If lush Himalayan foliage, ancient Buddhist monasteries, and the opportunity to pet a big, fuzzy yak sound like the perfect vacation, then a trip along Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit should be first on your bucket list. The trail starts in Besisahar and navigates counterclockwise around the Annapurna Massif, a towering behemoth of granite and limestone, with crevasse-lined glaciers stretching between each peak like giant, frigid throw rugs. The trail snakes alongside the Marsyangdi River for dozens of miles before topping out on the Thorong-La Pass, 17,769 feet above sea level. This is not a trip for the faint of heart.
The Annapurna Circuit is, hands down, one of the great walks of the world. It’s a high elevation romp that takes trekkers from a tropical woodland paradise full of towering waterfalls and lush foliage up to a barren, glacially carved pass at an elevation of 17,769 feet above sea level before plunging back down into the arid rain shadow of the Annapurna Massif. The scale of the scenery would make even the most monolithic of humans feel small, enormous glaciers and jagged peaks jutting out as far as the eye can see.
Day 8 – Yak Karta to Thorong Phedi
I shot out of bed at 3:30 in the morning, restless and claustrophobic in my sleeping bag sarcophagus. It must have been about 20 degrees inside our room, and I tossed and turned like a petulant child as I desperately tried and failed to go back to sleep. I was sick of the cold, sick of the nausea, and sick of scanning my eyes back and forth for hours across the dim, blue glow of my Kindle screen. The electric buzz of my skin longed to touch the air without cringing again.
Day 1 – Kathmandu to Ghermu
I woke to the scattered music of street dogs barking and motorbikes jetting off on dirt roads. Kathmandu has a way of clogging your every sense until you teeter on insanity, then it throws you some more. I nuzzled my face against the deep brown musk of Brian’s armpit hair, praying for another 15 minutes of sleep before I vaulted into the morning, thankful to have my boyfriend by my side in this chaos. The day had come to start hiking.
You hear a familiar crunch as your leather hiking boot bursts through a thin layer of orange leaves littering the trail below. You look up for a moment, startled by delicate footprints up and to your left, just managing to catch the tail ends of two deer before they hurriedly prance out of view. There’s a chill in the autumn air, and, if you look closely, you can see your breath manifest into a tiny cloud right before your face as you walk. At the next junction on the trail, a small, weathered sign leans squat against a tree. “Monarch Lake 1.2 miles | Crystal Lake 1.4 miles” – Which do you choose?
My first-ever backpacking trip was kind of a shit show. I carried all my supplies in a broken, black backpack that had been left behind by two Swedish Air BnB’ers I hosted, I smashed my body into a one-person tent alongside my boyfriend at night, and I had no idea what altitude was or how its effects can wreak havoc on the body. As I made my way up the well-worn trail that traverses the summit of Alta Peak in the middle of Sequoia National Park, I found myself gasping for air and stopping every five minutes to sit down or lean my unsteady body against a tree to rest. I fell in love with my first wilderness sunrise, creeping its miraculous pink fingers across the Great Western Divide, but, by the end of the weekend, I vowed to never let my body feel that terrible in the outdoors again. It was time to train.
The walls were moving, and I didn’t know where my guide was.
I was squatting, pants-down, over a pit toilet within a crudely constructed turquoise shed somewhere around 15,700 feet in the Andean foothills of Peru, trying desperately not to puke. The walls appeared to be having a rave of their own, swaying rhythmically to and fro like one of those inflatable arm waving men you see outside of used car dealerships. Mind you, the walls were not actually alive. They were static, as ordinary outhouse walls tend to be. I was the one collapsing. I was trapped in the psychedelic hellscape that only severe altitude sickness can bring, and I was terrified.
“I wish I remembered more of it.”
The feeling stuck in my brain like old gum to a shoe as I tried to conjure up details from the day’s climb that broke all my records, bruised my heart, and took me to 16,818 vertical feet above sea level.
“How much higher do you think that outcropping is from where we’re sitting right now?”
Justin was faded, nauseous, and swaying in the mid-day heat of the Eastern Sierra when the words fell out of his mouth. My head felt like an over-inflated balloon. Dumbstruck, I tried my best at a civil response, “Fuck. I don’t know… Maybe 50 feet? Is this not the summit?!”
Here I am, all five feet, six inches of tanned, golden-haired glory. I’m probably wearing yoga shorts and trail runners so clean you could eat a vegan acai bowl out of them. I smell like snickerdoodles and definitely don’t poop in the woods. My selfie stick rivals Gandalf’s staff in its sun-stained splendor, and I’ve got ninja-like skills when it comes to using it. You see that trail over yonder? It’s ready for its goddamn close up.