Annapurna Circuit 2 – from Chame to the Summit

Wednesday 11 October

Nigel and I shared a room at each stop. He’s not good in the morning.

“Are you awake, Nigel?”


“Would you like to use the bathroom first?”


“Shall I order breakfast for you, Nigel?”


He was fine after breakfast and opened like a flower as the trek began, chatting as we walked below the pines, the sweet scent almost intoxicating.

That morning we had our first sight of Manaslu.



The valley narrowed again making the river even angrier and short steep descents and river crossings added to the enjoyment. We had been careful with food, nothing too challenging, with using bottled water, and avoiding alcohol on the trek to the summit.And then I got stomach cramp. We were on a hard zig-zag climb and I really felt every step, nausea mostly. I know what caused it, cold coffee which I should have had the sense not to touch it. I can only assume the water wasn’t boiled. I was more annoyed with myself than with the cramp! It took a few hours and it slowly dissipated.


Do you like this trick of filling a water bottle from a waterfall in the far valley? My grandchildren thought it was amazing. I won’t say what everyone else said! We got intermittent Internet in the villages so every evening I sent posts to my family with short stories.

We hit 3,300m at Upper Pisang, an early milestone. We saw several peaks over 7,000m under snow on this day, Annapurna II and IV being especially beautiful. DR also pointed out Manaslu North, manaslu itslef and Phungi Himal. It was a warm day but as the evening came in, the wind turned sharp after changing direction to blow down from the snow-capped mountains.

We were now moving from Hindu culture to Buddhist culture with their beautiful temples and prayer flags. I’d spent some time in Bhutan some years earlier and was  fascinated by Buddhism. DR and I had many chats about the various religions.

 Thursday 12 October

We stopped in the quiet village of Ngawal at 3,660m, a lovely village on a ridge with great views and good food. Every menu is a variation on the same but varied enough not to be boring. I enjoyed porridge for breakfast with toast and tea. Several of us took a liking to noodle and egg soup at lunch, and even curry or noodles for supper.

We had our first sight today of the magnificent summit of Annapurna. It’s a formidable mountain, 10th highest in the world and the first to be climbed of the 8,000m mountains. That climb was led by Maurice Hertzog in 1950 and all his French party survived, an amazing achievement. We hear a lot about deaths on Everest, which is around 3% of those who summit. Annapurna has the highest death rate at over 30% and K2 is close behind.

It was a tough day, a zig-zag up a steep incline for several hours. We were now in the “Very High Altitude” zone and oxygen was around 83% of what it is at sea level. Our steps were slow and short so we could breathe deeply and make progress. With our core turned on of course!

Today we saw a lot of eagles and yaks and buffalos. We tried jak cheese later which was tasteless, probably better for cooking. The buffalo cheese was delightful, like an aged cheddar.

I felt the trek but rallied in the afternoon. Not so, Nigel who went to bed early. He had a headache and stomach cramp but the rest of us were fine.

Friday 13 October

Friday 13, an auspicious day and, Oh dear! Nigel was not well. He said he had a virus and insisted on staying tucked up in bed. We debated and then he said: “I’m a doctor. Give me a piece of paper and I’ll write you a sick note.” No arguing with that.

The next stop in Manang was for two days so DR, ever calm and phlegmatic, arranged for Mani to travel back with a porter in the evening and follow us with Nigel next day. If Nigel was still sick he’d have to go down.

We arrived early in Manang at 4,100m and had a good lunch on the roof of the Yak hotel (although “hotel” was pushing it). It was cold all day so heavy anoraks were worn. We were at 65% oxygen so there was a lot of deep breathing. Goodness, the view of Annapurna from my window was amazing. Talk about a room with a view. I sent the image to Nigel to encourage him but heard nothing, no text, no email, no phone. Obviously still ill.

We’d a lecture on Mountain Altitude Sickness at the local medical centre. They use volunteer doctors, and on this occasion, the doctors were from New Zealand. The bit I took away is that those aged over 50 are low risk. At last, something positive about being older.

I enjoyed my chats walking with DR. We’d taken turns so the poor man probably repeated himself regularly. Today, we covered castes in Nepal. Castes were banned in 1963 but the villagers ignored parliament. They know who everyone is, so there are houses where you cannot enter depending on your caste. The corollary is that even a low-caste person could become Prime Minister. No wonder the population is moving to the big cities where nobody cares about caste.

We also spoke about graveyards. They are not encouraged in Nepal, even for Christians and other religions who normally bury their dead. Very sensible, I’d say.

Jane had been circling conversations since we set out, ducking in and out when a speaker took a breath. The last few days, I’d just said: “Jane, I’m not finished.” I was anxious not to offend, but honestly, I did have evil thoughts about her on some of the metal swing bridges.

This day, I confronted her. I was telling a long story and had everyone’s attention. Jane interrupted me 23 times. Yes, I kept count. At the end, I told her that interrupting a story where I come from in Ireland is never done. A gap in the story-telling is for effect, not for jumping in. Deep breaths are necessary for the story teller and not an invitation to deviate from the speaker’s drift. She succumbed, agreed it was a fault, possibly genetic, her grandmother used to . . . I put my hand up. “If I put my hand up, or say ‘Jane’ you must stop immediately. Can we agree on that?” She assured me she could, that she welcomed it as she had no conversational boundaries. We agreed and got on famously. Phew!

Saturday 14 October

We’d an extra day in Manang so DR led a hike higher up the mountain. The highest lake in the world, Tilicho Lake, is beyond the first mountain that DR is pointing at. It’s a separate trek but not one for us on this trip!

It was good to get height and then come down. We stopped and chatted to two Welsh women and their guide. The group had started out as seven women, but five dropped out along the way and would now be in Pokhara. They didn’t pay attention to getting fit while in Wales. Wales of all places – the best place to train.

We visited a Buddhist monastery on the way back, ran our hands on the prayer wheels on the mani wall and spent time inside admiring the stories about Buddha. Ten old women were sitting and chanting when we entered, nodded at us and smiled. They may not have been very old, but were well weathered, teeth missing. It’s a hard life at this level. We did a lot of Namaste – a brilliant word for Good Morning, Good Afternoon, Good Evening, Good Night, Hello, Goodbye, and How’s it goin’?

The villages we had passed through close down in the winter, roughly from mid December. Not so in Manang, which has a small permanent population in winter. The old stone walls and wooden houses were very attractive, and the farm areas tilled. The locals were lovely, and the children and babies delightful. The mothers chat and coo in Nepalese when you comment on their babies, language unnecessary in those sweet encounters. Communication is by eye and smile.

We were now above the tree line with only scrub about. As evening approached it got very cold. The hotels didn’t have insulation, so a good sleeping bag was welcome.

Nigel and Mani arrived from Ngawal. Nigel was much better. His diagnosis was spot on, as he said himself: “The mind is the athlete, the body is the machine.” He was able to play scrabble with Jane, a nightly occurrence, while Stuart Small and I chatted or read. Stuart Tall had been struggling with his knees, painful from an old injury, and he and Alison went to bed early. Later, Stuart Small told a story and Jane interjected: “It was Friday not Thursday and Shrewsbury, not Tewksbury” she said. Stuart put up his hand: “Jane!” She looked at him, confused, then: “Bugger off, you’re not Maurice!”


Sunday 15 October

We were beyond the road for four-wheel drives. We reached the small village of Ledar at 4,200m. It was getting serious now, dark early and very cold. We added a few hundred metres in height on an eight-hour trek.

We met several pack horses since leaving Manang which brought supplies to the higher villages. Four-wheel drive cars could, with difficulty, reach Manang, but not beyond. The cars used a lower road by the river so they never bothered us on the trek.

In Manang, we’d started taking Diomox, half a tablet in the evening. It wasn’t a big deal, you just have to get your timing right as you’ll urininate in spurts for three hours after taking the pill. Diomox limits the effects of the enzyme carbonic anhydrase, which is needed to convert water and carbon dioxide into bicarbonate and hydrogen ions in your body. It affects your body in several ways, the most important is to reduce the amount of acid excreted when you urinate. We all took a half tablet, except Simon. He was convinced he would be fine.




Monday 16 October

It took nearly six hours to hike the 6Km to High Camp, which is about 250m above Thorung Phedi. We were on steep zig-zag paths as we built on height to 4,525m. While it was slow, it was truly gorgeous with blue sky and the rise of the peaks. To them we were ants, so far away, so insignificant. Can you see the small ice peaks and geological formations around Annapurna? They were fascinating.

We stopped in Base Camp for lunch though our appetites were less demanding, an effort to do anything, even eat. Tea and chocolate would’ve been fine, but DR insisted that we eat.

The High Altitude Zone at this height is like a moonscape, forbidding and grim and miserably cold, the type of cold that seeps into your bones. We saw two musk deer at the edge of the scrub line, emphasising the line and the remoteness. Then we were above the scrub where nothing grows or lives. We were so far up that the animals didn’t seem to be bothered by humans.  We also saw Himalayan Thar, a wild mountain goat, and saw and heard Pika, rabbit-like creatures scurrying around. We’d high hopes of catching a glimpse of a black bear and a snow leopard, but they were asleep somewhere that day!

We were now back to wooden bridges which were firm but rickety. They added to the remoteness.

Our plan was to eat at 5pm, bed around 6pm and then up at 3am for the five-hour trek to the summit at Turung La. We were ready for it, even excited by the whisps of snow as we went to bed. The toilet was communal so a visit at night with a head-torch emphasised the remoteness.

There was an intimate communal spirit around the fire that evening, conversations in multiple languages, lots of shuffling along benches to get another person close to the fire. We ate but just didn’t feel hungry, drank water, chatted and went to bed early. We got a clear view of the night sky on several evenings and this evening we had a short period before the clouds came in. It was fascinating to identify the constellations we see at home.

The temperature was now minus 16. We were breathing heavily as we were at 50% the oxygen of sea level and were tired and our muscles ached. However, we didn’t have headaches, except for Simon who hadn’t taken the Diomox. I say no more!

 Tuesday 17 October

DR came around with tea to wake us at 3am, but we were already packed. The snow in the previous hours had come down very heavily. It was unexpected. We had options:

  • Wait and see if the storm passed but we had to be beyond Thorung La by mid-day to avoid High Altitude Edema. Also at midday, the winds change direction and the descent with wind in front can be treacherous.
  • Stay for another night though it could be dangerous if the strong wind exposed the ice and it snowed again. Snow on frozen snow would be treacherous.

DR was concerned about Stuart Tall who was suffering with his knees and Simon who had headaches. If we stayed too long it could get worse for both of them. We decided to go for it and set out at 4am while the wind was behind us. We would review at each rest stop, roughly every half an hour..

The snow was now around 30cm underfoot, higher in places where the wind blew in. Head-torches and shadows eerily danced around us as we headed up the mountain. There was a drop of several hundred metres on our right which focused the mind. A pony came down later in the dark and we hugged the cliff, exhilarated and anxious as it passed.

DR kept a steady pace and Mani took up the rear to keep us tight together. We’d short rest stops to catch our breath and a chance to gather the emerging dawn in the shadows above us. Slowly, we gained 1,000m in five hours.

As we got close to the summit at 5,614m, the storm abated. The sun below the horizon picked out the peaks of the 8,000m mountains like massive candles. Slowly, the sun moved down those mountains as if orchestrated, while we were still in the dark. Suddenly, and it was suddenly, the sun burst over the horizon and was glorious and joyful, the hairs on our necks stood up, a shiver along the spine as we witnessed the momentousness of the image. It was truly awesome. We laughed as if we’d succeeded in a very great endeavour.

The summit Buddhist flags came into view with the little tea-house hugging the edge of the pass. We off-loaded into the windowless tea-house, the smell of paraffin pervading the air, the burners heating pots of water. The black tea that morning was hugely welcome.

Then the long descent. At first it was across an escarpment and delightful, our energy built on our excitement, and it got slightly warmer under the clear blue sky. The descent, however, became tricky with the snow and ice underfoot. It snowed again, mist came and went, cold in the mist and warmer under the blue sky. It was a cocktail of weather patterns.

Those wearing crampons got on fine. Nigel and I did not have crampons – a huge mistake. I forgot mine and intended to buy a pair in Kathmandu, but at the time the forecast was for fair weather and on an impulse I decided I didn’t need two pairs. Big mistake.

We had an exhausting descent, jumping between pristine pockets of fresh snow to avoid the ice. Mostly it worked but every now and again I misjudged and I fell many times. My dignity was assuaged by DR’s big smile as he dusted the snow off me after a fall, searching for my sunglasses and battered hat. After several falls I forgot about dignity and replaced it with muttered sacrilege.

At one stage, Nigel, exhausted, sat down and slid down the path. It was funny, but a drop of a hundred metres to his right sobered him and us up, and he took to walking.

After several hours we reached the tea-house at Chambar Bhu. We had our safe fare of a soup with noodles and omelette. The short trek from there to Muktinath, past the Vishnu Temple sacred to both Hindi and Buddhists was exhilarating. We’d done it.

We’d a comfortable night after a good meal. A few of us had a beer, our first since Kathmandu, but only one. Exhaustion had taken its toll and we just wanted sleep.

Annapurna Circuit 3 – From Muktinath to Kathmandu

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