It’s all about attitude

We trudged wearily up the stone staircase, moving on in quiet desperation. The rain fell hard and heavy, making the staircase look like a series of mini-waterfalls. The forest served as a natural umbrella. But the senses were drawn away from the rain, away from the lush rhododendron forests, which were hidden at times by a low mysterious mist that crept in like a stranger and disappeared just as silently. Eight hours of uphill walking, crossing landslides, losing a constant battle against leeches usually turns you mentally inward, not outward.

Smoke from a bhatti (eatery) high above on the ridge signaled the end of the day’s trekking was near. Two deflated, yet strangely satisfied figures waded through a sleepy Ghorepani. Few guest houses threw out the welcome mat. There were no merchants selling their jewelry and prayer wheels, no teams of mules blocking the trail, no tourists in their bright Goretex jackets, and no offerings of baked chocolate cake – just an uncomfortable quiet. Only the rain spoke.

We checked into our hotel and settled in a warm dining room beside a potbelly heater. One of the porters must have read my thoughts as he leaned over and said to me with a sardonic smile: “Be glad you are here. This is the real trekking season.” As I sat back taking in the radiant heat of the fire, an aura of self satisfaction flushed through my body. Maybe he was right.

Trekking in the monsoon (mid-June to early September) can be a delight or a drain, depending on how you look at a half empty glass – it’s all about attitude. And attitude is all about weighing up the pluses and minuses and trying to come out ahead.

Guidebooks generally cite the monsoon as not being a suitable time to visit Nepal. The Himalayan mountains are hidden, and the weather is hot. Despite the warnings, we decided to take it as it comes and not make any assumptions.

We began our Annapurna trek from Pokhara with a 40-minute taxi ride to Naya Pul. After having our trekking permits to the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) stamped at Birethanti, we started along the slippery muddy trail north towards Ghandruk. The path held no semblance to the one I had walked on last October during the trekking season. It was a slow stream of water and mud, and the only way was to rock hop or slosh your way through.

With the temperature around 38 degrees Celsius and a seemingly 99% humidity, we stopped frequently to rehydrate, and my shirt clung to my body. But the claustrophobic heat, pressing in like a vacuum, was relieved when we passed through the welcome cool shade of birch forests. A symphony of crickets and cicadas, teams of dragonflies and brightly colored butterflies were our welcome trekking companions.

We started to climb steeply on a stone staircase that was a trade route for merchants for thousands of years, and the views increased spectacularly as we left the raging Modi Khola. The fluorescent green of terraced rice fields were all around us, with tiny hamlets of shelter jutting out like islands on a massive green sea. Cascading waterfalls fell all around, and ominous landslides scarred the hillsides.

Just as we were having a discussion with local school children, the rain started to come down, as only it can in monsoon Asia. After five hours of walking, a disgruntled saturated duo trudged into the large Gurung village of Ghandruk (1,940 m), but we soon discovered that the rain does have its advantages. We could take our pick from the guest houses to stay in, and prices were much lower than during the trekking season. They don’t balk at the quality and size of servings (as is known to happen in the in-season packed dining rooms). Also the meals are served quickly.

Most people trek the Annapurnas to witness the magnificent mountains. The views from Ghandruk of Annapurna South (7,219 m) and Machhapuchhre (6,977 m) in all its “fishtail” aspect are supposed to be sensational. I say supposedly because all we could see as we sat in the bright red rhododendron garden courtyard was big white fluffy clouds. However, in the morning we awoke at 5.30 am to a pleasant surprise. It was the clearest day for a month. The mountains glistened to a pastel sunrise, and the sun tenderly caressed the snow fluted ridges.

Today’s trek took us on a muddy path bearing west through deep forests up to a pass at Deorali (2,960 m) and then down to Ghorepani – eight hours of solid trudging. The first hour was spent chasing mountain views through the trees, as we rose steeply before the inevitable clouds drifted up from the valley floor. The temperature dropped rapidly in the cavernous like forest, with damp trees hanging limp and their drooping branches covered with moss, resembling a big hairy arm. Huge ferns sprouted out of the stream banks where waterfalls sprayed down under rock bridges.

“Get off, AAAHH!” I turned quickly towards the shriek behind me to see my partner Annie having her first encounter with the “Major of the Monsoon” – the common leech. During the monsoon, leeches are everywhere – hanging from the trees, dripping from branches and sliding over rocks, trying to find a tasty warm human to lunch on. We stopped intermittently to flick them off, or put a sprinkle of salt or Aeroguard insect repellent on the stubborn ones.

We pushed on, following a steep flowing stream and criss-crossing from side to side to find a path when we came to a large waterfall. Very carefully, we crossed underneath, stepping gingerly on mossy stones as a heavy flow of water passed mid-way up our ankles. At 4 pm in soft constant rain, we made our way into a desolate Ghorepani, and it felt like an eternity ago that we had witnessed the majestic Annapurna peaks. Many of the guest houses were closed or being renovated for the upcoming season. The hotel, where I stayed last season, was open. After checking in, I headed straight for the shower and waited and waited and waited for the water to turn hot … but it didn’t. Many lodges use solar power which isn’t too handy in the monsoon.

Shower out of the way, we then tried to satisfy our ravenous hunger on the superb lodge food, but found this difficult with half of the items on the menu in monsoon hibernation. No porters means no food carried in, which means no baked chocolate cake.

The magnificent Annapurna panorama witnessed last October at sunrise from Poon Hill (3,120 m) was a complete washout this time, but, on the bright side, we did get to sleep in. We eventually started down south to Birethanti where we would end our trek today. Hour after hour we trudged slowly and carefully down the slippery staircase, passed ridges dotted with goths (cow sheds), bhattis and villages. All the while it continued to rain, and mist reduced visibility to just 50 meters. After a full day of downhill trekking, Birethanti (1,065 m) looked sad and desolate. There was no electricity, as the generator here isn’t operated until the trekking season.

We both had exhausted bodies, but that was matched by radiant, satisfied smiles. We knew we had done it, one of the first treks of the season – a monsoon trek! Like all treks, it brought out the worst and best in us, and we grew from the experience. It taught us to appreciate the simpler things in life like hot water, electricity and companionship – which we take for granted. I thought back to that porter in Ghorepani who said with typical Nepalese enthusiasm and honesty as the rain tumbled down outside, “This is real trekking.” Maybe he was right.