Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Annapurna Circuit

So tomorrow I’ll finally begin the Annapurna circuit trek with my guide, Bhuwan. The AC trek is world-renowned and rightly so - it stretches over 300km around the Annapurna range, the highest of which - Annapurna I - reaches over 8091 metres. Put Croagh Patrick on top and you have a mountain almost the same height as Mount Everest. The trek takes anything from 16 - 21 days to complete, depending on your pace, fitness levels, which side-trips you choose to do and how you fare with the acclimatisation. And that’s the main problem with the Annapurna trek - it begins at an elevation of 800m and approximately 10 days later, you should be crossing over Thorung La at an altitude of 5,416m, which is about as high as you can get without specialist mountaineering equipment. Perhaps up there I’ll question the wisdom of splurging on sub-standard North Face gear but I’ve purchased enough of it to ensure that I’ll stay warm at least. Somehow I’ve also managed to get a credit note for my jacket, so confident was my seller of its quality.
It’s quite a climb and acclimatisation is essential in order to ensure that you return in one piece. Once you go above 4,000m there’s an increased risk of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) - the body is just not used to being at such a height hence the need to stay at a certain height in order to enable the body to adjust to being at this altitude. At that height it’s like a pair of invisible hands pushing you down. I’m in very safe hands though as Bhuwan is a veteran of this and many similar treks in the Annapurna region. Your susceptibility to AMS varies for each individual (in the same way folk can handle their beer I guess) but the good thing about it is that if you feel ill - headaches, nausea etc - there’s a simple cure, as long as you take immediate action upon noticing those symptoms, which is to descend to an altitude where your body feels more comfortable and the symptoms should disappear once more. It’s also recommended that you don’t gain more than 300m in one day once you’ve reached a certain altitude.
A guide is not essential on this trek but here are many reasons I’m bringing one; he’ll provide company and hopefully give a detailed insight to the villagers’ way of the life as we trek, it’ll be good to have someone there if sickness strikes and, best of all, you’re contributing to the local economy by giving someone a job for 2-3 weeks. Porters can also be employed to carry your gear if necessary but as my pack weighs about 7 - 8kg, I’ll bear my own burden.
This trek is the very reason I came to this part of the world in the first place. Were it not for the AC, I would probably have gone straight to West Africa or South America somewhere - but that can wait for now. This is the peak season for trekking here and the weather is ideal during October and November. It hasn’t rained once since I arrived in Nepal which is quite a contrast to the downpours which blighted the end of my time in southern Vietnam and all of Cambodia. Temperatures regularly climb above 20 degrees but nights in the mountains are cold, which won’t concern me as long as it’s dry.
The AC is a teahouse trek and so at the end of a gruelling day’s hiking you can at least look forward to a bed in a lodge, some hot food and the possibility of a hot shower. Lodge prices are pretty standardised but naturally the rates climb as you climb and so it is with the food. The fact that this is peak season however means that the slopes will be busy and lodges will be in great demand so it might mean an extra wait for the daal bhaat at the end of the trek. Daal bhaat is the classic AC meal - it’s a combination of rice with lentil soup poured over it and served with a potato or vegetable curry on the side. So I’ve signed up for 20 days of that! Food on this trek is a mish-mash of the following four staples - potatoes, rice, noodles and pasta. Trekkers do not choose this route for the culinary experience.
Bhuwan has written up an itinerary which involves a couple of side-treks in order to assist with acclimatisation and also as a means of adding further to the AC experience. Most alluring of all for me though is the fact that I get to shut myself off completely from the outside world for the next 3 weeks. Roy Hodgson gets sacked? Good, but I‘ll think about it when I‘m done trekking. Brian Cowen develops a smack habit? Couldn’t give a shit. Ireland is forced to undergo shock treatment at the hands of the IMF? As long as I have enough money for my daal bhaat, it doesn‘t concern me for 3 weeks at least. No phone, no computer, just me, Bhuwan, my backpack and the mountains all around me. Now what could be more beautiful? This is where the magic happens.

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