Located in the heart of the world’s highest mountain range, the Annapurna Circuit is a 145 mile trail that circles 8+ massive peaks (3 of those topping 8,000 m/26,246 ft) through an amazingly diverse landscape and cultures. Coming from mountain ranges that are less than half that size, I was left speechless. Actually, that’s not true at all… I was hooting and hollering with glee at every turn, buzzing with joy. After completing 100 miles of the trek I could sing it’s praises from the rooftops to anyone who will listen. An amazing opportunity to detox the mind, body and soul.
[I like this map simply for a bird’s eye of the mountain peaks. Note: Hiked counter-clockwise]
After living at sea level for the last year on a nearly perpetual vacation (aka – we lost our Park City physique), Matt and I were a bit nervous about how our lungs and legs would hold up. The trek is listed as taking anywhere from 16 to 21+ days, while we also found blog posts of people who completed it in 10-12 days. As novices to the trekking scene, we weren’t exactly sure what that meant to us. We had hoped to complete the trek in 12 days or less, so we decided to hire a guide/porter to maximize our time. Typical Americans trying to ‘do it all’, but it was the right decision for us. Our rock-star, billy-goat porter named Rajin carried our trekking pack in exchange for his school-sized bag and navigated us through the most exhilarating chunk of the trail in 10 days time, after which we caught a bus the remaining 45 miles. He taught us about his culture, gave us a Nepali vocab lesson each evening and was a fierce card competitor. Did I mention he wore flip flops for the first 3 days?? Yeah… Humbled.
On day zero we caught a bus directly from Kathmandu to the trail head where we spent the first night. The bus was far from glamorous, but after tying a scarf around my face to block out the dust and alternating positions to fit my western-sized legs within the Asian-sized seating area, we eventually survived the bumpy nine hour commute. I may have kissed the earth when we arrived. Starting at 2,300 ft. with our peak goal of 17,769 ft., I’d have plenty of time to stretch my legs. The trail starts amid green terrace-covered foothills and transitions slowly into densely forested gorges until you finally reach the barren gravel and glaciers of Thorong La Pass. Along the way we passed through many Tibetan-like villages beside the Marsyangdi river, while admiring the strong souls that lived in the cliff-top settlements high above. Although you’re never far from the next teahouse, having the opportunity to sleep within these simple villages is a definite highlight of the trekking experience. It’s amazing to see land cultivated and efficiently utilized in this way. A fertile slope of terraced mountain land can support whole communities in places that we, as Westerners, wouldn’t imagine trying to live… Some only accessible by horse or foot. It’s beautiful to see villages that have maintained their traditional ways of life, still happily existing off the land (…and trekking tourism that is).
[click any photo to enlarge]
The climate, naturally, is also diverse. During the first few days of sub-tropical weather you may be fooled into regretting the weight of your down jacket and sleeping bag, while you drip sweat with each step. After reaching sub-zero temps on day 7 we were glad we had packed appropriately. The landscape seemed to get more and more dramatic everyday, but that was only because each day was so different from the previous. The only thing that doesn’t change is the food. We feasted on Dahl Bhat, veg curry, and noodle soup most nights. When Matt learned that Dahl Bhat included unlimited re-fills (a typical Nepali meal of curry, lentil soup, spicy pickles and rice), he ordered it every night. After hiking steadily up hill for 5-9 hours/day, the hearty meals were a welcomed reward.
On the night before summit day we slept at 14,500 ft. We set the alarm for 3AM to fuel up and hit the trail by 4AM sharp. This was another Rajin recommendation and we are so glad he encouraged the early start. Headlamps turned out to be unnecessary with the full moon illuminating the rocky valley. It was like the gods had conspired to end our journey with a bang. After a grueling hour of steep climb, the rising sun seemed to breath new life into us. The peaks were set afire with the first light of day, while the shadows slowly retreated from the valleys. Our lungs laboriously sucked in the high altitude air as we continued onward and upward, one step at a time.
We eventually reached the top after a 4 hour climb and stood in breathless awe. The hundreds of colorful prayer flags popped against the dramatic contrast of white snow, bright blue skies and staggering peaks. We couldn’t help but feel like we were on top of the world, although we were a humbling 12,000 ft. lower than the mighty Everest. Wow. After hugging and congratulating our fellow trekkers on the well-deserved accomplishment, we started the looooong descent down. If you are familiar with Park City, imagine hiking from 9990 peak at Canyons Resort to the base of Salt Lake City. If you’ve never been to Park City, imagine hiking down a very steep mountain for a very long time… Why is downhill always more challenging than up?!
In so many ways Nepal has been the perfect conclusion to our journey abroad. After spending the last year chasing summer, the cool mountain air reminded us of home. The smell of pine trees brought me back to days on the lake at grandma’s cabin, while the sight of white powder got me itching to strap on the snowboard bindings. The beach life is good, but I left my heart in the mountains. We couldn’t be more excited to get back to the beautiful landscape we call home and our friends and family that live there. It’s been a mighty long time.