Circumambulating the Annapurna Massif

Ande’s Mountains

I’m not sure if my parents intended to seal my fate as a lover of mountains when they named me Ande, deciding to use the spelling from the Andes Mountains in South America. The Andes are second in height only to the Himalayas, where I have just returned from the Annapurna Circuit Trek. My love of mountains is pretty non-specific. Sure, I love to be in them as a hiker, backpacker, skier, or even a car-driving visitor. But I also find a deep calm in just seeing them on the horizon. I feel held in, bounded, safe, free and full of possibility. And really, any kind of mountain will do. The rounded, old hills of New England, blanketed in trees fill me with that same rush of excitement and profound peace as the towering peaks of the Annapurna Massif in Nepal and every sized mountain in between.

One thing that I love about mountains is the physical challenge. I find it ironic that I am spending my career in a highly cerebral environment, because I actually think I am better suited for physical challenges. While I’m a fairly clumsy person (I bump into things a lot and generally have bruises on my legs and arms from I’m-not-sure-what), I can calibrate my body’s response to physical challenges well. I know how to move it, how to take firm steps, how to scramble over rocks, when to trust myself and when not to, what speed I can hold steady for how long. My intuition with physical challenges is strongest with endurance. I am all slow-twitch muscles, I often say I have one gear. Sprinting or quick change of directions is a weak point for me, athletically. But I can hold one pace steady for as long as I have been tasked with. I would say this consistency was one of my greatest talents in collegiate rowing. I would do our signature workout, 4x8 minutes at 5K pace at the exact same pace, down to a tenth of a second, every time. Minimal variance in each stroke. This connects to my love of backpacking over peak-bagging. My glory is in the exhaustion at the end of the day, of slowly getting to the end goal. Measuring accomplishment in days, not hours. I always prefer training to races. For me, the challenges presented by the daily task of pushing yourself is so much more rewarding than the “pay off” of completion of one event that was less than all of it added up. Perhaps it is this aspect of loving the long slog that suits me for academia.

All this is to say that being in the Himalayas for the two-to-three week Annapurna Circuit trek with Lily and Ryan was a profound experience for me physically and mentally. One I am still trying to fully make sense of and find words for. The Annapurna Circuit Trek is a very popular route, though the hotel owners we talked to all expressed worry about how tourism has been down since the 2015 Earthquake. The trek usually starts in Besishahar, the district capital of Lamjung District. We took a several-hour jeep ride from there to just past Syange to start. The road that we followed is one that runs all the way to Manang and we walked on for parts. This area is considered “the Hills” and they are lush and green (and would be called mountains in the US). I was struck by how deep the walls of the canyon are, and how far and remote some houses are. There are multiple suspension footbridges that cross to houses or villages. You know the type from the movies, where there are rickety and wooden and missing steps and they bounce too much when people walk on them. Well these do bounce when walked on, but they weren’t especially scary, just windy. Our route followed the road and the river that carved its way between the Hills, carrying cold, silty snowmelt.

Beautiful Desolation

 Nightly ritual of calculating mileage and elevation gain on my map using a piece of floss to follow trail contours

Nightly ritual of calculating mileage and elevation gain on my map using a piece of floss to follow trail contours

We tended to gain about 500 m (1,600 feet or so) vertical each day (until the end, when it was more like 800 and 900 m (2,500 to 3,000 feet or so) vertical. Most days we covered 10-14 KM in a little bit over 6 hours including the hour lunch stop at a tea house where a meal was only prepared once the order was made. Afternoons were spent stretching, writing, reading, napping, interviewing (for research), or playing cards. When we left Chame to Pisang, it was clear we had transitioned from the Hill region to the Mountain region. It was drier; the white peaked Himalayas were visible. Annapurna II was the first magnificent peak we saw, it stands at 26,040 feet. As we went on Annapurna IV and then Annapurna III came close, we skirted the backside of the massif, in the rain shadow, admiring their beauty, sneaking up on the slumbering giants. Then we came to Gangapurna, Khangasar, and Tilicho Peak before crossing over Thorong La Pass down into Mustang. We were close enough to see the stunning detail in the rocky faces and snowy folds. It was close enough to see the tufts and plumes of snow that looked like smoke during the two avalanches I happened to see happen while staring longingly at the peaks.

Prayer wheels in Chame, leaving Hills for Mountains

I remembered how hard it is for me to view nature without anthropomorphizing it, a challenge Edward Abbey discusses in Desert Solitaire. I view the mountains as constant and steady. Wise, even. The magnificence of these mountains is hard to describe. They remind you of your place in this world, of the importance of feeling small sometimes. Of viewing the timeline of this planet on a scale that makes human lifetimes a mere blip, something so infinitesimal it is impossible to imagine that a single human life can have any impact at all. And yet they do, all the time. It’s all quite humbling to remember that we are big and small, the scales of our impacts as individuals and a collective varying by context and surroundings.

The experience of trekking provides a tremendous amount of time for self-reflection. At times we all talked, the trail or road wide enough to be side by side with Ryan, Lily, or our guide Tila and assistant Rupa. But mostly, for the three of us, all celebrating our 3-month anniversary in Nepal on this trek, it was a time to think and to have the space to roam, physically and mentally. To make sense of ourselves, of Nepal, of this tremendous and repeating gift of being here for 10 months on the government’s dime to serve as cultural ambassadors while accomplishing our research, furthering our careers. To find challenges that are unlike ones we face at home and to gain perspective on just about everything. As if the incomplete thoughts that sit lurking in a busy mind need only time, space, fresh air, and beauty to come rattling out of their corners ready to be taken on and seen in new light.

It’s hard to explain the beautiful desolation of the Himalayas. It is remote; it takes days to get to some of the small villages we visited. As we went higher, past Manang, we were in places people don’t actually live. Rather families go up there to run hotels for the tourist season and return to lower heights for the off-season. It looks like how I imagine the high Himalayas to look. How I think Tibet looks. It is dry, and dusty. The air is thin, the sunshine strong and regular. The wind can be fierce, relentless. It feels spiritual, desolate without being isolated. There was this feeling that reminded me of the Wild West. Something about the emptiness, the constant wind (palpable through the flapping prayer flags), and the silence that lead to the feeling like nothing was going to happen and also, curiously, something was about to happen. Each day we walked further into this feeling, more remote. More desolate. More haunting.

Staggering New Heights

I think Tilicho Lake is the most remote place I have been, and for three days, it was the highest I had been too. At 16,138 feet, it is the highest lake in the world and a 2-day walk detour from the circuit. To get to Tilicho Base camp you deviate from the main trail at Shri Kharka and follow the contours of a sloping mountainside across the loose rocks of landslide areas, through an almost lunar-scape to the very cold and crowded base camp, which is at about 13,000 feet. It’s windy, raw, cold. There aren’t enough beds, many people sleep in the dining room (last to bed, first to wake). We got the last room, but it was a double. Ryan and Lily and I slept snug as bugs under a rug in our sleeping bags sharing two cots pushed together. It was lights out by 7, up at 5 for an early go at Tilicho up a long and steady uphill to the lake. Ryan and Lily were both unwell and, for the first time in my life, I felt great when others didn’t (I am always the one who is sick). But I still sort of thought I wasn’t going to make it. I have a history of struggling with the altitude, starting at 13,500 or so and only getting worse. When I was 12 I went to 15,000 feet in Bolivia, but it really didn’t go well. Nor did 14,400 when I had been living at 10,200. But this time I was armed with Acetazolamide and its a game changer. Not to say I didn’t feel the altitude, I definitely was short of breath, but I was able to recover and carry on.

Tilicho, aside from being beautiful, helped my body prepare for Thorong La Pass, which I would do 3 days later. It’s at 17,769 feet and is the highest pass (arguably) in the world. We attempted the pass from Thorong High Camp at 16,010 feet, arriving in in the early afternoon and did a short walk up a nearby hill for more elevation and then I sat in the sun and read until it disappeared and instantly grew cold and unwelcoming. We had a 3 am wake up for a 4 am departure, with the plan of making the pass in 3 hours at 7 am, before the winds got too strong. Then it’s a 5-mile downhill to Muktinath through barren nothingness, which would be beautiful if it wasn’t the most crushingly exhausting 4.5 hours of my life. In those 5-miles down we dropped over a mile of vertical. When we arrived at Mukitnath, at 12,200 feet, the air felt thick and I gulped it into my lungs like it was water.

The actual ascent to the pass was taken at a pace I would call a steady stagger. One foot before the other. Tila would say bistaari, meaning “go slow.” But if I went any slower, I would cease to be moving forward. I would be standing still and occasionally taking a step forward. The first hour and a half out of High Camp was disorienting and beautiful. It was silent, still, dark. The stars visible, the edges of the mountains perceptible, barely, but holding us in. Orienting us in the dark night. I couldn’t really see the trail well, even with my headlamp, so I just followed the guide. At some parts one misstep would be a disastrous tumble down steep rock slopes into who-knows what. Nothing good. As it began to lighten and we were at around 17,000 feet I felt constantly out of breath, barely able to catch it when I stopped. I was zombie walking forward. I recognized myself slipping into what I call “survival mode thinking.” I’ve had enough compromising situations in asthma attacks and moderate hypothermia to know this in myself so I would try and do some elevation math and conversions from meters to feet in my head to check in on how I was doing. I could still do them, but I could feel my brain getting fixated on the singular things it thinks would improve how I feel. I got really focused on my breathing and worrying about if my dry cough worsened and become HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema—fluid in the lungs), which is not a condition that has many survivors and can only be remedied by going lower as fast as possible (and for me, going down meant going up first). Just as I was really freaking myself out the trail steadied out, the last 30 minutes is over more rolling terrain, with fewer ups. It was hard to feel much of anything, a sliver of relief and a bit less worry, once on top. We stayed at the top only 15 minutes, taking a few pictures, hanging some prayer flags, and then starting the downhill. The first 45 minutes felt great, more and more air! Then that high wore off and it was that same zombie walking exhaustion. All in all, the day was 7.5 hours of near constant movement where I experienced unprecedented exhaustion. And I was a Division I college athlete in what is often considered the hardest team sport (rowing).

 The best trekking buddies

The best trekking buddies

We called our trek to a close in Muktinath. In 2008/9 they built a road connecting this area, which has made it a dreadful place to walk. It’s very windy, incredibly dusty, and on a road where buses constantly fly through at high speeds, belching black exhaust. Not the peace of the mountains at all. Unlike the trekkers we met, all on vacation, we were there working and all were ready to get back to the city and begin our work and carry on with our research. We separated before High Camp due to altitude sickness, and wanted to reunite soon. Although it took a full two days to travel back to Pokhara because of the way buses are run, it felt disorientingly fast. The environment grew greener, warmer, more populace. There were more people around, it felt unnerving. We came out of the bubble of the mountains too fast, not ready or prepared for bustling life again.