The Annapurna Circuit
Trip Start Jan 14, 2009
57Trip End May 2010
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But enough superlatives… here's the story. (Note that we mixed and matched photos so we didn’t bother with adding photo credit to the photos. Thanks team for letting us copy all your photos!) First, some pics before we go further to give you a taste of the variety of climates and scenary on this trek:
Waterfalls in lush jungles
The downside to beautiful jungles--enormous bugs! This spider, the size of Ben's hand, was just feet from Lindsey's head!
Crossing a bridge in one of the deep gorges. Lush fauna, rocks, and a fast-flowing glacial river make this an unbeatable combination!
And of course, peaks! 20,000ft-plus peaks!
We have been planning this trip around the Annapurna Circuit since winter 2008. Three good friends from Seattle came to join us for this awesome trek: Ben Glenn, Greg Chappell and Chris Cass. We all flew into Kathmandu within 24 hours of each other and as soon as we met up, we raced around town completing final errands and packed our bags for a 7am departure to the trailhead. (Since we have two Ben’s on the trip, we’ll refer to them by their full names.)
By the next day, we were at the trailhead and ready to start this amazing circuit. The Annapurna Circuit is considered to be one of best long hikes in the world. We chose to hike the circuit the common counterclockwise direction as it provides for a better altitude acclimatization schedule. We had 17 days to complete the circuit which can take parties anywhere from 12-21 days depending on side trips, rest/acclimatization days required, etc..
One of the landmarks of this trip is that between halfway to two thirds the way into the trip, you cross over a 17,500ft pass, Thorung La. While this might seem a bit trecherous for those who haven't been here being that this pass is higher than the tallest peak in the U.S., people of all ages and abilities cross this pass all the time. In fact, during our stay at Thorung Phedi, the small village at the foot of the pass, we encountered at least three very large groups of people in their late fifties to late seventies doing the same trek! We also ran into some aggressive youngsters who were running and even biking over the pass. It's all about going at the pace that is comfortable for your fitness level and making sure you allow for proper acclimatization.
The group (minus Ben Glenn who is shooting the photo) at our starting point in the village of Bhulebhule. From left to right: Chris Cass, Ben Kunz, Lindsey Saunders, and Greg Chappell.
Crossing the first of many, many suspension bridges!
Besides a minor bout of food poisoning for Ben Kunz, the first few days were an absolute joy.
Although the Annapurna Circuit has many days of high elevation hiking between 10K to 17K feet, the start and ends of the trek are at relatively low elevations and follow lush deep river gorges.
Lush vegetation and another suspension bridge!
Looking back down the valley in early morning in Bahundanda, where we spent our first night.
Ben and Greg sharing a moment
A local, lovingly scratching his water buffalo behind the chin. Because many people in Nepal are Hindu, cows are sacred. Therefore, when you get red meat, it's often called "buff" instead of beef. This might be water buffalo...or it might be just another misspelling on the menu. ;)
Local farmers with their water buffalo!
The landscape around the Annapurna Circuit is just breathtaking. The photos really don’t do it justice!
Perhaps what makes the trip so unique is the number of villages that one passes through on this trek. Every few hours, you pass through a new village and each one of these villages has its own character, but all of them, at least on the east side of the pass, share the same beautiful rock work (rock walls and stone paths), vividly-coloured guesthouses, domestic animals and cute Nepali children!
Cute Nepali kids
A view from our window onto the village of Tal: colourful buildings and bountiful flowers against a backdrop of precipitous cliffs, waterfalls and big mountains is the norm! Though Ben Kunz and Lindsey got some minor bugs prior to this point, this was really where the food sickness began. Chris awoke on our third day to a nasty bout of food poisoning--and a sinus infection to boot! We spent an extra day in Tal to allow for recovery and picked up a porter, the start of a trend for the rest of Chris' days on the trek with us.
Greg and Lindsey show off their new Nepali toques--supporting the local economy
Ben, Ben and Greg goofing around! Oh wait, it looks like it's just Ben that's goofing around!
Chris with his porter, rounding a path cut into the stone mountainside
As the trek continued, we slowly but surely gained altitude and the villages showed signs of more and more Tibetan influence. In Upper Pisang, we stayed in a wonderful guesthouse that neighboured a Tibetan Gompa (monastery) and we watched a Buddhist service and spoke with many of the young monks who live and practice there. Our guesthouse was memorable as well. It faced the dramatic Northface of Annapurna II and they served a particularly excellent dal bhaat (the Nepali standard food of lentils and rice which gets monotonous quite quickly as it is the only all-you-can-eat dish on the menu).
The Pisang Gompa at twilight
The group on the upper Pisang trail enjoying the dramatic scenery of the Annapurna III and Gangapurna!
The dramatic Northface of Annapurna II (7937 meters/26040 feet)
Ben Kunz with the cheery Himalayan Hotel owner in Upper Pisang
Ben Glenn burning juniper branches at the Pisang Gompa—Tibetan Buddhists believe that smoke provide a conduit of travel for the spirits of the gods.
From Upper Pisang, we continued to higher elevations where the towns and views just continued to get better. Unfortunately, health issues crept up on us after the accumulation of some tough days along with the increased altitude and cold. Lindsey and Chris were nursing colds, which weren’t healing all that quickly at elevation, and as one person recovered from food poisoning, it seemed that another would experience a bout. Along with the increased elevation and cold, the guesthouse options and amenities degrade (though prices actually increase since bringing supplies into these villages is even more costly).
We got some great hiking in though before getting to the main town before the big 17,000 foot pass – Thorung La, when the real sh*t went down!
Ben Kunz, Ben Glenn and Greg took off from the village of Braga to get an acclimatization hike. It led to some pretty impressive views! A panorama shot of the Annapurna Range from about 4600 meters on during this hike.
Ben Kunz against the backdrop of Annapurna III
Ben and Ben hide in the prayer flags above Pisang
Prayer flags against Gangapurna
Yeah, we certainly lost some weight on the trip—various bouts of food poisoning ensured we didn’t pack on any extra!
But we didn't let these illnesses stop us from having fun!
Greg, uh yep.
Sh!t in the Fan
With a porter to carry Chris's pack all the way from Tal, his condition was ever-improving, and by Letdar, the second-to-last town before the pass, his energy revived and he looked like he was ready to cross the pass. But it seemed that for the days leading up to our trip over the pass, a dark cloud loomed over us. Greg, on the other hand, spent the night at Letdar racing between our basic room and the icy steps down to the toilet--a hole in the ground with a bucket of half-frozen water to "flush" the bowl's contents--to purge the day's sustenance. Like the many rap songs Lindsey conjured that day on the trails, Greg had indeed laid victim to the dal butt.
The morning after, Ben Kunz and Lindsey decided to press on to Thorung Phedi to secure a room at one of only two guest houses in the village before the throng of trekkers behind us filled the vacancies. This gave Ben Glenn, Chris, Greg and the porter, now a miniature porter less than 5 feet tall named Chirring, a chance to inch their way up to base of the pass without overdoing it.
Ben and Lindsey hooved it and arrived at Thorung Phedi at 9am just an hour and a half from Letdar, found two rooms conveniently close to the bathroom, gathered warm blankets to spread across the beds, and relaxed with warm tea for the rest of the party to arrive.
For Ben Glenn, Chris, and Greg, the trip was not so expedient. Greg, in bad shape, took his time as the energy he stored up the day before was sucked out of him and left behind on the steps at Letdar. Somewhere along the trek, Chris acquired the dal butt again and darted off the trail into bushes unexpectedly. It appeared that the dal bhaat Chris and Greg had the day before had conquered them both. The party finally arrived at Thorung Phedi around 11am, looking worse for wear.
We set Greg and Chris up in one room, which ended up like the sick ward. They slept throughout the day, and Chris' second bout of food poisoning took a turn for the worse. In the afternoon, we called a team meeting to get a pulse on their condition and make a plan for what to do about the pass that was now starring us in the face.
To be honest, when we first entered the room, neither Greg nor Chris looked good. Greg's face had somehow swollen up like a balloon, his eyes sunken back, and we thought that he might have become a victim of AMS, acute mountain sickness. Lindsey took Greg's pulse--it was high at 102 bpm but not so high to be concerned at nearly 15,000ft. Greg assured us that the swelling was just from lying on a part of his jacket wrong and that it would go down (which it did), and said he felt he was on the mend. It was Chris that we now had to worry about as his condition continued to worsen. He had lost a lot of fluids, and couldn't keep any down for that matter, and his energy at this point was very low. It was worse than his first bout in Tal and he felt that even with a porter, he wouldn't have the strength nor energy to make it back down to Letdar, just a couple hours away, and continue to Manang where he would have access to medical care.
After some debate and consideration, the topic of a helicopter rescue came up. At first, this sounded ludicrous. After all, we were all young people in good shape. We've all done many mountaineering expeditions and this was just a little food poisoning. But Chris was in bad shape. And we were running out of extra days to rest on this side of the pass--soon, people would not be able to make their flights back to the States at this rate. Moreover, how likely was it that Chris was going to be able to recover up here, at the highest point on the trek besides the pass, where it was constantly cold and where there was no access to medical attention? Chris didn't have antibiotics for food poisoning, and with all the bouts we'd incurred thus far on the trip, the team was running out of antibiotics to share. We thought about these circumstances as a team and considered the alternatives and possible outcomes. In the end, he really did need to be evacuated.
Once we made the decision to get Chris out of Thorung Phedi, Ben Glenn, Ben Kunz, and Lindsey divided responsibilities. Ben Glenn and Lindsey took turns nursing Chris (finding other trekkers who had extra antibiotics, replacing Chris' barf bags, keeping Chris warm, and packing up his gear) and Ben Kunz began to exercise the evacuation. From a satellite phone, he interfaced between the heli-rescue operation and Chris' insurance company to approve the medi-vac, calling back and forth between the two for hours. Finally, we got the approval and the helicopter would be out first thing in the morning.
While this was great news, we were unsure of how Chris would fare at this altitude, at these temps, overnight. As the hours slowly ticked by, Chris got worse and worse. We eventually decided to bring him into the common eating area, hoping that the light and body warmth would bring some cheer to his deteriorating situation. Ben Glenn and Lindsey outfitted Chris with boots, put his arms around our shoulders, and slowly marched outside and into the commons. Dozens of people turned their heads as we entered, with Cass as the star in this over-dramatic zed vision. We lead Chris to a bench where we had set up blankets, his sleeping bag, and other necessities.
Thankfully, in all the commotion, we caught the eye of two Spanish nurses, who joined the other concerned people in a huddle around Cass. Everyone seemed to have suggestions: "Give him rehydration salts," one ordered; "But make sure to mix in sugar so he gets it down easier," another added. It was like people had passed around a collection jar, because in no time flat, Chris had heaps of antibiotics and medication of all kinds.
Eventually, the attention died down, but Chris' illness didn't. At its worst point, Chris began to writhe in pain, complaining of back and rib pain and murmuring that he was having difficulty breathing. We were petrified; we didn't know what to do. We tried to suggest things to him, but he just kept groaning and wincing, his back arching almost involuntarily. Luckily, one of the Spanish nurses noticed, raced over, flipped Chris on his side and announced, "I'm going to punch you in the back!" And with that, she landed her fist into Cass' kidney and his writhing stopped and the pain lessened. We were dumbfounded.
That night, Ben Glenn and Lindsey took shifts staying up to monitor Chris, who remained in the common area for the duration of the night. Now empty, without the masses of bodies to shed their excess heat, the room grew cold and vacant. Ben Glenn took the first shift from 8pm to midnight. Activities included: spoon-feeding Chris liquids, fighting Chris to keep his blankets on, holding the barf bag for Chris when the liquids didn't stay down. At about 10pm, Lindsey came in, tears in her eyes. Looking for some moral support, she explained to Ben Glenn that Ben Kunz was now sick too. "He just kept shivering uncontrollably," she said. "I was in the other bathroom when I heard him puke his guts out. How are we going to make it over the pass when we're all in this kind of shape?" At this moment, Cass woke up and put his hand on Lindsey's arm to console her. He heard everything and squandered some energy to give his support.
Lindsey took over at midnight, at which point Ben Kunz was thankfully already on the mend and deep in sleep. Cass couldn't sleep and he couldn't keep his fluids down. The minutes ticked by slowly, and Cass checked his watch constantly. To pass the time and get his mind off the current situation, Lindsey began to read from her book, The Gift. She played roles and brought in voices for all the characters and occasionally, Cass dozed off to sleep.
The morning came slowly, but eventually the time came when the medi-vac team announced the chopper was on its way. It was about 9am. Excited, we finished packing Cass' bags, got him dressed, and helped Cass up the hill to the helipad.
Helping Cass to the helipad above Thorung Phedi!
Soon after, we heard the chopper blades in the distance and watched as this red dot grew against the magnificent backdrop of the Himalaya.
I don't know why, but though we all know the chopper blades make incredible wind when landing, we were all a bit dumb struck at the situation, and when the chopper did land, it kicked up plumes of dust and dirt into our mouths, and everywhere else!
Saying our goodbyes
Within minutes, we watched Cass vanish in the distance, hooted out a "hurray!" and took a brief moment to reflect on what had just happened. Never, would any of us ever have thought that on our trip a heli-rescue would be on the itinerary!
After Chris was evacuated, we had an early start the next morning (5:30am) to get up and over the 17,769 foot Thorung La pass. Despite the cold and the occasion donkey run in on the trail, we made it up to the pass in good time and without issue!
Looking back at the Northface of Gangapurna from the pass at sunrise
The group at Thorung La
We even recorded a rap video for Cass, but like most rap songs, it has explicit lyrics, so don’t watch it if you don’t like that sort of stuff!
A view of 6488 meter Khatung Kang
Ben and Lindsey stoked to make Thorung La Pass!
Greg and Lindsey goofing around at the pass
From the pass, we dropped over 6000 feet into the Mustang area of the Annapurna region. We stayed at the famous Bob Marley hostel, had hot showers and drank our first beer since starting the trek! Over the next two days, we dropped elevation, passed through ever more populous villages, all with better amenities and cheaper prices, and it the temperatures started to get really agreeable! It was really fun to experience these changes, but this time in reverse.
The temple complex at Muktinath is an important Buddhist and Hindu pilgrimage site; they even have a helipad so the Nepali Royal Family can make the pilgrimage in style!
Ben ringing in the sunset at the Muktinath temple complex
Prayers are strewn across the hillside behind the temple complex
Ben and Greg making friends
On the west side of the pass, the landscape becomes really arid—similar to the Tibetan Plateau
The winds on the Kali Gandaka river just howl up the valley (note the trees). Hiking this stretch in the height of the wind was particularly awful.
We passed a film crew shooting an upcoming Nepali action flick. Ben Kunz with an actor and one of the film crew.
From the town of Marpha, we jumped in a bus to get down to the town of Tatopani since the recent addition of a road makes hiking less asthetic and uncomfortable. In the bus, we passed several groups who were hiking the road; the combination of dust, heat and vehicle exhaust makes hiking this section really awful. If you are doing this in the future, either grab a bus or Jeep, or hike on the riverbed sections.
Greg rocking out in Marpha
Here’s a video of the bus ride! They buses basically destroy themselves by driving on these 4WD roads!
6839 meter Nilgiri South from Tatopani
Tatopani is famous for its hotsprings; we spent an entire afternoon indulging in these and Ben Glenn went back several times in the evening to soak! What a treat this part of the trip is. From Tatopani, we climbed five or so thousand feet to the town of Ghorepani. This site is famous for Poon Hill, a highpoint (3200 meters or so) from which one gets a spectacular sunrise over the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri ranges.
The Dhaulagiri range – 8167 meter Dhaulagiri I (rightmost mountain) was the highest peak we saw on the trek.
Annapurna I and Annapurna South
From Ghorepani, we dropped way too much vertical to end our trek. But on our final hours of our last day—much to our pleasant surprise—we ran into Chris! Chris has healed and strengthened in Kathmandu. After getting pumped full of IVs at the hospital, he rested at my uncle Rob’s place (bless his heart) and then flew back out to Pokhara to see parts of the other side of the trek!
The group reunited!!
Many more pics from our unforgettable adventure: