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The Annapurna Circuit

The Annapurna Circuit

I knew nothing about Annapurna. I just knew I needed to go.

It was 10pm by the time I landed in Kathmandu and clumsily made my way through the airport, finally arriving at the hotel about 3 hours later.  

My habit of getting lost is magical in the wilderness, but obnoxious in the city.  I stayed awake for a while that night, listening to the gentle hum of Thamel, chatting to friends and family online, wondering what the next two weeks would bring. It was about 5am by the time I managed to get my euphoria under control for long enough to fall asleep.

Annapurna
Bandipur Monastery

It made little difference which direction you were going, or what side of the road you were on, everyone just seemed to find a way through.

I wandered the streets for most of the next morning, before meeting the group and our guide.  We discussed the trip and went through the gear list before leaving the hotel to pick up any final items.

We finished the night getting better acquainted over dinner, swapping stories and sharing a few jokes and it gave me an opportunity to start appreciating just how remarkable they were.

The road to Annapurna

Loading our gear into the bus the next morning, we set off along the Prithvi highway to Bandipur. The traffic in Nepal was a kind of beautiful chaos. The roads didn’t really have designated directions; road rules were far more reminiscent of a hiking trail.

It made little difference which direction you were going, or what side of the road you were on, everyone just seemed to find a way through.

Annapurna
Bandipur

After settling into our hotel in Bandipur, we hiked up to the top of a nearby monastery and it was from there that I finally saw the faint outline of the Manaslu range. From over 80 kilometres away, the ridgeline, covered in a thick layer of snow and ice seemed to hover far above the clouds.

My companions had a depth and richness that was immediately apparent, and a highlight of my experience.

Contrasting against the purple and pink hues colouring the sky, I could barely make out the faint outline of the ice covered peaks through the haze. I was speechless. I sat and stared in awe for quite some time; being in the presence of the Himalayas, the crucible that forged legends like Messner, Kukuczka, Lafaille, Loretan and Viesturs.

Annapurna
Bandipur

This had a profound effect on me. Like meeting an old friend after some time apart, or the feeling of arriving back home after a long journey, it felt familiar, comforting, and beautiful. I knew I wouldn’t leave Nepal the same.

After dinner, we sat around the fire, talking late into the night. Getting to know each of my group members and the paths that had led them to Annapurna was humbling.  It left me with a reverence and respect for them that I hadn’t anticipated. My companions had a depth and richness that was immediately apparent, and a highlight of my experience.

The journey begins

By lunchtime the next day, we had met our porters and our assistant guide in Besisahar.

Clipping up my pack felt good. I was ready. I was strong. This is what I was here for.  The trail immediately offered stunning scenery.  I would frequently stop to soak in the view, utterly awestruck and totally mesmerised.

Annapurna
Chamje

I spent my days at the back of the group, slowly yet steadily walking up through the gorge carved out by the Marsyangdi River. My group members were brilliantly fit, moving quickly up through even the steepest terrain.

Views of the endless, serrated horizon continued to leave me both speechless and breathless every time I turned a corner.

Self-reliance was important part of my experience and carrying my own gear was an essential component of that. Being able to get to the end without assistance was part of what success meant to me.

Our porters were exceptionally strong and inconceivably quick. Walking the trail in runners, they carried significant weight effortlessly over steep and rocky terrain. I had resolved to do the same. While it certainly wasn’t effortless for me, I did feel a deep sense of accomplishment.

Annapurna
Photo Credit: Eli Cameron

Hiking the Annapurna circuit was a transcendental experience. The hills had a magical quality that was almost palpable. The surreal and ethereal peaks were so tall, they dwarfed the clouds and dominated the sky.

Travelling for an average of 6 hours a day, the track undulated up through the valley and over prodigious cliffs, punctuated by precipitous staircases that seemed to go on forever. Views of the endless, serrated horizon continued to leave me both speechless and breathless every time I turned a corner.

Annapurna
Dharapani

Into thin air

By the time we reached Manang, we were 3500 meters above sea-level and the air was becoming thin.  Only after arriving at each tea house would the exhaustion and breathlessness of the day’s efforts subside, giving me a chance to recover as my body slowly acclimatised.

Annapurna
Manaslu Range

We stayed 2 nights in Manang, spending a day hiking the surrounding hills to acclimatise and explore.  It was a sleepy, quiet village laying in the shadows of Annapurna III and Gangapurna. Sitting in the dining hall of the Manang tea house at night, soaking in the warmth of the fire, I felt a sense of tranquillity that had eluded me for far too long.

The terrain was becoming increasingly steep and rocky with each passing day. Lush green vegetation and cascading waterfalls made way for forests of fir and oak that stretched for hundreds of kilometres, icy rivers that carved their way through the valley and an increasingly thick blanket of snow. As we continued to climb, the temperature continued to fall.

Annapurna
Annapurna III
Annapurna
Annapurna II

The relentless, piercing cold

I was always under the impression, from my experience in the Alpine National Park that I understood what it meant to be cold. I assumed that I would be able to endure the conditions at high altitude in the same way that I was able to endure Kosciusko or Bogong.

It felt like an eternity before sunrise. Slowly marching up the icy incline was an unfamiliar kind of exhausting.

Past Manang however, the cold was relentless. Easily reaching -20 degrees overnight, the penetrating cold felt inescapable, as though it was seeping into my bones.

It was slightly less difficult to endure while moving, but staying warm was demanding increasingly more energy as my companions and I progressed up towards our final destination, Thorong La.

Annapurna
Manang District
Annapurna
Manang District

The death march

We had been talking about Thorong La for days.  We knew it would ask a lot of us, but exactly how much would be up to fate. In -20 degrees, at an altitude of 4450 meters, I forced down a few mouthfuls of a granola bar and a cup of hot tea in the Thorong Phedi tea house before setting out with my group at 3am.

I had a small head lamp to light the way, and ice spikes attached to my boots which would allow me to walk on the rock hard carapace of slippery ice that had formed on the trail overnight. It felt like an eternity before sunrise. Slowly marching up the icy incline was an unfamiliar kind of exhausting.

Annapurna
Annapurna II

Our final push

By the time the sun made its way above the horizon, I was over 5200 meters above sea level but still 2 hours from the top. The warmth of the sun, as it peaked over the ridgeline before disappearing into an overcast sea of grey, seemed to feed my very cells.

My skin drank the nourishing rays as they hit my face, rejuvenating me in a way that simply stopping to catch my breath was no longer capable of. Almost as if on cue, we were buffeted by strong winds, and snow which threatened to cover the trail.

I immediately felt the ground shudder beneath me, resonating up my legs and through my spine as thousands of tonnes of snow, rock and ice began hurtling down the neighbouring peak.

The howling winds picked up speed as they were funnelled through the high walls on either side of the pass, freezing the bandana covering my face and burning my lungs as I desperately gulped down air to satiate my body’s hunger for oxygen.

We found shelter in a small, crude hut and waited out the worst of the wind, pacing back and forth to maintain body-heat and minimise the dangers of exposure. The strength of the team at this point astounded me.

Annapurna
Thorong La

Everyone’s experience is going to be different, but experiencing this day with the group I was so grateful to have met was such a privilege. Desperately cold and utterly exhausted, the team summoned the strength and courage to press on into unsettlingly strong, and piercingly cold winds, persisting through conditions that even seemed to affect our guide.

While in the hut, a corniced sheet of ice broke apart under its own weight on a nearby peak.  Even though we were some distance away, the sound of the ice snapping was monumental.  A loud percussive boom reverberated through my senses.

I immediately felt the ground shudder beneath me, resonating up my legs and through my spine as thousands of tonnes of snow, rock and ice began hurtling down the neighbouring peak.

Remembering the disaster of 2014, where at least 43 people died trying to complete the trek after being caught in abhorrent conditions, I knew the danger was now very real, and the choices I made would have a very immediate impact on not only my own safety, but the safety of my group.

We accepted that the only way out of this mess was forward, and once a suitable gap presented itself, we pressed on. The wind chill was close to -40 degrees, blowing with so much force that I was regularly knocked off my feet.

When I reached the pass’s peak, it was adorned with prayer flags, a traditional stupa and stone cairns built by travellers.

Reaching the top

I felt overwhelmed. I sank to my knees and wept. I felt vaguely embarrassed but too relieved to care. I thought about how the last 2 years of my life had shaped me and how far I had come.  From my first desperate crawl up the 1000 steps in the Dandenong mountains to standing 5416 meters above sea-level.

I was exhausted, frozen and in pain, but for the first time in my life, truly content.

I thought about my experience in Nepal, my brother and where my passion for the mountains would take me.  I wondered where my limits were, and what it would take to push past them.

I embraced our guide, a remarkably accomplished trekker in his own right, with whom I had became quite close.  We celebrated, took photographs and appreciated the view, before continuing forward over the crest.

Annapurna
Credit to Chelsea Stokes and Jared Silbermann, Thorong La

The hike back down to Muktinath was agony, every step in the deep, powdery snow that hadn’t yet been lashed by frozen winds and consolidated into a sheet of solid ice seemed to take more than I had left.

Pouring everything I had into getting down, arriving in Muktinath was a haze of exhaustion and elation. I was exhausted, frozen and in pain, but for the first time in my life, truly content.

I remember eating dinner while watching the sun set over Dhaulagiri. I was mesmerised. I was hooked.  We had done it.

Annapurna
Thorong Phedi

Epilogue

I can’t describe it, and will never be able to do it justice. I can only urge, or rather, plead with you to go and see for yourself. It was deeply personal and incredibly rewarding. It wasn’t as much about the destination but the culmination of an incredible journey with a truly special group of people who treated me as not only an equal, but a friend.

I experienced every step with their support, captivated by the bonds they shared with their loved ones, either travelling the journey with them, or waiting for them to return home. I am forever grateful to have taken part in such an incredible experience, and cannot wait to return.

Author: Steve Kissonergis

I am an IT professional during the week, but every weekend is another adventure. Whether it’s wandering around a local state park, climbing a peak in the middle of nowhere, or just taking the opportunity to explore – every experience is cherished and deeply appreciated.

Outside of hiking, I am addicted to barbecuing, woodworking and a decent book but ideally, my passions are most powerful and rewarding when enjoyed together, and with friends!

Stay safe and keep hiking,

Steve Kissonergis (aka The Lonely Hiker)

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