Hike to Utah’s Highpoint: King’s Peak (13,527 ft.)

Summit the tallest peak in Utah at 13,527 ft. on a 2-3 day backpacking trip – or do as we did, and knock it out in a day.

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King’s Peak peeking its head out at sunlight towards the left.

Overview: 28.8 miles, 4.1k elevation gain

This hike isn’t overly difficult; it only takes endurance. Between the 3 hour drive to the trailhead from Salt Lake City, to the seemingly endless 12 mile approach to the base of King’s Peak, this hike makes for a hell of a day.

Christina and I set our alarms for 12:30am and were on the road out of SLC by 1am. We arrived at the Henry Fork Trailhead (9,400 ft.) and were on our feet hiking by 4am. We wouldn’t reach the car until after 7pm that evening, making our day a little longer than 15 hours.

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Hiking through Henry’s Fork Basin at sunrise.

The good news is that the elevation here is gradual. In fact, the first half dozen miles seem nearly flat (especially if you’re setting out in the dark and focusing more on not tripping over the rock-and-root-filled trail). The distances I read online were confusing and felt inaccurate once we had hit the trail. Here are the big landmarks we recognized for the first part of our day:

  • 3 miles from TH: Sign for Alligator Lake Trail off to the right
  • 5 miles from TH: Sign for Elkhorn Stream Crossing, follow this to the left
  • 9-10 miles from TH: Crossing Gunsight Pass

The main trail will take you up the left/east side of the valley, where you’ll see Dollar Lake and Henry’s Fork Lake from a distance. Most people camp around these lakes before going for the summit push a day later. Be wary of campfire and human waste restrictions around this area.

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For the first 9-10 miles, the main trail is clearly marked and easy to follow. Beyond Gunsight Pass (11,900 ft.), the directions we’d read online are sparse and unspecific. You have two options from the top of this pass:

  1. Head straight down into Upper Painter Basin and lose around 500 ft. of elevation. Follow the clearly marked, rocky trail around and up Anderson Pass to the base of King’s Peak.
  2. Turn right at the top of the pass and use a “shortcut” to avoid losing elevation. There’s a faint climber’s trail marked with cairns along this mountainside (which is the base of Gunsight Peak) that leads you straight to Anderson Pass. From here, you can clearly see where you’ll meet up with the main trail and where people start off on the North Ridge Route of King’s Peak.

On both the Anderson Pass shortcut and on King’s Peak itself, there are cairns virtually everywhere, which makes it difficult to decide which markers to follow.

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The trail loses itself on the mountain itself as we head towards the summit in the far-off distance.

One clarifying detail about this climb: This route is a 12-mile approach to the base of King’s Peak, where the climb itself turns into a class-2 scramble. There’s a lot of hand-and-foot work involved towards the summit, and we had to warn a couple people with dogs about this on their way up.

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All smiles at the summit plaque!

Standing on the summit of King’s Peak is quite a thrill – you can see for endless miles in every direction, and peer the dozen miles from where you came from. If I was doing this hike over again, I’d begin even earlier to avoid the unpredictable weather patterns I discovered during my brief visit to Utah…

We’d read about a 97-degree, crystal clear weather forecast for the day we chose to hike – and I got my first lesson into the Mountain Time Zone’s frequent and unrelenting thunderstorms. Christina and I were stuck in nearly three hours of pouring rain and scattered snow, with thunderbolts screeching down to the valley below us. And of course, we had left our rain and cold weather gear at home.

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Eventually the skies did clear up, and while we may have not made the best navigational decisions in our haste to escape the storm, we finally found ourselves below Gunsight Pass and facing the endless stretch of flatness to the car. Those last five miles were brutal to say the least, and I hope that Christina has forgiven me for the hell I put her through.

Our Fitbits measured a total of over 30 miles and 5,000 ft. of elevation gain when it was all said and done. No doubt this was from the few “interpretations” we took on the trail, but at the end of the day all that really mattered was that we made it back to the car in one piece.

If you’re looking to attempt this one-day’er, bring plenty of water, food, layers, be sure to learn from our mistakes – and have fun!

Middle Sister Summit Climb (10,047 ft.) via Renfrew Glacier

If you’ve been anywhere near Central Oregon, you’ve seen the Three Sisters Mountains dominate the skyline. Each of these volcanoes exceeds 10,000 ft. and are some of the highest peaks in the state of Oregon. Though they are truly considered sister peaks to one another, each has unique climbing routes that require varying physical conditioning and gear.

Note: Some (crazy) people actually climb all three in one day. Check out this local man who completed the total traverse in 6 hours & 39 minutes.

Middle Sister is navigationally in the middle of the three, is the shortest of the three, and is quite literally in the middle in terms of difficulty of its North Sister and South Sister counterparts. This route requires good knowledge of route-finding and backcountry travel as the bulk of the day requires off-trail traversing and good navigational instincts.

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This post describes a western approach from the Obsidian Trailhead (for a good description of the eastern approach, check out this article on Summitpost). This trailhead is easy to find, right off of the historic Highway 242, just plug it into Google Maps. You need to acquire an Obsidian Limited Entry Area Permit before you go – only 30 hikers/day allowed on this trail. Call, email, or visit the McKenzie Ranger Station to do so.

Background: I’ve been up this mountain three times now (summiting once) and still don’t know which precise route I’d recommend. It’s all up to personal preference and interpretation. There are camping opportunities available at Glacier Creek and other areas along the PCT, but we chose to complete this in a one-day trip.

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You have a couple options starting out on the Obsidian Trail (#3528).

First option: Take a left after about 3.5 miles at Glacier Way (#4336), which will take you right to the start of an “unmaintained climber’s trail” sign and up the Collier Glacier.

Second option: Take Obsidian Trail all the way to a T-junction at the Pacific Crest Trail.

  • Go left (north) here to reach the “unmaintained climber’s trail” sign and continue towards the Collier Glacier on your right (our ascent).
  • Go right (south) here and follow a dry stream bed up a colorful, flowered valley towards the Renfrew Glacier on your left (our descent).

Whichever way you go, you’ll be directly facing both North Sister (to your left) and Middle Sister (on your right). Aim for the saddle between the two.

Pro tip: Use your crampons early on. The rock is incredibly difficult to navigate; you’ll save a lot of time by doing as much snow + glacier travel as possible (take it from this guy and this guy).

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Some people complete both mountains in one climb, often camping overnight in the saddle between the two, but it should be noted that North Sister’s summit requires difficult class-4 climbing where a rope and helmet are mandatory. Furthermore, North Sister is infamous in Cascade climbing for its rotten and crumbly rock – you should expect plenty of loose rock and rockfall should you attempt this climb.

Once you reach the saddle between North and Middle, continue to your right by scrambling and bouldering over razor-sharp volcanic rock. Once you reach Middle’s ridge, you should find a faint climber’s trail that leads you up the final 800 feet to the summit. Parts of this climb are super sketchy with vertigo-inducing exposure. Like the rest of the climb, it’s easy to get off-trail, so go slowly and think ahead when visually planning your route.

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Looking up Middle Sister’s ridgeline to the summit. You can see a hiker coming up the snowfield on the left, which is the eastern approach.

From the top you have close-up views of South Sister, Broken Top, and Mt. Bachelor to the north, and North Sister, Mt. Jefferson, and Mt. Washington to the south.

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After ascending the Collier Glacier (slightly right looking down), we decided to descend via the Renfrew Glacier (directly below Middle Sister’s summit ridge). We wore our crampons down until the snowfield ended, and followed a large natural gully for a few miles until we eventually hit the PCT again. It was tough to find our location, even with compass and map, but we turned right and in under 2 miles joined up with the Obsidian Trail intersection again. Bear left, and continue 5.5 miles to the trailhead parking lot.

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Overall: Incredibly strenuous day, mostly due to boulder-hopping and route-finding, but an awesome and exhilarating undertaking for the truly adventurous.

Trekking the Tour du Mont Blanc

Wine connoisseurs, cheese aficionados, and outdoor enthusiasts can unite over this breathtakingly beautiful hike high in the heart of the Alps. Completing a total circumnavigation of Western Europe’s tallest peak, Mont Blanc, this adventure will challenge you, awe you, and inspire you along one of the world’s most famous trails.

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Overview: 3 countries, 7 days, 110 miles, and 33,000 vertical feet.

The Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) is a trail that goes through France, Italy, and Switzerland, and which is walked, cycled, and run by thousands of people every year. The most popular time to hit the trail is between June and September, any time before or after that and you’ll run into worsening weather and snowy routes. There are navigational signs all along the entire trail, and in high season you should have plenty of company with other hikers, so there should be plenty of ways to help you stay on track (or trail).

People head both directions on the TMB, but Kathleen and I chose to go counterclockwise since the views are more promising and the difficult sections more short-lasting. Many people use companies that set up your TMB experience start to finish and save a whole lot of time, coordination, and sweat. Whether you use an agency or not, you’ll want to be sure to book your accommodations far ahead of time as they do fill up in the busy seasons quickly (we had to adjust our itinerary because five months out, certain hostels were already full).

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I would highly recommend picking up a copy of Trekking the Tour du Mont Blanc by Kev Reynolds for a completely comprehensive history and how-to of this adventure (distances, elevations, and times in this post are pulled from here).

A few important tips & tricks before you start planning your trip: 

  • There are plenty of places to stop for food and water along the TMB, so no need to pack much food or water weight.
  • Walking times on the trail signs are for people with a FAST pace.
  • Cable cars and public busses are sometimes available, but don’t rely on them. Many have limited hours + stops.
  • Carry plenty of cash, both Euros and Swiss Francs, at all times.
  • Auberges (hostels) expect you to bring your own towel, and sometimes a sleeping sheet or sleeping bag.
  • Dinners and breakfasts are included in your stay and are often large cafeteria/summer camp style; meaning you can typically serve yourself as much as you’d like. Beer, wine, and coffee is ALWAYS available for purchase.
  • You can actually get your overnight bags delivered to your next accommodation each night, so you only have to carry a light daypack with water (for relatively cheap).
  • Do not expect to have access to wifi along the TMB.
  • Do not expect to have access to laundry facilities along the TMB – Get used to shower/sink washing your clothes.
  • Almost everybody speaks English.

This is a super popular trail for young backpackers, honeymooners, and seniors 60 & up. There are solo hikers and groups of 12+ people, of every experience level. Whether you spend 7 days or 12 days on the trail, there should be nothing daunting about this trek as long as you pick an itinerary that you’re comfortable with.

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Day 1: Les Houches to Les Contamines

Distance: 16 km

Height gain: 646m

Height loss: 633m

Time: 5-5.5 hours

Les Houches or Chamonix-Mont-Blanc are the two main starting off points for the Tour du Mont Blanc, depending on which direction you’re going. Both are large towns with Tourism Centres, laundry facilities, gear shops, and limitless restaurant and lodging options. We loaded our backpacks up with the bare essentials (see packing list below) and left our larger travel bags here, to be delivered to us at the end of the trek in Chamonix.

This first leg of the journey will include more road walking than any other part of this trek. Also unlike a few of the other stages, today you’ll be walking through a number of towns and have plenty of opportunities to fuel up or fill up your water bottles.

 

Today is a good warm up to kick your legs into hiking mode. There is an alternative stage on this first day that will nearly double your elevation gain, in case you’re feeling extra strong. If you start early, you should arrive in Les Contamines with plenty of time to enjoy lunch, shower, and explore the town while still in sunlight.

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Day 2: Les Contamines to Refuge les Mottets

Distance: 20km

Height gain: 1579m

Height loss: 876m

Time: 7.5-8 hours

This second day of the entire trek may have been one of our most challenging, and most rewarding. Beginning at sunrise, we followed the Val Montjoie through a lush green forest, past rolling dairy plains, and up a snow-covered path to the top of Col du Bonhomme. All along the way, we’d stop to look at the valley stretching out below us and admire the views, and our progress.

 

 

The top of Col du Bonhomme was decked in snow and required some careful side-stepping into the steepest bit. It was here that we noticed other hikers’ reconsideration of their footwear, or lack of other gear like trekking poles.

From the top of the Col, we had two options – a shortcut to the west that would land us right at our accommodation for the night, or the safer traditional route that would take us down to Les Chapieux. We cut off a couple hours of flat, tiresome walking by ascending up to 2,665m to the Col des Fours.

We were here in mid-July, not considered early season at all. However, our crossing over Col des Fours was completely snow-covered and made for a painstakingly slow and careful descent down into the Ville des Glaciers (an hour upvalley from Les Chapieux). Crampons would definitely have been necessary just one month before.

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One of our most important lessons was learned this day. Both of us put plenty of sunscreen on our faces, but by the time we arrived at Refuge les Mottets, we realized the rest of our bodies were horribly, unbearably burnt. We’d spend the next few nights unable to sleep, every movement of our limbs causing intense and immediate pain. Learn from our mistakes: When traveling on snow, always layer up with clothes and sunscreen.

Both of us loved Refuge les Mottets with its dormitory-style rooms and summer-camp-style cafeteria, which made it easy to meet and chat with other hikers. Before dinner we got to enjoy a pretty spectacular sunset sitting at the top of the valley accompanied by a few ice-cold local beers. And at dinner, food was served in large troughs and passed down the table – plenty for seconds, thirds, as much as you could fill your stomach.

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Day 3: Refuge les Mottets to Courmayeur

Distance: 28km

Height gain: 1460m

Height loss: 1820m

Time: 8-10.5 hours

We woke up to a beautifully clear, crisp morning at Refuge les Mottets. This auberge was converted from a dairy farm and retains all of its unique and original charm. Tucked away into the green hills beneath Mont Blanc, the building caters exclusively to trekkers, while the farm still produces some of the best and widely-sold cheese in the French Alps. Most of us enjoyed this renowned cheese for dinner, breakfast, and snuck a couple extra slices for the hike ahead.

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We were on the trail early this morning, coming up on the Col de la Seigne, our crossing from France into Italy. It was a cold, windy morning when we watched the clouds open up before us and we could peer into Vallon de la Lee Blanche and admire the mountains skyrocketing around us. It was a truly stunning landscape.

This third day was long, undulating, and just short of brutal. We were blessed with gorgeous views and weather at every point of the hike, but the trail seemed to stretch on forever. We learned later that many people take a public bus halfway through the day at La Visaille to Courmayeur.

However, this was one of our favorite stretches of the entire trail. We passed a group of ultra runners and boulder-hopped over stream crossings. We drank water straight from the glacier, some of the purest and cleanest water we’d ever tasted. We walked forever along rolling, endless fields of green with mountains jutting up on either side of us. We were lost in our thoughts and absorbed in this beauty.

This third day is one of my favorite stories of our entire trip. We arrive exhausted at Col Checrouit in the late afternoon, another high pass that featured an adorable refuge and restaurant. There is a 3,000 ft. descent ahead of us to reach the Courmayeur valley, but, we see a cable car on top of the col that seemingly takes us all the way down to the valley. So, having had an already exhausting day, Kathleen and I enthusiastically order a liter of wine and salad to split. With happy (but not nearly so full) stomachs we stumble to the cable car to discover it’s closed. No options left but to spend another two hours descending a brutally steep trail while we weave and slur our way to one of our favorite towns yet.

Courmayeur is a classic Italian town perched between towering mountain massifs that stand out from every street corner. We enjoyed authentic Italian pizza, pasta, and gelato, of course accompanied by wine and cheese. Even though we had arrived to town rather late after our cable-car mishap, we stayed out and walked around until almost 10pm to relish in the perfect summer weather. For future TMBers, we would definitely insist on spending a rest day in Courmayeur.

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Day 4: Courmayeur to Champex (Champex D’en Haut)

Distance: 47km

Height gain: 2175m

Height loss: 2075m

Time: 14.5-16.6 hours

This was the stage that Kathleen and I realized that many people on a shorter trekking schedule will utilize the bus systems to cover as much ground in a day as possible, while cutting off monotonous or unnecessary stretches of the route. Reynolds’ book is broken up into stages, and our Day #4 consisted of three different days work of trekking. So on this morning, we took our first bus ride from Courmayeur to Chalet Val Ferret.

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Turns out, we only spend one night in Italy. From Chalet Val Ferret, we took a switchbacking trail through a richly green meadow, just across the valley from a series of glowing glaciers from Mont Dolent. The trail moves steeply upwards until we reached Grand Col Ferret and took our first steps into Switzerland.

Our introduction to the Swiss Alps did not disappoint. A gentle, gradual trail took us through meadows and past glaciers to our lunchtime refreshment spot at Alpage de la Peule, a summer dairy farm. We continued on the TMB to La Fouly, where we planned to take a bus to our final destination for the evening. The stretch between La Fouly and Champex is similar to the morning stretch we skipped; unremarkable, flat, and easily skippable.

In La Fouly we discovered an ultra race for TMB runners was in full-swing. Racing contestants were coated in sweat and dirt, gaining high fives and cheers from their family members as they ran through town – and we learned that this was only their halfway point. The town was playing music at an open concert stage, and injured runners were limping in and out of the bus-stop-turned-infirmary. We watched the action from a rooftop bar and caught the bus at the opposite end of town.

Driving briefly through lakeside town of Champex, Kathleen and I decided if we’d done it all over again, we would have added an extra day here. A great example of classic Swiss culture in terms of food, drinks, and shops, Champex also boasts the best of lake life, with paddle boarders, canoes, and swimmers lapping through the water in the late afternoon. We learned there is a gondola that can take you above the lake for superb views and picnic spots, and promised we’ll be back in the future.

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Day 5: Champex D’En Haut to Trient

Distance: 16km

Height gain: 742m

Height loss: 682m

Time: 5-5.5 hours

The auberge we stayed in, Champex D’En Haut, was a short bus ride or a 30 minute walk above the town of Champex. This meant we had a head start when we took off in the morning to begin our day. In terms of accommodation – this place was small, cozy, and a little crowded. Bags and shoes were left in a common room downstairs, and we squeezed six guys and girls into a tiny bunk bedded room. This was not the first time we were told that the auberge does not rent towels (see packing list below), and I distinctly remember sharing a single kitchen hand cloth between Kathleen and I to dry off after our showers. Also remembered: sneaking in Swiss beers and cheers-ing each other underneath the shower stalls.

To me, this day felt like the farthest we’d ventured from civilization. We were on our own and away from towns, power lines, and roads for nearly this entire day. It felt fun and familiar to hop over stream crossings and switchback up mountain passes. It was also going to be the shortest day we’d had so far since Day #1. By now our legs were strong and used to steep demands, so in a way, this day was truly a walk in the park.

We had lunch (read: pretzels and chocolate) at Alp Bovine, a wonderful little restaurant on top of a large pasture. I remember a few things in particular about this stop: (1), we met three sets of honeymooners completing this trek here and vowed we’d bring back our fiancés someday, and (2) we ordered lemonade and were served 7-Up.

From Alp Bovine, it wasn’t long to reach Col de la Forclaz, the most commercialized of all of the col crossings we’d done so far. A hotel, restaurant, souvenir shop, parking lot, and bus station sat on top of the pass. It was just a 30 minute descent into Trient, where we’d spend the night, so Kathleen and I felt no shame in indulging in another wine-fueled lunch and hopping on a bus to shortcut our day. It’d been a long week.

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Trient is an adorable little settlement with dark wooded shuttered doors decorating every household, and brilliant red flowers popping out and adding color to the town. Our hostel was new and had a large backyard where kids could play and adults could enjoy the scenery (with a few adult beverages, of course). I remember that France was playing that night in the World Cup, and our hotel put up a projector outside to show the game on a big screen. The mountains loomed over the town’s lit-up chapel, providing another perfectly pleasant summer evening at high altitude.

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Day 6: Trient to Tre Le Champ (Auberge le Boerne)

Distance: 18km

Height gain: 869m

Height loss: 978m

Time: 6 hours

We started early again, just as the sun was rising, and decided to take the longer and harder route since it was our second to last day. We followed along a mountainside in the shade for the better part of the morning until we came out into an exposed meadow where we could see our highpoint for the day.

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As I’ve mentioned before, this was a heavy snow season, and many sections of the trail that should be been clear and dry by this time in the year were still covered in snow, which made navigating a little more difficult and a lot more fun. On this stretch of trail in particular, that meant shortcutting up and around a large snowfield that covered our path, which looked a little like crawling on hands and knees up an incredibly steep and slippery hillside.

Once on top, we felt like we could see across the entire world – when in reality we were mostly just looking at the Col de Balme before us, our final country crossing back into France. An old stone building sits on top of the col where we enjoyed coffee and hot chocolate on this chilly mid-morning, before setting out down the valley, where we could see Chamonix beyond.

On our way to Tre Le Champ we passed a couple who were hiking clockwise (opposite us), headed to Champex. When we told them we were staying in Auberge le Boerne, they warned us that the building was like the “old woman who lived in a shoe” nursery rhyme. Our expectations did not disappoint. Looking at the floor plan of the house, it seemed as though someone had quite literally tried to cram as many bunk beds on top of and next to each other as possible, layered like waffles. Picture winding stairs, and even a ladder, leading to crooks and nannies and attics filled with beds and people. Our poor friend was placed in the middle of three bunk beds with occupants on either side, which made a midnight bathroom run nearly impossible.

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Day 7: Tre Le Champ to Chamonix

Distance: 25km

Height gain: 1540m

Height loss: 1800m

Time: 10-12 hours

Though these numbers measure the walking distance, height, and time, we were forced to take a few shortcuts on our final day. Our original itinerary was to stay in Lac Blanc overnight on this day, but by the time we were booking accommodations in January, the refuge here had already filled up (goes to show how popular of a trek this is, and how far ahead you should be prepared in advance). We also had a small window of clear weather in the morning before torrential rain would come in, so we moved fast.

Leaving Tre Le Champ, we followed a trail that zigzagged along the mountainside above the Chamonix valley, having the busy villages below in our sight almost all day long. After just a couple hours we emerged into a wide field for winter sports and followed ski lifts farther up the mountain. It had started to rain on us, so we donned our rain jackets, rain covers, and high-tailed it to the cable car at La Flegere.

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We had almost zero visibility on this mountaintop as we sipped hot chocolate and coffee to warm us up before descending in a cozy, enclosed cable car and hopping on a bus to take us from Les Praz to Chamonix-Mont-Blanc city center.

Chamonix is a world-class ski resort and adventure sports village for a reason. Every street corner sells a varied set of luxury fashion goods, ice climbing and snow gear, as well as top-notch Savoyarde restaurants featuring local French wines and cheese. Despite the rain, Kathleen and I made the most of our time in this town together and felt right at home amid the shopping and gastronomic adventures.

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Our experience on the TMB was truly unforgettable. While I’m glad we got to complete this world-renowned hike as two young fit women, I can’t wait to return to this trail to run, cycle, or winter hike someday.

Overall, you should pack light for your TMB experience. As mentioned in the tips & tricks above, you’ll have constant access to food and water, and be able to buy toiletries along the way should you need. Think simple, think light, and don’t be afraid to rewear your sweaty clothes!

Packing List:

  • Trekking poles (even if you’ve never used them before – trust us)
  • Solid, comfortable hiking boots
  • Crampons may be necessary in early season
  • Nothing larger than a 40L backpack
  • Always carry cash
  • Hats (one with a brim for sun protection, one wool for evenings)
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen – and use it! The sun shows no mercy at these altitudes
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Plenty of rain gear
  • Towels, sleeping sheet or sleeping bag for auberges
  • Very few personal toiletries

 

 

Langtang Valley: Trekking Through the Earthquake’s Wake

When I first arrived in Nepal I had read that the Langtang trekking region was completely shut down due to earthquake damage and new construction efforts. As the months wore on, I heard differently from locals who insisted that the park was still open and eager for business. Because it’s one of the country’s most famous and easily accessible trail systems, I was excited to get to see it for myself and learn exactly how the earthquake had been affecting local people in more remote areas.
Like both the Annapurna and Khumbu ranges, roads end early and villages at higher elevations rely on porters, animals, and helicopters to deliver their goods. And even though this transportation makes perfect sense in everyday business, for some reason seeing it used in reconstruction efforts was jarring, and powerful. All throughout my trek I saw young Nepali men carrying loads of wood more than three times their size. Mules would cart chairs, tea kettles, and cement mixture up these steep, high-altitude trails. Lodge owners were rebuilding gardens so they could rely on their own produce and thereby lightening the loads they’d have to carry up from lower in the valley.

The entire Langtang trek was an eye-opening experience of the don’t-give-up attitudes of local people who couldn’t wipe a smile from their faces, even in wake of such a powerful tragedy.

The long Langtang Valley stretching from Dhunche to the mountains



Day 1: Dhunche to Rimche



I am obligated to begin this passage by highly discouraging anybody from following today’s itinerary. Long story short, I got off on the wrong bus stop the night before. However, this mishap allowed me to glory in untouched nature and see the smallest Nepali villages most separated from the outside world.

I also got to enjoy all of this during 10 hours, 17 miles, and over 4,00 feet of elevation gain.

The road from Dhunche

After only a couple of days of the smog and congestion of Kathmandu, l was ready to get into the mountains again.

The day began with an annoying hike along the road. Luckily it was early enough where I didn’t see much traffic, but unluckily the road widened and shrank to barely a car’s width, so when towering trucks roared past at full-speed downhill, I jumped out of their way by dangling on rocks overlooking the hillside cliff. When I finally reached the trail, I was stopped by locals who discouraged me each time and told me to take a lower route.

The truth was, however arduous the steep hike up to Brabel was, its views were fantastic. Crystalline mountaintops peeked out from lower ranges that hid their startling snow-clad summits from the valley. The thick jungle blanketed me for most of the day, with exotic birds and monkeys larger than half my size jumping overhead. It was well worth the (exhausting) detour.

I had a quick lunch at Thulo Syabru, where I learned most people will stop for the night from Dhunche. This sprawling village sits along a mountainside that’s visible from days up and down the valley. Like so many other lodges I visited, the owners here had seen fewer visitors than past years, and were juggling reconstruction efforts with maintaining their business, hoping more tourists would visit in the fall season.

Road damaged from landslides are typical all along thr Langtang region

The afternoon hours blended together as the temperature rose and heavy heat stifled my progress. I drank four liters of water throughout the entire day.

Instead of overnighting at Lama Hotel, I stopped just 20 minutes short at the vertigo-inspiring scenery of Rimche. Its name alone evokes a feeling of being at the rim of the world – which is quite literally what it felt like.

Day 2: Rimche to Kyanjin Gompa



Before 7am I began the long, arduous climb through the forest out of Rimche. I expected to be gaining nearly 4,000 feet of elevation, but the going was much tougher than I’d made it up to be in my mind. Every turn I made brought more uphill eyesores. For every ridge crested, the trail turned downhill and retraced itself back skyward in an endless up-and-down tortuous game.


Finally, after just a couple of hours, I broke through the tree line and emerged into the glaciated, mountainous valley of Langtang. The sight of 7,000 meter peaks looming ahead of me took my breath away, almost as much as the altitude I was climbing to. 
I’d walked over landslide-swept trails and some small ruins of buildings the day before, but nothing could prepare me for what I’d see today. Langtang Valley was THE most badly affected trekking area hit by the earthquake last year, with hundreds of people losing their lives, and thousands more forced to rebuild theirs. The very first village I passed was on the map, but was not on the trail any longer. A smashed building stood in its placed, gigantic rocks having rolled up around its base, with broken glass, bent frames, and splintered wood scattering a huge field.

New trails wind through landslide damages from the earthquake

Farther along I passed similar signs of what had once been. Certain areas had been crushed from rocks tumbling down the steep valley walls, while others lay a barren wasteland of gravel. The trail wove up and down and throughout these never-ending rock fields. I learned later that white flags marked each spot where a lodge had once been, most without a single trace left to prove they had stood.

Prayer walls guide the trail up the valley


Days before I had been told that the village of Langtang itself would be desolate and empty, without any lodge options, forcing me to continue to its higher neighbor Kyanjin Gompa. Instead, I found at least a dozen buildings under constructions with workers hammering diligently away. A few places had been rebuilt just since the winter, and I enjoyed lunch at one of these brand-new lodges and met two Canadian sisters staying the night there.

Today was almost as long as the day before, so I curl up exhausted in my bed as soon as I find an open lodge with room. In fact, I’m the only guest there tonight, and my room is free as long as I purchase all of my meals there. By the time I leave in two days, 30% of my bill is racked up from the copious amounts of tea I’ve been drinking.

Mountain views from my lodge room



Day 3: Cherko Ri



A pounding rain wakes me up in the middle of the night, reminding me of how close we are to Nepal’s monsoon season, and promising clear skies in the morning. I wake early and quickly set out for my attempt to summit Kyanjin Gompa’s neighboring Cherko Ri.


Cherko Ri is supposed to be a challenging day hike from Langtang Valley’s uppermost village. I was told by a few people that it should take only four hours to reach the top at a slow pace. Sure-minded as I was (or, arrogant), I assumed I would cut a few hours off of that time to enjoy the 4,900 meter / 16,000 ft. peak by mid-morning.


I did not encounter a single other person on the trail during my 7 hour day, which ended up as one of the reasons I used to turn around early. After four hours of hard, fast hiking, I came upon a wide, open field with peaks standing in every direction. I’d long lost the trail by then, and there was no clear direction as to which was Cherko Ri. Instead of wasting my breath and energy wandering through the snow, I decided to turn around.


I was disappointed not to have made the top, but judged my decision safe. The truth was that I had had a long two days before. I was on an ambitious acclimatization schedule, ascending from 4,000 feet to 8,000 feet to 12,000 feet, to attempt a 16,000 foot peak in just three days. No matter how much hiking I’d done in the last few months, the sudden change in elevation left my head heavy and pounding.

Cozied up to our lodge’s fire, I’m reunited with my new friends, the Canadian sisters Andreanne and Joannie, who were also descending the next morning following some unpleasant effects of altitude. We talk about the pros and cons of traveling abroad as solo female Westerners, and they share some of their prized Canadian maple syrup candies with me.
Day 4: Kyanjin Gompa to Rimche



The three of us are on the trail by 7am this morning, completely enveloped in thick, damp clouds. Like every other morning, workers are hammering and shoveling away by the time the sun came up hours earlier, and will work through sunset. We all notice the rapid progress of rebuilding efforts. Buildings that had stood as frames just two days before now sported doors, windows, or roofs.


The sisters show me landmarks and share facts I missed on my ascent through the valley. I look twice at the hills dotted with white prayer flags to mark where lodges had once been, and notice even more ruins poking through other sections of rock scattered hundreds of yards away from the crumbling valley wall.

Most damaged buildings have been left untouched; pieces of wood and frames can be used for reconstruction of new lodges


On my way up, I had passed through an area enclosed by circles of prayer flags around what I originally saw as a stack of prayer stones, the same ones that guided our way up. Returning through, Joannie shows me that this is actually a memorial monument with inscriptions of the name of all the people who lost their lives in the valley from last year’s earthquake. There are hundreds of Nepali names, and two entire stones dedicated to the names of visiting foreigners. It is a beautiful and sombering stone.

The 2015 earthquake memorial

Today’s break from the blazing sun was much welcomed and allowed our lips and shoulders to heal their burns. The heavy clouds gained weight in the afternoon and we spent our final few hours walking through a cool rain. The three of us pressed on in the wet to the lodge I’d stayed at on my way up, enjoying valley views, a warm shower, and our favorite endless meal of dal bhatt.

Day 5: Rimche to Syabrubesi 

It’s already warm out by the time we start our descent at 7am. Light fills the valley and the blazing sun follows us all morning as we wind through rocky moraines and through landslides from the earthquake and its aftershocks. There have been more than 400 aftershocks since Nepal’s April 2015 earthquake. 

We wind west at the intersection that would’ve taken me back to Thulo Syabru from my first day, and it’s the first time I’ve seen the valley’s thick riverside jungle, and become friendly with its gnats (who, for reasons unbeknownst to me, find my face a deal more sweet than my comrades).


By the time we see Syabrubesi in the distance, we are stopping every moment we can find shade underneath trees and bushes. Our brief breaks from the sun slow our progress just as much as our heavy feet and exhaustion. The town simply never seems in reach.

First views of Sy


We finally arrive, with a few dozen restaurant and lodging options in every direction. Syabrubesi is much more tourist-friendly and amiable to trekkers than its neighbor Dhunche. The road here is fairly new, its identity as the starting point to the Langtang trek.


The Langtang region turned out to be one of my favorite experiences of my entire three months in Nepal. Like the city of Kathmandu itself, I came with low expectations, assuming I would be befuddled with the grief, depression, and aftereffects of the earthquake. But it was quite the opposite.

One of the most important lessons I have learned and seen firsthand in this beautiful country is the resilience and pure, genuine love for life that the Nepalese have. The earthquake was devastating, there is no doubt, but that event won’t wipe the smiles from their faces forever. The Nepalese and the countless friends who have jumped to help their cause will rebuild their communities and their country. And in the meantime, each of these people and places will retain this irreversible beauty and continue to be one of the top destinations for tourists worldwide.

3 Passes Everest Trek: Part III

Our trip is winding down. Dad is thankful to retreat to lower elevation where a cough he’s developed can subside, though the next week of downhill will have no mercy on our knees.
We treat ourselves to a couple of very long days, in return for extra total-rest days, trading off our original itinerary of short hikes for grueling all-day excursions. The results are rewarding.

  
Day 15: Rest day in Gokyo (15,580 ft.) 

Our first night in Gokyo was not only our best sleep on the trip yet, but it was the longest time we have spent in bed so far, from at least 8:30pm until 7:30am. Because of our perseverance the day before, we are awarded a long, leisurely day with gorgeous weather in this quaint lakeside town.

  
After a late breakfast and relaxing morning warming up to the frigid air outside, the four of us take a walk around the emerald-green lake that makes Gokyo one of the Top-3 trekker’s destinations in Nepal. We take pictures, play in the sand, and jump around rocks underneath the towering razor-like mountains on the opposite end of the lake.

 

Cho-Oyu towering over the tiny town of Gokyo

 
Gokyo also boasts one of the most impressive views of Cho-Oyu, one of the world’s few and far between 8,000 meter peaks. I’d read before that Cho-Oyu is one of the most attainable (avoiding the word “easiest”) of the 14 to summit, though the formidable peak is still not to be underestimated.

 
We are still acutely aware of our elevation here. Just walking along the flat trail by the lake, we’re breathing more difficultly and taking more stops than we would at home or in the gym. It’s wild to imagine the time on this trip that we’re spending above the tallest point in America.

  
Our guidebook makes Gokyo sound like an exciting, sprawling town, and we quickly discover that while it deserves the hype for its beautiful landscape, it is no larger or luxurious than the villages we’re used to over the last few weeks. We read for a few hours after lunch and head to a bakery recommended by Lonely Planet. The taste of freshly brewed espresso and shared platters of walnut brownie and banana bread revive us. We sit by the window and strip our jackets, letting the sun warm our thinly-clad backs.

  
Day 16: Gokyo (15,580 ft.) to Lumde (14,370 ft.) over Renjo-La Pass (17,690 ft.)
Dad delays our typically early-morning start that’s accompanied us on the last two passes. For some reason, even though Gokyo is at a comparable altitude with our other lodges, the village feels much colder and we’re feeling patient enough to let the sun warm the lake and hillsides before setting out on our 8 hour day. We leave at 7:30 instead, which is about as much “sleeping in” as we’ll get.

  
Throughout the entire hike, we have a clear view of the tiny village of Gokyo below us, growing smaller as we climber higher. Our path zig-zags along the hillside up past the alpine lake, growing over a huge ridge of rocks where we scramble with our hands and feet to clamber upwards. It’s such a seemingly short distance, and at sea level it shouldn’t take us too long, but high above the tallest point in America, our lungs are short of breath and our muscles short of oxygen. It takes us three and a half hours to reach the pinnacle of prayer flags and people shouting loud “whoooops” of celebration at the top.

  

  
The descent is endless. We’re blessed with good weather which aids our spirits as we wind farther and farther through valleys, hopping over streams, traversing hillsides and kicking up dust until we finally see the tiny dots that mark Lumde below. By the time we reach our lodge flurries of snow are whipping around us, and no more than an hour after we’ve had a cup of hot tea and dug into our books, a whiteout outside blocks all views of the previously stunning mountain backdrops that drape across both sides of town.

  
  
So close to the seeming metropolis of Namche Bazaar, and so far from the outer reaches of Gorak Shep, Dad and I are surprised to find our lodge in Lumde to be the most primitive that we’ve stayed at. The one door separating kitchen from dining area swings open every few minutes, letting the billowing cold and weather into our dung-heated common area. While we don’t need to leave the building to access the toilet, the room is lined with sheet metal effectively keeping out any warmth (albeit, smells as well). We also don’t have a light in our room and navigate nighttime by the glow of our headlamps. These aren’t complaints, though; we’re accustomed to simple living by now.

Approaching the tiny town of Lumde just as the storm’s clouds roll in

Day 17: Lumde (14,370 ft.) to Namche Bazaar (11,286 ft.)
Today we are on the most beautiful trail that we’ve encountered so far. The wide dirt path wanders downhill at a slow grade, making our entire day a leisurely and enjoyable walk along the river and through some of the most famous villages west of Namche.

  
  
We transition down past the tree level again, trading the harsh mountain environments we’ve adapted to with a lush, colorful countryside. There are signs of life (and tourism) through Thame, which we reach late morning. Our original stopping point of the day, Thame is a sprawling city of a village that boasts endless lodges and restaurants, catering to Gokyo trekkers on their way up. Indeed we pass dozens and dozens of more trekkers than we’d seen in the last day, happily clad in shorts and t-shirts. 

  
  
We wind down into Namche over a ridge full of prayer-carved stones scattered across an area the size of a football field, painted with colorful words. Construction workers are digging deep tombs beneath some of the rock slabs which makes me question whether this is a sacred prayer area, or a graveyard.

A gompa off of the trail, overlooking Thame

Day 18: Rest day in Namche Bazaar (11,286 ft.)
We get to enjoy another full rest day in the village hub of the Everest region. Namche Bazaar is a true trekkers paradise; pubs serving the only cold beers you’ll find on the trail, movie and documentary showings, bakeries with limitless options for sweet tooths, and an abundance of information and cultural tours on local life.

Overlooking Namche Bazar

In the morning we set off for the Sherpa museum, perched on a northeast hill overlooking the town. We see a traditional Sherpa home, stocked with tools, clothes, and decorations from years ago. The truth is that the Sherpa are typically such humble and traditional people whose lives haven’t completely revolutionized with the introduction of modern technology, and so much of what we see is already familiar to us.

 

The buzzing Saturday market

 
On our way back into town we stop by the famous Namche Market, warming up for weekend traffic. Every Friday hundreds of local people from neighboring villages meet here to trade food and other supplies for the largest market in the Khumbu Valley. We see the seats, tea pots, spices, and other amenities that all of our lodges have been using – most likely originally purchased right here.

 

Kids play football at a schoolyard overlooking the Khumbu valley

 
Dad and I enjoy pizza, pastries, and coffee for lunch and spend the entire afternoon buried in our new books. We’ve accumulated a small library on this trek of classic non-fiction mountaineering stories. Over the last few weeks it seems we’ve been racing each other to finish a book, trade with the other person, and buy new when we’ve run dry. It is on one hand very fulfilling and appropriate given the climate we’re in, but on the other hand embarrassing to be voluntarily carrying so much extra weight on a trek where we already require the assistance of a guide and porter. I hide the extra books in my backpack and hope Pasang or Ang won’t notice.

  
Day 19: Namche Bazaar (11,286 ft.) to Monju (9,301 ft.) 
I wake up sick in the middle of the night, my body fighting itself, covered in a cold sweat and a hot fever and unable to move until mid-day. My dad, Pasang, and Ang are all very thoughtful and helpful in my agonizing walk down the gentle terrain that leads out of Namche.
Luckily, today consists of almost exclusively downhills. Unfortunately, I am too incapacitated by my pounding headache and seemingly endless supply of sweating pores to take a single photo on our descent to Monju. 
It takes us about three hours in the hot afternoon sun to reach this tiny town perched on a cliff overlooking the river. We are completely in the forest now, breathing in the psychological affects of extra oxygen that the trees bring us.

  
Day 20: Monju (9,301 ft.) to Lukla (9,383 ft.)
Our final day of trekking has arrived. We are both elated and disheartened, sad to be leaving the captivating world of the Khumbu. 

Because of my sickliness (which has totally cleared up today), we have a longer day than originally planned, and it takes us about five hours to reach the tiny airport town of Lukla. Today, it seems, 90% of the trail winds through villages, with short departures up steep hillsides or stretches along the forested side of the river. We’ve come a long way from the few-and-far-between lodges at higher altitude. Here, a bottle of water is sold for the meager price of 80 rupees and snickers bars are down to a manageable 90.

 

Villages and homes dot the entire trail from Monju to Lukla

 
Dad and I both get our own king-sized beds tonight, sprawling our dirty backpacks and sweat-stained shoes around the room as we settle in. We’ve long run out of “clean” clothes so we don our favorite, somewhat clean and comfortable, outfits for a final celebratory dinner with Pasang and Ang.

  
Six large cold beers, four heaping platters of dal bhat, and endless card games later, we thank our companions for their help on our journey and call it a night. In the morning we’ll all carry our bags to the airport to depart back to Kathmandu, an easy process made headache-inducing with its unavoidable crowds and lines and Dad’s impatience.

  
Leaving Lukla, our friends give us khasi scarves for thanks and good luck on our journey. I know that this will not be the last time I see this beautiful valley and it’s charming villages, so it is easier to say goodbye for now. The flight rewards us with stunning views to the west of the mountains we’d walked between for the last three weeks, reminding us that no matter how long our memories of this place stand, these peaks will stand longer.

3 Passes Everest Trek: Part II

We’re officially done with the easy part. What we thought was “hard walking” was nothing compared to what we were up against. Dad and I were finally entering the high-altitude portion of our trek, which led us through alpine lakes, mountains, and villages seemingly untouched by modernization.
Each evening got colder. Each morning got more difficult to crawl out of bed. The lodges, rooms, and bathrooms got gradually more primitive the higher we got (“rustic” would give some of these facilities too much credit). We wouldn’t retreat below the highest point in the U.S. (Mt. Whitney at 14,505) for over a week. We would challenge ourselves, and we would come out sore, sunburnt and happy.

  

Day 7: Dingboche (14,245 ft.) to Chukhung (15,514 ft.)



Today is a painstakingly short day; it takes us just two hours to reach our destination in the dusty, windy town of Chukhung. However, this is our only option. In order to safely and properly acclimatize, we don’t want to be sleeping any higher than we will be this evening.
However short the morning really was, it felt longer because of a mission we’d made up the previous few days: Find out if it’d be possible for me to join a climb of Island Peak. Arriving into town before 10am, Ang races to find his connection to talk about permits, groups, and gear rental. Unbelievably lucky, we sort everything out before noon. By that evening I have my permit, guide name, and schedule ready to go for the next morning.
Dad and I spent most of the afternoon talking about my Island Peak climb, reading, trying on rental gear, playing cards, overhearing and talking to other Island Peak climbers, and generally trying to balance the anxiety and excitement of my first attempt on a 20,000er mountain. We drink a lot of tea. We eat filling meals. We sleep (myself, restlessly), eager to begin the day we’d been discussing nonstop. 

 

The arduous hike to Base Camp, with Island Peak visible to the far left

 

Day 8: Hike to Island Peak Base Camp (16,690 ft.)



The four of us hike to Base Camp, where I’m united with a team summiting Everest to share food, thoughts, and tents before we all attempt a summit of Imja Tse, more commonly known as Island Peak. I split up from Dad and our guides as they return to Chukhung for the next two evenings.

Dad had encouraged me to find a way up this mountain the entire time, saying that this accomplishment would make Mt. Rainier look like “small potatoes.” Just three months prior we’d both been the highest we’d ever been, at 19,340 ft. on Mt. Kilimanjaro. In addition to topping out that altitude a full thousand feet, Island Peak would bring on greater challenges like relying on a fixed rope, ascending up a vertical ice wall, and donning crampons during multiple ladder crossings similar to those found in Mt. Everest’s Khumbu Ice Fall.

I was excited, I was terrified, and in the end, I was thrillingly successful and stood nearly as high as the tallest point in North America!

 

Standing on the summit of Imja Tse, Island Peak

 

Day 9: Island Peak Climb (20,305 ft.)

Read my entire blog post on our successful summit of Imja Tse, Island Peak!

 

Sunrise over Chukhung

 

Day 10: Chukhung (15,514 ft.), crossing Kongma-La Pass (18,154 ft.) to Lobuche (16,170 ft.)



We wake up at dawn to prepare for our first pass crossing, considerably the hardest of the three we’ll encounter. I have an insatiable hunger from barely eating the day before during the climb, and clean my breakfast plate while helping myself to Dad’s leftovers.

   
 

View from the top of Kongma-La Pass

 

This is the first time we’re walking on snow, from a tame blizzard the night before. The ground is only blanketed in about an inch of powder, but it does raise questions for us about the trail conditions on our first excursion above 18,000 ft. The going is good however, and we slowly inch our way up the zigzagging trail through stupendous views to what feels like the roof of the world.

Pasang stringing prayer flags across the pass

Pasang and Ang pull out packaged prayer flags that they unravel, inscribe their names on, and hang above the pass – fresh, bright, new colors that rejuvenate the older fading flags already placed there.

 

The other side of Kongma-La, looking over the glacier

 
 

Looking back at the 18k foot Kongma-La Pass

 

The descent was difficult. We cross over the Khumbu Glacier, the same one that snakes all the way up to Everest Base Camp, but in the last two years since Pasang had guided a group over this terrain, the frozen river had shifted and virtually eliminated the trail. Dad would say this part was just as, if not more, difficult than the ascent up the pass. We spent hours boulder-hopping and navigating our way through the endless moraine, working through a windy snowfall until we reached our warm lodge in Lobuche where we thawed out on popcorn, Oreos, and hot chocolate.

Day 11: Lobuche (16,170 ft.) to Gorak Shep (16,859 ft.) and Kala Patthar climb (18,514 ft.)

  
 

Looking down-valley at the hundreds of trekkers on their way to Gorak Shep

 

We wake up feeling clean and rejuvenated from hot showers the evening before, and set out among at least one hundred hikers headed north. It’s a slow, steady 2.5 hour walk up a long valley from town to town, which we enjoy leisurely, knowing that we will be reaching the highest elevation of our entire trip later that morning.

  

Like most, we stop at our lodge in Gorak Shep to drop our packs and enjoy lunch before taking off for the day’s excursions. The tiny village of Gorak Shep caters almost exclusively to trekkers; it’s too close to Base Camp to warrant the extra stop for climbers, and with such scarce facilities, little more enjoyable than living out of a tented camp. In fact, Gorak Shep is often described as a dismal town, one where “few people sleep well” because of its steep elevation.

This is the highest altitude that we will sleep at of the entire trip, and Dad and I both request two sleeping quilts each, along with bottles of boiling water, which at the end of the night we’ll stuff into the ends of our sleeping bags to keep our feet warm (a trick I learned on Island Peak).

 

Halfway up Kala Patthar with stunning Khumbu views behind Dad

 
 

Everest in all its glory, scraping the sky like a shark fin, from the top of Kala Patthar

 

After our standardized late-morning “lunch” around 10am, we venture up the village’s looming neighbor of Kala Patthar. The weather is perfect, and we enjoy crystal clear views of Everest and its surrounding peaks from the top. Many people will climb Kala Patthar for a sunrise summit, but in the cold, and with uncertain weather, we agree it’s best to take our chances while they look good. Sure enough, the following day’s sky was covered in clouds and a steady wind that would have knocked us off our feet at that elevation.
Day 12: Gorak Shep (16,859 ft.) to Everest Base Camp (17,600 ft.), return to Lobuche (16,170 ft.)

The day and its destination that many trekkers have come to Nepal for has arrived. We wake up with our starry-eyed neighbors who are all eager to see the jump-off point for daredevils attempting to climb Earth’s highest peak. After big breakfasts, we set off for the two hours it takes to get to Everest Base Camp alongside yak herders and porters toting loads for expedition teams as large as 150 kilos (I’m not kidding).

  

The hike itself is smooth, slow, and gradual alongside the seemingly endless Khumbu Glacier, following the age-old frozen river north to where the Ice Fall empties out into it. We see the first cluster of yellow and orange tents from far off, when we hear a helicopter taking flight. Pasang, Ang, Dad and I watch in horror as this chopper floats sideways down the valley, then shoots straight forward to a vertical wall on the Ice Fall, then falls backwards towards camp, practically brushing up against some of the raised prayer flags. It takes us a few minutes to realize half of the copter door is wide open, a cameraman dangling liberally outside to catch the scene on film.

  

By the time we officially step foot in EBC, it takes us near a full hour to walk from one end to the other. We see climbers, Sherpas, medical volunteers, yak herders, cooks, and people of all skin colors and body types running around as this was any other village. I recognize many of expedition names plastered across mess tents, and don’t recognize others. Pasang and Ang run into friends and family members who offer us cups of tea along our walk.

  
 

Alpine stream flowing from Everest’s Khumbu Ice Fall

 

The air around Everest Base Camp is not only noticeably thin, but it’s thriving, like an energetic field pumping with adrenaline. Some climbers have begun to acclimatize by hiking through the infamous Ice Fall, but they won’t begin ascending any higher or planning any serious summit assaults for another month. The excitement and anxiety in this field full of people is tantalizing.

Compared with our morning excursion, the afternoon is dull. We grab a bite to eat in Gorak Shep before trudging down the trail to return to Lobuche, where it is snowing. Even though our lodge locations will continue to lower in elevation, we still have two passes ahead to tackle that will take us even higher than EBC. For the next few days we won’t skimp on sleep or carbs to fully prepare our bodies for the demands that high altitude will afflict on us, whether we welcome them or not.
Day 13: Lobuche (16,170 ft.) to Dzongla (15,880 ft.)

Today is a short up-and-down hike to roughly the same elevation we’d started at. We’re at our lodge before noon, but the towering Cho-La Pass stands between us the next town, abruptly ending our options of continuing on for the day.

  

Pasang tells us that Dzongla is the tiniest town we’ll stay in, though we hardly feel a difference. Each stone building seems the same as the next, and there are a row of tents set up outside, presumably for Sherpa guides. Dad complains about the cold in the dining room until he notices these; then we decide to count our blessings. 

Although the nights are very cold, the mornings typically bring strong sun and warm temperatures. However, these good spells don’t last for long – the weather usually deteriorates by mid-afternoon. More times than not, we’ll encounter snow flurries on our final approach into town, or admire the storms behind the comfort of thin walls, our books, and a cup of tea.

View from the small but beautiful Dzongla village

Today, I take advantage of the early afternoon sun and hand-wash three pairs of socks, saving me from any additional laundry needs before Kathmandu. They half-dry in the sun, then quarter-soak in the snow, and finally fully-dry by the heat of our lodge’s dung-powered woodstove (or “shitstove” as Dad would say).  
Day 14: Dzongla (15,880 ft.) crossing Cho-La Pass (17,782 ft.) to Gokyo (15,580 ft.)

  

We’re crowding along dozens of other hikers at 6:15 am with the same mindset: Start early enough to get up and over the pass to beat the afternoon winds, but not too early that the backside of Cho-La would be covered in ice. This is supposed to be our easiest pass on the trail, but we are met with endless boulder fields and a large glacier crossing that slows us down.

  
 

Final glacier walk up to the pass

 
 
We reach a tiny town after our pass crossing at 12:30, our designated end point of the day. But even after a long morning, we’re feeling good, and suggest to our guides that we push on to the town of Gokyo, which we’ve read nothing but good things about. We’re looking forward to spending two nights in the same room for the first time in a week, and our very first ever full rest day, a new concept for us.

In the last blog post, Dad made a point that he’d wished he had clarification on what “rest day” entailed. On this day, before leaving the Tashi Friendship Lodge, he’d asked our guide: If we choose to push on to Gokyo, will the weather hold this afternoon? Pasang’s response: Yes, weather will be no problem.

So here comes my father’s query of “What is your definition of ‘no problem’?” We end up walking through a two-hour long blizzard. A few tame snowflakes had us pulling out our gloves and wool hats, and at less than halftime to Gokyo we found ourselves in a complete whiteout, blind but for Pasang’s guidance.

 

A long traverse to Gokyo in deteriorating weather

 
  

Halfway through the day, Dad announces that he’s lost his money clip: It’s gone forever. A few hours later, he’s positive that he knows where it’s ended up: Behind a large rock, 20 minutes into the beginning of our day, presumably on top of, next to, or underneath a pile of shit. Pasang and Ang generously offer to spend the following rest day retracing our steps back (9 hours one-way) to Dzhlonga to retrieve it. 
However convinced Dad is, all three of us are skeptical, and implore him to empty out his fleece and parka. Lo and behold, it’s in the right hand pocket of the jacket he was wearing that morning. I can’t tell if he’s relieved to have found it, or frustrated to have been wrong about its placement. Either way he saved the selfless Pasang and Ang a long (and frankly, disgusting) mission.

3 Passes Everest Trek: Part I

It wasn’t until a month or two before I was leaving for Nepal that my dad officially decided to join me in my quest to hike around the tallest mountains in the world. And here we are, in the thick of the Himalayas, completing the most challenging trek in the Everest region. For the next 20 days we’ll be living off of one of the most popular trails in the world, the trek to Everest Base Camp – with a twist. 

The “Three Passes Trek” takes the long way to and around base camp, adding on three intimidating obstacles that will take us over 18,000 ft. Our Lonely Planet guidebook rates this trek’s difficulty as “hard” and warns us it is “only for the truly adventurous.” Given our climbing resume and years of gear-testing, mistake-making, and navigational-learning, we consider ourselves a tough enough father-daughter team to be up for the challenge. 

  

Day 0: Kathmandu (4,593 ft.)

I arrive at the Yak and Yeti the morning before I’ll meet Dad and am hit in the face with the stark contrast between the hotel’s lavish courtyard, outdoor swimming pool, tailored garden, and the polluted, crowded streets of Kathmandu right outside its doors. The Yak and Yeti is a haven for newcomers and veterans alike. It’s the home-base to some of the world’s most successful mountaineers as one of Kathmandu’s most popular hotels. For Westerners freshly arrived in the other-worldly culture of Nepal, the Yak and Yeti feels a bit like home. For climbers and trekkers, it’s an energetic hotel whose sprawling backyard caters to the dumping and sorting of expedition goods, as well as hosting large groups.
Dad and I saw and met various people from teams around the world hoping to summit Everest this spring. Some of these groups would become familiar faces on the trail who we’d run into time and time again. Before taking off, we meet our two young and fit compadres Pasang (our official guide) and Ang Dawa (our porter) who will turn out to give us valuable advice and support throughout our next three weeks of sweat, dirt, and discomfort.

  

Day 1: Lukla (9,315 ft.) to Phakding (8,560 ft.)
We wake up from the Yak & Yeti to begin our first official day with an early breakfast and 7am ride to the Kathmandu airport. 5 hours of delays later, we are en route on a 35 minute journey to Lukla, as popular as it is infamous. Lukla is known as the “world’s most dangerous airport” for its many unfortunate accidents. The runway itself is only 500 meters long, ending sharply at the edge of a cliff. Landing doesn’t seem to be a problem, but we’re already crossing our fingers for a safe departure.

 

Lukla’s infamous runway, around 500 meters long

 
The other reason Lukla is so well-known is for its unparalleled popularity during trekking and climbing months. Flights only operate in the morning when wind levels are down, so in times of bad weather, people can be stuck either in the mountains or in the city for days awaiting a safe passage. We were flying on the first clear morning after a four or five day long storm, so delayed passengers took precedent and we patiently awaited our turn. Our guide tells us that a few years ago all flights were delayed for an entire month; there were thousands of people at either airport every day waiting morning after morning.

  
We hike downhill through an overcast afternoon to arrive at Phakding, a small and quiet village where our guide finds us a quaint and comfortable lodge. We’re offered gas-heated showers and wifi at a few dollars each, but pass on both.

  
Dad is getting used to his new La Sportiva trekking boots purchased in Kathmandu. One look at his veteran leather Columbia shoes and our guide told him they would not do on the high passes. He was more than happy to replace his tried-and-true hiking boots from home, but still complains about forgetting his gaiters and their expensive replacements. 
Day 2: Phakding (8,560 ft.) to Namche Bazaar (11,302 ft.)

  
Today’s trail takes us up and down, gaining and losing elevation all the way to Namche Bazaar. Our guide instructs us at the beginning of the day that the route will be “Nepali flat,” my dad nods agreeably but I warn him of what I learned on the Annapurna Circuit – nothing in Nepal is truly flat, especially in the Himalayas. Dad would call these sections “substantial and steep.”

 
A huge, long suspension bridge overlooking a thousand feet of thin mountain air marks the beginning of our steep ascent to Namche. We move slowly on a dirt trail through a forest that strangely feels like home in the Northwest. This comparison is quickly nullified when through the trees, at a distance, we see our first view of Mt. Everest.

  
Namche Bazaar is an impressively large village spread out over a corner of the Khumbu Valley. We hear that the entire village was created from the economy generated by Everest climbers, and I believe it. Endless shops dotting the main route sell mountaineering books, high-altitude medications, cold weather gear, and any type of toiletry, snack, or delicacy you could imagine. This is one of, if not the only, village where you’ll find a half a dozen bars with Asian beers, American cocktails, Italian wines, and everything in between.
This is the last stop we’ll order non-vegetarian dishes from. It is illegal to kill animals in the Khumbu Valley, so all meat must be slaughtered in the city, flown up to Lukla, and carried up to town. We’re comfortable with the amenities and level of hygiene in Namche, but watching porters carry up 40, 60, and 80 kilo loads of meat (that’s 176 lbs) all the way to Everest Base Camp in the heat of the day makes our stomach turn and extinguishes our appetite.

 

Namche Bazar from above

 
We share our lodge with a team of Chileans attempting Everest from the North side. They’ll hike all the way to the Nepali base camp before heading back to Kathmandu, flying to Lhasa, and driving to the Tibetan base camp. Their team consists of ten older gentlemen who don hats and shirts naming themselves “Seniors on the Summit.”
Day 3: Acclimatization day in Namche Bazaar

  
Of this day, Larry would like to say: “In retrospect, it would have been helpful to have obtained clarification as to what ‘rest day’ actually entails. I had envisioned a day of my feet in an elevated position, eating fattening pastries, absorbing the sun with a good book in my hand.”
To his disappointment (and my own delight), today is not a “rest day” – it is an acclimatization day! The goal of the day is to hike high and sleep low, getting our muscles used to the work we’ll look forward to for the next few weeks.

  
Dad sleeps in while I set an alarm for 4:30 to gain 1,500 ft. for a sunrise view of Mt. Everest at the highest hotel in the world, rightly named Hotel Everest View. Pasang and I are the only hikers on the trail, and we enjoy tea on the balcony in the quiet of dawn. We’ll continue walking towards Everest, just out of reach, for the next few days. The trail is easygoing and I wear my town sneakers all day long.

 

Sunrise tea at Hotel Everest View, which really holds up to its name

 
After joining up with Dad for breakfast and a few hours of leisurely reading, writing, and checking in at home, we set off for a mid-morning hike to Khumjung (3780 meters). It’s warmer and windier than the first few hours of the morning, and we’ve already worked up quite the appetite by the time we climb the 2,000 ft. to reach our lunch destination. I eat the most delicious piece of apple pie I’ve ever encountered in my life, and then we feast on dal bhatt.

   
The afternoon is an easy stroll back into town, a refreshingly hot shower (our first one since Kathmandu), and a few fun shopping trips. There are lots of herders taking their yaks through town, loaded up with expedition supplies on their way to base camp, or packed with mountain goods ready to fly out from Lukla. We don’t pay them much mind until Pasang tell us that they’re incredibly aggressive animals and we need to be sure to step out of their way, preferably closer to the wall, given the alternative option of a cliffside. We agree on both counts, especially after considering their impressively sharp, curved horns.

 
Day 4: Namche Bazaar (11,302 ft.) to Debuche (12,565 ft.)
We set off at 7 and follow a trail that hugs the cliffside for a few hours in the hot morning sun. We’re walking towards Everest, waving at us from just a week’s walk away.

  
Dad is in great spirits until we start to descend about a thousand feet to the riverbed, where we follow the gushing Himalayan runoff waters that remind us all too much of our first shower in Namche. After a carbohydrate and sugar-filled lunch, we ascend close to 2,500 ft. to reach our hilltop destination of Tengboche. This town is home to the oldest monastery in Nepal, perched atop a sloping field of green with 6,000+ meter peaks surrounding us.

 

Mountain style: Neck buffs protect from wind, dust, sunburn, apart from looking ridiculously cool

 
Unfortunately the hotel we’d planned to stay at is totally booked with an 80-person large movie crew filming a French movie called “Everest.” We walk 15 more minutes downhill through the forest to our new destination, Debuche at the Rivendell Lodge. To our delight we find an attached hot shower and electric-heated mattresses waiting for us. I spend 11 hours enjoying that heated bed tonight.

That tiny little peak above my right shoulder is Everest!

Day 5: Debuche (12,565 ft.) to Dingboche (14,245 ft.)
We have a short hike to our destination today and arrive before noon. Everybody seems wiped, so I spend a few hours of the early afternoon taking a short walk to the neighboring village of Pheriche. We were considering both towns for our second acclimatization stop, but (1) Pheriche is smaller with fewer lodge options, (2) the town experienced more earthquake damage that’s still in repair, and (3) Dingboche wards off the wind a little longer and the sun remains in the valley later than its neighbor.

  
On one of the many hills between the two, I experience my first 360-degree panorama of Himalayan peaks. Everywhere I look, I’m surrounded by these mountains seeming to topple over me, each demanding my attention for their breathtaking heights and seriously intimidating rock pitches.

  
Tonight I convince Dad to order dal bhatt again. I can’t get enough of this mountain-power meal: rice, curried vegetables, lentil soup, and of course, endless servings. I have two full plates of everything. We’re both getting used to the menus here, which are all variations of: rice and vegetables, potatoes and vegetables, noodles and vegetables. Breakfast foods are similar, with the opportunity to douse everything in honey. The one affect of high altitude that I have yet to experience is a lack of appetite. 

  
Day 6: Acclimatization day in Dingboche
Today feels like our first official full rest day. We sleep in and eat breakfast, then walk up the same hill that separates us from Periche to a monastery and lookout point. There are 75 or 100 people walking up the hill, some to the top for a demanding 4,000+ ft. day hike, and some veering west to continue onto Lobuche. Nobody else is cutting the hill in half like we do to enjoy the monastery, so we enjoy the trail to ourselves.

  
Back in town we divert from our standardized “lodge food” (re: rice and vegetables, potatoes and vegetables, noodles and vegetables), and stop by a few bakeries before settling on one with pizza. We each get our own, enjoying the unique flavor of yak cheese and “prosciutto”: canned chunks of ham.

 

Literal pile of shit: Now that we’re above the treeline, lodges burn yak dung instead of fire wood

 
Walking around town it’s easy to forget that we’re sleeping near the altitude of the tallest point in the contiguous states. Only half a minute of talking while moving slowly uphill and we feel our chests tighten, our breaths shorten, and our paces quicken. The most either of us have experienced from the thin air have been mild headaches and light-headedness. We’re sure to check in on each other (just as our guide is) to make sure we’re pacing ourselves slow enough for success.

  

Our days are shortening as we gain and adjust to altitude – in just a few short days we’ll be crossing our first formidable obstacle of the trek, the Kongma-La Pass. We are all smiles so far, let’s see how long we can keep this up for!

Annapurna Circuit Trek: Part III

Our bodies had absolutely collapsed in the city of Muktinath following our longest day yet over Thorong-La pass, and even though The hard part is over, we still have a significant portion of the trek left to complete. With whatever strength we have left, we cram the 4-day Tatopani to NayaPul section of the trail into a mere 2 days, leaving our legs more tired and our schedule complete almost a week before we’d planned. 

View of Muktinath from the temple atop the city

 

Day 10: Muktinath (3800 m) to Jomsom (2720 m): 19 km, 1080 m descent



We wake up early after much-needed rest to visit the holy city of Muktinath, which consists of a temple and series of religious shrines atop a hillside that marks the start of the Jhong Khola. This is one of the most important cities to Nepali and Indian Buddhists (the most important in the Nepal Himalaya), their version of “the land of dreams,” and most will visit at least once in their lifetimes. 

We pass the Gompa Sambha (First Monastery) and a Shiva Temple that is encapsulated by a pool with 108 brass waterspouts – a sacred number in Tibetan Buddhism. We walk left to right, touching the water from each of the cow-head-shaped spouts for good luck. We also visit the Jwalamai (Goddess of Fire) Temple to see the natural gas from the mountain burning behind a grill as a holy flame.

  
Our five hour walk today is dry, dusty, and a monotonous flat. We arrive in Jomsom hot and thirsty from long and relentlessly windy day. Jomsom is actually a very large town, stretching two kilometers and hosting a popular airport. Except, the airport is also unpopular enough where we are warned by multiple guides and lodge owners to avoid these flights because of unpredictable mountain weather and a less-than-squeaky-clean resume of airplane crashes.

  

Day 11: Bus ride from Jomson (2720 m) to Tatopani (1190 m)



There are trekking options for this day, but all of them involve continuing to walk along the Jeep road in Jomsom Valley, “The Windy Valley,” notorious for its strong gusts and dust storms. We avoided some monotonous, dry and dusty riverbeds by spending 5 hours on a local bus to Tatopani, the lowest elevation we’ve been at since Day 2 of our trek.

  
In Tatopani I’m shocked and delighted to suddenly find myself in a tropical jungle. I spend the afternoon on our lodge’s patio reading and enjoying the sunny 70 degree day. Later on I wander around the town, perched high on a cliff overlooking the river and famous hot springs. Tatopani literally means “hot water,” and its stone pools full of 37 degree (Celsius) water attract tourists and locals alike. 

  
Way off in the distance I can barely see the mountains I’ve just left, peeking through the valley walls and promising to show their faces on our steep ascent tomorrow.
Day 12: Tatopani (1190 m) to Ghorepani (2870 m): 17 km, 1680 m gain



After two nights of too many glasses of Roksy, Hira and I leave Tatopani around 7:30 am for what will be our greatest elevation gain of the entire circuit, nearly 1700 m (granted, at a fairly low altitude).

  
A few hours into the day and I’m complaining that I’m tired. By noon, I’m exhausted and barely carrying myself up the final steps through the entrance of Ghorepani. A conversation with Hira hours later would reveal that most people do this climb in two days. In fact, the 17 km trek is estimated to take folks between 8 and 11 hours to complete, where Hira and I have managed the task in no more than 5. I felt a little better after that.

  
Ghorepani itself is host to a number of shorter treks for travelers with less time on their hands. This area is known best for its brilliant rhododendron blooms in March and April, with bright red and pink flowers lighting up the hillside against a dramatic backdrop of the world’s highest mountains.

  

Day 13: Ghorepani (2870 m) to Poon Hill (3200 m) to NayaPul (1070 m)


We have another long day today, one that many trekkers do in two, but we have crammed into a mere 7 hours. By early afternoon and the official end to our trek, I am hotter than I’ve been in the last two weeks, I am done taking photos, I am mentally begging for sleep and a hard, immediate divorce from my hiking boots.

Our morning begins with a 5am wakeup call that reveals the weather is good, the sky is cloud-free and clear, and we are ready to make our ascent up Poon Hill. I’d read that this was by and far the most popular part of the Annapurna Circuit trek, and for many other treks in the Ghorepani area as well. A hundred or more people made the slow and steady walk up the stone steps to the top of Poon Hill this morning to see the fabled views of Dhalugiri and Annapurna.

 

Our first head-on view of Annapurna I throughout the entire trip

 
  
Words do little justice at describing the morning alpenglow on two of the most famous peaks in mountaineering history. Standing on Pool Hill, I looked at the valley separating Dhalugiri and Annapurna, reliving the moment 66 years ago when Maurice Herzog and the French Expedition stood in this spot, deciding which 8,000 meter peak to attempt. A long approach and huge waste of supplies on Dhalugiri forced the team to give up that peak in favor for Annapurna. In the end, their tough decision made mountaineering history as we know it today.

Sunrise over Dhaulagiri, the 7th highest mountain in the world

The proceeding six hours followed a series of endless steps down to the village of NayaPul where we once again experienced the unbearable heat of the dry pre-monsoon season in Nepal. Despite the weather, or even because of it, the Ghorepani region attracts many short-term trekkers with tighter schedules. We passed hundreds of people making their way up, undoubtedly reaching for the summit of Poon Hill within the following few days.

  
Josh and I walked away from our trek – him to Myanmar and myself to the cozy town of Pokhara – feeling stronger, braver, and tougher from the last couple of weeks. The lessons I learned from Annapurna will definitely help improve my success on the Everest Region’s Three Passes trek, and strengthen me as a hiker for the rest of my life.

  
Stay tuned to see my next developments in Nepal, and feel free to leave a comment or question for me below!

Annapurna Circuit Trek: Part II

In the second part of our Annapurna Circuit, all of our focus goes towards safely and successfully making it over Thorong-La Pass (5416 meters or 17,769 feet), the highest point and crux of our entire trek. Combining our previous experience with high-altitude hiking, local advice and knowledge, and careful attention to weather patterns, we are confident in our ability to navigate the most challenging part of the Circuit.
Our attentiveness is made all the more important by the tragic events of October 2014 when 43 lives were lost and over 500 people were rescued in the vicinity of the pass. A huge snowstorm had caught many trekkers trapped and unaware, and still others pushed on in the bad weather because of strict schedules and timelines they wanted to adhere to. This is a big reason why we allowed ourselves so many days to complete this trek – we didn’t want to feel pressured or constrained if we needed an extra few days over this section. Luckily, our carefulness paid off.

 

View from the top of Ice Lakes

 

Day 6: Acclimatization day, hike to Ice Lake / Kicho Tso (4620 m)

We wake up bright and early to start our hike at sunrise. Rising along the valley walls alongside the sun, the first two hours of our hike was shaded and serene as we looked out at Gangapurna, Annapurna III, and Annapurna IV. Just Hira and I, we walked fast, and made it to the lakes before anybody else from Manang.

There is an easy path to follow outside of the next-door village of Bragha, but Hira and I take a shortcut that zigzags behind Manang and cuts off some time and distance, but certainly not elevation gain. We bushwhack and boulder our way up to the top of a ridge that offers us staggering views of the Annapurna range.

Sunrise over the Annapurna range

We had left our lodge at 6:30 am and returned just a little before noon. The chefs who had prepared our breakfast didn’t buy it that we’d actually made it to the top! We had to show photo proof for them to believe us.
The ascent to both of the Ice Lakes felt easier than it looked on paper – with a staggering 1080 meter elevation gain! Two liters of water isn’t enough for the hot morning, and I pay the price back in our lodge with a pounding headache and a hungry stomach.

  
 

Overlooking the smaller of the two Ice Lakes, with Annapurna views in the background

 

This acclimatization trip certainly prepared me for the following day, as well as the final push up Thorong-La Pass. In fact, we won’t even be hiking or sleeping at this altitude until our final summit morning. Sometimes it feels great to lose your breath.
Day 7: Manang (3540 m) to Yak Kharka (4050 m): 9 km, 510 m gain

As we go higher, our trekking days become shorter. We also become slower. As we creep above 10, 11, and 12 thousand feet, our packs feel heavier and our feet move like concrete blocks. We won’t realize how strong we’ve become until we descend past Thorong-La and practically skip to the end of our trek.

  
Today only takes about three and a half hours to reach our destination, where we arrive before noon. We spend the next 8 hours drinking tea, playing card games, and discussing timing and plans for the high pass crossing.

Fresh powder speckles the trail here, and we have moved far past an altitude where rain will turn to snow. This is the first town where we are told that all of the pipes have frozen, which means there is no water – hot or cold – to shower. We also collect drinking water from a pot provided by, and melted by, the kitchen.

 

Changes in scenery as we are creeping up in altitude

 


Day 8: Yak Kharka (4050 m) to Thorung Phedi (4450 m): 6 km, 400 m gain

We aren’t even hiking for 3 hours today, but it feels rough. Josh is having trouble breathing and my legs are screaming in agony, but luckily my training hike up to Ice Lake greatly helped with my acclimatization. 

  

Like the day before, we arrive before noon and have the afternoon to ourselves. Since this is the highest we’ll stay, and the farthest from sea level amenities, everything here is outrageously expensive. We buy an extra large pot of hot chocolate for $12 and, if only from the comfort of feeling a hot mug through our gloves, decide it’s totally worth it.

  
We start a short acclimatization hike a few hundred meters above our lodge, and turn around as it begins snowing. It continues to snow for a few hours, and we start getting nervous. If the snow keeps up, we will have to delay our departure by a day or two… in the coldest, most inhospitable environment we’ve experienced so far. Yet even if the snow lets up, it’s the first the mountain has seen in weeks, and the fresh powder is bound to create a slippery ascent and a dangerously icy descent.
Day 9: Thorung Pedi (4450 m) to Thorung-La Pass (5416 m) to Muktinath (3800 m): 16 km, 1000 m gain, 1600 m descent

We wake up at 4am, wolf down breakfast, and are walking skywards by 4:30am. It’s snowing just as it has been the last few afternoons, only this is the first real blizzard in the last few weeks. We sludge through soft powder by the lights of our headlamps until the scenery starts lighting up hours later.

Hira and I overtake everyone else on the mountain and start breaking trail for the 50+ trekkers behind us. He follows the natural curves of the valley and uses his own intuition to take us higher and steeper towards the pass. The powder makes it impossible to grip our boots to the ground; we’re constantly sliding sideways and increasingly closer to toppling over the edge of the cliff.

All smiles at the top of the pass!

At 8:15am, we reach the top of the widest pass in the world, Thorong-La. Within 15 minutes the snow stops, the sky clears, and we can see the stunning mountain views we were promised. It is so cold at the top, that my iPhone completely shuts down and I miss my chance at a summit photo.

We start our steep descent down, made steeper and slipperier by the fresh snow. The day gets easier as we begin to gain our breath and strength at a lower elevation, and refuel with fresh water and food once our stomachs settle from the breathtaking altitude.

  
Unfortunately we are still high enough where snow falls, and where most of the town’s hotels cannot offer hot showers due to frozen pipes. We still sleep easy, our legs and minds worn out from the long morning.

  
The third and final part of our trek takes us into a tropical jungle on the opposite side of the pass. It should be a piece of cake after our steep climb above 5,000 meters, but we still have our greatest elevation gain of the entire trek ahead of us. Stay tuned!

Annapurna Circuit Trek: Part I

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.

 

Descending into our lunch spot in Tal

 
 

Josh gives a quick camera lesson to some Nepalese children

 
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.

 

The perfect afternoon spot for a tea break

 
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.

  
  
Day 5: Upper Pisang (3310 m) to Manang (3540 m): 19.5 km, 600+ m gain



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.

   
   
In Manang we settle into the room we’ll stay at for two nights, to acclimatize. We did some laundry and got our first hot shower in three days.

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.