Category Archives: 2009. Annapurna

Day 9 – Nov 19 – High camp toilets

Today we moved up the valley toward the pass. In the morning, we climbed about 500 meters and reached the lodges at Thorong Phedi, where we had lunch. In Nepali, phedi means the foot of a pass, and it’s really true here, as this marks the beginning of the big climb out of the valley.

There are two sets of lodges on this side of the pass. The books recommend staying at the large lodges at Thorong Phedi, since they are more comfortable and at a more reasonable altitude. We had decided, however, that if we were feeling well we would keep moving up to the smaller lodge at High Camp 300 meters above so that we could get an early start and cut down on the long day tomorrow. Unfortunately, many others had the same idea and we were lucky to get the very last room.

My next adventure was self-inflicted. Lodge toilets are of the squatter type, and they have a bucket of water next to them for some semblance of flushing. I was curious whether the water was still frozen in the mid-afternoon, so I reached in my pocket and pulled out my flashlight. Something dropped out and fell straight into the toilet, jingling right down the drain. I then remembered that I had put the key to the padlock on our room in the same pocket, and it was now long gone.

The locals were very amused when I confessed, but they said that they had no spares. About six people came to the toilet to shine flashlights down and they quickly concluded that I was right – no chance of fishing it out. Someone then appeared with a plastic bag of about 300 unmarked keys. Apparently they did have spares but they were not organized. The hotel man began trying keys in the padlock on our door and amazingly the fifth one worked. We were all relieved that we didn’t have to saw off the lock, whose maker incidentally was Godly.

Day 10 – Nov 20 – Over the Thorung La

We woke up at 3:30 because Sonam wanted us to start before daybreak to get to the pass before the winds started up. Thorong La overlooks the Kali Gandaki valley and it gets strong southerly winds after 10am when the warm air from India begins rising through that big gap to blow towards Tibet.

We left the High Camp and its frozen toilets at 5am and hiked the first hour in darkness with our headlamps. The slog to the pass was long but an easy trail, especially near the top where the terrain evened out. Like several of the easier passes in Dolpo, Thorong La had been carved by a glacier and was really just a flat wide place at the top. We had a cup of tea at the overpriced shop at the pass.

We knew that coming down would be the hard part, because we had to drop 1700 meters (5500 feet) to the first real lodging at Muktinath. After some initial gradual descent, the trail began dropping sharply. Each pitch got longer and steeper until we were descending several hundred meters at a time. The trail remained snowy most of the way down, and there were some tricky icy patches near the bottom. I fell once, as did Sonam, but no one was hurt. Marcia’s knee was quite painful due to all the steep descents, but still better than coming out of Dolpo.

The steepest part ended at a lunch place, and it was more gradual after that. A suspension bridge and some chörtens heralded our entry into Muktinath. Because we were so tired, we agreed to bypass the temple complex and return in the morning.

Our hotel had a shower with gas-heated water, which seemed like heaven after 10 days on the trail. Until then, all the lodges used solar power to heat their water, which meant cold water when it was cloudy. Marcia and I opted to stay dirty, but now it felt great to get clean.

Day 11 – Nov 21 – Muktinath and Jomsom

We visited the Muktinath temple complex after breakfast. Muktinath is an ancient pilgrimage site for both Hindus and Buddhists. It is built around a set of springs that are the source of one of the two rivers that form the Kali Gandaki when they meet in the valley below. The waters have now been harnessed into a series of 108 spouts with the head of a sacred cow. Another temple has a fire burning right above the water and its stone floor, bringing together the three most basic elements. Our porter Kichiri is very devout and he managed to put his head under all 108 spouts in the freezing water. He gave us each a ribbon that he had soaked in the holy water.

The new jeep road has dramatically changed the next part of the trek from Muktinath to Jomsom and on down the Kali Gandaki valley. Purists still walk alongside the rumbling jeeps, but it didn’t look like fun in all the dust, and Marcia needed to save her knees from another 900 meters (3000 feet) of descent today and another 1600 meters (5000 feet) tomorrow. So our plan was to take jeeps for the next two days.

The jeep wouldn’t leave until it had 12 riders, so we really packed ourselves in. Sonam arranged for Marcia and me to sit in the front with the driver, which protected us somewhat, but we still had to endure a chatterbox American who was spent the whole trip telling some Israeli fellow travelers about her horoscope and her favorite vampire movies.

Jomsom seemed very different from the previous time, when we were arriving exhausted from a different century. This time we too were relatively clean and accustomed to the guesthouse experience, right down to knowing the menu of approximations of Western food (don’t order lasagna!). We could also walk and climb stairs without great pain.

As in Manang and Chame, I got on the internet and sent a few emails and made interim blog postings. But with high prices, slow connections and poor equipment in these mountain cybercafés, I decided to wait until Pokhara for any further updates after today.

Day 12 – Nov 12 – Bus down the Kali Gandaki valley

It was a bit of a shame to take the bus down the Kali Gandaki valley, bypassing interesting towns like Marpha and Tukuche, but it saved about three days of walking in an area with unpleasantly high winds, allowing us to get back on the real trails sooner, hopefully before the Annapurna Sanctuary gets closed by winter snows. I hope we can come back sometime, maybe as part of a trip to the restricted area of Mustang.

In Marpha we were able to get off the bus for a few minutes while the driver took a break. Marpha looks like a fascinating place, with narrow streets and a huge monastery.

Tukuche looked interesting both for its history and its close views of Dhauligiri. It was here that an eccentric Japanese Buddhist monk named Ekai Kawaguchi spent almost a year in 1899 pretending to be Tibetan before he ultimately made it into Tibet in search of Sanskrit manuscripts. It was also here that Maurice Herzog based his 1950 expedition that made the first ascent of Annapurna.

In Ghasa further down the valley, we needed to change buses. The first bus was full and there were not enough people for a second bus. But by gathering a few Westerners and a few porters, Sonam was able to find enough business to convince the driver to make the trip.

We got off the bus in Tatopani, which means hot water. This town is famous for a well-developed hot spring with two pools alongside the river. We joined a crowd of about 30 people taking a dip, though most of the young people seemed more interested in partying and hanging out.

We restocked our supply of books so that we’d be ready for another 11 days on the trail.

Day 13 – Nov 23 – Uphill again

Today was the start of the second half of our Annapurna trek, after the luxury of two days traveling by jeep and bus.

In a way, it felt like the beginning of a whole new trek, since everything was so different from the high country we had left in Muktinath. This is low country with banana trees and a tropical feel, completely different even from the similar altitudes on the other side of the mountain where we began. It was also heavily populated, with many local people using the trail as a way of getting from one place to another.

The trail up from Tatopani is a huge rise of 1800 meters (6000 feet) to Ghorapani. Although we were game to do it in a single day, Sonam wisely decided to have us spend the night in Chitre an hour and a half short of the top. We were definitely tired in the final ascent through town to our guesthouse.

This trail attracts a wide range of fellow travelers, although the great majority are young people. We passed a large group of Japanese that looked like an extended family up to the grandparents who must have been in their eighties. They were steadied by porters, but doing it all under their own power. At the other extreme was a French family who had paralleled us round the whole circuit with their four-year-old boy. He too was walking the whole way – considerably faster than Marcia and me!

By the altitude of our stopping place, the tropical vegetation had given way to a rhododendron forest. In the late-afternoon sun, the trees across the valley looked like they had red trunks, but these were actually the dead leaves of a deciduous climbing plant.

Day 14 – Nov 24 – Ghorapani and Poon Hill

This morning we finished the climb to Ghorapani, arriving mid-morning. Ghorapani is located on the crest of the hill that people cross returning straight to Pokhara. Tomorrow we will diverge from that direct route for the last main part of our trip up into the Annapurna Sanctuary.

For today, however, we did the tourist thing and climbed the nearby Poon Hill, which gives a spectacular panorama of the mountains from Dhauligiri through Annapurna to Macchupuchare, which we will see better in a few days. We made it to the top just as the clouds were coming up from the valley, but I was still able to take some clear photos. If the weather is good tomorrow morning, I will come back for some sunrise shots.

We spent the afternoon reading and exploring the small town.

Day 15 – Nov 25 – Over ridge and valley

I slept badly, so I was already awake at 4:45 when it was time to get up and climb Poon Hill again for the sunrise. The weather was nice, so I had no excuses.

There were about 200 people who made the 400-meter climb in the dark, creating traffic jams on the trail. At the top, a tea shop was doing a booming business.

The sunrise itself was nice but ordinary. Even at the 3100-meter height of Poon Hill there is not enough air in the way to make a really colorful scene. Today’s was supplemented by the rising of a planet just before dawn, maybe Mercury.

The early morning light did allow some good pictures of the mountains, especially Annapurna South and Dhauligiri. Because Poon Hill is set off to the south, it allows views of as much as 100 kilometers each way along the crest, from the mountains south of Dolpo in the west to Manaslu in the east. To the south, foothills drifted off into the mist of the lowlands of Nepal and India.

After breakfast back at the guesthouse, we took the trail over the ridge towards the entrance to the Annapurna Sanctuary, which will be the final phase of our trek. This required climbing over the top of the hill above Ghorapani, which gave a last great view of Dhauligiri. I waved goodbye to this monster mountain that has stood above most of our trails of the past six weeks.

From the ridge, the trail dropped down a long series of steps to our lunch place. The afternoon’s trail to Tadapani was short as the crow flies, but required dropping into a deep canyon and then climbing the other side. It is common when crossing the grain of this steep country to spend half a day in sight of the trail that one must climb across a valley. In this case, though it went fairly quickly and we were at our rather shabby guesthouse by the time the afternoon clouds had really settled in.

Until dinner we read and talked with fellow travelers including a couple from Thun, Switzerland with a classic Bern accent (“Annapurna Äes”). Four young women from Thailand looked a little cold. At the end of the dinner, Sonam helped translate for the Swiss couple, whose porter had gotten drunk and was trying to hit them up for more money. They held the line and he rolled off to sleep, hopefully somewhere indoors.

Day 16 – Nov 26 – Tadapani to Chhomrong

In the morning, as usual, there were no clouds, and a beautiful view of Machupuchhare had appeared.

The day’s hike involved a big drop from Tadapani into another large canyon, which we had to cross to get to Chhomrong. At first we were dropping through a kind of rain forest, but then it opened up into terraced farms. We were facing quite a high waterfall across the valley.

After crossing the river and having lunch, we followed mostly level contours to get to the almost vertical village of Chhomrong, which overlooks the gorge of the Modi Khola river, which we will follow two days upward to Annapurna Base Camp. We will have to return the same way, so we left some books and other heavy items for our return down the valley.

The lodge had very good food with fresh chicken. I went out on a limb and ordered a chicken enchilada. It was mostly beans and chicken partially wrapped in Indian bread, but it was quite tasty.

Day 17 – Nov 27 – Up to the Himalayan Hotel

We left Chhomrong at the usual time a little after 8. The plan was to cover to big descent and climb across the valley in the morning, have lunch at the furthest visible guesthouse, and then spend the night at the next settlement named Bamboo, where the trail finally reached the bottom of the canyon.

We made such quick progress at first that it became clear we would get to the lunch place much too early for lunch. Sonam therefore suggested we have lunch in Bamboo and spend the night upriver at the Himalayan Hotel, which might put us in striking distance of Annapurna Base Camp the next day. That would put us a full two days ahead of schedule but might be wise since the weather could change any day. We agreed even though it might mean a couple of fairly long days.

Clouds rolled in while we were having lunch. Actually, the afternoon clouds just materialize all at once in this part of the Himalaya. One minute it was bright sun with only a hint of clouds down valley and on the tops of high peaks. Then all at once it became cloudy and at least 10 degrees colder.

It was in these clouds that we did the three-hour afternoon climb to the Himalayan Hotel. In a way that made it cooler, although it would have been nice to see the scenery. Soon after we arrived, the clouds parted briefly to show we were now in a deep, narrow canyon. We will see better in the morning.

Guesthouses often have posters on the walls of the dining room, everything from Dalai Lama pictures to inspirational posters with Christian or other messages. One recurring theme is pictures of a large Western-style house with a message suggesting to aspire to having one. This hotel’s posters had the rather odd message “Home is the place where, when you have to go somewhere, They have to take you in.”

Day 18 – Nov 28 – The climb to Annapurna Base Camp

It was still cloudy in the narrow valley when we woke up, but the clouds began to lift as we had breakfast.

Today was to be a long day of climbing, gaining 1200 meters (4000 feet) to Annapurna Base Camp. At this stage, however, pure elevation gain is not hard for us, and we found the hiking fairly easy.

We stopped for lunch at the lodges at the intermediate place called Machhupuchhare Base Camp, a misnomer since no one is allowed to climb that sacred peak. MBC is just inside the mountain gates of the Annapurna Sanctuary, a huge glacial valley surrounded by mountains.

We were pleasantly surprised that the afternoon clouds never appeared. These had been a standard feature of every day on this side of the mountain, and we fully expected to do our final climb in the fog. Instead, we had beautiful views all day of both Machhupuchhare and Annapurna I, the highest summit now clearly visible for the first time in the whole circuit. Although we had been circling it for 18 days, the summit is blocked from the north by another high ridge called the Great Barrier. But now in the center of the range, its massive south face looked across the valley.

The lodges at Annapurna Base Camp are surprisingly comfortable, with a real baking oven for the pizza I had been dreaming about for several days.

The sunset on Machhupuchhare and the other eastern mountains was quite beautiful, particularly the reddish alpenglow that appeared a few minutes after the sun went down. After dinner, I was also able to take some pictures by moonlight.