Self-supported Annapurna circuit trek in the first season following the earthquake
This trek was much more adventurous than I had signed up for; I had a dinner next to a huge spider, ate some ceiling, got lost (a few times), had the pleasure of someone else’s human feaces on my hand AND Nepali TV broadcasted me washing my knickers – live! My personal achievement of going over some of the worlds highest pass with 18kg on my back. The treks in Nepal ended up giving me some lifelong memories.
The whole trail is 241 km long and takes 3 weeks to complete, it is located in north-central of Nepal. The trial takes you around the Annapurna massif which includes Annapurna I (8091 m) which is the 10th highest mountain on earth. The rest of the Annapurna massif consists of thirteen peaks over 7000 m, and sixteen more of over 6000 m.
It was (is?) “the best long distance trekking trial in the world”, however it is losing its appeal very quickly thanks to that road which is being extended every year longer and longer into the circuit. You can make the trek much shorter now by taking a jeep for part of the trial.
The old trekking trail is signposted with white and red signs but still sometimes you need to walk on the road. However it is still breathtakingly beautiful trek.
It starts in Besisahar (820m) and passes through the world’s highest mountain pass, the Thoroung La pass (5416m) which is the highest point of the trek.
Annapurna was the first 8000er ever climbed (Everest was conquered 3 years after). The story of the adventurous 1950 first ascent via the North Face was told in Maurice Herzog’s book ‘Annapurna‘, which became a bestselling mountaineering book around the world, the story is pretty crazy. When the french team arrived to Nepal they were not even sure which mountain to climb; Dhaulagiri or Annapurna. They knew that both of them were over 8000m but pretty much this is all that they knew according to their sketchy map. They had first the difficulty to find the foot of the mountain and try to see with their naked eye which mountain to climb (they did not know at that time that they had chosen the mountain which would go on to have the biggest fatality ratio)! The mountain was not summited for the next 20 years after their epic climb. Annapurna is the most feared mountain on earth and if you try to climb you have much more chance to die than survive due to the continuous avalanches and huge gaping crevasses on its sides.
The Annapurna region was luckily hardly affected by the earthquake. I have not seen a single house which was affected. There were a few small landslides and a big one that I had to cross over. Landslides though are commonplace in and around the Himalayan region, and did not cause me any problems.
Group or self-supported?
This trek was my very first self-supported trek in the Himalayas. I have spent a lots of time in the mountains before, including rock and winter climbing across Europe. Some mountain experience is definitely needed as the pass can be tricky, particularly if it snows. Some basic map reading and compass skills can come handy sometimes too.
Some high altitude experience is also good to have, so you know when to take medicine and you will know if your altitude sickness gets serious and to call a helicopter to rescue you or a porter who can take you down to lower elevation. The truth is that nobody will care about you if you are an individual trekker. So it is good if you are confident and have been exposed to high altitude before.
The route is mostly straight forward and easy to follow, however I always kept checking my compass and map as there were hardly any groups on the trail that we could follow and the route branches out a few times so I had to be a bit careful. I did see a Korean trekker with high-tech GPS who kept getting lost as he was relying on his device too much rather than common sense!
There are lodges all the way but it is very popular trek, so during the main season the lodges can be full. Individual trekkers may be caught out and possibly turned away by the owners, so it is best to carry a tent with you. Beware though, as camping up 4000-5000 meters you will need a quality tent and very warm sleeping bag not to freeze overnight! There is no reliable weather forecast before the pass and can get easily in trouble like the 43 people who died on Thoroung la Pass in 2014.
This season was quiet due to earthquake so most lodges were completely empty and we were the only guests – which meant that I could barter and get a better price.
The lodges cost from USD 3-6 per night only if you eat there. The dinner cost average USD 3-7. The average of cup of hot tea is USD 1. This room price is only valid if you eat at the teahouse otherwise the room costs USD 10-12 per night. 1 litre of water is around USD 1.
I went on an extra low budget and only had warm food in the evening. I had biscuits for breakfast and lunch, this means I was always hungry and had a slow progress due to lack of energy.
You must get your permits (USD 20 for ACAP and USD 20 for TIMS permit) the bus fares (due to lack of petrol it varied from USD 6 to USD 20.) Plus the accommodation in Kathmandu and Pokhara which is minimum USD 20-25 per night and the additional local taxi fares.
If you go with group all of your accommodation and food are sorted for you, which makes life much easier on this trek. It costs a bit more but is much more comfortable and you will not be hungry and you definitely will not end up camping in -10C.
What fitness level is required?
You should be fairly fit and have completed lots of walks or go to the gym regularly (not only in January)! You should not get out of breath going up one floor on the stairs. Don’t think that you need to be super fit though, you just need good endurance.
Day 1 Kathmandu to Chame
An early rise at 5am to get a taxi to the bus stop to get the bus to Besisahar and start the trek.
7.5 hours of loud Bollywood movies later (so no sleeping possible), we had arrived!
The plan was to get a jeep to take us to Chame to cut out 5 days trekking as I wanted to get back to Kathmandu in time for Tihar celebration. We managed to barter and got the price down to USD 20 each, so off we went.
I had underestimated the distance of the journey and soon realised that it was a 6 hour journey through some seriously scary bumpy mountain roads, with sheer drops of over 200 metres as I looked out of the jeeps window.
We were now driving in the dark and at one of the steepest points the driver lit up a cigarette, turned on the stereo and called his boss on his mobile to tell him he would be back the next day as it was too late to come back that night.
It was an adrenaline fuelled trip and my hands were hurting from holding on so tight, but we made it to Chame alive at 10.30pm… a very long day!
The driver found us a tea house for the night so that we could rest up.
Day 2 Chame
Chame is at 2800m and we knew there was a big day ahead so we stayed at the village for an acclimatisation day. We went for an acclimatisation walk and gained 100 meters and walked back to the teahouse.
The teahouse was not very welcoming. There was a big group staying there too, and we were told to move seats to make room and got our food after 1.5 hours after waiting for all the group to finish their dinner first (my momo was a bit raw too after all the wait!) – Lodge Monalisa, you definitely won’t see us again.
Day 3 Chame to Lower Pisang
The day started early and the sky was overcast. We walked through some small villages and a pine forest. The villages here are all buddhist with long prayer wheels in all the villages.
It took us 7.5 hours to reach Lower Pisang. We managed to get a really nice room and the owner was very welcoming and the room very clean so we enjoyed the stay. I started to get a slight headache, which is not surprising as we were now at 3200 meters.
Day 4 Lower Pisang
Altitude headache now gone and another acclimatisation day at Lower Pisang. Did an acclimatisation walk up to Upper Pisang where there was a beautiful monastery and an amazing view of Annapurna II.
Day 5 Lower Pisang to Manang
Set off to Manang which sits at 3500m. Walking through pine forests, the trees were becoming smaller and less dense due to the altitude change as we push forward. Passed through some ghost like villages where only the teahouse owners were visible standing outside their houses trying to coax us in for a tea.
In October there would normally be around 4000 trekkers walking the Annapurna circuit, but due to the earthquake most of the trekkers are away.
According to the circuits leaflet, the day should have been 3 hrs 15 mins but it took us 5 hours! In high altitude you do not measure the distances in kilometres but in time, as with altitude, the higher you go the slower your pace.
We arrived in Manang which is the biggest village in the area. We were surprised that there were some bakeries but they had some seriously overpriced pastries. Quite surprising as only 60 years ago, no westerners had even been to the village. The town has a few hotels which are highly expensive, or a very dirty small campsite in somebody’s garden/vegetable patch. At the end of village we got a room. The dinner, veg fried rice as usual, was very nice and we were actually sat in their living room whilst the owner was cooking the dinner next to us.
The room was very dirty, and wonky and we had to step very carefully as we were scared that we would fall through the floor! Also, as the oven/stove was just below our room and there was no chimney, I kept the door open to make sure I didn’t get CO2 poisoning as I slept.
Day 7 Manang to Yak Kharka
Stayed in bed late to gather energy for a long day and a 500m altitude gain. The pine forests are now gone and colourful bushes now take over the vegetation and there were less and less villages on the trail now. The weather was still cloudy and the mountains were hiding behind them.
The wind was very cold and I started to get a headache thanks to the heavy backpack and bitter cold. Just when we were approaching Yak Kharka (4018m) it started to snow.
When we got a room in the village my headache had reached an extreme level so I took an Ibuprofen and 250gr Diamox (altitude sickness tablet) for the first time (not bad as on my previous high altitude wanderings I started to take Diamox around 3000m). I tucked myself in my sleeping bag and put on two blankets as well! I was still feeling cold but managed to fall asleep. When I woke up 2 hours later I felt much better and ready for some dinner.
Day 7 Yak Kharka to Thorung Phedi
Woke up early (sleeping disorder due to high altitude) to a glorious day for the first time. The sky was amazingly blue and the sun started to paint the 7000m peaks orange. We had a 4 hour walk to Throng Pedi and took it very slowly, making sure we would have enough energy to do the high pass a few days later.
The trail was pretty easy with a gentle incline. Just before Thorung Phedi it became very narrow and steep for 20 minutes through a landslide area. We always had to look up to see if any rocks were falling and at the same time looking at the path so as to not to fall down below. We also had to be as fast as we could through the ‘danger zone’, but at that altitude it is a pretty hard thing to do.
Arrived to Thorung Phedi exhausted as we were at 4450 meters. Got a room quickly. Everybody at the teahouse was having a romantic dinner by candlelight as there was no electricity any more. The place was very clean and had a hippy vibe, with a local playing a guitar in the corner.
Day 8 Thorung Phedi to High Camp
After a 1.5 hour torturous steep uphill walk we finally arrived at High Camp which is at 4900m. Soon after I wandered up the nearby hill for acclimatisation and to take some pictures. Went to bed early as there was no heater in the common room (so very cold). All the teahouses on this trek has a yak dung oven that keeps the trekkers warm during their dinner. High camp is basically just a small teahouse with a few rooms and all of them belong to one owner.
During the night my friend got a very bad altitude sickness and took some Diamox. Our next day ‘summit bid’ was now in danger.
Day 9 High Camp to Muktinath (via Thorung La Pass)
Neither of us could sleep well due to the altitude but decided to try to go over the world’s highest pass the Thorung La pass (5416m) very late at 8am. Everybody else in camp had left early as it is a very long day and you don’t want to stuck up there for a night above 5000m. Also there was a high wind forecast to sweep across the pass at 10:30am.
Judging by the state of the toilets in the morning, it was clear that people had got fierce diarrohea after the dinner. After leaving the toilet I had realised that the toilet door handle had some human feaces which had ended up on my hand! This freaked me out so much that it left me out of breath just before we were about to leave to face the toughest day. I had to sit down and get back my breath, after I washed my hands (several times) put on the backpack and left the camp – I was relieved to have left the dirty place and would rather sleep on the pass then ever go back to High Camp! I wish I have stayed at Thorung Phedi 2 nights than going up to High camp.
It was extremely hard-going but the skies were blue and we had perfect weather which helped us a lot. At this altitude there are not many living creatures as it is the world of snow and rock. Only saw one big black spider (enough for me) running around, and a few birds flying above.
Due to the thinning air I had to stop after every 20 steps or so to get my breath back. At this altitude you only have 50% of the oxygen than what you have at sea level. So it means I had to breathe twice as much! You also had to pay attention to the trail as it was steep and covered in loose gravel making it easy to slip.
When we sat down to have a little rest we saw a guy stumbling up slowly, clearly he had a previous injury which gave him lot of pain in his leg. He was tall and very slim (you could see the mountains has eaten up his body as it is impossible to eat as much calories as much you burn in a day). Even breathing at this altitude burns a lot of calorie.
My friend said to the guy:
“It is sucks, doesn’t it?” and the guy smiled and replied;
“No, sitting in an office for 8 hours and stuck in traffic jams sucks, this makes me feel alive.”
He had a good point!
He stopped by us but after none of us could talk any more as we were so breathless. He then said goodbye and left. We wish we could talk to him more as he looked like a very interesting person but walking and talking at this altitude is impossible.
After 4 arduous hours we reached the windy top where was a sign dotted with hundreds of prayer flags. We had a 10 minute break to eat some biscuits and started on our way down as it was too cold and late in the day to hang around. I did feel invincible doing this trek with such a heavy backpack, I never thought I would be able to do it. I just wanted to see my limits and how far I can go. But the good acclimatisation plan and not rushing up payed off. Every day I gave only 80% of my energy out as I knew I would need 110% of it for the pass. My friend was very happy too as he had never ventured above 1000m in his life.
Would not have thought that the way down would take us 6 hours on a very steep downhill loose gravel trail (most people have accidents on the way down because of this). After 2 hours we wanted to fire up the stove and eat some noodle soup as we were running on empty. After 20 min trying we had to give up and establish that the fuel we bought on the black market was of very poor quality (due to the fuel rationing) and the stove did not like it, so we ended up eating crunchy noodles in cold water as we had to eat something. It started to get to dusk and we saw the lights of Muktinath in the distance. We had descended from 5400m to 3800m to reach Muktinath. We took the first available lodge and collapsed.
Day 10 Muktinath
Next day we stayed in Muktinath which is a sacred place for both Hindus and Tibetan Buddhists. It is a great example of how two religions can share the same holy spot with mutual respect and support. It was a glorious day so I decided to have a laundry day. I went down to the communal tap of the village and washed the clothes with the locals, which was aired live on Nepali TV. My friend said he saw me on telly washing my pants live, as there was a program about tourists coming back to Nepal after earthquake. I must admit never seen the crew filming obviously was busy washing my pants.
Day 11 Muktinath to Lubra
In the morning we decided not to go on the main road as it is very dusty and you are continuously honked down by motorbikes and jeeps. We decided to go off the usual trail towards Lubra. What a bad idea it was! When we set off, it was very well signposted (got suspicious as it is very unusual for trails in Nepal) after about 40 minutes we followed a sign which was at a junction directing us to turn left, so of course we did.
We were just walking and following the trail and appreciating the view of Dhaulagiri I and the Annapurnas. After about 2 hours from when we saw the last sign, the trail started to disappear, leaving lots of littles paths visible through the colourful little prickly bushes. We decided to follow the path with the freshest footsteps, hoping that person was going to Lubra! The trail got steeper and steeper and I got suspicious that it was not the trail anymore. The path led to a small clearing where there was an eerie looking house/hut built into the side of the mountain. It seemed like a very lonely place to live and I got a little bit scared to think what kind of person was living there. I could see smoke coming out from a fire inside, so the inhabitants were obviously in and I could feel them looking at us whilst we had a little snack to re-energise. I then had a look where the path led, but it was so steep that it would be dangerous to follow. We then decided to try to re-trace our footsteps back the way we came instead, which proved harder than we thought…
As we left, three scruffy looking locals were heading towards that spooky house. They must have destroyed our footsteps which I had tried to re-trace, so I started to follow some other boots footsteps (thinking it is a trekker as Nepali people usually wear flip flops in the mountains but never boots) but we ended up completely lost!
Luckily there was a goat herder who saw us going the wrong way, he shouted and ran towards us and put us into the right direction, which was very nice of him. After about five hours of exhausting off-road upward, downward, round in circles walking, we found the original trail and at the junction we turned right this time.
The wind was blowing hard and dark clouds started to come up from the valley, so we knew we would have to be fast to find that village.
After an hour walk we had to go through a very dodgy landslide area. The trial was obviously newly made after a recent landslide, but it soon became quite steep with lots of loose stone and gravel making it tricky under foot. We could also see a huge bulk of stones and rocks sticking out from mud high above us, just waiting to fall, so we went rather fast through that area!
After about half an hour we reached a 120m long suspension bridge, which are always a little hairy in the wind. We then had to descend to the riverbed itself where the trail continued.
It was already becoming dark when we finally saw the village, and at first glimpse we both said: “Wtf!!!”
After the initial shock, we found the one and only lodge. The owner was very nice and our veggie chow-mein was delicious (except for the bits of ceiling which fell into the food whilst we were eating it). We asked the owner for directions to Jomson for the following day and we were told to follow the riverbed all the way to there, but we would need to make a ‘little jump’ at some point to cross the actual river stream. We went to bed wondering how ‘little’ that jump may be.
Day 12 Lubra to Jomson
Woke up early and saw that the weather was cloudy so packed up quickly as the dried mud on the riverbed can be very tricky in the wet. Luckily the sky cleared and the sun came out.
We reached the ‘little jump’ area after about an hours walk. We decided not to risk the ‘little jump’ (actually about 3 metres!) and instead took off our boots and socks, rolled up our trousers and walked through the ice cold water of the river.
We reached Jomson soon after where the trail ended, but as we wanted to go on to Tatopani (where the Annapurna sanctuary trek starts) we needed to find the bus stop. We asked several locals and they all told us the bus stop was a 2 minute walk away…. Well, 45 minutes later, we found it!
We got the tickets to Ghasa and stocked up on food supplies whilst we waited for the bus to arrive.
The bus ride was emotional! The roads were terrible and strewn with rocks which made it a very bumpy ride. It was also a very very dusty road and soon everyone and everything on the bus was covered with a thick layer of road dust! We strongly recommend you were a scarf to stop you breathing it all in as we were both sick after the journey and are both sure that the dust was to blame.
Also, if you ever take this bus ride, make sure you sit on the right hand side so that you are not able to see the sheer drop on the left!
The excitement for the day had not finished just yet though. We found a nice lodge and were eating dinner in the common room, when I looked up and saw a spider just 2 metres away from me, not a lie, almost as big as my palm. I jumped up and the owner come to see whats wrong. I pointed to the spider and he didn’t seem to notice it, I said,
“I am pretty freaked out of that huge spider!!!”
He smiled and said:
“Don’t worry they are not poisonous.”
and offered to get rid of it (I must admit I did not give the faintest damn if it is poisonous or not as it was just huuuuge, which was my point!!). I didn’t want it to get the spider disturbed, so asked my friend to keep a close eye on it all through dinner, and then left for bed straight after the food and zipped my sleeping bag right the way to the top!
Day 13 Ghasa
My friend was still quite sick from the dusty bus ride, so we stayed in Ghasa for the day.
It was the main day of the Dashain, the longest and most celebrated hindu festival in Nepal. It celebrates good winning over evil. There are celebrations all over the country and people make swings from bamboo and coconut rope. People say if you leave the ground swinging at Dashain, the swing will take away ill feelings and replace it with new and rejuvenation inside oneself.
The next day started the Annapurna Sanctuary aka Annapurna base camp trek which article is coming soon.