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!

Taking a hike

Sometime last year, I decided I wanted to take a hike. Get rid of my stuff, get out of the country, and get a different perspective for a while.

Like many things in life, this trip seemed to appear out of nowhere and manifested itself on its own. One day I was talking about how badly I wanted to see the tallest mountains in the world, and the next day I had a one-way flight into Kathmandu, Nepal. The big idea behind this trip initially included a working opportunity that would land me at Everest Base Camp for around a month and a half. When that fell through, I’d already promised friends travel plans and set my sights on spending spring in the heart of the Himalayas – and I knew there was no turning back.

The best and most surprising thing about this trip have been the people I’ll be able to meet along the way. When some of my friends heard about my initial idea, they insisted I make a side trip to wherever they’d be. That’s essentially how a 1.5 month long trip turned into an epic 6-month adventure, over a series of persuasions.

  • Month of March: Annapurna Circuit Trek, Nepal
  • Month of April: Three Passes Everest Base Camp trek, Nepal
  • Month of May: Lhasa, Tibet and Leh-Ladakh, India
  • Month of June: Beijing, China and Trans-siberian Railway through Russia
  • Month of July: Tour du Mont Blanc trek through France, Italy, & Switzerland
  • Month of August: Trekking and touring through Italy

I still don’t have a return plane ticket to the United States, an equally terrifying and thrilling idea. Now that I’m a week away from taking off, I feel prepared, confident, safe, and of course, overwhelmed. I’m scared, but more excited than ever to be embarking on such a once-in-a-lifetime journey.

It’s tough to leave San Francisco, and even harder to have to say goodbye to a great job, an amazing apartment, and the most incredible group of friends… but I know this goodbye is only temporary, and am already looking forward to returning home again.
Follow along on my adventures on my blog, and please get in touch if you or someone you know may cross paths with me across the world in the next half year!