Trekking: The heights of joy
If you look beyond the Everest, trekking in Nepal is more about Mt Annapurna and its surroundings
Nepal is a trekker’s delight. Eight of the world’s highest peaks sit in the Nepal Himalayas and even if you are not climbing their summits, you have a wide choice of high meadows, gushing rivers, glaciers and verdant forests which lie directly below them. Trekking routes are easily accessible, stay is arranged in quaint and serviceable tea houses, and the trails are clean and well maintained; the favourable purchasing power parity of the Nepalese currency is the cherry on the cake. And after the scare about rescue services in mountainous regions that followed the recent widely reported incident where an experienced trekker lost his life because he could not be rescued in time, you should know that in Nepal, helicopter evacuations require minimum paperwork or government intervention; connectivity is also generally good.
At 8,848m, Mount Everest is for the serious climber who has already done 7,000m-plus mountains. The climbing season is short, April-May, before the monsoon arrives, hundreds of climbers and porters try to make use of that small window (this year, according to Nepalese government statistics, 445 climbers reached the peak and there were five deaths. Each climber takes an army of porters and guides and “traffic jams" are now common on good weather days). The Nepal government issues permits for climbing; and the price this year was $11,000 (around Rs7 lakh).
But the truth is that trekking in Nepal is actually more about Mt Annapurna and its surroundings—the 7,629 sq. km of the Annapurna Conservation Area that offers both short walks and moderate to tough treks. Because of the wide range of elevation, you can pass from oak and rhododendron forests to icy wind-swept terrain in a matter of days. All the trails gain altitude gradually, so acclimatization is easier. At 8,091m, the Annapurna is no midget, and you can always try base camp or higher if you need a bigger challenge. Views of the Annapurna dominate every trek—whether you are going up to base camp or just doing a short circuit, spending five days or 25—and you get to see it every day, on fire with the rays of the morning sun, glacial and forbidding at other times.
The Annapurna massif runs 55km across and boasts six major peaks—Annapurna I-V and Gangapurna. The mountain is located beside a ridge just east of the Kali Gandaki river, which has carved one of the deepest river gorges in the world. The gorge separates the Annapurna from Dhaulagiri, the seventh tallest mountain in the world. The entire massif and surrounding area are protected within the largest conservation area in Nepal. The Annapurna Circuit—a trek which circles the range—is about 160-230km long. Today, roads are creeping closer to these once isolated outposts, so one must choose a trail carefully so as not to end up walking alongside jeeps and mini trucks.
Any trail within Nepal has tea-house accommodation every few hours, so you can walk at the pace you like, stopping when you’re done for the day. There are big boards with detailed maps at every tea house and you can choose how many hours of walking per day to do and how far along the trail you want to go before you turn back.
The Nepalese tea houses are a lesson in tourism management. Single-storeyed buildings with tin roofs and five-six rooms/dormitories, they offer, for a very reasonable price, a proper bed with clean sheets and blankets, a common toilet, running water, hot showers, an enclosed dining area, a small store selling essentials, Wi-Fi and all kinds of tea and stronger beverages. They never turn anyone away for lack of space; you could even be accommodated in the dining room.
Trekking in Nepal can be as social or private as you like. On many of the routes popular in India, overfriendly co-trekkers with loud music blaring out of cellphones stuck in their backpacks can put many people off. In Nepal, there are trekkers from many parts of the world on any route but people are generally respectful of silence. At mealtimes in tea houses, especially after dinner, sipping the local brew rakshi, the atmosphere can be quite convivial, but you can always opt out.
Try the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) trek if you already have a few high-altitude treks under your belt and find the idea of climbing halfway up an 8,000m mountain exciting. The last camp is set at 4,130m and it presents in-your-face views of Machapuchare (the 7,000m tall mountain that resembles a fishtail), the grey and forbidding Annapurna glacier and spectacular close-ups of the multi-peaked Annapurna.
The walk up to this point is along a well-marked trail which starts in the valley through which the Modi Khola river flows. After the jeeps have deposited you at the last road head, usually early morning, the climb begins through verdant forests and the odd village with fields of wheat and barley, goats and chickens. Although the path is well marked, there are some very steep parts, and at one point there are almost 5,000 steps, each about a foot high. The carpet of red rhododendron flowers at your feet, the strong gurgle of a rushing stream and the distant views of the Annapurna, playing hide and seek with the clouds, will keep you going.
The Gorepani Poon Hill trek can be done in under a week, with time to take in the culture and sights of Pokhara and/or Kathmandu. It works well for those who find the altitude of base camp daunting. This trek reaches a maximum of 3,190m and is generally altitude-sickness-free. It offers constant views of the Annapurna, Dhaulagiri and Machapuchare and great photo opportunities.
If you have the time to train and take at least three weeks off, the Annapurna Circuit Trek is an option. It has a big challenge—the Thorung La pass at 5,416m; you are on snow on both sides for days.
A Nepalese guide mentioned an ancient salt trading route—the Manaslu Circuit Trek. Closed to trekkers till 1991, it is now open on a restricted basis. Mt Manaslu, 8,163m high, lies between the Annapurna and the Tibetan plateau. This trek climbs to a little over 5,000m at the Larkya La pass and sounds more remote than anything off the Everest or the Annapurna. It offers a glimpse into Tibetan culture and remote villages.
Treks end where climbs begin. If you’re looking for a first climb, Mera Peak (6,476m) lies south of Everest and is a great place to start your mountaineering life, camping on snow. The gradual ascent is great for acclimatization, and you get the thrill of an expedition, with 3am departures for the peak and training in basic mountaineering skills. The unique view of five 8,000m peaks—Kanchenjunga, Makalu, Lhotse, Everest and Cho Oyu—all at once, is the best part.
If you are still wondering whether to choose Nepal, let Pokhara be the tipping point. This tiny town lies at the base of all trekking routes to the Annapurna and most people prefer to skip Kathmandu and fly straight to it. And with good reason. Pokhara is quaint, hip and offers all manner of excitement—pubs, restaurants, live music, hand gliding, boating and comfortable places to stay. It has all the charm of a European town, with Nepalese prices. After a soul-satisfying trip into the mountains, it’s something you can look forward to.
The least climbed mountain
There is a select club of Eight Thousanders—over 8,000m peaks—and Annapurna was the first peak in this club to be conquered, in 1950. Named for the goddess who is a giver of food and nourishment, it is actually harder to climb. Because of its high fatality rate—around 35% of its climbers never return—it’s also the least climbed of the high peaks. In comparison, K2’s fatality rate is 23% and Mt Everest’s is around 4%.
Look out for
■Anna Aroma—a little coffee shop serving hot rolls, music and great coffee, right next to the Chhomrong village trekkers’ checkpoint on Day 3.
■The hot springs near Jhini, most welcome when coming down.
■Tea houses that offer clean water for drinking, for a price. Choose to refill your bottles rather than purchase new ones. Keep the mountains litter-free.
■The local dal-chawal, which is your best bet. Avoid “exotic" foods like pizza on the trail.
■Yak cheese served in tiny slivers. Delicious!
The single most important decision when trekking is who to go with. Your experience will hinge on this simple detail, so don’t decide in a hurry. It’s usually best to go with an outfit that’s recommended by someone who has actually been on a trip. A simple detail like “pacing" a group during steep ascents can be a game changer. This year, I watched a helicopter evacuate my injured friend from the Machapuchare base camp (3,700m) in under an hour, with minimum fuss. It’s good to be in the capable hands of White Magic Adventure.
In the mountains, and generally in outdoor sports, price and quality are directly proportionate. White Magic Adventure, run by seasoned climber Avilash Bisht, offers both customized trips and fixed departures. Bisht has done mountain rescue training and runs a tight, well-trained outfit. You could also try the Nepal-based Earthbound Expeditions, which is well regarded locally. The Ladakh-based Rimo Expeditions and Himalayan Glacier also come recommended by trekkers.