Nepal’s Annapurna-dhaulagiri circuit

By Mark Watson 27 October 2015
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Forging towards Annapurna massif Australian Geographic Adventure photographer Watto experiences first hand a sudden, cool change.

ATOP A DARK staircase, at the end of a dimly lit alleyway, a soft glow illuminates the warm evening air. It is warmer than expected, especially for a nation home to the highest mountains in the world. But here, at lower altitudes, the dust-filled air of Nepal’s capital absorbs the heat of one million city dwellers. 

Throngs of street vendors and pilgrims scurry amongst the palaces of Malla and Shah kings within the world heritage-listed Durbar Square at the city’s centre, all under the occasional gaze of the living child goddess Kumari.

Nearby a maze of narrow alleys intertwine and weave through the old trade route of Indra Chowk toward the Thamel district where elaborately carved doors open to a world of vivid Pashmina and Cashmere shawls, Buddhist jewellery and Himalayan singing bowls.

Further north, past Vaisha Dev (the toothache shrine), crisp synthetic fabrics adorn the endless shopfronts of mountain-stores along Jyatha Road where varying degrees of ‘genuine’ The North Face jackets are sold alongside crampons, ice axes and trekking packs.

Streams of Tibetan immigrants, European backpackers, Western tourists, Hindu pilgrims and local Nepalese all weave amongst smoke-billowing cars, rickshaws and overflowing trucks buzzing within a haze of dust, fumes and noise.

Nepal: What’s wrong with a khaki outfit?

It is another humid evening when, amongst the calls of street vendors, singing of brass bowls and haggling of backpackers, a peculiar conversation rings clear. A polished British private-school accent penetrates the surrounding cacophony announcing, “Really! What’s wrong with my khaki outfit?” followed by the question; and how essential are waterproof trousers anyway?” The conversation radiates from that same window atop the dark staircase, with a dusty sign above the door reading ‘Rum Doodle’.

After a delay, I recognise the name of this hidden eatery. Rum Doodle has been a pet restaurant and drinking haunt of some the most revered mountaineers to have ventured into the nearby imposing Himalaya. I am drawn inside, not only for the building’s historic past, but also because it’s the meeting point for a World Expeditions-led trekking party heading into the Annapurna region of the neighbouring Massif the following day, of which I just happen to be a member.

I half expect a reincarnated Mallory or ageing Sir Ranulph Fiennes to be conversing in such eloquent English, but instead there sits a rather cheery chap going by the name of Ollie, dressed head to toe in khaki and looking as though he has just stepped straight off an African safari.

“I should be fine with just gaiters?” Ollie inquires of his newfound friends as I seat myself at the long table of fellow adventurers, some of whom I had met earlier in the day. A mix of answers is proffered from the already emerging subgroups within our trekking party.

The seasoned travellers, with topo maps neatly folded in packs and who know exactly how much toothpaste is required for the journey ahead, implore: “Over-trousers are a must.”
On the flipside, the crossfit crew are all champing at the bit to launch themselves at high pace into the mountains. They suggest the endless ups and downs will be enough to keep the legs toasty in any weather.

And finally, there’s the ‘what the hell have I got myself into group’, who listen wide-eyed, soaking in as much info as possible and wondering whether this trekking caper is going to be the end of them.

Just as Ollie returns to the table after sprinting out the door moments prior to bargain for the trekking poles of two departing Scandinavian backpackers, a friendly but authoritative voice puts an end to the debate. “The weather outlook is fine, we have eco-lodges or permanent campsites every night and whilst we will likely see quite a bit of snow, at no time will we be trekking through it…

Six days later and our jovial guide Rinzin is humbly eating his words as we wade through calf-deep powder toward our 3660m camp atop Khopra Ridge in the shadow of the Dhaulagiri (8167m). Fortunately for Ollie the snowbound trail remains predominantly below gaiter depth.

Think you’re fit for climbing in Nepal?

The beginning of this Annapurna experience begins gently enough – that is except for the half day climbing 7456 stairs straight out of the valley village of Khare towards Dhampus. I didn’t really count the stairs, but there are certainly more than my quick fire-training regime back in Sydney that comprised an early-morning surf before a ‘not so extreme’ stair-climb back to my local coffee shop.

Dripping with sweat I only just keep pace with a lanky six foot five bloke named Aaron, who I had coincidently met back in Oz when he ran The North Face 100 ultra marathon – on a whim! He dances up the stairs in what appears to be a personal bid to circumnavigate the entire Annapurna circuit in record time.

Behind me, Steve, a journo from Malaysia, regales us with tales of pre-dawn summit ascents on the  volcanoes of remotest Eastern Asia. And me? I just wonder whether maybe I should have skipped those post-surf cappuccinos for a few more stair climbs.

Fortunately the terraced barley and rice paddies level out, giving us a chance to catch our breath and we soon begin to meander through glades of vibrant Rhododendron forests where brilliant common green magpies flash between branches.

Spring has arrived early in the mountains and the famed national flower of Nepal is beginning its annual painting of the foothills. Reds and pinks dot the landscape, revealing a medley of variants within the 30 species on offer in this mountainous environment. My reverie is interrupted however by the clanging of bells indicating an oncoming herd of dzomos (yak-cow hybrid) sauntering down the path with woven bags of crushed rock strapped to their flanks.

On reaching Dhampus, the luxury of an eco-lodge and soft mattress divulge just how catered for the trekking scene has become. With ice-cold longnecks of Everest ale awaiting us, it is hard to resist the pull, even for the kale and tofu eaters among us. In no time the crossfit crew, the seasoned travellers and the wide-eyed wanderers, who had spread out along the trail, reunite to watch the sun set over the majestic view laid-out before us.

Nepal’s Annapurna massif sighted 

We are less than a day into the hike and already the impressive Annapurna massif reaches towards a cloudless twilight. To the west the distant towering summit of Dhaulagiri (8167m) glows golden, hovering on the horizon beyond the Rhododendron forests, radiating in the last rays of today’s sun.

The nearby summit of Machhapuchhare (6993m) morphs from yellow to orange to pink, and finally purple just as the first stars begin to appear overhead… and I sit, watching, absorbing and marvelling, on the brink of falling into this natural theatre and slowly allowing the distractions of everyday life to slip away.

Day after day we slowly climb higher. We snake our way from Dhampus and Landruk to Gandruk and onto Tadapani, all the while rambling through picturesque mountain villages and greeting strangers with the local salutation ‘Namaste’. Ollie has acquired a new friend along the way… a Himalayan Sheepdog by the name of Old Yellow (pronounced Ole Yeller) who has decided to tag along with our crew, disappearing from time to time but always swinging by each evening, unsurprisingly around mealtime.

Life is a simple routine without the distractions of the everyday western world. Everybody has now mastered ‘washy-washy’ (bathing oneself with a bowl of hot water) after Aussie-Ben admits to creating a swimming pool in his tent without succeeding in any actual washing. This received a communal laugh from all the porters while the rest of our group chuckled along with the knowledge we had all probably done the same.

The environment we are immersed in is not of economic wealth, but rather natural wealth. The region is considered as one of the poorest in the world, but as usual, this does not mean poor in hospitality, or lacking in welcomes and smiles. It is obvious the Western world has certainly had its impact; soft drinks and potato crisps for sale in tiny mud brick village stores, much of the demand stemming from a constant trickle of trekkers negotiating the famed Annapurna circuit.

The trekking scene helps to drive the surrounding micro-economy however much of the tradition within these remote communities holds tight and life remains true to its roots. Predominantly villagers tend to terraced crops, sell their wares at market and thrive on a life of self-sustainability.

Local experiences in Nepal

On crossing the glacial river Modi Khola I come across a striking middle-aged Gurung village woman in a vivid red and green sari crushing plant stems with a hammer and rock. I enquire as to what she is making and a local guide translates. The paste she is concocting is a long appreciated natural medicine for the relief for arthritis pain.

The woman continues to crush the green stems but smiles and invites me to learn how she gathers a small wisp of green shoots and gently begins to hammer away until the stems soften. With continued rhythmic hammering the finally blend into a medicinal paste.The hammering is hypnotic and I leave the woman with a smile and a thank you as she falls back into rhythm.

Leaving the river, we begin to climb under a warm midday sun in which we have been blessed since beginning our trek. Alongside us are barley fields terraced and irrigated by hand, and we pass villagers stripping leaves from the fig trees to feed cattle.

We arrive at a school where children come out to giggle and practice their English with our passing group and, all the while, the ever-present Annapurna massif fades in and out of sight as we climb ever higher. The trail varies from well-trodden stone steps to grassy tracks contouring crops.

We work our way in and out of dense forests where glades of giant stinging nettles lie waiting for the unsuspecting, and a brush of exposed skin burns and mottles when injected with thousands of barbs of formic acid. Fortunately these painful episodes are temporary, as I find on my first encounter, and I quickly form respect for the plant that offers medicinal properties to the locals and produces one of the strongest and finest of all natural fibres.

The Annapurna circuit and fresh powder

From Tadapani we leave the main trail to venture into the more remote forests of the growing foothills, now hovering around 3000m above sea level. I spent the previous day keeping my eyes peeled for langur monkeys but on this occasion they decided not to show their faces amongst the high mossy rhododendron forests. Maybe next time. Emerging from the forest we ascend into a more alpine environment of grasslands, just in time for the snow to begin falling. The warmth of the previous days is well and truly a memory by lunchtime, and we contour steep mountainsides surrounded by cloud, white above and below as the snow falls with intent.

I cheekily remind our lead guide Rinzin of his forecast back in Kathmandu, and he smiles back admitting, “This is the Himalaya, nothing is guaranteed.” I’m having a ball though. Trekking through the eerily silent falling snow on remote mountain trails high in the Himalaya is certainly not my idea of a bad day.

We trudge on and the clouds do not abate, but rather set in, and soon we are following only the footsteps of the porters who have forged ahead. Originally we had set out to complete a six- to seven-hour day, but with the deepening snow, the going is slower, and with nightfall approaching it is a relief to see our campsite emerge out of the cloud. An additional bonus of the permanent campsites is a communal lodge, blessing weary travellers with the warmth of a smouldering yack-dung fireplace and somewhere to dry sodden socks.

We are nearing the end of our days in the mountains when I emerge from my tent the following morning to another 10cm of fresh powder, and I silently wish I had my snowboard rather than trekking boots.

The weather is clearing though and with the destination of our highest camp yet, I cannot help but grin all morning as I wander through pristine mountainsides of fresh snow, ascending to Kopra Ridge where I am told the entire Annapurna Range rears up and dominates a dramatic vista. The deep snow has forced an alternate route following an old hunting trail, which offers even better views. For the first time I sense the thinning air and breathing becomes a little faster and harder as we ascend toward our final high camp at 3660m.

Annapurna’s reward 

High on the flank of Kopra Ridge we ascend past longhaired yak nuzzling for fresh shoots. A distant chimney appears, revealing our eco-lodge and final destination, still an hour away.

It is not until the last 200m climb onto the ridgeline proper that all the sweat and wheezing of the final clamber is well and truly rewarded. To my right a sturdily built wooden eco-lodge has smoke rising from the chimney, and to be honest, on most days that is where I would be headed now for a warm cup of tea and some dry socks, but not today. Today I am transfixed.

In front of me the massive imposing southern faces of Annapurna South and Annapurna One dominate the skyline; great ice cliffs and seracs hang from the glaciers tumbling down their flanks. Further west, Nilgiri rears up and then, as the eyes pan further west, majestic Dhaulagiri One commands the surrounding peaks from high above.

The clouds roll up from Kali Gandaki Gorge, the deepest gorge in the world, and just as the peaks begin to change colour we are rewarded with a final glimpse of a glowing orange Dhaulagiri before all is enveloped in cloud. I finally head in for that warm cup of tea.

It is my last night on the mountains-proper before I head down through Swanta Village, back to Pokhara and onto Kathmandu, so I sneak out just before dark for a last glance towards the cloud-filled sky in the hope of a final glimpse of mother nature’s giants. All that appears is a blanket of white and I realise my hopes are in vain, but just as I turn for the warmth of the eco-lodge, a hint of pink glows through the mist.

Just for a moment, a vivid pink glowing summit of Annapurna One appears crystal clear through the swirling cloud, like an oversized mountainous lighthouse piercing the mist. I raise my camera and click off a couple of frames as she stands tall, but that is all she offers before the constantly forming cumulous envelopes her once again. I turn towards the warmth of the eco-lodge and the voice of some cheery British bloke harping on about the betrayal of Ole Yeller, who left our troop in search of greener pastures.