Ah, Kathmandu. After 18 days in India, the tall mountains, cool air, and relative lack of crowds in Nepal’s capital city was like a balm to our travel-weary souls. Or it was, for about the 5 minutes it took us to disembark the plane and make it through customs.
Upon exiting the airport, however, we spotted Santosh, our guide from Outshine Advenures, the man who would be leading us through the treacherous “foothills” of the Himalayas for the next 14 days. But more importantly, he saw us. And his face fell infinitesimally. And suddenly we were forced to take stock of ourselves.
The only travelers who had arrived in Kathmandu in t-shirts and flip flops? Check.
Incredibly weak and pale following three days of violent Delhi belly? Check.
Carrying non-technical backpacks and absolutely no hiking gear? Check.
Suddenly, our grand plans to “just show up and figure it out” in Nepal seemed, at best, hopelessly naïve and at worst, potentially dangerous.
All this occurred to us as other, fitter, more prepared travelers jogged lightly out of the terminal around us. Their Goretex flapped in silent judgment, as their thin, silk-blend sock liners rasped gently against their woolen hiking socks. Their well broken-in, ankle-stabilizing hiking boots tapped out a constant rhythm on the pavement: un-pre-pared; un-pre-pared. We were in trouble.
Luckily, it turns out that Santosh and the whole Outshine team are awesomely upbeat and enthusiastic. They were totally unwilling to give up on us, and made us, by proxy, unwilling to give up on ourselves. They did slightly adjust the itinerary for our first two days in Nepal. Instead of seeing the sights and getting to know Kathmandu, we were to be led around the backpacker area, bargaining for low-priced hiking essentials, like knockoff North Face zip-off pants and blister kits.
But first, we needed to head to the office and firm up our itinerary. For some background, you should know that until 3 days before we landed in Nepal, we had given next to no thought about which trek we wanted to do there. We had a nebulous idea that we would like to do the Everest Base Camp trek, perhaps the most famous of the non-technical treks. We were quickly disabused of this notion by Gokul, the owner of Outshine Adventures. To trek to EBC, you first needed to fly to Lukla, and flights had been canceled for over a week, due to poor weather conditions.
Given that we had exactly 14 days in Nepal, we didn’t have much room for error on our start dates. So Gokul instead recommended that we look at the Annapurna region, which was reachable via 7-hour bus from Kathmandu. Looking at Annapurna, we quickly whittled our options down to either the Poon Hill Trek or the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) trek. Allow me to give you a peek into our thought process for determining which trek to undertake…
Poon Hill Trek
This trek was probably perfect for us.
Pros: 5 days of 4-6 hour, easy-to-moderate trekking. It promised the authentic teahouse experience, gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains, and a finale at a natural hot springs.
Cons: it was called the Poon Hill trek.
This trek was clearly a ludicrous overreach for us.
Pros: you got a lot closer to the mountains. And you got to do a trek that wasn’t called the Poon Hill trek.
Cons: 10 days of 5-7 hour, moderate-to-difficult trekking, straight uphill. Several hikes across active avalanche areas during spring thaw. Strong possibility of altitude sickness.
Needless to say, because we’re reasonable adults who are almost entirely governed by our fragile egos, we opted for the “anything but the Poon Hill trek” approach. When we announced to Gokul that we would be doing the ABC trek, he immediately began to inquire about our evacuation coverage. Did our travel insurance need physician pre-approval before sending a helicopter to remove us from the mountain? Up to how many thousand feet did we retain the airlift option?
While this made us nervous, we were mostly able to shrug it off and get down to the really important stuff: choosing hiking gear that was comfortable, effective, and, of course, fashionable (while I grudgingly conceded the battle against zip-off hiking pants, I won the war for slouchy hats!)
We really struggled to find a comprehensive packing list for this trek, so we thought we’d create one in case anyone in the future wants to do this trek and experiences similar uncertainty. That list is here, for your edification. We needed (and were glad to have) everything on it.
Instead of boring you with the details of each day out on the trail (we’ll give you a hint: the routine is wake up at an ungodly hour, hike for 5-7 hours, read your book for 2-3 hours, eat dinner, sleep, repeat), we decided instead to lay out our itinerary and a Best, Worst, and Funniest.
Day 1 Arrive at Kathmandu airport (1360m); shop for all trip equipment
Day 2 Drive to Pokhara (800m) 6 hours by bus
Day 3 Drive to Nayapul and trek to Tikhedhunga (1540m)
Day 4 Trek to Upper Ghorepani (2800m)
Day 5 Early morning hike to Poon Hill (3200m); trek to Tadapani. (2869m)
Day 6 Trek to Chhomrong. (2170m)
Day 7 Trek to Dovan.(2580m)
Day 8 Dovan to Machhapuchhre Base Camp. (3700m)
Day 9 Early morning trek to Annapurna Base Camp (4110m); trek down to Bamboo (2340m)
Day 10 Trek to Jhinu hot spring. (1780m)
Day 11 Trek to Nayapul, (1070m) and then drive to Pokhara.
Day 12 Spend the day exploring Pokhara (visit Peace Temple and International Mountain Museum)
Day 13 Drive back to Kathmandu. 6 hours.
Day 14 Final departure to International airport.
- Reaching Annapurna Base Camp at sunrise. We left at 4am from MBC in the pitch black. It was absolutely silent except for the crunch of our feet on the glacier. The silhouette of Machhapuchhre, also known as Fishtail (a holy mountain in Nepal that has never been climbed), loomed behind us. As we walked in the thin air, the light began to swell behind the massif. The Annapurna Range slowly emerged around us, with multiple 8000m+ peaks in our midst. We reached Base Camp and high fived after what was certainly the most challenging physical endeavor of our lives.
- Our team nicknames, given by our fearless leader Santosh. These are particularly funny because Santosh is 21 and Shambu is 19.
- Santosh: Jetha (oldest boy)
- Shambu : Mahila (2nd oldest boy)
- Whitney: Kanchi (youngest girl)
- Mac: Kancha (youngest boy)
- Settling into the hot springs on the second-to-last day after descending 9,000ft in two days.
- MoMos! (Nepali dumplings filled with chicken, cheese, vegetables, or, our favorite: snickers bars)
- Going to sleep at 7:30pm with zero guilt.
- The view from Poon Hill. It was breath-taking.
- The most adorable dogs in the world: the Himalayan sheep dogs. Known in Nepali as "kukura." We want to get two and name them Anna and Purna.
- No internet, phone, television, etc. Total disconnect from technology. (well, we did have our Kindles)
- Meeting great friends along the way to Poon Hill where we all savored the great view together.
- The jealous looks from all the other trekkers on the trail as they forked out tons of cash for bottled or filtered water on the trail, and we used our Camelbak All Clear purification system. (or, as we called it because of its awesome blue light, our rave bottle)
- The country of Nepal is like one big Escher painting. You want to gain altitude? Trek uphill. You want to lose altitude? Trek uphill. No matter where you go, you will always be going uphill.
- Whitney vomiting on the side of Poon Hill as we ascended in a line of 300 over-eager tourists in the dark. Even the ever-optimistic Santosh’s faith wavered in that moment.
- The crowd at Poon Hill disrupting the otherwise spectacular view.
- Needing to go into a deep squat over a dark squat toilet (no electricity) in a freezing, monsoon-like downpour after descending 7,000ft in a single day. My thighs have never quaked with such intensity.
- Taking Diamox for the two days we were at MBC and ABC—side effects of Diamox include near-constant need to pee, which, combined with the 5 liters of water per day that we were each instructed to drink, meant that we were constantly getting out of bed throughout the night to visit the icy squat toilet across camp.
- On the second-to-last day on the trail, we decided to visit a natural hot springs. Somehow lured into a false sense of complacency by our recent trekking accomplishments, I decided to wear flip-flops. As with everything in Nepal, our little jaunt down to the hot springs was actually a 45-minute trek over uneven ground. I broke my toe on a large rock on the way back from the springs and was barely able to hobble through the last day of the trek.
- Getting passed on the trail by everyone from 5 to 85-year-old Nepali people carrying massive loads. We were entirely outclassed.
- Crossing active avalanche zones on the way to Base Camp. While seeing and hearing avalanches just on the other side of the valley.
- Watching clouds gather in the afternoon and not knowing if you could make it to the tea house in time to avoid getting soaked (and therefore freezing) on the trail.
- When Santosh told us that after Chomrong (2170m), we shouldn’t take any more showers, because we’d get colds. Thinking we knew better, at Dovan (2580m), we each snuck a shower. Our sense of smug cleanliness lasted through the next morning when, sure enough, we both woke up with head colds that dogged us all the way through the end of the trek.
- The 3 classifications of incline in Nepal, according to Santosh:
- Nepali Flat (straight uphill)
- European Flat (mostly flat)
- American Flat (downhill)
- “Dal bhat power, 24 hour. No toilet! No shower!” (our team motto)
- Seeing a recipe for stuffed camel inexplicably adorning the walls of our Machhapuchhre Base Camp tea house.
- Overhearing (through the paper-thin walls of the tea house at Dovan) a hilarious conversation in which a Canadian “musician” (dubious), explained to his hapless roommate that “Mumford and Sons are like, so overrated and overplayed. When Americans discover new music they like, you’d think they invented it. But if you’re into good music, there’s this other guy. He’s pretty under the radar, but I think he’s really awesome and up and coming. His music just does something to me man. He’s called John Mayer and I think he’s gonna be huge. His new album, “Room for Squares” is just mind-blowing.”