Sometime around May, 2011:
Erik: Ry, I have been reading up on this unreal trek in Nepal called the Annapurna circuit. Supposed to be one of the best in the world. We can do the majority of it in 12 days. I’ll take off as much time from work as possible… let’s make this happen!
Me: Sounds awesome! I felt fine after the Sahara race last year so doing the 12 day long trek up to almost 18,000 feet shouldn’t be a problem for me after running 150 miles.
Erik: Great! I’ll speak to my boss and get the time off. I think Mike may be interested also. At least that’s what he says.
Me: Rock and roll, I’m pumped. You know Mike… he’ll probably book his flight three months from now.
Sometime around August, 2011: Mike books his ticket. The adventure for the three of us is a go. Though the fact he didn’t bring his fanny pack was a bit disappointing.
Now to understand the camping and hiking experience of us as a group is to go to a crappy cabin with some other friends two hours north of NYC, get as drunk as possible off of microbrews, and then do a relatively easy 4 hour hike the day afterwards. Hiking through the Himalayas at altitude was a tad bit more than we were used to. For me personally, I don’t know what the hell I was thinking when I committed. How I didn’t think the previous seven days of running would affect me was an example of poor planning and not realizing how much the race would take out of me, both physically and mentally. When Erik and Mike arrived to meet me in Pokhara, I was extremely weak, gaunt, and looked like hell. Between losing a ton of weight from the race and the subsequent stomach bug that I caught, I had nothing in the tank. But if there is anything that gets you back in the mood to trek for 12 days, it’s having two of your best friends show up with that awesome energy that always abounds before a long journey.
The unique thing about this hike is that it’s a “teahouse trek”. What this means is that it wasn’t necessary to carry food or a tent with us, because the trail was lined with picturesque Nepali villages with plenty of small guesthouses that we could eat and sleep at each night. This was great because it lowered the weight of our packs a great deal and made the trek a bit easier than it would’ve been had we needed to carry these items. It also added a cultural aspect to the trek as we came in contact with Nepali’s each day as we traveled through their villages and stayed at their hostels. The other circumstance that was beneficial to us was the time of year that we did the trek. The peak season for the Annapurna Circuit is September thru November, but the weather in early December is, while a bit colder, still beautiful, so we figured the trail would be packed with trekkers decked out in all of their North Face gear like we were. Not the case. The trails were empty, which made it fun as we hiked for hours on end without seeing anyone else. It was truly just us, nature, and the indigenous people of the region.
The area we trekked through was called the Annapurna Conservation Area, which has a population of around 100,000 people, spread throughout towns along the trail. The trail started at an altitude of 2,700 feet and topped out over the summit of Thorung La, which climbs to a gasp inducing 17,886 feet. What this meant was that we would need to climb over 15,000 feet during the trek, which led to us ascending steep climbs almost every day. Along with the climbs came some awe inspiring views of 26,000 foot mountains, waterfalls that dropped from the sky, black face monkeys, and flora and fauna that made me take photos of the same thing over and over again.
To start, Erik and Mike kindly gave me an extra day to rest and get my strength back, and took it easy on me the first two days, as I struggled to ascend hills with two trekking poles that SG saved my life by lending me. The first few days were rough but once we got into a groove, our days had a similar schedule:
7:00 -Wake up in an ice cold hostel.
7:45 – Finally get out of our sleeping bags to brave the cold
8:00 – 8:30 – Get some breakfast, which consisted of bread, jam and toast, eggs or oatmeal. And then when I got really poor towards the end of the trip, ordering bread with peanut butter and basically eating half of the jar to get energy for the day… highly cost effective!
8:30 – 11:00 – Trek through the Himalayas. The steep ascents were usually planned for the morning so this is when we labored.
11:00 – 11:30 – A quick tea break to enjoy the scenery and each other’s company
11:30 – 2:00 – Finishing up the rest of our trek for the day as we wandered through old, medieval villages, each with a distinct Buddhist culture of prayer wheels, stupas, and monasteries.
2:00 – Bedtime (Around 8:30) – Find things to do. Lots of reading, walking around the towns we stayed in, conversing with other travelers, and playing 500 rummy which Erik usually won to Mike’s and my chagrin. Dinner was always one of the best parts of the day. Since about 80,000 people do this trek annually, the guesthouses offer a pretty good selection of fried noodles, mo mos (Tibetan style dumplings), potato pancakes, pizzas and fried rice. There isn’t much meat on the menu so after a few days we started craving chicken and anything else we could get our hands on, including yak meat.
As we started to ascend to higher and higher levels of elevation, the altitude started playing games with our sleep patterns and our pace on the trail. Walking up a steep ascent at 15,000 feet is a lot different than at 9,000 feet. We would wake up not feeling very rested and would randomly get headaches, but for the most part, we all handled the altitude extremely well.
We crawled to the top of Thorung La, on one of our last days, a blustery one without a cloud in the sky, and made it to that 17,886 foot mark, exhilarating in the feeling of standing on top of the world (though compared to real mountaineers, we were on a foothill). We stopped for about 15 minutes and stood there in the cold, looking around and taking in all of the sights of the mountain skyline around us. I snapped a photo of the three of us, looking cold, tired, but happy as hell.
From the top, the rest was a lot of downhill hiking, hot showers, whiskey drinking and countless hours on cramped buses as we tried to make our way back to Pokhara after our flight was canceled due to strong winds.
After getting some big steaks in Pokhara and having a few too many cocktails (and me almost getting violently ill again), we headed back to Kathmandu and I saw them off at the airport. As I left the airport, I realized that my next few months would be spent on my own or with new people I met on the road while traveling through Southeast Asia. And it made me realize that what the three of us just experienced was even better than I originally thought. The epic adventure we had just completed was a once in a lifetime experience. Trekking through Nepal is something I will never forget. And in the famous words of Christopher McCandless from “Into the Wild”, “Happiness is only real when shared”. And when you get to share happiness with two of your best buds from childhood, nothing is better than that.