Annapurna Base Camp, Himalayas, Nepal
Elevation: 4130m (13,629 ft.)
Temperature: 2°C (35°F)
After 6 days of gradually gaining altitude through the deep gorge of the Modi Khola river valley, our group of 11 adventurers has finally arrived at Annapurna Base Camp, the highest point that we will achieve on the 11 day trek. Ten minutes ago an avalanche came thundering down the walls of Annapurna, the 8,000m massif that towers over us and has the rare ability to turn a group of 20 people completely silent with its beauty. As I watch the thundering white wall obliterate its way down the mountain, I’m eerily enough standing amidst monuments dedicated to climbers who have lost their lives on the mountain, strings of Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the breeze.
***Since writing this, an expedition of 3 Korean climbers on Annapurna who I encountered on the trail is now feared dead after disappearing in what was most likely an avalanche. Annapurna is one of the deadliest mountains in the world, and for every 3 people who reach the summit, 1 climber will never come home.***
Sitting in this misty brown meadow on the edge of the clouds we are in the heart of the Himalayas. Five days ago when we began this trek in the village of Pothana, the spine of Central Asia rose up before me like a distant panorama. Now, with the fog rolling in and a steaming cup of black tea by my side, these same crags rise vertically above me from every direction I turn.
The journey to this point has been remarkably comfortable and not all that arduous. As we are here on a trek run by Gecko’s Adventures and Adventure Center, the sherpas and porters take care of all the heavy lifting and serve us our food in the lodges. Rarely do we hike more than 5 hours in a day, and there is always a bed waiting for us at the final village. It may be 2, 4, or 5 people in the room, but nonetheless it’s a bed that you don’t have to pack and carry. All lodges thus far have featured hot showers, cold beer, and an unforeseen amount of electrical outlets. Sure, you may have a squat toilet and a concrete floor, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it roughing it. In terms of long-distance trekking, few places I have been have offered a greater degree of comfort.
As for the trek, these footpaths which we walk each day also serve as the main highway for the Gurung villagers living high in these hills. Every item in these villages has been hand carried up here by Herculean porters, from cans of soda to the refrigerator keeping them cold. I passed a man wearing rubber slippers carrying a load of 70 kilos (157 lbs) on a set of near vertical stairs, a white cloth strap slung around his forehead to balance the weight. I asked him how much he himself weighs. He tells me 65 kilos. Two days later, I would be forced to yield the path to a sheepherder driving 700 head of sheep down to Pokhara, a task he hoped to complete in a little less than 4 days. In the village of Landruk, a town of maybe 2,000 people, we were able to stop and spectate a local high school volleyball game where the opposing team needed to walk for two days to get here.
Meanwhile, the scenery on this march has oscillated from dense rainforests dripping with waterfalls to the roof of the world opening up before me. Outside the village of Jhinu, natural hot springs lining the river set the perfect scene for enjoying the full moon and a cold Everest beer. Now, as I sit here beneath the enveloping mists of Base Camp, such warm weather indulgences seem much a thing of the past.
Ambling amongst these hills, however, I can’t seem to shake the curious dichotomy of lifestyles that exists along the trail. It’s almost to the point that there are two completely separate groups of people who are mutually indifferent to the other. As I stop for a black tea in the village of Bamboo, a middle aged Nepalese woman dutifully scrubs her laundry at the communal concrete slab. In the ten minutes that it takes me to drain my tea, no less than 25 trekkers pass right by the woman, not one of them paying her any mind. Likewise, the woman with her washing seemingly feels no need to address the continuous crowd of tourists who trek through her home during this peak Nepal trekking season. It’s as if there are two groups of people co-habitating this valley with drastically different goals and remarkably little overlap.
So as I move amongst these narrow trails I want to make as much of an effort as I can to connect with those who call Annapurna their home. Instead of paying to wash my clothes, I wash them myself at the communal hose. I quickly bathe in the cold streams, and join them for a game of volleyball once we reach camp. I eat traditional dal bhat with nothing but my right hand, wipe with nothing but my left (yeah, it’s gross, but when in Rome…). It’s not much, but I want to at least make an attempt to connect with this culture while I am a guest here in their mountains.
Back here at Base Camp and literally surrounded by snowy peaks in every direction that I look, there is little left on my schedule than to cozy up with a thermos of black tea and watch the shadows on the mountain peaks gradually lose their battle with the sun. It’s a surreal experience sitting out in this empty field. For all of the places on the planet I could find myself in, I somehow sit here in the absolute middle of nowhere, the cracking of a nearby glacier the only sound breaking the silence.