August 21, 2012 | by Sean Howard
After serving in the Peace Corps, I was looking to spend at least three weeks hiking with as little public transportation as possible. The only trail that had that kind of continuous distance in Nepal is the Annapurna Circuit.
The Annapurna Circuit is a 145-mile trail that consists of a big loop around the Annapurna mountain range. It has spectacular views of three peaks that are over 26,000 feet (~8,000 meters) high. This altitude is used as the threshold to distinguish the 14 highest peaks in the world.
In addition to the views of high mountains, the Annapurna Circuit beautifully displays the tremendous variation in landscape found in Nepal. The trail starts at about 3,000 feet in a valley full of rice patties and banana trees, quite similar in appearance to the highlands of Southeast Asia. As you gain elevation, the landscape slowly shifts into something that is more reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest with its large pine, spruce and fir trees.
By day seven I was at the bottom of a valley floor at 14,000 feet looking directly up at the Annapurna Range, which consists of eight peaks measuring over 23,000 feet, the highest of which is Annapurna I. At 26,545 feet, it is the 10th highest peak in the world.
Above 15,000 feet, the landscape changes again and starts to look more and more like a desert wasteland. The trees and birds slowly decrease in size and abundance, and at around 16,000 feet, they disappear completely.
On day nine, I crossed the Thorong La pass at 17,769 feet. Every step with a pack at this elevation was extremely laborious. I had one of the worst headaches I’ve ever had, and as exciting as it was to finally reach the highest point in the circuit, all I could think of was how much I wanted to get down to a lower elevation. By the time I got to the next village (~14,000 feet), the air felt so thick I thought I could cut it with a knife.
After a few more days of hiking through a bleak and incredibly dusty landscape, I once again was surrounded by rice terraces and banana trees at 5,000 feet. The sense of invincibility I felt at this elevation after struggling so much on Thorong La was quickly squashed by the next day of hiking, which involved 6,000 vertical feet of stairs that brought me back up to 11,000 feet. The effort was totally worth it because the next morning I got to see the sun rise over Dhaulagiri (26,795 feet and the 7th highest peak in the world) to illuminate the whole Annapurna Range. This also marked the beginning of the end of my trek because the next week of hiking was tainted by a devastating stomach bug and boots that were slowly destroying my feet.
After 19 days on the trail, covering over 200 miles (I added another 60 miles of the Annapurna Sanctuary trek to the end of my trip around the circuit) and over 30,000 vertical feet in cumulative elevation gain, I was in desperate need of a hot shower and a clean bed. Nothing makes you appreciate the luxuries of modern living like three weeks of hiking!