**NOTE: The following events were in 2017. Catching up on old posts before I leave for another adventure in a couple of weeks! Stayed tuned for new adventures soon!!**
Day 769 – 8 April, 2017
The weather forecast was foreboding. Snow. A lot of it. The storm was expected overnight and we were warned that base camp might be socked in. Go at your own risk, they said. A couple of years ago a group of trekkers in Annapurna Sanctuary went missing in a snow storm and were later found frozen to death. I was apprehensive, but Martyn was steadfast. We had walked for 6 days to get here. We will continue.
That night I went to bed wearing thermal tights, a down jacket, wool hat, and two pairs of wool socks, tucked into my sleeping bag. We were staying at Ganga Purna View Lodge (Machapuchare Base Camp or MBC), a few thousand meters away from Annapurna Base Camp (ABC), where mountaineers would launch their expeditions to summit the famous mountain in the Himalayas. The term “lodge” should be considered loosely. Besides the lack of heat, there was also no running water. I had rinsed my toothbrush in the water that was meant for washing the toilet area. The tip of my nose was so cold that it glowed pink. I secretly hoped that the blizzard would pick up so that when we woke in the morning, Martyn would have no choice but to come around to my way of thinking.
It was early, still dark, when the first people at the lodge began to stir. The snow had stopped sometime in the night and several inches of powdery flakes had obscured the path. Martyn was already dressed, undeterred. I followed him, looking at my feet, and trying to step in his footprints where he had already packed down the snow. We needed our headlamps until sunrise, but in the darkness, you could see a small cluster of lights in the distance that never seemed to get any closer. The lights were a significant grade uphill from our present position, yet it was clear that we were looking at ABC so we trudged onward. It was deceptively close, but it would take two hours before we finally reached the base camp lodge with a buzz of celebratory activity. Other early risers were gathered around taking photos, bundled up in their warmest winter gear. Here we were, standing at 13,500 feet in the shadow of one of the world’s tallest peaks. It was exhilarating.
Seven days earlier, Martyn met me in Pokhara. It was approximately six months since we had last traveled together in Venice and it felt as if a whole lifetime had passed when I thought about all the experiences in Africa and India in between. We secured trekking permits from the ministry of Nepal and we would be independently walking to ABC, which would take about 12 days round trip. I had been to Nepal once before, in 2013. I had successfully climbed to Everest Base Camp at an elevation of 17,600 ft with a guide in a different region of the Himalayas. I knew that trekking in Nepal is characterized by the quaint hospitable tea houses with lodging and food so the hut to hut trails are relatively easy to navigate.
Martyn and I squeezed into a taxi with two German guys that dropped us off 90 mins later in Nayapul, gateway to the Annapurna Conservation Area and the farthest place a taxi is able to drive. Foot and beast traffic only until we return to Nayapul.
The first night we slept in Tikhe Dhunga. It was a relatively easy walk of 9 km, albeit all uphill. The altitude was not affecting us much yet and the weather was crisp and clear. Our tea house was the first of many that would be precariously balanced on cliff’s edge. I had a dinner of salty noodles with stir-fried veggies while resting my weary feet.
Day 2 took us 10 km to Ghorepani with an endless stone staircase. Suicidal bright red ladybugs littered the steps so that you had to pick your way through the swarm to avoid stepping on them. They were seemingly attracted to the minerals in the stone. In Ghorepani, Martyn and I wolfed down an order of shrimp crisps and then debated on whether we should order more. Burning so many calories at this altitude, my appetite was insatiable. At night, the temperature plummeted and I found myself dreading the obligatory bathroom visit when I would have to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag.
On Day 3, we woke early for a sunrise climb to Poon Hill nearby. It was only 1 km to reach the top, but it was steep. We gained serious altitude to Poon Hill and Martyn admitted later that he wasn’t coping with the altitude as well as he had hoped. Fortunately, there were spectacular 360 degree views of the Annapurna range that made the entire effort worthwhile. From there, we returned to Ghorepani and onward toward Tadapani, another 8 km downhill that should have been a relief, but it was so unforgiving on the opposing downhill muscles we barely noticed the break.
The dining room of our tea house that night was flooded because the owner’s daughter forgot to turn off the tap. Huge sheets of water poured from the ceiling and put out the fire in the hearth. It poured on to the communal dining table, soaking the wool cushions, and puddling on the floor. I sat on the dry side of the room, watching, somewhat hypnotized by how soothing it sounded. When the daughter realized what had happened, she sheepishly grabbed a mop and a towel and went to work, all while wearing a full face of makeup and high heels. The whole scene was an amusing oddity.
Day 4 would finally feed us into the pass toward ABC. The route today was quite a bit of up and down, bouncing over metal swing bridges above thundering gorges, past death-defying terraced rice paddies, through villages with shouting children, and sharing the thoroughfare with cows and yaks. We rested on a grassy plateau where a girl and her brother enticed us to watch their magic tricks. Our weather had been near perfect thus far and today was no exception. Arrival in Chhomrong after 9 km was our first indication of busy season. The first two tea houses we checked were both sold out, which was an unexpected development. It was a larger village and a confluence of several other trails, but we finally secured a place with a great view into the pass and a bonus of free battery charging, a rarity. After a refreshing hot shower, we treated ourselves to cake and real coffee at a German bakery. Tinkling cow bells echoed from somewhere near or far, it was hard to tell, the whole night long.
From Chhomrong, we linked up with Sarah and her husband, Manin, and their friend who had just started an around the world trip. They were from Houston (so we began calling them The Texans), although Manin was Nepali American so he was helpful in bridging any cultural gaps. They asked if we had reserved rooms up ahead on the trail because they had heard rumors that the good weather window was encouraging hordes of new trekkers to join the route. We had not. So far, most of the tea houses had been relatively empty so it was hard to imagine the towns filling up. Just on the way out of town, we stopped at the checkpoint to register our trekking permits and stocked up on a few cheap snacks at the last bodega – Twix and Pringles of course.
First, we followed a big downhill to cross the Chhomrong River on a swing bridge. Scarlet rhododendrons framed the path and a few long-tailed macques swung from the trees in the uphill forest. The plan for Martyn and I was to stay in Dovan, 10 km distant. The Texans needed to carry on because they were trying to complete the full trek in one less day that we were, but not before we made plans to meet again in Pokhara. They wished us luck in finding a room as they pushed on ahead. I was doubtful the rooms would be sold out, but panic inevitably began to settle in. There were only 3 tea houses in Dovan. Somehow, we secured the very last room and it was only mid-day. It had a clean western-style toilet and an adequate washing room for laundry.
We met an Indian girl in the dining room who was trekking alone. She had just come from ABC and would tell anyone prepared to listen about how crowded it was further up the pass. So crowded that people were forced to sleep on the floor of the dining room, head to toe with strangers. She said they were running out of food (much of which was only supplied to these villages by Sherpa delivery). It did not sound ideal and I convinced Martyn that we would have to get an early start in order to race the rest of the pack up the mountain. A group of Chinese tourists congregated outside of our room, smoking and chatting, until well into the night. So much for starting this race well-rested.
It was only 8 km to Machapuchare Base Camp on Day 6, but we had just learned of the weather forecast. A storm was expected later in the day. It would be rain at lower elevations, but up here, most certainly it would be snow, possibly a blizzard. We debated stopping at Duerali, shy of the avalanche detour where the path had been washed out in a previous season, although the weather seemed to be holding so far and we couldn’t spare to waste the daylight. The path was a steady uphill, criss-crossing the Modi River, resting and taking in the views at Hinku Cave, a landmark and shelter for early Annapurna expeditions. We had to cross two avalanche chutes that were blanketed with snow and scree. Thankfully, Martyn had trekking poles which we shared for stability walking over such a treacherous patch. There was a Russian girl that we passed swimming in the icy river. She whooped and hollered, splashing water as we ducked our heads and kept moving. It might have been the damn near slowest race ever, fighting the punishing altitude that sucks your oxygen. We were racing the weather. We were racing the other trekkers for a bed. We were racing the sun.
Within moments of reaching the tea house, the sky opened. It was hail at first and then the snow. Then the winds came and we tucked into the tea house at MBC. The Texans were there, just returning from ABC themselves and were headed back down the valley already. We wished them luck and speed to avoid the brunt of the blizzard. The Russian girl eventually arrived as well and chose to sleep on the hard wooden bench in the dining room because she said she thought the mattresses were too soft. A man that worked there tossed her a pillow and she said she didn’t need it. I wasn’t sure if she was nuts or if I needed to toughen up a little more. This basic accommodation would be the most we had paid for a room in the previous week – the cost was less than $4USD.
This is how we found ourselves surrounded by the magnificent Annapurna Range, this remote speck on the map, truly off the grid. We took tons of photos until Martyn, suddenly growing impatient, announced that he “had stuff to do,” which I suspect meant that he was ready for tea. The descent would be grueling. The recent snow was already turning to slush in the wake of hundreds of footsteps and the rays of morning sun so it was slippery and quite easily could have turned into one of the world’s longest slides. My legs were jello, wobbly and uncertain on the ice. It was warm, hot almost, in the sun. Then the sun would slide behind the clouds and the chill could be felt straight through to your bones. One foot in front of the other took another two hours to return to MBC for breakfast and lemon tea. I ordered an omelet AND gurung bread because I couldn’t decide. Gurung bread is a puffy fried bread often drizzled with honey.
That night we slept in the village of Himalaya after 8 hours of trekking. I napped for 3 hours in the afternoon and ate all the food when I woke up – fried potatoes, pizza, even a celebratory beer. The snow was all above us now and there was nothing but blue skies between us all the way back to Pokhara. In spite of the long nap and the lumberjack snoring through the flimsy plywood walls, that night I still slept a heavy dreamless sleep.
We took 3 more days to exit the Annapurna Conservation Area along the Modi River, treating ourselves to chocolate cake and steaming hot coffee in the return to Chhomrong, a short detour to a dip in the Jhinu Hot Springs, and finally sharing a fried Snickers in Kyumi that had piqued my curiosity since my first visit to Nepal in 2013. On the last day, we crossed through impossible farms that wafted of dill and tarragon. Chickens squawked to greet us. A couple of dogs led the way until we finally circled back to Nayapul. Admittedly, I was trying to drag it out. I wasn’t ready to leave the mountains yet so I convinced Martyn that we should eat lunch at the base of the trail before catching a bus back to Pokhara. We watched as swarms of new trekkers were just arriving, adjusting their gear, and excitedly chatting. It had taken 10 days for us to complete the circuit, but I teased Martyn anyway, “Want to go again?”