Hike into thin air in the Annapurnas
What should have been a leisurely first day of trekking turns into the longest footslog of my life after a landslide wipes out our planned route. Sapped of energy, I find myself confronted with a whirl of images: hills of technicolour green, decorated mules, bright rippling prayer flags, laughing children and men who put my feeble stamina to shame as they clamber up hills with sheets of plywood strapped to their foreheads. I, on the other hand, have to will myself to keep moving, gingerly putting one foot in front of the other in oppressive humidity as I climb an unending path of stone steps.
I’m on the adventure of a lifetime: a 12-day trek climbing through the spiritual wilderness of the Himalayas to Annapurna Base Camp. At 4310 metres (13,550 feet), she is the smaller, less famous sister of Mount Everest. While Everest is synonymous with the summiting elite and famed for its record-breaking altitudes and desolate, dramatic vistas, the Annapurna ranges are a utopian wonderland of rice fields, bamboo forests, gushing rivers and quaint villages.
With a group of 10 trekkers, five Sherpas and five porters, I’m embarking on the Maiti Trek, a fundraising expedition with BluSheep Tours. Trekkers raise AU$1000 (about US$750) to participate (on top of the hike fee), with proceeds going to either Maiti Nepal, an NGO fighting against the trafficking and slavery of women and children, or Women Lead, a leadership development group for Nepalese women.
Our journey begins with a 30-minute flight from Kathmandu to Pokhara in a tiny 30-seater aircraft. We file into jeeps and quickly discover it’s every driver for themselves as we hold on for dear life, careening through the city’s streets, dodging potholes, motorcyclists, cows and the occasional herd of goats. We soon leave civilisation behind and the urban landscape recedes into a tangle of leafy trees, mountains smeared with grass and rural vistas infused with the freshest air.
Our Sherpas are Pasang, Kiran, Dawa and Pemba. They are a tight-knit bunch. Pasang is Karma’s right-hand man. The others are young and excited; Pemba is Karma’s son, Dawa his nephew, and Kiran a family friend who lives in their building. Karma tells me on the sly that Pemba begged to come on the trek. “I said yes, but only if he does his homework,” he chuckles.
We set off from the outskirts of the tiny village of Syali Bazar just after midday. We have no idea what we’re in for and our initiation is brutal. Six hours later, slumped in a chair beside the fire, I have a newfound appreciation for life’s creature comforts. A bed has never looked so inviting.
At 5.30am, the village of Ghandruk is suffused with a soft glow but cold air slaps your face. A field of crops leans towards where the sun will rise. Beyond, a mass of snow-capped mountains surrounds our lodge, so close you can see each crevasse and soft curve of snow. This is the backdrop for breakfast. We fuel up on potatoes and freshly baked bread while gazing at the peaks of Annapurna South, Hiunchuli and Machapuchare, known as the Fish Tail for its unique fin-like appearance.
The first drops of rain begin just before noon, quickly turning into a full-on deluge that brings momentary relief from the heat. Karma explains the monsoon has run later than usual and we are hiking in upwards of 35°C. Even the Nepalese, accustomed to the climate, are struggling with this unseasonable warmth. Our porters, usually impossible to catch, scurry only a short distance ahead of us, their eyes screwed up under the weight of their cargo.
The weather also brings out some sinister creepy-crawlies. “There’s a leech on me!” I squeal. Karma, mistaking my enthusiasm for horror, yanks it from my calf, leaving blood to trickle down into my boot. I’m excited about my first authentic encounter with Himalayan wildlife, but it’s good to know Karma has got my back.
During the afternoon of our third day, our wet-weather gear gets a workout. The soft pitter-patter of rain and the gentle crunching of gravel underfoot are the only sounds that break the silence of the bamboo forest. Everything is green – thick dark trees with bright leaves surround us, wet moss clings to boulders lining the path, and a blanket of foliage sprawls overhead. It’s beautiful, and just when I begin to wonder where all the bamboo is, I see a cluster of it – skinny stems all bunched together – then realise it’s everywhere.
I fall back with Pemba. A pensive 16-year-old, he is as quiet as he is agile, his smile a familiar shade of his father’s. Pemba soon comes out of his shell and we talk about everything, from his aspirations and hobbies to Nepalese politics, corruption and the country’s complex history. Occasionally the conversation slows as I concentrate on a mossy step or a slippery rock, but Pemba doesn’t miss a beat. He leaps in front to help me where he can, latching onto my backpack to steady me as we slog through the deluge, eventually edging down a rugged decline towards the tiny village of Bamboo.
Our days are spent scaling jagged stone steps and trudging through slippery mud. We negotiate precarious log crossings over tumbling rivers. We stop to admire waterfalls cascading down mountain faces, and to appreciate precious epiphanies, like realising we’re standing in the depths of a cloud.
In the afternoons we settle into our accommodation. Luxury lodges morph into sparsely furnished teahouses, a lonely bulb clinging to the end of a cord providing the only light. At night we devour noodle soup, vegetable momos (dumplings) and various interpretations of dal bhat (lentil curry). Apart from each other, a deck of Uno cards is our only source of entertainment. Competition becomes fierce and the Sherpas, who usually keep to themselves, sit down with us, playing along with enthusiasm.
As dawn breaks on our sixth day, I clutch a steaming bowl of porridge inside our dormitory-cum-common room. Today is our final ascent and the group is up early in anticipation, teeth chattering against a soundtrack of snoring from our fellow trekkers. My breath puffs out in a cloud, giving the impression I might start breathing fire at any moment. It’s hard to imagine I’d been drowning in a pool of sweat only days earlier.
The air is thin but I’m yet to feel the effects of the altitude. Most of our group has succumbed to the meds (Diamox is the drug of choice), but I’m quietly confident I can make it to Base Camp without it.
“Zoom, zoom!” comes the marching call from the Sherpas. We file into a valley, enjoying another downhill reprieve before the next climb and thrilled to be so close to reaching the climax of the trek. It takes some time to realise that it’s not excitement that has my heart thrashing against my ribcage like a violent criminal attempting a prison break, but altitude. My breath comes in short sharp rasps and I stagger, trying to suck in lungfuls of air. I make it to a plateau and rest, close my eyes and try to calm my heart rate. The oxygen is noticeably lacking up here, my inflated ego expiring with it. For the first time I can empathise with my fellow trekkers.
We break for lunch at Machapuchare Base Camp – the final pit stop before we reach our destination. The sacred Fish Tail is unconquered and off-limits to climbers, who fear being struck down by Lord Shiva, who is said to reside on the summit, or so the legend goes. However, its virgin status has been questioned over the years. The only known attempt was in 1957 by British trekkers Wilfred Noyce and A.D.M Cox, who turned back just 150 metres from the summit at the behest of the King of Nepal himself.
Clouds materialise, swirling above us, consuming the last rays of sunshine. By the time we resume walking, the cloud cover is so dense anyone more than a few steps ahead seems to vaporise in the fog. There’s little sign of life, save for the light whistle of wind through the grass and the sound of water trickling somewhere in the distance.
After what feels like hours, I spot a flimsy wooden sign and the flash of a colourful prayer flag rippling in the wind: “Namaste. Amazing Annapurna Base Camp…” Whoops of glee bounce between us. After thousands of stairs, suffocating heat, torrential rain and overcoming our mental demons we have made it.
Well, we assume we have. We can’t see anything.
Despite the poor visibility, we celebrate somewhat deliriously with steaming cups of tea and coffee flowing hot into our bellies. That night we collapse into bed with the greatest satisfaction, chattering excitedly before fatigue gives way to sleep.
It’s barely light and a crowd has already assembled at the viewing point, rugged up in beanies and thick down jackets. The air buzzes with excitement. What was invisible on our arrival is now emblazoned before us like stills on a giant projector screen – charcoal peaks coated with soft white powder puncture the sky surrounding us. Karma points to each peak, naming them: Annapurna I, Barasikhar, Annapurna South, Hiunchuli, Machapuchare, Gandharva Chuli...
“The sun will rise on Barasikhar,” he says, rubbing his hands together.
There’s a collective inhalation, followed by a silence that sweeps across the hilltop. The sun breaks over Machapuchare and the peak of Barasikhar is illuminated in a soft rose-gold that oozes down the mountain. For a moment I forget that I’m sore, exhausted, freezing and looking every bit like I haven’t showered in three days. I witness the elements align for this one glorious moment, consumed with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for this simple, flawless show of nature.
All too soon it’s time to start our journey back. I’m not ready. There’s something inside me that says I’m home. With one last look, I vow to return one day and we begin our slow and steady descent.
It turns out it’s a lot harder going down than it is up. The descent quickly takes its toll on my knees and my feet feel like compressed balloons set to explode. When we eventually shuffle into the colourful village of Jhinu Danda on our last full day of trekking, hot springs trump the lure of a shower. We sink into the steaming riverside baths, our aching bodies shrieking with pleasure after the previous two days of downhill torture.
“Tea? Coffee? Hot lemon?” I smile at Dawa as he gathers everyone’s morning beverage order, a lump forming in my throat. This is the last day with our Sherpas before we say goodbye. I’ve become used to their familiar presence; through this journey we have become one big family.
Less than 24 hours later I’m back in the bustle of Kathmandu. We meet with the Maiti Nepal and Women LEAD charities, and it’s only now I appreciate the enormity of what we’ve accomplished. We are greeted with a sea of toothy smiles, enthusiastic waves and tender embraces infused with the kind of emotion that sinks deep into your soul. These women and children have experienced horrors darker than we can imagine, yet they exude an aura of hope and courage.
I have overcome mental and physical hurdles to conquer the challenge of a lifetime, but my journey pales into insignificance in this company. These people are the epitome of strength.
Karma would be so proud.
AirAsia flies from Melbourne and Sydney to Kathmandu via Kuala Lumpur.
For more information on hiking in Nepal visit the official tourism website.
BluSheep offers personalised, local-led experiences throughout Nepal, including The Maiti Trek and tailor-made trekking adventures. The Maiti Trek aims to make a difference through adventure, offering discounted trips so that participants can fundraise AU$1000 (about US$750) to support Nepalese charities. Maiti Trek packages cost from about US$2115 per person, including all accommodation, transfers and most meals. Upcoming treks can be booked through BluSheep’s Australian partner, Encore Journeys.
Words Samantha Kodila
Photos Steve Baker and Samantha Kodila