Eleven years ago today marked the end of the most exhilarating, eye-opening and exhausting experience of my life.
Hiking around the Annapurna Circuit in Western Nepal had taken 24 days (about four more than the guidebooks predict!), beginning and ending in the small town of Pokhara.
The trek is sometimes described as the one of the best in the world, such are the stunning views almost throughout the entire route, the physical challenge for hikers, diversity of culture (Nepali and Tibetan) and scenery en-route, and the fact that it runs close to and therefore gives walkers amazing views of six of the highest mountains on the planet.
Most attempting the circuit know it is not an easy task, although many of the speedier walkers turn around at the first sign of altitude mountain sickness, rather than opt for the recommended acclimatisation days on the way up.
Roughly two-thirds of the way round is the most difficult part of the trek: the famous hike up to the Thorung-La Pass, the highest point on the circuit at around 5,500 metres (18,000 feet) which has to be completed in a single day, lest there are no places to stay at the top because of the altitude and remote location.
The route from Thorang Phedi to Mukinath on the day is roughly 16 kilometres and sees walkers go 1,000 metres up and 1,600 metres back down.
At the Pass, an obvious lack of oxygen in the air makes breathing difficult and therefore the experience is rather hallucinogenic but also euphoric, especially as trekkers have teamed up and helped one another up the final few steps.
Fortunately most trekkers listen to the advice of the guides and start heading back to a safer altitude quite quickly, despite the temptation to sit around and admire the view (the odd sensation triggered by the thinner air is like viewing the landscape through an Instagram filter).
Arriving back in Pokhara, 24 days after setting off and without having seen a single vehicle the entire time (just yaks and the odd cart in the lower parts of the trail) - instead, just the incredible scenery every single day - is an odd feeling.
It takes many trekkers a few days to acclimatise to being back in normal surroundings, not just physically but also mentally, such are the demands on the body and the brain.
Despite reports of developments being made to parts of the trail to assist walkers (especially to the lodges on the route - shame, in a way, as it’s all part of the experience), I’d do it again tomorrow, given the chance…
NB: Apologies for the quality of the images. They were taken with a film-based Canon SLR and the negatives only digitised some ten years later.
NB2: Rough outline of the route, beginning in Pokhara (827 metres) at the bottom of the map and the Thorung-La pass (5,416 metres) is at the top…