Published: May 16th 2007May 16th 2007
Must have been a good book to ignore a view like that!
Warning: never heed travel advice from a stranger on a plane, particularly if she's doling it out while chucking up into a bag. This may sound like the bleedin' obvious, but it didn't occur to Adele and I until we were three-quarters of the way up a 6400-metre Himalayan peak, kicking our crampons and trying not to contemplate the drops into snowy oblivion on either side of us. Only then did we consider that Annelies - the Dutch stranger on the plane who'd persuaded us that it would be a good idea to climb a mountain - might be not only handier with an ice axe than us, but quite a bit harder too. And anyway, what the hell do people from Holland know about mountains?
The background to the most exhilarating, exhausting and cloth-touchingly dangerous episode of our travels to date goes something like this. We came to Nepal intending to go trekking on one of the legendary trails through the heart of the Himalaya, but with no plans to do any mountaineering. On the plane over from Delhi, however, we sat next to Annelies, who was (a) throwing up courtesy of some dodgy travel pills
We spent a lot of time in this position
and (b) on her way to climb Ama Dablam, a heart-stoppingly beautiful peak down the road from Mount Everest. We mentioned to her that we'd been itching to do the same ever since chickening out of the 'easy' 6000m peaks we'd trekked around in South America, and she did her best to convince us that now was the time to give it a go.
But then we lost track of Annelies in the crowd at the airport, forgot all about the idea and decided instead to tackle the Annapurna Circuit, a 170-mile march around a stunning collection of mountains near the Tibetan border. The range includes fearsome Annapurna I, one of the hardest mountains to climb in the world. We had no intention of scaling anything; walking uphill for the thick end of three weeks sounded like enough of a challenge. But then we bumped into Annelies in downtown Kathmandu, met the bloke who was organising her expedition and - after several days of frantic last-minute paperwork - signed up for an expedition of our own: to climb Chulu West, a peak in the middle of the Annapurna trek. We would have our own guide, two porters
The local brew. Rather hard to swallow
and a fairly large side-order of apprehension to go with them - because at 6419 metres, Chulu West was about 1000 metres higher up than either of us had been without boarding an aircraft first.
However, it quickly became clear that we were lucky, lucky people: our guide, Pancha, and porters Ras and Dek were three of the nicest people we've met in 11 months away. All three are from Everest country, and thus genetically predisposed to be as hard as nails despite their diminutive stature. Ras and Dek are teenage students who supplement their studies by carrying brutally heavy loads - strapped to the head is their preferred modus operandi - for the likes of us, while Pancha is the hardest working man in showbusiness: a full time climbing guide who fits in an English Literature MA in the periods when most people chose to sleep. Having them 'on our team' not only reduced the chances of us breaking our silly necks on Chulu, they also made the trek a lot more fun than it would have been had we only had each other for company.
As for the Annapurna Circuit itself, it
Our first glimpse of the high mountains
fully deserves its billing as one of the world's great treks. The walking isn't particularly strenuous, so you cruise gently uphill and lap up the scenery, stopping each night at cute little tea-houses en route for steaming plates of curried rice and glasses of raksi, the surprisingly agreeable local rice whiskey. Spring was the perfect time to do it, because everything was in bloom and there were baby animals - foals, goats, chicks and even the odd six-day-old monkey - all over the shop. We quickly switched to the same 'Nepali clock' as the rest of our team, hitting the hay as soon as darkness fell and getting up at 6am to get ready to walk. Early morning was the nicest bit of the day: once the sun got going it could be hot enough to blister your lip, while at night it was as cold as a witch's tit.
The best thing about the trek is the way that the deep, lush valleys of the foothills gradually fade away and the Himalaya unfold before you. We were barely conscious of our progess until around the fourth or fifth day, when we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by
stunning mountain peaks that made us feel minute. And these mountains are like nothing else we'd seen; in particular, the towering Annapurnas II and III are so beautiful that they could almost bring you to tears. And it wasn't just us: Pancha joined the two of us on the steps on a hillside monastery to gaze at them for a full hour. In this context they don't feel like inanimate lumps of rock, but marvels of creation that extract a deep-rooted emotional response. It's no wonder the locals revere them as gods.
By this time we were feeling pretty emotional ourselves, primarily about climbing Chulu. It grew in the imagination along with the altitude, and after a week of walking and a day of acclimatisation at 3500 metres, we could actually see the peak on the skyline. The feeling intensified as we headed off the beaten track and onto the much-less-well-trodden march up the snaking path to our Base Camp at 4500 metres, where we saw of our first yaks of the trail. And a day later, when we set out for our final camping spot, the ingeniously named High Camp... well, we were really starting to
Rice curry and lentils. Himalayan hikers staple
brick it. We were the only expedition trying to climb Chulu, and there was nobody else in perhaps a 10-mile radius. We had both begun to suffer from mild altitude sickness, too. This manifested itself in a thumping headache (me), loss of appetite (Adele) and all manner of plumbing difficulties (both of us). Things got so bad that we were nearly forced to resort to advice Adele was given by a colleague before we left: always carry a paperback. Great for long train journeys, even better for toilet emergencies. Our month-old Economist
would come in more useful than its publishers would ever dream.
Not only that, but we could see what we were up against now. Before we even got to the business end of Chulu, we would have to negotiate a three-hour climb up scree-covered rock with don't-look-down-now drops in several places. Oh yes, and we'd have to do that bit in the early hours of the morning to stand any chance of getting to the summit and back down again before dusk. Great news.
The day before we were due to climb, Pancha and Ras set off up the peak to put
Gordon Ramsey eat your heart out
Dek cooking up a dal baat storm on one kerosene burner
in a series of safety ropes for the tricky bits. We were ordered to spend the day relaxing, but chose to spend it instead worrying ourselves silly and, if you were me, going for a stroll, falling over and cutting a wrist open. By the time Pancha and Ras returned, it was 8pm - five hours before we were due to get up to climb - and they were both visibly spent. The top of the mountain was covered in deep snow, they said, and there were lots of crevasses in the ice which meant we would have to go the long way round to the summit. We went to bed resolving to track down Annelies and give her a piece of our minds.
But there wasn't much time left to fret. Four hours later, Ras and Dek woke us up for an enormous breakfast of porridge and pancakes that we had no desire whatsoever to eat, and by 2am we were off up the rocky bit. Thanks to God's best efforts, there was no moonlight and we scrambled uphill purely on the puny beams from our head-torches, sometimes on all fours. (Given the drops that lurked
They were everywhere. You'll have to take our word that it was golden
a couple of feet away at some points, this was probably just as well.) We made surprisingly good pace nevertheless, and at 5am we were at the top of the rock, at which point we donned our crampons and got ready to climb for real. By now we could see the summit in the pale dawn light; it didn't look that far away so, ice axes in hand, we set off towards it.
It's kind of difficult to describe the next eight hours, beyond the fact that they were the most utterly, unbelievably knackering of our lives. Most of the mountain was covered in a thick blanket of fresh snow; at this altitude, ploughing through it was like being manacled to a step machine in the gym. When we weren't sinking up to our backsides, we were tiptoeing along the edge of ice lakes and across ridges between vast steppes of virgin powder that would have been wonderful to ski down but looked like a one-way donkey ride to hell if, like me, you kept falling over your own crampons. And the air was so thin that we were stopping every 10 paces for sore, rasping lungfulls.
Annelies was a dead woman.
I'd like to say that the views up top made up for it, but at the time they didn't. It wasn't long before we were totally done in; I never imagined that I could be this tired. When we came to the first 'technical' bit of the climb, where we needed to use the safety rope and our axes in quick succession to negotiate an icy overhang, I launched myself upwards, missed my first stroke with the axe and fell backwards on top of Pancha, very nearly taking us both down the mountain the very quick way. He didn't appear to mind, but admitted our progress was 'rather slow' - which given his mild-mannered nature, amounted to a right bollocking. We tried to pick up the pace, but to describe our attempts to do so as a miserable failure would be to talk them up too much. I was so hungry that I ate three Mars bars without them touching the sides, and our thirst was such that we resorted to drinking the contents of the hot water bottle Adele kept in her sleeping bag. Don't try this at home, kids.
The rock climb
And the wee small dots on the bottom left are Pancha and Ras
At about 10.30am, we came over a ridge to glimpse the summit before us... and bugger me if it didn't look further away than it had at 5am. Pancha reckoned that it was three hours off; far enough to leave us descending in the dark. After thinking about it for all of about five seconds, we decided that discretion was the better part of valour and turned to head for home. Only without the summit to aim for, our adrenaline drained away and we slowed to an absolute crawl, stopping every 15 minutes to lie on our backpacks in the snow. It was past 1pm by the time we were back at the top of the rock, at which point the unfeasibly energetic Ras and Dek bounded up to meet us with the best flask of tea I've ever tasted. After skeetering down the rockface, now covered in a layer of snow with its Christ-on-a-bike drops clearly visible, we reached High Camp at 4pm, whereupon we disappeared into our tent for the next 14 hours to indulge our altitude sickness and exhaustion. When we emerged the following morning, the whole place was blanketed in snow. Had we delayed
Above the eagles on Chulu
above the clouds for that matter
our summit bid by a day we would have stood no chance of getting out of High Camp, let alone up the mountain. At the time I remember not giving a monkey's, because we were still so knackered - mentally and physically - from the climb, but it's amazing how quickly you go from thinking, 'Thank God that's over' to 'Actually, I wouldn't mind another go.' Especially when we found out that the five other groups who'd tried to summit in the month before us hadn't got there either. So watch this space...
After climbing Chulu it would have been easy for the rest of the trek (a good 10 days or so of solid walking) to feel like an anticlimax. But it wasn't: for one thing, we still had the highest part, the snow-bound 5400-metre Thorong Pass, to negotiate. We imagined that this would be a piece of cake after Chulu, but it would appear that climbing 700 vertical metres then descending by twice that amount in the space of a morning is never that much fun, and especially not when you're still suffering from altitude sickness.
The thing that keeps you going
Rob on Chulu
heading off to the summit with all his mates
is that everything changes around you. The scenery shifts from snow-capped peaks on all sides to arid, windswept hills; the settlements from grim, trekkers-only teahouses with unmentionable loos to proper village communities; and you begin to meet lots of Tibetans from the enclaves dotted around the mountains here. One town, which you require a special permit to enter, even has its own king, which is pretty flash by any standards.
On the trek's northernmost edges the villages are positively medieval, with crumbling wattle-and-daub houses containing livestock (ground floor), families (middle) and food (top). Modern life is gradually making its presence felt: they're building a road to link all the places on the trek's eastern edge with the rest of the country, and t'internet is arriving too - most memorably, at a cafe named Yak Donald's in one village we visited. (Happily, McDonald's itself hasn't made it to Nepal yet, so this bit's safe for a while yet.) But for the time being, the only way to reach these places is to on foot or - if you're lazy/lucky - astride one of the hilariously short-legged local horses.
A few richer-than-yow types get about by
In no mood to smile
Neither would you be with that drop below. Thanks god for rope
helicopter, but we won't talk about them, because the real joy of coming here is the walking: six to eight hours of it each day, through everything from dried-up river beds to narrow, scree-filled passes. There are meant to be loads of trekkers here, but we didn't see so many outside of the towns; instead, you're surrounded by locals carrying huge loads - we spied overflowing chicken coops and massive sheets of corrugated iron - on their backs, huge mule-trains and crowds of immaculate school kids who are both much faster and far less sweaty than you. As the altitude abates you come across lush valleys full of barley and abundant fruit; we tried the local cider (extremely more-ish) and apple brandy (extremely dangerous) at this point in the trek, as well as our first ever yak burger - our first meat after six weeks of vegetarianism, and not exactly a gentle reintroduction to the business of eating flesh.
You also get to bathe in some wonderful hot springs at a place called Tatopani near the end of the trek. Just as well too, because after it there's a real sting in the tail - a 2000-metre
Amazingly Pancha regained the use of his legs after unwittingly acting as Rob's crach mat
vertical ascent to a place called Poon Hill that's famed for its views of the Annapurna panorama, followed by a steep descent no fewer than 3200 stone steps. Just when we were getting ready to celebrate the finishing line, Adele strained a muscle in her thigh and we ended up hobbling over it. And when we got up Poon Hill we were greeted by thick cloud and about 40 tourists groaning their displeasure. Can't win them all, I guess.
And now, three weeks and 170 miles later, we're cooling off in Nepal's second city, Pokhara - a laid-back lakeside town with fabulous views of the Annapurna panorama. Or at least there would be if it the whole place wasn't blanketed with yet more cloud (note to self: this could be all the excuse we need to come back). But no matter: we're just about to go out in a boat on the lake, enjoy our first beer in three weeks and settle down to the business of feeling pretty good about life. Tomorrow we head off for the warmer climes of southern Nepal and the Chitwan National Park for - hopefully - a glimpse of the resident
seen from the east
single-horned rhino. And after that, because we've not had enough of the mountains yet, we're going to have a look at the biggest of them all, Everest, from the Tibetan side. If any concerned parents are still reading, don't worry: we won't be packing any climbing gear this time. Probably.
Rob and Adele xxx
Quote of the week
'It's the Himal-eye-ass! Shat ap, Ingrid!'
A vague approximation of Brad Pitt's execrable "Austrian" accent from the film version of Seven Years In Tibet
, screened during our acclimatisation day on the trek. Unfortunately for our guide, porters and indeed everybody else on the Annapurna Circuit, we said little else apart from the phrase during the rest of the trek. Sorry all.
There are more photos below