The trek to Annapurna Sanctuary in the mountains above Pokhara is 103km long and takes 6 to 10 days. During the summer, it is one of the easiest and most scenic hikes in Nepal and you can sleep in and eat at tea houses every night.
We hiked it in the depths of winter so you don’t have to.
Nepal has two major cities — Kathmandu, the capital, and Pokhara. Kathmandu can be best described as a madhouse. Motorcycles carrying entire families of four dodge in and out of traffic on every street. In Thamel, the tourist area most popular with trekkers, vendors are constantly pushing products and services.
While walking around, I get about twenty-thousand whispers of “Hash?” in my ear per day. Must be the beard.
Venture outside of Thamel into the heart of the city and it’s even crazier. People walk through streets made of mud, while motorcycles ride on the “sidewalks” while workers lay pipe in between.
Pokhara by comparison, is much more relaxing. Most westerners hang out on a stretch of road lined with shops, restaurants, and hotels alongside Phewa Lake. If you look up from almost any point in the city though, you can see the Annapurna range towering overhead.
Given the Annapurna Sanctuary’s stunning beauty, its proximity to Pokhara (the trailhead is only an hour’s drive away), and the short-length of the trek, it’s no wonder why the trip to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) is one of Nepal’s most popular.
While I love nature, I’m not a fan of dealing with crowds in nature. And I figured that by embarking on this journey in the dead of winter, I wouldn’t see any. I was right.
Mountains. Big, beautiful ones. Mount Machhapuchchhre can be seen for most of the trek. Once hikers arrive at Machhapuchhre Base Camp (MBC), they will then turn and head up the valley to ABC while Annapurna South towers overhead.
This trek is also incredibly accessible compared to many others in Nepal. A one-hour taxi ride or a one and a half hour-long bus ride from Pokhara will get you to the trailhead at Nayapul. By comparison, to get into the Everest region, you’ve gotta A) fly into the deadliest airport in the world, in Lukla, B) take a nine-hour vomit-inducing bus ride from Kathmandu to Jiri, before hiking another 96.5km just to reach the “start” at Lukla trail, or C) take a 15 hour-long jeep ride from hell.
The ABC trek is also relatively quick, which is great if you’re short on time. It’s normally done in eight to ten days. I did it in six.
Alarm went off at 5:30am. Packed my things. Well, almost all my things. I forgot my rain shell at the Turkish restaurant next door, the night before. They wouldn’t be open till 9am. Guess I was getting a late start.
By 9:05am, I was on the road. An hour later, the cab driver dropped me off at a roadside restaurant in Nayapul, where my journey would begin. I had left my trekking poles along with the rest of my climbing gear at Trekker’s Home in Kathmandu, but the restaurant’s owner had a bunch of freshly-cut bamboo walking sticks for sale. Fifty rupees ($0.65) got me exactly what I wanted.
The day was relatively quiet and uneventful, but beautiful nonetheless. Temperatures were surprisingly warm for winter (in the sun, I was actually hot wearing a synthetic t-shirt top and softshell pants), but once I started gaining elevation, some clouds rolled in and it cooled down.
I stopped for the night at 4:30pm, just before the village of New Bridge, after hiking for about 19km. A big dinner of egg fried noodles, potatoes, and milk tea relinquished my hunger.
With no other trekkers to entertain my company, and the lodge owner busy in the kitchen, I was asleep by 6:30pm.
Up at seven. Ate a breakfast of muesli with hot milk — a trekker’s staple. Hit the trail by eight. The first section was relatively flat before dropping down to a river crossing.
What goes down, must go up, however. The climb to Jhinu was steep. The steepness continued to Chomrong, the last village I’d see in this region (there were only trekking lodges ahead).
Along the way I met a Chinese couple, Eric and Lei, and Taiwanese twins, Erina and Stam. The five of us hit it off pretty quickly, and we hiked together for a few more hours until reaching Sinuwa, our stop for the night. We traded stories and photos of our adventures until the lull of sleep called us to bed.
Up at seven. Muesli with milk. Hit the trail by eight. Clockwork. From Sinuwa, we continued to steadily climb. Up. Up. Up. Past Bamboo. Past Dovan. By the time we reached Himalaya, we hit a dense fog. Without going much further, that fog had changed to precipitation in the form of snow.
I was the first of our loosely-assembled group to reach Durali (which means “Pass” in Nepali,) at 10,200 feet. Visibility was low by the time I stopped, and a layer of fresh powder had begun to coat every surface that wasn’t already white. There was only one lodge open, which was full of people heading up. Though it seemed I had finally caught a crowd, everyone else was there for the same reasons as me — to escape the crowds while trekking to ABC.
The food was delicious, the conversation was lively, and the presence of so much body heat cut the chill from the cold. Energy buzzed through the air. A group of trekkers had just returned from an attempt on ABC. “Conditions were bad, you’ll never make it up,” they said. They had turned around. With Gore-Tex jackets, knee-high gaiters, and trail crampons — they were much better-equipped than me.
In an effort to travel light, I had only packed the essentials — two down jackets, a lightweight shell, a down hat, warm gloves, base layers, and the softshell pants and lightweight hiking shoes that I was wearing. “I’ll take my chances,” I thought. In the morning.
A blanket of fresh snow covered everything in sight — several inches had fallen throughout the night. “Now it’s time for an adventure,” I thought. My plan was to head up to the next checkpoint, MBC, before continuing on to ABC, and making it back down to MBC for the night. With a plan, the excitement of snow, and my bamboo walking stick, I was off.
Rays of light danced through the passing clouds. A gentle wind blew snowflakes all around, while tree branches cracked under their newfound weight. A chalky, turquoise-coloured brook babbled over rocks and under ice. It was paradise.
I was the first one of my group to reach MBC. A lodge at the top of the hill offered a place to sit, and hot milk tea to drink. I secured a room for the night, and dumped a couple of non-essentials for the next segment to ABC. My new friends made it up shortly after and did the same. Before long we were back on the trail with Annapurna South, and our goal of ABC in sight.
As we approached ABC, wispy clouds danced around Annapurna South’s summit, gracing her with a cotton crown. The snow was deep, while light tracks had already been established we were still postholing our legs through the deep snow. Gaiters would have been nice, but my pack was light. We marched on. Within a couple hours, we had made it.
There are a few dedicated lodges at ABC, and even in the dead of winter, they were still operational. Hot tea and snacks all around. We explored the area a bit longer and took pictures before heading down.
The further we went, the less we could see. Clouds had rolled in, snow began to fall. There wasn’t much room for diversion though, as the tracks were cut deep, so we just followed the valley down.
The night before, Bishnu, Eric and Lei’s guide, had told us all about some hot springs in Jhinu, the same village I had passed through a few days before. They were gonna try and make it there that day. I agreed. Hot springs sounded incredible.
I was a man on a mission, and I blazed the trail as such. By blazed, I mean slipped, slid and finally gave up and glissaded all the way back to Deurali. Going uphill in the snow without crampons is manageable. Downhill on the other hand, is a whole ‘nother story.
Dry ground didn’t reveal itself in Durali though. Or in Himalaya. Or Dovan. Or Bamboo. The snow had reached all the way down to 8,000 feet. That low though, it was warm. As such, snow in trees became rain, and dirt became mud. More sliding.
I finally rounded a corner and boom. There was the sun. And dry earth. I was in a completely different world than I had been an hour before. I continued past Sinuwa. Up a thousand steps to Chomrong. Down a thousand more back to Jhinu, before sunset nonetheless.
Fifty rupees (that went to support the local youth) and twenty minutes later, I was soaking in hot, glorious springs. Well-worth the knee-busting 13 mile-long hike.
Afterwards I had dinner and hung out with some of the coolest Nepali dudes you’ll ever meet. They were all from Lumbini, better-known-as the birthplace of Buddha. And they were trekking. For fun.
Until that point, I had not met any Nepalis who trekked for fun. We hit it off real quick. After dinner, they went down to the hotsprings and I went down to sleep.
I took my time getting up and on the trail. I’d be back in Pokhara that night, anyway. The hiking was all easy, and any time that I took that morning was made up for by the afternoon.
Then at 2:00pm I popped up on the side of a highway. A local bus was immediately passing by and stopped. “Pokhara?” “Yep, jump on.” Two-hundred fifty rupees and an hour and a half later, I was back at the lakeside in the city.
In April of this year, a series of earthquakes rocked Nepal. The damage was catastrophic. The people of Nepal need our help to rebuild. 100% of proceeds from the print sales in this Nepal gallery on my website will go to Mercy Corps, an organization who have strong experience providing relief and aid on the ground in Nepal.