November 26 – December 5, 2015
By Jenn & Steve
What avid hiker, backpacker, or mountaineer has not dreamed of trekking into the Himalayas with a tent in their pack, dusty boots on their feet, and a map in hand? It really feels like a dream come true to have the chance to hike in such a majestic and magical mountainous landscape.
We decided to hike in the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC)/ Poon Hill area of Nepal. We chose this area among the many different options for a couple of reasons: First, it takes approximately 8-10 days (making it one of the shorter treks), so it fit within our schedule. Second, it is close enough to Kathmandu (1 day bus ride), so we wouldn’t have to waste multiple days bussing or fly during the fuel shortage. And, third, it is not quite as touristy/well-known as the Everest Base Camp hike, so it is a less busy and tourist-crazy hiking option.
Getting ready for the trek was quite the endeavor, considering we hadn’t planned on trekking in Nepal when we first packed 5 months ago. We also decided, because we were able to, that we would do the trek without a guide/porters, so that meant we had to do all of the logistical planning ahead of time. It can be tedious, but really, the planning is just part of the adventure. First, we had to stock up on winter clothing – gaiters, down jackets, winter sleeping bags, toques, gloves, long underwear, etc. Luckily, there are lots of shops selling outdoor gear in Thamel (the tourist area of Kathmandu), and they sell lots of imitation gear, so you can buy a ‘North Face’ down jacket (that isn’t really North Face, but is really good quality down feathers) for ~$30CDN depending on your bartering skills. So, Thamel turned out to be a great place to stock up on decent winter gear without breaking the bank.
We also had to buy our park passes – TIMS (Trekker’s Information Management System) and ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Project), so we could trek without a guide in the area-, stock up on 10 days worth of breakfasts, suppers, snacks, and fuel, and lastly, do lots of research to make sure we were prepared for about 10 days in the mountains. But, we got it all done in time, and on the morning of Nov. 25th, we boarded the bus to Pokhara for the 200km bus ride that takes 8 hours on a single-lane highway going up and down, in and out of the mountains leading to the Himalayas.
DAY 1: Phedi → Dhampus → Tolkha
We spent the night in the small city of Pokhara, and set out the next morning by local bus (packs tied down on the roof and standing room only) for 2 hours from town to where one of the trails leading to ABC starts, just off the highway by a town called Phedi. And so, with fully loaded ~20kg packs, a local map, and excitement in our bones, we set off, beginning directly up giant stone steps. No easy start here. Up and up we went, directly up 1ft. tall steps for almost 500 vertical meters, with almost no flat spots, to our first ridge, near a town called Dhampus. We stopped for a quick rest and cup of coffee, with splendid views of the valley and mountain that we had just climbed, with slight harassment from a small boy whose only English word is “gimme chokolat” (Note: Steve was not willing to part with our precious Cadbury chocolate bars this early in the trip). We spent the rest of the day hiking up more stairs (for a total elevation gain of ~1,000m), ate a delicious lunch of vegetable curry and dal bhat, and then hiked back down on the other side of the foothill range, down to almost as low as our starting elevation that day. We lucked out and found a beautifully flat and scenic campsite next to a stream just beside the road after passing through a village called Tolkha. It was a good, and challenging, first day, and we crashed just as it was getting dark at 6:30pm.
DAY 2: Tolkha → Landruk → Jhinudanda → Chhomrong
After a quick, but hearty, breakfast of black coffee and oatmeal with raisins (to be our breakfast for the entire 9 day trip), we packed up camp and set off for the day. We lucked out, and around our first turn of the foothills we had our first clear view of the great Himalayan Mountains that we were headed towards. It was just a quick glimpse, as the clouds quickly closed in and blocked the view, but the sheer size and height of the mountains does really blow you away. Day 2 of hiking consisted of a lot of up and down, through hill villages and terraced fields leading up to the mountains. The villages are all very basic, with most of the land being terraced for farming, and the main buildings serving as tea houses/guesthouses for tourists, the main industry in the area. We spent the second night, right beside the trail, and next to a guesthouse, with a spectacular view down the valley that we had spent the last two days hiking through.
DAY 3: Chhomrong → Bamboo → Dovan → Hinko Cave
Day 3 was the first clear day of the hike, and we got out first close up views of Machhapuchere (aka Fishtail) Mountain as we continued up and up and up. Every day of the nine-day trip we usually hiked at least up 1,000 vertical meters in elevation gain (with varying amounts of elevation loss), for 5-7 hours of hiking, and day three was a pretty average day as far as elevation and time spent hiking go. We gradually made our way to our camp spot for the night, at a place called Hinko Cave. Hinko Cave is basically a giant boulder that has settled on the side of the steep mountain, that gives some shelter for the goat and sheepherders in the summer months, and the occasional ABC hiker. It was our first really cold night, with temperatures just above freezing at night, as we were just below 3,000m in elevation.
We almost had to stay in a guesthouse. When refilling my water at lunch, I had accidentally and unknowingly punctured my hydration pack with a tent pole, and there was almost 1L of water spilt inside my pack. Luckily, my sleeping bag, pad, and half my clothes were still dry, and we were able to scrounge up enough dry clothes to stay dry for the night. Phew! That was a close one and not the kind of mistake you want to make at or above 3,000m in the winter. But, we made it through comfortably enough, despite the water spill and lingering pee smells coming from the cave.
DAY 4: Hinko Cave → Deurali → Machhapuchere Base Camp (MBC) → Annapurna Base Camp (ABC)
Day 4 started the same as every day, but the exciting thing is that Day 4 is summit day, to the base camp that it, not to the mountain peak of course. From the cave to MBC to ABC it was a steady grind uphill, and you could begin to feel the effects of the lack of oxygen at elevation. We reached MBC around noon, which brought us our first 360° views of the Fang, Gangapurna, and Machhapuchere peaks, all stunning mountains in their own respects, and so neat to see up close. From MBC we made our way west, following the massive Annapurna South glacier towards Annapurna. It was a tough enough climb with the heavy packs and elevation, but with the amazing views to look at the entire way, it passed by quickly. Before we knew it, we had reached ABC, a sanctuary surrounded by giant mountains at 4130m elevations.
Once again, the views just take your breath away – there are some of the world’s highest mountains surrounding you in all directions, with crystal clear blue skies and clouds forming from the snow peaks. Basically, nothing about the Himalayas is disappointing and everything seems to be bragging about how intense and powerful nature can be.
DAY 5: Annapurna Base Camp → Machhapuchere Base Camp → Deurali
It was a very cold night in the tent, with temperatures dropping to a frigid -13°, and not warming until the sun rose over the imposing Machhapuchere Mountain and range at 10:00 am the next morning. Jenn had slept poorly on account of a cold and the cold, and watched the sunrise from the tent while Steve was up and at ‘em, taking pictures and cooking breakfast. We spent the morning exploring the sanctuary, walking through the ongoing piles of boulders strewn with prayer flags and many memorial sites for the people that have died or gone missing on the mountain. We also sat on a ledge for quite some time, just watching the glacier and the occasional mini-avalanche of ice come tumbling down, with a surprisingly loud crash echoing off the surrounding mountains.
It was hard to get ourselves to leave this beautiful place, but we didn’t want to spend another night freezing, so after noon, we packed up the tent, took some final last looks at the breathtaking scenery (and then a couple more), and then headed down to warmer elevation. We hiked down quickly and spent the night in the only flat spot we could find, right beside a hydroelectric generator shed. It was loud with the generator blasting and water rushing underneath us all night, but we were tired enough that we proceeded to pass out and sleep straight through the night. That would have to be one of the best perks of backpacking – the long, deep sleeps you get after a hard day’s hiking. So satisfying and definitely a reminder to appreciate the simple things in life. Most nights we got in around 10 hours of glorious sleep because it gets dark so early and there isn’t much to do besides crawl into your sleeping bag and go to sleep.
DAY 6: Deurali → Dovan → Bamboo → Chhomrong
After waking up refreshed on day 6, we continued down and down and down, back into warmth, plants, and villages. A highlight from the day would have to be the group of Gray Langur monkeys we got to observe making their way across the trail, foraging from tree to tree. We spent the night in Chhomrong, on another lookout next to the trail with great views of the valley. That evening we were befriended by a one-eyed dog (which we named one-eye), who decided to sleep next to our tent and bark ferrocishly and territorially at any local passer-bys on the main trail, including the lone horse that wandered up the trail at 2am and drunks heading back home around 3am.
DAY 7: Chhomrong → Tadapani
For day 7, we decided to head west, taking an alternative route down the hill in order to have more views of the Himalayas. The day was pretty standard, with lots of beautiful scenery, suspension bridges for crossing rivers, and a long 1600m vertical climb over 5 km up to the small village of Tadapani. It was quite tiring, especially after 1 week of continuous hiking and camping, and by the end, we were desperately asking each passing person “How much further to the top?!” But, we made it, ate a delicious lunch (dal bhat of course), and then hiked briefly until we found a beautiful, jungle spot, next to a stream. It felt like we were camping straight out of a scene from ‘The Jungle Book’, and that a tiger or cobra could emerge from the surrounding caves or foliage at any moment. Luckily, this did not happen, and our animal sightings were limited to seeing the famous Himalayan Yeti, bathing in the stream… Here’s a photo as proof for all you non-believers.
DAY 8: Tadapani → Deurali → Ghorepani → Poon Hill
Day 8 brought more, can you guess… Uphill! Up we hiked for another elevation gain of over 1,000m. We spent the day hiking west, parallel to the Himalayan mountain range, and the views throughout the day were truly spectacular. It was a perfectly clear day with blue skies, and we had magnificent panoramas of Machhapuchere, Hinduli, and Annapurna, as we followed the 2,500m ridge. At every viewpoint it was so tempting to stop and camp for the night on account of the views, but we pressed on to make Poon Hill (@3,100m elevation) our home for the night, and it was a good decision. (In most places a landmass over 3,000m would be named as a ‘mountain’, but in Nepal it only gets the title as ‘hill’). The sunset and sunrise from Poon Hill were the best yet. Many people hiked (~50min) from the town of Ghorepani at 5am to watch the sunrise, and many people commented on how jealous they were that we were able to camp overnight, with the ‘hill’ all to ourselves. So yes, the camping and cooking gear was heavy and challenging to lug around for the entire hike, but the independence it gave us to spend the night wherever we like was more than certainly worth it.
DAY 9: Poon Hill → Ghorepani → Ulleri → Tirkhedhunga → Nayapul
Our last day hiking, we rose early to watch the truly magnificent sunrise, then quickly packed up for our long descent back to people, roads, and cities. The continuous downhill was much easier aerobically, but brought a new challenge for quad, knee, and ankle strength and stability, especially with the still heavy packs. Our legs were quite sore after 5 hours of consistent and steady downhill (mostly steep stairs), and we were quick to accept a ride to the taxi in Nayapul when offered by a passing vehicle. Before we knew it we were back on the road, speeding back to Pokhara along the sketchy, winding highway and eating wood-fire pizza with wine in a fancy Italian restaurant in the city.
The next morning, we caught the 7:30am bus back to Kathmandu, and just like that, it was all over. The experience of backpacking in the ABC area would have to be one of our top multi-day hikes that either of us have done in our lifetimes, if not the best one yet. Not only was the scenery spectacular, but the climate, local people, hiking culture, and teahouses made the whole thing challenging, but enjoyable at the same time. You could hike for a couple hours without seeing other hikers, which made it serene and peaceful, but you could also see other hikers every couple of hours, which also made the trail feel safe and not so isolated. Often, when finishing a long hike, all either of us can think about is how nice it is going to be to eat some vegetables, take a shower, sit on a toilet seat, or sleep in a real bed; but, when we finished ABC, neither of us felt this way, and we both wanted to go back right away to continue the hiking/camping routine.
It was sad to leave, but we are so glad that we were able to do this hike, for very cheap, and we will for sure be back at the next opportunity to do more backpacking in the area. Till then, we will have to settle with looking at the crazy beautiful photos of the scenery and dream of our next Nepal hiking adventure!