Trail Running through the Annapurna’s
Company Co-Founder Richard Goodey recently landed in Nepal at the end of the monsoon to recce the trails of the Annapurna region, post earthquake and before our clients arrived for the busy autumn season. With limited time and hopeful that the wind would be at his back, Richard ran across the Annapurna’s, to Annapurna Base Camp, Poon Hill and Mardi Himal. From where the road ends and the trail begins, here’s his account.
I was in Kathmandu, surrounded by a cacophony of horns blowing and engines revving, negotiating the busy, narrow streets on my motorbike. En-route to Pokhara (the gateway to the Annapurna’s), the journey takes 6 hours and I was already second-guessing my choice of transport. The bike wasn’t exactly built for comfort, but it did have quality brakes and a brand new, very loud horn – an essential item that I was grateful for.
I was excited to be leaving this for the serenity of the mountains, but my first port of call when I arrived in Pokhara was a newly discovered coffee shop that served delicious cakes! I tucked in and also brought a few with me for my impending adventure.
A late start the next day and a short taxi brought me to Nayapul, the trailhead into the Annapurna Sanctuary. Though I intended to start the trek here, I managed to hitch a ride with a jeep, grabbing the front seat and sharing it with a man and his 48 eggs. Thirty minutes later and I was ready to start the trek in earnest.
I’m by no means a trail runner, but I’m a positive person and love a challenge. I was also envious of one our guides, Will McEvoy, whom last year ran solo across the Langtang Valley and Gosaikunda Lakes – a trek that takes most people 10 days, was completed in 4!
My pack for the next 11 days weighed a mere 5.5kg (including the 1kg of water) and in hindsight it could have been stripped down even further, while still carrying enough equipment to be safe in a high altitude alpine environment. Mountain Equipment had provided me with a few garments to test in Nepal, like the Modus base layer
that was worn everyday for the next week! It stood the test of +30 steamy jungle weather all the way to the lofty, chillier heights of Mardi Himal Base Camp (4450m).
In the evenings I slept in my Matrix thermals and under blankets provided by the teahouses. This, with a just a few extra bits of essential items (such as my first aid kit, camera, map, compass and head torch) was all that I would carry with me, as you can get all the rest in the villages you pass through. It was liberating to not be laden down with heavy bags, to be free to run in the hills.
I was hoping my enthusiasm would serve me well, as today I had 2000m of ascent to cover across 30km, and the lack of remaining daylight was not on my side. There’s a vast network of trails that link remote communities to each other, routes that have been used for thousands of years. I stopped and asked villagers for obvious deviations in the paths and went on my way.
Nepalese maps are notoriously inaccurate, and I have always found the most reliable form of navigating is to use my compass, as well as the rivers and the contours of the land to guide the way. Soon the monsoon weather reared its ugly head, as rain began to fall, the mist settled in and darkness fell. The atmosphere was wild!
After a long day, I finally arrived in Ghorepani, soaked through, tired but elated. Having not eaten very much throughout the day I devoured a full tube of Pringles, a heaping portion of dal bhat and splurged on a gas powered hot shower. What a day!
The next morning I ran to the top of Poon Hill, at 3200m this offers an awesome panoramic view. The weather was still a bit temperamental from monsoon, but I managed to catch a glimpse of Dhaulagiri – the world’s 7th highest mountain, before continuing on.
At 18:30 I arrived in Chomrong in the dark, wet from sweat and rain, covered in mud, happy as a pig in mud. It was quick to bed this evening. Although the last two days were long and hard tomorrow would bring its own challenges, with another 25km to cover and 2000m of ascent.
With the air getting noticeably thin I ran the flats and the downs and walked quickly on the ups. I made the village of Himalaya in 6 hours and walked the last 2 hours to Machhapuchchhre Base Camp (3700m) as I was sure I'd probably get a headache from the altitude with too much exertion.
It was a chilly pre-dawn start the following morning, as I quickly dressed, popped my head torch on and walked to Annapurna Base Camp. I watched just as the sun was rising across the mammoth south face of Annapurna, enjoying a breakfast of Tibetan tea, bread and honey.
An inversion meant I was high above the clouds as I descended back down towards Machhapuchchhre Base Camp. It didn’t seem right to race along the trail surrounded by such beauty, a contrast between white-capped peaks and meadows of wild flowers, so full of life from the monsoon rains. I took in the majesty of the views and savoured the experience. It’s moments like these why I continue to come back to the Himalaya time and time again.
In Nepal, place names usually mean something in a literal sense. For example, Nak Dunga means nose stone (stone shaped like a nose!) or Tatopani (hot springs). In the case of Annapurna, it’s meaning translates to ‘more food than is necessary’. When the Gurung people first migrated here from Tibet, they thought there was an abundance of food, more than they’d ever need. Nowhere in the Annapurna is this truer than in the verdant, fertile slopes that line the lower elevations of the region. Here there is a plethora of fresh fruit and vegetables grown in small plots, with villagers showing great pride in their produce. I saw the owner of our teahouse with a vegetable that looks like a type of fern, which he called 'newroe'. When I said I'd like to try it I could see the excitement grow in his eyes "it grows everywhere, you can find it all over the jungle, there is so much of it!"
Having moved fast through the lower valleys I finally arrived back in Chomrong where I met my good friend and Lost Earth Adventures’ guide, Dipak Bhata. We stayed in Panorama teahouse, so called because of its superb views of the Annapurna Himal and Machhapuchchhre. The view extends about 30km down a huge jungle covered, steep sided valley, with the monsoon fed river, the Modi Khola gurgling at the bottom. We had a much needed rest day enjoying tasty home cooked food and recharging our batteries. Dipak had met me so that we could explore a much more remote valley up to the base of Mardi Himal (5587m), and so the adventure continued!
First we were in for a nice treat, descending into Jinu Dhanda hot springs, where we paused to soak our worn muscles, watching as a langur monkey and deer darted into the forest beyond.
The trail to Mardi Himal rises steeply onto a ridge up to 4500m high, due to its lack of use and the monsoon rains, the route was hard going at times and difficult to follow. As luck would have it, we met a man that was able to give us timings for distances between villages, though no confirmation as to whether the villages were occupied with people. In anticipation we stocked up on cookies, noodles and dry goods before venturing into the jungle and the unknown.
Daylight was quickly fading, with about 2 hours remaining before sun down, and an estimated 3-hour trekking time and 1500m of ascent ahead of us. Leeches, commonplace in the monsoon were in abundance, giving us an added incentive to move now and move fast! The only time we stopped was to pluck the horrid bloodsuckers from our legs and dowse them in salt. The slimy suckers were dripping from the trees above. I never hear Dipak curse, but even Dipak was getting squirmish. As he was brushing them off his leg more would fall from above… we made it to the village in a swift 1hr 45min!
An older Gurung woman wandered over, gesturing for us to meet with her. She offered us freshly squeezed buffalo milk, warmed over the fire. As we drank our milk she told us that she often makes the journey on foot to Pokhara, a 5-day trek! Did I mention she’s also 84 years old?
The Gurung people in this area are extremely kind, very welcoming and gentle natured. Of Tibetan origin, Nepali is their second language. They are very round in the face, have deep voices and are always smiling. Every person I asked for a photo with happily agreed and an old lady had the best time taking selfies with me, giggling hysterically after each photo.
With such a hectic life in the UK, I’m often left appreciating the slower pace of life found in Nepal. Dipak spent his childhood in the mountains, days away from roads, cars and city living. I had asked him if he’d be upset or annoyed to walk 6 hours to the next village if he had to buy or collect something, as can often be the case. He responded in typical Nepali fashion. “It is only time. I do not worry about the time. If you like to go, we go, if you don't, we don't, I don't mind."
The following morning we set off, following the crest of the ridge, as the elevation rose and the temperatures dropped, the leeches disappeared. What was most surprising were the little teahouses dotted along the way, ready to warmly accept visitors. We took our time, stopping at each one, drinking tea and listening to their stories. Eventually we got to the final hut at the end of the ridge, meeting two British Army Officers whom served alongside the Gurka’s. That night we shared a dram or two of their potent “Indian Scotch.”
4am came early and as a team of 4 we began the next day’s mission, to reach the Mardi Himal Base Camp. Giddy with excitement we followed a brief outline of a path that increased in steepness and difficulties as it rose higher into the night sky.
The sky seemed endless and was vast, filled with a million stars and a full moon reflecting off the world’s highest snow slopes. We used the moon and the small beam of light from our head torches to find the way. The delight of travelling quick and fast with a competent group on a mountain ridge in the middle of the night is a mix of adrenaline and elation and a common bond gave some high emotions as we reached our summit. We watched the morning glow on the Annapurna Himal and Machhapuchchhre and became awestruck. There before us was a 360-degree view of the Greater Himalayan Range, standing 8 kilometres high directly in front of us and the foothills and the Gangatic Plains to the south. What a moment!
After a pause to catch our breath and savour the experience, Dipak and I retreated, high tailing it back down the ridge with speed. Although I wanted to stay longer we were under the clock, having to make it back to Pokhara, then Kathmandu in a couple day’s time. 12 hours later and 3000m of descent, we found ourselves in the village of Siding, with the rumour that a jeep was available. How or where it was coming from was anyone’s guess. Alas, it meant 1 more hour of trekking to get to the jeep, but before we left we made sure to have hearty bowl of homemade vegetable soup.
1 hour later and our driver Kul Prasad eagerly greeted us. I convinced him to let me take the reigns back to Pokhara and got behind the wheel. I navigated challenging mountain tracks and straight across riverbeds. Crossing the Mardi Khola, one of Nepal’s biggest rivers was nervously passed by driving straight through it at a massive estuary like spread. Happily driving along following a rugged local bus the road turned to water and without a second’s warning the river poured over our wheels, and still with 200m to cross to the other side! My heart rate went through the roof! Looking across to my mentor I said where do I go? He was laughing hard knowing the shock he’d just given and said to just follow the bus before shouting “RIGHT, LEFT, POWER” and other instructions knowing every inch of the river bed. I explained that in England we waste a lot of money building unnecessary bridges!
After a warm shower, a few glasses of cold beer and a slap-up meal at Moondance in Pokhara we were up at 5:00am on a trip back to Kathmandu. We had a motorbike with a broken fuel gauge and were facing a national fuel embargo forced by India. Short of draining our fuel tank to measure the liquid we had no idea if we could get back. Google gave us fuel consumption readings of between 25-45 km/l and informed us that the manufacturers recommendations were to be ignored. There was a full tank when first leaving Kathmandu and we figured that if we got 30 km/l we’d just make it.
On fumes and a bit of luck we made it back to Kathmandu. Though my adventure, running through the Annapurna’s was coming to end, a new one was about to begin. Tomorrow we were meeting our first clients of the autumn. The season was officially about to start!
Click on the arrows to see some more pictures of Mardi Himal and Annapurna Base Camp.