For a young person who’s reasonably fit, works out regularly and generally enjoys the outdoors and sporty activities, trekking the Himalayas should be no big deal, right? Grab a pole, get some good shoes and proceed. As it turns out, a 4-day trek to Poon Hill for Annapurna-observation purposes would be the death of me (not literally, but closer to the truth than most would be comfortable with).
“But I’m sort of fit!” you cry in protest.
“That’s cute,” the mountains respond. “That’s really cute.”
Let’s put it this way – by Day 3, I was hoping for an accident serious enough to be able to call my insurance company and helicopter my way outta there. This didn’t happen – though I came close when mule-dozed by a donkey (a species that comes with a very well-deserved reputation for being stubborn, but we’ll get to that later) – and I made it down safely with muscles that would be sore for a week at least. Sore is putting it lightly – it felt more like my entire being had been run through a paper shredder several times before being sent over to a meat tenderizer.
But, no matter. The muscles heal, the body recovers, and before you can skip down the stairs like you used to so freely and youthfully in pre-Himalayan times instead of at a pace comparable only to an arthritic grandma, you’re itching for more.
People put themselves through all sorts of torture for the benefits to be gained, and hiking the Himalayas is a prime example of pain for pleasure. And of pleasure and satisfaction, there is plenty.
OBJECTS IN THE REARVIEW MIRROR
Taking a local or tourist bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara, Nepal’s second largest city, this particular trek begins with another local bus to Birethani, where dreams begin and your ankles begin to hate you.
It’s possible to take a jeep from there to Hille, an area in the mountains proper, but foolish and judgmental trekkers like myself scoff at such shortcuts and instead prefer to climb every damn step ourselves, while rolling your eyes at the cars slipping past and dropping snide comments about how it’s not the real experience if you cheat like this. If you’re there for the view at the top rather than the treacherous journey it takes to get there – or if you’re aware of how far you can comfortably push your own body – it’s worth considering this option.
It’s also worth noting that your jeep ride isn’t going to be a cruise along the highway, either. Think steep cliffs, unpaved and rocky dirt roads, two-way traffic on a lane that should only be unidirectional, and speeds that really have no business being driven at given the aforementioned road conditions. Still, it saves you time and energy, despite the fact that avoiding an untimely death cannot be guaranteed (though to be fair, can it ever?).
To a seasoned hiker or athlete, the following may sound incredibly amateurish and on hindsight, a lot of it seems so obvious. But for anyone who has done a hike or two, camped on a mountain or regularly partaken in non-competitive sport, it’s so easy to overestimate yourself and underestimate how difficult something like putting one foot in front of the other can be when it happens to be carried out on a mountain.
For most, altitude sickness is not really an issue at these heights. It can affect people (especially those not used to high altitudes) from about 2500 metres, and we’re not talking about scaling actual Annapurna or Everest just yet.
But at higher than 3000m, Poon Hill does take the wind out of you with its reluctance to provide oxygen. Go slow, tread carefully, but for most of us, it’s not yet necessary to look towards additional oxygen supplies; save your purchased oxygen for more ambitious climbs.
Travel light for your hike. We saw hordes of tourists and travel groups, with local porters hired to carry their bags and gear for them, the weight of wealthy tourism heavy on the young men who supported these loads with their backs, shoulders, and a thick band held up by their foreheads. Not something many (or any) of us would be comfortable with, so do everyone and your conscience a favour and bring only what you can carry.
Quick Tip: Don’t be like me. Train before you go and your calves will thank you for it.
While it’s a bit late to start a serious training plan when you’re already there, it’s not too late to start the day with a good stretch. A light warm-up or some deep stretches get you ready to head onwards and upwards, as will a good breakfast to keep your calorie levels up.
Throughout the mountain experience, beer and other alcohol is available and many hikers bragged of hiking while hungover, which sounds to me like hell on high-altitude earth.
Save the boozing for your return to the ground – it’ll feel better, you’ll save money (beer doesn’t come cheap up there given that it’s delivered by horse), and you can nurse a headache in peace knowing that you won’t have to ascend or descend thousands of steps the next day.
WHAT GOES UP MUST REGRETFULLY COME DOWN
With the exception of people who willingly sign up for vertical marathons, there are few among us who enjoy climbing stairs. Between Hille and Ulleri, there are 3200 steps. Not even concrete steps, but large, wide, uneven, stone steps which often have streams of water running down them.
Worse still, trains of horses and donkeys barge through your path, in some cases head-butting a stunned, deer-in-headlights climber (like myself) into a bubbling stream of water, leaving you in a crumpled heap of fear, water, sweat and dung. Not my most glamorous moment, but a mishap that quickly becomes a funny story. Dust off the traces of poop and stride shakily forward.
What’s worse than climbing thousands of steps and being attacked by a donkey? Climbing down. Remember that going down can often be as difficult, or more difficult than ascending. Pace yourself accordingly.
WHEN YOU’RE UP, YOU’RE UP
At last, you reach the gates of Ghore Pani. This is your last stop before Poon Hill, where you go to see a spectacular sunrise. Here, you spend the night and have a very early start so that you’ve got time to make your final upward hike (unless you’re heading onwards to Annapurna Base Camp, like some hikers braver than I headed for). Waking up at 4 am, you’re starting to question why you’re here, why you left behind the comforts of what you know and how the hell you’re ever going to make it down.
But you trudge on, and you climb to 3200m, tired, spent, weary and shaking (literally, because your muscles are spasming from overexertion), and you sit and wait for the sun to rise.
Perhaps it’s the smallest you could ever feel – sitting and waiting for the sun, staring at some of the world highest mountains. As the world’s wonders reveal themselves to you (and at this point one may or may not have overwhelmed tears streaming down one’s awestruck face), you realise you’re now a proud member of the group of people who have hiked to see Annapurna and lived to tell the tale.
At around this point, you remember why you did this and why you are, despite yourself, already planning to do it again – and maybe a little higher next time.