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Published: December 1st 2010
View near Manang
Probably the most enjoyable day of our trip at 4000mtr on a acclimatization hike
To the Heart of the Himalayas
It was the eve of battle and the Paddy's were ready for anything the mountain could throw at them, armed with an Annapurna guide, our backpacks and this mornings Himalaya newspaper! Not to mention our guide with 11 years experience in the Himalayas... :-) We had an early 5am start, a quick breakfast, an even quicker prayer that our luggage would be ok in the safe keeping of a Nepalese dude with a bad moustache at our guest house, and we were off!
We needed to get a local bus to Besi-Sahar, the start of our Annapurna trek, which lies about 140km to the west of Kathmandu. This was one of the most memorable journeys I have ever had. We arrived at the 'new bus station' where heaps of locals seemed to be congregating around the front of queues, discussing the upcoming destinations for the busses. As far as we could figure out, all the busses are owned privately (by very colourful characters) and the destination is decided by where the most amount of people want to go. Our guide cut his way directly to the front of the queue waving a
The sub-alpine terrain
Crystal clear skies made the mountains look amazing
yellow ticket(probably an overpriced 'I've got tourists ticket') like a battle standard, and this started a bit of commotion amongst the locals. It seemed there was nothing the locals protests could do, the destination for this bus was now fixed, or to use one of my favourite quotes from my uncle Greg, it was too late...the big guns had fired!
Our driver led us to the bus and we climbed on and got the best seats; knee room is crucial for me here, as I'm about a half a foot taller than normal. The bus was only half full minutes before were due to leave, so I tried to put my bag on another seat, but our guide, Sunil, told me it 'might' be someone elses seat.... Here's where the fun begins! The driver fired the engine, our conductor checked the tickets and we were off. The conductor is basically the busses pimp, and his main job is to hang half inside half outside the bus, hollering at locals 'Woaaahh Besi-Sahar Besi-Sahar' and trying to get as many people along for the ride as he can. He even has his own horn button, much our amusement, and any locals
Amazing blue glacier lake
standing around are liable for a good old fashioned blasting. So around the streets of Kathmandu we roamed for about half an hour looking for more passengers, with our pimp jumping off the bus at various points trying to convince people to come to Besi-Sahar, and to our delight and confusion people jumped on 'Ah sure fuck it lads lets go to Besi-Sahar instead of shopping'. I remember one man was just walking around buying something from a fruit and veg stall and after some soliciting from our man, we saw him scarper up the road to his house and grab a few bags and jump onto the bus!?
At one point a fairly weird man sat next to me in the aisle, even when there were a few spare seats. He was sitting quite close to me and leaning in, and I thought he might be interested in my wallet, so I made sure I had a good defensive position without trying to make it too obvious I was watching him. The locals on the bus though called the pimp, seeing me visibly uncomfortable, and he booted him off the bus!
The roads here really are in
Sunrise at Poon Hill
finally the sun starts to rise on the horizon
a shocking condition, especially in uphill sections on the side of the road going uphill (well they don't really have sides just a general stay left if you feel like it rule), and even though the busses have 11 leaf spring suspension over each wheel, you still feel the bus rattle and bounce, because of the gaping wounds in the road surface. Due to the conditions the bus could only go at maximum about 50kmph on the main road from Kathmandu to the second biggest city, Pokhara. Thats 50kmph between the two biggest cities in Nepal.. and believe me our driver did the best he could, overtaking other cars and busses around long, winding, blind corners. Also, a myriad of hazards are on the road like wandering cows and goats, piles of rubbish, leftover bricks that have been used to stop trucks rolling backwards whilst being fixed on the hills etc.
It took 4 hours to do the first 100km, which was grand, because we found everything hilarious, and we had a few pit stops for food. The 2nd part of the journey though was painful, frustrating, uncomfortable and confusing. Myself and Richards seat was a 'bit' loose, swinging
Dhaulagiri from Poon Hill
The awesome king of the range
us wildly forward and backwards on heavy breaking or bumps (all the time). It took us 4 hours to travel 40km... yes thats slower than a bicycle or even a brisk jog! Our first bus was a long distance one you see, there after we were at the mercy of the local bus, that decided to stop for passengers every about 2 metres, and people were all over the place; in the aisles, on the roof, and about 4 people were hanging onto the side of the bus from the pimping spot!
Exhausted after doing nothing, we finally arrived at Besi-Sahar at about 4pm, after leaving Kathmandu at about 7am. We had arrived too late to get our planned jeep ride to skip some of the road section at the start of the trek, so we had to walk for a few hours to Khudi... 'its better you know'. We stayed in a lovely teahouse, which is usually a family home with a few rooms for trekkers akin to a B&B back home (but sadly without the Irish breakfast which I am craving at the moment...I'd kill a man for some black pudding, galtee sausages, bacon and a cuppa
The Annapurna trek is one of the great teahouse treks you can do in the Himalayas, where you walk along a well populated, but amazingly diverse, mountain track over 300 km. At night times you stay in the aforementioned teahouses, which are like plain guest houses and usually consist of a basic room with just a bed each, a shared toilet, usually of the squat variety, and a “hot and cold” shower, which usually means cold as they are solar heated, so only after the sun has been hottest can you get a luke warm shower at best. You tend to let hygiene slide a bit on these treks(Kevin didn't even want to bring any soap believing in the cleaning properties of water!), as a cold shower can leave you feeling cold for a few hours up in the mountains where it gets chilly after sunset.
You get your food in the teahouses aswell, and there is an amazing variety of food, ranging from local Dal Bhat (rice, curry veg and lentil soup) to Italian pastas, soups, Chinese noodles, and when your nearer the big towns you can get burgers and steaks! Its quite amazing seeing as
most of the track is inaccessible by road and donkeys or porters have to lug everything up! For breakfast we usually got porridge, tea, pancakes and/or eggs to get the furnace burning.
Our first day of trekking we started out early at about 7am after a big brekkie. We did about 23km over about 8 hours on fairly level terrain, in sub-tropical heat, and we sweated our little hearts out. I was more used to the heat than the lads after living in Cairns, and was wearing a sport vest to keep me cool, with the the sleeves cut for 'aerodynamic purposes'. When we stopped for lunch on the first day the lads were goosed (check the picture lol)! Kev was suffering from a bad dose of the Delhi Belhi, which was worrying because Kev is NEVER sick. In 6 years of secondary school I think he missed like half a day in total from being ill, so it was interesting to see how the pharmacist would be as a patient. Richie had scratched some broken skin that had gotten sunburned (noob mistake) and it had got infected, and in the photo looks quite painful too. Now, in Darjeeling
Colourful local bus
they take safety very serious here in Nepal
nearly 1 month later you can still see a little redness under his eye.
We had a couple of river crossings over the river Marsyangdi, which would be our picturesque companion through the meandering valley for the next 8 days. Our first few days we worked our way higher at about 300-400m per day, doing about 6 hours climbing each day, which in general was fairly easy. The terrain was fantastic, with steep mountains either side of the valley lying in interlocking spurs, and the big, beautiful river wound its way past rice paddies, awesome waterfalls, terraced fields and Hindu villages.
On day 4 the terrain changed fairly dramatically from sub-tropical to sub-alpine, and we started reaching the domain of the evergreen alpine trees, and more importantly started spotting the peaks of the Annapurnas and the mighty Manasalu mountain. We passed the great sweeping slopes of Paungi Danda, and you could really start feeling the scale of the area we were trekking through. I picked up the same illness Kevin had around here, and I started to feel the frustration that comes with diarrhea; dehydration, headaches, lack of appetite and frequent visits to the toilet, which are especially annoying
Our first tea house
We even had a little shrine in here
at night time, robbing you of your vital energy.
By day 7 we had climbed nearly 2500 vertical metres since Besi-Sahar, to reach the village of Manang which is at 3500m. At this altitude, your body starts feeling the effects of altitude, breathing faster and deeper, and you need to take a rest day to let your body adjust and make some more redblood cells. What a place to have a rest day! We went for an acclimatization hike up to a glacier that afforded us probably the best vistas of our trip. We climbed up to 4000m, near the Gangapurna glacier, and had fantastic views of the Annapurnas and the glacier to the south, the Manang valley to the North and East, and the Gangapurna glacier lake to the West.
Manang had some great creature comforts too, including a German bakery with mouth wateringly good chocolate croissants, a pool table, and even a small cinema...with POPCORN! Wilderness trek ey....But in our defense we felt like we deserved some luxuries after battling dysentery and infections for the last few days hehe!
The next two days we climbed steadily higher by 500 metres a day from Manang(3500m) to
The start of our trip!
Yak Kharka(4000m), and onto Thorung Pedi(4500m), which would be the highest point at which we would sleep, and also the place we were most likely to suffer from altitude sickness. Myself and Rich both got pretty bad headaches once we reached Yak Kharka, but took some Nurofen which kicked in after an hour or so and we were grand, probably helped by our acclimatization trek the previous day. We had amazing Yak burgers here aswell fresh from the local fields, but my stomach problems returned, which was bad news at this point of the trek when I wanted to be at my fittest. When we reached Thorung Pedi the next day, myself and Richard were feeling terrible from the headaches and not even the Nurofen could help us this time. Time is the only thing that works against altitude sickness. I had to go to the toilet about 4 times during the night here aswell, and it was below freezing, and so not very nice on the old wind exposed squat toilets...
It was a Halloween we would never forget. October 31st we climbed over the Thorung La pass, which involved our earliest morning start(5am), the coldest temperatures we
Lunch the 2nd day
Our first real day of trekking and the lads are goosed!
would experience(below freezing), the highest ascent we would have to do in one day at the highest altitude we started from(900m from a start of 4500m), followed by a rapid, knee breaking 1600m descent to Muktinath. I was shattered from my broken nights sleep, had a hammering headache from a mix of altitude and dehydration, and I couldn't eat because of the cramps in my stomach. Normally I have a pretty big appetite, but this morning I couldn't even touch my bowl of porridge, and just choked down my Immodium and Nurofen tablets to get me over the pass. In hindsight it was foolish to take on a big day like this in my state, but I was determined to get over the pass as soon as possible, as I knew I would feel better the next morning. On the flipside it was lucky we moved when we did too, as we would have been trapped at Thorung Pedi for a few days because a bad weather front had moved in and it snowed all over the pass making it impassable for a few days.
We started out early in weak moonlight and had to use torches to climb
the first 400metres up a grueling, zig-zagging scree path to Thorung high camp at 4900m. Even in my weak state I was able to keep up with our guide, due to a mix of drugs and determination. Richard and Kevin found this bit especially taxing, as they hate steep uphill at the best of times, but it was particularly exhausting due to the fact that there is only half the oxygen forced into your lungs per volume of breath at this low pressure, meaning you have to breathe almost twice as hard and deep to satisfy the demand. Slowly we made our way upwards, through admittedly striking viewpoints, but we were too occupied with the task at hand to admire the views. Near the top an icy wind had started to pick up, which made all those days of lugging our windproof clothing worth it, and it started to snow. Our guide was anxious to get us up and over the pass quickly, but it seemed every path was disguised to look like it was going to the top only when we reached the apex, another upwards path lay in view. About 5 or 6 fake peaks broke our hearts,
A bridge in the town of Tal
this was our 3rd day of trekking
until finally the unmistakable multi-coloured prayer flags loomed into view. With renewed vigor we pushed on to the top, where we allowed ourselves a few moments of respite to take the mandatory photos. We had done it, and were now 5 times higher than Carrantoohill!
The weather had rapidly degraded though and our guide was very anxious now to get us down out of the snow and wind, and away from the quickly dropping temperature. We literally spent no longer than about 5 minutes at the top. To put it in perspective, my water canteen, was becoming solid with ice even though it was sloshing around with every step, and after taking a swig, and going back to take another 4 seconds later the drops of water on the tip had frozen and almost cut my lip. Definitely the coldest weather I have experienced. Our descent was fairly steep, and very sketchy at times. I remember one point where the path wasn't wide enough to put two feet side by side, was covered in a slick layer of icy sleet, and had a steep scree slope to the side, so one slip and you'd be going down a couple
Richie doing his best to get arrested
friendly local kids love the old sweeties and pens
of hundred metres fairly rapidly, probably not fatal as you would be sliding down scree, but it would be most difficult to get back up to the path. We rapidly descended the first 500m or so, having to stop ourselves from breaking into a run at times, and each of us had a number of unavoidable little slips, despite or good boots. We were each in our own determined little worlds at this point, not really speaking or communicating to each other except to help each other get or put back water bottles, and it is safe to say that none of us enjoyed this descent.
When the little lodge that represented about 1000m down from the top broke into view, it gave us something to focus on even though it was deceptively far away. Angles and distances are very hard to judge when you are this high up, and I remember at one point Richard pointed out to me one seemingly impossibly steep slope people were descending only a few 100 metres below us. When we actually reached the slope it was just as easy/difficult as any of the others and we just couldn't understand why it had
looked so steep!? When we finally reached the lodge, I was bursting for the toilet.. '100% pyschological' as Richard would say hehe. We had the single most refreshing cup of hot chocolate that we have ever had in our lifetimes at this lodge. It was still very cold and we were exhausted, and the heat from the cup, and the taste and warmth from each sip, gave us something to take us out of this icy prison. I decided to take antibiotics to get rid of my stomach problems at this point, as after 3 days you know you have something more sinister than just a stomach upset. We only had 600m more to go to reach Muktinath, a major pilgramage site for Hindu's and Buddhist's, with one of Vishnus ancient temples located here. The Hindu meaning for the town 'place of salvation' was quite apt. The feeling of relief when the walls of this most holy city loomed into view was immense. We had done it. We had completed the most physically difficult day of our lives to date.
Now to put this in perspective, had we been properly acclimatized, had I no stomach ailments, had we had
physically the toughest day of our lives
a good nights sleep and a hearty breakfast, had there been clear weather, this day could have been easy. A 73 year old Japanese man did it the same day as us and he was no worse for wear. He had left one hour earlier than us and so skipped the icy weather, and was in a good state physically the day after. It is a completely different challenge for each person, and what a 73 year old can do easily, 3 reasonably fit Irish lads had struggled to complete.
Even by the next morning my antibiotics had started to whoop some ass, and I was feeling in a different league to the day before. I awoke and was admiring the scenery and was happily snapping away with my camera. Muktinath lyes inside an immense, icy citadel formed by the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri Himalayas, and the tallest mountain in the region, Dhaulaghiri, proudly sits atop this citadel, like a watchful guardian, with its steep, obsidian-like ridges daring people to even think of climbing it. In fact for 30 years Dhaulaghiri was thought to be the tallest mountain in the world, from 1808, but it is in fact the 7th tallest
at 8167m. What makes it so impressive is the dramatic 7000m drop to the valley below it, and the 4000m drops either side to neighbouring peaks, making it unparalleled the world over in terms of rise above local terrain. Everest doesn't look nearly as impressive because of the immense neighboring peaks surrounding it. It immediately captured my imagination, through its imposing nature, and may have sparked a further interest in alpine climbing deep within me...
Richard injured his knee in the descent, and it was now a bit swollen, but we didn't know how much damage he had done to it. He was eager to get a jeep to the next town (we were now back to road linked towns) but our guide was quite insistent that the days descent was much more moderate than the day before.. 'its better you know'. I wanted to walk regardless of whether Rich and Kev got a jeep, as I wanted to enjoy the days walk in my renewed health! We ended up walking anyway, and Richie and Kev were a bit grumpy about descending again on sore muscles, but nothing could dampen my spirit this day. We were in the fantastic
Mustang district, and the terrain had changed to barren looking hills and plains, very much like I imagine Afghanistan or Pakistan to look. They had interesting little pastures, seperated by walls similar to Irish fields, and apple orchards and grazing fields lay intermingled in the towns. The descent was much easier than the day before, but Richie's knee was a bit banjoed and swelled up whenever we stopped for a while. At this stage he knew he had done something bad to his knee and we would have some big decisions to make that evening.
Later we arrived in the fantastic town of Jomsom, the capital of the district with an airport, hospital and schools, where we witnessed a strange accident upon arriving. A schoolgirl got knocked down by a jeep trying to turn around, but luckily it was at a pretty slow speed. After a bit of commotion the jeep took the girl, who had a badly injured leg, in the opposite direction from the hospital, away out of town... weird right?
On the way to our guest house, we passed by a German bakery and we vowed to return. Our guide obviously knew that we were
Our first 8000m peak! Day 4
a bit rough around the edges after the last few days, and decided to treat us to the nicest room we had had all trip. Three beds with linen, normally we use our sleeping bags, and an attached, tiled bathroom with HOT WATER...and even a sit down toilet...they were spoiling us with their Ferrero Roche:-) I was overcome with wide eyed enthusiasm! We happily strolled to the bakery to indulge in some hot chocolate and cakes, but we had to decide what we were doing with the final leg of our trip. For the lads the trip was over essentially, as we had climbed the highest point, and any further walking was unnecessary due to the road connections, plus the injury Richard had. I wanted to finish the trek by foot to Tatopani and then go onwards to Poon Hill (the best viewpoint of the trek) and finish at Nayapul, completing the circuit. The arguing point for them was that we had spent already 2 of our 4 weeks climbing mountains, and seen relatively little of Nepal, and the time was better spent elsewhere. My point was that we had all agreed, and paid for, 3 weeks of trekking and
had already cut it short by 5 days by not doing a side trek to Annapurna Base Camp, which we all agreed was unnecessary. It was abundantly clear that if the lads did the trip to Poon Hill it would only be out of loyalty, which of course is a very big consideration for old friends. We decided to compromise and get a bus to Tatopani, sadly skipping 2 days of walking under my favourite mountain, but the plus was that it would give Richards knee a chance to heal up and if he felt able we would all do Poon Hill together.
Serendipity played a part here, and by chance we met up with a middle aged English couple, whom we had shared a few laughs and played some cards with earlier on the trip. They both happened to be podiatrists, specializing in lower leg injuries, and straight away they urged extreme caution with Richies knee, saying he could do permanent damage if he pressed on. The potential cost was too great. Richie and Kevin would get a jeep to Pokhara, where they would kindly wait for me to do Poon Hill and walk to Nayapul. I left
Big ould beast
The last of the vegetation before Manang (3500m)
most of my heavy equipment with the lads, and was able to double the distance I could walk per day with my guide. We climbed 1600m in one day and descended over 2000m the next. At the lower altitude and in good health it was a breeze.
To get up to see the incredible vistas at Poon Hill I needed to wake up at 4.30am and hike 400m in the darkness. I was awarded with clear skies and one of the most epic 360 degree views I will ever witness in my lifetime. It was like the mountains were coming out for the encore and giving one last graceful bow. The sun peaking over the horizon and hitting the peaks of Machupuchre and the Annapurnas was impressive, but again the towering fortress of Dhaulaghiri stole the show for me. I had one of the most satisfying cups of hot chocolate ever up there, while soaking up the epicness of the region. Afterwards I had the long 2000m descent to Nayapul to look forward too. Whenever I stopped for a chocolate break my knees would be trembling, but it was the last day and I was keen to get to
Plenty of these to give colour along the way
Pokhara, so we pushed on at a fair pace.
It was the end of an amazing trek that had at times pushed us physically to the limit of our endurance, and in others treated us to amazing views and great times. Swaying from moments of hilarity like Kevin managing to sting himself, not once, but twice in the head with dead wasps, to moments of exhaustion and pain, like on the descent from Thorung La.
In all it was an experience and adventure that none of us will forget.
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