The Shadow of Everest

TEXT & PHOTOS BY: Yusuf Abdol Hamid

Everest, Machapuchare, Dhaulagiri, Nuptse – the legendary peaks of the Nepalese Himalayas loom large in the fantasies of mountain enthusiasts. But the imagination (or photographs) don’t do these gargantuan mountains justice, since they are best seen up close, in person.

Just as well known is the Annapurna Massif – a collection of 30 peaks in the middle of Nepal, with one over 8,000m (Annapurna I) and thirteen over 7,000m.

Little wonder that the Annapurna region is the most popular for trekking in Nepal, with incredible views throughout the year. There are towering peaks in every direction, and the tourist trade has resulted in a well-developed trekking trail with comfortable lodges dotted throughout the hills.

If you’re new to mountain trekking in the Himalayas, the Annapurna Base Camp trek (ABC) is an ideal introduction to the sport. There are clearly marked trails, plenty of food and rest options all the way to Base Camp (4,130m), and stunning views all year round.

 

11 DAYS IN THE HILLS

Most trekking companies can tailor the length of the ABC trek to your schedule – anywhere between 7 and 15 days. You should note that the shorter the trek, the more intense it will be and with a higher risk of getting altitude sickness.

The 11-day itinerary seems to strike a good balance, with roughly 8-12 hours of trekking daily, and ample time to rest in the evenings and enjoy stunning sunsets over the Himalayas.

The trailhead is in a bustling town called Nayapul – full of donkeys hauling their burdens up the hills to all the trekking lodges along the trail. All those imported American chocolates at Base Camp? They start their journey here.

Expect to spend about 2-3 days in the lower hills (2,000-3,000m). Spend your first night in Tikhedunga, which is lush with forest and brightly colored flowers even in winter. Rhododendron forests then mark the way to the relatively large town of Ghorepani (2,850m) – and by this point you would have climbed to 1,500m in just two days.

All the guesthouses serve the Nepali staple of Dhal Bhaat, a simple dish of rice, watery lentils, potatoes and vegetables, and an egg (if you ask for it). It’s surprisingly satisfying, like a warm hug on a winter day. But don’t be surprised to see more familiar dishes like pizza or even kimchi on the menu – the kitchens evolve quickly to match the needs of the trekkers.

While 11 days would cost you a fortune in any city, the hills of Nepal remain affordable to all. Rooms go for about $2 a night, and food and drink won’t cost more than $20 a day.

Most trekkers pass by Poon Hill (3,210m), a vantage point with spectacular views of the Annapurna range – Dhaulagiri (8,167m) to the far west, and the fishtail peak of Machapuchare (6,993m) to the east.

About six days in, the trail goes vertical. The landscape changes above 3,000m; no longer will you hear the twittering birds in the lower hills. In winter, most of the surrounding forests and slopes are smothered in white snow.

Deurali is a cold, desolate station at 3,100m, about a day from Annapurna Base Camp. There are occasional wifi signals even in this remote spot, but for most of the trek you will be free of connectivity to the outside world – a welcome relief for smartphone addicts.

The route up to the base camp leads through the Bagar Valley, a few kilometres across and split by a river called the Modi Khola. In winter, only a small trickle of water flows downstream, but once the ice melts it gains momentum and eventually exits into the Bay of Bengal via the Ganges, more than a thousand kilometers away.

Gangapurna casts a long shadow on the valley, but the route swings left before that, heading up to Machapuchare Base Camp (3,700m). The wind can be severe in this exposed, rocky outcrop, while the heady altitude makes the final push on to ABC doubly difficult.

It’s about four hours across a seemingly endless slope uphill to ABC. It’s here where a good guide can make a difference by picking out easier trails, or spotting soft snow traps in winter. The blue-zinc roofs of ABC may not look homely, but they are your only refuge in this harsh landscape, set in a valley surrounded by the imposing peaks of Hiunchuli, Annapurna South, and Annapurna I.

After sundown, the stars put on an amazing show for those who can bear being outside in the freezing cold. If you’re fortunate, you’ll witness one of the greatest sights in nature – an avalanche rolling down the slopes of a mountain – but from a safe distance.

 

GETTING THERE

SilkAir has direct flights to Kathmandu (5 hours). Nepal’s capital has plenty of sightseeing, from ancient temples to the more modern shopping alleys of Thamel, where you will rub shoulders with backpackers. Be wary of air pollution (one of the worst in the world).

Most treks to the Annapurna region begin from the lovely lakeside town of Pokhara, about a 5-7 hour bus ride west of the capital. Pokhara was often the destination for European hippies heading to Nepal overland in the 1970s. Over the years, a large community of trekking companies have made Pokhara home – all the guides and porters are certified and well-versed in the routes leading up to the base camp. Not everyone speaks English fluently – so take some time to chat with your potential guides before agreeing to anything.

The April 2015 earthquake devastated large parts of the country, but the Annapurna Conservation Region has been restored to its former state, although there are still risks from snowstorms, which claimed the lives of 43 people in 2014.

 

OTHER POPULAR NEPAL TREKS

Poon Hill (5 Days)

It’s just five days to Poon Hill from Pokhara. The trek starts with some intense uphill climbing, but the remainder of the trek is relatively leisurely with beautiful stretches of Rhododendron forests. There are unobstructed views of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri range – including three mountains above 8,000m, from the peak of Poon Hill.

 

Everest Base Camp (16 Days)

The highlight is the world’s highest peak, but you’ll have to spend a week in extreme high-altitude. Enjoy the hospitality of the local Sherpas, many of whom are excellent guides. If you’re worried about altitude sickness, allocate an extra day or two to acclimatise at higher altitudes.

 

Manaslu Circuit (16 Days)

The Manaslu trek is a little rougher compared to the well-developed Annapurna trail. There are still many active villages, and plenty of opportunities to watch the locals working the fields or building homes. The best views of Manaslu, the 8th highest peak in the world, are between September and December.

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