Trekking in the Clouds at Annapurna Base Camp

10/10/2013

TL;DR for our Nepal Trek Post:

  • Photos from our Nepal Trek
  • Favorite Moments: Reaching the top, playing Hearts with our awesome guide, getting out of the “Leach Zone”
  • Walked:
    on the Trek: 399,456 steps / ~200 miles
    in Total: 2,831,722 steps / ~1416 miles

While I didn’t know exactly what it would be like, I had been looking forward to trekking in Nepal for a while. We had done some research in advance of our arrival and had a pretty good idea that we wanted to do the Annapurna Base Camp trek. We had also found a recommended agent (a licensed professional who helps with providing reputable guides, porters and getting your permits) through a guy who is the apparent online God of Nepal Travel (he’s on Virtual Tourist and TripAdvisor). We spent our first day in Kathmandu visiting our agent and buying a little needed gear (rain ponchos, warm gloves, and trekking poles) for the trek.

What’s an agent?
We used Himalayan Magic Adventures as our agent. Nirmal has been in the business over 20 years and he arranged for a great licensed porter/guide, our trekking permits and transportation. While it’s possible to do all of this on your own if you have time, having an agent to navigate the system for you is well worth it. They can help you decide on a trek based on the length of time you want to spend, difficulty, and budget. Some trekking routes require special permits which cost an addition $500 and mandate that you hire a guide. Here is a snapshot of Guide and Porter services:

Guide ($25/day) – A guide has a license which generally ensures a basic command of English, good knowledge of the area including accommodations, and a desire to keep you safe. A guide WILL NOT carry your bags for you!

Porter/Guide ($20/day) – These guys are guides in training and were very likely porters at some point.  They may have their license or be very close to getting it and they are likely still working on their English.  They will carry a bag for you, but generally less than what a porter would carry.

D.B. (our porter/guide) and local fauna
Our porter/guide DB with our shared 22 lb bag

Porter ($10-15/day) – Porters are most often used on treks where you camp and they can carry heavy loads including your personal and camping gear. While the porters bringing goods and materials up the mountain are known to regularly carry 100 kilos (220 pounds) the trekking porters carry smaller loads, but we often saw them carrying two large backpacks plus a small bag (likely with their own gear).

While it’s not required for the trek that we did, we thought it was a good investment and hired a porter/guide (who turned out to be a full guide who was happy to work for p/g wages).  During one of our days of trekking we came across a female guide and female trekker and DB shared with us that there is only one women owned company in Nepal that has female guides and assistants. Three sisters even won a Responsible Tourism Award in 2012.  Starting a female trekking service in Orthodox Hindu Nepal in the early 90s was no small feat and their story of empowering women in Nepal is impressive!

Teahouse Trekking
The type of trekking that we did is known as teahouse trekking where there are established guesthouses along the trails.  In some villages there are as many as 10 guesthouses, but in most your choice is limited to 2 to 5.  The higher up you go the fewer guesthouses there are and the more modest the accommodation.  That said, no matter the elevation they are all quite basic and intended for backpackers not those seeking 5 star hotels.

DSC02501

In fact there are regulations which prevent guesthouses from providing higher level accommodations even though tourist would pay more.  Guesthouse room and food prices are set by local councils. In general your 8×8 room will be built out of thin plywood, have rocks or bricks holding the metal roof on, include an open window with wood shutters, have a shared bathroom, iffy hot water and cost you $3 with an expectation that you will eat a couple of meals there (generally another $10-15).  A solar hot shower is often included, but given the clouds this simply means the water isn’t mountain river cold.  At higher elevations there are hot water bucket showers and gas hot water showers that will cost you an extra dollar or two.  We learned quickly to look for guesthouses that had lots of space for drying wet clothes and hot showers!  All guesthouses also have a shared dining hall where you can eat, play cards, and dry your clothes over wood stoves or gas heaters.

We went into the trek thinking that we would be eating nothing but Dal Bhat (lentil soup, rice, curry veggies and sometimes a bit of meat) for a couple of weeks, but in reality the food was a pleasant surprise.  It was basic, but had lots of variety (rice, pasta, soup, and omelets mainly). All the eggs, chicken, water buffalo, rice and veggies are local.  We would often see them running out to the field to gather the vegetables for our meal.  Unfortunately the local water will make you quite ill, but we learned that boiled water was safe and could easily fill our bottles up as often as needed, but especially at night as they doubled as heaters in our sleeping bag!

You can also do camping style trekking on other routes where teahouses are not available but this generally entails joining a group and having a guide, cook and porters to set up camp for you.

Scarecrow and Rice Paddies

The Trek
The Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) is a great introduction for a first time Nepal trek and given the length of time we wanted to trek (less than two weeks) it was highly recommended by a variety of sources.  We also looked hard at the Annapurna Circuit, which is a classic Nepal trek along with Everest Base Camp, but there’s now a road build along at least a third of the trail with more construction underway. Two permits/entrance fees were required for ABC, the TIMS and ACAP, which our guide handled on our behalf. Periodically throughout the trek there would be stations where we needed to check in and our permits would be checked.

Getting There
To get to our launch point we took a 7+ hour bus ride from Kathmandu to Pokhara (flying is an option) and from there it was less than an hour drive to Phedi where we started.  Our agent suggested a 12-day itinerary– We decided that we’d go with his recommendation as we really were not in a hurry (despite reading that the trek was often done in 9 days).  In the end we spend 11 nights on the trail and did have some very short days as a result, which allowed us the flexibility to hunker down when we ran into heavy rain.  We were quite OK with being fair weather trekkers given we were just at the end of monsoon season; it allowed us to take the time to enjoy a few side trips.

DSC02439
Hot Springs right next to the river along the way (day 3)!

The Terrain and Scenery
The terrain and views on the trek were incredibly varied with rice terraces, bamboo forests, meadows filled with wild flowers, rhododendron groves, rushing rivers, waterfalls, glaciers and stunning mountain views of course.  One thing that most days seemed to have in common…thousands of steps build from local rock into the trail.  On some days the “stairs” went on for miles!

DSC02531

Dangers on the trail:

  • Altitude Sickness (AMS) is the major danger of the trail.  Many trekkers are either uninformed or have a tight itinerary so risk dangerous rates of ascent beyond the recommended 1000-1500 feet per day above 10,000 feet. We witnessed first hand several people with AMS, one severe enough to require being helicoptered out.  At the higher elevations we would see the rescue choppers flying by daily.

DSC02433

  • Sadly while we were trekking a South Korean woman fell into the raging river and her husband and guide watched her slip away in the whitewater.  A British man had gone missing a couple weeks before and he was also presumed lost to the river.  It was hard not to think of them as you skirted a slippery section of the trail just a foot wide hugging the cliff edges with the river roaring below or walked across one of the many suspension bridges often without railings.
  • The donkey caravans were also something to be cautious of.  Loaded up with supplies like propane tanks or huge bags of rice they would wander by you with a bit of speed and you wanted to be sure to be on the uphill side of them!

DSC02553

  • And finally my very least favorite part of the trek…the leaches!  We had been warned, but there isn’t anything quite like experiencing it first hand.  On sections of the lower elevations, particularly if it had been raining, you had to keep a look out for leaches.  They would fall from the trees, but most often would somehow crawl up your shoes or walking stick even when you were moving.  We spent considerable time stopping to check our shoes and clothes and flicking off the leaches present.  And still they would find their way in our socks and be discovered when we were taking our shoes off.

Meeting other trekkers
Despite being slightly early for the main trekking season and ABC being less popular than the Annapurna Circuit, one of the great parts of trekking is that over the course of a week or so you see many of the same people along the trail.  Over meals or while drying clothes in the common area at night we enjoyed conversations with people from all over the world including Israel, Australia, Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, China and South Korea to name a few… all with adventure in their heart.

DSC02424
This man claimed he knew shiatsu and afterwards offered to show us his “yoga body.”

Village life
The Nepalese are some of the happiest people we have ever met.  They always have a smile or a hello to offer and genuinely seem quite pleased to see you.  This certainly holds true among the villagers we encountered along our route.  Those that are not running guesthouses or porter services to supply the guesthouses are growing crops like rice, buckwheat, corn, greens and even tomatoes and cucumbers at the lower elevations.  Many village men are employed as porters and absolutely every supply and material you see above 7000 feet is brought in by human power. The village of Chomrong made a conscious decision to not allow donkeys beyond this point to ensure employment for the villagers.  These men (avg. height 5’4″) are known to carry up to 220 pounds of everything from bags of rice, to live chickens and building materials all while wearing flip flops. It is hard to get used to seeing, but incredibly impressive!

Porters of Nepal

In one of the larger villages we passed through we were fortunate to see a group of dancers and musicians.  While they would likely not have been performing that night if it were not for tourists, it was quite obvious how much they enjoyed performing as much for themselves as for us!

Would we trek again?
Hmmm. That might be a split decision!  There were definitely some really tough days, made more difficult by warmer weather, near 90 degrees at the start and end of the trek.  I think we would both agree that if we were to do it again it would be during the typical Oct/Nov or Spring trekking season when the weather is drier and cooler. And while it is unlikely that we would do the same trek again, I would trust our instincts more and shorten it by a day or two with a couple of longer days, particularly if we were hiking in cooler/drier weather.  We also find the concept of the more social Annapurna Circuit appealing.  While we would often be the only or nearly only trekkers in our guesthouse, being a part of a full guesthouse filled with adventurous souls could be quite fun.  And there is something to be said for a 10-day fast paced strength building and weight loss program – we both had over 3 inches taken in on all our pants/shorts when we arrived in Indonesia.

DSC02627