“Let’s go trekking in Nepal”. “Sure, sounds good” I said and then didn’t give it any further thought. So it was only on arrival in Kathmandu that reality set in when I realised that we were booked on a 18 day trek (16 days walking) round the Annapurna Circuit at altitude right at the end of the trekking season in December (i.e. winter) in the freezing cold. I’m used to lots of mental challenges and stressful situations but this was probably the hardest physical challenge I have ever done, especially considering my age, level of fitness (or lack thereof), my inherited legendary sense of (no) balance and my twice-operated on knee. Then there was my fear of getting altitude sickness to overcome as well. But, armed with my brand new walking boots (oh yes a true rookie here), we got through it, blister free too. Needless to say, Mountain Goat was absolutely fine. True there were some really hard bits and days when I thought Nepal would benefit from investment in flatter paths (as opposed to the seemingly constant ascents and descents) and I made many a self-promise to scrutinise more closely Husband’s plans/bookings for other parts of the trip.
For the first few days we followed the Marsyangdi River climbing each day between 400 and 800m. It was clearly winter in this river valley and the terraced fields were brown and barren. Often we were the only people staying in our tea houses which were very basic especially at the lower altitudes: they were often made of wood with ill fitting doors and windows with no attempt at insulation despite the negative temperatures. Typically though, we got blankets in addition to our sleeping bags so we did keep warm in bed. Some tea houses had stoves to heat the communal dining room, but as we went above the treeline, firewood became scarcer and sometimes the yak dung (alternative fuel) just didn’t give off that much heat. The unheated and uninsulated bedrooms uniformly opened onto the outside of the buildings which just added an extra chill, most problematic when answering the call of nature in the middle of the night when we didn’t have an “attached” (ensuite) room. In the highest point where we stayed (Thorung Phedi at 4450m), the water in the toilets froze!
View from tea house, Yak Kharka, 4050m
However, although it was winter, apart from the last couple of days (and the day crossing the pass: see “The Big One: Over the Top” below) during the day, the sun shone brightly and we were able to walk in T shirts or just one fleece. The slight negative was that usually by 3pm, the sun dropped sharply behind the mountains and the temperature would then plummet pretty quickly (often to at least minus 10 at night). One big positive though: no mosquitoes or leaches: way too cold for those little nasties!! Although we saw that it was snowing on the route ahead of us, we were lucky and never had to walk in snow or rain. Underfoot was a different matter and in various parts, we had to navigate some pretty icy patches.
Generally we started walking around 8am (bit too cold to start any earlier) and would walk between 5 and 6 hours each day, sometimes longer. Although the distances we covered weren’t always that significant, as you went further up, you could feel the air getting thinner and sometimes it was harder to catch your breath. We would then “chill out” (literally) at our destination tea house as part of acclimatisation to the altitude.
The Nepalese consider that any peak under 6000m is just a hill: worth perhaps remembering that Ben Nevis is only 1300m. Fair to say we were looking at some big monsters: if the altitude and/or the climbing hadn’t already robbed me of all my breath, the scenery would have done.
On the way up to the Thorung La pass, we particularly liked Menang at 3500m where we spent a couple of nights acclimatising to the altitude. The “town” was a bit like a Wild West Frontier town but had a certain charm although we didn’t avail ourselves of the make shift “cinemas” as we were out of season: we were however able to spot a general theme to the film choices.