Annapurna Circuit and Base Camp Part 1
28.04.2010 - 22.05.2010
It is 8:30 in the morning and my heart is racing as I fight for oxygen. I have been hiking straight up for three and a half hours and I am now standing on the Thorung La at 17,769 feet. This, the pinnacle of our 24 day trek, is a mountain pass close to the Tibetan border inside the Annapurna Conservation Area of Nepal. We have been on the trail for 11 days and have reached the main objective of our trip but only one of the many highlights.
Standing in front of hundreds of Prayer flags on the Thorung La
We set out for the Annapurna Himal directly after completing our time at the Orphan Home. This is an incredible cluster of mountains on the Nepal/Tibet border and includes some of the worlds highest peaks. The 34 mile long massif includes Annapurna 1, the worlds 10th highest peak at roughly 26,540 feet as well a eight other peaks over 23,000 feet. On its eastern side is the wide and deep Kali Gandaki River valley that originates near the Tibetan border in the forbidden kingdom of Mustang. The great river gorge also separates the Annapurna’s from the Dhaulagiri Massif who’s namesake is the 6th highest mountain in the world and provided great views for a good portion of our trip. We set out for what turned out to be a 24 day hike covering 180 miles and cumulatively climbing over 33,000 feet. We visited the frozen Tilicho Tal(lake) That proudly claims to be the highest lake in the world at 16,138 feet (it is not, neither is lake Titicaca). Our journey would bring us through vastly differing terrain from a some what tropical start in Besi Sahar at 2,500 feet through lush forests and up to the wind blown Thorung La (pass) at 17,769 feet. We saw differing cultures and different villages along the way that were as interesting as the rugged country we were traveling through.
Our first few days climbed consistently up a great river valley from the low lying Besi Sahar were one could spot banana trees growing in a some what tropical landscape up through pine and fir forests and into an alpine environment were very little grew. Villages were spread out every few miles along what was once an old Tibetan trade route to Kathmandu. On our 2nd night we stayed in a “tea house” more resembling a guest house or mountain chalet in the village of Jagat. This once served as a toll station; set atop a gorge in a narrow section of the valley provided strategic location.
As the trail climbed the valley we crossed the river many times on numerous impressive foot bridges sometimes spanning incredible distances high above the raging river below.
The further up we climbed the more impressive the scenery became and the Tibetan Buddhist influence in the villages increased. A long line of prayer wheals usually were placed on the outskirts of town as well as in the center of most villages. The many trekkers and travelers kept there mantras in constant rotation as they moved up and down the trail. We also saw thousands of Mani wall’s. These were collections of stone tablets with mantras painstakingly carved into them in the beautifully intricate Tibetan script. At points along the way the worlds highest peaks looming in the background took second stage to the fascinating villages we were passing through.
Stone Chorten marking the entrance to one of the many Tibetan influenced villages
Mani Wall - Most tablets were not colored and had a lot more writing in smaller text. We literally saw 10’s of thousands of these tablets
Stone houses of Ghyaru below Annapurna 2
Staying in teahouses provided a much different experience than tent camping. We could always count on a bed and a warm meal at the end of our day. It also provided a great social scene and we spent our time most evenings sharing stories with other travelers from all over the world. We made some good friends and intentionally stayed in the same villages and guesthouses along the way. As we were out for a longer trek than most people we got to know a few different people along the way on different sections of our route.
East side trekking crew in Manang - The largest village on the east side
We opted to add on a few side routes of the main trail and these were some of the most rewarding segments of our trip. The first was a high route above the river on east side of the valley. This opened up amazing views and brought us into less visited villages. Ghyaru was an amazing place to spend a night in an old tea house. Haze in the lower valleys and overcast and rainy sky’s kept the high peaks out of view for a few days. When the clouds started to break up in the late afternoon we could not believe the size of the mountains before us. Reading our topo map I determined that the elevation change between the valley floor below us and massive Annapurna 2 before us was almost 16,000 feet! We woke up the next morning to a crystal clear day and hiked the entire length of the upper trail with outstanding views. I was embarrassed when I figured out that I took over 200 pictures that day.
Clouds lifting. You can spot the top of Annapurna 2 starting to show were the clouds meet the blue sky.
Good Morning! I was up at 5:00 AM to catch sunrise.
Annapurna 2 and 4 from Ghyaru
Another rewarding side trip was to Tilicho Base camp and lake. We later learned it was not the worlds highest lake but it was still a great destination. We broke off the main trail and made the trip in two long and tiring days. Following the river valley up to the lake was incredible. We came across a 1,000 year old Gompa (Tibetan Buddhist monastery) that was far removed from the main trading route. The scenery was stunning and vastly different than anywhere else on the trip. We had to cross massive scree fields that were dotted with towering chunks of rock that created an almost lunar landscape. We were approaching 14,000 feet and after the long day we were both exhausted and feeling the affects of the altitude. We were both relived when we came across a turn in the valley after and endless traverse across the lifeless rocky terrain and saw the Tilicho lake Base camp in a meadow below us. The next day we were up and on the trail by 6:00 AM. It was a big climb up to a viewpoint over the lake. On the outset the weather did not look promising. Luckily we rose above the clouds and had amazing views of big alpine terrain. What we first thought was the sound of a jet plane was actually the first of many avalanches we witnessed tearing down the near vertical wall of mountains on the west side of the lake.
Thare Gompa and the river valley heading up to Tilicho Tal
The Trail became steep in sections…
We stopped at a few nice viewpoints along the way
Meghan waits for a Yak to get out of the trail
Navigating the scree fields. Notice the trail cutting across the rock face in the background!
Tilicho base camp coming into view in the lower right
Getting close to the view point
Frozen Titlicho Tal - The info board cleverly misleads the reader to think it is the worlds highest.
We had to retrace most of our steps back to the main trail except for the very end. We caught a seldom used trail that cut north and brought us further up the valley then from were we departed. We spent two short days leading up to our big push over the pass. This section the days got shorter as you did not want to go up in elevation to much and the stops were at purpose built trekkers lodges that catered specifically to our needs. Before we knew it we were up at 4:00 AM in a cloudless dawn and ready to make the big push over the pass. We would have to climb 3,100 feet and then descend 5,500 feet before reaching the village of Muktinath, the next available lodging on our route. The beginning of the climb was nothing but punishment. The trail was all rock and went straight up. Meghan suffered at this point and struggled with the altitude. After a good break and a lot of water we continued and felt fine for the rest of the day. We were soon on snow again and the grade lessened. Before we knew it we arrived at the pass. It was so cold and windy that we did not elect to hang out for to long before starting the long painful decent to Muktinath.
Mmmmm…. Yak Burger
Pre Dawn light on the mountains from Throrung Phedi
Working our way up above the snow line
View from the pass
Prayer Flags at 17,776 Feet!
To be continued…