I remember reading about trekking the Annapurna Circuit online last year. “Trekking? Pfft,” I thought, “trekking’s just another word for walking. Anybody can walk, right?” But as Bill Walker bluntly puts it in his book Getting High: The Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, “You simply can’t fuck around with the Himalayas.”
I should have taken that advice to heart.
It was a stark awakening when I collapsed into bed at the end of the first day on the Annapurna Circuit. After just 4 hours of hiking I was wet from rain, my body ached, and I had absolutely no idea how I would handle the next 2.5 weeks of trekking through the tallest mountains on Earth.
I went from dumb overconfidence in the beginning, to humbled frustration in the first few days, to developing a respect for the trek as my physical and mental condition improved. I went from wondering if I’d finish to knowing I would.
The view is just so damn good.
The terrain and scenery vary tremendously with both altitude and distance. It’s still hard to believe all these photos are all from the same place, and I took them!
Lush, green plants surrounded us on the first day of the trek. Water was everywhere:
Green still surrounded us on day 2. The climate was warm, almost tropical. Hiking all day was a sweaty affair. I did not edit the color in this image.
Five days in, and we were in a more alpine environment as the altitude increased. This was shot near Bratong.
Day 8, and we were at a decidedly high altitude (11,500′) near the town of Manang. Ferns and small bushes grow. Much of the greenery was gone.
Day 10 and we made it to Tilicho Lake at 16,237′. Plant life consisted of moss and small, hardy flowers. Most of the scenery was just rocks and snow.
Two weeks in and, this is what high camp looks like at 15,748′. The landscape was downright otherworldly.
Above 17,000′ on day 15, the landscape is totally devoid of visible life, other than those who made the trek to get up here.
After crossing Thorong La Pass at 17,769′, we began a steep descent along the western side of the Annapurna Circuit. This side is much drier and can get very windy. The landscape changes yet again.
The dusty conditions continue for days.
The western side is easier as it is mostly downhill – a welcome change after two weeks of walking up. We slowly descended back into an alpine climate and then back into the warm, lush tropical green we left so many days ago. I say “mostly” downhill because there is (of course!) one remaining major uphill stretch which ascends above 10,000′. This part involves an elevation gain of over 6000′ in one day if you do it all at once. Challenging as it is, it’s well worth it as you’ll get to see the sun rise from the top of Poon Hill.
After Poon Hill, the route descends again steeply through breathtaking rhododendron forests as you near the conclusion.
Visiting Tilicho Lake, one of the Highest Altitude Lakes in the World
Tilicho Lake is a 3 day side trek off the main Annapurna Circuit trail. Getting to the lake was as difficult as you might imagine from the pictures, but it was sooo worth it.
This area in particular really got my heart rate up. My eyes were glued to the mountain above us, watching for any small change in the shadows which might indicate rock fall. According to locals, this landslide area is best traversed in the early morning before the sun has a chance to warm the rocks and melt whatever ice might be holding them in place. Okay then.
Here’s why traveling such paths is worth it:
We’d see mountains on the horizon as we walked, and within a day we’d be there. And then those mountains would disappear behind ever higher peaks as we made slow progress forward. Walking past mountains was grueling, but my body eventually caught up to the demands of the circuit, and I felt a deep sense of satisfaction at the end of each day.
…and Feeling Small
It’s not just the literal contrast of my 6′ tall frame (ahem, on a good day) against 24,000′ peaks. It’s also the spiritual experience of being in such a sacred place. Prayer flags are everywhere, as are temples, prayer wheels, and religious symbols. Everything around you is so grand and magnificent that you can’t help but feel utterly humbled.
The Best Sunrise in the World
The phrase “world’s best” always fills me with skepticism. How does anybody know? Has someone actually seen and compared the sunrise from every single place on Earth?
Of course not.
That’s why I had to see it for myself. Yeah, that little perch atop Poon Hill is probably the best sunrise in the world.
The Night Sky
You’ve never seen the sky so deeply, beautifully black until you’ve looked up from high altitude in Nepal. The vast, dark emptiness of space surrounds you. You feel isolated until your eyes adjust, and then the hundreds of thousands of stars overhead come into view and you realize it isn’t dark at all: The Himalayan night sky glows bright enough to see by starlight.
To take pictures like this for yourself (it’s easy), see my Guide to Startrails.
The open ended nature of trekking the Annapurna Circuit lends itself to on the fly decisions – where to have lunch, how far to walk, and where to sleep at night. Villages are scattered about the mountains; you’ll come across one every 3-4hrs of hiking. From the quaint and beautiful buildings in Bulbule, to the wonderful apple orchards of Marpha, to disappointing Kagbeni, and even some Tibetan refugee camps along the way, each place has its own distinct personality.
I enjoyed exploring the towns almost as much as I enjoyed seeing the mountains.
Through generations of living in the unforgiving Himalayas, it’s needless to say that the Nepalese are extremely hardy people. Their kind, genuinely friendly demeanors do little to hide their intense strength of spirit within.
Our bodies were definitely NOT meant to sit at a desk for 8 hours a day, after which we’re mentally drained but physically fine. Personally, I think this physical/mental disconnect is contrary to our evolution, and it’s the cause of much present day unhappiness. First world problems, as they say.
We certainly did not have this problem on the Annapurna Circuit. On some days we’d hike as long as 10-12 hours, by the end of which I was utterly exhausted. I’d quickly fall into a deep, restful sleep at night, waking naturally at dawn and feeling great.
One of the big highlights of Nepal is the food. The local dish of Dal Bhat consists of rice, veggies, and hot soup. It’s loaded with carbs and it’s extremely satisfying after a long day of hiking.
Given the popularity of the Annapurna Circuit among foreign travelers, local chefs have incorporated international meals into their now-extensive (yet very similar) menus. Burgers with fries, pizza, and even macaroni and cheese are all common along the circuit. These dishes tend to become Nepalese interpretations, with locally grown vegetables, and yak meat used in the higher altitudes.
Summiting, and then going downhill (finally)
Reaching Thorong La Pass is a huge milestone for any Annapurna Circuit traveler. The highest point on the circuit at 17,769′, it’s the source of much excitement and anxiety during the first days and weeks on the trail. The pass is proceeded by a steep downhill incline, a welcome change after walking uphill for what felt like forever.
For more on reaching Thorong La Pass, see my post at Go, See, Write.