The Other ABC Trek
In Pokhara, you do not go to the mountains, the mountains come to you. This is one of the most fascinating spots in the world, a tropical valley less than 1,000m in elevation but barely 25km from Mt Machapuchre at 6,993m.
Pokhara’s other-worldly scenery is what draws visitors here from all over Nepal and the world. It is a place where the senses take in the energy and radiance of creation. The mountains gleam in the fresh morning light, shine brightly all day, and are phosphorescent in the moonlight.
Pokhara is the launching pad for numerous expeditions to the Annapurnas, and the starting point for treks. But 70 years ago when Nepal was still under Rana rule and a French expedition came to climb Annapurna, its climbers did not come here. They marched straight up from Butwal in the Tarai.
In December last year, a 25-member team from Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) Pokhara, and the Trekking Agencts’ Association of Nepal (TAAN) Pokhara chapter and Annapurna Rural Municipality set out to explore North Annapurna Base Camp. The idea was to use the pandemic lull to find new trekking destinations, and to develop this historic route.
The trail we took would follow the footsteps of the French Annapurna Expedition of 1950, and re-enact their march-in to the mountain. It is now known as the Maurice Herzog Trail, after the climber who, with Louis Lachenal, made the first ascent of an 8,000m peak – two years before Mt Everest itself was climbed.
Herzog became a global celebrity, and his adventure classic Annapurna made him even more famous, with 11 million copies sold in many translations. Herzog’s book also brought the Nepal Himalaya into the global spotlight. The book is not just about the final climb. It contains details of the exploration of the Kali Gandaki Valley at a time when there were no reliable maps. They had to find their way through uncharted territory to find the mountain they wanted to climb. Then they raced against the onset of the monsoon to blaze a trail up the Miristi Gorge to North Annapurna Base Camp.
Our own journey began in Pokhara with an eight hour bus ride to Tatopani, and another six hours to reach Lower Narchyang, which has one of the most enchanting waterfalls in Nepal.
We immediately hit the trail to reach Upper Narchyang, our destination for the day. From here on, the trail is almost exactly as the French climbers and their hundreds of porters must have seen it in the spring of 1950. And like trekking in most of Nepal, it is one steep climb followed by another steep descent.
This takes a toll on the knees, but after three hours of this, we soon get used to it as we reach our destination for the day, with the rock and ice south face of Mt Nilgiri looming over us.
Sitting by the camp fire that night under a sky full of stars, we can imagine how difficult it must have been for Herzog’s team to navigate through this rugged terrain without proper maps or GPS. Indeed, this was the first international expedition given permission to climb by the Nepal government at a time when historical changes were afoot in the region—the British had left India, and Nepal itself was witnessing the last days of hereditary rule by the Rana dynasty.
The expedition had permission to climb either Dhaulagiri or Annapurna, the two eight-thousanders separated by only 35km on either side of the Kali Gandaki, which at this point is the deepest gorge in the world. After flying from Paris to Delhi and Lucknow, the French climbers arrived with their gear at the Nepal border to be joined by expedition sirdar Ang Tharkay and hundreds of porters.
The expedition found Dhaulagiri too difficult to climb, and could not even locate Annapurna, since it was hidden behind Nilgiri and Tilicho Peak. They sent scouting parties to explore and finally decided that the north face of Annapurna despite avalanche risk, was not too technical.
The march up the Miristi Khola was an adventure almost as challenging as climbing the mountain itself, especially since Herzog and his team did not know where they were going and had to first locate the mountain they wanted to climb.
And that is where we found ourselves the next morning, gazing at the mountains towering above us as they caught the first golden rays of the rising sun. Very few trekking groups and climbing expeditions have come this way in the last decades, and it was all untouched wilderness. No towns or tea houses, everything had to be carried.
This also meant there were hurdles every step of the way – narrow, slippery trails, landslides and rockfalls, and fragile log bridges. We came face-to-face with Himalayan black bears several times, both humans and bears shocked by the encounters.
The forest path was continuously uphill, and even as the sun went low on the horizon, there was no sign of our camp site. It soon got dark, and we used head torches to find our way, communicating with the rest of the team on walkie-talkie. A support staff fell off the trail with a big thud, and even though the sole of his shoe had come off, he kept walking.
Finding an appropriate location to spend the night, we finally pitched our tents, and lit a camp fire to keep away wild animals. Exhausted, we soon fell into deep sleep.
The next day we were retracing the steps taken by Ang Tharkay and three other French members of the expedition as they explored the deep canyons of the Miristi Khola to see if it had a passage to Annapurna.
There were lots of wild bee hives dangling like black stalactites from the cliffs above. But we had to keep our eyes on the narrow trail, and in the steeper sections we even needed ropes. There were parts where the trail completely disappeared, and there was no way forward or back. Instinct told us to follow the sound of the roaring river.
Finally by mid-day we reached the wild and tumbling Miristi Khola and had lunch by its icy waters, crossing it on a makeshift bridge of boulders and logs. There were more steep slopes with treacherous loose boulders on the other side where we needed to be roped up. But we finally made it to the night-stop at Chotapa.
We spent the night in a dream-like trance with visions of growling rivers, roaring waterfalls, chirping birds in the undergrowth, misty ridges and the mute peaks touching silent sky.
The highlight of the fourth day was the Phutphute Fall, which was true to its onomatopoeic name as the water fell through a single hole in the rock onto a turquoise pond. We were now at 3,157m and the trail crossed the river along narrow planks precariously placed between boulders–nothing to hold on to and nothing to stop you in case you lost your footing. One dared not look at the icy waters gushing below.
Yet, we could not but pause to admire these polished boulders that had been rounded, sculpted by water flowing through them over aeons. One can almost imagine millions of years of erosion in timelapse as the river cut through the rising terrain.
It was now getting bitterly cold, and despite dinner around a camp fire on the fifth day, our only thought was to keep ourselves warm. Even the beauty of this wild wonderland failed to impress us through the bone-chilling cold.
Base Camp was a stone hut with a tin roof. One side was open, with a stupendous view of the glacial lake, but it also allowed an icy wind to come through turning the room into a deep freezer. We coiled ourselves inside the sleeping bags with layers of clothing, but they were no match for the cold, and sleep was out of question. It was minus 15° Celsius with wind chill at base camp at 4,400m.
A massive avalanche roared down the north face during the night, bringing the snow dust to the hut where it lingered till morning, suspended in the air. So much beauty, and yet how brutal and violent nature could be.
Morning light illuminated the north face, with its sickle cliff and the vast ice slope leading to the 8,091m summit of the world’s tenth highest mountain. K2, the world’s second highest, is often called a ‘Killer Mountain’, but it is Annapurna I that has the highest death rate among eight thousanders. Since Herzog and Lachenal, 157 climbers have been on top of Annapurna I from both sides, but 60 have died in the attempt. This gives Annapurna a fatality ratio of 38%. K2 is 29%.
Herzog recounts in Annapurna the heroic life-and-death struggle with primitive equipment and violent weather to get to the summit at 2PM on 3 June 1950. But the descent was even more treacherous, delirious with lack of oxygen, exhaustion, snow blindness, and severely frost-bitten, the two finally staggered down in white-out conditions, surviving bivouac in a snow cave, and an avalanche.
The chill that ran down my spine as I gazed at the golden summit that morning was as much from the cold as from the realisation of the sacrifice it took in those early days of Himalayan mountaineering to accomplish the feat. I bowed to the forces of existence with deep reverence and divinity.
Just like Herzog’s team, we started our trek back down. We were doing this in winter, but the French expedition was racing against time to traverse the Miristi gorge before the monsoon submerged the trail and washed away the bridges. They barely made it out.
Besides, Herzog and Lachenal had to be carried in डोको on porter back even while the expedition doctor kept amputating their gangrenous fingers and toes one by one as they made their way down to Lete, and then over the next month down to the Indian border.
From there, Herzog went by train to Raxaul from where, even in his state, he travelled via Bhimphedi to be feted by Prime Mohan Sumshere Rana and the French Ambassador. A photograph of the period shows Herzog sitting painfully in a chair with his hands bandaged.
We had it a lot easier. The road has now reached Narchyang, and from there were drove back to Pokhara. Our bodies were aching, but our spirits were jubilant as the energy of Annapurna coursed through our veins.
As the bus climbed the last ridge, and the rays of the setting sun cast a pink light on the south face of Annapurna, lights of Pokhara came into view. The dark forests rushed by and were wrapped by the blanket of night.
It was humbling to think that the hardships we endured were negligible compared to what the French climbers and their Nepali guides and porters went through 70 years ago negotiating uncharted territory with flimsy equipment.
Every adventure has its rewards, and by reliving history on the North Annapurna Base Camp trek we were metamorphosed by the adventure. All of us were indelibly changed, and are now a part of what we experienced.
Bimal Kadel is Manager at the Nepal Tourism Board in Pokhara.