At the end of February my friend Josh and I ventured to Nepal to begin one of the most famous treks in the world, the Annapurna Circuit Trek. After delaying ourselves from having so much fun in Kathmandu and Pokhara, we woke up on March 6 to begin a 3 week journey from the Himalayan foothills through one of the most important ranges in mountaineering history, the Annapurna Massif.
In 1950 the French expedition led by Maurice Herzog became the first team to reach the summit of an 8,000 meter peak, Annapurna. Of the 14 mountains above 8,000 meters in the world, Nepal is home to 8 of these. The Annapurna Circuit trek not only attracts mountaineers, but geologists, bird watchers, and outdoor enthusiasts of all skill levels who will take between 12 and 20 days to complete the full circuit trek.
Day 1: Ngadi (890 m) to Jagat (1300 m): 12 km, 410 m gain
We take a bus from Besi Sahar to Ngadi, where we begin our hike. Bus services end here, where private Jeeps are available for a hefty price to continue on up through the valley. A huge portion of the Annapurna Circuit follows this same road as it winds up the mountainside. Since the time that my Lonely Planet book was published in December of 2015, the road expanded 34 kilometers all the way from Chame (2710 m) to Manang (3540 m).
Today is a relatively easy day, but it is hot. After a couple of hours, we reach a huge tree that frames the perfect vantage point for what’s to come. We overlook the Marsyangdi Valley and see our path curve along the hillside up towards another village on the opposite end. It’s the perfect taste of what we’ll see in the next few weeks.
Day 2: Jagat (1300 m) to Dharapani (1900 m): 15 km, 600 m gain
We have lunch in Tal, a beautiful town situated at the end of a valley and the tongue of a river. I bought a bracelet from a local man who promises me that the Tibetan Ohm will give me luck when crossing the Thorong-La Pass in a week.
The valley walls rise dramatically towards the sky on either side to make up these lush, green mountainsides. Even though we haven’t reached the glaciers yet, snow speckles the upper reaches of our day’s hiking destination. Nowhere in America will you see such stark differences between the plunging valley floor and the towering hilltops.
Almost even more impressive are the villages that dot the skyline, perched on cliff ledges overlooking thousands of feet of thin air.
Today I buy a pair of trekking poles, socks, chapstick, and a chocolate cake for $12. I also experience my first cold shower, courtesy of Himalayan runoff water. “Cold” seems like too nice of a word to describe the feeling of melted ice dripping through my hair.
Our lodge is near a river, so I borrowed a washbin and hand washed my smelliest gear. In the morning I’ll clip them onto the outside of my pack, and by midday they’ll be completely dry from the intense sun. I feel very self-sufficient.
Day 3: Dharapani (1900 m) to Chame (2710 m): 16 km, 810 m gain
Our third day was by far the most exciting, for it’s the first time we get to see the 7,000 and 8,000 meter peaks we’ve been reading and seeing so much about.
Our first glimpse is of Annapurna II, part of the greater Annapurna Massif which I mentioned above was the first ever recorded ascent of an 8,000 meter peak. Herzog, the leader of the group, lost both hands and feet in the process.
We were surprised to encounter our first real chilly evening in Chame. After experiencing my first ever hot bucket shower, I went off to explore the town and ended up walking up past a school, a monastery, and up to the upper reaches of the village. There, I was greeted with the late afternoon alpenglow coming off of Manaslu, the 6th tallest mountain in the world.
Today brought to life the stories I’d read from history’s most famous mountaineers, and I know that in the days to come we’ll only be more impressed and surprised by the sights of the full Circuit.
Day 4: Chame (2710 m) to Upper Pisang (3310 m): 14.5 km, 600 m gain
We woke up today with our breath frosting the air in our lodge room, and the temperature too cold to hold a book in bed with one hand for longer than a minute, before needing to switch out under the covers with the other. But by the time we’d gotten up, had breakfast, and stepped outside, the sun was blazing hot.
If we thought we’d gotten used to the mountains from yesterday, we were wrong. Every uphill and every turn granted us jaw-dropping views. The weather was crystal clear, as perfect as it could’ve been, with these gigantic jagged peaks cutting across a flawless blue sky in what was probably the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever experienced in my life.
We pass by an apple orchard, and it’s not the first time we’re told that these high-altitude apples are great additions to any meal. I order an apple pie for Josh and I to split as an appetizer for our dinner. We continue to enjoy apple porridge, and apple pancakes throughout the trek.
Our lodge in Upper Pisang is this humongous pink building perched over a cliff, and our guide tells us that only two years ago the entire structure resided in Lower Pisang, where it was manually torn apart, hauled up 300 meters, and reconstructed. Annapurna II looms over everything in this town, even the beautiful new monastery sitting at the very top.
There are two routes out of Lower and Upper Pisang; a lower route that follows the Jeep road along the river, and a high route that soars above the valley and nearly touches the surrounding 6,000m+ meter peaks.
We chose the high route, planning only to make it to Ngawal, about half the distance it would take to reach the larger town of Manang. We were stronger and faster than we’d anticipated, and after a well-deserved lunch following a brutal morning ascent, we took the rest of the “Nepali flat” route to Manang (Pro hint: Nothing in Nepal is truly flat, be wary of your guide’s route description).
As the story goes, each day has been better than the previous, and the sights we saw and peaks we seemed close enough to touch followed us along our trek all day long. Today we mostly walked in silence, getting lost in the beauty around us.
From here on out, our trekking days will get shorter as we reach higher altitudes. Read onto my second part of our time on the Annapurna Circuit Trek to see the stunning photos of our climb to Ice Lakes.