Annapurna Circuit Recap

How to write up ~10 days fast-packing the Annapurna Circuit? One strategy was to wait for Scotty to post his story. After being back in the states for a few weeks, this worked! Scotty’s post is a much better narrative than what I can cobble together here. Scotty has a better memory, took more notes, and a better reflective style. And his pictures are great. A few of my pictures are posted here, but the full album is better viewed online in Picassa

To tell it from the rough beginning, my interest in hiking the Annapurna Circuit probably began in early 1995, when I first hiked the Annapurna Sanctuary which basically leads you into the heart of the mountain range and ends at Annapurna Base Camp. The circuit, as its name suggest, travels around the range, continually climbing up and over ridges frequently following tumbling rivers and crossing countless bridges.But the circuit is more of a horse-shoe shape then a complete circle as the name would suggest. One (not very good) wikipedia entry puts it at close to 300k (187m), one map we had put it at 220k (137m). The high point is Thorung La pass which is close to 5,416m (~17,800ft).

About three years ago I started reading bits and pieces about plans to build a road around the circuit, at times completely on top of the trail. I’m not a big fan of roads, but to be fair, I never had to walk for 7 days over mountainous trails to get to a hospital from my house. For many local people in the Annapurna region, replacing these foot trails with a road will mean much easier access to healthcare and food, But such a road will also change forever the beauty of the circuit and likely dramatically reduce the number of trekkers who hike the circuit who bring a large amount of money into the region. And then there is the environmental destruction, which we saw in plenty. An entry and comments on summitpost.com shows some of the debate about the pros/cons of the road.

Last year I led a group of UW students into the Annapurna Sanctuary and learned a little more about the road building: work was underway on different sections of the circuit, but many of these sections were not yet connected to others so there was no actual traffic on most of the road. By ‘road’, I mean a dirt road and not a paved highway, but a road nonethless that one day will be filled with jeeps, dust, mud, and landslides.

From late August to mid-September of this year, I led another class trip to the Annapurna Sanctuary. I was tempted to try the circuit for the class trip, but the number of days required for the circuit (typically 17-20) and the altitude gain were at odds with number of course days available and the relative easiness of the Annapurna Sanctuary.


Last spring, while planning the course trip for this year, I saw the opportunity to tack some extra personal days onto the end of the trip to try doing the circuit. My airfare to Nepal was already paid and it would also allow me to scout the circuit for a possible future class trip. It seemed foolish to not take the opportunity. But I was planning the course trip during the spring from Everest Base Camp where I finding myself missing home quite a bit; I knew that I wouldn’t want to be gone again in the fall for three weeks with the students and then another ~3 weeks hiking the circuit.

I started thinking about trying to run it (as much as possible at least) with a light pack and finishing it in under 10 days so I could experience the circuit before the road sections were completed and still not be gone from home for too long. I’ve become more and more interested and involved with trail ultras over the past few years on a non-competitive level, but have never attempted multiple back-to-back days of running long distances in the mountains – I was intrigued by that as well. There are lodges and food along the way, so all I really needed to carry was a light pack. My original plan was to try to finish the run in ~7 days so I could have some margin for error.

At some point, maybe after returning from Everest and before leaving for Peru, I mentioned my plans to my friend Scotty who I had come to know from the relatively small ultra running community in the pacific northwest. Like me, he had visited Nepal way back when and was interested in experiencing the circuit before it was changed forever…later he told me that another mutual friend Rich White was interested. Viewing the ultrasignup.com profiles for both Scotty and Rich show at a glance that these guys like trail running! I was happy when they emailed and said they had plane tickets and visas in hand. And also extremely happy and grateful to my friend Dorjee Sherpa for his help in answering questions, arranging transportation, and helping us purchase our permits – all gratis. So a quick plug if you are looking to trek or climb in Nepal, Bhutan, or Tibet…Dorjee is the best: www.himalayanwindhorse.com

The students left Kathmandu on September 13th, the same day Scotty and Rich arrived. We met up in the afternoon, tucked into some good food at the hotel anddiscussed doing long days (‘fast packing’) instead of trying to run. I appreciated that this would give us more time to smell the roses and less chance of altitude issues. They were game to get going and our time was limited, so a daylater we were off to Besi Sahar – the eastern start/terminus of the horse
shoe. Moving counter-clockwise would allow us to finish near Pokhara; if we finishedearly it would be a nicer place to hang out (paragliding?) than KTM. It also put the pass a little further out, allowing for more acclimitazation.

Dorjee helped us hire a private car to Besi Sahar which ran us about $30 each;definitely more than a bus but it would give us more flexibility in what time we would leave the city and being able to stop where we wanted along the way. And kicking in $30 each for a private car to shuttle us ~6 hours to the start seemed pretty reasonable.Our first stop was actually within the city,swinging into a lot near a park office where a smiling Pasang Sherpa who handed us our trekking permits through the car window. Thanks!

We put in some long days; the principle memory I have is of road construction, water, foggy peaks, load laden porters, super friendly locals, falling immediately asleep at night (one time with my head light still on), and more road segments of very rough dirt which were sometimes being carved out of the side of cliffs. Most sections were not connected with other parts so there was no actual traffic on most of the road segments, just brute labor and ugly scars across some of the most beautiful trail you can imagine.

That said, there was still a lot of beauty and it was fun to hike with Scotty and Rich, quite different from being on the trail a week prior with a huge group. Sometimes the three of us traveled together – othertimes at our own pace. I don’t think we ever really got lost or waited around too long. I had a relatively light pack with a gravity water filter, cocoon silk sleeping bag liner, Goal0 nomad solar panel, cell and sat phones, two pairs shorts, montbell wind-shirt, light arcteryx pants, and a couple merino wool shirts along with a montbell puffy jacket. That’s it! Cell reception was not good and the satelite credit refill I had requested never got through so calls home were unfortunately few and far between or far too short
.

For the most part, we walked from 7am until dark which was around 7pm. Rich had a GPS and said we put in over 26 miles one day – but distances were not something I was looking at too closely. Overall, we had some crazy amounts of ups and down – however I don’t know what the overall elevation gain was nor total mileage. Maybe someday the GPS logs from each day will be pieced together. A lot of the time the peaks were socked in but we were treated to occasional glimpses. It was still the tail-end of the monsoon season and while I don’t remember tons of rain, there was a lot of along the trail – sometimes directly on top! The most difficult part over all was the Thorung pass, which is close to 18,000ft. We travelled at our own pace, but not far apart, and were able to meet up at the pass and have a cup of tea together (yes, there is actually a tiny shack up there with a guy who serves food and drink!). Everything was socked in!

Rich, Scotty, and Seth at the pass (left to right).

From the top of the pass we just went down down down – travelling through new terrain and getting glimpses into ‘Mustang'; a beautiful part of Nepal which used to be its own kingdom and shares many similarities/history with Tibet.

Frankly, the road building close to the western side of the pass is downright ugly and looks like it will be covered by landslides continuously. It was nice to get through it though. Earthquake! We took a rest day in Manang on 9/16 and ended up eating on an upper floor in a rickety old lodge. I think it might have been the biggest (4 stories?) we stayed at during the trek. Our meal was interupted for about 20 seconds when everything started shaking. By the time it finally dawned on us this might be an earthquake and we should get the hell out- the shaking had stopped. No damage done, at least not in Manang, but the effects of the 6.9 earthquake on the Indian-Nepal border were not entirely insignificant in other areas. An early BBC report indicating lots of damage and at least 18 deaths in India and 5 in Nepal, another report said a least 50 deaths across the region. Three were killed in Kathmandu when an old wall attached to the British Embassy gave way. Condolences to all. Luckily no damage done in Manang.

A couple weeks before this, the class trip had actually spent the last two days on the western end of the circuit. Instead of retracing our steps within the Sanctuary, our class went west from Chomrung and eventually descended from Duerali pass to join up with the circut in the village of Ghorepani. Roughly two weeks after being there with the students, I found myself trekking up (instead of down) more than 6,000 feet of almost continuous gain to reach Ghorepani with Rich and Scott. That was a tough day! But it was nice great to be in Ghorepani again and to know that we really only had a day left on a long descending trail that I had been on twice in the past ~year. The landslide near Nayapull that had caused so much difficulty with 14 students was much more navigable and before we knew it we were off the trail and in a car headed to Phokara. We arrived dirty and tired to gathering darkness, scored some plane tickets to Kathmandu for the next day and a decent hotel for the night and crashed.

Rich and Scotty had a couple more days before they were due to fly out; I had one full day in Kathmandu, sorting out gear, resting, cleaning up and catching up before flying out on 9/27, bringing with me much of my gear that I had left with Dorjee after the Everest climb. The trip home was a blur. I started drafting this post shortly after returning home, but found myself distracted by trying to catch up on on work. As well as trying to sort through through the ups and downs of life with colleagues, friends, and loved ones.

Looming a couple weeks out was a trip to Boston to do some hands-on work at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute with colleague and friend Donna Berry and co-worker Mark Stewart from Seattle. I’m actually trying to finish this on the plane (October 21st), returning from Boston to Seattle after a nice trip where I was lucky to see friends Donna, Barb, and Kathleen from Seattle and Erin Lindsay from my hometown – I hadn’t seen Erin in over 20 years! I also was treated to some nice runs in Boston, including one with Erin’s husband Philip (thanks!). And Mark and I were able to meet in person the stellar team that Donna has built in Boston, it’s always nice to put a face to people that you interact with a lot by phone and email.

That’s enough for now. Much thanks to Scotty and Rich for joining me on the circuit and to all who had to deal with my long absence(s), and apologies for the tangents and the delay in delivering this post as well as some weird formatting courtesy of blogger. Maybe time to switch to wordpress.

I wish you well! -Seth

2 Responses to “Annapurna Circuit Recap

  • Great writeup Seth! I really enjoyed reading this this morning. As I sit at my desk, there’s a part of me that wants to be back in that routine of throwing pack on each morning and just moving. Hope to see you soon!

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