Annapurna in the Monsoon Day 7: To the Base Camp on a Trail of Flowers
Deurali dawned foggy and cold, on the day we aimed to reach Annapurna Base Camp. There was no mercy from Annapurna. The monsoon was unrelenting.
In no particular good humour, I wearily prepared my things and went out in the wet, hoping that breakfast might improve my mood. Thank heavens Annapurna guesthouses have coffee!
But my guide had a surprise for me. Observing my difficulty with the cold wet, and my less-than-waterproof 'waterproof' trousers, she had thought of something overnight.
- Difficulty Comes with Ease
- The Alpine Mists of Annapurna Plateau
- The Way to Machapuchare Base Camp
- Is Trekking to Annapurna Base Camp Worth It?
- Reaching an ABC landmark
- Reaching Annapurna Base Camp
- Carbon offsetting information to Pokhara, Nepal
Difficulty Comes with Ease
Adapting the logic of the bin bag rain poncho, she acquired a fresh bin bag from the guesthouse and made for me a... rainproof bin bag skirt!
The simplicity of the solution smacked me like a brick. Why did I suffer through days of semi-wet pants and not have thought of this myself before?!
Now, of course the resulting outfit can in no way be said to be Instagram-worthy. It was, in fact, utterly and absolutely unfashionable.
Luckily I'm not an Insta-blogger anyway, and so sick of the damp that I just wouldn't have cared even if I cared (does that make sense?).
I draped my rainproof jacket (which really is rainproof) over the top of the bin bag skirt, thus ensuring that rain would entirely fall over these waterproof surfaces to the ground. My socks were still wet, and I might get damp below the skirt, but it was a much improved situation than before.
Pleased with the success of her idea, Devi called for the day's trek to begin.
The Flower Chandeliers of Annapurna Monsoon
How fickle is (wo)man!
We left the paved precincts of Deurali and came upon the grass-flanked trails to the base camp. The rain ceased pouring then, and though the sky remained white with cloud, the sun shone through them to lift the mist somewhat.
The air was crisp in the way so characteristic of after-rain. And through the mist and fog the flowers and leaves droop, pregnant with drops of rain, a million chandeliers that glistened crystal wet along the path. Spiderwebs graced with tiny liquid spheres of light, and grass flowers sprouting glinting orbs on the tip of every bloom.
It was incredibly beautiful. And I forgave the mountain for the misery of the persistent rains.
I guess I'm easily appeased.
The Alpine Mists of Annapurna Plateau
We walked on, along the misty trails flanked by grasses, stopping occasionally to take pictures of the sweet little alpine flowers.
This high up, there were no longer any trees. It was also rockier, the plateau strewn with rock and boulders. Some of them were interesting; large boulders that had fine striated furrows all over.
My guide periodically asked whether I was still doing all right. We must be ascending to significant altitudes. Nonetheless, it felt much easier, because the way was gradual rather than a series of steep inclines.
But we were not done with the fast-flowing rivers. Not by a long shot. Although, at least the banks of the river were more of a flat plain or gentle slope rather than precipitous drops.
In the distance, a dam was under construction across the powerful stream. I assumed construction must proceed only in the off-monsoon; it would not be safe to work there with the water so fierce.
We wandered alongside a bend in a rapidly flowing stream, its waters frothing and foaming white as it careened against the confining rocks of the channel. Trekkers had assembled rock stacks on some of the boulders, their silhouettes dramatic against the spray. Not as many rock stacks as on the way to Tadapani, though.
Thankfully, we did not have to cross this raging river.
The Way to Machapuchare Base Camp
Before long, the mist grew thicker around us, and sometimes we would not be able to see very far in the distance along the trail. The views of mountain slopes on the far side of chasms slipped in and out of thick rolling fog. Occasionally we would see rivers coursing in the valley through the mist.
Soon after leaving the waterways, the path veered onto the alpine plateau of Annapurna. The path cut through a plain of thick green shrub, tall spines topped with starbursts of white flowers reaching to the sky, stark against the fuzzy white of the mist.
More little white flowers bloomed by the track here, and occasionally, purples and blues. Little specks of colour by the trekker's feet.
It never crossed my mind how much green there could still be, this close to the base camp. Let alone how grand - imposing, stately stems standing guard over the trail.
The ice flower of the Himalayas
As I walked on, I glanced to the side at a different tall shrub, with a bigger white flower. I stopped short. Was it...?
My mind flashed to a photo I saw once on my Google+ feed, of a white flower apparently on its stem. Except that it was translucent, flecked with water as though it were made of ice and slowly thawing. Many people commenting questioned if it was real - it just couldn't be! It must be photoshopped! How could the petals of a flower be see-through like ice?
But there it was, in person, in front of my own eyes. And I immediately understood how the petals of the flower (which we had passed earlier that morning looking ordinary and white), became transparent.
It required rain.
Not just some rain. Not just light rain. And not wild, windy rain. But the incessant, unceasing, steady fall of rain upon the flower, until the petals were completely and utterly soaked through. The very kind of rain that I found so miserable.
Then, in the morning, when the monsoon clouds pause for breath, the sun casts its rays through the petals - and voila! the ice flower of the Himalayas*.
I stood there, feeling suddenly humbled and schooled. I had wished for many days for the rains to relent and spare me. But some beautiful sights of Annapurna would not exist at all, were it not for the trial of the monsoon.
The summer ice arch
A strange sight caught the corner of my eye, to the left of the trekking trail. It was close to the base of a hill, and hard to make out through the fog.
It seemed like part of the hill, except that there was something off about it. There seemed to be a cave in the slope, except that the arches of the cave were perfectly rounded.
"What is it, Devi?" I asked.
Her face brightened. "It's ice!" Ice? There's still ice in the summer!
I left the trail about halfway towards it, until the ground felt slightly boggy. Indeed, it was ice at the base of the hill, dirty on the surface with earth and grime. Hollows had been carved out of it by the glacier melt, falling as a waterfall that flowed in rivulets through its base.
I guess heat carried by the water slowly melted out alcoves beneath the icy roof.
Machapuchare Base Camp (MBC)
There were two base camps on the Annapurna plateau, for mountaineers aiming for different mountains. MBC would be reached first, along the ABC trekking trail to Annapurna Base Camp. It was where we would pause for lunch, and where Devi would observe me for signs of altitude sickness.
So far, I felt perfectly fine. The trail was nearly level, and I did not feel as 'heavy' as the previous day. Nonetheless, the shelter of the restaurant at MBC was welcome after the misty trek.
I occupied myself by looking around, as I ate. The benches against the wall were piled high with pillows and blankets. The walls were festooned with the flags of many, many nations, and with banners from expeditions past.
One in particular held my attention. It was from a Malaysian expedition, and the banner displayed the names of the trekkers, and their scrawled messages.
I wondered if any of my countrymen had come here solo before me. I guess I wouldn't be able to tell, since solo trekkers don't hang banners on the base camp wall.
Is Trekking to Annapurna Base Camp Worth It?
But Annapurna plateau had not yet finished talking to me. Past MBC, we left the tall green stands of white-topped shrub behind, into an area where the vegetation was low on the ground.
And there were wildflowers across the entire landscape.
Magenta carpeted large sections of the grass, dotted with white, yellow, and sometimes blue. Wildflowers of great diversity - bunched tiny ones, bell shapes, flat petals, pansy-like faces, star shapes...
Here and there, the grassy plateau was interspersed with stray stands of Himalayan poppy - almost always white, but later on I saw some lovely pale pink ones, and one plant with a darker pink.
There on the plateau, I thought back to my discontent the previous night, while cold in my bed. Wondering if it was worthwhile, if the trek to the base camp could possibly trump the sights I had already seen in the forests. Or if it would just be more of the same, except with more wet and cold. And if the fog obscured the mountains themselves, maybe it would not be worth the trip?
The summer plateau gave me my answer: yes, it's worth it. Even without seeing the mountain, the plateau itself is worth the trek.
Kneel, and look up
As I busied myself with the flower photography, trying to find angles that show the flowers best, I paused, suddenly thinking.
With so many of these, I'm having to take their pictures while nearly on the ground, angling up to the sky. Many of these Annapurna flowers droop or tilt downwards, and its beauty can only be captured by photographing them from below.
With others, they creep low to the ground, well below the gaze of mountaineers hurrying past. Their rain-glazed beauty can only be appreciated when you kneel to their level.
Indeed, some things of great beauty are not visible to those who walk lofty looking down. They are reserved for those who know how to kneel, and see from a different perspective.
Reaching an ABC landmark
The rain returned in the afternoon, a windblown drizzle. The dirt track was wet under our boots as we pressed on to Annapurna Base Camp.
But hey, the bin bag skirt worked perfectly.
The wild strawberries had not begun fruiting this high up, its flowers still bright red, yellow, and orange. What a shame. If we had come just a little bit later, perhaps, we could be snacking on strawberries this whole way.
With the rain, the fog returned with a smothering vengeance. Visibility dropped significantly - everything was a bank of white beyond a few metres.
"We will reach it soon," said Devi. She was referring to the starting point of the race she had told me about, one in which she participated when she was a bit younger. The race began from that point, all the way down the mountain to Dhampus, where I had reached on a day hike before embarking on this 10-day Sanctuary trek.
She ran it in a single day. I can't even... I just can't. How?? And what do you mean, ran??
But we came upon it shortly, a dark sign half-obscured by fog. Annapurna Base Camp was not much further away.
The memorial of the fallen friend
Not far from the sign there was a vertical boulder, jagged at the top. It loomed half-hidden in the fog, a lone monolith.
But what actually drew my attention to it, was a silvery disc fixed upon it shaped like a heart (although at first I thought it was a hole bored through). The shiny surface reflected light and shone like a beacon, even through the cloudy, misty day.
Oh, romantic! I thought. I wandered over to have a closer look, wondering what sort of romantic trekking love story might be immortalised by this monument.
But it was a love story far greater than just romance.
The heart was inscribed with a memorial for a Korean mountaineer who died at 7250m during a climb in 1997. The memorial was made by his friends in his alpine club.
A memorial at the place that he loved, and where he left the world doing what he loved. With friends who loved him and who named the route he explored after him.
The 'Dead Marshes'
For a moment I thought we had basically arrived, and that the built guesthouse precincts of Annapurna Base Camp would momentarily loom out from the fog.
But no. From here there was still some hiking to be done.
The fog swathed everything in white, but my guide picked her way confidently across a landscape that in my mind felt a bit like the Dead Marshes in Lord of the Rings, except without the dead people in the water.
I was half-certain that these trails shift a bit between expeditions, because it looked like the streams coursing through the plains had cut through former trails, widened crossing gaps, and collapsed the sides of others.
Once, there was a point where you'd have to jump between two banks of an apparently newly-cut stream that didn't look all too stable.
Devi made the leap and looked back at me, waving me across. But I didn't feel all too confident to jump the gap with my stiffened legs. Even Seema looked at the gap and was like, nahhhhh.
We walked a little bit onward and found a narrower gap.
Reaching Annapurna Base Camp
The base camp did eventually loom out upon us through the fog.
The day's trek was not a long trek, but it was purposely intended not to be, because it would take us nearly another 1000 m from Deurali up to 4130m ASL. Nonetheless, the base camp precinct was a welcome sight. Devi had told me about the electric blankets in the dining hall here, and I admit I was looking forward to the warmth.
When we got settled in, and had a hot drink and snack, the fog began to lift a little bit. Out on the terrace I looked back at the plains through which we trekked that day. From that vantage it looked beautiful in emerald lushness, watered by meandering streams.
A walk around the base camp
Since the weather improved in the early evening, we went for a walk around the ABC precincts.
The Annapurna base camp compound sits near an edge of the alpine plateau. Walking around the back, you can hike up to a rocky ledge forming a sort of rim for the plateau, dropping into what looks like a channel carved out by glacial flow. This entire channel was dry, however - unlike virtually the rest of the mountain.
The ledge was not empty. Tibetan prayer flags festoon the rim, punctuated by flags representing diverse nations of the world, and occasionally by monument cairns.
I hadn't thought about the climbing aspect at all, since I was focused only on completing the trek to ABC. But there, watching the stone mounds standing sombre against the white-gray cloud, I realised that these peaks were dangerous ascents.
I really can't claim to understand why they needed to be climbed, with such great risk. But then, I had lived much of my life in sheltered privilege, raised by a risk-averse Asian mother. True, I had begun to take more risks, but 3 years of courage can't reverse the neural circuitry of 30 years of fear.
One flag caught my eye in the distance - a familiar flag. I watched it flap against the intermittent breeze, watching for the top left corner. Yes - the Malaysian flag is present on Annapurna.
I had not at all bothered to think about whether I ought to have brought a flag or whatever. Yet, when I saw the flag on that ledge, I felt oddly glad that someone else had already done it.
The highest inn of Annapurna
As evening fell, the ABC trekkers for the day all gravitated to the relatively warm dining hall. Conversation drifted to whether we would have the chance to sight the peaks after coming all this way, or not.
Trekkers on the way down had said that they were lucky enough to have 10 minutes, tops. Likely less. They advised that if the clouds parted, to go out straight away for photos and not to wait. The clouds do not part for long in the monsoon.
Finally feeling other than totally-exhausted for once, I was able to ruminate as I watched the other trekkers. This remote Nepali guesthouse, far from all civilisation, was yet a place where all of them felt welcome and comfortable.
I heard around me a diversity of languages - Nepali accents chattering, Indonesian quietly among themselves, Manglish/Singlish** mingling, Korean and Chinese in groups, Queen's English flirting with Italian.
This is not often the case in other social congregation points. The most inclusive ones would still be awkward for major groups of people. Vegetarian-unfriendly menus, perhaps. Or the expectation to be 'cool' to fit in. And I have only ever been in one alcohol-serving place where the atmosphere was genuinely accepting of someone who does not drink. How does Annapurna do it?
Of course, it helps that the main thing that people are looking for in the Annapurnas when they end each day, is simple food and warmth - something common to all people. It helps that the locals are largely already vegetarian (and that dhal bat and momos are delicious).
But there's something else. It's because everyone was there because of the same reason, which doesn't have anything to do with the inn itself.
Here is shelter to all who made their weary, cold and windswept way to come beneath the gaze of the peaks.
A gift from the Fishtail Mountain
All of a sudden there was a commotion at the door. Someone was urging us all to come outside, now.
I turned to look out the window that looked out to where Machapuchare ought to be, and I saw why. The clouds parted from about the top of Fishtail peak, and I saw it for the third time on the trek.
This time, its snow-tipped peak gleamed slightly gold as the setting sun shone upon it, a glowing triangle beacon from this angle. Elation filled me.
* Meconopsis spp.
** The Singaporean term for the country's form of 'creole'/slang English, similar to Manglish (the Malaysian version).
Carbon offsetting information to Pokhara, Nepal
A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Pokhara via Kathmandu produces carbon emissions of approximately 2,807 lbs CO2e. It costs about $14 to offset this.
Getting there was gruelling, but Day 7 was my favourite day. What do you trek for?
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