The Goddess of the Harvest.
This majestic mountain mastiff is circumnavigated by a 230 km trek that climbs a total height of 4656m from the starting point in Besisahar to the pass at Thorung La, teetering on the brink of the Tibetan Plateau. Often voted the best long-distance hike in the world, in Nepal it is topped in popularity only by the base camp of mighty Everest herself. With mountain culture as diverse as the ecology, this trek is renowned for the range of spectacular sites packed in over the course of just 2 short weeks. Like many of the people I met, I’d like to say that I’d been dreaming of this trek for years, but in truth, I started out with more than a sniff of mountain snobbery.
I like to have the wilderness to myself you see. I didn’t much fancy sharing the trail with the thousands of other trekkers who tackle the circuit each year, it kind of ruins the egoistic illusion of unique superiority and a certain sense of ‘oneness’ with nature. Due to its popularity, the circuit is highly equipped for comfort; tea houses are spread at intervals of no more than 2-3 hours and so each day of hiking with a concludes with a (theoretically) hot shower, a comfortable(ish) bed, and a meal cooked lovingly by someone else. Compared to the heavy loads and soggy wild-camping I’ve grown accustomed to in rural Scotland this trek is positively luxurious. Would this even feel like an adventure? Alas, my budget wouldn’t stretch to the expensive permits and mandatory trekking guides of the more remote regions, so the ‘gravy trail’ would have to do.
And so, it begins
After some last-minute permit purchasing and snack stocking in Pokhara, I set my alarm for 5.30am and get the rest of my belongings in order. Bus journeys in Nepal are somewhat of an initiation, an enduring test of one’s sense of humour. Adults, children, huge sacks of flour, obscure pieces of furniture and baskets of chickens all pile on to the creaking vehicle, the structural integrity of which is dubious at best. Once you are firmly wedged between rotund hips and window screens with aromatic armpits in your face and you think nothing more could possibly squeeze into this sardined state of affairs, a whole family and their goat get on. Off the bus trundles along the ‘road’, a steep ravine of jagged rock and rubble which is barely deserving of the word.
I’m sandwiched in the midst of the ultra-stylish Nepali youth who find the fastenings of my ultra-practical zip-off trousers endlessly hilarious. Still, they decide to adopt me into their group despite my distinct lack of cool, and I muse on what might happen if someone on the London tube went around prodding thighs and declaring ‘diddi’ – translation, ‘sister’. In this far-removed context though it comes across as an endearing gesture of welcome. I wonder (with great doubt) over how many Nepalis feel welcomed like family when they visit my home country. There aren’t the same taboos around social contact here, let alone eye-contact – everyone is holding on to everyone one else, strangers helping strangers on this buckling rollercoaster of life.
Starting the Annapurna Circuit
After a large lunch of the staple Nepali diet – a bottomless serving of rice and dhal – I finally take my first steps on this great Himalayan trail. I meander along the valley of the Marshyangdi River, roaring its way through terraced barely fields and rocky outcrops which bear the scars of recent road building. The trail mostly stays on the opposite bank but many trekkers now opt to take a jeep to avoid this proximate reminder of civilisation. Yet in the vastness of these landscapes, I marvel at how man barely makes his mark. Undoubtedly it harms both nature and the flow of tourists, but these new roads provide a lifeline for local communities, a way of navigating the oppressive isolation imposed by beautiful ridgelines. How can anyone be denied development in the face of western aesthetic sensibilities? Still, I feel lucky to be hiking the circuit today, in 10 years time this may be a landscape unrecognised.
After half an hour a thunderstorm sets in, but nothing can shake my stupendous joy to be out of the city and finally weaving my way along the trail – even the rain makes me happy. It feels like a meteorological gift, a nostalgic blessing to send me on my merry way in true Scottish fashion. In my excessive exuberance over suspension bridges and torrents of Himalayan meltwater I stop paying attention to the map and end up of the wrong side of the river. Luckily, the people of Nepal are infamous in their hospitality and helpfulness and are quick to set me on the right track again. Indeed, I only need to pull out my compass once on the whole trek, and only then to distinguish between the peaks standing proud on the horizon.
Where are all the people?
Around 5pm I call it a day and check into a guesthouse. My shelter for the night is a simple, colourfully painted room built from local pine with two beds and a small window looking out onto the family smallholding. For 75p a night I can hardly complain. Though I am a little perplexed – where are all the people?! After bidding farewell to a fellow solo female hiker I met on the bus I’ve seen no one else all day, and tonight I have the run of the place. Indeed, I spend the next 3 nights alone on this so-called ‘gravy trail’. Some of my hosts are up for conversing through broken English and the 2 Nepali folk songs I know (this rendition delighted one woman so much she hugged me and pinched my bum with great affection!) but mostly I am left to my own devices. Usually, I seek solitude in nature, but in this man-made structure built for 20, I feel eerily awkward, disconnected.
Happily, this situation does not last for long. As the jeep contingent slowly join the trail it gets steadily busier and on my way out of Tal – a grey town with a dried up, dilapidated Wild West feel – I make my first trail friends. Steven and Mike, two young bucks from Sydney, are standing at an unsigned fork in road puzzling over their map. We chat a while and decide on the correct route, but their navigation skills would later become an infamous source of much humour, in line with their minimal-preparation maximum-enthusiasm attitude. I affectionately refer to them as ‘the Rugby boys’ (even though Steven plays cricket) on account of their broad builds, laddish sense of humour and a ridiculous number of injuries – never have I seen such a large medical kit for a single expedition! We play a game of leapfrog for the rest of the trek and their hilarious stories provide endless entertainment.
A fellowship is formed
The following day I share a steep climb followed by a well-deserved lunch with 3 other people I’d just met. Unbeknownst to us at the time, over the coming week, we would form a formidable trekking unit and spend some of the best days of our lives in each other’s trusted company. Christian, a family man who fully fulfils the hyper-rational, uber-efficient German stereotype. After deciding to embark upon the trail only a week before, he overcame the numerous hurdles to get here with his rare single-pointed determination. Neil, who radiates a phenomenal degree of genuine kindness and warmth, recently retired from a life of dentistry and put in many hard hours training through the Albertan Winter in a tremendous effort to keep up with his 23-year-old gazelle of a son, Sam. Decked head to toe in black – sponsored by his job at North Face – this mountain ninja is always 100m ahead of the pack. His collected cool and sharp sarcasm is softened somewhat by a quiet passion for classical literature and connect 4.
So, quite by accident, this becomes our entourage; our paces sync, our personalities gel and a fellowship is formed. Starting out I probably wouldn’t have chosen to hike with 3 unknown men with an age range spanning 4 decades, but later we reflect on how we couldn’t have chosen better-suited trekking partners if we’d tried. I welcome the company for a second, significantly more important reason. As we glean more information about the trail ahead it becomes increasingly clear that I massively underestimated the sheer power and majesty of these mountains. Spring is still floundering in the tight stranglehold of Winter and the pass, usually more or less snow-free by now has only just reopened. A single snowstorm could easily seal it off again, and we see many people retracing their steps. I didn’t come prepared for an all-out Winter expedition and with the added risks of altitude sickness and avalanches make it wholly irresponsible to tackle this pass alone.
Voted best trek for a reason
Still, there is a lot of ground to cover before we make any decisions about the pass, and that ground is utterly spectacular. Long gone are the rice paddies and throngs of banana trees; as we climb still deciduous forests give way to the smell of fresh pine resin and juniper bushes. The geology too is in flux; from massive bleached boulders to sparkling schists flaunting in the sun’s rays the most delightful display of rainbow hues. I can’t help but swirl around in sheer wonder calling out ‘these are the most beautiful rock I have ever seen!’. Over the next ridge, we are suddenly transported into another world dominated by sandstone pinnacles that appear to be plucked straight out of Utah. The diversity is astounding. The dormant geologist within me is falling in love all over again, the environmentalist stirred awake after being crushed for too long under the suffocating, seemingly inescapable weight of ecological collapse. I feel alive, like a small glimpse of the person I aspire to be.
Any whiff of snobbery I had about this trail is long gone. When we come across a wonderful pine lodge in a picturesque orchard that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a glossy advertisement for the Swiss Alps, I think I may have been the most excitable person there, inhaling frothy cappuccinos and apple doughnuts in record speed. Perhaps not every adventure has to be some gruelling ordeal of eating nothing but river-soaked oats and walking long hours into the night. Did having 4 walls and smelling vaguely acceptable somehow make me less of an adventurer? And if it did, did I care? Perhaps it was okay to have my doughnut and eat it too. And after climbing 3000m to reach it, it was the best damn doughnut I’ve ever eaten.
At this point on the trail we make 3 more acquaintances; Nate, who on account of his American friendliness and good nature is already on first name terms with everyone on the trail. During snack stops, he eats peanut butter directly from the jar, which makes him a stellar person in my opinion. Emily provides some welcome female company on this somewhat testosterone-charged trail and we immediately become friends. She has the most wonderful BBC voice and on our first meeting, a request for her to read me bedtime stories nearly slips through the rather loose netting of my social filter. Her guide, Mani, also becomes a staple member of the group: he is always the first and last to laugh at his own jokes, a trait that is tremendously endearing and infectious. He is incredibly generous with his time and skill, providing valuable information about the days ahead.
The good life
Our days fall into a regular rhythm. Woken by the first light of the rising sun, I don my down jacket and meditate with my legs still snugly tucked into my sleeping bag. After a warm breakfast, usually porridge, we bid farewell to our hosts for the evening and get on the trail before 8am. We chew through the miles in the cooler morning air before slurping noodles in the blazing overhead sun. Usually, there are only a couple of hours left to lug through in the post-lunch lull before our destination is reached, just before the thunderstorms start rolling through. Afternoons are spent reading, journaling and playing cards over excessively large pots of tea. Bellies full, we are blissfully asleep by 8pm. This is the good life. Each day my worries dwindle until I am unconcerned with anything other than when my next snack might be. Tomorrow is beyond the horizon, beyond the next sunrise and most importantly, beyond the limits of my grasping mind.
Veneration of the divine
At first, the snow-caps peep shyly over the edge of that tomorrow, but soon we are spellbound in the steep depths of their shadow. Crowned by Annapurna I, which at 8091m is the tenth highest peak in the world, the mastiff is comprised of a further 29 peaks over 6000m and countless other mere ‘hills’, undeserving of a name yet still dwarfing almost everything on the European continent. Annapurna literally translates as ‘full of food’: she is the mother that feeds, the bountiful harvest. Yet she also steals; so many men have lost their lives trying to capture that which cannot be conquered that Annapurna is considered the deadliest mountain in the world. Of course, the feminist in me thinks she is a total badass and my conversion to Annapurna pilgrim is complete.
Annapurna I is bestowed with powerful wrath, but the bounty of beauty definitely fell to her sister peak, Annapurna II (clearly whoever named these mountains did not have my vivid anthropomorphising imagination). Sam and I spend the best part of an afternoon just staring at her; soft curves on hard edges, a sunset blush, her majesty still rising. Her crown like an explosive caldera: but these jewels are made from squashed sea beds, not violent pyroclastics. In the words of Herzog on the first ascent of Annapurna in 1950, “the mountains had bestowed on us their beauties, and we adored them with a child’s simplicity and revered them with a monks veneration of the divine”. The essence of these mountains cannot be weaved into words or distilled by pixels, for they defy the comprehensible. I’m afraid you will have to go and see her for yourself.
We decide to take the high route to Manang – the last village before Thorung La – to help with acclimatisation. At 3660m we have now reached the cruising height of the Himalayan griffon, and we break in our burning lungs on a relentless climb later dubbed as the day of the dreaded switchbacks. During the slog, I keep everyone well stocked with sweets and cereal bars in an effort to lighten my 15-kilo load. I don’t quite know how my bag managed to weigh 15 kilos, especially given that I’m not carrying any camping equipment, but my new friends enjoy making many jokes about how it contains nothing but a never-ending supply of snacks. My bag, the weight of Annapurna, full of food. And me? The mother that feeds. I have metamorphosed into the mountains I march.
At lunchtime, a blizzard blusters through and we take refuge in a small hut and watch the hardcore hikers trudge on through the sideways snowdrift. Huddling over pots of tea and hoping the fire will be lit soon, we gently lull away the afternoon to the soft chanting of the resident monk. The next morning after a gentle downhill stroll we reach Manang by 11am and celebrate with hot chocolate, real coffee (like, from an espresso machine and everything!), yak burgers (for the meat-eaters) and popcorn in the local cinema, complete with pirated DVDs and yak-skin covered seats. Now this is what I call a holiday! The first leg of our journey was over.
Now the crunch point had arrived: would we attempt the pass? And if so, would we all make it over together?
Find out in Annapurna Diaries Part Two …
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