Mountain majesty

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What drove AVI CHANDIOK, a 65-year-old grandad to sign up for the long, hard trek in the Annapurna Dhaulagiri mountains?


In April 2012, I embarked on a 9-day trek to see the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri range of mountains in Nepal, reaching heights of 3850m well above the tree line, and into thinning atmosphere where yaks have no problems breathing, but human beings can be stricken with mountain sickness.

I had been in full-flow training for my walk for several months. What had driven me to sign up for this long, hard trek? Had I been deluded by my childhood memories of snow covered mountains that now appeared in my mind as through a smoky haze on a video screen. Or had I been seduced by the evening film night at the travel agent which showed 30/40 somethings in fashionable winter gear glowing with health, joking and laughing, sitting around a heater with snow-capped mountains all around? It had clearly slipped my mind that I was 65 years old, a grand-dad, with a solid history of ill-health behind me. Had I even consulted my doctor before booking?

My departure from Australia was fast approaching and with it my fears and apprehension grew. Was I over-estimating my fitness? What if something happened to me on the way? The mountains of Nepal are not exactly equipped with medical clinics and have no ambulances up there. People with health problems have to be carried down by porters and then via jeep to the nearest medical facility, we were told. Memorably, our trek leader said, “Guys, make sure you have your credit card with you and it has plenty of balance.” Apparently because in case of emergencies the helicopter would fly out from Kathmandu only if one’s credit card is clear of transactions. When I phoned my wife to pay off the credit card, she asked if I had gone to Nepal for a walk or to shop!

Our Kathmandu hotel was luxurious, in stark contrast to our accommodation in the coming days. We would carry backpacks with our daily requirements, and porters would carry our kitbags with everything else needed for the trek. We were instructed to wrap everything in plastic bags, for good reason. It could rain at any time and a wet sleeping bag or wet clothes would be no fun at all.

We woke at 5:45am to catch a flight to Pohkara on Yeti Airlines – yes, I’m not kidding, Yeti Airlines! It might as well have been Buddha Air. At this stage I was seeking strength and not enlightenment so Yeti was nice.

The job of the trek leader is a critical one and our entire safety, well-being, satisfaction and enjoyment was entirely in the hands of this individual. Fortunately, we were blessed with the best, with two other guides joining us in Pohkara. Each day, the porters would collect our kit-bags in the morning, and would be at our nights lodging well ahead of us looking as if they had just been for a stroll in the park.

So here we were at the Annapurna range, where the walk was to start, and it didn’t look good because in front of me was this great big mountain range which went on and on and higher and higher… We donned our backpacks and started off, walking uphill for 2½ hours, but that wasn’t bad. We got to Sauli Bazaar with the sound of a fast flowing river in our ears, starting up for Ghandruk the next day.

The trek was headed to Khopra Ridge at 3700m, allowing 6 days to ascend and 3 to descend. The route was circular, so we saw different scenes throughout our walk. We walked over very roughly laid narrow stone paths surrounded by terrace farms along the mountainside. The landscape had a picture postcard sort of look, with the river rushing down the mountain.

On our second day we had 6000 steps to climb, the quickest way to go higher, but definitely not the easiest at an elevation of 1950m. (I had trained for this by climbing up the stairs repeatedly at a 6-storey car park). We climbed over 700m that day, but because of unkind weather, had no view of the Annapurnas. But once the evening sky changed to a pinkish orange, our trek leader assured us of clear skies the next day.

Up before dawn the next morning, the light revealed the silent majesty of Annapurna and Machipuchare, also called Fish-tail due to the shape of its peak. Huge and powerful, right in front of us! We were transfixed by the sun’s rays on the peaks, slowly, very slowly spreading lower while we stood in comparative darkness, and total silence! The sky was deep blue, purple, violet, and then pink. This is what we had walked, climbed, waited and prayed for!

During the remainder of the trek the weather followed a pattern of heavy rain, hail or snow in the evenings and nights, but we had clear skies each morning. We stood in silence before beginning the trek each day, feeling the awesome power of the mountains around us. The peaks rose up like the design of temples and cathedrals which strive to reach higher into the sky. Truly temples to the Gods! White snow like marble walls glinted as if studded with jewels as the sun moved higher.

2500m is a significant altitude from a medical point of view, as at this height the air starts to get thinner and above this height, no matter what one’s level of fitness, Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) can strike. I knew I had to simply test myself, take the risk and see what happens, and I was now ready.

On our way to Tadapani however, one of our group had to return to Pokhara due to illness, accompanied by a guide. As we progressed higher, often the only electricity available in the lodges was provided by solar panels. Another consequence of going higher was that prices too became progressively higher!

Our route began to wind through forests of rhododendron trees in full bloom in April, making the Annapurna region a heavenly delight with entire mountainsides cloaked in hues of pink. We climbed on, soon finding our tracks getting narrower and having to concentrate harder with steep drops of hundreds of metres on one side. Every once in a while, the tinkling of bells warned of approaching mules. They always have priority and, for safety, everyone stands close to the hillside watching them go by carrying cages of poultry, gas cylinders and other supplies.

We approached Bayli Kharka at around 3500m, and the air was quite cold. It’s surprising how 6-7 hours of strenuous walking can keep the body warm well into the night. Hot water bottles and cameras too, are placed inside the sleeping bags, as batteries deteriorate rapidly in the cold.

In the lodge before going to bed, we relaxed around a pot-bellied stove fuelled with wood and dung, with our boots drying out with the heat. Our evening meals were always good, partaken in the light from dim solar lamps or dimmer kerosene lamps.

We had snow, wind, fog, clouds and icy conditions at night, but we could now see Dhaulagiri and the other peaks. The majesty of the mountains is even more awe-inspiring as Dhaulagiri stands massive like a huge fort with lesser peaks around it. We thought this is what we came for, but the truth was that these views were considerably enriched by the experience of the walk that brought us here. We could see streams of Tibetan prayer flags as they fluttered in the breeze, each flutter a prayer of worship seeking divine guidance and strength.

Now we were well above the tree line, with massive gentle looking yaks dotting the landscape. Our route took us down from 3500m to Upper Sisitibung at 3000m, and we could see mighty mountain ranges that go on and on as far as the eye can see.

On our final climbing day, regrettably, the second of our party exhibited symptoms of AMS, and had to be taken lower immediately. We carried on, and after a hard walk we were at our goal, Khopra Ridge, best described as a shoulder that extends towards the mountain ranges. It was extremely cold: there was snow on the ground as we walked through snow-laden clouds to the edge of the deepest gorge in the world – the Kali Gandaki river gorge, which is all of 7000m from the Dhaulagiri side.

We woke well before sunrise and I could sense the excitement. The weather had cleared, the moon was still up shimmering in a slight haze, the sky was blue-black and the mountains, all of them from the Dhaulagiris to the Annapurnas were in front of us, close to us. It was a magical sight as the sun’s rays touched the tips of the peaks and very slowly started to peel back the darkness to reveal glittering, silver snow. The colour in the sky changed, but at -6 degrees, I could barely hold my camera. We were spellbound, ignoring calls to breakfast, simply looking. My trek notes state ‘…felt something quite moving/spiritual. Maybe it’s the closeness and stillness of these colossal peaks and mountains. Absolutely freezing!’

We packed all our belongings, readying ourselves for the descent over three days, beginning from Khopra Ridge along a very narrow path frozen over with ice, extremely dangerous with an unlimited drop to one side. The foremost guide smashed the ice with a pickaxe so we could walk in relative safety. We continued our descent through long, steep downhill climbs until we reached our transport waiting to take us back to Pokhara.

We had crossed many suspension bridges, made friends, stored countless memories and had accomplished what we had set out to do. For me it was a great adventure, and possibly the best thing I had ever done. With this experience I have gained a lot: strength of spirit, a quiet confidence, a sense of private satisfaction.  But there was also a sense of something left behind, a little bit of myself perhaps, for which I’ll probably go back some day.

Avi Chandiok
Avi Chandiok
Mountain-fit 70 year old whose greatest achievement is trekking to Everest Base Camp.

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