Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Trek to the Annapurna Himalayas in Nepal: The Trek (Part 2)

Trek to the Annapurna Himalayas in Nepal

Introduction. What's where and where's what.
Teahouse Trekking. What makes trekking in Nepal a cheap and easy activity to organize.
Preparations. Organizing the trek: permits, transpo, guides and/or porters, etc.
Things to Bring. Gear, clothes, meds, water, etc.
The Trek: Part 1, Part 2. Tackles the trek, all the highs and lows, literally and figuratively.
Budget. Trekking doesn't have to costs that much.
The Take Away. Lessons learned and what not.
Luck. Sheer, dumb luck. That was all it was. We found ourselves sharing a dining table in Chomrong village that night on the third day of our trek to the Annapurna Sanctuary, chatting with other trekkers on the trail. A couple of them who, at the time, were already on their way down the mountain, told us that they were just at the Annapurna Sanctuary a few days ago and they said it was a complete white-out. Snow and fog was all that surrounded them up there. No views. Fortunately for us, the white-out happened the first few days into the trek. And with the fine, fine weather that day, it looked like things are only going to get better. So I was eager to get up early the next day to catch the first light of the sun tinge its way little by little onto the Himalayan panorama visible from where we were. Never mind the pain in my muscles accumulated from trekking the past three days. Never mind the bitter Himalayan cold smashing me in the face when I went outside my room. The mountains were spectacular.

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal
Machhapuchhre (Fishtail Mountain) in the early morning light

That day was the birthday of one of my trek partners, Angelica. We had originally planned to stay in Chomrong one more day to relax but by mid-morning, when everybody else had mustered up the will to tear themselves away from the Himalayan views, Angelica and I also decided to head off. Justin, the third member of our party, did not bring enough gear to take him up higher into the mountains so he was turning back. We said our goodbyes, took a few photos of ourselves with all the other trekkers we had the pleasure of walking with thus far, strapped on our bags, and started walking.

Annapurna Himalayas, Nepal
We were barely able to tear ourselves away from this view. I mean, look at it!

Chomrong, Annapurna, Nepal
Our motley crew was growing!

The Challenge of the Annapurna Sanctuary Trek

On the map, it says that the next village on the trail is Sinuwa, only 190 meters above where Chomrong was. From our guesthouse in Chomrong, we could even see the huts that make up Sinuwa, all of them perched at the side of the Himalayan foothill in front of us. Little did we know, however, that the trail snakes its way through much of upper and lower Chomrong village before heading up to Sinuwa. Chomrong, being one of the largest villages in the trek, stretches from the top of the mountain down to the valley below. Yes, we found ourselves that morning descending once again, after all that climbing we suffered through yesterday. It turned what could have been just a 190-meter climb into a 610 meter ascent to the next village! Unbelievable.

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal
You see the trail leading to the tiny village on that green mountain?
We have to climb down one mountain and climb that one to reach it.

Funny thing happened while I was walking down the trail in Chomrong though. There was this group of kids running up and down the steps of the trail. That explains why by the time they get older, they are so used to this kind of terrain, they could kick every trekker's *ss climbing up and down the mountain. When I walked past them, one kid suddenly grabbed my hand and the hand of a younger kid she's with. We all then proceeded to descend the staircase together. It was one of those special travel moments that I had to call my trek partner's attention a few meters ahead to take our picture.

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal
One of those special travel moments you just have to take a photo of

After descending for an hour, I had to climb up again for another two hours up the steep side of a mountain, on to the next village, Sinuwa, our lunch stop for the day. From there, we need to walk two to three hours more to where we were sleeping that night, Bamboo village. It is located where else but the bottom of the valley! Yes, we were descending again! At this point, we now realize the real challenge of the Annapurna Sanctuary Trek and feel it in every muscle of our body. It's not the altitude, not the weather, not the inhospitable terrain (the trail was lovely actually), but rather the topography. The trail ascends and descends so many times that you wonder, with all the climbing you do, you might have already gained enough ascent to reach the peak of the Annapurnas!

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal
You climb up, then make your way down, up again the next day,
down again the next afternoon. Torture, I say!

From Lush Forests to Glacial Moraines

As we were getting higher, temperatures were getting colder. It did not help that Bamboo only gets a few hours of daylight a day, it being at the bottom of a gorge, and that the only hotel room we found in that village had walls and roofing made of tin and plywood. It was the coldest night of my life! I woke up many times in the night shaking and I was fully clothed with thick blankets wrapped around me. Maybe that's why everybody seems to go into shock when we tell them we have no sleeping bags. You have no sleeping bags?! That’s crazy! Yeah, it was. We managed.

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal

The good that comes out of being cold day in, day out is that you actually get used to it. It proved helpful because we are now in altitudes where autumn seems to take place. It was all paddy fields and lush woods we had been trekking through thus far. That day, as we climbed further up into Deurali, the second to the last stop before we reach the snowy Annapurna Sanctuary, it turned autumn. Tall green trees were replaced with dry brown bush. Forested mountain peaks to massive barren boulders. Streams of clear, fresh water to mounds of white snow. We were now past the snow line. The colors, though muted, looked absolutely beautiful. At this point, I realize that yeah, I may just be able to make it through this.

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal
One of the many shrines, stupas, and chortens lining the trail

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal
That tiny blue cluster of huts in the middle of the valley is our stop for the night, Deurali.

The Most Enjoyable Stretch of the Trail

The next morning in Deurali, Angelica and I decided to take it easy. Up ahead, there is only the Machhapuchhre Base Camp (MBC) before we reach the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC), i.e., the Annapurna Sanctuary. So we thought, we trek for only two hours today, spend the whole afternoon and night at MBC to give us ample time acclimatizing to the new altitude, 3,700 meters above sea level that day. Good thing we took it easy. That two-hour trek to MBC was probably the most enjoyable stretch of trail I ever spent on the entire trek. One, we can now see the goal before us. The gates of the Annapurna Sanctuary beckons us right ahead. Two, the view of the snowy gorge we were walking through was breathtaking. Three, and this one is probably the most important part, we were actually feeling great! No sicknesses. No more aches and pains (well, more like we were so used to them by now). I felt ecstatic. Yes, a tear drop fell.

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal

By the time we reached MBC, we still had lots of energy left. I mean, we had only been trekking for two hours. So what did we do with all that energy? You have a photo shoot, of course! The weather was great. Sun was up and beautiful white snow was all round. So Angelica and I took turns posing in front of the camera, taking pictures I'm sure we will have framed and display in each of our living rooms when this is over. Alright, we also took photos of the Annapurnas, some of them quite up-close now. Machhapuchhre, Annapurna South, and for the first time we were seeing it, Gangapurna.

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal
Gangapurna in the distance

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal
Sunset views at the Machhapuchhre Base Camp

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal
Machhapuchhre looks a lot different from this angle

The Worst Feeling in the Entire World

When the sun finally set and it sets early in this deep valley, temperatures dropped like crazy. It went from comfortably warm to bitter cold before we can even put on our layers. We headed inside and brazed ourselves for the long night ahead. The thing is with Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), symptoms begin to show only after 24 to 48 hours upon arriving at altitude. I woke up many times in the middle of that night suddenly gasping for air, mouth and throat dry as a desert. That's how it is with sleeping this high up. When your body finally comes to a rest and your heart rate slows down, your body suddenly realizes what little oxygen it is actually breathing in. So it panics and jumpstarts your heart making it beat as if it were in the middle of a workout. And you're just lying in your bed doing nothing! Your body feels like it is in a strenuous activity when in reality you are just lulling yourself to sleep. The worst feeling in the world.

I try to get up to have a sip of my water. I am unbelievably parched as anyone would be in a serious cardio workout. I checked my water bottle. Empty. I went out to the running tap outside. Frozen. I was still feeling alright at that point. I know I can still lie in bed and try to go back to sleep. But I also know that without enough water inside my body, AMS will be at hand. When it was finally time to get up, Angelica tells me that she also had the worst night of her life that she had to resort to Diamox to make herself feel better. She was even considering descending at that point. And I knew I had to stay with her, just as she did with me at many points in the trek. To think, the Annapurna Sanctuary, our goal for this trek, is just two hours away from here!

During breakfast, I felt two other symptoms: nausea and loss of appetite. I had to force feed myself that omelette and garlic soup I ordered. At the back of my head, I knew that if I climbed further up, the symptoms will only get worse. We had to make a decision right there.

Reaching Our Goal Worse for Wear

We compromised. Yes, we were heading up to the Annapurna Sanctuary, but we were not staying there for the night. An hour tops. After which, we descend all the way back down, past MBC, where we were at the time, until our feet could no longer walk. Wise decision on our part. Otherwise, we would not have seen the most spectacular views of the mountains I could ever in my wildest dreams imagine. There they were: Annapurna South, Machhapuchhre, Hiunchuli and, of course, the only eight-thousander standing here, Annapurna I, the 10th highest mountain in the world. An amphitheater of the snowy mountains of the Himalayas. We have reached the Annapurna Sanctuary.

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal
Trekkers make their way down from the Annapurna Sanctuary

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal
View from the platform of the Annapurna Base Camp, the western face of Machhapuchhre

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal
The only eight-thousander in this region, the 10th highest mountain int the world, Annapurna I

Everyone at the base camp was ecstatic. They, too, have reached their goal. People were hugging and congratulating themselves. We saw a couple of trekkers we met a few days ago and they congratulated us. You made it! Yes, yes, we did. Our heads were pounding from lack of oxygen but yes, we made it. I decided to go further into the viewing deck, where the shrine and prayer flags were. I was speechless. The view from there was nothing short of breathtaking. And then you hear a thunderous crack, an explosion, from afar. Then, you realize those were ancient glaciers moving, sliding further down the snowy abodes they once occupied. It was frightening and at the same time fascinating. Soak it all in, I told myself. This is one of those moments in life you will never ever forget.

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal

Prayer Flags at the Annapurna Base Camp

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepal

This post is the sixth of the series Trek in the Annapurna Himalayas in Nepal. The previous post dealt with The Trek (Part 1). Stay tuned for the next post when I talk our budget for this whole Himalaya trip.

* More photos from the Annapurna Sanctuary Trek on my Flickr set, Nepal: Annapurnas.

Have you ever had the pleasure and the experience of trekking in the Himalayas? What was it like? If not, is this something in your bucket list? Do share!

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