At the age of 69 I had considered that my days of Himalayan trekking were long since past so how did November 25 2018 find me bouncing around in a minibus heading north from the Nepalese lakeside town of Pokhara to the trailhead at Kande for a 12 day return trek into the magnificent Annapurna Sanctuary?
It had always been a longstanding joke with my family that every time I was on a Himalayan Trek I would moan that I was getting too old for trekking around the Himalaya and
’this will definitely be my last trek’.
And it finally appeared that time had indeed caught up with me as it had been nine years since I had been hit by stone-fall two days before crossing the Thorong La on my second trek around the famed Annapurna Circuit, and indeed ten years since I had hiked to one of the various faces of Everest for the fifth time (three times in Nepal and twice in Tibet) with my youngest daughter Lisa.
So what had occurred to find me bringing a motley crew of six (including myself) to the trailhead supported by a Nepalese team of five led by my good friend Dendi who had twice summited Everest?
You can read about Dendi ‘A Sherpa’s Story’ here
Well it turned out the person actually responsible was someone who was not present, my Italian friend Gio, who runs the Thai based Charity ‘Take Care Kids’. In a moment of weakness, when he was thinking about trying to organise a fund raising trek in Nepal to raise funds for the Children’s Shelter he operates in Pattaya Thailand, I volunteered to organise and help promote the tour as I used to own a Trekking Company.
You can read about Gio and his charity ‘The House that Gio built’ here
Irony of ironies, none of the Italian supporters of Gio’s Charity signed up and when Gio and his girlfriend themselves were late cancellations, the trek itself was under threat. I was less than impressed and have not spoken to Gio since but somehow six of us including five friends of mine had made it.
For Dendi and myself it was indeed to be a nostalgic trip because we had first met when undertaking the same trek 15 years earlier when I had hiked into the Annapurna Sanctuary with two of my kids, Lisa (then 16) and David (then 14). Dendi was working for Explore Himalaya and the owner, Suman Pandey, had asked if his 14 year old nephew, Anuj, could join us on what was going to be his first ever trek. Both Suman and I thought it would be a good experience for the three kids and now, 15 years later, Anuj, with university degrees from Delhi and Salzburg, was the CEO of Explore Himalaya and just a few months earlier had visited me in Switzerland for a couple of days hiking in the Swiss Alps with just Lisa and myself. Lisa now has a PhD in Biological Sciences, David is a Chartered Management Accountant and Dendi owns one of the more successful trekking and mountaineering agencies in Kathmandu. And in 2011, after 32 years, I had sold Casterbridge Tours.
So it seems good things had occurred to all the participants of our 2003 Trek and I wondered how the participants of this trek would fare!
Cast of Characters: (In alphabetical order!)
Ampai (Thailand) has been hiking with me since 2005 when we first hiked in both the Alps and Andes and this was our fourth trek in Nepal together as well as a 2006 14 day trek to the Kangshung Face of Everest in Tibet where she had climbed to 5500m.
On our first ever walk together in Germany in 2005, Ampai had stopped for a rest after 5 minutes as Thais and walking are rarely found in the same sentence! However, within a year and constantly ever since, she has always been a stronger walker than me and a very patient companion as well.
David W (UK) I first met David in the late 80s through a Travel Trade Association when he was the CEO of Ardmore Language Schools. We spent some time together at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and he had visited me in Thailand earlier in the year before we went to Borneo to climb Mt Kinabalu.
David was diagnosed with Parkinsons but you would never know it as his attitude is to do as much as he can whilst he can and that included cycling from San Francisco to Los Angeles earlier in the year with a bunch of school friends. David’s participation was in doubt when it seemed that the completion of the sale of his business would take place whilst he was trekking but when I reminded David that he was past the refund point he found a way to come. That, of course, is what friends are for ……………………
Dendi (Nepal) I would trust Dendi with my life and indeed he single handedly saved the life of a climber near the summit of Everest. You can find his story here
Finlay D (Australia) was an Australian Lawyer who took a year off to visit Europe and the UK in 1984. By means of an introduction from a mutual friend, he came to Casterbridge Hall to stay with my wife and I in Somerset five years after we had established and were still in the early stages of growing Casterbridge Tours and decided that travel was the career he relished and went back to Australia, turned his back on the legal profession and established what, for the next 25 years, would become one of Australia’s leading Sports and Corporate Hospitality businesses taking clients to sports events around the world.
Finlay talks even more than myself, runs on energy, optimism and enthusiasm and has a never-ending supply of stories of the ups and downs of sourcing front row tickets for major sports events around the world at a few hours notice! He is generous to a fault, far too trusting when letting others run his business during his absences and always quick to help others. Finlay was hoping he would be fit enough to walk in and out.
Michael (UK) All you need to know about the writer can be found here
Steve W (USA) will often introduce himself as ‘Hi I am Steve’ and within a few minutes he will be telling you he is a Manic Depressive. I have told him he wears his illness like a badge of honour and is he sure he is just not manically stupid and using his illness as an excuse for appalling behaviour online. (That’s what friends are for right?)
He is sadly one of those Americans who actually support Trump’s efforts to make America great again, sees conspiracy theories everywhere, believes most of the rubbish he finds on the internet and has declared war on the US government for not issuing his girlfriend with a visa to visit the USA. The truth is that Steve cannot be bothered to fill in the application form properly with supporting documentation! He goes to US Embassies with a video recorder, gets thrown out and posts the videos on You Tube! However, ………………………. the bottom, and most important line, is that Steve does try to be open minded, his heart is very much in the right place and he was good company throughout the trek, never complained about anything and only mentioned Trump once!
Tarn (Thai) Tarn has been Steve’s girlfriend for five years and, by contrast, is far from stupid. Steve supports Tarn and her family and they spend half the year in Thailand and half the year travelling and in my opinion she earns every cent as travelling to American Embassy after American Embassy and getting thrown out due to Steve’s behaviour is a thankless task.
It was great having Ampai and Tarn along and good for both of them as Thais love talking (Thai) and I have always found that females in a trekking group tend to remove the male angst and provide a softer edge to the journey, although none of the guys on our trip were what I would call ultra macho!
We were also joined by two Canadian Daves for the last three days of the trek, both of whom were friends and clients of Dendi, both of whom I had corresponded with and one of which my wife had met! Dave G is a pilot and photographer who has been bringing trekking groups from Canada to Nepal for years and Dave S has established a wonderful charity ‘The Altitude Project’ supporting remote villages in the Dolpo area of Nepal. You will find a link to the charity at the end of this article.
Cast of Characters: (In alphabetical order!)
Kathmandu Tuesday November 20 – Saturday November 24
After I arrived on an overnight flight from London via Delhi to be met at the airport by Dendi, I had a pleasant surprise when I went out for dinner that evening with Dendi and his business partner, Ngima, as we were joined by Prasan, who had been my guide around the Annapurna Circuit on my first ever Nepalese trek back in 1998! Prasan actually came to the UK and worked as a Building Labourer for me and lived with our family for several months and we had subsequently seen each other from time to time when I visited Nepal but not for ten years so it was good to catch up. Prasan was now a wheeler dealer in motor bikes and mobile phones.
The following day the Thai contingent of our group arrived and not only was I at the airport to greet them but the typical mayhem was so great and the security so lapse that I was able to walk right past ‘Security’ into the Arrival Area to both greet them and help them get their bags off the carousel. It was good to catch up with Steve and Tarn and it had only been two months earlier that Ampai and I had hiked through the snow to the spectacularly located Monchjochutte in the Swiss Bernese Alps at the end of a summer’s hiking in the French and Swiss Alps.
The next day my friend Anuj, from Explore Himalaya, graciously lent us a 4WD vehicle and driver which enabled us to visit one of Nepal’s seven schools for deaf children at Baharibse, about three hours east of Kathmandu.
See the link here for further information about the school.
My family had funded the rebuilding of the dormitories to be rebuilt after the 2015 Earthquake in conjunction with Doug Scott’s ‘Community Action Nepal’ Charity and I was keen to see the results and meet the principal, staff and children. It was a long day but well worth it and we also paid for an additional goat to join the school herd! And whilst we were at Baharibse, Finlay flew in from Australia to be waiting for us when we returned to Kathmandu.
On Friday, the five of us visited the famed Stupa at Boudhanath, the most revered Buddhist site and place of pilgrimage in Nepal and always worth at least half a day to immerse oneself in the colourful tapestry of pilgrims, shops, restaurants, music and surrounding temples.
And during the day, our final member, David, arrived from the UK and that evening we also met up with Dave G from Canada and Bob Turner who was a classmate of mine at University College London from 1967 to 1970.
Bob and I had not seen each other for 36 years until 2006 when unexpectedly we were both trekking in the beautiful but almost deserted Langtang Valley close to the Nepalese/Tibetan border and Bob wandered into the tea house where I was resting.
I was hiking with Ampai at the time so our Kathmandu meet up with Bob was also a reunion of sorts for her and Bob as well! Over the subsequent 12 years, although we live only an hour apart in the UK and we have stayed in touch, Bob and I have invariably found it as easy to meet up in Nepal as in the UK, which I rarely visit! I had not met Dave G before but we were both close friends of Dendi and Dave had been corresponding with me in regard to the delights of Thailand and was planning to join us on the latter days of our trek.
Our last day in Kathmandu revolved around the remaining mandatory sightseeing attractions, namely the historic Durbar Square area, still under repair and restoration after the 2015 Earthquake, the distinctive and always crowded Swayanbunath Monkey Temple and the historic area of Patan, which I passed up as I had visited the area several times previously and wanted to catch up on all my emails before leaving Kathmandu the following day.
I had some concerns regarding Steve, who had put on some weight since I last saw him earlier in the year in Thailand but of more concern was that he was walking with a distinct limp and painful hip. He and Tarn had spent much of their time in Kathmandu buying gear and renting down jackets and sleeping bags for our trek so one way or the other we were finally all set!
I was indeed interested to see how this was all going to work out!
Trek Day 1: Sunday Nov 25 Kande 1770m – Australian Camp 2070m (+300m ascent)
No sooner had we reached the Departure Lounge at the Airport than we met Bob again, also about to fly to Pokhara but on a different flight.
After a coffee we bade farewell agreeing to meet up after our respective hikes and climbed aboard our (very) small plane belonging to an airline that I had never heard of. Domestic airlines tend to come and go quite regularly in Nepal according to financial viability and air worthiness. There are many crashes as the combination of dangerous flying terrain and one of the world’s most impoverished nations means that accidents are not unusual and for many years the famed sign at Kathmandu Airport read ‘In Nepal we do not fly when it is cloudy because our clouds often have mountains in them’!
Indeed many people consider the flight to Lukla is far more dangerous and frightening than the subsequent trek to Everest Base Camp!
However, our flight to Pokhara was thankfully uneventful and we made a brief lakeside stop in Pokhara to top up with Tang to flavour our water, chocolate bars and a Nepalese sim card for Finlay after I explained it was much cheaper to use a local sim card than roam with his Australian carrier. Now Finlay was, how can I kindly put it, at best technologically challenged so the discovery that one could change sim cards in different countries to save roaming charges (roaming?) was a major breakthrough for Finlay but I think I finally was able to explain the function of a sim card in mobile telephony and even better how we could use WhatsApp to communicate between ourselves as a group as long as we had data or wifi coverage.
Thanks to an ever deeper incursion of roads (or should I say driveable tracks) into the Himalaya, we were able to drive as far as Kande and gain more altitude than I had with David and Lisa in 2003 when we started our trek at a lower altitude at Phedi. We took lunch in Kande as well as the obligatory starting group pictures while we were still complete and a unit!
There were 11 of us in our group because, as well as the six of us trekkers, we had Dendi as our Guide and Ngima (a different Ngima to Dendi’s business partner and part owner of Happy Feet Mountaineering) as Assistant Guide.
The normal protocol was one of our guides would always be at the front and the other at the back as a ‘sweeper’. We also had three porters Nima, Lakpa and Mingma who had come ahead of us on the overnight bus and each morning they would collect our bags and each would strap two of our kit bags together each day and carry between 30 and 40 kilos on their backs with a support strap across their foreheads. Along the trail there were often walls with waist high ‘steps’ along the trail where Porters could take a rest with the ‘step’ taking the weight of their loads without removing the loads from their backs.
It was always Ngima’s responsibility to take lunch and dinner orders and as well as being the all round ‘go to’ guy, Ngima had also summited Everest earlier in the year! So we had two Everest summiters as our guides!
The first day’s walking was easy, despite starting with lots of steps amidst terraces and passing isolated dwellings as we looked down into the valley from whence we began. After passing through a lightly wooded area it had only taken us 80 minutes to climb 300m and arrive at the collection of tea houses and camping spots designated as ‘Australian Camp’.
It was an easy start, not too bad at all and I found myself in an environment with which I was so familiar and without knowing it had probably missed! The smells along the trail were familiar as were the discarded noodle packets (!) and the mumbled exchange of ‘Namaste’ to porters and villagers who I would pass coming in the opposite direction. Even in the first few minutes I felt so comfortable with where I was and thought it could be easy to get back into the swing of an annual Himalayan hike again.
I did not remember any of the trail and that was because I had not come this way in 2003 as we would not meet the junction for the trail from Phedi until the following day.
The Australian Camp complex was an attractively located collection of tea houses with plenty of camping space as well. We were not camping but staying in tea houses (or basic lodges) where we would eat our breakfasts, lunches and dinners each day ordering whatever we wanted off the government set menus with identical menus and prices in every tea house! All our food and accommodations were included however much or little we ate and we only needed to pay for ‘extras’ comprising of our beverages, chocolate bars, wifi and hot showers when available.
Our tea house was set around a nice lawned area with expansive views of the Himalayan chain including Machhapuchchhre (6,993m) the distinctive Fish Tail peak that is the most holy mountain in Nepal and off limits for climbers. It would take us five days of walking until we would pass through the deep gorge to the west of the peak which provides entry to the Annapurna Sanctuary, our eventual destination.
Most of the other visitors at our lodge were just doing shorter 2–4 day treks in the area closer to Pokhara (‘Soft’ Trekking) and considered venturing into the Sanctuary to be more hard core. I, on the other hand, had always considered the Annapurna Sanctuary to be one of the easier and more gentle treks in the Himalaya although the entry to the Sanctuary is always prone to avalanche.
The day must have taken something out of me as unusually I slept for a couple of hours before our dinner at 19.30! It was Ngima’s responsibility every evening to take the breakfast orders for the following morning so the food would be ready when we appeared at the designated time and indeed to agree the breakfast time. From the very first evening we immediately got into a routine when Ngima set the time only for me to then push it back an additional 30 minutes (!) as I am NOT an early morning person by nature.
One day down and the next day we were heading for Landruk.
Trek Day 2: Monday Nov 26 Australian Camp 2070m – Pothana 1890m – Deurali 2142m (Coffee Stop) – Tolka 1700m (Lunch) – Landruk 1640m (+250m ascent and -680m descent)
There were quite a few colourful tea houses in the area designated as the Australian Camp and we walked past them as we set off under a magnificent blue sky passing a colourful scene with students posing and dancing in front of one tea house.
We soon reached the junction with the trail from Phedi and Dhampus which was our approach 15 years ago and, after passing more colourful tea houses at Pothana, climbed another 300m through the forest to Deurali, where we stopped for a coffee with a lot of other trekkers at the tables in a paved courtyard area in front of two lodges.
The remainder of the day would be descending downhill to a lower elevation at Landruk than where we had started the previous day, which is never encouraging when you know all the lost height had to be regained the following day!
Our route took us around a side valley, across a suspended bridge and eventually for a long lunch stop at a nice lodge (The Paradise Guest House) at Tolka. As I don’t normally eat lunch, I always get frustrated with the long lunch stops, which can often last 90 minutes plus whilst the various dishes are cooked but at least it gives the porters a good rest. David was tired so used the time productively by sleeping!
We continued on towards Landruk, where I had also stayed with Lisa and David in 2003, although, in truth, I did not remember any of the trail!
We passed many oncoming Nepalese walking from one village to another and ahead of us throughout the day the magnificent view was dominated by the snow covered peak of Annapurna South (7219m) with Gangapurna (7455m) beyond on the northern side of the Annapurna Sanctuary and Machhapuchchhre to the right (east).
The Annapurna area is the most popular trekking area in Nepal with two world famous treks (The Annapurna Circuit and Annapurna Sanctuary, which we were undertaking) and a host of easier and scenic routes closer to Pokhara including to Landruk, Ghandruk, Ghorepani and the magnificent viewpoint at Poon Hill. As a result, the tea houses and trekking lodges are amongst the most comfortable in Nepal and indeed, when we arrived at our lodge at Landruk at 1645m, we found it offered both hot showers and wi fi!
We had walked for just under eight hours but that had included three lengthy stops! That night we met the first Thai couple I had ever met (hiking in Nepal) and several other trekkers who were doing short treks close to Pokhara.
I checked our itinerary and my faithful 1990’s Guidebook to the Annapurna Region, written by Kev Reynolds, and I noted that we were scheduled to take two days to walk to the Himalaya Lodge, a journey for which I had allowed three days in 2003.
I suspected Finlay might struggle to make it in two days and so I mentioned to Dendi that we might need to adjust the itinerary and allow three days but I said we would see how the following day panned out as it included a steep 800m climb from New Bridge up to Chomrong.
Meanwhile, we enjoyed the spectacular views from our lodge. We would be following the Modi Khola River right into the Sanctuary and, across the Modi Khola Valley on our left, we could see the large Gurung village of Ghandruk, where we had spent our final night in 2003 on our return. We would not be visiting this year as our planned exit route was going to be via Ghorepani and Poon Hill.
Trek Day 3: Tuesday Nov 27 Landruk 1640m – New Bridge 1440m – Jhinu 1740m (Lunch) – Chomrong 2242m (+800m ascent and -200m descent)
Our morning routine was a wake up call with coffee, tea or hot chocolate around 06.30 and then we would pack our bags for the porters to bind together with rope, whilst we enjoyed whatever we had ordered for breakfast the previous evening. They would often put the loads on their backs and set off whilst we were still eating and we may or may not catch them up during the day as they took breaks.
We were finally on our way by 08.50 and there was a lot of activity in the village with women sifting grain and weaving straw mats. We could see a host of trails and a new road criss crossing the slopes across the Modi Khola Valley on our left and we soon came to a junction indicating left to cross the river and ascend to Ghandruk or straight ahead to Chomrong.
I found it quite chilly walking in the shadows through forested areas but had to stay alert to avoid the bushes on the trail that seemed to be moving towards me and which were invariably women carrying so many crops and foliage on their backs that you lost sight of the woman! It took me 85 minutes (70 minutes in 2003!) to descend to New Bridge where we stopped for coffee for 35 minutes at a lodge by the bridge before David and our assistant guide, Ngima, demonstrated their fitness by running across the swinging and swaying bridge held up by cables.
We left New Bridge at 10.45 for the 300m climb to our lunch spot at Jhinu and Ampai and I took the opportunity to purchase a couple of towels at a trail side tea shop but did not stop for another break with the others. We soon came to another new suspension bridge high across a tributary valley of the Modi Khola which was the longest bridge I had ever seen in Nepal. We had to wait for a long mule train to cross as there was not room for mules carrying side loads to pass a person on the bridge. The mule train was followed by an orange robed monk.
After crossing this long bridge, which was well over 200m in length, the trail was steeper and featured a long series of stone steps as we continued our ascent to Jhinu, where Ampai enjoyed a traditional Nepalese dish Dhal Bhat for lunch and I chatted to two female Italian trekkers!
15 years previously, Lisa, David and myself had sheltered at Jhinnu from a ferocious rain storm but on this occasion it was a glorious blue sky day but the remaining 500m to Chomrong were very steep and I looked in vain for the flatter areas mentioned in Kev Reynolds’ guidebook.
At 16.15 with my altimeter displaying 2242m and, as my t-shirt was soaked in sweat, I was uncomfortably cold when out of the sun. We arrived at our spacious lodge in Chomrong, the appropriately named ‘Excellent Viewpoint Lodge and Restaurant’
I decided it would be wiser to allow three days rather than two to get from Chomrong to Machhapuchchhre Base Camp because we could grab the day back by sacrificing a free day in either Pokhara or Kathmandu or indeed omit Poon Hill and exit via Ghandruk as I had done in 2003.
The views up the Modi Khola Valley toward Annapurna South and Machhapuchchhre were magnificent from our lodge terrace but, despite the number of people in the lodge dining room, our feet were cold beneath the table during the evening. The food was excellent but the wi fi so slow it was non existent.
However, I did get a message from our son David via Whats App saying he well remembered Chomrong and the interminable and never-ending steep steps required to reach the village!
Trek Day 4: Wednesday Nov 28 Chomrong 2242m – River crossing 1890m – Sinuwa 2340m – Kulde 2460m – Bamboo 2315m – Dobhan 2511m (+765m ascent and -395m descent)
Before we left, we took some pictures from the terrace of our lodge which proffered a magnificent view of Annapurna South, Hiunchuli (6441m) and Machhapuchchhre. Our route for the next three days would follow the Modi Khola Valley, clearly forging a gash in the panorama in front of us as it headed for the entrance to the Annapurna Sanctuary between Hiunchuli (in truth an eastwards extension of Annapurna South) and Machhapuchchhre.
There was only one problem. We clearly had a long descent to the bridge below that crosses a tributary of the Modi Khola River but then we had to regain the lost altitude after crossing the river! I often wonder if there is there anything more soul destroying than knowing what goes down has to go back up!
Chomrong is divided into an upper and lower section spread over 300 metres of altitude and as Dendi, Ampai and I descended the legendary steps down through the village, following the others who had started before us with Ngima, we had to continually stand aside as mule trains with big panniers on the sides of each mule climbed slowly up. There were often cultivated terraces to our side and we passed children in school uniform and people carrying so many shrubs they looked like walking bushes.
We finally reached the bridge and I remember thinking, ‘It is all uphill from here’, but that was not quite correct because I had divided the day into four sections – 1) down to the river 2) up to the village of Sinuwa 3) up, across and through the forest before descending to Bamboo and then 4) a final climb up to Dobhan.
I am very target orientated when I walk and need to know where I am heading to and what is involved but it was a long and steep climb to ascend the almost 500m from the river to Sinuwa, which I reached at 11.50. It had taken two hours and 50 minutes since leaving Chomrong at 09.00 and I was 20 minutes slower than 15 years ago. (Not that I keep records!)
I felt quite tired but just had a coffee and changed my wet t-shirt as I only have to look at a hill to sweat!
I set off on my own at 12.25 whilst the others remained at Sinuwa for some lunch. The trail through the forest gained another 100m but largely levelled out around 2450m before descending to the settlement of Bamboo with trekking lodges.
I well remembered Bamboo because it was on this section of the trail 15 years ago that I had ‘lost’ Lisa and David, who had gone on ahead as once they reached the age of ten they were always quicker hikers than me whenever we went mountain walking in Switzerland and Canada (we visited at least one every year).
Somehow they had taken a wrong turn and I had overtaken them whilst they remained in the forest through a torrential pre-monsoon rain storm which turned into hail and snow by the time they arrived cold and bedraggled at Bamboo!
On this occasion I arrived at Bamboo at 14.15 instantly recognising the courtyard between lodges that had been snow covered on my previous visit, which meant that, after taking into consideration the five minute rest en route, it had taken me 1 hour and 45 minutes to walk from from Sinuwa, where I had left the others. Kev Reynolds’ trusty guidebook advised 1 hour 30 minutes! David arrived five minutes after me and Ampai and Dendi after another 5 minutes so, considering they left Sinuwa 30–40 minutes after me, are obviously walking at a faster pace. But Hey Ho its not a race and I am usually taking a couple of hundred images every day!
There was just the final leg climbing 200m through the jungle (sorry dense forest) up to Dobhan. I arrived at 16.00 some 70 minutes after leaving Bamboo. We stayed at the Tip Top Lodge. I chatted to some German trekkers after dinner, read my Kindle in my sleeping band slept from 23.00 to 07.30. For someone who usually goes to bed around 03.00-05.00 and only sleeps four or five hours, I love the extended hours I spend in my sleeping bag when I am trekking. I am forced to spend more time sleeping. Other than reading there is nothing else to do!
Trek Day 5: Thursday Nov 29 Dobhan 2511m – Himalaya 2847m – Deurali 3183m (+670m ascent)
I set off at 09.40 and not in the best of moods as I (literally) had not warmed to our lodge but it was going to be a short day and probably the easiest to date? Finlay had several bouts of diarrhoea and was feeling quite tired.
Dendi walked with me most days as he liked to bring up the rear and, after so many years hiking together, wanted to ensure nothing happened to me. So, if I was last away, which was usually the case, he could kill two birds with one stone, at least until we caught up another member of our party when I would continue and he would wait for them and then accompany them, always bringing up the rear.
I had not realised that, despite climbing Everest twice and almost 25 years as a Porter and Guide, this was Dendi’s first trek for two years as he had been in a motor bike accident, so we felt quite privileged that he agreed to be our guide for ‘old times sake’. That probably explained why he had put on a few kilos since I had last seen him in Canada three years earlier and now had a stomach paunch that might one day rival mine. It goes without saying he was, of course, still as fit as a fiddle and a 12 day walk in and out of the Annapurna Sanctuary was no more than the equivalent of an afternoon stroll in the park for Dendi!
We tended to walk in silence with me listening to downloaded sports or political podcasts and every 30 minutes or so Dendi would proffer a mint or half a Snickers bar – he seemed to have an inexhaustible supply, as did I as I had bought about 25 Snickers and Mars bars in Pokhara for energy boosts or midnight snacks in my sleeping bag!
The walk was quite cool as we were deep in the narrow Modi Khola Valley and the high narrow valley walls precluded us from the sun reaching us and we were also walking through dense forest, or jungle as Dendi described it. We made slow and steady progress, although I felt quite tired and I remember thinking that our kids did well to do this trek at 16 and 14, but in truth, at that age, no one should be tired and it’s just a question of mental discipline to keep going.
Ampai was waiting along the trail and we could see the tea houses and lodges at Himalaya ahead. We overtook the others in the forest to arrive first at around 11.20, which meant it had taken about 90 minutes, allowing for a 10 minute break, and we were followed not long after by David, who felt a little tired. The picture Ampai took of David and myself made us look like a pair of gay lovers! Not long after, Steve and Tarn turned up and then Finlay, who was absolutely dead beat, and Ngima suggested we may need to call a helicopter as he thought Finlay was too tired to continue.
So we had our first challenge of the trek!
I had stressed the importance to everybody about the importance of ensuring their travel insurance included evacuation by helicopter, which is essential in Nepal, but I thought that was far too premature and, as we were still below 3000m, I was pretty sure Finlay’s lethargy was caused by a combination of a lack of fitness and his diarrhoea.
So I suggested that, as it was only about another 90 minutes to Deurali, we should just book a room for Finlay for a few hours so he could rest and sleep and maybe take some soup and if he felt better could continue after three hours and catch us up at Deurali. If he still felt too weak to walk, he should stay overnight at Bamboo and then, in the morning, could either continue and catch us up, descend and walk out on foot or, if really necessary, call a helicopter.
I am always a little wary when the initial advice is to call for a helicopter as they should only be reserved for emergencies and insurance cover will not be extended to allow a chopper for tiredness or lack of fitness where the procedure should be rest, recover and walk out.
However, the reality is Helicopter Rescue is a big and competitive business in the Himalaya and if a helicopter is called that will often be $1500-$3000, depending on the location. Guides will always call the company owned by their ‘friends’ and probably/usually get a commission, so a combination of genuine concern for their clients well being and the possibility of earning a commission means that a helicopter may be proposed before it is really necessary.
I let Dendi and Ngima find a room for Finlay to rest whilst I sat in the sun and chatted to two Canadians and then set off at 12.38, after 80 minutes, for Himalaya, with the sun on my back. I was hopeful that we would see Finlay after he had benefitted from a few hours rest but I was also aware we might not see him again until we got back to Kathmandu.
There was a steep set of steps leading out of and above Himalaya and I remembered that the next part of the trek (which was around two hours to Deurali and then the first part of the 3-4 hours on to Machhapuchchhre Base Camp the following day) was the most ‘dangerous’ part of the trek.
This was because the Mohdi Khola Valley was now at its most narrow between the out of sight peaks above us of Hiunchuli and Machhapuchchhre and thus very avalanche prone after heavy snowfall. Indeed, just 14 months later, after a very heavy snow storm, several South Korean trekkers died between the Hinku Cave and MBC.
It took us just over an hour to reach the overhang known as Hinku Cave and the cluster of blue roofed lodges at Deurali was in sight ahead beneath yet another blue sky.
We continued past waterfalls and over avalanched areas of rockfall and then, after making our way over a final stream by way of an improvised ‘bridge’ (several small tree trunks tied together) and a last waterfall, we arrived at Deurali at 14.27, which meant it had taken us about 1 hour 50 minutes from Himalaya, including a ten minute stop, which was not dissimilar to the 1 hour 30 minutes indicated on the signs and in my venerable Kev Reynolds’ guidebook. I thought this was perhaps the toughest leg so far but we had almost kept up with the posted times. However, to put this in context, I chatted to four Indian policemen who had started their day at Bamboo and planned to continue on to MBC!
Finlay arrived a couple of hours after us, looking like shit, to be greeted with a big hug from David and then Ampai. He was full of praise for our assistant guide, Ngima, who had stayed with him and carried his day pack. I gave him a course of Ciprofloxacin antibiotics for bacterial infections and he headed off straight to bed without wanting anything to eat.
Unfortunately, because there was a big Chinese group staying, we got perhaps the worst rooms I have ever experienced in a Nepalese tea house, which were really no more than lean-to shacks next to the cooking area.
We had been blessed with our 5th consecutive day of clear skies and great weather and, as I looked down the valley, I saw an accumulation of late afternoon cloud build up and roll up the valley towards us, not at all unusual in Nepal.
The dining room was crowded that night and signs on the wall advised 250 rupees charge for a heater (but there was no fuel!), 200 rupees to charge phone batteries and 300 rupees for Wi Fi which was slow, but Ampai was able to watch a Thai film on her phone for awhile. When I lay in my sleeping bag that night, I pondered the itinerary options from hereon depending on our rate of progress and how Finlay feels. The next two days were going to be necessarily short because safe acclimatisation meant it was not advisable to increase our sleeping altitude by more than 300m per day.
Trek Day 6: Friday Nov 30 Deurali 3183m – Machapuchchhre Base Camp 3722m (+540m ascent)
I was woken by the noise of a helicopter and wondered if Finlay had got worse and had called a chopper but in fact he was feeling better and was all set to crack on, although David was feeling a bit worried about the altitude and cold.
It was another blue sky day with good views of snow clad Gangapurna ahead on the northern rim of the Sanctuary. I, of course, was late and the last to get on my way at 10.15 but this was not a problem as it was only going to take two or three hours to ascend the 550m to Machapuchchhre Base Camp (MBC). The ascent began with some steep steps as the trail ascended behind Deurali.
I felt quite tired and was soon passed by a fit young German in his early 20s who was planning to go from Australian Camp to ABC in two days!
He had walked from Australian Camp to Bamboo in one day and had left Bamboo this morning and was planning to go all the way to ABC so he would do in two days what we were doing in six! – an altitude gain of 2000m in two days when the recommonded safe ascent is 300m per day once you get to 3000m. He had come to the Himalaya without even the basic knowledge of how altitude can seriously affect one’s health. I told him there was a 70% chance he might get away with it with no more side effect than a mild headache, a 20% chance he would feel quite uncomfortable and have difficulty sleeping and a 10% chance he would be sick and have to descend.
In a similar manner there are always some people who climb Everest without the necessary preparation, training and support team in place. When they sometimes get into difficulties when alone on the upper slopes of the mountain, it consequently raises the moral question and dilemma about whether those climbers in the vicinity, who have spent the money on support staff and proper preparation, should put their lives, and the lives of their staff, at risk let alone forego their own chances of success where they may have mortgaged their home to raise the $70k it could cost, to try an almost impossible rescue of those who were ill prepared and as a result are putting the lives of others at risk. It is a terrible moral dilemma for which there is no right answer because those incapacitated on the upper slopes of the great 8000m peaks are often incapable of walking and cannot be carried because of the altitude. I would like to think I would stop to give comfort but would I take staff away from our team which could put my clients at risk? I suspect not.
I ascended through the narrow V shaped valley through what was the most avalanche prone area and crossed two snowfields where there was a well trodden track through the steep snow slopes. When I subsequently checked the images that I had taken 15 years previously, I noticed there was far more snow around in April 2003 and that I had taken many landscape photos from identical viewpoints!
The trail levelled out for a while and some porters took the opportunity for a break as we traversed a flat area of scrub by the river bank and there had clearly been a long period since any precipitation as the dominant colour was a parched brown.
As we gently started to ascend again, I bagged a Himalayan first when I spotted a female Chinese trekker posing topless (with her back to the cameras) on a snowfield whilst two cameramen shot away! The last time I had seen anything similar was when Doctor Matt took a naked dip in Holy Lake Manasarova on the Tibetan Plateau near Mt Kailas in 2004. As the Lake was partly ice covered, the water temperature was more than challenging as Matt’s shrivelled member testified as he withdrew (from the water) but there was no lasting damage as Doctor Matt subsequently sired two offspring and is now practising in New Zealand. Unfortunately, the Chinese model was too far away to give me as much pleasure or humour as Matt’s performance but my zoomed iPhone images did in fact confirm it was a female model!
More steps took me up a steep section and the cloud that had followed us up the valley was now swirling around me. I had told Dendi to go on as I was quite happy walking on my own and was not going to get lost and as the cloud cleared I could see the first of the lodges ahead and then came to a sign showing the location of the five lodges in the area designated as MBC. After walking below the first lodge, the remaining four were all built one above the other on a gentle slope marking the entrance to the Annapurna Sanctuary. A long set of shallow steps, with spurs leading to individual lodges, provided access to all four of the lodges grouped together and, just as in 2003, we were staying at the Fishtail Lodge, which was highest with the best views from the terrace in front of the lodge. My notes show I arrived at 13.42 after a very slow and lazy three and a half hour stroll!
I think that it is only when one arrives at MBC that people realise they are in the high Himalaya, as one finally has close up views of the high peaks. It was the sacred mountain of Machapuchchhre, more often referred to by the locals as ’The Fishtail’, due to its distinctive appearance, to our left (or south east now that we were on the northwest side of the peak) and Annapurna South to the right (west) that dominated our vistas from the lodge.
Machapuchhhre looked very different from the lodge but the distinctive fin shaped summit ridge was still recognisable. The peak has never been climbed officially as the first attempt led by Jimmy Roberts (the father and founder of Nepalese trekking) in 1951 only climbed to within 150m of the summit acknowledging that to do so would offend both the Gods and Nepalese people (as well as breaking their agreement with the King!) and no permits have been issued since, although from time to time there have been rumours of non-permitted and illegal attempts. In today’s world, it would be virtually impossible to organise an expedition without detection.
MBC is located at the entrance to the Sanctuary and, to our right, we could see our route up the shallow valley to the heart and upper levels of the Sanctuary which we would follow the following day and from time to time trekkers and porters would pass below going directly to ABC. There was also a long Morainic Ridge to our right which extends from Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) to behind our lodge and beyond which Lisa, David and myself had explored 15 years ago. However, on this occasion, although I considered doing the same, the cold temperature, combined with the attractions of the lodge, meant we all remained in or around the Fishtail Lodge.
That night we chatted to some Aussies and had our first card game of the trek and I slept soundly in my sleeping bag as did Ampai replete in t-shirt, fleece, trousers, down jacket and all inside a down sleeping bag with a duvet on top! I think I may have suffocated if it was me!
Trek Day 7: Saturday Dec 1 Machapuchchhre Base Camp 3722m – Annapurna Base Camp (+410m ascent)
As it was only a short 90 minute to two hour walk up to ABC, we were in no hurry to leave. I watched the morning ritual of our porters collecting our bags from our rooms and tying them on the patio in front of our lodge, with the glorious backcloth of Annapurna South to the west behind them, and the fact that they were doing this after breakfast rather than before, as was normal, showed they were very relaxed about what was a very short walk.
We took some group pictures before departing at 10.24. Finlay had gone on with Ngima, now his personal ‘guide’ or minder, and I, of course, was last away with Dendi at 10.24 and as we gained height we could look back at a spectacular panorama with MBC below us with the backcloth of the Machapuchhhre massif slightly to the right dominating everything. When we looked back, the moraine of the South Annapurna Glacier was on our left stretching towards MBC.
When we continued forward, everything ahead was dominated by the graceful and imposing Annapurna South (7219m).
As we gained height, more of the eastern wall of the Sanctuary was revealed, although Annapurna itself was out of view. I caught up with Finlay, who was in good spirits as it was clear he was going to make it to ABC, and as our path swung to the right, I left my day pack with Dendi on the trail and scrambled up onto the ridge of the Annapurna South Moraine that I had visited lower down closer to MBC 15 years earlier. Indeed I had forgotten what a huge and imposing glacier it was, being formed by several glaciers flowing down from the mighty Annapurna (8,091m), which was now in sight from the additional height I had gained on the moraine ridge. It was another blue sky day with not a cloud in the sky and the views were magnificent and the glacier below me had carved out a perfect U shaped valley.
After 20 minutes or so admiring the vistas and taking images, I rejoined Dendi without breaking a leg as I scrambled over gullies and boulders back down to the trail and we continued our walk into the Sanctuary. Trekkers and porters carrying red bags and wearing orange jackets were easily identifiable and gave some scale to the surrounding panorama and the dry yellow/light brown scrub we were walking amidst provided a pleasing contrast to the snow covered slopes around us and the dark blue sky above. We passed isolated giant boulders left at their eternal resting place by glaciers in retreat during earlier ice ages and followed a partly frozen, but otherwise rushing, stream as our path had pretty much levelled off and was only gently ascending. A helicopter flew over us which had taken off from ABC.
The buildings of ABC were clearly identifiable ahead of us and we were now surrounded by soaring snow covered peaks, many of which were above 7000m.
I arrived at the ABC ‘Namaste’ sign at 12.30, some two hours and change after leaving ABC. Our motley crew gathered for multiple combinations of group pictures. That was, in fact, quicker than 15 years ago but rather academic as I suspect I had made many stops in 2003 just as I had today. One of my favourite images was of Ampai and Tarn with a Thai flag they had found on display and for sure the two Thai ladies had ensured it was a gentle non-male orientated macho trip. Despite his Parkinsons, David had performed well and displayed no signs of his illness and all power to him for continuing to live an active and normal life. Finlay had got above 4000m at the age of 69, despite his debilitating sickness, so was well pleased and special praise was surely due to Steve who, with admirable control, had hardly mentioned the word ‘Trump’ but, more importantly, despite walking around Kathmandu like an overweight cripple (he was my short priced favourite if anyone was not going to make it), had walked diligently every day without complaint and made it to ABC with no problems. Once Tarn was used to the cold, she was fine just prompting Steve to get going from time to time and, indeed, both our Thais did what most Thais do, just put their heads down, got on with what has to be done with no moaning or complaint.
It was only another five minutes to ascend up the steps to the four substantial stone lodges that make up ABC and, after lunch, we wandered up onto the moraine just beyond the lodges with a spectacular view of Annapurna, the 10th highest mountain in the world and the first of the fourteen peaks of 8,000m or higher to be climbed in 1950 by Maurice Herzog’s French Expedition. Ironically, they had set off with the intention to climb Dhaulagiri, the worlds 6th highest mountain (which we hoped to view later on our trek) to the west of Annapurna and, indeed, the other side of the Kali Gandaki Gorge which I had walked along in 1984 and 2009!
We viewed the memorial plaque to the legendary Kazakh climber Anatoli Boukreev, either one of the villains or (to most) one of the heroes of the 1996 Everest tragedy, who felt he was unfairly portrayed in Jon Krakauer’s best selling account of the tragedy ‘Into Thin Air’. Sadly Boukreev was avalanched and lost his life on the slopes of Annapurna in front of us on Christmas Day 1997, not 20 months after he had saved the lives of so many on Everest. The jet stream winds were blowing clouds of snow off the summit of Annapurna and meanwhile below us clouds had some up the valley to reach MBC.
The views of the glaciers descending off Annapurna, the majestic Annapurna South, the South Annapurna Glacier and to the east Machapuchhhre beyond both ABC and MBC, were just magnificent and testified why the trek to the Annapurna Sanctuary is rightly considered to be one of the world’s finest treks. In truth, I had forgotten how beautiful the scenery was inside the Sanctuary, so named because of the one entrance through the narrow gorge to MBC that we had passed through the previous day and then one is entirely surrounded by soaring peaks. It was a very colourful scene with lots of prayer flags and a small statue and another memorial to a deceased climber but soon the cold drove us back to our not quite so cold lodge where we could sit in the sun in the courtyard.
Once the sun went down, it was bitterly cold but I ventured out to take a series of pictures of Machapuchhhre, which was bathed in beautiful shades of orange and red. This was probably one of the most beautiful Alpenglow mountain panoramas that I have ever seen. But it was very cold outside the lodge and after ten minutes taking images I was soon back inside!
None of us had any ill effects from the altitude, nor did I expect us to as we had acclimatised properly on our hike in, gaining height sensibly at a conservative rate. We played cards after dinner and David, in particular, found it cold. Meanwhile, Finlay advised us that he had decided he was going to helicopter out the following day as he still felt weak, his knees were sore and he felt he would hold us up on the walk out.
To digress I have never drunk alcohol, smoked or taken drugs and my lame excuse is I prefer to specialise in one vice rather than flirt with three and my big ‘vice’ for almost 50 years has been to gamble. (Some people might comment I have an additional vice!)
This year I had made a substantial wager that Southampton would be relegated (finish in the bottom three) from the English Football Premier League and, after dinner in our cold lodge, I checked that Cardiff had beaten Wolves 2-1, which put Southampton next to bottom which was good for my bet.
I had to smile to myself remembering that today you can get the results of any sporting fixture anywhere in the world immediately however remote your location, such as here in the high Himalaya. But in 1972, when I arrived in Kashmir, India, I was delighted to find UK newspapers that could provide me with football results that were only three weeks old and indeed, at that time, I thought I was in heaven to get news that was only three weeks old!
It’s a different world today for sure as we can contact anyone from anywhere and long gone are the days of going to the Poste Restate counter at a new destination to collect six weeks of accumulated mail and news!
I was in my sleeping bag by 20.30 (!), read my Kindle which is a godsend when trekking, for 45 minutes, slept until 01.15, dozed until 04.30 and then slept for two hours before being woken for early morning coffee. It is quite common to sleep fitfully yet imagine one is not sleeping at all when at altitude.
Trek Day 8: Sunday Dec 2 Annapurna Base Camp 4130m – Machapuchchhre Base Camp 3722m – Deurali 3183m – Himalaya 2847m – Dobhan 2511m – Bamboo 2324m (-1806m)
I checked my phone and was delighted to see Southampton had only picked up one point against Manchester United and remained in the bottom three but, for those who are unaware, they subsequently changed their Manager (the hapless Mark Hughes) and escaped relegation later in the season so my bets on them were not successful. However, several other football bets were successful and I had a very profitable season!
Back to the plot! Today was our turn around day so, to celebrate, I had potatoes for breakfast rather than pancakes or porridge! We would begin our hike out by retracing our route at least as far as Chomrong. We could then walk out via Ghandruk which would give us a final free day in Kathmandu but our plan was to head west from Chomrong and climb up to the village of Ghorepani to admire the spectacular view from Poon Hill, albeit at the cost of a final free day in Kathmandu.
Dendi suggested we head for Dobhan but I suggested Bamboo because that was what we managed on our walk out 15 years previously, although it would be a long day. It had taken us almost three and a half days to walk this distance in but, of course, we were acclimatising as we walked in which restricted altitude gain per day and we could also make faster progress descending.
I need to be very target orientated when I walk so in my head I divided the day into five ‘legs’ and allowing an hour and a half for each would hopefully get to Bamboo by 16.00 as I left at 08.33 after saying farewell to Finlay, who we planned to meet in Pokhara.
The scenery was so impressive I could not resist turning and taking more of the very same shots I had taken the previous day when walking up to ABC! I still managed to arrive at MBC at 09.40 so I was ahead of my self appointed schedule but, as I walked below MBC, I was wondering if any of the others had stopped there for a coffee and were waiting for me (I had been last away as usual) and had not seen me go past. As I pondered a lot of cloud came up the valley and I was walking in cold cloud with no sun on my back. Little did I know that the blue skies that had accompanied us for the first seven days were not going to be seen much over the next five days(!) but I realised how lucky we had been to have such good weather to enjoy the vistas as we walked up.
I thought I was walking fairly briskly and did wonder if the others were now behind me if they had waited at MBC and I was now getting rather chilly as I walked in the cloud with a wet and sweaty t-shirt below my fleece. There was a tap on my shoulder and it was Dendi and Ngima who had caught me up. They had waited at ABC to see Finlay safely off in his helicopter but, once the cloud arrived before the helicopter, they decided to leave and hopefully, if the cloud lifted, the chopper would come for Finlay that afternoon. Ngima went on and it was helpful to have Dendi in close attendance as I crossed the steep snow banks because, as a non skier and despite having a home high in the Swiss Alps, I have never been comfortable on snow.
I caught the others up at Deurali, where I changed my t-shirt and took a break 11.30 to 12.06 (so I was now behind the clock!) and also spoke to a nice Dutch couple about tennis, photography and the famous Dutch sing a long group ‘De Toppers’, whose music often provides the backcloth during the intermissions at a Ladyboy Cabaret I often attend in Thailand! I invited them to join me for the French Open Tennis at Roland Garros, which I attend every year, and they promised to get me tickets for one of the two usually sold out annual concerts that De Toppers play in Amsterdam each year! Think Abba meet the Bee Gees and Englebert Humperdinck and you will get the idea! Dendi rang ABC and confirmed Finlay was still there as cloud had precluded the helicopter from arriving.
We descended to the River where it was warmer with less wind and reached Himalaya at 13.32 for a 35 minute break so I was confident we would get to Bamboo. We were now back in the forest, stopped briefly at Dobhan from 15.37 to 15.45 and arrived at Bamboo (named with reference to the surrounding vegetation) at 16.45 some eight hours and 15 minutes after leaving ABC. And yes, I felt tired and one knee and hip felt a little sore but I guess after a 1800m (or 6000ft!) descent and the best part of eight hours on my feet, I was entitled to feel sore!
The lodge was noticeably warmer than recent nights and certainly warmer than poor Finlay still at ABC for another night! There was no wi fi at the lodge and we played cards until late. Late in Thailand for me means going to bed at my usual 04.00-05.00, but late on on trek means after 21.30! We played Estimation or Contract Whist and Tarn and Ampai formed a team and kept us all amused by chatting and squabbling between themselves as to how many tricks they should bid to win – or lose!
We learnt that evening that the wife of Nima (one of our porters) had given birth to their first child, a daughter, the previous day in Kathmandu and I collected the equivalent of $20 from each of us and asked Dendi to give to Nima as a gift from us all for his new daughter.
Trek Day 9: Monday Dec 3 Bamboo 2324m – Kulde 2475m – Sinuwa 2366m – River below Chomrong 1920m – Chomrong 2242m (+470m) and -555m Annapurna Base Camp 4130m)
After a rather larger breakfast than usual, we were away with me, of course, the last to depart at 09.25 and still feeling tired. Maybe it’s because, as an only child, I am used to my own company, maybe because I prefer not to feel obliged to talk but prefer to listen to podcasts as I walk or maybe I am just antisocial!
The day was going to involve a short elevation gain of 150m, a levelling off and then descent to the river and an interminable climb back up the infamous Chomrong Steps to our lodge at the top of the village. We walked through groves of Bamboo and forest and after 40 minutes were at the high point of Kulde. As we walked, we passed porters and trekkers walking towards us heading for the Sanctuary. As it was cloudy, it did not look as if they were going to enjoy the blue skies and distant vistas that had characterised our walk in.
An hour after Kulde, we arrived at Sinuwa and stopped for a coffee and a debate with Steve about American politics. Like many Americans, who are insular by nature, Steve was not aware that the right to bear arms and carry guns was not prevalent everywhere else in the world (!) nor why most non-Americans found these issues so repugnant. Neither was he aware that most European governments provided free healthcare to their citizens, which he considered to be ‘Socialist’ rather than an inherent basic right. This, at a time when many in the USA were attacking Obamacare with such venom, one would think it was an offence comparable to the Holocaust rather than trying to help one’s fellow citizens!
There were a couple of other Americans present who endorsed my comments and said they were just happy to be outside of the USA whilst Trump was President and, indeed, they felt ashamed to be American with his divisive policies and announcements. It’s very interesting that virtually every American one meets when travelling, and who has some knowledge of how the world is trying to co-exist, says the same (‘I’m sorry, don’t blame me, it’s an embarrassment and I did not vote for him.’ I would only add that, sadly, it is much worse than an embarrassment!)
We also chatted to Ingrid from Holland and a jovial Englishman, who we had talked to a couple of days earlier at ABC, and after staying at Sinuwa for an hour, which allowed my t-shirt to dry, I continued on my way at 12.07. The rest of the gang stopped at the next lodge at Dalphu for some lunch but I was not hungry and after an hour’s break at Sinuwa I preferred to keep going. Chomrong looked remarkably close from Dalphu but, of course, there was a 300m descent, a river to cross and a 300m ascent in between! I reached the bridge below Chomrong at 13.15 where I sat for 15 minutes enjoying a Snickers bar!
All that remained was a 300m ascent to our lodge so, in my head, I divided it into four 75m sections and checked my altimeter assiduously just pausing to one side to allow the descending donkey trains to have a ‘right of way’ and to avoid being knocked off the steps by their panniers!
I finally arrived at the ‘Excellent View Top Lodge’ and for once was the first to arrive, not only ahead of the rest of the group, but also ahead of our porters.
So here we were back at our comfortable lodge, six days after we first arrived on our walk in. However, this time the make up of our group was different as, despite ‘losing’ Finlay, we were joined by the two Daves from Canada, together with their Guide, Phurba. We had met Dave G in Kathmandu earlier in this narrative and he and Dave S had made a short trek in the Annapurna Region with Phurba, who also worked for Happy Feet Mountaineering. Dendi had kept them updated with our progress so we could rendezvous in Chomrong and they could join us for the last three days of our trek.
Dave S had actually met my wife, Sharron, in Canada three years previously when dropping Dendi off at our home and I enjoyed talking to Dave about his Charity ‘The Altitude Project’ which was supporting a number of projects in the remote Nepalese area of Dolpo. The two Daves had recently taken a group of Canadian trekkers there with Phurba as their guide. Although I had never met Phurba, I was aware of who he was as he had been the guide on a trek my company, Casterbridge Tours, had organised in the Rolwaling Himalaya eight years earlier led by my colleague Andy. Phurba was keen for news of the participants which included many friends of mine, including Bob who we had also seen in Kathmandu. It is, indeed, a small world in the mountains!
We heard that Finlay had finally got away from ABC that day and was being kept overnight in a Pokhara Hospital for ‘observation’. Once he had paid the hospital fee they would issue a certificate that his evacuation was justified for medical reasons, which he could present to his insurance company. As long as the hospital earns a night’s payment, they will write the confirmation! I was able to update Finlay with our movements and plans via WhatsApp.
So, for the remaining three days, we were now an expanded group of seven trekkers with the addition of the two Daves plus three guides and three porters.
Quite a happy Band of Brothers! (and Sisters!)
Trek Day 10: Tuesday Dec 4 Chomrong 2242m – Chomrong Pass 2320m – Ghurjung 2060m – River Crossing 1927m – Chuile 2305m – Tadopani 2709m (+850m and -390m)
The early morning greeted us with some blue sky, but also a lot of clouds, as we admired the views north along the Modi Khola Valley from our lodge terrace for a final time. We had spent the last week both exploring and trekking up and back down the valley and could just make out Gangapurna, but the summits of Annapurna South and Machhapuchchhre were obscured by cloud. We were on our way just before 09.30 for a short ascent before our trail headed west high above a tributary valley of the Modi Khola. If we had continued following the Modi Khola Valley we would have come to Gandruk and completed the trek the same way as I had done 15 years earlier, but we were heading west on a two day walk to Ghorepani.
Ampai and I kept going on an easy trail high above the valley floor with lots of terraces immediately below the trail and we stepped aside to allow several mule trains to pass.
We all stopped at Ghumrung for a coffee from 11.15 to 11.43 and could see our proposed lunch stop at Chiule, on a partly wooded and partly terraced hillside ahead, but there was a small problem – there was a deep valley in between which I knew meant a steep climb after crossing the river!
We soon had to step aside again for a brightly coloured mule train where mules were ornately decorated with orange headpieces and orange balls either side of their mouths and carrying bells. We then came to an enterprising school who had erected a collection box in the middle of the trail together with a sign that read:
Dear Trekkers NAMASTE. A request donation for the school. We would like request to you about the pitiful condition of our school. This school has been providing good education to the students. Our planning are provide as so many basic needs. Those are :- Computer Lab, Library, and monthly salary for two extra Lady Teachers.’
The sign went on to say the government provided funding for one teacher only but not for any extras and donations were welcomed and appreciated.
The trail descended over some steep boulders and we crossed the bridge at 12.32 and my calculations were we had a steep ascent of 400m for lunch at Chiule. We passed a few small settlements and occasional lodge before arriving at the impressive ‘Mountain Discovery’ Lodge at Chiule, brightly painted in red and white and with an impressive and extensive lawn area in front of the lodge and expansive views up the valley towards the Modi Khola which we had just walked along. Unfortunately, the cloud was low so we did not get the full benefit of this spectacular location.
We stayed at Chiule for almost two hours from 13.45 to 15.29 as Dendi and I remained after the others headed out after a good and filling lunch. Dendi and I were talking to the attractive and enterprising young woman from Mustang who told us she set up a craft stall at the lodge throughout the trekking season. I bought a woollen hat but resisted the temptation to buy an erotic ashtray as I do not smoke! I planned to buy a carved Buddha for my wife, Sharron, but Dendi spotted it first and bought it – and then asked me to give it to Sharron, who he knows well, as a gift. So I bought her some wooden boxes instead!
I thought we had another 300m to climb through the very attractive and densely vegetated forest to Tadopani, but it turned out to be 400m, so Tadopani ended up being an 800m climb from the river which meant a lot of sweat, sweat and even more sweat!
We had a most enjoyable game of Estimation Whist that evening as Phurba and the Canadian Daves all enjoyed cards and the team of Tarn and Ampai playing as a pair was a riot as they debated vigorously in Thai what to bid. As he went to bed, David from the UK, who is always so generous in spirit, commented how great it was to have Ampai on the trek, how everyone loves her and how lucky I was to have her as a friend.
I probably made some comment about you should see her when she is moody!
I retired to my sleeping bag on a positive note, after learning from BBC News that Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, had suffered three defeats on important Brexit votes in the UK parliament, which was great news for those of us who do not want to see the UK turning it’s back on it’s neighbours and fellow Europeans.
Trek Day 11: Wednesday Dec 5 Tadopani 2709m– River Crossing 2516m – Ban Thanti – Duerali 3072m – Thaballa Hill 3165m – Ghorepani 2932m (+649m and -426m)
I did not sleep so well but it was good to get up and see there was some sun and blue sky, although plenty of clouds around as well, but we did get magnificent views of Annapurna South, Hiunchuli and Machhapuchchhre and, this time, from a different angle as we were further west. We were much closer to Annapurna South except, of course, for when we were onside the Sanctuary.
Somehow breakfast deteriorated into a big argument with Steve, who made some asinine comment about Trump making America great again, which I refused to leave unchallenged. Tarn has found herself in these situations many times so just told Steve to shut up and just eat his breakfast but, as he dug himself deeper into an isolated and provocative hole, she gave up on him, left her breakfast on the table and headed to their room! In truth, I felt sorry for Steve as I had goaded him and was equally to blame.
Most Canadians are fed up of being thought of as Americans when they travel and Dave S commented that he was glad someone had not been prepared to allow such stupid comments to be unchallenged. But, in truth, these were isolated incidents and Steve was an affable and congenial companion on the trek. His weakness was, and is, that he is easy fodder for right wing news outlets like Breitbart and Fox News as well as weird sites peddling every conspiracy theory known to man. I never realised people believed, or were taken in by, such rubbish until I met Steve, but I guess there are so many in America that are uninformed they cannot distinguish between factual news and fiction! Trump is the world’s master of peddling Fake News for his own agenda.
I took some pictures of Dendi and Ampai together, to add to my collection of Ampai and Dendi pictures, as I have taken pictures of them together since we were at Everest Base Camp in Nepal in 2006 and I have always thought they look like the perfect couple being of similar height and complexion and, on this occasion, they were wearing matching Happy Feet Mountaineering jackets and they looked dead set like a husband and wife.
We left at the symmetrical time of 09.09, passing through a village square behind our lodge set up with a big table and table cloth and 12 fancy chairs, for what reason I cannot imagine, but it looked as if someone important was on their way! There were also some craft stalls in the square and I bought a knife for our son, David, passed a holding area for mules and descended through the forest which was quite cool.
We passed some very attractive Nepali university students from Kathmandu and, after stopping for a chat, I gave them my card before continuing to descend through the very beautiful forest with distinctive trees with twisted trunks and ferns hanging from the branches. I crossed the river at 2516m some 36 minutes after leaving Tadopani and caught the others up at Ban Thanti (erroneously marked on my map as 3172m) where I chatted to some Spanish trekkers and left 20 minutes after the others.
I set off up the steep trail following a stream through a dense and luxuriant forest appreciating that this was the last significant climb of the trek and hoping it was not too long to get to the ridge that led to Ghorepani. The almost jungle like forest was very different to anything I had ever seen in my 12 previous visits to Nepal and I crossed a lot of trekking groups coming from Ghorepani. There are several ‘shorter’ three and four day trekking itineraries from Pokhara, connecting Ghorepani and Poon Hill with Chomrong and/or Gandruk, and what was noticably different about many of these trekking groups, in comparison with my previous visits, was that many were Asian with Nepalese, Malaysian and Singaporean groups being prevalent. I think this is a reflection of the expanding middle class with disposable income in at least two of those countries. Sadly, for whatever reason, it appears Nepal is cast to remain eternally for one the most impoverished nations.
As the trail continued climbing through the forest there were several sections of steps adorned with moss where one had to take care and I was sweating so much I needed to stop and change my saturated t-shirt but the temperature had warmed up and, other than my wet t-shirt, I was not too cold. I arrived at Deurali 3072m at 12.32 and was still in the forest and had yet to arrive on the ridge and stopped for 90 minutes for lunch of soup and french fries seated around a warm stove.
When I departed with Dendi at 13.53 he indicated it was about two and a half hours to Ghorepani. As my map indicated it was only another 30m to the high point on the ridge, I assumed the climbing was as good as over but that was incorrect on two counts. Firstly, there was still another 100m of ascent until we reached the high point on the ridge marked as Thaballa Hill and, whilst I had envisaged a glorious Alpine type ridge walk with vistas in every direction, most of the Ridge was forested with a lot of ups and downs so it was far from a gentle level stroll but rather tiring!
It was almost an hour before we reached Thabala Hill 3165m at 14.55. The views were non existent. There was so much cloud above and below us. I could just make out the Kali Gandaki Valley/gorge area between the two giant massifs of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna, two of the world’s highest ten mountains, but both of the peaks were obscured by cloud.The Kali Gandaki forms the last part of the famous Annapurna Circuit Trek. I had walked along the valley for three days when approaching Ghorepani from the east in 1998 as the culmination of the Annapurna Circuit, my first Nepalese trek.
However, there was a pleasant surprise as I thought it was another another hour and a half to Ghorepani but Dendi now said it was only 30 minutes and, indeed, I could see the lodges when the cloud shifted!
We came to a decorated gateway along the forested ridge which announced we had arrived at Ghorepani and Poon Hill and then descended over several series of steps down which tested my now aching right knee. Just as I started to wonder if we had misplaced the trail, as we wandered through the forest at a lower level, we entered Ghorepani proper, 20 years after my last visit.
Ghorepani is to the Annapurna region what Namche Bazaar is to the Khumbu area around Everest but it was far far bigger than I remembered 20 years ago but just as cold! There were innumerable solid and substantial four storey stone-built lodges and many shops.
As we walked through the village, along paved walkways, I saw our Dutch friend, Ingrid, who was heading up Poon Hill to watch the sunset – ‘Rather you than me’ I thought as it was pretty chilly and I could not see much likelihood of either views or a sunset with so much cloud around.
Finally, after a lot more steps, Dendi and I got to our lodge (‘Super View’) which had no views in the cloud, but a heater in the lounge and hot showers!
The main reason for visiting Ghorepani is to ascend to Poon Hill, just under 300m higher than Ghorepani, to watch the sunrise with a magnificent view of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna. As the last four days had been cloudy, and it was still cloudy in the evening, I did not see much point in waking early and ascending 300m before breakfast if there was not going to be any sunrise or views and, although I had walked up to Poon Hill 20 years ago, I did not remember the view was that much better than from good vantage points in the village.
Personally I am not big on sunrises and am more of a sunset aficionado, but we left it that if it was cloudy our guides would not wake us for this pre-breakfast ascent in the morning, but if the sky had cleared overnight they should wake us and we would all head up Poon Hill.
Meanwhile we had a final card game with Ampai and Tarn keeping us well entertained.
Trek Day 12: Thursday Dec 6 Ghorepani 2932m – Ulleri 2100m (-832m) and to Pokhara via Land Cruiser
A knock on the door for morning coffee with the announcement, ‘It was cloudy for sunrise Sir’ meant we had been saved an early morning ascent up to the Poon Hill viewpoint and confirmed that, despite my prompts and requests, Dendi and Ngima still call me ‘Sir’ rather than ‘Michael’ despite my daily requests ‘My name is Michael not Sir’. But then again why did I think I could change on a 12 day trek what I had been unable to change in 20 years of hiking in Nepal. For me ‘Michael’ is a form of greeting between equals whereas ‘Sir’ is an address of deference.
This is because I always associate the address of ‘Sir’ as deferring to someone in authority and almost somewhat obsequious because growing up in the UK it was drilled into us as school students that we had to address our male teachers as ‘Sir’ and I always recoil against it when it is used as a title or address outside of the classroom. However, I have to accept in some parts of the world it is a polite form of address like in the USA (where I am never sure how sincerely ‘Have a good day’ is imparted!), Nepal and the Philippines, which must be the only part of the world where the female equivalent ‘Mam’ (short for Madam) is widely used in vocabulary and conversation. Indeed, I can be chatting to someone in the Philippines online for days and they will still address me as Sir rather than Michael!
After breakfast we gathered on the terrace outside our lodge to admire the views as there was now a lot of blue sky, but many of the peaks were obscured by lower cloud layers and peaks were visible for one moment and obscured the next. We had good views of Annapurna South and could just make out Annapurna beyond but in front of us, and the other side of the Kali Gandaki gorge, was the giant Dhaulagiri 8167m, the world’s seventh highest mountain, which dominated our view, together with its subsidiary shoulder peak Tokuche 6920m. The circuit of Dhaulagiri is one of the more challenging long distance treks in Nepal and is perhaps the most well known trek in Nepal that I have never hiked and now I suspect never will!
It was still fairly cool so I wore my down jacket as I took some pictures of an aggressively posed Japanese trekker posing as if he had both climbed Dhaulagiri and repelled the hoards of Ghengis Khan in a single afternoon!
We set off at 09.35 and, as we walked out of Ghorepani to begin our long descent to Ulleri, I was again impressed at just how big Ghorepani had grown, with so many stores (mainly selling snacks and souvenirs) and substantial stone buildings.
The descent through the Rhododendron forest was pretty continuous, albeit interspersed with some more level stretches. The forest was replete with trees and twisted moss covered trunks and branches. The trail was busy as it formed part of one of the most accessible and shorter treks in Nepal and we were continually passing ascending groups and porters.
One of my memories of making this hike, as part of the final day of my Annapurna Circuit Hike with Prasan in 1998, was the famous section of 4080 continuous steps and, near the top of this section, Prasan and I were caught behind a French couple and, in an effort to not get ‘trapped’ behind them with little possibility of overtaking, I broke into a jog to skip around them before we started descending the steps. Once I had built up some momentum, I kept going and ran down the entire 4000 plus steps, descending several hundred metres in around 25 minutes. I remember stumbling twice and just regaining my balance before hurtling over a bush covered bank and I also remember thinking, ‘This is crazy – I have spent 14 days on the Annapurna Circuit without mishap (sadly I could not say the same in 2009!) and I am going to twist my ankle on the final descent! Sharron will not be impressed.’
I remember when we got to the foot of the steps there were a couple of pools where we could bathe but we went into a tea house for a Coke and hung my saturated t-shirt up to dry.
Whenever I see Prasan we always remember this incident and Prasan confirms, although he descended the steps on many occasions, that was the only time he ran down from top to bottom!
However, on this occasion, I was going to be excused the mental anguish of deciding whether to reprise my run as we did not have to descend the full 1400m to Nayapul as, in the intervening 20 years as is common throughout the Himalaya, roads have been pushed ever deeper into the mountains. As a result, we only had to walk to Ulleri rather than Nayapul (the original trailhead) and the famous 4080 steps are located between Ulleri and Nayapul.
In the name of progress, roads have now been pushed (or should I say blasted!) through the Kali Gandaki gorge to Jomson, following the Budhi Gandaki River on the Manaslu Circuit, to the dismay of trekkers who would like everything to remain pristine. However, residents, who can perhaps get easier access to goods and medical services, might have another view. I guess in another 20 years it might be possible to drive to Ghorepani and Poon Hill!
The lower we got, the more substantial the settlements and more ornate the lodges. There was no hurry so we stopped for coffee and at a village less than 30 minutes before Ulleri and stopped to look at the wares on display. I could not resist buying a couple of Nepalese ‘Beanies’ (woollen hats) with Buddha Eyes on them for David and myself. As mine was pink, we could not resist posing in our new headware, looking to all the world like a devoted gay couple. This was Ampai’s comment not mine, but they were rather fetching pictures!
We continued to walk and came to a point where the trail had widened and several beat up Land Cruisers and 4WD vehicles were waiting and this was clearly the road head but we walked on a few hundred metres into the village to arrive at our lodge at an elevation of 2100m at 12.55 after three hours and 20 minutes of leisurely walking and just over 800m of descent.
We devoured a traditional Nepalese lunch of Dhal Bhat, with unlimited portions, to celebrate the end of 12 days walking and then took some group pictures to confirm we had (almost) all made it (sorry Finlay!). In fact, with the addition of Thurba and the two Canadian Daves, we ended up with more participants than we began but we were about to scale down again as we said our farewells to the two Canadian Daves who were continuing to walk down to Ulleri where they stayed overnight.
The rest of us walked down through the village past some goat pens to rejoin the ‘road’ where our two vehicles joined us for the drive out and on to Pokhara.
I have driven along a lot of rough roads in Asia, Africa and South America but this was well up there as one of the most rough, bumpy and exposed as we bounced around, over and through innumerable potholes and bumps, often with a long drop to the valley below, and all accompanied, of course, with high pitched Nepalese pop on the radio, some of which I could drown out with my headphones and podcasts! As we drove down the track, we came upon our Dutch friend, Ingrid, and her porter, who were walking to Ulleri, but unfortunately had no space in either vehicle to give them a lift.
We stopped at Birethanti so we could have our Annapurna Conservation Area Permits stamped at the checkpoint. I got out to wander around and take some pictures and could not help but remember walking here from Gandruk 15 years earlier with Lisa and David, when David, who had not made one complaint during the entire 12 day trek, looked at me and said, ’I never thought I would be so pleased to see a car in all my life!’. Indeed, when we landed at London Heathrow Airport a few days later, he looked at me and said, ‘Well that’s my hiking career over’.
He was as good as his word because whilst his sister Lisa twice returned to Nepal with me and visited Everest Base Camp, climbed Kilamanjaro and Toubkal in Africa with me but I never saw David on a trail again until he joined Lisa and myself on the Sky Pilot Trail, high above the Howe Sound in British Columbia, Canada, twelve and a half years later!
Now that we were on a tarmac road (of sorts), the remainder of the drive to the lakeside resort of Pokhara was uneventful, notwithstanding the risk of turning the vehicles over on a pothole, hitting an oncoming vehicle approaching on the wrong side of the road or hitting a cow, pedestrian or motorcyclist, who could be found at any point or any side of the road!
We arrived at the very comfortable Temple Tree Resort and Spa at 17.15, just three hours after leaving Ulleri, to be reunited with Finlay, who promptly announced he had booked and set up a table in the restaurant for a farewell (or was it a reunion) dinner in the hotel restaurant that evening and proudly showed us the table and already prepared welcome notices on the chalk boards. Well done Finlay, not looking too much the worse for wear.
So that evening, we did indeed gather in the restaurant, together with Dendi and Ngima and our three porters, but not before the ever resourceful Bob Turner came to the hotel for a drink, as he was back in Pokhara after his trek and had previously asked Dendi where we were going to be staying.
After giving all our trekking crew their customary end of trek tips, David had a surprise for us when he handed out lyric sheets and announced we were going to have a farewell sing song! I need add no more other than reproduce the lyrics below!
We’re all off to ABC
To see what we can see
Chorus – 1234 1234
Michael Bromfield is our leader
Because he is such an avid reader!
Chorus – 1234 1234
He selected us from amongst his group
To form a Happy Feet Trekking group!
Chorus – 1234 1234
He’s got us marching to his beats
While he chats to everyone he meets!
Chorus – 1234 1234
At five Ngima breaks down our door
And yells at us ‘Are you ready for more!’
Chorus – 1234 1234
Dendi wants to leave at six
So we’re all ready with our walking sticks!
Chorus – 1234 1234
Sherpa porters carry all our stuff
Because they’re so strong, fit and tough!
Chorus – 1234 1234
If Steve feels tired and needs a rest
It’s because he knows our nurses are best!
Chorus – 1234 1234
Tarn and Ampai are their names
They know all the healing games
Chorus – 1234 1234
If you ache all over and feel deadbeat
They will massage your back and feet!
Chorus – 1234 1234
And if your legs still feel like tin
Finlay will call his chopper in!
Chorus – 1234 1234
And now we are back in Kathmandu
Theres no more ‘Happy Feet’ for me and you
Chorus – 1234 1234
Pokhara, Kathmandu and Reflections: Friday December 7 – Saturday December 8
Because we had added two additional days to our trek, we no longer had a free day to explore Pokhara but there was time to wander around the nearby lakeside area and buy a t-shirt or two before we headed off to the airport for our return flight to Kathmandu, this time courtesy of a much larger (four seats abreast not two!) plane, with Buddha Air.
Once we were back in Kathmandu, and checked back into the Annapurna Hotel (upmarket for Kathmandu and the first time I had ever stayed outside of the traditional trekkers hub of Thamel), that we had left two weeks previously, my priority was some Christmas shopping and, in particular, for our eldest daughter, Sarah, who had requested some hand painted Nepalese medicinal and physiological paintings, so I spent much of the afternoon going in and out of galleries taking pictures of paintings and transferring them to Sarah in Canada to get her feedback.
I took a break to meet with Dendi and Anuj, now CEO of Explore Himalaya. I had seen Anuj a few months previously when he visited Lisa and myself in Switzerland, but the previous occasion had been in 2003 when, as a cherubic faced 14 year old, his uncle had asked if he could accompany Lisa, David and myself into the Annapurna Sanctuary. And as Suman was providing our trek at cost, and with a free place, I could hardly say No!
When I told David and Lisa Anuj was going to be visiting us in Switzerland 15 years on, I asked them both if they remembered Anuj and they both said ‘Yes of course’ and David added ‘he cheated at cards!’ to which I added ‘don’t be stupid, people don’t cheat’.
Of course when I asked Anuj in the summer he laughed and said ‘Yes that’s correct!’
That night we were joined by Dendi’s wife, Ang Doma, and business partner, Ngima, for a final farewell dinner at our favourite Kathmandu restaurant, Yin Yang, located in the heart of Thamel, which is the always buzzing tourist and trekkers hub in Kathmandu. Yet again, the ever resourceful and thoughtful David came to the fore, as he had designed and, with Dendi’s help, printed a colour ‘Certificate of Achievement’ for all of us. He got Dendi to sign and present them to each of us. Although David found parts of the trek cold and tough going, he had clearly enjoyed the trek, which he considered the toughest thing he had ever done, which I found surprising as only a few months earlier he had cycled from San Francisco to Los Angeles which seems pretty tough to me! Like everyone, David was well impressed with Dendi and wants to return to Nepal with his two younger daughters and hike to Everest Base Camp with Dendi.
And so our trek concluded, pretty much as it began, with us all leaving on different flights over a different time span and in different directions!
Finlay left early the following morning, before we were up, to fly to Hong Kong, where he was hosting a handful of Australian clients on a Thoroughbred Horse Racing Tour centred on the Hong Kong Cup at Shatin Racecourse. His sickness on trek had taken a lot out of him and apparently he was not on his usual top form in Hong Kong and when he continued to Manila in the Philippines, for his annual 7-10 day December visit, he spent most of the time in his hotel room.
Steve, Tarn, Ampai and myself saw David off the following morning, who was returning to the UK (Business Class of course!), whereas Ampai and I flew to Thailand, but not before getting Sarah’s feedback and rushing out to buy a selection of anatomical paintings that reflected her preferences. Ten days later, I flew back to the UK for Christmas with my family and Ampai returned to her village in Isaan.
Steve and Tarn stayed in Nepal for a further seven days but remained in Kathmandu with Steve enjoying poker games at the Kathmandu Casino. I am not sure if Steve ever did work out the relationship between the Nepalese Rupee, Indian Rupee (the only currency allowed for gambling in the Casino) and American Dollar nor if he ever worked out if he was ahead or not! Despite our advice not to do so, he did go to the US Embassy to insist they issue Tarn with a visa and, despite Dendi’s help in getting him to the embassy, the result was the same with Steve escorted away protesting, filming it and posting it on You Tube. I keep telling him a properly completed and supported Tourist Visa application might be the way to go!
Dave G stayed on in Kathmandu, where he has many friends after visiting the country annually for most of the previous 20 years, and then headed for the sun and sand of Thailand where he was due to meet a gay Canadian girlfriend (whatever turns you on!) for Christmas and New Year on the Full Moon Party and beach mecca of Koh Pha Ngan, both admiring the girls on the beach but with differing aspirations!
And Dave S flew home to Nelson, BC, Canada for Christmas with his family after meeting with representatives of Community Action Nepal and other Kathmandu based representatives of international aid organisations to see if they might be able to assist him and/or provide advice with his ‘Altitude Project’ initiatives in Dolpo.
Ngima and Dendi came to the hotel to see Ampai and I off on our transfer to the airport and, after a lifetime in travel, I am still fascinated by the incongruity that a group of people can travel together as a unit walking, talking, eating and sleeping together and then scatter to the corners of the earth within 24 hours and follow quite disparate life styles! However, on this occasion, the original six of us were all reunited just six weeks later in Thailand for my 70th Birthday celebrations or should that be commiserations?
As we headed to the airport and I reflected how the trek went, I was surprised at how easily I got back into the swing of Nepalese trekking and also how much I still enjoyed it, despite my advancing years. Following a pretty intensive hiking regime in the Swiss Alps every summer, had, of course, helped me a lot in that regard. I was surprised at how few of the lodges had heating this time and, although the burning of wood is now prohibited to discourage the cutting of trees, dung and paraffin is allowed, but I guess many of the lodges are not prepared to carry the costs of bringing paraffin in?
Perhaps my overriding impression was that every day on the trek I had thought that I found the trek tougher than expected as I always considered the Annapurna Sanctuary to be one of the easier and less challenging treks in Nepal.
I guess the reality was, when I had previously hiked into the Sanctuary in 2003, I was 54 and, in 2018, I was 69, so maybe I was entitled to feel a bit more tired (!) but I have to admit this aging process is not something I enjoy or find easy to adapt to. Nothing unusual about that I guess and I suspect at least another billion of the worlds eight billion population will share similar thoughts. However, some of them might be a bit better than me at making at least a few sensible concessions to age along the way?
But despite all this, as I left Nepal, I thought that maybe I should return next and find some new Himalayan valleys and routes to explore whilst I was still capable of doing so. Indeed, 12 months later, I was back in Nepal trekking the Manaslu Circuit and you will soon be able to read an abridged account of that trip here.
Addendum: What happened next and Where are they now? (June 2020)
Ampai (Thai) celebrated the New Year with her family and adopted daughter in Isaan and in February joined me on a road trip in Northern Thailand, which included a walk over the Burmese border which you can read about here and we also travelled together in Vietnam and Turkey during the year before meeting up with Dendi in Kathmandu in November for a trek around Mt Manaslu. Since then she has been busy extending her house in Thailand.
David W (UK) successfully sold his Language School Company whilst hiking to the Annapurna Sanctuary – or should I say his representatives completed the sale on his behalf. In January, David and his French girlfriend, Anne, came to Thailand for my 70th Birthday celebrations and then on to the island of Koh Kuud in conjunction with a trip to Australia. David is so active you would never know he suffers from Parkinsons and, in May, was planning to walk the famous Camino pilgrimage trail with some school friends, through France and across Spain. However, a nagging sore ankle required surgery to repair damaged tendons, which precluded the hike, but he did fly to Spain to cheer his mates home. David bought a lovely home in Berkshire with some of the proceeds from the disposal of his company and whilst he was gutted that his ankle surgery, and some subsequent shoulder surgery, also precluded him from joining our next Himalayan trek, he at least had a great base for his recovery.
Dendi (Nepal) Most of the time Dendi is now Kathmandu based and supervising the logistical preparations for Happy Feet Mountaineering’s Climbing and Trekking Expeditions but, a year later, Dendi was out of the office to guide Ampai, myself and two other friends on the Manaslu Circuit. Earlier this year, he was in Canada to attend two Adventure Travel Conferences, in Vancouver and Calgary, although the second one was cancelled because of the Coronavirus. He stayed with my daughter in Vancouver and with Dave G’s help was able to get a flight back to Kathmandu via Toronto and Turkey! Obviously, all hiking and climbing expeditions, and his company, are on hold whilst international travel is a thing of the past.
Finlay (Australia) Finlay also did me the honour of flying from Australia to Thailand for my 70th Birthday celebrations, but for once did not come to England, France and Ireland as he usually does each June and July for part of the summer thoroughbred horse racing season. In truth, as he said, there was no longer the demand for Corporate Sports hospitality that previously existed. However, Finlay and I did manage to catch up again later in the year as he usually visits Hong Kong and Manila every December. In Manila, he is involved with a Charity International Australian Rules Football tournament and is so generous in spirit he supports several single parent Filipinas. His visit to Manila in 2019, coincided with a three day stopover that I planned in Manila between Thailand and a family Christmas in Vancouver and we enjoyed a nice dinner at the Peninsular Hotel. Finlay is forever encouraging me to invest in his proposed worldwide network of Concierge Travel and I am forever encouraging him to save money in these uncertain times by staying at less expensive hotels!
Michael (UK) My year after Annapurna involved two 70th Birthday Celebrations (making me 140?) in both the UK and Thailand and travels from Asia to Europe in May and to North America in June before summer and autumn in the Swiss Alps, interspersed with a quick visit to Thailand and Vietnam. In November, I flew to Nepal and on to Canada, via Thailand and Manila. My wife, Sharron, and I attended three separate wedding celebrations for our son, David, and his American wife, Amber, and my summer was spent hiking and writing copy for a Hiking Guide I am writing for Mürren and the Lauterbrünnen Valley in Switzerland.
Steve W (USA) was also in attendance for my Thai 70th birthday celebrations, before flying off to South America with Tarn, except he had not realised Tarn needed a visa to change planes in Europe (to be fair to Steve I did not realise it either) as he had booked flights that involved leaving the airport building for a Terminal change so she got left behind for 48 hours until Steve could arrange a replacement flight for her via……………….Ethiopia!
The trip continued in the same vein as it began because the cruise company he had booked would not allow Steve to board due to a previous altercation and his visits to US embassies to demand a visa for his Thai wife, Tarn, usually ended in arguments with security being called and Steve escorted off the premises. Steve would film all this and post it on You Tube.
Their travels continued to Israel and Georgia (the country not the American state), where they got married so that Steve could……………… yes you have guessed ………… march up to the US Embassy in Tbilisi and demand a spousal visa for Tarn. Now, do you think the US authorities in the Trump era are going to grant a visa for a quickie Georgian marriage?
Steve has a heart of gold but has no idea how to communicate with organisations, nor how to follow procedures – the lyrics ’I want it all and I want it now’ come immediately to mind. Steve was keen to come on our follow up trek to Nepal but could not persuade Tarn and also his hip pain had seriously worsened since Annapurna and so, in the second half of 2019, he returned to the USA for the first time in five years to seek medical treatment for his hip/back and to see if he could mend a rift with his family. At the time of writing, Steve is back in the USA again to complete the sale of a property which will help support his life plans in Thailand and also to try and submit a spousal visa application for Tarn. As Thailand is now closed for international flights, Steve is stuck in the USA for the foreseeable future. I am not sure if he appreciates that Spousal Visas often take years to be granted (before Trump!) and quite likely even longer now. Some Filipino friends of mine just got a US Residents Visa 18 years after they first applied!
Tarn (Thai) The long suffering Tarn has followed Steve around the world from arguments in one US Embassy to another. In all the conversations I have had with Tarn, I have never gotten the impression that going to the USA is high on her list of aspirations, as like most Thais, she prefers to live in Thailand and close to her family. Sadly, her father died in the latter part of 2019 and Tarn (and Steve when around) are now spending more time in Tarn’s mother’s home in North East Thailand. Tarn is keen to extend her mother’s home and expand it to an old persons retirement home and/or a school. After telling me of the arguments he has had with people who he has contracted and then refused to pay, Steve asked me if I wanted to invest or lend him money to fund Tarn’s plans. (‘In a word Steve – No!’) Tarn and Steve visited Ampai’s home in February so they could see how she had built and expanded her home to see if they could get some ideas. Tarn has now moved into her mother’s home and has opened a pizza restaurant for the villagers. Steve had been keen to trek in Nepal again last year but only if Tarn would come and she (correctly) advised him that he needed to get his hip fixed and that she was not so keen – she had done one Himalayan trek and why would she want to do another?
Dave G (Canada) Despite all his hiking in Nepal, Dave, who was probably the fittest of us all, slipped on a wet tiled floor in Madrid, after completing the Camino hike, and somehow got on his flight home to Canada and was immediately operated on. He had a quad tendon tear of his kneecap and was in a plaster and on crutches for months. This was after he had arranged another trek to Dolpo for many of his Canadian friends and contacts. Dave made a good recovery and, whilst he was not able to do the long and strenuous Dolpo trek, did manage the 14 day Peekeye Trek in November and I was able to meet up with him for dinner in Kathmandu. When Dendi was in Canada earlier this year, Dave met him at the airport and they both stayed with our daughter Sarah in Vancouver so they could attend the Vancouver Adventure Travel Show. Dendi stayed with Dave in Nelson but, when the Adventure Travel show in Calgary was cancelled, Dave used his organisational skills to get Dendi back to Nepal on some replacement flights.
Dave S (Canada) The two Canadian Daves did not have the best of luck in 2019 as, no sooner did Dave S return to Dolpo in the Autumn of 2019 on a trek organised by Dave G and led by Thurba, than he contacted pneumonia and had to be airlifted out and back to Kathmandu and proper medical attention to recover. However, the upside of this was that, although he was unable to revisit many of the projects that the Altitude Project supports, he was able to meet with other aid organisations in Kathmandu to co-ordinate assistance. The Altitude Project does wonderful work in the remote and impoverished Dolpo area of Western Nepal, including paying teachers’ salaries in several schools, providing greenhouses to grow vegetables, providing portable solar lighting for impoverished families and menstrual hygiene kits. They hit their fundraising target of $Can50,000 for 2019 and if you would like to support a very worthwhile cause you can do so by going here
https://happyfeetmountaineers.com/ Whether you are an individual, couple or group big or small if you would like to trek or climb in Nepal you could have no better partner than Dendi and Ngima’s superb and experienced team at Happy Feet Mountaineers
https://www.altitudeproject.ca/ The Altitude Project is a Canadian based charity whose primary mission is to support education and communities in the remote Upper Dolpo region of Nepal.
https://www.canepal.org.uk/ Community Action Nepal was established in 1989 by Doug Scott who together with Dougal Haston were the first Britons to climb Everest in 1977. CAN’s ethos is based on helping the mountain people of Nepal, help themselves and not be donor dependent.
https://kiplingtours.co.uk/ The Management team at Kipling have been operating hiking tours on every continent for over 30 years and offer customised Cultural, Educational and Activity Tours for small and large groups throughout the world.
© Michael Bromfield