If you’ve ever gone on a trekking adventure, you would have probably heard – or said – something like this: “No more high altitude treks. No more self-torture. This is definitely my last!”
I experienced those same sentiments while recently out trekking the Annapurna Circuit (AC), one of Nepal’s most famous and classic trails that stretches over 250km in the Himalayas.
This was my fifth visit to Nepal and my fourth trek there; it was the second long trek through the Himalayas for my teammates.
Eight hours after departing from chaotic Kathmandu, our jeep arrived at the tranquil village of Jagat (elevation: 1,310m). Gone were the polluted air, noisy vehicles and suffocating crowds. Replacing them were the pleasing sounds of rivers and waterfalls, gorgeous views of mountain massifs and friendly locals.
The Annapurna region has seen profound changes over time. Every year, close to 30,000 international tourists find their way here, and this has contributed to the improvement of living standards, as well as modernisation.
In recent years, dirt roads passable by jeeps and motorbikes have carved a horizontal gash on the side of the mountains, taking trekkers deeper into the valley without actually having to set foot on the trails.
What was once an 18-day looping trek is now a four-day trek (if you’re fit enough, that is). Tourists are not happy about it as many still prefer the old AC trek, but locals feel this kind of development will help them and the community in the long run.
Lorries and jeeps are the main modes of transport today, replacing donkeys and other animals. More villages finally have running water, proper sewage systems and even a mobile network connection.
It’s progress, after all.
But the it is not all gloom and doom for the trekking scene.
For one, Nepal’s well-known teahouses run by local villagers are sprouting like mushrooms along this newly rejuvenated trail. Despite being high up in the mountains, teahouse owners equip their premises with basic yet clean rooms, a working kitchen and hot food for weary trekkers.
Undoubtedly, all these comforts and conveniences are made possible by the new-found accessibility brought about by proper mountain roads.
Throughout our 11-day trek, the best teahouse we stayed at was in the small village of Manang – the last village along the trail that’s accessible by road. Located 3,540m above sea level, the lodge went above and beyond to serve us and made us comfortable. The place was tastefully decorated and had an extensive kitchen. We ate pizzas, yak steaks and Nepali staples when we stayed there.
Into thin air
Manang is usually where AC trekkers would spend at least one day for acclimatisation. This charming village is lined with modern conveniences. It is home to a few bakeries and what must be the world’s highest cinema hall – mainly showing adventure movies for trekkers to pass time.
We made ourselves comfortable on rows of hard benches lined up in a small wooden hut. We were deep in the mountains and it was bitterly cold. What better movie to watch than the 1997 disaster movie Into Thin Air?
Shivering on our seats no thanks to the very real-looking snowstorm on screen and a malfunctioning stove burner, this truly natural 4D movie experience made us respect mountaineers and their crew. More importantly, it served as a reminder that Mother Nature is very much in charge.
A few days later, it was our turn to step higher into thin air as we inched closer to the coveted Thorong La Pass. From pine trees to low shrubs, the surrounding landscapes changed dramatically with the majestic Manaslu, Dhaulagiri and Annapurna massifs (all more than 8,000m in height) presenting themselves at every corner.
We took our time trudging along the trails. Our previous high altitude treks taught us to adhere strictly to three golden rules of avoiding acute mountain sickness: Walk slow, eat and drink well, rest well.
Slowly but surely, we checked into the one and only lodge at High Camp (4,925m), the last stop before the final push across Thorong La Pass. At such altitude, amenities (if any) have become very basic and purely functional.
After sundown, temperatures plummeted and it started snowing lightly. All trekkers huddled in the dining room while waiting for dinner to be served. I took a quick look around and saw that altitude had taken a toll on some people.
A few of them were resting face-down on the table, while others had pale faces and looked forlorn and weary. Others, however, happily chatted away, excited about the next morning’s push.
It was understandable why some people were concerned about the weather. In October 2014, 43 trekkers lost their lives in a freak snowstorm while crossing the same pass. But I was confident that our team would be in good hands with our guides and porters from Nepal Azimuth Treks as I had used their service a few times.
Epic and emotional
The big day arrived. Countless stars dotted the clear night sky. We gobbled down our breakfast and started moving at 4.30am. Our guide felt we should start early given our moderate pace, but very quickly, other trekkers started passing by us.
My thermometer read -25°C. My hands and feet were frozen and felt painful, like pricking needles. In the darkness I saw nothing except the gravel path, which was lit up by my head lamp.
“This is too tough. Will I lose my fingers and toes to frostbite? I can barely breathe. How far more?” Negative thoughts flooded my mind as my lungs screamed for oxygen. It was frustrating and the sensations drove me mad.
I stopped to take a breather and sloppily fished for my bottle, only to find the water had frozen over! Thankfully our guide came to the rescue with hot water he kept in a flask. Huddled together, he gave us a pep talk and assured us that we were doing great.
Sometimes, an encouraging companion is what you need to keep you going. Linking arms, we focused on our breathing and took one step at a time.
When one person stopped, the other would tug on his or her arm muttering words of encouragement.
After four dreadful hours in the bitter cold, the highest point finally revealed itself. As soon as I saw the sign that read “Thorong La Pass (5,416m)”, I burst into tears. Resting my forehead against the signboard, so many thoughts and emotions washed over me.
“I made it! I’m alive! I can still feel my numb fingers and toes!”
Standing there on one of the highest mountain passes in the world, we were greeted with commanding mountain views from every side.
This is why the Annapurna Circuit is an epic and thrilling trek for many. It is a life-changing challenge, but if you’re an avid trekker, put this on your bucket list.
The writer is organising more trekking trips to Nepal and beyond. You can contact her at email@example.com for more information.