Thursday, May 23, 2013

Annapurna Circuit + ABC


While Amberlea was off contorting her body and uniting with the Cosmic Power in Rishikesh, I hit the trails of Nepal. When initially faced with the decision of how to spend a month on my own, I weighed a number of options but am very glad I decided upon trekking. Being active and outdoors with a set purpose was very satisfying and whenever I got lonely, there were always other trekkers to talk with or join for a game of cards.

Of all the treks in Nepal, I decided on the Annapurna Circuit. I read a lot about the trek before reaching this decision. Many professional sources claimed it might be the best trek in the world while some individuals told the tale of how the trek is being deteriorated by road development. My manager at Macadamian had done numerous treks in Nepal and it was his endorsement of the Annapurna Circuit that sealed the deal. And when else would I have a month to take on such a challenge? The shorter treks could wait.

The next step was getting equipped and mentally prepared. The first thing I read in the guide books and online resources was not to do the trek alone, especially Thorong La. This made me think that maybe I should hire a guide and/or porter but I’m glad I didn’t.

Guides can provide a lot of valuable information and I met a lot of great Nepali guides on the trail. However, one of the things I was looking forward to was the freedom to start my day when I wanted, walk however far I desired, and not be accountable to anyone. While some guides would be willing to work with this kind of whimsy, the idea of managing a relationship while I just wanted to be hiking ultimately turned me off of the idea. Several online forums supported this decision.

It was easier to dismiss the idea of having a porter. I wanted to use this trek as opportunity to improve my fitness so having someone else carry my bag didn’t make sense. If my bag was too heavy for me to carry, why would I want to burden someone else with it? Nepali porters are amazingly strong people but the macho independent westerner in me would have had a hard time strolling beside a small Nepali man carrying a bag that was half his size. Porters will tell you that a single 15kg bag is an easy enough load, so why shouldn’t it be for me?

If you’re deciding whether you should hire a guide or porter for a trek in Nepal, it is a multi-faceted issue. Hiring locally is a great way to support the local economy. Nepal is a very poor country and guiding/portering for tourists is a respectable, reasonably well-paying job. If trekking is part of a vacation and not part of a longer journey, you will likely be thankful to have a guide to help take care of the details and a porter to make your hike more enjoyable. You will get more reliable service when your guide is handling the meal and accommodation arrangements, and you’ll be able to focus on snapping pictures or soaking in the landscape if you don’t have a big pack on your back. However, if you’re an independent person -- or even better, a couple or group -- up for a bigger challenge physically and logistically, the Annapurna Circuit is definitely doable without porter or guide.

Having decided against common advice to not trek alone, I decided on a few steps to mitigate the risks involved:
  • I would trek with or near people as much as possible and find others to join up with for the Thorong La Pass to reduce the dangers of (Altitude Mountain Sickness) AMS. 
  • I would do as much research as possible beforehand to understand what dangers needed to be avoided. 
  • I would ensure I had more than sufficient equipment (warm gear, food, water capacity, and purification) so that want of gear would not be my failure. 
  • Stay flexible, self-aware, and honest with myself that if a situation was unsafe I could always turn around or wait it out. 
The next step was getting equipped. Since trekking was not on our itinerary when we left Canada, I had nothing but my backpack, some dry-fit clothing and a pair of boots that I had bought in Bangkok. Luckily, the Thamel neighbourhood of Kathmandu anticipated my needs and had a cornucopia of outdoor outfitters selling every variety of North Face knock-off. I avoided the cheap-cheap low-quality gear and with a little bit of negotiating was able to get myself outfitted for under $300. This included: sleeping bag, trekking poles, thermal layers, fleece shell, gloves, toque, socks, head-lamp, map, water bladder, pocket knife, sunglasses and first-aid kit top-ups. Most of my gear lasted well and I’ll be bringing most of it home, so bring your boots and Thamel can take care of the rest.

After five days in Kathmandu recovering from Delhi Belly and outfitting myself, I caught a jam-packed local micro-bus to the trailhead at Besi Sahar and started walking the next day. Many of the trekkers I met up with later on the trail took a jeep to start the trek further along the trail but if you have time I would recommend walking from Besi Sahar. Get a good map and you’ll see that despite the road development, there is marked trail almost all the way around the circuit. Given the complaints I had read online, I was concerned that I would spend a lot of time walking in the dust of jeeps but there was only one unpleasant stretch of 1.5 hours that made me grumble in my twenty-three days on the trail. Less than 10% of my time was spent on the road and most of that was deserted. Roads are sometimes the shorter, easier way so some guides may default to them if you don’t explicitly ask them to avoid them as much as possible.

There were a few days of shoulder stiffness as I adjusted to carrying my backpack for several hours per day and then I settled into the routine of life on the trail. Because there wasn’t much to do in the evenings and I was exhausted from trekking, I started going to bed very early – often before 9pm. This meant I started waking up early (5:30am), having breakfast around 6:30 and hitting the trail before 7:30 and often earlier. Despite never having been a morning person, this routine suited me well because I was able to get lots of sleep, start before the larger groups, and finish my day before the afternoon rain showers started. Finishing my day of trekking in the early afternoon, I would wash the clothes I wore that day, journal and then nap, read, chat with others, or just savour the Nepal mountainside.

The Annapurna Circuit is famed for the variety of landscapes that you pass through, and I quickly grew to understand why. Each day is different as you climb up the Marsyangdi river valley, climb higher and higher, and then descend into Mustang District. The photos I’ve included below make it look like a large portion of the trek was spent in snow but that is mostly because the little camera I had did not do a good job of capturing the beauty of the terraced greenery, the magnificent water-falls, soaring cliffs, pine forests, and quaint villages found below the snow-line. There’s lots more photos so contact me if you want to see more.

I met up with a great group of people on day three of my trek and together we formed an international expedition to Thorong La (two Israelis, two French, two Germans and an Australian). At first we hiked separately, met up for meals, and stayed in the same guesthouses. As we grew closer, we started to spend most of our waking hours together: hiking, huddling around fires, talking about food from home, and laughing about events from the day.

As a group we adjusted our itinerary by staying in Ngawal and then an extra night in Manang because one of our group got sick. We ascended gradually from Manang to help prevent AMS symptoms and reached Thorong High Camp on day eleven of my trek. It snowed heavily that night and we were all concerned that our traverse of the pass would be delayed but in the morning the first groups set out in the dark and packed down a path for us to follow as the sun was rising. Arriving at the top of Thorong La at 5416m was an accomplishment that I will always remember. It truly put an exclamation mark on what had already been an incredible trek.

Our group split up from Muktinath as I continued to walk the trails and they carried on by jeep. Based on my timeline, I saw that if I moved quickly down the back half of the circuit, I would be able to add Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) to my trek and decided to go for it. I still went out of my way to avoid roads as much as possible and even added some side-trips, but I pushed myself in the interest of fitness and reached Tatopani in just three days from Muktinath. These were long hard days with all the trail I covered and I would not recommend this itinerary to most.

I soaked my weary legs in the hot springs of Tatopani before the 1700m climb to Ghorepani the next day. Due to overcast skies, my Poon Hill sunrise experience was not as brilliant as the postcards but the walk from Ghorepani to Tadapani was the prettiest stretch of my trek. The mossy forested ridge was full of pink rhododendrons with lush green valley on one side and Annapurna South staring down from the other. I reached Tadapani in time to have lunch with friends from earlier in my trek and continued on to Chhomrong.

Aside from the soul deflating down-and-up-again valleys to Sinuwa, the comparatively gradual ascent up to ABC was enjoyable. By this time, I hardly noticed my backpack and trail life had grown familiar. The mountains played hide-and-seek throughout the day and I started to notice and appreciate the vast variety of birds singing me songs along the way.

I arrived at ABC early on day nineteen of my trek just as the mountains were tucking themselves in behind clouds for the day. I spent a fun afternoon playing rummy with a new group of friends as the snow started to fall. The ground was bare when I arrived but by sunrise the next morning there were at least twelve centimeters of snow on the ground. A few lingering misty clouds cleared as the sun was rising and I was treated to a blinding sunrise surrounded on all sides by 7000+m peaks with fresh-fallen snow throughout the valley. This sunrise topped them all.

I stopped in Jhinu for more hot-spring soaking on my way back down and climbed up to Ghandruk based on the advice that it was one of the nicest villages around. The tightly packed stone houses are certainly a site to behold but I felt they paled in comparison to the stone villages of Upper Pisang, Ghyaru and Tangki. I finished my trek at Nayapul where I rejoined motorized civilization and caught a local bus back to Pokhara.

For those deciding between the Annapurna Circuit and ABC, I would recommend the circuit for its variety if you have time. But if you’re trying to squeeze it into less than ten days of trekking, go for ABC instead. ABC is a unique experience because you are completely surrounded by mountains, however, that’s really only for one day. With the circuit, you have snow-capped mountains close beside you for several days in a row. Based on my time there (and the time of year), you also stand a better chance of mountain views in the drier upper valleys of Manang and Mustang than you do from Ghorepani/Ghandruk.

April and early May seemed like an excellent time for trekking the circuit in particular. The guesthouses weren’t busy at all and there were times when I wouldn’t meet any other trekkers along the trail. This is partly because the circuit is almost always done in a counter-clockwise fashion (as I did) so there are few people travelling against you on the trail. In contrast, ABC and the Ghorepani/Ghandruk area have trekkers travelling in both directions so even trekking in early monsoon season can make the trail seem somewhat busy. Regardless, if you have a chance to go trekking in Nepal and love the outdoors, seize the opportunity – you won’t regret it! It was such a fantastic experience, I couldn’t pass up bringing Amberlea trekking.

My Itinerary, altitudes, and hours trekking (not including breaks):
Day 1: Besi Sahar (760m) to Ngadi (930m) with 1hr side-trip > 4.5hrs

Day 2: Ngadi to Jagat (1300m) > 5.75hrs

Day 3: Jagat to Karte (1850m) > 4.75hrs

Day 4: Karte to Chame (2670m) via Odar and Namrucho view point (recommended) > 7.75hrs

Day 5: Chame to Upper Pisang (3300m) > 5hrs

Day 6: Upper Pisang to Ngawal (3660m) > 4.25hrs

Day 7: Ngawal to Manang (3540m) > 3h

Day 8: Daytrip to Chongkor view point > 1.5hrs

Day 9: Manang to Gunsang (3950m) > 1.5hrs

Day 10: Gunsang to Ledar (4200m) > 2hrs

Day 11: Ledar to Thorong High Camp (4900m) > 4hrs

Day 12: Thorong High Camp to Muktinath (3760m) via Thorong La (5416m) > 9hrs

Day 13: Muktinath to Marpha (2670m) via Lupra and Chhairo > 8.25hrs

Day 14: Marpha to Ghasa (2010m) via Titi and Kunjo > 9.5hrs

Day 15: Ghasa to Tatopani (1170m) > 4.5hrs

Day 16: Tatopani to Ghorepani (2860m) > 5.5 hrs

Day 17: Ghorepani to Chhomrong (2170m) + Poon Hill sunrise > 7.75hrs

Day 18: Chhomrong to Deurali (3230m) > 6.25hrs

Day 19: Deurali to ABC (4130m) > 2.75hrs

Day 20: ABC to Sinuwa (2360m) > 5.5hrs

Day 21: Sinuwa to Jhinu (1780m) > 3hrs

Day 22: Jhinu to Ghandruk (1940m) > 3hrs

Day 23: Ghandruk to Nayapul (1070m) > 3.25 hrs

Total: 112 hours, approx 350km!

Approaching Dharapani

Snow in Ghyaru April 21st

Ganggapurna Tal

Annapurna III & Ganggapurna from Tangki

Looking back near Yak Kharka

Fresh snow on the way up to Thorong La

Almost at the top!

Thorong La - 5416m (17,768 feet) - this sign is normally shoulder height.

Descending to Muktinath


Looking across the valley to Syang and Jomsom


Early morning on Poon Hill

Sunrise from Chhomrong

Fresh snow at Annapurna Base Camp

Annapurna South... and me

Descending to MBC

Back to Deurali

Walking out to Nayapul


  1. Fantastic post Mark! Took me right back to when I did the same trip. Keep living the adventure!!!

  2. I'm speechless. Your pictures are incredible and I feel like dropping everything, flying to nepal and doing the circuit myself!

  3. Love this guest post by Mark! It looks unreal, and unbelievably challenging. Beautiful photos:)

    Katelin xo

  4. Wow, Mark! Just amazing!

  5. Fabulous trek, Mark. Your pictures are great and we look forward to seeing more when you guys finally return to Ottawa. Love Bev & Paul