Nepal: Hiking amongst the highest mountains in the World

Here is a chronological account of my hiking trip to the Annapurna Base Camp, Nepal. For my email subscribers, here’s a preview of the end!

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The adventure starts in getting to the tourist town of Pokhara. Not even 200 km from Kathmandu, but by bus it takes about 7 hours. I had read the flights in Nepal were not safe, with fatal crashes almost every year, so I tried the road.

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Long, not comfortable and certainly not any safer. The accident rate is very high in Nepal, and we saw it first hand. I will spare you more gruesome pictures, but suffice to say the police were looking for the motorcyclist’s head. I flew on the way back!

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Lakeside Pokara, where you can rent a boat to have a look at the mountains from the water. Unfortunately, the weather was completely unusual for the season, and the visibility was terrible.

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Although quite a long drive away, the village of Sarangkot apparently offers incredible views of the mountains. Here’s the description from a guidebook: “Most people come here at dawn or dusk, when the sun picks out the peaks, transforming them from a purple-pink to a celestial gold”. So despite the dreadfully early timing, tourists came in droves.

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And this is what we saw. Mind-blowing.

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The Annapurna Base Camp trek is rather long, taking 5 to 10 days (7-8 would be more normal). The trail is easy to follow and not dangerous, unless you face the wrath of the chicken gods. About 60% of people take a porter (I did not), and some take a guide, but you certainly don’t need one for the simple purpose of getting there.

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Hardly off the beaten path! Partly done for tourists, the stone paths also serve the locals, who would have a difficult time travelling on muddy paths during the rainy season.

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While not hard or technical, the path often leads you straight up half a kilometre in elevation…

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…and then straight back down. Never very encouraging.

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The occasional suspended bridge saves you some effort, and tests your confidence in Nepalese safety standards (they wouldn’t build this to save a little more hiking down and up; the crevasse is narrow, but it’s a MASSIVE drop down).

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I started here in the lower villages, where the road ends.

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Quickly seeing the villages disappear.

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But only to reappear, on impossible cliff sides.

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Where they harvest wheat on terraced fields.

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Donkeys bring up the supplies or, in this case, bring down empty gas tanks for re-filling.

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I was very surprised by the quality of the accommodation a day’s walk away from the road. Although I see how bricks and other construction materials can be brought this way, I wondered about the big things and asked a guesthouse owner:

“What about big things, like the refrigerator”.

“Hum. Local people. They carry it.”

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On the second night the accommodation got a little more rustic, but the view a lot more impressive.

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Still, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, these little farms on the cliff sides.

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Out of donkey range by now, everything gets carried by porters.

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Deurali. At this point, there is no agriculture, no children, and no apparent business except supporting the hikers.

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Here, I slept in what is unquestionably the worst room I ever slept in, anywhere in the world! (If you want to call this a hotel). I shared this closet with a nice German couple, which is normal at that altitude. But the walls were not brick, like most places, but paper thin plywood. The temperature was somehow even colder than outside, and to the left of the room was the “toilet”/latrine, and the walls hid neither sounds nor smell. Great spot.

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After Deurali, the vegetation becomes much more limited.

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Machhapuchhre Base Camp (MBC), second last stop. One option is to sleep there and go up and down on an early morning hike. If you’re susceptible to altitude sickness, it allows you to sleep at around 3,700 m instead of 4,130 m (and the last part is without your bags!).

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MBC from above.

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And as they did every afternoon during the week, the clouds moved in. According to the guidebooks, this is unusual in the Oct-Nov high season.

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Annapurna Base Camp (ABC), in the clouds, with the same prayer flags I saw all over Tibet. The hiking is fine in the morning, but gets rather boring in the afternoon. The visibility is nil, there is nothing to do, the lodges are not heated, and the beer costs $7.20 a can, having been carried up by donkeys and porters for three days.

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Wrong hat style; this is Nepal, not Peru!

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And the rough beauty of the glacier, in the very early morning…

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… making people crazier than they normally are.

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Machhapuchhre (AKA Fish Tail, 6,993 m), before sunrise.

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Annapurna South (7,219 m).

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Annapurna I (8.091 m). The tenth highest mountain in the world, and also one of the most difficult to climb, making Everest look easy and safe. It was summited only 191 times, but 9 died on the way down. 52 died attempting to climb it, giving it one of the highest death rate of all the world’s tallest mountains. The same three mountains, a little later:

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Heading back down towards MBC.

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And towards the valley.

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Tired and bored, the distance it took me 4 days to cover one way, I did in 1.5 on the return. The decompression was clearly evident when I pulled out this little bottle of water I had in my bag!

Overall, this was a great experience, but I would not do it again. An 8,000 m mountain seen from 4,000 m looks a lot like a 4,000 m one seen from see level. I found the hiking just as beautiful – if different – in Peru, Andorra, Provence or Switzerland, but at the end of the day, you stop in a nice – or very nice – village to relax and have fun, instead of a miserable cold lodge in the middle of nowhere. I could see the attraction if adventure was part of it, but this is completely on the beaten path. The uncomfortable beaten path.

And a final note on Nepal in general. The country allowed me to develop my new theory on the availability of narcotics: The number of times I will be offered drugs on the street is a direct function of the number of tourists walking in the street while wearing pyjama pants. It explains Nepal, Laos, parts of Latin America and Zurich (for the 3 former, very often, for the later, never).

For a big change now, onwards to the Persian Gulf!

#Nepal

12 thoughts on “Nepal: Hiking amongst the highest mountains in the World

  1. L’Aconcagua, d’une hauteur de 6 959 mètres, m’avait beaucoup impressionné, même vu d’en bas. Je pense que je devrai réserver l’Annapurna pour une autre vie. Ton documentaire est fort intéressant, merci et bonne(s) route(s).

  2. Amazing pictures! Wish we did the Annapurna circuit, altough I think our trek was hard (and boring) enough. It felt a bit meaningless to walk in the valley and not up to the basecamp, but i’m glad we didn’t get as cold as you in the higher parts. It was cold enough at 2000 m :)

    • Hey Anna,

      Given your itinerary these past several months, I am guessing you do not have the appropriate clothes for 4,000+ m elevation. It was colder than that night we spent on the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania! I also thought walking in the valley was a bit pointless. On the last day I took a 4×4 from the highest point reached by the road. Cut some time off, although I really feared for my life on the way down! Thanks for the compliment :-)

  3. I wish I had your camera when I was in Nepal, Colin, your photos are stunning, although I beat your sunrise over the Annapurnas even with my iPhone 3 :)
    I think you and I must have stayed at the same lodge in Deurali – cold, miserable and I had a family of mice to contend with all night too.
    It was great to meet you in Chhomrong and thanks for escorting me the ’10-minute’ walk to the wholesale shop at the bottom of the never ending steps. It was well worth it for the bargain mars bar and bounty.
    I did make it to ABC in the end, but was compelled to ask my porter to leave at Sinuwa on the way back down, so carried my 25kg rucksack myself out of sheer stubbornness. Oh, those Chhomrong steps!!!
    Thank you so much for your water purification tablets, I wouldn’t have been able to make it to ABC without them I’m sure.
    Safe travels in the Persian Gulf.
    Trudi
    Bath, UK

    • Hey Trudi,

      Well done! Email me the sunrise photo, I’m curious now. I also enjoyed shopping in the “suburbs” with you, although an elevator would have been nice 😉

      I’m out of the Persian Gulf already. Facing the cold and the rain in Shanghai for a few days before heading to Canada for Christmas. BTW, I have a good buddy in Bath. If I visit him again before he moves back to Canada, I’ll drop you a line. I LOVED Bath.

      Colin

      • Hey Colin
        I will email over the photos that I have.
        Yes, it would be great to see you if you visit your friend in Bath – do let me know…
        I hope you enjoyed being home for Christmas. I wish you a very Happy New Year and all good things for the year ahead.
        Trudi

  4. You have really good camera skills. Wish you could take up Everest Base Camp as wel. Try it during April and you will run out of camera memory

    • Thanks for the compliment and the advice! I was supposed to visit the EBC on the Chinese side the week before hiking to Annapurna, but it was closed after a major storm killed 5 people. I hope to visit on the Nepalese side at some point in the future.

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