Annapurna in the Monsoon Day 8: Trekking Through the Summer Plateau
The day dawned free from rain, so I went for a walk around the base camp before breakfast. The rising sun shone gently over the alpine plateau of Annapurna, waking its green summer colour. The clouds remained about the tips of the peaks, hiding them from sight, but dispersed as mere tendrils beneath so that the dark rocky slopes and snowy crevices were revealed to the eye.
It was a good morning. Good enough, that I did not mind that night at the base camp was cold for me. I finally needed the thermal sleeping bag Seema had faithfully carried all this way.
These were the views which were the point of doing an Annapurna trek.
The mountains were imposing, from what I could see of them. And I was grateful that I got to see that much. It was a lot more than I had been able to see of late. But the mists closed in again, so I went in for breakfast.
I was still in the middle of breakfast when, just like the previous evening, someone hurriedly called for us all to come outside, to the back - where the view was towards the chain of peaks of the Annapurna massif.
Truth be told, I was loathe to leave my coffee. But I remembered what an Italian group passing us by on their descent had told us: you may only have 5 minutes. Maybe this was going to be good. Better than what I've already seen. I had enough travel experience by this time not to hesitate to record moments.
So I left the coffee to get cold, grabbed my iPhone, and rushed out with everyone else.
And I could not have imagined what I saw.
- 1 The Annapurna Plateau in Summer
- 2 Beginning the Descent Down the Annapurnas
- 3 What I Ate During My Annapurna Trek
- 4 The Annapurna Trek is Actually Harder Downhill
The Annapurna trek, vindicated.
Annapurna had cast back her cloudy shawl, leaving it draped across her shoulders. Displaying to us an incredible snowy-white massif gleaming in the morning sun.
The line of cloud was like a cut-off, making the mountain appear to be suspended in mid-air, distinct and ethereal and heavenly, floating above the shadowed and mortal slopes beneath. We were all speechless for a moment, gazing at the mountain that appeared to be painted onto the sky - it didn't seem to belong there.
But soon enough, my fellow trekkers began to take photographs - of the mountain, of themselves with the mountain. The classic jump shots and whatnot. But I was still dazed.
My guide Devi was waving at me, and got my attention. She motioned for me to follow her, and led me some ways away from the edge of the precipice that bordered the dry glacial channel which was the closest point to the mountain and where everyone was concentrated. And when I turned around, I instantly knew why.
The angle was even better from being slightly away, as you could look directly upon the mountain through the valley centre. Or actually, it rather felt as if the mountain could look upon you directly, through the glacial valley.
And it was worth it. The cold and the aches, the damp and relentless trekking. My Annapurna trek had been hard on me, but that morning I understood the point.
The Annapurna Plateau in Summer
I had passed through the alpine plain the previous day, astonished at the beauty of a million drops of rain hanging from its wildflowers and grasses. However, the landscape of the plain had been masked by the impenetrable fog.
But the morning when we left the base camp was drier (although 'dry' is a relative term in the monsoon season) and clearer. So, trekking back the way we came, I saw the alpine wildflowers en masse this time. They had their heads raised higher with the weight of rain evaporated away, entire green fields peppered with pinpricks of vibrant colour.
The morning was dry enough that we could see the summer insects flitting about, flower to flower. But the raindrops were still present in parts. There was a particular sort of grass in particular, growing all in a bunch low to the ground, that seemed somehow to collect raindrops such that the spheres seemed to be part of it!
Annapurna trek with a bit of play!
I was in a better mood after the special alpine sights over the past day, and in consideration that I now needed only to come back down the mountain.
So I took advantage of the reasonably fair morning to take more touristy photographs on the plain. If on the way up I didn't dare to stray too far from the trails, now I hiked across to the foot of slopes and clambered onto boulders for a photo op! Devi and I tag-teamed for photos along the streams and trails that meandered between glacial boulders.
The mood was light enough that we weren't even too fazed by the return of the rain and light mist. But the strangest thought wormed its way in my mind as we trekked through the shaggy landscape.
In the constant drizzle, the gently sloping landscape dotted with chunks of boulder and rock reminded me of... Scotland. Especially as we had seen thistles again among the flowering way.
Not that I've actually been to the Scottish highlands, mind you. But... doesn't the landscape have a 'Scotlandness' to it*?
Annapurna's gleaming silver hills
We walked on, admiring the flowers anew as they opened petals wide - to the sun this time, unbowed with rain. White and purple and red.
We walked on, past the 'Dead Marsh' part of the plateau that in itself formed a strangely beautiful landscape - in a sere sort of way. Past the streams and rapids.
By this time the sun had risen high enough that its rays speared through breaks in the cloud, hitting the hills on the far sides of the plain. And something caught the corner of my eye.
The naked face of the hill was gleaming - shining silver.
I was instantly transported to the beginning of this 10-day Annapurna trek, to the first day when we hiked upon a road that was paved with shiny silver-shot stones. No, further back - to the Kande day hike before that, when I felt like I walked upon steps of silver.
Once again I wondered, what this rock was, to shine so bright and white - without being actually silver. And why had I never read of it in any of the accounts written of this trek? Do they get obscured by snow in the peak season? Is the sun's angle so different then, that the light doesn't hit it in this way? Or am I just unusual in my interest, not being a true mountaineer?
Whatever it is, do keep an eye out for these cliff faces which are too sheer to be overgrown. If you're lucky, the sun would be just right, and they will gleam.
And watch for the waterfalls down the mountainsides, with their tops dissolving into cloud and sun.
Beginning the Descent Down the Annapurnas
You might have noticed that I mentioned this Annapurna trek is a 10-day trek, and yet it took 7 days to trek to the base camp. That leaves only 3 days to trek back down.
I figured people must have thought about this. After all, going downhill would presumably be faster. And going uphill needs to consider giving time for altitude acclimatisation.
And another thing, after Chomrong the route back to Nayapul would be different. We would trek almost in a line down the mountain, instead of veering west and south through to Ghorepani again.
So the route back down would have us spend the night first in Bamboo, where we stopped on the fifth day. And then we would have a little treat the following day by finishing it at Jhinudanda, where there were hot springs.
It all sounds perfectly reasonable.
That is, until we left the alpine plains and the river crossings, and started down the steeper slopes.
And things go downhill.
To my surprise and chagrin, the Annapurna trek felt somehow steeper going down, than up. And this was basically because my knees had been under such strain for the past several days, that every step down jarred them most painfully. I suppose it simply hadn't been so noticeable, as long as I was steadily going upwards.
Consequently, our progress rate dropped sharply.
There's nothing you really can do about joint pain. Muscle aches - you can force yourself to go on by sheer willpower. It's not great, since it would worsen the inflammation, but you can push down this kind of pain and muscles will recover.
But when every time you rest your weight on your knee, pain shoots up from them as if the bones were grinding on the nerves, this is not something you can just push down. Not for long.
It was a harder trek than any of the previous days. Harder than Ghorepani. But there was no choice.
So I tried to grit my teeth and push onward. We had to make it to Bamboo - 2 days' worth of trek going up, in this one day.
I learned the point of alpine trekking sticks, the hard way
At some point along the way, Devi found a long-ish stick and recommended I use it to try and take some of my weight off my knee. She also unpacked a brace - but she only had one. I had it strapped around my worse knee, but took a while to work out how to use the stick to take my weight with my arm instead of my knee.
And when I got the hang of it, the point of the alpine sticks that other trekkers were carrying suddenly became clear.
My mind immediately flashed back to the second day, when I had turned down the offering of a damned good alpine stick. Dammit. As a former gamer, I really should know better than to turn down the 'quest item'. If an NPC gives you a quest item, there will be a reason for it, eventually!
We stopped somewhere along the way - I cannot even remember where. Perhaps Himalaya, or perhaps Deurali. Anyway, it was not anywhere near Bamboo, and yet it was already mid-afternoon.
I was contemplating how I was going to push past the pain to make it down in the remaining three or four hours of daylight. The stick was taking a beating, being too slender to last for much longer. And my palms were getting rubbed raw from its use.
But the resourceful Devi was coming up with something. She came up to me with a broom handle from the guesthouse - a far sturdier stick to use as a trekking aid.
So not only was I hobbling in a bin bag skirt, I was now leaning on a broomstick! Can I get my coven membership now, please?
What I Ate During My Annapurna Trek
To take our minds off my joint pain, let's move on to a favourite Malaysian topic - food.
Part of the reason why my knees deteriorated so readily, aside from the unaccustomed strain of trekking (in the highest mountain range of the world! again, what was I thinking?), was ironically the vegetarian diet. Or more specifically, a seafood-free diet.
It's not really a surprise that a seafaring race is adapted to seafood
I actually knew this a bit already, having discovered what a lack of seafood did to my knee joints through two occasions. The first period was simply a long lack of seafood due to other types of protein being more readily available at lunch spots I tended to go to at work, especially after we moved office and I tried to go more vegetarian.
The doctor had attributed it to my time in the navy reserves, blaming it on carrying heavy loads relative to my frame, because I am too young for age-related arthritis. I was told there was no way to recover from it. So I was prescribed glucosamine sulphate to alleviate the symptoms. I felt so sad, to be on 'old people medication'! Wahhhh!! And it didn't even help all of the time either - sometimes it got better, and sometimes not much help.
One day, I read the ingredients list on the box and contemplated it a little more. "Glucosamine sulphate is derived from seafood (shellfish)", it said. Huh. It was then that I realised that I had not had seafood for a very, very long while.
What if, I simply ate the seafood directly? It would certainly be cheaper!
And that's when I discovered that it's not just a matter of liking seafood - I literally need it. In fact, I did bring some glucosamine sulphate on the trek, because I knew I would be off seafood for a while. But I didn't bring enough - I had not expected to deteriorate so quickly.
Food in the Annapurnas
I am heretical by Malaysian standards, I freely admit it. I prove this by admitting here that I have no pictures of the two things I most frequently ate during the trek, and which I liked best: dhal bhat, and mo mo. Yes, a Malaysian who fails to take pictures of food.
That said, I did take a picture of my favourite dessert - deep fried apple fritters, and other snacks that I tried!
And I did also try to sample yak cheese before the end of the trek, but there didn't seem to be any yak cheese in stock for me to buy.
(I should probably have finished writing this one before Ramadan; I'm making myself really hungry right now).
The Annapurna Trek is Actually Harder Downhill
The flagstone steps that felt so evil going up, were positively diabolical on the way down. Remember, they are of uneven intervals, and wet with water. Every step involved a calculation now - of where to place my crutch vs my legs to minimise impact.
Despite the support of the broomstick crutch and the knee brace, we were not making good time. There are no pictures on this journey down, as my entire concentration was simply on making progress.
I am pushed to my edge
All through the previous 7 days, even on days when I dawdled or otherwise took longer to trek than the estimate, I would still reach the guesthouse comfortably before sundown.
Muslim readers will know that this means I was always able to complete both my midday and afternoon prayers then. So I never had to break for prayers in the middle of the trail. That said, I observed what it meant, every time we stopped for anything more than a breather. Backpacks laid down, rain gear taken off and set out to dry and for Seema to cool off (she is unmoved by the cold). Then everything had to be restored all over again to get moving again.
I could imagine the hassle multiplied by several times for a caravan, in those long ages past when this was the typical and safest way to travel between distant lands. In those days too, you often must reach your intended destination by nightfall, where it's safer than wilderness. So you couldn't afford very many such stops. Suddenly I appreciated instantly what it truly meant, the rukhsah of the traveller, which I took for granted all my life.
That day the sun was close to setting, and we were not near to Bamboo. We might make it to Dovan; Devi had already called ahead to switch our accommodations. But I could not wait for that, stained and splattered as I was. When we came upon a series of rapids, I called for a short break.
That evening, I performed my prayers by the rapids in uncertain state of purity, my willpower close to fraying, keenly aware of my utter inability to prepare myself. And the prayer of Moses was what I remembered: my Lord, I am in need of whatever good you would give me.
The refuge of Dovan
We reached Dovan not long after sunset, and before it got dark. After a rest to recover myself, I pushed myself to the warmth of a hot shower. Thereafter, I reviewed my belongings to figure out my best strategy for the next days.
Tiger Balm, for sure. There's ibuprofen, which should hopefully help with inflammation. And I remembered that I had brought climbing gloves, which should help with gripping the crutch.
It'll have to do.
But when I entered the dining hall the next day for breakfast I received a surprise - a different group of Malaysian trekkers! I had missed them the previous evening, since I was late to dinner. And of course, they had brought food with them.
Upon discovering that I was Malaysian as well, they shared with me something from home - half a can of chilli tuna. And that was how I somehow got seafood in the sanctuary of Annapurna, when I needed it.
* The sentiment is not entirely fanciful. A video of the plateau posted on my FB page caused an Englishman friend of mine currently living abroad, to become homesick.
To go back to the Annapurna Sanctuary Trek Series, click here.