Our successful completion of the Annapurna Circuit trek
20.03.2012 - 10.04.2012 22 °C
Morning all, hope everyone is good at home and enjoying Easter. We've decided to join in with the festivities and bought each other 2 whole chocolate bars to celebrate! Me a Dairy Milk Fruit and Nut, Bethany a Crunchie - and both of us the holy grail...a Twirl! Yum!
Any way, you'll all be glad to hear that we are back safely from our trek around the Annapurna Circuit. To give you an idea of what we've just achieved, the trek is essentially a 15 day trek but you need to allow at least 3 days to acclimatize to the higher altitudes, which makes it at least 18 days taking it steadily. Due to Bethany's history of altitude sickness it was imperative that we took our time otherwise we wouldn't make it over the mighty Thorong La Pass which sits at 5416m all day every day just waiting to congratulate those who manage to reach it. The pass changes with the seasons but it always remains a pretty steep challenge for anyone attempting it - for us it turned out to be a monumental challenge.
So much more than just a pass
As I say we had to take it slow on the ascent to make sure Bethany (and myself of course) stayed AMS free, but along with the success of completing the highest part of the trek came the crucial factor; if we managed to cross the pass we would get to finish in Pokhara, whilst also experiencing the western side of the trek which we knew would be more beautiful, along with the fact that part of it would be retracing the steps we took on our first ever trek in Nepal to Annapurna Base Camp 7 years ago. For us it represented so much more than just avoiding altitude sickness, it was a combination of crossing a pass of such significance, completing one of the most prestigious treks in the world, beating the sickness that defeated us at the last hurdle on the Everest Base Camp trek 4 years ago, and re-acquainting ourselves with our first travelling adventure from which we have such fond memories.
This was all in our minds from the outset so we set off from Kathmandu on a 'Tourist Bus' to get to a place called Dumre, then transferred onto a local bus after 6 hours for the remaining 3 hours to get to our start point of Besisahar. We decided to stay the night there rather than trek for an hour or so straight off the bus so we had a fresh start in the morning. A lot of the first side of the trek was a dusty road which we felt ruined the authenticity of the trek although we also appreciated that this road is of huge significance to the local villagers. Even so we wanted to be purists and complete the traditional route, hence we started in Besisahar instead of Bhulbhule further on, and continued all the way to Naya Pul on the western side instead of taking a jeep down from Muktinath or a plane from Jomson which are other options. We had the time to do it all so there was no need to cut anything out.
It took us a good 3 days to settle in to the trek as it always does, our bodies simply aren't ready to trek for 6 hours or so a day carrying 14kg on our back right from the off, the legs take time to get into their stride, the hips all the way to the shoulders take time to adjust to the extra weight, and quite frankly it takes a bit of time to get into the mindset of trekking. With this in mind a 9 hour day for our second day probably wasn't the best idea. Tal was a beautiful place and as our book said it really was a "Shangri-La View", but after the day we'd had we simply couldn't appreciate it for what it was...however the did have amazingly cosy blankets which made everything all better.
We continued on, stayed at a lovely place with an extremely friendly Tibetan family in Danagyu which was erring on altitude at 2300m, and continued on the next day to Bratang at 2850m. This place really was a bit miserly, there was one guest house (the other was being knocked down) and it was dark and cold. Ever since lunch that day in Koto the people along the trail seemed miserable and the feeling in the air just wasn't comfortable, but we wanted to get there as it set us up better for acclimatization. So we negotiated a price and plonked our bags down in the room. Bethany by this point had started developing headaches which was a bit of a worry because a crushing headache is a major sign of AMS. That said we were fairly comfortable in the knowledge that this wasn't due to AMS, it was simply because Bethany's petite frame perhaps wasn't built to carry an extra 14kg whilst trekking for such distances, so we transferred perhaps 2kg or so of stuff Bethany didn't need to carry herself - first aid kit, iPod speakers, her spare water bottle, little backpack for rest days etc - into my bag and continued on like that, Bethany now carrying about 12kg, me 16kg-ish. This coupled with the fact that we met a wonderful Aussie lady called Eleanor that night who along with being such a captivating personaility, also had a vast knowledge of natural healing, meant Bethany was on her way to ridding herself of the headache. It's fair to say that Bethany was rather overjoyed with El's offer to perform a lower back to top of the head massage to try and relieve some of the stress of carrying the extra weight, and it's also fair to say that Bethany benefitted a great deal from it so thanks Eleanor!
The next few days were essentially trek, rest day, trek, rest day because we'd reached the point at which Bethany suffers from AMS. We tried to stress the importance of taking the symptoms seriously to a group of young Danish trekkers we met because one of the lads was suffering, but they continued up and a couple of days later his trek came to an end by way of a helicopter to Kathmandu to recover. Luckily for us we were both still feeling really good. The scenery was becoming more barren the higher up we went as was the weather. We experienced our first bit of snow in Manang on our last rest day and the nights were getting colder and colder, the minus 20 sleeping bags were becoming a real blessing.
Still, onwards and upwards we went. The normal route from Manang (3540m) would be a day to Yak Kharka (4018m), followed by a day to Thorong Phedi (4540m) but we were going slowly so we went a couple of hours to Gunsang (3900m), then a couple more to Letdar (4200m) and a couple more to Thorong Phedi which broke up the ascent allowing us a much better chance of acclimatizing and making the pass. Bethany celebrated her 27th birthday in Gunsang by opening a couple of birthday cards in the morning whilst watching the sunrise over the mountains from the comfort of our room, trekking a couple of hours to Letdar, enjoying a Mars roll for dinner which are delicious (essentially a Mars bar wrapped in a cornish pasty looking batter - sounds horrible but trust me, they're gorgeous), and using the first of 2 heat packs that a couple of really lovely Israeli guys gave to us purely because they knew it was Bethany's birthday. She used the second in Thorong Phedi the night before the attempt on the pass.
Speaking of which we ended up in a rather nice lodge in Phedi (after a particularly life threatening approach thanks to our book sending us the wrong way), it was very big and the people very chilled out. It was more expensive as the lodges always are higher up but the dining room seemed pretty warm with one distinguishing feature from the rest of the trek, it had music playing...I speak for myself here but I can only imagine that Bethany felt the same when I say that when we set off on the trek I wasn't expecting to be listening to 'Rooox-anne' and 'Message In A Bottle' at over 4500m the night before the pass, but it was actually quite soothing because as I've said, the pass represented a lot and we were waiting and hoping that we could get through the night without any signs of AMS so we could attempt the pass. The company helped as well, we met a Brit called Bob and a couple who live in Holland, one British (Jenni) and one Dutch (Phillip) and spent the whole night having a jolly old time.
And then came the big day. The first hour or so was a mammoth effort up a massively steep incline, the next hour or so was a little less steep and the last part a really arduous slog, that's all that it can be described as. It took us 6 hours to get to the pass with only a couple of 5 minute stops included in that. If you've never trekked in altitude then you won't know the difference it makes in walking. Your breathing is heavier, the legs just don't move as far for each stride, the wind is bitterly cold up there too, everything is much harder. The hardest day of the Everest trek was between Jiri and Lukla when we had to climb 1000m and descend 2000m all in one day - Thorong La Pass was a 1000m ascent and 1700m descent all in one day but 2000m higher! In all it took us about 11 hours to reach our resting place of Muktinath, rising at 5:30am and arriving at about 4:30pm. Bethany struggled a lot that day, her body simply doesn't like ascending that quickly at altitude, the last hour was one of the most strenuous times she's had, each stride was about the length of one of her feet, literally one foot in front of the other with barely any daylight in between, her breathing wouldn't allow her any more speed and her headache had reappeared, this time due to AMS without any doubt. But she saw the mass of prayer flags in the distance that mark the pass and suddenly became reinvigorated, her tears masked by her sunglasses and hidden purposefully from me - she wanted to make this pass - ON HER OWN STEAM! Silently but gloriously we reached the flags and I have to say it was a really emotional moment, unfortunately we couldn't fully appreciate it at the time because Bethany was deteriorating, her exhaustion was developing and she didn't want to eat anything, both signs of AMS, but we knew the only way was down now which is the best remedy for AMS, so we had a few snaps to mark our achievement and I insisted we descended as quickly as possible to relieve the symptoms before Bethany had a chance to "just have a quick 20 minutes" nap.
We made it all the way down trouble free and decided on a rest day in Muktinath after the effort of the day before. Expecting the peace, tranquility and splendour that we felt in Lumbini (the birthplace of the Buddha) 4 years ago we were very disappointed to not find this in the second most significant religious place in Nepal, only behind the incredible Pashupatinath. The place was huge, the temples unremarkable and we had a bad experience in our hotel which really soured the taste in our mouths. We had a bit or a discussion about if we really wanted to continue travelling because the urge of starting a family was beginning to tempt us, had a bit of a rant about Nepal not being what it used to be and the disappointment of Muktinath, and then headed back to our hotel...to find Jenni and Phillip having tea on the balcony of the restaurant. An hour or so of excellent company later and the world was a better place. We had obviously cleared our heads and decided that our angst was probably just from Muktinath, put it behind us and continued with our trek in the morning.
West is best
The west side was a marked improvement (bar the ridiculousness of Jomson), we spent a lunch time in Kagbeni which was an oasis of a place, truly beautiful, that evening in a tiny Tibetan guest house in Marpha, a purely indulgent evening and morning in the hot springs of Tatopani, a picturesque sunrise at the famous Poon Hill , one of our favourite nights at a guest house in Sikha with one of the cutest and friendliest Nepalese men we've ever met, and enjoyed the lusher, greener landscape of the west side of the trek finishing the last 2 days retracing the first steps we'd taken on a trek in Nepal, a really lovely way to end our time in Nepal for an amount of time that we have no idea about. All this good feeling even though we had storms for the last 5 or 6 days of the trek. In all the whole trek works out to be 210km - about 130 miles and it really was so diverse in landscape, culture, food and people. It was a great experience and a great way to start our travels. We are now in Pokhara lapping up the relaxation time and letting our blistered feet and aching bones get some much needed rest before heading off to Bangkok for the next part of our trip.
If you made it this far thanks for reading, there is always a lot to tell from 3 weeks when you move on every day. We hope you are all well. We'll leave you with a couple of pictures of the trek and the local foods, and we look forward to hearing from you