When I was in college back in the early seventies I took a road trip with a friend to Wyoming. It was the first time that I saw mountains. I thought that Grand Teton National Park was the most amazing place that I had ever seen. I was hooked on mountains, on hiking, and on climbing mountains for life. Besides actual trips to the mountains I also became an avid reader about mountaineeering. Over the years I have collected two or three hundred books on mountaineers and climbing expeditions. And I have read about climbing in all of the great ranges of the world. But there is no mountain area that captures the imagination like the Himalaya - the highest mountains on earth. And the highest section of the Himalaya runs the length of the country of Nepal.
In 1991 I made the trip of a lifetime. I joined a trekking/climbing group that went to Nepal for two months. We spent 49 days hiking and climbing in the mountains. I made two high altitude ascents including Mera Peak, at 21,249 feet the highest I have ever been in my life without an airplane, and Chugima Ri. I hiked up Kala Patar at the foot of Everest. And I saw many of the highest mountains on earth: Mt. Everest, Lhotse, Cho Oyu, Makalu, Kangchenjunga, and others. It was an amazing experience.
Nepal is almost on the exact opposite side of the earth from the US so it is quite difficult and expensive for Americans to get there. But now that I live in Singapore I am actually pretty close. Kathmandu is only 2200 miles from Singapore - about the distance from New York City to Boise, Idaho. So I was hoping for another chance to visit Nepal. But Sandy was not too excited about the idea. Although a strong hiker, she wasn't too anxious to try trekking/camping. Sleeping on the ground and personal hygiene issues were enough to discourage her. She wasn't keen on the idea of a trip there.
But then this fall I got an opportunity. Sandy had a long business trip to the US scheduled for October. And while she was in the US she wanted to visit Wisconsin to see Shannon and the rest of her family. So it looked like she would be gone for three weeks or more. Rather than just wait in Singapore while she was gone, it was a chance for me to do something that wouldn't interest her. Sandy and I talked and she was supportive of me taking a trip on my own. The timing was good too. Winter is too cold in the Himalayas and summer is the monsoon season. Spring and fall usually have excellent weather. So I started to look for a possible Big Mountain trip for October. I didn't have much time to plan one. I came up with three possibilities.
My first thought was to go to Bhutan. It is a small country in the Himalaya just east of Nepal. It opened to travelers only in recent years and has limited the growth of tourism. When criticized by a western journalist that the economy was growing too slowly in Bhutan, the leader of the country responded that "we consider Gross National Happiness to be more important than Gross National Product". And in fact, although it is a poor country (it ranks 124th in personal income per capita) it has ranked in the top ten of countries on earth for happiness and life satisfaction. Certainly an intriguing place that I have always wanted to visit. It has fantastic mountains that reach 24,000 feet. And it has an interesting culture and some impressive sights like the Tiger's Nest. But a trip to Bhutan turned out to be about 50% more expensive than my other options. And the trip I was looking at was about 60/40 sightseeing vs trekking. So I decided to go with more trekking for less money and crossed Bhutan off the list. Maybe some day.
I looked at two other possibilities. One was the in the Indian Himalaya just east of Nepal around the mountain of Nanda Devi. I had read the books by the famous explorers Eric Shipton and Bill Tillman who were the first to find a passage into the Nanda Devi Sanctuary. I also had read about some of the famous ascents of the seventies and eighties on nearby peaks like Changabang and Dunagiri. It is an area I would love to explore.
The other possibility was in western Nepal. There are two famous eight thousand meter peaks there - Annapurna and Dhaulagiri. There are only fourteen mountains in the entire world that reach the magic eight thousand meter (26, 242 feet) mark. Annapurna was the first eight thousand meter peak to be climbed in 1950 by a french expedition. The book Annapurna by Maurice Herzog, the leader of the group and one of the summiters, is one of the most famous books in all mountaineering literature. And the south face of Annapurna was the first truly big wall climb done in the Himalaya by a British team in 1970. The story of that is told in the book Annapurna South Face by Chris Bonnington. Another peak in the Annapurna range, Machapuchare, is considered by some to be the most beautiful mountain on earth.
I found two companies that organized trips to those regions in about the right time frame. One was Mountain Travel Sobek, the American company that started the whole adventure travel buisiness back in the late seventies. The other was KE Adventure Travel in the UK. Both were reputable companies with a lot of experience in organizing treks. But another possibility was to work with Country Holidays, the tour agency here in Singapore that did our China and Cambodia trips for us and did a great job. On exploring more with them, it turned out that they could arrange the trek just for me. It would be a personal one - I would be the only person on the trek!
Since the cost of the two options (group vs. personal trek) was about the same, this made for a tough choice. On the one hand it is fun traveling with a group and meeting people who have similar interests. On the other hand, being able to be in control of the itinerary, not to mention having a tent to myself, sounded pretty good. I opted for the personal trek. Control freak? Moi?
That eliminated India from consideration but I still had to choose between the two classic treks in the Annapurna region. The Annapurna circuit goes completely around the Annapurna Range. It hikes up the Kali Gandaki, which is the deepest gorge in the world. At the start the river is less than 5000 feet above sea level, while Dhaulagiri on one side and Annapurna on the other are both over 26,000 feet high. Compare that to the Grand Canyon, which is about 5000 feet deep. The route circles behind the range crossing a 17000 foot pass, the Thorung La. Then it descends back to the Pokhara valley.
The other option was to trek to the Annapurna Sanctuary, a high mountain valley right in the center of the Annapurna Range surrounded by high peaks. This was the option I finally decided on. But then flights to Nepal looked to be fully booked. But I got lucky and Silk Air added some extra flights because of demand and I was just checking and noticed them. A quick email to the travel agent and the air was booked and the trek confirmed. Now I was going!
It is possible to get a visa on arrival but I thought doing it ahead of time would be safer and would also speed things up when I got to Kathmandu. I had some trouble finding the Nepal Consulate in Singapore. I was thinking of the US Embassy, or British High Commission, which are like huge forts on Dempsey Road. Even the Indonesian Embassy in Singapore is huge, which makes sense when you think of how much interaction there is between the two countries. But it took me over an hour to find the Nepal Consulate. Turns out that it is in a little cubbyhole of an office on the eighteenth floor of an office building near Clarke Quay. It's probably smaller than our living room.
There was only one lady there, apparently the secretary for the Consular General. She pointed to a sign that said that visa applications were only accepted between 10 am and noon. Since it was the afternoon I was out of luck. Ok, come back tomorrow. Next day I was back at 10 am. Unfortunately she told me the Consular General wasn't in that morning but as long as I was there she would do the visa for me. While I appreciated this, it was pretty obvious that if she could do the visa for me now, she could have done it for me yesterday. This however was a good warmup for dealing with life and especially bureaucracy in Nepal. I had my visa. Then I made a trip to the doctor to get Cipro just in case I developed any nasty stomach problems. And finally a trip to the mountaineering shop (yes, we have one in Singapore) for a few equipment items. Then I packed my duffle bag and on November 2 was off to Nepal.