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.
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.
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.
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.