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 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.”
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.
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 of days’ 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!
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.