An Annapurna Sanctuary Trek
By John (R) Evans
A little bit up, a little bit down
At a Christmas get together in 2016 a friend of ours mentioned some ill-defined plans to go trekking in Nepal in 2017, possible to hit Everest Base Camp. About 4 months later (and with little effort on my part) I found myself driving down the M40 toward Heathrow and thence Kathmandu. The group consisted of Fiona Dixon and myself from KMC; Paddy Williams and John Tanner, formerly of SUMC (Southampton University Mountaineering Club, for those not in the know); and, a late addition, Sir Tedmund Hillary, formerly of a charity shop in Southampton.
We’d decided that aiming for Everest Base Camp was cutting things pretty tight. We only had 14 days in Nepal which didn’t leave much slack for additional acclimatisation days or cancelled flights between Kathmandu and Lukla. Instead we were headed for a 10 day trek through Annapurna Sanctuary to South Annapurna Base Camp (4130m, 28° - 31’50” N 83° - 54’50” E).
Annapurna is a Massif with a highest peak of 8091 metres, making Annapurna I the 10th highest mountain in the world. Despite being probably the first 8000+m peak to be climbed (by Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal, on 30 June 1950) it remains one of the most dangerous mountains with a very high fatality-to-summit ratio.
Annapurna Sanctuary is a high glacial basin surrounded by peaks of the Annapurna range, most of which are over 7000m. This includes Machhapuchhre (6997m) or Fish Tail Mountain due to its distinctive shape, which has never been climbed to the summit due to its sacred status as the home of the god Shiva.
Having left London on 13 April 2017, we were a little surprised to arrive in Kathmandu on New Year’s Day 2074. The city was a little partied out, so much so that we we’re taken to a different hotel than the one we’d booked as all the rooms were still full of hung over people... at 3:30 in the afternoon. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around Kathmandu and visiting the Swayambhu temple which is well on the way to being rebuilt after the 2015 earthquake which caused extensive damage in Nepal.
The next day we walked to the tourist bus stop and picked up a bus to Pokhara. The tourist busses are pretty safe and comfortable compared to the local buses. They’re also a lot quicker as the local buses stop everywhere. At about $6-10 for an 8 hour bus journey, it’s definitely worth taking a tourist bus. In Pokhara we were easily able to change our dollars into rupees at a street side currency exchange (we could also have easily changed GBP). This was important as we then didn’t see anywhere else to get money for another 10 days. Our ~$20 per person per day budget for the trek worked out spot on. We also picked up the first of two permits needed to enter the Sanctuary.
After one last shower, we crammed into a tiny Suzuki for an hour drive to Nayapul (1070m) before finally starting the trek. It was hot! Having ‘prepared’ for a trip to Everest Base Camp by buying some decent mountaineering gloves and a down jacket, I don’t think any of has fully realised that we’d be walking in 25-30°C much of the time. Sun-cream we well used and all our Snickers melted! We stopped for the night at Tikhedungga (1540m), where we discovered the true power of Dal Bhat. Dal Bhat is the local’s staple food, consisting of rice, thin lentil soup and various pickles. The key thing to know though is that we got free 2nds of it every night. Hence the local saying of ‘Dal Bhat Power – 24 hour’.
Day 2 began with some differences of opinion over how much it was appropriate to eat for breakfast. I’m definitely in favour of ‘as much as possible’ for which I got some grief from the rest of the party. We walked to Ghorepani (2860m), getting our first views of Annapurna South and Dhaulagiri and starting a trend lasting days where our ideas of what constitutes a big view was constantly challenged. Fiona and I managed to bag a dual aspect room for the night, with stunning views on Annapurna out of one window and Dhaulagiri from the other.
Ghorepani is a popular trekking stop due to the nearby Poon Hill (3193m) with its views of the Annapurna range. This led to a 4:45am alarm for a slog up the hill to catch the sunrise. The clouds lifted as we got there giving good, if intermittent views. Then all the way back down to grab some breakfast and our bags before trekking another 4 ½ hour stretch to Tadapani (2630m) through steeply wooded valleys with occasional dwellings and slate mines. The itinerary we followed (nabbed from the internet) was well designed to build up slowly and always allowed us to get to our next stop by early-mid-afternoon. This was great for making sure we could get a room and set a very manageable pace for the trek.
After a rooftop yoga session led by John, the next day we headed for Chomrong (2170m) through some fantastic and atmospheric forest. The cloud was down and the forest was very varied, with lots of flowers, birds and mossy trees. We also crossed another of the many suspension bridges. Some of these feel a little dodgy, with a few holes in the wooden walkway, but most have been replaced with metal bridges and all have well tensioned thick cable supports, so my dreams of swinging across, Indiana Jones style were thankfully not realised. We were also still at this point passing through inhabited areas, with steep hillsides covered in terraces of rice and other crops, plenty of chickens, goats and yaks. After a 2 hour forced lunch break, watching some pretty impressive thunderstorms roll down the valley, we arrived at Chhomrong, where the trail meets up with other, more direct, routes from the main road toward Annapurna Base Camp (Poon Hill is a very worthwhile detour to make on the way up). Staying at the top of Chhomrong gave us astounding views up the Modi Khola and Chhomrong Khola valleys to Annapurna South, Patal Hiunchuli (6441m) and Machhapuchhre. Again, this led to an early morning to watch the sunrise, but this time just from the balcony outside our room.
From the tea house we walked several hundred meters down to cross the river and back up the other side to start on our way up the Modi Khola valley, staying the night at Himalaya (2920m). This was very typical of the trek where overall altitude gain and horizontal distance wouldn’t have been particularly useful in estimating walking times (another reason I was glad to be following a tried and tested itinerary. It was at Himalaya that John, somewhat belatedly, laid down the Dal Bhat challenge (have Dal Bhat, including seconds, every night on the trek). Happily, I’d already failed to do this, so was able to enjoy some spaghetti in peace.
The next day we were keen to be quite flexible with as we were starting to get toward altitudes where mountain sickness can start to kick in and the itinerary had us doing an 1110m altitude gain. The morning involved a lot of uphill (unsurprisingly), but the increasing views of snowy mountains kept us going and we arrived at Machhapuchhre Base Camp (3700m) in time for an early lunch. As everyone was feeling alright we decided to continue on to Annapurna Base Camp(4130m) and, despite the cloud coming down, we arrived there early afternoon to get the last available room (though we only tried one of the four lodges and people turning up after dark were still able to find somewhere to sleep). The altitude was starting to become noticeable now, with a couple of headaches, some shortness of breath and little sleep for some of the group, although Tedmund seemed pretty unfazed by it all. Having arrived with no visibility, the clouds parted enough in the late afternoon to show we were ringed by amazing mountains (I’m running out of adjectives by this point) and glaciers. We also got a chance to use a sleeping bag for the first time as it had got a little cooler (finally).
We were all up at 5:15am to see the sunrise, and the weather was completely clear. It’s hard to do justice to the view but it’s hard to imagine a better one, completely ringed by 7000m peaks! A Dutch couple who we’d made friends with along the way got engaged, which seemed like a pretty good choice of location. We could hear, and see rock falls around the edge of the glacier. All in all a pretty perfect morning, only briefly marred by a bunch of tourists rocking up in a helicopter to take a few photos before flying back down...
After extensive photo taking and waiting about an hour and a half for the sun to peak over the mountains we went back to the lodge for breakfast and to pack. After the build-up, it was a bit of a shock how quickly the snowy mountains disappeared on the way back down, although we kept catching glimpses of them right up until the end of the trek. The trick now was to remember to still enjoy all the fantastic scenery and woodland on the way back down. That night we stayed at Bamboo (2310m).
The next day started with more walking through vibrant and colourful forest, stopping for lunch at Chhomrong before heading on to Jhinudanda. On arrival we dumped our bags and immediately headed down to the river to check out the hot-spring-fed baths. It happened to be raining pretty heavily (the third and final time on the trek) which made for a nice mix of cold rain and warm water. It also meant we got the baths to ourselves, unlike later when it dried out and everyone else descended.
From Jhinudanda we were parting ways with our Dutch friends, who had agreed to adopt Tedmund and take him back to Holland before sending him on his further travels from there. So we said our goodbyes and Tedmund, complete with his own rucksack, passport and diary, headed off toward Ghandruk whist we hiked to Pittam Deurali for our last night and the (some might say, premature) final instalment of the Dal Bhat challenge.
The last day of the trek (day 10) was a reasonably easy 3 hours back to the main road at Phedi, although the temperature was well into the 30s by this point so not that easy... Here we picked up a taxi back to Pokhara and after a while managed to drag John and Paddy away from shopping for Yoga pants to sit by the lake for a well-earned rest!
Overall, we would all recommend the trek to anyone who wants to explore a bit of Nepal. It covers mountains, forests, rivers and fields. The wildlife is also varied; lots of birds, butterflies and trees, a few monkeys, and only a few cockroaches and leeches. There are a lot of places to stay, usually only 1-2 hours apart so you can take it at any speed you like, and all providing beds, showers and a good menu. Most of all, the people are really friendly, both the Nepalese and the other visitors. You’ll often meet the same people at different stops along the way which makes it easy to make new friends and we met quite a few individual trekkers who had met on the trek and teamed up.
As an epilogue, one of our group (not me I’m afraid) was ‘enthusiastic’ enough that we all ended up back in Pokhara walking up the hill to the World Peace Pagoda, baking in the heat, acquiring a pack of stray dogs and battling snakes, but perhaps that’s a story for another time...