Nepal's Annapurna Circuit: Hiking Across the Roof of the World
Trekking over the summit of a pass that would tower above Mt. Rainier by more than a half mile has been the dream of a pair of adventure seekers for more than ten years. I remember when I first told my friend David about this wondrous adventure in Nepal -- an exotic land of which I really knew almost nothing.
Somewhere, I had read a story about walking across the “roof of the world” on the Annapurna Circuit, and instantly this idea moved to the top of my travel priority list.
David, his son Michael, and I, having taken separate flights, met up in Bhaktapur, a short drive from the Tribhuvan International Airport near Kathmandu. Met by the congenial Shree Prasad Koju, the local representative for iTrek, our trekking company, we spent two days at the Bhaktapur Guest House, ideally located for walks around the area and with beautiful views of the city and valley below.
We hiked the first day around the Gundu Valley and enjoyed a visit with the family of Urmila Jadhari, our iTrek guide for the day. The second day was equally fascinating. Rashmila Shingkhawal, this day’s iTrek guide, led us on a visit to the old city of Bhaktapur, a world heritage site, with its fabulous Durbar Square.
The following day was a wild bus ride on narrow roads, dodging oncoming trucks and maneuvering around bicycles, motorcycles, tractors, pedestrians and other living creatures that apparently felt they had as much right to our side of the road as we did, regardless of the direction they were traveling.
Beginning the Trek
We began the Annapurna Circuit trek in Besisahar at about 2700 feet, steadily gaining altitude as we passed through subtropical terrain past terraced rice fields along a raging river. There were endless waterfalls and countless suspension bridges to cross. Even a few of the cleverly engineered old cantilever bridges remain.
The first day was long, about a 10-mile hike with an altitude gain of around 2,000 feet, and some of the terrain was rugged. I had seen no mention of the spectacular waterfalls in any of the literature I had read and was not prepared to see so many on both sides of the surrounding hills.
This is probably a good place to mention the value of proper equipment for a trek of 140-plus kilometers over 11 days with altitudes ranging from 2700 feet to almost 18,000 feet. The trek winds through shallow water, directly through one waterfall, over rocky surfaces, along narrow ledges and trudges through snow at sub-freezing temperatures so your gear had better hold up.
My waterproof Merrell boots kept my feet warm and dry. Nepal has an abundance of water, as you might imagine from all the snow on the top of the Himalayas, and that water results not only in raging rivers, but in drainages that cross the trails continually. Without waterproof boots I can only imagine the resulting discomfort and blisters from wet socks and feet.
From Besisahar to Bahundanda we walk through subtropical forests and we’re soaking wet from the heat and the packs on our backs. Fortunately, we have porters carrying most of our gear, but a day pack is still a necessity.
My small Kelty pack includes not only rain gear and some light weight emergency clothing, but also my camera equipment and a small netbook. In addition, I have a supply of energy bars and Hulee Cookies. And, of course, a couple of liters of water, plus my passport and some other paperwork from which I don’t want to be separated.
Mule Trains and Porters
Our second day, from Bahundanda to Chamche, is only slightly shorter, but doesn’t seem nearly so tiring. I think the beauty of the area is invigorating and we continue to marvel at the waterfalls and the bridges.
We pass our first mule trains and are fascinated by them. Of course, we don’t realize that we will pass dozens more as the days go by. There is a lead mule that responds (sometimes) to the calls of the mule train driver at the rear of the train. It can be a slow process when the leader decides to stop and graze.
We’re walking on the only path to many of the villages along the way. Goods are transported either on the backs of mules or on the backs of men. We will learn quickly that men carry much larger loads than mules. Our own porters are witness to that fact.
No single mule would be able to carry an iron gate or a full size desk and chair on its back, but I did see men with these things on their backs. The strength, endurance and fortitude of these men is astounding.
Trekkers hiring porters is an important part of the local economy, so you can forget about macho notions of carrying 40-pound packs over the Thorong La Pass.
Do yourself a favor and, at the same time, help the Nepal economy by paying a porter to carry your heavy gear for you. They can probably handle the altitude and the weight far better than the average trekker and your nominal daily fee surpasses the average wage in Nepal.
Would you rather “test” yourself or enjoy the fabulous waterfalls, raging rivers and mountain views along the way?
The snow-capped mountains in the distance are awe inspiring and beckoning. The excitement grows as we cross our first suspension bridge of the journey – there are dozens more to cross, but we don’t know that yet.
On to Bagarchap, rising more than another half-mile we climb steadily as we pass more waterfalls and cross more suspension bridges. With our latest altitude gain comes the relief of cooler temperatures.
Constantly ascending, we move into bamboo and rhododendron forests followed by pine, spruce, oak and maple. The architecture changes and we begin to see the square Tibetan arches and homes of stone, finely cut and fit beautifully into place.
But the only stone appears to be the granite from the mountains. There are even fenced fields with these same stones. How could it be cut and shaped?
We witnessed the answer in one of the villages. A young man with a heavy hammer and another with a chisel of sorts. A long, hard, slow and strenuous task. The homes and fences have been built over many decades . . . or centuries, one stone at a time.
Some of the trails were along narrow ledges with precipitous drop-offs. Guard rails are rare and the only ones I noticed appeared to be designed primarily to prevent mule trains from falling. In Nepal there seems to still be a concept of personal responsibility. You fall, you die – no one to sue.
From Bagarchap to Chame the day is spent admiring the surrounding mountains. On this day we can see Annapurna II and Annapurna IV. Of course, there is a spectacular waterfall and, as we enter Chame, a long wall of prayer wheels. These typically have four small wooden knobs at the bottom that you grasp and push to spin the wheel as you walk past.
Some people turn every single wheel as they pass, others pick some at what appears to be random. For a while I turned them all, but, later, it appeared that the villages seem to be in a competition to see who can install the most prayer wheels – it can be a lot!
We also begin to see apple orchards, a hint of what may be waiting in the bakeries and tea houses along the way.
Our ascent continues to Lower Pisang at an elevation of over 10,000 feet. This is a short trekking day and we have time to socialize with other trekkers in Pisang.
We’re not affected by the altitude, but learn that some are beginning to experience headaches and other problems, like blistered feet and sore backs. This is probably where we had our first apple pie and it was delicious – a nice change from the standard menu that we see every day at every tea house.
Don’t mistake the name “tea house” for something you might visit in an English garden. The tea houses along the trekking trails in Nepal are utilitarian. Functional. Some might describe them as bleak, except for the astounding views of the Himalayas and the wonderful camaraderie amongst the trekkers.
While there is little, if any, hot water for the showers and no heat in the rooms, and the bare minimum of furniture (no chairs – just a wooden frame to support a thin mattress and your sleeping bag and typically a small nightstand) the rooms are adequate and keep you inside and out of the weather. In my opinion, far better than sleeping in a tent – which some choose to do.
I should mention toilets here, I guess. It is a hole in the floor and there is a bucket beside the hole to put your toilet paper into, assuming you brought some. I hope that’s all the description you need.
The tea house food, in general, is surprisingly tasty, abundant and inexpensive. I had anticipated losing weight on the trek but that didn’t happen. The pound or two that I did drop I had gained back by the time I spent a couple of days in Kathmandu at the end of the trip.
From Pisang to Manang we see much more of the Tibetan influence in the architecture, with stone houses one atop another with the roof of one serving as a terrace for the other.
Arriving at the village of Manang, at just under 12,000 feet altitude, we had been trekking for about five days. Manang was to be an acclimatization stop for two full days before continuing.
In the afternoons the Nepal Rescue Association offers a free lecture on altitude sickness that anyone planning to proceed to the Thorong La Pass should absolutely attend. Certainly it is informative. Anything you didn’t know about the possibility of getting altitude sickness you will probably learn at the lecture. And, they even have certain medications available there that you might need, both preventative and for those already suffering a bit.
The only problem is that they also may plant a little seed of doubt in your mind about your ability to succeed in making it over the pass. All the warnings and the stories about people who did not make it raise a few questions. Also, with the layover there you learn of people who have turned back already.
And, you’ll meet people who are suffering with different degrees of illness. Some may be vomiting, some may have diarrhea, and some will have headaches. Not all of these are symptoms of altitude sickness, but hearing these things from healthy people who are as much as 30, 40 or even 50 years younger may cause a bit of anxiety.
With two days to think about the summit, it’s best to get out of town for a bit and do some acclimatization hikes to higher altitudes. Catch a movie and maybe even have a yak steak. Of course, if the movie you see in the tiny little theater is Into Thin Air, it may not help relieve any anxiety you have about summiting the pass. The little theater is a really fun place with “stadium” seating. They even serve tea and popcorn at the intermission. Except for heat, what more could you want?
Manang is also a place to do a bit of shopping. I spotted some excellent prices on what appeared to be very nice turquoise and coral jewelry. And there are plenty of trekking gear shops if you need any last-minute items. If you don’t want to carry a down jacket you can wait till you get here to pick up a pretty good buy on a name brand “labeled” jacket. It may not be authentic, but the quality is good enough to get you over the pass.
From Manang take an acclimatization hike to the Glacier and back for some great views, then kick back and enjoy another quiet evening.
On to Yak Kharka
It’s only about a three-hour walk to Yak Kharka, and you’ll arrive in time for lunch. Put in a hard acclimatization hike up to Letdar and return – you’ll enjoy seeing many yaks and goats. Be sure to take your camera for some great close-ups of the yaks. They are beautiful animals and will pose for you so take your time and get the right light and angle.
After the easy hike to Yak Kharka it’s now only one more day before the climb to the pass. Enjoy the three- to four-hour hike to Thorang Phedi. Take your time and watch for blue sheep and maybe even snow leopards. Check the skies for the very large Himalayan griffons soaring overhead. After arriving in Thorong Phedi there’s time for just one more hike.
The day before our planned summit attempt, we hiked up the incredibly steep trail from Thorang Phedi, at 14,500 feet where we had spent the night to High Camp at almost 16,000 feet for one final acclimatization session. It took a few hours and lots of energy, but we felt it would help stave off any altitude problems as we ascended the next day to Thorong La Pass.
Our guide handed us our blue iTrek down jackets that the porters have been carrying for us and we turned in early with plans to begin at 4 am the next day. Someone later noted that at 2 am the sky was clear and the stars were out, but when we got up at 4 am it was snowing and the ascent was questionable.
Over the Thorong La
After a quick breakfast and our daily morning tea, we begin the slow climb up the trail that now is partially obscured by the snow. We can see the footsteps of the person in front with our headlamps or flashlights and we tread tediously and cautiously up the mountain.
An occasional look back rewards us with the faint glow from the headlamps of the following trekkers below.
When we reach High Camp there is a small shelter open with hot tea available and most of the trekkers stop here for a break. It’s cold out, but no wind yet and the snow is falling gently. But with 2,000 more feet of altitude to gain over the next two to three hours we’re eager to push on up the trail.
By now, we’re getting a bit of daylight and the trail seems easier. The snow subsides and the wind begins to increase. We were warned to start early in the morning to try to avoid the high winds that sometimes make it impossible to cross the summit later in the day.
Along the way we are passed by a couple of people being carried to the top on horseback. This is one of the alternatives for those who simply run out of steam along the way. I had heard about riding up on yaks as well, but there were no yaks in sight this day, although we had seen a couple of herds a few days earlier.
Finally reaching the pass was exhilarating! One of my cameras froze up on me, but my little waterproof, shockproof, anti-freeze Olympus managed a few shots before the icy winds forced me to put my gloves back on. We only spent a few minutes at the pass – simply too cold and too windy to do more than share a few celebratory handshakes and hugs, grab a couple of photos and duck down off the ridge.
The long trek down the other side of the mountain to Muktinath seemed easy. We had been warned that our knees would suffer on the descent, but the altitude drop of just about a mile was a relief from the strenuous climb to the Thorong La.
Muktinath is a fascinating little town with a temple that attracts pilgrims, both Hindus and Buddhists, from around the globe. The area is particularly significant because of the natural gas jets that produce an eternal flame as well as a natural spring.
From Muktinath to Jomson, many trekkers chose to catch a jeep ride, but I think that’s a mistake. There are some beautiful farms and villages along the way. We bought fresh apples from a trailside vendor.
But the real adventure here is walking down the Kali Gandaki Valley. The winds are fierce and while you’re in the valley you definitely know that you are experiencing nature as it should be experienced.
Riding in a jeep that packs you in like sardines over a rocky road with the seating arranged so that many of the passengers have their backs to the windows seems absurd to me.
Of course, the windows are so covered with dust and dirt from the road I guess you would have no view even if you faced the window. But why would you want to miss the stark beauty of the Kali Gandaki after trekking all those miles to get there?
In Jomson there is an overnight stay till the plane arrives the next day for a flight to Pokhara and a long bus ride back to exotic Kathmandu, both wonderful cities deserving of a story of their own. Keep on travelling.
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