Day 1: Besi Sahar to Chame (2,650m)
A 65km journey from Besi Sahar to Chame offers us ample opportunities to consider our own mortality, as our jeep bumps, jerks and grips as best it can on the rocky mountainside roads. At the bottom of the sheer drops the Marshyangdi River flows through the valley, its icy temperature would be our last sensation if we did take a tumble. Fortunately our driver is experienced and in no rush to be reincarnated – we negotiate the roads and cross the wooden bridges without incident.
Day 2: Chame to Pisang (3,250m)
We rise at dawn and a breakfast of Muesli with apple and warm milk prepares us for day 1. Our guides, Dhane and Tek lead us through picturesque mountain paths – pine needles and twigs crunch beneath our feet, a crisp morning breeze chills our faces and in the distance snow covered mountains amaze us.
Day 3: Pisang to Manang (3,520m)
Pisang to Manang pushes us over 3,500m. There is more uphill, snow appears on the ground for the first time and lakes are frozen over, though with the right sized rock the surface can be shattered. We break for lunch at Humde, another dhal bhat (with a second serving) and afterwards pass by Annapurna I.
Day 4: Rest day & acclimatisation
No trekking today, instead a morning walk to assist with accilmatisation, including a close up view of Gangapurna Holy Mountain.
Day 5: Manang to Lektar (4,250m)
The air thins, the snow thickens and frozen hillside streams are negotiated with great care. For the first time we pass 4,000m, though none of this bothers Dhane, who finds the best seat to take it all in. Shortly after arriving in Lektar is snows.
Day 6: Lektar to High Camp (4,800m)
Overnight conditions change dramatically. A blanket of snow has fallen overnight and with it, the temperature required for normal human functioning. Tek, our lead guide is unperturbed and continues to set a remarkable pace, even with more than 20kg strapped to his back. We trudge through snow, pass herds of yaks and inch our way along landslide prone paths. A 2 hour lunch and rest in Thorong Pedi is sufficient recovery time, before we settle in at High Camp (4,800m). I sleep in thermal underwear, pants, 3 pairs of socks, thermal top, 2 jackets, a vest, 2 pairs of gloves and a beanie – inside a duck down sleeping bag and under 2 extra blankets – and I’m still cold.
Day 7: High Camp to Muktinath (3,800) via Thorong La Pass (5,416m)
After a largely sleepless night we awake at 3:30am, with a forecast high of -18c (and a low of -29c). Another bowl of Muesli with apple and warm milk fails to raise our body temperature in any noticeable way. We depart at 4:30am, heading for the highest point on the Annapurna circuit, Thorong La Pass (5,416m). Amazingly, Tek is away and gliding up the mountain with ease. We follow in metronomic fashion, his rhythmical snow crunching footsteps pulling us towards the pass, though one by one, we slow – the combination of freezing temperatures, numb toes / fingers and the effects of altitude cripple us in turn. The ultimate catch 22 situation confronts us – we stop to catch our breath, though by doing so our bodies cool and the best way to heat them again is to continue walking. While Mother Nature is slowly destroying us, she is at the same time amazing us, with the dawn sky illuminating the mountain peaks, providing an unforgettable scene, which even in our state can be appreciated. Your writer suffers worst from the altitude and rapidly falls the back of the pack, overcome with headache, nausea, loss of appetite and a complete failure of energy. Eventually the motley crew arrive at the pass, shivering, snot nosed and exhausted, though overwhelmingly proud. A quick photo on the only phone which didn’t freeze captures the moment and then a rapid descent begins, coming to a halt only at 4,200m where some semblance of normality returns to the group.
By the time we reach Muktinath (3,800m) the effects of the altitude have diminished and have been replaced by a ravishing appetite. Already, the ridiculous trek through snow, darkness and subzero temperatures feels as though it could have all just been a horrible dream, though the already present mental scarring proves otherwise.
Day 8: Muktinath to Jomsom (2,740m)
The final day of an incredible trek for all involved, (including Dhane and Tek, for whom it was their first and last winter in Annapurna) begins with a stroll out of Muktinath and through the village of Jharkot where Buddhist chants resonate through the valley and usher in the new dawn. We continue our rapid descent to normal heights, however Annapurna has one last difficulty in store when, in view of Jomsom, a gale force wind blows through the barren, dusty valley, unrelenting until we are finally inside the village boundaries. Only once inside, shoes off, bags on the floor and bodies slumped can we speak aloud that it’s over.