Outdoors Travel

Trekking in Nepal: The Annapurna Circuit

November 26, 2017
Fall colors around Annapurna.

Nepal is world-renowned for trekking and the most popular route is the Annapurna Circuit. Back when we were working in Australia, we made plans with our friends to trek it together.

This trail follows river valleys around the Annapurna Massif of the Himalayas, which consists of 30 mountain peaks. In addition to the spectacular landscapes, this trek connects small villages and allows visitors to experience rural Nepali life.

Hitting the Trail

We reunited with our friends Nina and Moritz at the official starting point of Besisahar. How exciting to see these two again! We first met way back on Cat Ba in Vietnam and this summer we worked together in the Outback.

Nina and Moritz are a couple of superstars.

Nina and Moritz are a couple of superstars.

Even though it was late in the afternoon already, we were keen to begin. We registered our permits at the first checkpoint then shouldered our packs and started walking.

Soon we discovered the persistent phenomenon of Nepali Time. Our map and the locals we asked always underestimated the time to the next village. Nepalis are either extremely fast walkers or politely encouraging. Either way, we learned to tack on an extra hour or two to their estimate.

Altitude profile and other data- take the times with a grain of talk.

Altitude profile and other data- take the times with a grain of talk.

A Green Beginning

The trail begins at only 820m elevation and slowly climbs through lush and steamy jungle. We walked along the roaring Marshyangdi river while countless waterfalls cascaded down the sides of the valley. Along the way we admired gardens filled with gorgeous flowers and saw two different species of monkeys in the trees.

We saw relatively few other trekkers in the beginning, as many people opt to take a jeep and begin further along. But the local people were welcoming, always pausing to smile and say “Namaste!” as we passed by.

The Annapurna Circuit is teahouse trek, which means that trekkers sleep and eat in guesthouses along the way. After months of living out of a vehicle this year, I was pretty excited that we didn’t have to carry a tent or cook our own meals. Accommodation is basic, but compared to camping it’s a sweet deal. And the food is pretty good, too!

So excited to walk all day.

So excited to walk all day.

Looking over the trickily-named village of Bahundanda.

A very green view over the village of Bahundanda on day 2.

Getting Trail Fit

On the afternoon of day 3, I hit my low point during a daunting climb that seemed never-ending. Eventually we made it to the village of Tal (1700m) and enjoyed a hearty dinner of macaroni & yak cheese.

The next morning, I suddenly felt much stronger. I began to think of climbing stairs as my job. That day we finally saw a snowy mountain and the views only got better from there.

Feeling small on an epic section of the trail.

Feeling small on an epic section of the trail.

Village pony and waterfall in Tal.

Village pony and waterfall in Tal.

Oh hey mountain.

Oh hey mountain.

We hiked well past our intended stopping point, finally ending up in the misty village of Timang (2500m). Snowy peaks surrounded us; we were well and truly in the Himalayas now. The weather was much colder and we were grateful to have a hot shower and a pot of tea.

On day 5 we stopped early in Chame (2710m). We took advantage of the sunny afternoon to do some laundry. Here we began to notice the effects of thinner air, so it was good to have a rest before tackling higher elevation.

Climbing Higher

The next day we were shocked by the number of trekkers around us. We realized that this was the point where a lot of people begin after taking a jeep. Thankfully the groups thinned out as the morning progressed and we weren’t constantly staring at other people’s backpacks.

Further down the trail, a huge apple orchard and teahouse lures trekkers with a signboard advertising apple pie, apple muffins and fresh juice. Knowing another 400m of climbing remained, we stopped to enjoy some refreshment.

As we ascended, the landscape began to change dramatically. Trees thinned away and a curved wall of sheer rock imposed on the horizon like a skateboard half-pipe. We stopped for the night at the Bob Marley Hotel in Lower Pisang (3250m) and enjoyed some fantastic momos, or Nepali potstickers.

On day 7, we set out early to tackle the long, steep ascent to Ghyaru (3730m). The switchbacks were rough but somehow the climb wasn’t as bad as we had expected. A break for water and Snickers bars probably helped.

At the top, we relished a spectacular view of Annapurna II & IV. Then we refueled with a traditional Nepali meal of dal bhat and had a memorable meeting with the mayor before continuing on the high trail.

Up, up and away: climbing to Ghyaru.

Up, up and away: climbing to Ghyaru.

Nina enjoying the view.

Nina enjoying the view.

Sweeping valley views leaving the village of Ghyaru.

The high trail skirts the cliffside on the upper far right.

As we walked we stopped to take photos constantly— the scenery seemed more incredible around every turn. We also saw our first yaks! These stout and furry creatures are important as pack animals and for their wool and milk.

In the village of Ngawal (3680m) we stumbled into a lodge that had opened only the day before. We had fresh white sheets, real towels and our own bathroom! We were seriously grateful for the small things at that point.

Serious Elevation

On day 8 we descended to the village of Braga (3450m). It lies just outside Manang (3540m), which is considered the halfway point and a necessary stop for rest days and acclimitization.

That afternoon, we attended the 3 pm altitude talk by the doctors of the Himalayan Rescue Association. We received useful information about acute mountain sickness (AMS) symptoms and prevention. The foreign doctors are volunteers doing great work to provide Nepali people with low-cost health services and prevent casualties among trekkers and climbers.

Yak pastures and an adorable baby in Braga.

Yak pastures and an adorable baby in Braga.

Our favorite room of the trek in Braga.

Our favorite room of the trek in Braga.

On day 9 we had a formidable quest: climbing 1200m to the Ice Lake (4600mand back. After three hours of steep ascent I was gasping for air, slowly putting one foot in front of the other. The views were truly magnificent, however— the mountains opened up to us as we climbed out of the valley.

We finally made it to the Ice Lake after 5.5 grueling hours. (For another example of Nepali Time, the sign said 3.5 hours). Honestly the lake itself wasn’t particularly beautiful, but we felt very accomplished. Descending the steep trail was another ordeal, but we finally made it safely down and celebrated with a decadent piece of chocolate layer cake from the bakery.

Braga and the valley below.

Braga and the valley below.

Still climbing to the Ice Lake.

Still climbing to the Ice Lake.

We made it!

We made it!

The next day our legs were pretty shot. Thankfully, we noticed that breathing was much easier at this altitude after the acclimitizing climb. We moved to Manang for one more easy day before we continued.

To the Pass!

On day 12 we forged ahead through the scrubby, rocky hills, climbing another 500 meters to the village of Yak Kharka (4050m). By late afternoon it was freezing! We had a pretty bad night’s sleep from the altitude and decided we didn’t want to linger above 4000m.

We trekked on to Thorong Phedi (4450m), also known as the base camp of the pass. It was relatively early in the day when we arrived, but we couldn’t ascend to the high camp without exceeding recommended elevation gains. We played it safe to avoid AMS and stayed there.

Down and up again: suspension bridge on the way to Thorong Phedi.

Down and up again: suspension bridge on the way to Thorong Phedi.

Day 14 was the big one: up and over Thorong La Pass, the high point of the circuit at 5416m (17,769 ft). We rose early and set out in the freezing air to climb the steep slope to the high camp. We arrived in just under an hour and I was delighted to see that we had actually made Nepali Time for once.

From here we were at least climbing in the sun. Around 5000m I really began to struggle with the altitude, feeling nausea and a strong headache. The barren landscape was discouraging; I kept expecting the pass to be over the next ridge, only to find a line of trail to another rocky hill. Schuyler calmed me down when I became anxious about my ragged breathing and revived me with electrolytes.

Before I realized it, we saw the iconic mound of colorful prayer flags denoting the top of the pass. We had made it! I threw my pack down and bought a cup of hot tea from the enterprising fellows in a wooden shack. After a short rest, I felt heaps better. I was ecstatic that Schuyler and I were sharing this moment together— neither of us has ever stood so high!

A long, desolate climb.

A long, desolate climb.

We walked all the way up here!

We walked all the way up here!

…And Back Down

Unfortunately the day was not over as we still had to get down the other side. It was another gnarly descent and my knees did not enjoy it. We could see Muktinath (3800m) far below but it took four hours to actually stumble into town.

I could barely walk the next day so we took a rest day. Muktinath is an important site for religious pilgrims, so we climbed the ridge to visit one of the shrines. But that was enough climbing, so afterwards we indulged in some locally-made apple brandy.

Schuyler on the descent from the pass.

Schuyler on the descent from the pass.

A view of Muktinath.

A view of Muktinath.

On day 16, we climbed out of town via the Lupra Pass (4300m) and found ourselves descending another steep and sketchy hill before following the river to the dusty town of Jomsom (2720m).

The next morning we watched tiny planes fight the gusts of the Windy Valley on our way out of town. After lunch in Marpha, we suddenly found ourselves walking through a forest. It was very exciting after so many days above the treeline!

We stayed in Tukuche (2590m) at a lovely guesthouse run by a Dutch gentleman. The hosts made homemade pasta and apple crumble, which was a gourmet treat after weeks on the trail.

Down, down, down.

Down, down, down.

On day 18 we woke to a fantastic view: towering mountains surrounded the village which had been obscured by clouds the previous afternoon. We took a shortcut across the riverbed and had to ford the icy water.

Almost There…

To avoid the road, we took a marked alternative trail through a misty jungle. Unfortunately, I slipped on a wet rock and came crashing down on my tailbone. The jarring fall with the additional weight of my pack seriously hurt. Schuyler took my bag while I hobbled toward the next village of Ghasa (2010m).

On day 19, we descended further to Tatopani (1200m) and soaked our weary muscles in the hot springs. I was honestly ready to jump on a bus to the lakeside city of Pokhara like most of the other trekkers. However, we decided that we had come too far; the end of the circuit was within our grasp.

The next morning we faced a final challenge. After so many easy days of descent, we now had to climb again. We hauled ourselves up seemingly endless stone stairs, gaining 1100m elevation before stopping for the night in Chitre (2350m).

The guesthouse had a cute puppy (!) and killer views of Dhaulagiri, the world’s 7th highest peak. We rose early the next morning to watch sunrise on the mountain with a hot cup of coffee.

Sunrise on Dhaulagiri.

Sunrise on Dhaulagiri.

After breakfast we finished the final 500m climb to Ghorepani (2870m). Many people take a short trek to Poon Hill for a scenic panorama. However, we had seen enough spectacular mountain views to skip this detour and not regret it.

Next came a steep descent over 3,200 stone steps. My legs were shaking, but the crowds of people climbing up looked utterly miserable. After a very long day, we finally arrived in Birenthani (1025m). We didn’t quite make it to the end that day, but we celebrated anyway with a couple rounds of beer.

Finishing the Job

The following morning we walked for just 45 minutes to the official endpoint of Nayapul (1070m) where we caught a taxi to Pokhara for some laundry R&R.

In total, we hiked ~230 km, or 140 miles. This trek was unlike anything I’ve done before and I enjoyed it very much. The incredible scenery, cultural experience and physical challenge was highly rewarding. In fact, we decided to jump right into another trek to Mount Everest!

Stay tuned…

Spectacular views on the descent from the Ice Lake.

Spectacular views on the descent from the Ice Lake.

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2 Comments

  • Reply Mom November 26, 2017 at 2:26 pm

    Thank you for the details of the journey! Since I know I will never be able to make this trek (doesn’t look paved for a motorized wheelchair!) it was great to experience it through your eyes. My knees and muscles felt the sympathetic pain and burn but mostly, I felt myself gasping for air! Relieved you made it the whole way safely and you never quit! Atta girl! ?proud of you! Thanks for sharing!

  • Reply To Everest! Trekking in Nepal's Khumbu Region - Travel With Gratitude December 1, 2017 at 1:04 am

    […] three weeks on the Annapurna Circuit, we found ourselves in the lakeside city of Pokhara enjoying cocktails, pizza and clean laundry. […]

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