Friday, March 20, 2015

Poon Hill Trek: Kande- Ghandrung-Ghorepani-Birethanti

A first time South Col trekker did this beautiful five day route in the Annapurna foothills in December 2014. Kumudini  narrates her  experiences - this is an invaluable account for first time trekkers to the Himalaya!

Annapurna South and Huinchuli

My First Trekking Experience 

by Kumudini Hajra

It’s always further than it looks, it’s always taller than it looks and
it’s always harder than it looks
may well be the three cardinal rules for trekking.

Other than very few one-day trekking experiences in the monsoons on the outskirts of Mumbai, I am fairly new to trekking. I am not quite sure how I took fancy to the idea of doing a real trek, that too in the Himalayas. It was partly a desire to be in a really cold place; partly a desire to do something involving physical exercise; partly to try my hand at photography; or may be, it was just a desire to be close to nature.  So, I decided to trek in the Himalayas!

The trek was organised by South Col Expeditions, a Kolkata based company which specializes in treks and photo workshops in the Himalayas. Sujoy Das, the owner of South Col Expeditions, is the joint author and photographer of Sikkim- A Travellers Guide and author of Lonely Planet Nepal - for the Indian Traveller and has been trekking for 30 years in the Himalayan region. I chose Annapurna Foothills Trek, which follows a loop with splendid views of Annapurna and Machhapuchhre or Fish Tail mountains in Nepal. The duration of the trek was ideal as I had to be away for only eight days (Sunday to Sunday) with 6 days of trekking.  
Poon Hill looking north west


Before going for the trek, I didn’t do any research on the trek and even avoided reading books on Himalayan trekking adventures. I thought I will have my own first-hand experience. Sometimes, going for a trip on a blank slate is good as you discover things you had not ‘googled’ before. On the itinerary, I read the names of places the trek goes through but was so perplexed by the names, the same names that I am so familiar with now. Once I decided to join the trek, which was hardly a month before the start of trek, I started to build stamina for the trek by walking, jogging, climbing stairs and walking on incline on the treadmill. I also stocked up the gear one needs for the trek like trekking shoes, sleeping bag and backpack. My first learning was to be able to pack one’s bag light and with only the bare essentials.

I flew from Mumbai to Kathmandu and then to Pokhara. The flight from Kathmandu to Pokhara took me in the tiniest plane by Yeti Airlines I have ever flown in. It was also first time that I found “free seating” in a plane. On arrival in Pokhara, my first impression was that the place actually looks like a painting. I walked around the lakeside in Pokhara in the afternoon and got to know fellow trekkers in my group. I discovered that it was an all-women team of trekkers and with only three women it was the smallest trek Sujoy had ever led. Including the Nepali trail guide and two porters, we were seven of us.

The first day of trek was more like getting used to walking for long hours, both uphill and downhill. We left our hotel at Pokhara by a micro bus very early and reached Kande, the starting point of our trek, in an hour. The thought of being without a vehicle for next 5 days was thrilling. We walked uphill for around two hours to Australian base camp (at a height of 2069 metres from the sea level), from where we got stunning view of the entire mountain range starting with Annapurna South, Annapurna I, Hiunchuli, Machhapuchhre, and Annapurna III, IV and II. After a short walk, we reached Pothana (1900 metres), our lunch stop. From Pothana, the trail went uphill to Deorali from where it made a steep descent to Bichok. After walking for three hours, we reached Tolka (1700 meters) around 3 pm. We stayed at Namaste lodge, which was comfortable and homely. We had wonderful view of Annapurna range from the lodge and we were able to get amazing shots of the changing colour of the mountains as the sun went down. Once the sunlight went, it became very cold and we all settled in the dining room which had a heater. After a very early dinner, we moved into our sleeping bags quite early.



Next day (Day 2), we started walking right after breakfast and reached Landruk (1565 metres) in an hour. It was a fairly easy walk, but after this, the horror started! We had to come down the hill on some pretty steep steps. Somehow, I have always preferred climbing up over climbing down. After some distance, we could see the river flowing below and the large suspension bridge we would cross. After little more than an hour and drop in height from 1565 metres to 1250 meters, we reached Beehive where we crossed beautiful and roaring Modi Khola river. We sat by the river and drank hot ginger lemon tea. After this, we climbed steeply for 700 metres to Ghandruk (1950 metres), which is the headquarters of the Annapurna Conservation Area Project. The climb took two and half hours and was rather strenuous. We had to stop often to catch our breath and sometimes to let the traffic of ponies pass by! The five hours trek left us quite exhausted, but luckily, the rest of the day after reaching Ghandruk was free for us.

We stayed in Gurung cottage at Ghandruk owned by Kasim Gurung, who manages the lodge pretty much by himself. After eating Nepali lunch of Dal Bhaat, we sat in the sun and kept ourselves warm. The place had beautiful flowers and kitchen garden; it even had wifi. We got a stunning panaromic view of the mountains, which were slowly getting covered by the clouds. The appearance of clouds was not a good sign as it indicated a very cold time ahead and one could even expect snow fall. The sun disappeared fast and it became very cold and windy, and we retreated inside to get some warmth and hot tea.

Gurung Cottage, Ghandrung
On third day, we left Ghandruk after having breakfast in open air with mountains in the backdrop. It was a comparatively late morning and we were told that it will be a short and easy day with walking and climbing for only four hours. By now, we had realised that training for cardio in a city gym was no match for walking in the hills. Even when we were walking a flat area, it was never really flat; it was ‘Nepali flat’ with ups and downs. This day, the entire trail led us through a dense forest. It was quite pretty but very cold as sunlight could not penetrate through the mammoth trees. We made good speed this morning and reached our next stop, a lodge called Panaroma view, at Tadapani (2595 metres) by 1 pm. Tadapani  had one of the best views of Annapurna South, Huin Chuli and Machapuchare and the mountains from here were so close. It was too cold this evening and the temperature was expected to touch -5 C that night.

The view of sunset from Tadapani was impressive and everyone braved the chill to take pictures of the sublime mountains while they changed colours. Back in the dining room, it got noisy as it was Christmas Eve and the trekkers, all foreigners, were generally upbeat. For almost everyone present in the room, it was Christmas of a different kind. After dinner, the night sky was very clear and perfect for star gazing. 

Next morning, we left for Ghorepani. This was the longest day of the trek with planned walking of 6-7 hours. We were worried as the trekkers coming in the reverse direction, which is a more conventional route for trekkers, had informed us that there is snow on the way. So we dressed in as many layers as we could and started our walk. We walked to Banthanti mostly through the forest again. After a quick stop in the sun, we started for Deorali. We soon encountered snow which had covered the mountains and the trail. The walk here had to be very slow to avoid slipping. It took two and half hours to reach Deorali, where we stopped for lunch. The walk from Deorali to Ghorepani was long too and we walked thorough snow in some parts and also muddy path (from melted snow). As we walked, we could now get a view of Dhualagiri mountain, besides Machhapuchhre from the other side. After a difficult and rather non-ending trail, we reached our next stop, Nice View lodge at Ghorepani (2750 metres), a little before 3 pm. 

Sunset light, Poon Hill
The highest point of our trek was Poon Hill (3210 metres) at height of another 350 metres uphill from Ghorepani. Poon Hill is well known for fabulous view of the Dhaulagiri, Annapurna and Machhapuchhre mountains. It is also known for strong and biting wind as it is an unobstructed hill. We had two options to go to Poon Hill – either see sunrise (which meant waking up at 4 am and climb the hill in dark) or see the sunset (which meant walking downhill in the dark). Some of us chose to see the sunset, but it meant leaving right away and walking another hour uphill on top of the 6-7 hours walking and climbing we had already done that day. We climbed to Poon Hill padded with warm jackets and just water, camera and torch. The climb was hard but the view from the top was amazing. On one side were the mountains, on another side the valley covered by a thick layer of mist making one feel on top of the clouds and on another side was the setting sun. The view was ideal for shooting stunning pictures of the mountains. The show of sunset was over too quickly and we started to climb down. It got dark when we were half way down and some parts of the path were covered with slippery ice. The scary walk and the long day ended finally and we were back in the warmth of the lodge for another wonderful dinner of soup and momos. 

On day 5, which was effectively the last day of hard trekking, we started a little later than usual. This was one day I was most worried about as I had heard others talk about the treacherous steps of Ulleri, which we were to descend that day. We started walking from Ghorepani to Banthanti. The walk was supposed to be easy but it took us nearly two and half hours to reach Banthanti. We were probably tired from the previous day and it was also very cold. The fact that it was mostly downhill didn’t help much. After a quick lunch at Banthanti, we left for Ulleri (1960 metres), where we reached in 45 minutes. From here, we started descending around 3200 stone steps that would bring us down to another river at Tirkedhunga. The steps were uneven and the path was zigzagged, which wrecked our knees. Perhaps the only saving grace was that we were coming down these steps rather than climbing them up. There were a number of trekkers we met on the way going up and everyone bore the same expression – “how much more to go?” In about two hours, we were down to Hille (1460 metres) after a quick stop at Tirkedhunga for tea. We spent the night at Hille. As we were almost down to the valley, the night was not freezing cold but we were really tired.

On the last day, we left very early as everyone was eager to be back in Pokhara by lunch and we were hopeful of getting a hot shower in the guest house. We walked from Hille to Birethanti in two hours. The walk was really pretty as we walked along the Bhurungdi Khola river, when the only sound was that of the river flowing by. In half an hour from Birethanti, we reached Nayapul where our micro bus was waiting to bring us back to Pokhara. It was sad to turn back and look at the snowy white mountains that we had left behind. We were back in Pokhara by noon and rest of the day was spent walking along the lakeside and doing shopping! 

It being my first trek, I learnt a lot about trekking. Even though the trek was hard on some days, I can say that it is all in one’s mind. I realized that at the beginning of every climb, what was most difficult was first five minutes and the last five minutes. When we were climbing up and it seemed really hard, a trekker from another group told me to keep going as the path which goes up also comes down. When one is in the mountains, one should never rejoice on a downhill slope until one has reached the destination at the top, because going downhill means that one has to climb up again. It was quite impressive that the mountain trails in Nepal are fairly well-defined and easy to follow. In fact, I met some solo trekkers too. The lodges in Nepal have some sense of aesthetics and they maintain fairly clean standards. It can truly be called the trekking country of the world.

Dhaulagiri and Tukuche from Ghorepani
The trek took me close to the Himalayas and I realised I knew so little about them. It was only later in a book shop in Pokhara I discovered that there are so many books written on adventures (and misadventures) in the Himalayas. I am now reading Into Thin Air by John Krakauer with The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen and Annapurna: The First Conquest of an 8,000-Meter Peak by Maurice Herzog and Conrad Anker awaiting their turn. There are also countless number of articles on how Himalayas are being commercialized and how the popular trekking routes are going to disappear sooner than we think. It would perhaps be a good idea to accomplish Mount Everest base camp ambition before that happens! 

7 comments:

  1. A Nice Post with Marvelous Photographs....

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  2. It is always refreshing to read an account of a trek by someone totally new to the experience: reminds us old timers what the thrill of discovering the Himalaya was for the first time. Good job, Kumudini.... and yes, your photographs are extremely nice as well!

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  3. Himalayan Treks Comment Thanks for sharing good information !

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  4. Much belated thanks Sujoy for sharing my article. Thanks everyone!...Kumudini

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