A Trek to the Annapurna Base Camp

We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm,
making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.
-John Muir

After having obsessed and dreamt for a long time about trekking to the Annapurna base Camp (ABC), I finally realised my dream last April and checked it off my bucket list. I, along with a couple of friends from Mumbai, made this trek a wonderful reality. What was it about the ABC trek that lured and beckoned me to explore it? Read on and you’re sure to add it to YOUR bucket list as well.

A few fascinating facts:


ABC trek (as it is popularly known) is a part of the Nepal Himalayas. The altitude of this trek is 4130 metres (13,550 feet). It is at the base of the Annapurna 1 peak (the tenth highest mountain peak in the world), which stands tall at a height of 8091 metres (26,545 feet). The trek is nestled in the Annapurna Conservation Area (7629 sq km), which boasts of over 1,200 types of plants, more than 100 types of mammals, and 478 species of exotic birds. You can be privy to the entire gamut of the Himalayan ecosystem in just a few days of your trek.

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This trek is a heady cocktail of many diverse terrains. It meanders through muddy trails; mixed forests dense with rhododendrons, bamboo, fern and oak trees; drier alpine stretches with boulders; farmlands; countless stone steps; and snow-clad stretches.

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The best time to trek:


The best time to embark on this trek is from March to May, and then, from mid-September to December. These are the months when there is less chance of it raining and the ensuing fog obscuring the mountain peaks. Therefore, the weather is clear to give you an incredible view of the peaks that will leave you spellbound.



My experience:


I was completely blown away by the natural beauty all along the trek. It totally exceeded my expectations. Every frame that I set my eyes upon, was like a splendid picture postcard. The change of terrain every so often made it even more riveting. We had just started traversing through the thick lush green woodlands when the scenery changed to a flowery forest in a few kilometres. The ubiquitous motley coloured rhododendrons looked striking against the contrasting verdant green backdrop of the forest. The vibrant spectacle was so fascinating to the eye and soothing to the spirit, that I was overwhelmed with admiration and gratitude as we walked through the world’s largest rhododendron forests. I was wistful when the terrain ended, leading into lowland villages. Through the entire trek, the terrain kept varying from vast farmlands to small hamlets to myriad big and small waterfalls to thick forests to a million stone steps that added a heady fusion of steep and gradual ascents. And that’s not all! There were rustic wooden bridges and contrasting modern suspension bridges over the rivers and streams, enormous and open snowclad stretches, and then, there were a few rocky moraine trails thrown in to make the ride extra bumpy. The continuous gurgling sound of the cerulean glaciers and the Modi Khola river added to the feeling of tranquility. There was never a dull moment making the trek anything but mundane. Another spectacular feature was the continuous view of the Annapurna range almost all throughout the trek. In fact, one can start seeing the gorgeous peaks right from Pokhara itself, much before the start of the trek.

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One of the must-visit highlights of this trek is Poon Hill. It is the vantage point from where you can view the most spectacular panoramic sunrise over the entire Annapurna range. You can’t afford to miss this. The sun rays cascade dramatically over the peaks like molten lava, changing the peaks from pristine white to fire. Poon Hill is an hour’s ascent from Ghorepani that we visited in the wee hours of day 2 of the trek.


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On our way to Sinuwa on day 3, we passed through one of the most enchanting villages I had ever seen in my life, called Chhomrong. It was one of the most gratifying experiences during the trek. Chhomrong is a beautiful little village with a stunning grandstand like view of the Annapurnas, Machapuchare and Hiunchuli. Machapuch are (the Holy fish-tailed mountain) is deeply revered by the Nepalese, as they believe it to be one of the many abodes of Lord Shiva. Therefore, the mountain has never been summited officially.


While walking through Chhomrong, we chatted up with a few cheerful and effervescent kids, who were giggling and prancing all the way from school to their homes in Sinuwa, a distance of a few thousand steps that they covered gleefully every day. The million (at least they felt like) steps from Chhomrong to Upper Sinuwa were a real test of our mental and physical strength.

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We were pleasantly surprised to stumble upon a couple of German bakeries with Lavazza coffee and sinful brownies in Chhomrong, adding an urbane touch to the rustic setting. We promised to stop by and celebrate ouraccomplishment on our return, and we did!


The steady burbling of the Modi Khola river that flowed all along the muddy trail from Sinuwa to Himalayaon on day 4, added a subtle and calming background music that added spring to our step. The fact that we could only hear the sound but not sight the river due to the dense tree cover, infused a touch of enigma to the ambience.


And then finally on day 6, we started our ascent from Machapuchare Base Camp (MBC) to the Annapurna Base Camp at 3 am. All the way through the climb, we got an eyeful of the breathtaking panoramic view of the Annapurna range- up, close and personal! No words can do justice to what I saw laid out in front of my eyes and all around me. I am sure that this is what paradise looks like! The 360-degree view of the peaks was awe-inspiring and surreal... Annapurna I, Annapurna South, Machapuchhre, Dhaulagiri, Hiunchuli, Gandharvachuli and Gangapurna, in their full glory. Adding to the euphoria was the mesmerising sunrise, making the peaks radiate in dazzling gold. We spent more than two hours at the base camp, just soaking in the stupendous experience with utmost relish!


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Another highlight along the trek was the natural hot springs at Jhinu Danda that we visited on day 7 almost towards the end of our final descent. Three hot spring pools are built on the river bank of the Modi Khola river. Easing up and soaking in the hot water, with the fierce gurgling sound of the river flowing alongside, was therapy for the mind and body. Just what we needed after the long and exhausting trek! It was a delight to cross numerous small chortens and gumbas all along the trek with multi-coloured flags flying around them.


I finally got to walk on the New Bridge on day 8, the final day of the trek. This amazingly long bridge looked fascinating from our teahouse terrace in Jhinu Danda, and I was happy to learn that we would be crossing it to reach the finish point of the trek.


Tea Houses


Tea houses are akin to home- stays. They are run by locals and can accommodate 20-30 people. Lodging at the tea houses after trekking through the day, was unexpectedly comfortable. Having trekked earlier in the mountains with only congested tents that were set up for night-halts, these tea houses felt like the ultimate luxury. Being able to use premium facilities like Wi-Fi, phone charging and hot water showers in the mountains was an indulgence indeed! Of course, these amenities came at an extra cost but I wasn’t complaining! Talking about hot showers, what could be more soothing to the fatigued body at the end of hours of walking than a steaming hot shower ... sublime!

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The variety of dishes on the printed menu cards in the tea houses was yet another gratifying affair. What would you say when you’re granted the choice to order Mexican burritos, chocolate-banana pancakes, steaming hot thukpa or momos high up in the mountains? I would call it extravagance! I felt truly pampered when I ordered eggs for breakfast, and was asked “How would you want us to cook the eggs for you ... boiled, masala or cheese omelette, bhurji or sunny-side-up?”!


For lunch, I always went in for the freshly cooked dal- bhat (Nepalese staple thali meal comprising of soupy dal, rice, dry vegetable, pickles and papad). Dal-baht platter is very similar to Indian food. For dinner, it was always the piping hot Thukpa for me.


All the food is locally grown and never fails to gratify the taste buds. The ubiquitous honey-ginger-lemon hot drink, kept my stomach acids neutralised, keeping colds, nausea and other maladies at bay. It was a drink I looked forward to during the meal breaks. I added garlic cloves to my breakfast as a preventive dose to mountain sickness, as per the local wisdom.



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These tea houses render a very homely feel. The common dining area is a confluence of international trekkers, always abuzz around mealtimes with people chit-chatting, laughing, singing and sharing experiences with each other. The tea houses embodied a very distinct culture which was either Gurung or Magar, and very palpable in the air. The tea houses staff can speak Hindi and English well. My favourite tea house was Dovan Guest-house in Dovan. It was the neatest of the lot and boasted of 4 unusually clean and tiled bathrooms, with unlimited steaming hot showers. The food and service were great too.



Was ABC trek easy or tough?


I would personally rate the ABC trek as easy, with a couple of tough patches thrown in. According to me, there are 5 parameters that influence the difficulty level of a trek. These are: The total altitude of the trek, the duration of walk per day, the altitude gain each day, the terrain, and the weather. Here’s how I rate the ABC trek on each of these factors:!


1. The total altitude of the trek: With 13,550 ft of total altitude gain, the ABC trek is definitely on the easier side. Treks below 15000 ft are less risky from Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) perspective. Having said that, there are people who can get AMS at this altitude too. We witnessed a lot of choppers doing rounds of airlifting people with AMS, and a few other trekkers making a quick descent on ponies to recover from mountain sickness. I personally didn’t need to go on a Diamox course (Acetazolamide used to prevent/reduce the symptoms of AMS), as I was totally comfortable with the altitude gain each day.

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2. The duration of walk per day: When the number of walking hours per day stretch beyond 6-7 hours, it can change the difficulty level of a trek from moderate to difficult. ABC is a moderate- difficult trek when completed in 9-11 days. However, if the trek is compressed to fewer days, it would entail longer hours of walk per day to cover the altitude, and this can amplify the difficulty level for some. This can even increase the risk of altitude sickness. We wrapped up our trek in 8 days by walking for 8 hours daily on an average; the longest being 13 hours on day 6 when we summited the ABC and walked all the way back to Dovan the same day. However, due to good endurance levels, the mission was accomplished without any issue.


3. The altitude gain each day: This can be the main factor in gauging the difficulty level of a trek. Beyond 10,000 ft, it is generally advised not to gain more than 1000 ft of altitude per day to avoid getting AMS. We did gain about 1900 ft on day 4 when we trekked from Upper Sinuwa to Himalaya, and then a whopping 3674 ft on day 5 while ascending all the way from a place called Himalaya to MBC. But all’s well that ends well! All of us reached MBC hale and hearty.



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The variety of dishes on the printed menu cards in the tea houses was yet another gratifying affair. What would you say when you’re granted the choice to order Mexican burritos, chocolate-banana pancakes, steaming hot thukpa or momos high up in the mountains? I would call it extravagance! I felt truly pampered when I ordered eggs for breakfast, and was asked “How would you want us to cook the eggs for you ... boiled, masala or cheese omelette, bhurji or sunny-side-up?”!


For lunch, I always went in for the freshly cooked dal- bhat (Nepalese staple thali meal comprising of soupy dal, rice, dry vegetable, pickles and papad). Dal-baht platter is very similar to Indian food. For dinner, it was always the piping hot Thukpa for me.


All the food is locally grown and never fails to gratify the taste buds. The ubiquitous honey-ginger-lemon hot drink, kept my stomach acids neutralised, keeping colds, nausea and other maladies at bay. It was a drink I looked forward to during the meal breaks. I added garlic cloves to my breakfast as a preventive dose to mountain sickness, as per the local wisdom.



annapurna

4. The terrain: A trek with mostly even trail or grass would be graded as easy; however, a trek with extensive stretches of boulders to navigate, narrow slippery snowy paths to tread on and multitudinous steps to climb, would be considered difficult. ABC had all of these in good measure! There were countless and seemingly never-ending array of steps, undulating boulder-laden trails, and treacherously narrow and slippery snow paths. In some patches, these snow paths were just wide enough to hold one foot; you have to stabilise it, and then place the next foot forward. Great focus is needed as the drops are precipitous. Such stretches of the trek would be truly demanding for a newbie trekker. The zillion (they can feel like that to an exhausted body) steps can be knee-breakers for many. They form the essence of the ABC trek. So, if you have knee issues, you need to think twice before embarking on this trek.


5. The Weather: A blizzard while on the trek, or an avalanche blocking the narrow trails can definitely up the difficulty quotient of a trek. Sub-zero temperatures is another aspect that can add to a trekker’s woes. During our trek too, temperatures crossed sub-zero in Himalaya, MBC and ABC, but barring these stay-overs, the chill was bearable and the climate temperate. Luckily for us, the trek was in April, which happens to be one of best months to get a clear sky. The sun was sharp but bearable, and there were only a couple of sporadic rain showers during our return.


But, even sudden weather change can convert any trek into an arduous one in no time. We faced the consequence of suddenly changing weather first-hand. Crossing the crude wooden bridges over rivers and streams was much easier while on our ascent to ABC. In fact, prancing and leaping over rocks, and traversing the bridges was fun! But to our utter surprise, these bridges and big exposed rocks disappeared under the swell of the raging river due to heavy rains in the lower regions. It raised the water level substantially. I still shudder when I think of how I made my way to the other side of the river by jumping over a barely exposed tip of a sharp rock and then extending my trekking pole to be pulled by our guide to the safety of land. In the same week sometime, I learn that a Korean woman and another man got washed away in the river while trying to cross it in the same manner.


Another thing trekkers need to be cautious about during the rains is the leeches. If it rains and you’re trekking through a forest, leeches making their way into your clothes and shoes surreptitiously is a big possibility. I discovered that I was the target of a leech stealth attack only after returning to the tea house from Jhinu hot springs while it was raining. While there was no pain, there was a bloody stream running from between my toes. Thankfully, leeches aren’t really detrimental to health.


The ABC trek may have a few unnerving patches strewn in here and there, but then what’s a trek without the element of challenge? If I have to sum up the trek experience in one sentence, I would say that it was the most extraordinary and idyllic trek I’ve done to date, with an adequate dash of adrenaline.


Two months have passed since, but the euphoria hasn’t dampened, and I’m already scouting for my next trek!


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A few essential tips before embarking on ABC trek:


1. Weather is highly unpredictable and can cause long flight delays on Kathmandu- Pokhara sector. You’re strongly advised to keep a buffer day in Kathmandu before the commencement (so as not to mess up your trek itinerary) and after the completion of your trek (to avoid missing your international flight).


2. It gives a lot of peace of mind to opt for trek insurance that covers helicopter evacuation in case of emergencies. AMS and other health issues are a reality on high altitude treks, and chopper evacuation is the only fast means of bringing you down from that altitude.


3. Adequate physical training will help you immensely in the completion of your trek without major aches and pains. It will help in a big way if you’re a runner or/and you strength train regularly. If you do neither, it will help to take up long walks with backpacks (8 kgs is good) a couple of months before the trek to increase your endurance levels. Your physical training can save your knees and back from the onslaught of the innumerable steps you’ll come across.


You need crampons for your final day ascent. If you’re trekking through a trekking company, make sure they’re providing crampons; If you’re just hiring a guide, buy your own.


5. If you’re planning to trek all by yourself but aren’t a seasoned trekker, I would strongly recommend hiring a guide. Although the trail is a very well laid out one, having a guide can help you manoeuvre through slippery snowy trails and avalanche/landslide created obstructions; he can help book tea-houses for the night in case you haven’t booked them all in advance, and you will feel safer as he will keep an eye on you to see if you show any signs of AMS.



So, with all the necessary information in your trek toolkit now, you’re ready to go! Have a great ABC trek!