Tuesday, December 6, 2011

THE ANNAPURNA SANCTUARY TREK: MARC’S YIN (vs NAOMI’S YANG) VERSION

(As promised, Marc's rendition of our 10 days of trekking in Nepal. Take it away Marc!)

Survival Tips:
• Avoid Kathmandu and any other major urban centres
• Avoid all trafficked roads
• Always gradually acclimatize to adjust to changes in altitude
• Follow the Boy Scout credo “Be Prepared” vs. the Nike motto “Just Do It”

However, you can’t always avoid, adjust to, or be prepared for everything. Eventually, you’ll just have to do it ….



Day 1:
On our third day in Kathmandu we were picked up from our hotel, the Courtyard, by our guide, Dhana, and porter, Sitra in a hired car with driver. The five of us, and our respective luggage, travelling in a compact car made for a cramped trip to Pokhara. It was about a 6 hr. drive with a lunch break. It took about an hour simply to leave the leaded gas polluted Kathmandu city limits. Once in the countryside, although the traffic jams decreased, the pollution from the vehicle in front of you continued.

The potential for a traffic accident was present throughout the trip. At one point, the problematic nature of continuous passing, often at blind turns caught up with us. A motorcycle with passenger in tow attempted to pass a vehicle along a blind hairpin turn, but recognized too late that we were approaching from the opposite direction. (Double yellow lines indicating “no passing” do not exist in Nepal, and, if they did, their message would not be heeded). Our driver managed to stop in time to avoid a collision. However, the motorcyclist and his passenger drove off the side of the road and took a tumble. Fortunately, neither of them was hurt.


To begin our trek to Annapurna Sanctuary, we continued our travel west of Pokhara to a village called Nayapul (1050m). We arrived at approximately 2:30 PM to began our hike uphill to Hile – our first night’s destination. The ability to begin walking was welcome in various respects: escaping from the very real dangers of highway travel, the frustrations of constant traffic jams, the perpetual preoccupation of potential car accidents, the never ending dance to advance beyond the vehicle ahead of you, the heavy pollution from leaded gasoline.


The only obstacles that we needed to negotiate when beginning our trek was the animal dung that lined our path. On the one hand, our vigilance in avoiding stepping on it prevented us from being able to fully enjoy the scenery. On the other hand, given its organic nature, it was a preferred natural alternative to vehicular fumes.

[We subsequently learned that the Nepalese government has banned large domestic animals beyond Chommrung in an attempt to make hiking more palatable to those trekking the last half of the route to Annapurna Sanctuary. Later in our trek, we also learned that the some local communities created “defecation free zones” that targeted human feces. These areas attempted to prevent humans from using the ‘outdoors’ to answer nature’s call. Unfortunately, we found that there tended to be a high correlation of locked toilets in these ‘defecation free zone’ areas.]

It was a 3 hour uphill hike. We arrived in Hile around nightfall. Just in time for dinner at our guesthouse and an early sleep.


Day 2:
Dhana’s strategy to avoid Pokhara and dive immediately into the trek was to provide us with maximum flexibility should we need to take an extra day or two to account for any unforeseen contingencies such as altitude sickness or slow progress as our trip advanced. However, to provide for this type of flexibility, Dhana suggested that we hike a distance of approximately 16 kilometers our first full day of hiking: from Hile (1430m) to Ghorepani (2860m). If the distance seemed reasonable by Himalayan trekking standards, the elevation gain of 1430 meters (nearly 5000 feet) played havoc with the regulation of my normal bodily functions. This was the equivalent of walking several Grouse Grinds within the same day. It seemed as if I was making arbitrary decisions whether to eat, drink, shit, or piss since I no longer had the desire to do any of those. I could no longer rely on usual physiological clues as to what to do.

Ghorepani’s guesthouse can be considered luxury accommodation based on my past Nepali trekking experience. Our room even had an ensuite with a sit down toilet and hot shower! This was unthinkable when I had taken a similar trek 34 years earlier.

That evening, during our after dinner debrief, Dhana informed us to appear downstairs at 5:15 AM to hike to Poon Hill (3193m) to see the sunrise. Given our groggy state of mind and physical condition, we were not at all sure that we were capable of another uphill climb, especially in the dark and cold. However, we hoped that a good night’s rest may fix all that. We agreed that Dhana would wake us at 5:00 AM the following morning for the climb up to Poon Hill.

Day 3:
Instead, we struggled through another sleepless night. We reported our exhausted condition to Dhana when we met him in the dark outside our guesthouse at the designated hour and of our uncertainty in our ability to complete the climb. However, we were willing to give it a try. We joined the procession of trekkers who were also making their pilgrimage to view the major mountain ranges from the Poon Hill viewpoint (right to left): Manaslu Group (8000m), Lanjung Range (6983m), the majestic Machhapuchhare (a mountain that is holy to the Nepalese and which no one is allowed to climb – yes, some things are still sacred in this world), Annapurna 2 (7937m), Annapurna 4 (7585m), Annapurna 3 (7555m), Gangapurna, Glacier Dome (7069m), Khangsar Kang (Roc Noir) (7485m), Annapurna I (8091m), Tilchio Peak (7134m), Nilgiri North, Central and South (7061m, 6940m, 6839m), Tukuche (6920m), Tukuche West (6848m), Dhaulagiri (8172) Group.


Despite our respective conditions (as well as being seriously underequipped regarding the strength of light from our headlamps), we managed to make the hour hike up to the viewpoint. We were very pleased that we did. When we arrived at our destination, the sunrise gradually extended through the horizon. Upon turning around, the early morning light reflected on Annapurna South, turning its peak a golden hue. The gradual increase in daylight also highlighted the other mountain ranges. We found this spectacular scene awe inspiring. It was just what we needed to provide us with the motivation to put our complaints in perspective and continue our trip.



Dhana was understanding. Recognizing our fatigued physical and mental state, he made an adjustment in our itinerary. Rather than hiking all the way to Tadapani (2630m) that evening, he decided to shorten our day’s trek to the village just before: Ban Tanti (3190m). We walked through forest after forest of rhododendrun. Most of the trip was uphill. Even with frequent stops, I found that I had very little cardiovascular endurance. My breathing became heavy. My pulse pounded (too) quickly almost immediately upon resuming the ascent after each rest stop.

We arrived in Ban Tanti in the early afternoon. We immediately tried to repair our physical states by taking an afternoon nap to catch up on much needed rest. Despite this, even at rest, my pulse continued to race at 85 bpm. That evening, Naomi took advantage of Dhana’s certification as a master of Raki therapy by accepting his generous offer for treatment to relieve symptoms that appeared similar to altitude sickness. It seemed to work. She reported feeling as if she was levitating throughout the session. (I remember thinking ‘if only Dhana could have levitated us another 2500 meters’.)


Day 4:
For me, the added night’s rest as well as the glorious clear morning view of S. Annapurna and Machhapuchhare from our guesthouse porch made me feel ready to resume our hike. Once again, the mountain views worked their magic and persuaded me to continue to move forward as opposed to turning back. Naomi, convinced of Dhana’s healing prowess, was also ready to press onward. Things were beginning to turn around.

Of course, Dhana was not going to let us off the hook so easily. Our day’s goal was to reach the same place that we were going to go had we started the day in Tadapani, i.e., Chhomrung (2170m), a 16 kilometer distance.


We climbed down a picturesque valley following a beautiful stream running through it. The surrounding hills were lined in terraced rows of vegetables and rice. Upon arriving at each ridge, we were greeted with spectacular mountain views with a clear blue sky as background. We found this change of scenery also motivating. We were getting into the trekking groove. We made it to Chhomrung tired, but once taking the time to recover, ready for more.

Naomi and I decided to take advantage of the hot shower offered by our guesthouse. We took a change of clothes, towels, soap and shampoo to the shower facility located adjacent to the guesthouse. We checked for the presence of hot water. Feeling satisfied that all conditions had been met, we quickly stripped, wet and soaped ourselves. Of course, it was exactly when we were completely lathered that the hot water stopped running. We struggled with the faucets to no avail. Suddenly, we both felt the full cold of the evening mountain air. Fortunately, we managed to locate a separate hot water faucet and bucket. We took turns pouring buckets of very hot water to rinse as much soap from our bodies as possible without getting scalded. I had a difficult time warming up after that experience. Even after immersing myself fully clothed into my sleeping bag. We vowed that would be the last hot shower of our trek. We would only rely on ‘sponge baths’ using our supply of ‘wet ones’ from now on.

That evening we both decided to take up Dhana’s offer of Raki therapy. It was clear that maintaining a positive attitude and focusing on visualizing meeting our next day’s goals was going to play an important part in continuing our adventure.


Day 5:
The next day’s schedule called for arriving at Dobhan (2600m) after another full day of hiking. As we started the day’s trek, we could see that we were getting physically closer to our ultimate destinations: Annapurna South seemed to be just around the corner. Machhapuchhare was just opposite. They were rising nearer to us as we continued our trek and enhanced our motivation.

However, while we were pleased with our progress, we knew that the true challenges of our trip lay immediately ahead. Up until now, we experienced elevation gains to about 2500 meters before descending down to the valleys below. Now, as we approached the Machhapuchhare and Annapurna base camps (MBC and ABC) we were fully cognizant of the much more significant elevation gains that were in store for us the next two days. While we had managed to overcome some aspects of altitude sickness from the earlier portion of our trip, we now faced elevation gains of a much greater magnitude (3700 meters (MBC) and 4130 meters (ABC)). Will the previous days experiences provide us with the ability to make this much greater adjustment in the next two days? Was my worsening cough (yes, that shower probably contributed to the resurgence of the cold that I had in Israel) going to impede my progress? We decided to leave as little to chance as possible and once again took up Dhana’s offer for Raki treatment before retiring to bed that evening.


Day 6:
I woke up at Dobhan hoarse and with cough. I convinced myself that the mountain air was going to be therapeutic for both these symptoms once we started our hike. Given our proximity to MBC and ABC, there were no more roller coaster hikes climbing down and up valleys. From here on it was going to be uphill all the way.

The strategy was to play it by ear. If we were not able to continue, we would stop at Duerali (3200m) for the night. This was about a 4 hour distance. If we felt sufficiently strong, we would continue on to MBC, another 2.5 hour hike. Once we arrived and lunched at Deurali we decided to continue.

We hiked up a canyon that had a tumultuous river that was constantly being fed by different glacial streams running down from the mountainsides. We continued hiking until we seemingly broke through the clouds and occasionally, as they cleared, we were able to see amazing views of several of our target mountains: Machhapuchhare and Annapurna III. At one point, further ahead, I saw that Dhana and Naomi had stopped and were making strange gestures with their hands. As I approached, it seemed clear that they were attempting to clear away the clouds with the sweep of their hands. Within seconds, amazingly, it was working. Dhana indicated a distant point. The clouds gave way to reveal the first guesthouse at MBC. We all became very excited. We were nearly there! Annapurna Sanctuary was going to be a short 2 hour ‘walk in the park’ the next day. We knew we made it.

But, that evening, we decided to have our Raki treatment compliments of Dhana just in case.


Day 7:
I spent the bulk of the night hacking. Naomi and I wondered what was the source of this persistent cough. I did worry whether the hike to ABC was going to make matters worse. Should I be willing to take that chance? Naomi had a restless evening and indicated that she did not get any sleep as far as she was aware. However, as the reader can probably surmise by now, with daybreak we were both determined to make an attempt to arrive at the goal of our trek: the Annapurna Sanctuary.

We were told that breakfast would be ready by 6:30. We appeared at the guesthouse dining hall at the designated time, but found several people slumbering on the benches around the table and no kitchen activity. By the time breakfast was ready, there was a golden dome on the peak of Annapurna South – somewhat similar to a perfectly toasted marshmallow. We quickly consumed what has amounted to our standard breakfast: porridge and a hard boiled egg with tea. And then we were off…

Well, we were off at our 12,000 foot plus pace, i.e., extremely slow. Again, we let the view of the mountains before and after us be our inspiration. We trudged on. Along the way, we met people who were more ambitious than us and actually embarked at 4:30 AM to navigate by starlight and witness the sunrise at the Sanctuary. They were many of the hikers that we had met the previous days on the trail. We exchanged “namastes” and those who had already ‘conquered’ the trip gave us words of encouragement.

After a constant ascent, we managed to see the first ABC hut. It was off in the distance, but seeing it made us realize that the end was within sight. However, actually traversing the distance was longer than it appeared.


And then suddenly, we were there, surrounded by magnificent mountain peaks. Upon arriving, we emotionally hugged the two people who were mainly responsible for getting us there: Dhana and Sitra. We found a picnic table at a picturesque viewpoint (by the way, there was no such thing as a spot that wasn’t picturesque), and were treated to hot chocolate and a Snicker bar by Dhana. We lingered there surveying the profound scene that surrounded us: Mardi Himal (3453m), Machhapuchhare (6997m), Gandharwa Chuli (6248m), Annapurna 3 (7555), Ganggapurna (7454), Singi Chuli (Fruited Peak) (6501m), Annapurna 1 (8091m), Bharha Chuli (Fang) (7647m), Annapurna South (7219m), and Hiun Chuli (6434m). Underneath was a long, giant moraine of silt left by the glaciers of these mountain ranges. There was so much to take in.

Once we began to fathom what we had accomplished as well as caught our breath, we began to explore the area. We continued deeper into the basin to see different perspectives of the terrain. It was a perfectly blue sky and each peak seemed as if the contours of the snow was perfectly painted on its face. We couldn’t have asked for better weather.

Once our eyes were satiated with these sights, we descended to our MBC guesthouse for an indulgently long lunch break before continuing heading downhill to Deurali where we stayed the night. Naomi asked for a ‘hot bucket’ to shampoo and condition her hair since we were not going to risk any more hot showers. For dinner, we had soup and shared a pizza.


Since we had accomplished our goal, there did not seem to be a need for another Raki session. Despite that, we both enjoyed a very restful night’s sleep.


Day 8:
For breakfast we met an interesting gentleman who lives in Singapore, but had spent 20 years of his life in Vancouver. He indicated that he and his wife found the ‘quality of life’ so much better in Singapore. Intrigued, since Vancouver usually ranks especially high in ‘quality of life’ surveys, I asked him to elaborate. He did a convincing job by referencing Singapore’s lack of crime, low taxation rate, weather, etc. Naomi suggested that we plan on ‘recovering’ from our 3 month trip to India by visiting Singapore. Our new breakfast friend seemed to pay heed to this idea. He gave us his card and suggested we look him up if we were to visit there.

We covered the same terrain, but this time in reverse – which, of course, meant going downhill. However, today was sunny, as opposed to the fogged in conditions we experienced on our ascent. So, at each hilltop we were able to look back and fully appreciate the spectacular views we were leaving behind. These included Machhapuchhare and Annapurna III. In addition, due to the clear skies, we could also clearly see the entire length of the steep waterfalls that ran down the canyon cliffs. At one of these stops we saw the white faces of a large group of Langur monkeys that were reposing in a couple of large trees across the canyon. Although seeing many of these sights a second time, they remained equally inspirational.

We walked from Deurali to Himalaya (2920m) to Dobhan to Bamboo (2310m) where we stopped for lunch. And, coincidentally, a young athletic group from Singapore (!) who were heading in the opposite direction (to ABC) also stopped for lunch at the same time. When asked if we too were heading to ABC, we replied “Nope. Been there and done that.” Which felt kinda good. We expressed words of encouragement to them, although they were so energetic they didn’t seem to need them.

We stopped for the evening at Sinuwa (2360m). There I broached to Dhana the idea of travelling directly to Navapul, and from there to Pokhara, all during the next day. We discussed the pros (warmer weather, modern conveniences, including hot showers, internet) and cons (a longer hike than originally planned). We concluded the conversation by agreeing that we would get an early start and make the attempt to arrive in Pokhara the following evening. If we tired along the way, we’d stop along at the nearest guesthouse on the trail.


Day 9:
In the course of today’s hike, I discovered that Dhana must have been humouring me last night.

We started our hike at 7:00 AM from our Sinuwa guesthouse, then:
• Scaled the heights of Chhomrung where we had our first pastries of the trip from a “German” bakery: a chocolate Danish and cinnamon bun (the Danish was great, but the cinnamon bun didn’t quite measure up to UBC standards) with ‘milky coffees’.
• Descended the depths of the river valley to Jhinu (1780m). We did not partake in the hot springs nearby. Instead, Dhana, continued to point out the extensive diversity of vegetation along the way. He showed us, and we sometimes sampled, wild cucumbers, wild asparagus, cinnamon, tumeric, passion fruit, wild black pepper, alderberry, walnut, fiddle head ferns and the bulbs located on their roots, yams, poinsettas trees (and I thought they only came potted), mimosa plant, fig trees, lemon trees, orange trees, string beans, lettuce, cabbage, buckwheat, millet, sugar cane, soy beans, carrots, yarrow, wild strawberries, and marijuana. I’ll leave it to the reader to guess which of these plants I collected for later consumption.
• Crossed the Kyim Rong River and continued to the village of New Bridge which, ironically, now has no bridge at all since it was washed out in a river flood.
• Continued through the Modi River valley where we experienced what I considered to be primeval tropical scenery: the river flowed fast and with treacherous rapids throughout, the canyon walls were dense with wild vegetation, immensely high, and largely unpopulated by human habitation. It reminded me of my favorite movie. At one of our rest stops, I asked Dhana if he could point out where King Kong lives. He reminded me that it was the Americans [as well as Beauty, of course] who ultimately steered Kong’s destiny, and, to the best of his knowledge, Kong provided the fodder for one of New York’s largest barbecues that took place just under the Empire State Building. (Although, judging by some of the dung piles that we saw along the trail, it seemed possible that some of his descendants had survived.)
We finally stopped at the second of two guesthouses in the village of Kyumi (1640m). It was 3:00 PM. Eight hours since we had started our trek from Sinuwa. Nayapul, the jumping off point for our ride into Pokhara was still a 5 hour walk away. It’s now clear to me what was obvious to Dhana last night: Pokhara will have to wait for tomorrow.


Day 10:
We took off at 7:30 AM to continue down the river valley and loop back to our Nayapul starting point. The scenes became more pastoral. For the first time during our trip, it seemed that farmhouses outnumbered guesthouses. We also saw a large variety of domestic livestock, including water buffalo, cows, goats, ponies, donkeys, and Nepal’s own version of organic farming: free range chicken. Now that we were south of Chhomrung once again, we saw large mule trains carrying their cargo to and from mountain villages. (BTW, we were informed by Dhana early in the trip that the trick for preventing one of these passing burros to bump you off the side of the mountain is to be sure to always position yourself on the inside of the path.) The landscaped terraces produced by the occupants of these farmhouses were beautiful.

That is, until we came to a side of a hillside that experienced a landslide. We had to negotiate a fairly wide scree of fallen rock to be able to join with the trail at the other end. At first I thought the landslide may have been caused by deforestation (farmers attempting to maximize amount of farmland as well as using wood for fuel). However, after a short time, our narrow trail widened to a fairly wide dirt road intended for vehicular traffic. It was clear that the landslide was not caused by natural phenomena, but rather from the blasting necessary to create the new road. Once on this road, the trek took on a different flavour.

It seemed it was the beginning of the end for trekking as we had known it on this trip.

We continued down the river valley to Birenthati where we had lunch. Then continued a short way to Nayapul where we met our waiting cab to take us to our Pokhara hotel. A distance we covered on a road that was in desperate need of repair. The car trip from Nayapul to Pokhara took about 2 hours.

Once we arrived at our hotel, we arranged to meet Dhana and Sitra for a farewell celebratory dinner that evening. We both managed to take showers and get freshened up with the cleanest clothes that we had remaining. Dhana selected a dinner theatre restaurant located on the shores of Fewa Lake. In reviewing the menu, nearly all of us selected the grilled fish that came from the lake (Sitra had pizza). For the first time in 10 days we were able to dine leisurely in the outdoors without being chilled. Naomi and Dhana had beers, Sitra and I lassies. It was nice to be able to relive our trekking experiences in words rather than actions.


After dinner we were treated to the Nepalese folk music and traditional dancing. Both the musicians and dancers were very entertaining. So much so that we actually managed to stay up a couple hours past our usual 7:00 PM bedtime.

Day 11:
Seems that the hotel’s hot shower the day before was nothing to take for granted. Turns out that the hotel relies on solar power to provide the energy to heat their boiler. While it may work during the day, water tanks are not able to continue being heated during the night. Naomi benefited from taking an early shower. I wasn’t so lucky.

Our driver picked all of us at 8:45 AM for our return trip to Kathmandu. I joked to Dhana that I had neglected to bring blinders to prevent seeing the harrowing traffic dance during the course of our 6 hour trip. As it turned out, unfortunately, there was much drama to view. It was like a thrill ride in Disneyland, but with little or no safety precautions and a far greater probability of catastrophe. We witnessed two major traffic accidents, at least a dozen or so vehicles that had broken down in the middle of the road (there are no ‘shoulders’ in Nepal), and a few dozen ‘close calls’ that left me gasping in the back seat.

To relieve this tension as well as satisfy our growing appetites (my appetite increased [and my cough dissipated] as we descended down from ABC), we stopped at an obviously very popular ‘truck stop’ all you can eat, buffet, outdoor restaurant. For the first time since starting our trek I was ravenous.


By the time we reached Kathmandu’s traffic congestion and pollution, there likely was no vestige of any clean mountain air to be found in my lungs. However, we did manage to get safely back to our hotel.

Upon arrival at our hotel, we gave our final hugs, exchanged email addresses, reflected our gratitude through gratuities, and said our good-byes to Dhana and Sitra. Bishnu (the person who arranged our Annapurna Sanctuary trek), arrived later that evening to graciously suggest that we continue our tour of Kathmandu and its environs with him over the course of the next two days. We were very pleased to accept his invitation.

The Annapurna Sanctuary chapter of our trip was accomplished: we survived!




1 comment:

  1. Because the Himalaya, home of the snow, is the most impressive system of mountains on the earth, and for centuries the setting for epic feats of exploration and mountain climbing, are a world into themselves.


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    ReplyDelete