Annapurna I: Broken Valley Annapurna III: Choking Point


Annapurna I: Broken Valley

Annapurna III: Choking Point

Annapurna II: Cold Rising

Above the treeline, cold truths emerge

Annapurna, Nepal
22nd April, 2004

The following is a transcription of my diary, written as I walked round the Annapurna Circuit Trek in Nepal.

Day 5. Danagyu (2300m) to Chame (2670m)

The path meanders through pine forests and past waterfalls. Gigantic cliffs stretch out of sight on both sides. Drama never ceases. We turn a corner and dip into an entire community's life for a moment. Stone villages, single paved streets, built on the Tibetan salt trade, that has housed the same families for centuries, that has known nothing but unbroken tradition, hardship, love and death, and the passage of time. We pass through quitely, ghosts from another world. The women work, talking quietly. The men sit and argue. Children play barefoot by the ever-running water standpipe.

It is hot when the sunn shines, cold in the shade and after dark. At last, we see the first great mountain, the Himal Lamchung, a white bastion at the end of the valley.

As usual, the best guesthouse in town is run by Tibetans. They are a tough, resourceful people. We sit in the garden by the river, listening to the screams coming from the shower hut. It was guaranteed to be hot. But they meant Nepali Hot, which is one degree above glacial. We wander in search of the renowned thermal springs. They, too, are Nepali Hot.

We now have an extra reason to beat Team Israel to the next guesthouse. There will only ever be limited solar hot water, and they have matching big hair dreadlocks.

After five days of veg momos and tuna spring rolls we break down. Pascale and I, desperate for 'something civilized', pay a week's wage to buy a packet of McVities Digestives, and have proper afternoon tea.

Here's a question. We passed some non-speaking pseudo-Canadian long haired hippy types today trying to wake the spirit within a tree (with the words "O Great Spirit.."). My reaction was to have a good laugh and describe them as weirdos. Suzanne says this is wrong, you can't judge people as weird just coz they act weirdly.

So I take it back. Today I met some potentially wonderful human beings. Could-be brain surgeons, opera composers, multiple life savers, discoverers of some amazing vaccine. Who just for now happen to be talking to a tree. Meet all types in the mountains, eh?

Compede not working for Gavin's blistered heel. It's spreading fast. I have a roll of electrical duct tape, and we decide to lash his whole damn foot back together. Success.

Day 6. Chame (2670m) to Lower Pisang (3200m)

We begin to reach high altitude today. The air already contains 25% less oxygen, and our hearts pump faster to make up the deficit. Yet another pleasant walk in the dry pine woods. The haze and mist has been left far below, and now every day is clear, full of sharp edged mountain scenery. We round Lamchung Himal and see Annapurna IV beyond.

On the other side of the gorge, a single shelving rock has been cut into a giant's soupbowl, curving round a ninety degree arc.

We have also left the Hindu lowlands behind, and the monuments and villages are firmly buddhist, strongly Tibetan. Rough piles chorten towers, prayer flags, tumbling mani walls, long lines of prayer wheels.

Prayer wheels. I said the Tibetans were resourceful. Imagine building a machine to do your praying for you. They even have water powered prayer wheels later on. No more getting up for 7am mass for this lot. All devotions done while you lie in bed.

Babu once again scoops the best rooms in town for us. We use up the hot water, just in time to make the Three Amigos scream. Jake, Heiko, Nigel are parrt of our team now. The Israelis are our entertainment. They spent the day bitching at their porters, the innkeepers, passing dogs and the stones in the road because they couldn't find any wine. Funny thing that, in the Nepal Himilaya. It's Passover.

When there's so little to do at night, one must make fun where one can. The locals know this rule by heart. The boys are holding an archery contest this week. To make it more interesting, they first get falling down drunk on rakshi. They can then send their arrows into the ground, the woodpiles, each other, anywhere but the target. It's a hoot.

Cold, cold, cold. Water cold in my bottles. Iodine musty. I borrow an extra blanket. It smells of yak.

Day 7. Lower Pisang (3200m) to Manang (3540m)

Today a route choice: we choose the high road. Seven hours to Manang through the high altitude village of Gyaru. This means a straight climb, 400m in one go to 3700m above sea level. Thin air having its effect now. I blitz the climb without stopping for two reasons: I want to study my heart rate; and there's a bunch of weasel faced Frenchmen ahead on the path, and I want to walk them into the dust.

I'm sipping Fanta in Gyaru at my ease as the first Frenchie comes huffing past the finishing post. The view from here is staggering. In front, the Annapurna range, glistening bright above the snowline: Annapurna II, III, IV and Gangapurna, each over 7000m high. Behind us the high rock walls of Pisang. Below, the scorched dry valley with the Marsyangdi River like a silver snake. We stay here an hour, hardly talking, breathing it all in.

Ridge walk. These highland villages are made of dry stone, built on hillsides of dry stone, surrounded by fields containing nothing but dry stone. How on earth do they live? There isn't even earth to grow a crop. They have animals, but I see nothing growing for the animals to forage.

Yet they live. And cook cabbage curries for passing Westerners. A toilet here is a hole over a cess pit. The cess pit is the only fertile font of life I see up here, kept regularly topped up after so many cabbage curries.

Decend to Manang. The rule at altitiude is, climb high, sleep low. We drop two hundred meters to follow what remains of the tree line to the dry stone town of Manang. It is a rest and acclimatisation stop. Everyone stays two nights here. Manang is the metropolis of the Annapurna Circuit.

Manang! The magical city of Manang! We had heard so much, dreamt so much about it on the way up. THey have everything in Manang! A bakery! A cinema! We made up our own delights and added them to our expectations: they must have a Starbucks! A drive-thru McDonalds! A Swedish bordello!

We entered the dry stone town of Manang. Children playing in the dust. The bakery does what it can: chocolate brownies with no chocolate, apple pie with last years apples. The cinema, the UCI MUltiplex, is a wooden shack in a backyard, with a DVD player, wooden benches and yak-skin rugs.

But after a week walking in the mountains, seven days of tuna spring rolls and card games by torchlight, Manang is a magical city. I eat a brownie and drink a real coffee. With Pascale and Gavin and the three boys, I watch Seven Years in Tibet. Prayer wheels and yak skins, fake and real.

Day 8. Manang (3540m) Acclimatization Day

Sore muscles after yesterday. First time felt tired on trek. Rest and acclimatization today. Short walk up to Gangapurna Glacier (up 350m) and back in 2 hours. Suzanne and Jules take Babu to Kilcho Glacial Lake - 1000m up and six hours! They return exhausted having seen what they describe as a patch of green pond scum. Meanwhile I'm munching more chocolate cake. There is no justice.

AMS! AMS now dominates now minds. Acute Mountain Sickness is a condition that can appear suddenly in anyone climbing over 3000m. It is the lack of oxygen, causing the brain to swell or the lungs to fill with fluid. You must not ascend too fast. Sleeping more than 400m higher per day greatly increases the risk. Initial symptoms are headache and nausea. that is mild AMS. You must not ascend again till that goes away.

Acute AMS is vomiting, loss of cordination, crushing headache, blood in urine. Then you must descend, fast. Or you die. Fitness or strength do not matter. Often the most fit people are the worst victims. Every year someone dies on this trek.

We do not have any symptoms, but are bodies are already acting strangely - wild dreams, rapid pulse, heavy breathing. I urinate like a horse, every hour. Those are signs of acclimatization, good signs. I stare at my bucket of pale green piss and am happy.

Manang is more stone surrounded by stone and dust. The whole town is built on a rampart of sand and gravel. How can it survive the monsoon? Won't the buildings slide into mud? There is no meat to be had here. There are cows, out there feeding on stone in the fields of stone - but noone is eating them. Surely noone will miss just a bit of rump...

We watch Into Thin Air: Death on Everest. Very apt. Lots of silly people choking and freezing on a mountain side, but not before uttering every mountaineering cliche known to man.
"You've got to move mate!!"
"I can't go on!!"
"There's a small pot of Lemon Tea and an apple pie two hundred feet below you!! Can you make it??"

Or was that just me.

The acclimatization seems to work well. We have conquered 3500m. Time for the real challenge.

Day 9. Manang (3540m) to Yak Karka (4018m)

Our first level ascent is 450m vertical to the tiny village of Yak Karka. It takes three hours. We are now above the treeline. Dry moors and stone valleys. Reminds me of Scotland. The crystal white Annapurnas still dazzle behind us. Dry sandy path, easy climb. Breathing easily so far.

Today we left the Marsyandgi River at last. Our faithful rushing friend that we followed for so long. Few people live up here. Just a few yak herders. Farmers climb the slopes to cut head baskets of thorn leaves with iron sickles. This is the source of animal forage I wondered about.

Soon they, too, are left behind. Empty now. Just a few stone guesthouses. Cold rooms, cold air. There are no more showers. They'll give you a bucket of hot water if you ask, but you've got to be quick to wash before the wind freezes it to your body, blasting through every crevicec in the wooden hut they call a shower room. Most of us no longer wash. The men have not shaved in days. There is nowhere for waste to go, so I use the Asian cleansing method now in the squat hole toilet. I find it more refreshing than the Western way anyhow.

Neither do I buy plastic water bottles, which are a thousand miles from disposal. Just iodine or local ozone-treated water. Giardia is everywhere up here. Yaks run by outside. They look like short fat cows in a shaggy blanket. They are the Israelis of the cattle world. Short, wild voiced horsemen herd them by pelting stones from handheld slingshots. As they have done since the time of Alexander.

Pascale and Suzane have hired a porter to carry their gear over the pass. He speaks no English so I advise them to check his teeth and fetlocks before buying. All our friends are here tonight. The Israelis, the Ozzies, English Couples nos. 1 and 2, the Three Boys. We gather our bodies together, communing, joining our minds against that of the mountain. All of a sudden our pleasant nature trek has become a struggle against nature. After only 450m up.

Only 450m up but we are all affected. Everyone is losing sleep, short of breath, cold, fractious. Suzanne has swollen up like a balloon. Nigel and I feel a cold coming on, out of nowhere. We gather our bodies in close over pots of tea. The innkeepers - short brown men in leather jackets, misplaced rednecks from a mid-Western cow-town - light a charcoal brazier under each table.

It warms our legs but fills the air with carbon monoxide. A mistake.

Sleep badly. A symptom of AMS is headache. A symptom of my cold is headache.

Sleep badly. Cold. Snow falls.




Village Ascent


High Range








Annapurna Map



Hat & Spoon



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The Facts

Where I stayed
Annapurna: Pick the first guesthouse you like, or ask your guide. Prices and menus are all the same.

How I got around:
Long, shapely legs.