Some might wonder, has this blog died altogether? After the last post about Manaslu, it went silent. After that memorable travel, came the pandemic, which, like many other aspects, put a brake on mountain travel (for that matter, travel altogether). If I don’t travel, material dries up for this blog, just like disappearance of a glacier dries up the rivers emanating from it. However, it’s not entirely true that I didn’t travel at all. I did go to Sandakfu in 2020, but it wasn’t hiking up a trail, but a jeep ride to the top. 2021 saw me going to Goecha la (the famed pass in Sikkim that offers closest views of Mt KangchenDzonga from India). However, unfortunately, I couldn’t complete the trek and I had to return from Thansing due to unforeseen circumstances. One could argue that I could have put some details of those travels (particularly, the latter, as it did have some interesting aspects due to bad weather), but nevertheless, it would have been futile.
The Annapurna Circuit
However, in 2021, before venturing out to Goecha la, our initial plan was to try out the “Annapurna circuit” – the famed round trip around the Annapurna range that starts from Besisahar and ends up in Pokhara. This trail was once voted as the best long distance trek in the world, in it’s “initial” form. It’s important to highlight the word “initial”. Back in those days, it used to take around 23 days to complete this trail, when road construction wasn’t there to the reaches as they are today. The trail used to take one from lower sub-tropical regions (at about 600m) to arctic like climes of Thorong la (the highest point on the trail at 5416m). The cultural variety ranged from Hindu villages in the lower foothills to Tibetan cultures at higher reaches of Manang & Mustang. Since those days, with ever increasing road network, the walking trail has shortened and the villages too have acquired a more cosmopolitan culture with more tea houses springing up to serve international tourism. Today, road network has reached Manang & Muktinath (on either sides of the Thorong la) and strictly speaking, one can just walk for three days to complete the entire circuit. But most of the trekkers avoid doing that for two reasons. Firstly, they don’t want to get robbed off the chance of walking on this once (& still) beautiful trail despite having to walk on the same roads where jeeps ply. Secondly, they prefer to give better chances of acclimatization to their bodies. So they’ve opted for best of both worlds to advance their starting point by taking rides to either Dharapani or Chame and then start their trek. For the first part of the trek (during ascent to the Thorong la), the trail goes along the Marshyangdi river valley. After crossing Thorong la, you leave Manang and enter Mustang to descend to Muktinath. From thereon, you enter the Kali Gandaki river gorge, which deepens up to 1 km at places, making it the deepest in the world. In the entire course, one has to cross the districts of Lamjung, Manang, Mustang, Myagdi, Baglung, Parbat and finally Kaski (Pokhara). Mostly, this route gets traversed anticlockwise as that makes the altitude gain much slower and crossing the Thorong la, easier. One gets to see many mountain peaks from close quarters along the route and that includes the Annapurna massif (Annapurna II-IV), Dhaulagiri, Manaslu, Gangapurna, Tilicho peak, Pissang peak, Chulu peak and many others in the range of 6000-8000m. While on the Manang side, one gets to view the Annapurna range, Gangapurna, Tilicho etc., Dhaulagiri makes it’s first appearance as one heads to Mustang after crossing Thorong la as soon as one enters the Muktinath valley. The trekking trail gives glimpses of subtropical forests, village fields, giant waterfalls & high mountain cliffs.
The Annapurna area was opened to foreign tourists in 1977 after a peaceful settlement between the CIA and local Khampa guerilla groups. Since then, the character of the villages on the route (which were earlier solely dependent on agriculture) have undergone a drastic change with an entire infrastructure developing to support foreign tourists. Numerous lodges have come up along the route to cater to their needs. Today, facilities like Wi-Fi, hot showers, multi-national cuisines are available in tea houses in almost every place on the route on both sides of the Thorong la. Places like Manang offer the best of the bakeries on the route today. However, with this development, also came in the hazards of environmental degradation. In order to address that, the Annapurna Conservation Area project came into being in 1986. With its inception, alternative forms of energies (instead of firewood) were looked at and implemented. Community development programs were implemented to address health, educational and sanitation needs and a committee also got setup to look after & conserve the area’s forests. While many argue that with these developments, the route has lost much of it’s ethnicity (which is still visible in less frequented routes like Manaslu circuit), but the mountain scenery continues to mesmerize the tourists as they did in earlier times when road network was nascent in the area.
In 2021, we drew up plans for the Annapurna Circuit, with an additional detour to Tilicho lake (a high altitude lake at 4900m). It was moving ahead smoothly till one of our members faced leave problems and found challenging to spare two weeks (the least number of days needed to complete the schedule). We dropped the idea and headed for Goecha la instead. However, it was a decided fate, that Annapurna circuit lay in store for us in 2022. Its important to note that our attention was drawn to Annapurna circuit not because of the circuit trail, but Tilicho lake. That’s what started the discussion. Strictly speaking, one doesn’t have to complete the circuit to just visit Tilicho lake. To do that, it’s much easier to drive to Manang, hike from there and return by the same route. But we wanted to complete the trek via Muktinath, which meant we were looking at Annapurna Circuit with Tilicho lake as a detour. Back in 2021, it seemed a long wait, but time goes on and a year on, we were looking forward to the journey. Discussions started as early as in June/July and a team of six was formed. Negotiations went on with Tej Bahadur Gurung of Nepal Alternative Treks. After his initial quotes, one member had to drop out and the team reduced to five. Our plan was to travel to Gorakhpur by train (one member, Niladri was to travel from Kolkata and another, Dhananjoy, was to board our train from Delhi at Lucknow). From Gorakhpur, we were to travel to Sonauli border (a jeep ride for 2.5 hours). From thereon, another vehicle ride (of approximately 10 hours) should take us to Besisahar. Our porters and guide would join us there. The next day, another ride of four hours should take us to Chame, which was to be our starting point for walk. Discussions went ahead about preparations and equipment. One question came to my mind, which was whether or not to carry crampons (or micro spikes, as some do today to avoid the cumbersome use of crampons) as there are likely walks to be done over snow covered ridges/slopes along the route. Speaking to Tej (and later, the assigned guide) and also to my team mates, I was convinced, it was not required. That is a decision I rue today and will continue to rue for the rest of my life as it meant, I had to give up the hopes of visiting a very critical section of the trail (a tale for later).
After initial discussions with Tej, our initial itinerary came up like the following:
- Day 1: Drive from Besisahar to Dharapani and then a hike to Chame (approximately four hours)
- Day 2: Walk from Chame to Upper Pissang (approximately 6 hours)
- Day 3: Walk from Upper Pissang to Manang (approximately 6 hours)
- Day 4: Acclimatization day at Manang (which would include hikes to local attractions like ice lake/Gangapurna lake along with some local sight seeing of the Manang village)
- Day 5: Hike from Manang to Tilicho base camp and stay at the tea house there (approximately 5-6 hours)
- Day 6: Hike from Tilicho base camp to Tilicho lake, spending some time there and hike down to base camp, have lunch and walk down to Sree Kharka and stay there (approximately 8-9 hours)
- Day 7: Walk from Sree Kharka to Yak Kharka (approximately 4-5 hours) and stay
- Day 8: Hike from Yak Kharka to Thorong Phedi (approximately 5 hours) and stay
- Day 9: Hike from Thorong Phedi at the wee hours of the day, cross over Thorong la, descend to Muktinath (approximately 9-10 hours) and stay
- Day 10: Walk down to Jomsom from Muktinath (approximately 2-3 hours) and stay
- Day 11: Drive from Jomsom to Pokhara and stay
This schedule should leave us about two extra days which could either be used for rest at Pokhara (if not used on the route due to delays) or could be added to the itinerary to have some extra halts. Tej’s suggestion was to include extra halts at Kagbeni (between Muktinath & Jomsom) and Marpha (after Jomsom) – two picturesque villages on the route from Muktinath to Pokhara. We contemplated within the group about how to use these extra days. While some agreed to spend at Kagbeni and Marpha, others advocated to spend them at Pokhara, enjoying its hospitality & food after completion of an arduous trek. We chose to defer that decision at run time.
Unlike our earlier trips to Nepal, we won’t be traveling to Kathmandu as there were no flights involved. Three of us from Delhi, were to board a train from Anand Vihar railway station destined for Gorakhpur. Dhananjoy would board the same train from Lucknow. Niladri, on the other hand, would board a train for Gorapkhpur from Kolkata. We all were supposed to reach Gorakhpur on the 8th of October, no later than 8 AM (assuming no delays by Indian railways). A local vehicle should take another two hours to port us to Sonauli border. Hence, we were looking at boarding a jeep from the border no later than 10-10.30 AM. A ten hour drive (including lunch and other necessary breaks) from there should take us to Besisahar (no later than 8 PM). All seemed perfect at that time.
The first jolt came in the form of weather updates from Central Nepal. There, avalanches swept the slopes of Mt Manaslu, claiming lives of some sherpas and mountaineers of aspiring expedition teams. This forced abortion of all expeditions in the Manaslu region temporarily. The Annapurna region isn’t far from that area and weather started to acquire grip on that area too (in fact, expeditions at Dhaulagiri also had to be suspended). Members of our household started to panic a bit and we also kept close watch on weather updates from the region. News came that incessant rains have forced many groups out of their planned schedules, both in Annapurna circuit and sanctuary (south base camp) routes and many were on the verge of return. We kept our fingers crossed and kept checking the weather forecast for the region. In the meantime, on the night of 6th (the day before we were about to depart for Gorakhpur), one of our members developed high fever and opted out of the trip reducing our team to four. These late desertions disrupt the preparations and more importantly, the cost, as some of the expenses are shared. But there’s nothing one can do for such unexpected medical situations. We contemplated informing Tej, but decided against it (after a long video call between us) since reduction of porters wasn’t an option (given the needs of the remaining number of members). That night I went to sleep with a mixed feeling – getting a few goosebumps about the upcoming trip, some concerns about team reduction and more importantly, concerns about how the weather would play out (which it did, as we found out later) during our trek.