Ascent To Annapurna

I have so many stories to tell.

About the time I lost my way to Chhomrong. About the family that stops for tea and poetry, three generations reliving the grandfather’s journey. About the change the altitude & mountains force on those who climb it. For now I’ll let the pictures say what they can about my trek into the Annapurna Sanctuary.

Kathmandu


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The first few days were spent in Kathmandu. It’s a smoky, dusty, smelly group of old cities, a place growing in on itself and over its own history. It’s a fascinating mish-mash of culture, tourism, poverty and growth.

The Ascent Begins


I was glad to get up into the mountains. Life is very different up here. Everything to sustain life is carried by another living thing. The trek is hard, thousands of metres of vertical—over 6,800m total once you count the ups and downs. It’s one of the most physically difficult things I’ve ever accomplished, in no small part because of the heavy camera I carried to take these images.

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Into the Green


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The lower reaches of the trek are all green, verdant jungle. Rhododendron gives way to bamboo which fades into other shades of green. Strange birds and insects chirp alongside the constant rush of the Modi Khola. Everywhere is water, the trail snaking its way through and around its etchings in the rock.

Climbing into Clouds


The alpine only makes its appearance above 3500 metres, the jungle clinging high to the valley walls. As you ascend, green slowly disappears into horizons of blue, black and orange.

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Turning the Corner


And then the mountains appear. Approaching Machhapuchhre Base Camp (the last stop before the top), you turn a corner into the final ascent to ABC.

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The Final Climb


My last climb was late in the day, shrouded in fog through the alpine valley that leads up to the Camp. I could see nothing of what was about to open up around me. I went for a cold sleep and awoke for sunrise, and the result was truly breathtaking.

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Small in a Big World


Getting up to Annapurna Base Camp is a kind of pilgrimage. It’s long slog through jungle and rough trails. For me, doubly so: I was solo with a heavy pack, alone on the trail without a guide, porter or familiar friends. Arriving at the top is hard to express. In everyone it induces a kind of silent awe, sitting amongst a sanctuary that reminds us of our smallness.

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Friends Along the Way


One of the surprising highlights for me was just how many friends I made on the trek. I’m a quiet person, more likely to observe at first than to join in. This experience was different. After several hours of focused concentration on the trail, the downtime in the lodges became openly social, meeting new friends and sharing stories. I met some fascinating people along the way, some of whose stories I hope to tell.

Blue and Gold


The last day before the descent was spent wandering up to the glacier and taking in the immensity and scale of the mountain peaks that surround us. We came up 4000m, and yet the peaks around stretch twice that height. They feel close enough to touch. When a helicopter comes to rescue someone from altitude sickness, the scale of the place becomes apparent as he flies away for several minutes without reaching the mountain walls.

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Descent


The place is magnificent and attractive in a mysterious and quiet way. I don’t want to leave. Eventually the body has to give into the punishment of the same steps in reverse, and I step back into the green and away from the mountaintops.

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The Last Stop


The final night for many is in Jhinu, the hotsprings below Chhomrong. It’s the first chance for physical relaxation after a gruelling descent. Trekkers, porters, guides and hosts alike all join in the post-accomplishment party. This particular dance party broke out at dinner and continued late into the night.

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Indra

Somehow, after three hours of conversation, she remains a mystery to me.

She doesn’t give me a lot of hints. Is she 26? 27? She’s finishing her PhD, a general clue. Throughout the evening we chat about our respective histories, our reasons for coming to Nepal, her research. She most reminds me of my photographer friend Dave Delnea. In looks and ambition they could be siblings. It’s so uncanny that a few times I catch myself staring.

We met because I’m a rookie here. Travelling in Nepal for a few weeks, naturally I wanted a SIM for my phone. After an hour’s walk in dusty diesel fumes, I duly paid the fee and walked away happy at my purchase ($10 for plenty of data *and* voice!). Except I forgot a critical detail: my new phone number.

My mistake worked in my favour. Searching out a decent cappucino, I asked a fellow traveller if she’d be willing to let me call her phone so I could discover my newly-won cell number. The conversation began from there.


She was in the highlands for three months, her fifth such visit. She lives with the locals, in a sacred valley free from any kind of animal sacrifice (which includes meat for consumption). A porter hauls up supplies every few weeks. Each day she charts the dwellings, measures the land and listens to the customs so that in the not-too-far future, if and when this is all wiped out, we’ll be able to measure the damage.

Such is the life of a disaster preparedness researcher.

Indra’s research is in a valley between the Khumbu (home of Mount Everest) and the Langtang trekking regions. This place, like everywhere, is being affected by climate change. The climate signal here is quickly receding glaciers.

When glaciers advance, their crushing weight grinds rock into powder and pushes it out in front, like a tongue licking foam. When the advance stops and the glaciers retreat, a high ridge of gravelly soil is left. These moraines dam massive lakes of meltwater, clean remnants of snow dropped thousands of years ago.

With the rate of meltwater increasing, eventually these dams break. The natural wall of the moraine is only loosely held by gravity. When the force of the meltwater exceeds the weight of the moraine, entire lakes can vanish in an instant. All that water heads straight down the nearest valley.

This is where Indra spends her time. She’s there measuring population, land values and discovering what the locals know and are prepared for in case of disaster. She’s also coming to understand their values—like, for example, their potatoes. This particular valley’s potatoes are the best, so the locals say. In fact they’re so good, not only are they the staple diet, but when locals leave for work in other cities, the comfort food they pine for is the potatoes. On her last trip, in addition to hefting down her own equipment down the valley, Indra carried several sacks of potatoes for locals missing the taste of home.

The valley is far removed from even the bustle of Kathmandu, let alone the sophistication and knowledge of my home in Canada. Yet the choices we’re making in places like Vancouver are changing the lives and livelihoods of these last few remaining micro-cultures in the high Himals.

It’s striking to me that thanks to a Google search for coffee in Thamel I’ve been able to make a new friend, and connect to a place and people that otherwise I would never know.

* I’ve changed some of the names & details for privacy

Raj

After the third or fourth temple, he stopped and looked up at me. With a soft and gentle voice he said, “Mr. Trevor? You have a good heart. I can tell you have a good family. That is why I am showing you these many things. Because you are a good heart.”

It being my first day, I didn’t know any better. “Namaste” was his first word to me. “Where are you from?” came next. For centuries these have been a greeting of peace, but in this little corner of the world it’s become a cross-cultural billboard, meaning “Look at what I have for sale.”

He’s short, with messy brown hair and wrinkled clothes. But there’s something different about Raj. It’s his eyes. His eyes, and the tone of his voice. Somehow he evokes genuine compassion without a hint of what he’s about to try and sell me.

He sidled up next to me and asked how long I’d been in Nepal. This being the third or fourth such greeting, I moved to shut him down. He won. He had a clarity to his intent that was truly touching. Unlike the three or four previous tiger balm and marijuana salesman, he didn’t want anything but to talk.

I’ve travelled dozens of countries. In each I’ve been played, followed, cajoled, persuaded, manipulated and befriended by streetside salesmen of every kind. It wasn’t until the end that I finally picked up on the multi-hour play that Raj and his entourage were about to draw me through.

I got played for the long con.


We walked. At a nearby temple he explained the meaning of the lotus flower. His soft-spoken voice hummed the Buddhist mantra and explained the connection between all religions. Through side streets and back alleys, we found temples and shrines layered over by a city that’s grown up on top of its history. At each he stopped me, explained what the symbols meant and asking me if I understood. He encouraged me that I was welcome as a guest. I could even take photos if I wished.

Raj knew exactly how to disarm my normally hyper-sensitive defense-o-meter.

After his genuine compliment and hours of unasked, gentle guidance, his next request didn’t seem out of place. No money. Just to buy some food at the local market for his wife and two kids.

The play quickly exposed itself. Within a few minutes he’d led me to a local store where he was greeted as a regular. Expensive food was offered at exorbitant rates disguised by the unfamiliar exchange rate, items which were likely to be placed right back on the shelf ready for the next clueless wanderer.

I often wish for the softer side of humanity to be more at the surface of our interactions. Kindness and generosity are their own ends, benefits in and of themselves just by their experience. And the strength they carry is as ethically vulnerable as other human traits. Beauty, sex, hunger, acceptance, kindness, generosity are all good and important things. And they can be used as the soft side manipulation, massive levers to be pulled on us when they’re not treated as ends unto themselves.

In two hours with Raj I was touched and moved by a remarkable generosity. And I was played.