At the top of a trail that begins in Phedi, and follows the Modi Khola, lies a natural amphitheatre, known as the Annapurna Sanctuary. This little valley is as magical as the name suggests with ten peaks of 20,000 – 26,000 ft. rising from it.
Since we left the road at Phedi, the track had zig-zagged its way through a forest and past some scattered houses. It then climbed steeply to the ridge at Dhampus, a small village where we stopped and rested. It had taken two hours to climb the 2,500 feet and it was already midday. The sun was beating down and already I had drunk two litres of water, but nobody had collapsed yet. Linda and Siobhan who had never done any serious walking were coping well, as was Arjun, our porter who was carrying some of our gear. We consoled ourselves that for today the worst was over. The next stage was a more gentle 1,500 ft climb to our overnight stop at Tolka. The truth of the matter was we had another 10,000 ft of climbing to do in the next few days.
The Left Fork
The mountains ahead were shrouded in cloud and remained locked away out of sight. We moved on, the trail climbed gently until we reached Pothana (6,236 ft.). Time for a bite to eat we thought. I wish I could say we had some genuine Nepalese food, but we were very unadventurous, settling for an omelette, soup and a coke. Shortly after Pothana we came to a fork in the track. Arjun reassured us that it was the left fork, ” I’ve been here hundreds of times”. The map was too large a scale to pick out the fork accurately, so we followed Arjun. I became suspicious after about an hour, as we were losing height rapidly, a thing we were not supposed to be doing! Indeed we should have been climbing. Eventually we came to Deurali. Unfortunately it was Deurali Lower, rather that higher, 2,500 ft. lower in fact an we were totally off course. At this stage we had located ourselves on the map again. Instead of being on an obstacle free ridge we were on the lower slopes of the valley, which was scarred by streams, gullies and had only had a very narrow path to follow. We would have to continue on the trail to below Tolka and then re-climb the lost height to our overnight stop. To make matters worse, the locals pointed out that Tolka was in the opposite direction to the one we were heading in. Fortunately we had regained our confidence with our map and ignored their arguments.
We had several delays in the next hour. Much to the alarm of Arjun, a snake of unknown variety decided to use the trail ahead. Then we confronted Langur Monkeys, with their black faces, grey coats and long limbs. They scampered off and watched us from the trees. This added to the feeling that our new route to Tolka was well off the beaten track. We arrived at a wide gushing stream which we crossed with the help of a rickety and makeshift wooden bridge. In fact it was two logs with a few stones thrown on them! At the far side of the stream the path had been washed away by the recent rains. Three weather beaten Nepalese men were busy cutting a new path into the side of a stream gully. The men beckoned us up. The unfinished path looked dangerously precarious, and was more suitable for goats than people. It was getting late and there was no other way, so we started to clamber up on our hands and knees. Glimpsing at the stream below, I lent towards the clay cliff, staying as far as possible from the edge. The men helped us at the top and Arjun suggested that I should give the men 50 – 100 rupees. I was so glad to get us all up without someone falling, I would have given them 1000 rupees. I handed the men 100 rupees and thanked them for their help.
It was 5.00pm, after eight hours walking we were getting tired. Also the fact that it would be dark in an hour added an element of anxiety. The idea of wandering around the foothills of the Himalayas in the dark with nowhere to sleep was not very appealing. At last a few scattered houses were seen ahead. Arjun enquired from a local boy, who pointed uphill, Tolka was about another 1000 ft. climb through terraced fields and thick vegetation. Arjun had the heaviest load and at this stage he was exhausted, he handed over his pack to the boy, and presumably asked him to bring it to Tolka. It was now dusk, every ridge we climbed brought further disappointment. The village was nowhere in sight. The boy had disappeared with our gear to the now mythical Tolka, I had read about the theft racket in some areas of Nepal and wondered would we ever see our gear again? I ran ahead to see if Tolka was much further and to try to locate where our gear had gone. After a few minutes, I saw it ahead “Ram” the name of a small lodge at the end of Tolka, and the boy was sitting patiently outside. I turned to let the others know, but it was too dark, and I could not find the path through the trees from which I had emerged. I asked an old man , but he just smiled and pointed to the lodge, it was hopeless. I gave up and organised somewhere to stay. A few minutes later the girls arrived. We collapsed in our small cramped room absolutely exhausted, but relieved. I slowly untied my boots, peeled back my sock to inspect my feet for blisters. I immediately noticed several inch long, black worm shaped objects on my foot. Even more alarming they were squirming and were attached to my foot. “Leeches!” I had five of them on my feet, this is all you need at the end of a hard days walking. I’m glad we don’t have them in Ireland. I tore them off, ignoring my guide book which we had read recommending you burn or put salt on them. Blood seeped from the wounds. Meanwhile Linda and Siobhan were busy tearing boots and socks off to inspect their feet. The screams confirmed they had not escaped.
We eventually calmed down, washed and asked the owner of the lodge to fix us something to eat. We sat at a small table waiting for the soup to arrive. We discussed the day and came to the conclusion that if every day was like this we wouldn’t last very long.
It was 7.00am when we set off to Chromrong the next morning. It was an enjoyable start with a gentle walk before climbing to the village of Landruck. It had one narrow street paved with large grey flagstone steps. We stopped at a lodge for a cup of Nepalese coffee, which turned out to be Nescafe! Down below, the winding Modi Khola River could be seen as rays of sunlight broke through the clouds illuminating the entire valley. In the distance was our first glimpse of the Himalayas, Annapurna South, its massive face peering over the clouds. We started to descend to the Modi Khola far below, our target was New Bridge, a suspension bridge which would enable us to reach the path to Chromrong at the far side of the valley. On reaching the suspension bridge we cautiously crossed one by one. The white water below could be seen through the gaps and holes in the wooden beams. The bridge shook from side to side with every movement. If this was the new bridge I would hate to see the old one.
It was 2500 ft climb to Chromrong, and at 4.30pm we arrived there and headed for a lodge called the Chromrong Guest house, famous for its pizza! After sampling the rather tasty tuna and yak cheese pizza, we chatted to an English couple who had driven by car from England through Europe, India and on to Nepal!
The Modi Khola
The following morning, we were on the trail at 6.30am. The track descended to a bridge over the Chomro Khola, before heading in an easterly direction into the great narrow gorge of the Modi Khola. It was a steep and seemingly impassable valley. The sides were heavily covered with trees and vegetation. The Giant Fishtail Mountain at the end was apparently blocking any exit. Our overnight stop was to be Bamboo, (7875 ft) a small cluster of lodges, situated in a bamboo jungle. On the way we passed through Khuldigar, where a police checkpoint was located. We had our trekking permits inspected, and signed a log book stating our destination was the Annapurna Sanctuary. A sign warned of the expensive rescue helicopter service costing up to £6000 per flight, payment in advance. This was not a good place to get injured. We arrived at Bamboo in the early afternoon and called it a day.
Deurali (10,000 ft) was our next destination. After another early start we came across a small shrine marked with prayer flags, known as Parchenin Barha. We had entered the sacred forest of Poje Yehim. It was traditional to leave offerings of flowers or strips of coloured cloth there. It was also said that any eggs or meat carried north of the shrine would anger the mountain Gods and bring bad luck. We had no flowers, cloth, meat or eggs, so we moved on! We came to the Hinku Cave after some climbing. The Cave was created by a large boulder overhanging the path. In the early days of mountaineering in this area it was a landmark used by expeditions, for shelter from the avalanches from above. Half an hour further on we reached Deurali. It was only midday. We decided not to stop there but to go on to the higher Machapuchare Base Camp (12,139 ft). The decision was against all the advice about not climbing more than 1,000 ft a day once above 10,000 ft, because of the risk of altitude sickness. The gorge became very narrow and closed into a gap only a few hundred feet across. We had reached the ‘Gates’ of the Sanctuary. A shepherd with his flock appeared from the Gates. We rested for a while to allow him to pass. Through the gates lay the Old Wood. All the trees here were dead and black in colour, their long branches reaching out from the clouds which had suddenly descended all around us. A creepy cold sensation crept over us.
We eventually reached Machapuchare Base Camp, and we were glad to be there at last. In the two hour wait for some soup, rice and omelettes, we met Jeremy, an American student on a break from his studies. He announced that the plague in India had reached epidemic proportions with 300,000 dead, and that it would soon sweep Nepal. We were all at risk if we did not get the Vaccine. We thought this news was exaggerated, and anyway we were too far away to do anything about it. Later he caused another scare, claiming there was a poisonous spider in the toilet. It was a cold night and sleeping was difficult for us, not accustomed to the altitude and thin air. The following morning the sky was blue, Machhapuchare Mountain, with its still unconquered Holy Summit was far above us. Annapurna South and Hinichuli were west of us.
It was a two hour walk to the Annapurna Base Camp at 13,550 ft. We stopped regularly to admire the surrounding panorama of snow peaked mountains which grew as we travelled further into the heart of the Sanctuary. On the right of the path a huge boulder strewn glacier made its way millimetre by millimetre down the valley from the snow fields above. A small lodge in the distance marked Annapurna Base camp, and as we reached it the full beauty of the view unfolded. It was breathtaking. All around us were snow covered mountains peaks ranging from 6000 to 8000 metres high. We relaxed for a while and savoured the clear skies and Himalayan scenery. After a while as the clouds rolled in and it became much colder, we sought refuge in the warmth of our sleeping bags. I awakened two hours later, and went outside. The skies had cleared again and looking down towards the Gates of the Sanctuary, a stream of clouds were pouring in from the Modi Khola Valley, leaving only the golden mountain peaks exposed in the setting sun. Fiery orange clouds then appeared around Annapurna South, its angry face intimidating anyone who dared to look in its direction.
The night brought unexpected surprises. I ventured outside again, the sky was studded with a million stars, the milky way like a diamond necklace hung across the sky. The silhouette of the mountains could be seen against the sky. Suddenly a flash of lighting and then another lit up the entire panorama. The mountains showed their faces for an instant and then disappeared. the lighting continued and the mountains became restless. Avalanches roared angrily in the distance. Cold eventually got the better of me, I returned to my warm sleeping bag leaving the spectacle.
The next morning brought beauty and alarm. The sun rising over the great Himalayan peaks was spectacular. But other events also called for urgent attention. A trekker who had fallen near Basecamp had fractured his thigh bone and was destined for a five day wait before the rescue helicopter could reach him. The delay was caused because he didn’t have the money or insurance to pay for the taxi fare out. Meanwhile Linda had a pounding and painful headache. She had the symptoms of acute altitude sickness. She felt her head would explode at any moment. Anxious not to have this happen we decided to descend as quickly as possible before her symptoms got any worse. The symptoms should disappear after a descent of a few thousand feet. Eventually we reached Deurali (10,500 ft). Linda’s headache subsided, though she felt physically drained. I suggested we take a rest day at Chromrong tomorrow, before we took on the next stage of our walk. Everyone agreed that would be an excellent idea.