Monday, November 26, 2012

Annapurna Base Camp Trek


Machapuchare base camp lodge

The Annapurna 100 race wasn't the only thing in plan. I had wanted to do the base camp trek as well. But I was really fatigued after 70km of trails with timing close to 20 hours, plus my right knee isn't that well. I didn't know how long it would take, but roughly I budgeted 5 days for it. I have an extra day just in case.

So on 2nd of Jan, I went out to buy some trekking gear. I got a 20+ liter Deuter bag, sleeping bag, trekking poles, thermos, aluminium water bottle, gloves, and 2 pair of socks. Total price is 100 dollars. Just nice.

Later that evening, I went to a steak house to grab a large piece. The odd thing is it doesn't taste like normal steak, so I assumned it's buffalo meat. With lake Phewal view, and the mountains enshrouded by clouds, it was a beautiful sight. Warm enough with the evening sun still out in the sky.

While walking around Pokhara, I stumbled into a jewellery shop. Chatted with the sole staff named Ramu, who seems like a chirpy guy. With no one around, having some company to talk to was comforting. The thing that attracted me was the huge colorful stones in the shop. There were the usual turquoise, diamond, ruby and jade. One particular jewellery has 5 pieces of sapphire. The bluish color was so bright it made the blue hue stood out from the rest of the pieces. A few chinese tourist went in there, and one guy bought a huge piece of ruby. He had a light to inspect it, and after some bargaining, bought it.

While the stones were very attractive, the 'stones' that I wanted to see were far away in the mountains. The race didn't provide us with any good view, and I hoped that I could see more of it.

After buying Ramu dinner, we parted ways, and I quickly walked back to the hotel to get some sleep in the cold night.


Day 1: Pokhara-Chomrong
Morning came. I had my stuff ready. After leaving my main bag with the hotel owner, I left for breakfast, and then hailed for a taxi to Phedi. The driver was the same I met yesterday while strolling at the lake. The fee was 1000 rupees. I thought of bargaining with him, but then he seems like a nice guy.

Thankfully today the morning was clear. As the vehicle left Pokhara, the mountains were in full view. I was both excited, but worried. I have no guide, and I have no idea if the route I have planned seems feasible to achieve.

As the taxi passed Hyangja, I took a glance at where the ultra runners took the turn in towards the hills.

Phedi wasn't really a town, but just a stop with a few houses. An old lady was trying to sell a walking stick, which I declined. The start of the route goes straight vertically up. Nothing but stairs for half an hour. I quickly gathered pace, and soon reached the top where a bunch of elderly koreans where in front. A few more minutes and finally I reached Dhampus, which is really a small village on the top of the ridge. I could see glimpses of the Annapurna range, shying behind the clouds.

A dog has followed me up, which I wondered if he'll follow me to the next village. But it didn't. Dhampus seems like where he belongs. As I walked along Dhampus, I recalled seeing some familliar routes where we had ran. There were melting ice on the muddy paths as well.

Somewhere at Pothana, I handed my conservation pass for stamping. It cost USD 50 to enter this area. Then it was some more uphills to an elevation of 2000m, before descending. I stopped at Tolka for some lunch.

The valley sweeping below was gorgeous. To the far west, there's villages dotting all over the hills, some below, some above where I was. The terrain was so hilly, that the only way to reached those places is by walking.

I was wondering how come lunch took so long. Then I learnt that chicken takes way longer time here, and cost more as well. Quickly afterwards, I walked fast to Landruk, where on the race, we had to go down the valley, and cross over to the other side, and climb up the vertical stairs up to Gandruk. Now I could appreciate how hard the route was.

Now it was heading towards my target: Chomrong. I have no idea how far it would take, but from the map it looks quite achievable. I got lost a bit finding the new bridge, by taking a left false turn down the river. Then it was quite a long climb back again. Given my legs are still hurting, it was a bummer.

The route became a bit wild at some parts. And there wasn't much company. I passed by an Italian couple. Then just before the new bridge, a small village.

It was some uphill to Samrung, then downhill again, crossing a river, then going up vertically to Jihnu Danda. It was already over 5pm in the evening. I asked some locals there, how long it would take to go up Chomrong, and they said 2 hours. I didn't know if I wanted to continue, then decided to. I walked uphill as fast as possible, planting the poles on the ground with gusto, and hauling up. Passed some caucasians going downhill, and they asked where I started from. When I told them Phedi, there was disbelief on their faces. I think it takes at least 2/3 days for normal hikers to get here.

As I reached Chomrong, it started to rain. The last thing I wanted was to get wet in this cold. Chomrong is 2170m up, and plus the winter season, it was real cold. I quickly got into the lodge, which I think I was the only one. I finally got to my goal on the first day.

That night I ordered Dhal Bhat for dinner, reflecting at the route taken for that day. One thing that struck me was how hard it was for the 100km runners who have to reach Chomrong from Gandruk! I remembered meeting a japanese guy after the race who mentioned he reached Tadapani, from Gandruk-Chomrong, at 6.30pm, which was already dark, before proceeding to cut it short by going back to Gandruk, and southwards to Birethanti.

Sleeping in this cold was  a different experience. There wasn't any heater in the lodge. I covered myself in sleeping bag, and curled up trying to conserve some warmth.

Day 2: Chomrong-Himalaya
I can't remember the time I woke up. But I did remember eagerly scanning the mountain ranges, and there she was, Machapuchare or 'fish tail' mountain. Indeed the shape of the slope from this angle, it does look like one.

There was another lodge above, so I went up to check. There I met with 3 Aussies  Boaz, Jas, and Leia, whom were also doing trekking to ABC, with their guide Bhim. Boaz & Jaz were a couple, with Jaz being half Malaysian.They were the most fun folks to be with. We had a great time chatting over breakfast, before we continued on with trekking. Since we were going the same way, I decided to stick with them after figuring out that I could still have a day to spare, which will make it to 6 days.

Chomrong is actually quite a large village. There were farms all over the place, with small houses and huts dotting. We stopped by at a local store, to get some additional stuff. I got myself a pair of mittens and gaiters. I thought I will need these when going higher up in the snow.

Our next village is Sinuwa, and we can really see it from Chomrong. But, it's a long descent down the bridge, across the small stream, and up again to the same elevation as Chomrong. From Sinuwa, Chomrong seems even more amazing. It's actually perched beside a huge vertical cliff. Sinuwa is a bit higher at 2360meters. After having another round of hot tea, we proceeded with the trek.

Our next target was Bamboo, another village. I was going a little faster, so I decided to move ahead first. Upon arriving, loads of tourist were hanging around the area. There was some American young guys, who said they hired a chopper from Pokhara to Chomrong, then managed to reached ABC and back. But the girl with them had to bailed out due to mountain sickness.

The rest of the gang soon came in, and we had some tea again. Then we left, and our next target was Himalaya lodge. As usual, I went ahead first. Bamboo wasn't snowing much, but Himalaya, which is closed to 3000m, was experiencing heavy snowfall. I wasn't too worried, but just kept on moving. When I reached Himalaya, it was around 4pm. I quickly went in for some warmth. It was freezing outside.

Every lodge has a heater, which they heat up using gas underneath the table. And over the table, is covered a huge carpet like cloth to trap the warm air. So, one could just sit at the stools beside the table to get warm, while enjoying a cup of hot tea or food.

I looked outside the lodge, and it strucked me, that I was in a freezer. There were icicles from the roof, and a few inches of snow above the zinc. Snow was falling heavily. Outside the floor is frozen solid. I've never been in this environment before, and was kind of worried of coping with the night.

I was worried that my new friends haven't arrived as it was getting late. Somehow they did arrived, but I think it was already quite dark when they did. That night I wasn't feeling alright. I seemed to be dizzy, and not having appetite. I was afraid that I could have ascend too fast. The cold wasn't helping either. While everyone was happily chatting, I was trying to stay in good spirits, while having tea, hoping to get the dizziness away.

That night, was the first night I spent sleeping under freezing conditions. I thought Chomrong was cold, but it wasn't so. There's no heater here. The best I could do is getting in the sleeping bag, and covering with 1 inch thick blanket. Then stay put, because rolling on your sides is cold too.

Day 3: Bamboo to Machapuchare Base Camp
The morning was glorious. It was clear, and the snow had stopped. Everything was whitish bright. Around us, are steep cliffs on both sides, and one has to crane the neck just to see the top.

This part of the journey is a whole different transformation of the terrain. There's less vegetation and more rocks and cliffs along the way. It was breathtaking beyond I had imagined at every step. The more I hiked up, the more the Himalayas' grandeur revealed itself. On both sides are huge cliffs, and layers of rocks that  have been pushed up by the Indian continent. Machapuchare peak seems so far up, and yet it's only 7000 meters. The highest mountain is Annapurna I, which wasn't visible from here. The fish tail part looks huge, and no longer the tiny slice from far away.

The next stop was Deurali at 3200m, where I stopped to wait for the rest.  After another round of tea andd food, we left, and as usual, I went forward alone with a good pace. I noticed clouds were gathering around the top of the peaks, and snow will soon fall. So I quickly moved, hoping to get to the destination before snow sets in.

Machapuchare base camp sits at 3700m. As I went higher up, I could feel breathless. Every step is getting slower. Finally I reached the camp, and as I glanced back, clouds have gathered, and snow fell. My friends took quite some time to reached, but reach they did under considerable heavy snow fall.

That night we had a frenchman came by. He's probably the biggest human I've ever seen, with hands so huge, they reminded me of the neanderthals. There was also a british couple, whom the husband teaches rock climbing. As we huddled at the table for warmth, exchanging topics, I was wondering if I could survive in this. It's very cold outside. Boaz lent me his wool socks, which he said helps keep the warmth even if it's wet.

I took a glance at the thermometer. It showed -10c. This is beyond freezing....Another night in the freezer.

Day 4: MBC to Annapurna Base Camp, and back to Bamboo.
Somehow I woke up 4am. The british couple had mentioned they were going to leave by then! I couldn't imagine how on earth. Not only it's darn cold, one has to break snow. I woke up to see them off, still amazed at seeing them go so early.

I went back to sleep, and I dreamt seeing fishes with colourful tails swimming in a shallow pond.

Morning came, and the rest of the gang left early. I was having trouble zipping the sleeping bag, because my fingers were numb. When I went out, the cold was a shock. It was so cold, I was having trouble with breathing. The points of my fingers were in pain. I wasn't sure if this was normal, but I quickly hurried, while breaking snow, to the next lodge, which wasn't open, due to winter season, and huddled in the toilet to shield from the cold.

After things normalized, I thought I could make it, so I started moving up. ABC is just another 2km at 4100m, another 300m elevation up. Personally I haven't been higher than 4000m, so this was actually a record. As I glanced back to MBC lodge, there it stood. Machapuchare mountain itself. I finally understood the dream of seeing the fishes swimming. It was seeing Machapuchare in all it's grandeur, together with some of the highest peaks in the Annapurna massif. I was experiencing a primal joy, the sort where you only feel when you're a young innocent child. No longer the cold was bothering me. No longer was I feeling breathless from the thin air. It was ecstasy on a higher level. It was being surrounded by  pillars of rocks towering above this tiny self, and I can't help to feel so humble to be there.

As I finally climbed the stairs to ABC, a sense of accomplishment was felt. I had doubts if I could make it here, with the race, and an injured knee. But with the company of my new friends, and their guide, it had turned possible.

There's a point nearby where one can see Annapurna itself. It stands on a ledge, with a cliff that goes deep down with some kind of ravine at the bottom. There, one can see the whole 360 panoramic view of the massif.

Annapurna I stands at 8091meters, almost 4km towering higher than where we were standing. How some humans venture to conquer it, I have no understanding. Mountaineering is another dimension that I can't grapple. There's the elevation, the cold, the need to camp outside, and the death zone where oxygen in the air is not adequate for normal breathing. The environment is hostile for human existence. Death happens even to the best of mountaineers. There were some koreans who were paying tribute to the 3 fellow men who had perished last year in 2011, trying to summit Annapurna I. They were lost in an avalanche, and presumably dead. One of them was a well known guy who had done all 14 summits.

Perhaps this quote from Anatoli Boukreev, who was well known for part of the 1996 Everest tragedy, and perished while scaling Annpurna, will make some sense:

"Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion...I go to them as humans go to worship. From their lofty summits I view my past, dream of the future and, with an unusual acuity, am allowed to experience the present vision cleared, my strength renewed. In the mountains I celebrate creation. On each journey I am reborn."

Soon, we departed. After having lunch back at MBC, we left for Bamboo. As usual I went fast ahead alone. I reached Dovan, then waited for them. When they did finally arrived, there wasn't any empty rooms there, so it's trekking in the dark to Bamboo. 

At last, we can now spent the night in not so freezing conditions.

Day 5: Bamboo to Jhinu Danda

We decided to stay a night at Jhinu Danda, which was just after Chomrong. It has the prettiest of all lodges with colourful flowers hanging all over the place. From here, it will just take us another day to reach Birethanti.

Day 6: Jhinu Danda to Birethanti

The trek, though descending, was still awesome. It gave me some idea how the path was, if I had chosen to run back from Ghandruk to Birethanti. It was mostly a gradual path downwards. We reached Sayuli Bazzar, then decided to hitch a 4WD as a taxi to Birethanti.

From Birethanti was another ride in a bus back to Pokhara. I was feeling a bit sad that it's all ending, but all things had to end. I was certainly glad to see the boss of the hotel at Pokhara again. That night we celebrated our accomplishment with food at the local steak house, then at the local bar for some drinks. Some local dude, came to our table to start chatting up, obviously abit drunk, and we didn't really like him. When I told him, it had took me 6 days to do the ABC trek, in disbelief, he claimed I was lying. Oh well, I wasn't bothered with arguing, after such an arduous journey.

After bidding my Aussies friend's & the british couple, farewell , whom were such a good sport throughout, I left for the night back to the hotel. It was still cold in Pokhara, and I was really looking to coming home.


I have came to Nepal to run the 100km, which turned out to be 70km, but given the injury, I was really pushing it. And even without the injury, it was doubtful. Thus I was happy with that.

Then to do the trek itself under wintery conditions was, I think enough to make this whole journey successful.

I was really aiming to gathering 3 points for UTMB. But after some months (I wrote this after a long hiatus), I think I'll let it pass. The himalayas had cast a spell...