The trek to Annapurna Base Camp can be as short as 6 days or as long as 10 days, depending on the route you take. We decided to split the difference and make our trek an 8 day journey. On our way to Base Camp, we took a side trail and visited Poon Hill, which was a difficult trek to say the least – on one stretch alone we climbed 3,280 stairs in roughly 1 mile (<2 km).
I like to think that I am no slouch when it comes to hiking in the mountains. While living in Portland, Kim and I spent many summer days in the Cascades and Coastal ranges scrambling up peaks for mountain vistas to accompany our apple and energy bar lunches. We have hiked the Appalachians in North Carolina and West Virginia, the Rockies in Colorado, the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, and the Andes in Peru. Hell, we’ve even tossed ourselves into the bottom of some of the deepest canyons on Earth (the Grand Canyon and Colca Canyon) just to climb back out the next day, all in the name of fun.
As great and enjoyable as all of these experiences were, none of them prepared me for what the Himalayas had in store for us. The eight-day trek to Annapurna Base Camp and back contained of some of, if not the most, difficult hiking I have ever experienced.
We climbed up mountains, through passes, slipped-n-slid our way down steep trails and stone steps only to cross a suspension bridge so that we could repeat the process to get over the next mountain in our pursuit of Base Camp. I have no idea how much total elevation we gained over the eight days, but the weariness in my legs (my legs felt tired for four days after we finished), and the new popping in my right knee tells me I have never done anything on this scale before.
We arrived at Annapurna Base Camp on day 6 of our trek. Shortly after our arrival, exhaustion and elevation started taking their toll on us. Conversations trailed off mid-sentence as eyes glossed over, staring at nothing in the distance. Utensils suddenly became too difficult to use as fine motor skills alarmingly diminished. We had turned into a stumbling, bumbling, rag-tag group as the oxygen depleted air at 4,130 meters (13,550 feet) elevation played tricks with our heads.
In the late afternoon, clouds rolled in and everyone headed for shelter. A group of 20 or so people sat around a giant table in the dining hall, sharing hiking stories, reading, or dozing on benches. As rain turned to hail and snow, everyone slowly made their way to their respective beds and called it a night.
After a short but extremely restful sleep (I found out that your body doesn’t need much sleep at high elevations – about 2/3 the amount you normally sleep), we awoke to a different world. Gone were the clouds from the day before and above us stood a crystal clear blue sky. The snow from the day before had temporarily covered the muddy footpaths, giving Base Camp a pristine, untouched feel.
I shook Kim awake as I hurriedly put on every piece of clothing I had with me. We groggily stumbled out the door and up a little hill and caught our first real view of Base Camp.
All the aches, pains, and sore muscle faded away as I took in the sight. Annapurna Base Camp is basically a bowl that is surrounded on all sides by mountains. I stood speechless for a few minutes and took in the twelve (TWELVE!) snow-capped peaks that surrounded us. It was, without a doubt, the most awesome sight I have ever seen. It was literally breathtaking, as I found myself forgetting to breathe a couple of times (note: this is not a good thing to do at high elevation.)
We watched the sun rise over the mountains to the east as the mountains to the west began glowing orange in the early morning light. We watched clouds form off the top of the mountains as the fresh fallen snow evaporated under the heat of the sun. As everyone stood and enjoyed the spectacular display of Mother Nature, it was surprisingly quiet for a group of about 100 people. I think everyone realized that it was one of those once in a lifetime moments that is best enjoyed peacefully, with your own thoughts as the best company.
After about an hour, we headed back down for breakfast and readied ourselves for the long hike back to Chhomrong. We didn’t realize at the time that the two hardest days were still in front of us, but it didn’t matter – we were inspired by the amazing sunrise we had just seen.
For the 10 hours that we hiked that day, I felt like I could walk forever. My pack seemed lighter and my feet felt a little springy-er. The beauty and majesty of the morning energized me so completely that I was the annoyingly cheerful guy who smiles at you after climbing steps for 30 minutes straight.
After arriving at our teahouse in Chhomrong, I collapsed on the patio, thoroughly exhausted from our 12 mile hike. Even with my legs barely able to move and my belly grumbling for food, I couldn’t have been happier. The mountains had called, I answered, and now they were rewarding me with the bliss of exhaustion and the soul-calming alpine air.
As I laid on the stones in front of the teahouse, still warm from the afternoon sun, I thought to myself ‘I could spend the rest of my days right here and be forever happy in the giants of the Himalayas.’ But after a few moments, something inside me said, ‘not here, not yet. There are still trails to trek and mountains to explore.’
So now I ready myself to do it all over again, to throw myself into the mountains and find new peaks. There are new trails, both in the mountains and within myself, that I need to explore before I find a place to rest. So as I fill my pack, lace up my hiking shoes, and prepare myself for the next adventure, I find myself excited to hit the trail again, not for the paths I know I will hike, but for the ones I have yet to discover.