Warning: Long Post!
A week long trek through the Annapurna/Dhaulagiri region of the Himalayas.
We followed the road down, into the Kathmandu Valley en route by bus to Pokhara. The dust and chaos of the city dissipated behind us as expansive fields and valleys encompassed our field of view. Amongst a spectrum of earth tones and sun burnt orange trees, hundreds of ledges of various plants and sporadic houses extend to the horizon. Occasionally, a rice paddy punctuates the singularity of color with a swatch of techno-color green against an orange earth. Though the drive is six hours it was pleasant, the constant changing scenery offering more than enough to keep rapt attention focused on the spectacle outside.
We reach Pokhara, a sleepy lakeside tourist town, much like a toned down Thamel (the tourist area of Kathmandu). I am grateful to be out of the city, and able to breathe more clearly. Though the city is shrouded in fog, obscuring and views that might have been, we are optimistic the weather will be in our favor. We take a leisurely stroll by the lake and contemplate our first day of hiking to come.
At day break we leave Pokhara for our starting location. For three hours we weave through dusty villages, a silver haze is cast around the valley obscuring the behemoth Annapurna south that appears on occasion, peaking from behind a cloud. We pause, marvel at the sighting before it falls again behind a veil. Though it is several days hike away, it looms massive above us as if we might nearly be at its base. We share the road with many other hikers, and several animals, making dodging excrement (the animal, not hiker variety) a full attention affair at times. The morning was leisurely, if quite hot. At lunch we sat next to an open window as our guide pointed casually to the ridge opposite side of the valley. Next, we would go straight up, for 1700ft. From the base of the valley to the top of the ridge. We watched, eating momos or fried rice as hikers ahead of us slowly, very slowly, plodded their way up
And then it was our turn, the path, which has sharp switchbacks is made of stones placed seemingly haphazardly in the form of steps. Though the view would become continually impressive I dared not look up from the ground for fear of tripping and injuring myself, on the first day no less. Though it proved arduous, and after six hours of hiking on our first day we made it to Ulleri, and camp one.
Our rooms at the tea house are basic, but clean. Two basic twin beds and not much else. But, out our window we are afforded a phenomenal panorama of the valley we just ascended, dotted with rhododendron trees.
The morning afforded a clear and arresting sight of the mountains we were unable to see the previous day. They slowly emerged as daylight broke. I sat, starring at the spectacle for an easy half hour, curled up in the comfort and warmth of my sleeping bag.
After breakfast we continued our trek, though it was hot like the previous day, there was mercifully a breeze as well as tree cover. On the occasions the trail disappeared into the the trees I could have been transported back to Northern California, for the view was almost identical, down to the bridges and creeks over which they passed. Slowly, this time, we wound our way up to a ridge for lunch where we were greeted once again by the mountains, though within minutes they diapered again behind the cloud cover. The breeze picked up, turning a warm day chilly, thunderclaps boomed in the distance, we hoped it wouldn’t rain, mostly because we were about to descend. Normally, I am adamant about my dislike for steep downhill, but this was actually quite fun. After following the main road for a while we passed a wooden sign pointing towards a house that read “khopra,” the ridge we are headed towards. We jumped off the main road and followed a track behind several stone houses. Though this was beginning to feel quite off the beaten track, soon we began hopping fences and weaving through fields. Our guide assured us, it was legal. At the base of a small valley we crossed a suspension bridge and continued our ascent back up towards our community lodge. The previous night we had stayed at a tea house on the main Annapurna/Poon Hill trek where many other Trekkers, including those on their own followed the well trodden path. Today, we veered off and started the community lodge portion of the trek. This is a very new trek, and thus sees very few visitors (and still requires the scaling of some farm fences). The lodges help support the community that normally doesn’t see any money from tourism, and in the case of khopra ridge, the money from the treks help build a school, just a few often things that really attracted me to this particular trek.
After dinner we discovered our guide is far more experienced then he let’s on. Treks like these in the off season are for fun when he isn’t summiting some of the Himalaya’s impressive peaks. Though apparently it’s in his blood, his brother having been to the top of Everest twice. For future reference ( and because no way I’m ever attempting anything like Everest) he recommended for a 6.5k summit, where you don’t need oxygen or a crazy level of technical skill, that I ought to try Mera Peak, then perhaps Island Peak. Though first, there would be some technical training to be had, as I have none. I don’t know what compels me to these acts, to push my body this way. But I do know how I felt on top of Kili, and no matter what other accomplishments I’ve had in my life I’ve never been as genuinely proud as I was at that moment. It’s addictive really. And difficult to explain, but it has to do with concurring the earth, of quieting the mind, physical exhaustion, and an almost spiritual nature. There is just something about the act of walking as well that just feels right, so to climb a mountain is a logical next step. In any case, I really want to climb one of the Himalaya’s taller peaks. Though I suppose, I should focus on the current task at hand. After another tiring six hours bed time has moved up to 8pm, with a wake time of 6 am. No matter though, as it’s pitch black once the sun goes down.
Today was a short day in an attempt to keep us relatively rested for the push to the summit, tomorrow. Though it’s not so much a summit as the top of a ridge, about 3,700 meters high. Every morning thus far we’ve been greeted by ever increasingly beautiful views from our windows, today was the Dhalugiri range extending directly before us. I could stare forever at those mountains. Though the hike was short, it wasn’t easy, the altitude changed our generally warm days much cooler. We hiked through a rhododendron forest, climbing a steep ridge to bring us from 2,000 to 3,0000 meters. Within minutes of entering the lodge the skies opened and it poured rain. Though I’m certainly glad to have missed the rain I am admittedly concerned about hiking in the rain and cold, even after lunch I couldn’t seem to warm up in my down jacket, or tucked away in my sleeping bag for a few hours. As the altitude increases, aside from a drastic drop I’m temperature, I’m noticing my appetite steadily decreasing. At least by now I know how my body reacts as altitude increases, and know it won’t be too bad this trek. I can almost pinpoint the altitude based on my stomach and head.
There is no electricity at this lodge, and very little heat retention through the thin wooden walls. The four of us, along with four other trekkers passed the afternoon playing cards and drinking masala tea in a smoky room heated by an old wood burning stove. Though the smoke would eventually sting our eyes and force an opened door. For a time, it was blissfully warm in our wood cabin.
Summit. This feels familiar, heavy breathing and a slow, but steady shuffle/walk in the general upwards direction. Watching nothing but the ground moving painfully slow beneath my feet. At least, the higher portion of my mind has shut off. The pain in my muscles dissipates, mind quiets as if the more advanced mechanisms of my body have simply, and mercifully given up. All I think is the the sound of breathing in my ears, and the observation of my legs taking me higher, slowly, but ever higher. Though at least this time, it’s not zero degrees and three in the morning. It still was a tough climb over the ridge to the the final lodge, our summit. In order to assure the spectacular view we had come all this way for, our guides feeling we were capable pushed our summit time, cutting the projected time in half. Just when I felt I could hardly go further, around the bend the Dhaulagiri range rose before me. Suddenly rejuvenated, it is all worth it. It always is. The sheer grandeur of the mountain is impossible to capture, in words or photos where they seem rather diminutive. The mammoth beasts encompass the entire sky line, over 180 degrees. I have never seen mountains so big, and seemingly close enough to touch. They, along with the altitude are breathtaking, and utterly arresting. Our guides had pushed us hard to reach it before lunch, and soon enough as we sat down to eat the clouds started to seep in. Within an hour of arriving, having lunch and going on a walk to overlook the worlds largest gorge the clouds had already covered most of the mountains. Though, we had seen what we had come for, and we did get to see plenty of yaks! Which made the afternoon hike more than worth it. In my constant fascination with animals and taking amusing pictures of said animals, I asked our guide to take me as close as felt was safe. He assured me, they weren’t aggressive. As we approached and he made noises to beckon it closer the yak reared up and jumped in our direction. Our generally calm and collected guide emitted a high pitched noise and jumped back. Evidentially, that was the first time a yak had ran at him, all because I have a bizarre interest in hilarious animal facial expressions (read: alpacas).
It’s quite cold here, with the sun out it can be pleasant, but once it leaves it is alarmingly frigid. Despite the early afternoon hour most of us retired until dinner wrapped securely in our sleeping bags.
5:45 am. I arose early to watch the sunrise over the panorama. Clouds shrouded everything, the damp mist held thick in the air, it felt almost as it you might be able to scoop snow directly from the air. Slowly, the morning sun illuminated the edges of the peaks, melting the mist into the valley, and sending streaks of light running towards the horizon. There a few places more beautiful, introspective, or spiritual than atop a mountain, or ridge. It is, a thin place, where the lining between the earthly world and another is almost sheer. I stood there along time watching the shifting mist, feeling the warmth of the sun slowly etch it’s way into my skin. And just as quickly as the clouds parted, they closed again, almost in perfect timing for our departure.
We were to head across the valley, to a point directly opposite where we stood. Though, instead of descending and reascending we would skirt the side of the cliff. A small path signified the route, barely enough room to put both feet next to one another, a sheer cliff hung precariously to our right. We slid down, clambered over rocks and streams, trusting our feet to steady themselves beneath our swaying bodies and prevent us from tumbling hundreds of meters downward. As we rounded the last hill towards our lodge a heavy, ominous cloud encompassed the entirety of the sky. Our guides pushed us upward, fighting against time and the weather. We arrived just as the first hail began to plummet the tin roofs of the dining hall. The four of us watched, clutching tea for warmth, against the harsh cold and watched white marbles descend across the valley, the cacophony of the thunder and hail too loud to hear much else. Before long the brown earth would be blanketed in white.
Our feet crunched on frozen, early morning ground. Sunlight had just begun to defrost the high mountain air. Today, we descend. It would be a long day, eight hours, so we began early. From our lodge we followed a frozen riverbed downward, skirting the frozen sides, willing our shoes to keep us from slipping. The trail became more and more steep. We jumped from boulders and slid down embankments, and for hours, we couldn’t warm up. We passed Martian landscapes where sliver rocks mixed with a pale white earth, churned with ice, staining our shoes and making them sparkle. Eventually, we re-entered the forest. The sweet scent of orange blossom hung in the air, while it began to thicken with warmth. For the first time in days I felt warm to my core, and reveled in the comfort.
After lunch,a bit delirious from having been on our feet for so long we continued on, ready to find camp. From a distance, we heard the cry of a goat. Slowly it became closer until there was a cacophony of small hooves and bells behind us. Turning,a flock of goats and sheep stop suddenly in their tracks as if they had been stalking us. The leader cocked his head, and ran quickly ahead of us, the rest of them following close behind. For a time, we heard nothing. Then, suddenly up ahead the had disbanded, twenty or so up in the hills, eyeing us suspiciously as we passed. The leader sat perched in a slanted tree, yelling at us as we scurried by. Again, we began to descend a steep trail, as we turned back, the entire gang or the rogue goats had gathered at the top of the boulder above our recent descent. It was an odd spectacle, and we mused they were a renegade group out to torment and stalk Trekkers who dared pass through their land. Despite their intimidation attempts, we made it safely to our last lodge.
Effectively, our hike has come to an end. Aside from a short 3.5 hours in the morning we’ll be back in Pokhara in less than 24 hours.
It’s a dusty, downhill, generally uninteresting trek back to the pickup point. I’m sad the trek has come to an end, though it was longer than any I’ve done before I found it far too short and am eager to head back into the Himalayas as soon as possible, it was truly a fantastic experience. Back on the main route we pass more and more trekkers. Although there are many in their twenties and thirties, there are many more much, much older. We pass groups of 50 plus trekkers on their way to some seriously challenging hikes. They serve to me as inspiration for the future. If I’m 65 and can still hike the Himalayas, then I feel I must still have plenty of time to explore the world, unlimited by physical ability. Similarly we pass many families. One in particular was a set of grandparents, a thirty-something couple (she was just barely visibly pregnant), their 5 year old and two year old, the latter strapped up on the Dad’s back. All headed to Annapurna base camp. The five year old is doing surprisingly well given the rigor of the hill he just came up. Everyone seems in good spirits. Though I know to have a family will not be the absolute end to my intrepid adventures (it’s a new adventure! I know, I know), but it certainly does help to see families defying what we generally conceive as family friendly vacations, and doing what works for them. And of all the under ten kids I’ve seen on the trail so far, not one of them was ever complaining or looked anything less than exhilarated. I really, really hope that’s how my future kids would be!
A surprising find on the trek certainly, but a bit of reassurance as I’m grappling with the ever frightening notion that, evidentially, I’m growing up. Or something like that. The Himalayas were more than I had hoped for, and leaving them all I can think is, how soon can I come back?
The weather, for the remainder of my time in Nepal is rain. As we arrived back in Kathmandu we were greeted by deafening thunderclaps. Though the city is certainly more dreary in the rain, it is somehow comfortable, and at least, cool. If it keeps up, my plans for the last few days are likely to change quite a bit, but I’m thankful the weather has been, until now nearly perfect. I can hardly believe on Sunday I’ll be flying on to India, though I have a few days left here it certainly feels as if I’ve just arrived, and am hardly ready to leave. But am at the same time, exceptionally excited to see India.