Rough Guides writer Helen Abramson discovers the ups and downs of the Annapurna Base Camp trek in Nepal – all without the help of a porter or guide.
Something wasn’t right. I generally like to think of myself as physically fit. In fact, a doctor told me that was the case. I was convinced. Yet two days into the Annapurna Base Camp trek, every time I took a step up or down, my thighs hurt like the fires of hell. And up or down, it seemed, were the only options; flat surfaces were hard to come by.
I was mentally preparing a sternly worded letter for said doctor, in which I pointed out that his assessment was irrefutably and woefully incorrect.
A few weeks earlier, my boyfriend and I had arrived in Nepal in the October peak season (the other being April–May), the day after the tragic storms that killed at least 43 people, of which 21 were trekkers, in the Annapurna Circuit region. We were filled with thoughts of those affected by the catastrophe as we travelled to Pokhara, the tranquil yet touristic lakeside town used as a base for the thousands of trekkers who pass through the Annapurna Sanctuary each year.
The Annapurna Base Camp Trek (also known as the ABC route), however, was sheltered from the storms and thus unaffected. We decided to tackle this 7–10 day hike without a guide or porter, carrying all the luggage we’d need in 45-litre backpacks.
This route, mostly inaccessible to vehicles, winds through prayer-flag strewn hamlets dotted around the lush valley of the fast-flowing Modi Khola River. It’s overlooked by the domineering peaks of Annapurna (8091m) and Machhapuchchhre (6993m), meaning “Fishtail” for its distinctive summit. The paths undulate almost constantly by way of seemingly huge and endless steps carved into the earth.
Perhaps the swift pace of our first day had something to do with my aching legs, but speed was getting us nowhere on day two. We were unquestionably lost. The map had led us astray, indicating a path that didn’t exist, and extending our walking time to Chhomrong by around 2.5 hours and – most concerning for me – involving an awful lot more stairs.
The scenery changed dramatically as we increased altitude, from verdant stepped-farm hillsides, mossy jungle and misty autumnal woodland, up to rocky creeks peppered with waterfalls and finally to snow-speckled arid expanses.
We walked between four and seven hours each day, rising at icy-cold dawn to startlingly deep-blue skies and watching the golden sunlight spread majestically over the distant peaks before it hit us and warmed our freezing bones. Clouds usually rolled in late morning, bringing rain and slippery ground, which I over-acquainted myself with one afternoon after I slipped and landed on my back, limbs flailing like an upturned turtle.
Although this was a firm reminder that we needed to remain alert and careful, especially without a guide and in light of the recent tragedy, we were reassured that we would never be alone for long – we passed by dozens of hikers each day. In fact, sometimes it felt like too many. Though the area is remote, the number of trekkers in peak season means the only way to feel isolation is by going off the beaten track, and for that you need a guide. However, we were glad to be able to set our own pace and choose where we stayed the night, and (despite our second-day detour) keeping to the trail without a guide was relatively easy.
We quickly became over-familiar with the menus at each teahouse, which were all identical, as they are set by the government, along with the prices. The variety of food, nonetheless, was astonishing. Even at the highest-altitude stops you could order a whole range of foreign dishes, though Nepal’s national dish, dal bhat, a plate of rice, soupy lentils and simple veg curries – all refilled until you say stop – was usually the safest best.
Our fourth and coldest night was spent at Machhapuchchhre Base Camp (MBC; 3700m), before the final ascent to ABC. We struck out on the increasingly snowy ground before dawn under a dazzling starry sky, our pace slowed by altitude-affected heavy steps and shortness of breath. We made it to ABC by full light, in a basin surrounded by a ring of glorious peaks.
With a 360-degree view of some of the highest summits in the world, it’s hard not to feel humbled; I could have stayed there all day. Sadly, that wasn’t an option, as we didn’t feel up to staying overnight as high as 4130m, so before long it was time to begin the descent.
Due to the rise-and-fall nature of this trek, the last few days were not short of uphill climbs. Despite myself, I actually began to look forward to these, as, to my horror, descending increased the burn in my legs even more. After returning through Chhomrong the route split, and we were able to take in new scenery on the other side of the valley. This meant a stop at Jhinu, where natural hot springs in serene surroundings by the gushing river were a blissful answer to our aching muscles, although getting there required walking down and back up – you guessed it – hundreds more stairs.
On our seventh and final day we gradually re-entered civilization, passing through larger villages where life focused on more than just sustaining passing-by trekkers. We met a farmer who guided us down a perilously steep final section before we hit the road near Tolka.
As we bid the mountains a sad farewell, I felt a huge sense of fulfilment – and a touch of pride at gaining a pair of rock-solid legs – after a surprisingly gruelling trek.