Annapurna Circuit and Annapurna Base Camp treks in winter

In December 2013 David and I hiked the Annapurna Circuit and Annapurna Sanctuary (aka Annapurna Base Camp) in 20 days. 

cows "sharing" the path in upper chamje

cows “sharing” the path in upper chamje

hiking to upper pisang

hiking to upper pisang

The itinerary was as follows:

  • 12/11: Arrive in Kathmandu
  • 12/12: Drive Kathmandu to Bhulbhule, hike to Nadi
  • 12/13: Hike Nadi to Chamje
  • 12/14: Hike Chamje to Bagarchap
  • 12/15: Hike Bagarchap to Chame
  • 12/16: Hike Chame to Upper Pisang
  • 12/17: Hike Upper Pisang to Manang via the “high route”
  • 12/18: Rest day in Manang
  • 12/19: Hike Manang to Ledar.  Laura gets altitude sickness. Hooray!
  • 12/20: Descend a few hundred feet to the town of Yak Kharka
  • 12/21: Back on track, hike up to Thorung Phedi from Yak Kharka
  • 12/22: Hike Thorung Phedi to Muktinath via Thorung La Pass
  • 12/23: Hike Muktinath to Jomsom.
  • 12/24: Bus from Jomsom to Tatopani to make up for the lost altitude sickness day
  • 12/25: Hike Tatopani to Ghorepani
  • 12/26: Hike to Poon Hill before sunrise, then continue on to Tadapani
  • 12/27: Hike Tadapani to Chomrong
  • 12/28: Hike Chomrong to Himalaya
  • 12/29: Hike Himalaya to Annapurna Base Camp
  • 12/30: Hike ABC to Sinuwa
  • 12/31: Hike Sinuwa to Jhinudanda
  • 1/1: Hike Jhinu to Nayapul and drive to Pokhara
  • 1/2: Drive Pokhara to Kathmandu
  • 1/3: Free Kathmandu city tour
  • 1/4: Depart!
hiking from upper pisang to manang via the "high route"

hiking from upper pisang to manang via the “high route”

My gear included:

  • microspikes (didn’t use them)
  • rain pants (didn’t use them)
  • rain jacket
  • down jacket
  • wool sweater
  • EMS Techwick 3 long-sleeve shirt
  • wool long-sleeve shirt
  • wool short-sleeve shirt
  • wool leggings
  • wool pants
  • 4 pairs of underwear
  • 4 pairs of wool socks
  • 4 pairs of sock liners
  • EMS Boreal 20 sleeping bag (NOT WARM ENOUGH)
  • toiletries
  • liner gloves
  • skiing mittens (NOT WARM ENOUGH)
  • giant wool hat
  • hand sanitizer (necessary)
  • small bottle of laundry wash
  • camera + extra batteries
  • headlamp (for late night bathroom trips)
  • ugly crocs to wear around the tea houses
At the top of thorung-la pass.  I was... tired

At the top of thorung-la pass. I was… tired

I’m sure I’m forgetting something but you get the idea….

For this trip I hired a guide service because I was a bit worried about getting lost in the countryside of a foreign country where I couldn’t even read the language.  Having said that, this trip is very doable without a guide service and we saw many people completing the circuit sans guide.

Upon arrival at the airport we were met with our guide and proceeded towards their transport van. Along the way several other people came up to help us with our bags. The guide said nothing, and I foolishly thought these people were with our company too. NOPE. As soon as we were in the van, they started demanding “20 US Dollars” for approximately 10 seconds of bag carrying. Flustered and tired from a day of traveling, I think I threw 10 dollars at them and angrily closed the door. Not a great start to the trip, and I never really forgave our guide for not helping us! Super secret pro tip: Don’t let anyone touch your bags. TRUST NO ONE.

A note about Kathmandu: Kathmandu is intense. The sheer number of people. The poverty. The crumbling buildings. The motorbikes ready to run you over on the narrow cobble streets. The stray dogs that bark all night long. I have to admit I was very overwhelmed and thankful to be leaving the city for the mountains the next day. After the trek though, when I had calmed down a bit, I enjoyed walking around the narrow streets of the tourist district (Thamel) and sitting at a rooftop café sipping tea, or shopping for some lovely cheap colorful scarves.

The next day we drove the ~6 hours to the starting point from Kathmandu on the super scary road of death and motion sickness.  Super secret pro tip:  Take a private jeep to the starting point from Kathmandu. TRUST ME. Okay maybe don’t trust me, as I get motion sick at the drop of a hat and also have extreme fear of being in a bus that’s toppling over the side of a cliff. We saw several car wrecks, including a truck that had toppled over the side of a cliff. The roads are in rough shape and everyone drives like they need to get where they’re going RIGHT NOW. Also I still wanted to barf my face off despite the private jeep, but I’m very convinced I would’ve barf my face off a lot more if I had been on a bus. Our private transport cost $100. Considering the overall trip price it was a drop in the bucket and WORTH EVERY PENNY.  Fellow trekkers that took the tourist buses told us the buses are often late and take even longer to get to the starting point.

I won’t go through a daily play by play as those can be found elsewhere on the internets.  I will supply specific information about doing the trek in winter, though, along with other fun tidbits that i’d want to know if I was going (but I also want to research way too much about anything before doing it…)

sunrise over the dhaulagiri range from poon hill

sunrise over the dhaulagiri range from poon hill

Hiking in Winter: Cold!

  • December is the “off” season for the Annapurna circuit. When we started out and for most of the eastern portion of the trek before Manang, the tea houses were relatively empty and in some cases we were the only guests for the night. Everything changed in Manang though, and for the rest of the trek the tea houses were quite busy and we actually had other trekkers to talk to at night!
  • It was winter… and it was COLD at the higher elevations. I brought an EMS Boreal 20F bag on the trip and it is not enough if you’re a cold sleeper (which I am). Most of the tea houses, especially at higher altitude, provide you with blankets in addition to your sleeping bag. They were necessary! If I were to do the trek again, I’d bring a warmer bag. If you’re planning on trekking in the winter, also be sure to bring your biggest, puffiest down jacket, along with several layers to wear under it!
  • We started hiking towards Thorung La around ~5am and it was brutally cold. I’m used to hiking in the New Hampshire white mountains in the middle of winter and have never been so cold as the day we went over Thorung La. I was hiking with an EMS techwick 3, wool sweater, Mont Bell thermawrap pro, AND a down jacket and was still cold. I didn’t bring insulated shoes because I didn’t want to carry them for the rest of the trek, but my feet were so cold that day, we had to stop several times so David could take my feet out of my shoes and warm them. Of course he was fine because only my body decides that it doesn’t want to keep my toes. So if you have poor circulation like me… be prepared. Oh… and your chemical warmers will not work at elevation… there isn’t enough oxygen!!
  • We didn’t encounter much snow on our trek but it’s not unheard of for the pass to be closed for a day or more due to snowfall.  We incorporated extra days into our trip because of this, but we didn’t have a delay and were able to complete the Annapurna Sanctuary in addition to the circuit.
annapurna 1 from annapurna base camp

annapurna 1 from annapurna base camp

Personal hygiene: Will I shower!?!?

  • I was able to take more showers than I anticipated, especially at lower elevation. These showers varied a LOT in quality, from steaming hot solar showers in Manang to a luke warm bucket in Upper Pisang. At elevation we weren’t able to shower because all of the pipes are frozen. I think the longest I had to go without showering at any given time was 4 days. My super secret pro tip for people with greasy hair: wear a hat and NEVER TAKE IT OFF, EVER.
  • There are outdoor washing basins where I did laundry once every few days.  Since it was so cold, nothing dried particularly fast and i was often strapping wet socks to the outside of my backpack so they could dry in the sun while we hiked to the next location.
doing laundry in chomrong

doing laundry in chomrong

Culture:

  • As a feminist and drinker of man tears, I wasn’t sure what to expect in the conservative culture of Nepal. I never encountered any aggressive or overt sexism but it was definitely there. Our guide never addressed me by name. When our meals were ready, he would always say “David, your food is ready.” After a week of steaming about it, I finally, gently explained to our guide that it is uncomfortable for me that he only addresses David, so for the rest of the trip he refrained from using either of our names. So… mission accomplished? I don’t think this phenomenon was unique to our guide, though. For a few days we had the same trekking schedule as a lovely British mom and son pair, and I only ever heard their guide say the son’s name. From this small sample size, I have no idea if this is typical, but if you’re uncomfortable, say something (in the nicest way possible)!
kathmandu from the roof of the hotel moon light

kathmandu from the roof of the hotel moon light

Altitude: Aka when my puke was hot pink

  • The Annapurna circuit trek tops out at ~17,800ft and Annapurna sanctuary reaches ~13,500ft. In either case, you go slowly, adding around 2,000 feet or less a day. This didn’t stop me from getting sick, though! After spending 2 days in Manang at ~11,000ft, we carried on to Yak Kharka, ~13,500ft. I think the official recommended altitude increase per night is around 1,500 ft, so we had gone slightly over that. I had started to feel a bit woozy on the hike up and had a bit of a headache but we foolishly pressed on. For the rest of the day I actually felt fine, and even felt fine when I went to sleep. But, surprise surprise, I woke up in the middle of the night feeling like HELL. I spent some time chugging Pepto, hoping the magical pinkness would somehow make me un-sick, only to have hot pink puke come out later that evening. I only wish I had taken a picture. The next morning we stayed at the same altitude, I started taking diamox, and was fine after that.  Conclusion: bring diamox with you, and start taking it before you vomit 🙂
confusing sign

confusing sign

Food:

  • As a lactose intolerant vegetarian with a notoriously temperamental stomach at the best of times, I feel qualified to speak on the will-this-make-me-sick food factor. The menu was actually almost the same at every tea house, and it was almost exclusively Chinese food! Go figure. Lots of fried rice and fried noodles. There’s also lots of soup, and if you’re in a bigger town like Manang or Muktinath, veggie burgers and pizza! The token Nepalese dish at every tea house is dal bhat, and this is what all of the guides and porters eat (it is also delicious). I was pretty paranoid about my stomach due to the aforementioned sensitivities, so for the first week I think I had plain boiled noodles for every meal. Not exciting, but no food-induced puking or diarrhea… horray! David had no problems except for a random pizza vomiting incident one night before Annapurna base camp.
boudhanath in kathmandu

boudhanath in kathmandu

The trail:

  • Spending most of my time hiking in New Hampshire, I’m used to rough trails with lots of ankle breaking rocks and knee-pounding steepness. The circuit is definitely easier to walk, especially since much of the trail is now along a road. The hardest walking was the day we went over the pass, as the ground was loose sandy shale with patches of ice and I was definitely walking carefully and using my hiking poles! That was also our steepest day, with about 6000 ft of elevation lost. On the Annapurna Sanctuary part of the trek, every day was up and down and up and down, sometimes over stone staircases, But I find that easier to walk on than loose shale and didn’t have too many problems, even with my bad knees.
one of the nicer rooms we stayed in, Jhinu

one of the nicer rooms we stayed in, Jhinu

So scenery: Circuit or Sanctuary?

  • Although the sanctuary trek is shorter and attracts many more non-hikers, there’s a reason for that…the scenery is amazing. The scenery along the circuit was also amazing, but in the sanctuary there is a higher concentration of oh-my-god-mountains scenery and you get more bang for your scenery bucks in a shorter amount of time. Also there are no roads on the sanctuary trek, which definitely gives it an unfair advantage.
not affiliated with any other walmart?

not affiliated with any other walmart?

Random tips and tricks:

  • Sanctuary trek: if you are well acclimated, I definitely recommend spending the night at Annapurna base camp. Many companies lead their groups up there in the morning and walk them back down in the afternoon so they don’t have to sleep at that altitude. I would’ve been super upset if we had done that, since Annapurna 1 was covered in clouds by the time we arrived after lunch. Sure enough, the next morning there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and I took lots and lots of sunrise pictures of Annapurna 1. Bonus: Staying the night also means lovely sunset pictures of Machapuchare, and if you want to freeze your butt off sitting outside with your camera on a picnic table, some nice star pictures!
  • Go in the off season. For realz. We were there during the off season and the western side of the circuit and the sanctuary trek were both very crowded. At some locations there is only one tea house and it can book up. One day our guide ran ahead of us to secure a room because he was so concerned. I can’t imagine how crowded it is during peak tourist season.
  • Bring cough drops.  I developed a nasty cough about a week into the trek and it stayed with me until we returned to lower elevation at the very end of the trek.  Apparently my delicate sea-level throat couldn’t take the dry, high elevation air.  I heard many a cough from other trekkers, too!
  • Get a guide. If you want. I was nervous about such a large undertaking in a foreign country so I knew I wanted a guide service. Although I wasn’t in love with our guide (for the reasons listed in my rants above), he knew the trail, gave me diamox, and no one died.   In my humble opinion, the path of the circuit trek is not always clear, especially with the addition of the roads, and there were a few times where I definitely would’ve led myself astray. If you’re a better navigator than me, though, there are plenty of people who do this trek without a guide. The sanctuary part of the trek has a very obvious trail, and lots and lots of people to ask for help if you were somehow unsure of yourself.
  • Don’t take a bus at any point on the trail unless you want to barf your face off. Because of my altitude sickness day, we had to take a bus from Jomsom to Tatopani to catch up with our itinerary. Even after throwing back two Dramamines from a friendly fellow trekker (thanks Mike!) I still spent that 5 hour bus ride in absolute agony, concentrating on not barfing all over myself as Nepalese music blasted from the speakers. Coincidentally, I might now have a pavlovian aversion to Nepalese music.
  • If you have itinerary flexibility, plan in some rest days. Our only official rest day was a day in Manang, and that took a heavy toll on me psychologically. Also I’m lazy and didn’t want to hike every day. But really, book some rest days. I would’ve loved to spend an extra day in Muktinath, Marpha, or some of the other towns we breezed through.

Wow did you read all that? I commend you. Or question your judgement. Either way, if you have any questions feel free to post them here. I’m happy to help a fellow traveler!

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