The standard route for the Annapurna Sanctuary trek
The day we left Chomrong was like a repeat of the previous day. Chomrong is perched high on the side of a canyon looking across to the Annapurna peaks. We descended all the way down to the river to cross and then climbed back up to the same level we had started from and more. Then the trail traversed as the canyon got very steep and narrow as it headed into the very center of the Annapurna Range, to the high cirque known as the Annapurna Sanctuary. Now we weren't looking at the mountains from a distance across several ridge lines. Now we were hiking on the lower slopes of the big peaks themselves.
It would take us three and a half days to hike into the Sanctuary and then back out to Chomrong again. The weather would be different. Not because the weather changed but because of where we were. Every afternoon the lower slopes of the main Himalayan crest clouded up. Now we would be on those slopes, in the clouds rather than looking at them from sunny slopes in the foothills. We were gaining altitude too. At Annapurna Base Camp we would reach our high point of 4130 meters (over 13,400 feet). That made it much colder.
Hiking up the canyon of the Modi Khola was spectacular. Above the sheer cliffs was Machapuchare. It was like being in Yosemite Valley with the Matterhorn piled on top. Even though the climb was tough it was wonderful hiking.
I stopped for a break and sat next to two other trekkers who were resting, a couple who were speaking to each other in a language that I thought was Polish. I asked the man where they were from and it turned out that they were indeed from Poland. I explained that my grandmother had been Polish and moved to the US. I used to hear her speak Polish to relatives so that was why I thought that I recognized the language that they were speaking. Turns out that his grandmother was an American woman who had moved to Poland. It is indeed a small world.
We stopped for lunch at a shepherds hut and watched them tending their new baby sheep. They kept them in a small wire pen. One by one momma sheep would come up and baa. When one of the baby sheep would answer the shepherd would pluck them out long enough to feed and then throw them back in the pen. I guess they didn't feel they were old enough to wander around on their own. Apparently one mom was late because one of the baby sheep really started to make noise. He wasn't happy that his meal was late. Since I was hungry and waiting for my lunch too I could relate. I also got to watch them shearing the sheep by hand. I wasn't quite ready to ask if I could get a haircut and shave though. And one of the shepherds was using a kukri knife to split bamboo to make reeds for weaving baskets. It was the beginning of the process that I had seen on an earlier day when I watched a farmer weaving a basket. A little bit further up the supply chain.
The clouds closed in during the afternoon just like every other day. Now that we were in the clouds it was cool and damp. But I had plenty of gear and was comfortable. We camped in a small village named Himalaya, the last real village before the Sanctuary.
The next morning was bright and clear and we had more spectacular views walking up the canyon. We stopped for lunch at Machapuchare Base Camp. Even up here there were several lodges now. Years ago no one had lived in this valley but the lodges and tea houses have sprung up to cater to trekkers and climbers. They even had a radiotelephone that I used to call Sandy. It was really expensive though so I settled for about a one minute chat.
We set up for lunch just outside the lodge but the clouds came in and it got cold. Tasi moved us into the lodge which was warm and comfortable. There was an asian couple in the dining room and since they were speaking english to each other I thought they might be Singaporean. But when I asked them where they were from it turned out they were Australian. And talking to them more their accents were very obvious. They were from Melbourne. Since we are thinking about a trip there next year I pumped them for information on the best places to visit on the coast and in the Victoria wine country.
While I was eating my lunch one of them was looking over the menu. I had rice and pancakes and cooked veggies and a few small hot dogs from a can. He asked what I had ordered because he said it really looked good and he couldn't find it on the menu. I explained that I had my own cook and hadn't ordered from the menu. He said that was too bad because the sausages had really caught his eye. Then his wife came back from outside, glanced at my plate, and asked what I had ordered. I went through the explanation again. She was disappointed as well because she thought the sausages had really looked good. I felt guilty and almost asked Lakpa to make some for them. They were definitely true Australians. They fancied their sausages!
After lunch it took a couple more hours to hike up to Annapurna Base Camp. It wasn't just cloudy - we were in the clouds. We were hiking in fog. No views this afternoon. Not long after we reached ABC and set up our camp it started to snow and it snowed most of the night. We got about two inches of snow overnight. Made it worthwhile for me to have hauled my heavy pile jacket around for the entire two week trek. Ok, so Sarkey hauled it around, not me, but you get the idea.
There are a lot of mountaineers in the Sanctuary on expedition-style climbs. After spending days or weeks many thousands of feet higher in tiny tents and snow caves battling fierce cold and high winds, they come down to ABC to rest and recuperate in the balmy weather. It even gets above freezing during the day and doesn't snow all of the time. Everything is relative.
No one would argue that the next morning was spectacular. I climbed out of my tent and was completely surrounded by colossal mountains. Just behind our camp was a small hill of boulders with a monument to climbers who had died on Annapurna. There was a stupa and rows of colorful prayer flags. To the south was Hiunchuli, a 21,242 ft trekking peak that is actually quite difficult. I remember that many years ago I had considered joining a commercial group to attempt to climb it. Next is Annapurna South at 23,684 ft. Although it had been very prominent for the entire trek now we were seeing a different side from the one we had become familiar with over the past week. It didn't look any easier from this side. Annapurna I was finally right in front of us. Previously it had been hidden behind other lesser peaks. It is one of the world's great mountains. At 26,545 ft it is the tenth highest mountain in the world. From the floor of the Sanctuary the South Face of Annapurna rises straight up for over 13,000ft. It is one of the highest cliffs on earth. The mountain is extremely dangerous. As of 2008 only 103 climbers have summited Annapurna while 56 climbers have died on it's slopes, an incredible ratio of over 50% fatalities to successful climbs. Other prominent peaks are Glacier Dome, Gangapurna, Tent Peak, Fang, Annapurna III and Machapuchare. Truely a special place. No Westerner even entered the Sanctuary until 1956. It is still considered sacred by the local Gurung people and is thought to be the home of the gods.
I was up in time to see the first light from the sun touch the summits of the peaks. I spent about two hours watching the light move down the faces until it finally arrived at our camp, with the sun climbing over the shoulder of Machapuchare. Then it was time to head down.
It was sunnier than the previous day. The clouds didn't move in until four in the afternoon when we reached our camp in the village of Bamboo. It did rain lightly for about an hour. That and the snow the day before was the only precipitation during the entire two weeks of the trek. I certainly couldn't complain about the weather.