The Annapurna Sanctuary is a glacial basin surrounded by a ring of high mountains including the massive south face of Annapurna I (8091 m), Annapurna South (7219 m), Hiunchuli (6441 m) and Macchhapuchhre (6997 m). The only entrance to the Sanctuary is via the trekking route along the Modi Khola river, through a narrow valley between two of the high peaks. The trek terminates inside the Sanctuary at a small group of guest houses known as Annapurna Base Camp (ABC), at an elevation of 4031 metres.
The Sanskrit name Annapurna refers to the Hindu goddess of the harvest, often interpreted in modern times as the goddess of sustenance and wealth. According to Hindu beliefs, Annapurna is the daughter of Himavat, the king of the mountains. The most popular shrine to the goddess is located in Varanasi in India, a place Clare and I hope to visit later on our trip.
The entire trek to Annapurna Sanctuary, including the return journey, is nearly 80 kilometres in length and can take anywhere between 6 and 15 days (Lonely Planet’s guide suggested ten days), depending on the trekker’s pace, conditions along the route, and whether they’re carrying all their own gear.
After four nights in Pokhara, enjoying the sunshine, the hotel and the lake, it was time to start moving again. I took a taxi to the starting point of the trek at Ghatte Khola, near the village of Phedi (1130 m), twenty kilometres west of Pokhara.
The trek began with an hour-long uphill ascent to the town of Dhampus (1650 m), followed by several hours of steady uphill walking before descending a steep staircase to the valley below. It proved to be a good introduction to the overall nature of the trek in general, which seemed to alternate between long uphill and downhill sections, usually along stone staircases and pathways.
After spending hours hiking up one steep hillside only to descend again on the other side, and repeating the process over several days, it is natural to wonder whether any overall gain in altitude is being made. I kept telling myself the stair climbing was good for my fitness and despite the never-ending ascents and descents, there was some amazing scenery to compensate.
Right from day one, the objective was visible in the distance with views of the snow-covered peaks of Annapurna South and Hiunchulli to my left and the impressive ‘fishtail’ pyramid of Machhapuchhre to my right. Although both were still five days’ walk away, I knew I was headed for the narrow valley that lay between them.
The substantial variation in altitude along the trek meant a diversity of environments, from sub-tropical jungle-like forests that gradually melded in to groves of rhododendron and bamboo, before becoming treeless high-alpine grasslands, covered in patches of snow and ice.
There was a variety of animals too, from typical Nepalese farm animals like chickens and goats, to buffalo and mountain ponies. About half way along the route, I spotted a group of black faced Langur monkeys moving amongst the trees around the village of Sinuwa. It was the first time I’d ever seen monkeys in the wild.
Villages were located every couple of hours along the trek, each with guest houses that were similar, both in features and price, to those along the Annapurna Circuit. On my first night I was the only occupant of the guest house in Tolka, and for the first two days I encountered very few people on the trail.
Just short of half-way along the trek, at the village of Jhinudanda, the route was joined by the popular Annapurna Panorama trek, and a whole host of additional trekkers coming from Poon Hill and Ghorepani. Between Jhinudanda and ABC, I would meet a lot more people than I was expecting for the winter season, enticed I suspect, by the exceptionally good weather and visibility.
Although I met a few Australians, some New Zealanders, and trekkers from Britain and Europe, by far the majority on this particular trek were Korean. On one occasion, I passed a single group of 47 Korean trekkers, all dressed identically in the latest cold-weather trekking gear, each person wearing the same tour company logo and carrying nothing more than a light daypack. The group snaked its way along the trail in a long single file, supported by an additional team of porters and guides who did all the heavy lifting.
Thankfully it wasn’t all big groups though. At Jhinudanda I came across a person I recognised. It was a German guy I’d met only a few weeks earlier, when he was completing the Annapurna Circuit on a heavily gear-laden bicycle. Due to the roughness and steepness of the road, he seemed to have spent more time pushing his bike than riding it.
I spoke to him more about his trip. He’d started in Munich and ridden his bicycle to Greece and then on to Nepal. Leaving the bike in Kathmandu, he’d flown to Lukla and completed the Everest Base Camp trek. He then returned to Kathmandu, picked up his bike and travelled to Besisahar to ride the Annapurna Circuit which is where Clare and I first saw him. He managed to cross the high Thorung La pass and ride all the way down to Naya Pul. Due to the steepness of the descent, the brakes on his bike were completely worn down by the time he arrived, and while his bike was being serviced, he decided to do the Annapurna Sanctuary trek. His plan afterwards was to ride around India and possibly extend his cycling adventure into south-east Asia.
Once I’d reached the town of Bamboo – appropriately named due to the extensive groves of bamboo that surrounded it – the trail became more or less a steady ascent and elevation gains came more quickly. By the fifth day I’d entered the Annapurna Sanctuary and reached Machhupuchhre base camp (MBC) where I organised a room.
The massive peak of Machhapuchhre (6997 m), sometimes described as the ‘Matterhorn of Nepal’, towered above the base camp. It’s Nepali name means ‘fishtail’, which refers to the distinctive appearance of the peak from a particular angle.
MBC consists of five guest houses but is technically not a base camp at all, because Machhapuchhre has never been climbed to its summit. In 1957, a British team climbed to within 150 metres of the top before turning back. They had promised they wouldn’t set foot on the actual summit, due to its reverence by local people as sacred to the Hindu god Shiva. Since then, Machhapuchhre has been completely off limits to climbers.
At MBC, I met an Irish guy from County Clare who had hired a guide in Kathmandu to take him on several different treks. He mentioned in confidence that he didn’t really need the guide. It had been a waste of money. His guide didn’t seem to know much at all about geographical or cultural features or plants and animals along the route. The only thing his guide really did was act as an intermediary for him at guest houses – organising his room, bringing him food and drinks – something anyone could manage easily on their own. With a guide book and a map, most people should be reasonably capable of finding their way along the route. There are places where tracks deviate off with no markings or signs but in general, it’s fairly straightforward to follow.
Leaving some gear in my room at MBC, where I planned to spend the night, I made the two hour hike up the Sanctuary to ABC at 4031 metres. I developed a slight altitude-induced headache during the walk but it was barely noticeable and didn’t get any worse. Along the journey, Annapurna South loomed in front of me, and as I neared the final base camp, the entire south face of Annapurna I (8091 m) revealed itself, rising another four vertical kilometres above where I was standing.
I was surrounded by a magnificent panoramic vista of snow-covered high mountain scenery. It was an incredible place to be and made all the hiking to get there worthwhile. I knew too that I was standing in a place that had a long, interesting and often fatal history of mountaineering.
Although it’s the tenth highest mountain in the world, Annapurna I (8091 m) was the first eight thousand metre peak to be climbed – way back in 1950 by a French mountaineering team, lead by Maurice Herzog. The route to the summit, via the more difficult and dangerous south face, was only completed in 1970 by Don Willans and Dougal Haston, during a British expedition led by famous mountaineer Chris Bonnington.
I remember seeing an excellent film a few years ago called The Hard Way – Annapurna South Face 1970, which documented the expedition. Whilst the footage was a little dated, it was a fascinating story about the difficulty and hardship in climbing the south face. It was particularly interesting to listen to the thoughts and reflections of the the two lead climbers, Willans and Haston, both of whom reached the summit without supplemental oxygen. In the film, one of the expedition members died on the mountain and his team mates had to bury him somewhere in the Sanctuary (the film is available on YouTube here).
Around ABC there were numerous memorials to dead climbers, some of them from quite recent expeditions. Annapurna has one of the highest fatality rates of the eight thousand metre peaks due to its steep and unstable slopes which are frequently prone to avalanches. Even the trekking route to Annapurna Sanctuary, particularly in the upper sections between Deurali and MBC where the valley narrows, can become a dangerous avalanche zone after heavy snow fall. As I walked around ABC, admiring the scenery, I would occasionally hear noises coming from the mountain as big chucks of snow or ice crashed down its sides or crevasses shifted on its glaciers.
In the late afternoon, I returned to MBC to spend the night. The next morning I began the return journey, making it back to the starting point of the trek in two and a half days. It was much easier going down but there were still plenty of long uphill sections. In all, the entire trek had taken me seven and a half days. It many ways it had been the ideal trek – challenging but not too long, trekking through a variety of environments, experiencing fine mountain scenery and reaching the base camp of an eight thousand metre peak. It was a compact trek that had everything.