After hanging out in Kathmandu for a few days, Whitney and I spent 20 long days trekking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal from Bhulbhule to Nayapul and learned so much more than we ever expected. We had only heard a few snippets from our good friends who had begun the same trek just a couple years ago, but were forced to turn around due to a horrendous snowstorm and a tragic avalanche. Captivated by the thoughts of welcoming Nepal’s beautiful scenery with my own eyes and intrigued by the ever-present dangers, I impulsively sought out the opportunity to complete the entire circuit.
Wait, so what is the Annapurna Circuit you may ask? It is basically a 160-230 kilometer trail (depending on where you start and end) that circles around the Annapurna Mountain Range in Northern Nepal. The trail passes through many villages beginning at an altitude of about 1000 meters to a maximum height of 5416 meters at Thorang-La Pass.
I had researched a bit here and there, but never in depth. I didn’t really have a go to website unless you count the google searches and skimming numerous blogs where I really only focused on costs. Now having made the journey, in one piece I’ll add, there are a number of questions I wish I had asked before I strapped on my backpack, laced up my boots, and took my first step off the bus and onto the trail.
#1) What was it like?
This is the first question everyone asks and is always hard to answer because it was such a long journey and it became a huge accomplishment for us. Over 20 days of trekking we were pushed to some of the expected physical extremes. However, those extremes paled in comparison to some of the mentally exhausting stretches in our journey. What began as a warm and tropical hike later progressed to a cold dark climb to the top of Thorang-La Pass (5,416 meters or 17,769 feet), which was only the half-way point of the trek.
To paint a picture, we stepped off the bus in the small village of Bhulbhule at about 4:30pm with our amazing guide and porter then set off for the next village of Ngadi about an hour away. In this first hour we passed through a narrow walkway between homes in the tiny village, crossed the first of many suspension bridges, and then settled into our guest house. We finished what would become our daily serving of Dal-Baht as evening turned to night and headed to our room. Once in bed and trying our best to control our racing minds, we laid beneath the mosquito nets that were shaking as mice ran across the tarp that formed our ceiling. Knowing that would be a “make it or break it moment,” I squashed the fears of any animals creeping in to disturb us through the four inch gap under the door, tossed my bag of snacks onto the top of a chair supposedly out of reach of the mice, and ignored the wide eyes of fear Whitney was shooting in my direction. Clearly, the real journey had begun.
Yes, I’m sure that sounds terrible, but the beauty of the next morning’s hike was stunning and easily kept us moving (FYI, we didn’t encounter any mice after that first village). From there it was uphill through the green tropical forests surrounding fields of rice and other grains. We would hike along the trail as it crisscrossed with a dirt roadway that is gradually being extended around the circuit. (It seems this road will likely pass all the way around the circuit in years to come.) Following the river, we would hike about 4-6 hours a day at a fairly speedy pace arriving to our chosen village by mid-afternoon at the latest. Each day the scenery changed; tropical forests with banana and fruit trees slowly faded behind us as the snowcapped peaks began to fill the horizons. Then, as the peaks came closer, so did the bitter cold Himalayan air.
The first really cold night was in the village of Chame. Arriving around lunchtime on Day 4, our guide set us up with one of the rooms on the top floor where we could look out over the terrace. Shivering during the night, we blamed the frigid temperatures on the very limited amount of sunshine that would shine into the narrow valley each day, but it seems we were mistaken. The next day we climbed the trail to Upper Pisang again with incredible views of the Annapurna region. As we neared the village, the views of Annapurna 2nd and 3rd were spanning the horizon, with Annapurna 4th peeking through the other mountains. With bright eyes we would look out into the valley and beyond the snowcapped peaks forgetting the bone chilling temperatures that were to come each night for most of the rest of the trek.
Once we accepted that the actual hiking was going to be easy, but the incredibly cold nights were not, we settled in for the long haul. Each day I would be dressed in layer after layer of clothes, I even bought a thick yak wool hat to top it off, and set off on the trail with our team. As soon as the sun would shine onto the trail the temperature would climb and the layers would come off. This was a daily routine that would reverse once we settled into our guest house each night and bundled up.
Still the scenery made every step worth it. Filling our photo albums with hundreds and hundreds of pictures through each day, we could look out at almost any moment to see the picturesque landscape of the region. Then the enormous feeling of accomplishment when we were the first to reach the top of Thorang-La Pass can hardly be described. This half-way point of our trip meant warmer temperatures were coming, but it was going to take quite a while to get to lower elevations. We had a few “melt-downs” over the next few days, but we pushed through to the end as planned.
The icing on the cake was our last few days when we climbed to Ghorepani to see sunset from the top of Poon Hill. Hiking the Annapurna Circuit in the suggested counterclockwise direction meant we would reach the top of Poon Hill just before finishing the trek. We could stand at the top of the peak amongst the groups of trekkers that simply made it to this point and circled back in only a few days trek. We had set off on the ultimate trek over the course of three weeks, visiting numerous villages, spending nineteen nights in an array of guest houses, and completing a 200km trek. If anyone has the time and the courage for this type of adventure, then this is without a doubt the one to do!!
#2) How did you train for this?
We didn’t specifically train for this trek, but our travels leading up to that point gave us quite an edge. First, we had been walking cities across Europe nearly every day for 3 months with our rest days simply being travel days. We would regularly spend at least 8 hours or so on our feet wandering through historic parts of the world. Similarly, we took a variety of opportunities to hike such as in Interlaken, Switzerland and Cinque Terre, Italy. Then, we toured Tibet just before setting off on this trek. We even slept at the 5200meter high Everest Base Camp which successfully got us acclimated to the high altitude. We think that anyone in relatively good shape could do this trek and take it slow when needed to rest.
#3) How did you know where to go?
The trail is very well marked throughout the circuit. I think it would be impossible to get lost unless snow is covering the trail. We were lucky enough to have clear skies the entire time so no snow to hide the trail. Either way, we had a guide that made everything that much easier.
#4) When is the best time to trek?
We trekked October 19th to November 7th and found it to be the perfect time. Most things that I have read and most people we have talked to suggest October to December for this region. Before that and even into early October it can be rainy in parts, then as you get into December it starts to get too cold. There is also a couple months in the springtime that are good as well, but I’m not certain maybe March-April or April-May.
#5) Do I really need a guide?
I do recommend a guide for the following reasons. First, if anything happens such as injury, weather change, sickness, etc., you have someone local that can help take care of everything to get where you need to be. When I successfully sprained my ankle during the first hour of our 5 hour downhill hike from the top of Thorang-La Pass, Deepak carried my backpack and led us slowly downhill. (He was ready to hire a horse to carry me down, but luckily I could carry on). Secondly, a guide will be able to lead you on the trails that offer the best views and adventure. Deepak kindly took us on an “adventure,” which was basically up a cliff to save almost an hour of weaving along the road. It was a little scary, but super fun. Next, he would lead us to the guest houses that he has already scouted out, negotiate whatever you needed, arrange meals, bring us the food as it was ready, and bridge the communication gap through translation for anything that we wanted. Finally, we made a new friend on the trail that we could enjoy the adventure with, laugh and joke with, and play cards with. It made each day easier, and each evening better. Sure, anyone can do this trek without a guide as it is clearly marked then sort out the room and meals all on your own. However, even if we were to do the exact same trek and itinerary again, we would still chose to have a guide.
#6) Do I need a porter?
I can’t imagine having to carry more than a daypack on the trail for 200km. There was plenty of people lugging their own huge backpacks along the way and their faces proved that we made the right choice to ask Nani to carry our large bag. It was worth every penny to have someone carry the heavy load, but the experience of having another person on the team was invaluable. Just as I said before, we made another good friend to share the adventure with, laugh and joke with, and of course play cards with.
#7) What did you wear?
As I’ve described, the trail goes from hot humid to ice cold and back. It’s very difficult to pack small with this variety, but somehow it has to be done. For most of the trek I wore my trekking pants with a T-shirt. Some people hike in shorts in warmer parts, but I kept on long pants because of the super dusty trails. After reaching the village of Braga I put on a base layer under my pants and added a jacket and/or coat as needed during the days. At night though, I sometimes had every layer I owned on which included a T-shirt, 2 long-sleeve T-shirts, a Fleece jacket, and coat on top, then my same base layer and trekking pants on bottom. I was still a little cold at times, but not unbearable. Then a very good wool cap and some basic gloves are a necessity. I chose to trek in tall hiking boots. I was afraid of getting caught in any snow and also wanted the high boots to give some ankle support due to a personal weakness. Turns out the snow was not a problem, but I’m glad I had the ankle support.
#8) What else did you bring?
Aside from the clothes and the usual things you bring on a trip, (camera, chargers, sunscreen, hat etc.) first I say bring a sleeping bag. Most of the guest houses have blankets, but being able to cocoon in a sleeping bag made the nights much more comfortable. Then we would put the blankets over our sleeping bags to add more protection. Next, a water filter or other water purification method is required. There is running water, but it is coming directly from the mountain streams unfiltered. Something I went back and forth on was whether or not I actually needed trekking poles. You know those stupid ski poles for hiking. Anyway, we did bring a set and we are glad we did for the unsteady downhill portions as well as when I needed a little assistance after spraining my ankle coming through down from Thorang-La Pass. Lastly, a head lamp is needed for the routine power outages occurring every day at unscheduled times especially in the evening when you are trying to get acquainted in the new guesthouse or making your way to the restroom. It is also needed for the early morning hike to the pass well before sunrise.
This first series of questions can get you to the starting point, but what was it REALLY like on the trek…Follow along in Part 2