Panorama with the Annapurna Himalayan Range viewed from Upper Pisang, Nepal

Annapurna Circuit: Unfinished Business

Mar 23, 2015 - Julie

We came to Nepal primarily to trek the Himalayas and set our sights on the Annapurna Circuit for its unparalleled scenery of not only the peaks, but the entire Annapurna region. After a few days preparing for the trek in Kathmandu, we set off with our bags, ready to tackle our 16-day itinerary by ourselves, without a guide and without a porter. Little did we know that we would come up short – not stopped by our own limits but by something entirely out of our control: the weather.

A Snowy March in Nepal

With the biggest snowstorm in 60 years in the month of March (usually one of the best months for trekking), parts of the Annapurna Circuit was closed, including the highest point at Thorong La Pass (5416m). We had prepared for everything – getting the right gear, how to deal with altitude sickness, what to do in an emergency… yet amidst all the potential problems that we might have faced on the trek, it never, ever occurred to us that the Thorong La Pass could be closed. Never. Everyone in Kathmandu said it was a great time, we got TIMS and ACAP permits from the National Tourism Board with no warning, so we were caught by total surprise.

Julie and the cleared avalanche, Nepal
Julie and the snow wall, Nepal

When we found out, it was heartbreaking, completely crushing disappointment. There was much speculation about Thorong La Pass potentially opening and better weather to come, but no one knew for sure and rumours went wild. There was talk of many avalanches, snow up to 2m (6 feet), temperatures cold enough to drive locals down the mountain, and a few deaths on the way down from Thorong La Pass just a week or two ago. No one could say for certain any of this was true, but there was no reliable information. We heard that Thorong La Pass could open tomorrow, or be closed for another month.

A Thwarted Attempt at the Annapurna Circuit

After the tragic accidents of last year at Thorong La Pass (39 dead, 60 still missing), it was natural for everyone, including the Nepalese government, to be more cautious than usual. Many people turned back and made their way down. We pressed on further, hopeful the sunny weather would melt the snow quickly, all the while doubtful how much further we would be able to go. After Upper Pisang, we made the painful decision to come down and end our Annapurna Circuit trek. With impending bad weather in the forecast, we chose to play it safe and make the responsible decision.

We will always have mixed feelings about this experience. Sadness that we were not able to complete the trek. Pride that we tried at all and made it as far as we did. Satisfaction that we made the best of a terrible situation. Nepal has proved itself to be elusive, which makes us even more determined to come back and complete the circuit another time. The mountains will always be here; we just need better luck with the weather. Here are brief summaries of our week-long attempt at trekking the Annapurna Circuit (aka some of the most eventful days in our entire lives):

Day 0: Kathmandu to Besisahar

Julie in front of the local bus, Kathmandu, Nepal
Julie in front of the local bus, Kathmandu, Nepal

We considered this Day 0 as it was not technically part of the Annapurna Circuit, but yet a necessary step to start the trek. The journey began with a bus ride from hell from Kathmandu to Besisahar, the entry point into the Annapurna Conservation Area. We’re convinced we were shifted from the tourist bus to the local bus for more money in someone’s pocket (the foreigners won’t know anyway). The local bus was crowded with people practically sitting on us and constantly stopping. Eight hours later, we stopped in Besisahar for the night, caught our first glimpses of the mountains and prepared to take the jeep the next day.

Read more about Trekking Annapurna Day 0: Hell Bus… 

Day 1: Besisahar to Temang

Death jeep from Besisahar to Chame, Nepal
Death jeep from Besisahar to Chame, Nepal

The jeep up the mountain on Day 1 was even worse than the bus ride on Day 0. The road was not really a road, but rather an incredibly rocky and curvy path mostly on the edge of the mountains. We legitimately feared for our lives during parts of the ride, especially when the jeep lost traction at times and slid backwards. Packed like sardines (ten people in eight seats) and scammed on the price, the jeep got stuck after Danakyu, and we walked the last hour to Temang, quite a bit short of our final destination in Chame. On the up side, it was our first night in a teahouse, and the mountain sanctuary at Temang had stunning views.

Read more about Trekking Annapurna Day 1: Death Jeep…

Day 2: Temang to Chame

View of Thanchok, Annapurna Circuit, Nepal
View of Thanchok, Annapurna Circuit, Nepal

Day 2 marked our first full day of walking, though it was a light day as we were supposed have reached Chame the day before by jeep. Everything we had wondered beforehand about what it would be like – we were finally living it for real. We enjoyed the scenery along the way, settled into the rhythm, and looked forward to the days to come. A bit before Chame, at the ACAP checkpoint at Koto, we found out for the first time that Thorong La Pass (and even Manang) was closed from the police. Our dreams were literally crushed. We arrived to Chame that afternoon when the uncertainty of the rest of the trek began for the days to come.

Read more about Trekking Annapurna Day 2: Dreams Crushed…

Day 3: Chame to Dhikur Pokhari

Carlos trekking on the snow with the Heaven's Door in the background, Nepal
Carlos trekking on the snow with an avalanche site ahead, Nepal

While it was another day of trekking, Day 3 was far, far from normal. Many people turned back from Chame, but amidst all the rumours, we wanted to see how far we could go. On the way, we saw two avalanches on the other side of the valley and heard multiple landslides. The trail became snowy with a narrow path to walk which made our shoes wet. We turned back when we came upon an avalanche that completely covered the trail and we lost the path… luckily a few locals guided us across or the whole thing would have ended right there. We stopped in Dhikur Pokhari for the night, where we had the best view of Heaven’s Door. Day 3 also gave us first glances of the magnificent Annapurna II.

Read more about Trekking Annapurna Day 3: Crossing Avalanches…

Day 4: Dhikur Pokhari to Upper Pisang

View of Annapurna II (7,937m) from Upper Pisang, Nepal
View of Annapurna II (7,937m) from Upper Pisang, Nepal

Trekking-wise, we were used to the snow by Day 4 and better prepared. However, we missed the turn for the upper route and took the lower route instead, which was much more snowy. There was yet another avalanche site on the trail, this one much wider. We knew we wanted to at least go to Upper Pisang for the panoramic view, and it did not disappoint. Annapurna II, Pisang Peak, the valley onwards, all in their full glory. Unfortunately it was also time to decide for good if we would go on or head back and not prolong the uncertainty any longer. After some long discussions, we chose to head down. The highest point we reached was here, 3470m at our teahouse in Upper Pisang.

Read more about Trekking Annapurna Day 4: Best Views…

Day 5: Upper Pisang back down to Chame

Julie heading back to Dhikur Pokhari, Nepal
Julie heading back to Dhikur Pokhari, Nepal

Day 5 began in an awful way, as we not only felt like quitters for heading down, but got lost for an hour trying to find the upper route down from Upper Pisang. We were questioning our decision all morning and it was hard to say goodbye to the views. It made us feel good to share what we knew with other trekkers on their way up, as many had done for us before. Trail conditions were definitely better than when we had trekked up earlier – the avalanche site that almost stopped us on Day 3 was now cleared on the trail. However, the clouds were coming in quickly and what had started as a sunny day turned cloudy and windy in just a few hours. By the time we arrived in Chame, it was raining, which probably meant it was snowing higher up in the mountains. The bad weather to come made us feel more secure with our decision to come down.

Read more about Trekking Annapurna Day 5: Heading Down…

Day 6: Chame back down to Besisahar

Local sitting on top of jeep down to Besisahar, Nepal
Local sitting on top of jeep down to Besisahar, Nepal

We didn’t know Day 6 would be the last day until we arrived in Besisahar at night. We considered getting a jeep, but could not negotiate a fair price, so we started walking down from Chame. The weather was cloudy the entire day with not a hint of sun. When we stopped in Temang for lunch, the beautiful sanctuary views from Day 2 were completely obscured by clouds. Rain was always on the verge of falling. At Temang, we were offered an acceptable jeep price and took it despite swearing to never get into another death jeep ever again after Day 1. However, with the bad weather, the jeep would save us two to three full days of trekking. Reaching Besisahar at the end of the back-breaking jeep ride marked the end of our attempt at the Annapurna Circuit.

Read more about Trekking Annapurna Day 6: Final Descent…

The Silver Linings

The overall goal was to trek the complete Annapurna Circuit, which we obviously were not able to reach. However, despite the disappointment and overall negative outcome, there were definitely some positives. Some silver linings in the snow clouds:

  • There’s no doubt that our Annapurna Circuit experience was very unique. How many people can say they’ve trekked over avalanche sites and in the snowy forest? I’m sure the snow also gave the entire route a different look.
  • We didn’t trek for very many days, but the days when we were trekking were absolutely beautiful days. Sunny, with not a cloud in the sky, we walked with the surroundings in their best light. Plus trekking in rain would have been the worst.
  • During the week, we met a ton of fellow trekkers from all over the world, as we bonded over the great stroke of luck we had to come trek at this particular time. We shared everything we knew about Thorong La and the whole situation, but we also shared parts of ourselves and made new friends.
  • The views were spectacular. Magnificent. We never made it to many of the best view sites on the Annapurna Circuit but even what little we did see was gorgeous. Unparalleled. You haven’t seen mountain scenery until you’ve seen the Himalayas.
View from Upper Pisang, Annapurna Circuit, Nepal
View from Upper Pisang, Annapurna Circuit, Nepal
  • We proved to ourselves that we could do it. That we were more than capable of managing everything ourselves – no guide, no porter, walking 6-hour days with everything we needed on our backs, negotiating our own housing and food, etc. etc. We always knew we could, but it’s satisfying to prove that we could in reality.
  • When we come back again for this unfinished business, we will know what to expect. The preparations for next time will be minimal compared to this time. Plus hopefully the whole experience next time won’t nearly be as negative as this one was.

We gave it our best shot, but trekking the Annapurna Circuit will have to be conquered another day. It was bittersweet, but with time, we will hopefully focus on all the positives from this experience. The one thing that we’re most angry about was not having known anything in Kathmandu before we left. It’s concerning that the official ACAP and tourism offices in Nepal were not able to provide reliable information (in Kathmandu or up in the mountains). Trekkers need updated and reliable information in order to make the best decisions for themselves. Hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world come to Nepal each year just for trekking, and tourism is a large part of the economy. I’m sure Nepal has countless other more urgent matters to deal with first, but a dependable monitoring and communication system could save many lives. Nepal and the Himalayas – we will be back!

To see more pictures of the spectacular scenery of the Himalayas, please visit the following galleries: 1) Getting to the Annapurna Trail, 2) Annapurna from Temang to Chame, and 3) Dhikur Pokhari and Upper Pisang.