Friday, April 20, 2007

Annapurna Circuit

After arriving in Nepal nearly a month beforehand, alas, it was time to trek the Annapurna Range!

Luckily, with the help of the Kathmandu Guest House bulletin board, I was able to find three other partners, which would make my journey even that much more memorable.

Although we had only met for a few hours in Kathmandu, Ryan, Craig, Jules and I seemed to hit it off well from the start-- each having the same individual goal of trekking the Circuit without the aide of a porter (a goal that none of us would meet in the end, unfortunately), while at the same time having a blast attaining our goal.

During our 18-day trek, we encountered many challenges, from the vast temperature and altitude ranges to physical and mental ailments, cultural differences, and an urgent medical emergency with Jules' porter.

In the end, each of us had an amazing time and equally fantastic experience. It is very difficult to describe the feeling of being in such an environment and witnessing some of the most beautiful landscapes the earth has to offer.

I can't speak for the others, but I know that my experience on the trek certainly had a positive impact on me and challenged me in ways that I have never been tested.

Without question, the Annapurna Circuit trek changed me as a person. It allowed me to see more closely where my limits lie, while, at the same time, allowing me to witness my strengths (and maturity) first-hand. The trek, like the landscape, was a powerful experience for me and is one that I would wish all people could witness.

There are few experiences like witnessing the raw power and beauty of nature first-hand, while being exposed to the physical and mental effects that inherently accompany it.

Below are the photos from my trek on the Annapurna Circuit. I hope to add a more detailed description of my experience as soon as possible...

For a detailed map of the Annapurna Circuit, please view page 2 of the following link.

Khudi-- home to our first overnight on the circuit. The worst accommodation on the whole trip-- the rooms were made of mud and bugs were everywhere. The one saving grace? The bad ass Gecko and monstrous spider who teamed together to take out a horde of moths in the dining room.

A view of the terraced fields in the foothills.

The crew in Bahundana at Superb View Hotel-- our second overnight location.

(L-R: Craig, Ryan, Me, Jules)

Marshyangdi River flows through Tal from Manang.

The view of looking back toward Tal is gorgeous.

A waterfall close to Dharapani.

Craig's porter, Kissor.

A goat crossing close to Dharapani.

How do you handle a stubborn goat?

Bagarchhap. Early morning on Day Six.

The gang climbing from Bagarchhap.

Our first view of the mountains (above Bagarchhap).

My porter, Dilli. A wonderful addition to our group!

A close-up view.

Panoramic-- left to right.

Kissor decided to climb a Rhododendron tree and pluck a flower for his girlfriend. (From then on, I nicknamed him "bandar" or monkey.)

A sneak peak of the views to come...

Getting closer to the mountains...

A glacial form near Pisang.

A view of Annapurna II from in Upper Pisang. Behind me are Buddhist prayer wheels.

The porter posse taking it easy. When we strolled into town, people took notice... and then tried to charge us double! (Just kidding!)


A view of Annapuna II (7,937 m or 26, 040 feet) from a hilltop in Upper Pisang, our acclimatization location.

Annapurna II is the 16th tallest mountain in the world. Nepal is home to eight of the top ten tallest mountains in the world.

Craig and Ryan taking in the spectacular view.

We sat on the hilltop for nearly an hour taking in the amazing site. It was a spine-tingling experience, to say the least, and one that I wish everyone could experience.

A close-up of the face.

A view of a glacial formation.

A view with Buddhist prayer flags. Prayer flags are commonly found in the mountain regions of Nepal and in the Himalaya region. Each color symbolizes a different element of the world.

A view of the entire valley.

A close-up of the beautiful face formations.

A view of the sun reflecting off the ice on the face.

Sunrise from our guest house in Lower Pisang.

Looking back at Annapurna II on our way to Manang.

Near Jumla, in between Pisang and Manang.

A caravan of donkeys near Jumla.

A statue of the former king of Nepal at the Jumla airport.

The interesting, arid rock formations of Manang, one of my favorite stops on the Circuit.

A view of Gangapurna (7,454 meters or 24,455 feet) and its lake.

On our acclimatization hike above Manang, we saw many eagles (although we read in our guidebook that they most likely could be vultures confused for eagles). Here is a close-up of one.
Th group resting above Manang.

Our porters.
Me, myself, and I.

Dilli throwing his shot put during our high altitude Olympic games.

When we arrived at an overlook of Manang, we decided to stop and relax for a while before moving higher to further acclimatize. The group sat down and immediately Dilli told us that now "we play a game," which we discovered was more-or-less high altitude Olympics than a game.

The group determined that our porters had the symptoms of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness).

We proceeded to throw shot put, then a running shot put-- the games ended when the porters started talking about racing... toward the overlook cliff.

It was definitely a highpoint of our trip, even if the porters, especially Dilli, were a little off their rockers...

A view of Annapurna III from our overlook in Manang.

Leaving Manang for Gunsang, our next stop. (Panoramic view)

Gunsang is only about a two hour hike from Manang on the Circuit, however, when one is above 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) it is advised that one only ascend 300 meters (or close to 1,000 feet) in order to curb the chances of getting AMS.

This allowed us to sleep in a bit and leave between eight and nine o'clock in the morning, rather than our usual six or seven o'clock routine. We would hike until our next stop, eat lunch (to rest) and then set off above our location until we climbed 300 meters or more so that we could acclimatize to a higher altitude than what we we staying at. Also, a form of AMS prevention... not to mention a way to get a wonderful night's sleep!

Waiting for lunch on top of our guest house in Gunsang. Hard to beat the view!

A close-up of the mountain face.

A Buddhist prayer stones.

Close-up of the skeleton.

The view as we walk toward Letdar (looking behind me).

A mountain cowboy.

Heading into yak country.

Yaks are typically found in Asia around and above 2,500 meters.

A view of Letdar.

The gang resting on our acclimatization day in Letdar.

Rather than staying in Throung Phedi (4,420 meters or 14,500 feet) for an extra night to acclimatize for the Throung La (5,500 m or 18,045 ft), we decided to stay an extra night in Letdar and climb 1,000 meters (3,280 ft) above the town to acclimatize. Thus, saving us money (everything costs more at higher altitudes) and allowing us to stay in a warmer climate.

Me resting at our summit point (roughly 5,000 m or 16,400 ft) on our rest day in Letdar.

Taking a break and in the sites at 5,000 meters.

A view of the mountains via my shade coating at our summit.

Ryan loved to take photos of the mountain reflections off my sunglasses.

"Hold still for a second C.J. Wait, can you turn a little to the left? OK, stop. (Snap) Thanks, man."

Here is a photo taken with my camera (for a change!). Thanks Ryan!

Resting and enjoying the moment.

The sunrise off the mountains as we move toward Throung Phedi.

Looking back on the trail as we move closer to Thorung Phedi.

Craig taking his morning tea and biscuit break. (The photo above was the vantage point to the right of Craig. Not a bad place to stop for tea, if I don't mind saying myself!)

Craig, being British through and through, would often stop to take a tea break at the first place he could find in the morning, regardless of how exhausting our climb was or was going to be. He often commented that the tea on the trail was crap compared to the tea of Darjeeling in northeast India. (Darjeeling is well-known as being one of the best tea producing regions in the world. Sufficed to say, all of us got a kick out of Craig's tea breaks! They were a much welcome addition (and added flair) to our trek!

Moving closer to Thorung Phedi. (It's just around the corner to the left and up...)

The view toward Throung La Base Camp from Throung Phedi.

We elected to stay in Thorung Phedi.

Jules and I decided to acclimatize on our second day in Thorung Phedi.

(Ryan wasn't feeling well, so we stayed in Thorung Phedi with our comrade an extra night.)

Here, Jules and I are approximately 1/2 way to base camp or about 300 meters above Thorung Phedi.

(L-R:) Dilli, the multi-tasker of our lodge in Thorung Phedi (he does everything from fetching blankets, cook, and porter), with the owner of our lodge in Throung Phedi.

Thorung Phedi had probably the best food on the entire trip-- a great place to stay!

Me with Thomas Bubendorfer, a world famous free-climber.

Thomas was trekking the Annapurna Circuit (with his Sherpa, Nima) in order to acclimatize for his upcoming solo attempt to summit Mount Everest from the North Face in Tibet without the aide of oxygen and rope. (Thomas' summit blog link)

Thomas is most famous for halving the previous record to summit the Eiger mountain in Switzerland in 1983. A record that stood for 23 years.

It was a wonderful experience to meet, talk, and learn from Thomas every night during our stay. He and Nima were wonderful to us-- both are very nice people.

(In the end, unfortunately, Thomas was unable to attempt his summit due to poor weather.)

The sunrise on the mountains (behind us) as we move toward Thorung La.

We woke up at 4:30 am so that we could have breakfast (homemade spaghetti with cheese for me) before or 10-hour journey across the Thorung La and to Mukinath.

The day prior, there had been a large hail storm in Thorung Phedi, but when I woke up on the morning of our pass, I could immediately tell that we were in luck with the weather; it was noticeably cooler.

As we prepared outside for our climb, we were greeted with an amazing view of the stars in the clear morning sky. The climb was going to be fantastic!

The beginning of the 1000 meter (3,280 feet) trek to Base Camp before ascending to Thorung La.

The sun begins to rise.

The sun shines on the cliffs close to Base Camp.

In full day light and crystal clear sky.

About 100 meters (330 feet) below Base Camp.)

The view from Thorung La Base Camp. (5000 meters or 16,400 feet).

The sun rises above the mountains as we pass Thorung La Base Camp.

Looking toward the Thorung La. Not too much further to go now... Or is it?

The Thorung La has many "false summits" so trekkers are often confused as to where the actual summit is located...

I wasn't too worried about the pass, in all honesty, as I knew that we had already climbed above 5,000 meters. I knew that I was going to take my time and had the assistance of the best porter on the Circuit...

It was going to be tough, but as long as I took my time ("slow and steady wins the race"), I knew I would be fine.

Yaks heading back to Thorung Phedi from the Thorung La.

(The cost to rent a yak to the Thorung La? $100 USD.)

Our group at the summit.

The man on the left is Ryan's porter (only to Thorung La). Jules' porter got altitude sickness and had to return to Bahundanda from Letdar.

In the end, the pass was difficult, that is for sure. The air was thin, the sun played games with one's body temperature, and the walk was long. It was definitely one of the most difficult tests that my body has yet to endure, but it was very worthwhile. I am already looking forward to my next trip!

(Incidentally, we later bumped into Nima, Thomas' Sherpa, on the way down to Muktinath. Thomas has summited the pass before us and was half way up a mountain when we ran into Nima.)

Dilli and I on the summit.

Ryan and Craig hamming it up. ("My hero!")

At the summit with a gorgeous mountain in the background.

With prayer flags in the foreground.

A happy Dilli as we head down to Muktinath.

Dilli and Kissor taking a break in the snow.

A view of the magnificent mountains as we head down to Muktinath.

The way to Muktinath... a 1,6o0 meter (5,200 feet) drop from Thorung La.

One of the main reasons why the Thorung La is so difficult, interestingly enough, is not only attributed to the altitude of the pass, but it is also due to the steepness of the decent to Muktinath, which is much more difficult on one's body than ascending. In fact, while ascending the Throung La from Muktinath is not impossible, it is very difficult, and requires an entire day (close to 16 hours).

(The trip from Thorung Phedi is 10-hours.)

The mountain Thomas was in the process of summiting when we ran into Nima.

Interesting ice formations.

Moving closer to Muktinath.

Our hotel in Muktinath-- the amazing Hotel Bob Marley, home to Western music and steak!

Kissor and I drinking the first of many glasses of apple brandy, a local favorite, at the Bob Marley.

The gang and I devoured out wonderful meat dinners over beers, then they promptly went to bed. It was 7:30pm, and I was in no mood to go to sleep. I had hobbled down from the Thorung La (I strained my left knee-- the same that bothered me in Langtang), and I was getting my second wind.

Kissor and I (Dilli doesn't drink) finished two bottles of apple brandy before he and Dilli headed to bed. Then I met Nick from England, keep that name in mind, and played Nepalese pool (on a crooked table) downstairs until 10pm with some locals. (Incidentally, we got served.)

Over breakfast the next morning, I noticed that there were shirts on one of the walls... In a daze, I glanced at them and then paused. I couldn't believes my eyes...

I knew Buckeye fans were nuts (no pun intended), but seeing this t-shirt in Muktinath brought the definition to new meaning... You can escape from the States, but not from the Buckeyes...

Heading toward Kagbeni on the way to Jomsom.

A panoramic view of the region between Muktinath and Kagbeni. (next three photos)

I was very impressed by the landscape on the west side of the Thorung La. It was hard to believe the differences between the two sides of the pass. The Jomsom side, as it is referred to, is situated in a region called Mustang.

Upper Mustang, an area that limits annual amount of tourists by imposing a $750 10-day trekking permit, is supposed to be gorgeous and will most likely be my next excursion in the Annapurna area after seeing Lower Mustang.

Upper Mustang was recently famous for the discovery of ancient paintings that were found in a cave in the region.

One can see the caves of the region in the mountains below.

A view down at Kagbeni, an oasis in the desert.

Looking back toward Kagbeni.

Kagbeni (and toward Upper Mustang) from the path above.

The mighty Kali Gandaki flows from Upper Mustang through Kagbeni, onto Pokhara, and into India.

A panoramic view of the area.

A donkey heading up the path toward Muktinath.

In a donkey train (or any animal in the region for that matter), it is common to see the first few animals wearing colorful head gear, presumably so that the owner can spot them from behind.

I really loved the colors on this donkey.

The airport in Jomsom.

Heading into Marpha, the "apple capital" of Nepal.

Dilli told me that in September-October that one can buy huge apples in Marpha for 1 rps/apple!
(The current exchange rate is 65 rps/dollar.)

A rooster in Marpha that Dilli got to call out to us.

Looking back toward Jomsom from Marpha.

Ryan in his patch-work sleeping bag in Marpha, where, incidentally, we recorded our cheapest accommodation of the trip-- each paying 20 rps to sleeping the same room together, a real treat!

Ryan bought his sleeping bag in Kathmandu before he left for the Circuit. He soon discovered that the down from his sleeping bag was falling out through the stitches. His solution? To patch up the holes using band-aids, which he would buy along the way.

The gang and I joked at how by the end of the trip that price of the bandages Ryan used to patch up his sleeping bag would cost more than the sleeping bag itself!

Ryan swore that he was going to get the person who sold him his bag to give him his money back once he returned to Kathmandu (fat chance to get that kind of service anywhere in Nepal). No word yet on the outcome...

Sunrise in Marpha (from the rooftop restaurant of our guest house).

Near Larjung.

A bridge crossing close to Kalopani.

Moving closer to Kalopani.

A sign that I had to take a picture of...

I wonder if the Hilton's know that they have a subsidiary in the Annapurna Range?...

A waterfall near Ghasa.

Indigenous herbs in the Annapurna Range.

Moving closer to Tatopani and into the valley.

(Wheat is very commonly found in the valleys on the Circuit.)

Looking back toward the Annapurnas...

The gang on our last day together in Tatopani. Ryan, Craig and Jules left for Pokhara, and Dilli and I headed for the hot spring after this photo.

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