An 11-day trek to the Annapurna Base Camp reveals more than an abundance of mountainscape—it is a journey of nerve and grit, which brings to the fore trekkers worthy of a towering challenge.
One of the things that you should never pack for a trekking trip to Nepal is a spirit level—an instrument designed to indicate the flatness of a surface. Even though your guide might tell you that there is plenty of flat walking on the trek to the Annapurna Base Camp, what he means is ‘Nepali flat’, which is more akin to a sine wave rather than a horizontal surface. My knackered knees are a testament to this.
Starting point: Pokhara:
Five of us gather in the courtyard of the Mount Kailash Resort in Pokhara. Our chief guide, Tulsi, introduces us to the rest of the staff: one assistant guide, Keshav, and three Sherpas—Gopal, Dhun and Raju—who are actually such thin and spindly 20-year-old youths, I wonder how they are ever going to carry the 30-kg load assigned to each of them. But after 11 days of seeing them scramble up steep surfaces or nimbly hop across stepping stones in a raging stream, all the while singing cheerfully, I am completely in awe of their strength and stamina.
We drive from Pokhara to Nayapul, the actual trailhead, and stop at one of the roadside dhabas, establishments famous for being unloading points for trekkers from Pokhara. All around us is a flurry of activity: trekkers organise their packs and poles and slap on globs of SPF 30+ sunscreen; Sherpas secure luggage more compactly for the ease of carrying; people retie their bootlaces; and a few sip masala tea to fortify them for the adventure that lies ahead. It’ll be 11 days before we return to the trailhead.
We start off with a spring in our step.
The skies are blue, the gushing waters of the Modi Khola (River Modi) are green, and peeking above the lesser-forested hills are the dazzling white snow-covered mountaintops of the Annapurna South and the Machhapuchhare (fishtail) Peaks. Our trek will take us to the base camps of both these peaks. Along with me on this trek are Gabriella and George, and Antonia and Fernando—couples from the US and Spain respectively. They are experienced trekkers; older but far more fit than me.
Proof of this comes by way of more than 3,000 stone steps we have to climb from Tikhedhunga to Ulleri—an ascent of 1,837 ft. While they causally trot up them like students on a school staircase, I huff and puff, my heart drumming in my ears and a dull ache in my chest. Keshav, the assistant guide, encourages me with the words, "Bistari, bistari”—Nepali lingo for ‘slowly, slowly’, which is what trekking in the Himalayas is all about. It is not a race to get to the next teahouse, but to enjoy every step of the way. Besides that, the trail is often uneven with lose gravel, slippery roots and sharp rocks—perfect for twisting or even breaking an ankle—so each step has to be taken with care and caution. "Bistari, bistari” is a sort of rallying call throughout the trek. It encouraged us to stop often, admire the view and spot the eagles circling snowcapped peaks.
But on my first day, my ‘slow’ is so slow that even porters carrying heavy loads balanced on bamboo poles across their shoulders or with chickens in a mobile hen pen strapped onto their backs overtake me on that cursed, unrelenting flight of stairs. I am almost convinced that the ‘stairway to heaven’ must be like this—you have to painfully pay for all your sins on the way there. Ulleri is, no doubt, heavenly. And from a little clutch of about eight teahouses set into a terraced hillside, we get our first unhindered view of the Annapurna next morning.
The sunrise slog
The second day’s walk truly leaves behind the humdrum of the plains and gently climbs through pastures and cultivated fields. The trail crosses streams and ridges and goes through magnificent oak and rhododendron forests before arriving at Ghorepani, the next camp. It is more like a luxury lodge having rooms with en-suite facilities and Wi-Fi connectivity, and the food here is the best on the entire trail with sizzling chicken, tandoori kebabs, deep-dish pizzas and apple pie.
Most trekking itineraries around the Annapurna Sanctuary region go through Ghorepani (literally, ‘watering hole for horses’), which is also the base from where trekkers do the pre-dawn slog up Poon Hill to catch some phenomenal sunrises. So, at 4:50 am the next day, looking like miners thanks to our headlamps, we climbed yet another rocky staircase up Poon Hill. I reach the top, my breathing ragged, and am disappointed to see that the clouds are out in full force. Hiding within them is a spectacular Himalayan panorama stretching across the horizon. Watching the sunrise over these peaks—Dhaulagiri 1, Nilgiri, Tukuche, Annapurna 1 and Annapurna South—is supposed to be a defining moment of this trek. I am fortunate to be granted a 30-second spectacular window when the sun breaks out from behind the Dhaulagiri and sends out a celestial splash of orange and gold across the indigo sky. We descend back to Ghorepani, wolf down a breakfast of porridge, eggs, toast and pancakes, and head out towards Tadapani. A realisation of how high up in the mountains we are comes when we hear the plane from Jomsom en route to Pokhara and we have to look down at it—because we are at 10,500 feet and that small 32-seater plane flies at 9,000 feet! The teahouse at Tadapani—Hotel Grand View—wins hands down for the views it affords. Tadapani also marks the end of the easy walking; from now, the trail goes over even more creased and crumbled topography, which means descending steeply down a ravine to once again climbing doggedly up the other side.
Relentless slopes, rain and redemption Over the next few days, we continue to gain altitude as we head towards Machhapuchhare Base Camp (MBC) and Annapurna Base Camp (ABC), overnighting at Chhomrong, Bamboo and Deorali. The weather turns wet and torrid at Bamboo and merry little streams, gay and gurgling, now turn into a liquid rage of froth and ferocity that sometimes gushes over the log bridges fording them. Crossing these was always scary, so thank heavens for Tulsi and Keshav, whose surefootedness across these fickle bridges was confidence inspiring.
The rain continues to fall as we start the final ascent towards MBC and ABC from Deorali. The cloudy weather makes the scenery all the more dramatic and the inclines are torturous due to slippery rocks and slush. By now, I am handling steep climbs with gusto. My breathing is no longer harsh, my muscles feel solid and supple, and my heart no longer sounds like a jungle drum in my ears.
The walk from MBC to ABC is stunningly scenic with snow-capped peaks really kicking in. ABC wears the perfect aura of an expedition base, as all the lodges have good restaurants and fairly decent rooms. Because of the rain, everybody is confined indoors, mostly in the huge dining rooms. It is then that I realise that this trek attracts walkers from near and far. There’s a round-the-world blogging couple from West Coast USA; a 40-person group from South Korea; a middle-aged man and his shapely mistress from Russia; Patrick, a student from Heidelberg, Germany; Liane, a lady kick-boxing instructor from South Africa; two blondes from France; and two nurses from Denmark. There are also two girls from Argentina whom the Koreans try to impress with a very slurred rendition of ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’, and Carla from Guatemala, who has done a yoga course in Rishikesh but has learnt more Hindi than yoga.
The rain thankfully stops for a while the next morning and some of the clouds melt away to reveal a teaser-like look at the Annapurna. It does, for a brief interval, reveal tremendous views of the near-vertical south face of Annapurna. A weather-beaten Sherpa points it out to me and says that the 1970 ascent of this face led by Chris Bonington still remains one of the most magnificent climbs of a 8,000-metre-plus (Annapurna is 8,091m) peak.
While Mt Everest is often scaled because it is the highest peak in the world, the Annapurna has only been scaled 109 times.
It is considered one of the hardest and most dangerous peaks in the Himalayas, and has an ascent rate that is half but a death rate that is triple that of the Everest. Knowing all this, I stand below the towering Annapurna, feeling a mixture of holy awe and wary respect.
It has taken us seven days to get to ABC, but we return to Nayapul in just 3 days as we are descending the whole time. It is during those steep descents, when I see other trekkers struggling to go up, that I feel a sense of achievement. I find it hard to believe that a few days ago, I conquered the same relentless ascents. And, through it all, I feel lighter of body, stronger of will and purer of soul.
Jet Airways has direct daily flights to Kathmandu from Delhi and Mumbai. From Kathmandu, it’s a six-hour bus ride or a 45-minute flight to Pokhara. Pokhara to Nayapul is an hour by road.
Though this trek can be done individually, it is better to do it through a trekking agency because the guides accompanying you will secure rooms even during peak season, ensure that your meals are served in time, provide a detailed briefing about the day’s walk, and explain local flora, fauna and culture.
For more information:
Log on to www.activeholiday_30082014company.com, a recommended outfitter for the Annapurna Base Camp and Everest Base Camp Trek.