Thursday, June 19, 2014

Trekking to Annapurna Base Camp: Part 2

Day 4 - Dovan to Machapuchare Base Camp Deurali


We awoke early, around 5:45, planning to get an early start so we could reach Machapuchare Base Camp (MBC), where we would stay the night, reaching Annapurna Base Camp early the following morning.  Our hike started out much the same as the end of the previous day, through bamboo forest wet from recent rains.  We reached the town of Himalaya less than two hours later, setting down our packs to remove layers and put on sunglasses and enjoy a quick snack.  And that's when I noticed that my sunglasses weren't in their case.  I remembered having placed them on a pile of stuff next to my bed the previous night, but a quick call to the guest house only confirmed that they were gone.  Not great timing since we would soon be hiking over the bright snow - the one section where sunglasses were fairly necessary!  





We needed to get moving though, so we pressed on, moving through forest with the path not much more than large boulders randomly strewn about, creating a series of uneven stairs.  This was one of those points where your body is aching and you start thinking, "This kind of sucks, why did I sign up for this again? Can't we be done soon?", and just like that, the trail gave way to a clearing, and the massive snowy peaks came into view, a stark contrast against a bright blue sky.  The view was magnificent.  Those feelings from just moments ago melted away, the sight in front of us providing an instant charge of energy that had us scrambling up the path to get a better view, standing in the shade beneath a large boulder to take in the full panorama.


Deurali is the little blue cluster of roofs in the background.




Also visible from that perch was our next brief stop, nearby Duerali, the bright blue rooftops standing out against the rock.  The group reached Duerali around 11:30, but rather than stick around for lunch like most of the groups we had been trekking with that day, we decided to push through.  We knew we wanted to get through the next section of the trail, about two hours' worth, as early as possible to avoid the risk of avalanches and potential storms later in the day.  We continued on, following the path past some fallen branches up a set of concrete stairs to a snow-covered area that we quickly realized was an avalanche zone - the branches had been put there to deter people from taking the path, but it wasn't very clear!!  We backtracked, noticing the new path from a set of trail signs, which took us across a stream and up a muddy path.  Thankfully enough people had passed through that the trail was clear from the imprints of feet!  

Hiking along the "new" path, through the snow and small trees.


Climbing up and over and down boulders, walking through mud, in between snowbanks with thin trees, we found ourselves at a low point in the trail, back in the bed of the stream, directly in front of the avalanche zone we had found earlier.  At just that moment, we heard a loud rumbling and saw snow start to fall through a crack in the mountain.  We immediately turned and ran up hill, and I honestly thought we were fine, until I turned and saw a much larger surge of snow begin to shoot over the mountain, pouring down the side with the angry rumbling of a torrential wave.  At this point we ran, scrambling up to higher ground, through brambles and snow up an embankment as the avalanche roared on.  

Terrifying.

After another few minutes, the stream of snow finally seemed to slow, but we were terrified that it would have triggered additional snowfall, and that we were at risk of additional avalanches from other gaps in the rock, given that we were basically in the bottom of a chasm, with rock walls and snow on either side of us.  We quickly opted to go back to Deurali, which we could still see from our perch, most of the group pretty shaken up from the entire experience.  We were shocked to pass those same groups that had stopped for lunch as they headed towards MBC - they had all heard the loud rumbling from Deurali, but even with our description of the avalanche, they sort of shrugged their shoulders and continued, guides and all.  We settled in at a guest house called Paradise View, having sips of whisky or beer to relax our nerves a bit, then bundling up in the restaurant area to enjoy some food and card games before we finally were able to sleep later that evening.

Day 5 - Deurali to Annapurna Base Camp


Getting on the trail by 8, we were in a much better position to pass through the avalanche risk area the following morning.  We made our way up the path, and we actually spotted a trekker making his way across the massive snowbank that the previous day's avalanche had contributed to, clearly having taken the old path from the other end, whether on purpose or not!  We hurried across the new path, through the snow and trees, eager to be past the site.  We eventually reached another small metal bridge, leading us back across the river to rejoin the old trail.  That view from the middle of the valley, before the sun had touched it, was absolutely incredible, with the snowy peaks in the background, and the rock rising up around us on either side.   

The avalanche remnants.  If you look REALLY closely, at the bottom left hand corner, you will see a tiny, tiny person.  Now you have a sense of scale.



The next portion of the trail was more difficult - a lot of climbing and traversing of icy, snow-covered paths. But the view of those incredible peaks, looking back down the valley that we had been walking through and climbing up, was amazing - jagged peaks, dark and spotted with white snow, against a deep blue sky.  We finally reached Machapuchare Base Camp (MBC) after crossing and subsequently climbing up slippery snowy steps, the path made only by dozens of footsteps compressing the snow in spots.  We took a snack break at MBC, staying for about half an hour as clouds moved in and out of the long valley that we had just passed through.

Looking back into the valley we had just come up through.

Sometimes the path was just slush.



We finally set off up the path to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC), a trail of pure ice and snow and slush.  As soon as we descended from MBC, I spotted my sunglasses!  On a porter's face!  He must have picked them up way back in Dovan and just started wearing them.  I asked where he had gotten them, and he simply smiled and handed them back to me.  At that point, I didn't even care what had happened, I was just glad to have my sunglasses back for the snowiest, most light-reflecting portion of the trail!!

As we began to walk, the clouds suddenly lifted and we had a magnificent 360 degree view of Annapurna in front of us, the Fishtail behind, and smooth hills of snow, shimmering like a pure white desert all around us.  We had taken a hard left out of the valley at MBC, so this scene was entirely new, and absolutely mind-blowingly gorgeous.  

Sunglasses!! And the view isn't too bad either.

Looking back towards MBC.

Shimmering snow covered massive rock all around us.


Unfortunately, about halfway to ABC, a thick cloud descended over us and never left, so thick that we couldn't see more than about 20 feet to either side.  Without being able to see where we were going, with the far off rumble of snowfall, and with the slightly uphill trail a slippery mess of slush, the last hour was somewhat miserable!  We trudged along slowly and silently, trying to move as quickly as possible.  Finally, we encountered the large sign noting that we had reached Annapurna Base Camp!  Ecstatic (and by now absolutely freezing), we quickly posed for photos and continued trudging - we couldn't actually see the village from the sign, but forms slowly began to take shape through the fog, and there it was.  

We made it!  Now where's the town?


We found our way to Paradise Garden guest house, tossed our bags into freezing rooms with snowdrifts higher than the outer windows, changed into dry clothes, then piled into the dining hall.  We settled in, ordering plates of yak cheese and hot chocolate and steaming bowls of veggie noodle soup for lunch, spending the next hours chatting and playing cards with Sara and Matt, an Aussie couple we had met at Deurali, as well as Kevin and Tansy, who had caught back up to us on the trail, and our new German friend Peter. The very persistent cloud stayed put for the rest of the afternoon, occasionally opening up in tiny spots, leaving us rushing to the windows to take in the smallest glimpses of what we were sure would be a magnificent panorama.  We remained in the dining hall the rest of the day, enjoying more hot chocolate and deliciously comforting cheesy pasta (this was the second best food of the entire trek, after Chommrong Cottage!), huddling around a central table as the staff lit a gas stove under the table, warming our feet!

Yep, that's all snow.

Supposedly there are some gorgeous mountains back there.

The clouds teased us all afternoon.

Perfect comfort food after a long, cold day of trekking.


My first glimpse of that magical panorama was actually after dark.  As I finally emerged from the dining hall to get ready for an early bedtime, the cloud had completely dissipated.  The light of a crescent moon gently illuminated the mountains, a brilliant tapestry of stars strung from peak to peak.  I stood outside in absolute wonder, taking in the scene as much as I could, searing it into memory, stealing minutes as I moved between buildings, and taking one last long glimpse just before crawling into bed.  It was tough to sleep that night - somehow I was still freezing despite leggings, socks, a tank top, a long-sleeved merino shirt, a puffy coat, gloves, and a hat, burrowed in a silk liner inside a sleeping bag under a thick blanket.

Day 6 - Annapurna Base Camp to Sinuwa


It was still freezing when we groggily emerged from bed around 5:30 am, as we pulled on additional layers and trudged out onto the iced-over snow to take in the view.  It was absolutely spectacular.  We stood in the center of a 360 degree bowl of mountainous peaks, the sun slowly rising to illuminate portions of the rock.  We stood in the extreme cold, taking in the magnificence of it all, the stunning beauty, the ultimate reward for so many hard days of walking.  I stayed up at the viewpoint, savoring the moment as dozens of people started trickling back into the dining rooms for breakfast.  Finally I tore myself away for a bowl of porridge and packed my bag, and not long after we were back on the trail, in an attempt to cover a significant amount of time on the descent.

Panorama from just outside my door, at the Paradise Garden guest house.

The sun just starting to reach the opposite mountains.

A row of spectators taking in the sunrise.

The fully lit scene.

An incredible collection of prayer flags at ABC.

Panorama from just below the primary viewpoint.

This time, with clear blue skies all around us, we were able to actually see the full view all the way down, and the iced-over snow made for a much easier descent!  We were able to get our group photo with the ABC sign, and many members of the group took to sledding down part of the hill on plastic bags, squealing with delight as they raced (and tumbled) down the snow.  

Clear blue skies this time!

A long, beautiful, snowy descent.

Descending from ABC.

Kevin displays proper bag-sliding technique.

A serene scene upon arrival into MBC.


We took a short break to regroup at MBC, we continued down through the valley, moving as quickly as possible through the avalanche risk area.  About halfway from MBC to Deurali, a haze had settled in, lending an eerie chill as we passed the site of our original avalanche experience.  



"Avalanche Risk Area" - apparently this actually means "Don't take this path".

We took another break to regroup and have snacks at Deurali, then continued on the path to Himalaya, making very fast time - going downhill is definitely easier than up!!  Another quick regroup, and we were sailing along to Dovan, where we had stayed on our third night.  We stopped at our former guest house for lunch, joined briefly by our German friends, who were planning to stay the night at the next village, Bamboo.  We made the walk to Bamboo in under an hour, and while we were very enticed by the big beers and incredible Nutella crepes the Germans were enjoying, we decided to press on to at least one more village, to cover as much ground as possible.

Hazy fog settling over the valley.

Veggie noodle soup - delicious, but not a ton of energy for trekking...


The next section wasn't nearly as quick and easy, as we were required to climb back up the steep stairs we had descended in our initial arrival into Bamboo.  The hour and a half walk was much more physically demanding than the previous sections, and between the stairs and the sheer volume of ground we had covered that day, I started to hit a massive wall of exhaustion, desperately needing fuel, as we arrived into Sinuwa.  Probably only having veggie noodle soup for lunch didn't help much!    We decided to stay there for the night, as Chomrong was definitely too far - it was already late afternoon, and Chomrong required both a steep descent and climb - and we were told that Lower Sinuwa was already booked up for the evening.

Mel after the long stair climb from Bamboo.


Day 7 - Sinuwa to Pokhara


With our proximity to Chomrong, we decided to forego breakfast the next morning, only eating a quick snack, before making the grueling descent past Lower Sinuwa and across the river, to the steep climb up to Chomrong.  It only took an hour and a half, but the repeated chorus the entire way up was, "I really didn't remember it being this far!!"  Finally we arrived at the holy grail of food on the ABC trek, Chhomrong Cottage, where we enjoyed a blissfully relaxing brunch of burritos and chocolate cake as we rested at tables on the outdoor patio.  Completely stuffed, we lounged around afterwards, soaking up the warm sun and digesting before attempting to get back on the trail again.

Thankfully our bridge was a bit sturdier.

The whole group with the wonderful lady who runs Chhomrong Cottage (and makes such delicious food).


Next up was the ridiculous set of stairs we had climbed from Jhinudanda - while they weren't easy, it was certainly much better going down them than up!! At Jhinudanda, as we waited for the rest of the group, we found an adorable pair of baby goats, taking a "goat break" to hold them, cuddle them, watch them scamper and play, and let them gnaw on our shoelaces.

A chicken backpack.  Of course.

Goat break!

The primary method of transporting goods to the higher villages.


We then continued on to New Bridge, involving more stairs down… and back up, across a refreshing stream (where a few folks decided to soak their hair) and some local farms.  We took another quick break for a drink at New Bridge, waiting out a threatening storm (that luckily did little more than threaten), knowing we only had a few more hours of walking before reaching our destination.  Initially, only Billy and Izzie were going to do the 7 day version of the trek, catching a Jeep ride back to Pokhara that would save about a day's worth of walking, as they had a flight to catch in Kathmandu a few days later.  The rest of the group had considered adding the Gandruck-Gorrepani-Poon Hill circuit at the end, but by this time we were fairly determined to all take the Jeeps back to the land of running water and occasional electricity.

The farmland was always such a beautiful part of the surrounding scenery.

A beverage break in New Bridge.

No roads, hardly any electricity, but everyone has a mobile phone.


From New Bridge we did get to experience a slightly different landscape on the way down, as we stayed on that side of the river, rather than crossing back over towards Landruk, the way we had come days earlier.  The next section mostly followed the river, taking us through the forest and down, until we reached a tiny village of gardens and farmland.  We quickly regrouped, happy to discover we only had 45 minutes to an hour left of walking, though it did mean climbing up a number of stairs.  Past the stairs, the path followed the cliffside next to the river, passing a few settlements, until we came to a corner where we could see our destination in the distance!  We still had to walk quite a long way to get there, winding our way back away from the river, descending past more playful baby goats, crossing a study but high hanging bridge over a ravine, into the settlement where we could catch the Jeeps.  Exhausted and ecstatic to be done with walking, we bought snacks and took group photos, then piled into the Jeep along with a Belgian guy named Rom, for our long ride into Pokhara.

Victorious!!


Not ten minutes into our terribly bumpy, somewhat frightening journey, the bottom absolutely dropped out of the sky, a full-on downpour of rain, hail, and booming thunder.  Our driver pulled over a few moments later, soaking himself as he threw a tarp over all our bags, which had been strapped to the roof.  I was very, very thankful I had left my rain fly on my pack at that point!  The ride itself took a solid three hours, including two stops to check our permits and register that we had left the trail, until we finally arrived back in Pokhara, well after dark.  


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As with most of my trekking experience during my travels, this was one of the most challenging and rewarding activities along the way.  I was again lucky to have some incredible people to make the journey with, and while I was not prepared to do the full Annapurna Circuit this time around, I keep it in the back of my mind as a possibility one day, though I'll make sure to pack specifically for it!  

While I won't advise one way or another, we chose to make the trek without guides or porters.  Perhaps if I had planned ahead with a small set group, or perhaps if I found myself needing to carry more gear for a longer journey, a porter would have been a luxury.  As it was, the small amount that I did carry felt relatively heavy, even compared to my trek around the W in Torres del Paine, mostly because the pack was *always* on my back, and a very significant portion of the time, we were going straight uphill.  Though there was certainly an extra sense of accomplishment from carrying it all on our own!  As for a guide, we were quite happy without one, we carried detailed maps with us along the way, the trail was well-marked, and we could make decisions on the fly about how far we wanted to press on that day.  But we did encounter some people with excellent guides, who would go so far as to preorder meals along the way, so the decision is really whatever you're comfortable with.

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Since I've already written about my return visits to Pokhara and Kathmandu, next time I'll dive right into the next country on my journey... Thailand.

4 comments:

  1. Stunning photos. Thanks for sharing and safe travels.

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  2. Thanks for the great write up! Can I ask when was this trip taken? So much snow!! I'm heading there over xmas and am keeping fingers crossed on the weather! :)

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    1. Thank you! And of course! This was back at the beginning of April. I had a friend just recently complete this same trek and there was *much* less snow. I'm not sure what the weather is typically like in late December though! Will you be doing the Annapurna Base Camp trek or the full circuit? Good luck!!

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