Trekking in Annapurna, Nepal Part Four: Annapurna base camp

I was alone on the trail and on my way to Annapurna basecamp. I charged through the forests on a well maintained trail towards Tadapani, but then plunged into a quiet and stunning valley. It was an amazing route with stunning views and perfect trails through a steep sided terraced river valley full of little colourful houses and welcoming tea shops. I found a great little lodge on the corner just before Chhomrong – the gateway to the Annapurna base camp trail – and enjoyed the spellbinding views across the valley. I drank a cup of lemon tea and relaxed. There was so much to be grateful for and so much to look forward to: the mountain trails, the welcoming villages, the cheap lodges, the apple pie.

I got up super early and started walking at 7am from Chhomrong (at 2210 metres). After 22 days on the trail, the straight, steep stepped climb was fine for me. I wanted to sleep as high as possible to make sure that I was well-acclimatized for visiting base camp. I only stopped to gobble down a huge plate of cheesy spaghetti in Himalaya and eventually reached Deorali at an altitude of 3140 metres.

I beamed with pride when I was able to tell people: I am on day 21, 22, 23. Wow was their response, all alone? Yes I eagerly chimed. My body was well acclimatized. I was feeling supreme, lean, invincible. I went sprinting up the climbs with a constant rhythm and reliable confidence. My well packed pack weighing easily on my back.

At 4130 metres, Annapurna base camp was an amphitheatre of rock and snow – unreal surroundings of mega clear and perfect high mountain views, including the near vertical south face of Annapurna, first climbed by Chris Bonington and team in 1970. Prayer flags draped nearby moraine fields where I found the memorials to climbers killed in avalanches. Now the trail had come to a dead end, it was time to turn around and run back down to Chhomrong. The journey was almost complete. 

I walked and walked all day long, out of the mountains, past villages, begging children, deserted lodges, long steps of stone, lovely views, into Tolka and on into the misty afternoon towards Dhampus. Step by step, further away from the mountains of the Annapurna region and into the flat lands around the city of Pokhara. It was all finally coming to an end.

On my 26th day on the trail, I left Dhampus early in the morning and descended on stone steps towards the road. I was in high spirits, listening to music, enjoying the sun, and chatting to fellow trekkers on their way up. And then I met the road at Phedi and the mountains were over. An old crooked lady walked up to me, grabbed my wrist and looked at my bracelet with interest. I had brought it back in Marhpa and she told me that the words meant Long Life and Good Health in Tibetan. It was special – I should hang onto it. Then I bargained a great price on a taxi to zoom the 30 minutes down the road towards Pokhara.

I had loved this trek for the contrasts and the variety: the jungle, the deserts, the lush greens and the icy whites. I had loved this trek for the people: the camaraderie of a trekking team, the drunken nights on apple brandy, and the constant games of cards. Also the lack of people, with the long stretches of solo silence in the wilderness. I had loved this trek for the great food: the apple pie, the momos, fried rice, stews, pancakes, soups and curries. I had loved this trek for the adventure: exploring remote villages, climbing high passes, and walking through deserts

Wandering through Lakeside in Pokhara, the brilliant sunshine, the promise of plentiful cheap food and a comfy bed all gave the true and rounded feeling of total pride and satisfaction.

26 days and 12,000 metres of ascent later, the loop was finally complete. It had been a wonderful first time wander through the mighty Himalayas.

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Trekking in Annapurna, Nepal Part Three: The Kali Gandaki valley

I chose the alternative road to Jomsom. There was a high pass on the western side of the valley which totally avoided the road. I walked most of the way with a small local girl who wanted to practise English with me. In Jomsom I found Australian Rodney and his Nepalese guide Tiljung, who I had met on Thorung La, and I spent the night drinking apple brandy and playing cards with them. Wandering down the dusty streets of Jomsom, I also bumped into François again! It was like meeting an old friend and we were delighted to see each other, straight away making plans to trek together the following day.

We spent the next five days wandering slowly down the Kali Gandaki valley together. We saw barely any other trekkers and it felt very off the beaten track, despite being on one of the most famous treks in the world. Most people seemed to finish the route in Jomsom, flying home or taking the long bus ride onto Pokhara. We stopped at a tiny Restaurant in Sauru. As the only clients, we sat in the ladys kitchen as she made us some extremely delicious fried rice and momos. It was a quiet and peacefully homely spot.

Marpha, Larjung, Ghasa, Tatopani. Each village was so different: crumbling and deserted, traditional and authentic, hot springs and souvenir shops, quiet and serene. All the time passing underneath giant white summits far, far above. Local people in the spaces in between seemed surprised to see us. Nobody spoke English and it was impossible to ask for directions. I felt as though we were seeing a slice of real and normal Nepal, free from the trekking culture. After nearly 20 days of constant walking, we talked about food constantly. Always hungry, lunch was the highlight of the day. More often then not it was a plate of fried rice and momos (Nepalese dumplings). We watched the vegetation gradually change with our descent and by the time we reached Tatopani it felt like we were back in the jungle. Another section of the journey complete it was time to celebrate again, with a delicious ice cold chocolate lassi.

Another big climb was coming up. From Tatopani it was 1750 metres uphill to Ghorepani. While in the Himalayas, that was pretty normal. Everything was just on a much bigger scale. The trail was like heaven. Steps climbed between lush green vegetation and colourful houses all day long with no traffic in sight. We slept in Serendipity Lodge – gloriously quiet giving space to think about the days gone past. The place was beautifully painted and had a well kept garden full of flowers. We were the only guests. We sat in the kitchen with the dad and the mum while they cooked, calling over their teenage son from his room to help roll out the momo mixture which we all eventually shared for dinner. I slept so well. The bed was so cosy. And I woke at dawn to a perfect golden view of Dhaulagiri from across the valley…reaching to the sky at over 8000 metres.

After a three hour early morning slog, we arrived in Ghorepani. Full of hotels, soul-less and touristy, it was very different to everything we had experienced so far on the trail. Poon Hill at sunrise was featured in all the guide books and was listed amongst the must-dos in Nepal but I found it to be too crowded. We were getting close to Pokhara now and therefore crossing paths with many more tourists on much shorter itineraries. All of this only compounded my preference and love for lesser known spots, such as the entire Kali Gandaki valley that we had just been enjoying so much.

It was time to say goodbye to François for the second time. I never thought I would met another trekker who I could happily wander along the trail with for a full seven days. It was a quick see you later at the crossroads in the middle of Ghorepani, only to meet up again later in Pokhara and Kathmandu.

 

Trekking in Annapurna, Nepal Part Two: Thorung La Pass

I was sitting with a Buddhist nun in a cave above Manang. She blessed my impeding crossing of the Thorung La high pass by whispering strange words under her breath and tying a sacred string around my neck. 500 metres above the valley floor, I stood next to her vegetable garden while staring out across the Annapurna range. I was alone again – while the others had gone on ahead, I had decided to spend more time in Manang.

The village was located in a dramatic wide-open valley fringed by snowy peaks. Many Buddhist sites added splashes of colour. I watched the locals riding about on horseback, working in the fields or herding cattle. I wandered along cobblestone alleys and narrow passage ways, passing tumbledown, ancient buildings. The many trekking shops were full of woolly socks, postcards, chocolate bars and tubes of pringles. Millions of prayer flags decorated piles of glacial moraines. It was a comfortable place to relax and an interesting place to explore.

It would take two and a half days to reach the top of Thorung La pass at 5416 metres. Overall a climb of 2000 vertical metres from my current position. It was important to go slowly to avoid any symptoms of altitude sickness caused by the lack of oxygen higher up. This would mean two days of arriving before lunchtime only to spend the rest of the afternoon napping, reading or chatting to other trekkers. I found these acclimatization days a little slow as I was used to trekking all day long but I knew that it was very important in the overall success of my trek.

When pass day finally arrived, it would be a very special day. I left at 6am to start the climb. Alone and high up in the Himalayas at dawn. I was excited, and felt confident and fit. I quickly overtook many people but then paused by the trail to marvel at the wonderful views. The sun was sneaking over the top of a larger then life mountain scene. Thankfully the sky was clear and blue so conditions were perfect. I wanted to stay there all day long. It was time to go slowly, take your time and appreciate every single second. These were powerful moments and I couldn’t help thinking back through all of my adventures. The people who had told me that I couldn’t do it and I wasn’t strong enough. Well here I was, trekking at over 5000 metres in the Himalayas.

On the top I was full of happiness, stopping to hug a few new friends made on the trail and drink more tea together. It was a carnival atmosphere  with many smiling trekkers and jumps for joy that they had made the big climb in one piece.

The trail made a very long and tiresome descent before arriving in the hot dry bowl of Muktinath –  crowded with religious sites and temples. I liked the Jingling of bells on donkeys, the colourful incense, the candles, the ribbons, the long lines of beads and engraved sacred rocks. With the many pilgrims and religious going-ons – this was more then just a town for trekkers.

The descent to Kagbeni on the northern side of the valley was remote, desolate and totally empty. With not a sign of human life in any direction, I felt free and liberated, dancing to music on my head phones. These were self defining moments. I could be whoever and whatever I wanted to be while alone in the wilderness. Peering into the mysterious kingdom of Mustang higher up the valley, it was hard to believe that there was any life up there, the landscape seemed too wild and bare. 

Between fierce winds and swirling dust, I rushed into the medieval settlement of Kagbeni. Stepping through the labyrinth of stony streets I eventually fell into a welcoming lodge and found the friendly faces of familiar trekkers from the Thorung La pass. It turned out to be an afternoon full of good food, games of cards and shared laughter.

Trekking in Annapurna, Nepal Part One: Towards Manang

A taxi running through the dark streets of Kathmandu. A chaotic and dirty bus station. 10 hours of pot holes. Sweaty and cramped. Not knowing where I am. Nervous at the huge drop off. A slow realisation that this is one of the poorest and most disorderly countries in the world. Remote valleys. Hidden villages. We are eventually thrown out the bus at dusk in the very nondescript town of Besi Sahar. Locals staring – the comforts of touristy Thamel feel very far away. A co-passenger – a rugged, ageing Ukrainian man with a ponytail and grimy khaki trekking shirt – turns to me, seeing my tired face, my pounding headache, my feeling of disorientation, he gruffly mutters “Welcome to the Himalayas” before slinking off into the twilight. And there I am, alone, at the start of a very long mountain trail.

If we travel to create memories then this is one that I certainly will not be forgetting any time soon. The following morning it took some time to negotiate my way out of town and onto an empty dirt road that slid through the hot and humid jungle. I sweated, I smiled, I asked for directions. Despite being nervous, onwards was the only way. In my first tea house in Bulbulhe I slept in a tiny box room built of plywood, walls lined with newspaper. That night I huddled under the blanket, feeling quite scared as an intense storm raged loudly over head. In mountains this big you never quite knew what that could mean. A lizard scuttled across the wall, my sweaty socks fell of the window sill, I slowly fell asleep.

The following morning I enjoyed a bowl of banana porridge for breakfast before setting off for day two of my walk around Annapurna. After a few minutes I noticed a young man a short way behind me on the trail and as he drew level, I casually said, “Hey, How’s it going?” This turned out to be François from France. We chatted easily all day long; along the cobbled pathways through ancient villages, along balcony trails revealing vast valley views, passing high gushing waterfalls. With fresh legs and bags of energy we skipped every possibility for lunch and ended up finishing the day at the Rainbow lodge in Ghermu. My eyes had flickered over this name in my guidebook back in my bedroom in England and now here. I. Was. Amazing. An English speaking couple arrived. They had been on the bus with François. And before I knew it we were an awesome trekking team of four.

That night we were the only guests in the living room/dining room of the young family who ran the lodge. While sharing stories of travel and life we enjoyed the hearty traditional Nepalese staple of Dal Baht – Rice, Curry and Lentil soup – the ideal trekkers diet. In the days that followed we gradually fell into the peaceful rhythm of trekking life. Lovely mountain days meant early starts, cool mornings, big lunches, hot afternoons and relaxing evenings with good food and lively chat. We enjoyed pumpkin stew, hot ginger tea, banana pancakes and apple pie. The trail was scattered with bright colourful guest houses, long suspension bridges, lush green layers of rice terraces, deep and rocky cliffs. Dreamy and Surreal. Tranquil and Easy. I enjoyed the feeling of being far from home in those mighty and quiet mountains.

Upper Pisang was a turning point with the first awesome views of big mountains with the cooler climate and icy breeze. A medieval village built from stone, we stayed in the simple but cosy Annapurna Lodge and enjoyed the glorious views of 8000 metre peaks. At the top of the village there was a Buddhist monastery which turned out to be one of the beautiful places I have ever seen. The vibrant colours, the detailed artwork, the peaceful atmosphere – it was a very special place in a pretty awe-inspiring location. Together the four of us eventually rolled into Manang, the first large settlement on the circuit and a big milestone in our journey. After a week of walking, it was time for a hot shower and a tasty Yak Burger to Celebrate.

Everest 3 Passes Trek: The Solo Adventures of a Mountain Girl

Renjo La Pass at an altitude of 5,360 metres. The third and final pass of the epic 3 high passes trek that winds its way through the Sagarmatha National Park and this moment was yet another soaring highlight along this exhausting but highly memorable journey. Behind me, silent in the thin mountain air, sat Everest, Makalu and Gokyo, before me the bakeries and relevant luxuries of Namche Bazaar were just a day away. As always, I wanted to savour every last second of this mountain adventure but eventually time ticking on and a hungry stomach pushed me on and down the trail.

The reputation of this particularly high and hilly trek seemed to proceed its self. As I plodded up the valleys and trails from Jiri, there was a certain sharp in-take of breath every time I mentioned that I planned to choose this route. “But where is your guide? … where is your porter?” Was the most common response. “It’s just me” I shrugged shyly. As an experienced adventurer, hiker, and wanderer with various walking ventures around the world already safely under my belt, I thought my plans would cause no

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Me on Renjo La Pass

problem. But doubt slowly started to creep in as I began to hear countless horror stories of what was to come higher up the mountain trail: daily helicopter evacuations due to altitude sickness, dry, cold and dusty air that will take you out with a horrific cough and cold within days, temperatures well into minus figures so that you are always shivering at night and struggling with frozen water bottles. I would soon learn that looking after yourself through good hydration, staying warm, and taking it easy would all be key factors in my enjoyment and success along this route. Along with this, there would be a certain inner strength and motivation required when going solo. You and only you will drag yourself out of bed at 6am to get an early start in freezing temperatures to clamber over that pass of 5,000 metres plus. I also learnt that it was time to be good to myself and a little treat here and there would do good things for the spirit. Buy that pricey chocolate brownie at the bakery, have a hot chocolate every now and again for breakfast, buy that (again) pricey internet card so that you can receive news from home and words of support and encouragement. All would be worth it, helping me to plod slowly on and on.

Saying all of that, I think that I found the trail much easier than the average punter. I was well acclimatized after having already completed the Annapurna circuit and the walk-in from Jiri. I was used to the plain food, simple tea houses and daily walking with a rucksack. However, there were new challenges unique to the Everest region. Hot showers were 5 dollars every time so basically, I did not shower for nearly 3 weeks, preferring to spend my money on calories. Good tea houses would present you with a hot towel just before dinner which would be a highlight of the day and a chance to get your only real wash. With icy cold water everywhere you went, it also wasn’t so appealing to get hand washing your clothes either, leaving them to get dirtier and sweatier as time went on. I was very thankful for my last-minute purchase of wet wipes which helped me to feel overall less disgusting. In the end, it was surprisingly easy to pass three weeks in this way!

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Kongama La Pass

Food was also twice the price as in Annapurna given the more remote locations and more difficult access. Even if I splurged and filled up my stomach to my hearts content the calories available were never quite enough to prevent me from thinking about food constantly. I knew that I had been on the trail for too long when I got very excited over a particularly large and generous portion of plain old fried potatoes and cheese, or a free packet of plain biscuits from a particularly friendly tea house owner. It turned out to be relatively easy to combat the cold as well. I slept in 2 pairs of leggings, 3 t-shirts, sometimes both my down jackets and even a woolly scarf and hat on occasion! Being a single person in a room for two meant that I could also use both duvets. Despite the suffocating feeling of so many layers in a dark and lonely box room, I was toasty warm and very happy every single night.

The first week was all about acclimatization so that I could continue feeling fit and well from Namche Bazaar at 3,500 metres up to Chukhung at 4,730 metres, just before the first high pass. I escaped the tourist town of Namche and, turning the corner, suddenly realized what this was all about. The crowds, higher prices and low temperatures couldn’t spoil the ridiculously larger then life mountain views and the deep dramatic valley that lay before me. Over the next week I would walk to the quiet and isolated high base camps of Island Peak and Ama Dablam to see the bright yellow tents of climbing expeditions and bright, shiny glaciers just beyond them. I would find a spare seat in the crowded café of the Himalayan bakery in Dingboche to enjoy a screening of the movie Everest along with a hot lemon tea and lots of other trekkers who all said ahhh! I’ve been there! when the suspension bridge located before Namche appeared on the screen. I would spend hours taking photos and videos, not wanting to forget the huge icy steep peaks that towered up around me. I would get bored on acclimatization days when I was not allowed to go any further to risk getting altitude sick. Instead I’d pass the time drinking tea, eating noodles, or scribbling in my diary while huddled round a cosy fire place, making small talk with other trekkers. Taking it easy and slowly would be worth it in the end I told myself.

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Exploring Chukhung Valley

The night before the first pass, I was actually very nervous but as soon as I got out of bed on time and onto the trail reasonably early, the idea of getting high up, all alone in the Himalayas went from being slightly scary to extremely exciting. I was well with-in my comfort zone and I knew what I was doing. Reaching the top of the Kongma La Pass at 5,535 metres was a huge relief, a pleasant surprise and even a lovely hike. The altitude was no problem and my slow days of acclimatization had been totally worth it. From then on I enjoyed every single step of my walk amongst those great mountains. There was of course the occasional quiet or lonely moment in a tea house, or that sudden realisation while trying to fall asleep, You are all alone at nearly 5,000 metres in the Himalayas!! But many days of previous solo travel gave me confidence and allowed me to relish that feeling and enjoy it, instead of letting it consume me. That feeling would be momentary and it would not last forever. You are right where you needed to be at this moment.

A big highlight day was on its way. I arrived into Gorak Shep, ditched my bag at a tea house and headed out, eventually spending seven hours wandering about Everest base camp and Kala Pattar (the mountain view top with close up Everest views). Yes, there were groups and plenty of people about but as a life long mountain lover, it was still a dream come true and a special moment to enjoy. I thought about all the drama, tragedies, and successes that would have taken place right here over the last 60 plus years. The devastating avalanche that killed 22 people here after the big earthquake of 2015, the tragedy described in the book of Into Thin Air, Chris Bonington’s 1975 expedition of the first ascent of the South West face and his Sherpas consecrating their Altar right in this very place, (I had been reading his book of this expedition on my walk-in – very atmospheric). I finished the day running down Kala Pattar in the dark after having enjoyed a beautiful sunset over Everest. I dashed straight into the dining room to wolf down a plate of fried potatoes, cheeks glowing bright from a satisfying and adventurous day out.

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Me at Everest base camp

The day that I crossed pass number two, Cho La @ 5380 metres, was probably the most challenging. I set off from Dzongla on what was the most freezing morning yet. My water bottle had frozen overnight and I was wearing both of my down jackets and all of my layers as I hiked on as quickly as possible. But as soon as the sun hit the trail everything started to warm up again as I began the scramble up towards the glacier below Cho La Pass. Walking over a glacier alone at 5,000 metres in the Himalayas felt super cool. The scenery and terrain along this part of the trail was forever breath taking and constantly changing as it snaked up and over this high mountain ridge. Pass number two done, I still couldn’t believe that I was here and everything was going so well. The descent was long and eventually I crossed the glacier at Gokyo, steaming past all of the guided groups as I seemed to have energy to spare. I couldn’t help smile with pride as one Sherpa guide exclaimed, “Very strong girl!” On arrival at the Namaste Lodge in Gokyo, I enjoyed a relaxing and well-deserved afternoon nap.

Gokyo felt like a milestone and as expected it was free from tourists compared to Everest base camp and the views were equally spectacular. The combination of vivid turquoise lakes, snaking glacial moraines and mighty mountain views was seriously spellbinding. The dreaded Khumbu cough as described earlier eventually got me, and just like everyone else on the trail I spent a good amount of time coughing and sneezing and consoled myself with tasty cakes in one of the highest bakeries in the world, enjoying the afternoon sun warming me up and a chance to rest my legs.

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Crossing Cho La Pass

After Renjo La the final descent was down into a shimmering afternoon light and the quiet village of Lumde where I spent the afternoon drinking tea in a cosy tea house and staring out the window. I was starting to relax and switch off. I wandered down through the peaceful valley, passing colourful monasteries and villages, following wide and easy trails. By late afternoon, the temperature had dropped and a cold mist had moved in. Starting to shiver again, I turned the corner and suddenly, just like that, Namche Bazaar was right there, with its cake, comfy lodges, free movie screenings and shops full of treats. I was back and the circuit was complete. Yes, the whole experience had ticked all of my boxes for fun and adventure, these mountains were the most beautiful I had ever seen. Basically, I was proud of what I have managed to do and saw this achievement as an accumulation of the many years I have spent wandering through the mountains from the Lake District as a teenager, to the Alps as a student, onto the Andes and the jungles of South East Asia.

But still, I was ready to leave. After 2 and a half months of walking through the wonderful Himalayas I was ready for home, the comfort of my own space, the joy of familiar faces and the chance to relax in the place that I called home. And with the excitement of these thoughts in my head, I raced down the trail to Lukla and flew straight on back to Kathmandu.