My Nepali guide, Prem, and I leave the highway at the village of Phedi around 8:30 in the morning heading for the Annapurna Basecamp, or ABC, as the locals call it. The first half hour is a constant climb up the side of a steep grade but the stone steps placed there by the villagers help a lot. When we reach a small hotel at the top of the first knoll, at the village of Dhampis, we stop for a brief rest. It's hot and I am moving slow and sweating buckets so when we re-shoulder our packs, Prem insists we load the majority of our gear into the bigger of the two sacks which he then carries. I am given the lighter pack that holds little more than a bottle of water.
His offer to act as porter as well as guide is appreciated, but I suspect his motives are something less than wholey altruistic. He's young, just 23, and climbs at a much faster pace than my 63-year-old body can manage. I think he'd just as soon I pick up the pace even if it means a greater burden for himself. "I am young and strong," he tells me, "you enjoy hike much better with small pack... Yes, I think so."
The rest of the day is up and down. Climb, descend, repeat. Up one ridge, then, down into a river valley, then, up the next hill. The Nepali villages we pass through are tucked up against steep mountainsides on small terraces they share with corn and wheat fields as well as with water buffalo, goats, chickens and horses, and of course, the farmers and their wives and children. At about 4:00 we reach Pothana where we will stop for the night. The accommodations are basic: a small cement chamber with bare walls and one window. There are two wooden platforms raised a foot off the stone floor with thin mattress maybe two inches thick. A single compact fluorescent bulb dangles by its wire.
Dinner is served in a common dining room where I join a group of Brits coming down from ABC. They are sunburned and grizzled and happy. My guide takes my dinner order and disappears into the kitchen. In a half an hour I'm wolfing down a plate of fried noodles with vegetables in a spicy red sauce. I wash it down with a huge bottle of Everest Beer and stumble off to bed.
Annapurna was first climbed in 1950 by a French team lead by legendary mountaineer, Maurice Herzog. It was the first of the 8,000 meter Himalayan giants to be conquered which is quite a triumph in itself. But the real kicker is that they made it on the first try; a feat of courage and will unmatched in Himalayan climbing to this day.
My goal is comsiderably more modest. I'd read Herzog's book in my early 20's and it had inspired me to become a climber though certainly nowhere near Herzog's caliber. I'll be satisfied just to trod the same ground as him and stand in the place where he began his historic ascent.
I am awake before sunrise and lie beneath the cover urging the dawn. As the first weak rays stream in through the small window, I'm up and packing. Prem is still asleep on his palate so I tiptoe out, find the washroom, brush my teeth and splash cold water on my face. I glance at my watch and see that it's barely 6:30. I'm the first of the trekkers up and I wander over to the diningroom where I rouse a sleepy cook and order up pancakes and milk tea.
As I'm finishing my meal, Prem comes in and sits down on the bench beside me. "You up early," he says, "I think maybe I stay here a while and you start out." He points toward the trail winding out of sight around a ridge, "Stay, stay, on trail and I catch up up after."
That's okay with me. I prefer to hike alone. It gives me the opportunity to drift along at my own slow pace and stop to take in the view when the spirit moves me.
Most of the walking this morning will be on the flat or downhill. It's nice not to have to climb so much but I resent loosing all that hard gained altitude of Day One. By late morning, Prem has caught up and we descend again to the Modi Khola, a raging torrent hurrying down through a tortureous gorge from the glaciers far above. With my heart in my throat, I cross a swinging cable bridge strumg precariously a hundred feet above the Khola's boiling waters and jumbled boulders. Immediately on the other side we begin to climb again. This one is steep and I use the rest step taught to me by the Mt. Rainier guides to make the thirty-minute ascent to the top of the ridge. My heart sinks when I spy our goal for the day, the ridge top village of Jhinu. I can see from my airy perch that I'll have to drop down hundreds of feet to a tributary, then, re-ascend those hundreds of feet plus a hundred more before this day is done.
Jihnu is renowned among trekkers and locals alike for the curative powers of its hot springs. When we reach the village, Prem insists we hike the 15 minutes to the springs for a good soak but that last climb has left me exhausted and when I see that getting to the springs involves descending back down to the Modi I stop in my tracks, turn and head for bed where I pull the covers over my head for a nice relaxing nap.
I'm awakened in the middle of the night by a dull ache. It takes me a few moments to pinpoint it and finally I realize that it's my old knee injury kicking up again. I reach down to massage it and discover to my horror that it's swollen to half again its normal size. I can move it but doing so sends sparks of pain up and down my leg. I get up and take a couple of Ibuprofen, then, fall back into a fitful sleep.
Jihnu is at 1780 meters, hardly high enough to qualify as High Altitude, at least not for the company in which Maurice Herzog and his teammates circulated. They were the first humans to reach a height of over 8,000 meters under their own steam but they paid a dear price for the honor. As I stand outside the guesthouse this morning I get my first good view of Machhapuchhre or "Fishtail", a companion peak of Annapurna. It's not nearly as high as Annapurna but it looks imposing as hell in this early morning light etched vividly as it is against an impossibly blue sky. I gently stretch to work the stiffness out of my bum knee and try to imagine what it had been like for Herzog when he and Louis Lachenal finally stood on Annapurna's summit. And when, during the descent and in an hypoxic daze, Herzog made the tragic mistake that nearly cost him his life and triggered of one of the most epic acts of heroism in the annals of climbing history.
But it's best to put such grim thoughts out of my mind for now. It's a fine clear morning and the air is like scentless perfume. I've had a big breakfast, my pack is light and my knee is useable if not quite in sprinting condition. If I baby it and use my walking stick I'm certain I can make it to Basecamp just three days from now.
Prem and I have fallen into a comfortable routine. I'm out of the village and on the trail by 7:00 am. Prem likes to sleep in and he usually doesn't get going until a bit later. He catches up with me around mid morning and we take a break together at one of the little mountain villages at midday. Today we stop at Kuldhigar. "Do you want to eat, Father?" He asks. He's taken to calling me by this name, and by "Ba" which is, he tells me, Nepali for dad.
"Nah," I say, "I'm not really hungry." The truth is, I could eat a bite but I find it uncomfortable to eat in front of Prem. The 15$ a day I'm paying his agent back in Pokhara is supposed to cover his time and his room and board. He waits on me hand and foot and sits patiently while I pack in the calories. I assume he gets sustenance from the kitchens of the restaurants where we stop but I never see him eat. Food is expensive this far up the trail and I can't afford to buy his meals so I've been skipping lunch. But that's okay I need to burn off some fat anyway.
Prem is engaged in comversation with a couple of the other guides and I shoulder my pack, grab my walking stick and with a wave to Prem, start out from Kuldhigar. As I pass the next guesthouse I buy a candy bar and wolf it down as I hike out of the village.
The goal for today is the village of Bamboo. We gained a lot of altitude yesterday and this afternoon I lose some of it in my descent to the village. As I go lower toward the Khola the jungle thickens around me. The trail winds down past giant ferns and tall palms. Through a break in the canopy overhead a huge bird wheels across the sky and disappears. At one point I pass a large, gnarled rhododendron tree with the most beautiful rubine blooms. Some of the blossoms have fallen onto the trail and form a kind of scarlet carpet. For the first time I fully realize what a strange and exotic place this is. With its weird sights, sounds and scents, it hits home just how far from home I really am.
Around 3:00 I reach Bamboo and as I step into the shelter of the guesthouse the rain begins to fall. Lightly and sporadically at first, then, in full force. I collapse on my bed and drift off into a light slumber. But soon I'm awakened by the pounding of hail on the tin roof and I get up and dash through the deluge to the restaurant just in time to see Prem walking up the trail. I give him a wave and a shout and point to our room. He runs over and disappears inside.
I sit down at the table next to a young trekker and we introduce ourselves. His name is Alastair, a Brit, and like me, he's in the marketing game. We hit it off right away and whyle away the evening talking shop.
I get an early start out of Bamboo this morning heading for the village of Deurali where we'll spend the last night before the push to ABC. The trail hugs the bank of the Modi Khola now and the sight and sound of the river is never far away. It's a steady uphill grind from here and the canyon narrows as I get closer to the river's source. Machhapuchhre dominates the skyline over there to the right and I stop often to snap pictures. I'm walking in the faint light of predawn but the sky is a deep blue beyond Machhapuchhre. Soon the sun will be up.
It's cool and I'm wearing a thin pair of fleece gloves and the orange, counterfit North Face fleece hat I bought at a trekking shop in Pokhara. The cold hasn't done anything to help the stiffness in my knee and I stop to stretch. It's a pleasant feeling being cold though. There's a sharpness in the air that's exhilarating and I take in a deep breath and blow out a cloud of steam just for the sheer joy of it.
It was cold, too, that day on Annapurna 63 years ago. Herzog and Lachenal had made the summit and were descending when, just below the top, Herzog paused to get something out of his pack. Because he was without bottled oxygen, Herzog was severely hypoxic and he forgot why he'd stopped. As he stood there, trying to remember, he watched in horror as his gloves, which he'd removed to undo his pack, slid along the icy slope and out of sight down the mountain. Even in his compromised state he understood the dangers of exposed flesh at 26,000 feet. He did the only thing he could do: he started down as quickly as he could, hoping to reach high camp before frostbite set in.
By the time he reached the tents his hands and feet were frozen. Luckily, two other climbers had ascended to the high camp to act as a support team. If not for them and the emergency first aid they were able to administer Lachenal and Herzog would have certainly perished that night. Though the two summiteers were still alive the next morning, getting them down the treacherous slopes of Annapurna in their now-crippled condition would prove an almost impossible ordeal. The worst was yet to come.
There's an axiom in mountain climbing that says, "By the time you realize something is wrong, it's too late to do anything about it." I've been on the business end of that axiom a couple of times so I survey my surroundings to try to spot any potential dangers and realize the place is full of them. I'm standing on a narrow path carved out of a steep cliff. A misstep could send me tumbling into the river or I could be crushed by an errant rock falling from the mountain above. I shrug, take up my walking stick and continue along the trail with a light heart.
The first village I come to is Dobhan but I'm clicking along at a decent pace, my leg is limbering up and I truck right on through without stopping. I've got summit fever now. I'm itching to get to ABC and I pick up the pace a little though speed at this point doesn't matter. I won't get to Basecamp until tomorrow no matter how fast I go today so I force myself to slow down. No point risking that knee.
Prem has caught up to me and he's walking along behind singing snatches of "Oh Suzie Q".
We stop at the next village, Himalaya, and I buy Prem and I cokes for 5.80$. The sun has climbed over the peaks, it's warm now and I stretch out on the ground and soak up some rays. I doze a bit, then, awake with a start. I look around-not certain at first where I am. It takes me a few minutes to gather my gear and get going. My head feels like it's stuffed with cotton; I don't know if it's a residual effect of my nap or the altitude. We're at nearly 10,000 feet and I've always been susceptible to mountain sickness.
I reach Deurali just as it begins to pour rain. Prem has arrived ahead of me and tells me that the guesthouse is full up and asks if I'd mind sharing a room with another trekker. It turns out my roommate is none other than my new pal, Alastair. We have dinner together and during our conversation I find that he is finishing up the Annapurna Circuit: a grueling, 26-day trip that winds through the Annapurna Sanctuary and has taken him up as high as 15,000 feet. His feat of endurance makes me feel a bit wimpy so I don't mention that I'm starting to feel the altitude at this poultry height of merely 10,000.
Today is the day! I'm up well before dawn packed and ready to go by 6:30. As usual I start out by myself and I set a quick pace for MBC, Machhapuchhre Base Camp. As I hike out of the village the trail begins to angle down toward the Modi Khola. The jungle is behind me now, the landscape has changed from lush green to shades of gray and brown. The place is nearly baren with short, wiry grass and stunted trees dotting the rocky landscape. It reminds me of the Alpine regions in the mountains back in Washington and I feel right at home. At one point I cross the Khola on a rickety bridge made from a steel ladder propped up on either end by stacks of rocks. The water foams and boils and splashes up between the rungs of the ladder bridge and I give a little sigh of relief when I reach the other side. I don't even realized that I've been holding my breath.
Machhapuchhre still dominates. Annapurna is blocked from view by a high ridge on my left. I won't get to see it until I reach MBC and take a hard left turn up the glacier-carved valley that leads the last few thousand feet to ABC. But I don't have to wait long. In an hour and a half I see ahead and above me the welcome green roof of the guesthouse at MBC. Prem is up ahead somewhere and I hurry along the rocky path.
We take a rest break at MBC and I'm happily surprised to find that Alastair has somehow gotten there before me. We sit together at a table in the sun and marvel at our first view of the Annapurna Massif. Alistair has to keep pointing out the peak to me, it looks like one continuous ridge from here. Annapurna is big, impressive, but not at all what I had imagined.
The afternoon weather gets worse the higher we go. The clouds have been moving in earlier and earlier. Down below the rains held off until 2:00 but now we can see the wispy white clouds forming that signal a coming storm and it's only 10:00 am. Prem and I scurry up the valley toward ABC. We can see the guesthouse perched on a plateau and it seems maddeningly close but I restrain myself. High in the mountains, I know, distances can be deceptive.
As we climb higher even the hearty little trees that struggle along the banks of the Modi Khola are absent here. The grass is only a few inches high and tough as steel wool. Patches of snow linger in the shade of the mammoth boulders that lie jumbled along the slopes.
I keep my head down and try to maintain a steady breathing regime. I'm in running shoes and my feet are wet from the numerous small streams I wade through. My knee hasn't been doing too well today and I've been leaning heavily on my walking stick to try to relieve some of the soreness. But none of that matters now. I'm on the last rock stairway to the Annapurna Basecamp. Three steps, then, two, then... I pause before the last step. I want to savor this moment and I take off my sunglasses, wipe the sweat from my face and look up toward the mountain. Everything beyond a few dozen yards is cloaked in thick, impenetrable clouds. I can't see a thing, but I don't care. I mount the last step and I'm there.
Alastair and I are in the diningroom and we've struck up a conversation with a young couple, Jade and Chris. Jade is an up-and-coming designer from New Zealand. Chris is a master gardner from Australia. They arrived at Basecamp shortly after I did. We order Everest Beers and toast to our achievement. It's warm and cheery in this low-ceilinged room and we all bask in the glow of good fellowship. Outside the wind is howling and the snow is coming down in earnest. Although I'm safe and warm I can't help thinking about Herzog's ordeal. Though separated by more than half a century his epic struggle for survival occurred in similar weather on the treacherous slopes not far from where I'm sitting.
Herzog and Lachnael had badly frostbiten limbs and at sunrise had to be helped into their boots by fellow climbers, Gaston Rebufet and Lionel Terray. At first light they emerged from the tents and began the descent to Camp IV only to become hopelessly lost in a storm. Without protection from the elements they were forced to bivouac in a crevasse at 23,000 feet. They spent a miserable night and then, in the morning, were burried by an avalanche. It looked like the end but through a superhuman effort they dug themselves out and continued the descent. They didn't make it very far though. Exhausted, and with Rebufet and Terray snowblind, the climbers began arguing about which way to go. In an advanced state of delirium, Herzog simply sat down in the snow to wait for that long slow slide into eternity.
Miraculously, climbers from a lower camp made it to the lost party and helped them hobble down the mountain. Lachneal and Herzog survived the descent but both lost fingers and toes. Their ascent is still hailed today as one of the greatest mountaineering achievements of all time.
Alastair and I are roommates again tonight and even though my guide has gotten me an extra blanket it's too cold to sleep. I can hear the storm raging outside and I am worried that descending from here in my running shoes might prove troublesome. Plus there's the whole thing with my knee. "To hell with it," I finally mumble and pull the blankets up over my head. I'll worry about tomorrow in the morning.