Hiking Nepal's Annapurna Circuit Pt. 1

It has been two whole weeks since we got off the Annapurna trail through the Himalayas and returned to “normal” travel life—moving by cars, trains, and planes instead of our own two feet. And although I was happy for a rest and some clean fresh laundry, I find myself looking at photos from the trail nearly every day, still in awe of the Annapurna Conservation Area. I loved the trek so much that I left the trail with a list of thru hikes to complete in 2019 and a renewed desire to trail run.

Anyway, it is about time I share some stories and photos from this incredible trek. To start here is a breakdown of the first 10 days of our hike—until we crossed the high pass called Thorong La. This wasn’t a strictly scheduled itinerary. Instead, we adjusted our plan every couple of days based on how we all felt. My Garmin satellite watch provided the mileage, though it got a bit confused sometimes so I guesstimated to correct the distances.

Day 1: Hiked 1.7 miles. Slept at 3,600 ft in Shrichaur.

We hired a Jeep (that was really an Indian made Scorpio, but all 4-wheel drive cars here were called Jeeps) from Kathmandu up into the mountains to somewhere near Syange. Somehow our wires got crossed with our driver and he took us farther up the circuit than we intended. We aren’t actually even sure where he was planning to stop because the Jeep broke down somewhere outside of Syange, so that’s where we started hiking! We grabbed the first teahouse we found and enjoyed some beers to celebrate the first night on the trail. 

 

Day 2: Hiked ~13 miles. Slept at 6,069 ft in Dharapani.

We were really excited for our first real day of hiking which led us to overextend ourselves a bit. We hiked for about two hours, stopped for tea, hiked two more hours, stopped for lunch, then hiked three more hours to our final teahouse. At dinner, we decided seven hours of hiking uphill was too much to maintain. At our teahouse, we tried a “local beer,” which is in quotes because it was not like any beer we ever had. It was bright yellow, tasted like fizzy fermented fruit juice, and was served in used plastic water bottles. 

 

Day 3: Hiked 11.4 miles. Slept at 8,864 ft in Chame.

On day three we really found our hiking grove—we got up around 5 am, ate breakfast, and got on the trail before 7 am, two hours of hiking, a tea break (tea, or Fanta, maybe some little stuffed dumplings called mo:mos), two hours of hiking, a light lunch, then one hour of hiking to end the day at about 2 pm. Once in Chame, we felt a chill for the first time and broke out our puffy jackets for the evening. We also experienced our first bucket showers. The teahouse owner brought us a bucket of hot water (almost boiling) and a bucket of cold water. Then standing in the shower, you used a smaller bucket to combine the waters (aiming for hot, but not scalding) to pour over yourself. I felt mostly clean afterward. We ate dinner, played cards, and were in bed by 7 pm—our standard bedtime. 

 

Day 4: Hiked 10.8 miles. Slept at 10,859 ft in Upper Pisang.

We got our first glimpse of nearby peaks! And of trail puppies! I don’t know which was more exciting. It was a short day of hiking so we were showered and comfy in our teahouse by 2 pm. We spent the afternoon sipping on whiskey-spiked tea, playing poker, and reading. 

 

Day 5: Hiked 13.9 miles. Slept at 11,531 ft in Manang.

The day started with a grueling set of switchbacks at a very steep incline but mellowed out after tea time (about 10 am most days). Once the trail flattened out, we spent the hike marveling at the Himalayan peaks that surrounded us. It was one of the most beautiful days on the trek. We took a wrong turn somewhere along the trail and ended up taking the longer, steeper, scenic route. Meaning we arrived in Manang a little cranky and STARVING. Manang is a bigger town though so our teahouse rooms had attached bathrooms—so luxurious. 

 

Day 6: Rested in Manag.

It felt so wonderful to wake up to a rest day. Most itineraries and guides recommend a rest day in Manang to acclimate before climbing to higher altitudes. We spent the day in hiker luxury, with big cappuccinos, cinnamon rolls, and 'tacos' for lunch. We took a walk toward the glacier to shake out our legs but spent most of the day relaxing and playing our new favorite card game—Spades! In the afternoon, we attended a free lecture on altitude from the Himalayan Rescue Association, a group of volunteer western doctors. They warned us of all the signs of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and told stories about the first westerners who found the trek in the 1970's. Many of them died because they climbed up too fast and didn't acclimate properly. It was very informative and we left feeling confident we could spot the signs of AMS.

 

Day 7: Recovered in Manang.

A fluke day. We woke up at 5 am intending to hike up to Tilicho Lake (a detour off the circuit) but quickly realized that Andrew and Dad were not well and not fit to hike and instead needed to spend the day in close proximity to a toilet … if you know what I mean. We blamed the hot sauce from the night before. Brian and I were fine and spent more time at the bakery with huge cappuccinos, then hiked to a nearby monastery. The sick ones were a bit more mobile by early evening so we sat in the sun, played more Spades, and ate plain dinners in our rooms. 

 

Day 8: Hiked 6.6 miles. Slept at 13,469 ft in Yak Yak Yak Kharka.

We got a late start to make sure all our stomachs were cooperating and hiked slowly. Once we left Manag, the trail felt much more remote. No roads up there. There were no more hot showers, no more wifi, spotty electricity, and less variety in our choice of food. It was actually what we had expected of the whole trail, so we weren't put off. Once settled in our teahouse that evening, we realized it was much colder than previous nights. I slept in long underwear, a flannel shirt, a fleece, and a beanie. And I still put a thick blanket on top of my 28-degree rated down sleeping bag. 

 

Day 9: Hiked 4.3 miles. Slept at 14,858 ft in Thorong Phedi (Base Camp).

Well, we were not wrong about the cold. In fact, we woke up to snow on the ground! It was momentarily exciting but then it was just worrisome. Hiking up to almost 15,000 ft in snow starts to sound less like trekking and more like mountaineering, which we were definitely not equipped for. Fortunately, the trails stayed clear so we got to enjoy a few hours of hiking among spectacular snow-covered hills and mountains. Since it was a short but steep hike, we spent another afternoon bundled up and relaxing—or at least trying to, but we were all getting excited to finally cross the pass. 

 

Day 10: Hiked 10.7 miles. Crossed the pass at 17,769 ft. Slept at 12,438 ft in Muktinath.

After a 4 am wake up, we downed a quick breakfast and some weak coffee and trudged up the long steep climb to Thorong La. It took us an hour or so to walk basically STRAIGHT up toward High Camp. After a quick tea break, we continued toward the pass. We took tiny steps, leaving just a few inches between boot prints in the snow. The hike was slow but steady. We took breaks often to just stand around and breathe. The views were breathtaking—and not just because we had 50% of the oxygen of sea level. After almost three hours, we saw the pile of prayer flags that signified the pass. We cheered and quickened our steps to throw off our packs and enjoy the views. It felt like such an accomplishment to reach the top! 

Once we got our fill of taking photos of our incredible accomplishment, we set off down the other side of the pass only to find out that the rest of the day would only get harder. In just seven miles, we lost 5,000 ft of elevation on a steep downhill trail. There were very few switchbacks. Instead, the trail just pointed nearly straight down. It was hard on our knees and was definitely the most painful section of trail. Once we got down to the village of Muktinath, we took some very well deserved hot showers (it had been a few days since our last shower), ate an early dinner and all fell asleep around 6 pm. 

Stay tuned for the details of our final five days in part two of this post!