23rd October, 2018
I was still in bed, when Mona da suddenly came into our room and declared that he was starting for Annapurna Base Camp in the wee hours so that he could reach there before dawn to witness the famed sunrise on the Annapurna range and come back down the same day to descend to Deorali. His rationale was to get to lower altitudes as soon as possible. The idea of getting down seemed logical, but I wasn’t so sure about the wisdom of taking the strain of going up to the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) and come down the same day. It would only add to his fatigue. However, if he can pull this off, then nothing like it. He can still achieve the objectives. He was to take one of the porters along with him for assistance. So he went ahead with this plan. As a matter of fact, most of the travelers do not stay at MBC. They start from Deorali and reach ABC on the same day. Some come down the same day to halt at MBC or even further down. Others stay at ABC before coming down. However, we planned for a halt at MBC on our way up for two reasons. Firstly, that would limit the daily hike on the last two days to just 2-3 hours, leaving enough time for rest. Secondly, the altitude gain (which rises sharply after Deorali) would be gradual. The plan also gave us ample time to spend at MBC and ABC. Clouds played spoilsport at MBC and we were deprived of the famed sunset views of the Fish Tail peak. Later on, we were more than compensated for it at the Annapurna Base Camp.
Though ABC was just two and a half hours ahead, we still decided to start early mainly to cover as much of the trail as possible before the sun gains power. The amount of snow was expected to increase with height and it was advisable to cross it before it started to melt. We didn’t have crampons with us. As I got up and ventured out of the room, I was chilled to my bones. After I got myself prepared, it was time to get my daughter ready. She said she wasn’t feeling very well, but her voice didn’t reflect it. I suspected she overheard the conversation Mona da had with us and these were its after effects. I ignored these and pushed her to get ready. Dressing her up was an arduous task, especially at these altitudes. The umpteen layers of clothing made it cumbersome and tedious. The warm thermals formed the first layer, then came on the pant and shirt, followed by two sweaters and finally, the jacket (which we purchased from Kathmandu, where the vendor claimed that it could sustain temperatures as low as -5 degrees Celsius). After getting ourselves ready, we headed for breakfast. The first morning rays started to come into the valley as the skies started to light up gradually. That’s when the helicopter rotors started running again. The stranded travelers from the previous day didn’t waste anytime in this clear weather and the helicopter headed down for Pokhara through the valley. The porters strapped up our luggage and started early while we waited for the first rays of sun to fall on the Annapurna range, visible on the Western horizon as dark outlines. The mountains on all sides appeared imposing in the darkness of the early morning. Gradually, the line of darkness started moving down the slopes of Annapurna South and Annapurna Main and they were crowned with gold. The entire place resembled a cinema theater. All of the sides were dark with just a single ray of light illuminating the peaks of the Annapurna range. As-if a projector was running from behind the mountains in the back and scenes were playing out one by one on the Western horizon.
At these situations, one cannot take their hands off the camera lenses as colors keep changing fast. Successive snaps yield different colors as the sun plays the artist on nature’s canvas.
As if it is in a hurry to display all its colors in a short span of time. This plays out exactly in the opposite sequence during sunset. The crown of gold kept increasing its ambit engulfing other peaks of the Annapurna range.
We couldn’t have asked for better start for the day and we hit the trail after the sunrise scenes were played out by nature which culminated with all the mountains making their appearance in the bright sun, illuminating the entire valley and the route ahead.
The trail moved out of the premise of our lodge and gradually moved up through a series of sharp bends. All the members were in a jovial mood. I kept thinking about Mona da. Hopefully, we will encounter him en route on his way down. The slopes were covered with yellow bushes that were dotted by rocks and boulders. Our walk was interspersed by many halts as at any given point of the trail, one could stop and look around to get a treat to the eyes with snow covered mountains visible from all sides.
Members of our group took their time taking snaps against the surroundings. For a change, my daughter was walking with me, for the first time on this trail. She appeared to be doing fine. We tried rousing her interest by drawing her attractions to the mountains. She did cast a look, but didn’t forget to ask how far we still had to go to reach the destination. Gradually, snow started making its presence felt. At first, they appeared in patches beside the trail.
The river was making its way through the rocks, which had icicles hanging from their edges. The intensity of the sound of flowing river water reduced as we were getting closer to the snout of the glacier which formed the source of this river.
At places, the river water flowed underneath thin transparent films of ice. Pools were formed where water became stagnant between surrounding rocks with their edges fringed by white powdery snow. The mountain peaks came nearer as we moved ahead and made their towering presence felt. On our left, Mt Hiunchuli stood upright beyond the edges of the nearby hills.
Even the glaciers that came down the slopes of the mountains were visible in their full glory, shining bright in the morning sun.
The amount of snow increased with height. After crossing a few bends, we encountered a jubilant Mona da on his way down from the Annapurna Base Camp. He was looking fit and was ecstatic about the views of sunrise he witnessed there.
We all felt good about the fact that his decision paid off. It was a win-win situation for him. He didn’t miss any of the places or views on offer on this trail but at the same time, his health was better and now was on his way down to Deorali. That should not only take him down to much lower altitudes, but also he’d have much of the ground covered, which we’d have to, on our way down. With all of us safe and sound, we moved ahead.
The trail was now completely covered with snow and we had to be careful with our steps. But given the fact, we were on our way up and the snow was still relatively fresh, we could have grip. Things would prove more difficult on our way down. Going by the trend, more snow was expected in the afternoon. All of that would get converted to ice during the night making walking difficult, the next morning.
There was snow on the trail, on the slopes and of course, on the mountains. There wasn’t an inch of land devoid of snow. Adults transformed to kids and started throwing snow balls at each other. The two daughters too, joined the party.
In the distant horizon, we could see the faint outlines of roofs of the lodges. That must be the Annapurna Base Camp. We tried to hurry the group to reach there as soon as possible. That would give us ample time to rest. It was also important because regardless of the sunshine, it’s almost guaranteed to snow in the later half of the day. Though the lodges were visible from here, we still had to cover some distance. Hence, there was no point wasting time. In the meantime, my daughter struck a unique deal with Niladri. She always wanted to pause, whereas we kept on pushing her. She would walk for some distance and then rest, but only till the time it takes for her to dig four small holes in the snow with the lower end of her trekking stick. To keep things going, we agreed and the arrangement continued for sometime. After a while though, we realized that the time taken to dig a hole started to increase. Apparently, she worked with minute precision and perfection in digging the holes. No matter how long it took, the hole had to be perfect. This led to the suspicion whether her focus was really on precision or to buy more time for rest. We had to intervene and push her to move along.
We left the main trail and moved up a bit to embark on a different trail along the slopes of the hills on the right side. We did so because this trail was somehow devoid of snow and we could move faster. The lodges grew bigger as we moved on but they were still not within our reach. Helicopters, in the meantime kept plying around, either for rescue operations or ferrying passengers embarking on helicopter tours. But the weather was deteriorating fast. The sunshine was gone. Clouds hovered above the mountain peaks, some of which were already engulfed by them. Just about then, we reached the premises of the Annapurna Base Camp, which had a few sign boards declaring the name along with some welcome messages.
In spite of the name, the place didn’t resemble a base camp in its literal terms, rather appeared as a place of halt, no different that the ones we came through from down below. There weren’t any expedition camps as we saw them at the Everest Base Camp. Still, it was a land mark and people were satisfied after reaching there. It was indeed, a cherished goal to achieve, especially, with the little daughters. Finally, it seemed that all the hurdles were behind us. There were three lodges in the area. We went into one of them. The rooms were already allotted. Most importantly, there were enough blankets for all, which was a big relief. This is one thing to be aware of. In the peak seasons (like Autumn, the season we went in), lodges in this route are packed to the brim and very often they get overbooked. Trekkers often need to adjust and sleep in the dining area. In such conditions, there can be shortage of blankets. When in demand, the porters and guides get the priority before tourists (that’s the unspoken rule in this part of the world). So, tourists are advised to carry sleeping bags and enough warm clothing with them to adapt to such situations. We were fortunate enough not to face such eventualities beyond Bamboo.
After we got ourselves settled in the lodge, we headed for the dining room and almost immediately, it started snowing outside. It started with tiny particles which increased in size and intensity as the day went ahead. It showed no signs of abating anytime soon. The entire lodge premises was painted white in no time. Though we enjoyed it from the warmth of the dining hall, I also started worrying about the next day. The conditions will worsen and we had a long way to travel.
We enjoyed our tea within the cosy dining hall, while it continued to snow heavily outside. Suddenly, the lodge premises got to life with a huge band of trekkers coming in. All of them had white uniform with a badge, indicating that they were from some organization. They were young students from a school in South Korea, on an educational trip! We just thought ourselves to be fortunate to have enough blankets (not all of them had been dispatched to our rooms yet) and with this group coming in (there were at least fifty members), it would add to the already brewing crisis. However, to our relief, we came to know that the group would just spend sometime, sip cups of tea and then head down to MBC, the same day. While it gave us relief, I kept thinking about the problems we might encounter during our descent, the next day. Someone drew our attention to a thermometer in the dining hall that provided temperature readings from outside and inside. At about 2.30 PM in the afternoon, the temperature outside was -4 degree Celsius. Towards late afternoon, the intensity of the snow decreased and finally, it stopped. Some of us ventured outside the lodge into the lawn. I didn’t want to be that adventurous till someone drew my attention towards the Fish Tail peak which was now visible on the eastern horizon. Clouds started clearing up and the structure of Fish Tail began to emerge. I ran to the room immediately to fetch my camera in the anticipation of a glorious sunset. We were really fortunate that the snow stopped and clouds started to clear all around. The fading rays of sun provided a tinge of gold on the slopes of Fish Tail.
With my past experience in the mountains, I could identify this development as a precursor to well enacted and colorful sunset drama. Strong winds blew across the top of Fish Tail sending a plough of snow looking like a yellowish golden scarf. As the sun started to change its position, so did the colors of its rays. Nature came up with brushes of gold and red and started painting the Fish Tail peak in different shades.
The hues of gold turned more intense as time went by and our shutters kept clicking. Almost the entire population at the lodge came out to witness this extraordinary drama on the stage of nature.
Gradually, the color acquired a reddish tinge before fading out entirely. The Fish Tail peak and the surrounding range of mountains and glaciers now appeared clear and white.
After the sunset, we suddenly realized that our fingers were almost getting cutoff by the biting cold. We didn’t bother as long as the sunset act was being played out, but after that we immediately headed to the dining hall. Dinner got served at 6.30 PM. After that we subsided under our blankets. We were sleeping at 4130 m. At that time, the thermometer at the dining hall read -6.