On the shadow of the Annapurnas

Tek loaded up the giant duffel bags of gear.  By “loaded up” I mean he put them both into a large plastic sack (big enough to fit two or three Teks) put a rope around them that attached to a plastic bandanna which he placed around his head.  He then set off up steeps steps in the jungly hills.  I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  My tiny pack was nestled nicely over my shoulders and contained not much more than a jacket and water.  I was astonished that with a giant smile Tek carried these massive loads up and down the Himalayas.

Annapurna - Tharpu Chuli Trek

As we hiked up through the jungle we talked about how we were surprised to be in such a tropical climate.  The other mountains we have visited are in dry climates.  In all of the movies we had watched about the Himalayas we hadn’t really noticed that the south side of the range gets much more rain than the north side causing it to feel like a tropical island.

The trail we followed was made of hand cut rocks carefully placed to become perfect steps through the hillside.  We had never hiked on a trail that was in such good condition.  Aside from the cow patties that were strewn across the trail, it was remarkably clean and easy to follow.  There are no roads and helicopters are seldom used for transporting goods and supplies to the small mountain villages.  This makes trails the primary method of transportation for trekkers, shepherds, school children, and porters carrying supplies up to the villages.  Nearly every that exists along these network of trails was carried up there by animals or more often by people.

Annapurna - Tharpu Chuli Trek

As we hiked our guide, Maule, told us about the Himalayas and it’s people.  Maule and Tek are from the Khumbu region where it is natural for fit young men (and now more frequently women) to enter the business of being a mountain guide or porter.  Most start as porters and then try to work their way up the ranks.  Porters who become cooks get paid a bit more and have more opportunities.  Cooks can then sometimes become guides.  Then once a guide there are different levels of designation.

We learned that the word “sherpa” is usually incorrectly used by westerners to describe everyone from guides to porters.  A “Sherpa” is both a ethnic group and a guide level designation.  When someone is called “Lakpa Sherpa” their first name is “Lakpa” and their family name or ethnic group is “Sherpa”.  In this case “Lakpa” might or might not have achived the Sherpa guide designation.  Our guide “Maule Tamang” is from the “Tamang” family or ethnic group.

After a few hours of trekking on our first day we arrived at Dhampus, a quaint little town perched on a ridge line in the jungle hills.  Our accommodations were a clean guest house (or tea house) with about 20 small rooms.  Surprisingly the beds were comfortable and because it was the off season we were the only ones there.  We spent the afternoon sitting outside reading, drinking tea, and relaxing.  Tea houses offer a number of options for food, everything from pizza to dal bhat to momos.

Everything is freshly prepared using many local ingredients since things that can be grown locally or obtained from the local yaks and goats will be fresher and less expensive.

After dinner on our first night on the trail we were lucky to have  clouds break just before dark.  The view was more astonishing than we had ever imagined it would be.  Directly in front of us stood some amazing massive mountains.  They jutted into the sky like nothing we had ever seen before.  Their glaciers, rock faces, and sharp ridges seemed to be something out of a fantasy movie or abstract painting.  It just didn’t seem possible that something so beautiful and magnificent could be standing right in front of us.  We sat there without words squinting our eyes trying to take it all in until the light had completely disappeared.

The next morning at sunrise the mountains were still visible.  In the cold morning air they seem to be frozen in time as if someone has pulled back a curtain from a panoramic picture from long ago.  As the sunlight began to hit the peaks long before it reached me, I realized just how far above the peaks are.  Some which seem within reach are actually over five thousand meters above me.  It’s hard not to want to spend all day just gazing and getting lost in the seemingly unreal views.

For the next few days we followed a simple pattern: wake up, eat, hike for about 4 hours, arrive at a tea house, have lunch, read, relax, play cards, eat dinner, and then go to bed.  It was more restful than any vacation we’ve ever been on.  The views continued to wet our appetites for the total envelopment we would experience inside the Annapurna Sanctuary.  For the first few days we moved through the jungle toward the Sanctuary. During this time, the trails, towns, and terrain were similar.  Around four days into the trip we reached rougher terrain, with some snow on the ground, colder temperatures, and walls of rock in the canyons that shot into the sky.  Above, way above, these immense walls were the glaciers and mountains peaks we had seen from a distance.

As we approached the Sanctuary I felt anxious.  Not about the dangers ahead but because I was entering into something so much bigger and so much more spectacular than anything I’d ever experienced.  I felt as though it were almost too much, too overwhelming.  Perhaps I don’t belong in a place that can make one feel so small and so overpowered by the surrounding beauty.  Perhaps this is why it is called the Sanctuary.It seems as though you have entered something sacred, powerful, fierce, and yet so intoxicatingly beautiful that only gods really belong there.

As the clouds would momentarily break we’d see slivers of the mountains that now surrounded us.  It was haunting because we knew there were more, and if the clouds completely cleared I might just break down and weep due to the overwhelming beauty.

When we arrived at the Annapurna South Base Camp it was cold and nearly snowing.  We warmed up with some tea, but the cold damp air made it difficult to stay warm.  Thank goodness Tek had carried up, among other things, our down jackets.  The table at the tea house also had a heater underneath that aided us in staying warm.  It’s always humorous to gaze around the walls of a tea house.  You know that some of the best climbers in the world have stayed in these same places.  You almost expect to see pictures of Maurice Herzog or Ed Viesturs.  But instead you will find posters of Mr. T and the Austrian Alps.  I suppose that when you see so much beauty and such amazing climbers regularly it’s nice to occasionally take a break and ponder the A-Team.

That afternoon at Annapurna Base Camp the clouds broke and it was indescribable.  Three hundred and sixty degrees around us stood some of the largest mountains in the world.  We were surrounded by beauty like we had never seen before.  The south face of Annapurna I was towered above us with snarled snow fields and sheer rock faces.  The ragged glaciers creeped slowly down from the high summits above.  We were completely overwhelmed with awe and left speechless.

After enjoying some time in the high altitude camps of the Annapurna Sanctuary we had to return back.  We felt a tension about leaving.  A part of us wanted to stay forever, continually being filled with the power of nearly endless beauty.  We were given the gift of a few moments in the Sanctuary but were meant to live in the ordinary valleys of life having been changed by our experience in the Sanctuary.

As we trekked back through the jungle the images of the Sanctuary would pop back into my mind.  After only a few days those images began to feel like a dream.  How could something so beautiful have been real?  But it was real!  Our experiences with the Himalayas have transformed us into people who more fully appreciate the beauty of this earth and the beauty of the people who get to enjoy it.

– By James Ward

James & Jenny Ward from Colorado, USA a had trekked to Tharpu Chuli on the Spring of 2009. Explore Himalaya had organized their trek.

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