We summited the Annapurna Circuit trek at Thorung La Pass (5,416m, 17,769 ft)… To give some perspective, Mount Everest Base Camp (EBC) summit is 5,380m (17,600 ft), and Mount Everest peak is 8,848 m (29,028 ft)!
It’s hard to believe I’m already 2 weeks into this trip. It feels like it was just yesterday that Kip and I were flying to Nepal to begin our trek in the Himalayas.
I guess that’s where the last 2 weeks were spent… we did the Annapurna Circuit trek in 10 days, beginning in Kathmandu (the capital) and ending in Pokhara.
I strategically arranged to do my trek at the beginning of October, since October is features the warmest weather and clearest skies. This makes it the peak trekking season. Oct falls right after monsoon season and right before the snowy winter.
And thank the lord the trek was at the beginning of my trip… I needed all the strength I could get for this trek, and I’m currently in the best physical shape I’ll be during this entire trip.
Of course summiting was exhilirating, but what I really loved was the changes in scenery, the constant snow-capped mountain views, and the primitive villages we passed through.
The first 3 days we were made our way through lush green jungle with terrace farms, alongside the glacier-blue color Marshyangdi river. On days 4 to 6, we transitioned to landscapes of scrubby forests and fir trees. On days 7 & 8, as we reached the highest altitudes of the trek, the scenery became barren, featuring desert-like mountains. On day 9, the terrain was pure rock everywhere (I was shocked they were able to plant things there!).
It’s surreal to be right beside massive mountain ranges covered in white snow when it’s 75 degrees where you’re walking. It’s humbling to stroll on the narrow trails in the vastness of the mountains surrounding you. Connecting with nature day after day was a blessing.
The trails took us through ancient paths used as trade routes between Nepal and Tibet. Along the route, we passed through mountain villages of Tibetan ancestry that have existed for thousands of years. Similar to Tibetan culture, Buddhism remains integral to the primitive lifestyle in the mountain villages, as evidenced by the countless stupas and spinning mani wheels (‘prayer wheels’). PHOTO
Witnessing and learning about the recent developments occurring in these mountain villages was intriguing… 20 years ago, the villages were only comprised of stone homes. Trekkers would camp out nearby the villages and cook their own food (or get invited into village homes if welcomed in!). During these years, there was no road access to the villages. Anything the villagers didn’t produce themselves needed to be carried in from nearby cities (which could days of walking!). Think: basic foods, like wheat and honey, but also larger items like plumbing materials for construction. Mind you, only minimal home construction was being done at those times (i.e., showers were still being taken in the river or filling buckets of water from the drain).
6 years ago, the government began creating roads to provide access these remote villages. This has allowed for significant development, including construction of newer tea houses (‘guest houses’) for trekkers, increased electricity, and the ability to buy a wider variety of foods and urban products to offer for sale to trekkers.
Now for the summitting… The day we summited Thorung La Pass (5,416m) was by far the most challenging day. It required new levels of persistence, dedication, and patience.
Tip: “Slow and steady” is the key to trekking at high altitudes, where there is less pressure pushing oxygen into our lungs. Coming from a generally fast-paced walker and hiker, this was a difficult lesson to learn. I forced myself to walk at the same pace as our guide, which resulted in more effortless breathing and less fatigue in the muscles. By walking slowly you take much shorter breaks (30 sec – 5 min breaks), whereas walking faster will require longer breaks (10 – 30 min breaks).
After 7 days of trekking to higher altitudes, suffering from constipation for 6 days, and fighting off a cold for 5 days (seriously suffering), the day we trekked over the pass was a rough, demanding day… we woke up freezing cold at 3:45am to get bundled up in 4 layers of clothes, gloves, a toque, and a headlamp. At 4:45am, we began the steep ascend from base camp (4,400m) to high camp (4,850m) in pure darkness beneath billions of glaring stars and the Milky Way. I kept taking breaks to turn off my headlamp to look up at the stars, and our porter would tell me to keep on moving! By 5:15am, the sun began to creep up on the snow-capped mountain, forming a beautiful purple colored skyline over the mountains. We made it to high camp (4,850m) at 5:45am, and my stomach was feeling quite uncomfy. High camp had the dirtiest squatter toilets I’ve seen since my time in Nepal 🤢💩, but the views of the sunrise made it all better! 🌞
We still had another 3 arduous hours of ascending to reach the pass. At 5,100m, a slight headache began throbbing… the first sign of altitude sickness. Cue internal panic! As I continued to ascend, the headache intensified, so I took some ibuprofen which provided little relief. At 5,200m, with only 30 mins till the summit, I became severely fatigued and was wheezing. Give me air!! Step-by-step at turtle pace, we finally made it to the summit! There were tons of trekkers taking photos with the ‘5,416m’ sign, so we went into the tea house to scarf down our chocolate rolls and for Starbucks-priced lemon-ginger-honey teas. By the time we came out, all the 5am trekkers were gone and we had the sign all to ourselves. Photo-op!
The day didn’t end there, from the summit we had to trek down over 1,600m to Muktinath, which proved to be difficult. It was steep downhill the whole way… 4 hours of it! I almost didn’t make it to Muktinath… I nearly broke out into a fever from exhaustion when we neared. Finally, we got a room with an attached American toilet and hot shower! At 7pm, I easily passed out for 11 hours 😌
About the weather though…
Each day we hiked up in elevation (from 1700m to 5416m), the weather grew increasingly colder. Basically, I was uber cold most of the trek. I was the guy wearing my coat and scarf mid-day during the trek, whereas everyone else was in shorts and t-shirt. It’s the gusts of cold wind that got me. I don’t know how those Europeans do it with such minimal clothes. I thought that living in Montreal for 10 years would have helped me cope with the cold, but clearly 2 years in LA undid all of those Montréal winters.
Despite my constant shivering, our guide said we were extremely fortunate with the weather during our trek! Clear skies and sun for days. On the day we trekked over the pass (the summit of 5416m), a surprise violent storm killed 9 climbers on nearby Mount Gurja. We heard this unfortunate news after successfully making it across the Pass. I felt blessed that all those who crossed the Pass with us on that day made it across safely.
A note to those considering to trek in the month of October: in Oct 2014, an unexpected storm took the lives of 20 trekker. Be sure to keep track of the weather even in peak season! Apps, such as YR, or the tea house owners are good resources to help track the weather.
I find myself asking whether I would do a trek like this again.
Hiking above 5,400m in the wonders of the Himalayan mountains was definitely a feat. The trekking was beautiful and challenging, but achievable. The kicker was the high altitude. All the high altitude contributed was 1) difficulty in breathing, and 2) dropping temperatures. I could happily go without both of those. To top it all off, the views from 3,800m and below were as beautiful as the views from above 3,800m. I will say that one benefit of higher altitude is the non-existence of bugs!
My answer: I look forward to doing a similar trek at a lower altitude.
If you’re wondering whether we hired a guide or porter to complete the 10day trek… Yes, we hired both a Nepalese guide (Shiva) and a Nepalese porter (Dhak, pronounced “Deekae”).
To get a guide or not to get a guide?
Although the path is well-marked and it’s possible to do the trek on your own, we veered on the safe side (I.e., in case of altitude sickness,unexpected weather) and went with an experienced guide.
A huge benefit of having the guide during peak season is the guide will ensure you have a room secured in the tea houses each night (and a room with an attached bathroom!). The guide either calls to reserve, or sends the porter ahead to reserve the room. In doing so, we could take our sweet time walking to our village destination… and we could leave a little later than the rest of the trekking pack 🙂
Plus, after a long day, having someone take care of ordering your meals, collecting your bills, serving your food on time, etc. is absolutely amazeballs.
The porter was a no-brainer— $20 per day for a porter to carry your belongings and sleeping bags, yes please! It’s hard to imagine carrying 15kg on my back for that trek. Kudos to all those who did it!
I have a new respect for trekkers and mountain climbers, particularly those who are camping.
Shiva is an easy-going, light-hearted, and caring 32-y.o. man. He was born and raised in a village nearby Pokhara where he grew up with 5 brothers (no sisters)!
Dhake may be one of the sweetest 40-y.o. men I’ve had the privilege to come across in my life. He was constantly taking close watch of Kip and I, making sure our every need were met. He would even stand outside our showers to make sure we were getting hot water and all was okay.
Request: If you choose to hire a guide/ porter, hire them through a local Nepalese company. This way, you’ll be supporting the local economy and helping the Nepalese guide/ porter to support their families.
Top 4 things that saved me on this trek (other than all the warm clothing):
1. Buff with UV- Protects you from constantly inhaling Nepali powder (I.e., dirt and dust).
2. Polarized sunglasses with UV- UV rays are much stronger at higher elevations, so it’s important to protect your sensitive eyes against UV. Plus, glasses are key to protect against Nepali powder.
3. Altitude sickness prevention: Oral hydration salts, water purification tablets, ibuprofen… and for those interested, diamox (acetazolamide). These all help in preventing altitude sickness. See my post on altitude sickness for more details! LINK TO ALTITUDE SICKNESS POST
4. Lip and face moisturizer- The higher the altitude, the dryer your skin gets, especially when you have cold winds blowing on your face (wind burn!). Apply lip moisturizer throughout the day, and face moisturizer in the evening!
Kip left back to America today, which triggered an emotional waterfall. We spent 24/7 together for the first 2 weeks of the trip. Although I love traveling solo, big changes cause emotional shifts within me. Feelings of uncertainty and emptiness consumed me. I know it’ll pass… just gotta ride it through.
It’s currently one of Nepal’s most celebrated festivals, Dashain, which lasts for over a week. The biggest day of the festival is two days from now (Oct 19). Thousands of mountain goats are sacrificed across Nepal and feasted in Nepalese homes, along with other celebrations yet to be discovered. I wanted in!
Low and behold, as I strolled from Kip’s taxi stand to my new hostel, I walked past a home with blood spilled across the front door step and a goat head lying on the ground…. A goat had just been sacrificed. The family invited me in and smeared a tika mark (a red paste made from a mixture of vermillion red powder, rice, and yogurt) on my forehead. To prepare the goat for dinner, the rest of the goat’s body was being detailing the goat under hot water.
I thanked the family for welcoming me, and continued on to my hostel, where a sign said: “Sorry, due to Dashain festival, we will be away from Wednesday to Saturday in my family’s home village.” Great…. there was a young Nepal,else woman sitting at the reception, who didn’t speak any English. eventually she called the owner, who kindly informed me that he was on his way to his village for the holiday, and invited me to join them the next morning! Wonderful!
A few of the hostel guests already left with him earlier that day.
Can’t wait to join for the festivities! I’ll be up in the village until Saturday, so speak when I’m back.
I’m staying at Aroma Hostel. It’s the owners of that hostel taking me to the village. mom, I forwarded you the confirmation so you have contact info.
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