkey and horse pack trains and human porters.

Accommodations

The Annapurna Circuit trek is a throwback to the days of travel without cell phones, the internet and Trip Advisor.  You never need hotel or dinner reservation and you don’t need a map or GPS.  Phones and laptops are largely useless and ATM machines are nearly non-existent.  Cash is king.  

All you do is walk, normally from 8 am untill about 3 pm.  Like magic a little village with a handful of lodges (teahouses) appears around the bend just as the sun is about to dip below the mountains.  Amazingly, there are always enough rooms to accommodate all the trekkers, guides, and porters and enough food to feed everyone.

The secret of this logistical efficiency is the counter-clockwise flow of the trek with only one entry point.  Thus, even though there might be thousands of trekkers on the circuit at any given time, all that matters is the group that departs from Besisahar the same day as you.  In our case there were about 50 trekkers setting out that day.  We all trekked the same distance each day, some faster than others, so we always ended up in the same village each night eating from the same menu of mostly locally grown food.

You probably wonder, as I did, why everyone travels counter-clockwise around the circuit.  The answer has nothing to do with organizational skill or government regulation, and everything to do with the Thorong La Pass.  The counter-clockwise trek approaches the pass from the east.  It is a short but steep ascent from the closest sleeping accommodations to the summit 600 meters above.  On the other side of the pass, the closest overnight accommodations are in Mukinath, miles from the summit and 1600m below the top.  Since you are advised to clear the summit by 9 am to avoid high winds and snow, it is more prudent and easier to approach from the east.  I met two trekkers going the opposite direction as I descended into Muktinath.  They were young and looked to be in great shape but were obviously suffering from the long, arduous climb.  Since there is no way around the pass, almost everyone approaches from the east and travels counter-clockwise around the Circuit.

The teahouses are all quite similar.  Most nights I slept alone in a room with two single beds with a bathroom down the hall or outside.  The only heat in the building comes from a wood burning kitchen stove and a pot belly stove in the dining room.  The sleeping rooms were always unheated and un-insulated.   As we climbed higher it got quite cold at night, so I routinely used the bedding from both beds plus my sleeping bag to stay warm.  There were several nights when there weren’t enough rooms to go around, so Tilak and I shared a room.  Otherwise he bunked with the other guides, paying a reduced rate.

The food was very basic, especially on the first half of the trek which is not serviced by roads.  The primary dinner meal is rice, sometimes with a little chicken.  Tilak was particularly fond of dal bhat, which consists of an unlimited amount of steamed rice and a colorful array of side dishes of soups and curries to mix with the rice.  For breakfast I usually ate a large serving of oatmeal, several buckwheat pancakes, and eggs.   I also consumed copious amounts of garlic soup because it was rumored to help prevent altitude sickness.

Toilets were very basic and quite cold.  Many teahouses boldly proclaimed “hot showers” but that turned out to be questionable marketing based on solar hot water, which rarely persisted beyond the first shower of the afternoon and obviously was non-existent at daybreak. 

Budget

I arrived in Kathmandu with no trekking gear other than Scarpa hiking boots I purchased at Eastern Mountain Sports for about $200. 

After the long flight to Kathmandu I checked into a hotel in Thamel  for a good night’s sleep before meeting Tilak the following day.  We went shopping together in the crowded alleyways of Thamel and in no time he purchased a back pack, sleeping bag, trekking poles, and a wind proof jacket for me for less than $200. (I subsequently sold my sleeping bag back to the same merchant for about $20 before leaving Nepal).  Tilak also purchased the two required trekking permits; a TIMS (Trekkers Information Management System) card to track my safe progress and an entry permit for the Annapurna Conservation Area. 

Our agreement was that Tilak would carry my pack as well as his own and all I had to do was walk with my small day pack.  I was his only client and I paid him as both a guide and a porter. 

The cost for a room, dinner and breakfast varied from $20-$40.  After a few days I stopped drinking my nightly bottle of Everest beer.  The beer got to be more expensive than the food as we ventured farther from the paved road.  Plus, I was in training for the climb ahead.

Most young people on the trek traveled without a guide and carried their own packs.  Others frequently traveled in groups of 10-20 with one guide and multiple porters. 

There are many touring companies in Thamel (Kathmandu) and Pokhara that arrange guides and porters and can team you up with other trekkers if you desire.

I was fortunate to have Tilak as my guide.  I met him the year before when I was on a five day tour of Nepal.  He was assigned to give me a guided tour of Pokhara, where he introduced me to the concept of trekking.  He offered to guide me should I return for the Annapurna Circuit and gave me his email address. 

Afterwards, I met a very pleasant 70ish English grandmother at the Kathmandu Airport as I was heading out of the country.  She claimed to have completed virtually every major trek in Nepal and assured me I could do it.  She shared her insights on the joy of trekking.  I mulled it over for 4 months before contacting Tilak by email.  Nine months from the day I first met him I was back in Nepal for the trek.

Weather

The weather in November 2010 was spectacular; 70 degrees in Kathmandu and Pokhara, and only one day of light rain during the entire month.  It was CAVU (clear and visibility unlimited) on the trek.  Clear and unlimited visibility takes on a whole new meaning in the Himalayas.  Manang Country is blessed with an atmosphere devoid of air pollution.

I was surprised how warm it was during the first 3 or 4 days of the trek.  We were at relatively low altitude walking in direct sunlight on a centuries old foot path that climbs up and down the side of the deep river canyon.  I perspired profusely.

As we climbed progressively higher the daytime temperature slowly dropped and the night-time temperature fell precipitously.  By the time we reached Manang on the sixth day it was difficult to stay warm after sunset.   The trek from Manang across Thorong La and back down the other side was downright freezing.  I couldn’t warm up.  The only solution was to keep moving to reach lower elevation.

Conditioning

As I mentioned I was 63 years old with no previous trekking experience and no high altitude training when I took this trek.  It didn’t take long for me to begin doubting my ability to finish the circuit. 

All the trekkers and guides ate dinner together each night, and the topic of conversation invariably turned to the trail ahead, and the dreaded Thorong La Pass.  I’m a pilot and had been taught the requirement to wear an oxygen mask in an unpressurized cockpit above 13,000 feet .  Thorong La Pass is 17,769 feet (5416 m) and we were on our own up there.  The highest point I had ever been with my feet on the ground was the top of a ski lift in Colorado.  This was not looking good.

Fortunately the natural rhythm of the trek allows you to build your leg strength for 4-5 days at relative low altitude.

Tilak was my personal trainer and cheerleader.  He promised I would make it.  He assured me none of his clients had failed to complete the trek.  Considering he was a veteran of over 50 treks, I took that as a positive, even though I was his oldest client by far.  I have to say, he pumped me up and I felt stronger and stronger each day.

The worst part was meeting the rare trekkers headed down the trail in the wrong direction.  One look at them told you they must have turned around at Thorong La and then had to backtrack seven days to the paved road at Besisahar.  I usually avoided eye contact while vowing to not let that happen to me.

All was well until we rounded the bend of the horseshoe and passed behind the Annapurna Range.  Manang (3540 m/11,614′) is higher than I had ever been before.  By the time we arrived there I was noticeably short of breath and not nearly as quick in my step as I had been downstream.

The conventional wisdom is to spend two nights in Manang so you can have a day of “acclimatization”, which basically involves taking a day trek about 500 meters above town before returning back down for the night.  The idea is to get your lungs and brain accustomed to low oxygen conditions.

Tilak and I climbed up the mountain overlooking Manang where we enjoyed a fabulous view of the Annapurnas before returning to town at about 2 pm.  Sure enough I was hit with my first bout of altitude sickness; suffering from nausea, lack of appetite, and drowsiness.  I went straight to bed, thinking my trek was over.  We joined friends for dinner that night but I couldn’t eat.  Now I was really worried.

The following morning I awoke feeling great.  I had my big appetite back.  Acclimatization worked!  Tilak was a magician.

We set off for the two-day trek to High Camp at the base of Thorong La Pass.  Even though this was only 1300 meters (4265’) above Manang, and we had already climbed about 3000 meters to reach Manang, the trek was brutal.  I was so tired when we reached our teahouse the first night that when Tilak asked me if I wanted a room on the first or second floor, I told him there was no way I could climb stairs;  I had to have a first floor room!

The next day was even worse.  Our destination was High Camp, only 600 meters below the pass.  Everyone was passing me on the trail, and like a fool I was trying to keep up.  When I finally reached the lodge, a friend was watching me climb the final few steps in slow motion.  He told me I looked like I was having a heart attack.  I went straight to bed.

After that I knew I was in no shape to tackle the pass the next day.  At dinner that night, I said goodbye to our friends who were planning to depart the following morning and wished them well. 

The next day I rested and Tilak convinced me we needed more acclimatization.  We climbed a small promontory above the lodge and enjoyed an astounding view of the valley below and the snow covered peaks above. I felt marginally better at dinner so we agreed on a 5am departure.

It was below freezing as we set out from High Camp in pre-dawn darkness.  I quickly learned I could only take 12-15 steps before pausing to put my head down and catch my breath.  If I took 20 steps I needed to pause twice as long.

Once again people were passing me.  This time I did not try to keep up.  The only person who didn’t pass was a man leading horse.  He was looking for a trekker to carry up the pass.  I was an obvious prospect. 

His initial offer was $100, which I dismissed with disdain.  I hadn’t come all this way to be carried by an animal over the pass!

Undeterred, he trailed me up the mountain like a vulture anticipating my imminent demise.  I never looked back but I knew he was there by the whispered offers.  The price slowly declined as I struggled closer to the summit.  By sunrise it was down to $50.  By then I could almost taste victory and nothing was going to stop me.  At some point he gave up and led his riderless horse back down the mountain.   I was too tired to gloat.

Sure enough we reached the summit about 9:30 am.  Tilak wanted to take lots of pictures, but I was so cold and tired I just wanted to descend in search of thicker, warmer air.

What followed was a complete surprise to me.  The trip downhill exposed a whole new set of leg muscles that had not been used on the uphill trek.  In fact, I discovered muscles that I may never have used before.  It was a disaster.  My legs turned to rubber.  Whenever I unlocked my knees I was in danger of falling to the ground. 

You could see all the way down the barren brown mountainside to Muktinath at the bottom of the pass.  Like a mirage, the village never seemed to get closer.  After hours of descending we came to the first vestige of civilization, a small stone building with a sign advertising rooms and food.  Muktinath was only a few miles away, but I told Tilak I couldn’t go any farther.  I asked him to arrange a room.  Unfortunately, the sign was inaccurate.  They served food but locked the building late in the afternoon so the three young girls who worked there could get home safely before sunset. 

That was the tipping point.  I gave up and sent Tilak ahead to hire a horse and driver to come get me.  He did and a few hours later, under cover of darkness, I slipped into Muktinath with my head down on the back of a horse.

I slept so long (a day and a half) that when I finally arose it had been 5 days since our departure from Manang.

The remainder of the trek was a piece of cake compared to my “anything that doesn’t kill you is good for you” crossing of Thorong La.

Natural Beauty and Serenity

The essence of the Annapurna Trek is unbelievable natural beauty. 

The Himalayas are incredible and this trek takes you right along the base of the mountains.  My first sighting of one of the really tall mountains in the Annapurna range literally took my breath away.  I could not believe how massive and majestic the mountain was.  I’ve seen big mountains before but this was a whole new dimension. 

We had been trekking four days when we reached the small village of Chame.  A low cloud cover rolled in at roof top level shortly before our arrival.  Previously the trail been confined to the steep river canyon which blocked the view of snow-capped peaks.   

At dawn the following day, as I walked across the teahouse courtyard in the dim morning light I noticed for the first time the forest-covered hillside beyond our building.  It was not until I rotated my chin at least 30 degrees upward that I saw the snow-capped peak literally hanging directly above me.  It was painted pink in the frosty sunrise and literally took my breath away.  I had never before been so close to such a majestic mountain.  Had I not known better I would have called it Mt. Everest.

Ironically, everyone I asked that morning gave me a different name for this mountain.  The message was clear…this was inconsequential compared to the really big Annapurna peaks ahead!

In addition to the mountains, the beautiful wild rivers and frequent waterfalls were absolutely stunning.  Time and time again we crossed untamed rivers on suspension foot bridges hanging from steep canyon walls.  I have never seen anything like it.

This was my first trek so I was surprised by the serenity and peacefulness of walking along the path.  Sometimes I walked alone, silently enjoying a world without manmade noise and paying close attention to the natural beauty around me.  Other times I walked with Tilak and we talked.  I had given him my camera, so when we weren’t together he was usually lagging behind taking great pictures.  I never had to worry about losing contact with him because he could catch me at will, no matter how fast I walked.

I was pleasantly surprised by the goodwill and friendship I found from other trekkers.  They were from all over the world; Oregon, Great Britain, Australia, Mexico, Spain, Brazil, Germany, Taiwan, Holland….you name it, they came from everywhere to trek around Annapurna. 

It was easy to get to know people because we frequently met along the trail, at lunch, at dinner, and often shared the same teahouses.  Of course, we always had something to talk about…the trail behind and the trail ahead.

In my humble opinion the Annapurna Trek is one of the most memorable and unique vacation experiences you can have.  I highly recommend it.

Tilak Gurung

Tilak is about 30 years old.  He was born and raised in one of the lower provinces of Nepal and came to Pokhara as a young man to seek work.  Initially he served as a non-English speaking porter on the various Annapurna treks.  Later he was promoted to guide.  While he was learning about the mountains he was also teaching himself English.  To this day, he still carries a little English language phrase book with him.  I frequently noticed him in the lodge at night silently studying that book in the dim light.  As a result, his vocabulary is excellent, although the pronunciation of words is sometimes what you would expect from someone learning language from a book.  I would listen to him closely and mentally spell any word I didn’t understand.  Once I spelled it, I always knew what he was saying.  

When not working on a trek Tilak gives tours of Pokhura for various hotels around town, which is how we originally met.

His goal is to establish an Internet-based trekking company where he serves as guide and arranges porters as necessary.  He is well known and beloved along the circuit.   All the lodge owners know him, as do their daughters who I observed smiling brightly in his presence. 

Tilak has a great customer orientation.  He was focused on me at all times and was determined that I have a great experience.  He was also very honest, trustworthy, and highly dependable.  I often gave him a wad of bills to pay various expenses along the way like lunch and nightly accommodations.  He kept very careful track, and when he needed more money he let me know.  I was pleased to let him handle it.

I wasn’t the only person on the trek who recognized his special skill as a guide.  He was so friendly and outgoing that many of the trekkers who traveled with us got to know him almost as well as I did.  One young couple, two medical doctors from Germany, who only had time for a 3 day trek, asked me for his contact information for a future full circuit trek.  I happily provided it.

So if you are thinking of the Annapurna Circuit Trek and want a fantastic guide who will handle everything except the walking, I highly recommend Tilak Gurung (tilak1_gurung@hotmail.com).

I hope you found this blog useful and informative.  I particularly want to encourage people my age to take the trek.  I’m not worried about young people.  They will attack it with all the confidence of youth.  It’s the over 50 crowd I am aiming at here.  Trust me.  This is an experience you don’t want to miss.  You’re not getting any younger and the time is right.  Do it now!

It’s easy, all you have to do is contact Tilak…. tilak1_gurung@hotmail.com.  He’ll do the rest.

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