Day 18, Nepal
Machhapuchhare Base Camp - Chhomrong Side Trip: Annapurna Base Camp
Total distance: 405.7km
Total Ascent: 20742m
Total Descent: 19385m
Another one of my favourite days.
It was an early wake up call at 4am thanks to the Russians, which resulted in me hitting the snow around 4.20am. It was dark, cold, and I could barely see a path to lead me up the mountain to Annapurna Base Camp. Some of the time I don't think there was a path, but it didn't matter - I just needed to go up. Although I was on snow nearly the entire time, the route was never steep so it wasn't a problem.
About 5am the wind started. Not gentle, calm wind, but a headwind that would knock you off your feet if you weren't ready for it. It came up in gusts so strong that I had to stop and brace myself until it passed over. Snow, grit and other debris would fly directly into my face - it felt like icicles were pounding directly into my skin. By the time I made the top a bit over an hour later, my face was red and puffy from all the abuse.
The views at base camp made all the pain disappear. Most of the Annapurna Sanctuary trek was through a valley, and now I was standing in a basin at the end of that valley. Jagged peaks stared down at me in every direction, catching the first light of the day. I could see the condensation rising up off the mountains as the sun warmed the snow, giving the impression that the mountains were on fire. Clear blue skies meant visibility was at its best. It was easily one of the most stunning sights of the entire trek.
The wind hadn't stopped though. The main viewing point was on a rocky ridge, exposed to the elements. Whenever the wind picked up everyone crouched down, trying to hide behind the little shelter there was. It wasn't only snow that was flying into us - I also saw a cardboard box, a large wicker basket and a dustpan go hurtling past.
I needed a break from the extreme conditions so I sat inside one of the lodges, drinking a horrible ginger tea to warm up and gazing out the window at incredible scenery. I was up there for 90 minutes, but I could have stayed for hours watching the sun light up the entire valley. I knew I had a long walk ahead of me so I braced myself and headed out, taking one more round of photos before making my way down.
Descending wasn't much easier. Now the wind was behind me, pushing me down the hill. The snow had started to melt, forming a slick top layer. I inched my way down as carefully as possible, using my hiking poles to prop myself up every five minutes when the wind came through. As cautious as I was it apparently wasn't enough. A strong gust of wind took me by surprise and my legs were swept out from underneath me. I went sliding about 10 metres down the snow until I could dig my poles and feet in to stop my fall. I stayed on the ground until the wind had passed over, then picked myself up and continued on. I made it back down to safety without further incidence.
It's not normally like that. One guide said it was the worst conditions he had seen in five years. Another hiker found a website that reported winds of up to 135kph. I don't think I could have picked a worse day. It was still worth it.
I ate breakfast, packed my bag and started my decent from Machhapuchhare Base Camp, worried how I would go with my backpack in the wind. The valley immediately turned a corner on the way down, and as soon as I made it around that corner the wind immediately disappeared. After that the weather could not have been more perfect. All day I had clear skies and not a breeze in sight.
Like yesterday, the trail was like a highway. Hundreds of tourists and porters were heading up, making the trek down a slow one as we tried to pass each other on the narrow trails. After mid-morning it calmed down and there were moments of solitude. I could even hear the monkeys in the trees, helping me to spot them as they ran away from my approaching footsteps.
I returned to the river crossing where yesterday my feet had become soaked. Today I realised there was a safe passage only five metres further up. Why a guide was leading his group through the chilling water yesterday (which was the reason I took this route) was beyond me.
I passed through town after town fairly quickly, due to the easy downhill nature of the trail. I caught up with my British roommate from last night for a quick lunch then took off again, conscious of how far I had to go. There were several villages I could have stopped in for the night, but at this time of year all the lodges are generally booked out with tour groups. That would leave me sleeping in the dining room, an option I was desperate to avoid. So I continued on, hoping to have enough energy to make it back to Chhomrong, a larger town with many guesthouses.
I was dreading the town of Bamboo, as I knew what lay beyond it. Stairs. Going up. Thousands of them. I considered stopping in Bamboo for the night so I didn't have to face them today. Even the prospect of sleeping in the dining room was more appealing than the stairs. But, as always, I pushed on. My mind started counting as soon as I hit the first step, but I then decided that I was over counting, so I switched to the alphabet. I ran through it a few times before that bored me too, so I then started saying the alphabet backwards. Forwards, backwards, forwards, backwards. It distracted me enough from the agony in my leg muscles to get me up that lot of stairs.
At the top I passed through a couple of small villages, to then descend roughly the same number of steps. Which of course led to the start of another lot of stairs, heading up to my final destination. It didn't seem fair to go so far down to come all the way up again. Back to the alphabet - forwards, backwards, forwards, backwards. I took many, many breaks but I made it up those final stairs.
Chhomrong is a town on the side of a hill, and there's a large difference between the bottom and the top. I stopped at the first guesthouse that called out to me offering a room, thankful I didn't have to climb all the way to the top of the town. I rewarded myself with a shower (the hottest I've had in two weeks - a proper gas shower, none of this "solar hot" nonsense), a second (late) lunch and two dinners. I could barely keep my eyes open throughout my meals and went to bed semi-early.