I love walking, but when someone asked if I fancied tackling one of the hardest treks in the world, described as ‘strenuous’ by even seasoned trekkers, and to do it without porters or guides and carrying all my own stuff, up hills and over mountains, my mouth formed the words ‘yes’. My brain must have been on vacation at the time. My friend Kath did the trip years ago, and I remember marveling at her photos of the beautiful snow-capped Himalayas – like nowhere I’d ever been – but the stories of the extreme hike made me wonder if I’d ever get up the guts to do something that adventurous!
Buoyed by the enthusiasm of my travel buddy Carolyn, I found myself in a hiking shop in Kathmandu several months later, purchasing all sorts of trekking gear that would get me through the range of extreme conditions we may experience. Carolyn is an avid trekker and has wanted to do the Annapurna Circuit for many years and had come a little more prepared. To the delight of the Nepali staff I grabbed thermals, a rucksack that clipped round my hips, gloves, a hat, a down sleeping bag that could handle freezing temperatures, and decent hiking socks. Packing was an interesting experience – when you know you have to carry everything yourself all of sudden your essential toiletries become luxuries that have no place in your bag. By the end I was carrying about 8-9kg, probably the same as most other people, but considering my diminutive (and much reduced since I left Oz) weight and size this was about a 5th of my body weight at the time we set off.
I spent a lot of time in denial. I heard the words snow, altitude-sickness, heard that we had days where we would have to hike over 1000m UP steep tracks. I ignored these horror stories like the monkey with his hands over his ears.
As usual in Nepal, everything starts with an early morning, bumpy dusty bus-ride. We had spent 2 nights in the picturesque town of Pokhara, surrounded by the peaks of the Annapurnas and on the banks of a pretty lake and it was from here we started our journey, yawning along with all the other trekkers in the bus station. A beautiful, slender girl with a big smile helped me hand my pack up to the driver on top of the bus, and Helene and her boyfriend, Steve, would become firm friends on our trail – an incredibly fit Aussie/Irish (with a splash of French) couple who had more energy than a fleet of Energiser bunnies. Luckily this seemed to be catching as Caro and I managed to keep up with them for at least 2 days! To me this was the heart of soul of the trek –meeting and bonding with people along the way – all united in a quest to finish and complete a tough physical and mental challenge. Quite unlike anything I’ve done before really.
We headed up into the mountains, to the small town of Besi Sehar. From here we could take a bumpy bus ride to the town of Buhlebule or we could start the hike proper. We opted (me still in denial) for the hike, finally getting that pack on, trying to adjust it properly around my hips and shoulders, and setting off on our 120km hike that would take us over 5400m above sea-level, arriving in Muktinath 10 days later.
One of the reasons it is so easy to do the Annaupurna Circuit by yourself is that you can stay in tea-houses, or guest houses, in the towns along the way. Depending on your schedule and physical fitness you can make the journey as long or slow as you want – towns are normally no more than 1-2 hours apart. Most guest-houses charge about AUD$1-3 a night, on the premise that you take all your meals there. This was the hardest part for me – trekking means carbs carbs carbs to give you energy and my digestive system is not really up to scratch to handle carb-heavy food. Mind you it’s a great bloody excuse to eat cheese and chocolate as you just burn it all off! By day two we’d started meeting more players in our journey: John and Freddie – two 19 year olds from Sheffield who were on a gap year. Martijn and Marit – a Dutch couple who unfortunately had to part ways when Marit had issues with an existing injury. Jennifer, a sweet Swedish girl who was doing the hike on her own without porter or guide. Oz and Liol, my companions for some of the journey, Israeli lads who nicknamed me the freight train and were dal bhat (a substantive Nepali dish) crazy. Mike, a 22 year old from the States, who had planned to do the Circuit and the Sanctuary in record time. Amber and Steve, from Kingscliffe in Australia. On the way we met up, parted ways, hung out, played cards, bemoaned injuries, compared what we’d seen in the day and talked travels and trekking. Age, background and beliefs all coming together in a common goal: to get over the Thurong-La Pass!