Hiking the Annapurna Circuit: Journey to 17,769 Feet

Hiking the Annapurna Circuit: Journey to 17,769 Feet

Several months back, my husband and I had decided to include a month trekking in Nepal on our around-the-world trip. We made this decision going on nothing more than a glowing description of the Annapurna Circuit trek from my Dad’s ex-colleague, whom we had never met. Never mind that neither of us had ever done anything more strenuous than a day hike before. Never mind that my personal idea of hell has never involved dancing flames and eternally-burning fires but rather copious amounts of snow and bare hands and feet. Never mind any of that, because we were going to trek the Annapurna Circuit, and we were going to love every minute of it!

But now that we were ten days into our trek and plodding through over a foot of snow, I was hating every minute of it. I miserably wondered how I had gotten myself into this situation.

We trudged slowly through the snow towards the Thorong La Pass which, at 17,769 feet, would be the highest point our trek – assuming, of course, we ever made it to the top. It was 9:15 am, and we were closing in on the four-hour mark. Though I had started the day feeling upbeat, my mood had been drastically darkened by a one-hour snowstorm and the painfully slow progress we were making.

Could eggplant be considered a fruit? In my altitude-induced delusion, I couldn’t be sure.

I silently cursed the man who had told us an hour before that we were only “half an hour from the top.” Perhaps he had meant half an hour on horseback. Or by airplane. Then I wondered if we could rent a horse. Or maybe an airplane.

I began wondering if we were in some kind of alternate universe where we kept walking the same 200 feet over and over. Left around this snowy hill, right around another snowy hill.

To distract myself from my misery, I tried counting my steps but lost track at something-thousand. I played a mental game, going through the alphabet and naming a fruit that started with each letter but had to stop when the only “E” word I could think of was “eggplant.” Could eggplant be considered a fruit? In my altitude-induced delusion, I couldn’t be sure.

I had just started to wonder at what point it would be reasonable to suggest to my husband that we build an igloo and live in the Himalayas forever when I saw what I thought was the answer to my prayers – a stick in the snow with a lone prayer flag tied to the top of it. My heart leaped. “That’s it!” I thought to myself. “That must be the top!”

Disoriented by the lack of oxygen and unable to think of anything but rainbow-colored candies, my husband finally induced me to keep walking by promising that it would rain Skittles at the top – which, as it turns out, was a lie.

Ten minutes later, we reached what I had thought was the pass – only to find more blank, white snowy mounds endlessly stretched out ahead of us. There was nothing to indicate that we might be close to the top, nothing to indicate that we hadn’t actually been walking the same 200 feet over and over again.

And then I lost it. I turned around and weakly pounded my fists into my husband’s chest with what little strength I had left, half-sobbing and half-yelling, “This isn’t it! This isn’t it!” He put his arms around me to try and comfort me, and I sniffled, wiping my nose with my right glove. It smelled inexplicably like Skittles. Disoriented by the lack of oxygen and unable to think of anything but rainbow-colored candies, my husband finally induced me to keep walking by promising that it would rain Skittles at the top – which, as it turns out, was a lie.

Fifteen long minutes later, we reached the top. There was a sign congratulating everyone who had made it up to the the pass and prayer flags streaming from it in every direction. People were high-fiving and crying and taking pictures. I looked around me, taking it in – and suddenly, it was all worth it. The hours we spent shivering by nearly-nonexistent fires, ten days of eating fried potatoes at every meal, the long hours spent hiking up absurdly steep inclines – it was all worth it to know that I had accomplished something I never thought I could do. I had climbed to 17,769 feet, and I was still alive.

I think there may have been happier moments in my life, but if you asked me right then what those moments might be, I wouldn’t have been able to think of any.

Tips for trekking the Annapurna Circuit:

1. You can do it!

You don’t have to be super-fit, just able to walk about five hours a day, and uphill for a portion of it. Except for the day you cross the pass, there are villages every hour or two, which means you can take your time and stop as much as you want.

2. It’s easy to do the trek without a guide, but a bit more difficult without a porter, depending on how heavy your backpack is.

I would recommend hiring a porter unless you are traveling very lightly. Carry out all of your garbage. Even if there are “trash cans” at your guesthouse, the trash you leave behind still stays on the mountains. Take all of your waste with you.

3. If you can only do part of the trek, do the first half (counterclockwise) and then take a bus back from Jomsom or Muktinath.

4. Go now!

There is a road that is being built right by the trail that should be finished in 2012. The trail just won’t be the same when that happens.

About Zhou Zhang

Zhou ZhangZhou Zhang is currently a PhD student living in Charlottesville, Virginia. She’s constantly planning her family’s next adventure.

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