Tag Archives: Nepal

Annapurna Base Camp Trek

As I depart this morning for my trek to the Annapurna Base Camp, I am both nervous and excited. There are too many unknowns not to be nervous. What will the weather be like? How cold will it be at night? Will the food agree with me? Am I bringing the right equipment? Will I be affected by altitude sickness? Simultaneously, however, it is all these fears that make the trek more adventurous and more exciting.

Originally, I had signed up for a group trek, but apparently it was only going to be me and another couple, and the other couple had to cancel last minute. I now am going to get a private porter/guide and luckily for the same price as before. Although usually a private trek is preferred and more expensive, I was looking forward to meeting the others in the group. But, after a little research, I realized that I will be hiking along a common trail and therefore will look forward to meeting the other trekkers. I can also have more say in setting our hiking pace. In addition, I have already met Subash, my guide, and although only 23, his English is great, he seems friendly though a little shy, and I feel like we are going to be great hiking partners.

Not Everest?

Initially, my plan was to hike to the base camp of Mount Everest. Why? That way I, when asked, I could say that I “climbed” Mount Everest. But I have chosen not to, and I have chosen to climb Annapurna instead. The path to Annapurna Base Camp is supposed to have fabulous views and as a result has become a popular trekking destination.

Maybe I just didn’t want to hike on a mountain in the middle of Asia that was named after a Brit. That’s a weak excuse, but it is funny that such a prominent world landmark still goes by its original British name to most. The story goes that William Lambton, a lieutenant in the British army was interested in geology was intent on finding the latitude, longitude, and elevation of this great mountain. When Lambton died, George Everest picked up where he left off. Curiously, George Everest did not ever see the mountain that now shares his name and apparently, he wasn’t one for mountaineering either. Tibetan’s call the mountain Qomolangma, the Nepali call it Sagarmatha, and the Chinese call is Zhumulangma. Given it’s geographic location, I feel these groups might have more authority in naming the mountain than the British.

In addition, I received a personal recommendation for this trek from a university friend who did something similar only a couple years ago. And last but certainly not least, it was easier to find a better price for an Annapurna Trek than for one on Everest.

Risks of Mountaineering

In preparation of my small, civilized hike in the Himalayas, I chose to get in the mood by watching a couple documentaries on Everest and reading Nick Heil’s “Dark Summit: The True Story of Everest’s Most Controversial Season”.

The first realization was that death is too much of a reality while climbing Everest. Over the last 15 years, Everest’s trek to the summit has claimed on average about 5 lives. And whether that death comes from falling and sliding down some of the highest snow and ice formations on Earth, or whether it is a slow death from hypoxic hypothermia, the risks of making this journey are very real. According to Heil, hypoxic hypothermia is a slow death where initially hands and feet begin to tingle and throb. Eventually, your limbs begin to ache as if being relentlessly squeezed. The brain will start to starve and swell causing slurred speech, poor balance, and finally persistent dementia. Humans are not meant to exist at 29,000 feet, where the summit of Everest resides.

In Nick Heil’s book, to describe the affects of hypoxic hypothermia, he writes:

“As the deep cold intrudes, nerve endings go numb and the pain recedes as circulation retreats toward the core. Often, ironically, it is around this point where freezing feels like being tossed into a furnace. Victims tear at their clothes, throw away gloves and hats, and frantically unzip their parkas, accelerating the slide. Flesh farthest from the heart—toes, fingers, nose, cheeks—freezes first, death advancing from the perimeter. Skin turns pales with frostnip, white during the full throes of frostbite, red and purple with blisters, and ultimately black with gangrene—cellular necrosis, doctors call it, the point at which living tissue is permanently destroyed.

“In the final stages, limbs become insensate and immobile, freezing into place as your body shunts blood toward the lungs and heart, trying to preserve the vital organs. Vision blurs and darkens. Involuntary shivering ensues, a last-ditch attempt to generate heat through movement. You mind swirls deeper into the subconscious, a deep dream state. A few who have returned from the brink of hypothermic oblivion have recounted their last conscious moments as almost pleasurable. ‘You really do start feeling warming,’ Weather wrote in his memoir Left for Dead. ‘I had a sense of floating. I wondered if someone was dragging me across the ice.’

“The ends arrives a few hours later, quietly, in the dark waters of unconsciousness. You blood runs chilled; most brain activity has ceased. The heartbeat slows, fluttering erratically, a wounded bird. This action might continue for a while, the vessel destroyed by the encroaching cold while the heart presses courageously on. At last the pump shuts down, and with that the limited circulation ceases. Internally, there is perfect stillness, equilibrium returning between a delicately calibrated but dissonant energy field in the form of a man and the larger energy field around him—the mountain, the air. The only movement now is wind, ice crystals skittering over rocks and snow, a jacket flap rustling, a clump of hair, stiff with rime, flicking across the forehead.”

Not to worry though, because in contrast, the Annapurna Base Camp Trek, which I am attempting will only take me to a maximum of 13,500 feet. Still a formidable height that will probably cause me to experience some altitude sickness, shortage of breath, and fatigue, but nothing that will threaten my life or necessitate me to bring my own oxygen.

For a little more of the science of altitude sickness, I did a little research. Higher altitudes come with a limited supply of oxygen, and oxygen levels in our blood are determined by the saturation of hemoglobin. After a certain elevation, this oxyhemoglobin begins to decline. Luckily, as amazing as the human body is, we can adapt in many ways, both short term and long term, to the effects of the decrease in oxyhemoglobin. That said, there are theories which show that above 26,000 feet, most humans can no longer acclimatize. This area has come to be known as the “death zone”.

The oxygen saturation of air at sea level is about 21%, and this concentration remains relatively constant until about 21 kilometers up. 21 kilometers is equal to about 70,000 feet, so I’m not planning on having to worry about anything except 21% concentration of oxygen. However, although the percentage stays constant, the atmospheric pressure decreases exponentially with altitude. This lack of oxygen pressure is believed to be the main cause of symptoms of altitude sickness.

I am aware of the symptoms that can arise at high altitudes and I will be careful as I ascend. If I am feeling really bad, I am prepared to stop and see if I start to feel better. A photograph of the final destination is less valuable if I am not around to enjoy it.

Onwards to Kathmandu

Saying goodbye to Southeast Asia is no easy task. The people are friendly, good clean hostels can be found for cheap, the diversity of landscape means there is always more to see, and the food especially in Thailand is inexpensive and delicious. That said, the trip must go on, and Nepal is next on the list.

Soon after arriving in Kathmandu, along with the differences apparent among the locals to those in Southeast Asia, I also notice many differences when comparing the tourists. The tourists seem more intense, but that is likely because many if not most plan to do a long trek. Hiking boots are now more prevalent than sandals, and of the non-trekkers, there is a larger population with tattoos and dreads. Although the differences, the locals and the other tourists are friendly and happy to talk.

Kathmandu scene

Kathmandu in contrast

After getting settled, learning about my trek, and finding my rain coat, I set off to explore some of the city. Thamel, the part of Kathmandu where my hotel is situated, rivals Khaosan Road of Bangkok in that it is full of souvenir shops, internet cafes, restaurants, guest houses and hotels. Not far from the hotel, someone approaches me who I assume is just another scam artist trying to get me to buy something. Instead, after walking with me for a little while, he is very helpful in explaining the sites and temples as we go. I am careful never to spend any money in case this is still an elaborate scam. However, I make it to the end of the tour without paying anything except for a cheap entrance ticket. I give him a small tip for his help and his time, and we part ways.

More of Kathmandu

One last note about Kathmandu is the power outages. The area where my hotel is located has semi-scheduled outages twice a day totaling about 14 hours. The whole of Kathmandu cannot run on the electricity that is available, and therefore the government set up a system whereby the electricity rotates from region to region throughout the day. Luckily, my hotel has a generator, but the generator only powers specific functions; therefore, if I want to charge my camera battery, I will need to make sure I time it right, and I should never go anywhere after dark without a flashlight.

Power outages mean candle time

My room is equipped with a candle for when the power goes out.