From September 14th to 25th, I trekked to the base camp of Annapurna – the tenth highest mountain in the world – through the foothills of the Himalayas. We went with the 3 Sisters Trekking Company for female trekkers, and had an awesome guide named Bhagwati. She patiently supported our attempts at Nepali, and became more of a nambro sati (a good friend – and I apologize for my butchering of Nepali spelling) by the end of the trek. As a bonus, we met up with another 3 Sisters group of 5 trekkers, 5 porters/assistant guides, and 2 guides, all women. Yvonne, Sabine, Catherine, Emma, and Mary came from Sweden, Germany, Quebec, and Australia, and we spent the majority of the trek following the same crazy route as them.
The trail as insane. About half of it consists of stone steps going up ever higher into the clouds or steeply down into a river valley (only to regain the elevation on the other side of the valley). The steepness of the steps gives the feel of descending down an elevator shaft: one carpeted with ferns and jungle trees on either side. My hiking poles clicked and slid as I simultaneously tried to protect my knees and prevent myself from pirhouetteing down the steps as they became slick with rainwater each afternoon. The people who swerved and ran around us as we tentatively made our way up or down (rarely is the trail flat) amazed me the most. Porters carrying anything from multiple matresses to barrels of kerosene by straps on their foreheads hop mountain goat-style down the path. We also encountered trains of donkeys moseying on with clanging bells around their necks, women with intricate lungi (long skirts) carrying bamboo baskets or babies on their backs, children in pressed neat uniforms carrying umbrellas and school bags, other excited tourists like ourselves (including 245 Koreans spread out along the way with a company trip, all with neon colored ponchos), ambling water buffalo with huge haunches, and even one mobile musical troupe hoking horns and playing drums.
Near the road, we walked through small towns and villages often. Rolling green terraces of rice and millet filled the space between. The valley stretched up on either side into giant hills. Further on, we left the populated area and entered a lush jungle. Here, we followed cascading rivers down valleys and climbed over ridges, always seeing dewy ferns and spongy moss draped over ancient trees on either side. As we went further up still, we arrived above the treeline. Here, we could see waterfalls on either side of the valley splashing down mica-studded rock faces. We walked through meadows reminiscent of Alaskan tundra sprinkled with wildflowers and huge boulders. No matter where we went, though, and no matter how cloudy, the snowy, massive Himalayas watched over us – although they only revealed themselves occasionally. And no matter how far we climbed into a valley, we could always expect bright blue roofs signifying a village with food a guest houses to appear out of the fog.
The guest houses at night were always lively, warm, and comforting. I will dedicate an entire entry to guest house characters and friends, but we met a LOT of them. All from different countries, too – one night, we played the “world championships” of Yahtzee, with representatives from Australia, Spain, Sweden, Germany, Canada, Nepal, the Czech Republic, the United States, and Slovakia present. All laughing about Yahtzee, France, the group of 245 Koreans, “yakking,” and the World Cup. I often played games in the guest houses: anything from B.S. and Yahtzee with the other women to new Nepali games with the guides. One of the first nights, I stayed up late playing a game called Call-Break with at least eight Nepali men. It’s similar to Spades without partners, and everyone dramatically slaps cards down on the table (expect to be playing it when I get home). I learned Dumbal with the 3 Sisters guides, and Jack-Cheetah with an Australian man and his guide. Other people would read in sleeping bags, sit by the fireplace drying soaked clothes, or drink their 4th or 5th cup of tea of the day. For the most part, we sat around communal tables with most of the guest house guests, striking up conversation with whoever happened to be there. The community there, must come from all having climbed up thousands of steps in the pouring rain that day, made me love trekking so much.
And then there were the Himalayas. For the first few days, we caught no glimpse of them. It rained too much for us to make the early morning trek up to Poon Hill to get a vantage point of the range. In Ghandruk, however, on our third day, the clouds cleared briefly for us to see most of Annapurna South. We joined a mass exodus of people at the Trekker’s Inn from the dining hall to the upper deck to marvel at and take pictures of the mountains. Two mornings later, we experienced our first clear morning in Chomrong. Bhagwati knocked on our door at 6:00 AM, and we sat outside on our deck wearing our sleeping bags as pants as we sleepily awoke to the sight of the Himalayan valley. The beauty built from there, perfectly climaxing with a stunningly clear night and morning at ABC; we could not have been luckier.
Bhagwati knocked on our door just as I had started to fall asleep at the base camp; we had arrived in the clouds. “Boyni…” (little sisters) she called, “It’s clear, tonight.” We dressed quickly and rushed outside. Ahhhh. Annapurna South and Machhapuchhre looked calmly across the valley at each other, with us at the base camp nestled perfectly in between. The night put a greyscale wash over the landscape. We could only see shapes and shades, both so dramatic and so intense. The mountains towered over the base camp, somehow creating juxtaposed emotions of intimidation and calm within me. These are some of the biggest land forms on earth. How else can I describe them? I stood in awe. Then, as can happen so quickly in these mountains, the clouds rolled in. Like curtains closing on a show, or hot water dissolving a sugar cube, they obscured first Machhapuchhre, then Annapurna South. We could vaguely see outlines against the star-sprinkled sky, then we had no evidence of their existence. “Suproratri,” we said, “Good night, Annapurna.”
The mountains looked just as awe-some in the morning. The sky was perfectly clear, and a dusky blue, as the sun had not yet risen on the valley. The mountains cut further up into the dome of the sky than anything I have seen, drawing craggy lines that divided blue from white. As the sun rose and the light brightened the sky to turquoise and whitened the snow, the dividing lines became more sharp. The vibrant green of the nearby hillsides and the bright blue of the base camp roofs also intensified. Prayer flags crisscrossed on the ridge upon which we stood with other trekkers, completely in shock. As odd as it may sound, almost the best way to describe these mountains is their energy. It’s something so powerful that it fills you and gives you the shivers, and feels as if it could physically knock you over. It’s crazy… I don’t know how else I can put it.
Once the sun had brightened the faces and slopes of the mountain that surrounded us 360 degrees, we reluctantly climbed down, ate a breakfast of lemon sugar pancakes, and began our descent. On our final morning in Pothana, the sky gifted us with a final panoramic view of this section of the Himalaya range. We could not have been luckier: we came at the end of the rainy season to avoid the crowds, and still managed to have incredible mountain views. I can’t believe it’s over; I am already planning my next trek. Let me know if you want to come…