The Annapurna Circuit 2011

Trip Start Mar 14, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Annapurna Circuit is one of Nepal's most famous and popular treks through the mighty Himalayas offering a number of side treks and a strong dose of real Nepal culture and a head-first introduction to the high altitude mountain lifestyle of its people. Imagine the daily routine of a yak herder as opposed to being a computer programmer and maybe you get the idea.  The common route chosen starts in the lower elevation of Besi Sahar village and continues "tea house hopping" for 140km (87 miles) over the Thorong-La Pass, the highest point on the trail at 5416 meters (17,764 feet) and then heads back down.  The trek usually finishes these days in the unattractive but booming little service oriented town of Jomsom.  From here, trekkers have the option to continue another 6 days back to Pokhara, add the Annapurna Base Camp trek (The ABC) to their itinerary, or find ground or air transport back to civilization. 

You can survive on USD$10 per day but in the end, I averaged USD$20 per day on food and lodging.   I tried to eat better food and I didn't care when a Snickers bar costs $3 dollars or if a cup of hot chocolate was $2.  But in the end I still lost weight.  There is a packing list at the very end of this entry and a photo of just my pack (and many with me carrying it).  I went as small and light as I could and I depended on getting blankets from each lodge as my sleeping bag was not very good.  This all worked out fine.  The addition of the new road linking the small communities on the west side of the Annapurna range terminating in Muktinath has ruined the second half of “the world’s classic walk” for 99% of trekkers since no one wants to walk on a road with traffic.  The road has opened new opportunities for the communities such as exporting their abundant apple crop and importing items, but has also forced some lodges to close down.  It’s controversial for sure.  Consider flying out of Jomsom as the road simply sucks and it really does take two days to get to Pokhara by bus.   Below is a straight forward day by day account of my trek.  It’s not meant to replace the guide book stuff.   Take the precautions on AMS (altitude sickness) seriously and attend the free lecture in Manang at 3pm each day.   People die and at least one person did die while I was on the trail.   Have fun… this trek was fantastic!!!

Day 1:  Wednesday, October 19
Pokhara to Besi Sahar (6 hours on the bus… miserable)
Hike:  Besi Sahar to Bhubule:   9km (5.6 miles)
Altitude:  760m (2493 feet)
Leave Pokhara for Besi Sahar at 07:15.  This was a miserable 6 hour bus ride to start the trek.  Once we arrived, we got our ACAP permit stamped and started walking to Bhubule.   The elevation is only 760m so it’s hot and humid here.  I wish I brought shorts or owned those zip off hiking pants.  Shorts won’t be needed for long though, as we would soon learn.

Day 2:  Thursday
Bhubule to Ghermu:  13km (8.1 miles)
Altitude:  1130m (3706 feet)
Another warm day rewarded by a nice hot shower at the lodge. The surroundings are lush and green and I can’t even count how many waterfalls we pass each hour.  We know hot showers will not always be available so we are taking advantage if it now.

Day 3:  Friday
Ghermu to Tal:  9km (5.6 miles)
Altitude:  1700m (5576 feet)
Another day of walking in the sunshine.  Along the trail, we are seeing what it must be like to be a porter; terrible.  These guys carry anything and everything.  There is no road serving the communities in this valley so EVERYTHING must come in on the back of a human being or a mule.  But people are cheaper!  So every bottle of beer, every Snickers bar, every can of tuna; it all must be transported on someone’s back along the same path we are using.  We are carrying small packs that I am guessing weigh about 15 pounds (7kg).  I’ve seen porters working for tour groups carrying two full size backpacks plus their own gear.  I saw one guy carrying a wood stove and another, a cage full of live chickens.  They have my respect but I don’t envy them for a second.

Day 4:  Saturday
Tal to Danaque:  10km (6.2 miles)
Altitude:  2200m (7216 feet)
I am battling dehydration and no matter how much water I drink, the problem does not work itself out.  I need to get rehydration powder to put in my water to get my system back to normal.

Day 5: Sunday
Rest day in Danaque

Day 6
: Monday
Danaque to Bhatrang:  19 km (11.8 miles)
Altitude:  2850m (9348 feet)
Ready to go!   I’m feeling good and hydrated again and although we lost some of the familiar faces we got to know by staying behind for a day, we would soon learn that almost everyone will lose a day or two here and there for some reason and we will catch up to our new friends.  There was a steep climb as soon as we left Danaque but this was an easy day of walking. 

Day 7
:  Tuesday
Bhatrang to Gharu:  12km (7.4 miles)
Altitude: 3730m (12,234 feet)
The walk out of Bhatrang was easy.  Along the way, there is a fantastic gompa, or temple, where the monks serve hot lemon tea to visitors.   The views of Annapurna 2 are perfect.  The easy walking turns to hell by saving the elevation gain for the day until the very end and all 500 meters at once.  When we arrived at the top to Gharu, we just stayed there.

Day 8: Wednesday Oct. 26
Gharu to Manang:  15km (9.3 miles)
Altitude:  3540m (11,611 feet)
We woke up to a light covering of snow.   It wouldn’t last long in the sun though.  Gharu to Manang was relatively easy since it's downhill and the end result is a lower elevation than where we started.  Manang has anything you could want… great restaurants and bakeries with real coffee and desserts.  The shopkeepers here know exactly what a trekker wants after a week of fried macaroni and tuna.  Actually, the food has not been so bad.  Manang is the capital of the district and has an airstrip and medical facilities.   Locals will walk from one to four days just to see a doctor here.  There is also a daily lecture at 15:00 each day by the volunteer doctors about Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS),  High Altitude Cerebral Adema (HACE) and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema(HAPE).  The last two kill quickly so it’s quite an important  issue in which to educate yourself. This class was fascinating.  People die up here all the time from altitude sickness.  We would later learn a man from Spain died trying to cross the Thorong La Pass while we were somewhere on the way to Manang.  They claim about 1 in 30,000 trekkers will die from an altitude related problem but no one knows how many locals or porters die from ascending too rapidly.  Without education about the symptoms and causes, you could be doomed here.  

Day 9:  Thursday.  Side trip to Tilicho Lake
Manang to Tilicho Lake Base camp:  est. 10km (6.2 miles)
Altitude: 4165m (13,661 feet)
A worthwhile side trip that will add to how much time you need is Tilicho Lake, the highest lake in the world.  It is higher than Lake Titicaca (highest navigable lake) in Bolivia by about 1000 meters.  Getting here is tough but relatively straight forward.  I am now a walking machine.  I eat, I sleep, I walk.  Then repeat.  Nothing is so simple.   Base camp is freaking cold here and that’s what’s starting to suck about this trekking thing.   Big mountain hiking at high altitude means freezing temperatures at night. 

Day 10:  Friday
Base Camp to Tilicho Lake, return to Sheree Kharka:  est 8km  (about 5 miles)
Max Altitude:  about 5200m (17,056 feet)
Reaching the lake requires a difficult climb out of base camp up a zig zag trail.  Plan for at least 3 hours to get up to the lake and back.  High winds limited my time at the lake since it is so damn cold up there.  I think I prefer warm, tropical lakes. 

Day 11
:  Saturday.  Lost, trying to find the shortcut to Yak Kharka
Sheree Kharka to Khangsar:  est.15km (9.3 miles) total for the day, probably more.
Altitude: who the hell knows, pretty high.
Today was kind of a waste of time since it put us a day behind and was potentially dangerous.  We left Sheree Kharka to look for the shortcut trail to Yak Kharka.  We never found it.  Instead, we went hiking for miles along a mountain side that offered no trail down to the village.  We could see Yak Kharka 800 meters below, but no way to descend safely, cross the river, and then climb up to the village.   At 2:00pm, Nora and I decided to turn around and go back to familiar territory if we wanted to sleep indoors tonight.   We left two determined Belgian guys and two way-too-positive thinking Dutch girls to forge ahead to nowhere.   We never saw them again after we split up which means they did not turn around and make it to the same village we did before dark.  Two days later, we finally heard they were OK but they had to sleep outside next to the river in the freezing cold.  It got dark before they could find shelter, exactly what you do not want to do in the Himalayas without proper equipment.  The terrain here cannot be underestimated.  It was a relief to hear everyone was safe.  Their story became legend on the trail for the next few days among all the trekkers.  “Did you hear about the group that slept outside?”  We knew all about it.

Day 12
:  Sunday
Khangsar to Yak Kharka:  est 12 km (7.4 miles)
Altitude:  4080m (13,382 feet)
We went back through Manang to treat ourselves to some great lasagna after all the energy we wasted getting nowhere yesterday.  Also, the trail to Yak Kharka is obvious from Manang and neither of us was in the mood for off trail exploring again today.  An easy walk but it is cold at night!

Day 13:
Yak Kharka to Thorang Pedi:  6km (3.7 miles)
Altitude:  4450m (14,596 feet)
Although it’s just a short distance, it is recommended to sleep here to continue to acclimatize to the altitude.  Tomorrow is the BIG day where we cross Thorong La pass and the highest point on the Annapurna Circuit.  The lodge here is great, with music, good food, and a cool vibe.  Food and drink here is pricey though.  Remember, every Coca-Cola had to be brought in on some poor guy’s back!  Have you been adding up the kilometers or miles to get here?

Day 14: Tuesday.  The big day.
Thorang Pedi to THORONG LA Pass and down to Muktinath:  16km (9.9 miles)
Max Altitude:  5416m (17,764 feet) at Thorong La Pass
Finish Altitude:  3800m (12,464 feet) in Muktinath
Today was rewarding but brutal.  Just getting out of bed in the freezing cold, uninsulated dorm room was a challenge.  And the moment you hit the trail it delivers one of the steepest sections on the entire circuit.  It’s like one solid hour on a stair master machine with no oxygen to breath, going straight up 400 meters, equivalent to the height of the old World Trade Center buildings in New York, to reach the last base camp.  You have only just begun what will be a 7 or 8 hour day of walking.  After reaching the last base camp, the trail continues for another 2 or 3 hours to the pass, depending how well you can handle the lack of oxygen.  For most us, that means baby steps.  Just one after the other.  Do this long enough … say 2 or 3 hours…and you eventually get somewhere.  The Thorong La pass is at 5416m or 17,764 feet.  There is actually a small tea shop nestled in the barren, wind swept landscape among the piles of prayer flags.   A CONGRATULATIONS sign greets everyone upon arrival.   What comes next is the worst part… descending 1600m (5248 ft) to Muktinath.   Going down is not always easier.  In fact, it’s much more painful.

Day 15
:  Wednesday, November 2
Muktinath to Jomsom:  19km (11.8 miles)
Altitude;  2720m (8922 feet)
Almost finished.  Jomsom is the end of the trail for us.   The controversial new road they built has ruined the walking part of the Annapurna Circuit from Jomsom onward.   Those in favor of the road say it brings in goods and services cheaper to the communities and people that live here.  It also makes it easier to export the apple and apricot crops they grow, thus being and economical alternative to tourism.   No one, however, wants to walk on the road with passing traffic so most fly or bus their way back to Pokhara.  

Days 16 and 17
Jomsom to Pokhara:  2 days on the local bus back to the city.
The road is so bad that the buses are 4x4 mini-tanks with almost no suspension and an off road racing ground clearance.  It is one of the most uncomfortable ways to travel I’ve ever experienced.   It took 2 full days to cover a distance of about 130km or 81 miles.  I recommend to those reading this for research for your own trek to set aside money to fly.   But be prepared to not be able to spend it.   For us, the weather was foggy in Pokhara, which means small planes can’t take off or land.  Flights were canceled for days and everyone, even the organized tour groups and rich people, had to use the road.   It sucks so fly if you can.

Packing List:

1 Northface Recon backpack (30 liter capacity) And YES, everything listed below fit inside except the sleeping bag,  water bottle, and rain cover, which were attached to the outside, and of course the clothes I was wearing.  My  pack is from 2002 and the new ones I just saw in the store in Kathmandu are smaller, so this model isn't good enough anymore.... but any 30 liter pack could work.

2 caribiners - for attaching stuff to the backpack

1 Sea to Summit pack rain cover

2 pairs of quick dry underwear

3 pairs of merino wool socks

1 pair quick dry Exofficio long hiking pants.   Shorts are useful in the first few days.  Zip-off pants would work best

1 pair of  Gore-Tex hiking boots

2 Northface Vaporwik quick dry t-shirts

1 long sleeve Nike “Dri-Fit” t-shirt – for trekking

1 merino wool long sleeve shirt – for sleeping

1 “Cold Gear” long underwear shirt from Under Armour – used for trekking and/or sleeping when it was really cold

1 Patagonia fleece long underwear bottoms (used around the lodge after trekking and for sleeping)

1 North Fake lightweight sleeping bag (purchased in Nepal)  You can rely on blankets at the lodges for extra warmth

1 fake Mountain Hardware gloves – 1 pair mittens (purchased in Nepal)

1 fake Nalgene bottle (purchased in Nepal)

2 warm winter hats (one for trekking, one for sleeping)

1 “Buff” multi-use headwear thing (very useful !!!  Google it)

1 pair rain pants (not really needed in October/November)

1 wind proof jacket (Catalyst from Marmot)

1 fleece jacket

1 Marmot Precip rain jacket

1 Space saver vacuum bag -  the kind you squeeze the air out of.  Really needed this to get everything in the small pack

1 small quick dry camp towel

2 bandanas –  used to put on dirty pillows

1 small bottle of travel laundry soap

1 camera/battery charger and adapter

1 headlamp – also very useful

1 toiletry kit:  All travel sized - toothpaste, toothbrush, contact lens stuff, shampoo, deodorant, etc

First aid stuff like pain pills, blister tape, Electrolyte oral rehydration powder, vitamins, etc

1 combination padlock to lock room

50 Aquatabs water purification pills

SUNGLASSES – Do not forget these!


Lip balm with sun protection

Hand sanitizer

Money belt

Annapurna map

TIMS Card and Annapurna Trekking permit

Pen and mini notebook

Toilet paper / Tissues

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