Annapurna South 7,219m (23,684ft) makes an appearance as we approach Tadapani on day 2
KvZ. We arranged a trek in the Annapurna range of Nepal out of Kathmandu, so we needed to take a bus to Pokhara to meet up with our actual guides and porters. We used a guide who came recommended to us by Tim’s friend Joe; the guide’s name is Laxman. After spending one night in Pokhara, the crew picked us up the next morning in a minivan to take us to the trail head. I was surprised at the sheer number of people that came with us for just our family of four: 1 guide, 1 assistant guide, 1 cook and 5 porters. I knew that they would be carrying all the food we would need for the entire week-long trek, as well as 2 tents, sleeping bags, mattress pads and cookware. But when Tim and I have primitive camped in the past we have carried everything of course ourselves. So why so many porters? And we had even decided to carry some of our own gear to reduce the loads for the porters: Tim is carrying all his own, I’m carrying most of mine, and the kid’s stuff plus the sleeping bags went to the porters. This left Tim with his huge pack as always, me with one of the kid’s big packs which was fine, and the kids with just small daypacks with their rain gear, toiletries and books/journals. So the pack we gave to the porters was my big backpack stuffed full and about as heavy as usual…and I was very glad I wouldn’t be carrying it up a mountain. It probably weighed about 30 or 35 pounds. But it’s a good pack with padded waist belts and the perfect size, weight for the small, dense stature of the Nepalese porter. So imagine my surprise and dismay when I saw my pack thrown in a basket with loads of other heavy items…to be carried on the back of one porter!! First they throw everything haphazardly (or so it seems to me) in a large cone-shaped basket. Then they tie a strap around the back of the basket which then runs over their forehead…they carry none of the weight on their hips or shoulders. These guys aren’t much taller than me, but they are STRONG. Porters and village people alike have carried loads in this way for centuries.
Kristin’s state-of-the-art backpack used as our extra on the trek was hauled through the Himalayas in a wicker basket (doko) // Drew prepares himself for the climb ahead
how many does a family of 4 need to camp on the Annapurna circuit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annapurna
local ladies take a break on the way up the trail
But back to the question of ‘why so many porters?’ First of all…no state-of-the-art equipment here, folks. Everything is big, bulky, and heavy. No freeze-dried food, no lightweight cookware, no compact stoves, and no water filters. And these guys eat like horses!! Much of the gear I’m sure goes toward feeding the monstrous appetites created by their strenuous work, so it’s kind of like a vicious circle. I really did not like to see them loaded down so heavily…there is supposedly a 30 kg limit to what the porters carry…it looked much heavier than that to me. I would estimate it to be around 90 pounds. I tried to pick one up and couldn’t even budge it, which got a smile out of them. But the guide assured me that the loads would lighten greatly as the days went by. And I had no way to weigh the packs and see. I try to keep my guilt in check by reminding myself that we are employing 8 people in this process who are very happy to be working. We are going to camp only half of the nights, with the other half being spent in teahouses in villages. The porters will still cook for us whether we sleep in the tents or teahouses, but we’ll eat our meals in the teahouse dining areas.
a teahouse kitchen along the ways shows a stock of pots, pans, kettles, plates, cups etc… that was similar to what our porters were lugging up and down the mountains
I had just finished reading “The Snow Leopard” which is the true account of a man’s journey through the Annapurna range and onward to the Dolpa region in he 70’s. His journey took many weeks and of course he was climbing over major mountain passes covered with snow and enduring major hardships. Still, I gained some comfort from noticing he was exactly my same age when he made this incredible journey…and his path started out on the same trail we’ll be following. If he could do what he did, certainly I can make it for 1 week with the added amenities he did not have! In his book, he wrote a separate entry for each day of the trek which I have decided to do here. That way, my feeling for the whole experience won’t just be summed up by one entry at the end but rather on a day-by-day basis, which I think is more telling.
DAY 1: BIRETHANTI TO KIMCHE DURATION: 2 -1/2 HOURS ELEVATION CHANGE: 3400 FT TO 4465 FT
Machhapuchhre 6,993m (22,943ft) also known as Fishtail Mountain stands in the background of the village of Kimche
The original plan had been to drive as far as possible which is to Birethanti, and then walk from there for a good 6 – 7 hours. However the road had been washed out in Birethanti so we had to start walking from there. Since we didn’t have enough daylight we had to stop in Kimche for the night and we’ll have to make up for lost time tomorrow. But Kimche is lovely and just what I imagined a Nepalese village to be. The houses are made of the local rocks or wood, the roofs are slate or thatched. They pile the cut wood in neat stacks which fit into niches in the rock bases of their homes. Everyone has a patio and the houses cascade up the mountain, and water runoff from the mountains is piped to most of the houses and to the common areas. Stairs hewn of rough rough rocks make up the staircase that winds up thru the village. When we got to the top we sat and looked at the view of the valley and river below and gazed at the snow-covered peaks of “Fishtail”, “Hiunchi” and “Annapurna South” mountains beyond. A line of pack mules slowly made their way up the stairway we’d just finished climbing with their bells around their necks ringing their arrival. The mules wear brightly colored headgear and carry heavy loads. The woman who owns the teahouse we’re staying at is quick with a smile…her husband is an artist of sorts who carves whimsical items from wood. He is also a photographer and displays his photos of wildlife on the walls. The village children play in the big, dirt play area and a few of the boys “shoot” us with their slingshots which consist of a rubber band and a stick. The sticks fall way short and we laugh..they laugh with us until their mother shoos them away. We only walked 2-1/2 hours today and I’m beat. Feeling a little nervous about tomorrow!
locals washing clothes in the Modi (river) Khola at our starting point in Birethanti
Becca and Drew approaching Kimche // Fishtail Mt.
men in Kimche taking a break with our porters in the background setting up the kitchen for the night
DAY 2: KIMCHE TO TADAPANI DURATION: 8-1/2 HOURS ELEVATION CHANGE: 4465 FT TO 8815 FT
I found out today that Sir Edmund Hillary made his historic ascent to the summit of Everest on May 29th, which is my birthday… a fitting piece of trivia to learn about as I’m trekking in the Himalayas. The guides woke us up early this morning; just before sunrise. Barking dogs had given us restless sleep, but Laxman greeted us with hot tea in our tea-house quarters. We had full breakfasts of eggs, toast, and rice porridge and headed up-hill. And up-hill, and up-hill some more. The entire day from 7:30 – 4:00 with a 1-hour break for lunch was UPHILL. I’m almost too tired to write in this journal…but so glad I rented a trekking pole as I relied heavily on it today. We trekked through 3 or 4 small villages along the way, all equipped with numerous teahouses. For these first few days we are on the official “Annapurna” circuit which is a loop that takes around 19-23 days, but our smaller loop is called the “Ghoripani” loop. You can hike either of these loops without the need for any camping as they have villages sprinkled throughout the trail. However, we are going off the beaten path just a bit so that we will for 1 night be away from any village and only near a rustic lodge. Many of the teahouses strive to be eco-friendly with solar showers and organic gardens. None of them have heating. As I write this I’m in full long johns and fleece, in my sleeping bag, in my bed! I can’t imagine how cold it will get tomorrow night when we leave the “circuit” and go higher to camp.
porters show Drew and Tim how to play Carrom during the lunch break
Becca passing by a local man along the trail
village of Tadapani
You’d think that by staying most of our nights in tea houses we’d have lessened the porters loads because they could buy some of their food from the villages. But no…the villages and teahouses charge a premium of course, so the porters still lug everything up in order to save every penny…even eggs and cabbage! They cook it in separate outside designated “camping kitchen” areas at the teahouses that allow it, and the staff sleep wherever they can…in the shed, in the basement..they don’t bring tents for themselves. Some of the porters only wear flip-flops on their feet…the others wear tennis shoes. I remember reading in “The Snow Leopard” how the expedition leaders bought hiking boots for all the porters, only to find out the porters immediately sold them and showed up barefoot as usual.
view of Annapurna South from Tadapani
Today Laxman noticed that my hat said “Mt. Kilimanjaro: 5895 meters”. He said they have “hills” this size in Nepal also, but they don’t bother to name them. Nepalese humour I guess. On one of our breaks, high in a village, I sat on a stone wall and looked over to see a ladybug on a bush. I just had to smile. My friend Tibe who recently passed away and who I’d just said my private farewell to in India, had LOVED ladybugs. I can remember her pool bath was decorated in this theme. She loved them so much that at her memorial I’m told that her daughter asked everyone to think of Tibe anytime they saw one, and then handed out boxes of ladybugs to everyone present to release into the yard. So here was her memory, already paying me a visit, as if to say “You can say goodbye, Kristin, but I won’t let you forget me.”
DAY 3: TADAPANI TO DOBATO DURATION: 7 HOURS ELEVATION: 8815 FT TO 11,312 FT
Kristin and Drew watching the sunrise from Tadapani before heading on to Dobato
I woke up at 1:00 a.m. late night with anxiety, and couldn’t fall asleep again for hours. We were up for another brutal 7-hour day of uphill hiking into no-where land and I just was worried about my knees (which were just starting to hurt on the high steps)as well as my fitness. We were in terrible shape for this trek and we knew it…and told the tour booking company so. Although we walk everyday, very little is strenuous, and only on the occasional hikes do we get any cardio. What if my knees totally blow out when we are a minimum 2-day hike to any road?
checking out a map before leaving Tadapani
The guides woke us up at daybreak and served us our usual hot tea at the door, plus a bowl of warm water to wash up with, which is divine when it is this cold. When they first knocked on the door I was dreading getting up until I heard Drew’s voice say “WOW!!!” The sun was a big, orange ball just coming up over the hill and lit up the beautiful Annapurna South peak in all it’s snow-covered glory. The highest mountain we’ve ever seen in our life at an impressive 26,795ft. No one has ever successfully summited it and most have given up trying. We set off out of the cute village of Tadipani and found ourselves in a Rhododendrum forest (yes, Rhododendrum TREES!) which are in full bloom with their big, red flowers. The trees lay amidst lichen-covered boulders. We eventually came out onto a huge valley and sidled along it, climbing all the while. I saw tons of ladybugs…every 10 or so minutes. When we took a break, 3 of them crawled onto my daypack to say hello. I saw them all day everywhere and they kept me going. We listened to our guide’s story of how he was a sherpa for an Everest expedition and made it almost all the way up before having to turn back when his Japanese client got severe altitude sickness.
along the trail to Dobato
Our porter’s loads still look ridiculously huge, and their baskets seem over-flowing. They keep to themselves..always sitting apart on the rare times when they meet up with us on the trail. They NEVER eat with us. I’ve given up trying to change the ways of such things…some things are just as they are. But they are quick to smile, especially when Drew is rough-housing and such. Drew never seems to run out of energy and just plows along. Laxman and he are buddies and they make up games to play along the trail. Becca (the guides call her “Backa”) has felt guilty ever since the Pokhara Holy Festival for all the plastic she threw into the environment in the form of water balloons…so she decided to make up for it by collecting plastic along the trail. My budding environmentalist. She also makes constant “field notes” regarding animals she sees and then later will research them on Google to find out all the statistics of each animal and will write that down too. She tells us she wants to be a field biologist when she grows up and I have to smile…because she doesn’t seem to realize that she already is one.
our version of the Hillary Step below the summit of Everest, just not quite as high
As the day wore on my steps became impossible small, barely moving at all at the end. My family moved on ahead but one guide stayed right with me. At least the porters never passed me, which would be quite humiliating considering my pack only weighs about 15 pounds. But although I often feel disgusted with my ability, I alternatively am amazed at myself. I’ve never hiked close to this altitude before. I’m in the Himalayas!!! I climbed 2500 feet today alone! And when I felt I couldn’t take another step…somehow I always did. Now we are sitting cozily in the lodge in the middle of no-where with a small wood-stove fire burning, writing by candle-light, about to be served dinner. Our tents are set up and waiting. This is the highest we’ll go on this trek for which I’m grateful. I’m quite high enough.
DAY 4: DOBATO TO SWANTA DURATION: 4-1/2 HOURS ELEVATION CHANGE: 11,312 FT TO 7400 FT
Dhaulagiri 8,167m (26,795ft) the world’s 7th highest mountain as seen from our tent in Dobato
Last night when we got into the village, it was so hazy from wild fires and low cloud cover that we couldn’t see Dhaulagiri peak that we’d hiked so far to see, with all it’s accompanying ranges. I have to admit I was disappointed. But this morning when I stuck my frozen head out of the tent and into the 30 degree morning air…there it was…the 7th highest mountain in the world at 8163 meters. People do climb this one. We ate our typical breakfast and our milk tead and took off. The old Nepalese man who owned the lodge we camped by hiked with us for awhile. Through our guide translating, I asked if he’d ever seen a snow leopard and he said he’d seen tracks in the snow many times. Today was our first DOWNHILL and we were loving it- especially the kids. The landscape changed from Rhododendrum forest to evergreen…and then finally oaks. We were descending incredibly fast. We stopped at a small house in a clearing and the old Nepalese man picked up a package…a hollowed out tree trunk to carry! Apparently it was a beehive he was taking somewhere. Tim tried to lift it, which was being carried the traditional way with the strap across the forehead…but could barely budge it. This man is probably in his 70’s. At one point he stopped to pick a Rhododendrum flower and handed it to Drew, who said “Thank you” in Nepalese (which got him a big smile from the man as well as me.) Eventually we came out of the mossy forest into a huge valley which we traversed…still going down, down, down. And that’s when my knees pretty much gave out. I have a knee brace on my left knee and try to baby it with the help of my ski pole. So of course it was my right knee that started hurting. The pain increased and then both were hurting. Tim had hyper extended his knee a bit yesterday, so at the end we were both hobbling along like (American) 80-year olds..using our walking sticks like canes. I seriously thought I might not make it..but what choice did I have? And even if I did make it…how was I to ascend 6 hours tomorrow?!! I felt myself getting emotional but tried to stay focused on the task..no time to lose it.
In the end I we did make it. I literally just laid down right on the bench of the lodge and did not move for an hour. Tim checked his GPS and informed us we had descended 4000 feet that day…in 4-1/2 hours. On the up side, this valley is like Switzerland…the hills are terraced for farming and little villages dot the steep, multi-colored hillsides. Unfortunately the visibility is still very poor…except for very early in the morning. The ibuprofen seems to be working (I’d kill for an ice pack) and Tim asked the guide to let me sleep in a real bed tonight instead of the tent (my Prince Charming.) AND, I found out that we hiked farther than planned today so the we only have a 4-hour hike uphill tomorrow (not 6.) I’m relieved it won’t be downhill again as that seems to be worse on my knees…but what I’d give for a little good-ole Kansas FLAT LAND RIGHT NOW!!! Nepal knows no moderation. Becca and Drew are outside “dueling” with bamboo poles, having a blast. Where DO they get their energy? And I was worried about THEM being able to do this trek?!
Laxman works on Drew’s knee // Kristin wraps hers, Tim’s was getting better by this point and Becca’s did not start hurting until the last day
finally, Swanta comes into view
Laxman and the Teahouse owners in Swanta
DAY 5: SWANTA TO GHORIPANI DURATION: 4-1/2 HOURS ELEVATION: 7300 FT TO 6900 FT…THEN BACK UP TO 9550 FT.
Kristin gets ready for the day’s hike before leaving Swanta
Last night I decided to splurge on an exorbitantly priced cold beer, only to discover it was lukewarm. It’s freezing cold outside, but they store the drinks in the kitchen…the only room with any kind of heat source (the stove.) But you can’t blame the high prices- someone had to carry that in on their backs afterall…or their donkey’s backs. By nightfall my sniffles had turned into a full-on head cold. “Geez…what next?” I asked. I found out soon enough…as I crawled into bed I glanced to the wall and glimpsed the biggest, hairy spider I’ve ever seen in my life. I had to get back up, go downstairs and ask a porter to kill it for me…it was just too big and hairy, with about a 5″ leg span. Even the porter seemed impressed with it’s size. He killed it with his flip-flop and carried it out in his hands. Now it’s morning, my knees are still aching, and we’re about to climb up the hill to Ghoripani. I’m afraid to ask anyone how many feet we climb today. But hey, like Tim said, “Did we expect a trek in Nepal was going to be easy?”
If I didn’t know better, I’d say the Nepalese or mountain gods are trying to dampen my spirits..almost like their saying “Let’s give here freezing temperatures the night she sleeps in a tent, make crappy visibility all-around, then we’ll blow out her knees, fill her head with snot, offer up warm beer…..oh, oh..yes! And then we’ll top if all off with a giant, hairy spider in her bedroom!!” All I have to say? Bring it on.
what goes down must go up?
Now we’re in Ghoripani…I made it, and all is fine. The hike was beautiful, and once we hiked down to the river and crossed the bridge it was all uphill which my knees do (relatively) fine with. We crossed many bubbling streams with almost tropical foliage (ferns) and passed through amazing tiny villages full of goats, milk cows and dirty little children peeking out at us. As we neared the town of Ghoripani we saw the first Western hikers we’d seen in days. We laughed alot today and were in good spirits. The guides served us hot Tang when we arrived (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!) We turned down the tent…all 4 of us this time, and opted for rooms in the teahouse. Tim and I even had a hot shower. Oh…and it’s snowing
along the way to Ghoripani
DAY 6: GHORIPANI TO HILE DURATION: 6-1/2 HOURS ELEVATION: 9500 FT TO 4950 FT
Drew and Tim at Poon Hill
Another bone-crunching descent day. I thought I’d never make it….really. Ghoripani where we stayed last night is where everyone goes to make the 5:00 a.m.-still-dark-hour-long hike up to “Poon Hill” for the sunrise…where on a clear day you can see a panoramic view of about 7 magnificent peaks of the Annapurna range. It’s a 1000′ climb, and I was already really worried about the hike that day- knowing it was all downhill. It killed me but I decided to skip it. Becca was more than happy to miss it with me, but Tim and Drew braved it and were rewarded with the clearest views that anyone had seen for weeks…probably due to the light snow we’d had the night before. I was so happy that they got to see it- and they video-taped it for me, knowing I would have wanted to see it too. I felt a little sad and regretful that morning…I have a hard time missing out on anything. ..especially once-in-a-lifetime experiences. The fact that I did so means I’m getting old (and wise, I suppose) which is only more depressing.
Drew and Laxman at Poon Hill with Annapurna I 8091m (26,545ft) far left; Annapurna South at center; Hiunchuli 6,441m (21,126ft), and Fishtail at far right
locals along the way Hile
back on the trail
sling shot practice
We saw Langur monkeys and eagles today..hiked along mountain springs with the clearest water you’ve ever seen. About 6 hours into the hike I came to very much respect my earlier “wise” decision. You know how toddlers walk down stairs? Side-step style? That was me…but with my ‘cane’. Pathetic I know..but hey- I MADE IT!! I may need knee surgery after this, but I hiked the Ghoripani loop without having to be air-lifted out!! Tomorrow is our last day of hiking and our guides assure us it’s relatively flat- so I’ll probably make it. As I sit here in the village of Hile drinking my semi-cold beer, my view is across a huge valley… halfway up both sides of the mountain are covered with terraced farmlands and tiny houses. A man just walked by with such a large load of bush branches that all you can see his legs…he looks like a walking bush. The sun is setting and the tea house where we’re staying is as darling as anything with vines growing up the side, colorful prayer flags flapping in the wind, corn husks hanging from the balcony…. a woman shoos the chickens away from the house into the coop…big pumpkins sit on top of the outhouse..whether to dry out in the sun or to keep the corrugated roof from blowing off I’m not sure. Signs like “seperet rooms” and “very peace setting” make me smile, and laundry is hanging up to dry everywhere. A boy practices archery below. Trekkers sit on the balcony sipping tea or a beer and swap traveling stories. Photos just never do this sort of ambience justice.
the night’s fresh poultry and other supplies arriving in Hile
the guys actually cooked us a congratulations cake the last night
DAY 7: HILE TO BIRETHANTI DURATION: 5 HOURS ELEVATION: 4950 FT TO 3400 FT
Knowing that this was the last day of our trek made us all take our time and cherish the views. Before we left the teahouse we recognized a German lady that had also been at our teahouse in Ghoripani the night before. She did the knee-crunching descent the day before too, in a little less time than us. She also had done the early Poon Hill hike that morning. She is 68 years old. We saw her again at the end of the day..she beat us to Birethanti as well. The day was relatively easy and fairly level. We saw series of large waterfalls which emptied into bright, green pools…one particular waterfall cascaded into 3 separate ones. At one point we got to cross the b ig river by jumping from one rock to the next. We passed the old Maoist checkpoints where the rebel Maoist used to demand large “donations” from trekkers. Now that the Maoists run the government, the checkpoints stand empty.
My knees held out but I was exhausted when we reached the minivan. I looked behind my some way into the ride back to Pokhara and every porter and guide was asleep. Except for Becca of course, who was reading. When we had inquired about an appropriate tip at the tour office, he had suggested a tip of 5 – 7% of the total tour amount. We tipped almost 10%, which the guide distributed evenly. They seemed content with it, but spread out among so many it really didn’t amount to much. The porters all shook our hands vigorously and waved goodbye..it was a little sad to see everyone go. We had bought our 2 guides little “Annapurna-Ghoripani” patches as well…and we exchanged emails and phone numbers so that we might hook up when we got back to Kathmandu. Now I’m clean and in our hotel room, our laundry has been sent out, and I’m relaxing on a warm, soft bed. Back to comfort and civilization. Oh…except the power’s out.