Saturday, October 8, 2011

Annapurna Circuit


The Annapurna Circuit is a horseshoe shaped trek through the central Himalaya of Nepal, covering somewhere between 135 and 185 miles depending on who you believe. I would lean toward the latter figure, but I don't know. The high point of the trek is Thorong La Pass at 5416 meters (17769 feet). The trek ascends the Marsyangdi River watershed, and then descends through the Mustang Province and the Kali Gandaki River watershed. The Circuit is one of the most amazing places I've been.

Most guides provide a 16 to 21 day itinerary for the trek, but friends Seth, Rich, and I fastpacked it in about 11 days, out of necessity. More time would’ve been nice. It seems most Circuit trekkers are younger, just out of the military or school, with little money but plenty of time on their hands. The trek is very popular for 20-something Israelis, Swiss, and Germans. We of course have jobs to return to. So we typically stayed on the trail for 10-12 hours a day, and usually exhausted ourselves by the time we found our evening accommodations. One of my favorite memories is of Seth, completely passed out on his bed in Chamche, headlamp still on, shining at the ceiling. That's just how it was some nights.

I'm going to try to briefly describe our time on the trek here, and then include a bit on our planning details. We took plenty of pictures. I've posted some below, but for more, please click here. Also, for Seth's most excellent writeup and pictures, click here.

The Trek

The first half of the trek is defined by the gradual but steady ascent towards the 17,761 foot Thorong La pass. The trek follows the Marsyangdi River, beginning low amidst rice fields and other tropical vegetation, and then steadily climbs through subalpine and alpine ecological zones, deeper into the Manang Province. On the way up, you pass through Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist villages, with periodic views of the Annapurna Himalayas. The late monsoon season left our views wanting, though from time to time we got lucky, and stunned, by the magnificence of the Himalayas.

Mani walls and prayer wheels mark the road. And make no mistake, the trail is often road, though I may call it trail here. Long suspension bridges above whitewater gorges are hourly occurrences. The butterflies and birds of the Himalaya are stunning, in their different colors and variety. And the terraced agriculture…gorgeous. We shared the trail with locals and their cattle, “Namaste” being the common greeting. I was struck though that many locals seemed jaded to the tourists.

We moved fast, typically trekking separately but checking in with each other at pre-designated villages. We seemed well matched in pace and disposition—we were friends going in, and certainly all the better of friends coming out. I think three people is a good group size for this adventure. I had my days when I wanted to be more alone, and other days where I wanted to move faster, but basically we were able to watch out for each other, and be good company when we stopped, even if exhausted. Our stops were marked by the routine of setting up the water filtration system, ordering garlic ramen soup and/or dal bhat (rice, lentil soup, and curried taters), and then looking at the map to figure out where we were, and where we were headed.

We had our gadgets. Seth carried a Spot and various phones, including a satellite phone. Seth is the wizard on global phone services. Both Rich and Seth listened to lots of music; I managed to lose my shuffle somewhere along the way, but was fine with that. I never heard a song, except the ones I sang, which seemed to keep my friends at some distance. We all had cameras, of course, though nothing heavy. I kind of wish I'd bought something newer. I was able to text from time to time, at .50 a text via AT&T. We were usually able to charge batteries at lodges, sometimes for a small fee. Occasionally we were able to find a lodge with internet. I definitely missed being “connected,” in a  way that I would not have fathomed a few short years ago.

We took the recommended day of rest in Manang, where we got shaken by a 6.9 earthquake atop the Yak Hotel, a building of questionable construction. Manang and its valley is a really gorgeous little spot, where a lot of trekkers land for a few days, with lots of day trip options. I climbed up to Praken Gompa for a puja ceremony before a lama, in which the lama put a small multi-colored string around my neck and said a few words for Thorng La. Small donation expected, which I unfortunately forgot. Rich and Seth climbed above Gangapurna Lake, to get a closer look at a massive glacier. On the second evening I caught "Into Thin Air" in a basement projector room, with tea and popcorn, on yak fur covered bench. While in Manang, I also picked up a hat, sunscreen and gloves--plenty of supplies available. The rest day was one of my favorites.

At the lower elevations, I contended with sun, getting quickly burnt by the intense ultraviolet rays of the high Himalayas. At the higher elevations, the altitude was a constant challenge, but I never experienced mountain sickness, perhaps due to taking Diamox from Manang on. We ascended a little quicker than typically recommended, gaining more than a 1000 meters each day after Manang. I think we all did well enough, though we had a rough night of sleep at Thorang Phedi, elevation 4450 meters. We also had to persuade some Justin Bieber wannabe kid there that we really were told our room would be free. He wanted no part of that, which was sort of amusing.

On the morning of the seventh day, we crossed Thorong La Pass at 5416m. A great feeling, as we’d spent a week thinking and moving towards this pass. The Pass was unfortunately fog covered, so we didn’t get the great views of the grand peaks there, but the fog and light snow created its own marvelous landscape. I relied heavily on two trekking poles to get me up that hill. One step, two step, three step, rest. Repeat.

Once over the pass, the trail descends 2000 meters within hours into the arid Mustang Province, a dramatically different landscape, resembling the high Tibetan plateau of China. Those trekking poles were real lifesavers on that descent too, which turned into a bit of a muddy mess.

By early afternoon, we arrived in the town of Muktinath, at 3800 meters. Muktinath is a pilgrimage site for both Hindus and Buddhists, as one of the few temples to Vishnu, the Hindu god, and a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. Prayer flags filled the hills and lined walls; ammonite fossils and scarves were for sale in the streets; and pilgrims were making the climb to the temple, with robed monks everywhere. We kept moving, making it all the way to the tiny village of Khinga.

Up early the next morning, we began the second half of the trek, descending through the Kali Gandaki watershed, through the arid Mustang province, and by and through towns such as Kagbeni, Jomsom, and Marpha. The morning was spectacular, with blue skies, views of Dhauligiri (7th highest peak at 26,795 feet), Annapurna 1 (10th highest peak, at 26,554 feet) and other snowcapped peaks, with the dry Mustang hills and plateau cutting a distinctly different view to the north.

Our trail was typically dirt road, which we shared with Jeeps, and this was at times a real downer. Many have already given up on the Kali Gandaki side of the trek due to the construction and use of roads, choosing to Jeep out, or catch a plane out of Jomsom. It is sad, for the trekking crowd, as road development threatens the near-future of the Annapurna Circuit. Ultimately, I expect new trails paralleling the road will be constructed, and we saw some of this happening.  Still, now is the time to take this trek on, before further development occurs.

Our afternoon in the upper Mustang was marked by a fierce headwind, which we hiked directly into. I mean fierce. Just when you think you’ve got the hardest part of the trek done, the elements throw something new at you. I just kept plugging away, but that afternoon was a grinder, with the wind and occasional Jeep buzzing by. The Kali Gandaki watershed reminded me of Alaska, with its huge valley walls, and the river spread wide across the valley floor. Evergreens began to come into the picture again towards day’s end. The next day was a relatively short one downhill to Tatopani, where I bonked a bit, probably just worn down after so many tough days, though sun and humidity are no friends of mine.

Right about when you figure you’re supposed to be done with all the hard work, the Circuit ends with a kicker called Poon Hill. On Day 10 we climbed about 2000 meters, step by step, to Ghorepani, beneath Poon Hill. That was one tough day--6000 feet of climb with a pack on, probably our biggest single day. Ghorepani had perhaps the best lodge on the trek, with great tandoori, a big fire, and Madonna on the stereo. Some beers were poured.

The next morning we got up at 4:30 AM and climbed Poon Hill, elevation 3200m, in hopes of taking in the whole Annapurana Range. No such luck—score one to the fog. After a hearty breakfast, we headed down the other side of the hill, descending another 2000 meters, and in my case slipping and falling three times on steps, which just happened to have streams flowing down them. The trek finished at Nayapul, elevation 1070 meters, where we caught a cab to Pokhara, beginning our slow return to normal, as we know it to be.

We did the Annapurna Circuit during the tail end of the monsoon season. Chancey move. We lucked out though, as we rarely had much in the way of rain or adverse weather. The downside was we probably saw less of the high, snowcapped Himalayan peaks than others may see in October, because of a lingering high cloud cover. However, the trails were far emptier than in October, and things couldn't have been much more green. We found the lodges jealous for our business, offering us free nights to stay as long as we promised to order dinner and breakfast. The typical cost for this package was 1000 rupees, or roughly $12.50 USD. We saw some weird price variations along the trek. For example, a pot of tea cost twice or three times as much at the higher elevations. The menus were almost always the same--I think I ate dhal bhat for 10 days straight in the evenings.

Well, this has been fun to write up. It was quite the adventure—everything I hoped for, and without a doubt one of the greatest trips of my life. Perhaps the best part of the experience was sharing the adventure and trail with Rich and Seth. Here are a few other facts, which I’d like to be able to recall later, and which may be of interest.

Our Itinerary

Arrive in evening at Besisahar (820m)-hike/ride to Khudi (790m)
Day 1: Check in at BhulBhule (840m), finish in Chamche (1385m) Total: 22km
Day 2: Thanchowk (2570m) Total: 21km
Day 3: Lower Pisang (3250m) Total 24km
Day 4: Manang (3540m) Total 16km
Day 5: Rest in Manang, with climb to Praken Gompa
Day 6: Thorung Phedi (4450m) Total 15km
Day 7: Khinga (3355m) Total 20km
Day 8: Kokhethanti (2525m) Total 35km
Day 9: Tatopani (1190m) Total 23km
Day 10: Ghorepani (2750m) Total 17km
Day 11: Finish at Nayapul (1070m), after Poon Hill (3200m) ascent Total 14km

The kilometer distances are completely unreliable, but these were provided by Nepal's Annapurna Conservation Area Project. I’ve seen different distances online, and I’m pretty sure Rich’s Garmin shows a much larger number for the total trek. Distance is kind of irrelevant in the Himalayas—ascent and descent figures are more meaningful, generally. You just don’t move far or fast when you’re traveling above 10,000 feet, especially with a backpack.

Partial Gear List

Originally, we planned on running the Circuit. I think I was the one to flinch at this, when it came down to packing gear. I found it very hard to plan a run from so far away, with limited information and support. In particular, I was concerned about going too light in gear for the higher elevations. In the end, we went with light packs—maybe 20lbs.—but I carried enough clothes to stay warm and dry, whatever conditions we hit. Our plan ended up doing longer days and staying steady. If I was to do it again, I could lighten the load some more, particularly on clothes. However, when you don’t know what to expect, I think there’s a lot to be said for bringing the mountain etiquette and being safe. I kept coming back to the fact that elevations above 12,000 feet are not something to mess with, especially in monsoon season.

Here's a partial list:

REI Flash Pack 65 (too big, but was on sale, and is "ultralight")
Patagonia Nano Half-Zip
OR Gore-Tex Lite Shell
Montrail Mountain Masochists shoes
Three short sleeve tech shirts
Running sleeves
Midweight half-zip Patagonia
Long sleeve Chuckanut Patagonia shirt
Pants
Two pairs of shorts
Two pairs of Patagonia bottoms
Anti-chafing underwear
Several pairs of trail running socks
Hats (cap and cold weather)
Running gloves
Sunscreen
Fleece sleeping bag liner (no bag)—blankets available in lodges
Electronics and charging gear
Camera
Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork Trekking Poles
Platypus Water Filter system

Money

I budgeted roughly 2000 rupees a day ($25 USD), which allowed for contingencies, candy bars, the occasional hat purchase, et al.  I was in Nepal for roughly three weeks and exchanged $700 USD, which covered the trek, travel to and from Pokhara (shared car and flight), nicer meals in Kathmandu, and some souveniers.  A person could certainly get by on much less, though 700-1200 rupees a day seemed typical for the lodge and meals. We felt like we saved money, once in Nepal, as compared to how much I might've spent at home on typical things.

Insurance

An American Alpine Club membership ($75 USD) comes with $5000 Global Rescue insurance. Estimated cost of a helicopter evacuation is $2500 USD. Great organization. We also spent a night at the Kathmandu Clubhouse as AAC guests of the MountainFund, for $15 each. I probably should’ve bought flight insurance, as I heard tales of lost luggage, particularly with Jet, but I never got to it, and everything turned out fine. I did check my backpack in a bigger duffle bag, with a lock on it.

Permits

Seth’s friend Dorjee Sherpa and his company, Himalayan Windhorse Adventure, took care of picking up the trekking permits, saving us at least a day or two once in Nepal. I think the cost was around $50 for the permits. Dorjee also provided information on cost expectations and stood ready to assist us as needed during the trip, which was a nice safety net. Dorjee was great, as was Seth a facilitator.

Transportation

Rich and I searched Kayak.com for fares, including fares from Seattle and Vancouver. We ended up landing a $1450 fare through CheapO Air, flying on American Airlines and Jet Airlines. At the end of the trek, we flew back from Pokhara for $92, which I had to pay in cash.

We split the cost of a private car to get to Besisahar, and I want to say that total cost was roughly $100 USD. Our cab fare from Nayapul to Pokhara I believe was 1500 rupees ($20 USD). Kathmandu cabfare was 500 rupees ($7.50 USD).











8 comments:

Charles Yuen said...

Passing out with the headlamp still on is a classic. Wow, It never occurred to me that you can packed in such great adventure in only 2 weeks!! Losing your passport and money on your first trip is not the end of the world. If it didn't happened, you would not have returned with such good friends. When something similar happened for me, it started a whole new adventure. Good trip report.

Scotty said...

Thanks Charles! I want to hear your story! Losing my passport was a tough one.

Jill Homer said...

Scotty,

Thanks for the direction to your blog. It sounds like you had an amazing experience. I may hit you up with questions in the next little bit if that's OK with you.

Great pictures, too.

Scotty said...

Thanks Jill! Happy to help as I can. If I don't hear from you, hope you guys have a great trip!

Mary John said...

Excellent narration and superb photos!

Thanks,

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