5:30am. My alarm bell rings and I roll over, letting out an audible sigh that is accompanied by a visible stream of air–it’s going to be a cold one. We’re somewhere around 13,500’, but the objective today is to climb Thorung La Pass (17,700’) and then push on to Ghasa, some 20 miles beyond the pass. I’m no stranger to falling short of objectives, and today I will surely fall short. I draw back the curtain and gaze out the window of my little tea-house room (which is comprised of two twin beds with some nice stiff mattresses and a frosty cement floor) and I see the snow-capped Annapurna range, illuminated only by starlight and a smiling crescent moon. This makes getting out of bed seem like much less of a chore, though a cup of coffee would’ve made this transition a bit more facile.
My 30 liter fastpack is only about ten liters full at this point, as I have literally every article of clothing on that I have brought with me. I’m a sight to be seen I’m sure, as the hood of my down jacket and buff are covering everything except for my eyes.
Dawn is such a fantastic time of day. There are few sights that can bring about the sort of awe-inspired enchantment as that of a mountain undressing itself of its nightly veil; an undressing more seductive than any lover could ever hope to reproduce. This morning I understand why the Himalayas are seen as a sort of paragon of mountain ranges. As their snow-capped summits reflect the various hues of the rising sun, a kaleidoscope of pinks, yellows and oranges that transforms each time my head instinctively spins around to take in another view, I secretly wish this morning that I the trail I tread along was heading South, but there’s no shortage of mountains ahead, and we’ve got a long ways to go.
The stats for the Annapurna Circuit both intrigued and terrified me at first glance. A demanding 135 miles with somewhere upwards of 50,000ft of climbing that spanned elevations from 3,000-17,700ft. After spontaneously using my tax return to purchase a ticket to Nepal, I pondered how quickly something of that magnitude could be done, which in turn lead me to Peter Bakwin’s FKT proboard. Seth Wolpin had done the entire route in an unfathomable 72 hours on next to no sleep, and Lizzy Hawker had completed the route in somewhere around five days. As I sat down in Leadville, CO plotting out what I hoped to be a four-day (and new female FKT) fastpack over a flimsy paper map with a friend of mine, I tried to divvy up those statistics in what seemed to be ‘manageable’ chunks. While planning made me feel more ‘prepared,’ I of course expected those plans to fall to the wayside as soon as the reality of the terrain, altitude, and weather all took their physical toll on my body and psychological toll on my determination.
I’d be lying if I said the Annapurna Circuit was anything like I imagined it. I spent the first two weeks in Nepal acclimating in the Everest region on a circuit called the “Three Pass Loop.” Being that it was still monsoon season–and that most people who travel to this particular region are there merely to ‘tag’ the infamous Everest Base Camp–the Three Pass Loop (which summits three mountain passes over 17,500ft) ended up being a circuit where the trekkers were few and the yaks were plentiful, giving me a skewed expectation of what trekking was like in Nepal.
Though the Annapurna Circuit was once thought to be one of the best long-distance treks in the world, it has since transformed into a busy, noisy roadway where you encounter more jeeps than trekkers, more motorbikes than porters, and inhale more dust than mountain air. These roads were initially thought to be beneficial for the locals, as they provide ease of travel between villages for trade. Someone told me that the initial ‘reason’ for the road building was that locals were having to throw away bushels of apples that were rotting because they couldn’t sell them quickly enough; they thus needed access to a larger market to sell them in, namely, larger cities. That all being taken into consideration, I found that half of the villages we passed through looked largely abandoned, and the ones that weren’t had villagers and tea shop owners outside begging us to come in for lunch or a room for the night, insisting that the next village was too far away, even if it was only two in the afternoon. It was honestly heart wrenching.
September 21st I arrived in Besi Sahar, the ‘starting line’ of the Annapurna Circuit, after a long, bumpy ride on a bus that sounded as if the transmission was on the verge of failing and as if the muffler or some other critical metal part were dragging along the road. I entertain myself by imagining those scenes in cartoons where a car just unfolds, leaving the driver just floating on their seat in the open air. Joking aside, it is, statistically speaking, safer to fly than drive to any of these regions during monsoon season due to the unrelenting landslides, horrible quality of the roads, and seemingly reckless driving on the part of everyone on these already dangerous corridors. I’d never been carsick in my life before coming to Nepal, but I found myself projectile vomiting out of the window of a jeep as it barreled down switchbacks, slamming potholes and fishtailing through thick mud, much to the delight of some Nepali children who exclaimed “WOWW!” as a stream of puke jettisoned out of my mouth onto the side of the jeep.
Besi Sahar was a larger ‘city’ with plenty of tea houses, but we chose the one directly in front of the bus stop, largely because I was feeling too tired to walk around in the hot, heavy, humid air of mid-afternoon. I immediately nap thinking that I can sleep off my delirious state, as tomorrow night I hope to set off for my FKT attempt. However, I am barely able to drag myself out of bed for dinner and find myself immediately in bed after dinner, only to be violently awaken at 4am to another bout of food-regurgitation that I had not anticipated. Only this was no car sickness, and as I sat hovering over a bucket full of my own stomach bile (meant for used toilet paper), my mind went to worse case scenario first: dysentery. I’d be out for days, stuck in this hotel bathroom unable to keep food or water down. Talk about bad timing.
I crawl back to bed and try to swallow a Pepto Bismol, but I am immediately rushed back to the bathroom by my body’s refusal to keep even sips of water down. I fear dehydration, I fear hospitalization, and I lay back down and try to sleep it off as ants crawl all over my bed and geckos wander around the walls. I can barely lift my arms or open my eyes, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt this weak in my entire life. I cry at the thought of not being able to make my attempt; the sickness has made me homesick: I want my own bed and I want food and water that won’t cause this level of internal dissonance.
I don’t know if I’d call myself ‘lucky’ after that, but it felt like a miracle at 5pm when I was able to stomach an entire bowl of Ramen noodles. So much so that I found the most uplifting music I could on Spotify and started blaring it from my phone and dancing atop the ants on my mattress while ferociously playing air guitar (until I got too winded and woozy and had to lay down again), which I’m sure my friend Taylor did not find overly amusing after having to wait on my lifeless body all day.
Strange thing about hotels in Nepal (well, I guess I don’t stay in enough hotels in the US to compare), they lock you in at night–both the door and the fence around the outside. This made the decision to start at 2:30am the morning after my bout of puking, logistically speaking, sort of difficult. We luckily picked a hotel with balcony rooms, so getting out of the hotel only had to be sort of clandestine. However, the eight foot tall, spiky fence proved to be more of a challenge to quietly navigate around in the dark. After the long-legged Taylor gracefully hopped over the fence, I tossed him our bags and awkwardly tried to straddle this heap of metal without impaling myself, only to see headlights coming in the distance. No going back now.
The two men behind the headlights call out to Taylor as I grunt and struggle my way over. They are of course, policemen wondering what on earth it is that we’re doing sneaking out of a hotel at this hour. We try to explain that we have an ambitious day and need to get an early start which of course confuses them, but after a brief interrogation, we’re on our way.
While getting up at that hour was undesirable, I figured it gave me a full night of effort after my ‘rest’ day yesterday, that may pay off later when the legs and body were too tired for all night efforts. Also, there is something spectacular about having a trail to yourself under a night sky, even if that means making wrong turns early on, and poorly trying to navigate a trail you’ve never seen before with markings that easily evade being noticed in the dark.
Once the sun rose, I noticed monkeys running across the trail and stopped whenever I saw baby cows or goats so as to give them a nice scratch behind the ears. By 8am we were drinking some nearly see-through instant coffee at a teahouse somewhere around Ngadi. When the teahouse owner asked where we had come from that morning and we told him Besi Sahar, his jaw dropped before asking, “This morning? Besi Sahar, this morning??!” We reply, “Yes, it was an early start,” and he begins talking to his wife in Nepalese before returning to us to say, “Very strong, very strong.”
Somewhere around 11am the sun began to beat down on us, and I become completely drenched in my own sweat. Luckily a nice cloudburst followed shortly thereafter the sun’s appearance, rinsing off my clothes from all that bothersome sweat.
I knew the haul to Chame would be a long one today (35 miles with 24,000ft of climbing), but somewhere around 4pm I began to lose my composure. Water was seeping out of my shoes every time I took a step, which was not only uncomfortable (to put it lightly), but which was incredibly annoying because my steady pace created a metronome-quality of repetitive “squish” sounds that brought me back to my flute-playing days in high school (1 and 2 and 3 and 4, and 1 and 2 and 3 and 4….so on ad infinitum).
When we reached the town about ten minutes walk from Chame, I veered into the first tea house I saw and shouted through the downpouring rain, “Do you have a room for two??” The woman excitedly welcomed me in, Taylor strolling in just behind me proclaiming that if I hadn’t of stopped he wouldn’t have pushed on to catch me. Morale is already low.
I wrap myself in a blanket in the dining room and pass out on the bench while the dal Baht is being prepared. When we get back to the room after dinner, we assess the trench foot that has not yet dried, and see the little red blotches of athlete’s foot that will soon become an itchy nuisance. The rain doesn’t let up all night, and Taylor mentions knee pains that may keep him here tomorrow. I try not to panic at the idea of finishing this thing alone, as I have one hundred miles in front of me, and the most difficult of it has yet to come.
At 4am the alarm wakes me up, but the sound of the rain almost muffles the alarm. I try to convince myself that maybe this town is just near a waterfall and that’s what I’m hearing, but the pounding on the roof assures me that this isn’t letting up. 5:30am comes around and it has slowed to a drizzle, causing me to lift my weary body out of bed. Taylor declares that he will not be joining me, so I begin packing my bags. The reality of me actually leaving sprung him into action and he asks me for five minutes to pack his bag and at least join me to Manaang–the last stop for jeeps before the pass. We stop in the real Chame for coffee and Tibetan bread before heading out for the day, the goal today being Ledar (another 30 miles, ~8,000ft up trail).
The weather that day was incredible and we have high hopes that our stuff might even get a chance to dry (and get soaked by our sweat rather than rain water). The day was relatively uneventful, just slogging along and realizing that Manaang was much further than we realized, and that meant Ledar might not be as feasible as I had perhaps thought it was.
The valley below Manaang reminded me of the high deserts of the US–we paralleled a wide river snaking its way north, as massive cliffs and caves loomed above us, and the occasional jeep passed by on its way to Manaang. I become eager to leave behind this section of trail/road, but arriving in Manaang only made me feel more cynical. Suddenly we’re in a mountain metropolis–we’ve gone the past 30ish hours seeing almost no trekkers and now we’re in a town full of people dressed in casual wear, drinking lattes and wandering around with bags full of souvenirs. I not so secretly hope my stench not only reaches their nostrils, but I hope that it offends them.
Once we wind our way through the cobblestone streets of Manaang and begin to climb through the quiet fields full of villagers harvesting grain with their sickels, stacking it in multitudinous teepee shaped bushels, my nerves calm again. We’re now thousands of feet above the Thorung Kone River overlooking the glaciated peaks of the Annapurna Range. While the climbing makes my mind feel more at ease, my body begins to feel the altitude, still weak and in a major calorie deficit from the other day in Besi Sahar. We only make it to Ghunsang before I call it, passing out immediately upon arrival (6pm) and sleeping until dinner at almost 8pm. Falling short of the target seems to be an everyday occurrence on this venture.
It’s noon now and I’m passed out on a bench at Thorung Phedi. Getting here after our cool dawn morning under the stars was much more challenging for me than I anticipated. I felt fully acclimated when I left the Everest Region, never experiencing altitude sickness on any of the 17,000 foot passes we crossed. I guess jumping from 3,000ft to 14,000ft in two days could have something to do with it, but I want to believe I could’ve handled this if I hadn’t gotten so disastrously ill the day before we left. The climbing at this altitude (~14,500ft) was making me feel so winded and nauseous that I couldn’t convince myself to eat. Taylor went ahead and bought me some mango juice to provide some sort of calories after we crossed the Thorung Kone River on one of those intimidatingly long metal foot bridges, which I sat down and drank with the hundred other winded tourists at the top of the switchbacks up the other side of the river bank.
I’m embarrassed. I’m getting passed by people in hiking boots, people with ukuleles strapped to their packs and by porters with over one hundred pounds on their backs. I have to stop to catch my breath every few steps and I feel faint. I want to curl up in a ball and cry.
I wake up at Phedi and try to eat my lunch. I stomach two fingerling potatoes and fall back asleep. I wake up to drink a few sips of the sugar-filled tea Taylor had ordered me. He asks how I feel and I think my response was something along the lines of, “I need to get down. Which means we need to go up.”
We climb the first 1,500 feet of the climb in an hour somehow and we arrive at High Camp. This is the last stop if you want to sleep before the pass, the next town being at least five hours from here, if things go well. I sit down and drink another mango juice and eat a Snickers. The clouds are building and it’s already after one o’ clock. The sign at Phedi said the pass was 3-4 hours away, and I’m pretty much walking at or below tourist pace at this point, so my guess is we have at least three hours to go.
I’m able to take a few steps at a time before having to stop and gasp for air on the side of the trail. This gets progressively worse the higher we climb. Taylor keeps stopping to look back at me and insist that I stop dilly-dallying and I can’t even muster the energy to tell him to fuck off.
I hear a man yelling behind me and see him somehow running up the hill from High Camp after us. I ignore him and move at my tortoise pace forward. Taylor waits for him, as he recognizes him as a man we stayed with last night in Ghunsang. However, he was hiking with his priest yesterday, and he is alone today. “My friend is too slow, I come with you,” he explains. He’s never been up here either and he’s in a Puma sweatshirt with no gloves and a pair of jeans. I don’t have the energy to tell him what a bad idea this is, especially because he’s absolutely in a better place to do this than I am.
He and Taylor walk together ahead of me, as I am demoralized by a few downhill sections that mean I lost precious elevation that took me so long to gain. The wind picks up as we hit the first of two tea houses on the way to the top. I recall a tale of two hundred people requiring rescue operations on this pass in 2014 during a blizzard; I also recall that approximately thirty people died that day, only twenty of their bodies to be recovered.
A man at the tea house urges Taylor to turn around, and our tagalong and him partake in a heated debate in Nepalese as I sit outside, half asleep and shivering profusely. Taylor tells our friend to push on without us after he relays that the next town in six hours from here, and it begins to snow. He asks if we have headlamps and insists that we need to hurry before he takes off up trail.
A trekker stumbles upon us on his way down and asks what it is exactly that we think we’re doing. He insists that ascending is not an option, that we’re putting ourselves in serious danger.
This all goes on in the periphery on my consciousness. I can barely keep my eyes open and it feels as though I’m watching all of this happen, but am not at all a participant in what is going on. Taylor begins to take on a more urgent tone. “If you fall asleep, I’m going to leave you here,” he says sternly. I realize that this is serious, but my body has no response to the urgency of the situation.
Everything’s a blur: the words, the landscape before me, my movement. Am I even moving? I feel my lungs frantically expanding and contracting in my chest, it’s the only thing I can feel acutely. I have a visual of the process in my head, my eyes are probably closed as I go back to high school anatomy class instructional videos on how the lungs work. Though I’ve stood up and am walking, every time I stop to catch my breath, I close my eyes and almost fall asleep standing up. Taylor calls out every so often and when I catch up to him he shoves bites of Snickers into my mouth, which I stubbornly refuse before he says he’ll make me turn around if I don’t eat.
I suddenly become conscious of how cold I am. Flashes of ice-cold shivers radiate from my skull to my feet, but they are followed by a burning sensation that follows the same pathway–head to toe. My teeth are now chattering and Taylor says my face is purple. I haven’t spoken since High Camp, but after a bite of Snickers I am able to muster a faint, “I’m…so…cold.” Taylor takes off his down jacket and gives it to me and tells me we need to go. Every so often he stops and we have a shivering embrace that helps block us both partially from the wind. He keeps insisting that every crest I can see is the summit and that it’s all downhill from there. Each time, I muster my most powerful, yet still pathetic, waddle to the ‘top,’ only to see flags far in the distance. I can’t form a sentence, but every so often I’ll spit out a muffled, “I…can’t,” at the top of the false summits. I’ve lost all sense of what is going on, but when I can formulate thoughts, I begin to think that I seriously might die up here, that I’ve made a grave error, that none of this was worth it and that I want to go home.
We somehow reach the top around 4:00pm and Taylor insists I go over to get a picture with the sign. I walk over to it, look at it curiously, and forget why I’m over there. I touch the snow and ice on the sign and Taylor comes over and tells me we need to go down now.
Down. Good. Yes. Down.
I want to stop at the first town after the pass, but it is abandoned. We watch sunset over the abandoned village and see what we think is the next town, Muktinah, in the distance. It’s a long cry from Ghasa, but I’ve already decided at this point that I’m not going for the FKT and I’m just happy to be alive. We follow a jeep down the road on the right side of the river, only to see Muktinah on the left, impossible to access from where we are unless we back track–back uphill. We decide as darkness is falling to push forward and hope there’s a way to cross from the abandoned town the jeep led us toward.
To make a long story short, we wander around in the dark until someone cooking dinner over a campfire outside their dark home points us in what we hope is the right direction. He says something about a bridge, but mostly says he can’t speak English, and we plod on, tired and cranky. We arrive in Muktinah and stop at the first tea house that says they have room.
I’m taking small bites of Tibetan bread silently that next morning. It’s already almost 7am and we’re nearly 33 miles from Ghasa, meaning we’re an entire day behind schedule after yesterday’s mishap. I decide in my head that I’m going to catch a jeep to Nayapul, I don’t care if Taylor continues on.
Suddenly someone runs up and is in the hallway of the teahouse asking the owner if they had a pair of his trekking poles. He says he stayed here when he ran the Annapurna Circuit a few years ago in 70 hours, and my ears perk up. I only know one person who’s done that, and his trip report inspired this effort.
I run out and ask, “Are you Seth Wolpin?” He seems shocked that I know who he is, but I explain that I’ve read his blog and am attempting to do the Annapurna in four days right now. We exchange information, and I almost want to cry. This is a sign that I can’t quit. The chances of me running into this man, whose FKT on this route perplexed and inspired me more and more each day as I forged my way along, were just too slim. This was too serendipitous.
The thirty mile road walk to Ghasa on day four nearly broke me. A vicious headwind on the road made this flat section much more difficult than it should’ve been. I had a mouth full of sand and when I blew my nose it always came out black. The traffic became more and more abundant the further we walked. Navigating around herds of hundreds of goats being led to slaughter for an upcoming festival, I tried to imagine I was back at Jumpin’ Good Goat Dairy in Buena Vista. I made the usual “SHHH!” sounds I made to shoo the goats I worked with and confidently pushed by them as if I’d been milking them all summer. It was strange, but it felt good to have a reminder of home, even if that reminder was that weird time I milked goats for a summer.
At lunch, we got to watch a music video being filmed in the streets of Mharpa. A beautiful woman in a lavish dress repeatedly runs barefoot down the cobblestone street as a man chases her, only to fall short with a look of disappointment and dismay. One of the better lunches of the trip.
The final day of the Annapurna proved to be the most difficult. We began in the dark at around 4:30am after the torrential downpouring rain at 3am (our original target) finally abated.
We arrived in Tatopani, the last big town before the big climb up to Ghorepani on Poon Hill, and had our one meal of the day. This was the day of the big push to the finish line in Nayapul, and it was another 30 miles with a giant “hill” in the way.
I couldn’t believe how hot it was or how long the climb was. My skin was painfully red and sunscreen wouldn’t stay on because I was sweating too much. We were in direct sunlight for almost the entire climb, which took nearly five hours if I remember correctly. We each consumed over three liters of water and still felt dehydrated. A stray dog that followed us up to Ghorepani stopped to lay in every stream we crossed; he made me think about doing the same, except never to get up again.
The climb broke me down. I was over it. If Nayapul wasn’t so “close” I’d have thrown in the towel and stopped in Ghorepani to just drink soda and eat Snickers bars. However, once we arrived in Ghorepani at noon, I knew it was mostly downhill which sounded ‘easier’ at this point. I didn’t account for the disgusting amount of tourists that were going to be clogging up the trail, who we literally had to push our way by. My frustrations were mounting and I began to run angrily down the steep staircase that made up this 7,000+ foot descent. A porter saw me and began running behind me in his flip flops with his giant load in tow. I suddenly felt excited for the first time in days, and a maybe even a bit competitive. It was mostly just nice to run alongside someone, it reinvigorated my downtrodden spirits.
I didn’t arrive in Nayapul in four days like I planned to, but I didn’t arrive by jeep either, though I came very close to doing so. I did, however, arrive there in four days, fourteen hours, and 45 minutes, which still counts at the new female FKT, though the amount of people that would actually matter to must be close to none. Taylor and I stopped briefly in Nayapul for a celebratory glass bottle of Sprite and a few bags of chips before saying, “This place sucks, let’s go to Pokhara,” and then jumping in a jeep. Neither of us were feeling accomplished, so much as we are feeling relieved that it’s over.
Would I do it again? Absolutely not. Am I happy that I didn’t quit? I suppose so.
I must say how immense the amount of respect I have for Seth’s (and Lizzy’s) effort was, having now done this circuit myself. I am not only honored to have had the chance to bump into him along the way, but still completely perplexed by our encounter, which I am sure is the only reason I kept going that day.