Why you should hike the Annapurna Circuit now!

Sometimes I get an idea in my head and it sticks. Hiking the Annapurna circuit in the Mustang region of Nepal was one of these ideas. I’d read dozens of reviews listing the 12 day trek as one of the most spectacular in the world. I should believe them, and jump at the opportunity to do, however I couldn’t.

Over the years I’ve been back to Himalayas so many times, first to do Gokyo lake, Chula Pass, and onto Everest Base Camp over a period of two months where I ate nothing but noodles and boiled potatoes. Then 10 years later when I did Everest Base Camp again, this time from Lukla and finishing with a summit of Island Peak. Annapurna would be more of the same, wouldn’t it? I wanted to try somewhere else. See something different.

Oh man was I wrong!

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I hadn’t done any high altitude treks for a few years having focused more on routes in southern South America and Europe. On a whim, I booked a trip to hike the circuit form Bandipur to Jomson. Before I knew it, I was walking the bustling streets of the Thamel district in Kathmandu. Everything felt so familiar despite it being more than 5 years since I was last here. That buzz of trekkers hunting for their last piece of gear, the savory smell of street food, and the plates of Dahl Bhat is like music to my soul.

My last trip was hiking the Camino de Santiago where I walked most of the 800km solo. This time I decided to trek with a group. In addition to the company, hiking with a group means I didn’t have to study the route, plot distances, and think about where I was going to stay. I was here just to enjoy the walk.

Day 1 started with a long bus ride and overnight stay in Bandipur. Bandipur, nestled amongst the hills felt like the rural towns of India with its long central road flanked by colonial buildings. Despite being the beginning of the trekking season, the town was empty. I woke up early and climbed to the Hindu temple atop a nearby hill to watched the sun rise.
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Day 2 started with another drive to Besisahar where we officially started the trek. The weather was hot, and grew stifling throughout the day. The scenery quickly changed from rolling hills to lush jungle. If I closed my eyes and opened them again I’d swear I was in Uganda. Sweat dripped from my brow. I hiked on until we stopped for the night on the slopes of a rich valley. This truly didn’t feel like the Himalayas at all.

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We departed the teahouse at 8am on day 3 after a night of playing cards and settling into the routine of hiking. Today’s destination was Chamje at 1430m above sea level. The hike followed the valley, slowly ascending, but never cresting. We hugged the curves, gazing in awe at waterfalls that rumbled in the distance.

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Day 4 the scenery changed again. The wide valley we had been traveling in began to grow more narrow. The jagged walls towered on either side as we followed the river, crossing it numerous times on precarious wire suspension bridges. Thankfully the weather had cooled down now we had left the tropical valley. The walk was easy and the scenery spectacular. We crossed into the Mustang district having gained 700m in elevation to spend the night in Dharapani.

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Day 5 was the beginning of the climb out of the valley we had been traversing for the past few days. For most of the day we climbed up. We had 600m to ascend if we were to reach our destination of Chame. By lunch time, the views back down into the valley, and deeper into the Annapurna ranges, left me gasping in awe.

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After a quick break, the trail ascended a long flight of stairs cut into the side of the mountain. Glacial streams with ice cold water snaked their way through the thick forest. Once again, the scenery along the Annapurna circuit had changed. It was only a few days ago I was looking at tropical palms, and now I was beginning to see Pine and Spruce trees everywhere. It felt like a different hike.

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Day 6 we dropped into another valley, this time it felt like hiking in Colorado. Deep gorges cut through the landscape and spectacular snow-capped peaks towered above rising more than 8000m. The ascent was gentle in comparison to the day before , but we had passed 3000m. Catching your breathe was harder. A slow pace and plenty of water was the way to go. Eventually we arrived in Pisang at 3300m.

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The mountains, Annapurna 2, Annapurna 3, and Gangapurna which had been tantalizingly far away over the past few days, offering only fleeting glimpses above steep canyon walls now rose majestically above us as the valley opened up to a broad forest of blue pines, glorious flats, and pure rivers. This time it wasn’t the thin air that had me catching my breath.

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After one of the most spectacular days I have ever hiked, we arrived at Manang (3540m) for a well deserved rest day.

We had hiked for 8 days already. The altitude was noticeable and we needed to acclimatize more before we summited Thorong La Pass in a 4 days. Starting late, we ascended 200m to a nearby abandoned house, once home to an elderly hermit. We starred down at the valley, taking the moment in and enjoying the silence, before heading back and retiring early with a great cup of coffee back in Manang.

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I could have stayed in Manang for another few days. The bakeries were fresh, the sun was shining, and I had nothing to do but wait for my washing to dry. Eventually though, we had to move on. The destination for day 10 was Yak Kharka at 4018m. At that altitude little vegetation remains beyond hearty bushes of sharp nettles. The locals use these nettles make into a juice that tastes a lot like Mango juice. It is surprisingly good. Despite the lack of vegetation, there is something beautiful about the harsh sub-alpine layer that speaks to me. There are no pretenses, it is raw survival.

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Day 11 had us climbing another 400m to Phedi at 4450m. The air was noticeably thinner and the trail more precarious. You had to concentrate on your steps, keeping one eye on the incredible scenery, and the other on the loose scree and rocks which threatened to tumble down on top of you at any time. We spread out keeping an eye for any signs of a potential avalanche. It was hard to keep focused though, Thorong La and the hard climb tomorrow was on everyones mind.

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Summit day had finally arrived. We awoke early at 4:30am. The plan was to make the summit around 7am before the wind rose and the weather changed. I shivered in the clear morning starring up at the star filled sky. I wasn’t worried about the climb, although I knew others in the group had barely slept. At this altitude it is hard to sleep, and with the anxiety of such a hard high climb, it is any wonder anyone can sleep. I had hiked enough to know it was the way down that is the hardest. This morning’s climb was 1000m up to 5416m, brutal in itself, but once we crossed the pass, we had to descend 1700m to Muktinath. It was going to be a tough day.

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We ate a breakfast of oatmeal and sipped on tea for warmth before heading out. It wasn’t long before the group was strung out along the trail, some of us moving ahead whilst the other walked more slowly, their headlights bobbing behind to remind everyone they were still there.

After a few hours, the sun rose bathing the peaks in a fiery glow reserved for those of us who brave the mountain heights. To me, that mountain glow, and the northern lights over Iceland, are the two most spectacular things in nature. I walked on, stopping briefly for a snack before continuing to the pass.

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Eventually the trail stopped climbing. We had made it! Thorong La Pass lay ahead. Prayer flags flapped in the wind. Trekkers cheered and congratulated each other. This is why I hike. It’s that moment of pure joy that comes with hard work and knowing that this place, so high in the Himalayas, is reserved for those of us who like to find, and push our limits. The porters and locals understand the reverence of these moments. Everywhere they sat quietly, paying their respects to the mountain. I paused for a moment to take it all in.

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We waited for 90 minutes until the remainder of the group arrived. Everyone had made it! We celebrated with some local rum before the long descent into Muktinath. As I suspected, the descent was a killer. It is hard to remain focused after the goal has been reached. I hurried down, finding the speed easier on my knees.

The following morning, we celebrated a successful summit by visiting a temple where Hindus and Buddhists travel on pilgrimage. On the way down from the pass yesterday I passed a girl with a scallop shell on her backpack – the sign of the pilgrim from the Camino de Santiago I walked early this year. I wished her a Buen Camino. She smiled in amazement, never expecting someone to utter those words in the middle of the Himalayas. Even here, we are always pilgrims after the camino.

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We paid our respects at the temple before beginning the final leg of the Annapurna circuit. In fitting style, the trek changed completely again. We were now surrounded by ash-dry mountains, dusty valleys, and wind swept plains. We covered our faces and leaned into the ferocious wind. We pushed forward with every step until we arrived in Jomsom (2800m) and the completion of an epic trip.

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The Annapurna was not what I expected, yet it was everything I wanted and more. After 11 days of trekking I had gone through jungles, lush valleys, epic gorges full of waterfalls, pine forests, towering mountain passes, and windy valleys. After twenty plus years of trekking I have never experienced such diverse scenery in a single trek. If I can offer one piece of advice to others who might be considering the trek it is don’t put it off. Construction of a road to many of the villages is already impacting the experience, although not in a way that I felt truly detracted too much — yet. In the next 5 years however, I fear the construction may really begin to take its toll on this special place. But for now, Annapurna is truly one of the hiking jewels in this incredible world. Do it as soon as you can.

 

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