Friday, 18 October 2013

Annapurna Sanctuary

In today's commercial trekking business, the hike into the Annapurna Sanctuary in Nepal is one of many products you can buy. All you have to do is Tap an App on your Smart Phone, swipe your credit card and you are on a flight to Pokhara in Nepal! Not surprising, considering you can also sign up to climb the Seven Summits (the highest points on all the seven continents) at the click of a mouse.

Machapuchare (22,958 ft) from Annapurna Base Camp

But 33 years ago it was quite a different matter. Pokhara was almost as far as Pluto for some people like my friend Franklyn, whose only trip out of Maharashtra had been to Goa! He, and some other friends with whom I had been hiking around in the Sahyadri for two years, were infected with the idea after I returned from  my visit to the Sanctuary in May - June of 1979 with tales of the sheer bliss of trekking in that part of the Himalaya. I had gone ostensibly to climb Tharpa Chuli (18,575 ft. Also known as Tent Peak), a "trekking" peak inside the Sanctuary, with Asit Gokli and his friends. As it turned out, we were incarcerated at the Annapurna Base Camp by snowfall and wisely abandoned the idea.

Annapurna Base Camp, May 1979.

Booking our considerable baggage into the Brake Van at the tail end of the Bombay - Lucknow Express at Victoria Terminus, we settled down for the long journey, playing Scrabble to pass the time. A day later we were milling around on the platform at Lucknow railway station, waiting for someone to break the red wax seal on the lock that secured the Brake Van. Nothing happened for a long time. The train had disgorged all its passengers and now wore a forlorn look, like a discarded mistress whose utility had expired. We paced back and forth, the sun began to set beyond the minarets that pierced the sky beyond the station buildings. We were nervous, as we had to transfer to the metre gauge train to Gorakhpur, many platforms away.

Finally, a railway official in a black jacket appeared. We waited expectantly for him to break the seal and open the Brake Van carriage. Nothing happened. "Aren't you going to open the luggage compartment?" we asked him. "Oh no," he replied nonchalantly, "the train is going to the yard now and the Brake Van will be opened tomorrow."

"What!" we exclaimed, "but we have a train to catch to Gorakhpur and that is leaving in another 30 minutes!" Unmoved, he shook his head and began to walk away. Raghu followed him, pleading. It was like praying to a stone idol, with the same results. Finally, exasperated, the railway minion turned to us and said in Urdu, "You don't understand.....everything here is done with love." He used the term "Mohabbat", the courtly term which was perhaps the norm in Lucknow, home of the nawabs. As we trailed behind this man, the message finally sank in - what he needed was a bribe to open the seal and release our baggage! The monetary value of this railway "love" was quickly agreed upon, ten rupees exchanged hands, and we employed the porters who had been witness to it all to load our baggage onto a trolley and the whole entourage rushed to board the Gorakhpur Express.

Fortunately, no more of the love potion was required at Gorakhpur to extricate our kit bags as we arrived at this town early in the morning. A bus journey brought us to the border town of Nautanwa where we crossed over into Nepal, our rucksacks and kit bags piled high on a couple of cycle rickshaws. Both the Indian and the Nepalese border officials provided us with some light entertainment as they questioned our intentions. We finally emerged into the October sunshine in Nepal and squeezed ourselves into a public bus that would groan over the the foothills for the next 8 hours and deliver us to Pokhara, where our trek into the Annapurna Sanctuary would begin.

Boats on Phewa Tal
Machapuchare (left) and Lamjung Himal from Pokhara

On a clear day, Annapurna (on the right) is visible from Pokhara

Pokhara is surely one of the most spectacular towns in the world: where else can you gaze at the summit of a peak of over 26,000 feet from the lush tropical world barely 3000 feet above sea level? I was thrilled to be back here in a little over a year. It was the perfect place to recover from the rigours of our overland journey from Bombay. In between preparing for our hike into the mountains, we enjoyed the boating on Phewa Tal, the lake with a host of excellent eateries lining one side of it.

Franklyn (left), Raghu (squatting), Margaret, Kerman and Dianne pose at the start of the trek with our porters and guide Man Prasad Gurung (hands in pocket).

Franklyn (right) and I cross a stream beyond Suikhet, before the climb up to Dhampus.
The first day's walk was level to Suikhet, where we promptly sat down to eat lunch. It consisted of a deliciously hot and spicy curry made with fresh and tiny fish the size of a thumbnail, accompanied by steaming rice and lentils. This would be our routine for the next couple of days: stopping at all the tea shops along the way, then enjoying a dal-bhat lunch (sometimes supplemented by potato and vegetable curries) which would slow down our subsequent march considerably, and arriving at our next halt many hours after the European trekkers who overtook us, fuelled solely by all kinds of Trail Mix ( in those days we had not even heard of the term!), and whose fear of catching some debilitating bug kept them away from the local cuisine.

Looking forward to a hot lunch!
A steep climb after Suikhet to the ridge where the village of Dhampus was located took us quite by surprise. I rested my rucksack on the stone platform to catch my breath. Very soon I was joined by a gentleman in his fifties who nonchalantly lowered a sack of Portland cement to the ground, pulled out a bidi from the folds of his clothing and lit up a smoke. The sack weighed 50 kilos but apparently it made no difference to this man. As we chatted, he told me about his life as a soldier in the Gurkha regiment of the British Army. He had served in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong, had retired and was now hauling the bag of cement to Ghandrung, his village, for some construction work that he had planned. As I staggered to my feet with my relatively puny load, he hefted his sack, bade me a cheerful farewell, and almost sprinted up the trail.

Machapuchare from Dhampus. The north summit at the back is the higher of the two.
Dhampus provided a great night halt, with its dramatic close-up view of Machapuchare, the elegant peak which dominates the Pokhara region. We were thus little prepared for the descent the next day to Landrung and then again the steep ascent to Ghandrung. But the Fishtail Lodge provided us with a wonderful night's rest. While we were admiring the rising sun's slow transformation of the snow fields high up on Machapuchare, the morning idyll was shattered by a scream emanating from the outhouse at the corner of the field. Madhu emerged from the makeshift stone structure, blood dripping from his inner thighs, his cigarette still dangling from his lips as he announced, "I think I've got my period!" Madhusudhan, a chartered accountant by profession, had a weird sense of humour. Of course it was the work of a couple of leeches who had attached themselves to his limbs while he was absorbed in matters more urgent...

Waterfall in the Modi Khola
Dianne (foreground) and Margaret emerge into the sunlight below Machapuchare Base Camp
Our next dose of excitement would come a couple of days later as we finally emerged from the confines of the Modi Khola gorge and into the ablation valley which borders the South Annapurna Glacier. It had been a tiring day and we were about to pitch our tents on the first bit of level ground that we found when a very tall man who was camped with two of his buddies about thirty yards away approached us. At first he appeared very civil, but the moment our porters began to unburden themselves of their loads and began to pitch our tents, something snapped.

"You can't camp here!" he yelled. "We were here first, this is our space, we need our privacy! We have been humping huge loads for the last couple of days, unlike you wimps who have porters with you. Go and camp somewhere else!" He had a strong American accent. He began to bounce around on his feet, flailing his arms and looking as if he would punch me in the face.

After I had recovered from the shock, I told him calmly,"Listen my friend, this  spot does not belong to you and we are not in your way. And do try and remember that our porters have first claim to this land if you want to argue on the subject. Both you and I are foreigners on their turf and it would be well for you to keep that in mind."

The porters, who were watching and listening to this exchange, were incensed at his behaviour and ready to tackle the obnoxious man.  It was getting dark and cold and it was certainly not the best time to ignite an international incident. We moved a few token feet away and camped while the angry man's friends calmed him down. It was indeed a very sad incident, the like of which I had never before nor since encountered. I wonder how he would react in today's crowded world of mass trekking on the popular trails?

Annapurna South (also known as Ganesh), 7218 m / 23,675 ft dominates the area designated as the Machapuchare Base Camp on most maps, the place we camped on the first night.
The splendour of the sunrise the next morning, briefly tinting the snows of Annapurna to a burnished gold helped to banish the memory of the evening before and very soon we were on our way up the  valley to finally camp at what has traditionally come to be known as the Annapurna Base Camp, at approximately 13,500 ft.

Annapurna Base Camp

Map from the Alpine Journal 1971. Peak heights in metres.
The Annapurna Sanctuary totally lives up to the hype. The 10,000 ft south face of Annapurna is a glittering curtain of ice, rock, snow, gullies and ridges. Having read Chris Bonnington's "Annapurna South Face", I was excited to see it up close. I had tucked a copy of the book into my rucksack so I could reread and relive the story of the first major Himalayan wall to be climbed, ten years earlier in 1970.

A link to a short clip of the 1970 film about the climb :

The 10,000 ft south face of Annapurna I (26,545 ft / 8091 m), 10th highest peak in the world. This photo was taken from the lower talus slopes of Hiunchuli.
We spent a total of ten days in the Sanctuary, exploring the slopes below Hiunchuli, walking about and crossing the glacier to the other side as well to the base of Tharpa Chuli. We made friends with a group of warm and friendly Polish climbers, a couple of English girls, and people from other parts of the world and soon the unsavoury experience of our first evening in the Sanctuary was a thing of the past.

Tharpa Chuli (Tent Peak), 5663 m / 18,575 ft.

Singu Chuli (Fluted Peak),  6501 m / 21,323 ft
Annapurna III ( 24,858 ft ), seen here from the Modi Khola

Autumn was slowly but surely moving in, turning the grass yellow and the forests of the Modi Khola gorge were beginning to wear patches of russet and brown as we walked out of the Sanctuary. We passed a group of seniors on their way up and were quite impressed when an old lady refused Margaret's help to negotiate a slippery, rocky section of the trail. "Oh I can do this on my own, thank you very much!" she said, as we slithered down past her and her group. Thirty three years ago we personally did not know many Indians past the age of 65 who would have chosen to trek to the Annapurna Sanctuary!

Hungarian lady with her guide
That same day we passed another woman on her way up with a solitary guide-cum-porter. We stopped to chat and she told us she was from Budapest and she was 62 years old. Her guide did not seem to be carrying much baggage. "I do not have a tent," she told us cheerfully. "I will sleep under a boulder in my sleeping bag". We wished her well, shook our heads in admiration, and continued on down.

The owner  (second from left) of the Hiunchuli Lodge at Chomrong poses with us as we leave his establishment.

The mountains from Chandrakot
After Ghandrung we changed our route slightly to descend via Chandrakot and Naudanda to Pokhara, enjoying the warmth of the paddy fields as they ripened in the late October sun. The villagers would be reaping the harvest soon while we would be dreaming of the bounty of Annapurna and her sisters as the winter snows would slowly but surely shut down the trails.

As a contrast to three decades ago, it is interesting to see the changes time has wrought on the Annapurna trek, illustrated by the links below:  BBC documentary hosted by Michael Palin  French team spends 2 months without climbing the South Face of Annapurna! Trek in 2011

Recommended Reading :

Climbing the Fish's Tail by Wilfrid Noyce - A fascinating account of the first attempt to climb Machapuchare                                                                   in 1957

Annapurna South Face by Chris Bonnington - A landmark in the history of mountaineering.

Both books available at


  1. Thank you Aloke for this fascinating conducted tour of The Annapurna Sanctuary....It's so realistic..I'm gasping for breath.
    M.Reza Beg
    (M for: Mountain climbing in my home)

  2. Well, Reza, I am sure that by now the semi-permanent or permanent establishments at the Base Camp perhaps even stock oxygen cylinders for the breathless tourist!

  3. Last summer I met a group of British trekkers who highly recommended the Annapurna Sanctuary. Now i know why...adding to my bucket list

  4. aloke my friend i really envy you-u are abundant trove of memories- i am certain i will not be able to visit annapurna physically but i have enjoyed its beauty thru ur narration. thanks

  5. That was a very memorable trip. My first glimpse of the mighty Himalayas.

  6. Great to read! Thanks a lot!

  7. very enjoyable read and fab pictures... thanks for sharing

  8. nice narration..we were on our bullet ride all the way from Siliguri to Pokhara last week where we camped at Sarangkot view point. The spectacular view of Annapurna range is simply beckoning and i have made it my goal to scale the ABC atleast in few years down the line. Your blog is very informative, especially for novice like me..thank you very much

  9. great write up of this trip I have heard so much about :)

  10. Thank you all for your comments! As an indication of the impact that this wonderful mountain cirque made on me so many decades ago, I would still love to go back there and hike into the glaciers leading to Fluted Peak and Machapuchare!

  11. Thanks for the beautiful piece. Kumar

  12. Enjoyable read. It's interesting to see how much Nepal has changed in the intervening years