It seems almost customary to be preparing for an expedition or event of high physical exertion whilst nursing an injury. I pulled my hamstring one week before the Leicester marathon, I suffered tendon or ligament damage to my ankle one week before the Welsh 3000s and whilst enjoying “one last blow out before we turn 30” in Ibiza with some of my closest friends five weeks before the first notoriously physically demanding module of Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service training I severely sprained my ankle. I don’t believe that I am an accident prone individual, maybe I am unlucky or maybe I am just made of glass as one of my climbing partners, Andy, can empathise with. Fortunately and with sincere gratitude to my friends Eliza, the orthotist and Lucy, the physiotherapist, I completed the marathon surpassing my target time, I finished the Welsh 3000s within the allotted 24 hours and I graduated through LFRS training school.
My ambition to make it to Annapurna Base Camp was of no exception to this rule. Against all odds I had set forth on the Annapurna Circuit unscathed and in prime physical condition, though it came at a cost. I pushed the boat out slightly too far and after 12 consecutive days of trekking, covering a total of 247 kilometres, I had to resort to catching a bus the final 23 kilometres due to a suspected case of Achilles tendonitis. My ambition of seamlessly continuing through to Annapurna Base Camp was out of the question. I retreated to Pokhara for three days of pizza, coffee and beer. Oh, and some much needed injury rehabilitation.
I was accompanied by Will, the Aussie who joined our team on the Annapurna Circuit trek. We caught a local bus and started out from Kande, a small village on the edge of the Annapurna Conservation Area. The Annapurna Base Camp trek is one of the most popular trekking routes, the path is well maintained and easy to follow. The first couple of days we enjoyed a routine of pleasant morning trekking followed by early afternoon showers. The trail lead us through green, terraced valleys and small hillside villages. I had to tread carefully to minimise the stress through my left calf and ankle, luckily it was holding out.
Daal bhat had become a fundamental part of trail life, we devoured copious amounts and decided that we should rate each daal bhat on a scale out of 40, awarding up to 10 points for the following categories; Presentation, Service, Daal, Everything else. Cold temperatures and spicy food is the perfect recipe for a streaming nose and with the lack of log burners to warm our snouts many lodges would lose points for the absence of napkins on the dining table. After lunch each day we would count down the hours until our next meal and eagerly awaited helping of “BD.”
As we continued onward the trail undulated through Landruk, crossed hanging bridges to Chomrong, descended huge stone steps and then climbed another series of steps to Sinuwa, where the single track is engulfed by a steep sided valley and becomes two way traffic, the only way in and out of the Annapurna Sanctuary.
A week before we checked into the lodge in Sinuwa, whilst enjoying popcorn and beer at the Movie Garden, an open air cinema in Pokhara, the sky erupted with flashes of lightning in an awesome display of power as thunder shook the windows of local restaurants. The heavens opened and the roads quickly turned to rivers. Heavy rain in Pokhara usually means heavy snow at Annapurna Base Camp. Over one metre of snow fell in one night, rescue helicopters were called out to rescue people who were unable to make tracks through the snow to descend back to safety. The trail had been completely covered and, for a time, ascending to Base Camp was not possible, people along the trail had no choice but to turn back.
Since Will and I had set out we hadn’t met anyone coming the other way who had successfully made it, trekkers and their guides affirmed that it was not possible. To add to our anxieties each day we had been counting the helicopters flying over head wondering whether they were rescuing more people who were stranded or if they were helicopters ferrying tourists up for a day trip. One morning we had counted nine helicopters by 10:30. We arrived at the Annapurna Conservation Area check post in Chomrong where only two people had logged a successful return from Base Camp since the storm without the need for helicopter rescue. After much debate we were close to changing the plan and opting for a more leisurely trek to Poon Hill. Whilst waiting for our daal bhat in Sinuwa I approached a European woman who was trekking in the opposite direction, thankfully she had made it to Base Camp and lived to tell the tale. Apparently the snow was still very deep but there was a trail. Two Italian trekkers who had trail blazed through the snow towards Base Camp were met by a group of trekkers and their guide descending, alas the new trail was formed. It was on, with a restored sense of excitement we agreed to continue onward and upwards the next morning.
I woke the next morning after a poor night of interrupted sleep. I had been suffering from stomach discomfort and by the morning my diarrhea count totalled 11 in the last 24 hours. One consolation of making numerous midnight trips to the long drop was that the sky was perfectly clear and the celestial constellations perforated the darkness of night with pure, perfect starlight between the black, mysterious mountains. I would gaze upwards for a few precious moments before I began to freeze and retreated back to the warmth of my sleeping bag.
The trail passed through the aptly named village of Bamboo, tucked away, as one would imagine, in forests of bamboo, and continued on through Dovan and Himalaya. As we gained altitude the path gradually became encrusted with snow and ice and we heard distant rumbles of avalanches, a stark reminder of the recent storm. We crossed small mountain streams, trudged through forests and navigated the avalanche risk zones until we came to the settlement of Deurali, 3,200 metres, where we would spend the night before the final ascent to Base Camp the following morning.
The Annapurna Base Camp Trek is considerably shorter and less treacherous than the Annapurna Circuit, there was no need to trek excessively every day and so most afternoons we were able to put our feet up and relax. Deurali was peaceful and situated perfectly, the afternoon sun beamed directly up the valley. I took my hiking boots off and enjoyed an afternoon doze on the veranda.
Inevitably, the sun sank below the valley wall and the temperature plummeted so we retreated to the dining room. Whilst awaiting the arrival of our daal bhat a Spanish woman, Laura, joined us from the lodge below. She warned us that the weather was due to turn and snow was scheduled for the next two days. This was not good news and could potentially destroy our dreams of an Annapurna Base Camp sunrise. After conversing throughout the evening I learned that Laura is a keen rock climber and outdoor adventurer, we agreed to team up and set out as a three in the morning. The toilet tally had risen to 16 episodes in 48 hours.
At 08:00 we were joined by Laura and decided it would be wise to set off in micro-spiked crampons. It was overcast but fortunately the forecast snow had not yet started to fall. Beyond Deurali the snow was deep, we began to follow a well trodden trail through the snow before it split. I don’t know why but we took the left fork, the trail petered out and we ended up trail blazing through soft, knee deep snow for the next hour. It took me right back to my time mountaineering in Scotland during the previous winter with my good friend Phil, fond memories.
We finally rejoined the main trail, laughed it off and made light work of the next few kilometres to Machapuchare Base Camp, 3,700 metres, where we stopped for a short rest and a poo. From here we would be trekking up into the Annapurna Sanctuary, Edmund Hillary describes this as “One of the best mountain sites of the world.” We only needed to cover a total of 8.3 kilometres, the landscape was so captivating that I took my time to soak up every moment. The trail dissected oceans of fresh, untouched snow that lapped up like still waves against the boulders that are strewn throughout the valley.
One thing I love about trekking through snow is the stillness and the solitude. The only sounds to penetrate the silence is the crunching of crampons as they embed firmly into the ice, interspersed by deep breathing. It’s almost like a mountaineers mantra ‘Crunch, inhale, crunch, exhale.’ At times I can almost hear the beating of my own heart.
It took less than three hours to reach Annapurna Base Camp at 4,130 metres from Deurali. It wasn’t quite the dizzying heights of Thorong La Pass and unfortunately, it was still overcast and the peaks of the Annapurna range and Machapuchare were nowhere to be seen but there was certainly a mystical appeal. Against the odds, my left Achilles had held up, I was elated but at the same time anxious about the descent, the downward gradient would put more stress on my tendons and if I did any serious damage there is a risk that it might put the next leg of my cycle tour in jeopardy.
We checked into Snowland Lodge, one of four lodges open to trekkers at Base Camp. The owner had kindly offered to light the under-table gas heater free of charge. The three of us shared a room where the pathway had been cleared but the extent of the storm just over a week ago was still evident. Snow was piled over 1.5 metres deep and had half buried the walls of other lodges. We were certainly in for a cold night.
The highlight of trekking to Annapurna Base Camp is waking up at the crack of dawn and witnessing a spectacular sunrise. Since we had arrived, the wind had picked up to almost gale force strength and snow whipped throughout Base Camp. Laura checked the weather forecast for the next day, it did not look good. Clouds and persistent snow fall. We debated our options whilst enjoying a coffee and mutually agreed to spend an entire day at Base Camp and wait for the skies to clear the morning after.
The night was extremely cold, I woke before sunrise for a scheduled trip to the lavatory. I waded through 20 centimetres of fresh snow. The wind blew in strong, unpredictable, icy gusts, crystals swirled erratically through Base Camp in the illumination of my head torch. Snow had also managed to find a way into the bedroom and carpeted the floor by the door.
In the morning the three of us lay in bed reading before migrating from our sleeping bags to the dining area. We had a whole day to kill and almost went stir crazy. After a second coffee Will and I burst out into a Les Miserablés mega-mix duet to the amusement of the Laura and the lodge staff. I somehow took on the role of prime storyteller and must have told every interesting Luke Woods life story, to the point that Laura felt as if she already knew some of my closest friends. I could relate to Laura about almost every aspect of our lives. We share very similar ideologies, have the same outlook on life and both have a passion for mountaineering and the outdoors. She had been awarded a computer science Fellowship in the US and I was envious of the rock faces that lay on her doorstep. In the afternoon we watched as trekkers arrived appearing one by one out of the snowstorm.
The lodge was eventually overrun with Korean trekkers. We conversed with the only English speaker who thought that Will was a reincarnation of a reborn, Elvis Presley. I found this hilarious and chuckled as he posed looking somewhat bemused for a number of selfies with the bashful Korean women. We soon retired to bed and set our alarm for 06:00 in eager anticipation for an epic sunrise. If the integrity of the weather forecast held up then the temperature was due to plummet to -20°C through the night. The crap count now exceeded 20, I was an honorary member of the Brown Club.
To be continued….