Before we left home I had met exactly one person who had hiked in the Himalayas. That was Baroon, our dear friend and the son of Bharat and Durga. I had been green with envy when he told me about his trek. Imagine! The person sitting in front of me had trekked the mountains at the top of the world, had walked around Annapurna, and had seen what I dreamed of one day seeing. Those talks had the sealed the deal. I would get there, somehow. My mind was even able to skip over the minor details, like the part about the trek around
Annapurna being three weeks long.
When we were in India, the closer we inched toward Nepal, the more we
talked about our trek. Brad had tried to be realistic and had made it clear that he
thought we were incapable of finishing such a feat.
“Don’t you remember what happened in Peru? We had to sleep in that
guy’s barn because you couldn’t even walk anymore. That trek was only three
days. Only three days!” he exclaimed. “You’re talking about doing something
that is three weeks !” He looked wide-eyed at me. “Do you really want to hike that
long? I mean, seriously ?”
I did remember Peru. I had cried outside of a guinea pig barn in the
Andes Mountains, unable to motivate myself to take another step forward. The
problem was that I had been wearing my running shoes and the weight of my
pack had crushed my feet. I had reason to cry. I had been crying “uncle” for
hours, but the steel pliers only gripped my feet tighter and the only way out was
to sleep in someone’s barn and beg a ride out of the mountains in the back of a
rattletrap chicken truck.
I had learned lessons in Peru; first, that Brad would carry the food, and
second, that I needed boots. With the Himalayas in mind, I bought my first pair
of backpacking boots. But since buying them, I had only worn them twice: first
when I tried them on the store, and second on our ill-fated trek in the Thai jungle
when bees and leeches had attacked us.
We had desperately wanted to make it to the Himalayas, but even just a
few months prior we had our doubts about whether we’d even make it to Nepal.
In our minds, Nepal had been the most unattainable prize on our trip. The
Kingdom in the Clouds on the direct opposite side of the globe from our home.
Back home someone who had spent considerable time in Nepal told us that we
would never make it, and that even if we did, we would never survive the rough
roads or the rebels.
The Himalayas in a two-wheel-drive van? Please! But we had made it to
Nepal after all, and that was reason enough to head out on the Annapurna circuit,
one of the highest, most sought-after treks in the world. The Annapurna circuit is
a 150-mile-long route that begins in the tropics and climbs nearly to the Death
Zone, over one of the world’s highest passes, and then spills out onto the Tibetan
Plateau, all the while winding through the iconic peaks of mountaineering lore
and traditional Buddhist villages on ancient salt trading routes.
It is possible to sleep in the stone huts that dot the ancient salt route, and
mountain villagers serve up home-cooked meals from the wood ovens in their
stone kitchens. If ever there was a trek where we didn’t have to be fully self-
supported, this was it.
On the morning of our departure, Auntie Durga blessed us by smearing
tikka dots on our foreheads, and when we emerged from the house, we found that
someone had given Nacho a good luck blessing for the trip ahead by placing a
string of marigolds inside of our spare tire. We drove out of Kathmandu with
smiles on our faces and the marigolds fluttering in the wind.
We arrived in the lakeside town of Pokhara in the afternoon, and
followed a stony, potholed track around the side of the lake to a campground—
the first campground we had found in Asia—and were surprised to find David
and Regina there resting beside their truck. David was propped up on his elbow,
basking in the sun on a longhaired fur rug on the grass. His state of relaxation
starkly contrasted with the state of stress and frustration that had become the
norm in India. Gone were the days of Indian demolition derbies. Whereas our
last shared camp had been outside of a dilapidated hotel in the middle of a
human beehive, this camp was surrounded on all sides by paddies of tall golden
rice stalks bowing to a soft mountain breeze.
We vegetated at the camp amid the rice fields for a few days, relaxing
and taking in the mountain scenery. The Pokhara Valley sits in a cleft in the
Himalayas, its flat valley floor bisected by a lazy river that accumulates in the
lake before continuing into the canyons below the town. Our camp was a couple
of miles upstream of the lake, where rice fields filled the valley from one side to
the other, beyond which the mountains shot skyward. We dropped our
paddleboard into the clear river and used it to paddle up and down the valley,
waving to fishermen and villagers harvesting rice. Each day we walked to the
village of Pame Bazar and bought eggs and vegetables from the small shops.
Brad would walk to a nearby hut and hand our milk bottle to a small boy, and
then practice speaking Nepali with the other children until the boy returned with
the bottle full of milk from the family’s cow.
On the morning of our departure for the trek, we stuffed our packs with a
four-season tent, sleeping bags, pads, cookware, a stove, lanterns, clothing, and
food. Brad stubbornly insisted that, despite provisions and shelter being
available from the small villages along the way, he wanted to maintain self-
“We don’t need guesthouses. And besides, I like camping. And why did
we buy this tent if we’re not going to use it?”
“Yes, but remember Peru? Why make it harder than it has to be?”
“How about this,” he said confidently, “I’ll carry all of the camping gear.
Your pack won’t even be affected.”
“Wait,” I said, “if you carry all of the camping gear, doesn’t that mean
that I have to carry everything else? Isn’t that twice as much as I would have
carried otherwise?” He was sneaky. We went back and forth until I reluctantly
Before long, we heard the local minibus bouncing down the dirt road
through the rice fields. It was invisible in the high grass, but it made its presence
known by honking as it approached the stop for Pame Bazar. Brad threw the rest
of the things in our bags while I stuffed the remaining contents of our fruit bowl
into my boots, tied the laces together, and threw my pack over my shoulder. We
took off toward the road at a trot, and I instantly snapped out of my brainwashed
stupor, and I realized then that I had been tricked. My bulging pack felt like a
sack of bricks. A sack of bricks I would have to transport all the way to 17,000
feet. A sack of bricks I would have to carry for three weeks!
We sat on a makeshift seat at the front of the creaking, overloaded bus
for seven hours next to the driver, our feet resting atop a sack of grain, and with
several other sacks packed around us. Our fellow passengers were mostly
mountain dwellers who had relocated to Kathmandu for work, and were headed
back to their mountain villages for the upcoming holidays of Dashain and Tihar .
Many would take the bus to a point, and then walk for several days to reach their
remote homes. Animal sacrifice features heavily in Dashain , and many of the
riders brought goats home with them for the occasion. The goats were placed on
the roof where they teetered and stumbled as we wound our way into the
mountains, or in the cargo hold below the bus where they could occasionally be
heard voicing their disapproval.
We, on our grain-sack-seat with a view, were the lucky ones. Half of the
bus riders stood tightly packed together in the aisle, never resting over the course
of the seven-hour trip. The bus driver did his best to make the drive go by faster
by speeding as fast as possible around the mountain curves. He came upon an
antique tractor pulling a wagon and attempted to pass it, which the tractor driver
interpreted as a challenge to race. I must say I have never seen a tractor move so
fast. It rocketed in and out of ditches and ruts, head to head with our bus, like a
bat out of hell. Our bus driver rocketed through the same ditches and ruts,
sending dust and rocks into the air. The passengers seemed nervous, but nowhere
as nervous as the goats riding on the roof.
We started the Annapurna trek from the village of Bhulebhule at midday.
I already felt exhausted from the bus ride and wanted to lie down on the road and
take a nap, but it felt great to walk. We followed a rough dirt road alongside a
crashing river for much of the day, until a trail formed, leading us through green,
terraced rice fields and rustic stone villages. In front of the village huts, platters
of beans, peppers, and corn dried in the sun. We made it to our first guesthouse
thoroughly tired. The sun had already set and we didn’t feel like setting up camp.
From my journal:
What can I say…day one kicked our butts. If ever I questioned whether I was out of shape, today
confirmed it. Brad has worse problems because his fancy boots are rubbing holes right through
his heels. By the end of the hike he had moleskin wrapped around his heels and every toe. At this
rate we’ll be out of moleskin in three days.
Brad would speak no libel of his boots. “What do you expect?” he said,
“I’ve been wearing sandals for a year. My feet are like dough balls.”
On our second day, a group of Sherpas passed us. The Sherpa porters
have been carrying cargo in the Himalayas for centuries: deliveries of food and
goods for the villages inaccessible by road, and packs for trekkers who either
brought too much, or preferred not to carry their own loads. A typical Sherpa can
carry his own body weight in cargo for days on end in an oversized basket called
a doko . These baskets rest against their backs and are secured with a strap that
runs across the forehead, forcing the porter to lean forward and look down at the
ground all day.
In the afternoon we passed a group of American and Israeli hippies,
including an American girl with long, matted blond hair and a hula-hoop
strapped to her bag. When we passed them they were standing in a field of
ragged, well-picked-over marijuana plants, frantically attempting to fill the white
plastic bags that they held in their hands, as though someone were going to come
along and take all of the pot before they could pick it.
Brad’s heel blisters worsened throughout the day, and he limped around
like a lame dog. We made slow progress and stopped along a dry riverbed to set
up camp. We had just finished staking our tent to the ground when a man from a
nearby village approached and pointed to the cliff above us. We stared back and
watched him play a game of charades in which he milked the air with his hands,
then squatted down and covered his head with his arms. It seemed we had set up
camp under a rock fall. We thanked him for potentially saving our lives, and
moved our tent twenty feet outward. Sure enough, in the middle of the night we
heard the meteoric thwump of a rock that had fallen from the cliff, landing right
where we had originally placed our tent.
On the third day we ascended into a pine forest and saw our first big
mountains. It was the first day of Dashain , Nepal’s longest and most important
holiday. Pesal had described it as a time when all Nepalis try to reach home to
visit their families, and celebrate with large meals involving goat meat.
In the late morning we passed through a village, and happened upon a
group of men butchering ten of the village’s goats for the holiday. It was a rural
production line; a few of the men chopped up the lower half of a goat on a
wooden stump while others sorted the butchered pieces into organ and meat
piles. The last man distributed the finished goods evenly among thirty-four
bloody piles laid out on a blue tarp, each one to be given to a village family.
We started to gain elevation, and in the evening the cold air pressed
down between the mountains. We huddled together with a Nepali family in their
kitchen as they prepared our evening meal. It was a classic Nepali kitchen with a
clay wood-burning stove and a wall of narrow shelves lined with cups, plates,
and bowls. We drank chai and watched our hosts work through the meals that
had been requested for the night. Everything was made from scratch and tonight
I scored free cooking lessons. The wife sat on the ground at my feet and made
dough and filling for a few orders of momo , one of Nepal’s classic dishes of
steamed dumplings stuffed with vegetables, chicken, or buffalo meat.
The next day we both limped like lame dogs. My new boots were still
breaking in, and I looked just as pathetic as Brad. In a small village called
Chame, we unlaced our boots and ordered lunch: a cup of local apple liquor and
a heaping plateful of pan-fried potatoes, spinach, and egg. A suspended
footbridge crossed the river at Chame, its cables covered in a rainbow of prayer
flags that stretched in every direction. For Buddhists, prayer flags send good
fortune to the world, carried by the wind. Each flag’s color represents a different
element: blue for the sky, white for the air, red for fire, green for water, and
yellow for earth. Together they symbolize harmony, and as the old flags become
tattered, they are overlapped with new flags, signifying a renewal of the cycle of
life and the acceptance of change.
After lunch we begrudgingly laced up our boots and continued down the
trail, which acted as a narrow barrier between the steep canyon wall and a raging
river. An enormous 5,000-foot rock wall grew before us, known by the locals as
Swarga Dwari , or Gateway to Heaven, which swept skyward like a colossal tidal
wave. After passing the wall, we entered a shaded pine forest, and finally arrived
at our next guesthouse in a village that looked like it had been transported
straight out of frontier Alaska. The views of the mountains were once again
inspirational, but I wanted to curl up into a ball and cry. My feet were in a sorry
state, and the blood blisters on my little toes were so large it looked like my
toenails were resting atop red pillows.
The following day things got really spectacular. We emerged from the
pine forest and quickly gained elevation until we arrived in the village of Upper
Pisang, which clung precariously to a steep mountainside, and whose inhabitants
were nowhere to be seen. This marked the beginning of Nyesyand, a region in
the rainshadow of the Annapurna range, causing it to be dry and barren and
dotted with low, scraggly trees, much like southern Utah. We continued on,
traversing a bare mountainside until we appeared in front of a stone wall inlayed
with prayer wheels at the base of a cliff. We had the impression that we were in
the middle of nowhere, but we had learned that prayer wheels were always
placed just outside of villages. This was strange. I looked straight up and saw, to
my dismay, prayer flags blowing in the wind far, far above us. And thus, we
began our ascent.
Brad’s heels were finally beginning to recuperate, and he trudged up the
switchbacks as if on a Saturday afternoon stroll. At 11,000 feet, I was feeling the
elevation and my legs burned with lactic acid. I felt irritated that I was
struggling, and knew that the only way I would feel better would be if I emerged
at the top before Brad did. At the edge of a switchback I noticed a faint trail that
seemed like it must be a shortcut, so I called out and nonchalantly told Brad I
was going take it.
He looked back, nodded, and continued up the trail.
I grabbed a shrub and pulled myself upward. This wasn’t going to be
easy. I moved in a slapdash pattern and followed any tree branch, bush, or rock
that was available to assist me in my upward climb. What I failed to realize was
that the landscape was slowly leading me away from the switchbacks. I only
realized this ten minutes later during a brief pause to examine my next move,
which led to me falling into a state of hyperventilating panic.
By the time my shaky legs rejoined the trail, I had lost track of Brad,
unsure if he was above or below me. I shouted his name like a crazed person but
he didn’t respond. Finally I began climbing.
Ten minutes later I found him sitting on a rock ledge basking in the sun.
He was smiling, “Did you get lost again?”
When we reached the top we were positively fried. We had reached
Ghyara, a typical Tibetan village where the flat roof of each home provided a
deck for the house above it; so steep was the mountainside on which it was built.
We chose a guesthouse composed of stacked rocks, and splurged on the “big
room with mountain view” for three dollars. Anywhere else in the world, this
room, with its perfectly framed views of Annapurna II, III, and IV, would have
cost a month’s budget. But out in the Himalayas, where a family may survive on
a hundred dollars in a year, we found the rooms to be only a couple of dollars, or
even free if we ate dinner there.
What had once been one big room was now divided by thin plywood into
three smaller rooms, ours being the biggest, and having inherited the floor-to-
ceiling windows from which we could gaze upward at a wall of 25,000-foot
peaks. A German couple and their Nepali friend Melina, with whom we had
crossed paths several times over the preceding days, occupied one of the other
As I left our room to go downstairs to the kitchen, a new female face
appeared from the other room. At first glance I thought she was naked, but then
realized she was wearing skin-tone thermal tights. We said our hellos, and then I
descended the rickety stairs. On the way down I passed a cheery-looking guy.
“Hey be careful,” he said. “Someone could do some serious damage on
these stairs!” He smiled. The two of them reminded me instantly of our old
neighbors, in Flagstaff.
“Hey, where are you from?” I asked.
Of course . That’s where our neighbors had been from.
“Sweet! My husband and I might move there when we get back home!”
“Oh really? When?”
“I don’t know, maybe in a year and a half.” He stared at me inquisitively.
We spent the evening exchanging stories over a thermos of masala tea.
Jake and Kendra were on their honeymoon, and he had recently finished nursing
school. Being that they were Pacific Northwesterners, they had foregone the
tropics and honeymooned in the world’s highest mountains.
The morning air inside our big room with a view was so crisp that I
donned my trekking clothes over top of my pajamas. We set off to the west,
passing high fields of barley and buckwheat, and saw our first herd of yaks – the
long-furred, cow-like beast that doesn’t simply moo, but rather emits a shrieking
yell that echoes through the icy mountains. We wound through patches of
juniper and quaint stone villages where women squatted, slapping yak turds into
cakes and sticking them to the rock walls to dry. Hand-painted signs advertised
yak yogurt, yak milk, and apple pie. We passed dirt ridges that had eroded into
combs, their dry fingers splaying out at their bases to meld with the cracked
ground on which we walked. By evening the trail emerged from its canyon, and
continued on into a narrow valley. Within this valley sat the small village of
Bragha, elevation 11,500 feet, and beyond it a theater of mountains made a
megalithic backdrop. Bragha was one of two villages where it was recommended
that trekkers acclimatize for a day before continuing up to Thorong La pass, and
I was relieved to finally have a rest day.
In the middle of the night I was awoken by the sound of rain, and it
wouldn’t stop for two straight days. The next morning we cheerfully hunkered
down in our guesthouse’s cozy dining hall, bundled up in all of our warmest
gear, pleased with ourselves for planning our rest day to coincide with bad
weather. Outside, a string of trekkers trudged on, shivering from the cold and
soaked to the bone.
By late afternoon, every guesthouse in the vicinity was turning trekkers
away. The change in weather had put a halt to people crossing the pass,
disrupting the fine balance between trekkers arriving and departing from the
lodges. Porters were being pushed out of rooms and moved into tents, or else
forced to sleep in the dining rooms after all the trekkers had gone to bed. And
then we heard the weather report. Three feet of snow had already fallen on the
high pass, and the storm was likely to continue for three more days.