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In the Midst of Mountains

Trekking to the mountains is always as challenging as it is beautiful. Whether that switched between idyllic sunshine, relentless rain, or a whiteout snowfall, every grueling step in our trek to the Himalayas was worth it. Trepidations of embarking to high altitudes was thrown into thin air as the night sky glittered with stars, and snow-capped mountains that surrounded us in every direction burst into a majestic sunrise at the Annapurna Base Camp.

Adrift on the calm waters of Phewa Lake, I massaged my hamstrings in vain attempts to relieve a throbbing sore. Five hours of manspreading from Kathmandu to Pokhara in a bus that claimed to have extra legroom (and WiFi) had taken its toll. Yet the discomfort paled before Annapurnas’ grandeur, albeit partially hidden behind scattered clouds. We rejoiced in the morning mist on our last boat ride.

We drove off on jeep from Halan Chowk, and after a couple of hours, reached Phedi, the starting point of our 8-day trek to Annapurna Base Camp at 4,130 meters. Amidst rice and millet terraces, we slowly made our way up the steps, and as the sun scorched down on us, made our way through the mid-hills. With a backpack weighing over 20 kg strapped on my back, the climb would get quite exhausting at times. Layers of clothes got shed by the time we got used to the steps that seemed to know no end. The occasional chautaras, as well as Gurung settlements, along the wide trail did wonders to help us catch our breath and appreciate the greenery. The gradual uphill climb on stony steps to Dhampus was mere prelude of what awaited. 

Crossing dodgy suspension bridges, we reached thick woods, and could feel a sense of remoteness of our adventure. Bulls possessive of their female companions were certainly a threat, especially if you had to walk past them while they were mating, which we encountered on more than a few occasions. A brief stop at a shop that sold ‘nak’ cheese made us smirk at the typo, only to realize that it was not yaks, but their female counterparts, naks, that make cheese. As we zeroed in on our first destination, Landruk, mountains popped up prominently in the distance, just in time to quell complaints about painful legs from the uphill walk.

Annapurna’s massifs, from the restive Pothana village, seemed like from another world altogether. Macchapuchhare, in its photogenic glory, was indeed a treat to the eyes over lunch so delicious that the most insatiable of food critics would be silenced and left salivating for more. After hogging down more servings of daal bhaat than we’re proud of, we trailed on, bloated and happy. By this time, the clouds were moving in, which was quite a respite after the dog day afternoon. Weather was, in fact, perfect as we reached our destination in Landruk. We were settled in our rooms and served raksi, a hot homemade millet brew, affectionately called tharra or local. The sleep was deep and restful, and the first sight of the mountains next morning was something to behold.

The jeep tracks from Landruk would dwindle to trails through a forest, followed by a gorgeous waterfall. Making our way down towards the fresh white waters of Modi River, we reached a tiny settlement called New Bridge. Distant rolling hills would merge with haze below skies filled with cotton balls of picturesque clouds. Midway up the hill, a lovely Tamang lady and her differently-abled son had championed hospitality to unwitting and exhausted tourists on that climb. Masala omelets and fresh pickles from her farm, had me licking my fingers. And the liquor she crafted was true to her words: the best and strongest in the Annapurnas. Well, probably. I took a couple of pegs with the lady and could gladly have spent a few hours here, blown away by the jolly hosts and remarkable views. But we were due for Chhomrong up a ginormous hill by dark.

The backbreaking ascent to Chhomrong came without warning. The higher we climbed, the more exhausted we got, and better the vantage point. Quite unfortunately, the skies were overcast, and mountains up north were shrouded behind gloomy clouds. We conquered the long climb towards dusk, and upon arrival at Chhomrong, were greeted with a chilly drizzle. As everybody prepared to put extra layers of fleece and down, mine went mysteriously missing. Must’ve left it at the omelet place, I thought. So much for merrymaking. The chill in Chhomrong would be nothing compared to the freezing cold in ABC, or so I was told. In panic-stricken hysteria, I went around early next morning to a million shops trying to find a jacket for rent. To no avail. The closest one was one with furry yak wool that made me look like a Siberian hillbilly.

I’d almost given up until I decided to have some coffee in a bakery, where croissants looked like swollen boomerangs and the owner’s pretty daughter  basked in the morning sun. I decided to steer clear from the interesting delights, fearing for my tummy. Instead, I settled for some spicy noodles the young lady was having. In fact, after hearing my wardrobe predicament, she invited me into her room with a smile. She slowly reached down and pulled out a rusty chest from under her bed. It was filled with medieval-looking clothes, including down jackets left behind by trekkers for her baker father almost two decades ago. God-awful smell and stains from the jackets corroborated her story.  A good pair to buy would cost upwards of USD200, and renting would cost USD10 a day. Instead, she offered it for 50 cents a day. Bingo! I was off with an oversized blue down jacket looking like a clown, and smelling like fungus. And with a phone number, might I add.

We really began to feel the altitude Chhomrong onwards, as we reached the last few settlements before entering Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP). We arrived at a place aptly called Himalaya, whence the mountains towered right above. Soldiering on along Modi River raging below, we were surrounded by rhododendron forests, and giant snow-covered peaks followed us. Our ascent seemed endless, and just as our legs warmed up and got acquainted to the steps, in rolled ominous black clouds, and drenched us in a matter of seconds.

Icefalls and waterfalls were common sights, and walking over snow deposits became a breeze, as we reached closer to Macchapuchare Base Camp, a station before ABC. The last leg to ABC had our hearts thudding with each heavy step. And, as if that wasn’t enough, it started snowing hard, and the mercury dropped further along with strong headwinds. Never mind the mountains ahead, even our steps were far from visible in the inclement weather. Nevertheless, the eerie feeling of walking on sludge into white Himalayan oblivion was quite thrilling. We were lucky that despite such physical strain in high altitude our breathing was normal, and we avoided high altitude sickness as we had taken it slow and steady since day one. 

Just as we edged towards ABC on the final path, clouds started dispersing. Almost like the weather gods wanted to save the best for the last, unveiled before our eyes were phenomenal mountains, some of the highest points on this planet, right ahead, surrounding us in every single direction. Wherever we looked, absolutely stunning sights of elaborate ridges readily took our breath away, and at night when stars lit the peaks, we would stand in awe, sighing at the mountains, ready with a wish, waiting for another meteorite to whiz past millions of stars.

In bouts of ogling magical landscapes, we forgot that we were soaked wet in the sleet. The heated dining hall came as warm solace, but not without the price of a singed toe. In burning realization, the heater turned out to be nothing more than a small propane stove under the table, along with smelly boots and socks left to dry. A surprisingly delicious order of pizza was enough to make us ditch the warm room for shivering hours outside, watching the Himalayas in its glory. A peaceful night of sleep was well deserved.

Waking up at dawn was no less enchanting. Braving cold chills just before sunrise, we huddled together on the hotel’s tiny patio to watch a royal purple glow on the Annapurna that gradually turned orange. As the first rays of the sun touched the mountain’s eastern flank, a burst of yellow illuminated the summits in a magnificent show of lights and dazzling hues. Annapurna’s furious facade came to life. It was most prominently seen from a short distance away by prayer flags, memorial stones of vanished climbers, and spectators in hundreds, but dwarfed and humbled by the mountains’ inexplicable might. It is quite fascinating to imagine the monumental feat of conquering mountains, and in that, yourself. Though a daring few have accomplished and lived to tell the tale, memorial stones by the gumba painted a grim picture. A reminder that mountains are billions of years old, and unlike our transient lives, will be there for eternity. I stood there motionless, numbed, staring at the timeless mountains. Miniscule, a mere vanishing dot in the shadows of imposing rocks. it was a transcendental experience: moving, awe-inspiring, and humbling.

My thoughts were cut short when faint sounds coming from far off in the mountains drew my attention. I had lost track of time, and the sun, now brighter, had started melting the previous day’s snow on peaks, causing avalanches higher up. They looked tiny as they swept their way down, but we knew that if one even half as big got triggered at our spot, a wrath of nature’s hell would be unleashed. The dire prophecy, too much to bear, led me to seek refuge in a breakfast of pancakes and eggs, which, meanwhile, had gone unregrettably cold. We were thoroughly intrigued, and could stay here a whole lot longer, but had a long way to walk back. Snow, foot-deep, got shoveled out at the hotel gate, while we packed our bags and prepared to bid the mountains a hesitant goodbye.

Looking back every so often to catch what was now a passing glimpse of the Annapurnas, we retraced our steps. Descents were as deceptively laborious as ascents on the now slippery trail, and especially with the heavy rucksacks we were carrying, our knees took an ugly beating. But, there was no stopping until we walked down to Sinuwa, and then Jhinu, the next day. Walking back to, we couldn’t help but feel proud to have climbed up steps that appeared impossibly steep. We reached the spotlessly clean village of Ghandruk in late afternoon, then caught a bus back to Pokhara.

It is no surprise why a trek to the Annapurna Base Camp is one that thousands check off from their bucket list every year. For our bunch, it was a dreamy treat to the senses, immersion in a variety of rich cultures, and bonding with the wilderness. It was an emotional experience, where mystical gompas dotted the snowy abode of mythical yetis, where every exhilarating stride was equal parts tough and rejuvenating, and where showers were a luxury, and in that cold, barely a priority. Moments spent in the midst of mountains have been etched in our hearts, and they’ve left us with enlivened spirits, tightened glutes and daydreaming in the office cubicle, a longing to return. 

Four things to do in ABC

1. Warm your cold feet and hands, and hang your socks up to dry with the warmth of the propane burner under the dining hall table. While you warm yourself, swap stories with fellow trekkers, or simply join in one of the serious card games around the table.

2. Treat yourself to yak cheese pizza, cheese macaroni, spaghetti, and anything with cheese. You deserve it after the difficult climb over stony cliffs, soft snow, and the unforgiving slippery ice (that made you land on your butt more than once).

3. Make your way to one of the chortens at ABC to watch the breathtaking sunrise that sometimes seems so preternatural that you have to pinch yourself more than once. Enjoy the panoramic view and the glaciers while you are up on the cliff where the chorten are. These chortens, decked with prayer flags, send messages to the gods from the departed souls of mountaineers. They serve as a reminder about the fragility of human lives on the majestic mountains.

4. Watch one of the most dazzling night skies ever, with mountains surrounding you 360 degree glistening from the moonlight. Stargazing at Annapurna Base Camp is a truly magical experience, with stars shining brighter and bigger, and so close that you feel  if you stand on your tiptoes you can touch them with your fingertips.