Admittedly, I wasn’t planning on doing a major trek during my time in Nepal. I was thinking some day trips and maybe a weekend trek, but nothing long term. But as always happens with traveling, my plans changed and I signed up for a trek in the Annapurna Range for 14 days.
My trek is along the Sikles trail which is in the Annapurna Range and contains a large portion of the Annapurna Conservation Area. Our group has 15 Trekkers and 19 porters, and we will be camping the entire way (rather than guest houses which is quite common on the Annapurna circuit.
Here is a day-by-day journal of my experience on the Sikles trail of the Annapurna Range in Nepal:
Day 1-3: Foothills
It has been very scenic thus far but much different than I expected. We spent the first two days almost entirely in a cloud forest, with lush green trees, trickling rivers and moss covered branches. It reminded me a lot of Oregon actually!
The trekking itself has been difficult but totally manageable. We do about 5 hours a day largely uphill but with some downhill sections. The tougher part is staying hydrated and carrying our backpacks. They get heavy after a few hours even though it’s only about 20 pounds.
Our group has been getting along surprisingly well despite our many differences in background, ability and experience. The first few days has consisted of figuring out the right pace, and getting a feel for our vibes. Some people like to hike in silence, while others like to talk. Thankfully one of the values of dragons (the program I’m tagging along with) is communication and honesty so we’ve been able to talk through each day and do check ins.
We’re camping the whole way, so I’ve officially learned how to assemble a tent with numb fingers!! They’re three person tents so they get cozy, but it hasn’t been too cold yet. We also follow no trace principles, so no toilet paper, no trash, all that jazz. We burn or bury our trash and you get real comfortable peeing in the woods. It’s certainly been an adventure so far and I’m happy that my body and mind are holding up nicely! Back to the wilderness!
Day 4-6: Rural Villages
Our first few days on trek consisted of walking up and down the foothills until we reached about 1500 meters in altitude. Now that we are there, we are at the level of many small villages nestled in the foothills. These are largely ethnic villages, containing Gurung people, but each has a unique feel and it has been such a joy to explore them.
The first & second night we stayed outside of Sikles, one of the larger towns in this area. It even has road access! The third night, we stayed outside of Tangting. Sikles was made famous by a young man, from the village, who went on to begin the Annapurna Conservation Area Project. The largest national reserve in Nepal, the ACA is now one of the most visited and trekked areas in Nepal. Our entire trek and these villages, are all inside the massive reserve.
Sikles has about 500 families residing there. Made largely out of stone, the homes are one or two stories and most contain a barn for the water buffaloes or donkeys. They also have an open space in front of the home that serves as an all purpose area. Kids will play there, mothers do the laundry, father milk the cows. There is electricity and running water, but usually not in every home. Every inch of space in the village is used, whether it be for a gutter, sidewalk, small farm plot, or for homes; these communities are very resourceful. They are also largely self-sufficient, as they are too far from towns to get regular supplies. So essentially everything they need is either grown or made here, including bio-fuels, food and clothing.
Both villages are also surrounded by rice paddies. One of the most popular crops in this region, we were trekking during the rice harvest, so we got to see the process in action! The rice grows for about 5 months and is harvested in the fall. The rice is hand-cut then laid out to dry. Once dry, the farmers shake and hit the stalks (called threshing) on the ground to get the grains off. Then the stalks are fed to the animals throughout the winter. It was fascinating to see the harvest in action. The land is owned by individual families, but the whole village bands together during the harvest to get the work done. You can see men and women out in the fields threshing the rice stalks on the ground or cutting the stalks with a small sickle.
As a city girl, it is easy to judge the lifestyle of people in these small villages. But as I continued to explore and talk (with the help of Jason translating) to the villagers, I let go of that judgement. Although there are advantages to a modern lifestyle, there is a beauty in the simplicity of these villages, particularly in the self-sufficiency. They feed and cloth themselves with their own hands and hard work, something I could never dream of doing. And the sheer resourcefulness is impressive, especially in the creative designs of the towns and their layout. Everything has a purpose and no space or resource is wasted. Everything can be used an recycled. Plastic bottles are turned into water spouts, and animal waste is collected for fuel. I am really thankful that I got to visit these villages.
Day 7: Fighting Through the Pain
Day 7 was by far our hardest day on the trek, and maybe one of the hardest hiking days I’ve ever had. I am thankful that it is the mid-point of our journey, so my body had a few days to get used to it. We left Tangting village at about 7 in the morning and hiked until about 4:30pm. LONG DAY! We also gained about 1000 meters (3,000 feet) in altitude in a single day, which is taxing on the body.
The terrain we hiked through today is what most people would call a cloud forest. Damp, mossy and lusciously green, cloud forests exist just before higher altitude terrain begins. The clouds linger at this height, blocking out the sun for most of the day. It feels incredibly cold because of all the trapped moisture, but most of the animals life in this area as well. We saw leopard prints, fresh bear poop, and deer dropping today!
The steep grade of the trail today is really what made it tough. It was so steep! Likely nearly vertical at some points, and our guides had to help pull us up. And when you consider that it is slippery and moss covered, it made it that much tougher. Thankfully there were no injuries, and we all stayed relatively hydrated. The best part of the day was arriving to our campsite, greeted by a hot noodle soup and fried empanadas made by our excellent chef. Just what you need after a long day hiking up a mountain!
Day 8-10: Mountain Views
After the tough day 7, I was so happy to have a short day on day 8. Now that we are above the cloud forest, we have SPECTACULAR mountain views from nearly every vantage point. The Annapurna range is directly in front of us, and there is less vegetation above 3000 meters, so the views are clear and clutter free.
This is what I came to Nepal for, to be honest. I love the mountains and always have. I find them so incredibly beautiful, mystical and grounding. They make you feel so small in the best kind of way. So I had a smile glued on my face for day 8-10. We start hiking pretty early, so each day we got to enjoy the sunrise. The colors of the rising sun light up the mountain backdrop and it has to be one of the best sights I’ve ever witnessed. The blues, reds, oranges on the white snow and grey rock is awe-inspiring, and I don’t even have the words to describe the beauty.
My favorite campsite was on day 9-10 because it was nestled into a small valley that is popular for sheep herding, and is directly across from Lamjung Himal peak, Annapurna 4 peak and Machhapuchhre peak. The views were spectacularly, particularly because the clouds were hovering beneath and above the mountains. So beautiful! It is also incredibly clear for star-gazing, a welcome sight after a view weeks in Kathmandu. There are so many stars and a very clear view of the Milky Way. There are a couple of amateur photographers in the group who played around with my camera and caught some amazing shots of the stars.
Day 11: High Altitude Prairie
The terrain and views haven’t changed all the much, but we trekked about 5 kilometers to our latest camping spot. It is in the middle of a high altitude prairie and is absolutely STUNNING!
Goats and sheep are a popular animal in this area, and we were graced by the grazing presence at our campsite. Each day, the herders send the goats out into the foothills to graze and eat, and then herd them back at night. So each day, hundreds of goats with wander through out campsite, bah-ing and looking adorable! They certainly looked happy and healthy, likely due to their very natural diet and lifestyle.
I don’t much more to say about it, so I’ll just let the picture speak for themselves:
Day 12-14: Evacuation
Every trekkers worst nightmare is getting injured. Even a slight injury in a remote, high altitude area can mean the worst: evacuation. As a group, we liked to keep checking up on each other and making sure everyone was feeling ok to avoid any kind of evacuation scenario. And the students did great. Unfortunately, we never expected that the person who needed to be evacuated would be an instructor.
Late on day 10, Jason twisted his ankle on a loose rock and fell. We took his pack and wrapped his ankle with an ace bandage. With walking sticks, he managed to hobble is way through the pain and make it into camp, where we could get a better look at it. Unfortunately, the pain was acute and he thought he heard an internal pop when he fell. The bruising was nearly immediate and the swelling ballooned up his ankle. We rested as a group on day 11 hoping that his ankle would heal, but it didn’t and Jason couldn’t put much weight on the ankle.
Since we still had 4 days left of trek, he knew he needed to evacuated to the closest medical facility. There are rankings of evacuations here in Nepal: A soft evac occurs when a person can make it down on their own feet (typically for AMS or finger/arm sprain), a medium evac would occur when the person can’t make it down on their own, but is not in immediate danger, so they get carried down (bad sprains, broken arm, etc) and a hard evac when the person’s life is in immediate danger and they need to be air-lifted out (head injury, bone protrusion break, unconsciousness).
After much deliberation about how to do so, Jason & I left camp on the morning of day 12 with a guide and two porters to get him down the mountain as quickly as possible and head into Pokhara. The pain had subsided a bit, so Jason did really well on the first day and was able to walk on his own, albeit slowly. Initially they thought we could do it all in one long day, about 8-9 hours of hiking. The time frame was much understated by our guides, and we didn’t get anywhere close to a town on the first day. Thankfully we thought ahead, and packed tents and food enough for 2 days.
Overnight, the pain increased a lot for Jason and he couldn’t sleep because of the throbbing. So when we woke up and the pain persisted, he sent the porters down to town to collect some people to carry him down. Now Jason is not a small guy, especially compared to most Nepalis. At about 5′ 11″ and 190lbs, carrying him down would be a small feat. And then at 9000 feet through steep terrain, I didn’t see how it would be possible. But up came a group of 9 villagers and a basket (called a doku) to carry him down. ON THEIR HEADS!
This was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen in person. They cut an opening for his legs in the basket, and rammed in some bamboo rods to create a basket. Throw on a strap and they were good to go. Jason got in the basket, and then these men lifted it using their back and foreheads. They would hike down for about 20 minutes each, and then would switch. I think my mouth was hanging open the whole time, because it was just so impressive. They were literally carrying him down a super steep grade mountain in a basket using their foreheads to position it.
It wound up taking nearly 8 more hours to get him down to a small village called Bhurang. We thought there was road access there, but unfortunately it had been made impassable by a landslide back in the spring. So we spent a night in the village at a small guest house and regrouped on our plan. His ankle was feeling a lot better and he thought he could walk. So we woke up the next morning to walk 3 more hours to a place where our jeep could meet us. That is how remote these villages are!
Then a tough and extremely bumpy 6 hour jeep ride down the mountain brought us into Pokhara, where Jason went straight to the clinic. Thankfully, nothing was broken or torn, just a nasty sprain. He got a new splint and wrap, and was prescribed with rest and a few painkillers.
But all in all it took over 50 hours to evacuate him off the mountain! I was so thankful that he was alright, but the whole experience reminded me how remote you are when you trek. Anything can happen and anything can go wrong at any time, so it’s important to have reliable, local guides who know the terrain as well as a well-stocked medkit. But more importantly, you need to be careful and take every precaution when walking. Keep your eyes on the ground, stop walking when you need to drink water or adjust your pack, keep a line of sight through your whole group so no one is ever alone. We were all required to get evac insurance before going, and now I totally understand why. It is a costly endeavor! It was certainly an interested (and once in a lifetime) experience seeing how the evacuations here work, and I am so grateful it was nothing more serious.
Rather than write about my own reflection, I captured the reflections of all my fellow trekkers on film which I have compiled into video: