A young trekker-traveller sets out with high hopes for the almost-roof of the planet to do one of the world’s most challenging treks.
Story and Photos by Jade Nicholson
“Are you sure about this, Jade?”
“Dad, yes, I’m sure. It’s going to be awesome. End of discussion.”
“I just think 18 days is a lot. And when you’re on a fixed trekking schedule in the middle of nowhere, you can’t just stop.”
Dad’s sigh came through the receiver like a half-deflated balloon. This, I knew, was his way of telling me that his Official Recommendation was to scale back on my and my boyfriend Eric’s plan to trek the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal for 18 days.
“I just think you might be biting off a little more than you can chew, here.” Digging the phone into my ear indignantly, ensconced in my pajamas on my comfy couch in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I was positively certain that my dad was wrong.
Eric and I landed in Kathmandu tired and a bit confused. Tribhuvan Airport feels very much like a free-for-all; our first challenge was simply to find the right line to stand in for a “Visa On Arrival.” It took us two tries to find the right line but, eventually, we were at the counter and paying for our 30-day visas. We migrated to another line and then another, slowly but surely making our way through the crowds of trekkers and locals alike, and out into the hazy, hectic pickup area.
We arrived at the Shangri-La Boutique Hotel in Thamel, Kathmandu approximately half an hour later, wet from a sudden storm and still a bit dazed. We followed the man who picked us up from the airport to the Trek Around Nepal headquarters, the outfit we had chosen to organize our trek, and proceeded to proverbially empty our wallets into their coffers. Over the next 36 hours or so, we drank as much water as we could to acclimatize to the mile-high Kathmandu altitude, and accumulated the rest of the gear we’d need for our Annapurna Circuit trek.
The night before departure, Laxman, our guide, bounded confidently into the hotel lobby to shake our hands. Originally from the Pokhara area, he had been guiding for about a decade, since (only) the age of 18, and (we found out later) had gotten every single one of his clients over the formidable Thorung-La Pass, the highest point of the trek. He assured us that we’d have an excellent time and that we’d be happy and healthy throughout the trek. I nodded weakly, wondering when my dizziness would subside. Only 1,000 metres up and I was already panicking.
[Dad: 1, Jade: 0]
On the morning of the trek, I woke up to find that I was breaking out. “Stress,” I concluded alone in the bathroom, squinting at my reflection in a dirty mirror the size of a piece of paper. In a dusty alleyway in Kathmandu, Eric and I piled into the backseat of a sedan with Laxman. We set off for Besi Shahar, the village from which our trek would begin.
Cars, trucks with horns that blasted a tune rather than a singular tone, buses and motorbikes flew past us with only a few millimetres to spare. On numerous occasions, I thought our side mirrors were done for. The driver expertly swung the wheel to the left, then to the right, to avoid the various soccer-ball-sized rocks spotted around the unfinished roads, some sections of which were deeply pitted with potholes and other sections were rounded with moguls better than any you’d see on a ski slope.
Eric and I jostled around in the back, trying to avoid smashing our heads together. To distract ourselves from the at-times imminent possibility of death, we peppered Laxman with questions like “How many clients of yours have gotten sick before?” and “What would you do if a client got sick?” and “What if I get sick right now, what happens then? Actually, just stop the car.”
Upon arrival in Besi Shahar, we had lunch with our porter, Santosh: the fourth and final member of our Dream Team. He was a lanky 20 year old, also from the Pokhara area. Once finished with his dal bhat, he went outside to lash his small pack and our enormous Osprey bag together with some rope and a head-strap. Just moments later, we were walking away from our lunch spot and into the Nepali jungle. It was happening.
About an hour later, I realized that it was happening.
DAY 1: Ngadi Bazaar (930 metres)
After a relatively easy three-hour hike along the road, we pulled up at a verdant garden teahouse in Ngadi Bazaar. Along the Annapurna Circuit, like many other major treks in Nepal, teahouses line the way. They originally started as simple places for Nepali locals to have a cup of tea and rest while on an extended journey to see family in another village. But they’ve evolved into one of the primary sources of income for those living along trekking trails. Travellers stay overnight and eat all major meals at the teahouses, supporting the locals, and enjoying a healthy dose of Nepali culture while on the trail.
At 2:00 a.m. Eric and I were both roused awake by the very confusing—and therefore alarming—sounds of a lute being played very close to our room. The musician seemed to be blowing into the lute rather enthusiastically, eliciting some atonal squeaks from the instrument, and was punctuating his song with some mystical singing and energetic grunts.
The next morning, a Dane, having just finished his trek and therefore in a sprightly mood, informed us that the sound we’d heard overnight was a man who comes around Ngadi Bazaar about once a year to perform a ritual that wards off evil spirits. Delighted, I finished my banana porridge with a fresh burst of confidence.
[Dad: 1, Jade/Lute Man: 1]
DAY 2: Jagat (1,300m)
It was raining so heavily on the second morning of our trek that we had to stop over in a teahouse briefly and wait out the worst of the storm. On that stopover, we got to chatting with a British couple and their guide, though we forgot to get their names.
Upon arrival at Jagat, we entered the courtyard of an extremely colourful three-story teahouse. Our room was on the second floor, with windows facing both up and down the main road that cleaved the valley. We had our first good WiFi connection on the circuit; I caught my mom awake and we were able to exchange a few text updates. I asked her how things were going, told her I was feeling well and strong, and she asked me questions like “Are you sure?” and “How long would it take the Medevac to reach you if you called it right this second?”
DAY 3: Quinche (2,050m)
We quickly passed through Chamje (pronounced “Cham-Chay,” with emphasis on both syllables, like “high heels”) and travelled through an emerald-green valley all day, following the river as we steadily climbed several hundred metres. We stopped at Tal (meaning lake in Nepali) for lunch, where Laxman told us that he knew every inch of the trail, every bend and every dip, like he knew his own name.
He confessed that he wanted nothing more from an occupation than for it to take him to the mountains; indeed, to hear him speak of being a guide in the Annapurna region with such fondness and revere called to mind one of my favourite topics on which to muse: the origins of the word “vocation.” Laxman felt that the mountains were calling him, so to be a guide was his ultimate fulfillment. His ultimate honour.
DAY 4: Chame (2,670m)
We made significant gains in altitude early on Day 4, practically feeling our acetazolamide (colloquially Diamox) forcing more air into our lungs. A few moments after Eric and I had dragged ourselves into the teahouse courtyard in Chame (Chah-may), fingers and toes tingling because of the Diamox, we turned our attention to our growing pile of dirty clothes. We formed a two-man operation: I hunched over a bowl filled with water and some powdered detergent from home, and Eric squatted at the rinse station.
We gave this up when our hands froze after washing two shirts, four pairs of underwear, and five socks. That night, we engaged in our nightly ritual of poring over our enormous trail map, lifting our feet to the hot stove behind us in turns. We proudly marked where we’d stopped that day as our fingers tracing the path we’d take tomorrow, tingling all the while.
DAY 5: Upper Pisang (3,300m)
Our teahouse in Upper Pisang was owned by a young family with a round-faced baby. The father was getting dressed up in traditional garb when we arrived, as the mother rocked her infant in a wooden crib. After I rinsed off in the dark of the electricity-less shower closet, the Dream Team headed to the reason for the father’s dress: an archery festival.
Up the road, somewhere between 30 and 35 men and boys were crowded by a monolith punctuated with arrowhead divots, aiming for one of similar make at the other end of the road. As they took turns shooting two arrows at the monolith, aiming for the bullseye at its center, a middle-aged man with a drum strapped around his body played traditional Nepali songs. Mesmerized, we watched the competition wear on long into the afternoon.
After we had climbed a bit farther up the road to a monastery at the edge of town, we returned to the teahouse to play cards and drink ginger lemon honeys before dinner. It was getting colder and colder at night, a constant reminder of the altitude and our progress into the mountains.
We bundled up more than ever, burrowing into our sleeping bags for warmth as the breath of the mountains whistled through the gaps between the window panes and their loosely-fitting frames.
DAY 6: Ngawal (3,600m)
Eric, most mornings awake before our 6:30 a.m. alarm, would be dressed and packing his sleeping bag before I even got my first sock on. By the time seven o’clock rolled around, we’d be brushing our teeth with water we had treated the night before. Just before the designated breakfast time of seven-thirty, we’d lace up our boots, get our hats on, and finally proceed to the dining hall, where I would nearly fall asleep in my porridge morning after morning. Dad was certainly right about one thing: the trek waits for no one.
[Dad: 2, Jade: 1]
The Dream Team approached Ngawal just in time for lunch. The village seemed like it was built from sand, embossed on a flat that easily could have doubled as a Star Wars set. We traipsed through back walkways, alleys only wide enough for two yaks abreast of each other, until we arrived at our multistory teahouse for the night. Our British friends, Alex and Rachael, were just finishing their lunch in a small courtyard surrounded by high wooden fences, planning to press onward to Manang for their acclimatization day.
Over the course of my and Eric’s lunch, we all rehashed the trials and tribulations of our days, and then—and I’m honestly not sure how this came up—we learned that Alex and Rachael’s guide, Barrat, for some reason is on Donald J. Trump’s mailing list. As a result, Barrat is regularly solicited for money. He confided in us that sometimes he considers clicking the button and donating Nepalese Rupees just to satisfy the poor man.
That night, we crammed our just-cleaned wet hair into our hats, darted to the dining room for dinner, and planted ourselves within inches of the hot stove. We were joined moments later by two Kiwis and another American, all of whom made us laugh with their own quirky trail tales. On the Annapurna Circuit, you tend to keep running into the same people on the way up. Each night, I added more names to the list of those I hoped to see again someday.
DAY 7: Manang (3,550m)
The next morning, we rose at our regular time, bundling up a bit more than usual. We could see our breath as we left our room door open behind us, but only minutes into our short hike for the day we were stripping off layers. Once again, we had a clear sky, and the sun was strong. Throughout the trek, we were subject to nature’s whims; each day, we humbly bowed to whatever would be allowed by the mountains, our bodies, and, even, God.
After arriving in the little town of Manang, Eric, Laxman, and I shuffled up the rocky road to an alleged movie theater for an evening film with Alex and Rachael, though no part of me believed it would be like the theaters back home. Sure enough, when we entered the theater, we found there were wooden benches of varying size and height all facing a projector screen, with a hot stove plopped in the middle of the right half of the room and an ancient projector in the center aisle. The room was the size of a small classroom, which was great because it meant that I was close enough to the screen but far enough away from the foreign couple that brought a living, breathing Pomeranian with them.
Moments after we were all seated the lights flickered off and the DVD menu for the 2015 movie Everest appeared on the screen. I had watched this very movie a couple of weeks before leaving the United States for this trip, sitting alone on my couch back in Cambridge, and before that had read the book on which the movie was based: Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer.
For someone as academically obsessed with Mount Everest as I am, learning to trek while watching a movie about the most extreme trekking imaginable was legendary. For the record, Mom and Dad, I have absolutely zero desire to climb Everest, due to the fact that I don’t have a death wish. So, Dad, I’m taking away a point for that.
[Dad: 1, Jade: 1]
We walked back to our teahouse through sheets of fat, wet snowflakes. Two more days until the pass.
DAY 8: Yak Kharka (4,100m)
After a steep uphill climb, a tea break with 360-degree views of snowcapped mountains, and a short, flat walk, we made it to Yak Kharka (kharka meaning “grazing ground”). We had lunch with Alex and Rachael and, after dinner, struck up a game of cards.
As darkness fell completely and the hot stove in the dining room was lit (and loaded with what I can only assume was yak dung), Laxman, Santosh and Barrat gathered round. Within minutes, we had redealt the cards to all of the guides and porters staying in the teahouse that night. All of us played hybrid versions of our favourite games until much later than Eric and I had stayed up on the trek thus far, loudly counting points in Nepali and crying things like “Skip!” and “Who’s the Vice-President (of the USA)?” until Eric and Laxman had cleaned up and left the rest of us protesting for another round.
I found myself wishing that the night would never end.
DAY 9: High Camp (4,925m)
The Dream Team left Yak Kharka bright and early, and arrived just in time for lunch at Thorong Phedi: Base Camp, which lies at 4,500 metres. We sat with Shiree, with whom I discussed the growing problem of needing the toilet more and more frequently but having fewer and fewer places to go, as we were by this time well above the treeline. Feeling good after a delicious lunch, Eric and I decided we wanted to head for High Camp that afternoon rather than leave it to the next morning. We began the soul-crushing ascent.
An hour later, we’d made it. The views were out of this world—almost literally. When Eric and I reported to dinner, Laxman took our order as usual. But this time, he added one serious note: even though our appetites were waning because of the altitude and decreasing food options, even though we just wanted to sleep, we had to fuel up. We would need our energy for the next day. Eric and I nodded gravely at each other, glancing nervously at the not-yet-lit hot stove. The room in which we were huddled was beginning to fill with cold, anxious trekkers. The air was thin.
Eric and I slept in our clothes that night, knowing that taking layers off in the bitter cold the next morning would not be an option. Down jackets, gloves, poles and backpacks at the ready in our mud-walled room at nearly 5,000 metres, we closed our eyes and counted the seconds until it was go-time. There was absolutely no turning back now.
DAYS 10 & Beyond: Thorung-La Pass (5,416m) & Muktinath (3,800m)
The alarm went off the next morning at 4:10 a.m. exactly. We took our last Diamox pills and set off underneath a sky sprinkled with dust from other universes. Countless other trekkers were also making their way to the pass; little headlamps lined the trail in the distance, lighting individual paths. I, however, was feeling incredibly ill.
I prayed. Hard. I’d been praying the whole trip, but on the pass day I started muttering aloud and singing church songs—anything I could do to get a little help. A wave of nausea suddenly crippled me. I had to stop; Eric signalled for Laxman to backtrack. Just as Laxman arrived, I vomited in the snow on the side of the path.
[Dad: 2, Jade: 1]
Laxman held the sides of my head tightly and gave me some water. I felt better, but I was weak. I looked to Laxman for advice and he said confidently, “You either go up on a horse, or you go down on foot.”
And there, out of absolutely nowhere, appeared a horse. God, is that you?! I deliriously thought to myself. I looked to Eric. He nodded. “It’s OK! You’ll be fine! We’ll be right behind you!”
Laxman confirmed that the horse would be $80 (a good price he got from Dashi, the horse’s owner), and then helped me get on. I’m pretty sure it was my first horseback ride ever. It was fabulous. I said hello to the friends I’d made as I passed them on foot.
When I got to the first teahouse, I bought a cup of tea and warmed up with the other totally exhausted trekkers. An Irishman asked me about the horse, and I told him the story. Soon, everyone around me was swapping stories of the morning, and laughter echoed throughout the lean-to. After the Dream Team arrived at this checkpoint, I mounted the horse one last time. Thirty minutes later, we rounded a bend—me, Dashi, and Dashi’s horse—and there were the prayer flags.
We were above the clouds. We had reached 5,416 metres: the highest point on the Annapurna Circuit Trek.
I hopped down and thanked Dashi profusely, then ducked inside the lone teahouse at the top to wait for my team, still on foot, and therefore a bit behind. In record time, Eric and Laxman and Santosh crash landed at the pass. Next to the entry for “euphoric” in the dictionary, there is just a picture of us at the top.
[Dad: 2, Jade/Dashi’s Horse: 2]
With the pass officially behind us, Eric and I were confident the rest of the trek would be a breeze. We stopped taking Diamox on the night after the pass, as “once descent is initiated,” according to our med bottles, altitude sickness is no longer a threat. We were looking forward to warmer nights and more relaxing days. Health, happiness, and comfort.
As it turned out, the hardest part of the trek had just begun.
[Dad: 3, Jade: 2]
Over the course of the next few days, Eric and I struggled to get up in the morning. Our bodies were sending deafening signals that it was time to take a break. In fact, when we reached the village of Kagbeni (2,800 metres) on the day after the pass, we made a plan to take a public bus the following day from Jomsom to Tatopani (1800 metres) to cut out a section of the circuit and to give ourselves a chance to heal.
The bus rolled up just as it hit the 30-minute-late mark, which absolutely no one seemed to care about except me. Eric and I got on the bus behind Laxman, were ushered into inexplicably wet seats, and were reassured that the bus would leave soon. Five seconds later, a woman with angrily-drawn eyebrows asked us questions furiously in Nepali. Eric and I just repeated Laxman’s name over and over, figuring that that would be more effective than trying to speak back in Nepali by counting to 10. Eventually, we were moved two seats back as Laxman explained simply that the buses often double-book seats.
When we were about halfway through the ride, the bus shuddered to a stop. Laxman appeared at the window beside us and told us to get out because the bus would be waiting there for a while.
“There is construction ahead.”
“What kind of construction? Is there traffic?”
Laxman gestured ahead of the bus: the construction was of ahead. We had arrived at what was literally the end of the road. At first, I nearly threw a tantrum. But the thing is, when you’re travelling, the unforeseeable will happen. Sometimes, it’s a bleeding nightmare. Other times, it’s a gorgeous gift. Often, you’re the one who gets to choose.
So we chose.
We climbed atop the roof of the bus with Laxman and Santosh, clapping to the rhythms of songs Laxman sang, songs we didn’t yet know. We took pictures with families clamouring to get a look at the foreigners on the roof, hugging their children and thanking them for spending time with us. We split our last few Snickers bars with our new friends, and watched the excavator perched atop a cliff carve slices out of the mountainside.
In Tatopani the next day, we did our laundry by hand and read our Kindles in the sun, truly understanding what a “day of rest” meant. We continued on to Sikha (2,380 metres) and Ghorepani (2,875 metres) in the following days, regaining some altitude in preparation for watching the sun rise at Poon Hill (3,210 metres).
On the morning of our ascent of Poon Hill, we woke up around 4:30 a.m. and headed up a steep trail. I ran out of gas almost immediately, cursing my body and the day it was born, but I made it to the viewpoint just in time for the sky to warm. The sunrise turned the Dhaulagiri Range hues of peaches and cream, bursting over Fishtail and the Annapurna Range in laser-sharp rays. Like it had so many times throughout the trek, the insane knowledge that we were in the Himalayas cupped my face in its hands. We were four tiny beings amongst several of the highest peaks in the world. It was an easy thing to forget to wonder about.
We headed for Tadapani (2,630 metres) that night, and on the following night, reached Syauli Bazaar (2,000 metres). Then, completely exhausted but so, so blessed, we threw ourselves across the finish line in beautiful Pokhara, after one final meal (and Everest beers) with Laxman and Santosh. One final meal as the Dream Team.
In the end, you’ll notice that my Dad edged me out on points. Unfortunately, this is pretty typical; he’s been edging me out for the past 27 years. He was right about 18 days being a lot. He was right to question whether or not I was getting in over my head. Indeed, I asked those same questions myself amidst the mountains and valleys of Annapurna.
But maybe there is some value to doing a thing that you’re not sure you can do, a thing that makes you doubt yourself all the way up to the final hour of the task. I can’t remember who said “We make choices, and those choices make us.” But I will not soon forget the choice I made to become part of the Himalaya, a small piece of those mountains that hold up the sky over the mysterious, beautiful country of Nepal. ♦
How We Planned & Did Our Annapurna Trek
By Jade Nicholson
Eric’s and my high-altitude trekking experience started with a simple goal: we wanted to be above the clouds. We started researching the best circuits to do with this goal in mind, eyeing breathtaking mountain ranges around the world, and came across The Longest Way Home blog.
David, its creator, curates a number of homegrown travel guides, which are organized by region, so narrowing a destination is a snap. We navigated to the page on Nepal, bought the First Time Trekking in Nepal guide for $5, and quickly settled on the Annapurna Circuit. I highly recommend checking out the blog yourself (www.thelongestwayhome.com) and, if you’re interested in trekking, buying the guide. It’s an invaluable resource for a wide variety of treks in Nepal.
When trekking in Nepal, hiring a guide is highly recommended. Not only will a guide make your trip smoother, but it’s a great way to give back to the country and to the locals, to engage in culturally-aware tourism. Guides earn a fair wage doing something that they have been trained to do and do well, and though the wage might feel like a bargain to you, it can put food on the table for the guide’s family for a month.
I asked David which outfit that he could recommend for our trek, and he pointed me toward Trek Around Nepal (www.trekaroundnepal.com). Trek Around Nepal set us up with everything we needed on the Annapurna Circuit for 18 days: a guide, porter, housing each night in a teahouse, three meals a day, ACAP and TIMS permits (required), pickup/dropoff at Tribhuvan Airport, transport by car to the trailhead at Besi Sahar, and transport by car from the trail end at Syauli Bazaar to Pokhara.
Including tip, Eric and I paid $1,200 USD/per person for all of the above. Once we signed on with Trek Around Nepal, we were assigned guide Laxman Adhikari, and a wonderful porter as well, who would carry the heaviest bag we had. Laxman was the best guide we could possibly have had: professional, caring, funny and kind, he made our time in Nepal absolutely unforgettable. I’d recommend him to everyone interested in experiencing the beauty of Nepal.
We decided to do the trek in April, and had absolutely gorgeous weather. Though Tilicho Lake was still snow-packed at this time of year, we didn’t experience any other impasses due to weather or conditions. Eric and I flew from Melbourne, Australia (where we had been travelling prior to our trek in Nepal) into Kathmandu, capital of Nepal, and then flew out again to Siem Reap, Cambodia for our next adventure. Our flights ran us $500/person and $325/person (USD), respectively.
Flight prices, of course, are highly variable and can change dramatically during different travel seasons and/or months of the year. They also don’t often include/account for extra fees/costs that typically inflate the price tag. Yet it’s also true that deals/sales have never been more available than they are now—the proliferation of both international travel and online travel retailers over the past two decades have made finding a workable flight option a lot more possible.
With respect to gear, I advise bringing the staples: sleeping bag, technical shirts, technical shorts, technical pants, wicking undergarments, wool socks (and good ones!), rain jacket, sunglasses with UV protection, hiking boots (worn/broken-in: do NOT undertake a trekking trip with new/unbroken-in boots—it can cause painful, trip-stopping blisters!); toiletries, water treatment/purification tablets, and a good/solid backpack with supportive straps at the waist and chest.
You can stock up on everything else upon arrival in Kathmandu, once you have a better idea about what you’ll be up against. Thamel, a backpackers’ haven in the city, is a great place to buy any extra gear. There we bought down jackets, trekking poles, reusable water bottles, hats, gloves, snow pants, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, sunscreen, bug spray and rain covers for our packs upon arrival—all of the above ran us each about $80 USD.
If you prefer to bring all your own gear, then definitely do so! Just remember, you don’t need a tent or a sleeping pad, or frankly, much of anything else—you’ll be so tired at the end of each day you won’t be able to read a single page of that book you brought along without immediately falling asleep on your bed in the teahouse!
But if there’s anything I can leave you with, it’s this: if you choose to embark on a trek in Nepal, just know that climbing above the clouds in the Himalayas will be one of the most intense yet rewarding experiences of your life. Best of luck to you on your journey!
Jade Nicholson is hoping to one day again meet Laxman and Sanosh on the trail. This was her first story for Outpost.