The Annapurna Circuit - The World's Ultimate trek?

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December 1st 2009
Published: December 3rd 2009
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Day 504: Sunday 15th November - Day 1 of the Annapurna Circuit

Besisahar (780m) to Bhulbhule (840m)
Distance: 9km
Time Taken: 2 hours

For the duration of 2009 the thought of trekking around the Annapurna circuit has stopped me prolonging my stay too long in any one place. I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time. The Annapurna circuit is rated as one of the world’s great treks, a regular inclusion in subjective top ten trek lists, but nevertheless included, and some sources even describe it as the ultimate trek. It earns its reputation from the sheer diversity and quality of scenery it passes through on its 214km loop around the Annapurna range of the Himalayas, a 40 mile long wall that stretches from Annapurna I in the west to Annapurna II in the east and has no fewer than 9 summits above 7000 metres. Returning to the reason why the Annapurna circuit kept pushing me on throughout Asia. It includes negotiating a 5400 metre high pass which can become unpassable due to bad weather from mid-December. It should be 10 days until I reach the pass, so I have timed my travels perfectly.

There was great anticipation last night at our farewell meal in Kathmandu. Bruno, myself, Nicky, Emma and Patricia were joined by 5 of Bruno’s friends from France and two Australians Nicky and Emma met in China. All but Patricia are leaving Kathmandu tomorrow or the day after to trek around Annapurna. There is little excitement however when the alarm sounds before 6am......a little over 5 hours sleep is hardly ideal preparation ahead of a long trek.

Bruno and I part our separate ways outside the guesthouse and if things go to plan we should meet up somewhere along the trek in a few days (he is starting further up the trail than me, but I plan to walk faster). I catch a taxi to the bus station, which is an outlet for artistic self expression in Kathmandu. The buses are bedecked with lurid colours, and everyone seems to have a name. They are just like the chicken buses in Guatemala.

The bus journey takes two hours longer to reach Besisahar than it should. I sleep most of the way, catching up on a lack of sleep for the last 3 nights. I feel groggy when we arrive and not exactly relishing the walk ahead. The planned 6 hour walk to Bahundanda is no longer an option, I only have a maximum of 3 hours of daylight left, so I will have to content myself by spending the night in Bhulbhule instead which is halfway to Bahundanda.

After registering in Besisahar I start my trek at 3pm. The sun has made its first appearance of the day and I’m in good spirits and excited about the walk ahead. I’m walking alone, without a guide, without a porter and without a buddy. I’m unconcerned though as right now I need some ‘me’ time and there’s no better place to get it than out in the wilderness. However, I am not without concerns. I am concerned my bag is too heavy, largely due to my insistence on carrying three books to read on the trek. These concerns soon ease as I start to walk but my health condition is niggling me. I’m still feeling weak after my bout of food poisoning and I’m glad in a way it is a 3 hour walk today not a six.

The walk to Bhulbhule takes me two hours rather than the three I had expected. This gives me confidence in both my condition, the weight of my bag and that I’ll catch up with my schedule no problem, possibly as early as tomorrow. I’ve worked a schedule out which has me completing the circuit in 16 days (trekking agencies and guidebooks quote anything between 2-3 weeks). Although it is not absolutely necessary that I stick to the schedule, I would like a few days to relax in Pokhara after the trek and before I must return to Kathmandu on 3rd December to get my Indian visa.

The route today takes me alongside the Marsyangdi river, the roar of which is a constant companion over the next four days until I reach Manang. It is the first sound I hear in the morning when I awake, and the last sound I hear before fatigue takes its grip and I fall asleep at night. I pass through a few villages, and some friendly children. I get my first glimpse of the Himalaya on the trek, although it is not the Annapurna range to the north-west but Manaslu a 8000 metre peak to the east. Later I see the Annapurna range ahead which looks imposing and every bit of its 7000 metre plus peaks. It should as I’m only at an elevation of 1000 metres rather than the 5000 metres of the Tibetan plateau last week.

I’m inspired when I see the weight that some of the Nepali’s are carrying. I’m naturally competitive and just because I’ve set myself a target of 16 days to complete the trek doesn’t mean I don’t want to beat it. Once I’ve regained my strength after an early night in Bhulbhule I’ll be up for the challenge.

Day 505: Monday 16th November - Day 2 of the Annapurna Circuit

Bhulbhule (840m) to Chamje (1430m)
Time Taken: 8.5 hours

Today is one long struggle. I flushed most of the last 24 hours nutrition down the toilet last night as I was up and down to the toilet several times with diarrhoea. I don’t think it is food poisoning this time, rather the delicate condition of my stomach at the moment, just three days after the illness in Kathmandu. It leaves me weak and drained of any energy ahead of a day where I would like to catch up to my schedule. This is not a good start to the trek.

The day’s trek continues alongside the Marsyangdi river past the villages of Nadi Bazar, Bahundanda, Syange and Jagat. Only on the way up and down from Bahundanda which lies on the crest of a hill do I temporarily leave the river. Here the trek climbs through cultivated terraces where the villagers are harvesting their crops.

The elevation gain today is only 600 metres from my starting point in Bhulbhule to my finishing point in Chamje. In reality though I reckon it is at least double this. First there is the climb up to Bahundanda and the subsequent descent to Syange. Then just after Syange there has been a recent landslide and this section in particular involves a lot of climbs up the cliffside, and then equally hairy descents for little horizontal distance gain. It is the climbs I’m really struggling with today. I don’t have the energy to just power up them as normal and have to keep stopping for frequent rests.

At 5pm after 8 ½ hours walking I reach Chamje. I’ve caught up to my schedule but not without a struggle. With a proper rest and sticking to some basic foods I hope to be in a position to take up the challenge of beating my schedule tomorrow. I talked to a guide on the walk today, and he believes I don’t need a rest day in Manang to acclimatise. Having been in Tibet just a week ago he says I should be okay. Interesting, but I’ll see how I am feeling and see what my body is telling me. I might be glad of the rest by then.

I thought about stopping in Jagat, just one hour before Chamje. It was the nicest village I’ve passed through on the trek to date. There were many children playing a game in the school yard and it had a wonderful atmosphere. I didn’t because I wanted to reach Chamje, my goal and also as I believed this was where Bruno and his friends were stopping on day two. I make enquiries at all of the teahouses in the village but there is no sign. They must be further up the trail. Perhaps tomorrow I will catch them up? It is no big deal. So far I’m enjoying walking at my pace on my own. Everywhere I’ve stopped, either for refreshment or lodging for the night there have been fellow trekkers to talk to. Added to this you pass so many locals going about their everyday life that you never feel alone on the trek.

I stop in a Tibetan teahouse this evening. It is the final teahouse in Chamje after my fruitless search for Bruno. They offer me free lodging which is why I choose it. But, the teahouses make little on accommodation. Accumulated on my trek I pay just 1000 Rupees (£8) for my accommodation. Instead, it is on the marked up food and drink that they make their livelihood. The higher you get on the trek, and the further from the transport routes the more you pay.

Ordering dinner makes me laugh. I ask for momos (dumplings with meat) that classic Tibetan dish and receive a strange look in return. ‘Is there a problem?’ I ask. ‘The meat is a little dry’ comes the response. Refreshing honesty for a restaurant. I order Dal Bhat, the Nepalese national dish of lentils, rice and curried potato instead. I’m a bit worries about the effect this may have on my delicate stomach, but no such issues tonight!

Day 506: Tuesday 17th November - Day 3 of the Annapurna Circuit
Chamje (1430m) to Timang (2270m)
Distance: 17km
Time Taken: 7.5 hours

What a difference a day makes. Today I’m feeling strong again and despite an ominous start I make good progress. My legs are feeling like jelly when I start walking at 9am, delayed by the inattentive staff at the teahouse as I wait to pay. The feeling in my legs soon passes but shortly after leaving Chamje and crossing on to the other side of the river I manage to stray off the path and into thick vegetation. Ten minutes and probably as many curses later I’m back on the path but I’ve had to expend much more energy than I would have liked. It is actually very difficult to lose the trail on the Annapurna circuit. You certainly don’t need a guide to show you the way. But where there is a way I’ll always be sure to find it, and get lost!

The cultivated terraces of the first two days have been replaced by a deep river gorge with massive, almost vertical bare rock faces. From time to time I pass a waterfall cascading several hundred metres down the bare rock. I prefer this scenery to that of the past few days, there is more of a rugged, natural beauty to it. It reminds me a touch of the mountains in the Lake District and Scotland back in the UK, and it is fair to say that the vegetation is more befitting a temperate zone than a sub-tropical one. The landscape may have changed but the Marsyangdi river still roars below.

The path to Tal is largely uphill, but not exclusively so. Yesterday I would have found this tough going, today it is not so bad. The sun is high in the sky and I’m appreciating the scenery which has gone up a notch from nice to really nice. Tal is located in a beautiful spot, the highlight of the trek to date from a scenery perspective. The river has broadened into a wider valley. Here the gradient of the river is flatter and its flow more gentle than ferocious. Fine sands and white, polished stones carried and deposited by the river line its side, narrowing the flow and in the middle of the river create an island.

I take advantage of the safe drinking water initiative in Tal, the first time I’ve seen it on the trek. The initiative is the result of joint New Zealand and Nepalese investment and it certainly a good idea for both cost and environmental reasons. Bottled water has increased in price (like everything else) from 40 Rupees (30 pence) at the start of the trek to in excess of 100 Rupees (£1) three days in. This may not be extortionate in western terms but marks an inflation of 1000% from Kathmandu. I know they have to carry it here, but that is excessive.

From Tal the path climbs gently towards Dharapani where I stop for lunch. It has been windy since I reached Tal, but I find this refreshing, almost invigorating as I continue to walk in T-shirt and shorts. I enjoy a pleasant conversation with a German couple over lunch who are walking in the opposite direction and confirm what I am now thinking, that I can easily beat my 16 day target. They will do it in 15 days, and they’ve stopped for rest days.

The path continues to climb gently between Dharapani and Bagarchaap, my scheduled stopping place for day three. However, Bagarchaap looks bleak and there are still two hours walking in the day, with the time yet to reach 3pm. It is a further half hour to Danakyu, which looks more appealing as a stop for the night but I decide to press on to the next village, Timang. I do this despite the advice of a teahouse owner who dishonestly trying to get me to stop there tells me it is 5 hours walk and that there is no accommodation there. He obviously dawdles rather than walks, as it looks more like an hour on my map!

The trail between Danakyu and Timang is the most strenuous of the day. The path leaves the river and takes me through a forest of pines and fir trees. I also have to wait for dozens of donkeys to pass on the narrow path which climbs up to Timang. There are as many donkeys as people on the Annapurna circuit! I also think the elevations on my map need correcting. I was expecting an easy walk from Danakyu as according to the map, Timang lies 30 metres below Danakyu. I remember nothing other than a steep, energy sapping climb, and I would reckon on an elevation gain of close to 300 metres. Maybe if I’d known this I’s have spent the night in Danakyu. Nevertheless, it is out of the way at least, and I haven’t that climb to drain my legs first thing tomorrow morning.

I arrive in Timang at 4:30pm, exhausted and in the rain. It took an hour and a quarter from Danakyu and there is accommodation here. Quelle surprise! And the only other guests apart from me are a senior French couple. I’ve seen much fewer trekkers today, my guess is I’m now in front of all those who started in Besisahar the same day as myself, but behind those who started from Syange the same day (Bruno) or from Besisahar a day earlier than me. Tomorrow I’ll catch them.

I talk to the French couple’s guide who confirms I don’t need the acclimatisation day in Manang. Tomorrow I am thinking I will try and push all the way to Manang. This promises to be a mammoth day, and one where like today I will have an elevation gain of a kilometre. But, I’m led to believe it is a gentle climb, rather than some of teh steep climbs of yesterday and today. I feel good, and tomorrow I’m going to attempt to get even further than the two hours ahead of my schedule that I currently am.

Day 507: Wednesday 18th November - Day 4 of the Annapurna Circuit

Timang (2270m) to Lower Pisang (3200m)
Distance: 16km
Time Taken: 7.5 hours

It is a beautiful sunny day today, the best weather of the trek to date. In the sun it is warm, and the shorts and shirt I am wearing are perfectly adequate. Once in the shade however, with the whipping wind and it is freezing. My jumper and hat are forever being taken from my bag, and then replaced when it gets too warm. I need to walk fast today because I want to reach Manang, or at least Braga, two days walk away for most people. I want to get away from Timang by 7am, but as ever with me when I have good intentions for an early start, it slips somewhat. Not by much, only half an hour but that could be the difference later in the day.

My walk starts as it ended yesterday - through a forest of pine and firs - between Timang and Chame. The steep mountain sides of the other side of the valley are also covered in evergreen forest, very different from yesterday’s bare rock. The scenery reminds me of the images I have seen of Canada and the northern states of the US. A black dog follows me for at least an hour, until the point I am starting to think I will have to adopt him and feed him. I stop for a cuppa in Chame to warm up. Chame is the biggest village I’ve passed through so far on the trek.

At Chame the track rejoins the Marsyangdi river, which it follows more or less until just after Bhratang. The walk continues to be through forest, while every now and again one of the snow capped Himalaya reveals itself as you round a corner. You need eyes in the back of your head, as the view in the direction I am walking from is often even better than that ahead. I keep stopping to admire the view, with snow being whipped up by the wind to create snow clouds over the highest peaks.

After Bhratang the path climbs steeply through forest initially before levelling out. This does for me reserves of energy and in the next village, Dhikur Pokhari, I need to stop to take lunch. It is 1pm, I’ve been walking for 5 ½ hours but looking at the map I’m only just over halfway to Manang. If I’m to make it I need a quick lunch stop. But lunch takes ages to come, not to eat, as I’m starving. It is 2pm before I get on my way again.

The path between Dhikur Pokhari and Lower Pisang is flat and I reach Pisang within an hour. I’m out of water so I head to the safe drinking water station to refill. I ask the man on the station how far it is to Braga, the village before Manang, and one where I’ve had a few recommendations for. 3 ½ hours is the reply. With the time fast approaching 3pm I have a decision to make - stay in Pisang or take up the challenge and aim to get as far down the trail to Braga as I can.

Just as I am mulling this over, a hand is placed on my shoulder. I turn to see who it belongs to and find it is Bruno. He is staying in Pisang tonight having just arrived, so that makes my mind up; I will do the same. My plan to get to Braga was too ambitious anyway. I’m still one day ahead of my plan, can spend the evening with Bruno and his friends, maybe walk with him some of the way tomorrow before resuming the challenge with myself to complete the circuit as fast as I can.

Shortly after I’ve taken my rucksack off my back, we all walk up the hill, across the river to Upper Pisang. Upper Pisang has some interesting stone buildings, a number of Tibetan influences including a monastery, and the most splendid view of Annapurna II, all 7937 metres of it. Once it gets dark we are huddle around the fire in the teahouse reading, chatting (most of it in French naturally, which unfortunately I don’t understand) and I look at a book which has a table of timings for walking the Annapurna region. The pass is still reachable in two days not three from Pisang as I thought it was having failed to make it to Braga. I’m now thinking there is a definite possibility to do the Annapurna Sanctuary trek at the end of the Annapurna Circuit. I will need at least four days, but it seems that I will make that up against my schedule.
The Sanctuary trek is firmly in my thoughts.......

Day 508: Thursday 19th November - Day 5 of the Annapurna Circuit

Lower Pisang (3200m) to Ledar (4200m)
Distance: 29km
Time Taken: 9 hours

The scenery I walked through yesterday was better than the previous days. Where yesterday’s walk was through beautiful scenery, today could be described as one of those days that are an utter privilege and pleasure to experience. The walk today will live long in the memory, such was its quality.

The day starts with breakfast with the French contingent and a little after 8am we’re on our way. I walk with Bruno for half an hour before I realise that if I am to reach Ledar today I will have to get a move on. We embrace, wish each other luck, and vow to meet each other in Pokhara at the end of our treks, sometime late next week.

The day is as glorious as the previous. The two hour walk to Humde is flat with pine forest gradually thinning out the further up the track I get. The valley is maybe a mile wide now, with mountains on either side, although those on the left are the more eye-catching, being the snow-capped giants of the Annapurna range. Humde has an airport, which looks like the quietest airport I’ve ever seen. I wonder when the next flight in or out is? I bet you’d be waiting days, maybe weeks.

It takes just over an hour to reach Braga from Humde, where I decide to take an early lunch in a teahouse recommended by a few people who were walking the other way around the circuit. Braga is in the most perfect location, in a broad valley with snow capped mountains on three sides, in fact in could be all four. The valley has the same appearance as the Tibetan plateau, vegetation is sparse and the dominant colour is brown save the Marsyangdi river which snakes through the valley. The landscape has changed once more, and would be described as sub-alpine.

As I sit for lunch I ponder how much I’d have to pay for a seat in a restaurant with this view elsewhere in the world. Right now for me the view is priceless. I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else in the world in this moment. My only headache is deciding which direction to look. The reason I chose to lunch here rather than wait half an hour until I reached Manang, the halfway point of my day was not just the recommendations I received but also the sight of the chocolate cake in the window of the bakery. This is luxury I did not expect.

I pass through Manang at 1pm, bang on schedule, but with no time to spare to look around the place where most people choose to spend their acclimatisation day. This morning, Siva (the French group’s guide) confirmed what the earlier guides had said - that because I’ve been in Tibet recently I’m already acclimatised so I don’t need to spend a day in Manang. Manang has the feel of a village where trekkers linger for a few days. It is relaxed and I spot signs for a pool bar and a cinema - services clearly targeted at trekkers wanting to relax, rather than walk.

Up to this stage, although I’ve gained 300 metres in altitude it has been barely noticeable, so slight has been the incline. From Manang to Ghusang I gain another 400 metres in no time. This is the toughest section of the walk today, teh steep gradient made no easier by the thin air. Breathing is becoming difficult now. Above Manang there is a wonderful turquoise lake, Ganggapurna Tal, which you only seem to find at high altitude. Gangapurna and Annapurna III, both in excess of 7000 metres, tower behind the lake.

In between Manang and Ghusang an Irish guy, Matt joins me for about an hour on the walk up to Ghusang. Ordinarily I would be happy for the company, but it is hard enough work just putting one foot in front of another on the steep slope without trying to talk. Matt is just two months into a year round the world trip and is eager to pick my brains about several places I’ve been to. I’m pleased when he opts to spend the night in Ghusang rather than continue with me if only because I will be able to concentrate 100% on walking now.

From Ghusang it takes two more hours to reach Ledar, which save for the last hour between Yak Kharka and Ledar is fairly flat. I’m feeling the altitude even walking on the flat ground now, but I am at 4000 metres. It gets cold after 3:30pm, when the sun drops behind the mountains. The scenery is still as spectacular, the Himalayas being in every direction I care to look. The Chulu mountains, three peaks of 6500 metres are particularly stunning as the sun picks out different colours on its slopes. At 5pm I reach Ledar. The feeling is more relief than ecstasy after a long day. But, I’ve reached my target and I’m now three days ahead of my schedule having skipped the rest day in Manang and walked four long days in sucession. In the last three I have gained 1000 metres per day and now I stand at 4200 metres (14000 feet).

My room in Ledar comes without electricity. Day by day the luxuries are being stripped away. All I am left with now is a dark room, four stone walls and two cracked windows that barely keep the cold out, curtains that are paper thin, a wood floor and two beds with hard mattresses. Think a prison cell and you wouldn’t be far away. But once snug in my sleeping bag, tired after a long day with the hardest day of the trek to come tomorrow when I cross the pass, what more do I need?

Day 509: Friday 20th November - Day 6 of the Annapurna Circuit

Ledar (4200m) to Muktinath (3760m)
Distance: 16km
Time Taken: 10.5 hours

I’m already awake when my alarm sounds at 5:30am. I rarely enjoy a good night’s sleep at altitude and last night was no different. I am ready to start walking before it is light so I crawl back into my sleeping bag for ten minutes. It is lovely and warm, I could stay here all day as it is bitterly cold outside. This is not an option however. Today is the big day on the Annapurna circuit, the hardest day, the day I will attempt to cross the Thorung-La pass at 5416 metres above sea level it is the highest pass on any trekking route in the world. This is the day I know whether I’ll make it around the Annapurna circuit or not. I am not making it easy for myself taking the pass on from Ledar, a full six hours walk and 1200 metres below the pass. Most people go from either high camp or Thorung Phedi, but I never was interested in what most people did!

Canvassing opinion amongst the porters and the staff last night revealed that if I wish to make it over the pass today I should leave before 6am. Someone at the teahouse even suggested 5am. This is because apparently in the afternoon the winds pick up on the pass, making it more difficult and potentially more hazardous to attempt to cross. The way people are talking, if you don’t make it up to the pass in the morning, you shouldn’t attempt the pass and turn back to high camp. I don’t believe it. You make any judgement based on how you are feeling and the specific weather conditions at the time. I’m going to take this on!

In a grey light I leave Ledar at 6am. I make good progress to Thorung Phedi, the usual starting point for ascents over the pass, reaching it in an hour and a half. The mountains appear much closer, the ground is frozen, the vegetation is alpine - just grasses and the snow line is within touching distance. I stop for breakfast in Thorung Phedi and chat to two Israeli girls who have abandoned their ascent after feeling unwell. They are still determined to go over the pass today, this time on horseback. I dispense by advice and experience on altitude sickness and warn them to turn back if they feel unwell again. Myself, I feel good, ready for the challenge ahead. I haven’t acclimatised in Manang, but I have done the important thing - I have listened to my body.

The second thing I have is confidence. Confidence in having been this high before, only once, but vitally I know what it is going to feel like to go over 15000 feet and how hard it will be to breathe at 18000 feet on the top of the pass. This self-confidence allows me to ignore the questioning looks of the teahouse staff at Thorung Phedi and high camp. I know from their looks that they think I am crazy for attempting the pass alone, for attempting it so late in the morning (the guides start their groups in the dark) and for attempting it from so far back. Maybe I am a bit crazy, but I’m not stupid and it is a calculated risk taken with confidence.

The walk to the high camp is the steepest section. I am walking vertically upwards almost rather than horizontally, up the dusty mountain slopes, over the rocks and towards the snowfields. It takes me just over an hour to get to the high camp, which at 4900 metres means that I’ve already gained over half the altitude I have to. A Canadian guy at high camp tells me that the last people left high camp over an hour ago. ‘You’ll be walking on your won over the pass’ he tells me. I respond to him that it doesn’t matter, I’m okay on my own and I will catch them up. This I don’t know, but I’m full of enthusiasm, still feel good and I am confident in my ability to get over.

It was relatively easy to get to high camp. The altitude didn’t affect me too much. Of course I could feel it but slowing my pace down to counter it, I didn’t have too many problems with my breathing. From the high camp, walking through the snowfield towards the pass it gets much harder. I can feel my lungs burning with every upward step, breathing is becoming increasing difficult. The only respite comes on the short flat or downhill sections, but this is all too brief and offers little comfort. I am having to take two breaths to get the same oxygen as there is at sea level. That is impossible so I just have to survive on less oxygen.

The mountains have a harsh, raw beauty, especially from so close up. But, this is strenuous, painful and I need all my strength and energy to concentrate on reaching the pass rather than admiring the scenery. I appear to be getting closer to the sky, but just as I think I am finally going to set my eyes on the pass, the snowfield ahead keeps rising. I have an altimeter on my watch but I don’t want to trust it. The pass can’t be that far away still can it? Surely I can see it just ahead? This is tough, I want it to end, I want to reach the pass.

Twenty minutes from Thorung La pass I catch up with half a dozen other trekkers. I’m obviously making better progress than I expected and now at least I won’t be going over the pass alone. They must be finding it tougher going even than me. I reach the top of the pass at 11:30a,, two gruelling hours after I left high camp. It is windy on the top but much calmer than I expected. Today is a relatively calm day apparently.

I stop on Thorung La pass in a small hut which is full of other exhausted trekkers for an expensive cup of tea and a mars bar. It may be 310 Rupees (£2.50) but I don’t care, I’ve earned this luxury. It also proves to be my only refreshment between breakfast in Thorung Phedi and dinner on the other side of the pass in Muktinath. When one of the other trekkers asks where I’ve come from and I reply ‘Ledar’ they look on at me in astonishment and tell me that I am a tenacious little fellow. That sounds familiar, a bit politer than I was often described at work but the sentiment is the same. I just believe (and live by it) that you never, ever give up........ever.

For all the time spent on the roof of the world in Tibet, Thorung-La pass is at 5416 metres the second highest I’ve been in my life. In Tibet, I may have been over 5000 metres half a dozen times, most in the comfort of a Landcruiser, but I never went over 5300 metres. Even Everest Base Camp is not as high as this being ‘only’ 5200 metres. Only in climbing Cotopaxi in Ecuador have I been higher - to 5900 metres, and physically only climbing Cotopaxi was harder. I remember it being much harder, not just because of the extra 500 metres altitude, but mainly because I was full of self-doubt on that occasion whereas this time I was full of self-confidence. That makes a world of difference, because the biggest challenge climbing a mountain or negotiating a high pass is the mental one rather than teh physical one.

After resting and catching my breath for half an hour, I start to climb down from the pass. The first half of the descent crosses the snowfield and is treacherous. I lose count how many times I fall over and that’s with the aid of two walking poles. One section almost at the end of the snow is particularly fraught with danger. A narrow, icy ledge falls away, and below is a 20-30 metres drop. Thankfully, one of the guides helps me through this, letting me grab hold of his walking pole.

The views of the arid high desert in the valley below, and another of the Himalaya ranges in the distance as I make my way down the pass are just breathtaking. My regular stops for fatigue give me the chance to fully appreciate this fantastic view. It is special, today has been hard but above all special.

It takes four and a half hours to get down from the pass to Muktinath, the first village after the pass. For the fourth successive day I’ve ascended 1000 metres, but also descended 1700 metres from the pass. I have total respect for those people who trek the Annapurna Circuit in a clockwise direction. Attempting to cross the pass from Muktinath, a much steeper climb would be really difficult, much harder I think than taking on the pass from the anti-clockwise direction, even as far back as Ledar.

The reason it takes me so long to descend (I think 3-4 hours is average) is that I am exhausted. Getting to Thorung-La pass consumed much of my energy and I don’t have much left in the tank for the descent. There is also nowhere to stop for refreshments on the way down. In the guesthouse in Muktinath I can’t be bothered to chat to anyone. It isn’t rudeness, it isn’t the people, it just takes too much effort and I’m exhausted. All I want to do is sleep after I’ve waited to eat. But contrary to the doubters I made it, I always knew I would. Six days to get over the pass, I’m now four days ahead of my schedule. I’m looking at 10 or 11 days to complete the Annapurna Circuit. Now that would be an achievement. Forget the Thorung La pass that is only part of it, perhaps that is what makes the Annapurna circuit the ultimate trek?

Day 510: Saturday 21st November - Day 7 of the Annapurna Circuit

Muktinath (3760m) to Tukuche (2590m)
Distance: 31km
Time Taken: 8 hours

The next two days should be easy after the pass, it is all downhill. Should is the operative word, I don’t take into account the distance I must walk.

On the walk between Muktinath and Kagbeni I do most of the descending for the day, dropping a kilometre in elevation without any of the walk being too steep and therefore hard on the knees. The walk passes through high, arid desert, the land many shades of brown and a wide canyon runs to my right. Ahead are the Himalayas but not the Annapurna range which is behind my shoulder and often out of sight. The scenery is similar to that around Manang on the other side of the pass, but more open, more like a plateau, although the foothills of the Himalaya soon take over.

Kagbeni marks the entrance to the Upper Mustang Valley, that mystical kingdom we’ve all probably heard of but could never quite place. There are restrictions on foreigners entering and I believe it is quite expensive to go there, but there are no such constraints for walking in the lower Mustang valley which is where I find myself now. The lower Mustang valley between Kagbeni and Jomsom, a walk of 10 kilometres and two hours is along a wide glacial valley, which a small river snakes its way through. The valley floor is covered with glacial moraine and the wind whips through the valley between the mountains on either side.

I stop in Jomsom for lunch. Walking through the biggest town on the west of the pass I feel lost for only the second time on the trek. Jomsom is supposed to have an airport, internet cafes not to mention restaurants and guesthouses but I can’t seem to find anything. Just as I’m giving up hope and consigning myself to walking on to Marpha hungry, I find some teahouses on the edge of town. A strange place, Jomsom. Also in Jomsom I find a distance chart in one of the two checkpoints in town. I discover that to get to Tatopani tomorrow, (my objective now) I must walk an average of 31 kilometres today and tomorrow. I thought these two days were going to be easy. I had better reassess that view. I still have 13 kilometres to walk this afternoon if I am to reach Tukuche, the halfway point to Tatopani from Muktinath.

The trail from Jomsom to Marpha continues to be flat along the valley. The weather, sunny and clear this morning has deteriorated. The wind remains but has grown stronger if anything and is kicking up dust from the road and the bare soils. It isn’t pleasant walking in these conditions. Marpha is where many of the guides were talking of stopping last night when there were discussions about the day ahead. They were saying it was Nepal’s apple capital and a pleasant village. The image I had of an English orchard doesn’t materialise unsurprisingly and instead I find a windy, dusty village which I pass through at 3:30pm.

It is a further hour and a half to Tukuche, again along the flat, dusty, rocky road that runs from Muktinath to Tatopani. The construction of this road is a controversial subject. Since it was built (hardly the right word as it is more like a dirt track than a road) 5 years ago or so, tourist numbers trekking the circuit have fallen. It could be argued that this period has coincided with the tensions in the country with the Maoists, which I’m sure also kept tourists away. Last night when the topic came up I leapt to the defence of the locals. I argued that the road was positive for development and it is us tourists who have to remember that we are guests walking through their homeland. Whilst this point still has credibility, I would estimate about half the vehicles which have passed me today have either been carrying trekkers or were tourist related. Who was the road built for; tourists or locals? I can’t help looking on at the tourists when they pass with disdain. Short of having a broken leg why are they using these vehicles? The Annapurna circuit, one of the world’s great treks is just that a trek, one that takes 2-3 weeks. It is not just a 10 day walk over the pass and then hop in a jeep. Pathetic, and these trekkers are responsible for spoiling it for the rest of us who want to walk. The locals coming past in vehicles I accept, I am a guest in their home, but the trekkers.....please.

It may seem a rant but it is one aspect of the Annapurna circuit I don’t like. The road has definitely had a detrimental effect and the Nepalese authorities need to devise new trails away from the road on the 60km stretch between Muktinath and Tatopani if the Annapurna circuit is to reclaim its former allure. For me it is too late, and my feet have taken a pounding walking on the uneven surface of the road. In the last hour in particular they are sore.

Once I stop in Tukuche at 5pm after another long day’s walk I discover that my feet are badly blistered. I will try and repair them as best as I can tomorrow morning. Right now I am concerned about the rest of my trek as I’m hobbling and even climbing the stairs in the teahouse is an effort. The teahouse I stop at is owned by a Dutchman. The only guests apart from me are two Dutch girls so it is a Dutch theme all round. The food is the best I have on my entire trek.

Day 511: Sunday 22nd November - Day 8 of the Annapurna Circuit

Tukuche (2590m) to Tatopani (1190m)
Distance: 31km
Time Taken: 10 hours

It is another beautiful morning on the Annapurna circuit and this seems to make a difference to my appreciation of the landscape. I thought that after Jomsom, now on the road, that the scenery may becoming ordinary again. It isn’t, it is still sublime, for the sixth day in a row.

The first section between Tukuche and Lete, 3 hours down the road, is fairly flat, any loss in elevation is negligible. The landscape is a mix of snow-capped mountains (the Dhaulgiri range to the west being prominent), pine forest, a wide glacial valley with a valley floor consisting of rocks and the Kali Gandaki river. It reminds me of North America again. The mountains in the Annapurna range keep putting an appearance, and at every turn you are keenly anticipating the latest incredible view.

Not far before Lete I come across an English couple who you would consider to be of retirement age. They’re interesting to talk to so I walk with them for an hour or so, at least half the way to Ghasa. They tell me they have been travelling for 12 years. 12 years! An amazing story, and they show no sign of stopping. Good luck to them. They find a shell as we cross the rocky valley floor, a reminder that millions of years ago before the Indian plate crashed into the Eurasian plate, that the Himalayas were under water. When I tell them that I have reached this point, over 150 kilometres into the trek in 8 days they are astounded. They ask if I am in the army or a sportsman. Neither, just in decent shape, competitive and up for the challenge.

The English couple keep encouraging me to walk at my own pace and push ahead but my blistered feet are hampering my progress. Eventually I leave them behind as the road drops steeply into Ghasa, and the Annapurna and Dhaulghiri ranges disappear out of sight for the remainder of the day. In Ghasa I take lunch and discover it is 4-5 hours to Tatopani, depending on who you listen to. Tatopani is still where I hope to finish the day but as it is 2pm when I leave Ghasa is this a touch optimistic?

As I leave Ghasa, I spot the two Israeli girls I last saw climbing towards the pass on horseback. One of them was sick then and I enquire if they had any further problems, which they did not. They took the horse all the way to Muktinath, took a jeep from Muktinath to Ghasa, and are now waiting for a bus to Tatopani. Why bother trying to trek the Annapurna circuit? It is a trek, if it is too long go and do one of the other excellent shorter treks that Nepal offers? I’m bemused.

Between Ghasa and Kopchepani there is a path which takes you away from the road. The path is constantly climbing and descending the cliff face, and although Kopchepani is 400 metres below Ghasa I have ascended/descended much further than that. The vegetation belongs to a temperate climate once more, the river is roaring down the steep gradient below, the cliffs are bare rock and it is back to a landscape that brings to mind Scotland.

Shortly after Kopchepani I cross back over the river and rejoin the rocky road which is the worst terrain to be walking on for my feet. It is still 9km to Tatopani and the light is fading fast. At Dana, still 6km from Tatopani I stop for a snack and the lady tells me that Tatopani is still an hour and a half walk away. I know I am not going to make it today, with it being 5:15pm and there being only half an hour of daylight left. I decide to walk to the next village, which can only be half an hour away, and sleep the night there.

I make one fatal mistake however. I fail to read my map and therefore I fail to find that there are no teahouses between Dana and Tatopani! It soon gets dark, and I end up having to walk an hour in the dark with only my head torch to show the way. I am offered a lift by a jeep that passes but I refuse his kind offer. I have walked every metre of the 180km so far and there is no way, even with severely blistered feet that I am not going to walk the remaining 35km. Made in England not Israel!

At 6:45pm I reach Tatopani, a popular stop with trekkers because of its hot springs. That would be nice, it may even help my feet but I’m just too tired to be bothered. I’m hobbling even worse than last night and when I take my socks off I find that my blisters are getting worse. The ones caused by rubbing are easy to fix with a plaster, but those on the sole of my feet, compression blisters I can do nothing for. For the first time I am now thinking that the addition of the Annapurna Sanctuary trek will be too far. I reckon I can last through the next two days it will take to complete the Annapurna circuit, but another 5 days walking in this condition does not appeal one bit. We’ll see how tomorrow goes before making a definitive decision.

Day 512: Monday 23rd November - Day 9 of the Annapurna Circuit

Tatopani (1190m) to Ghorepani (2860m)
Distance: 14km
Time Taken: 8 hours

This is the sting in the tail at the end of the Annapurna circuit. You’ve descended over 4 kilometres from the Thorung-La pass, you think you’re on the final straight, the tough climbs are behind you and then you’re faced with a day where you have to climb 1700 metres. That is higher than any mountain in the UK and most people take it on over a long day. It is not so much a long day for me, rather a normal day, but my blistered feet don’t help matters.

For the first time since the initial two days of the trek I am walking in a sub-tropical climate, up through cultivated hillsides and I pass through a number of nice villages: Ghara, Shikha, Phalante and Chitre through the day. In each of these villages, the sight of villagers beating millet with a stick is a common sight. One man shows me a blister on his hand. I know just how sore that will be.

Once I reach Ghara back up towards 2000 metres in altitude, the Himalayan peaks of the Dhalghiri range come into view again. Dhaughiri I is 8167 metres high, higher than anything in the Annapurna range, and one of only 14 mountains in the world to be over 8000 metres. I have now had the pleasure of seeing half of these. Only Annapurna I is over 8000 metres in the Annapurna Himal.

I reach Ghorepani shortly before 5pm, the final hour or so from Chitre being very steep. Once the sun disappears as it usually does at 3pm it gets quite cold. This morning was gorgeous in the sub-tropical climate but I’ve gained 1700 metres and without the sun it must be 15-20 degrees colder than it was around midday.

I’ve just about made my mind up about the Annapurna Sanctuary trek. As much as I wanted to tag this on to the end of my trek, particularly after reading Michael Palin’s account of his walk there on his journey through the Himalaya in his similarly titled book, I am going to have to admit defeat. I would love to see the ‘bowl’ of mountains you reach at Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) where a dozen mountains, all in excess of 5000 metres, some as high as 8000 metres surround you on three sides. But, the trek there just has no appeal. With my feet in their current condition there would be no enjoyment until I got to ABC and that has to be the first consideration. Time is also a factor. If this was the start of my trek I believe I could do four long, hard days. Now I’m just not sure my body could cope with another four 8-9 hour days. It could I guess at a push but I just won’t get as far in those 9 hours as I would have done a week ago. Proof of that came yesterday. With blistered feet it took me 2 hours longer than the previous day to walk the same distance, 31km. All in all, everything is pointing to forgetting about making it to ABC. It was never in the original plans anyway, it was always an afterthought and would have been a bonus. A nice bonus, but one that will have to wait to another time. The Annapurna Sanctuary is a reason to return to Nepal but the thought of relaxing in Pokhara the day after tomorrow holds too much appeal for the present.

Save a miraculous cure for my feet overnight, tomorrow, day 10, will be my last on the Annapurna circuit. Regardless of my feet I will try to enjoy it, at least it is all downhill!

Day 513: Tuesday 24th November - Day 10 of the Annapurna Circuit

Ghorepani (2860m) to Nayapul (1070m)
Distance: 17km
Time Taken: 10 hours

Although not strictly part of the Annapurna circuit, the side trip to Poon Hill would be one of the essential experiences on the trek. Poon Hill lies 300 metres above Ghorepani and it takes 45 minutes to walk up the steep hillside. Most people head up to take in the panoramic view of the Himalayas for sunrise. As I don’t wish to share my experience with the hundreds who flock up the hill for sunrise I wait until 6:30am, half an hour after the sun has risen to start my climb. As I climb the hill, the Annapurna range of mountains behind me is changing colour in the first daylight. The upper slopes of the mountains change from red to orange to yellow. Near the hilltop I start to pass people coming down the hill, and once I reach the top I am sharing the panoramic view with dozens rather than hundreds. I got this one right.

And what a view. A 135 degree view of the Dhalghiri and Annapurna ranges. From left to right: Dhalghiri II, the distinctive flattened arrowhead summit of Dhalghiri I, Tukuche, Nilgiri, Annapurna I, Annapurna South, Hinchuli, Gangapurna and Machapuchare or the fishtail mountain. Nine mountains over 6000 metres, in one incredible panoramic view. Certainly worth the climb up the hill.

Climbing up Poon Hill gave me chance to assess the condition of my feet and finally decide if today will be my final day of trekking or if I will continue and do the Annapurna Sanctaury trek, from which Ghorepani is an obvious starting point. They aren’t up to another four intense days of trekking so after I’ve returned down the hill to Ghorepani and had breakfast I start the descent down to Nayapul, the end of the Annapurna circuit trek.

I experience another of the things that irritate me about the trek around Annapurna as I leave Ghorepani. Around teh circuit are numerous police checkpoints where you have to register, presumably so should anything happen, should someone go missing they know where to start the search. It just doesn’t convince me though. People walk at different speeds and these checkpoints are so far apart (at least a day’s walk) that it would be still like looking for a needle in a haystack. When would they decide to start looking for someone? The process to me seems too loose to be effective and despite its good intentions, a waste of time. In Manang there are two checkpoints on the same street which is unnecessary. But my biggest gripe is when you happen to time your passing through the checkpoint to coincide just after a large tour group, just as I do today. The guide hands ten or so permits to the police officer who starts manually filling in his log whilst I have to stand their impatiently, a single trekker for ten minutes. Frustrating.

The walk from Ghorepani starts initially through forest. The path is steep down towards Ban Thanti, where I get the final view of the marvellous Himalayas which have been the central feature of the trek. This time it is the eye catching Machapuchare, known as the fishtail mountain for its resemblance to a fish tail. Although at 6997 metres it is not one of the highest peaks, it is a sacred one.

Between Ban Thanti and Tikhedhungga, 3 kilometres of steep stone steps have to be overcome. This is to be the final test of the trek. My feet stand up to the test, and when I stop for lunch in Tikhedhungga I have descended 1300 of the 1800 metres I must do today. After lunch the walk is unremarkable, following the Bhurungdi Khola river. The last of the breathtaking scenery is behind me. I arrive in Nayapul at 4:30pm. It has been a long final day starting at 6:30am this morning, but my body has held up. Just. Eighty hours of walking, across 10 days, the last eight of which involved climbing or descending at least a kilometre. That is akin to climbing or descending the tallest mountain in England day after day for over a week. The last three days, once my feet became blistered were tough, but overall the trek was immensely enjoyable.

I don’t regret taking on the challenge of trying to complete the circuit as fast as I could. I enjoyed the competition against myself and although the long days took their toll on my body I would do it all over again. Some may say that my enjoyment of the scenery had to suffer because the speed I walked at. Not at all, I just walked longer days than most people do, I still walked. At walking pace you can take it all in, although sometimes you wish you had several pairs of eyes when the sublime views are in every direction.
How highly would I rate the trek around teh Annapurna circuit? It is one of the four great world treks I have now done on my travels (The Inca Trail, Peru; The ‘W’ in Torres Del Paine, Chile; The Milford Track, New Zealand are the others) and it undoubtedly belong in this company. It is often rated as the ultimate trek for both its length and diversity of scenery. I wouldn’t argue with the diversity but for me the ‘W’ in Torres Del Paine remains my ultimate trek. My expectations for the Annapurna circuit were sky high and I think I finish a bit disappointed that these weren’t reached but nevertheless The Annapurna Circuit would probably make it on to a shortlist of highlights from my entire travels, but wouldn’t quite make it to the top.

There have been disappointing aspects of the Annapurna circuit. It may have lost its allure since the road from Muktinath was put in but the most disappointing thing for me was all the litter around the circuit. I think the locals are mainly to blame and a clean-up and education programme is badly needed. It also highlights that this is not the untouched wilderness of Torres Del Paine for example. I think doing the trek alone may have affected my comparison against Torres Del Paine, but the main reason I am sure is that the Annapurna circuit is not the wilderness I had hoped for. You are walking through a populated area, where the locals are going on about their daily lives. I thought the locals were a mixed bag. Some were overwhelmingly friendly but a significant proportion were unfriendly, impassive or seemed to resent you being there.

Some may think that by completing the Annapurna circuit in 10 days, around half the time the tour agencies quote it should take to walk, it is heroic. Far from it. First, I think that most people could make this trek in 14 days. I did it in less because like Forrest Gump I just kept walking. Each day when others would be putting their feet up after a late lunch I continued walking for 2-3 hours. That and with no requirement to acclimatise got me around in 10 days. The real heroes of the trek around Annapurna are the locals who carry loads of up to 80 kilos on their backs. I carried probably just over 10 kilos, and just for 10 days. They do it day after day, it is part of their everyday lives. Whenever the going got tough, and there were difficult moments - illness on day 2, getting over the pass, walking the last 3 days with blistered feet -I just thought of the local men carrying these loads. They were my inspiration.

I take a local bus back to Pokhara which takes two hours. I celebrate completing my trek by having a steak dinner - my first meat in 10 days - and a beer. The food on the trek wasn’t that bad, overpriced yes, but more choice than I thought beforehand. I am joined at my table in the busy restaurant by an Israeli lady who is a journalist. It would have been good to celebrate with the others from Kathmandu but I’ve walked too quick for them, and it will probably be a few days before they make it to Pokhara. I look forward to that day.

The next day in Pokhara I am talking to a local man about my trek. He can’t believe that I finished it in 10 days. He questions if I took a flight, a jeep or a horse on the trek. No I walked it all. He is amazed, ‘it should take double that’ he tells me. It is at this point I realise the scale of my achievement. Cotopaxi will always rank as my greatest physical achievement but completing the Annapurna circuit in 10 days is probably in second place. In time my feet will heal and then I am sure I will look fondly back on my achievement. Above this though I’ll look back on the fantastic memories of some of the best scenery I’ve seen on my entire travels. Now to put my feet up...............

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