Trekking in Nepal: Part Two - Annapurna Base Camp
The primary goal of our trip to Nepal was to trek, and after a few days in country we were finally at the trailhead. But before I get into my account of the hike, a couple notes on the logistics of our trip. There were 8 of us, plus a guide we had arranged for before arriving in Nepal. We chose to trek without porters, and carried all our gear ourselves. Our itinerary for Annapurna Base Camp was for 8 days and 7 nights, with room for an extra night if we needed it.
If you want to start with Part One, it covers some of the logistics of getting to Nepal. Part Three covers info you might want to know, from trekking advice to some other things we saw in Nepal that might be worth a visit.
The jeeps came to a stop at the end of the road amid a cluster of darkened teahouses. A bit bleary eyed from the chaotic ride, we climbed out into the light rain and began unloading our backpacks. Word quickly spread that we would need to hike a short distance to the teahouse we would be staying at, which was unexpected. The excuse we were given was that the weather made driving farther impossible, though I suspect it was simply that the teahouses here were full. Rain jackets were pulled on and we were off.
With the moon and stars obscured by rain clouds, we hiked through the dark with no sense of the terrain around us. The only clues to inhabitants in the valley were pinpoints of light hovering in the distance and the occasional home, silent and dark, nestled in the terracing along the side of the trail. After a short hike, the trail crossed straight onto the stone patio of Bright Guest House. Our guide had a quick conversation with the proprietors (we arrived after everyone else had gone to bed) and we assembled in the small dining hall after dropping our gear in rooms. Candles were lit, dal baht was ordered, and leeches were discovered on several of our ankles. Then it was off to bed.
In the morning, light slowly filled the valley. The sun wouldn’t actually crest the ridge for a couple hours after sunrise, but the dim light grew to reveal lush slopes dotted with farmhouses and terraced gardens. Below us the Modi Khola River rushed past, raging with snowmelt from its origin in the Annapurna Sanctuary, our eventual destination.
The trail to our next teahouse followed the valley upriver, winding along the western bank, occasionally climbing and descending steeply. After a short time, the valley aligned to revealed unobscured views of the snowcapped peaks of the Himalayas. We hiked past several homes, often paired with large vegetable gardens or a small herd of goats. While these paths are frequented by trekkers, they are also the primary means of travel for the local people who live on the steep slopes throughout the valley.
Along the way, narrow suspension bridges span the Modi Khola and its tributaries. We had traversed one that morning, timidly crossing as it gently swayed and bounced to the rhythm of our gait. At the time we marveled at its length, but by midday we were rounding a bend to look upon the newest bridge in the region, a 287 meter span that dwarfed any others we crossed on the trip. If you have a fear of heights, this is definitely a dont-look-down situation.
A short climb from the far side of the bridge is Jhinu Danda, where we ate lunch and rested up before the final push to Chhomrong. The trail climbs steeply after Jhinu, ascending almost two thousand feet in just a mile and a half. For many, this will be the most grueling part of the hike, especially in a humid heat with little shade for relief from sun. For our climb, however, the afternoon rain returned right on schedule, soaking us in a downpour as we pressed on.
The trail tops out in the village of Chhomrong, a sprawling collection of homes, teahouses, bakeries, and shops draped on a hillside. Our lodging for the night was a short walk down the hill at Elysium Guesthouse, with panoramic views of the mountains to the north. After hanging up our gear to dry, we dined on homemade apple pie and chocolate cake while sipping coffee in one of the local bakeries.
In the morning, the Himalayan Mountains were on full display. On the left, Annapurna South and Hiunchuli formed a wall of snow and ice, the morning sun igniting the summits in a golden blaze. On the right sat sacred Machapuchare, often referred to as the “Fishtail,” its iconic peak stabbing into the air. They seemed so close I could almost feel the chill from their icy slopes.
The trail descends through the village of Chhomrong, passing a permit checkpoint, and over another suspension bridge. After regaining the lost elevation on the other side, the path crosses another cluster of teahouses at a place called Sinuwa. As you hike onward, over a series of shorter ascents and descents, the forest in this part of the valley grows denser and more lush, with moss covered rhododendron trees and groves of bamboo. At the time of our hike, the rhododendron were in bloom, with large fluffy flowers of deep red dotting the canopy and scattered across the trail.
This section covers some of the most impressive stonework along the trek as well. The steep elevation changes required to navigate up the valley mean stone stairs have been constructed all along the miles of trails. An impressive amount of work has been put into building and maintaining the trail, ensuring that it can withstand both the extreme weather and onslaught of visitors each year. Considering most of the work is done by hand, with construction materials carried in on the backs of porters and mules, it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate the effort that was expended so you can be there. Maintenance is likely a constant battle. More than once we saw people improving or repairing sections of trail, or porters delivering supplies to the remote areas reachable only by foot.
Nestled in the jungle is Bamboo, a group of teahouses where we spent the night at Trekking Guesthouse.
From Bamboo, the trail begins to follow the Modi Khola river more closely, ascending steadily through the jungle. With the elevation comes the possibility of altitude sickness. It’s important to be aware of the symptoms, which overlap with common hiking ailments as well, so all the more reason to take extra care of yourself. Headaches are the most common symptom, as well as lack of appetite and fatigue. Dehydration at altitude can be especially debilitating, so be mindful to drink frequently.
For myself, the only symptoms I experienced were a pins-and-needles sensation in my fingers and a longer than normal time warming up in the morning (though the lack of direct sunlight in the deep valley certainly didn’t help). A couple people in our group did feel noticeably fatigued, and took a half dose of Diamox. Ultimately the only cure is to descend or to acclimate to the altitude by spending time at high elevations. The trail from Bamboo to Deurali rises from roughly 7,500 feet to 10,500 feet, crossing into thinner air, so that every breath brings in less oxygen. Take your time and listen to your body.
Towards the end of the day, the trail rises out of the jungle into a noticeably harsher environment, with rocky slopes and the occasional bank of snow and ice. The snowcapped peaks of the Himalayas appear right around every bend of the trail. Located beside the Modi Khola between the bases of two towering mountains is Deurali, another cluster of teahouses. We spent the night at New Panorama Guesthouse and prepared to enter the Annapurna Sanctuary early the next day.
Machapuchare Base Camp
Our group got an early start and entered the narrow mountain pass that leads into the Annapurna Sanctuary, with only a few miles to our next destination. Hemmed in on either side by steep snow-covered slopes, this section of the trail has the highest likelihood of avalanches. It’s important to be aware of the weather and snow conditions, and a good guide will know whether or not it is safe to enter the sanctuary. If you don’t have a guide, check with the teahouse operators, or at the permit station in Chhomrong.
We crossed to the eastern side of the raging Modi Khola on a rickety metal bridge and wound our way through some small hills of mud, low shrubs, and yellowed grass. The contrast between this section and the lush rhododendron jungle from just a day ago was jarring, a testament to the harsh conditions at this altitude. The path crosses the Modi Khola again at a wide rocky section of the river, where the valley offers up clear views northward into the sanctuary.
The western slopes are steeper, and the trail climbs along wide fans of snow and ice that have tumbled into the pass from the cliffs above. Traction devices, like slip-on crampons, can be useful through this tricky section, especially if your boots do not have very aggressive tread. The trail itself narrows as well. Passing other hikers walking in the opposite direction felt treacherous at times. And with clear skies, sunglasses become a necessity to protect yourself from the blinding glare of the snow.
Towards the end, the elevation gains become more steady, until you finally catch a glimpse of the first blue roofed teahouse at Machapuchare Base Camp. We quickly realized it should instead be called a “tease-house,” as the other teahouses (where we were staying) are farther up the trail. But they are worth the extra distance. Situated at a 90 degree bend in the valley, the views from the upper teahouses are magnificent. As we sat on the patio for lunch, enjoying the warm sun and the promise of a long, restful afternoon, we could see straight down the valley we just hiked through. To our left was the fishtail peak of Machapuchare. And to our right, a snowy slope led to the base of Annapurna South.
The afternoon brought low swirling clouds that eventually obscured the views, and we retreated into the dining hall of Fishtail Guesthouse to rest, eat, and relax, knowing we would be up well before sunrise the next day.
Annapurna Base Camp
For a lot of hikers on this trek, the goal is to be at the top for sunrise. Normally, teahouses at Annapurna Base Camp allow for an overnight stay, but this past winter’s heavy snowfall destroyed all those lodgings, so our only option was a predawn hike. We bundled up, donned our headlamps, and set out across the snow in darkness.
The steady elevation gain, combined with altitude and chilly air made for slow going, but as sunrise approached, the morning clouds began to burn off and the outline of Annapurna’s snowy peaks emerged. The Annapurna Sanctuary is an oblong glacial basin ringed by mountains on all sides, the only entrance being the narrow pass we had hiked through the day before. The summits rise almost ten thousand feet above the basin. Looking around at base camp means facing an almost unbroken wall of mountain faces, their ridges jagged and snowcapped against the blue sky.
I arrived at base camp shortly after the first rays of sunlight hit the summits. The warm glow slowly descended like a curtain. Within a half hour the whole range was ablaze, a wide vista of snowy ridges and barren walls of rock reflecting the morning light into the shadowy basin below. After some group photos at the base camp sign, we made our way through what was left of the teahouses to a crest overlooking the glacial basin below Annapurna I. This was why we had come to Nepal, to stand among the Himalayan mountains, and we took out time absorbing the moment.
Back to Pokhara
The quickest way back to Pokhara was the way we had come, so we retraced out steps out of the mountains. We stopped at Machapuchare Base Camp to pack our gear and eat breakfast, then descended through the pass and down the valley all the way to Dovan, about three miles past Deurali. We spent a rainy night at Dovan Guest House, and then pushed all the way to Jhinu Danda where we stayed at the small Tibet Guest House. Near Jhinu are some hot springs you can visit, but they were very crowded and, in my opinion, not worth the 30 minute hike to reach them. Our last day we returned to the trailhead near Kyumi and met our jeeps for the bumpy ride back to Pokhara.
More on Nepal
If you want to read more about how to get to Nepal and the Annapurna region, check out Part One. In Part Three I’ll discuss some of the things I learn along the way, tips for traveling and trekking in Nepal, and other destinations that you might want to see on your trip.