Annapurna Circuit – attempt one

The first attempt to hike around the Annapurna range got me as far as a mountaineering equipment shop in Thamel. Then the morning drizzle escalated into a downpour and thunder began dominating over the regular bustling sounds of Thamel. It was the 7-day weather forecast for Thorung La pass that had convinced me to take a pair of crampons with me, now the first proper rain of the year made me delay my departure by a day. For two months there had been only one or two overcast days and no rain whatsoever. Today the streets of downtown Kathmandu had become rolling streams and I would not have been surprised to see one Thamel’s adventure shops inflate a raft right there and sell a trip to take the rapids down Durbar Marg.

Kathmandu valley ready for rain

The Annapurna Circuit is the most popular hiking path in Nepal. Tens of thousands walk it every year, with the vast majority of them doing it during spring or autumn. That’s when the skies are clear to enjoy the 8000m mountains surrounding the Marsiyangdi and Kali Gandaki valleys and the sun makes the high altitude trekking path a pleasant experience. Although March was just around the corner, and with it the spring season, the 7-day weather forecast showed three days of precipitation in two days time.…

Day two, attempt two

Attempt no. 2 was a lot more successful. Though I failed to hail the direct bus to Besi Shahar, minivans going in that direction were in ample supply so Dumre became my new destination. I decided on a white Toyota that was half empty (knowing it would still fill up, but hopefully not overly so), chose the seat behind the driver and settled in for a long ride.

The previous day’s rain had cleared the skies. As soon as the bus climbed onto the rim of Kathmandu valley, the snow-peaked mountains of the Himalayas came into view far far on the horizon. Thereafter the Pokhara highway descended quickly and the rest of the way was surrounded by more regular not-snowy peaks. For someone from a more horizontal than vertical country, these are by no means less awe-inspiring. So is the road, as it follows the valleys due west. The motorway clings to the steep mountainside, weaving left and right with a cliff going straight up on one side and river churning deep below on the other. In full honesty, there are not many countries in the world where such a narrow, half-broken, dangerous road could rightfully be called a highway. But in Nepal, somehow, it adds to the atmosphere of the place.…

And so it begins…

 Bhulbule is a small village that spans across the Marsygandi river. It sits in northern Lamjung district, where the population is rather mixed, but I was expecting to meet more and more Gurung people as I continued up the valley. At this point I was still only at 840 a.s.l. Nevertheless the hills were growing higher around me according to which I was most assuredly already inside the valley of Marsyangdi river. This I would be following all the way up to Manang.

Village life in Bhulbule

My Bhulbule morning was a pleasant one. I got up long after sunrise, when the air was already warm outside. There was plenty of hot water to shower with, thanks to the sunny day before. Breakfast was scrambled eggs and apple pie – straight from the oven, with a slight taste of cinnamon. No wonder it took me a while to get going. Eventually I did pull on my backpack and headed across the hanging footbridge to the other side of the valley.

Spring – time to till the fields

The road was a surprisingly good one, a brand new dirt road made by the Chinese for a hydro-power project upstream. The also meant a fair amount of traffic: motorbikes, 4x4s, construction vehicles and even busses that could now drive further up the valley than ever before, carrying people and goods.…

Spring is in the air

The morning was ominous. Strong winds outside woke me early and kept be from getting out of my sleeping bag. In there was cosy and warm. Eventually I did get up, had porridge for breakfast and a quick wash with the still-mildly-warm water. Local wifi even let me send messages home to let others know where I was and where I hoped to go.

Tal is one of the more picturesque villages in the lower valley. Sitting on the edge of a tiny floodplain between two gorges, it is a row of rustic old stone houses overlooked by a fabulous waterfall. It also has a bakery. Had I know of that earlier I might have made different breakfast plans.

Looking up the valley with the road on the left and trail on the right

From Tal the hiking path continued into the upper gorge and provided great views of the motor road across the valley. Soon it reached another suspension bridge and from there on I stayed on the big road. Both weather and visibility were getting worse and the road would offer a faster and easier ascent. Also there would be more teahouses along the road, offering shelter should the rains arrive.…

… or is it?

The morning in Chame was another long morning of waiting for the weather to clear. From the dining room window I could see several small groups of foreigners start their way downhill, all sad and wrapped in rain covers. I figured time was on my side and continued eating my porridge.

Heading to clear avalanche debris

Once again, the weather eased up a bit before noon and not wanting to sit still, I packed my gear and set out. I was hoping to make it to Pisang by nightfall, but not get completely drenched in the process. To help with that I stretched out the backpack’s rain cover and pulled it over myself as well and off I went. The road was more wet and slushy than before. This was best seen when an army platoon marched by on their way down the valley. They were setting a brisk pace with shovels and pick-axes over their shoulders. Probably on their way to clear out the avalanche debris I went through on the day before.

Houses of upper Chame

Very soon after Chame the road deteriorated sharply. The dual tire tracks of 4x4s stopped and turned around. Onwards led a walking path that was increasingly wet and snowy.…

Winter wonderland

The morning brought a hopeful sky with patches of blue. Everybody who was thinking of heading up did so early on.

Although we left the guesthouse individually, we soon grouped up on the trail. The deep snowy trail made for a slow pace but everybody was glad that a trail had been blazed. Walking in somebody’s footsteps is a lot more easier than making your own in a meter of snow. This was most evident when meeting people heading down from Pisang. The path was one way only, so letting people pass meant diving into the snow. Fine if you have gaiters but otherwise a messy affair.

Crossing avalanches in group

Before reaching Pisang we had to cross two large avalanches that had come down from Annapurna II itself. Both were dozens of meters across and one had even brought with it a boulder the size of a small house. Our early departure had been to avoid more of these brought on by daytime temperatures. As it stood, the only blue skies lay far ahead of us, so we though ourselves relatively safe for now.

We reached Pisang before noon and headed across the river to Upper Pisang as a group.…

Manang and beyond

Manang is the largest settlement in the upper Marsyangdi valley and also the furthermost that is inhabited all year around. Though there are tiny villages higher up, they all become empty once winter arrives. The only exceptions may be the guesthouses for trekkers, if weather permits. The small town hosts many guesthouses, restaurants and shops, a small hospital specializing in altitude sickness, a movie theater and a healthy population of ponies and yaks. It is also the place where most trekkers of the Annapurna Circuit spend a day or two in order to acclimatise themselves with the elevation.

A view down at Manang

Standing at 3500m a.s.l. I had yet to feel any effect from the altitude. I had ascended rather slowly thanks to the weather and if not for the weather I would have probably continued early next morning. News from the guesthouse owners (more reliable than anyone else) was not very hopeful. Apparently Ghusang and Yak Karka, the next guesthouses on the circuit, were both closed. Thorung Phedi and High Camp (the next two) had people but all were snowed in. There was no trail from Manang onwards. There was no idea when one would be made. And the pass was most definitely snowed in.…

to Thorung Phedi and High Camp

Dinner last evening was truly massive. Daal Bhat is the only food in the mountains that gets free refills until you’re unable to fit another morsel into your mouth. Hence, I decided to skip breakfast and head out early, thinking that the walk would be just the thing to spike my appetite.

The morning was cold. The sun hadn’t hit the valley yet which meant the air and snow felt freezing. The yaks of Yak Kharka and other animals did not seem bothered though. Just before reaching Ledar I came across a group of Bharal, or blue sheep as they’re commonly known. Blue sheep is a somewhat funny name for them though, as they’re neither blue nor look like sheep. But they do look very graceful climbing the ridges and shuffling through snow.

 Reaching Ledar I walked straight into the first guesthouse and ordered porridge. There were the trailblazers getting ready to leave, grabbing their gear and tightening shoelaces. Looking ahead with my zoom lens I saw the trail continue towards Thorung Phedi – something that everyone said should not exist. It was only a yak trail but it would still help make it easier for the trailblazers to clear a path.…

To new heights

The altitude was having an effect on me. That night I slept quite poorly. I had been somewhat expecting it, but in hindsight taking some Diamox (medicine that helps to adjust to elevation change) would have been a good idea. At 7am I was up and ready.

As I went to get breakfast I saw the trailblazers head out. The rumor of them starting already 5am was obviously not true. I decided that this would not change my plans. I didn’t know what the snow looked like at the pass. If it was anything like the previous three days, blazing a trail myself would not be prohibitively arduous. The pace of trailblazers could not be relied on and how far they had actually been paid to clear the path was unknown. Hence I started out as soon as the sun arrived hoping to make the pass before noon.

The higher we got, the more snow we had

It took less than an hour to catch up with the trail makers, but was I glad to have them in front of me. Even tracing their footsteps was slow going. Snow was deep and powdery. Carrying a heavy backpack through knee-deep snow is arduous in regular conditions, but at 5000+ meters it was exhausting.…

And The Way Back Home

Reaching Ranipauwa and sitting down that evening felt unbelievably good. That the guesthouse had a gas shower and a fireplace felt nothing short of miraculous after days in the snow. That night I slept like a rock.

In the morning our group of seven headed our separate ways. Some woke early and started walking to Jomsom, others took pleasure in sleeping as long as they could. I went to visit the temples of Muktinath.

Inside Salamebar Dolamebar Gompa in Muktinath

Muktinath has been a pilgrimage destination to both Hindus and Buddhists for hundreds of years. It is home to a number of temples, stupas and monasteries, the most important of which are grouped together in Muktinath proper, a walled compound that gives the surrounding area its name. At its core, the importance of the place stems from a unique natural phenomenon. From a crack in the mountain, spring water and flaming natural gas emerge together, thereby uniting all the four elements of earth, fire, air and water. Despite its remote location, thousands of pilgrims visit the location every year to pray and meditate at this confluence of powers. Many of them I met on my way down to Kagbeni.

The village of Jharkot

Sunny weather brings everybody out

Ranipauwa, the village with guesthouses next to Muktinath, is a rapidly developing settlement.…

Map and photos of the trail

It took me a total of 14 days to walk from Bhulbule to Jomsom. I met many hikers on the way, however, in the end there was only seven of us who crossed the Thorung La pass. Though undoubtedly, with the path blazed open, many more would soon follow. After all, the Annapurna Circuit with its awe-inspiring views and deeply spiritual culture, is an unforgettable journey. This is the path of my adventure:


All pictures posted here were taken by me. These and other photos I took on this trip can be found here in full quality:

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this.

A yak and his Mountain