Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Annapurna Circuit: Going round and round.

Hour 62:  I've been running, walking, stumbling for the past 62 hours and it has been 19 since my last nap - 2 hours of blessed downtime wrapped up in dirty blankets in a lodge in Muktinath.  My body is shot. the longest I ever pushed before was about 35 hours on Everest a few years back. That was then, this is now.  The sun is going down and I have to address running through my third night alone and my knee which is starting to complain.  I skip the first lodge on the outskirts of Tatopani. I can see trekkers through the windows and I am not feeling sociable or very communicative. I soon stop in a noodle shack that has no trekkers and a visible owner. Noodles with two eggs and a beer,  'chito' or 'fast' with a big smile. It works. The clock is ticking, it doesn't matter a ton but 72 hours has such a nice ring and I am so so ready to be done.  The fastest known time (FKT) on the circuit is five days, I am on track to beat that. I inhale the noodles, drink the beer, grab some food for the night, change out the batteries in my headlamp and I am off, heading out for a huge climb up to Ghorepani. Unfortunately a hobble is all I can manage. 


Relaxing the day before my FKT attempt on the Annapurna Circuit, October 2014.
The Annapurna Circuit was once billed as one of the most beautiful treks in the world - it was a 'must' item on many adventurer's bucket list. But things have changed over the the last few years. Namely road building. Ugly road building. The apple growers in the village of Marpha had bushels of apples that were rotting because they couldn't get them to market across the mountainous trails. What to do? Definitely don't ask other villages or think about the impact on the main source of income (trekkers).  Soon bulldozers moved in and turned trail into 4x4 jeep track with locals and trekkers zooming up and down the valleys in a gaggle of Indian-made jeeps, a chorus of honks and an encore of dust.  It's easy to criticize, but it's also hard to blame villagers for wanting a road to their house, a road that opens up access to food and healthcare and the ability to visit family.


Hour 36:  I am been pushing my way up Thorung Pass which is 17,769ft. I reached Thorung Phedi first, a desolate place part way up the pass where many trekkers spend the night before doing a final push the next morning. Coming over the rise, I see my friend from Kathmandu Stephen Keeling sitting on a picnic bench. I had a suspicion I might run into Stephen - I know he is trying to mountain bike the circuit and keep wondering if I will turn around a corner and see him. And that is what happens.

Taking a break after running into Stephen Keeling

Stephen tells me I look terrible, buys me a hot bowl of noodles and later posts the picture below online. With so many lives later lost on the pass, his words still are spooky for me to read:

"Hi Seth: A nice surprise to run into you last week at Thorung Phedi. You looked in a pretty bad way at first and when I heard about your plan to continue walking over the Thorung La through the evening I began to wonder about your sanity. I was considering rugby tackling you and putting a straitjacket on you to stop you going off to your doom! I also took the photo below as you headed off up the hill as possibly the last sighting of Seth Manche. Glad you made it!

Photo by Stephen Keeling, Ascending Thorung La in late afternoon. 


Hour 37: I struggle onwards to 'high camp' which was maybe 800 vertical feet higher. Most people choose to stay lower before overnighting and then attempting the pass. For me it is a landmark, a temptation, and a convenient outhouse. It takes me close to an hour to cover the switchbacks between the lodges at Thorung Phedi and High Camp. A week prior I had watched Uli Steidl positively float up this in 26 minutes. Quite likely a record. I think about Uli who is one of the strongest people I have ever met and try to channel his strength. It doesn't channel. Resting on my poles near the end of the steep ascent, I catch the watchful eyes of a trekker who is looking out the window of the lodge; she gives me a fist pump - encouraging me to push through the last 50 feet to my finish. If only that is all it is...I push onwards and after a couple more hours I finally reach the pass at 17,000+ feet. 


Two hours above High Camp, I finally reach the pass at 17.769ft at ~6pm

Hour 40: It takes me 3 hours to descend perhaps 5,000ft from the top of the pass to Muktinath; I can't wait to get there because I am getting cold, hungry, and sleepy. And I know I will have  good cell phone signal and be able to call Julie and it won't be an insane hour for her to answer the phone. I walk and run down through the dark with almost no visibility due to heavy fog.  Sometimes I lose the trail, but I am not worried about being totally lost because I know the whole area is one huge drainage with geographic 'handrails'  near the bottom...a jeep track and river that would be really hard to miss and that would lead me to a village. I also have a compass, maps, and the exact track on my gps. It pays to be neurotic.

Last light, descending Thorung Pass during run.
Looking west toward Dolpo. 

The consequence of all the road building has also been a decrease in the number of trekkers and a corresponding drop in the money that these trekkers bring to the community. It also engenders less respect for the circuit as many trekkers now skip large sections and take jeeps - often in a quest to essentially bag the high pass.  What they don't realize is that it isn't all about crossing a 5,000m pass in the himalaya - there are many beautiful alternative trails that are being missed.



Hour 48: It almost takes me an hour to get to the start of the climb. It's the second big climb on the profile map above, the first being the pass. I'm limping because of my knee but hopeful that climbing will use different muscles and the strain on my knee will let up. I hadn't factored this stretch (or the snail pace)  and it's now quite dark. Finishing in under 72 hours is looking remote.  I feel lucky the police check post in Tatopani had closed up for the night, that would have burned up valuable time. I can see the bridge I need to cross over the Kali Kandaki and the distant ridges I need to climb  outlined against the night sky. A few lights on the hillside are my beacons. When I was here a week before it was daylight, I was with friends, and the trail was filled with goats. The memories are fresh and it is easy to find and follow the trail. My headlamp and flashlight sweep the trail and I lean into the incline. All I need to focus on is my forward momentum and the thousands of feet of climbing ahead of me.The pain in my knee dissipates and I wake up.

In 2011, I fastpacked the circuit in ~ten days with friends Scotty Railton and Rich White. I wrote a blog post about the trip. We wanted to see it before it was 'destroyed', we had all heard about the road building efforts. We saw the encroaching jeep track but they didn't get that far into the circuit and we had a good time on a lot of trail. Time passed and other adventures followed. In late 2013, I found myself in Nepal again and helped Richard Bull with the Manaslu Trail Race. Eight stages of running around Manaslu, the eigth highest mountain in the world. It sits next to Annapurna which is the 10th highest mountain. I was inspired to organize my own stage race around Annapurna since there is no organized stage race on the circuit. But a big question loomed -  had the road building since 2011 totally ruined the circuit?


Scotty Railton on Thorung La - 2011.
Hour 65: I watch midnight come and go on my watch. I've been climbing stone steps for over 5 hours. Finally the arch for Ghorepani village comes into view. My legs are feeling rubbery but I also feel very much alive in the quiet of the night. The arch is a bit of a tease, a few hundred feet of more vertical on stone stairs and I crest the hill in the narrow main cobblestone street. All the lodges and shops are shuttered. A sign points to 'Poon Hill' - which is a short climb from the village and offers views of Annapurna range. Ghosts and memory traces of former students that I brought here float around. Faces appear in rocks and interrupt my pace. 


Late at night, everything looks spooky when you are alone

I got a taste of the New Annapurna Trekking (NAT) trail system in May of 2014 while going the great himalaya traverse across Nepal with John Fiddler and Kathleen Egan.  Vagabonds, climbers, and endurance junkies  - we skimmed the top part of the circuit before heading west into Dolpo. My second look was last month and much more in depth.  I recruited a small group of runners to fastpack the circuit, like I had with Scotty and Rich in 2011. Our mission was to cover every part of the NAT trails we could find, to GPS map them, and to decide if a stage race in 2015 was a good idea. On board were Trisha and Uli Steidl from Seattle  - arguably one of the fastest running couples in the world with multiple high profile marathon wins and then some.  Emma Vaughan - ranked 6th in 24hr racing in Australia came along.  Rounding it out was Sudeep Kandel from Nepal who was training for a 1027km run cross Nepal in 20 days to raise money for charity. Not a bad crew.

Thorung Pass, 5416m Sept 2014. Uli, Trisha, Emma, Seth, Sudeep and a photobomb by Darias

Hour 65: The trail almost immediately drops once you leave Ghorepani. Sometimes it is a jumble of rock, sometimes big stone slabs arranged in stairs. It is wet - muddy and slick and with small little streams coursing over different sections of trail. I pass the village health post and remember how much the students I brought here in 2010 and 2011 liked exploring the clinic. But it's the middle of the night now and I need to focus on my footing so I push all those memories out of my mind and try to feel confident about having been here before. Last week, during the fastpack, we were frequently slowed down by tons of goats being herded out of the mountains so that they could be sacrificed as part of Dashain, a 15 day festival in Nepal. I thought about how their time on this earth was probably over and wished them well in their afterlife. 



A river of goats - typical of our last two days on the September 2014 fastpack. 


So how did this fast packing reconnaissance work out? In almost three words: great overall. We set off for the circuit in mid-September 2014 and made our way around it in 10 days, exploring all of the NAT trails we could find. Our start and end points were classic, no skipping miles with jeeps on crappy road: Besisahar to Naya Pul. Yes, we ended up on ugly jeep track, but we also found some amazing alternative trails. And we found a lot of adventure that ranged from bad to good - thankfully mostly good. There were amazing mountain views, wonderful villagers, lots of opportunities to hike on trails with few or no trekkers, delicious Dal Bhat, challenges crossing tricky trail and dealing with the altitude.  But we also encountered the unwelcome - rock fall,  leeches, altitude sickness, unhappy stomachs. All of these combined to make an adventure. In the end, we came out smiling, as a group of new friends, and talking about what we might do on our next visit to Nepal. And that is success in my book.

Emma Vaughan wrapping around the corner to Ice Lake, Sept 2014






The feedback I received was that this was still a jewel, particularly if the NAT trails were followed. I also came to the decision that I wanted the 2015 race to be like what we were doing: self-supported with no porters. This would bring the cost down and also seemed more appealing on a number of fronts. We got off the beaten track too - exploring trails that aren't part of the NATT system but arguably should be as they offer even better alternatives. When I said goodbye to the team - I was excited that the Annapurna Trail Race in 2015 would be on some great trails. I also was filled with appreciation for all of their input and expertise. After saying goodbye, I found myself with 7 extra days in Nepal. What to do?

Back in Kathmandu after our fastpack around Annapurna. September, 2014. 
67 hours: I fly down. Each step is strategic, methodical, and well rehearsed. It is 2 in the morning - I feel alive.  I use carbon fiber trekking poles and place them instinctively - sometimes bracing my descent, other times gently vaulting a break in the trail. My path lit by a dim headlamp, my last set of batteries slowing fading.  Tea houses come and go. Everyone is asleep except the occasional village dog. When I reach the bottom, after more than 5,000 feet of descent, there is jeep track to follow along the curves of the river. Both the river and I travel with purpose but I carry questions of sanity, reality, and where my personal limits are. Random houses and buildings floating by like ships in the night.  Running into the Birethanti, the last village, I become disoriented on where to exit. Is it down these stairs? Nope, that is a backyard. Is it this way? It's 4:55am and I want to finish before 5:03am. I find the the jeep track again and start running as fast as I can anyway. I run like a fucking bat out of hell,  my feet going ankle deep through puddles, stepping stones be damned. And then I am there - in Naya Pul, the classic western road head for the circuit. Literally translating as 'New Bridge' - I walk across the steel monstrosity the village was named for and sink down in the middle. Completely done. Completely happy. 



My bridge in the early light of the morning

Distance: 134 miles*
Elevation gain: 53,077ft*
Elevation Loss: 52,123ft*
Highest Point: 17,769ft (Thorung La)
Time sleeping: ~7hrs in three separate naps, last was for 2.5hrs in Muktinath. 
Total time: 72:04. 
Annapurna FastPack Pictures (36)
Annapurna Run Pictures (34)

Delorme Satellite Tracks
Article on www.trailrunningnepal.org noting this is a probably Fastest Known Time (FKT).
GPS tracks on request

* Come from Garmin GPS - tracks available on request. Measures are likely an underestimate as a few sections lost GPS signal.

Sections done in excess of NATT: Upper trails and tracks from Muktinath to Kagbeni - through Jong and other small village. Far preferable to southern jeep track on the NATT maps. Added 1-2 additional hours.

Caveats: I don't consider this a fast time and hope someone will come along and smash it. It was more of a slog than a run - the altitude really did a number on me. Even though I had been on the circuit in the prior two weeks - I didn't feel very well acclimated. If you do the circuit - please be smart and follow Wilderness Medical Society Guidelines to acclimate, check the weather and carry multiple navigation and communication devises.





Gear
Big thanks to Team Adventure Trail (Uli, Trish, Sudeep) for helping me explore these trails and also to PROBAR and RUNA.





Postscript

I've now been back in Seattle for 3 weeks and I wrote the bulk of this before my jet lag was over. But I sat on  the draft for a while as there were still some parts I wanted to fill out. In the intervening time,  as many as 30 lives were lost on the Annapurna Circuit, most of them were trekkers who went up the pass during deteriorating weather conditions, with encouragement of 'guides' and lodge staff, with limited gear and weather information, and then died of exposure after losing their way in the ensuing white outs.  I have a lot of mixed thoughts about what happened and maybe I will share them someday. Maybe not. But here is an excellent analysis by Jamie McGuiness from Project Himalaya. I have nothing for respect for Jamie. I am sorry for those who lost their lives and their families.

I still plan to hold the Annapurna Stage Race in 2015. It may be small but it will be awesome and safe.  Nepal has had a very difficult year and depends heavily on what tourism brings into the country - a portion of any proceeds from the stage race will be donated to Wide Open Vistas to help improve education and health outcomes in Nepal.

Be safe everyone, ok? And if you are even one iota inspired, or otherwise entertained, please consider a small donation to Wide Open Vistas. We are now a tax exempt organization 501(C)3 status which means your donations may help you on your taxes. Think about it. A dollar goes a long long way in Nepal. They need it. We know how to deliver it. www.wideopenvistas.org

Thanks for reading,
Seth