Grand Annapurna Traverse, Nepal 2022

There are so many grey days, months and years that slip by without leaving any mark on the memory, but those brief moments of adventure, peril, beauty, terror, exhilaration, achievement, trust, fellowship, and friendship are etched on the soul forever.

Descriptions of this expedition are presented from the book, ‘Grand Annapurna Traverse – BMRES October 2022’ by Jo Bradwell, with excerpts by Cat Campbell, Ben Talks, and Kelsey Joyce.

Introduction

Acute mountain sickness is a poorly defined illness characterised by a few simple symptoms such as headache and nausea that have many other causes, and there are no diagnostic tests. However, since the cause of the illness is hypoxia, some measure of low blood oxygen levels must be an indication of illness. With this in mind, we planned to record continuous pulse oximetry during the expedition at up to 5,000 m around Annapurna to see if results correlated with and were predictive of acute mountain sickness.

It took a year of planning with a further year’s delay because of Covid-19, and a cost of £91,000. Within five days all our hopes and aspirations were ruined. The causes: a biblical deluge across Nepal, then Covid-19 which in combination made it impossible to continue with our trek. As a result, some individuals went home, some stayed in a hotel to recuperate while others trekked to Ghorepani, Muktinath and over the Thorong La. Although the majority enjoyed Nepal, from a research perspective it was a failure and the first time in 25 expeditions that we have returned home with no results.

En route (days 1-4)

There is always last-minute stress before departure. This is probably inevitable but still annoying. Final packing; a few more medicines for the medical box; the late arrival of Ben and Luke in Birmingham due to bus cancellations from Manchester; and Qatar wanting us at London Heathrow airport an hour earlier than anticipated for the 10 pm flight. As the clock ticked on, we finally departed from Birmingham at 3.50 pm in the pouring rain: Luke, Ben, John, Sam, Kelsey and myself.

It takes around 2-3 hours to get to Heathrow and another 2-3 hours to get to the departure lounge. At the airport there were obstacles such as awkward computer terminals, baggage restrictions at the gate, negotiations for 80 kg of excess baggage in the four equipment boxes, queries about numerous lithium batteries in personal baggage and finally passport checks. With anxiety levels building from all the delays, an official recognised our plight and ushered us past the queues giving us 30 minutes to spare.

Phew. Always good to keep calm, but not easy. Subsequent unexplained delays meant the plane lost its departure slot to eventually leave an hour late into the pouring rain – a foretaste of what was to come. We clustered together in economy class with the reassurance that 10 mg of temazepam would solve any discomfort problems.

The next memory was glorious sunrise over the Persian Gulf at 4.30 am followed by a smooth landing at Doha airport. With six hours to waste, we deplaned into billions of pounds of modernity and reputedly the best airport in the world, as it spruced itself for the upcoming World Cup. There were more workers and officials than customers. They were desperate to give good service to the million expected visitors. It was most impressive. From Qatar, we flew to Kathmandu to arrive in the late evening, circling three times before landing at Tribhuvan International airport in the moist heat. 

There were slow queues past border officials for cursory Covid-form checks, visas for entry (a tourist tax), customs checks, luggage X-rays (the machines were probably switched off) and finally baggage collection. All 24 bags arrived safely except for one – that of Ben Talks. Prophetically, he had attached an electronic Apple Air Tag that showed it had never left Heathrow. With form filling and endless waiting, we got out of the airport three hours later to be collected by Aheem, Khim and Shaman representing Mountain Kingdoms. From there it was a short bus journey to the elegant Shanker hotel a former palace for a briefing from Anil, the director of Mountain Legends. Apparently, we were their first foreign customers for the season and one of very few in the country since Covid struck in early 2020. Everyone seemed only too pleased to welcome us and give the very best of what Nepal had to offer. The only problem was that the monsoon was not quite finished.

View from Siklis where we eventually retreated to when the monsoon set in.

After spending our first day in Kathmandu, it was a bleary, jet-lagged start to our second day, starting with Cognitron tests and Nonin checks followed by a bus to the airport at 7.30 am. Much to our amazement, the terminal was almost empty, all luggage was accepted without difficulty, and we quietly boarded a spotless 100 seat turbojet on time. The plane rose above the city’s smog to reveal a panorama of peaks including Langtang Himal, Shishapangma, Manaslu, Machhapuchhare and finally the Annapurna massif itself, resplendent in the crystal-clear air. Our brief enjoyment of the moutains ended as we descended into the large city that stretched out chaotically to the Himalayan foothills. At a tiny terminal we were met by our Sirdar, Seshkanta Sharma, known to everyone as KC, and our team of 7 Sherpa. 

The deluge

After a night in Pokhara we moved onward to Siklis where we stayed at the Highlanders’ Inn, a large tea house in a small village situated at 1,980 m, and where the rain began to set in.

In the English language, rain comes in many forms reflecting, not unsurprisingly, on our perennial blight. Spots, a sprinkle, drizzle and mizzle, a shower, downpours, pissing down, torrents, bucketing, cloudbursts, monsoon, inundation, raining cats and dogs, stair-rods and deluge, to name but a few. The English probably have more names for rain than any other country except perhaps Scotland. Even a deluge, although at the extreme end, has its own subsets such as the ‘Biblical Deluge’ which covered the world for forty days and forty nights. Three days of deluge were enough to flush us down to Pokhara.

While the rain could have been described as heavy during the early evening at Siklis, it pissed down overnight battering on the tea house’s tin roofs. Thankfully the morning was clear, but fresh snow was just visible below heavy clouds on the lower slopes of Annapurna V. Regardless, we pressed on with our morning science studies that delayed our planned departure well beyond 8 am. Despite the bad weather forecast, we were on a tight schedule and needed to move on.

Although the ascent to Tasa Kharka was only 370 m, it started with a steep 600 m descent to the Madi Nadi khola (river). Slippery underfoot from the night’s rains, we carefully wound our way down through low jungle on a stepped path to a fine suspension bridge.

Swollen by the storm, the river thundered below us as we crossed to a small hydroelectric power station. The 3,500 steps through the warm jungle were very tiring, but we finally arrived in Tasa Kharka camp on a gently sloping green field at 2.30 pm with welcoming biscuits, tea, and hot chocolate. However, we soon came to realise the camp had leeches everywhere, crawling through eyeholes in boots and dropping off the tent roofs.

Then it started raining. Slowly at first in the late afternoon, then intensifying as it became dark. It poured. It rained cats and dogs, it bucketed. Sitting in the mess tent became a hazard as innumerable leaks developed above the tables and experimental equipment. The large mess tent and smaller sleeping tents, which presumably had been stored during the Covid years, were failing. Water began to soak through sides, zips, and seems leaving everyone in inches of water. The porters began digging trenches to help drain the water, albeit to no avail. By this point, many of the tents were too wet to sleep in, leaving several members with no option but to sleep in an old shed. 

At first light we had an emergency meeting and checked the weather forecast, which showed more days of torrential rain. With our scheduled first high pass at 5,000 m this meant feet of snow would await us in 4 days time. Thus, we decided we must retreat back to Siklis. Not to mention, amidst all of the rain, several members had begun to fall ill, which we would soon find out was Covid. Further discussion ensued and it was decided to descend further back to Pokhara.

Tasa Kharka camp on arrival whilst we were still enjoying before the biggest rainstorm of all our lives would ensue.

Retreat to Pokhara

Upon return to Pokhara, everyone convened for a discussion on how to proceed given the weather conditions and sickness circulating within the group. This sparked debate amongst the group, which ultimately led to divisions forming. In short, some members chose to immediately return to the UK, some members remained in Pokhara and then returned to the UK following isolation, some members remained in Pokhara and proceeded onwards to Annapurna base camp in the days that followed, and some members proceeded towards the Thorong La. 

The team on arrival to Ghorepani.

Escape to Ghorepani (days 10-11)

Twelve of us were on the bus for our trek by 8 am to mixed emotions for those left behind. The blue boxes and generators were dropped off at KC’s house in the Pokhara suburbs followed by a two-hour drive to Birethanti. From this busy bus stop at the end of the road head, we began to walk. We walked along a jungle path until we reached Tikhedhungga (1,480 m), where we were welcomed at the Chandra Guest House with drinks in the central courtyard with a lunch of rice and dahl. 

From Chandra tea house we crossed suspension bridges as we ascended to Ghorepani (2,860 m), which took the better part of the whole day. The clouds slowly lifted to reveal Dhaulagiri before the sun set, and at dinner we celebrated Connie Clarke’s 18th birthday.

The following morning, several members chose to ascend Poon Hill for sunrise for views of Machhapuchhare. Unfortunately, several members were scheduled to split off from the larger group on this day so, they descended to Ghandruk before making there way to Pokhara and Kathmandu, whilst the remaining 7 headed towards Tatopani (1,670 m).

Kali Gandaki (days 12 – 15)

Following the night in Tatopani, remaining members clambered on to a battered bus together with a large Nepalese family who were hitch-hiking to Jomsom. Some parts of the road were washed away, some were in deep mud, parts were perfect Portland concrete while others were just frightening, with barely room to inch past the numerous landslides. The question of everyone’s lips was, ‘should we jump off the bus with or without our rucksacks before it plunges over the side?’ On one particularly steep section, as the bus slid backwards towards the abyss, everyone panicked. We all jumped – led by Kelsey and the family huddled around the driver. One large waterfall had washed away a section of the road. Towards Marpha, a flash flood had removed a 10 m section a few nights earlier with numerous buses, jeeps, bikes and cars waiting to cross.

We gradually rose above the subtropical climate to cool conifer forests that I had remembered from 45 years earlier. At that time there was a well maintained path along the valley edges and on cliff sides. But the new road had obliterated much of it, and neglect had seen off bridges and terracing on difficult sections. Trekking was now impossible. 

The river widened as we drove across ancient lake beds with irrigation providing the only green areas. The higher towns became more Tibetan with small white-painted bricks rather than concrete. Our destination was Marpha (2,670 m) where we spent two nights with an acclimatisation walk on the second day.

Our next stop was Khingar (3,280 m), only 600 m higher.  Only one jeep was available so we needed to make several trips. Luckily it was a quick trip with the roads being in far better condition than our journey to Marpha. After the short trip to Khingar, she girls chose to go on an acclimatisation walk to Jharkot, the next closest village. They arrived only to find it essentially deserted. Smart attractive new hotels were shuttered and abandoned.

Glimpses of the Thorong La pass from Khingar.

Muktinath (days 16 – 18)

Following our night in Khingar, we made our way by SUV to the settlement of Ranipauwa (3,700 m), just below Muktinath (3,760 m). The town was the support show for Muktinath and its holy shrines. 

Our up-market accommodation, the North Pole, was most welcoming with hot tea and food in good supply. After lunch we climbed the two hundred steps to Muktinath, the most important Hindu and Buddhist shrine in Nepal. A large walled complex contained the ‘everlasting holy flame’, a small leak of natural gas that burns just above a spring of sacred water. The spring fills a pool with 108 brass waterspouts a sacred number in Tibetan Buddhism), cast in the shape of cows’ heads, from where the water can be collected. Innumerable prayer wheels, large and small Buddhas, and other temples completed the blessed scene.

A helicopter landing pad brought up the rich for their absolution while a carpark catered for the less well off. Pall bearers or Sedan chairs carried the sick for the last few meters, depending upon their health.

Views approaching Muktinath.

Our second day at the North Pole was for more acclimatisation. Above Muktinath, the trail led across a long rope suspension bridge to Phedi that comprised a few cold tea houses at 4,200 m and our stop for the following night. To gain more height we ascended the Thorong La trail to 4,400 m, passing several groups of trekkers coming the other way. We anticipated that it would take 7-8 hours or more to reach the top of the pass the following day.

After returning to Ranipauwa, Jo Bradwell felt weak, breathless and unwell, missing drinks with the others in Bob Marley’s bar. At dinner he could not even eat a plate of chips. The following day, he decided to say goodbye to friends and retreat to Jomsom.

Six Tackle the Thorong La

The Thorong La pass, with an elevation of 5,416 metres, is the highest point on the Annapurna circuit. It connects the village of Manang in the east, with the temple of Muktinath in the west and passes between the mountains of Khatung Kang and Yakawa Kang. The extreme altitude makes avalanches, storms, whiteouts and frostbite far more likely than other passes.

Most trekkers cross from east to west, which is the easiest and safest direction because of the slow ascent and numerous tea houses. The route from west to east is much more difficult because it is steeper, and the lodge at Muktinath Phedi is at the relatively low altitude of 4,200 m, making acclimatisation difficult. Trekkers from Muktinath must ascend at least 1,230 m and descend at least 540 m in one day.

With Jo gone, the remaining six of us left Muktinath at 10 am for the two-hour walk to Phedi, our overnight stop. After a slow lunch, we walked up the trail for a couple of hours to around 4,550 m for further acclimatisation. On our way we came across a woman who was struggling to descend. It soon became clear that she had been abandoned by her two companions. We gave her food, carried her bag and encouraged her to stay at Phedi overnight. Resolutely she stumbled on in the darkness to Muktinath.

Phedi was bitterly cold as soon as the sun set, leaving us huddled inside with an Australian group heading the same way. As with us, the storm had led to major problems for them. They had been helicoptered off Manaslu, leaving all their equipment behind. They explained that we would be only the 2nd and 3rd groups to ascend the pass west to east this season whereas dozens have already crossed the other way. 

Views of the Annapurna range during the ascent to the Thorong La pass at 5,416 m.
Prayer flags on the highest point of the Thorong La where a primative tea house awaited us with hot lemon tea.

Nevertheless, that direction was also tricky as was apparent when at around 8 pm three disorientated trekkers came barging in. Descending in the dark, with unsuitable equipment, had proved very challenging. We wondered about our chances in the morning. Kim and Sarah were struggling to eat (presumably due to the altitude), and it was freezing hard.

We woke up at 4.45 am, gave the porters our packed bags, ate breakfast by candlelight and departed at first light, around 6 am. Thankfully, I felt well and strong, but Sarah and Julian had some gut troubles and Kim a headache and felt weak. We were all taking analgesics for headaches. We slowly ascended to the snow line, paused to put on Yaktrax (small wire crampons), then moved sluggishly over the gradually ascending snow fields to the summit marked by prayer flags, a cairn and a small tea-house. 

A cup of hot lemon juice together with a packed lunch was well deserved. It had taken 9½ hours. But it was no place to linger for a picnic when there was still a long descent. As before, Chapten Sherpa led the way with KC looking after us while our porters laboured under our heavy bags. Jagge Sherpa was sent ahead to secure rooms at the first tea house (also a hamlet called Phedi) where we arrived exhausted after being on the move for nearly 12 hours. It was one of the most tiring days of my life. Fortunately, although fairly primitive, the tea-house was most welcoming, had good food and was warm once the wood stove was lit. We had done well despite Kim and Sarah having noticeable facial oedema and all suffering from headaches. We wondered if Jo would have made it?

It was all downhill next day via Yak Kharka to Manang. Those crossing to the west departed early, leaving us to a leisurely breakfast and a 7-hour descent. The valley was incredibly beautiful with the storm snow shining white in the bright sun and Annapurna towering over us to the south. We saw blue sheep, yaks and lots of birds. It was probably the most enjoyable walk of the entire trip. After two hard days, we all needed a rest, so we hung around Manang recovering our strength. Discussions about plans for our final week in Nepal was uppermost. Julian, Will and Kyle were keen to walk up to Tilicho Lake, in part to check out our original planned route, while the girls preferred to descend to Pokhara by Jeep. 

Views of old Manang during the descent from Phedi base after traversing over the Thorong La the day prior.

Next morning KC led the ‘boys’ towards Tilicho base camp with Milan and Dahn. While the path to the frozen lake was open, passing around it was impossible. There was no route through the deep snow and the avalanche risk was high. The huge storm two weeks earlier had made all but the biggest routes impassable. We shuddered at the thought that we might have been trapped high up in very dangerous conditions. They followed us down to Pokhara after their two-day trek.

A couple of days were spent in Pokhara, absorbing the culture (Diwali), sights and sounds of the east. By chance we met Cat and Chris, recently back from Annapurna Base camp and Ghorepani. There followed an afternoon flight to Kathmandu and the hotel Shanker. Next day was an exhilarating cycle ride to botanical gardens and more eating to replace our lost weight. Passing lazy days in Kathmandu after such wonderful experiences was a delight. Our evening flights the next day to Doha and London were uneventful allowing us time to reflect on an amazing month in Nepal.

Expedition members - from top left: Jo Bradwell, John Delamere, Luke Cutts, Kelsey Joyce, Ben Talks, Ben Stanley, Will Malein, Connie Clarke, Sarah Clarke, Kyle Pattinson, Will Trender; from bottom left: Sam Lucas, Abi Letchford, Cat Campbell, KC (guide), Chris Lewis, Julian Duxfield, Kim Ashdown, and Hannah Lock.

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