Header images courtesy of Dan Dwyer and dave.see (via Flickr)
It’s 4 am. Snow swirls before my eyes. I’m walking in a disorientated daze, partly due to the altitude, and partly because of a blizzard that’s blasting through the Annapurna range of Nepal. I try to collect my scrambled thoughts by focussing on the blurred outline of my guide Raman just a metre in front of me.
Trudging through knee-deep snow, we come across a lone trekker who’s disorientated and showing signs of altitude sickness. His bone-white face is a chilling reminder that just a few years ago, over 40 people perished in a blizzard attempting this very same high alpine pass. Raman encourages the man to join us and we set off into the darkness. It’s at this point that I find myself asking: What would’ve happened if we didn’t have Raman confidently leading the way?
Just a week earlier, I made the decision to hire a guide to lead me through the famed Annapurna Circuit trek. With a fair bit of trekking experience under my belt, I had considered saving the US$400 guiding fee. The Annapurna Circuit is walked by thousands of tourists each year, many of whom navigate the breathtaking Himalayan landscape—including the lofty 5,416-metre Thorung La Pass—without a guide. So what changed my mind? Put simply, an earthquake.
Dominating Nepal’s north are the mighty Himalayas, the highest mountain range on the planet. Eight of the world’s 14 highest peaks stud Nepal’s alpine skyline, including Mount Everest, rising above all others to a staggering 8,849 metres. Powerful tectonic forces thrust the Himalayas up by an average of two centimetres per year. While Nepal is no stranger to seismic activity, the destruction wrought by the earthquake that struck on 25 April 2015 was unprecedented. An estimated nine thousand people lost their lives that day. The survivors faced a scarcity of necessities and a challenging road to recovery, hampered by bureaucracy and corruption.
All too soon, Nepal would be dealt another blow. The 2020 coronavirus pandemic has sparked a wave of fatalities across the country and left many without jobs or income. Particularly affected are those who work in the tourism sector, which supports over one million workers across Nepal and contributes upwards of US$700 million to its economy. However, lockdowns across the country have terminated international tourism indefinitely, forcing businesses to close. Many Nepali people are facing the daily struggle of simply having enough to eat. Traditional subsistence activities—like growing crops and herding animals—have provided a lifeline for some. But how long this strategy will allow those who have invested heavily in tourism to hold on is uncertain.
Few are perhaps more dependent on Everest tourism than the ethnic Sherpa people who live in Nepal. The word Sherpa means “easterner,” in reference to their Tibetan origins. Following ancient traditions, Sherpas have herded yaks, traded, and farmed high in the Himalayas for generations—an alpine lifestyle they have uniquely adapted to. Specialised genes are thought to play a role in helping Sherpas more efficiently use oxygen in their blood. This may explain why Sherpas have become an integral part of Himalayan mountaineering expeditions, with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary famously completing the first known ascent of Mount Everest in 1953.
However, it is a profession fraught with risk. An estimated 290 people have died climbing Everest—about a third have been Sherpas. Despite this, the rewards can be life-changing. Over the course of a single climbing season, a Sherpa guide can earn between US$6,000 to $12,000 in just over a month. A substantial sum, considering that the minimum monthly wage in Nepal is less than US$200.
While you may have heard of Sherpas, Nepal is home to a rich diversity of tribes and ethnic groups, many of whom are pivotal to facilitating tourism across the Himalayas. My guide Raman, who comes from the Kavre District of Nepal, grew up with the world’s mightiest mountains on his back doorstep. Although he spends most of the year guiding treks through Nepal, Raman takes every opportunity he can to return to his community. He smiles proudly as he shows me pictures of a recent trip he made to help with the construction of a local school. I can’t help but wonder, could some of my tourist dollars become the bricks and mortar of the school?
As Kathmandu’s morning traffic rumbles through the busy streets outside, Raman spreads a map across the table and talks me through his proposed itinerary for walking the Annapurna Circuit. The Circuit’s full length is roughly 250 kilometres, but every itinerary is different depending on where you start and finish. Whichever way you walk it, the Circuit samples some of the Himalayas most beautiful mountain-scapes. Raman’s first-hand knowledge of mountain safety and altitude acclimatisation is key, as a significant portion of the trek will be spent at altitude.
I have just a single day in Kathmandu to do some final shopping before setting out. If you’re sticking to the main Annapurna trail, you’ll likely be “teahouse trekking.” This means you walk from village to village, staying at locally run guesthouses at the end of each day. Accommodation is basic, but you’ll rest your sore muscles in a warm bed and eat from a selection of local Nepalese cuisine. The meals can get a little repetitive given the selection is more or less the same at each guest house. But seeing as I wouldn’t have to lug around my tent, food, and fuel, I wasn’t about to start complaining! Teahouse trekking also means you can get by with just a daypack, suitable alpine clothing, a few snacks to nibble on, and trekking poles—a real lifesaver when ascending or descending the Circuit’s steep slopes!
Our trek commences in the village of Besisahar. With every one thousand metres that you climb on the Annapurna Circuit, the views only become more breathtaking. But it’s not just the magnificent mountain-scapes that take your breath away: the concentration of oxygen in the air drops as you gain altitude.
By day seven, we reach the village of Manang at 3,540 metres. At this elevation, the simple task of walking single-digit kilometres takes several hours and leaves me panting and exhausted. Raman is quick to react, carefully adjusting the itinerary to ensure that we ease into the higher altitudes without colliding with Annapurna’s changeable weather systems. As I’m tucking into my dal bhat (दाल भात; spiced lentil soup and rice) for the night, I feel my body easing to the new heights.
The Annapurna Circuit is a sizeable trek and my recommendation would be to take your time. Consider throwing in a few rest days if you can—if only just to stop and appreciate how people have carved out an existence at such great heights. It’s one of the truly magical elements of this walk. After you’ve spent the day taking in the majestic peaks, you’ll rest your tired bones beside a warm fire, laughing and chatting with the locals.
Throughout the trek, Raman provides an invaluable insight into the mountain-dwelling Thakali, Gurung, and Tibetan communities. I’ll never forget dining with a local Nepali family in the village of Pisang. As I sat in their living room, mother and daughter beamed broadly as we relished in the freshly prepared thenthuk (འཐེན་ཐུག་; hand-pulled noodles served in a delicious home-cooked broth) and talked about their traditional way of life.
I hadn’t trained for the Annapurna Circuit. But with this recipe of local TLC (tender loving care) at night, and taking it slow during the day, I begin to feel my capacity growing. It’s day 11, and before us lies the last great challenge of the trail. At 5,416 metres, Thorung La Pass is the Circuit’s highest point. We set out from High Camp at 4 am to have the best chance of getting across. It’s not long before we’re caught in a brief snow flurry that engulfs us in a swirling chaos of white flakes.
I don’t know what would’ve happened had we not found the lost trekker when we did. The wind-lashed path ahead skirts a veritable maze of jagged peaks, snowfields, glaciers, and crevasses. The fear in the man’s eyes is palpable. When Raman insists that he join us, he gratefully accepts.
Eventually, the winds subside as dawn’s glimmer kisses the horizon. I now know why Nepal is called the “roof of the world.” I’ve never seen mountains like this before. The Annapurna massif itself is a towering presence carved by nature’s hand with every imaginable shape and texture represented in rock and ice. And I’m not the only one who is moved. Our new travelling companion has tears in his eyes as he takes in the new day. As we reach Thorung La Pass, I’m flooded with a powerful sense of accomplishment and relief. It’s all downhill—well, mostly—from here!
If travel is about discovering new capacities, gaining an insight into local cultures, and having an opportunity to contribute to a country’s healing—all set against a backdrop of unparalleled mountain-scapes—then my experience trekking the Annapurna Circuit with my guide and friend Raman is a trip that will forever stay with me.