Annapurna Circuit (Nepal)
Day 8 – Thorung Phedi to Muktinath
The Posse got an early start the next morning. Most of it did, anyway. Amy, Graham and Marta left sometime around 6 to start the climb up Thorung La to 5,416 meters. I, unsurprisingly, was still fast asleep when they left.
I was up and ready to go about an hour later. I climbed quickly to the Thorung High Camp (4,925m) that lies just at the beginning of the trail’s ascent toward Thorung La, the pass that separates the westerly Muktinath Himal from the more northerly Purkung Himal. Dropping my pack behind one of the tea houses, I walked up another 100 meters to the viewpoint overlooking Thorung Phedi and the massive Gangapurna off in the distance.
Leaving the viewpoint, the trail continues a long, gradual march westward up to Thorung La (5,416m). The pass, nestled between Thorung Peak (6,144m) to the west and Yakwakang (6,482m), is the highest point on the Annapurna Circuit. I reached the pass about 2.5 hours after leaving Thorung Phedi and began to explore as I waited for the rest of the Posse to arrive.
Marta arrived first and, feeling the cold up on the pass, quickly continued on over and began the trek down the other side. Amy and Graham crested soon after and the three of us shared a quick celebration in front of the prayer flags, markers, and memorials that cover Thorung La’s highest point.
The biting wind on top of the pass soon drove us on. I don’t know about the others, but I found it hard as I descended not to spend time thinking about the 39 people who lost their lives on that side of the pass just a few weeks earlier. Despite the clear skies, it was easy to imagine the fear that they would have felt, trapped in thin air, as they were battered by heavy weather and pounded by rolling avalanches.
Following a steep descent through the melting remants of the October storm’s snow and avalanches, we stopped for a quick lunch with our three Dutch friends at Chaharu (4,172m), below which the trail turned into a wide open road over a dry and barren landscape. We crossed a bridge over the Thorung Khola and dropped down around a small ridge to enter Muktinath along the wall of a massive monastery and thousands of prayer flags.
We spent the afternoon recovering from the long hike and then ran over to the bar next door to celebrate conquering the pass with 15 of our closest trail friends. It was a great dinner. The tired crew packed around the long set of tables was just shy of a United Nations Generally Assembly meeting with hikers hailing from Austria, Canada, England, Germany, the Netherlands, Kazakhstan, the U.S., and probably one or two others.
Day 9 – Muktinath to Jomsom
We were in no rush the next day and headed out at reasonable hour to pay a quick visit to the ACAP office, then hit the road. The trail headed west from Muktinath with two alternate paths leading on to the next major town, Kagbeni. We took the southerly route that follows the road through Jharkot (3,550m) and Khingar (3,280m). We spent most of the day walking along a dirt road. The word on the trail was that the other route that stays on the north side of the Thorung Khola as it follows the road through Puthak offers a much more scenic approach to Kagbeni (2,810m).
Kagbeni marks the border with restricted area for Upper Mustang to the north. This is area is off limits unless you pay a $500 permit fee and are accompanied by a guide. The restricted area begins on the north end of town next to the Applebee’s Cafe.
As Amy, Graham and I sat enjoying lunch from a rooftop on the edge of town, we could see a faint trail leading up the side of a mountain just across the river from town. The maps showed it to be a viewpoint that was about 900 meters above the town. I vacillated as we ate but eventually succumbed to my inner masochist and decided that I’d need to check out what were sure to be some amazing views.
I left Amy and Graham to head on toward Jomsom and then ran off to tackle the climb as quickly as I could. I scrambled around town for about half an hour before eventually finding the bridge to cross the river, which is down an alley and blocked from view by houses and a large stand of trees. Once across the bridge, I reached the trailhead and began a climb straight up the face of the mountain in a series of switchbacks that ascends 900 meters to a gompa located on a lower summit.
Although I was aiming for the switchbacks I could see from our lunch spot, I overshot the main trail and followed what turned out to be a goat trail up the backside of the mountain. As a result, I ended up charging straight up a shale hillside for the better part of an hour and half. I eventually reached more solid ground about 600 meters up and was able to reconnect with the main trails. I had great views from atop the viewpoint north into Upper Mustang, back toward Thorung La to the east, and south along the Kali Gandaki Nadi as it flows toward Jomsom.
My time began to run short so I turned back just before the gompa at the summit. I broke off the main trail and returned again to the steep, 500m shale slope that covered the backside of the peak. The descent from that point on proved to be some of the most fun I had on the entire trip. The 1.5 hour climb up was a mere 15 minute descent as I ran, slid and surfed my way down the steep pile of loose rock and sand, cackling wildly the entire way at the sheer joy of the swift descent.
Thrilled and spent, I returned to Kagbeni and then followed the trail to the southwest on the east side of the river until it reached Jomsom. I somehow managed to find the Posse and our Dutch friends at a guest house on the far side of town. They were several bottles deep in some local brandy. Somehow, we wound up by the end of the night singing Nepali songs on the porch.
That’s end of Part 4. Check back soon for the final post on the Annapurna Circuit.